Zachary Leeman chats with Jack Reher about the upcoming film Endangered, his adaptation of PIN, and the art of screenwriting…
Zachary Leeman: Before we get to your upcoming movie Endangered, let’s talk about screenwriting in general. Walk me through the moment you went from aspiring writer to a paid screenwriter with people like Billy Bob Thornton reading your work…
Jack Reher: Man, that’s a hole and the white rabbit got pretty damned bloody while stumbling down it. I was doing my undergrad at the University of Minnesota. Business. I had that career plan. You know? Always stayed grounded. On a whim, I signed up for a screenwriting class taught by Thomas Pope who did fairly well early on in his career – fresh out of USC, he was hired to draft DUNE with Ridley Scott directing. Scott left, as did Pope, then Lynch came on. He also did work on BAD BOYS when it was originally set to star Dana Carvey & Jon Lovitz for Bruckheimer.
I digress… Sorry. I showed up for this screenwriting class, it was standing room only. At capacity, he walked in and said there were 20 seats available but 45 were there to enroll and on standby. He laid out the rules. The following week, 5 people would pitch their ideas for fifteen minutes and those willing to volunteer could have an expanded seat to 25. I was on standby, so I volunteered to go first. Had never pitched. Didn’t have any idea what to do. All he said was to ‘Tell a really good fucking story that a producer would want to make.’
The following week I pitched a really bad horror film with sex and gore and lame scares. I got a seat in the class. At the end of the term, he pulled me aside, invited me to dinner with his wife and college aged kids and we had a chat. He knew I was a business major, but at dinner, he convinced me that I should switch up gears and pursue screenwriting. Because I was autodidactic in my approach and he rarely came upon that i.e. I could tell a story, pre-visualize and write, which is difficult with a lot of aspiring writers who seem to slave over drafts for months and months which shouldn’t take that long.
Within 18 months, summer terms, an overloaded schedule, I was able to re-formulate my degree into a BFA in Screenwriting, graduate, and apply to the AFI Conservatory. Now, I looked into USC, NYU and UCLA. All were great programs and more than willing to take my money when I inquired. But AFI was a bit different. It took work to get in there. 1200 applicants worldwide for the screenwriting program, they narrowed it down to 200 based on material and recommendations. That got me an interview there. I was nervous as shit. Sitting in the waiting area. I looked around at the others dressed in nice pressed shirts, slacks, shoes and then there was me: khakis, sandals and a button down that had some wrinkles I guess the dryer missed. Thought I was fucked. Tom Pope advised me to not be nervous. The first words out of my mouth were “I’m so fucking nervous, you have no idea…” Guess that was a bit endearing to them. I even got a compliment on my attire because as they said, writers don’t dress in suits to write. I went to school with some geniuses in my class. Some of my fellows at the time were Brad Buecker (American Horror Story), Jawal Nga (The Clearing, Forty Shades of Blue), Gideon Raff (Homeland), and Vince D’Amato (producer).
Time flew by and after school, it was just hitting the pavement and writing. Struggling. It sucked. I busted my ass. Passed the CBEST so I could teach in LA and continue writing. Couldn’t figure out how to crack that door… I ended up geeking out at some horror conventions, meeting people like Jeff Reddick (Final Destination, Tamara) and slowly my friend/industry network grew. Reddick read something of mine, then I ended up writing a project for him. Then later I met Jonathan Hensleigh (Armageddon, The Rock) and he really dug something I wrote so we worked a bit together on something. It was an outstanding opportunity. He gave me some of the best words of wisdom in hindsight, at the time, I was perplexed, but when we were discussing reps, he said–
“When you’re ready, an agent will find you. There’s no set path for a writer in this industry and if the journey wasn’t difficult, it ain’t worth it.”
Man, I was pissed with the idea of that. How hard was it to get a rep? Thought that was the end to a writer’s worries. Hardly. I’ll get to that…
A little bit later, I ended up writing a family comedy for David Arquette. He was a fan of my writing and asked me to do it and of course, I hopped at the chance. Keep in mind, this is after YEARS of writing specs since grad school… 2003-2009.
It was in early November of 2009 that I was sitting in my car at Pan Pacific Park, thinking, wtf am I doing with my life? My cell phone rang. Didn’t recognize the number. I answered it and it was APA calling looking for me. Apparently, someone had gotten ahold of something of mine and the head of motion picture lit there really dug it. I thought it was one of my friends pulling a prank, I kept saying, ‘Shut the fuck up, who is this…?’ Well, that afternoon, after meeting at the agency, I was signed with them.
Jonathan Hensleigh’s words rang true. An agent found me.
ZL: What appeals to you about being a screenwriter specifically?
JR: The blank page. That’s what makes it worth it. You’re only as good as your next script. The ABC’s of screenwriting – always be creating. It’s not like directing where you’re looking for your next gig. With a writer, your next gig is sitting in front of you. All you have to do is commit to it and write the shit out of it. All these books and jabs online that aspiring people are taking about the craft and yelling “writers can’t do this in a script, they can’t format like that…” it’s all goddamn bullshit. Just write. Read a script by Michael Mann. Read another by John Carpenter. Read another by Dalton Trumbo. Read another by Charlie Kaufman. Find your own style and adopt that. Don’t let other people sway you on your technique. Tell a good fucking story, spell check, and always, always, always put the audience first. Not you. Think about whose job will be on the line for bringing your vision to life. Hundreds. You want to create something that will stand the test of time, not get lost among the plethora of misfit scripts that no one will ever see. It’s about entertaining the masses. It’s about moving people to fear, joy, happiness, thrills or something thought provoking. Not just throwing words on a page and hoping the gore factor or sex jokes sell.
ZL: Let’s talk about Endangered because this movie looks so great. What was the original inspiration for this story? What was the nugget of an idea that started all this?
JR: I had a ruptured tibial posterior and was in a leg cast. JAWS was on TNT and I was sitting there with my leg propped up. I kept thinking that they don’t make films like that anymore. That was a Friday night. I started writing something new that night. I had always thought the idea of Timothy Treadwell aka The Grizzly Man was a sad, tragic story, so I came up with the idea of two brothers reuniting in Alaska after the death of their folks.
I entitled it RED MACHINE after the name of one of the grizzly bears that Treadwell showed Letterman on his show. When David questioned Treadwell about the name, he responded with, ‘That bear freaks me out. I can’t connect with it and all the bear knows is its own survival…’
Supposedly, the Red Machine is the very bear that ate Treadwell and his fiance.
Three days later, I had a first draft. It was more like a fifth because I rewrite as I write and tweak as I go. At that point, this was before I had an agent, I had begun a pretty good dialogue with the old manager of Adrien Brody. They had read something of mine, the script that Jonathan Hensleigh loved, and told me, whatever I write next to show it to them. So I sent it over to Jere Douglass and a couple days later, she called me and told me that she loved it, that Adrien Brody loved it and he wanted to do the film.
We pushed hard to get the film going. Adrien met with Gerard Butler up in Toronto and discussed with him the idea of them playing brothers in the film. Gerry and I met back in LA and he was in the middle of reading it. He eventually passed. His character originally died in the script, so that would’ve been like 3 in a row for him – 300, PS I Love You and Law Abiding Citizen.
Soon after is when I became repped. They took the script out, within a couple days it was optioned and 14 months later it was shooting. No more Adrien Brody. James Marsden filled that role. Thomas Jane playing the older brother, Beckett, Scott Glenn as Sully, Piper Perabo as Michelle and Michaela McManus as Kaley. I wrote the role of Michelle as a deaf character because I thought it would be extremely terrifying for the audience to be in the shoes of a very capable deaf woman in the dark woods, unable to hear a grizzly bear tearing down on her during a storm.
ZL: The production of film leads to rewrites, notes being added to scripts, etc. Does that bother you as a writer or is it just part of the process? Also, how close is Endangered to what you originally wrote?
JR: The original producer, Hadeel Reda, and the cast loved my script. That’s what got everyone attached in the beginning. And then other producers came aboard. That’s when everything started changing. I’m really not sure why the studio changed the title. I had a reference in my spec script to Treadwell on Letterman and it worked well. Oh well, not in my control.
That’s what the writer has to be able to do. Separation. And it’s a surreal process. You spend countless hours creating something, to see it ripped up & rebuilt then you hear that ‘it’s not working, or re-shoots or the producers are now changing this or that…” and you wonder why? That’s why it’s always important to get a strong director behind your material. That’s the biggest difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay. A novel encompasses a universe in an unlimited number of pages. The novelist is master of their domain. With a script, you’ve got to create a world inside of 90-120. And at the end of the day, the producer/studio is the Master Chief of that.
I haven’t seen the final film yet. It opens in March in Europe. Sort of like how Fox opened TAKEN almost a year before it opened here in the States. The trailer for it’s awesome. Audiences are in for some good thrills.
ZL: How exciting is it to have a movie coming out that stars a cast like the one of Endangered?
JR: I’m extremely excited about the cast. They seemed to have had a good time with my original script and have expressed interest in other things. Tom Jane and I keep in touch. We’re discussing a couple things and same with Piper.
ZL: Tell me about the Pin remake. It sounds like it has a lot of potential, but it seems like it’s been a slow road…are you still involved and where are you guys at in production? What can fans expect from this remake?
JR: The remake of PIN has been a passion piece of mine for a long, long time. I loved the film as a kid. It wasn’t scary, but creepy. I did some digging years back and found out that the rights had reverted back to the original author who also wrote THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. So that’s how the whole process started.
There were some other tangled rights issues and it took a long while for them to be sorted out.
I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of remakes. Like JAWS. Why? No need. Or CARRIE… we know her name and we know the story. But a film like PIN deserves a remake. It deserves it because it can be told better. I went back to the original novel, pulled themes from it which were left out of the original film and expanded on things from the original that made it very cool and felt cheated on. Most importantly were the character dynamics and overall psychological terror within it that the film glossed over.
The story of Leon, suffering from Schizophrenia and his father, a clinically precise man in nature as a husband and doctor, unable to cope with the stress of his life, using a medical doll created from his likeness to COMMUNICATE life’s lessons to his kids.
That’s profound. I mean, we’ve got a young version of Norman Bates, talking to a doll and becoming obsessed with it. He thinks it’s really alive.
What I’ve done with the material is elevate it to something else entirely. It’s a modern day PSYCHO crossed with the terrifying feel of BLACK SWAN.
I’ve twisted the hell out of the material and audiences will be scared as fuck by it. I gave PIN room to swing a cat and he’s not afraid of PETA.
We just got a great director onboard. A genre favorite. He’s hungry and can deliver the scares. People definitely know his work. This film will redefine him in the industry.
ZL: What else are you currently working on? Anything that’s got you really excited?
JR: I just wrapped up adapting CORROSION based on the highly acclaimed novel by Jon Bassoff. It’s a cross between Se7en and No Country For Old Men. Mike Macari (The Ring, The Ring Two) is producing. It’s currently out to directors. The book made Bloody-Disgusting’s Top 10 of 2013 and it’s up for a Stoker Award.
I’m in the beginning stages of adapting FACTORY TOWN which Dark Fuse publishes this coming October. It’s Jon Bassoff’s follow-up to Corrosion and I just signed on to adapt IDW’s WIRE HANGERS comic by Alan Robert for producer Chris White (ABC’s of Death, My Super Psycho Sweet Sixteen).
ZL: Sum up the life of a screenwriter in a few short sentences.
JR: Ahhh, the life of a writer. Hmmm. Coffee. Writing. Trying to hit LA Fitness as much as possible in between scenes. Continuing the good fight for good words on the page. Trying to not let the darkness creep in and affect your next thought and productivity level. Any writer that tells you they’re not like that is full of shit. It’s a journey.
ZL: What advice do you have for any aspiring screenwriters out there?
JR: Remember the ABC’s of screenwriting. Always Be Creating. No one can ever take that ability away from you. Embrace the blank page.
Many thanks to Jack Reher for taking the time for this interview.
Zachary Leeman – Follow him on Twitter.