With the fifth installment premiering this weekend, the Sharknado films have become SyFy’s most successful TV movie franchise. Taking over the writing helm for Sharknado 5: Global Swarming is Scotty Mullen. Scotty went from total beginner to working screenwriter in just four short years—an inspiring story for anyone looking to break in.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What did you do before you got into screenwriting? How did you get started?
I grew up in small town Kansas, in western Kansas, and then I went to college in Atlanta, Georgia, at Georgia State. While I was at Georgia State, we had a TV station where we'd interview celebrities whenever they'd come to town for press junkets. I got to know that whole gang, and I became a publicist, and then we got to Los Angeles.
Back in probably 2013, I just really got tired of being a writer that wasn't writing, because that's always been a huge ambition for me. I didn't know anybody that wrote or made a living writing. It seemed more plausible to open up a 7/11 on Mars than to become a working screenwriter.
It just seemed something stupid until I started seeing a life coach. I was really depressed because I knew there was something I should be doing that I wasn't doing.
I remember whispering to her like it was some shameful, shameful secret, that I wanted to be a writer. She just looked at me like I'd said I wanted to be a cashier at CVS, like it was just the most basic, plausible thing that could definitely happen. Once I started to realize that wasn't something that was just for somebody else, that it was possible, I worked out a solid plan and really focused on it.
Tell me about your first script and how you broke in.
During my years as publicist, I was always working with models that drove me crazy, and I wrote this crazy, crazy spec script that was my revenge over all those bitchy models I worked with, called Double D Island. It was like Hunger Games, but topless. Very silly and over the top. I wrote that script and then I was like what do I do now?
That's when I learned about these things called PitchFests, which are a combination between a job fair and speed dating. This was 2013. I went to the Great American PitchFest in Burbank and pitched Double D Island, and one of the people I pitched it to was Micho Rutare, the director of development at The Asylum. He and I hit it off, and he liked my sense of humor.
He said, "Listen, we've been wanting to make a movie about a college zombie, a sexy comedy, for a while," but none of the writers that he worked with had come up with a concept they loved. He said, "Take a week, think about it, and come back to me with a pitch, and maybe, if I like it, we can do something."
To be honest, the first thing I thought, oh zombies. I was just over zombies. Then, I looked at my notes that I had written down, and it was a sexy comedy about a zombie that goes to college. I thought oh, maybe there's something here. I was like, well, who'd want to date a zombie? They can't talk. They just stare at you and grunt.
I thought, oh, man, a zombie is a perfect match for a sorority girl that can't shut up, because she's finally found somebody to listen to her. I pitched that to them and they liked it and we went back and forth over the summer of 2013 on pitches and some outlines.
On Halloween of 2013 he called me and he said, "The good news is, we want you to write the movie. The bad news is, we need a script in two weeks because we want to start filming in December."
You say "no problem" and then hang up the phone and scream. I just went crazy and wrote, wrote, wrote. The movie went into production in December. While we were on set, X-Box saw the dailies and wanted exclusive rights to it for a while.
So The Coed and the Zombie Stoner was my very first movie that I wrote and it came out on 4/20 in 2014. That was really fun.
Some beginning writers, when you have your first movie out and everybody sees it, you're like okay, I've reached the Emerald City, and then nothing really happens... it's still life as usual. There's no magic. The pumpkin doesn't turn into a magic coach, it just turns into pumpkin pie.
How did you first get involved with the Sharknado franchise?
The Sharknado DNA had already started to infuse itself into my system then because The Asylum, of course, produces Sharknado. The guy that directed Zombie Stoner was the first AD on Sharknado 2, in 2014.
One time he called me from set and asked what I was doing. I said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" He said, "Listen, we have Kelly Ripa here, but we forgot to write lines for her. Can you come up with something?" I said, "Sure, how soon do you need something?" He said, "Well, we're lighting her."
I came up with some stuff real quick and sent it to them and gave them a lot of options. He would call me back and forth to do some punch-up writing for some jokes on Sharknado 2. Some of them they used, and some they didn't, but that was fun.
What happened after that?
I was still writing and learning, and I started working with Lee Jessup as a screenwriting career coach, and we're talking about my career and my path. That really helped. I took a lot of classes with Pilar Alessandra, who I highly recommend. I put out these names because they were very, very beneficial people to me. It really, really helped.
It was 2015 and Sharknado 3 was getting made. I was friends with Dylan Vox, and he was on the producing team. He called me, "Listen, you used to be a publicist, right?" I said yes. He said, "Listen, we want Ann Coulter to play the Vice President, but we can't find an agent for her. Do you think that maybe you could help us find her and see if she wants to be the Vice President?" I actually owe my casting career to Ann Coulter, because then I became a casting director, which I know sounds very odd. I found her publicist and, of course, he jumped on board.
The producers called me, and they said, "Listen, would you like to do more of this?" We will pay you per cameo that you get into Sharknado 3. While this was happening, I got fired from my big sales job and all of a sudden, I was a casting director.
It was just like it had been waiting for me. That was just so awesome. Sharknado 3 was so fun. Basically, what they would do, they said, "Listen, we want to put as many cameos in there as we can."
I worked very closely with David Michael Latt, one of the partners at The Asylum. He and I would get on the phone, probably five or six times a day, and talk about names, and I would think of my personal heroes, like Bo Derek and Jackie Collins and Mark Cuban, and boom. Now I had a reason to call them. That was really fun. I would be on set with them, and it was just wild, getting into that.
Then, their in-house casting director moved on to another opportunity. David said, "Listen, would you like to be our casting director?" What was so great was it was a job I could pay my rent with and get benefits, and I also knew I was a writer. That just felt so free.
That was 2015. I was casting and then, all of a sudden... well, not really all of a sudden, but then they started giving me more writing assignments that they would also pay me for. Suddenly, I was writing in all kinds of new genres, and they were getting made, and then I was also casting them.
Tell me about some of those other movies you had made.
My second movie was also directed by the same guy that did Zombie Stoner. They came to me with an idea, they wanted a movie about zombie zoo animals. That was fun, so I pushed them some stuff, and they gave me the assignment. That was called Zoombies, and it premiered on Fuse TV.
For my third movie, I got to go to Thailand. They said, "We want a movie about the Knights of the Round Table, but their descendants are in modern day. At the end, they have to fight a big, giant robot." I loved that. Then, they said, "We want to put it in Bangkok." I got to go to Thailand and watch the filming. That was so fun! That movie was called King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The fourth one, they were working with another writer on a movie called The Fast and the Fierce. It's like Speed on a plane. The writer wasn't taking their notes, so they came to me and said, "Listen, we think that ... you know, could you collaborate with us?" I said of course. Worked with that. I'm proud of The Fast and the Fierce because that was my first movie without zombies or magic.
Then, my fifth movie, they basically just said, "Listen, we want a movie called Sinbad and the War of the Furies. Come up with something." I pushed them some ideas, and that was really fun. All of a sudden, I found what my groove was. I have such a wild, crazy imagination, but if a producer comes to me with an idea or a riddle to solve, I love focusing my energy on that. I really get a kick out of it, because they have me write stories that I would probably never, ever write on my own. I would never think of doing King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in Bangkok. That's just nuts. But then you have somebody that's gonna make it, and you're like okay. I had a lot of fun.
Then Sharknado 4 came around, and I was the casting director on that.
Then, it came time for Sharknado 5. Now, they'd had another writer on the first four, but they came to me and said, "Listen, what would you think about writing Sharknado 5? What kind of ideas do you have?" and stuff like that. We threw some stuff around, and I worked with them on a treatment, and I got the gig.
All of a sudden, I was the new writer on Sharknado 5. That was pretty wild, to jump right into an existing franchise and all of these characters and all this history. It was a bit overwhelming because at first I thought “oh, I probably just need to write these how the other four had been written.” That didn't really appeal to me.
I remember I called my friend Delondra Williams, a writer on Z Nation (which I’d been on the casting team for). She said something to me that totally gave me a lot of freedom and power. "Listen, they hired you. Write it the way you want to write it. If they wanted somebody else to write it, they would've hired them, but they hired you for your voice and your point of view and your everything that you all have. They've tested you out, they know what you write like. Don't try to be something you're not."
That really freed me, and I went off to the races. I felt very naked during that, because they wanted drafts so quickly that I would pretty much give them my pages right after I wrote them, without me even really going back through it. My first draft, I wrote in three weeks. I will say that the first week was pretty much me in my bed, scared, because I was like “oh, God.” Then, I just jumped right in there and wrote it.
What I really wanted was this really fun amusement park ride around the world. We work with an eight-act structure, and pretty much every act is a different country because I was going all over the world. That kept the momentum going. I remember, while I was writing it, I was like listen, I need to focus on writing. I can't write and cast this movie at the same time. They said, "No problem, we get you."
In January, I turned in the final draft. It went through two passes. I was proud of that, that it only had two passes. They liked my writing. That made me feel good.
It was about three weeks before production started, and I asked who's in the movie? They said, "Nobody." I was like, oh gosh. I jumped in with the producers and brought Dylan Vox on to help me as well, and then my assistant Brian, and then we had a UK casting director that pretty much dove in and, while I was doing rewrites on it, I was also casting.
That was just so much fun, because when I wrote it, I had pretty much put in room for 30 cameos. We ended up casting up 82 cameos. It also made the casting process easier because I could tailor make cameos for people. I knew that a lot of cameos, they like to play against type. That gets them onboard, and then also, if they didn't like something, I could easily change it 'cause I was also writing.
I will say that Sharknado 5 is very personal. I mean, I grew up in a small town in Kansas, didn't know anybody, and just worshiped Olivia Newton-John and now to write a movie starring Olivia Newton-John and being with her and talking about her character and working with her and her amazing daughter, Chloe Lattanzi. Working with them together, that was just... I mean, I still have to pinch myself, 'cause that's pretty fun.
Talking about Sharknado, were you intimidated taking SyFy’s top TV movie franchise? What was your thought process there?
I had gotten to know the producers at SyFy so well over these past couple of years as their casting director, and we'd also become friends. I'd seen a lot of stuff behind the curtain, and we knew each other very well. There was a lot of trust there. I'd also gotten to know Anthony C. Ferrante well, who was the director. We'd become legitimate, very authentic friends. I'd been working with the team so closely that it took that intimidation away.
Actually, no, I was intimidated at first because I hid in my bed the first week before I started really writing, so I know I was a bit ... I know I was scared, and then when Delondra told me, "Listen, they hired you. They want your voice. They know who you are. You've written five movies for them. They know you. Go forward." That really helped. Then, when they were responding very positively to what I had and everything, and also I was also very, very good at taking notes.
I will tell writers, listen, you're more than one idea. If you get a note, don't be too stubborn. Open up your mind, and something even better than you imagined may come out.
Do you think that working with actors on the previous Sharknado films was a big help with writing with the fifth film?
Being a casting director has made me a better writer because it takes so much work to cast every single role that it better be worth it at the end of the day. I knew from casting the previous films that the cameos also really want something to do. They want to be part of the story.
Putting on your casting director hat, what advice do you have for writers for how to make more castable scripts and things that talent will actually want to get attached to?
Every character, no matter how small, needs to have an arc. They need to start somewhere and then they do something. Some kind of arc. Some kind of emotional arc. They have to have at least one pivotal thing they do, whether they get into a car accident or they catch their best friend having the affair and don't know what to do with it.
Also, you don't need as many characters as you think you do. For instance, my first script, Zombie Stoner, probably had 30 characters in it. My second script had 11.
You really can do less with more. You think you're making your story more exciting by shoving more characters in there, but I think that's a bit of an amateur's game. Less is definitely more. You want those meatier parts, especially the higher level, because it has to be worth their time.
What is your writing process like? You said you write really quickly. What does that look like for you?
I outline like crazy. I use my eight-act structure for everything, because the eight-act structure pretty much prevents your traditional act two from being boring.
Pretty much, how the eight-act structure works is, you have a teaser because you have to get people excited, and then you have your act one. Your teaser and act one are pretty much your traditional act one, your first 30 pages. Then, act two through act six, that's your traditional act two. Each one of those acts are like seven to 10 pages. Then, your traditional act three is your act seven, and then a very, very, very small act eight. That helps so much, because it keeps the momentum going.
On my wall I have the hero's journey all mapped out and the basic points of ordinary life going to new-normal life. Every movie that I write, every script, I still always wrestle with that. I do that, and then I make a music playlist because I write a lot of action. My music playlist looks like I'm a serial killer. I have all kinds of crazy stuff. I have everything from Olivia Newton-John to horror movie, awful stuff.
I make a playlist, because I love music scores and music. That really inspires me. I choreograph in my head scenes and emotional beats. That really helps me because I'm still thinking about the movie while listening to that playlist in the car or working out.
Depending on how much time I have, definitely I prefer to write in the morning. But as the case with Sharknado 5, I pretty much had to write all the time, and I nap a lot. I definitely believe in sleeping on it.
Something I read that Tom Ford does is, I think, he takes three baths a day. Also, there's something about relaxing your mind and letting it go. Right before I take a nap, I'll have a question on how am I going to make this work? Honestly, almost every time when I wake up, I have the answer.
I also find movies that are very similar to the movie I'm writing. Gosh, I watched a lot of Indiana Jones, Aliens, and Salt. I'll watch those, just 'cause you're also finding movies that have the same beat and structure and the same momentum.
This is a question I love to ask everyone. How do you deal with rejection?
There's something I watched. It's an Oprah's Masterclass, and I can't take credit for this, but it's something that Susan Sarandon said. She said whenever she's rejected for anything, she goes out and celebrates, because she's like, "Ah, thank God I don't have to worry about that anymore."
I thought wow, that is so flipping right on. Say you pitch somebody to somebody and they go, "Oh, you know what, we don't want this." Think “Ah, I don't have to worry about that anymore. Now I can focus on something else. I can make room in my life for whatever it's supposed to be on.”
Also, if you got rejected by somebody, you then have a contact. Continue to keep them up to date on things, and allow room for luck and for opportunities to come in. I would say, that's how I handle it, and I guess I don't get my hopes up too much anymore.
If you really want to work with someone, just keep going after them. Think on that. Don't strangle a piece to death. If nobody wants it right now, that doesn't mean they might not want it later.
Don't lash out. If you do get angry, you can talk to somebody else, have your support group, but don't throw a fit with the person. I know this sounds odd, but don't ask them why. That's a very uncomfortable situation. Just say thank you and I hope we get to work together one day, and just keep it open.
What are you working on now?
I'm totally going out of my comfort zone. Right now, my pet project is a World War II drama set in China. No sharks, no zombies. I'm having a lot of fun with it. It's very different for me. I've also been talking to some other people and pitching. I'm just waiting for whoever has the money and can green light something.
I've had some other people approach me about writing some stuff for them. I'm totally game. It's like okay, listen, I'm ready to get married, where's the ring? It's just filtering who's for real and who's not.
I will say this, and maybe some other writers can, too... I've been having this emotion, and I finally realized what it was. I call it jesire, which is like desire with a J, which is a mixture of jealousy and desire because you see these other writers and you're like, I want that, and then you realize you can't have that.
I'm really trying to channel that more into not letting the jealousy win, but having the desire. That's a feeling that can really drive you crazy and really take you into some dark places.
Olivia Newton-John gave me this shark-tooth necklace on her final day of shooting, which is like a magic amulet from the Queen of Australia. If I ever start to doubt myself, I just look at that necklace and think, oh, man, anything really is possible.
Also, remember that there's not a lot of people that are really good at writing. There's a lot of people that say they are, but there's not a lot of people that are really willing to put in the elbow grease and the sweat and that are also able to keep their mouth shut with a smile. I will say that learning to work hard and shut up has done me a lot of good.
Sharknado 5: Global Swarming premiered on the SyFy channel on August 6, 2017. You can watch trailers and episodes here.