Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, won Best Premiere at the 2012 Seattle True Independent Film Festival, and was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.
It’s the clarion call of the entertainment business: if you want to make it screenwriting or as a filmmaker, you have to move to Los Angeles. The advantages of being in LA just outweigh any benefits you might have living… Well, wherever else you might live. True, you can write or make films anywhere, but the connections that power big-league filmmaking are only in southern California, and can only be accessed by moving there.
This month, I’ve got a real-world screenwriting example that invalidates that argument. Someone who's found success by living nowhere near the City of Angels. His name is John Kelley – and he’s actually my former student.
John, who lives in Lincoln, Rhode Island, sold the horror screenplay Tear Us Apart to Envoi Entertainment in October 2014. The film was produced in Ontario in November 2015 - and while some West Coast folks did help John get his film set up, he did all his work on the other side of the country.
Growing up, John got his love of genre film from a fantastic source: his mom. “The first movie she ever showed me was Star Wars IV: A New Hope,” he said. “I was really lucky my mother was a bit of a cinephile and had this massive stockpile of V/H/S tapes that I was able to sift through as a kid. By the time I was 12, I was touting my favorite movies as the Star Wars Trilogy, Contact, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
When he got to college at Quinnipiac University, he majored in Media Studies and minored in marketing – not exactly a traditional path to writing movies. But he said his first screenwriting class (the class I taught him in) changed everything. After a semester of learning about character and arcs, how structure can effect pacing, and reading successful scripts, he was able to analyze how everything worked together.
And soon after that, his career began.
“The big capstone project (in our screenwriting class) was to outline a feature length script and hand in the first 40 pages written. Being the dork that I am, I handed in a 130-page monstrosity. And in a move of blatant hubris, I blindly submitted it into a contest. Fast-forward four months, and I get an e-mail letting me know it had placed. I was like, 'Oh, maybe I’m onto something here.'”
After he graduated, his plans didn’t include heading west. “To be honest, moving to LA never really crossed my mind,” he said. “I’m from New England and I love the Northeast, so the “plan” was always to live in the area that I wanted to live, regardless of career.”
As he considered what that career would be, he briefly thought about being a studio reader, but realized if he was reading scripts all day, he wouldn’t want to go home and write his own. So he began a career in digital analytics, which combines digital tagging and mathematical analysis. About the furthest possible thing from screenwriting.
"It’s actually always been really important to me that my 9-5 job never cross over with the screenwriting work that I do. So I get to use the analytical part of my brain for eight hours a day, then come home and turn on a completely different part of my brain for the writing work I do.”
Thankfully, his other job hasn’t slowed his productivity. John wrote 26 feature scripts before Sterling; he’s sold or optioned five, been hired for two rewrite jobs, and made the Top 25 on Tracking Board with Sterling, a science fiction script he co-wrote that also won Best Sci-Fi script from PAGE International in 2013. That script got him representation as well; after Tracking Board honored Sterling, John was signed by Stephanie Rogers & Associates for management. And while he doesn’t feel the script will be produced – “we made the grave error of writing something that would cost $80-100 million to shoot, and neither of us had a produced project to our name” – he did figure out his next step.
“We ended up getting some great exposure and some pretty interesting meetings, which was great,” he said. “Ultimately, my big learning from the process was that, as a new writer, if I wanted to get something made, I would have to begin writing low budget content that wouldn’t be a huge investment for a company.”
So he wrote. And wrote. Ten different low-budget horror films after Sterling, in fact. Frustrated by films that had characters he calls “bags of blood,” who existed solely for the purpose of bleeding on-screen, he wanted to subvert that. He wanted to focus on grief, something horror films usually ignore, and let the horror flow from that. That focus turned into Tear Us Apart, a story of a young couple recovering from the disappearance of their daughter, and their struggle to identify what is real and what is a figment of their mental recovery.
“About a year after I’d written the script, the folks at Envoi Entertainment in Toronto approached me about working together, John explained. “They’d seen my previous work (PAGE and Tracking Board were pretty helpful in that respect) and they were looking for low-budget, elevated genre material. I sent them Tear Us Apart and we realized pretty quickly that it was a perfect fit for everybody.”
Once they started development, John did some serious re-write work. “I did about a year’s worth of re-writes leading into production,” he said. “Some of it was shifting tone to create something more psychological in nature, while other drafts were more technical, doing re-writes to fit new locations or to make budget. Ultimately, it was pretty crazy and exhausting.”
John was also on set for production of the film, an uncommon treat for a feature screenwriter. His writer friends told him to be ready for on-set rewrites, adjusting scenes for any number of reasons, but in his naivete, he assumed his job was over when shooting started.
Naturally, I ate a big ole’ slice of humble pie when we needed script adjustments to make our days and I’d have to re-work some stuff on the fly,” he said. “What’s amusing is that the care and thought you put into every word of a script in early drafts totally goes out the window when you’re doing these on-the-fly rewrites. You’re purely focused on making sure what you’re changing is contained to the scene and has solid dialogue for the actors to say. It requires a real encyclopedia-level knowledge of the story to pull off.”
Since Tear Us Apart is now in post-production, John is right back to creating new work. He’s writing a horror web series, and has also written The Promotion, a thriller he’s really pumped about. “The Promotion takes place in the cut-throat world of high-end fashion,” he explained, “and is about a closeted fashion magazine editor who is black-mailed by her direct report. It forces her to re-examine her own identity over the course of a harrowing evening. I’m especially excited about this script because I think it has a really great, pro-LGBT social message while also serving as an interesting commentary on the dark effects that a poor job market can have on young professionals.”
His career progressing nicely, John feels there’s a distinct benefit to living outside of the traditional filmmaking hotspots. “Living in New England, or really anywhere outside of New York City or LA offers you a unique perspective,” he explained. “If you think about where you live and try to craft a story that can take place in that area, it’s going to force you to think outside the box a bit and create something a little more unique.”
- More articles by Marty Lang
- PRIMETIME: Do All Screenwriters Have to Live in L.A.?
- PRIMETIME: How To Break In If You’re NOT in L.A.