Like most “overnight successes,” Ryan Belenzon and Jeffrey Gelber have been working their way up in Hollywood for over a decade now with the help of their manager, Jeff Belkin, and agent, Ida Ziniti. Having established careers in multi-media and casting respectively, Ryan and Jeff were rewarded for the years of pounding the pavement, networking, and developing their craft when their action adventure spec script Endangered sold recently to Lionsgate.
Fresh off of a Top 10 Placement in the 2012 Nicholl Fellowship (for a different script called X), and their spec sale, the guys were kind enough to take time out of their increasingly busy schedules to speak with me last week about Endangered and a host of other topics. It was a great conversation and, while their path to success is a unique one, the story of their journey is one I think provides invaluable insight to any screenwriter, regardless of where you are in your respective journey.
SCRIPT: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, guys. I guess the best place to start is with Endangered. What can you tell us about the story?
JG:Well, basically, Endangered is about a scientific discovery that sends a group of people into a place no one has ever seen before and, you know, bad things happen.
SCRIPT: That sounds exciting! I know you’ve been writing together for a while now. How did you get to where you are now?
JG: We’ve been writing for a number of years and kind of building a fan club. We were getting meetings with producers and agents and managers who liked our work and wanted to see what was next. And over the years that fan club grows, and we finally wrote something that lined up with what some other people were looking to make.
RB: We’re constantly working on things. We haven’t been able to be the most prolific of writers because of our jobs, but we’re always working on something, whether it’s rewriting something from earlier or developing something with a producer. This is just the first time that something has actually hit the trades.
SCRIPT: I know you guys were in a unique position in that you’ve had representation for a while now with Zero Gravity and Paradigm. How are those relationships?
RB: [Paradigm and Zero Gravity are] amazing. They saw what we were doing before anyone else and scooped us up. From our experience, it seems like they’re more open than any other agency to breaking writers. They took a chance on us. Fortunately, we were able to deliver for them, and they were able to deliver for us.
SCRIPT: And that brings us back to Endangered. One thing we focus on a lot at Script is that writing is the easy part. It’s rewriting where you really get into all of the hard work. How many drafts did you go through on Endangered between conception and sale?
RB:We did three real drafts, but we write in a way… we’ll write and reread it and make changes along the way. Endangered was unique in that we didn’t outline. We knew how it ended and we wanted [writing the script] to be like a journey into the jungle for us. So we kind of knew the beats that we needed, and we had a pretty strong understanding of structure, and we knew that if we hit a roadblock it was because our characters had hit a roadblock. And so, often times, figuring out how to get past a certain point in the script was really figuring out how our characters get past a certain point.
SCRIPT: That’s really interesting.
JG: It was an interesting way to write. I would not recommend it unless you’ve been doing it for a while and even then I don’t know if I’d recommend it.
This was a script that we just started writing. We knew that if we didn’t, we might not actually get it done because we had so many other things that we had to do.
SCRIPT: Let’s go a little deeper into your normal process. Working as a team, do you have a usual way that you divide labor when you’re writing? Could you give us some insight into your process?
JG: Ryan lives a freeway’s drive away from me, and he has an extra room in his house that we use as an office. He’s a maestro behind the keyboard, and I drop about 3 pounds a night just pacing back and forth. Essentially that’s it. I mean… having to deal with the day jobs, we work weekends from 11:00am to 7:30pm, and we do weeknights 7:30pm to 11:30pm.
SCRIPT: So you do all of your writing as a team?
JG: We’ll spitball ideas back and forth over emails during the day. It’s rare that we write something separate from each other though, if it’s ever to occur, it’s usually because one of us had an epiphany at 4am, and we just couldn’t contain ourselves. And then the other person comes in and tears up what we wrote and mocks us for thinking we could do it alone. Ryan is also like that teacher you had in 7th grade where your paper would come back just marked in red.
SCRIPT: Jeff, your day job is in casting. How does that translate into your approach to writing?
JG: I’ve worked in casting for about a decade, and I’m certainly around actors a lot more than most people, but… I have no doubt that most people, when they're writing a script, [have] somebody in their mind. We have conversations about “Who would we see in this role?” and that’s something that we do fairly early on, but then we tend to forget that and just write what is truest to the character. A lot of what we do, to give away our little secret, is that sometimes we’ll act it out ourselves. Not having any actors in mind but just trying to find the reality in the scene.
SCRIPT: And you find that helps you a lot? Acting the lines out loud?
JG: I think that’s the main benefit of two people writing a script versus just one, not to take away from someone writing a script on their own, but there is something to saying a line out loud and then having somebody else tell you how that sounds. You can hear how the back and forth of the banter really plays out.
SCRIPT: Well, whatever your process is, it obviously works for you. You also received a Nicholl Fellowship Top 10 placement last year, correct? But not for Endangered.
JG: Yeah. Endangered wasn’t done. We were probably doing our second draft around the time of the Nicholl.
SCRIPT: So do you think that your Nicholl placement had an impact on Endangered selling?
JG: It’s hard to say. Paradigm and Zero Gravity were going to put it out there just the same. As far as the response… I don’t know. You know it didn’t hurt. And I’ll just say, on a personal level, we’ve been writing for a number of years, and we stuck to it and it’s been tough, so to actually have a little validation is great. To go, “Hey all those nights, all those weekends you’ve given up, even though you haven’t been paid yet, people like it. You’re doing something right.”
RB: The thing about the Nicholl that’s great. We were actually in a unique position. We actually called our agent and said “should we submit [our script] to the Nicholl? I mean we had an agent to call up and ask, and we were unique in that respect. And the thing is, anytime an esteemed body compliments your work, that gives other people the kind of validation they need going to their boss and saying, “you should read this.”
SCRIPT: It gives them a scapegoat if their boss doesn’t like the script.
RB: Exactly. Nobody wants their boss to come back and say, “I hated this.” But the person can say, “But it was a Nicholl finalist. Don’t blame me, blame the Nicholl.” I think that the Nicholl was a wonderful experience. We were glad to have done it. You know, we have an idea why we didn’t win.
SCRIPT: Really? Was it an issue of genre?
RB: I think you can look at what has won in the past, and you can know that there are probably better genres to submit than others. Actually, we were a surprising finalist. We were shocked. We had another script that was in the top 30. When we got the call that we were finalists, we actually thought it was that one.
SCRIPT: That’s amazing. You had two scripts in the top 30?
RB: [That] was probably more of a motivation than if we had won. Because it basically means that everything we’re doing is of a certain level. And hopefully that gives producers an idea that when they hire us, they know they’re going to get that consistency.
SCRIPT: That’s a pretty good sales pitch.
RB: Put that as the headline for the interview: “Consistency!”
SCRIPT: Now, you guys have your fingers in a lot of pies, including roles as Producers on a film called Boulevard which is set to star Robin Williams. How did that come about?
RB: We’ve been building and building and building and making sure that we have a lot of irons [in the fire], so if somebody comes up and says, “Hey we’re looking for a horror movie,” you know, in the past 10 years we’ve read a number of horror movies. We know writers who have written horror movies, and we could hypothetically come forward with a horror movie very quickly. I don’t know if either of us ever intended to be producers, but we were hungry when the opportunity came.
JG: Yeah, it was about being in the right place at the right time and having put in the leg work early on in our careers to deliver when the time came, and we knew a financier who wanted to make this type of movie. We remembered reading Boulevard eight years earlier. We sent it over, and the movie started chugging along. Because of my history in casting, we knew the right people to get it to. And we aimed high because we believed in the character. Robin saying yes led to Dito Montiel directing - he's also a brilliant writer and just about our favorite person in the world to collaborate with - and now we're aiming for a May start date. Even though we didn't write this one, Douglas Soesbe did, we've been working closely with Doug, honing the script. He'll attest that having producers that are also writers has made his life easier and the script tighter. At least in public.
SCRIPT: So writing, producing, Ryan, I know you’ve done a bit of directing as well. Do you have a preference?
RB: We can’t say we definitely want to be producers or we definitely want to be writers. If we’re offered a spot in Obama’s cabinet, we’d take that too. We just want to do things.
SCRIPT: Well if I run into President Obama, I’ll make sure to put in a good word. So is there something new on the horizon for you guys as writers? Any new scripts in the works?
RB: We are jumping into some more work on Endangered that will occupy our lives for the next couple of months. We’re certainly thinking of what comes next. As far as sitting down and writing another spec, that’s going to wait until after Endangered, because Endangered is our number one priority.
JB: We also have things from before, such as X, that we're pushing forward on. X is an expensive movie, but justifiably, so as we're trying to not just create a tent-pole, we're trying to create a new piece of IP (Intellectual Property). So in a case like that, it's getting the stars to align around the right director. I think we're now honing in on the right person. There's also our other Nicholl script, Clarity. That's something we're doing with two of our idols, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. The were brought in by a young team of producers - kind of like us on Boulevard - named Jonathan Shukat and Eric Bromberg. Hopefully our next immediate project after Boulevard is a comedy script that Ryan wrote called Crispy Johnson. He'll direct it and I'll be producing. We're doing that one with Steve Carr and Jason Taragon, and it's hysterical!
SCRIPT: Wow. That an extremely full plate, but in a great way! Let’s wrap things up with some words of wisdom for our readers. You guys have just made the transition that we’re all hoping to make somewhere down the line. Do you have any advice you can pass along?
JG: I’m not sure we’re qualified to be giving advice yet. We’re three weeks into being official screenwriters. The best thing I can say, after eight/nine years of doing this, is persistence and believing in what you do and finding people who can be honest with you. I think the best thing about working with Ryan is that there is just brutal honesty. You know we’re never actually fooling ourselves. It’s nice to have that sounding board. I’m not saying you need to write with somebody, but you should probably find somebody that you’re sure you can work with that can... you know… probably not your parents.
RB: I would say that certainly the biggest asset to us moving forward has been living and working in this business. Never giving up, and knowing that we would at least be doing something in the movies. Obviously the priority was to be a writer, but we were okay doing other things and then that led to meeting people. And meeting people led to getting an agent. People who live in Montana. They might be incredibly talented, but they’re going to have to write a script that’s really brilliant. Moving to L.A., and not just moving to L.A., but working in this business is the best advice I think anyone could have. For people who write but don’t breathe and live it, it’s just harder. It’s so much harder because you’re not keeping all avenues open. Skill is a huge, huge part of it. Talent is a massive part of it. But there’s another element to it though. Being in places where opportunities can be created. Is there always an element of luck? Absolutely. But putting yourself in the right place is a huge thing.
SCRIPT: Basically, you’re going to have more opportunities to be lucky in L.A. than somewhere else.
RB: Exactly. Say we said that. Do a rewrite on this interview and say we said that.
- Balls of Steel: ‘American Pickers’ Road to TV with Show Creator Mike Wolfe Part 1
- Understanding Comedy Writing with Writer David Misch
- Good in a Room: The Pitch Meeting Structure Used by Hollywood Pros
Tools to Help: