by Scott M. Richter
Legend has it that the association of talented writing and producing partners Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick began with a high school wedgie. Neither will confirm who was on the receiving end, but “it's been all downhill from there," jokes Reese. Hardly. The two scribes who’ve known each before they were old enough to drive are on fire -- big time. Their first feature collaboration, Zombieland (starring Woody Harrelson, lovable indie star Jesse Eisenberg, adorable Abigail Breslin, and Emma Stone) is being released on Friday, October 2nd.
The film is generating such an incredible buzz that Sony Pictures moved up the launch date one week and rumor has it that a sequel is already on the horizon. As an added vote of confidence, the studio tapped Reese and Wernick to pen the Venom spinoff for the blockbuster Spider-Man franchise. They’ve since completed multiple drafts for that project.
But wait, there’s more. Last year, this dynamic duo sold their sci-fi pitch, Earth vs. Moon, to Universal for a reported high six figures after a bidding war erupted. Reese and Wernick are in between drafts on that project, which they’re executive producing, as well. There’s also an exciting TV project on the horizon, but the two are sworn to secrecy and can’t divulge details just yet. So stay tuned.
Those unfamiliar with Reese’s and Wernick’s work may think they’re an overnight success. “We are if the old cliché holds true that an ‘overnight success’ takes 10 years,” jokes Reese. “Truth is, before I teamed with Paul, my first feature sale didn’t happen until my seventh script. And that was only an option, which ultimately led to other work.”
While Reese began as a feature screenwriter, Wernick worked as a TV news producer at KCAL Channel 9 in Los Angeles, among other markets, before he transitioned into “real entertainment” as a producer on Big Brother 2.
“I got Rhett hooked on the show,” says Wernick. “And one night he came over to watch an episode and we said, ‘Hey, we should come up with a reality concept.’ So in 2003, we created The Joe Schmo Show, which combined Rhett’s scripted background with my non-scripted background. Or as Rhett likes to say, ‘His chocolate met my peanut butter!’”
Joe Schmo was an elaborate hoax where one man thinks he’s a contestant on a reality show called Lap of Luxury. Unbeknownst to him, however, the host and all the other “contestants” were actors, including future SNL star Kristen Wiig, who played a marriage-counselor “contestant” on her third husband.
Joe Schmo was a critical and ratings success, which Reese and Wernick followed up in 2005 with Invasion Iowa, starring William Shatner. The show was another elaborate ruse -- this time on an entire small Midwest town that purported to be Star Trek Captain James T. Kirk’s birthplace. After Invasion, however, the freshness of reality TV began to wane for Reese and Wernick, so the two decided to branch out into scripted fare. Though they sold several pilots, none of them were shot. In fact, Zombieland was initially a TV pilot that Reese and Wernick sold to CBS, but the script ended up on the proverbial scrapheap.
Reese credits the passion of Sony Television executive Chris Parnell and producer Gavin Polone for resuscitating Zombieland, which came back to life as a feature. This irony is not lost on Reese who says tongue in cheek that “like a Zombie, even a seemingly dead script can come back to life. To Chris Parnell’s credit, he never gave up on the project and Gavin Polone convinced his bosses to hire us to expand the concept into a made-for-TV movie, or straight-to-DVD film,” explains Reese. “But when we wrote the feature version, Gavin decided that the project was too good -- not to mention too expensive -- to go straight to DVD, so he took the project to Columbia where executive Matt Tolmach fell in love with the script and we made it.”
Zombieland was shot on location in Georgia earlier this year. Reese and Wernick served as executive producers on the film and say they loved every minute of the experience.
“Our director, Ruben Fleischer, did a brilliant job and was inclusive of us from the first take until the final cut,” says Wernick. “The experience was a honeymoon from the start.” But perhaps that should come as no surprise since Reese and Wernick are refreshingly humble in an industry infamous for competing egos. In fact, they candidly discuss the uncertainty and insecurities that even two accomplished scribes face.
Wernick confesses that “writing is a daily struggle for me, but I think that’s true for most writers. There’s a lot of self doubt and staring at blank computer screens.”
“I feel the same way,” adds Reese. “Writing is so hard. It’s always more fun to have written than it is to write. We second guess ourselves every step of the way.” In fact, Reese reveals that he and Wernick wrote forty drafts of Zombieland before they felt they’d nailed it.
“And there’s been other projects where we’ve cranked out even more drafts than that,” admits Reese. “But I think that all of the second guessing actually improves our written product, because it forces us to examine and re-examine our work.”
Unlike many writing teams, however, Reese and Wernick don’t pen a script in the same room. Although they break the story and write an outline together, they divide up scenes before splitting up and writing on their own. Then, they trade pages and rewrite each other’s work.
“It’s a great system of checks and balances,” says Wernick.
Reese concurs. “The most important part of a writing partnership is that it improves quality control,” he says. “As a single writer, we often don’t see our own weaknesses and can let ourselves off the hook, whereas a writing partner raises the quality of your work.”
Wernick adds that “[w]ith all of the highs and lows of this business, having a partner means that when one of us is riding low, the other one is there to pick him up.”
“Although we often accuse each other of bringing the other one down,” quips Reese.
The duo’s least favorite thing about collaborating? “We have to split the money,” says Reese. “Imagine if your agent or manager took fifty percent. That’s rough.” But splitting a paycheck isn’t so bad when there’s lots of zeros on it, as was reported for Reese/Wernick’s high six-figure sale of their Earth vs. Moon pitch.
Indeed, the duo’s tireless work ethic and meticulous preparation has served them as well in their pitches as it has in their written product. Earth vs. Moon (a high concept sci-fi feature pitting a lunar colony at war with planet Earth) was sold to Universal, which emerged as the high bidder after several studios clamored for the project. Reese describes that day as “one of the best of our lives.” But selling a project in the room is hardly a matter of luck. Reese and Wernick consider the pitch to be as important as a finished script and strive to have theirs as polished as possible before taking a meeting.
“Some writers will come up with a fine idea and flesh it out somewhat, then go into a pitch meeting assuming they’ve got enough, only to be caught off guard when executives ask questions they don’t have answers to,” says Reese. “That’s a dangerous place to be. You really want to present your buyer with a big, shiny, polished product which is suggestive of a much bigger, shiny, polished product to come.”
Despite their success, Reese admits that while “its an absolute thrill to sell our work, you start to have the insecurity of ‘How do you repeat?’” Reese concedes that’s a good problem to have and encourages dedicated writers looking for that big break never to give up on one of their scripts -- or themselves. In fact, Reese himself didn’t sell one of his feature specs until twelve years after he wrote it. “So never feel that any failure is final,” he advises. “Because although that script of mine was a failure for 12 years, it ultimately became a success and was produced.
“The crucial thing to remember is that you can’t set a deadline for success, because this isn’t a business of months or years, but of decades,” Reese adds. “The bottom line is that you just have to hang in there. Make the phone calls, take the lunches, get the advice and most importantly, keep writing.”
Scott M. Richter is a Los Angeles based WGA writer and attorney. He wrote for three seasons on the Emmy Award-winning Christopher Lowell Show and won the 2007 Austin Film Festival Drama Teleplay Competition for his Grey's Anatomy spec, Reality Bites. Currently, Scott is developing a comedy feature for a DreamWorks-based production company and is co-creating and writing a legal sitcom for Double G Productions. Scott is represented by Grant Turck of Velocity Management.