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NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Whittier Finds a Director - Part 1

Manny Fonseca gives you an intimate peek behind the curtain of developing a script with a big named director. From notes to budget to casting.

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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If you're lucky enough to I get your script into the hands of a producer that likes what you have to offer, they're going to carry it to the next step of packaging the script in order to turn it into a full fledged movie. Luckily, Whittier had Big Dick Barny.

I wrote last time that I sent Whittier to Barny and he immediately signed on to produce it. The first step a producer takes to set up a packaged script is send it out to directors. Barny had a few directors in mind, but the one he really wanted to work with was... let's call him... Professor X.


Barny sent the following email to The Professor's agent:

Do you still rep Professor X, and is he reading? I have a brand new spec script called WHITTIER that I think may be perfect for him This is a very dark, contained horror film set in the (real) town of Whittier, Alaska. Whittier is recognized as one of the most bizarre towns in the world because the entire population of 177 lives in one high-rise apartment building and there is only one way in and out of the town -- through a three mile long tunnel that is closed for long stretches in the winter. Here's a link about the town.


I see the film having the claustrophobia and madness of THE SHINNING with the violence and action 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (but no vampires).

I've been a fan of his since I was at (Big Studio) when I saw (Professor X's first film). This definitely fits in with that.

Let me know and I'll send over the script.

Now, this is you have to remember people are not as long winded with their responses. All Professor X's agent responded with was:

Sure. Send over the script.

On April 30, 2015, Professor X's agent sent Barny the following email:

He likes this a lot.


That was that. Professor X was in. That's how anticlimactic it was. To me, I thought it was a little vague, but Barny? Barny was through the fucking roof ecstatic. Not only because he had always wanted to work with the guy, but also because we now had a director attached to Whittier.

NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Whittier Finds a Director - Part 1 by Manny Fonseca | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Me? I wasn't excited at all. In fact, I was the least excited about any of it. Cheryl was excited. Ally was excited. Barny couldn't stop telling me how huge this was...but me, I knew Hollywood and we were a long way from rolling camera and anything could happen before then.

The first step was to set up a call between Barny, Professor X and myself.

That call came with a warning from Barny.

I'll reach out to him. As with most directors, Professor X may want to do a rewrite. Are you cool with that?

Now, this was all new to me. Yes, I knew re-writes were a possibility, so it didn't come as a surprise that they would be on the table. I opted to just give myself over to the process and let those that were more experienced lead. Here's how I responded:

I guess? If it comes to that, then I guess we cross that bridge when we come to it. Of course, I'd be more than willing to work with anyone on it.

Barny's response:

Cool. I was hoping that was sarcasm.

I wrote:

Honestly? This is new territory. Never gotten this far. Soooo...I'll follow your lead and learn along the way.

Obviously, I'll do whatever it takes to get a movie made.

I immediately regretted that last line. You wouldn't believe how many times writers fed me that line at a pitchfest. I always hated it, and it would make me cringe. To me it felt like they should be sticking up for their shit, but alas, here I was...finally in the position, saying the same thing.

Script EXTRA: Tips on Navigating a Pitchfest with Success!

Luckily, Barny was quick to put me at ease:

A rewrite for a director is a good thing. Let's see how it unfolds.

And so we did. Everyone was super excited about the possibilities, whereas I remained distant. I wasn't about to get my hopes up.


We had the first call with Professor X, and I thought it went pretty good. We talked about his "issues" with the script and some changes he wanted to see. Here are my notes from that first call. Most of which won't make sense, but you'll be able to at least see some of Professor X's thought process in the beginning:


When I got off the call, I wasn't totally clear on some of his points. Barny and I had already set up a post conference call, conference call. So I started asking him what HE thought some of Professor X's notes meant. He could only guess due to the language barrier, as Professor X lived in another country.

He suggested that I write Professor X an email asking for clarification.

Here's what I sent:

Professor X,

First, thank you so much for your time and kind words about the script. I'm super excited that you're involved and look forward to working with you to nail down a great script.

I just wanted to follow up on a couple of points from the call before I dive head first into the script. I had the idea of Joe as a teacher. How did you feel about that? Here's what I was thinking for a backstory for him: He was a disgraced medical professor at a prestigious college. Ended up driving drunk and hitting a student (maybe not killing the student, but definitely severely injuring them) and thus, he just can't get a job anywhere. The only thing that's left is moving to Whitter and teaching at the school.

The idea of him having issues with alcohol can also add to the tension when he goes to the bar. Can totally throw in a "are you drinking again?" scene when he comes back and confronts Emily.

Another thought is that Joe would sort of shift into the main hero role. He still gets taken and Emily still rescues him, but when they escape instead of Emily coming up with the exploding propane tank idea, Joe would now come up with it (and of course execute it.)

The end scene with him driving the truck into the plow would stay the same.

I also wanted to clarify your comments on the changing of point of view... Should it be Joe's "Story" so to speak? And thus we stay with him up until he gets taken? After he's gone, Emily gets attention from the town a la Rosemary's Baby...then, once Emily rescues Joe, we're right back with him?

He wrote back (cleaned up and edited for time):

i think idea of a teacher is interesting but it’s bit too usual

and it’s why someone with a specific skills like doctor could be unique

Hère i have feeling if we keep the idea of teacher he have to be with a very specific skills as a teacher

And the idea of alcoholism is too close to the Shining. Jack is already with some alcoholic problem and i’m afraid it’s too similar

i did think it’s more simple. Like a George Romero movie. Genre movies are the réflexion of their time. And we have to impriment that idea

He lose his job. They are broke. One job offer in Alaska and he doesn’t have choice but to accept

Whittier is city who is protect by the crisis, they are like an independent state. It’s why they need new people all the time and finale Whittier is metaphoric of a America

About the point of view I’m not talking about gong back and forth all the time between Joe and Emily it could be interesting. Playing with the dramatic irony of knowing Joe is in trouble as the audience can see and when we come back on Emily and the kids we have still more scare for them because we know they are already in danger

The twist of discovering Joe later can be bring by creating a scène where we can believe he get killed

I did think we should create a surprise by having one member of the family get killed

Remember Season 3 of game of throne and that blondie wedding who is still one of the biggest surprise i ever had on a show

We have to be more radical at some point to be more modern too

Script EXTRA: Getting Honest Feedback


I was given a set of directives and I focused on only those directives "surgically." They were very specific notes on specific scenes or characters. I made the changes as requested and thought I did a great job.

What I failed to do was apply those notes to the entire script. Let me put it this way: If I was told that the cancer was in the liver, I went in and treated the liver. I never took the time to check to see if the cancer had spread anywhere else. That was a problem.

At this point in Cheryl's recovery, we were doing outpatient therapy. Beyond that, there was very little we were doing in the home. She spent a lot of the day sleeping, which is what happens with brain injury survivors. She needed her rest.

Which meant I had a lot of free time on my hands, and I really wanted to get my script turned into a movie, so I cranked out the rewrite in five days and sent it off to Barny, who had requested to read the next draft before we sent it to Professor X.

He gave me his notes and sent it back.

There weren't many, so I cranked out THAT rewrite out in two days and sent it off to Barny and Professor X.

After a week, Barny checked in with Professor X to see if he had read the latest draft.

This was his response:

Hello Barny

I just read it today. I was going to make notes and write you back

Sounds pretty close and really exciting!!!

I have comments for sure but it’s taking the right direction i think

Did you read it?

Professor X

Barny's response, which he forwarded to me:

Yes. I read and feel the same way. A good step forward. I think he made good progress on establishing the backstory and explaining the characters dilemma. It's freaky and cool. And Franky dying in the end is pretty intense and tragic. Then to see his video in the end, will be super sad.

I think there are some nips and tucks we still need to do, but overall think it is a much stronger script.

Professor X wrote:

Yes same thing i like the depressive ending
but people who like genre movies like this

and i’m a fan of this kind of creepy dark aspect of human nature

there is still work to be done in the situation and characters but it’s in good shape already i prep my notes to send by friday right before weekend and we can set up a conf call with Manny next week.

For those of you that remember, MadMax: Fury Road had come out around this time and we had all seen it. That meant it was all fresh in our minds. So although it had not come up in the previous call, it definitely came up in our second one.


If you get to this level, people will talk about what's happening CURRENTLY in movies. Even though, by the time YOUR film comes out it'll SO NOT be current anymore. So even though it wasn't in the front of their mind before, it'll so be in their mind after they see some flick. It seemed, and I may have imagined it, that after every phone call with Professor X, he had seen a NEW movie and wanted elements of THAT movie in Whittier. I always felt like I was behind him, trying to catch up.

Mad Max wouldn't be the first flick to influence the direction we took Whittier.

Script EXTRA: What Do Executives Want in Your First 10 Pages?

In that second call, we discussed a new opening to Whittier. Remember from last time, I wanted the beginning to be a slow boil before all hell broke loose like in The Shining. Unfortunately movies aren't like that any more and Professor X had seen Mad Max.

Here's what he wanted for the opening:

Here we go
Perfect for me
I think the opening as it is is far too classic
I suggest an opening more Mad Max / the thing

A couple with their baby escape on a snow bike in the blizzard

They get chase by a huge snow truck

They run drive through the Tunnel but the snow truck crash them

Inside the tunnel to Whittier.

Inside the tunnel to Whittier.

The wife get killed but the husband still alive with his baby
He is badly hurt and try to escape from the driver And one Hunter with a harpoon
He shoot with the harpoon in the man legs

This one fall trying protecting his baby

The two men approach and kill the Man but save the baby

They take care of the baby Who is screaming as hell

They leave the tunnel with just the baby's scream in echo...

If I can pat myself on the back, I created a MUCH better opening than he mentioned above. It had all of the highlights he wanted, but it was BAD-FUCKING-ASS. Which is our job as writers, right?

To take THEIR idea and make it OUR idea and make sure OUR idea is way more badass then THEIR idea.

Took me half a day to crank that out.


In these discussions, budget started to be a part of the conversation. Not with me, obviously, but on the calls Barny and Professor X would start to talk about logistics.

In the beginning, Barny saw this as a 1-3 million dollar movie. Hardly a disappointment for a writer's FIRST movie.

After Professor X got involved, the budget rose to 3-5 million.

As we got deeper into the process, Professor X started talking about the desired budget being somewhere in the ballpark of 8-10 million.

Keep in mind, that even though I had yet to be paid on any of this, every time the budget went up, so did my potential fee. I had set out on this flick with realistic goals. Make a couple of grand...get my name out there...make even more on the next one.

This was a marathon to me. Not a sprint. I was playing the long game.

Then we started talking about casting.

Professor X wanted to take this script out to Carla Gugino as San Andreas had just come out. We all loved her and thought she'd be perfect.

Then the name Jon Hamm started getting thrown about. All of a sudden, with those two involved, we were talking about a possible 12-15 million dollar flick.

Which means I'd make WAY more than the couple of grand I had hoped to make. That... and you know... my first movie gets to star Sally Jupiter and Don Draper.


Um. Yes please.

This is only the first half of the journey. Look for Part 2 tomorrow where I'll tell you how I needed to have a total writer's meltdown before I finally got it through my thick skull.

The question is... will it have come too late?

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