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The Art of Adapting the True Story – An Interview with Actor/Screenwriter Joshua Rollins

'Infinite Storm' actor/screenwriter Joshua Rollins shares with Script his personal relatability to Pam Bales' story, writing on spec, and his new journey as a screenwriter.
Naomi Watts as Pam Bales in Infinite Storm. Courtesy Bleecker Street.

Naomi Watts as Pam Bales in Infinite Storm. Courtesy Bleecker Street.

Pam Bales, the subject of recent Bleecker Street release Infinite Storm, which is PVOD on April 12, is quoted as saying, “It only takes one person to change someone’s life.” The nurse, mother, and mountain guide is no stranger to heroism, she’s been involved with many search and rescues during her eminent career. Directed by Award-winning Polish filmmaker Małgorzata Szumowska (Never Gonna Snow Again, Body) and starring Naomi Watts (The Impossible, The Ring), the film focuses on her singular act of bravery when she saves a stranded hiker during an intense storm on Mt. Washington. Getting them both down the hill before nightfall proves to be a true test of her mettle. Her sole rescue mission that’s the focus of this film in not unlike the journey a screenwriter has to take to complete a script. Granted there’s not as much physical danger involved in writing and completing a screenplay but powerful storytelling that takes us, the viewer, on an emotional expedition can change our lives, or at least our perspectives. It can motivate and inspire us.

Actor Joshua Rollins can now add “screenwriter” to his resume because he’s on a roll. Writing Infinite Storm has opened many doors for him; he now has several projects in the works. As someone who was familiar with the White Mountains of New Hampshire because he used to climb them, Pam’s story caught his eye.

Joshua Rollins

Joshua Rollins

"I hiked in the Whites right after college. Even led some guided trips with a buddy of mine. I love the White Mountains. Anytime there's an article about them, someone sends it to me. My wife and three other people all sent me this article on the same day. I read the story and immediately wanted to talk to Pam because first off, it's a story of hope and redemption. She affects this person in such a meaningful way. But second, I know this hike and this area. Which is funny, because we filmed it in Slovenia, which I don’t know...! [laughs]"

Joshua could relate to Pam’s peril because he experienced his share of danger in the Whites.

"A lot of the things that happened in the movie have happened to Pam but have also happened to me. For instance, the spruce trap that she falls in. The best man at my wedding, we almost lost him because he fell in a spruce trap. We didn't know for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then we turned around and backtracked as our footprints were getting covered and found him. It wasn't that deep, but he was up to his head in the trap."

For those looking to sell that first script or get that big break, it takes more than just luck. Selling a screenplay doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process involving iteration, timing, and relationships.

"I think it's important for new screenwriters to know that at that point I did Infinite Storm, I had some credits to my resume. I'd done a ton of rewrites. I'd contributed to a video game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. I'd never really found that one project to take me over the top. What was interesting about this was that I knew the story was going to be good. It happened in 2010 and the article was written in 2012. And no one had grabbed it yet! So, there was an opportunity there. That's so hard, though. Every time I’d read a book or article and contacted my agent or manager about it, they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah. Plan B has it." Or ‘Appian Way is doing it.’ So, this was an opportunity for me to get some IP based on a true story I knew really well and to really go after it. So that's what I did. I even put up some money for it and I wrote it on spec just hoping to the gods that someone would read it and fall in love with it like I did.

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My agent and my manager read it and loved it. They sent it out to producers that knew my work and were looking for something to do with me. And I had actually had a female-centered television show with Maven Screen Media that ended up not going forward. But Maven was on our short list because it's a female-run production company. All their producers are women. We knew they'd want to get a female director on board, which was really important to me…that we surround this with as many women as possible because it's the story of a strong woman. Let's make sure that the white guy is not the loudest voice in the room...! [laughs] We shot for six weeks in Slovenia and the budget was $5 million."

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People find out at different stages in their lives if writing is for them. Courtney Hunt wrote Frozen River (2008) when she was 44. Joshua discovered early on that he had an affinity for writing.

"From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer but didn’t think I could do it. I grew up in a small town in West Virginia. I'm the first one in my family to go to college. When I finally decided to become an actor and I started making a living at it, I couldn't complain about it being tough because I was able to pay my bills. But what I really wanted to do was write because it's what I've always wanted to do, so I started writing plays. My good friend Matt Miller, who’s in Chicago, directed my first play, A Girl with Sun in Her Eyes. It was a hit. That's how I got my agent and my manager.

I love that writing takes me out of my own world. When I grew up in this small town in West Virginia, I didn’t know a lot of people of different ethnicities or different sexualities. Movies and comic books got me to realize there's a whole world out there. I remember seeing Spiderman swinging through New York City. That place was such a foreign concept to me. I stay curious, aware, and open to experiences, which fuels my writing, as it should all writers."

Even though there are many people in entertainment who are multi-hyphenates, crossing over to another medium can present its challenges.

"When I finally got to talk to Pam and convinced her that she could trust me, she unloaded about her life. Originally the script was a more all-encompassing, life-of-Pam set against this rescue and the other rescues she'd done tale. It became a matter of whittling the story down to what it is now, a story about the six hours she's on the mountain with this guy and how she saves him. I was there the entire time we were shooting because I was ‘the mountain guy.’ I was working with Naomi about how to pack a backpack, how to use hiking poles, how to put on crampons. All those types of things that she wasn't very familiar with. While filming, we had obstacles inspired by nature. We couldn’t do a stunt because we didn’t have any ice or the weather was not cooperating. So, I’d have to write something else. I was sitting on the mountain with my laptop trying to make it happen.

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I have an ear for dialogue which is hilarious because there's not a lot of dialogue in this movie until the end. I always think about character first. The meetings I've had and the projects I've sold the overwhelming, the feedback has been that my characters and dialogue are unlike what they’ve seen before. Which is what I'm trying to do, trying to do things as differently as possible."

Writing and producing Infinite Storm has been a gateway for Joshua to get more of his projects sold.

"I have a television show with Amblin and another television show with Skydance. Both are very close to going and I'm not really sure how I'm going to do two television shows at once, but we'll see. I also sold a project that I co-wrote with Matt Miller. It's with Bad Robot. And then I have a film I sold with Amasia Entertainment that we're just starting to cast up now. It’s a busy time."

Every writer has a routine that takes shape around his or her personal life. Whether or not you have kids can factor into how you formulate your writing schedule. Also, your schedule can vary depending on whether or not you have a writing partner.

"I have kids so I write when I can. I get up very early and I find that's a really good time to write. I write very quickly. When I do rewrites, I get hired based on my speed. My advice for new writers is to write even when it's not coming and even when it's not good. I'll write thirty to forty pages a day and maybe save five to seven of those but at least I got it down on paper. It's a muscle and you've got to practice and strengthen that muscle as much as you can. My main advice is to write everyday...! I don't outline, much to my agent and manager's chagrin. I find that when I start writing, it's easier for me to figure out where things are going when I get there. Sometimes I write myself into a hole or corner, then I have to backup. But I think it takes me longer to write an outline than it does to write a script...! (laughs) Let's just write the script and if something's not working, let's just go back in and figure it out.

Writing with Matt was tough at times because my agent or manager would agree with his feedback over mine…! [laughs] I trust Matt implicitly, though. When you have a writing partner, make sure it’s someone you trust.

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The important thing with rewrites is to always understand what they want. Do they want you to punch up the characters, do they want you to punch up the plot? Also, make sure you're doing something that you're comfortable with.

Besides writing every day, pay attention to what's in the market. You need to write something that speaks to you, but you can't ignore what's happening in the marketplace. I wasn't a big horror fan at all, but my first big sale was in that genre. Everyone kept telling me I should write a horror script. So, I decided that if I was going to do it, it would have to be one that I would want to see. I did that and we had three people bidding on it the week we sent it out and then we were off to the races. It’s set up right now with Atomic Monster, Warner Bros., and New Line. It's great to write to your experiences and about things you love, but it's also okay to step out of your comfort zone." 

Infinite Storm is now playing in theaters and available on PVOD on April 12.