Meet Wigham Foothill - 2020 Grand Prize Winner

Meet Wigham Foothill

 

Last month, Wigham Foothill won the 2020 Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition Grand Prize Award by applying his highly cinematic voice to a true-story miniseries about the larger-than-life character of Charles Ponzi.

We finally had a chance to speak with Wigham, or as he’s known when not writing, Josh Durst-Weisman, to find out a little more about his background, the inspiration for his winning script, his process in writing, and just what makes him tick.

When not writing, or enjoying time with his wife, Josh spends time developing his youtube channel, Class Act Screenwriting, which I would urge you all to visit and support.

 

Hi Josh, congratulations on your big win. Before I ask what you’ll do with the prize money, I wanted to ask a little about your inspiration for the film. In a world where life-rights are sold based on name alone and stories based on real people are hot, it seems like Charles Ponzi is such an obvious choice for a biopic, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done.  What was your inspiration for writing PONZI and how long have you been working on the script?

I worked on PONZI for about a year before I felt like it was baked enough to actually show to people. My wife encouraged me to enter it in Fresh Voices. I was scared at the time, but obviously I’m super glad I did it.

As for the inspiration, it actually came from my experience working in Hollywood. For a long time, I was writing at night and working as a development exec by day. I worked in reality TV, and the environment I worked in was…intense. At a certain point, the job, and the money, and the environment I worked in, all started to mix together in this really ugly way, and I kind of saw myself transforming into a person I didn't really like. I was so focused on networking, and name-dropping people I'd worked with, and all this stuff...basically, in my opinion, I saw myself slowly transforming into what I felt was a typical “Hollywood asshole"

At a certain point I just hit a crossroad. My wife would listen to me roll these thoughts around in my head, and finally she said, “Let’s just leave Hollywood.” So we quit our jobs and moved away. We found new careers, and I spent the next couple years really just trying to find myself and rediscover my values as a husband, friend, son, etc.

At the same time, one night I randomly watched a YouTube video about this guy named Charles Ponzi.

I was hooked right away. I love big, sprawling financial dramas like The Big Short and Succession, so Ponzi’s story was a fastball for me. He was the original Bernie Madoff. The “Ponzi scheme” is literally named after him.

I started gobbling up everything I could find about him. And in a few of the pieces I read, this little story kept bubbling up about a guy named William McMasters. He was Ponzi’s publicist at the height of his power. He worked for Ponzi for ten days, and by the tenth day, he personally wrote the article in the Boston Post that exposed Ponzi’s scheme and brought down his whole empire.

That story really stuck with me.

I felt like I related to William. I related to the idea that he saw himself being corrupted by this lucrative job, and that even though it could make him really rich, he decided to walk away. Deep down, I kind of felt like William and Ponzi were the angel/devil on my own shoulder when I was working in film/TV. Ponzi was the version of me that stayed, and leaned into the lifestyle, and let it swallow him up. And William was the version of me that said “no” and left.

I started writing PONZI because I was really interested in having that internal conversation with those two parts of myself.

 
Wow, that’s fascinating. It’s nice to know you still had a hunger to write, even though you consciously checked out of Hollywood. Maybe it was the fact that you had checked out that allowed you to be more relaxed and carefree when it came to writing without writing for someone or to someone’s expectation.

How long have you been writing and how did you become a writer?

Okay, well first off, that’s super kind of you to call me a writer.

I started writing in high school, just doing standup at local open mics. I was always writing little sketches and stuff, but I started focusing my attention on screenwriting in my junior year of college.

 

Oh, so did you go to University to study film or screenwriting?

I studied film production at the University of Arizona. They don’t have a screenwriting program per se, but I was always getting caught reading screenplays in class, and instead of being aggravated with me, my professors were kind enough to really let me tailor my assignments toward my passion for screenwriting. I would say I got a screenwriting degree that was kind of “disguised” as a BFA in film production.

 
So you didn’t really get much feedback in school in that case. Have you taken any classes or workshops where your work was peer-reviewed?

For sure. The one that made the biggest impact on me was this little 8-week workshop in Santa Monica called Tough Love Screenwriting. It’s taught by a guy named John Jarrell, who wrote a bunch of those Jet Li-type action movies in the 2000’s. He’s an extremely tough coach (hence the name), but hands down, taking his course was the single best thing I could have ever done for myself as a writer.

The biggest lesson I learned in that class was how to be economical with my words on the page. A screenwriter’s job is to give the reader a vision – both of the physical scene, and of the characters’ inner state – using as few words as possible. Before the Tough Love workshop, I had a bad habit of writing these long, dense paragraphs to describe action on the page. What I learned was that it’s okay, literally, to just use a single word.

 
Yeah, I think that comes with knowing the rules before you can break them. I know some who will call writers out on that if it feels like a crutch or laziness.

On the other hand, I used to work with the late Anthony Minghella. If you ever read some of his early drafts for Cold Mountain he would just write, “a great battle happens here”, and then leave the next two or three pages blank.

Do you have any favorite screenwriting books that have guided you along the way?

I feel like I should be ashamed to say this, but I’ve never actually read a screenwriting book all the way through. I definitely know the general ideas around story structure through the osmosis of having done it for so long, but truthfully, the way I learned screenwriting was by reading lots (and lots, and lots) of screenplays.

To that end, though, I’d say the best screenplay I’ve ever read is “The Beaver” by Kyle Killen. That script taught me so much about the craft. It got made into a film that was unfortunately sidelined by the whole Mel Gibson scandal right before it got released, and I never actually ended up seeing the film. But that script…I still get goosebumps thinking about it sometimes. It is, for me, the best screenplay ever written.

That, and if you haven’t had a chance to watch Michael Arndt’s video “Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great,” I’d highly recommend checking it out. I think it’s only on Vimeo, but you’ll find it if you Google it. If the Tough Love course taught me how to practically craft words on the page, then that one video essay helped me lay the foundation for how to approach character and theme.

 

What’s your mentality/ philosophy as a writer?

Yeah, well this kind of goes back to what you were saying before about being relaxed and writing to expectation. For me, personally, I used to write with the objective of “making a sale.” I did the whole OWA thing, and the development thing with a few production companies, and truthfully, it really soured my relationship with the craft of writing as a whole. You're doing so much work for free in those prove it stages of your career, and personally, I wasn’t passionate about any of the stories I was telling when I was doing that. It showed through in my work, like everything I wrote was just super derivative and boring. If I have a philosophy today, I really do believe that if I'm going to write something for free, then it's going to be something I find meaningful. I'm way more proud of the work when I do that, even if it means I'll never make a dime doing it.

PONZI, for example, as you said, was the first piece I wrote after I left Hollywood. I wasn’t trying to sell a script when I wrote it...I was just trying to write something that was meaningful to me. And sure enough, it’s honestly the first thing I’ve ever written that I’m actually proud of.

At the same time, I’m in all these writers’ groups where my colleagues (all very talented, WORKING screenwriters) talk in circles about, “If you want to get hired at CBS, you have to write this kind of procedural drama,” and “Netflix is looking for this and that, so make sure you include XYZ in your pitch." Personally, I’ve tried doing that stuff, and in my experience, it only leads to getting hired for work you aren’t passionate about. Trust me…there’s truly nothing worse than writing something you hate, with the axe of “getting fired” and losing your livelihood swinging over your head at all times.

My personal philosophy: I don’t want to make “content.”

I just want to have a regular career that pays me fairly, inspires me creatively, and lets me work with people I like. And then, if/when I feel inspired to screenwrite, I’ll focus on writing things I really do care about.

 

Yeah, for some, they need that pressure. Writers tend to work towards a deadline. They need to be accountable to someone, and many lack the confidence to know what to do or how to do it. They need the constant feedback. For others, like yourself, creating something you’re not passionate about, under pressure, is a recipe for failure.

It requires a tremendous amount of discipline and confidence to write on spec like this, especially when you don’t have someone swinging that axe, or holding you accountable.  What is your writing process? Do you outline, write treatments first?  If so do you deviate or stick strictly to the outline?

Well, with PONZI, I kind of threw out the rulebook. I used to outline really heavily, but again…this time, I was writing purely for myself. So I took PONZI literally one scene at a time, without thinking about the next scene. My thesis was that I just wanted to write the best individual scene I possibly could, and then I’d focus on the next one.

That said, it took me a year to write sixty pages. So I’ll probably go back to outlining, and perhaps there is something to be said for having someone holding you accountable (lol).

 

Hey, some writers get paid to write for a year and never write anything near as well-written. How many hours do you find yourself writing a week in that case?

Between five and ten, probably. Not a ton. Usually, I write on the train to work, or on the train back home when the workday's over.

I used to be extremely diligent about it, like I would write seven nights a week. After 8pm any given night, you’d find me at Sportsmen’s Lodge on Ventura, sitting at a little table with an iced tea, clacking away at my laptop. It was either there, or it was The King’s Head, right over by Sharky’s on Coldwater. I used to live around there.

Anyway, all that’s just to say…when I was writing seven nights a week, I never wrote anything good.

I think it’s because at the time, my whole life was about one thing (writing). I didn’t have any real experiences to talk about, because I was just thinking about - writing – writing all the time.

PONZI was written out of a desire to engage with all these real, emotional problems I was experiencing in my life outside of movies. It was the result of this mental upheaval I felt after I quit my job and moved somewhere else. I think that’s where good stories come from. You could write seven nights a week, but if you’re just writing a rip-off of version of ALIEN with pirates instead of astronauts (which I did write, by the way!!)…then what’s the point of even writing anything?


Do you submit to a lot of screenplay competitions? How did you do?

I entered PONZI in a lot of them, but other than that I’ve only entered one other competition with one other script. It was that pirate movie I just mentioned – it won the Silver Medal in the horror genre at the PAGE Awards. That was…what, 2018? It was a while back.

I did end up signing with a manager on the heels of that win. His name is Tony at Super Vision Entertainment, and he’s a wonderful person.

Off the mild success of that script, I landed my first “job” writing a tiny, micro-budget little indie horror movie for this Australian producer. That movie never got made, which…honestly, thank God. I put quotes around the word “job” because my payment for the whole gig was, like, a tank of gas and a tuna sandwich.

Here’s the thing, though: I know it’s super cheesy, but the real gift of getting to write on that project was meeting the director, this super-talented guy named Iván Mena-Tinoco, who’s still a good friend of mine to this day. We went through hell together on that movie. You take these little bargain-bin gigs, and at the time you don’t really know what they’re going to mean in the grand scheme of your life. But to answer your question directly…yes, something great did materialize for me as a result of that competition, and it’s that I met a lifelong friend who I’ll always be able to talk about movies and life with.

  

What was your experience like winning Fresh Voices?

The whole experience with Fresh Voices has been lovely. I feel like all you can really ask for with a screenwriting competition is that they communicate well and give thoughtful, constructive feedback. The prize money’s wonderful too, obviously, but the timely communication and quality of feedback on my script is what I’ve really been the most impressed with.

More than that though, it was a shot in the arm, for sure. You know how it is -- as a writer, you spend so much time toiling away on scripts that nobody will ever read. To receive such wonderful feedback from a group of readers whose opinions I hold so highly…it definitely gave me a jolt of motivation and validation to keep writing the next thing. I’m super thankful for the experience.


Thanks Josh. That’s really kind of you to say.  So what’s next for Wigham? Are you writing a new script?  What are you working on?

Writing a new script, yep, but it’s a long way off.

In the meantime, I run this little YouTube channel called Class Act Screenwriting where I break down the narrative structure of films scene-by-scene. The most flattering thing was when my breakdown of Doctor Strange was picked up by C. Robert Cargill (the co-writer of Doctor Strange). He Tweeted my analysis to all his followers and said “This is a great breakdown of exactly how we wrote the movie.” Right there, I was ready to hang up the jersey and retire.

So yeah, if you want to learn story structure with me, check out Class Act Screenwriting on YouTube. If you suggest a movie in the comments, I’ll try to put it in the rotation!

Thanks Josh. It’s funny you left Hollywood only to win Fresh Voices Grand Prize Award. It’s like some kind of temptation. A siren song calling you back!

(Nervous laughter)


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