SCREENWRITER PROFILE: DAVE CALLAHAM

expendables posterDave wrote the 2010 summer blockbusterThe Expendables, which has so far grossed over $270m at the world box office. Dave's past credits include the video game adaptation Doom for producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Horsemen produced by Michael Bay, and Tell-Tale for producers Ridley and Tony Scott

Most recently, Dave was hired by Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures to write the 2014 summer tent-pole Godzilla and he sold an original pitch to Twentieth Century Fox and Producer/ Director McG.

Here we discuss Dave's approach to the business and art of screenwriting in Hollywood. What's worked for him, what hasn't, and what he's learned along the way. An invaluable conversation for any aspiring screenwriter whether you are writing a high concept studio movie or a low budget, character-driven indi.

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On The Business                  On The Art

BACKGROUND INFO:

FV: Did you go to school to study film or screenwriting?

DC: I went to the University of Michigan and majored in English really because of a lack of better things to do. I graduated in 1999. I wasn’t studying English with an interest in creative writing. Mostly I liked reading.  I lived with a bunch of dudes, and by senior year my best friend and I still hadn’t figured out what we were going to do with ourselves.

FV: So what brought you out to Hollywood?

DC: We were trying to decide what to do after college and he had read some article in Penthouse magazine about how awesome a lifestyle screenwriters have. It was mostly about being a TV writer.  I remember it had pictures of the nerdiest guys they could find in a hot tub with a bunch of playmates; total Penthouse bull. It made it sound really easy to break in, really profitable and with like no downside. So we wrote a script to try it out. After graduation I pretty much came right out to LA. My best friend and I drove here in a van.

FV: What was the script?

DC:  I don’t know where this stupid idea came from. It was a tv pilot called LA Zoo. Two best friends who move to LA living in an apartment, kind of the Friends mold, you know, nothing specific happens. It’s just about these people and their lives.  The trick was the two best friends were to be played by monkeys, but it’s played totally natural. Everyone reacts to them as if they are real people. There was a show in the 60’s or 70’s., Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. They’d have these Chimps and they’d dress ‘em up like real people. That was the seed.

FV: Hilarious. That was while you were in college?

DC: We sent people query letters while we were still at college. Like random agencies. I still have them on my computer. We came out here and sort of realized, ok, maybe a TV show about monkeys is going to be a tough sell. So then we started writing TV specs. We wrote two Friends episodes. I still think our episodes were pretty good.

FV: Did you ever get any response from the early query letters?

DC: No, I would have loved to save those.

FV: So you hitched it out to LA, with the aspiration and dreams of being a writing team…

DC: Yeah, we were gonna write comedies together. The feature we wrote was a gross-out comedy, because the summer we got out here American Pie had come out. Adam Hertz (writer and creator of American Pie) had gone to Michigan and we sort of thought we might be able to follow in those footsteps.

FV: So what happened..?

DC: We were sharing a place in Westwood together, working for a dog food company. He got engaged to his girlfriend and moved back to Michigan. That was all inside the first year.I stopped writing with him and started writing my own stuff. We’re still best friends. 

 CAREER APPROACH:

FV: So how did you get involved in the industry?

DC: So I took an assistant job with a law firm that represented the estates of famous dead people. My girlfriend at the time had a sorority sister that was working at CAA. She said you should call this girl, she works for some sort of agency.  I didn’t even know what CAA was.

When I called, this woman said, “its terrible hours, you’re gonna get treated badly and it pays worse than the job you currently have” but I’d never really read a screenplay, and I think with my friend going back to Michigan, I was looking for more of a social life. She set up an interview for me. I obviously wanted to be on a Lit desk. There were none available when I interviewed so I was hired as a floater and ended up covering for different assistants that were out sick or for like a year. And then I landed on a Lit desk for like 8 months. 

FV: Whose desk did you end up on?

DC: Craig Gering.

FV: Pretty big desk.

DC: It was good. He seemed to have a strong roster of young clients. I liked it, and he always seemed to be in the middle of big things.

FV: Did you try to angle for Craig to read any of your work?

DC: No, I was getting towards the end of my rope before I quit. You work there for a long enough time and you reach a point where unless you really want to become an agent, you get pretty worn down by it all. You feel like your soul’s getting sucked out a little bit. I was just bored of it. I had only taken the job because I wanted to learn what the writers’ life was from the perspective of an agent and I got it by then. I was reading contracts at night, read every script that crossed the desk and listened to every phone call. But there was a point at which I just wanted to do something else.  

FV: You were probably exposed to a lot of different material…

DC: I read everything. The whole reason I took the job was because I was told you had access, not only to the contacts, but to more material than anyplace else; clients’ material, open writing and open directing assignments, specs, casting projects, query scripts, referrals.  So any major project in Hollywood, or even minor, is going through CAA, literally everything. My desk was next to Richard Lovett’s office, and on Friday lunchtimes, I would copy his whole weekend read pile. Totally down-low. He had the scripts no one was allowed tosee, no one knew had come in because he was getting them confidentially for Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise or whatever. So I read everything.

FV: Obviously that helped tremendously. Is there anything specific about how reading other peoples’ scripts helped you hone your craft?

DC: You know, the thing that stuck out at me was that you read a good script and sometimes you have a hard time identifying exactly why it’s good.  I still read all the big specs that come out because I think it’s important for me to know what’s out there. Sometimes I’ll read something and I just go “that was great.” Why? Cause all of it worked. I couldn’t point out one single thing. But it’s really easy to figure out why a script sucks. You could say “oh, well this is a great premise but the characters are terrible,” or “I don’t buy this motivation in act two,” or “this is a total cheat in act three.” It’s really easy to see when something goes wrong. So that was more helpful to me than reading the good ones. And I would read these things that some people, even some clients at CAA had written and think “that sucked!”  So it was educational, because I began to understand why I was having certain reactions to material and the experience was also inspirational, because I thought “if this guy is repped here, I could be repped here.”

I realized there’s nothing special about most writers, there’s no magic touch, outside of the Sorkins of the world who sort of have this gift. The majority of working screenwriters are guys who are sometimes pretty good and sometimes they’re not so good, but they’re self motivated and they work hard. That was the lesson I took out of this.

FV: So, you continued to write your own work while you were at CAA, reading and writing…

DC: Yup. I wrote. I would submit my stuff for coverage secretly; I would put a different title page on it. At that point it was the best read I had gotten. It’s a serious coverage service, and probably one of the better ones in the business. My friends were giving me notes, but they’re your friends. This is clean coverage from someone who doesn’t know you, is not getting paid by you, and who will just say whatever they need to say.  

FV: So how many specs did you write before you optioned your first script?

DC: Horsemen was the fourth. The first one I wrote on my own was a college dramedy called My Generation. It was totally pretentious. And then I wrote a drama, an afterlife drama called Coda. It was terrible. And then I wrote a completely absurdist comedy, a sports comedy, and people liked that one, that one actually was pretty funny. I felt like I was going in the right direction with that comedy. It was the first thing where I thought, ok, I’m learning, I’m getting better. And then I was gonna write another comedy... This is pretty funny.

It was about a dude who invents teleportation, and he tries to teleport to his girlfriend’s apartment on the other side of the country to see her. I was in a long distance relationship at the time. And he calibrates it incorrectly and ends up stuck in an impenetrable crawl space between her walls. It was this total love story that developed between this dude stuck in the wall and the girl on the other side of the wall. The idea was supposed to be that it was a long distance relationship even though they’re like a foot away. Halfway through the outlining process of that script the girl I was having a long distance relationship with, and I had been together with for like six years broke up with me unexpectedly, broke my heart, shattered me, destroyed me. And then I wrote Horsemen, because I was so angry. That’s what made me take that {dark} turn.

FV: And so, did you just write Horsemen and think, this is it, this is good?

DC: Well I felt like it was good, because I knew it was coming from a really raw, real place. I wasn’t faking it, trying to be like “I’m gonna write a rip-off of Seven.” It was a rip-off of Seven, but the emotions behind it were genuine and the reasons I was writing it were therapeutic, and for a long time I did not believe that I was ever going to show it to anybody.

FV: Why not?

DC: People knew me as a funny guy and a friendly guy, and they knew that as a writer I was a comedy guy, and Horsemen is not only dark, it’s just really dark and really cynical and mean. And I didn’t want to freak my friends out, I didn’t want my family to worry about me, so my whole thing was “I’m gonna work all of this anger out in a really healthy way and it’ll help me learn a lesson about trying to write a different genre.”  

FV: Were you working at the time?

DC: Yeah, I had left CAA. I was working at Deep River Productions, which was a production company at the time. They were buyers, they were real buyers for a while because they had a lot of money. They couldn’t afford to fully finance movies, but they could buy and develop scripts.

FV: That’s gutsy to invest all your money in the development process!

They were paying 700 grand at the time for a script. So the good thing about that was I got to see life from the perspective of a buyer. I got to understand “what do producers look for when they read specs?” And as importantly, I also discovered that in most cases it’s the assistant like me at the time, who reads them first. If you can’t crack that, your script’s never gonna get read by the producer.

FV: Did that experience change your writing in any way?

DC: Yeah, I learned to frontload everything. The goal is always to write a good first act. I still to this day do the same technique, which is I try to come up with an opening scene, not just the first 10 pages. The first thing that you see, my goal is always, it should just make your face explode. And it might be the best scene in the whole movie. But I want to reel you in to a point where you’ve already committed by page 5 to read the rest of it.

When you’re getting paid it’s not as necessary. The script is going to be read because they’ve invested in it. But when you’re writing specs and you’re trying to break in, you’re going up this ladder. So you’ve got to impress people every 5 pages or else, you know how the rule is, “any time you give me an excuse to put your script down, I’m gonna.”

Plus, you want somebody to read the whole thing. So that changed my outlook a lot; being the guy who was reading for my boss. He knew I wanted to be a writer and he was for good about it. He would tell me, “here’s what you look for, here’s what buyers want.” I didn’t even understand the concept of commerciality at the time. I would give him scripts that I thought were hilarious but so small and insular.

FV: Up until that point, what was your process of working?  Did you just whip out a first draft as a cathartic thing?

DC: Yeah, it took me a while. I’m not a fast writer. I would come home at night, drink, and then start writing. And I would write until like four in the morning. I had this, you know, the classic idiot writer stuff. I had candles all over my room and I would turn off all the lights.I would listen to a CD and I would put up pictures of people crying or something like that all over my walls, or still photos from other movies of dead bodies trying to get into the zone of the movie. That cost me a couple of times when I brought girls home. I brought a girl home one time and I literally had pictures of bloody corpses on the wall. She’s like “ok, bye.”  

So I wrote Horsemen probably in two or three months which is fast for me now, but I was very highly motivated and I knew the story. And the only hiccup I had was I finished the first act, went away for a weekend, came back to my computer and I had not only not saved it, but I had deleted the whole file. It was not findable, it was not traceable. It took me about two hours to come to grips with the fact that it wasn’t coming back and that I had to start over. But I think it made the script a lot better. I never rewrote it after that. I wrote the whole thing and that was it.

FV: So what was your process for beginning to seek out representation, did you go back to the query letter?

DC: No query letters. I’m sure that there are miracle stories out there, but it didn’t strike me as something that was going to work. I had sort of laid the foundation at CAA. As I said, CAA was sort of a social experiment for me as well, and one of the benefits of working at a place like that are the people who manage to survive the weeding-out process as an assistant, disperse all over town as agents, managers and creative execs. I did show the script to some friends eventually and they just said “Dave, this is the one. I know it’s personal, but you can’t be afraid to expose it.” So I decided ok. I knew in my head the script was good, but I felt it was not streamlined enough. My friends gave me notes, but I needed somebody in the businesses so I decided the move at that time was to try to lock down a manager who will work with me on the script.

FV: So, how did you go about the process of looking for a manager?

DC: I just called everybody I knew who was working low level at management companies, all people who I had met through either CAA or from friends of friends, you know you do those networking things and you meet people at other companies. And I said, “can I send you something, and if you like it, could you move it up, and if you don’t, no big thing.”  And I guess it’s, I would probably normally say luck, but I think also it’s a testament to that particular piece of material, every single person who read it put it up, not just up a little bit, but clean up the ladder to the top guy. This gave me a lot of confidence obviously. Still today, executives who’ve been around a while tell me they remember reading Horsemen. This was in 2002.

FV: You got some good meetings out of it?

DC: Yeah, I had meetings with a lot of these people. My dream manager was Guymon Cassidy, who was a big name already then, and he had just sold Stay, David Benioff’s script for some crazy amount of money. He was at Industry Ent. I remember getting that call, I was on my boss’ desk at Deep River and I get this call, “hi, I’ve got Guymon Cassidy for you,” and I was like “ok, hold on, let me see if David’s there,” my boss, and she goes “no no, he wants to talk to you.” And that sort of, you know, that’s the big thing. He got on the phone and said, this is a Friday, and said “when can you meet? Can you meet tomorrow?” and I was like “of course I can, this is the call I’ve been waiting for.” And he said “can you meet me at Chateau Marmont at 10 in the morning?” I left work and went to the mall, to Gap, and bought a button-up shirt.

FV: How did it go?

DC: He was cool. I didn’t just jump all over him though, I met with a bunch of people and played it out a little bit. And I started asking questions because people will say “oh, I can sell this for a million dollars.” And my question was always “well how are you going to build my career off of this?” Let’s say it doesn’t sell; which it didn’t right away. Guymon actually came and said “we’re gonna work on the script, the script’s amazing. It’ll get you work. I don’t think I can sell it.” He was the only one who told me that. And I signed with him cause of that. I felt like that was the honest truth. And once I signed with Guymon, we did some work on the script, I did it very quickly, of course at that point I was so highly motivated and I didn’t want to let him down.  

FV: Did he give you notes then?

DC: Yeah, he gave me notes. I worked them out. He then sent it out to all the agent’s around town that he thought would respond to the material.

It wasn’t a slam dunk with the agency thing. UTA was highly interested, William Morris was highly interested. Endeavor passed. CAA passed on me which made me really upset.

One agent passed on me as a client because he felt that the script was so dark that surely something was wrong with me emotionally. Guymon and he are very close friends, and he told Guymon “I don’t think I can morally stand behind this piece of material.” Although Guymon was very apologetic, I thought it was awesome. I was like, whatever, so he’s not gonna be my agent, but that means we really got something if it bothered somebody that much, you know. He didn’t read it and go “this guy’s trying to write a horror thing,” he read it and said “this dude’s disturbed.” Which I thought was a great sign.

I signed with my agents at UTA. Tobin Babst and Jason Burns. They were younger at the time but Jason’s now a partner, and Toby recently sold a script for $1.5 million so they’re doing great. I also signed with an attorney at that point.  

FV: So your team started sending out Horsemen?

DC: Yeah, what ended up happening, it was just one of those things where everyone really liked the script but no one wanted to buy it because it was such difficult material. But it got me every meeting and I started to get sent tons of other material to consider. 

FV: You got sent material to think about rewriting?

DC: Yeah, books and scripts and open writing assignments. So it was off to the races right away. I was still working at Deep River by the way. So I was taking meetings, leaving at lunch, taking meetings, doing things like that.

FV: Well, ultimately Horsemen got made so what happened?

DC: In 2002 Platinum Dunes optioned it. This was Michael Bay’s production company. They ended doing a lot of horror remakes. They did Chainsaw and Friday the 13th, and Freddy, and all that stuff. But at the time I sold it to them they were new. They were in post on the first Chainsaw. I think they thought they were gonna do more original work at first. But I had a good relationship with them. And we developed it for years with different directors. Getting close, not getting close. They had financing from Radar at the time I believe. It got made years later. It just fell together by accident. Somebody sent the script to Dennis Quaid one day who decides he wants to do it and it was a go movie!

FV: So before that got made you took all those meetings. Did you get any jobs out of that?

DC: Yeah, I took meetings all over town off of Horsemen as a writing sample. The first meeting I took was with Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, who three days earlier had retired from his position as Worldwide President of Production of Warner Bros. He was given several projects when he left Warners to be a producer on, and one of them was Doom, the videogame. We had drinks near CAA and I was shaking. I kept calling him Mr. Di Bonaventura. It was terrible. But he asked me if I’d ever played videogames or I liked Doom. I said yeah. He said “great, well I’m gonna produce that. So why don’t you come up with some ideas and we’ll have you come in and pitch it.” And at the time I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea. I came up with some random ideas. I knew what a pitch was from CAA but I didn’t know exactly how it was done on a professional level. So I cobbled together some ideas, took me about a week.

I walk into the meeting, and it’s like three executives from Warner Bros in a huge room, at a conference table at Warner Bros. And I thought I was just sort of like sharing some ideas, because no one had even asked me what these ideas were. So I just blurted some stuff out.  I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. They hired me in the room; they said “great, we love it. We’re cancelling all the rest of our meetings.” And then I drove back to Deep River and answered phones for the rest of the day. I didn’t know at the time that it was a big deal. I’ve never since come anywhere near selling something in the room.

My agent called me up, she was like “I don’t know what you did, but they really liked you, they’re going to hire you.” But you know, if I had known what a big deal it was, or there was any anxiety, I would have been terrible. It was me thinking the whole thing was not a big deal that I think made it work.

FV: How did The Expendables come about?

DC: Pretty much then. When I booked the job for Doom, Warners booked me into a two picture blind deal, which is, “Doom is the first one and then you’re going to write another movie for us later.” I had walked into a general meeting with a producer on the Warner’s lot, and pitched him this idea for The Expendables and he liked it. 

FV: This was when you were writing Doom or after?

DC: This was a couple years after I had written Doom. I wrote [Doom] in like 2003. Movie came out in 2005, so somewhere around then, just before the movie came out. So we took it to Warners and I pitched it to my executive. On a blind deal you report to an executive. Mine was Greg Silverman, who’s now very high up at the studio. I pitched it to him. He bought it as my blind deal and then sent me off to write it.

It didn’t go anywhere at Warner Bros. It’s a war movie and the Warner’s regime at the time was very focused on Harry Potter and the family-friendly stuff.  It sat there for a couple of years. Several years later Stallone’s agent was looking for material at the time and an executive at Warner Bros. sent it to Sylvester Stallone to see if he was interested in starring in it. They sent him my script; he said “I love it.” Some things happened, he rewrote the script, and he shot the movie. I never touched it again after that.

FV: So what’s next for Dave Callaham?

DC: Before The Expendables was released, I pitched my take on a new Godzilla movie that Warner Brothers and Legendary are working on and was hired to write a first draft. I recently delivered that to the studio.

 THE WRITING PROCESS:

FV: Going back to the writing process. What’s your philosophy or mentality as a writer?

DC: I want to elevate. My philosophy as a writer is to always make something better than it ought to be. This is obvious. I’m sure every writer says that. But I really want to, if it’s an action movie I want to make it, like Heat is a good example, again, I want it to be an action movie with characters you actually care about, and stakes and themes. I always want the story to have themes even if it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard. Godzilla is a pretty cut and dry, giant monster smashes stuff. But the reason I got excited about it is because I saw themes and relationships to the modern world that I could tell in this story that was important. I always strive to elevate. And you see a movie like The Dark Knight and it tells you, or Inception, another Chris Nolan movie, it tells you, you can make giant movies that work on many different levels, that are intellectual, that are important, that are valuable and they work on a commercial level. And they’re exciting and they’re fun and they’re popcorn. People don’t do it too much, and I don’t think they try hard enough to do it. But I’d like to try. I do try. And you know, you learn that sometimes you try and things get changed. But if you don’t try then no one will.

FV: Do you use outlines, do you write a treatment first…

DC: It’s different every time for me. I have done the note card process to a point where every single scene was written out and it was exactly as I put it in the script. And I’ve done the lighter version of that where I have note cards of all the big scenes. So I know how things are gonna progress, but the connective tissue’s not in there. Now what I do, is I do note cards but I do them on Final Draft. I used to actually physically put up the note cards. I do an outline or a treatment on paper that’s bullet-pointed, just main points and how things go from act breaks. I turn that into Final Draft note cards, and then I turn that into the script.

I don’t note card, outline, or plot out act 3. I plot through act 2 and I know how the movie’s going to end and I know what the break is going to be, and I know generally, there’s going to be a big fight, they’re going to end up in Dallas… whatever. But I just found that my writing process always involved the script changing from what I thought it was going to be. It’s always the same idea at the end of the day, but it’s like I took a different road to get there than I thought I would because the characters sometimes become people you don’t expect them to, or sometimes you kill characters, or they never even exist.

FV: Is that because of the conditioning of the story, of the script, to get to where you need to be, or is that just allowing your imagination…like I want to kill this character today.

DC: I try to do it in service of the script. A lot of times I’ll say “oh wouldn’t it be cool to have a character who has this big emotional moment and this big arc.” Because it would be fun for me to write that character. But sometimes I’ll take a step back when I’m getting real close to writing and say “that character doesn’t inform the story in any way. That’s a character I should just save for a different story.” Or halfway through a script I’ll realize, there’s a hole here for how they’re going to get from point A to point B or how they’re going to get to destinations. Because sometimes characters get created that you don’t plan on creating. You know, I mean an outline will never be the detail that you need it to be to get it to script form. You’re going to end up inventing stuff as you go along. Not just characters, but plotlines, or MacGuffins, or whatever. It always changes. And I just got to the point where it didn’t seem logical to me to plan out act 3, because it’s never going to be what I plan out. So, I know what act 3 is going to be, very loose sense. But I write the rest of it, and then I just go.

FV: Do you approach your story first or create your characters first?

DC: Depends on what it is. Story, almost always. I don’t write the kinds of material where it’s so small that character can legitimately inform the whole thing. That would work for something like Rainman, but I don’t write like that. I write action stuff. So there’s always gotta be a hook or something. Even with Horsemen, which is very character driven and has good character work. It was a bigger idea, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

FV: So if you’ve got act 1 and act 2 pretty well laid out, how long does it take you to write that first draft? How long do you want to spend?  

DC: Horsemen and Godzilla, the first and last things I’ve done, are pretty similar. I think they both took 3 months for a first draft. And they were both 2 ½ months to write the first 2 acts, and I wrote the last act in a week on both of them. Because it’s a runaway train at that point, and there’s no more questions. Act 2 is the hardest, because I know where I need to get them, how am I gonna get them there? By act 3, if you can’t just roll with act 3 you’ve messed up somewhere. Act 3 should write itself.

I get really emotional writing act 3. It’s coming out of me at that point. A lot of times I have to struggle to force myself to write the first two acts. First act’s easy, second act is hard. Third act, I’m just dying to do it. I’ve spent all this time leading you to a place, now it’s time to show you. 

FV: Ho much time do you spend rewriting?

DC: Depends. Like on Godzilla I was under a pretty strict time crunch. So I wrote it, it was very, very long. I sent it to a couple friends and I did a week of super intensive rewriting. If you’re writing on spec you’ve got the luxury of time so it just depends on how long it takes to get it right. Usually once or twice. I don’t like to rewrite.

FV: Do you just know when it’s right?

DC: It’s not that you know it’s right, it’s that you’ve lost track of it because you’ve been working on it for so long. So usually for me it’s not actually a matter of “when it’s right I send it out,” it’s “when I have nothing left to give,” I send it out. And maybe someone will give me a note that reopens my eyes to something I haven’t seen. But I got a spec that I started writing 3 years ago. I wrote a full draft, rewrote it, put it away for a while, rewrote it again, put it away for a while, and wrote 60 brand new pages at the beginning of it to try to fix it. And it’s been sitting like that for a year. It’s still not ready to show to anybody. It’s never been exposed to producers or buyers or anybody.

FV: How do you approach the blank page? Where do you go to find inspiration?

DC: I watch recent movies that I like. I read a lot of comic books because to me it has the right combination of text and story-telling and visuals. If I’m writing a small character piece I could read fiction and be fine. But on Godzilla I wanted to always be thinking in giant, sweeping science fiction terms. So I was watching a lot of those types of movies. You know, I could be watching Star Trek and it would help me with Godzilla just because it put me in the right mindset of “the universe is yours to play with.” I watch a lot of Discovery channel stuff, History Channel and that always helps.

On Godzilla as an example and Doom I did this too. I watched a lot of nature documentaries because I felt like I’m writing about an animal; it’s just a giant animal. But if I can get some cool set pieces out of behavior that I see animals doing in the wild in the show, then I can maybe translate that into something. Just whatever’s appropriate. And then I read a lot. I’ll be reading fiction for the sake of constant creativity, but I also I feel like on everything I write there’s research I could be doing.

On the script that became The Expendables I read all about mercenaries. I read biographies of mercenaries and I read about first hand accounts of armed conflicts and things like that.  On Godzilla I read about the history of Godzilla, Godzilla’s history through film. But I also read a 600 page manual that is handed out to municipal areas, cities, counties, states, about disaster preparedness and how to react when a disaster does hit and how to make sure that you rebound from it. Because I was trying to tell the story from a perspective of Godzilla being treated as a disaster. So anything that I find appropriate I’ll read. Even if I don’t get a specific idea out of it creativity-wise, it gets me in the right mindset. I don’t want to be doing anything while I’m writing a script other than living in the world of the script. So if I’m not writing it and I turn around, I’m trying to spend time with my wife and have fun, but if I’m reading, I’mreading something that’s gonna help me in the right mindset, and if I’m watching something hopefully it’s gonna help me do that too.

Music by the way is also really inspiring to me. I don’t like writing to things with lyrics. When I first started writing I listened to classical music. Now what I do is I listen to scores of movies that are the right tone for what I’m doing. I listen to Clint Mansell almost religiously when I’m writing emotional scenes. I listen to The Fountain score. And when I’m writing intense, emotional action sequences, I listen to the 28 Weeks Later soundtrack. You know that? It’s got that crazy piece that just builds and builds and builds, and it’s pounding, but it’s not metal.  If I’m not in the mood and I play that really loud and close my eyes for 5 minutes and just listen to the piece I’ll get in the mood. It’s very helpful.

FV: What was the learning curve for you in terms of learning about Hollywood and about how Hollywood works?

DC: I think for me the curve of my career has been about learning how to play this game and being political. My writing has changed, but that’s been a real personal discovery, just how it goes. What I’ve realized is that there’s a lot more than the writing to getting jobs, to being a working writer. After you write the first draft, they’re going to give you notes that you’re probably not gonna like. And if you throw a tantrum you get a reputation. And once you get a reputation for being difficult, well there’s a million other writers out there.

I veered pretty close to that at times, being young, because I was 24 when I sold Horsemen, and just being sort of full of piss and vinegar I think in my earlier years I was hesitant to cooperate with people. And so I feel like something I’ve learned that’s been the most helpful for my curve has been learning how to play nice, learning that it’s all something that I have to be part of, they don’t have to offer me a job. If I want to win, it’s not just about the writing. I have to learn how to pitch, I have to learn how to take notes. I have to learn to open my process to a more collaborative effort. It’s a bigger picture than just the writing of a spec. It’s not just about me in the room with my script anymore.

The biggest challenge I think is swallowing your pride sometimes. Realizing that this is not just my script, it’s somebody else’s investment. So I have to do what they want. I haven’t always handled it well. 

FV: Do you take rewrite assignments?

DC: I’ve never taken a rewrite job. It’s not a hard and fast rule. If the right thing came along and I understood how to approach it, I would. But I don’t get sent them a lot anymore because I’ve never taken one. The times I am sent scripts, I look at them and I I almost always think “the script’s in pretty good shape. I don’t know what you want me to do here.” And I’ll get on the phone with them and hear them out, and they’ll always want to do some really crazy stuff that I strongly disagree with. And I’ll just say “I don’t want to do that.” I don’t want to do that to another writer, because it’s unnecessary. Some people will just do it cause it’s money. But I think what that is all about is a factor of the way that the business works, where sometimes if the script’s not going anywhere, a production company or a studio executive will be like “well let’s try something new, let’s just rewrite it.” But it’s not always because the script is broken. Sometimes it’s just not the right time for that script or whatever. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got to throw it all out. But people are really eager to change things around to validate their positions. I don’t think it’s a good idea. If I don’t see the idea, I just don’t do it.

FV: So any advice you’d give out to writers just starting out?

DC: Yeah, the only thing I ever tell people is to always be writing. Especially people that come out here and have other jobs, they will tell you that they don’t have time to write, but you always have time to write. And if you don’t have time to write you’re just not a writer. I really believe that. I think that if you’ve got a 14 hour job you can work for 2 hours. It doesn’t take that much to put together a script if every night you’re good about it. You’ve always gotta be writing. Because you’ve got to write a couple of things before you start to hit your stride. You’ve got to figure yourself out as a writer. So that’s really it. Outwork everybody, you know what I mean?

FV: Have a strong work ethic…

DC: You have to. Because there’s so many people who want to be screenwriters. And they’re all doing what you’re doing. So you’ve got to write more and you’ve got to study more.  After I wrote Doom I had a lunch with Leslie Strick. He wrote Cape Fear, and Arachnaphobia, and The Saint. He’s been around for a long time. He also rewrote Doom. His advice to me at the time was only take jobs that are going to get made. John August says this too on his blog. Pick jobs that are going to get made because those are the ones that will help you. It’s true, but it’s a hard thing to predict. Nobody knows what’s gonna get made. Horseman sat for five years until Dennis Quaid decided one day he wanted to do it. Expendables also sat for a while until Stallone picked it up. You just never know.

FV: What do you love most about being a writer?

DC: I love the lifestyle. I love the freedom. When I’m feeling it, I really like doing what I do for a living. I love creating stories. And I like that I have a job in which I’m making something, creating something. If I could make more money being a professional poker play I wouldn’t want to because all I’m doing is taking people’s money for a living. I like that for a living I’m building something from scratch. It’s not the cure for cancer. But at least I feel like I’m putting something into the world that wasn’t there before.  

FV: What do you hate most?

DC: I hate the solitude. I hate the blank page. By nature, because I don’t write with a team I have to be alone to write. I can’t be socializing, I can’t be in a public place or I can’t concentrate. So I have to isolate myself. 

FV: So you’re not one of those LA Starbucks writers?

DC: No. I wish I was, because I would like to be more social and I am a social person. It’s not my nature, I’m not a hermetic guy. So I hate that. I hate it when I have writers’ block. Like any writer does. It’s extremely painful. And I hate the uncertainty of being essentially a freelance worker. I have a lot of trouble, now that I’m married especially, and I feel a little bit more responsibility financially to provide for other people. You know I just had this big job and I did it and now I’m done. And now I don’t actually know when I’m going to work again. No matter who you are, you never know. That plays havoc with me.  

FV: Yeah, not much stability as a writer in Hollywood.

DC: Yeah, that’s what it is. I don’t like the lack of stability. Uncertainty.

FV: What or who is your biggest influence?

DC: I love reading biographies. I like reading about and learning about how other creative people got in and how they do what they do. But I don’t use it as an influence because it’s never the same story. It’s like everyone does it in a different way and it’s always cool to hear.  

I can tell you also what influenced me into a creative sphere at a young age was professional wrestling. I didn’t watch TV and I didn’t watch movies, but I watched professional wrestling. WWF wrestling, the ultimate warrior. Because at the end of the day that’s storytelling, and I just though it was the most awesome storytelling I had ever seen.  

FV: Favorite movie?

DC: My favorite movie is Big Trouble in Little China. 

FV: Any particular reason why it’s always stuck with you?

DC: No, I saw it as a kid and it spoke to everything I was into as a kid. I still love it. I’m not sure if it’s because of nostalgia. I’ve seen it several hundred times. I think it’s got everything that I’d want to see in a movie. I think my favorite movie, since I’ve become a writer, which is two different things I think, is probably Heat. From a storytelling perspective, that’s a movie where I watch and I admire the direction and the writing a lot.  

FV: And what’s next for Dave? Is it just all action all the time? Or go back to your comedy roots?

DC: I would like to try comedy again, but I think that it is the hardest writing. You have to be funny all the time. When I’m writing an action movie, if I’ve got a slow 20 pages I go “ok, well I’ll insert a car chase 50% through this. On page ten there’s gonna be a car chase.” And I can write it very well but it’s still just a car chase. If you are writing comedy and you don’t have any jokes for 20 minutes, and you need to put a joke in, you don’t get to just crib a joke from another movie. You have to come up with something original. Being funny on cue, you know, it’s hard.

So I would like to keep doing movies that follow in the footsteps of The Expendables and Godzilla, summer movies that a lot of people see. I enjoyed writing Horsemen and Telltale’s another one I wrote that was small, and is actually my favorite movie produced version of what I wrote. I enjoy the aspect of writing those a little more than the aspect of writing the big ones, but career wise my goal would be to be writing stuff that people see. 


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