The Interview: Cinequest Winner Jeremy Rush

Jeremy Rush had an idea for a script simmering in his head for a few years. After working through his protagonist’s relatable inner struggles the idea became “Wheelman,” a feature-length script about a getaway car driver with a lot on his plate, including colleagues with questionable motives and a turbulent home life. The action-thriller recently won this year’s Cinequest Film Festival Screenplay Competition. I interviewed the Los Angeles-based Rush via email about his contest strategy, learning the craft, and car chases.

Synoptic Media:  How many script have you written? And, are they all feature-length scripts?

Jeremy Rush: I've written 7 completed feature screenplays, including “Wheelman,” two adaptations for novels I've optioned, as well as an original screenplay co-written with Steven Shibuya (who co-wrote “Sucker Punch” with Zack Snyder.) And I have a dozen treatments and outlines, including two one-hour television series ideas. I keep a spreadsheet of my screenplay ideas, with fields rating from 1-10 the level of my development for that idea, my interest in the idea, and projected commercial viability, as well as a working title, a logline, and a synopsis with notes and references/research. Right now that spreadsheet has 30 or 31 ideas. I hate forgetting ideas.

A spreadsheet sounds like a very Type A tool for a writer to employ. It’s like you’ve created your own little movie database! 

Excerpt from Jeremy Rush's screenplay "Wheelman"

Ha! You may be right. Early on in my endeavor to write I was very disorganized. I didn't really outline, plan rewrites, etc. I just jumped in and indulged in writing. About three years ago I decided I wanted to take writing really seriously in an effort to see if I could get better at it. Part of this effort was getting organized.

To how many contests did you submit the script “Wheelman?”   

I submitted “Wheelman” to four or five festivals and contests. Submitting to screenwriting competitions is a valuable part of my writing process. I have 6 or 8 competitions and festivals that I submit to for different purposes: #1, I have a schedule of contest deadlines and it forces me to complete drafts and submit throughout the year, #2 I submit to the contests that I've found provide the highest quality reader/judges feedback, which is invaluable for rewriting and charting progress, and #3, I submit to the contests that matter to the industry, so if one were to place in one of the top contests then some exposure and opportunities can follow. For instance, Wheelman placed as a "Top 50" semifinalist in Nicholl, and after the Nicholl notification email went out to the industry I received some interest from producers and representation. However, submitting with hopes to place or win is a very small part of the point, deadlines, and feedback are most important, for me.

You have experience directing and producing. How have those experiences affected your writing?  

Screenwriter Jeremy Rush. Photograph by Alex O. Gaynor

You've hit on the reason I started writing. Very early in my career, when I was just starting out, I had written and directed my first short film. This was IT for me: directing. The reason I moved to LA was to direct films. I was fortunate enough to speak with Joel Coen early on. I told him "I want to direct. What do I need to do to get into directing?" And he said, "If you want to direct, learn to write." So I started writing with the intention to get as good at writing as I could in order to direct. 

Do you have a so-called day job to support your creative endeavors (and your contest entry fees)?

I work freelance in production and post-production, generally trying to take lower responsibility roles so that when I wrap I can clock out, go home, and write. Contest entry fees get expensive if you submit to too many contests and without a plan. I used to submit to every contest and festival every time I finished a new draft. A "shotgun" approach—expensive and fruitless. Now I only submit to the six or so contests that I've found offer solid feedback that help me rewrite. 

How did you learn the craft?   

Reading. A few screenwriting books, but mostly articles, blogs, interviews, etc. And reading every screenplay I can find. Reading scripts is #1. And then, of course, writing a lot. The Scriptnotes podcast is also a regular staple in my weekly screenwriting diet. But, for me, 90% of learning craft, and staying current with it, comes from reading screenplays.

90% of learning craft, and staying current with it, comes from reading screenplays.
— Jeremy Rush, Screenwriter

Let’s talk about “Wheelman.” Your story’s protagonist is a getaway car driver in the middle of a job that is quickly spiraling out of control, putting himself and his family in danger. How did you come up with the idea?    

I love gritty car chase films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: “Bullitt,” “The French Connection,” “Duel,” “Taxi Driver”... I like tense action thrillers with car chases and shootouts. I have a passion for cars and performance driving. So these are things that are always on my mind. “Wheelman” really struck me as something I had to write once I came up with the character's struggle between his responsibilities as a father and his compulsion for getaway driving. I think it's a struggle we all have to some extent: how to balance our role as a parent, with our need to maintain and indulge our independence, our former pre-parent life, or our career, or an addiction, etc. Wheelman's struggle is like a gunslinger. The gun is an extension of the man—for the Wheelman "the car" is part of him. It's who he is. It's what he's best at. It's why he matters. And it what will destroy him. His question becomes: can he "lay the gun down," can he stop driving on these dangerous high risk jobs? Can he walk away from "who he is" for his family? These feel like important and pretty universal questions, a very cool character struggle, that happens to be hidden inside of an action thriller. 

Excerpt from Jeremy Rush's screenplay "Wheelman"

You mentioned using competition deadlines as part of your process. When you sit down to write, do you have a particular routine or process that works for you?

A process is exactly what I've been trying to develop for myself over the last few years. Probably like most writers, my daily routine mostly consists of trying to stay off the internet…and mostly failing. In thinking about wanting to do screenwriting as a profession, I know that I must have a repeatable process that I can superimpose over any writing project. Sitting down to write is about 50% of the overall process, for me. Getting the seed of an idea, and consciously noodling on it and keeping it present in my mind, usually while finishing or working on other stuff, is where my ideas start, and simmer into more developed ideas. “Wheelman,” as an abstract idea for a script, is something that was simmering in my head for a few years. Then the parts reveal themselves and the abstraction becomes a more fully formed idea ready to be explored in a more formal way.

I usually start with fairly disorganized notes and random ideas, notions for scenes or cool moments I want to have, character details, lines of dialogue, etc. all in a bullet point Word document. I usually start this list of random ideas and notes for a project as soon as the notion of the script occurs to me. So I may add random notes, intermittently, for years as the ideas simmers and develops. I often end up with a document that's 10 to 20 pages (and a couple times a 70 pager!).

Once I complete a first draft I do a polish and incorporate any notes or ideas I've had, rewrite remnants of old versions of the ideas out of it and update with the newest ideas. I have five or six colleagues who give fantastic notes, and who all have a different focus: some are plot hole detectives, some are character people, and some formatting and general editing proofreaders. I generally space out the feedback between rewrites and try to maximize each person's read and feedback. The contest submissions fit into this schedule as well, depending on the time of year and what festivals are accepting.