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. 

The Interview: Cinequest Winner Rona Mark

Rona Mark’s resume is impressive. She earned an MFA in Filmmaking from Columbia University. She’s successfully navigated the festival circuit as a writer-director of features and shorts. And, she teaches screenwriting at Sarah Lawrence College. While Mark has about twenty features under her belt, it had been about a decade since she wrote her first teleplay. She returned to that format with the script “Brooklyn Bus.” It recently won the Cinequest Film Festival’s 60-Minute Teleplay contest, which I had the privilege of helping to judge again this year.

The story is set inside the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. The protagonist, Sam, who works for a volunteer ambulance service, has recently converted and finds himself with a foot in two worlds. I interviewed the Queens-based Mark via email about the idea for “Brooklyn Bus,” the advice she gives her screenwriting students, and getting her house in order.

Excerpt from Rona Mark's teleplay "Brooklyn Bus"

Synoptic Media: After such a long break from teleplays, what made you return to that format?

Rona Mark: I think the idea came to me as a TV idea, somehow. I have been watching a lot of TV series lately, and I like the fact that you can get deep into character in television. The germ for "Brooklyn Bus" came to me out of a character I met when I was doing my BA in Jerusalem. My roommate's hashish dealer was a Hasidic guy. So I asked him about it, how does a Hasidic guy become a drug dealer, and he told me that actually, he was a drug dealer that became a Hasidic guy. The Hasidim were trying to help him out of his drug habit and lifestyle, as religious people do. He was trying to lead a righteous life, but he wasn't really equipped to do anything else. The conflict seemed big enough to sustain an entire TV series.

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

Writer-Director Rona Mark

I think I submitted to the Final Draft competition and Cinequest. Because I'm not as confident writing in television format, I thought I'd enter a competition to get some feedback. I've been writing for a while, but I had not entered a screenwriting competition in several years. I usually enter these things (contests) impulsively and then instantly try to forget about them. Once I enter a competition or a festival, and the decision is out of my hands, I try and move on; start the next project.

Some of your classes cover specific topics such as structure and rewriting. When it comes to teaching screenwriting, what are some of the hardest lessons for students to learn?

My classes are generally full of first time screenwriters, so "show, don't tell" is still the toughest thing for many of them to grasp. Finding the behavior that dramatizes whatever the characters are going through is a skill that one masters over a lifetime, I think. Whenever a character starts explaining backstory or plot or motive, I usually interject with, "No explaining". Most of the problems I encounter structurally seem to come from not really committing to a clear, simple throughline for the film. For that reason, I find that making students work on a logline before they start writing is helpful. If a writer can distill the story into a concise logline or elevator pitch, then she knows what the film is really about.  

Whenever a character starts explaining backstory or plot or motive, I usually interject with, ‘No explaining’.
— Writer-Director Rona Mark, on evaluating her students' screenplays

You’ve written and directed several features and shorts. What lessons have you learned from the filmmaking process that inform how your own writing?

I learned that if I have an inkling that something could be cut in the script, I will end up cutting it in the editing room. So I try and edit down my screenplays ruthlessly before going into production. Screening a film with an audience is invaluable, in that you can literally feel a joke fail, or feel air get sucked out the room by a scene that lingers too long. I've also learned that producers will ALWAYS give you notes, usually wanting things that are implicit made explicit, and those explanations usually end up on the cutting room floor. Similarly, working with actors teaches you to hone the drama in a scene and trim the fat. Actors tend to get lost when the writing doesn't make sense, or when the dramatic juice of a scene is used up. Generally speaking, making films has made my writing more concise. I hope I've become a better editor of my own writing.

An excerpt from Rona Mark's teleplay "Brooklyn Bus"

Do you have a particular writing process or routine? 

I'm a person who likes to set deadlines for myself. I don't write every day but I do schedule my writing. I know I need long chunks of uninterrupted time to hammer out a first draft of anything. I let my husband know in advance that I plan to take x amount of days to write and then I kind of turn into Jack Nicholson in The Shining: "Wendy, let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you're breaking my concentration. You're distracting me. And it will then take me time to get back to where I was. You understand?" When I write I find it hard to do much of anything else, so I try and get my house in order first. I need a clean house before I can sit down and write. I can't have disorder or I can't think straight about my story. I also do my best work in the morning, so I try and write new stuff in the morning, then I like to print out my work and go over it with a red pen in the afternoon. I don't usually sit down to write until a story has been pretty well gestated in my head for a while. I usually know the main characters pretty well, the act breaks, the general idea for the resolution, and the midpoint at least, before I start.

The Interview: Cinequest Winner Rowan Meyer

The Cinequest Film Festival in Silicon Valley recently announced the winners of their screenwriting contests. I was privileged to serve again as a judge for the competitions. The winner of the 30-minute Teleplay category is “Patient” written by Rowan Meyer. “Patient” is about an actor who poses as a patient in a teaching hospital (it’s a real job). I interviewed the New York-based Meyer via email about where he got the idea for his winning script, how he tackled tone, and day jobs.

Synoptic Media: How many scripts have you written?

Meyer: I've written six episodes so far for my series "Patient", and a spec script for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine". I also have a bajillion sketches, a couple plays, and am working on a feature.

To how many contests did you submit this script?

I think about 8 or 9. Cinequest was the first, though. I'm waiting to hear back from the others which have summer notification dates, but I did recently find out that I'm a quarter-finalist for the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship.

Writer/Actor Meyer in action. Photo courtesy of Tim Liu.

How did you get started writing?

I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I didn't have money as a young kid to buy Christmas presents for my family so I would write stories on computer paper and bind them into a sort of book. It was cute at first, but now they still expect it, even in my 30s. The holidays are a busy writing time for me.

Your script is about an actor, Adrian, who poses as a patient at a teaching hospital—something called a Standardized Patient. How did you get the idea?

I graduated from Rutgers with a MFA in Acting, moved to New York, and started looking for a survival job. I am, however, the world's worst waiter, so wanted to find something more creative. A friend told me about an ongoing gig he had as a standardized patient, someone who pretends to take on illnesses to help train med students and new doctors. It sounded perfect. I was both a trained actor and had a degree in biology. How could I be any more qualified, thought I? Well, all the hospitals with SP programs that I applied to thought otherwise because I couldn't even get an interview. In the end I threw up my hands and said, "Fine! I'll just write it for myself, then! That'll show 'em!"

Excerpt from Meyer's script "Patient."

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Two days. Or, nights, rather. I do my best writing around 1:00 am.

What else is involved in your writing routine?

Can I let you know when I find a routine? I'd like to say it involves a steaming cup of Earl Gray and sitting at my reclaimed cherry wood desk for three hours a day... but usually it involves me sending a dozen emails to myself about lines or plot points I want to remember while waiting for the train or in line at Trader Joe's. Truly sitting down with the express intention to write is very difficult for me.

How did you learn the craft of screenwriting?

My only 'training' has simply been watching huge amounts of TV and film. Like digital osmosis. I've never taken a class, though I would like to this year. I did recently read "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder which has some pretty good advice on structure. It's a bit formulaic, but it's probably a good idea to at least learn the formula before deviating from it. In terms of formatting a script, I just picked it up from reading audition sides and Googling the rest. I'm no doubt breaking at least a dozen rules with every teleplay I write. favorite comedies always have some measure of darkness or underlying tragedy in them.
— Rowan Meyer, Writer/Actor

Your script is an interesting mix of drama and comedy. There's a scene in which the protagonist, playing a hospital patient, uses stage blood to make it look like he’s bleeding from his eyes. There's a scene in which he talks dirty to a vending machine. And there’s a scene in which he sings to an Alzheimer’s patient. How did you tackle tone?

I think "Patient" at its heart is a comedy, but my favorite comedies always have some measure of darkness or underlying tragedy in them. As any stand-up comedian will tell you, comedy comes from pain. Adrian, the protagonist, finds himself (and puts himself) in endless ridiculous situations which, incidentally, are a blast to write. But when you strip away the audience and force him into a vulnerable place, you see that the laughter is a mask for the ugly, complicated stuff underneath. That's just as interesting to me as, say, writing a botched three-way (spoiler: episode 3). 

Do you belong to a writers group or have friends who are fellow writers that you utilize for brainstorming or feedback?

I do know some top notch writers who - for some unknown reason - always let me send them my stuff. I'm very lucky in that regard. Writers groups are wonderful, but I find the idea of joining one to be intimidating. I should probably get over that.

Do you have a so-called day job that supports your creative pursuits? 

I've got two. One is a desk job, and I also get work through TaskRabbit, an app that outsources chores like furniture assembly and heavy lifting. I actually kind of enjoy doing that.