Ep11 – Writing Screenplay Adaptation with JoAnn Hess


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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.

Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we are live at Script Summit 2020, Script Summit 3, with Joan Hess, a fantastic screenwriter who’s very talented. She is here today, and she is going to talk with us about adaptations for intellectual property. Joan is actually a staff writer on We Fix Your Script, as well, and she has done a lot of stuff from producing screenwriting to even being a creative director on a production company. Joan, thank you so much for being with us.

Joan: It’s a pleasure, Geoffrey!

Geoffrey: We’ve got questions coming in from the community, as we are live at Script Summit this year:

Joaquin Hernandez: What if you decide to add a twist of fiction to the true story you’re trying to adapt? For example, ‘Adaptation’ by Charlie Kaufman.

Geoffrey: We all know that’s a great script with a unique story behind it.

Joan: Typically, you’re going to add some fiction in it, because when you’re doing a true story, it’s not really written at all for the big screen. You get a lot of notations and journals, and remember, this is not a documentary. You have to make so it’s interesting and impactful so that the protagonist is proactive in his/her story. You have to add a little fiction to the truth to make it interesting and visual.

Geoffrey: I think you’re absolutely right there. You have to write for the medium. It is not a documentary, we are not telling a true-life story here, it says in the title card “Based On.”

Joan: Which is usually [very little].

Geoffrey: For a reason. It should say, in actuality, “Loosely, Sort Of, Mostly, Kind Of Based On.”

Joan: Right!

Geoffrey: When I did the screenplay for Finding Nicole, which is a true-life story, I had everything from interviewing her, footage from court and prison, documents from the police department, and files being charged. I had my crazy serial killer wall going on with lines running everywhere. The material you get from a true-life source is well beyond just sitting with them at a table and getting a true-life story.

Joan: There’s two things I’m working on right now, with a producer out in LA. We’re working on a television series, and he was really keen because of the story and the murder that happened. But I said, “We need a lot more than just that one piece.” We have to bring in a whole half section of what’s going on. He needs to learn to divorce himself a little bit from what actually happened because he lived through it. We really need to build it and make it a lot more exciting with a lot more conflict that maybe didn’t exist in real life. You have to make that up, and sometimes you have to make up the characters to fill in those gaps that don’t really exist right now.

Geoffrey: That’s true. With Finding Nicole, I think I combined six characters into one because that’s just what you have to do. You have to meet the story needs, you want to honor the people involved, but you only have so much cast to work with. It comes down to, “How do I create this environment?” and part of our job is that we’re problem solvers. Screenwriters are the best problem solvers in the world.

You’re a really great person to ask this [next question] since you’re a professional V.O. artist.

Jeremy Span: What is some advice on adapting first-person narrated books. Like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is impossible to adapt because it’s a narrative coming from the first-person.

Joan: Yeah, they can be difficult. I’ll throw Dune in with that, too. It’s going to be really interesting on the new film that comes out because there’s so much in the characters’ heads. What a lot of writers do is they end up throwing in a lot of voice over, which is just boring as all else.

Geoffrey: It is, it’s easy and it’s boring.

Joan: You’re going to have to be tricky. What’s going on in this first-person narrative that I can bring out to make it more three-dimensional? Do I have to create, through this conversation, another character that this person is talking to? Do I need to develop a scenario to make the inner mind more external? There’s to have to be ways to bring out that mindset. Starship Troopers, they tried to do that because a lot of that book is internal. What they did is they turned it around and made it more military action with the bugs. They didn’t do a great job of it.

Geoffrey: It became a propaganda film. I think that was one of the big takeaways from that one.

Joan: It can be done. You’re going to be a lot more challenged to do it. But on the secondhand, you probably have a little bit more leeway in your creativity, which is nice. Because sometimes, with screenwriters, you can get locked into these books, but you still want to have your voice and creativity shown in it. These will give you those opportunities to be clever and have a unique take on it.

Geoffrey: I think it has to come down to the relationship you have with the client. If you’re adapting a novel, like I adapted a novel, and I had to adapt the religious version of Game of Thrones. It was a faith-based, sci-fi, supernatural, dystopian future, and it was cool stuff. There were tons of characters and the first thing I did was cut as many characters as I could. I wanted to have my voice in there so I asked the author if I could make a character. He was totally fine with it and that ended up being his favorite character because I got to really insert my voice in it. It comes down to, “what do you need to find to really make this thing sing?” How do you feel about that?

Joan: What I need to find in the book itself, or what I need to find with the client?

Geoffrey: Either way, do you look for something in particularly in the book that you’re like, “This is what I needed to really find my voice”?

Joan: Well no, you really have to start at, “Where’s the story and where do I go from there to build that story?” If this is all in their head, what is this story and what’s attracting you to this story? From there, how am I going to make it external and what elements to I have to bring in to keep that external? I always start with story.

Geoffrey: Very good.

Clint Ford: How do you approach a request from an adaptation that has already been done several times? For example, classis like ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Joan: Perfect, how many times has that been done? Like I said in the seminar, how many times has Shakespeare been done in a different way? Do you want to stick to the era and the way it’s completely written in the book? A Christmas Carol has been modernized; it’s been done from a female perspective.

Geoffrey: It’s been dark, it’s been really dark.

Joan: What attracts you to that particular book that you want to redo [a story] that’s been done so many times and what’s your unique twist on it? A Christmas Carol in a sci-fi futuristic mode, that’s something that’s never been done. What if Ebenezer Scrooge was actually from a different time period? Or the ghosts are? You have to look at what the basic story is and say, “how can I approach this from an angle that’s never been done before?” That’s what you’re going to do with the fairy tales. When Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters came out, I thought that was a really cool twist on the Hansel & Gretel storyline. Taking something that people are familiar with is the hook that gets them in the door, then you twist it on them and make it uniquely your own. It shows your expertise and skillset as a writer.

Geoffrey: That’s great. You can take it even further. You said Hansel & Gretel, I think of The Brothers Grimm. I thought that was a great idea to have the Brothers Grimm, who wrote the stories, let’s make up a story about them and what influenced those stories. Stuff like that. Can you take A Christmas Carol and make it a musical or a splatter film? Sure, you can do it. Would I watch it? Maybe, it depends on how good it is. Get creative with it. I look at Anna and the Apocalypse which is a zombie film, and there’s a million zombie films, but this is a musical zombie film. I thought, “this isn’t going to work,” and it works. Be creative with it, do something that somebody else hasn’t, make sure you dig in, and make sure you have the skill and talent to do it. It’s good advice, Joan.

Joaquin Hernandez: What is the first concept you thought of that became a screenplay?

Geoffrey: This isn’t really about adaptation, but they want to dig into a little bit about you.

Joan: The first one I came up with was, I can’t even remember the title because I’ve rewritten it so many times…it was a Hackers type story. What if hackers get into the system and screwup the planet? … and that was so many years ago, and it’s already been done. Now I’ve taken it in a different way, I actually rewrote that script and took it in a different way. We’re trying to see if we can get that made now.

Geoffrey: Oh, good for you! I cannibalized my first script, so there’s nothing left to make. I just took pieces of it and threw it into other stuff.

Christine Bar Tuyen: What if the author of the book being adapted wants to be involved in the writing of the script, even as a co-writer? Have you experienced that type of collaboration? If so, what is it like?

Geoffrey: Christine, if an author asks to do that, run! It’s an awful experience, but maybe you’ve had a better experience, Joan.

Joan: The Devil’s Dandruff is the first film of a four-part series that I worked on, and the producer actually wrote the books and lived the life-story. I had to take his book, There’s No Room for Jugglers in My Circus, and turn it into a screenplay. First of all, he had the foresight to understand that he didn’t know how to write screenplays, so he hired me to do it. He left a lot of the decision making to me, but in the same sense, there were things he absolutely insisted he wanted part of the story. Like I said in the seminar, make sure you know from the producer, or whoever’s hiring you, what are the plot points or characters that they absolutely want in. If you decide, when you’re adapting it, those don’t play a part then you’re going to end up rewriting.

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Joan: There was a character in the book that actually doesn’t appear until the third act, so I wrote him out. You don’t want a character to come out of nowhere in the third act.

Geoffrey: There’s no development there.

Joan: This was before I understood that you do an outline first and make sure they approve the outline before you write it. He said, “Where did this character go?” And I said, “Well, this character doesn’t show up until the third act.” And he said, “No, I want that character in.” Then I had to come up with, “how do I get him in the first act?” And that’s how we came in with building his world, because it’s a British gangster movie, and I’m an American female. It’s like Guy Ritchie, “A British gangster movie in South-London with all that kind of talk. It’s diabolical!” We created the overall world because we needed that anyway to tie in all four books. And that’s what the character is trying to do, he’s trying to get into this world. That way, I was able to bring that character and write him into the first act, and also twist it so that in the midpoint the protagonist actually causes him to be in jail when he meets him in the third act. Understand, from the writer’s perspective, what they want in there. But if they want to co-write it, yes, like Geoffrey said, run! It does not work.

Geoffrey: It doesn’t. Want to say it does, and then you hold hands, rainbows appear, and the walls become cotton candy where everything is great. It’s not, it’s like a nightmare. Because it turns into a power struggle. They’re hiring you, your job is to write this and honor their vision, but when they’re sitting over your shoulder every page watching you do it, you’re like “UGH!” I’ll give you an example, because I did this, I worked on a gig with a guy where I did his life story and he insisted he be on the project. I said I didn’t think it was a good idea, but he said we should, so I said fine. We did it under the understanding that I would teach him how to write a screenplay, because I’m a screenwriting instructor and I mentor students. I thought fine, we’ll make a class and at the same time I’m writing the guy’s story. I think we got ten pages in and he’s like, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” And I’m like, “this is the first draft of the first ten pages, so it’s not going to be great. I’m just teaching you how to do it.” And he’s like, “I’m kind of losing confidence in the project.” Dude, we haven’t even gotten there yet, this is the first draft, the magic is in the rewrite, anyway. I wouldn’t do that again and I would love to save you from that harm.

Joan: Let me give you a different perspective, just for two seconds. As a creative executive for a film production company, I actually have to work with the other writers, the scripts, and products. Sometimes we bring in a script that another writer has done but they don’t have the skills. It’s given to me to make it so that it is a visual product, that it’s worthy to be filmed. The producer actually becomes the liaison, they buy the property from them. If a writer comes on as an associate producer, they do get to read it and have some input, but I get the final say and the producer/CEO gets the final say.

Geoffrey: That’s so important.

Joan: They can’t come in and say, “I don’t like this piece, it really should be this and this.” We start sighting off, “That’s going to be more camera angles, more dollies, more expense, and more budget.” They don’t understand, all the time, what it takes and what it costs to put that onto film. They want the world and they want their thing to be exactly like the book because the original property was their art. Now it’s being transformed into a different art, so they have to understand there’s a difference.

Geoffrey: Having that liaison is fantastic.

Steve Hartman: What rights do you need to get if you’re writing about public figures? For example, Dick Cheney, would you need life rights?

Geoffrey: That’s an interesting question.

Joan: Yeah, because it’s a public figure.

Geoffrey: It’s tricky.

Joan: That is tricky because if you can get your materials through third party, I think you’re able to write that. Like through interviews. But remember, anything on camera interviewed, that could be owned by the media company.

Geoffrey: You might need an entertainment lawyer involved at a certain point.

Joan: I would get an entertainment lawyer involved before I wrote one word.

Geoffrey: I agree. The thing is, even if you’re going to write about a historical figure, some historical figures have estates, and those estates own those life rights. When you’re thinking, “Oh I’m going to write about Hemmingway.”

Joan: Yeah, don’t touch Hemmingway.

Geoffrey: Yeah, because then his estate says, “Hey buddy, here’s your cease and desist.” Then you’re out time and whatever money you spent. It’s tricky, man.

Aaron Lieban: How does one know how far they can stray from the original while still being considered “Based On”?

Geoffrey: I think we touched on this a little bit.

Joan: It’s that balance I was talking about. You’re using this adaptation, you’re buying/optioning this IP, because there’s a following, hopefully, to the book. The whole benefit that producers and filmmakers have on using IP is getting that audience and those butts in the theater.

Geoffrey: Or those butts on their couches.

Joan: There’s something that attracted you to that book, so you don’t want to stray beyond at least that point and you want to satisfy what you think the audience is going to accept versus your take on it.

Geoffrey: I think you’re absolutely right. That’s one of the strengths about the faith-based niche. When you look at faith-based stuff, a lot of it is true-life stories that have been adapted. They have a following, they wrote the book, it was huge in the faith-based community, then it gets optioned, and they make a movie out of it. Usually the movies are a couple of million, they’re not going crazy, but they’re doubling or tripling their money. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of that stuff because they’re leveraging the community. That’s really what it is, it’s what Joan’s talking about.

Joan: If you want really to change it so much, why are you using that? If you’re going so far into fiction, why are you using that book or that IP, to begin with? Just write your own thing.

Geoffrey: That’s a tough balance, definitely if you’re coming in with a true-life story. If you’re working on a classic tale, that’s different, you can go out and do your Snow White and the Huntsman… Didn’t that guy win PAGE or something?

Joan: Yes, he did.

Geoffrey: There you go, that guy did exactly what Joan was talking about with the little twist, and BOOM! It got made with Chris Hemsworth.

Question: How helpful are visual motifs to a scripted narrative?

Geoffrey: This is a visual medium, so yes, they’re very important. Joan, what do you think?

Joan: They’re essential, I don’t see how you could get away with writing a script without them.

Geoffrey: I think one of the big issues here, and I’ll bounce this off of you, is with a lot of indie productions, budget is always an issue. And they’re talkie. There’s long exposition, we’ve got people saying their feelings, we’re not too heavy on the visual subtext. Is it because they’re a writer-director? Is it an issue of budget or location? More than likely, the answer to all of those questions is yes. But does that mean they’re doing it right? I don’t think so, what is your opinion on that?

Joan: Absolutely not. You’ve seen scenes where you have two people in a room and it’s just mesmerizing. Take the seen of the bad guy in the Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men, he’s literally in a gas station talking to one other guy. That scene oozes with grit.

Geoffrey: Yeah, that’s a great scene!

Joan: They’re just talking but they’re not saying, especially the bad guy…

Geoffrey: He’s saying two or three things at once. That’s great subtext there. He’s not overtalking. It’s great, it’s a really good scene. They gave the actor plenty of scene to chew on without having to feed him a ton of dialogue. So I think you’re absolutely right.

Joan: And how much budget was that? It was one room that they’re working in. I’ve seen contained work where people are in the room. Look at Cube, that was relatively contained.

Geoffrey: Oh yeah, and it was brilliant.

Joan: Keep it visual, keep it subtextual, and really work at your dialogue. If you’re explaining things, which sometimes you have to, like in sci-fi at the beginning. But after a while, people are just going to tune it out and it becomes white noise. It’s not interesting.

Geoffrey: I think you’re 100% right, subtext is key. You’ve got to have dialogue where you’re saying two or three things at the same time, and relaying theme, character/intercharacter relationships, all of that with simple dialogue. It’s so hard but it deepens your script significantly.

Joan: It’s subtext through the visual, too.

Geoffrey: Absolutely, the visual subtext.

Joan: Somebody is talking about one thing and doing something else. Now you’ve got that audience’s attention. Why are they doing this? What’s going on here? Why am I talking about pictures on the wall? Through the pictures, you can see that this guy was Stasi in Eastern Europe, where nobody has to say he was Stasi. You’re the creator of this world, use all parts of it. You don’t to have big explosions and huge budgets or set pieces to make the point.

Geoffrey: With visual subtext, it’s more than just explaining who they are and stuff like that. Visual subtext is a great way to explain their internal conflict. You can explain what’s going on with the history of the world, like A Quiet Place, in the intro to that movie they don’t tell you what’s going on. You see the family walk through the town and the town is dilapidated and abandoned. Then some newspapers float by and you see headlines, so through the headlines you see what’s happened. That’s one way of doing visual narrative, explaining the history of the world. But you can do visual narrative through visual subtext of what the characters’ feeling. I love that, that’s some of my favorite writing to do. I’m sure that’s something that you do as well.

Joan: Absolutely. To go back to that other question about the first-person book, there’s a perfect example of how to do it. Through visual subtext you can get into the head of the protagonist. Now it’s not in the head anymore, it’s visually shown. It’s another way to do it.

Geoffrey: I love in Passengers, Stockholm syndrome aside, in Passengers you’ve got Chris Pratt’s character and Jennifer Lawrence. He wakes her up, they’re stuck together, and she falls in love with him because, basically, she’s psychologically broken. But before he wakes her up, he goes out on the bow of the ship and he looks out into space. I love this, this is the most clear and obvious example I could give, but it’s just him on this ship. Then they pan out and you see the endless void of space. It’s showing that not only is he the only guy on that ship, but he’s the loneliest guy in the universe. That is great visual subtext, that is our job. The people watching the film don’t think to themselves, “Oh, he’s so lonely,” they think, “Isn’t that pretty?” But in their minds, subconsciously…

Joan: Sometimes these things are just not completely obvious at first glance. That’s kind of the point, because you feel something. The whole thing about film is to get an emotional response from the audience. So they can’t necessarily put it into words, but they’re actually feeling something at that moment. Then you know you’ve got them and you locked them in.

Geoffrey: Exactly, I agree with you 100%. This next question might be another case of “get a lawyer,” but I’ll throw it at you anyway.

Steve Hartman: How do life rights work with other people in a story?

Joan: You have to get everybody’s permission.

Geoffrey: Even the wife of the guy you’re writing about.

Joan: I went to a seminar with Gordon Firemark. If you have an opportunity, you can go on gordonfiremark.com, he’s an entertainment attorney in LA, and he’s got a whole blog that talks about a lot of the legal stuff. He said they had a client that got into trouble because he wrote a story that was kind of based on his life and other people recognized themselves in the story. They sued and they won. It wasn’t even them, but they just saw part of them [in the characters]. It wasn’t a biography, a documentary, or anything like that.

Geoffrey: You know who got bankrupted from that? Todd MacFarlane got bankrupted

from that. He did Spawn, he wrote the Spawn comic books and it was doing well, they made IP from that. He put his old college roommate in the comic book to honor him. The college roommate sued him, and Image went under right after that. You’ve got to be careful. You think you’re honoring somebody, like a good friend that you love, you put them in your book because, what else can you do? Well maybe they need some cash and you’re doing pretty well, so just don’t do it.

Joan: People want to write their life story, so they trash their sister, but you need permission from everyone in the family. If one person says no, either kick them out of the story…

Geoffrey: Or change names, things like that.

Joan: Gordon said this, “If they can recognize themselves, even as a character not by the same name, they do have rights.” That’s why the life-story stuff is really tough.

Geoffrey: It’s tricky. But there is a niche for it. There’s a demand for it. If you can get around it, it’s a great opportunity to grab work. You’re going to run into some vanity projects, you’re going to get people that want you to write their life-story because they think it’s interesting…Nobody’s life is more interesting than anybody else’s. We all live the human experience, and the human experience is tough on anybody. When somebody runs up to you and says, “I want you to write my story because it’s so interesting,” then you say, “yeah great, here’s my rate,” they say, “Oh no, we’ll do it on deferred because this is so good.”

Joan: This kind of happened and I just want to bring it to everybody’s attention. Because I do want everybody to be careful. Red flags came up for me because I have a little bit more experience. When you see something and it doesn’t fit quite right, then you know to ask questions or back off. Somebody came to me, said they had a financer who had 3-4 books that they wanted to put into scripts, and they were going to pay double WGA.

Geoffrey: What?

Joan: I know, what does that mean? Looking into it further, they throw these numbers at you so you get stars in your eyes.

Geoffrey: It sounds like a hustle.

Joan: It was a hustle. To me, if somebody’s financing it, then they have the money. Later on, you find out you don’t get paid until they sell it to a studio. Well that could be forever. When you’re doing these books, there’s all this IP, you have to read and go through and do your highlighting, and you have to figure out where the story is. He wanted it in 90 days, that’s three months of my life and then I don’t know what happens next.

Geoffrey: And how many gigs are you losing on that? You’re wasting your time and your losing money on this guy. We’ll finish up soon because I have another seminar I need to get to. I wanted to mention this real quick because I think you’ll get a kick out of it. One of the first adaptation gigs I got from a guy was an online gig and I competed with over 100 other screenwriters. I got the gig, he sends me the book, I start reading the book, and lead character’s name in the book is Mel Gibson. The first scene in the book is straight out of Lethal Weapon. It’s a boat scene where he drives a boat right onto land through a house. It’s like Lethal Weapon 2 or something, and his “nickname” is Mel Gibson. His real name is something else, but everybody calls him Mel. This book was terrible, and it was the same thing of, “I’ve got a $2 million budget, we’re going to do all this.” I’m like, “where’s the proof?” and he says, “it’s there, trust me.” Obviously, I’m not going to do the gig, but I get interested and this is where you should do your homework, folks. The power of Google. I go on Google, look this guy up, and found out he travels the country going to faith-based tent gigs where he does book signings as a Purple Heart award-winning author. Turns out he never served, so he was posing as a Purple Heart veteran, and he was leveraging that to sell his books, which were rip-offs of Lethal Weapon. Shane Black, at least that’s a great writer, so if you’re going to rip somebody off. On top of that, he had the audacity to try and hire a screenwriter on a deferred basis. Because then when he goes to sell his books, he can say these are being adapted into a screenplay, and the hustle continues. Do your homework, folks. Make sure who you’re working with is legitimate. If you have anything else you want to add on, Joan, please do and then we’re going to sign off.

Joan: Just on that, Being John Malkovich did do well, but [because] you got John Malkovich. It wasn’t really his life but it’s an interesting concept, and he’s wacky enough that it worked. But for doing your due diligence, you have Google and IMDb. Really, if you are a professional, IMDb Pro is $150 a year.

Geoffrey: It’s worth it.

Joan: It’s no money, especially when you want to go out and try to solicit/query producers, sell your product, meet people, and network, it has a plethora of information.

Geoffrey: It’s good.

Joan: You should definitely have that in your back pocket.

Geoffrey: If somebody’s not on there, they’re not on there for a reason, which should tell you something. If you’re afraid of spending $150, if you’re a screenwriter, that’s a tax write-off. If you buy Final Draft or Writer Duet, which is one of our sponsors, that’s a tax write-off. If you’re a screenwriter and you watch movies on Netflix, guess what? That’s a tax write-off. You’re damn-well right I write-off my Netflix.

Joan: That’s right!

Geoffrey: Alright Joan, I’ve got to tell you, I really appreciate having you on. I know this was your first time with us on the podcast, and we will definitely be bringing you back, because you are an incredible resource and mentor to other screenwriters. I just wanted to say thank you.

Joan: Thank you!

Geoffrey: Okay, see ya!

Joan: Take care, everyone!



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