Ep9 – What Attracts Hollywood Talent to a Screenplay Featuring Kevin Sorbo


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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 have on a very special guest, the legend himself, Kevin Sorbo. Kevin, thank you for joining us.

Kevin: It’s a pleasure to be here, thanks for having me!

Geoffrey: I wanted to reach out to an established actor, like yourself, to really find out what draws talent into a script. What grabs you in particular? I was wondering if I could pick your brain for a little bit about that.

Kevin: It’s a good question but it’s kind of a hard question to answer because it’s a preference for any actor based on the scripts they get. I get a lot of scripts and I give each script twenty pages. My likes shift and change, as well, I tend to like movies that have a good message in them. I’ve done over 60 movies and there’s probably a dozen I wish I didn’t do, but you don’t go in thinking this movie is going to suck. It could’ve been the acting, writing, editing, or directing, there’s a number of things that ultimately can make a movie bad. It’s hard to say, I certainly like the Sci-fi world, I like the fantasy world, I like movies that have a good positive message. Something with a good moral base, it doesn’t have to be a faith-based movie, it’s just something with a message. There’s so much stuff coming out of Hollywood right now through cable and through networks that, to me, just put out so much hate and anger. And we have enough of that going on right now with our real lives. I want to escape all this hate and anger we’re living right now, and I want to get to a place where people say there is some hope out there.

Geoffrey: I think you’re right. I think the film industry is going to go there. We were kind of obsessed with the world-destroying stuff until the world started to get destroyed. I think now we’re going to start leaning into more positive outlook films that make you feel good: comedies and romantic stuff, etc.

Kevin: Look at World War II for instance, while all that was going on, Hollywood was doing a lot of song and dance films that more of a positive and hopeful message.

Geoffrey: You’re definitely going to see a shift. You’ve done a lot of stuff like that,

Andromeda had some great writing on it and Hercules, of course, is a classic. It’s good to see that that type of writing grabs you. Are you looking at characters per se when you’re reading a script? Or are you looking for a character that has a bit more wit or clever dialogue, or just really layered that has depth to them?

Kevin: I like the comedic level. On Hercules and Andromeda, I adlibbed a lot. There were a lot of things where, the writers for Hercules were in Los Angeles and we were in New Zealand, so they’re 9,000 miles away. I kept an open dialogue with them all the time, because I would always stay two scripts ahead of what we were filming so I could call and ask questions about it. If thinks didn’t make sense to me, I always asked for clarification, “It’s not changing what you’re saying, but what if I said it this way instead?” I get everybody’s touchy about stuff and I don’t want to step on people’s toes, but when we adlibbed on Hercules, a lot of times it was in places where it could certainly be edited out. There’s a line I did that got 20 million hits where I yell that I’m disappointed and a lot of people think the writers had written me to say another line with parenthesis around it to say it in a disappointing way. Here’s what happened, the character was a sovereign who was an alter ego of Hercules from a bilateral universe, and I end up in Hercules’s world with a goatee and a mustache. I say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t my world.” And for whatever reason, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda popped into my head and I yelled, “DISAPPOINTED!” They kept it in there and it’s become a massive meme, which is hilarious.

Geoffrey: That’s fantastic!

Kevin: I’ve met people at comic-con that have it on their iPhones, like when their wife or girlfriend calls, as their ringtone.

Geoffrey: That’s great! To break into pop culture like that is just absolutely amazing. And to know you actually adlibbed that and weren’t just reading the parenthetical, I had no idea. It’s great to get tidbits like this.

Kevin: Every comic con I go to with Q&As and hundreds of fans, that question is always asked. I love the story, so I don’t get tired of answering it.

Geoffrey: Obviously, you’re a pop culture icon. Plus, on top of that, you’re breaking into the meme world. That’s like two for one, who can say that? With the dialogue, do you find working with writers difficult? Do they not want you to change and adlib, or are they pretty good with it?

Kevin: They’re pretty good with it. I could tell the writers on Hercules and Andromeda all started saying, “I bet Sorbo will say this.” They would throw things in. There’s a couple things in Andromeda where every act out, if it’s not comedic, it’s something like 400 ships have just come in front of my ship. I just started saying two things, “It’s never easy,” or, “great.” And then they started putting those in the tag outs before they’d go to commercial. If the writer is on set during rehearsal and we’re blocking a scene, we’ll say, “wouldn’t it be cool if we said something like this? Because we’ve got this prop there.” These things would be worked in. It got to a point where, as long as it didn’t change the idea, they were fine with it. One guy who was really picky about his writing was Steven Canal. I did a guest-spot on The Commish before he died from skin cancer, and I was supposed to do his next series. I was really bummed out, it was called The Other Woman, and it was another detective where I lived on a boat in the marina and the boat was called “The Other Woman.” It had a great twist to it, and I was so depressed. I had wonderful meetings with him, he was a guy that did Baretta and Rockford Files before he died. I did a guest-spot on The Commish, and I had flipped the words in one sentence and the continuity just went, “wait, he said it this way. Call Steven and see if it’s okay.” I assumed it was the same thing, but they said we better call him. Why call him in LA? We’re shooting in Vancouver, why don’t we just run it and do it again? I didn’t change it on purpose. I offered to say it the way it was written. They shut down the set for half an hour trying to reach him. I thought that was the stupidest thing. Then they come back and say Steven wants me to say it the way it was written. Well, I could’ve saved them thirty minutes.

Geoffrey: You could’ve just done another take.

Kevin: When I direct, I go quick. I walk up to first time directors that you have to work 14-hour days, and I’ll whisper in their ear, “Clint Eastwood does Academy Award-winning movies and he shoots 8-hour days, just so you know.”

Geoffrey: Were you pulling 14-hour days when you were on shows like that?

Kevin: On Hercules, it was 12-14 hours every day for me, then another half hour lifting weights. A very typical day door-to-door for me was anywhere from 16-18 hours a day.

Geoffrey: When it comes down to things like that, you probably don’t want a ton of dialogue that you have to memorize, do you?

Kevin: If it writes well for my brain, if it flows well, then I can memorize it pretty easily. On Andromeda, Alexa got all the tough dialogue. We have some great outtakes of her…she’d be like ‘F this’ and it’s hilarious. If I flub, I don’t want to cut, I’ll say go back and then I can get right back into it. Editing will take care of that because a lot of times you cut and then the DP comes in and must relight the whole bit. For me, you lose that spontaneity and energy a bit. Every time I screw up a line, I’ll say, “I’ve got it! Just back up to first position!” For me, it just keeps the energy going much better than cutting and everyone goes to craft services and eats more crap.

Geoffrey: For free, that’s the best part. If I have an actor and I’m working on a script, I try to write toward their voice. And it sounds like the approach you take because you’re going to put your voice in it, no matter what. Have you worked with a writer that has tried to work toward your voice to make your job easier?

Kevin: Certainly! I’ve got two scripts that just came to me where [the writers] said, “When I wrote this, I wrote this with you in mind.” I probably get 20 of those a year. I can’t do everything, I’ve got my own production company, Sorbo Family Films. I’ve probably read over 500 scripts through the years and whittled down to 25 that I want to do. I just my most recent one, Miracle in East Texas, which I directed, as well. It’s a true story set in 1930. I make movies in the $3-4 million range, which is [the equivalent of] catering on Pirates of the Caribbean. People think that’s a lot of money, but it’s so hard to raise even that kind of money. Yet those movies in that budget range have a heck of a lot better chance of getting their money back for the investors. As opposed to films with a $15-20 million budget, where they have a proper P&A budget to it, but they have to make $50-60 million at the box office to break even.

Geoffrey: I think you’re going to see a lot more of these $3-4 million movies come out and hopefully keep the quality up. What attracted you to that script then?

Kevin: It had a great story and a great writer. Dan Gordon is an Academy-nominated writer for The Hurricane, which he wrote for Denzel Washington. He wrote Wyatt Earp for Kevin Costner, and 60 episodes of Highway to Heaven with Michael Landon, he was the showrunner. He rewrote the script that my wife wrote called Let There Be Light, which was in theaters a couple of years ago. We shot that for $2.3 million and theatrically it made $7.5 million [at the box office] with very little P&A money on it. Sony wanted to come in and get it on 2,000 screens and my only investor, who’s new to the business, he said, “What does that mean to me?” It means they’re last money in and first money out, so he said no because he didn’t understand. If we would’ve allowed me to do that, he gets it now a year and a half later, but if he had just taken the call and let them talk to him, then we could’ve gotten 2,000 screens. That little $2.3 million movie would’ve made $25-30 million.

Geoffrey: Easily.

Kevin: I have no doubt in my mind. We got a great deal from Amazon and film still did well, but it’s a great story. We had 10 film festivals with Miracle in East Texas, it was going to open in theaters this summer, but then COVID killed everything for everybody. It won everything from Best Romantic Comedy, Best Faith-Based Film, Best Judged Film, and Audience Favorite. It was a Green Book or Blind Side type of movie where everybody would just enjoy the movie. I love that it was a true story, set in 1930 about two conmen who would woo widows out of their money with fake oil wells in Texas. They actually strike oil in Killgore, Texas and end up going to jail because everywhere they went to con these widows, they would sell 500% of the shares even though it was just a big con game. Louis Gossett Jr. is in it, he’s amazing. John Ratzenberger plays a conman with me. Tyler Mane plays a lead role and he’s Sabertooth in the X-Men, WWF as well. We shot in Calgary, which is the same location they filmed Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood, Lonesome Dove, and The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio. It was just a great location, it was awesome.

Geoffrey: So you’re looking at scripts more than just as an actor would, because you’re also coming at it from a director’s and a producer’s perspective, as well.

Kevin: I’m doing more of that now. I started directing back on Hercules, actually.

Geoffrey: Oh really?!

Kevin: Yeah, I’ve been DJ now for 25 years and I’ve been SAG for 35 years. I loved the series, I miss New Zealand, which was fantastic, it was a great chapter of my life. I worked with wonderful people. Peter Jackson ended up taking most of my crew for Lord of the Rings.

Geoffrey: Is that right?

Kevin: Oh yeah. John Mahaffey went to direct a lot Second Unit stuff, like on Aquaman, Spiderman, and James Bond. Peter MacHaffrey was ranked as the Top Two Steadicam Operator in the world. Milo Dixon, our wardrobe, won an Academy Award for Lord of the Rings. We had a great talent pool down there.

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Geoffrey: Sounds like it was a big launching pad for a lot of big careers.

Kevin: Oh no question. They had all that talent before we came down. And we had two spin-off shows. We spun off my series Xena in season 3, and Young Hercules in season 5. A lot of people don’t remember who played that role because it only lasted two seasons. Do you know who that was?

Geoffrey: No, you got me.

Kevin: Who played Hercules, me, as a teenager? A little skinny scrawny 20-year-old named Ryan Gosling.

Geoffrey: Oh! How about that? Oh my goodness, I would not have caught that. That’s fantastic! When I think about Hercules, I think about the character traits you brought to him. He was very relatable, even though he was a god. Even with the first scene where you see him knock out a giant and he has this wit about him, you just embody the character. I can see how [someone] sitting down writing that, hoping that the talent nails it. But you got it and you brought that charisma to the character while keeping him grounded, which is not an easy thing to do. You’re able to encompass that in the roles you take on, which is fantastic.

Kevin: Thank you! We did five 2-hour movies before it became a 1-hour series, and it was a full year for the five movies with 10-week shoots for all of them. Anthony Quinn played Zeus, so I got to work with a class act like him. With the very first movie, Hercules and the Amazon Women, there was a bit that felt a little too real. So I called our executive producer Sam Raimi and said, “Sam, you’re known for your campiness and humor.” I love humor, I’m a smartass who grew up with three brothers being all sarcastic with each other back in Minnesota. So I said, “We don’t want people to laugh at us, we want people to laugh with us.” That was something fans loved about the show; very comic con I go to, I have fans saying it looked like we had so much fun doing that show and we did. At that time, before all the reality TV kicked in, we filmed all the BTS stuff with rehearsals and we gave that to fans through a DVD. People really got a kick out of our rehearsals and how funny our crew was. We had a blast every day. I know sometimes it seems like it goes so slow or so fast, but those seven years just flew by. It was an amazing chapter in my life and I just had so much fun doing it. That makes all the difference in the world, when you’re able to have fun with it, and I love that they wrote dramatic episodes with dramatic moments, but they always put in good humor. The fight scenes were always really well choreographed. One of the stunt guys, who was 19 when he started out, was Ben Cook and now he’s Daniel Craig’s body-double for all the stunts in James Bond. Peter Bell, our choreographer, would let me [try different things]. We rehearsed fights every day because we shot 3 fights every episode. But the other 7 days we’re on set, we’re rehearsing off-camera with all the stunt guys. Then I’d have to run and go do a romantic scene, then come back and do another rehearsal. I love that Peter would show me a kick and he’d say, “You’re going to kick this guy’s sword and it’s gonna go flying.” I said to him, “If you do a second unit shot of that sword going through the air as he’s getting back up again, it can hit him and knock him back in the cowpie.” So that became a normal thing, to constantly make funny things out of the fight scenes.

Geoffrey: I love the balance of comedy, action, and drama. I think that’s a good formula to keep the audience engaged. If a script’s just one tone, it gets really boring and you don’t want to read it anymore. You keep investing in different types of conflict like that.

Kevin: You know you’ve got something good when [ratings are consistent]. In our third year, we released Xena. At the same time, another female show came out called Sheena, and Conan, and Robin Hood, and Tarzan, and Sinbad. All these shows were copying what we had going, but we passed Baywatch in that same year as the most watched show in the world.

Geoffrey: And that’s crazy because Baywatch was huge, everybody watched that show.

Kevin: I mean, we had a lot of cleavage in my show, too. We called it Baywatch B.C.

Geoffrey: People were watching it for the storylines. I don’t want to take too much of your time away here. So overall, what you’re looking for in a script is a story that grabs you and a character that’s relatable with a little bit of wit. What tips could you give a writer out there that is trying to grab talent, whether it’s through packaging or querying, anything like that?

Kevin: I’m not a writer, I wrote one episode of Hercules and I got to direct, it was brutal. It’s not an easy thing to do to look at a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen. I think writers should write what interests them, there’s always going to be someone else interested. I think the most important thing is, once your script is done, you find a group of actors to read it out loud. Because a lot of times you’re writing at three in the morning in your cubby hole.

Geoffrey: Yeah, a table read.

Kevin: Read it out loud so you hear the voices from other people and how they’re reading it, as well. I think that’s where a lot of holes can be found. I’m good at looking at each scene and pointing out what’s missing or what needs to be taken out, as opposed to some people who just look at the script and say 1-2-3, I’m more of a microscopic guy.

Geoffrey: You zone in on it.

Kevin: Because you rarely shoot anything in order, but I’m very good at making notes. I need the script, I don’t mind reading the first draft on a computer, but I need the script to make notes and write things. Because when I go in to do a scene, I’ll look at the previous scene I may have shot ten days ago to determine where my mindset is. Most scenes, for actors, are broken down into two categories: it’s either a power scene or a love scene.

Geoffrey: Interesting.

Kevin: A love scene can just be where you’re trying to get something from someone. But a power scene is a whole different play, where it’s about taking control. I just got an audition scene right now; they want me to audition for The Boys.

Geoffrey: Oh my god! Break a leg!

Kevin: Thanks! It’ll be interesting if I get the role because the main scenes I have are with Karl Urban, who started out on Hercules.

Geoffrey: Oh yeah!

Kevin: Yeah, it all started on Hercules, and some Xena episodes. Then he got a nice little part on Lord of the Rings and it launched his career. I bump into him once or twice a year in different places.

Geoffrey: That’s so cool. I hope it goes well and I have no doubt you’ll land a gig like that. You’re pretty amazing. What have you got going on right now? I know you talked about Miracle in East Texas, but you have some docs coming out, don’t you?

Kevin: I have a documentary out right now called Before the Wrath, which people should check out. It’s a very interesting look at the book of Revelations. You don’t have to be Christian; you can be agnostic or a believer. But if I had a billion dollars to make a movie of the book of Revelations, it’d be an amazing movie. If you’ve never read that chapter of the bible, oh my god, the creatures in there would scare the hell out of you. That’s out right now, it’s the number one documentary on Amazon. Then I’ve got one coming out September 24th, next Thursday, called Climate Hustle 2 and it’s a flipside look at climate change. I’m just the narrator, they brought me in to narrate because apparently, they like my voice. It’s interesting because most of the time I’ve just heard one side of the issue, but I’ll watch both sides of the issue. I’ll watch BBC, CNN, Fox, I’ve watched everything because it seems to me like all these news stations have different points of view. You can decide what you want to believe.

Geoffrey: When I was in London, I was watching the BBC and it’s a completely different take on the news.

Kevin: I know, it’s completely different. Then I’ve got another movie coming out called The Mustard Seed. It’s about a girl whose got cancer, it’s a pretty heavy script. I shot it with Peter Coyote and Mira Sorvino. I just finished shooting eight episodes of a comedy series based on a pilot I did two years ago that got picked up. I just got back because I live in Florida now, I left California almost two years ago. We shot eight episodes, it’s called The Potwins, it’s sort of like Last Man Standing meets Family Ties. Barry Bostwick is in it, he was the mayor in Spin City with Michael J. Fox. He plays my hippie pot-smoking father, it’s pretty funny.

Geoffrey: I’m glad you’re not in California right now considering it’s on fire.

Kevin: I was going to leave years ago. I did 64 movies after I finished Andromeda and I would say 55 were shot in Texas or further east. I looked to my wife and said, “Why are we dealing with the traffic, fires, taxes, and general craziness of that state? I don’t need to be here.” I saved 13% of every dollar by moving here.

Geoffrey: You gotta do what you gotta do. There’s been a mass exodus from California, actually.

Kevin: 200 people a day out of LA-County, alone.

Geoffrey: Is that right? Wow, that is something. I gotta tell you, you’re probably one of the hardest working people in Hollywood right now. You’re definitely one of the hardest working actors in Florida.

Kevin: I keep it busy. I just funded my next movie, which we start filming in November-December. And I’m going to be in the Reagan movie. Dennis Quaid plays Reagan and I shoot my parts in Oklahoma this coming October. The film is called Reagan.

Geoffrey: I’m really looking forward to seeing that one. Kevin, I really appreciate you being on the show today. Thanks for coming on.

Kevin: God bless man, take care!

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