Spec Spotlight: Screenwriting Duo Jason Markarian and John Mirabella Talk ‘The Armstrongs’
Jason Markarian and John Mirabella have sold multiple television series and now have landed a major deal with Miramax on their upcoming action-comedy feature film, The Armstrongs. The story follows a divorced couple in suburbia that have to come out of witness protection when their son is kidnapped and their past catches up with them. They find themselves having to reassemble their old team to successfully complete the mission. Miramax’s CEO Bill Block is said to have signed the deal worth $1 million.
John and Jason have worked together for a while now. They began their collaboration as writers shortly after Jason invited John to visit from the East Coast to help him with a short film. The project never came to fruition, but during John’s stay, they tossed a few story ideas around. Before they knew it, they had some rock-solid ideas.
Biggest deal in the industry? Perhaps. But to this pair, it means it’s time to get to work. “There’s no rest. When you sell something, that’s when the work starts,” Jason explains. “You’re in the game, there’s a million things thrown at you.”
Q: You’ve both accomplished a lot in the industry. Do you feel like you’ve “made it?”
John: When you’re starting out or you’re dreaming about what it might be like to make it—whatever that means—you imagine that there’s some kind of moment where you’re going to wake up one day and feel like a professional writer. I made it. That really doesn’t happen. There have been a few times where we’ve sold a TV show or something that seemed like it might become a thing, and then it doesn’t. And then you don’t sell anything else for six months or a year, and then it’s like, “Well, I guess we didn’t make it. And then we sell something else, and think, “Okay. Now—now—we’ve made it.” And then another year goes by. We’re still feeling the same stuff of “I guess we didn’t.” And then we realized, “You know what? Maybe this is what making it is.”
Jason: There’s no moment of “this is it right here.” If that moment happens, then there’s something wrong. I know at least for us, we’re always trying to get to the next level. In this industry, it comes so quickly and can leave so quickly, so there’s no time to rest. You must be self-starting. Once you sell something, the next thing they’ll ask is, “What else do you have?” Because if it sold somewhere, the people you’re meeting with now want to stay in business as well, so they’ll want something else. So never sit back and think, “I’m done.”
Q: Writers do have to be self-starters. What are some skills or recommendations they should build into their writing discipline?
Jason: I feel like you need to be working. Treat this as if it were a nine-to-five job.
John: Whether it’s nine-to-five, five-to-nine, or whatever it is. I can’t sit and write for nine hours in a row every day. But give it a few hours each day. Being disciplined about doing the work is important because you have nobody to answer to but yourself. If I were just sitting there by myself, that motivation you need to have, that’s not easy to do. You can just get on the internet, or go to the movies.
Jason: There’s nothing more terrifying than staring at a blank page and knowing you have to fill 110 of those. Or you have to fill 60 of those even. It’s always good to have someone who you know are accountable to: whether that be your agent looking for something and you don’t want to let them down or a writing partner; whether it’s yourself every day doing writing sprints for 30 minutes or an hour and see how far you get. You have to do that kind of stuff.
John: You’re also going to spend a lot of time on these characters and this world. You’ve got to find the thing about the world of that story that’s going to get you excited about it every single day. Also, it is actually important to walk away from a specific project for a period of time and go do something else. I’ll come back after a couple days after Jason’s done a pass through and I’ll look at it and think, “That’s actually pretty good.”
Jason: I feel like if you work alone, it’s a lot of staring at it, trying to jam it out. It’s very beneficial to take a break. If you’re working with a team, you have to take breaks from it.
Q: Does that help during the notes process?
John: I’ve found it surprising. For example, if we do a draft of a script and turn it in, and it takes about a week to get back to us; we haven’t thought about that script for a week. Just having that week away where we haven’t thought about it, I feel like we see with fresh eyes and it’s like, “Oh. Yeah. We can do this, this and this.” Sometimes, things like, “Why didn’t I see that before?” will happen. We’ll be 10 drafts in and then I’ll finally notice there’s a scene that we don’t need. And I’ll ask, “Why didn’t I see that before?” But having that gap between helps the process. There’s no way to do it without time.
Jason: We were lucky in a sense that our agent at Paradigm, David Boxerbaum, came in with a note that really took the script to the next level. It’s rare for an agent to do.
John: When he gave that note, I was like, “No, I don’t want to do it.” All I can see when I first hear a big, overall note like that is what story threads it’s going to unravel. It takes me a bit to get past that and see why it’s actually a really good idea.
Jason: I have learned when John gets a note, I can’t talk to him for a day. John goes underground for a day.
John: I’ve learned this stuff myself over the course of getting notes the past two years. Sometimes it’s just a little note or just page [notes], that’s fine. Sometimes it’s just a little note or just pages, that’s fine. But when someone comes up with big notes, I get defensive right away. I know enough to not say anything and just agree. But in my head, I’m thinking, “Oh my god. That’s the worst thing ever. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” I know I need to just sit with it a minute and get past that emotional defensive reaction.
Q: What was the creative process like for The Armstrongs?
Jason: We threw ideas around for a couple weeks. We had at least 30 ideas that we tossed back and forth. Once we settled on something, we went a couple months.
John: Yeah. It took us a couple months to get the first draft. Then a couple more months … it was probably six months all together until we had something. Some of that time we were waiting for people to get back to us and focused on other things. For me, I find the one element of the story. Like, if it’s going to be a thriller, what’s the one aspect that we’re going to do that can tweak the whole genre a little bit. What’s the one story element that I think is really cool and excites me? Then you build off that one thing.
Q: What is your writing collaboration like?
John: We have very similar tastes in terms of what we like. We’re also different personalities and what our specific interests are in writing. We work well together because the things I’m most focused on are the overall structural stuff—the plot mechanics, action, and whatever. And Jason is super-focused on making sure the characters are consistent, compelling, interesting for the actors, and that the dialogue is really cool. We definitely have our strengths. Jason counts on me, and I count on him. So, we’re accountable to each other. That’s really good for our motivation. I think my dialogue has improved a lot. And I think his work on structural stuff has definitely improved also. We have those two areas where we lean on each other for our expertise, and that works out really well.
Jason: Yes, I agree. When we’re writing something, I’ll write a little bit of a skeleton knowing that John’s going to do something with it. And then, I’ll get it the next day. Using Final Draft, we write Script Notes to each other. We highlight everything through that and include notes like, “Here’s what I was going for, but I didn’t quite get there,” or “This dialogue was meant to say this.” So it’s clear-cut for each other.
John: Yeah, we lean pretty heavily on those Script Notes. For instance, if I’m doing a first draft, it’s just to get it out there and make sure it sort of flows and makes sense. And there’ll be a lot of dialogue lines where I’ll put a Script Note saying, “I know this is terrible!”
Jason: And I’ll get a Script Note saying, “I hate this so much. Here’s what I meant to say.” There’s nobody more self-deprecating than John and I. When we write something that’s crap, we’ll be the first ones to say, “Hey, this is just awful.”
Q: In working with your agent and manager, was The Armstrongs something that was intended to fit into the marketplace?
Jason: We developed ideas and our management did chime in. We were definitely trying to write something that was going to be marketable, but not chasing a trend. Something that reflected our voice, something we could have a lot of fun with, and something that had potential as a franchise.
John: If you write something that, to do it properly, is going to cost $50 million to make, you’re crazy if you’re not thinking about the commercial prospects of it. When we first started out, we wrote some crazy thing about the Greek Gods and it was super-cool—I still love that script—but it would cost like $100 million, and it was based on nothing. It might be great, I’m a little biased. But nobody’s going to buy that and be like, “Yes, I will put $150 million into this movie,” on a writer I’ve never heard of, on some crazy made-up world. You have to be realistic. Managers are really good about having that realistic business sense. They believe in you, they’re your managers and agents because they think you can write. They just want to turn that toward something that they know they can sell. So, we try to listen to that and say, “If you think you can sell this, then we’re excited about writing it.” Because [there are] a lot of things we are excited about writing.
Q: You’ve mentioned selling some TV shows, and this is your first feature. What have been some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed between the two mediums?
John: We’re always fighting the page count. We’re very much about world-building, and TV is good for that. Trying to do that in 50 to 55 pages; our first drafts come in at 82 pages. In a feature, we can build up this world because we have a little bit more space. In TV, if you’re setting up something in a pilot, you have to have a plan for where that goes or what that means.
Jason: But on the flip side of that, when you’re writing a feature—and I saw this as a little bit of a challenge—you have to hit that landing at the end. It must tie together. You have to make sure the story is satisfying. With TV or with a pilot, you can plant a ton of seeds and get people interested and get their beaks wet. But in a feature, you need to make sure everything ties up. That’s been the challenge for me at least.
John: And with the character stuff—particularly with the character arcs—in a pilot, your main character maybe has a little bit of an arc, but you’re really setting up an arc that’s going to last a season or series. They didn’t turn Walter White into a villain in episode one. But in the movie version, you kind of have to do that. It’s much more of tracking the character’s journey and making sure that it comes through clearly. This character is learning, changing, and becoming a new person. That was a little different. You don’t do that too much in a pilot.
Q: What are some of your favorite resources?
Jason: Check out all those screenwriting podcasts. They are great free tools that people can start learning from.
John: There are a lot of great resources out there now. When we were first starting out, there weren’t as many. There were a lot of books. Now we are able to have access to these writers on Twitter and podcasts.
Jason: Everyone should be listening to the ScriptNotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin. It is free film school. Those kinds of things are invaluable. Also, the Nerdist panel for TV writers.
John: They also have a website that has tons of information on it. There was nothing like that for us when we started. It’s great. The resources and how generous people are with their time is awesome.
Jason: All of these people on Twitter are very engaging. They are generous and they’re professional. They’re also very generous sharing their struggles, too. You can see how these people have gone through the same struggles you’re going through.
John: Yes, it is nice to know that everyone feels that his or her first draft is garbage; it’s not just you.
John and Jason are grateful for their management relationships with David Boxerbaum and Zac Simmons at Paradigm, their manager Eric Williams at Zero Gravity Management, and their attorney Sean Marks. Without their assistance, guidance and input, John and Jason wouldn’t be on the road they’re on.
They’re very open to sharing their experiences and advice to writers. They can be reached best through their Twitter handles: @johnmirabella and @jasonmarkarian. They look forward to your tweets!
Script Supervisor / Screenwriter
Originally from Aurora, CO, Roe Moore is a script supervisor, screenwriter, and emerging director based in Los Angeles, CA. She has worked on commercials, film, and television shows. Her favorite number is 2 and she loves dachshunds. More can be found on her website: www.RoeMoore.com.