How I Broke In: Brian Duffield
It’s been said that a new door opens into Hollywood every day, you just need to figure out how to get to be in front of the door that opens. There is no set path to success in the film industry. Writers break into Hollywood in countless different ways — contests, personal connections, query letters, networking, working at agencies, etc. Our goal here is to talk to working screenwriters not only about their current projects, but what they feel was their big break that helped them break in. Hopefully, these conversations will help you position yourself in front of one of those doors when it opens.
Today we are talking with Brian Duffield. Brian’s spec sales include his Black List script, Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch, Worst Honeymoon Ever, Jane Got a Gun and The Babysitter, which just sold in an auction to McG’s production company. He also wrote the upcoming Insurgent, the sequel to Divergent.
FD: When looking at your body of work, one of the things that really stands out is that you have been able to write a lot of really strong female roles. As something we would like to see more of, do you have any advice for other writers on how you achieve this?
BD: Between the script I wrote called The Babysitter and a movie I’m directing called Vivien Hasn’t Been Herself Lately, those are both really strong female antagonists. With [roles for women] being such a hot button topic, it was actually really stressful. I think a part of it came from working with actresses like Natalie [Portman], and working with other actresses, you very quickly realize that they can do anything and they just aren’t given a lot of opportunities to do anything. That can be for a variety of reasons. Some of them sexist, some just happenstance. It’s funny to think that there’s not really a great female equivalent of someone like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or a lot of, quote unquote, evil female characters. Those are the greatest roles an actor gets to do. Roles like The Joker or Gollum. Women just don’t get those roles and if they do it’s usually very campy. Even when you go to the Universal Horror Night where they have all the popular antagonists there to scare you, the only women that show up to scare you are either zombie or possessed.
I had done a couple of female protagonist movies and then I kind of drifted into writing female antagonist movies. I try to be conscientious of what’s the line between having a bad woman as a character and having a bad woman who comes off as misogynistic. It’s a really tricky line and it’s something I’m really interested in lately. Knowing a lot of great actresses, I don’t just want to see them be the love interest. I feel that in the last few years there’re been a lot of really strong female roles but there’re a lot of roles men still get that women don’t, the archetypes. So, that’s what I’ve been interested in, the archetypes. Not in a cutesy type way of, “Oh, it’s like Die Hard but with a woman.” I try to do it in a way that’s interesting and exciting that’s kind of like a meal for an actress to work with and play with. I think there’s a lot of desire from actresses to be able to show what they’re made of. That’s where I’ve been working a lot lately.
FD: You have a great point. You do hear so many actors where the roles they gush about the most is when they get to play the antagonist. Just a really great, complex role they get to bite into.
BD: Right. So, in terms of writing, it’s looking at those roles women just aren’t getting. It’s about hypothesizing what types of roles do actors and actresses want to play. In this day and age, you can’t get a movie made without someone attached. If I want to make a $5 million movie, I need an actor or actress of a certain value. What about this role will have them fighting to [play it]? It’s about writing roles for men and women that you haven’t seen before. I think that’s why you see a lot of bio pics. It’s because people’s lives are so complex. Look at Felicity Jones’ role in The Theory of Everything. She’s a strong, complex woman and I don’t think that’s a role you would find in a lot of original work. That attracts [female actors] to the roles.
What is it about your role that gets an actor or actress to want to give up the next six months of his or her life to play? They get offered dozens of roles per day, with a paycheck attached to it. What’s going to make yours stand out? When I first started writing, I would write ideas that I thought were really cool and hoped that character work came along with it. Now, when I sit down to write, I think about actors and actresses. Not anyone specifically, but what is it about the role that they would like? That being said, it still needs to be a good movie.
FD: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t like to outline. That you feel it stifles your creative output when you spend that much time being analytical. When you sit down to write a project, do you just let it flow? Or do you edit along the way to try and keep it under control?
BD: I would say that most of the time I know what my ending will be. For me, it’s about figuring out what the movie is about and writing each scene with that theme in mind. I think that takes away a lot of the confusion of starting from page 1 and making it up as you go along. I know what I want to be talking about and I know what I want the characters to go through. I don’t necessarily know how they’re going to go through it, but I have a pretty good idea.
On top of that, I am very much a fan of brevity in my writing. I always kind of have my eye on that 90-page mark. It’s something that I think you can kind of get a sense of in a small, tight script — what is working and what isn’t working. What’s going to advance the story as opposed to sitting around dwelling on something and just killing time? When you know who your characters are and what your world is, it helps gives guidance to what scene should be coming and what obstacles need to be and you can really put them up against the wall.
I think a lot of times people are too focused in on things like page 10 needing to be where the Inciting Incident is. I think on my last script the Inciting Incident was on page 30. Your goal is to set up the world and keep it interesting. I’ve done [scripts] where the Inciting Incident took place before the script even started. It needs to be about what’s right for the script, not about what makes each script the same. There’s no right or wrong. I think it’s a good way to start off writing. Kind of like learning to play guitar or playing sports, where you do the same drill over and over. Then you become good enough that you trust yourself to do something new and unique. I find that people are engrossed in the read and suddenly 20 minutes have gone by and they’re halfway through the script — they don’t care where things are.
FD: Your first spec sale was Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch. It happened really fast. Within a few weeks of finding out your friend had passed it to a manager you were sitting with Circle of Confusion. You’ve talked about how that sudden success was hard to deal with. Is there any wisdom you’ve gained from that experience you would like to pass on to other writers hoping to have that problem?
BD: I didn’t even know that my friend had passed along the script until I got a call from my now manager at Circle of Confusion. I had one meeting with them and the next was sitting at Skydance to talk about the sale. It was really fast and very stressful. With screenwriting, you may only see one check a year. So, I went from living from paycheck to paycheck in temp jobs to trying to learn how to budget to make this one check last the whole year. Then you realize that you have to do it again to get that next check. It’s kind of like the breakout band. They have this really successful album full of songs they’ve been writing for the last six years and then they get six weeks to write their second album. Then you get asked to pitch on things and you feel this pull to accept jobs you know aren’t right for you because you want the security of that next check.
I think I received one check last year even though I was working constantly on a lot of projects. Then those checks clear out of the blue and I received them all this year. There was a lot of learning how to budget and how to live life as an independent contractor. It’s like, “Hey, you’re a professional screenwriter now making professional screenwriter money. How the hell do you live your life?” It’s a radically different lifestyle. I found it really daunting and it made me want to go burrow into my bed. But, over time, I grew into it. It took me five years, but I finally decided I could afford a bit more than the crappy apartment I had out of college.
FD: When did you realize you were getting more comfortable with your new position?
BD: I think what changed my life the most is that I was suddenly able to afford valet parking, which is a huge deal in LA. I used to have all of these general meeting where I would drive around West Hollywood for 15 minutes looking for a parking spot. Then I was able to say, “I can afford to just drive up and pay the $5.00 fee plus a tip.” That was my biggest victory in selling Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch, being able to pay off my credit card bill and do valet.
It was also a trip because suddenly people invite you out to dinner or drinks and they buy them for you. That was such a foreign concept to me. The first couple times were really stressful because we were going to these really nice places and I would order the tiny salad, even though I’m like the least healthiest person ever, because I couldn’t afford anything else unless they bought my script. Then the bill came and they said, “We got this. It’s on our company card.” Then I learned how expenses worked and started buying tons of drinks.
There are some things I like about the Writers Guild. I remember that 2011 was my first full year and they had this class on finances. I could not wait. I had my pen, my notepad, and I looked at my friend and was like, “I am so ready.” I was all set to learn about how to deal with this. Then I get there and they’re talking about how to buy extra houses in Kentucky and have people run them for you. I didn’t have that kind of money. I just wanted to know things like, “Am I going to have to pay taxes?” Just basic explanations.
FD: Bit of a silly question here. You’re married now and you’ve sold two spec scripts, Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch and Honeymoon From Hell. Anything you want to get off your chest?
BD: I’ve always hated the Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch title. Really hated it. From Day One I have been saying, “Can we not call it this?” I really hate titles with swearing in them and I just kind of had it in there. When my friend handed it to my now manager I just thought how hilarious it was that I was going to piss him off right from the beginning. But everyone thought it was a great title and I just thought about how I would never again be able to get a girl to go out with me because I had this awful movie title. For a while I wanted to just call it Bridesmaid or something but then Bridesmaids was getting made and I couldn’t even win that argument.
But, both of them are actually very romantic scripts when it’s all said and done. I also have a very cool wife who doesn’t really bother me about them. I think that’s also because she knows I really stress out about those aspects of my movies. I think that Vivien, the movie that I’m trying to direct, has a much more dark and complex female role in it. That one’s also about the end of a marriage that I wrote before I got married.I think that one was actually a much more eyebrow-raising, challenging script.
FD: Your next project is Vivien Hasn’t Been Herself Lately. That’s a spec you wrote, but you’re also directing. How does it feel to be on the development team now rather than just selling a script or doing a project for hire?
BD: Awesome. I love it. It’s a very weird challenge. Of everything I’ve written, it’s probably the weirdest thing I’ve done. Probably the most off-putting. There has been an additional set of challenges in trying to push it on up over the hill. There definitely have been projects where I’ve sold the script and that was the last thing I ever had to do with it. It sucks, but that’s just part of life. Now, being on the other side, it’s cool. And if it’s terrible, everyone can blame me. As opposed to a movie that I just wrote, if it turns out to be terrible, I usually have almost next to nothing to do with the quality, and it usually has barely any semblance of anything I ever wrote. So, it’s nice to be in charge of my failings. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had in my career.
FD: Do Director Brian and Writer Brian like each other?
BD: We do. It’s funny, I was just talking to a writer-director friend of mine. I asked him if everything he writes, does he feel like he wants to be the one to direct it. He absolutely felt that way. For me, it’s not the same. I don’t know until I’m done with the script. With The Babysitter it took me a good four weeks to decide if I wanted to direct it or not and I felt I could probably get it set up somewhere around town. With Vivien I knew 10 pages in. I didn’t want to show it to anyone because it was mine. There have been others that I’ve finished that I’ve felt like directing, but the love I had for it was not the same for the love I had for Vivien.
FD: I remember a general meeting that Dustin and I had where it was just a “getting to know you” session. Dustin mentioned that we were also interested in directing. He meant it as an overall career goal as a skill we’re developing, but by the way the eyes glazed over in the rest of the room, I could tell they had translated it in their head to, “We’ll only sell this if we can direct” because they hear that so often.
FD: Was that something you felt like you ran up against in your pursuit of directing Vivien?
BD: I’m thinking I didn’t. It helped that it was a lower budget, in about the $5 million range and I was something of a known quantity, so that helped. In the end though, it’s such a weird script. It’s an either you’re in or you’re out type of love/hate relationship with it. It’s so weird that they decided they better have me direct it because I was probably the only one who understood it. Or, they loved it so much they wanted me to direct it so they knew nothing would be changed. That all helped.
I do try to be very conscientious. I think if I were trying to push everything through with me as the director, I’ll either be directing all of them or my writing career will very quickly be over. If they look at me and think that I’m only writing for myself and none of my movies are getting made. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot and lose two careers at once.
I’ve also written scripts where the budget is over $50 to $60 million and no one would be dumb enough to give me that money. I know that before I even start writing. When I see these guys directing these $100 million movies, even the press announcement stresses me out. I don’t see how anyone could think they are equipped to go from a $100,000 movie to a $100 million movie. I’m a big fan of J.C. Chandor and Jim Mickle. Guys with a small first movie and their next movie was a little bigger and the one after that was a little bigger. At this point, if those guys got a huge movie you would think it makes sense because they just did four consecutive movies that got a little bigger each time. They were never disasters. They were all excellent. So I can trust that they can manage this kind of jump in size. That’s what I aspire to as a director. Then again, if I make a $1 million movie and then they offer me Indiana Jones, I’m going to be a hypocrite and take that movie.
FD: The Babysitter sold at auction to McG’s company. What was that like? Did you have directors and producers coming to you to pitch how they would make your movie?
BD: There were no directors, just different studios. The auction wasn’t so much about the huge payday but about finding companies that could get it set up and produced in the next year. Wonderland, McG’s company, already had financing and their own money so we didn’t have to have that conversation [with them]. Or conversations about why we can’t have movie stars in this movie because we’re dealing with children. It’s also an R Rating. That tips the studios’ fears right away when the movie has a 12-year old lead and an R Rating. Talking with McG and everyone at Wonderland, they were just excited to make it because they thought it was so cool. That was all I really needed to hear. They’re just a really writer-friendly company and one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a writer.
FD: One final thought. On your Final Draft podcast last time you spoke with us, you said something that was really profound that I hadn’t heard before. When talking about advice you have for other writers trying to break in, your advice was to remember to be kind to other writers. It was such a simple statement but really powerful in reminding you to remember who’s around you.
BD: Yeah. I definitely have a list of writers who have treated me horrifically. It’s not like the type of thing where I want to go bash them on a podcast but it’s always so needless. It’s usually about greed and money and embarrassment that you’re screwing over another writer. I think that rewriting has a lot to do this. Out of all the unions and guilds in Hollywood, I think that screenwriting is the one that has the most replaceable position. At the end of the day there’s a lot of corruption in rewriting. The guild probably isn’t in a position to want to do anything about it because more people are getting paid. I’ve had some wonderful experiences of people rewriting me and I’ve had some terrible experiences of people rewriting me. I think it causes a lot of anger and resentment between writers in a really needless and not worthwhile way. So, I think it is just about being classy and being cool. It does come down to what you want to get out of your writing career. Do you just want money, or do you want to have a really solid career?
For me, a huge part of my career that I have really treasured is my relationship with other writers and even mentoring other writers. Really rooting for each other as opposed to competing. I’ve gone up against friends for writing jobs and you win some and you lose some. But we’re still a family and looking out for each other. Warning each other when you think something bad could happen at a company. Something a little less isolationist and more looking out for your friends. I do think that it really changes how you look at your career because I do believe that writers are really disposable for a lot of silly reasons. It’s about being conscientious of other writers going through this. That’s what it comes down to me. I love writers and I’m a fan of their work. I would rather be a supportive part of their life than a competitive one.
This is very much not a competitive thing. If you wrote an amazing G.I. Joe script and then six months later I wrote one, not knowing about you, the studio would probably end up buying both if they thought they were amazing.,They do want movies that make money but they want good material. If they think something is good, they’re going to buy it. I’ve never gotten the call where they said they would have loved to buy my script but they’d already bought something that week.
Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I’ve pitched something three times and ended up not getting the job. It’s the same as being as being a contractor in any field. That’s just life. So, I would rather concentrate on being good people.
FD: One last silly one on the way out. You’ve mentioned that you used to like to do your writing late at night. You would prop up in bed and just write until you fell asleep. Now that your wife has claimed the bedroom for actually going to bed, you’ve mentioned thinking about looking to get an office. Is that still ongoing or are you still trolling the food courts?
BD: Right now I do most of my writing during the day on my couch. I imagine by the end of the year that I’ll probably have an office somewhere that I’ll be going to. But it is very strange going to bed now at midnight or 1:00 am. I literally used to write until 4:00 or 5:00 am but I am quite happy to change my schedule to be married. My hesitancy, though, is that if I get an office, how often would I even go there? I see these writers who have these gorgeous offices and they’re there from nine in the morning until five at night. I can’t do that. That’s not me. I write fast but there are definitely days where I write one sentence and other days where I write twenty pages.
FD: May I suggest Starbucks? I’ve heard they’re a really under the radar place for writers.
BD: That sucks for me though because I hate coffee.
Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet
Who better to write an article about breaking in than two screenwriters trying to break in? Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet are friends who have somehow managed to survive being writing partners. They are winners of the Randall Wallace Round of the Industry Insider Contest and placed in the Top 10 of the 2014 Final Draft Big Break Contest in the horror genre. Their short film, Happy Birthday, Dad, is currently playing on the festival circuit and will be released publicly on June 18th. For more information on the film, you can visit its website at www.hbdfilm.com. Their hope is to someday be able to turn this article over a new writer who can interview them about how they broke in.