Chris Hager, writer of “Proxima”
Chris Hager became a screenwriter because he was frustrated. One night, while watching a movie at his home, Chris found himself lamenting the quality of what he was seeing on screen.
“I was saying to myself, ‘How did this get made? It’s terrible. I know I could do better.’ Then I said to myself, ‘Well, you know what, Chris? Stop saying it and do it.’ So I decided to set out and prove that I could.”
This, Chris has done in spades. The first screenplay he ever wrote, a sci-fi drama called Proxima, was recently picked up by David Lancaster’s Rumble Films, the company behind recent Oscar®-winner Whiplash, after it was championed by Rumbles Creative Executive Stephanie Wilcox. Proxima is about a married couple on a centuries-long mission across the universe. It was inspired by heavy-hitting sci-fi fare such as 2001 and Moon and the romantic dramas Closer and Lost In Translation.
Not only did Chris manage to sell his first script, but he did it thousands of miles away from Hollywood, in his home town of Kansas City, Missouri. Working full-time in IT for a medical systems information company, Chris wrote in his spare time and joined local film groups that gave him access to like-minded, ambitious individuals eager to make movies. Before writing screenplays, Chris had tried his hand at songwriting, with mixed results.
“Songwriting for a long time was a way for me to tell stories and to examine emotions and feelings. I reached a point where songwriting just wasn’t big enough; a song wasn’t a large enough canvas to tell some of the stories I wanted to tell.”
Chris wrote a few short films that were made locally because he started writing Proxima. The first draft, in his own words, was “fast and furious.”
“I had my central story and my central arc and it was strong, and that’s what I focused on in my first draft. I thought I’m not going to worry about hitting that page count, I want to get a central story and a central arc done and I want to nail these characters. So, when I finished I had a screenplay that weighed in at 75 pages. It was missing that secondary B-story element that carried through the rest of the script. When I did the rewrites I identified the elements that were really telling a second story that I could bring to the surface, and in my rewrites I was able to bring that out, and the finished first draft weighed in at around 116 pages.”
Even in its 75-page incarnation Chris sent the script out to a few competitions, focusing on those that offered feedback with the entry fee, which helped him identify the story’s weaknesses. He placed as a quarter-finalist in both the Blue Cat and Nicholl competitions, but it was his wins in the Fresh Voices Screenplay competition, including “Best On Screen Chemistry” for his two lead characters, that really got him noticed. Prior to this success, Chris had been sending out query letters to managers and agents, and had received little response. Now, with multiple competition mentions under his belt, Chris went out with a new query letter, to greater success. He used an online equery service that sent his letter to over 2,000 industry reps, and this time he got a response – 10 to be exact. Of the 10 responses he received, five said no thanks, and the other five asked to read it. Manager Jim Wedaa (also a Producer on Proxima) was so impressed he asked for a rewrite, then set about finding Chris an agent, and helped him complete yet another pass on the script before it went out to producers. Chris signed with Verve Agency (specifically agents Abram Nalibotsky and Pamela Goldstein) and travelled from Missouri to Los Angeles, where he met with numerous production companies. He says of the experience, “Whenever you meet with production companies, even if you haven’t got another script, it’s good to have a three or four solid ideas ready to go. In most of these meetings they were more interested in finding other projects that we could perhaps work on together, so having other ideas certainly helped.”
Sci-fi has always had a particular allure with audiences. Chris believes this is due to the genre’s ability to examine social issues in a form that is more palatable to audiences.
“Sci-fi is the epitome of escapism, and that’s why people go to the movies. Sci-fi has an ability other genres don’t in examining social issues, relationships and personal issues through a lens that just makes people a little more eager to invest in and watch and experience, and it still connects with them. You can watch a movie that’s about alien races and you’ll still get the message that it’s about tolerance and acceptance.”
But even when writing in a genre known for its extravagant costs, Chris always has the budget in mind.
“It’s also important to write on a budget, and I don’t mean short changing your story. When I was writing Proxima I knew if I was going to break in I had to write something that was going to be done around $10 million, because it’s a smaller story with an indie feel. I knew it couldn’t be this enormous, bombastic thing, because studios aren’t going to put $80 or $100 million into a spec script these days, they’re going to put that into a Marvel movie or into Star Wars.”
While the wheels of production turn on Proxima, Chris doesn’t rule out a move to Los Angeles, although he is very much at home in Missouri with his wife and daughter.
“Time will tell for me whether the West Coast is in my future or not,” he says, noting that his distance from Los Angeles may have actually helped his screenwriting process rather than impeded it. “There’ve been discussions recently with the success of American Sniper about the industry’s visibility into the tastes of the country at large. I think it’s a very interesting conversation that needs to continue to happen to make sure we get a diverse range of stories to a wider audience of people.”
Chris is a great proponent of communing with nature when writing. During the rewrite of his second script, Chris took a five-day weekend and rented a cabin in Iowa.
“I went up to the wilderness. There was a farmhouse down the road, but that was it. There was just the trees and the river and I just spent the weekend getting into my story, reconnecting with myself and my characters, and it helped. It made a huge difference to my writing rather than just sitting on my porch at home or in the basement where I typically write. A change of location and pace can sometimes shake something loose.”
In terms of breaking in, Chris says writers should trust their instincts, but take advice when it makes sense to them.
“Trust your instincts, but accept feedback. Nine times out of ten you will know if what you put on the page is good enough. If it’s not, then change it. Take what makes sense to you, take what resonates with you, then leave the rest aside and keep it your story. Not all feedback is created equal.”