Selling the Big Pitch with Ice Cube
Humbug writers Todd R Jones and Earl Richey Jones discuss pitching, persistence and the people who ask: “So what have you worked on that we can see?”
Final Draft: So how did you guys get started? Were you writing since you were kids or how did that come about for you guys?
Richey Jones: We used to tell stories when we were kids to our family. That was always a lot of fun but I think the writing portion of it, definitely the origin of it was with Todd.
FD: How did that come about?
Todd Jones: I don’t know. I just remember my first story being in third grade, writing about a cave, you know, it was a scary cave and it was really probably a very clichéd ending, something like, ‘and then he woke up.’ I think after that I had a really good run of English teachers. My parents always read to me but I always liked the kids’ stories, of course, Dr. Seuss, all those things, Are You My Mother? and all those great stories, and then kind of moved from that into learning the heavier stuff, the classics, ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and those stories. All those books always appealed to me – the point of view of those characters. And then, actually, I think in high school we had a career day and I ended up going – one of the careers was going to a studio.
FD: Oh wow, so you guys grew up here, then.
Todd Jones: Yeah, we grew up in Los Angeles.
FD: I was going to say, that didn’t happen in, like, Idaho.
Todd Jones: No, if we were in Milwaukee we’d all be making beer. But instead we’re in Los Angeles and it just seems like everyone here, you know…
FD: It’s a coal mining town, everyone just makes movies, instead.
Todd Jones: I was born in Texas so I almost became a cowboy but my parents moved when I was two years old, so.
FD: So you got lucky.
Todd Jones: Yeah. But then, I remember by the time I went to college I wanted to get into advertising. I didn’t necessarily know anything about script writing, per se, as a career. Although, I loved that show Thirtysomething in college and wished I could write for Thirtysomething. And it was appointment TV, remembering that kind of run –
Richey Jones: Someone’s actually writing that stuff? Or, are the actors getting paid to come up with their lines on the fly?
Todd Jones: Exactly. Once you get in the business you realize people make money just dressing people. Someone put a cup on that table. They made money doing that. Kids now realize they can have careers behind the scenes, but back then, in my early days, in college, not so much. I worked in PR. I went into advertising, worked a summer internship at an agency that was doing these Nissan ads. I probably watched thousands of commercials. Studied them, The One Show, that whole advertising world. In college that was kind of what I wanted to do and out of college went right into copywriting.
FD: So then, where did the transition to TV and film come from?
Todd Jones: After I got fired and went right out of advertising.
FD: Is that when you got brought in, then?
Richey Jones: Well, yeah. He graduated from college and then went overseas for a year or two and then I graduated. We both came back to Los Angeles, around the same time. Then we moved in together. We had been corresponding by mail, imagine that. Like, mail. Actual mail. And he had mentioned in the letters that there was, like, a renaissance for African American screenwriters. John Singleton and Spike Lee. So he said, ‘I think I can write a screenplay.‘ – that’s sort of where our story first began.
Todd Jones: It’s weird. We had debated if we should go back to film school and take a traditional path, you know, because we had graduated from college and –
Richey Jones: The question everybody asks is: ‘So how do you break in? So what do you do?’
Todd Jones: When I was overseas I was playing football, and I came back, and I was reading books, these screenwriting books, and all the classics –
FD: Linda Seger –
Todd Jones: Linda Seger, How to Make a Good Script Great, all these classic books and I would just read them, again and again, and highlight them and highlight them and, it was like, we can make the jump and just try it. So we did it. My first try, we didn’t finish the first ten pages. But we were reading Variety voraciously and anybody that had anything to say about writing or the business –
FD: You wanted to know it.
Todd Jones: Yeah, we would just listen to the story. And I remember hearing someone say, ‘just write what you know’, write something personal, write something that touches you and that you know well. And so we wrote this college story, it was our first story, it was a screenplay.
Richey Jones: We had two different perspectives on the college experience for us.
Todd Jones: It’s one of those Shakespearean stories where two twin brothers have two different philosophies on college, go to two different colleges, and then, come back the first semester and hate it and decide to switch places.
FD: Oh, that’s cool!
Todd Jones: So, that was kind of our first effort. We wrote the script, and after we finished, we were, like, now what?
FD: Yeah, what do we do now?
Todd Jones: What do we do now?
FD: Someone’s going to buy it, right?
Todd Jones: Yeah, I mean, someone’s going to knock on our door and pay us a lot of money for the script. But it was so weird. I do feel we had divine intervention because we would, during a stretch of about three years, keep writing these scripts, because we read this article – Jeff Arch, Sleepless in Seattle?
FD: Yes, I think it was Jeff Arch.
Richey Jones: Said you have to write at least ten screenplays before you can sell one, just to understand how to put the screenplay together and just, you know, like the Malcolm Gladwell thing, you’ve got to work tirelessly before…
Todd Jones: Yeah, so, I don’t think we were under the illusion that our first script was going to get made. But I guess Thelma and Louise – Callie Khouri kind of broke that.
FD: Yeah, it happens every once in a while.
Todd Jones: I’m sure there’s a backstory for her. We have a saying, ‘nobody comes from nowhere’, so we do feel like even the person who looks like their first script is easy, they’ve been working as a P.A. or they’ve been somebody’s assistant, reading scripts for ten years or has had some exposure. Rarely does someone wake up and say I’m going to write this screenplay and make a million dollars or whatever, win an Oscar. It happens, but…
Richey Jones: I did some extra work when we got back because we were so eager to be on the set of a film. So I was an extra on one of John Singleton’s movies.
FD: Which one?
Richey Jones: Poetic Justice.
FD: Oh man! Alright! That’s pretty cool.
Richey Jones: I remember coming home and telling Todd all the stories every day. It was just brutal, standing there for hours from early morning to late at night.
FD: I wish I was a John Singleton movie.
Richey Jones: Todd would ask me, ‘What did you do?’ And I would say, ‘We just stood there.’ Every now and then, it was like, ‘Action!’ and it was over.
FD: So you had your screenplays… When did you – did you guys get repped before you sold anything? How did that happen?
Todd Jones: So I think our first – We were running into different people in the industry, trying to get our script in their hands. We had a couple near-misses. One time CB4 was shooting on our block, the Chris Rock movie. We went and sat on the set and I think the more interesting aspect is, there were two twin brothers who were sitting on the set, visiting. So we couldn’t afford Variety then, these were the days before Deadline. We would go to a newsstand on the corner and the guy would let us read the cover and one article. Just one. We had just read about this ‘Menace II Society’ movie that had gotten picked up and they showed a picture of the Hughes brothers. So we went on the set of the CB4 movie and there were the Hughes brothers. And they were really cool, they talked to us and one of them gave us a ride back to our apartment. He was talking about their movie and was really encouraging, like, “Keep on writing”. We gave him one of our scripts and he put us in touch with their agent at the time. A guy named Jeff Robinov, just some random guy.
Richey Jones: Well, we actually called. He picked up the phone and said he liked our screenplay. ‘You guys are talented,’ he said it’s not the genre he was doing at the time ‘but keep on doing what you’re doing.’
Todd Jones: So it really was a source of encouragement.
Richey Jones: It was really cool of him.
Todd Jones: So we were being encouraged along the way. And then, really, interestingly one day we met – we were doing a lot of praying…’What are we going to do? and we went to a fight party. And at the party, there was an old friend of mine there from high school who said he was in the mailroom of an agency, and so I said, “Actually, my brother and I are writing scripts,” and he was like, ‘If you have a script, I’m in the mailroom, give me your script.’ Literally we finished the script, handed it to him and he called us later and said, ‘I think this is good and I’m getting promoted to an agent and I want to rep you guys.’
Richey Jones: Which is something we always tell younger writers who are breaking in to the business. When they say, ‘We have these scripts, who should we give them to, if we can’t get to an agent?’ which is very difficult to get your material into an agent’s hands, but you can give it to the assistant, you can give it to the people in the mailroom, because, literally, they are the future of the agency.
Todd Jones: Yeah, we always tell people who want to get into the business, how to get it to a hot agent – the chances of that agent reading you-
Richey Jones: Where do you think the agents came from, you know?
Todd Jones: Those are the guys who will go out with you, those guys will read your script.
Richey Jones: And they’re hungry.
FD: And that’s why you gotta be nice to the assistants.
Todd Jones: You gotta be nice to the assistants.
FD: Ten years from now maybe you might be down on your luck and, you know, they’re going to be Jeff Robinov.
Richey Jones: That’s exactly right.
Todd Jones: So my classmate became an agent at what was an Inter-talent agency –
Richey Jones: Boutique agency.
Todd Jones: He ended up becoming a writer, interestingly enough. But he noted our first script probably through eleven drafts?
Richey Jones: Yeah, he put us through the ringer. We were really kind of pissed about it, because he just kept giving us notes. And it’s like, Is this how it works? We write a script and this guy who’s in the mailroom just keeps noting us?
Todd Jones: He said, you know, ‘I’m not going to go out with it until we feel like it’s in shape.’ And he probably made us do eleven drafts. It was actually the best thing that could have happened to us, because that’s what Hollywood is. It was our first rewrite experience and it was, actually, really great training. And he got it out, he went out and got me a couple meetings. I think, at the time, it ended up at Keenen Ivory Wayans feature division, and then, his exec was going to bring us in, but, like a year later she ended up leaving…
FD: So is that how you guys found your way into In Living Color?
Todd Jones: Well, interestingly enough, our agent ended up going – Another agent called us who we never met and she said, ‘I heard about you guys. I’m starting at William Morris. Do you guys want to be repped?’
Richey Jones: So something else we learned, at that time, is that this is very much a word of mouth town. Because the original guy that was in the mailroom ended up telling another agent about Todd and I, after we wrote the first draft.
Todd Jones: She called us, oddly, at the exact same time we had gotten a call from one of the Executive Producers of ‘In Living Color.’ She said, ‘We’ve been tracking you guys. Do you guys want to come in?’ It was Pam Veasey, she was there and we ended up getting hired.
FD: So was that right when the show was starting or was that towards the end?
Richey Jones: Towards the end.
FD: So how long did you guys write there?
Todd Jones: Two seasons. Kind of like the end of the fourth season, and then, all of fifth season.
FD: So then you guys were writing film scripts, now you’re doing sketch –
Todd Jones: Here’s the crazy story about that: we started out writing dramedy. We were writing feature-length dramedy, and then, as a comic relief, we decided to write some sketches, just for the heck of it. Literally, just to blow off some steam. And those sketches got sent in to In Living Color by our agent and they ended up falling into the right hands.
FD: So it was a thing you guys actually enjoyed doing that actually turned out great for you?
Richey Jones: Exactly, right.
Todd Jones: We never intended to go into television. We had written features. Pam was a huge influence on us, at that time. She taught us about sketch-writing and the business.
Richey Jones: Larry Wilmore was there.
Todd Jones: Larry Wilmore was there. It was a renaissance at that time.
Richey Jones: Great staff.
Todd Jones: It was an amazing staff.
Richey Jones: In front and behind the camera.
Todd Jones: All those comedians were there. Jamie was there, Jim Carrey, Tommy, all those guys. And so we ended up really getting – the first time we wrote for talent, that was kind of an interesting, different scale.
FD: Than just kind of making it up out of thin air.
Todd Jones: Yeah.
Richey Jones: Hearing your material read, seeing what works or doesn’t work.
FD: That’s a big part of TV, right?
Todd Jones: Huge.
FD: Because especially when you’re on a show, you know the cast knows the characters as well as you do, most of the time.
Richey Jones: Sometimes better.
Todd Jones: I mean look, we never intended to write television because – now, people cross over all the time, but then, you were either a feature writer or a television writer, so people were saying, If you want to make money, go into television writing – if you want to make art, go into film. But we got into television and it was the best thing for us. I think to write something one week and see it on stage the next… It was weird, writing it. For years we had been writing stuff and it only existed in our own minds. All of a sudden, with television you could write something – and they were striking sets.
FD: So you guys as writers were also probably producers too, I imagine.
Todd Jones: No, for the first eight weeks or so, we were interns. It was a writing program Fox had that could’ve gone eighteen weeks and we came in the last eight weeks and I guess we did well enough that we were promoted to writers, full writers the next season, so that’s how it worked.
Richey Jones: So three times a week, it got to a point where they were just grinding. We would come together with the rest of the writing staff. We would have to pitch ten ideas per time you got together. So you would just come in in the morning and just start reading every article you could read, anything around you, anything to help inspire the next idea and then go into the writers’ room and you would sit around and you would pitch.
FD: So I guess the learning experience there is just not being precious about your material, not taking it personally when people don’t respond and just being able to move on to the next thing.
Richey Jones: Yes.
Todd Jones: You would get to the table read and there would be a packet with one hundred sketches that people had written and ten are yours, maybe fifteen. And you could see the performers perform it right there in front of you. Cold read. I mean, it was amazing. And sometimes there were sketches in there you would develop with the talent, so that was good. I mean, even now, we develop movies – it’s great writing or developing it for talent. So we’re probably pulling a lot from the experience being on the show with different comedians, different actors, developing any ideas they may have.
FD: So, after In Living Color, where did you guys go? Did you try to crack back in to features or were you like, We want to stay in TV?
Todd Jones: We were always doing both.
Richey Jones: We were writing feature scripts.
Todd Jones: Yeah, we were going out with specs, we had a representative in the television division of an agency and then we had a feature agent that was going out with our specs. Back then, it was the glory days of the spec.
FD: Sure, one and a half million, Shane Black and stuff.
Todd Jones: Exactly. People were selling half a million dollars on a napkin. You know, sold a spec on a napkin! She wrote a spec idea on a napkin and sold it for a million dollars!
Richey Jones: So that’s what we were thinking, literally. What must it be like to sell a spec for a million dollars? How did they do that?
Todd Jones: They wrote a spec idea on a straw and sold it for a million dollars!
FD: So you wrote for TV and, I guess, the longer you work in TV, you become a producer.
Richey Jones: Yes, we worked in television for several years, working with a lot of comedians who kind of set us in the comedian track, so after that we started working with Jaime. We worked on a feature pitch with Jamie that we sold to Fox. So like I said, we were doing both.
FD: And that’s another thing that you guys can probably talk about, too, is for every movie that gets made there are ten that a studio – there’s a script that gets bought and dies somewhere in pre-production.
Todd Jones: I think I was reading somewhere, someone was actually tracking how many scripts get pitched each year. I think it was something like five thousand, ten thousand pitches or specs, they maybe buy like one hundred. The number just keeps going down. I think you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than –
FD: I think I read this year that there are more people in the NFL than there are in the Writers Guild. It’s like, Okay, that puts it in stark relief. But I think it’s the thing where, like, you can be a working writer and your stuff isn’t making it to the screen.
Todd Jones: Absolutely.
FD: You can go years and years, making money…
Todd Jones: People make great livings.
Richey Jones: That’s what people want to know. When you go to a family function: So what are you working on that we can see?
Todd Jones: There are plenty of projects – Sometimes you work with great directors and great actors and great producers. When you get the job, you’re like, ‘this is a dream job!’ And then, no one will ever see that project. You know, you could work on it for five years, sometimes. You’re more surprised when something gets bought and made into something. In television, going on a staff, it’s definitely more encouraging for someone who’s been trying to write and never got anything made to do television. Now you see a lot of feature writers starting to do television. I think a large part of that is they’re not making as many things, so you see a lot of television writers coming out of features, cross over. We did some television and did some features but we didn’t get anything made for years. We would go on staff, we would write on a show during the day, sometimes it would end at ten at night. And then, when everybody else was going home, we’d stay in the office –
Richey Jones: Hang there and start working on our feature work.
FD: As partners, what’s your guys writing process like? Do you have to be in the same room all the time? Do you split it up?
Richey Jones: I think when we first started off we would spend more time in the same room and now that we’ve been doing it together for so long, once we break a story, outline a story, agree on what the story is, who the characters are, and then we go off and do different scenes, and then, we send stuff to each other.
Todd Jones: Get together, and at some point, we rewrite.
FD: So you write in the same voice or similar voices at this point, or do you put your stuff together and do one pass at the end, to sort of unify it?
Richey Jones: We do a final pass through at the end. I think we have different voices.
Todd Jones: And I think the great thing about being a team or a partner is – I saw this interview once with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – I think around that time they were working on that Janet Jackson album that was such a big hit and on one of the songs – the interviewer asked, ‘Well, that hit song, how much of that did you do?’ I can’t remember which one it was, Jimmy Jam or Terry Lewis, but he said that he was in the office one day and his partner walked in, and played the song for him and it was, ‘How much of the song was together?’ and he was like, ‘Oh, it was all there, the words, the dialogue, everything was there.’ So she said, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘I said, “That’s hot.”’
FD: Sometimes that’s all you need.
Todd Jones: They said, ‘What else did you do?’ and he said, ‘That’s all I did. I said “that’s hot.”’And I think, sometimes, the good thing, if you’re working successfully as a team there are times where it seems like one person may construct whole scenes or ideas come up with a fully formed idea or ten pages. And their partner just needs to look at it and say –
FD: That’s because the work you guys put in together before it was so good.
Richey Jones: It’s really a team. It doesn’t really matter. If something sells, we’ll both profit from it so it’s really no ego involved. If Todd sends over a scene and it works, I’m not going to touch it. I’ll say, That works really well.
Todd Jones: And if something sucks, I’ll say it sucks. It’s my brother. It just isn’t going to work.
FD: So does the fact that you guys are brothers, does that make your partnership easier, harder?
Richey Jones: Easier in that I think we kind of had a shorthand from the beginning.
Todd Jones: Yeah.
FD: How to deal with each other when you’re in moods.
Richey Jones: And we can talk all the time, until Todd got married, a little less now that he has a family. But we still talk at all hours. I can call him at two, three o’clock in the morning. You know, back when we first started we could talk through all of the scenes or characters or whatever and be brutally honest with each other, which I’ve found very, very helpful. We don’t have to sugarcoat anything. We can just say, ‘Look, that doesn’t work and this is why that’s not funny, and this scene is way too long, I’m bored, I fell asleep while I was reading’. I mean, you can really be –
Todd Jones: I mean, look, they always say writing is rewriting. You’ve heard that. There are all those quotes about how important rewriting is. I think definitely as younger writers the hardest thing is taking criticism, taking a healthy dose of notes. Thinking that you wrote a first draft and it’s great to you and you don’t have to go back and change anything and being stubborn about that. I mean, that’s the thing we learned when we first started in television: everybody rewrites all the time. It’s all the time.
Richey Jones: That’s all it is.
FD: So you guys were talking about trying to bridge that line between film and TV. So how does that work out for you guys?
Richey Jones: It’s interesting, because when we first started out, even navigating the agencies was challenging – it was two completely different worlds and the executives didn’t know each other.
Todd Jones: It’s easy to get representation in television, but then you talk to TV writers and they’re like, Why can’t anybody really, seriously rep me in features? Or you’ll get great feature representation and the television side is just servicing you as a favor. You need to find that balance. Or a lot of writers will have managers who are able to bridge that gap or have strengths in one area or another. We’ve tried different combinations throughout our career but we’re at a really good point now, I think.
Richey Jones: Really good.
Todd Jones: We’re with UTA, which is right for us at this time. I usually don’t like recommending agents to writers– It’s like blind dates, if it doesn’t work out, you feel bad but I think for us we’re at a time now where –
Richey Jones: Both divisions, both the film division and the television division are really firing, setting us up with some great meetings on both sides, so it’s working really well for us now. And they’re very respectful. They know that you just sold the Ice Cube project but they want you to go take this television program, but we told them that the first position is with Donna Langley and Universal and Ice Cube. It’s really good. They’ve been really good about helping us develop our career in both TV and features.
Todd Jones: And like I said, usually if you’re on a television show, other feature people will be understanding. And sometimes now, even in that gap where the transition is to be made, they like the fact that you’re working in two things. You know sometimes – Our first movie that got made we sold on a pitch.
FD: Which movie was that?
Richey Jones: Johnson Family Vacation.
Todd Jones: That was Johnson Family Vacation, which was sold on a pitch back in 2001.
FD: So then, when you pitched it, that was Cedric the Entertainer, right? Was he attached, did you develop it with him?
Todd Jones: Originally it wasn’t Ced.
Richey Jones: Originally it wasn’t Ced, but he ended up being the one who attached himself, and then, we all went in to Fox Searchlight.
FD: Part of the package for it?
Richey Jones: Absolutely. It always helps to have the actor there with you when you pitch.
Todd Jones: Yeah, and then, of course, once you – that’s the great thing about a pitch – when somebody’s on board, now you can craft it for his voice, add their input. It’s a mobile screenplay. So you can start rewriting as you’re pitching.
Richey Jones: The exec can hear the voice in the room.
Todd Jones: There’s nothing like having the talent in the room.
Richey Jones: And you can see their eyes light up.
FD: So talk about the new Ice Cube project a little bit, then. Was that the same sort of situation where you knew going in that this script would be for Ice Cube?
Richey Jones: We did know it was going to be Cube. It’s interesting. We were talking about this earlier, the business sort of ebbs and flows in how it perceives different stars. Some stars are hot, and then, they’re not, and then, it seems like everybody is going after the same group of talent. But we kind of feel like once we identify somebody, actor or comedian, we know we feel is talented we’ll stick to it no matter what the industry says about it. If it says, you know, hot or cold, it doesn’t really matter.
Todd Jones: Who cares? Since 2010…?
Richey Jones: It’s been years we’ve been trying to develop with and for him.
FD: So for people who don’t know what the script is, do you mind just saying what the script is about?
Todd Jones: Oh sorry. I assumed –
FD: I assumed, too, but just so they can keep up.
Richey Jones: A Christmas Carol that just got set up at Universal with Donna Langley, with Ice Cube playing Scrooge, the iconic Scrooge.
Todd Jones: At first, with his company we tried to pitch it, so it started out as a pitch. And we tried to set it up that way.
FD: So you want to get paid to write it.
Todd Jones: Exactly. If they’ll pay you to write it first, why write it for free? We’ll gladly take the money up front, if we can get it.
Richey Jones: It’s just so hard these days.
Todd Jones: Oh, so hard.
Richey Jones: It’s always been hard, but it’s harder to sell a pitch now, even than it was five or ten years ago.
Todd Jones: But it’s great experience. I always say you should always have a pitch going, a spec going, something you’re developing out of adaptation. It’s always good as a writer to stretch in different areas. But the pitch – Look, having gone through the process a couple times, I think, like, the pitch is different, not completely different but different than the actual script you are writing. If you go in and pitch the actual script you are writing, you’re going to bore everybody to death. Because you can’t pitch a hundred page document scene by scene, to any executive. I know writers who’ve done it, but –
FD: You’re acting it out and everything, and no one cares.
Todd Jones: You can’t. The pitch would be two hours long. So, I mean, there’s a pitch document, then there’s the script that you’re writing, rewriting, and then, there’s the movie once it gets greenlit and everybody starts coming on, the director comes on, everybody comes on, then there’s that movie, and then, they remake it in editing, cut it together, editing. So I think we pitched it, it didn’t sell at a studio. No one really officially passed but no studio bought it. But as a script it ended up getting set up at Relativity.
FD: And then, Relativity had some trouble.
Todd Jones: Yup, had some trouble.
FD: And then, you guys got the script back.
Richey Jones: We got the script back, that’s exactly right. We got the script back and that’s when Ice Cube officially attached himself to it.
FD: And after that, I imagine, the ball got rolling pretty quickly.
Richey Jones: Yeah, Cube had been building momentum over the past – anyone who’s been following his career over the past three years –
Todd Jones: Ride Along.
FD: 21 Jump Street.
Richey Jones: Straight Outta Compton. Boom! Explosion.
Todd Jones: Which is so funny when you’re working with somebody and you’re watching it happen, because you already know the potential. You wouldn’t take years out of your life, months out of your life…we’ve been working on this since 2010, working on it. Back in 2010, we saw the potential but it’s been amazing to watch.
Richey Jones: We saw that he was talented. He’d be a great Scrooge.
FD: Yeah, he will be a great Scrooge.
Todd Jones: He’s got the scowl.
FD: Yeah, he’s going to be great.
Todd Jones: I think that it’s great watching the movie go find a home and have momentum, and we get taken along for the ride, really. We’re riders. I wish we were – and people will argue but there’s definitely a difference between features and television.
Richey Jones: Yeah.
Todd Jones: And when you’re writing in television as a television writer, you –
Richey Jones: It’s a writers’ medium. And features is more of a directors’ medium. And you should know that. We understand that. We’re under no illusions.
Todd Jones: The writer really has, we have very little power.
FD: You don’t have the authority.
Richey Jones: Yeah, not in features.
FD: But you get taken along for the ride.
Richey Jones: And you get to jumpstart the entire project. I think the excitement is getting a group of people excited about a movie, and then, they can take it and make it their own, and have them say, Look we want to do this, have a whole studio say, We want to mobilize and underwrite with millions of dollars to make this film.
Todd Jones: You work on the blueprints.
FD: I guess, in the perfect world, you get the right director, the right star, and they make it better than you could have made it.
Richey Jones: That’s what you hope.
Todd Jones: Yeah, when they called us and said Tim Story is attached, we got Cube, it’s exciting.
FD: What more can you want than that?
Todd Jones: It’s great. It’s a blessing. I just feel honored to be a part of that package. The wind is blowing and you put out your little sail.
FD: And they just take you away.
Todd Jones: You’re not rowing – you’re just getting carried in the wind.
FD: So looking back now, over your whole career, is there one lesson that you learned that you wish you knew at the very beginning? Or has it just been a series of things?
Richey Jones: Never quit. Never give up. If you’re serious, if it’s something that you really want to accomplish… I remember when we first got into business, Todd always said, ‘I want a big screenplay sale.’ There are, you know, millions of writers out there and there were plenty of reasons to quit, to stop. Because we’d been doing this for a long time. But just taking the small victories along the way and thanking God for those small victories, and then, continuing to push forward. I think that’s the lesson I’ve taken away is you’ve got to be tenacious, you’ve got to work at your craft all the time, you’ve got to keep getting better. You got to stay humble. All those things, I think, are very important.
Todd Jones: Yeah, I think that’s a good lesson.
Richey Jones: He wants a lesson. Give him a lesson, Todd!
Todd Jones: Wouldn’t I love it: Our book of lessons. There’s a lot of little things we learned along the way. I think one thing is, when you have a passion for something or somebody, don’t let anyone tell you that working with that person or that idea is crazy. I think that people might, along the way, say, Yeah, you have an idea for something… I don’t think there is anything that crazy. In everything you do, in every work situation, in every page that you write, in every joke that you write, in every character you develop, as crazy as it may seem there’s profit in that. It may not turn out how you think it’s going to turn out, but it will open the next door. If you’d asked us – we had no idea all this would happen when we first worked with Cube Vision on a rewrite that had nothing to do with this project. At the time we were like, take this rewrite job, it’s not exactly what we want to do, but we wanted to work with Cube and his company. But you do one thing and it opens another door and that leads to where the Humbug project went with this great package – we couldn’t have planned that. If they’d told us that at the beginning, we’d say, ‘of course we’d do that!’
FD: And that goes with what you said, just keep on working. I want to work with Cube. Do it. Just keeping at it opens those doors.
Richey Jones: I don’t think you can predict. You kind of do have to prayerfully go with your instincts, and if you think someone is talented and you have an idea for them, you can’t listen to all of the other outside voices – the agencies, the studios, the people who tell you you’re crazy. “Why are you spending time developing for that person?
FD: There are always reasons not to do stuff.
Richey Jones: That’s exactly right.
Todd Jones: And I will say, the flip side of it, which is interesting, too, is if you have an idea and you are set on the ideas you have, but the agency, the producers, the star brings you an idea that you wouldn’t necessarily do, you need to be open to that. In the same way that you have ideas that you’re passionate about, you’re not Movie God. You don’t necessarily sit on the throne and say, ‘Hollywood is going to be my oyster.’ I think that it is a collaborative business. A lot of these projects that we work on, if you’d asked me, is this my passion project that I woke up thinking I was going to do? No. But when they pitched it, I knew exactly what that is. I know exactly what that movie is and I can write that. I know the scenes, I know the character, I know the world. Sometimes you inherit things, you have to be open to things that are not necessarily yours. You have to be open to adoption.
FD: So what you’re saying is, it’s a job. It’s a real job. It’s not the fantasy of being a writer.
Richey Jones: It’s definitely a real job that you need to put in real hours. People say, ‘You don’t have a nine-to-five.’ Well, I have, a nine-to-twelve midnight. There are many times when everybody else comes home from work and their work day has ended and ours just hasn’t. That takes some getting used to, but I think that’s part of the grind. You have to be willing – It’s like being in business for yourself. The job is done when you’re finished working. So sometimes that may mean you have to stay up when everyone else goes to bed.
Todd Jones: Writers write. I think a lot of time you find that as writers, especially when you start getting paid, writers talk about writing, you know. And it’s easy to start talking about writing more than you’re actually writing.
Richey Jones: Good writers keep their butts in the seat till the hard work is done.
Todd Jones: And write. It’s hard. You get families. You get married. You get jobs.
Richey Jones: Life happens.
Todd Jones: Life starts to happen, and then, it’s harder to actually sit down in front of the blank screen.
FD: You gotta do it.
Todd Jones: You gotta do it. A writer, no matter how successful or unsuccessful you are, no matter if you’ve written ten movies, fifteen movies, the best writers, Aaron Sorkin, all those guys have to sit there and go, Fade in. You have to sit there, no matter who you are and –
Richey Jones: Do the work.
Todd Jones: Do the work. And rewrite and make it better. I think, that’s a lesson.
FD: That’s the lesson.
Todd Jones: You think it gets easier. It doesn’t get any easier in terms of coming up with ideas, in terms of creating characters, in terms of rewriting. It’s the same that it was the first day. Now, we may have a few more tricks in the bag now. We have a few more things we can pull from. We have a few more things that we’ve tried that we know didn’t work or we’ve been in an audience screening and we know that area made people laugh. So you have a few things that you can be a little more confident about, so in an emergency, when the snowball is literally behind you or the boulder is coming at you, you know, in a clinch, ninety percent chance, I know this joke will work. So you may be a little better about that, but at the end of the day, the process is the same. You have to have the same discipline you had when you started.
FD: I think that’s a pretty good lesson. I think that’s a good place to end it, too: great writers write.
Richey Jones: Good writers write.
FD: Hit it on the head there.
Todd Jones: It seems deep but – last thing, I think you also should be a student of not only your craft but life. I think that there’s a lot –
FD: We have a lot of life experience. A lot of people, they turn eighteen or twenty and go, Okay, I’m going to be a writer now. They don’t have the life experience to build from.
Todd Jones: And if you don’t, you’d better be a very good student at life. You’d better go to a coffee shop and just listen, listen to the conversations… How does some of this dialogue sound that’s from a completely different world than yours? This little child at the park talking to his mom… Go to a park and –
FD: Try not to be creepy about it.
Todd Jones: (laughs) No, but I mean listen to people’s conversations, talk to people you would never talk to, go to places and events you would never normally go to, maybe you should go and eat at restaurants in parts of town you would never normally travel in. I mean, you don’t have to travel to Italy or France, those places and those experiences are great but it’s expensive, and sometimes, it’s dangerous, so maybe you just –
FD: Go to a different part of town.
Richey Jones: Go to different parts of town.
Todd Jones: I think that’s –
Richey Jones: Important.
Todd Jones: Step outside your comfort zone. And I think that those experiences, even if you don’t write about those experiences, a lot of times those will inspire you to write about things that you’re passionate about, just as you confront other cultures, other people, other ideas.
FD: I think that’s a really great piece of advice. Thank you guys very much.
Richey Jones: Thank you.
Todd Jones: Hopefully that was helpful.
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