Spec Spotlight: Calvin Starnes Talks Transitioning from Grip Department to Spec Script Sales
FD: How did you get started in the entertainment industry?
Calvin Starnes: I kind of stumbled into it. My major in college was Political Science. But, in my junior year I randomly took a Super 8 class, which ultimately led me to an internship at this small art-house theater. After that I started working on low-budget movies and student films. And whenever a big movie or commercial would come through town, I would go work on that as a Production Assistant. I did that for a couple of years then eventually moved to Los Angles and worked as an Assistant Director for about a year. But, then I got an opportunity to switch to the Grip Department and did that for a long time. I only started writing a handful of years ago.
FD: You have great credits in both film and television, from The Hangover to Parks and Recreation. What was that like for you over the years?
CS: At first it is every bit as exciting as you would think it would be. But, as the years ticked by it became a grind and the long hours eventually drove me to want to leave. But, I would never take it back. There was a lot to love. I met a lot of amazing people. I got to go to places I never would have gone or even been allowed to go. And I got to do and see some really cool stuff.
Plus, coming from the production world helps me as a writer. I’d recommend to all writers, if you have an opportunity, definitely get some time on set. It’s going to translate to a greater understanding of what your written words mean. If you write “the little girl and her dog are lost at sea during a raging sea-storm” then it helps to know what that means in terms of budget.
You have a kid, so now you have restricted working hours and have to hire a teacher. You have an animal, so you need an AHS rep and an animal wrangler. Is it a water tank? Or is it the actual ocean? Wind and rain machines? Marine coordinator? Visual effects? And on and on. If you know how sets work and movies are made, it gives you a better ability to write to budget. Not to the dollar obviously, but having an awareness makes you a better writer, especially when dealing with executives who might be asking you to cut money out of your script.
FD: How did the transition to writing happen?
CS: One night my wife and I were watching 28 Days Later and during the scene when Jim is running up the stairs screaming “DON’T LEAVE ME!” to Selena with the Infected right behind them; pretty much the scariest thing imaginable; and my wife turns to me and asks, “You wouldn’t leave me behind would you?” I looked at her like she was crazy and said “Are you watching the same movie I am?! Of course I would leave you!” Joking, of course.
After that we started talking about, “If you got zombified I’d keep you in the backyard” or “If you went to jail, I’d break you out.” We went through all the things that we would do for one another and that’s how the idea for my first script, which ultimately landed at Screen Gems, was born.
And through the course of that experience I thought, “OK maybe I can take a shot at a career in writing”. I didn’t give up my day job straight away, but as I began to have a little more success and get more traction, I was finally able to say, “OK, I’m going to do it full time”.
FD: Your first script for Screen Gems was also a Heist film. Can you talk a little about that interest?
CS: The first one, I had no idea what I was doing, so I just kind of jumped in. Didn’t do an outline, didn’t do anything. Just said, “I’m going to write a script”. To say I wrote with a focus on character would be false because I didn’t know what that even meant. Looking back though, I remember loving writing the character stuff the most. The set pieces were cool, but telling her story was the most fun.
My next script was a heist/car movie. And the script that just went out was about international jewel thieves. After that I said, “No more heist movies!” But, I found myself wanting to tell this story about an older married couple who were retired bank robbers. And all I really wanted to do was just write about this married couple and their journey through this part of their life. But, it also happened to take place in a heist movie. Apparently, I have a thing for heist movies.
FD: Can you talk about those first steps you took towards getting representation and getting your work out there?
CS: I queried. I got my script to a point I was happy with, although as a first time writer, it was nowhere near ready. I made the classic rookie mistake of thinking “Oh, they’ll get it or they won’t.” My older self is slapping my younger self on the nose.
I sent out a lot of queries, but only a handful of people requested it. And the only legitimate person was the manager I’m still with at Circle of Confusion. He requested it and a couple of weeks later called me and said he liked it. It needed work, but he had an executive at DiBonaventura who was looking for something like what I had written. Then through the process of developing and trying to sell the script with DiBonaventura attached, I landed an agent as well.
FD: What was the rewriting process like?
CS: I can’t remember my process writing the first script before I sent it out. I just wrote and wrote until I was sick of writing and then said, “Done.” At the time, I don’t think I even had readers beyond my wife. I didn’t even really get feedback from anyone before I sent out that initial draft. And I don’t say any of this as a good thing.
For me, feedback and notes are such an important part of my process. Maybe when you’ve been writing for years and years as a “working writer” then, okay, you’re veteran enough to know what you’re doing without notes. But, early on in your career I think it’s so important as you’re learning your craft. That honest, truthful feedback you get from outside sources can elevate your writing, whereas when you’re writing in a vacuum with yourself as your only critic then you are limiting your chance to grow.
Anyway, after my script landed at DiBonaventura I got notes from them. Then once it was optioned at Screen Gems I was getting notes from both DiBonaventura and Screen Gems. Sometimes it works in perfect harmony. And sometimes you have to navigate choppy political waters when you get conflicting notes. Luckily it was the former for me. But, that was definitely getting tossed into the deep end. Going from next to no experience to having to parse notes from executives who do this every day. You find your way. And if you don’t, you drown.
FD: What do you plan to work on next?
CS: A few things, but I’m most excited about a contemporary Sci-fi/Fantasy feature. I’m pitching it as Lone Survivor meets The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but with no talking animals… and nothing gets stolen.
FD: What inspires you to keep writing?
CS: I don’t care if I’m famous. And obviously getting paid is nice, but I don’t do this solely for money. But, what I really want to do is write a movie that someone stays up until three in the morning watching for the millionth time because they just love the hell out of it. To write a movie that people love and watch over and over again would be amazing. And if you write something where people create fan art or cosplay or do themed parties around it; that just seems like the coolest thing to me.
FD: Do you have any other films or shows that have inspired you along the way?
CS: Heat. Heat was my touchstone writing the first movie. It didn’t make it into the script, and not that I even think that I could replicate what Mann did, but I just kept thinking of that gun battle through the streets of L.A. And I wanted my characters, who were women, to have their version of that. It was that world and that movie, definitely.
Just off the top of my head… Shawshank Redemption, Training Day, True Romance, The Godfather, Boyz N The Hood, Aliens, Die Hard, Matrix. I could go on all day. My most recent favorite is Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s definitely one I can’t not watch when it’s on. That movie just punches you in the face and makes you remember, “Oh, yeah. This is why I love movies.”
FD: What advice would you give to younger writers?
CS: It’s OK to admit you don’t know everything. It’s OK to doubt yourself. It’s OK to ask for help. And just know that there are going to be dark days. Days that are going to make you want to say, “What the fuck am I doing?” Or even, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” You have to push through that. You have to hold your nerve and stay on target and just keep going. This is a hard job and it is not for the faint of heart. Swing for the fences, but definitely try to go in with eyes wide open and with realistic expectations.