Spec Spotlight: Luke Paradise, Writer of “The Prodigal”

Jun 13, 2017 | Interviews

What happens when a kid from Arizona devours westerns, crime novels, and comic books? If you’re Luke Paradise, you write The Prodigal, about a soldier who returns to his hometown, Tucson, for revenge against the military corporation responsible for his brother’s murder. The spec script sold recently to Chris Morgan Productions and Voltage Pictures.

Paradise has always had a “film noir-ish backstory about two brothers, a criminal father, and some horrible thing happens in their childhood. One brother gets in the car with the father, and the other brother doesn’t get in the car. It becomes a Mystic River idea of the kid that gets in that car—it changes the entire trajectory of his life.

“It’s very much a modern-day western” with explosive, action set-pieces. Paradise admits, “I would only write westerns all the time” if westerns made a comeback.

The revenge-driven action of comics and the Arizona deserts and mountains dovetailed with his long-held image of a brother returning home on a bus. The outsourcing of America’s overseas’ military presence figures in with The Prodigal’s Blackwater-type antagonist. Paradise’s noir proclivities were shaped by novelists like Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard. “You end up inadvertently pulling from everything that you ever loved.”

The “bad exception” to the rule, Paradise maintains a successful writing career from outside Hollywood. Based in Tucson, he makes the one-hour-and-change flight to Los Angeles several times a month. The standard of living is more affordable, and refundable fares help with delayed or cancelled meetings.

Paradise never wrote creatively until after college. Before he and his wife committed to house and family, “my wife would ask, ‘What would you like to do if you could do anything right now?’” His awe of his partner shines clearly. “Without my wife, I never would have even tried to become a writer.”

He studied every script, screenwriting book, and podcast he could find and, of course, wrote and rewrote endlessly. An outsider in Arizona in the pre-Black List service era, Paradise purchased the Hollywood Directory, which lists every representative in L.A. and New York.

“During my lunch break, I’d go down the list from A to Z and ask them, whoever answered the phone, if they accepted unsolicited screenplays.” Most did not, but a few did. After completing a script, Paradise would query-blast them.

It was “demoralizing,” with his first round of queries garnering roughly a three-percent acceptance rate. And that did not even signify a “yes” to the script. “It just means that we’re intrigued by your logline and your query letter enough … you have our permission to send it.”

But he trended upward, and his third script landed him a manager and an option. Later, a producer he worked with introduced him to agents. Reps were relieved that Paradise had no ambitions to direct. “It’s hard enough just to sell a script, period,” much less sell it with the client attached as director.

Life is more complicated with a mortgage and three children aged five and under. “They just got up from their quiet time and barged in here, and then my wife grabbed them and pulled them out,” Paradise chuckles at one point during the interview.

Until a few years ago, Paradise juggled family, writing, and a full-time job. He would wake at four o’clock, write until six, have breakfast with his kids, go to work all day, then come home and put his kids—and himself—to bed.

Achieving that precious balance is possible. “But you sacrifice something, no matter what. Going to bed at eight o’clock right after the kids go down is a sacrifice. So there’s a give-and-take, always.”

Now able to write full-time, Paradise writes in the mornings and works on research or pitches in the afternoon. He discovered he gets “pretty sapped after three to four hours of writing. That’s five pages of writing.”

He draws inspiration from “a nonstop influx of things”: reading several books simultaneously, playing audiobooks while driving, watching films, and following interesting Twitterers. “I’m writing an idea right now that came from a link I clicked on at Twitter.”

Consuming information streams with the intent of cobbling together a story is not effective, he warns. Instead, take in naturally interesting material. “Eventually, all the stuff that’s ping-ponging around in your head will explode together, and you’ll figure out what your next script should be.”

Paradise’s advice couldn’t get more concrete: Read The War of Art by acclaimed novelist Steven Pressfield. “If you’re struggling to complete something, then I think that’s a book that is a great creative shot in the arm.”

He cautions people to consider carefully before taking on free work as their careers start rolling. “The mistake I’ve made in the past is spending so much of my time working on pitches and working on treatments,” Paradise says. “I probably would have written at least five, six or seven more screenplays had I said ‘no’ to some of those things.”

Going after assignments via pitches and treatments is a necessary part of a screenwriter’s job, certainly. But most projects fizzle out in development or go to someone else, leaving the screenwriter with a pile of unpaid prep work for a dead project.

“The things that have really moved the needle in my career have been my completed scripts, not a pitch I worked on with a studio or a big executive.” Paradise’s spec Origin opened many doors to assignments and key professional relationships. “Even if something doesn’t sell, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t worth it.”

He emphasizes a common refrain: that writers should constantly write and improve their craft because that’s the only aspect of their career they can control. “If you focus on—every day—waking up and writing and doing your work, I think you’ll last a lot longer in this career because it’s a really, really hard career.”

Paradise is working on a number of original projects, including a television pilot, a female-led action feature, and Sympathy for the Devil, a spec in development with 3311 Films.

“For the foreseeable future, I’m very happy being home with my kids and writing. It’s just about my favorite thing on earth anyway.”

Asmara Bhattacharya

Screenwriter / Playwright / Script Reader

Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. More can be found on her website: www.dickflicks.net or follow her on Twitter @hotpinkstreak