Spec Spotlight: Steve Altiere on COUNTDOWN
Countdown is a story about a boy fascinated by space travel who recruits his friends and an eccentric NASA engineer to hatch an unbelievable plan to try and save his dying father. Dean Devlin is attached to produce and direct.
Final Draft: How did you get into the entertainment industry?
Steve Altiere: I always wanted to be a screenwriter, or at least be a part of the business in some capacity, since I was nine or 10 years old. I studied screenwriting in college at Syracuse and I wrote my first couple of scripts there. Then I was working a day job in commercial video production in New York City and just writing 24/7. I had a writing partner at the time—my brother—and we would fly out to Los Angeles every few months and try to meet people to sort of determine if we could do it from New York. There was still a little bit of a film industry in New York; New Line had an office there, Miramax was there, and there were a couple of smaller production companies. But it was hard to do it from New York, so we would fly out to L.A. and try to meet people. We went to one of those pitch-marts, which they used to do. I don’t know if they still exist.
FD: I think they still do them in different versions.
SA: It was one of those things where the first two days were a seminar and lecture from screenwriters and on the third day you get to pitch to studios and production companies. You get like two minutes to make your case. We pitched a couple of ideas. But we already had probably seven or eight scripts that we had written over the course of maybe two years.
FD: That’s really prolific.
SA: Yeah, we wrote as much as we could. And then we met a manager named Jonathan Hung at the pitch-mart and we pitched him an idea. He really liked it and wanted writing samples. He read a couple of our samples and thought we could actually sell one. He said, “Why don’t you move to L.A. and give it six months? If you don’t sell anything, you can go back to your lives. If you do make a sale, then maybe we have something.”
FD: That sounds like a great proposition!
SA: Yeah, it was. We were young and naive enough to say, what the hell? I thought if I don’t sell anything, I’ll give up the dream and move back to New York. If I do sell something, I’ll just move back to New York and be a screenwriter from there. Crazily enough, Jonathan did sell one of our scripts to Warner Bros.—it was our first spec called Meddlers. Jonathan became our manager, got us a lawyer and an agent, and suddenly we were in the game. Of course, it’s never that easy. I don’t think we booked another job for a year or so. Still, we were out in Los Angeles and I haven’t had a day job since. My brother and I wrote together until about five or six years ago when we decided to go our separate ways and I’ve been writing solo ever since.
FD: So that original spec you sold, was it a different kind of story or genre than this one you sold now?
SA: Yeah. I started by mostly writing comedy and then transitioned into family films and animation. Meddlers was in March of 2000, it was an action-comedy. We sold a few other specs and pitches in that space and then we wrote a script called Gym Teacher: The Movie about 10 years ago. It was a live-action, edgy adult comedy and for some reason, Disney Animation happened to read it. We were given a two-year deal at DisneyToon Studios, a division at Disney Animation, and since then about 90 percent of my work has been in the family space, either in animation or live-action. I’ve written live action Scooby-Doo movies, a Cats and Dogs sequel, a Beethoven sequel, a Dr. Dolittle sequel, and I just found out I’m getting credit on a Woody Woodpecker movie. This new spec, Countdown, is sort of a sci-fi family drama, a bit different than most other things I’ve done.
FD: Was it a hard transition from comedy and animation to a more dramatic place?
SA: For me, it sort of felt like home, at least with this particular idea. One of my favorite movies of all time is Stand by Me. I watched it when I was a kid in the ‘80s and it was about kids in the ‘50s. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my era. It was just as real as anything else. That’s kind of what I wanted to do with Countdown. I wanted to write a film that had one foot in the family space but wasn’t to broad or silly —something with a little bit more of a drama and had more to say about the world, childhood, life, and things like that.
FD: Can you go through some of the stages of writing your spec to getting it to the point that is now and the rewrite processes you use?
SA: I’ve been doing this a while now… so I have routines. With Countdown, I outlined a lot. I probably spent months just outlining. Eventually, I get to a place where I know the story in my head. Then I just go to draft and figure it out on the page. When I’m in the first draft, I have a process where for the first half of the script, I start at the beginning every time. In the morning, I will start on page one and I will read what I have written all the way up to where I left off. That helps me build momentum. Once I get to page 50 or 60, it starts to take too long because I’m already two hours into my work day and I’m just starting to write new stuff. So once I hit 50 or 60 pages, I have the voice of the movie in my head, I know what I’m doing, and then I just start where I left off.
I try not to ever go backwards and rethink things. I try not to do any major surgery until I’m done. All the raw material is there; it’s just about making it work and flow.
FD: Do you have any plans for what you’re going to write next?
SA: I’m slowly figuring it out. I have a day job writing for television, which I love. I work as a Story Editor on animated shows. I just finished up a job on a Dreamworks Animation show called Dinotrux, which is a show for Netflix. I’m also working on a new show for them that I can’t talk much about because they haven’t announced it yet.
My short-term goal in features is getting Countdown ready to shoot. I want to make that project great. But my list of “next projects” gets longer and longer every year. One of the reasons I wrote Countdown was because, honestly, I was unsure what to write at the time. I had stopped working with my brother and I really wasn’t sure what to write. I came up with 10 ideas and I would talk to my wife, my friends, and my manager, bounce ideas off them, and ask which one of these do you think will sell, which is never the right question to ask. It ultimately came down to me asking myself: What’s the one I’m afraid to write? And it became clear that was Countdown; it’s the project I really cared about. The other ones were ideas maybe to sell, but Countdown was different—it’s my favorite script I’ve ever written… so I’ll keep going forward trying to pursue the kinds of projects and ideas I really care about.
FD: Finally, what advice would you give to writers either starting out or have a finished spec that they’re trying to sell or use as a writing sample?
SA: The main thing, I guess, is really just to write as much as you possibly can. If you want to be a writer, then write as much as possible … every free second you have. But be smart about what you’re writing; write the stuff that speaks to you. Don’t worry so much about the market, at least when you are starting out. Definitely give your scripts to your friends and get feedback, but wait until you feel like you have a sample that really sings before you start knocking on doors of managers and agents—some of these people you only get one shot with. Great writing will show through, and there’s especially now such a need for writers, specifically in TV and animation. There’s such a demand for people who know how to put a good story on the page.
Working in both live-action and animation, Steve Altiere has written for just about every major film studio and family TV network, including animated features for Fox Animation, Blue Sky, and a division of Disney Animation, TV pilots for Comedy Central, Cartoon Network and The Hub, as well as various other projects around town. The two “Scooby Doo” prequels he wrote for Cartoon Network are among the highest-rated programs in the network’s history and the animated feature he developed for Lionsgate “Norm of the North” was released in January 2016.
Steve has a particular specialty with animated series and toy-based properties, recently wrapping up a stint as Story Editor on “Dinotrux”, an Emmy-award winning series for Dreamworks Animation/Netflix that spawned a successful toy line for Mattel. He’s currently Story Editor on a new as-yet-unannounced animated series for Dreamworks/Netflix that will launch in 2018.
On the feature front, his upcoming projects include a sequel to the 2015 Warner Bros/MGM hero dog story “Max” that’s set for release in 2017, a “Woody Woodpecker” hybrid feature he developed for Universal, and his coming-of-age spec “Countdown” was recently set up at Electric Entertainment with Dean Devlin attached to direct.