|Keys to the Kingdom
Ever feel like Cinderella? You slave away at your computer day after day in anonymity waiting for Prince Miramax to rescue you. Locked out, nose pressed to the window, you watch as others dine and dance at the Hollywood Ball.
Meet a couple of master locksmiths.
Troy Hunter and Geof Miller didn’t wait for an invitation to the party; they crafted their own set of keys. The good news is, they think you can too.
For Hunter (left) and Miller (right) the tumblers finally turned when their script Keys to the Kingdom took first at the 2007 Austin Heart of Film Screenplay Competition in the science-fiction category. Thanks to the win, they now have seats at the table.
For Miller, it’s his second chance to attend the ball. He started writing for major studios and independent producers 20 years ago. His studio credits include Deepstar Six and House IV. After his stint in Hollywood, Miller produced two low-budget feature films, Lovers Lane and Shredder, both of which are in distribution worldwide. He also works regularly as a script development consultant for Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions in Seattle. At Vulcan, he’s read and provided feedback on over 900 hundred scripts including Hard Candy, Bickford Schmeckler’s Cool Ideas and Where God Left His Shoes.
Troy Hunter, an attorney, used his legal knowledge to jump start his screenwriting career by acquiring the rights to a novel. He adapted The Iron Men by best-selling author Leondard B. Scott into his first feature script. Hunter eventually joined Miller in teaching at the University of Washington screenwriting program. A program the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association calls “the most comprehensive, rigorous screenwriting course north of Los Angeles”¹
The pair now has various projects in development, but it’s Keys to the Kingdom that’s pushing up their stock in Hollywood. Their aptly-named Austin winner is a high-action, dark comedy thriller about a ragtag group of thieves who get caught up in a bet between God and the Devil, and must steal five religious artifacts in the course of one night.
SceneZine caught up with Hunter and Miller at home in Seattle and asked for tips on picking the lock to Hollywood.
SZ: Geof and Troy, congratulations on your win at Austin! Thanks for agreeing to chat with SceneZine today.
TH: Our pleasure.
SZ: Let’s get to the good stuff first. Tell us what it's like after they called your name. How did it feel? Did women swoon? Did producers court you? Were you invited to dine with celebrities? Dish, please...
GM: The women weren’t swooning, but Troy was. It felt really good and a bit surreal. And yes, we got a lot of attention, even before we won. Just being a finalist put us in the top half of one percent of the 4,000 scripts that were entered, so producers and execs paid closer attention to us this year than they did last year, when we were second rounders with KINGSBURY RUN and DAYBREAKERS. Some of the judges were very complimentary about the script, which was nice. They seemed thrilled we’d written it and really wanted it to win even if there was no way they were ever going to be involved with the project. It really brought home to me that a lot of people are in this business because they love movies. Once we won, a lot more people knew who we were, which was also nice and bit bizarre. That night at dinner, someone bought us a $300 bottle of wine to celebrate, so I guess I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.
TH: It’s like in a movie when they cut the sound and all you hear is your heartbeat. I saw Geof standing next to me smiling, so I figured we must have won. I get to the podium and look down at Oliver Stone clapping for us, and I think, “Crap, what do I do now?” It was just very surreal. But then your feet touch ground and you realize everyone is very happy that you won. They genuinely felt the script deserved to win. Geof and I put a lot of time and effort into that script, WE knew it was good but it was really great to hear other people say it... and mean it! I guess the best moment for me was when the Development Executive for Miramax came up to me, handed me her card and said, “Congratulations. Call me.”
SZ: Geof, you’re a credited screenwriter and successful development consultant. Why take on a partner, and why Troy in particular?
GM: I resisted for quite a while. He first approached me about working together when he was still a student of mine, and I basically said, in a nice way, “Go away, Kid, you bother me.” Actually, I’m not sure how nice I really was. But he persisted over the next year or so. Every once in a while he’d say “what about this?” and finally he pitched an idea that caught my attention. By then, I had realized he was persistent and canny; two really good qualities to have in a writing partner. So we agreed to write an extensive treatment for a script, and I warned him that it might work and it might not–writing chemistry is elusive and beyond either writer’s control. It works or it doesn’t. The process worked so well that we immediately jumped into planning and writing a whole slate of scripts. Why take on a partner? Because writing is such a Godawful and grisly thing to do on your own. I’m not a guy who enjoys sitting in a room by himself, slowly going mad. I need to bounce stuff off someone else. It’s also a great way to bring discipline to your writing schedule–you can’t screw off when you know the other guy is waiting for some work out of you. And the friendly competition between us makes the script better—can I top something Troy wrote? Why Troy in particular? Because he makes it possible for me to be a much better writer. Our writing chemistry is excellent. We have enough overlap in our thinking that it’s easy for us to get on the same page, but are different enough in approach that we complement each other—he’s strong where I’m weak and vice-versa. Plus our personalities mesh well—even at the height of a vigorous “discussion” there’s never any hard feelings.
TH: Basically, I wouldn’t let him say, “no.”
SZ: Troy, you’re an attorney at a prestigious firm in Seattle. I’d ask you why bother to get involved in the highly speculative world of screenwriting, but given Geof’s comments, and the events of the last week, I’ll just say “good choice.” Any plans to quit your day job?
TH: Are the other partners at the firm going to read this? No, no plans to quit just yet. Although it would be nice to have a few more hours in the day. Honestly, I got involved in screenwriting as a creative outlet. I used to be a professional photographer and have always written poetry, short stories, etc. I grew up loving film and writing a screenplay just seemed like a natural progression.
SZ: Two of your other scripts, Daybreakers and Kingsbury Run, placed highly, but didn’t win, in the Open Door Contest and Scriptapalooza—and at Austin. What do you think put Keys to the Kingdom over the top?
GM: I have no idea. Well, okay. I think that KEYS is a better script than DAYBREAKERS. And it’s more distinctive in tone and approach than KINGSBURY RUN, which is more conventional in how it approaches the story. Why did we win? Luck, first and foremost, starting with Troy’s decision to submit it to Austin. Well, that was lucky for me, good thinking on his part. We were lucky that a first- or second-round reader didn’t pass on it because it wasn’t their sort of story. I think the other reason is that KEYS is the script we wanted to write—it breaks a lot of so-called rules in the ways it combines humor and darkness. On the surface, it’s light as a feather, but look just below that surface and there’s some dark, even twisted stuff going on. That, plus we busted our asses to write a script that would entertain, surprise and delight the reader on every page.
TH: By the way, the script started out as a teen slasher film called SCAVENGER HUNT, that I pitched to Geof during one of our brainstorm sessions. His relentless questions about, what are they after, who’s killing them, why, why, why, eventually lead to the story that is KEYS. And it’s light years away from a teen slasher flick. It just shows that you can’t come to any creative process locked into preconceived notions of what you think the story is. You have to be willing to ask and answer hard questions and be open to the answers—which is another great reason to have a really strong writing partner.
SZ: Do you write differently for a contest than if you're submitting to a producer?
GM: We didn’t. We wrote it to submit to producers. And I’m convinced KEYS won because we wrote the script to entertain us and an audience of people who love the types of movies we love. Jim Cameron said he made THE ABYSS because he wanted to see that movie. That’s why we wrote KEYS.
TH: We constantly tell students, “your job, first and foremost, is to entertain.” It’s easy to get stuck in the details of plot and forget about entertaining the reader and the audience. The people we talked to in Austin seemed to genuinely enjoy reading the script. One first round judge, who had to read dozens of scripts, said she started reading KEYS at 10:00 p.m., exhausted and tired of reading, but she couldn’t put it down. That is the best compliment anyone can give.
SZ: For a contest, how important is the logline and fitting into the right genre?
GM: All I can say is “God bless the Austin” because they have genre categories. It seems like with some of the other competitions, genre scripts—and I’m a genre writer, through and through—have a hard time competing against more “personal” stories. Or maybe I’m just sour grapes because we never cracked those contests. The logline is vital. If you can’t write your story idea on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear grasp of your idea. Having said that, there’s more leeway in many contests because the readers and judges are looking for something off the beaten path. My worry would be that I’d win the contest, the judges would praise me for my sensitive personal story—and I wouldn’t get any work out of it, because I hadn’t demonstrated that I could take my personal energy and funnel it into something the industry knew how to make and sell. Make no mistake: KEYS is extremely personal. Even though it’s about a gang of thieves that gets crosswise between God and the Devil, and none of the events in the script ever happened to either of us, it reflects our beliefs about a lot of things, starting with God’s relationship with mankind. It was Troy who figured out that one of the central relationships in the script is based on my relationship with my daughter. So it’s personal. It’s also action-packed, funny and more than a little over the top.
TH: Genre can be a twin-edged sword. One finals judge in Austin eliminated one script because he felt it didn’t satisfy the dictates of the genre. So know what your story is and what it isn’t and target it accordingly. This is true for any marketing that you are going to do with your script. Research and knowledge are your keys to success. Know where you should go with the script and who you should talk to. Too many times we’ve heard the story of someone pitching their script idea for a serial killer movie to Pixar. Square peg. Round hole.
SZ: Would you recommend that writers tailor their scripts to a particular contest?
GM: No. On a spec script you should never “tailor” the material to a particular contest, particular studio or particular producer. How can you? You don’t know what they’re really thinking. Trying to write to a single buyer is one big mistake that new writers make. The other mistake is failing to take into account if the story idea is right for turning into a movie in the first place. Maybe it is, or maybe it’s a novel, or a play or a song or a line of iambic pentameter. Same thing with contests. Is the story right for a contest? If it isn’t, don’t submit it. If your five-year plan is to win a contest, maybe you shouldn’t write any scripts that have no contest potential—save those story ideas for later. Which is why you need a lot of story ideas. Which is another good reason to have a writing partner.
TH: If there’s a genre specific contest, like Screamfest, and you are writing horror films because you like that genre and you’re good at it, then it is a natural match. But if Screamfest is coming up and you’ve been writing sensitive coming-of-age dramas, don’t feel like you have to crank out a horror script for that festival. Write what you love, what entertains you, and find the right place for it rather than the other way around. It will reveal itself in the final product.
SZ: What is the most memorable scene in Keys and why?
GM: I don't have a "most memorable". We tried to make a lot of scenes memorable for different reasons. I love the strip club scene because Honey is such a fun character (and she looks great in a patent leather minidress!) The moment when Grunt tries to convince Morris they're on the wrong side of the fight breaks my heart because of his absolute faith in this very flawed person. The scene where Trina realizes her culpability, and sacrifices herself for her friends is such a big moment for her. For sheer fun, you can't beat a two-ton block of concrete being towed through (and destroying) a sleepy little village. There's at least a dozen more. Then again, my list of "Ten Favorite Movies" is about 100 movies long, so maybe I just have trouble picking favorites.
TH: The nature of the story, stealing four religious artifacts in the course of one night, lent itself to episodic writing. So Geof and I decided to leapfrog sequences. He'd write one robbery then I'd try to up the ante with the next one. My favorite scene arose out of this series of one-upmanship. Our gang of thieves ends up towing a 3-foot cube of concrete behind a Hummer as they are being chased by guys on motorcycles. They rip through a sleepy down and DESTROY it with the swinging concrete pendulum. I can't read that scene without smiling. It's a scene I can't wait to see on the big screen. If it's a scene between characters, just about any scene with Mister Barabbas in it kills me. Some actor is going to have a great time with this poor shambling servant of Satan.
SZ: What’s the single most important thing a writer can do to improve their chances of winning in a contest?
GM: Write the very best script you can on every level. Never settle for “good enough.” Your job is to entertain. Care deeply about every character—and then torture the crap out of them. And take some chances with your material; dare to be a little different, within the discipline of the form. At Austin, Nicholas Kazan talked about the 1988 writers strike and how during it, he wrote a spec script about the founding of Mexico. After the strike was over, Disney snapped it up, which made him scratch his head. The exec told him “After the strike, we got 600 buddy-cop movie specs—and yours.” It’s the same with festivals: the readers and judges have seen it all before. Give them something they haven’t seen. One judge told us our script was exceptional—which was very nice to hear. So I guess the answer is, “Be exceptional.”
TH: Did you just quote AMERICAN BEAUTY? I would add to that, by saying you have to be open to growth. This is a never-ending process of learning the craft. I am a lawyer and you never stop learning the law. I think that’s why they call it “practicing” law. It is an ever-changing construct. You can master the basics of screenwriting—form and structure, but mastering the fine art of storytelling is a lifelong pursuit. When we went to Austin last year as second rounders, we went to the script library where they kept the finalist scripts. We read the finalists to get a sense of what made them finalists. We tried to learn from that.
SZ: How does the looming specter of a writer's strike affect your win? What happens next for Hunter Miller?
GM: Obviously, it’s a challenge. There are some big issues at stake. Ultimately, our career will grow by building strong relationships with the right people; people who love our writing. That’s what we’re doing right now. That’s what we’ll keep on doing until we get a sale, or better yet, an assignment.
TH: If you’re lucky, the script may open doors, but it’s up to the writer to nurture those relationships. The business of movie-making is all about relationships. Several years ago I pitched an idea to an executive from Sony. She said the script wasn’t right for her, but I got a referral to a producer friend who might be interested. On her referral, the producer read the script, and it wasn’t right for him either but he liked the writing. We followed up with a meeting with him in L.A. several weeks later and just continued to nurture that relationship. He has read every script we’ve written and finally found one that was right for him and right now he is championing it around Hollywood. What’s next for us? Hopefully more of the same.