“Los Angeles is the place to go to reinvent yourself”
Kevin Lee Miller, an American with Austrian roots, was one of three grand-prize winners in the 2009 Final Draft Big Break screenplay competition for his script “TRIGGER MOM.” German-World Magazine interviewed him exclusively about his career as an emerging writer in Hollywood.
GW: First, congratulations. There were over 3,000 submissions and only three grand-prize winners. How does it feel to be in the top one-tenth of one percent?
KM: Winning the Big Break contest has been like traveling on a starship at warp speed. One second I was in a galaxy where I sat alone in a room with my computer and a bunch of people I made up in my head. The next second, I was in an alternate universe at a glamorous party where managers, agents and producers were asking to be introduced to my imaginary friends.
My career perspective really shifted when the awards event allowed me to meet Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”, “Days of Thunder”, “Mission Impossible”). I’m a huge fan and he was there to be inducted into the Final Draft Hall of Fame. As I was shaking the hand that wrote the immortal line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” I realized even though he was being honoured for fifty years of genius and I was there for just one script, I had become more than just Mr. Towne’s admirer. I was on my way to becoming a colleague.
GW: What is your script about?
KM: On the surface, it’s about a police detective who discovers his loving mother has been hiding her secret life as a mob assassin. The story asks the question, “Are you absolutely sure everything your parents have ever told you about themselves is true?”
But there’s a more universal underlying theme about how we all view our parents. When we’re young, they’re gods with power over life and death. Then, at some point, we realize they’re just people. That realization can be both disappointing and freeing. And that leads to the second theme in the story; appreciating life’s blessings. Sure, his mom’s a killer, but she’s also the only person in the world who loves him unconditionally. In essence, he realizes that when she says she would kill for him, she means it. It’s a story that says life’s disappointments may be shattering, but without them, life’s joys would lose their shine.
GW: This is not your first job in the entertainment industry?
KM: I’ve been around the entertainment industry my whole life. I got my first acting job when I was 18-months old. Since then, I’ve taught acting, been an editor, a producer, a director and an advertising executive. I hear these kinds of career shifts are becoming the norm. Some say the average person will change careers seven times over the course of their life. And nowhere is that more true than in Hollywood. It’s the place to reinvent yourself.
Starting a new career is a challenge, but it’s also a chance to expand your mind and redefine the way you look at the world. Each time I’ve tackled a new aspect of the business, I’ve faced a new learning curve. Despite all my previous experience, the same was true for writing. I’ve worked full-time for four years studying the craft of writing. At times I’ve wondered if I should quit telling stories and get a real job. Winning the Big Break contest reminds me that storytelling is a real job.
GW: What does it take nowadays to be a scriptwriter?
KM: The competition is staggering. To rise to the top of the pile, you can’t just write a good script, it has to be great. And that script has to be based on a truly compelling, unique idea. With over 100 years of cinema history in the rear-view mirror, it’s not easy to come up with a concept audiences haven’t seen before. That’s why studios turn to franchises with pre-existing audience appeal like Harry Potter or Spider-man. And, as studios focus more and more on pre-existing source material, there’s less and less room for original concepts. The primary exception is television. That’s where some of the best original writing is showing up these days.
With so many variables out of my control, I knew I needed to focus on something I could control. So I took classes, went to seminars, joined writers groups and read every book I could get my hands on. I don’t measure the screenwriting books in my library by the number of volumes anymore. I measure them by how many feet of shelf space they take up. I had to read six feet of books to get any comfort with the process of writing. Then, I had to settle for writing a good script and learn how to make it great.
GW: What is the difference between a script doctor and a script writer?
KM: The writer is the person who creates the first draft of a script. If that writer is lucky, when that script is turned into a movie, they get the “written by” credit you see on the screen. But, there’s often no telling how many other writers contributed something to the final script that was used to shoot that movie. From the time a script is optioned to the time it goes into production, it could go through the computers of as many as 50 different writers. When a studio is spending millions of dollars on a movie, they want to guarantee the script is perfect.
Some writers are so adept at nursing ailing scripts back to health they’re called script doctors. Getting back to the topic of reinventing yourself, one of the most famous script doctors in town is Carrie Fisher, formerly Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” movies. Robert Towne is another one, having doctored many scripts including a key scene in “The Godfather”. These writers get paid lots of money to fix other people’s writing. They work under incredible pressure and earn every penny they make.
GW: Why then, with so many talented writers perfecting a single script, do movies seem to be getting worse? Is it because, “too many cooks spoil the broth?”
KM: There have been bad movies written by one person and great movies on which twenty or more people participated in the writing. Scripts are unique in literature because a completed script is not a finished piece of art; the movie made from the script is the completed artwork. Hundreds of people contribute to that process; the cinematographer, the editor, the composer, the costumer, etc. All of their work affects the audience’s final emotional response to the movie. In essence, they are all authors of the final work. With so many variables in play, it’s truly magical when a finished film delivers a satisfying emotional experience. There’s a lot of money on the line, but in the end, filmmaking is still art, not science.
GW: Any advice to aspiring screenwriters?
KM: Since I’m still an aspiring screenwriter myself, I can only answer that question by turning to a recent interview with Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”, “Last Action Hero”, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”). Black says you have to come to Los Angeles. He believes that it’s the fierceness of a writer’s personality in tandem with his work that convinces Hollywood executives to take a chance on untested talent. He goes on to say you can’t just show up with some cool ideas to share. You have to have at least two scripts that represent your best work.
I got really lucky. I have an unflinchingly supportive wife. I’m surrounded by friends and colleagues who want to see me succeed. For me, that’s the environment I need to do my best work. Then, it’s up to me to sit my butt down every single day and write. Just like any other craft, writing takes hundreds of hours of practice to develop any sort of facility. After that, it’s a matter of discovering your unique voice so you have something to sell that no one else has. And last, you have to have something you want to say; something you feel so passionate about that you’re willing to do all the work it takes to turn that idea into an entertaining story.
GW; There are so many contests out there, which one would you suggest submitting to?
KM: For writers living outside of Los Angeles, contests are a great way to open doors in Hollywood. Some of the bigger competitions, like Final Draft and Creative Screenwriting Magazine, actually fly winners to town, put them up for a few days and take them to meetings with agents, managers and producers. A major contest win can be a great calling card.
But contests can be expensive to enter, so the key is finding the right contests for your particular script. Make sure the contest is going to serve your current goals. If you’re looking for some script notes, many contests offer feedback. If your script falls clearly within a certain genre, like Horror, look for contests that focus on that genre or contests that divide their entries into genres. There’s nothing wrong with local contests if they help build your confidence and connect you with the local writing community. The bottom line is you have to do your research and find the right fit.
GW: What do your Austrian roots mean to you?
KM: My paternal great-grandfather was a White Russian who fought against the Soviet Red Army in the Russian civil war. At some point, probably after beating a hasty retreat, he wound up in Austria, where he married my great-grandmother. They emigrated to America, specifically New York City, which is where the Millers stayed until my folks came to Los Angeles in the late 1950s to reinvent themselves. I’m delighted to imagine I might still have long-lost family somewhere in Austria. If any of them would like to meet up when I visit, I would be thrilled to re-establish connection.
GW: What would you still like to achieve?
It’s said that most people don’t want to write; they want to have written. For me it’s the other way around. I love the process. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. All the pieces have to fit together just the right way and give the audience a great emotional experience. Once the script is done, I can’t wait to move on to the next so that I can keep writing. It’s the most wonderful thing I can think of doing and if it eventually allows me to put a roof over my family’s head, then I’ll be in heaven.
Kevin Lee Miller’s scripts have repeatedly won praise including awards from Final Draft’s Big Break competition, Fade In Magazine and the Houston International Film Festival. In past lives, he edited 40 network specials, was creative director for an ad agency, produced a feature-length John Lennon documentary and supervised the creation of 60 hours of DVD bonus materials for Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
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