CUT TO: Matt Manfredi

J.C. had the chance to chat with Matt Manfredi earlier this year at the 13th Annual Nashville Screenwriters Conference, and Matt (lucky for us!) happily agreed to be harassed via e-mail for this interview. Matt and his writing partner, Phil Hay, started their screenwriting career with the 2001 Kirsten Dunst film, crazy/beautiful, and have been working steadily in the industry ever since, including a half dozen currently in development properties. You can catch their next star-studded film, the action-comedy R.I.P.D. starring Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Bacon, in theaters next summer!

Q: First off, tell us a little about yourself. Who is Matt Manfredi?

A: Just some dude from Palos Verdes, California. I live in L.A. with my wife and daughter.

Q: When did you first become aware that films were actually made and that there was an entire machine and process behind what you were seeing on the screen?

A: I think it came from playing around with my friend’s super 8 camera… writing little spoofs, acting in them, being able to cut up the film and splice it back together.

Q: What was it, specifically, that drew you to the writing aspect of filmmaking?

A: I’ve just always enjoyed any kind of creative writing. I did a lot of theater in high school and college, wrote a lot skits and short plays, acted, did improv. Writing screenplays seemed like a natural extension of that… also there’s pretty much a concrete ceiling for 99% of improv actors. That said, the little (bad) acting I did, was tremendously helpful in terms of writing. I’m sure it’s been said before, but most aspiring writers would do well to take an acting class… it’ll develop your ear for dialogue, expose you to great scenes, great writing, and give you a better sense of what plays well and why.

I’m sure it’s been said before, but most aspiring writers would do well to take an acting class… it’ll develop your ear for dialogue, expose you to great scenes, great writing, and give you a better sense of what plays well and why.

Q: What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your approach or perspective on filmmaking?

A: I don’t remember the first screenplay I read. But… fairly early in my writing career, there was a magazine called Scenario: The Magazine of Screenwriting Art. They would publish four screenplays in every issue, each followed by an interview with the writer. And the writer chose which draft to publish, so it wouldn’t just be the transcribed shooting script. The thing that really fascinated me, though, was that the script was laid out in columns, as opposed to script pages… the signposts of screenplay structure (the page count) are gone, so you end up reading it as a story, a piece of fiction, rather than as a standard 120 page script, and evaluating it somewhat differently. At least I did. The scripts they chose were also great, so there was that.

Q: When you first started to learn the craft, did you read/study any how-to books on screenwriting, and if so, which ones did you find to be the most beneficial?

A: I read Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting to learn three act structure. That’s about it. I went to AFI, which bases itself on the conservatory model… rather than a number of how-to classes, the focus is on doing and getting critiqued by your peers. Writing and writing and getting critiqued (not just in school). I really think that’s the best way to learn.

Q: As a writer, how and where do you seek out inspiration? Alternatively, what really inspires you to write?

A: Watching great movies always inspires me, and makes me jealous, and sends me spiraling into a depression… which motivates me. Reading fiction, of course… seeing the different ways that language can be used. I don’t know. I tend to find inspiration in a lot of things… little things that I overhear, or read, or see. It comes from everywhere.

Q: What is your writing process like (i.e. schedule, outline, notecards, treatments, etc.)?

A: Phil and I treat it like a normal job. We’re in the office every day. We outline pretty meticulously, then we’ll split up scenes and write the draft. From there, we’re in a room together, editing… and editing…

Q: What software do you use and why?

A: We use Final Draft. It’s intuitive, has a number of useful templates, and generally stays out of your way and just lets you write.

Q: Once you’ve finished the first draft of a project, how many people, and who specifically, do you let read it?

A: If it’s a spec project, we have a number of good writer friends who will give us honest, useful feedback. If it’s an assignment, we usually give our producer or director first crack at it.

Watching great movies always inspires me, and makes me jealous, and sends me spiraling into a depression… which motivates me.

Q: As the old adage goes: writing is rewriting. How do you approach, and what is your process, in regard to rewriting?

A: Like I said, Phil and I do it together, in the same room, going through the script numerous times each draft. If we’re doing notes for someone, we’ll talk about what we need to change or create to address each note and do a little pass for each one, hitting all of the affected scenes. And then we go through it again… and again.

Q: What was your first produced screenplay and how did the project come into existence?

A: Our first produced script was At 17, which became crazy/beautiful.

Q: How long did it take you to write it; from the first word to the final draft?

A: I don’t remember. The first draft probably took us a few months. It was pretty much greenlit on that draft. We did a number of subsequent rewrites on it, but overall it was a pretty quick process.

Q: How did you sell it?

A: We sold it as a pitch, which still amazes me. A low budget, low concept, teen drama? Exactly the opposite of what usually sells to a studio. And in our original conception of it, Carlos (the male lead) dies. We were used to pitching comedies, where you have a good sense in the room of how you’re doing. People are laughing, there’s back-and-forth… instead, we’re in there pitching this downer: “And then… he dies.” Dead silence. But, they bought it.

Q: What was the process like once it was sold (i.e. any rewrites during production)?

A: We did a draft or two once the director (John Stockwell) was hired. John then did some work on the script. Toward the end of production, there were a couple new scenes the studio wanted, and Phil and I came back on to write those.

Q: What was it like to sit in a darkened theater with an audience and watch your words come to life for the first time on the big screen?

A: Short answer: It’s f*****g awesome.

Longer answer: It’s a jumble of things. You see the studio’s logo come up, and you think, “Damn, this is a real movie.” It’s exciting. But it’s also nerve-wracking… it’s the culmination of something you’ve worked very hard on, and you want it to be great. I love how crazy/beautiful turned out, but it was stressful to watch it. And, of course, there’s always things you’d change. There are great surprises, but also things you wish had made it in. It’s crazy/painful/awesome/stressful/beautiful (sorry). Our first viewing of a cut of crazy/beautiful coincided with the arrival of a case of wine from a producer friend of ours… which was nice.

Q: What was life like for you immediately after the film was made?

A: Pretty much the same. The movie was received well, but it wasn’t a blockbuster hit, so it’s not like we were inundated with offers and cash after that. That said, as produced writers, it became a little easier to get jobs after that. There were a few less hoops to jump through… which, actually, is an important thing.

Q: What lessons did you learn from that first film that informed or altered your approach to writing your later features?

A: crazy/beautiful was a pretty accelerated process. From the get-go it was very contained budget and schedule-wise. On both Aeon Flux and Clash of the Titans there were a lot of bigger issues that came into play. At one point, Aeon Flux was budgeted at 90 million and was going to film in Brasilia. When that comes down to 50 million and we’re now in Berlin, a lot of rewriting has to be done. Set pieces need to be totally re-imagined without sacrificing the intent or excitement of the scene. A scene or an important shot that is feasible in one location, might be impossible or too expensive in another location. Again, how do you solve that problem in a way that won’t mess up production? We also spent more time working with the actors in those two films, which taught us a lot.

Now, when we go to write, I think we have a better sense of what plays, and what will be feasible to produce.

Q: Has watching actors act out and speak your written words changed your process in any way?

A: Absolutely. There can be a big difference between what works on the page, and what sounds good coming out of an actor’s mouth. Hearing your words spoken, having a reading, being present in rehearsals, is incredibly valuable.

There can be a big difference between what works on the page, and what sounds good coming out of an actor’s mouth. Hearing your words spoken, having a reading, being present in rehearsals, is incredibly valuable.

Q: Sum up your feelings of Hollywood today and the process of getting a script made into a film. Do you feel that it is a good process overall?

A: The types of movies we generally write cost a lot of money, so there’s going to be a lot of cooks… each with a totally different set of concerns. It can make your head spin, but I understand why it’s that way. And we’ve chosen to work in this business, so…

On big movies, the script is going to go through a lot of filters. That’s just the way it is. Our job is to defend the story. To know the script better than anyone, so that we can address the notes and concerns of everyone involved and still have a story that makes sense and be true to what the movie is about. There are certainly frustrating parts of the process, but there are also many great parts. What’s great is finding people to work with who will inspire you and make your script better. Our goal is to work with people (directors, producers, studio execs) who we click with creatively… to have a good core team who all see the same movie. When that happens, things can move very quickly.

We love collaborating with people. If that’s not your thing, or there’s a story that you want to tell by yourself, with as little interference as possible, you probably need to make it yourself. Or make it for a budget that isn’t considered so risky. The less money at stake, the less people will need to chime in.

Q: How much of Clash of the Titans is your script?

A: We share credit with Travis Beecham (a previous writer), which I think is an accurate decision. I’d say a large amount of the first cut was ours. After that, there were reshoots, new scenes added, a new ending, that we were not involved with. And even in a period piece, there’s improv, things changed on the day because of production issues, etc…

Q: What’s the status on the following projects:

Staycation: Just finished work on it for Todd Phillips’ company.

The Invitation: We’re closing in on financing for a potential winter/spring start. Karyn Kusama is going to direct.

R.I.P.D.: Filmed in Boston in September with Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges. Robert Schwentke is directing. Working with Neal Moritz, and Ori Marmur, who we’ve done a number of projects for. Couldn’t be more excited.

Market Forces: Don’t know. It’s been a few years since we wrote it. I really love that script (the book, by Richard Morgan, is fantastic). I’d be thrilled if it got going.

Man-Witch: It was about to go in 2008, but then fell apart, as these things often do. Not sure what the current status is.

Q: With the screenwriting copyright issues escalating, can you talk a little about how important being able to freely read screenplays has been to your developing career as a writer, if at all?

A: It’s obviously incredibly important to read screenplays, and it’s fairly easy to get your hands on legally released screenplays for just about any movie you’re interested in (the WGA libraryfor example). But do I think people should be able to read a leaked first draft of something currently in development? Not at all. It’s no more helpful to your development as a writer than reading a draft of something already produced/published. In fact, it’s arguably less helpful. It’s a rough, unfinished product.

I think everyone has experienced someone asking to see something that you’re working on, whether it’s a script or a school project or an email even. More often than not, your reaction is “wait until I’m finished.” Let me go through my process, experiment with various things that I know may not work, and get it to where I want it to be. That needs to be respected.

I understand the desire to read the latest script by a favorite filmmaker as soon as possible, but a lot of damage can be done by leaking things that aren’t ready for consumption. On an artistic level, it discourages experimentation and creativity (Am I going to go out on a limb and try something crazy in an attempt to hit it out of the park if I think it’s going to be leaked and reviewed before I’m ready to show it? Maybe not.) On a practical level, it can work against something getting made.

Not every project at a studio is a no-brainer. Some require big leaps of faith at every step of development. Can a tide of negative reviews of some nebulous draft taint the project and prevent it from moving forward? I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility.

Don’t chase what is selling. Don’t worry about what whoever supposedly likes. Write something that shows who you are. Make it great.

Q: Finally, this is where I usually ask the interviewee for inspiring words for aspiring writers, but I think I’ll just give you the floor and let you speak your mind about what’s really in store for anyone crazy enough to venture into screenwriting with the thoughts of making it a career.

A: It sounds pat, but just write. Write something true to your voice. Don’t chase what is selling. Don’t worry about what whoever supposedly likes. Write something that shows who you are. Make it great. Because, based strictly on odds, it won’t sell. It won’t get made. But it will be your calling card. If it’s good, it will get passed around. It will get you meetings, get you representation, get you jobs, etc. It will work for you for years.

I truly believe that good work outs itself. So much of this industry is geared toward finding the next great thing. If you’re talented, if you’re great, I believe you do eventually get a shot. From there, it’s up to you to capitalize on that. And yes, to a certain degree it is about connections, and there are a thousand heartbreaking things that can go wrong, that can make things fall apart, that have nothing to do with you or your script. But… nothing will happen until you write that script. So write.