Can you share your journey from being a student at Yale in Applied Physics to being a screenwriter? I hear this change came during your mission in Rome, Italy.
In many ways, my love of the sciences had its roots in science fiction. I grew up watching Back to the Future and Star Trek, and my mind always enjoyed contemplating the possibilities of where scientific discovery might one day lead humanity. In school, I enjoyed the challenge of puzzling my way through calculus and chemistry equations. On the other hand, I also loved writing; by the time I had finished high school, I had written a novel, several plays, a bunch of poetry, and short stories. Writing was something I couldn’t not do, almost like breathing.
Still, one doesn’t make a living on breathing, so I figured that I would follow my more responsible love and pursue a career in the sciences. I spent my freshman year at Yale taking the necessary prerequisites for the Applied Physics engineering major. At the same time, I continued to write, taking English classes and writing my first screenplay.
I left for my mission in Rome fairly convinced that I would come back and continue my path to an engineering degree. However, while in Italy, in the hours and days and months of interacting incessantly with thousands of people, I became fixated upon the power of story. Everyone’s life is an ever-changing story, and stories are ever changing people’s lives. I came to feel that while technological advances have an undeniable value, stories speak to the soul. Humanity hungers for them. It needs them. There are scientific truths that many could uncover, but maybe there are stories that only I could tell. At the end of the day, perhaps I was simply more interested in conversing with Adam than atoms.
When I came home and went back to Yale, I went through a bit of an identity crisis. Still uncertain how one could ever make a living at writing, I agonized over how to direct my future. A girl I was dating at the time made a sign for me, one side reading, “I am an Engineer,” and the other, “I am a Writer.” I hung it on my doorknob and flipped it over, depending on the day’s mood. Finally, the definitive change came as I one day noticed that I was stealing time from my problem sets to work on my screenplays. I loved the theories behind the engineering courses, but whereas the work behind them often felt excruciating and exhausting, the writing was always exhilarating and energizing. I felt in my heart it was something I could do forever, even if nobody ever paid me a cent for it.
And so, my heart hijacked my common sense, and I became an English major. I still remember my father’s response: “JD, in this world, an English degree and a dollar can’t buy a cup of coffee.”
Guess it’s a good thing I’m a Mormon.
Did you leave for L. A. right after graduation? What was that decision like? How did your family respond to your moving across country to live your dream?
After graduation, I lived at home for seven months while I polished up a few scripts and prepared for my westward exodus. My loving family was apprehensively supportive of the move. Being east coasters, none of us knew much at all about the entertainment industry, so it was all a big question mark. I left with nothing but a few suitcases, my Toyota Prius, my laptop, and seven scripts—most of which I would soon learn were utterly unmarketable. My mother accompanied me much of the journey, driving with me from D. C. to Utah, and then flying home as I drove alone the final leg into the unknown. I had no job, and nowhere to live lined up. All I knew was … I was going to Los Angeles.
Patrick McKay is your longtime writing partner—how did that association begin? What is it like to have a writing partner?
Patrick and I met in high school and started collaborating creatively when we directed a short play together for the school’s One Act Festival. We quickly found that the things I was lousy at, Patrick was great at, and vice versa. We continued working together throughout high school and into college. We both went to schools in the northeast, a train ride away from each other. He’d often come down to New Haven for the weekend and we’d go see a bunch of plays and talk about ideas for new projects. Eventually, an L. A.-based producer came to campus, and after his presentation, solicited pitches. I pitched an idea Patrick and I had been tossing around. The producer asked, “How soon can you get that to me?” I said, “… Two weeks.” At that point, we had never written a screenplay, nor had any idea how to do so. Fortunately, spring break was the following week, so we spent the entire time banging out what became our first script.
Since then, Patrick and I have written something like seventeen scripts together. Each one is a journey, and there’s no one in the world I’d rather have at the helm with me than Patrick. The work itself is a joy, but engaging in it day in and day out with a partner who’s also my best friend takes that joy to an entirely different level. Our worldviews are sometimes contrasting, but always complementary. Having a writing partner is like the difference between driving a two-wheel and a four-wheel drive. Between the two of us, we almost never get stuck, be it in brainstorming, pitching, drafting, revising, or any other part of the process. Even though it sometimes takes more effort to hash through ideas, we both have faith in the process and know that when we get our heads together, something special happens on the page that is beyond either of us. We also are constantly hungry to be more effective at what we do, and know that we both have a ton left to learn, so the prospect of always refining our abilities and getting better is endlessly enjoyable.
Writing takes time and emotional endurance, and can be extremely exhausting, mentally. What is the creative process like for you? Do you have a routine? Have you discovered a balance in writing?
Patrick and I historically each have had different phases and elements of the process that have come most naturally to us, but those things are always evolving, and we’re ultimately both completely engaged in every aspect of story creation.
For me, the process of creating is a sheer joy. There’s a strange but powerful link between subjective identification with and objective alienation from what I write. When I write something, I read back over it again, and recognize a certain portion of myself in it, but I also see it as having this wholly other core identity, something totally autonomous from me. It’s a bit what I imagine parents feel about their children—seeing their DNA manifest in the child, but also recognizing that it has a soul that is completely free to exist and become its own self. This is present on the level of individual sentences, and is compounded when they’re organized into characters, actions, scenes, sequences, acts, and screenplays. Stories are full of agencies, working both from within and from without. My job as a writer is to harness the power of those agencies, negotiate between them, and try to steer the piece as a whole to its greatest potential. I marvel most at the result when the words are fresh and new (maybe it’s what feels the most miraculous to me), but the entire process is meaningful, and I love seeing and appreciating something at each phase of its development.
I do indeed have a routine which works well for me. Mornings are usually spent brainstorming, laying out the day’s business, reading, and handling life responsibilities. Once that’s finished, I then typically work until dinner and (when my wife’s out and about) sometimes work well into the night. There’s a certain quietness of mind that comes with evening writing. The day’s phone calls, emails, and distractions are all at rest, and my mind can more easily lose itself on the page.
The struggle to find balance is a part of every human’s life. I once had a mission friend who had a sign taped to his wall that read: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” I think the scriptures give really useful guidance in that regard, where Jesus teaches that the two most important commandments are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In my life, my writing is a part of that; my friendships are a part of that; my Church service is a part of that; my family is a part of that. They’re each at different times part of how I try to show my love, and how I try to serve. In some ways, I don’t differentiate much between them, and I give priority to them in shifting ways as each situation demands.
Written screenplays and produced movies are very different. With that thought—what is it like to write a movie?
We approach every project we work on as one that has the potential to be a movie. We put every ounce of creative energy we have into each one, and do everything in our power to make it awesome. So in that sense, the two are very similar. In terms of abstract scripts versus projects that one knows (as much as one ever can) will be made into a movie, it’s somewhat different to work on a project that’s a follow-up installment of a franchise, because you can see and hear the actors bringing to life what you’re creating on the page as you write it, which is incredibly fun.
All that said, since we haven’t yet written a feature script that has actually been filmed, I’m really not in a position to give any kind of answer to the question. Ask me again in a decade and I’ll hopefully have a lot more to say!
Do you have a favorite scene from a movie? A favorite line?
The clock-tower scene from Back to the Future is one of the most fantastic visual climaxes ever constructed. I bite my nails every time.
The line “Buona sera,” from Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, and the scene surrounding it, are among the most moving and hopeful I have ever seen.
There has been quite a bit written about the fact that the upcoming Star Trek will be your first produced script. However, you are pretty seasoned—how many screenplays have you written in total?
Star Trek will be our ~17th script from the first one we wrote when we were in college; our tenth from the time we got agency representation (though only seven of those have officially been in development at a production company and studio). I’ve read that the industry average is thirteen scripts in development for every one that ends up getting produced. I’m definitely still bullish that several of our other projects will make it to the silver screen, so we’ll see how that ratio ends up working out with our slate.
How did you first become involved with Bad Robot? What was it like to work with J. J. Abrams and the group involved with the film?
We had a great initial general meeting at Bad Robot, after which we pursued a project that came to be known as Boilerplate. From there, things took on a life of their own. We feel like we share a creative sensibility and point of view with J. J. and his team. They’ve been fantastic to work with every step of the way on each of the projects we’ve developed together. It’s a relationship we feel very fortunate to have stumbled into.
I could go into more detail about the nuts and bolts of the collaboration, but I should probably leave it at that. People think Edward Snowden got exiled from the country for the NSA Wikileaks scandal; in actuality, I heard his real crime was leaking a super-secret pizza recipe from the kitchen at Bad Robot’s offices.
Which aspect draws you to a story most? Who are some of your scriptwriting role models?
Really, it’s the whole package: world, character, action, narrative. There’s a certain, ineffable quality that makes us look at an idea or a property and say: “It’s a movie.” There’s a scripture that has struck me as interesting where God is discussing the creation of the Earth, presumably with Jehovah, Michael, Abraham, and others, in which he says: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abraham 3:24). There’s something in that that rings very true to me about the creative process. In the initial rush of inspiration, you perceive there’s a space and materials that feel ripe to be put together into a world where characters may dwell. It’s a little like getting a fish on a hook. You feel the first tug on the line, and you start reeling it in. Sometimes it comes very quickly and furiously, streams of inspiration in which the story is coming wholly formed, and you quickly know you’ve got a big one on the line; other times, you reel and reel and reel—only to find out that all you’ve caught is a muddy work-boot. It’s an adventure every time, because you never know getting into it quite how things will turn out.
In terms of role models, we have a bunch. When discussing the relative merits of scenes, sequences, character, or story turns, Patrick and I quote our heroes to each other chapter and verse, weighing them like legal precedents in a court case—Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Bob Gale, Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman; in more recent films, Peter Jackson, J. J. Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci, among others. We also regularly try to read colleagues’ scripts, just to be up-to-date on what’s out there, the ways in which the medium is evolving, and to learn new on-the-page tricks for ways to make things more readable, fun, and impacting.
What is involved in the art of pitching a story? How often do you pitch an idea?
We pitch ideas almost every day to each other, on a weekly or monthly basis to producers, and several times per year to studios when we’re taking on a new assignment. Each pitch will be slightly different, depending on the scenario. Sometimes we’re just pitching a new scene or character beat, sometimes we’re pitching an entire movie. Typically a studio pitch should be fifteen to twenty minutes, hitting only the most important beats: Act I in a good amount of detail, Act II in less, and Act III as a summary.
Usually, by the time we share a pitch with a producer or a studio, Patrick and I have told it to each other so many times as we’ve worked to develop it that either of us could do the entire thing on our own. We’re both pretty high-energy and verbal, so we usually end up talking really fast, finishing each other’s sentences, pitching the action beats and character turns with a ton of excitement and just having fun in the room.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in living the gospel in the film industry? What advice could you give LDS filmmakers in handling those circumstances?
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had very few professional circumstances in which I’ve been faced with a project where I was being asked to do something I didn’t feel comfortable with. We will likely at some point end up doing TV, and that has become a space that, even more than feature film, has become somewhat of a minefield, particularly in the epic-historical genre in which we work. I’m certain there will be some questions to be worked out moving forward, but ultimately, I’m confident in our process. We want to do things that are good. We’re not going to do anything we don’t believe in.
As far as lifestyle questions are concerned, I’ve never felt any particular social pressure in Los Angeles to do anything contrary to living the gospel. I guess I’ve been offered drugs and alcohol before, but I think the pressures kids face in most high schools in America are probably greater than any I’ve felt out here.
In the way of advice, I suppose I’d just tell people not to be afraid to be who you are. I don’t make a big show of it, but people I work with usually end up knowing I don’t work on Sundays, that I go to church, and that I observe my Mormon kosher law. You want to work with people who want to work with the real you. Of course, sometimes people have preconceived notions about what it means to be a Mormon, and that can be tricky, but ultimately I don’t know of a time that it has ever hurt me. If anything, it has resulted in my having a network of people who get what I’m about, who value my voice at the table, and have me in the room because they want me there. We have an important voice to add to the conversation. If we’re tactful in how we go about doing that, there’s a lot we can bring to the equation that otherwise might remain under-represented.
In his 1977 talk “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” President Kimball said, “In our world, there have risen brilliant stars in drama, music, literature, sculpture, painting, science, and all the graces. For long years I have had a vision of members of the Church greatly increasing their already strong positions of excellence till the eyes of all the world will be upon us.” In many ways, your recent work has helped fulfill a portion of this prophecy. In what ways does the gospel affect your storytelling?
First, I’d like to add a bit of a qualifier to the question. As a faith that believes in modern prophets, Latter-day Saints in some ways have a much more everyday relationship with prophets and prophecy than our surrounding culture. Our prophets make statements on a broad range of things all the time, and as a result, we’re comfortable seeing our lives and the lives of others in the context of a prophetic narrative, in both small and large ways. We think in terms of fulfilling prophecy whenever we feel the blessings of living the Word of Wisdom, or paying our tithing—or any number of other ways. I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that I see myself as “The One” in some sort of Matrix-like way—because, I mean, c’mon—there’s only one Neo.
That clarification in place, it’s an interesting question, because I feel like the answer could just as easily be “not at all” or “in every way imaginable.” Think about asking the same question of those in other professions: “How does the gospel affect your dental-practice? Astrophysics research? Mountain climbing?” Is there a particularly Mormon way to go about climbing a mountain? Perhaps the answer is “absolutely,” but not in the way people might expect. The gospel affects you as a person, and that affects everything you do. A Mormon mountain climber would likely have a certain way of going about picking out her gear, based on lessons rattling around in her head about emergency preparedness. She might have a particular way of interacting with locals and guides at her base camp, influenced by experiences she had on her mission. She might have a way in which she feels spiritually warned about where she hammers in her pitons. Perhaps reading about Nephi’s experience being swept away into a high mountain influenced where she set her sights to begin with.
I feel it’s the same way with being a Mormon screenwriter.
You said at the recent LDS Film Festival that you love sharing with others that you are a member of the Church. What final thoughts would you like to leave our readers with about being a Mormon artist?
People sometimes seem surprised that I’m a Mormon artist who hasn’t lost his testimony. I’m not sure what it is about the arts that makes some fall away. Perhaps it’s the dissonance of holding so many different worldviews and systems of thought in our heads at once. Perhaps some find the Church restricting. I feel that living life as an active Mormon brings an incredible amount of freedom to me. It protects me from distractions that we often hear of derailing and sometimes ending the lives of other artists. It provides me with a community that fills my life with meaningful relationships and opportunities for service. It helps me approach the world from a place of stability, strength, and confidence. I feel that as I work, I can call upon a power greater than my own to help guide me and my partnership, both artistically and politically, through the various challenges we encounter. Frankly, I like the person the gospel helps me become. I like how people react to that person. I feel like the gospel is like a daily scrubbing that rubs the ever-growing barnacles of cynicism, anger, frustration, and a bunch of other negative mind-states off the hull of my soul, helping me to maintain the optimism, energy, and enthusiasm that are such vital commodities as a screenwriter.
Lastly, I appreciate that the gospel gives me a dual, paradoxical perspective that helps me stay grounded. Moses learned that “man is nothing,” but Jesus taught we can be “perfect,” even as his Father is. I believe that these are both true. Meditating upon my own smallness and being shown my weaknesses helps me from getting too big for my britches; at the same time, contemplating the destiny the gospel teaches that we each have the potential to reach helps me take joy in working to become a little bit better every day, both as an artist, and as a human being. I know I have a lot left to learn, but I trust in the process that has brought me to where I am today, and am looking forward to all the adventures to come as the journey continues. ❧