In an impressive 36 hours, a new R-rated spec comedy, Bastards, by screenwriter Justin Malen, sold to Paramount for mid-six figures on June 14. The script is about two brothers who go in search of their real father after their mother reveals the truth about her sordid past — she spent a lot of time at Studio 54 in the ’70s and isn’t quite sure who their dad is. The fraternal twins set out on a raucous adventure to uncover the truth about dear old dad. Reviving the somewhat dismal spec market, this sale has everyone buzzing about the power of the spec. Script sat down with screenwriter Justin Malen to find out what is so special about his two Bastards.
SCRIPT: How did you get the idea for Bastards?
JUSTIN MALEN: I actually had the germ of the idea a year ago. I was a big fan of The Hangover. And a big fan of Flirting with Disaster, too. And I thought there could be a really fun Hangover-like twist on Flirting. I told the idea to Mark O’Connor at Green Hat Films — that’s Todd Phillips’ production company — and he was very enthusiastic about it. It came from these ideas about “what you know about your parents” and “what you don’t know about your parents” and “what you thought not turning out to be the case.” I wasn’t setting out to write an R-rated script specifically, but because the story is about guys learning that their conservative mother was actually very promiscuous — and the shock of that — going R-rated was essential to getting the most out of the concept both comedy-wise and plot-wise. I love all types of comedy, but I do gravitate to R-rated ones. The first script I set up was called Prick, about the world’s biggest asshole. So, I was excited to write something in that tone again — minus the asshole, of course. And I also had just done an R-rated rewrite for Paramount called Time Out.
SCRIPT: What happened after you came up with the concept?
JUSTIN MALEN: I just started writing out a treatment for it. My hope was to just sell the treatment and get hired to write the script based on that. I submitted it to Green Hat, and they were really wonderfully encouraging and looking forward to getting it to Todd Phillips, but they were busy with The Hangover 2 and their other projects. In the meantime, while I was waiting for them to calm down and have a chance to consider it, my managers at H2F and agents at Verve said, “Let’s spec this out.” I was so passionate about the idea; I felt like I could do it really quickly. So, I said, let me follow my passion and go with it.
I developed it with Chris Cowles from H2F. I had never been big on outlining. With my early scripts, I loved the creative freedom of just going with it. Through the projects I’ve done, though, I’ve learned how important structure is. It’s good to know where you’re going even if you wind up deviating from the original plan.
SCRIPT: What was your writing process on this script?
JUSTIN MALEN: I didn’t do what probably most people would do if they were writing a treatment to sell. For me, a lot of the ideas come once I start typing. I started out hoping I would have a five to eight page treatment, but it wound up being 20 pages. But a lot of work that I would have had to do when writing the script was done in that treatment. That’s how the creative process works for me, I need to go with the ideas. It wasn’t the most reader friendly document, but it was friendly enough to get good responses. Once the treatment was finished, writing the first draft of the script didn’t take very long. Maybe five to six weeks.
SCRIPT: How do you deal with notes?
JUSTIN MALEN: For me, I need to digest [them] first. A lot of times, I might not see [the note] right away. I might be too close to something. But I try to be open minded. And I am open to criticism, but I find it’s good to sit on it and digest it. If they are right, or if I agree with it, make the change. If I disagree with it, I discuss with them why I disagree — if possible — and see if they can convince me or I can convince them otherwise. Even if I don’t agree with their comment, there might be something weak or flawed about the portion of the script they commented on — something I can make better. Sometimes people can be right that there’s something wrong but be wrong about what that something is or how to fix it. It’s rare that I’ve gotten a comment that’s totally worthless. But I’ve been lucky to work with really good people.
SCRIPT: Do you feel you get better with taking notes as time goes on?
JUSTIN MALEN: Definitely — because I’ve seen the benefit of taking comments in the past and seeing how much better things have gotten. At first I said, “This is wrong and dumb,” — not to their faces, of course — but then I made those changes and I was like, “Oh my God, they were right and I was wrong.” You have to have that balance. They can be wrong, too. That balance in having belief in your convictions but still being open to others people’s notes. It’s really hard to find that balance, though.
SCRIPT: What else have you learned from that process?
JUSTIN MALEN: In seeing other things not sell that I’ve written, I learned how important the concept is. Given the current market, just writing a heartwarming or funny script probably won’t be enough to sell. In my experience, the concept needs to be big enough or commercial enough to get people excited enough to think “it’s a movie and want to buy it.”
SCRIPT: How do you make the audience root for the characters?
JUSTIN MALEN: For some stories, I’m not concerned about getting the audience or reader to root for a character — just that they want to follow that character’s journey, even if it’s just to see them get their punishment. But when it’s important that they root for the character, the character needs to be likable or relatable enough with the things that they’re saying and doing for the audience to feel for them. In Bastards I think it’s a little easier because the brothers are shocked to find out their father isn’t who they thought he was, and I think most people would be inclined to feel for characters in that situation and want them to find their real dad.
SCRIPT: How do you balance comedy and plot?
JUSTIN MALEN: For me, the best jokes come when they are organic to the plot. And if the joke doesn’t also further the plot or show character or serve some other purpose — if it’s just a joke for a joke’s sake — it has to be really funny to stay in. It has to be way funnier than other jokes. It also depends on where in the script it is. If it’s a long scene already, and the joke disrupts the flow of the story, you probably have to cut it. That’s agony, and you just hope that you can find a way to use it in another script or another project. I usually keep everything in for the first draft — unless I’m re-writing as I go, which I’ll do so long as it doesn’t really get in the way of forward progress. If the script’s coming in long — and I tend to write long — for the first draft, those have to be the first things to go. The toughest part is that you’re also guessing what people are going to respond to. I’m always surprised at what people say are the funniest part of the script. It’s amazing how different the responses are.
SCRIPT: What’s next?
JUSTIN MALEN: I’m working on a couple feature projects and a couple TV ideas. One TV idea is an edgy cable show in the vein of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The other is more of a network show. I started working in features, and my reps advised me to focus on that, getting my footing in there and then to transition and branch out into TV. There’s so much good TV out there, I look forward to a season ending just so I can catch up on shows.
SCRIPT: What is your advice to aspiring screenwriters?
JUSTIN MALEN: The main thing from my perspective is to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst. If I had known when I started 12 years ago exactly how the road would have been, there might have been more of a question of whether to pursue it. The highs are really high, and the lows are really low. You have to be ready to deal with that. Things will not make sense, in good ways and bad ways. If you love it — and I love it — do it. Keep at it, but only if you truly feel like keeping at it after considering what else you could be doing with your time. I’ve definitely considered giving it up before, but those thoughts have always passed, and that’s why I’m still doing it.