Balls of Steel: Skin That Spec

Most writers approach Hollywood the same way – write a spec script, pitch it at a pitchfest, pray to get it read. Rewrite. Repeat.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Meet Julie Keck and Jessica King, the dynamic writing duo of King is a Fink. These ladies write, direct, edit, act, and mix it up like vixens in the kitchen. I’m fairly certain they’ve skinned every cat in Chicago and maybe even a few squirrels. They’re a perfect example of alternative, proactive, out-of-the-box thinkers who just want to see their words come to life on the screen.

Perhaps this tweet between them and the famed independent film producer Ted Hope says it all:

These ladies are my heroes.

Julie and Jessica began shooting short films commando — no scripts, no actors, just the two of them roughing their way through a story idea. It was improv at it’s best. It didn’t hurt that the story was about a group of porn stars. No, I don’t have a link. Those oldies but goodies are under lock and key. Trust me, I tried bribing them with cookies. Clearly, I should have sent cake.

Once they mastered the improv, they started writing scripts for shorts and submitting them to contests. Cha-ching! They won. This prompted their first feature-length script and another round of contests, yielding just enough encouragement to truly hook them on screenwriting.

Then things slowed down. They had scripts. They had the good feedback. Where was Prince Charming swooping in with a three-picture deal? When no one snapped up their screenplays via InkTip or Virtual Pitchfest, they decided to take a different tack …

Stalking.

Julie and Jessica looked up some of their favorite non-produced screenwriters, starting with Chip Street, and found he had a website where he marketed not only his projects, but also himself as a writer. They snooped around more writers’ websites and were surprised many were on Twitter. Screenwriters could actually market themselves? Bingo! And just like that, the girls drove Thelma and Louise-style off the cliff and into the waiting arms of a glorious filmmaking community.

Twitter is where they met many of their future collaborators. Starting with director Phil Holbrook. Phil enjoyed King is a Fink’s tweets and short films enough to invite them to write a screenplay for him (yes, you can show both humor and a writing voice in only 140 characters). In 2010, Julie and Jessica turned Phil’s idea into a feature-length screenplay, crowdfunded the project, and jetted through the production of TILT that September. TILT is now in the loving hands of Phil and editor Jeremy Doyle. Godspeed, fellas!

Deciding to write another person’s vision proved to be a career-changing move. The experience made them pros at crowdfunding, and brought their financial backers into their fold of fans. But King is a Fink didn’t stop to soak in praise: they kept writing, forging ahead with their second Kinky Cutie, Wiggle Room, a micro-budget short they shot in the fall of 2010. Wiggle Room is now on tour with the Cinekink Kinky Film Festival, following in the steps of their first Kinky Cutie, Libidoland.

Jessica explains, “We understand a ton of people will never see our shorts, so we don’t intend to crowdfund for them. They’re just showpieces to get our name out there, hopefully play in some festivals, and show people the types of characters and stories we’re interested in. We collaborate with friends who have the same filmmaking goals as us, so when we’re finished, we can all use the shorts as work samples. We’ve never had so much fun doing so much work.”

Despite their successes with the short films, everything kept coming back to TILT. The film’s contributors and fans kept tossing them offers of collaboration.

First to knock on their door was memoirist and poet Kevin Keck (no relation … allegedly). They swapped movies for books. Kevin dug their dark family drama Snow Bunny and offered them a shot at adapting his book, Are You There God, It’s Me, Kevin. Julie describes it as a “naughty memoir about his late 20s — raunchy, funny, and hilarious.” Apparently, when one has a raunchy book, they think, “King is a Fink has to adapt this.” Kevin’s goal wasn’t just to make a film, but also to boost his book sales. With a built-in audience and interested parties to present the script to, Double J couldn’t turn this opportunity down. Taking advantage of yet another genre and learning opportunity, the ladies tackled the adaptation.

As the buzz of their work got around, more writing gigs flowed in.

Next up was Chicago-based director Christopher E. Grimes, (5414 Productions), another TILT backer. He wanted crowdfunding tips. Chris met with Julie and Jessica under the guise of brainstorming crowdfunding ideas, but what the ladies didn’t know was that they were auditioning to be on his team. A few weeks later, he asked if they’d help out on his documentary, A Second Knock at the Door. The film explores the aftermath for military families after losing a loved one to friendly fire. Jessica signed on to co-write the narration and shape the overall story, and Julie as a producer. They had never discussed doing a documentary before. But once Jessica dove in, she fell for the new medium and embraced the challenge of crafting a story full of real-life conflicts and arcs. The film fest acceptance letters have just started flowing in. This is one to watch.

I asked how the experience of writing TILT has changed their overall career strategy.

“Now everything we write already has a home. We’re not necessarily getting paid on the front end, but now we know where each of our finished projects are going. Each one will either get made or get into the right hands of people who were invested in getting it made before it even started. We get an assignment, we write it, we deliver it, we move on to the next one. It’s all forward motion.”

Julie and Jessica made a decision early on they wanted to write anything for anyone. The trick was finding a way to do it.

They’ve spent this past year building an incredible arsenal of projects, including my favorite, a cooking web series called Mixin’ Vixens with baker (and TILT backer … I’m seeing a theme here) Beth Marrier. It’s the most hilarious cooking show I’ve ever seen (and I used to own a restaurant, so I know cooking!). They also designed, produced, and edited a game show called Who Knows Her Better with Chicago-based production company Tello Films. The host for the first two episodes was Elizabeth Keener (The L Word), and this summer they’ll be working with Georg Coleman (Worst Cooks in America). Think Will and Grace meets The Newlywed Game. These girls are on fire.

Stepping outside of spec scripts and writing someone else’s vision has allowed Julie and Jessica to try out these new genres without a lot of risk.

“Our investment is sweat equity. We  do what we do best — write — so that other people can do what they do best — produce, directer, et cetera. Every time we put pen to paper … er, fingers to keyboard … we know that what gets written will eventually come to life. What’s better than that?”

What’s next for these ladies?  I have the exclusive scoop — Julie and Jessica are writing a feature film for one of my favorite indie film directors, Gary King. I can’t possible explain the collaboration inception better than they can:

“Full disclosure: When we met [Gary] at Flyway Film Festival last fall, we put a voodoo curse on him and tricked him into working with us. Also, we found out that there was a genre all three of us were itching to play with, so we created a special handshake and got to work.”

This, my fellow screenwriter, is what it’s all about. Stretch your boundaries, try new things, find your sweet spot, and build your stack of scripts. Write whatever you can, even if it never gets made. That’s how we learn. But above all, be open to new ideas and ventures.

Push your spec aside and skin a few cats. I double-dog dare you.

Share with us any out-of-the-box ideas in the comment section or email me at Jeanne@jeannevb.com. I’d love to hear what you’re doing to stand out from the crowd.

8 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Skin That Spec

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  3. Captain

    Dear Jeanne,
    I am excited for the JK pair as I am pairing with a filmmaker and am encouraged. I say filmmaker because Gretchen films weddings.
    I think with a last name like Dzedzej we are destined for success. We are going to do a short from fifteen pages of a feature I wrote. Our main focus is going to be, supporting our diversity. We unlike JK are comeplete opposites. I am short, fat, old, and focused. She is tall, young, beautiful, and does not have time to write.
    Captain
    PS I swear Jeanne, I did not make this up.

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  5. Larry Kostroff

    Hi Jeanne, You want Out of the Box? I’ll give you an Out of the Box. Being a man of a certain age–the line, “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you”–while not original, it’s nevertheless appropriate. I might offer, as a substitute–“You know the Gettysburg address? I wrote it.” No, that’s lame; forget I said that. OK, to be pragmatic, I’m at an age where establishing a career is no longer an option, got it? After a moderately successful career in motion picture production (see IMDB), the downside of which was to provide me with an industrial strenth rationale not to follow my bliss and write, I now, having left the trenches, have that opportunity. Also, I’ve shelved attempts at spec screenwriting with their unforging format protocol; I discovered prose with its generosity for accepting more languid strokes in plot and character develpment, etc.. Being a minimalist, my initial forays was into short sories. I could downplay the importance of competitions were it not for the fact that one of my gems placed third in one of them. But there is one daunting, dangling participle of a question; Why do I write? If not for a career, is it purely for legacy–“to leave a footprint in the sand”–wow! I wiah I had come up with that line first. So anyway–smooth transition–while this may not be of any value to your information-starved readership, it may provide a checkle on a slow news day. I rest my cane. Larry Kostroff

  6. Kathy Rowe

    Fantastic story! Makes weeding through my novel doing the screenplay adaptation all the more worth it. I’d love to follow along in their footsteps. Thousands of ideas abound in my head, it’s just a matter of getting them all out.

    Good luck ladies!

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