The Multi-Hyphenate Thornton Brothers Talk Storyteller Survival and Crowdfunding ‘Cactus Jack’

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which were honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, CS Expo Finalist, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and a PAGE Awards TV Drama Semi-Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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'Cactus Jack'

‘Cactus Jack’

Writers somehow have a way of finding each other online. I don’t even remember how, but the multi-hyphenate storytelling brothers, Chris and Jason Thornton, known as Them Thorntons, somehow crossed my path a few years ago. Pretty sure there’s nothing this writing team can’t write. OK, maybe a romantic comedy would crush their soul a little, but they’d still find a way to write it – with a side of dark and twisted. Always fascinated how writers navigate the industry, I picked the brothers’ brains on all things writing. Their multi-layered journey is one not to be missed.

Meet Them Thorntons.

JVB: When you started writing features on spec, was the plan always to write novels, TV shows and create independent films too or were features the primary goal?

Thornton Brothers: We definitely always knew we’d be directing our own features at some point. All of our favorite filmmakers are hyphenates as well, writer­-directors like Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen and Oliver Stone or guys who will even edit and sometimes shoot their own films in the case of Soderbergh, The Coen Bros, Gus Van Sant, et al.

That said, we consider ourselves storytellers first and foremost, and think that some stories are definitely best told in other mediums. As kids of the 80’s, it took us a while to come around on TV—we came up when the theater is where the magic happened and TV left much to be desired in terms of tone, production value, pushing the envelope thematically, etc. But obviously the landscape has changed. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Deadwood—these shows finally drilled it into us that TV was truly in a golden age, while the feature world is arguably becoming more narrow in terms of opportunity and the type of stories told. We don’t write towards four quadrants, and the more provocative stuff is usually driven into the market by talent. It’s not like a studio is burning to tell the Hugh Glass story, but if your name is Alejandro Iñárritu or Leonardo DiCaprio and you’re asked, “So, what’s next?” you can make that happen. We hear all the time that directors and a few name, bottleneck “meaningful attachment” actors “move the needle.” In features, writers really just don’t—unless they’re that hyphenate.

In TV, you hear “the writer is king.” Look at J.J. Abrams… he wrote Regarding Henry in college, had a little feature success, but went to TV to make a real name for himself and then hopped back to the feature world with real clout. Is J.J. Abrams without that TV cred? Would anyone know Vince Gilligan’s name if he wrote just features, even if Breaking Bad was made as one and was great? Who knows, but we think the writing’s on the wall in terms of opportunity and respect when it comes to features vs TV for relatively unknown voices, and the last year-and-a-half has definitely proven that out in our case. TV development has been a nice change of pace, and we’re making some headway.

Reapers Book OneMeanwhile we’ve also created a really fucked up, dark fantasy book series called Reapers (follows kind of a “Navy SEAL” black ops equivalent unit in a harsh Game of Thrones type fantasy setting) which we hope to eventually set up as a show as well. We grew up loving and making comic books, so this return to longform storytelling in both TV and prose honestly feels like home.

As for making our own feature shit, this micro-­budget indie feature called Cactus Jack we’re currently crowdfunding is something Hollywood­-at­-large would most definitely consider flat out radioactive in terms of developing—and, as with the novels, this allows us to actually try to make something and directly find and connect with an audience that digs our brand of shit, vs getting mired in that Hollywood development quicksand where you’re a moderately successful but unproduced screenwriter and can’t point anyone towards your work when they invariably ask, “Have you written anything I might’ve seen?” This is some real “if you build it, they will come” (our motto, lately) type of shit, as you’ll see if you watch the redband, *extremely NSFW* proof-­of­-concept trailer on our website. And the teaser is just the tip of the iceberg to sell you on the tone and story in the broadest sense. With the completed film we want to blow some minds with how audacious and button­-pushing it is, and working at this scrappy, truly indie budget point allows us that luxury—to really get gonzo and push it and supercharge the film thematically with no overseers, censors, collaborators, etc. While we’re after catharsis more than mere shock value, this flick will offend a lot of fucking people… but in our experience the best art usually does. That’s kind of art’s job. And while you may think this is a meandering, flighty art film Cactus Jack still has some hardcore genre trappings. It’s a very contained and tightly wound psychological thriller, and you can definitely probably classify it a “political horror movie”—fitting in our minds, in this day and age when our actual political landscape is in many ways a total fucking creepshow.

JVB: We’ll get back to Cactus Jack, because I’m a huge fan of how far you’ve pushed the envelope there, but I want to explore your books first. They are so well written. It’s clear your talents expand way beyond screenwriting. I love how dark you go with your subject matter. Do you ever hold back how far you feel you can push the boundaries?

TBs: Not if we can help it. It’s like that old Jim Morrison line, “Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts.” The times we mindfully or willingly pulled back or skewed shit on our own, trying to prognosticate what reps or audiences or buyers might want… that usually ends to your detriment. Let that be their job. Our job is to brang it. Let them try to reel us in. You start doing it to yourself, you’re already giving up your one true edge in the fight: your point ­of view—your voice.

JVB: What’s been the biggest surprise about self-­publishing? Did you know a lot about it before you jumped in or did you learn on the fly? Is it liberating or exhausting?

TBs: It would probably be exhausting if we were doing it right, haha. Look, it’s no secret that self­publishing is a fucking slog. We did some research and knew that going in. You have got to hustle your ass off day in and day out. What you gain in liberation and freedom and low overhead, you lose in time in not only your life but in creating and writing new shit. Therein lies the rub, that and the fact that we’ve never been the types to shill for even ourselves. This crowdfund for Cactus jack is similar territory—we tend to spend our time in the dungeon spinning gold, not out selling like Glengarry cats. With self­-publishing, you’ve gotta do both… if you want to come out of the gate strong.

But—and you’ll probably hear it from us again and again—our creed these days is: if you build it, they will come. We feel we’re better served just churning out new yarns (second Reapers book is all done and set to drop very, very soon by the way) than selling ourselves, and eventually there will be this rich, exciting world for fans to discover that encompasses several books, and it’ll rightfully take off. The first book is really fucking good, we’ll go so far as to say that (we have a very small readership but it has been unanimously well-­received. The only four-­star review we garnered was from our own fucking mom! That might give you a window into why we write more than anything, haha—but yeah, everyone else has given it top notch scores and gushed about it to us, and they know our policy on wanting the truth and only the truth so help us Flying Spaghetti Monster)… and if you liked the first book, you’ll definitely dig how the world and scope expands and the nasty, devious turns we take with this second one. It’s definitely The Empire Strikes Back to Book One’s A New Hope. No one is safe in this shit. As it should be!

cactus jack hands

JVB: Can’t help but think about the Coen brothers and how they push each other to raise the bar in each scene. Is your process as writing partners similar?

TBs: Our process has definitely evolved. When we first buckled down and got serious about this screenwriting shit in 2007 we lucked out with a year to focus: Jay wrecked his knee and went on disability and Chris got laid off, so we put aluminum foil up over the windows of our apartment and went deep, haha. Projector blasting the script up on the wall, tossing the football and passing joints as we conjured up the two scripts that changed our lives by placing in contests and attracting and ultimately securing us reps, opening doors, leading to our first assignments and so on.

That was very hardcore collaboration, down to talking out not only scenes, dialogue etc. but litigating down to the most meticulous word choice. Eventually that was too rigorous and intense and just not efficient time-wise, and we got to a point where we more than trust one another to deliver the goods, so now we each kind of secretly head up certain projects and swap for notes/drafts internally, etc. before presenting the work as a unified front.

But yeah, we are now practiced samurais when it comes to self­-editing and if anything is nagging one of us we pass the peace pipe and discuss until we get to the bottom of it. Sometimes it’s a drag, but the work is always better for it. That’s what matters. Fuck our egos, our stepped­-on toes and chafed hides—it’s all about trying to tell the most cogent, impactful story… and we definitely help push one another to get there. Also, you know how Stephen King talks about the “cigar smoking muse” he writes for in his own head? We’re kind of that for one another. We dig the same shit, and write what we dig—so when one of us has a problem with something, it’s usually a blemish we find a way to polish into a pearl.

JVB: Contest specs seem to be a great way for writers to get noticed. Now you’re repped by UTA and Rosa Entertainment. How much are you still hustling your own work? Anything you wish you knew about representation prior to gaining it?

TBs: We have great reps. Our manager Sidney has been in our corner since the beginning and is not only a manager at this point, but a true homeboy. Thick and thin type shit. The dude hustles, and was really in our corner when Jay was diagnosed with cancer.

We’re on our second agency, but happy with UTA (were at WME off the bat, but kinda felt lost in the shuffle). Max Michael takes care of us on the feature side, and Joel Begleiter is our TV guy. Really like ‘em both. That said, we’re realistic about the situation. Reps have to carry several clients, and they’re gaming the marketplace—and the kind of fucked up stories we gravitate towards telling aren’t the easiest sells. But we try to not concern ourselves with any of that anymore, and just keep our nose to the grindstone as far as churning out stories (almost said “content,” but nowadays we’ve come to kind of agree with the Marc Maron take on that word—”content” is their word? the suits, the broadcasters and financiers. We can’t let ourselves speak in those terms, and regard our work as a mere product… it has to be more than that. If you look at your story as “content,” we probably don’t care to read or hear or see it).

Anyway, after Jay got sick and got a bit mired in development hell we quit tracking the business for the most part—reading the trades, keeping up on who’s moved from this company to that company, who sold what splashy spec for whatever ungodly, jealousy-­inducing amount, etc… we really started to cast it all aside and focus on the creative after getting stuck on that hamster wheel of chasing assignments vs writing new, original shit. It’s all such a long shot. Again, you gotta be realistic. If you’re not at the “incoming call” level, it’s all about turning over every stone. Reps can’t and won’t always be able or willing to do that. Especially with scripts that they sent out and didn’t sell off the bat. So yeah, the hustle never ends. Getting repped is a great step in the right direction, but it’s not the keys to the city like you think it will be. You have to ultimately always be the real custodian of your own career, though it of course helps to have some people you can trust and who really get you and passionately dig your work in the foxhole with you. Passion goes a long way in terms of salesmanship.

JVB: Are you allowed to discuss your TV show, THE REVENGER, with The Weinstein Company? If so, we’d love to hear about the development process and how the pilot sale is going.

TBs: Right, last year we sold the first pilot we’d written to The Weinstein Company (after maybe six years of slugging our way through the feature world where we adapted a novella on assignment, pitched and were hired to write a feature for Zac Efron, and flew to Rome to break story and write a script for Italian genre filmmakers The Manetti Brothers—but still have no produced credits to show for it). It’s a really gritty, lowdown, hardcore subversive take of the “wannabe real­life superhero” phenomenon that’s cropped up over the last ten years or so. With the genre trappings, we’ll be doing it under their Dimension banner and working more closely with Bob, and James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) is on board to direct the pilot and several more episodes. The development process has actually been really fruitful, they helped us get the pilot leaner and even meaner if possible—and they just submitted the pilot, a personal letter we wrote, and a sick ass rip reel to a dream actor who could (and should!) absolutely crush the lead. It’s exciting, and to know that they’re in it with you for the long haul is really satisfying. The Weinsteins have produced or discovered so, so many of our favorite films. The shit that made us want to work in this medium in the first place—so working with them has been really rewarding and we’re really fucking stoked to get this thing on all of your screens. Mark our words, it’s gonna be a slobberknocker. You have no idea!!

JVB: Yeah, TV seems to be where everyone is steering writers to now. With all the channels and online outlets, they need so much material and can go dark then ever before.

TBs: We’re really feeling that “in TV, the writer is king” vibe and it is a welcome change of pace from our experiences in the feature world where you can sometimes—not always, we’ve had good experiences mind you—come out of it feeling like more of a consultant and typist than creative figurehead. So yeah, TV is treating us well—and we’ve got another deal in the works for our second show called The Incorruptibles right now as well, knock on wood.

Slide44

JVB: Oh, I’m knocking! Now to Cactus Jack – you describe it as “A violent, reclusive hatemonger starts a podcast and makes enemies — until one comes to silence him.” You had me at “violent, reclusive hatemonger.” When I watched the trailer, couldn’t help but think about the hate-­filled social media environment of today. Is that your inspiration, and what do you hope to convey in the film’s message?

TBs: Yeah, this film is definitely a creative snapshot of our very turbulent times—this big­-top sideshow of an election specifically—and how the internet and social media in particular play a role in that turbulence. It tracks this unstable, hateful character from the Paris attacks in November 2015 through the upcoming election and its aftermath. It’s an exceedingly timely film (to the point that we’re gonna be shooting Jack’s live “method” reaction on election night, and the outcome of the movie to a degree depends on the outcome of the election), and a zeitgeist piece in which we’re attempting to “troll the trolls.”

Jack is a stand-­in and icon for all of the nasty anonymous hatemongers that have manifested themselves on the internet, and while we feel compelled to make him one of the most vile characters ever committed to “film,” he will definitely be getting his in the end—but as storytellers we’re also always exploring the deeper, dark inner reaches of the human psyche and this is an attempt to, in some way, explain or understand how an individual comes to be such a nasty, hateful creature. We all start out as kids, innocent and unknowing—and while genetics can play a role in how violent or destructive we end up being, in our research and experience, nurture plays the bigger role… we’re interested in holding up a funhouse mirror to reflect on how generational, cyclic hatred is bred and perpetuated. Jack’s mom lives upstairs, and while we never see her (or anyone else who is not viewed through a screen, for that matter) she is heard and her presence felt throughout. Jack’s father is dead, but down there in the basement he’s surrounded by artifact memories in the form of his old man’s TV repair workshop—complete with piles of old, broken down TVs. Screens are everywhere, a metaphor for how broken and corrupted our media institutions have also become. So yeah, Cactus Jack is about a lot of things, but social media, mainstream media, their use and abuse and bastardization… it’s all in the fore, and the film is definitely mining that shit for full effect.

JVB: I love that you’re exploring this in an independent way, knowing you can push so much farther in this film than you could ever hope to do in a studio system.

TBs: Yeah, this flick is gonna be absolutely gonzo batshit madness. Without any form of censorship or overseeing, we plan to truly “go there” with Jack and his descent into madness as that hate he’s internalized for so long comes pouring out and infecting minds and connecting with his fellow violent, vitriolic creeps out there in the world. Studios and marketing departments are inherently afraid to push these hot buttons, they’re after four quadrants and practice cradle-­to­-grave marketing… but this is a movie made for fucking grown ups, plain and simple. It’s a film for adults who understand what we’re thematically after, and can appreciate the notion that you have to first isolate and acknowledge a problem before you can attempt to understand it, let alone repair it (that said, social media is really a battlefield that belongs to the young and we can see younger audiences eating this shit up as well—we know we would have as teenagers, or college kids. It’s kind of like the dark postscript underbelly to say Pump Up the Volume, but instead of rebellious teen hero it’s a hate-­poisoned, middle-­aged asshole on the mic). We’re not saying we have all of the answers in regards to this shit, but we’re definitely posing some provocative questions by way of the narrative and characterization. And you can’t look at that dark, disgusting underbelly of human nature without getting your hands dirty. And by the time we have this fucker in the can, ours should be downright filthy.

Slide24

JVB: I’d love to embed the video for the teaser here, but my inbox might get flooded with “What the hell is up with Jack?!” haha But I urge our readers to go look at it. Besides exploring those themes, what are you looking forward to most about the shoot?

TBs: We think it’s going to be a truly inspired creative set. We’re not trying to play at “making a movie.” We’ve been on those sets, and had them overrun before with lurking, do-­nothing personnel doing just that. This is a cramped, claustrophobic space, and we’re running a truly skeletal crew… if you’re not absolutely vital, get the fuck out. Everyone involved will be there in direct service of putting images and sound in your eyes and ears… chief among them, our actor. This guy is a find, people. Believe it, sound the trumpets: Michael Gull is a real undiscovered gem. In fact, when we first started trying to do that Robert Rodriguez thing where you look at the assets around you in order to make a film, he was one of the first things we targeted… this is a guy with immense talent that has never been, in our opinions, quite exploited like he should be when it comes to filmic acting. He’s an improvisational wizard, and while he’s a sweetheart in reality he has a naturally antagonistic, gadfly quality to him when it comes to his work as an artist and stage presence (the dude is a gifted if largely misunderstood comedic powerhouse, who has done stand up as characters for years to include such bizarre turns as a flesh­-mask wearing serial killer amateur comedian—yeah, he’s nuts). These are all the perfect ingredients, and he’s the ideal vehicle to bring Jack to life. And dude is all in. Yeah, he ate that dead spider in the teaser. Yeah, he stuck his head in that commode that looks like something out of a Turkish prison. He is fully committed, and it is going to be a sight to behold. While we’ve meticulously structured the story and have done a ton of scripting, unleashing him in a freeing, inspired, truly creative environment is going to be fun as fuck. We can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

Also, we’re dying to finish the thing and see reactions to it. The teaser is just that, a teaser that barely fondles the tip of the iceberg. This film is going to be utterly fucking bananas, compelling from the first to last frame, and if nothing else we guaran-­fucking­-tee it will have people talking when the curtain closes.

All that said, to make it, we really do need some help. While we started with the Rodriguez “what’s around us that we can make a movie with,” we’ve found that we need some loot to pay professionals, like a killer DP and sound mixer, and to accrue props that lend us the necessary authenticity and production value. We’ve spent over a year hitting up Craigslist’s “free stuff” section several times a day and filling our basement with the kind of shit Jack’s parents would have accrued over the years but Jack’s also using the darknet, mining bitcoin, and amassing guns. That kind of shit takes money, as do vintage Nazi flags and copies of Mein Kampf and old HAM radios and so on. So please pitch in if you dig what we’re conjuring up here. $25 gets you a preorder of the film, and we’ve also got some producer credits for sale if you really wanna get down and dirty and throw in with this foul lot! We’ve only got one week left, and while we’ve had some offline help come in as you can see we really need a boost to get this thing in the can proper! Also, huge thanks to all of you who have pitched in and shared on social media to get the ball rolling thus far. We don’t take it lightly, and we’re truly appreciative… we’ve just still got a lot of work to do.

Slide09

JVB: Crowdfunding is exhausting. You’re doing an amazing job! I’m even a proud Cactus Jack backer. Speaking of work, when you look back at your career, is there something you’d change about the path you took?

TBs: Not really. We got a relatively late start in truly pursuing the creative as not only a hobby but an occupation, but in the meantime we lived a ton of life and did a lot of watching and listening that we feel were essential in developing and honing our voice. You can’t short sell that, and while we can appreciate a wunderkind young storyteller or filmmaker, it’s the truly rare exception that has anything to say that any of us should give a shit about. The Arthur Rimbauds and Paul Thomas Andersons of the world are rare birds indeed. Herzog suggests skipping film school and traveling, seeing the world, living life out loud, challenging yourself and putting yourself in harm’s way to a degree… we’ve done that, and we feel it shows in our work. Having a way with words, it’s just not enough. You need to bring some real thunder when it comes to creating compelling characters and wrapping them in impactful narratives. That transcends language.

In retrospect once we got in, we could have probably transitioned to TV sooner but a passion is hard to shake and as we said above, it took a while for us to grasp that the mediums had shifted and TV had now become the place where our kinds of stories are being told (though we think we’ll still be pushing the envelope there as well, for years to come). And, even if we’d continued focusing on speccing features, we probably spent more time than we should have chasing bad IP assignments, doing takes for obvious bake-­offs, entertaining producers who don’t want to put any skin in the game as far as moolah goes, etc. Bottom-line, people: if you’re not going to own the property, don’t do it. Writers working on properties they don’t and will never own for free is commonplace now, and we fucking hate it. It undermines everything the union tries to do, and in an industry in which leverage is all you ever really can hope to attain, writers are being sucked dry with all of the free work. Back to Maron, his take on the word “content”—we have to value ourselves and our work, and demand we get paid to perform. Easier said than done, it’s very alluring to be able to namedrop a known producer (and a lot of folks with 90210 addresses and killer credits are practicing this exploitative shit), say you’re working with them, etc… but it’s all smoke and mirrors. If someone is not willing to pay you for your work, tell them to fuck themselves and go work on an original idea of your own that you will own and can use to—hopefully— leverage several interested parties into a real payday. Or go make a fucking film, or write a book (where you retain copyright and can simply sell or option film/TV rights vs the Faustian bargain of writing a script in which you sell all copyright along with the document).

JVB: Great advice. Many of us have definitely fallen into those traps. So, here’s where I put you on the therapist couch and take you back in time. If you could go back and talk with your 18-­year­-old selves, what advice would you give them about life, work, anything?

TBs: Any advice we’d give our younger selves probably has more to do with life itself than writing. It’s very, very easy to get into a mode where your personal happiness is dependent upon some external force—be it a psychosexual relationship, success in a chosen career or artform, etc. That shit’s a trap. We’re all fucking worm food waiting to happen, and time is relative. As each year passes, it goes quicker and quicker and the next thing you know, it’s over. You have to find a way to live a happy, healthy life in the meantime, and suffering for your art or a lover or your family or religious bullshit or politics or whatever isn’t going to get you there. So have fun with it, laugh off the bullshit—straight up defiantly cackle in its face, and try to find the joke in everything. It’s there. Star­gaze. Our very existence is absurd and arguably beyond meaningless… sometimes embracing that fact is a lot more liberating and productive than trying to prescribe or ascertain “meaning”—and you just might find that shrugging off as much of the stress and self­-mounted pressure of life as possible is a freeing, liberating act that allows creative expression to happen in a much more meaningful way. Oh, and move your fucking body! It’s very easy to fall into the habit of being a sedentary fuck as a writer, and that comes with a host of problems down the line. Get a standing desk, walk the dog to let the story breathe in your mind, etc… but get out there and get moving. You’ll still be writing. The shit that happens at the desk is often just, as Billy Wilder would say, “typing.”

Twitter: @ThemThorntons
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