INDUSTRY INSIDER: Q&A with Producer Judd Payne

Denny Schnulo began his writing career at age eleven with the release of his first collection of poems to the kids on the school playground. Believing that first hand reports are always best, he spent his early adult years living and working throughout the world. His writing today is informed by people he met and things they did together. Follow Denny on Twitter: @DennySchnulo

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Script talks with producer Judd Payne on loglines, developing movie ideas, and his upcoming movie with Jamie Foxx. Judd Payne has been a producer for over twenty years. Two of his most recent films are Bernie and the soon to be released film Sleepless Night, with Jamie Foxx. I spoke with him recently and was lucky to catch him right after the shooting was complete and the testing had begun. Judd referenced the film several times while we talked with a just out of the oven freshness. Of course our main topic was The Writers Store Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest which he supplied the logline for and will judge the results:

With the most violent hurricane in recorded history heading straight for Manhattan, a rookie NYC detective is the only hope to bring down a group of international criminals who have planned the perfect heist.

Script: Did this particular logline come from some specific inspiration?

Judd Payne: It’s more of the movies I like. There are different elements that I think can make a great film. One, a contained time period. I love a movie that is set in a certain amount of space where you really feel; everything has to be solved and our hero has to win. Certainly if you’re going to talk about an action film, a thriller, the idea that everything is going to take place in a certain amount of time, a specific, small amount of time. Training Day is an excellent example of that, a film that I love. Everything takes place in a day and a night where everything has to happen.

Two, I really like the idea, and we’ll see what writers come up with, where you get put in a situation where you have to get from point A to point B and a million obstacles are thrown at you. One of the better examples of that is, it’s been done twice now, is the 310 to Yuma. I think there could be elements of that in this logline.

Lastly, this whole idea a natural disaster is taking place in the middle off all this action, in the time period, and having to get from Point A to Point B. There’s tons of disaster films, which is the last thing I want here, but still you have the visual elements, the tensioner a hurricane, how scary it can be, what the danger is. You can’t do that with an earthquake that happens fast, you can’t do that with tornadoes, unless you’re not being realistic, but the idea of a hurricane, its coming, you know it’s coming, you can see it coming, and then once it hits it’s absolutely devastating and then the eye of the storm comes over, there’s a brief calm and then boom, it comes back again. All that was the motivation, the reasoning behind this particular logline.

Script: Have you worked off someone else’s logline in your career?

Judd:  As a producer, I’m more often than not working off other people’s ideas. Whether that be a book that you find or a script that’s already been written. The world has changed so much just because so many movies are based on intellectual property via remakes or whatever sort of intellectual property that already exists. The original logline function isn’t quite what it used to be back when I started in the mid 90’s, I’d say all the way up to the writer’s strike of 2008. You used to have a lot of writer’s come in, they would have X amount of ideas for scripts they hadn’t written, and loglines that you either liked or didn’t like, found interesting or didn’t find interesting, and you could develop from there putting it together. As a producer, I’m always looking for a good idea and a good new idea. There are different producers that come up with a ton of original ideas, but for me I’m totally calm with somebody else bringing me their idea, and I’m sparking to it to try and put it together for them.

Script: Let’s turn it around, have you ever thrown a logline out there for some writers to try and develop?

Judd: Over the years I’ve done it, I don’t know how many times, but what are the odds of a film getting made? It may have changed, but back in the day, the studios always said one out of ten projects. They develop less now so the odds are probably better, but I’ve gone by this rule of thumb that if I don’t have at least ten projects, and ideally more, that I’m juggling at the same time, I’m never going to get one made. One out of ten projects you’re playing with get made, so over the years I’ve constantly thrown ideas at people as much as ideas coming at me. I’d guess over the years there’s been a dozen projects that I’ve had an idea, whether it be an original logline or I find inspiration in an article, or something like that I’m bringing to the writer’s… it’s a whole other thing if it’s a bestselling book or movie. I’m not including that… but the truth is with just original ideas, I’ll throw more than a logline at them. It’s not just one to three sentences I’m throwing at them. I certainly will have thought it through where I really see what it can be and maybe write one or two pages that can show where the concept could go. On a few occasions I’ve even gone ahead and written out an entire treatment, 10 to 15 pages, because there was more in my head of what it could be. Unfortunately over the years though, those ideas got set up, they got sold and a writer paid, but I’ve yet to make one of those films.

Script: If a writer gets a reputation for being able to take someone else’s idea and flesh out their vision, show them what they want to see, I imagine that would open a lot of doors. Do writers actually earn that reputation?

Judd: Sure, man. Look at the A-list writers, the guys that are on every studio list, that make the six and seven figure fees to adapt other people’s books, other people’s ideas. I think so much of it is about that. It’s enormous. Not to say you can’t have a long and successful career writing things that you find and that you’re putting together, but to be in the world of those guys the studios are constantly coming to with new ideas and rewrites, it’s because they deliver on all of them. Some writers are more specific to genre and are known for one thing, while others can go from writing an action film to a drama… you don’t see the comedy crossover as much… but really can do all genres and absolutely form a reputation as just good writers.

If they spark to your idea, hopefully they aren’t just looking for a paycheck; hopefully they are passionate about it as well. But by all means, I think writers that can get inspired by other people’s ideas can become known as a writer that delivers and have a long career. They can’t just phone it in. They have to find something that inspires them to believe they can deliver.

The motivation should always be to deliver a great script that ultimately gets made. If they’re not inspired by the idea then I say walk the other way, but if you can find inspiration in other people’s ideas, dive right in.

Script: Sounds like it’s the most important attribute perhaps?

Judd: It really depends on what you want because you also have the flip side. I’ll use [Richard] Linklater because I worked with him. He’s obviously known as a director, but he writes and co-writes a lot of his own stuff. A guy like that, who has a singular vision, sometimes is going to be working from his own ideas. Tarantino being the perfect example. He writes his own stuff, and that’s what he’s going to direct. He’s not a director for hire to do anything else. However it’s still my understanding he does a lot of rewrites and dialogue polishes on the side where he gets paid handsomely. But there are those writers/filmmakers that have a specific vision in what they do, but for the most part, to be a well-rounded successful writer you have to be able to do this.

Script: When you have someone working off an assigned idea, what are some of the things you look for to tell you they have a passion for it, that they are inspired by it?

Judd: Well, it really depends on what the genre is. Also a lot of it is when you sit across from someone and feel the energy, feel if they’re really inspired or not. Just like anything in life, when we get in a room and we’re interviewing someone, a lot of times you’re reading the person. But beyond that, typically in these situations where it’s an open idea and an assignment, that writer is going to have the opportunity to really pitch his or her vision. If someone is phoning it in and they’ve taken this logline and it feels very generic with nothing unique about it, you have your answer right there. And if you’ve interviewed five or ten writers with samples that you like and they want to meet on it, you’re looking at your options with the different ideas that have been pitched to you. An inspired writer is usually going to have a great idea, something that really is different from everyone else, like, “Oh my god that’s the movie, that’s what we’re talking about.”

Sometimes you have writers that come in and they are just basing it on their reputation. They come in and they really don’t pitch you much. Maybe you still hire them because they’ve gotten a lot of movies made, but at the same time, are they really that excited about it or is it just a paycheck for them? Otherwise they would have put in the work and come with their own unique angle to it.

Script: So wide eyes and vibrating in the chair doesn’t necessarily mean meth addict, it could just mean passion for the idea.

Judd: (Laughs) That’s a whole other thing. But if a guy shows up and he’s bouncing off the walls excited, but his idea is terrible, that doesn’t do him much good either.

Script: What pitfalls have you run across when developing someone else’s concept?

Judd: For me the majority of things that are going to come to are someone else’s concept. In my shoes, the pitfalls are: I’m now producing and developing someone else’s idea and we’re not on the same page. This writer has spent a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of passion and they’ve found someone like myself to move forward, but that still doesn’t mean we’re going to see eye-to-eye. The pitfall then is when you start moving forward creatively and you start realizing the writer does not agree, then you can quickly find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, just because neither side can agree on what they’re doing. Maybe we haven’t done enough due diligence on our own together, then I start realizing there are all kinds of holes in the story, and I don’t like this, or I don’t like that, obviously in that harms the development process.

I guess that’s true of any creative process, sometimes it stays on track and sometimes it goes off. But on either side of that fence — whether it’s my idea and I have this specific vision and they’re taking it another way that doesn’t excite me anymore, or if I’ve taken their idea and we get to a certain point and the writer feels that I’m taking it somewhere they never intended — it’s about finding that balance and compromise.

I always have to learn that as a producer, as much as I’m not writing it, just show the film. Now, people that are in the room haven’t been working on it, haven’t busted their asses every day for the last however many months, and they give a note. You still have to listen to it even if you think it’s stupid. When you do these things, your head is too far in it. A lot of the time you can’t see if it’s not making sense, or your original intention unfortunately wasn’t in the execution.

So back to the script process; always finding the least offensive way is very important. Once a producer or writer starts becoming defensive about the notes that are coming at them, you better be top, top, top at your game. The reality is you’re constantly going to be making compromises, you’re constantly going to be getting notes, and it’s really important how you handle that.

Script: A little off topic, do focus groups just drive you crazy?

Judd: Sometimes, yes. But what I’m always looking for is the consistency in the notes. In the case of this movie, we did a test screening before we went to do the additional photography. There were a number of problems with some of the story elements, so testing it was really nice. If we made these assumptions of what’s not working and then we test it and 75% of the audience feels the same way we do, then great, we’ve validated what we need to fix.

On the flip side, if our heads have been so far in it, and then we show it to three hundred people and we’re like, “Oh my god, we didn’t even see that problem that 75% of the audience is struggling with.” So I think it can be very beneficial. It’s not beneficial if you just don’t have consistency in the different opinions and what people are feeling, good or bad.

Script: So it’s not one guy that comes along and ruins your movie, it’s based on a percentage.

Judd: Every now and then that one guy, you go, “Oh, wait a second, that’s interesting,” but usually it’s the consistency where everyone is not liking or liking something that helps you make some of those decisions.

Script: Are there any unwritten rules or absolute taboos when working off someone else’s idea?

Judd: Where I would want to be cautious is if someone’s bringing you something to write and it’s their personal life story, it’s the history of their family, make sure you really, really love the particular idea.

As example, a Tupac movie is being made right now. I have no idea about the development process. I know some of the people involved but I have no context with the history of the movie. But the point I’m getting at is there’s a public figure who is insanely famous and highly controversial in a lot of different ways. If I were a writer I’d have to be sure you really get along with the producer and the rights holders that are bringing it to you. It’s going to be so incredibly important to them that you’re going to be a part of their life.

So to get back to your question, I don’t know if there’s any taboo. Developing other people’s ideas is fantastic. If I were ever to caution a writer, it’s when it’s something that’s brought to you that’s so important to that person that you feel like one missed step will crush you, and you’ll have very little say, that can be dangerous territory.

Script: The Industry Insider Contest asks for the first 15 pages. Writing classes and how-to books always give a list of key elements, but you’re a real live producer what key factors do you look for?

Judd: First, obviously every page of a script is important but these first fifteen pages, as I’m sure they’re all being taught, are extremely important. If you can’t engage your reader, and ultimately if the movie ever gets made you can’t engage your audience in those first 15 minutes, usually you’re going to fail.

For me, especially when we are talking about a logline like this that is commercial, obviously people are going to take it different directions — thrilleresque moments, certainly some action — it’s really about do they set up the hook? Are we going to get the hook? Are we going to understand the world that we’re in?

Also in this first 15 minutes, immediately establish the lead character, understand who he or she is, what their problem is. And extremely important we need to know what this character wants. Those are challenging things to set up and you can’t knock people over the head by being too specific. There has to be subtleties to that. And then we have to see this character has the weight of the world on their shoulders, because of the problems they have, because of what they want. As we move forward, there’s going to be countless obstacles and conflict trying to stop this character from getting what they want.

To be more specific answering the question, the first 15 has to show the hook, establish the lead character’s problem, and what he or she wants.

Script: What’s the most important thing for an aspiring writer to consider when approached to develop an idea?

Judd: It’s absolutely that they have a 100% passion if they’re going to spend the next year, or whatever your contract is. You have ninety days to first draft, a second, and a polish etc. They are going to be spending every day with this story for a while. Then as most movies go, that may be your contract and what you get paid to do, but years could still go by and you’re diving back into that story. If you don’t have some passion for it, that’s going to be a long, long road working on something that you just don’t like.

So I think it starts with the passion. My second answer would be that you truly and confidently believe you can deliver. If you have the passion for it, really feel like you have a great take, a good hold on what it is, and you feel you can deliver. The whole goal of writing any screenplay is ultimately that it’s going to get made.

If you hear some idea and you’re like, “Hey I know I can deliver but I’m not sure if this is a movie,” and you take that on having that doubt, I think that’s a huge mistake. If you have the passion, if you feel confident, you know where you’re going with it, you feel if you deliver its movie you feel confident can get made, dive right in and go for it.

Script: For fun, how would the rookie detective fare if you were doing the writing?

Judd: Well let me just say we are making a movie here so the detective better win in the end. And we better feel every step of the way that he or she is not going to win, because it wouldn’t be a very interesting script if our lead character were not constantly overcoming problem after problem, after problem, after problem, so that we actually care and are excited when they win in the end.

For different loglines I might not give that answer, but here, how’s the detective fare? He better win. Along the way its set up so writers can have a field day, work different angles where things are going to be going wrong, things he or she is going to overcome. At the end of the day, I don’t think any of us want to see this movie if the lead character dies and the bad guys get away with it all.

Script: Before I just flat out thank you, I have to tell you a lot of people think that the movie industry is all about money, money, money, but listening to you talk about passion and creativity is very inspiring.

Judd: I appreciate that and I think a lot of my friends would agree. I’ve been doing this for a while and preach passion to writers. I mean without it, this business is so hard. It’s so hard to get a movie made. Then once you’re making a movie it’s very difficult to finish it and get it delivered. It’s just hard. In many ways we are these lead characters going through our lives with obstacle after obstacle to get these films made, so man, if I didn’t have passion coming in to this, I would have been gone a long time ago.

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