Some time ago, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt quit their jobs in corporate America and moved west. They endured the many trials of aspiring screenwriters, among them, dwindling financial security and countless near-miss opportunities. They also got married. Last year, they sold their first spec script. This Friday, that movie opens nationwide.
The film is Olympus Has Fallen. Acquired by Millennium Films last March and distributed by Film District, Olympus is an action-thriller that harkens back to the golden age of the genre: a besieged fortress (in this case, the White House), one man inside, impossible odds.
Rothenberger and Benedikt’s road to this weekend spans two coasts and the greater part of a decade. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk with them about their journey.
RK: Let’s talk Olympus Has Fallen. Tell me about the film.
CR: The original idea I had several years ago was, “What would be the most impossible building to take over in the world?” I thought that would be the White House. Marrying that with the idea of a secret service hero… we hadn’t really seen that the movies in a little while, at least not in my opinion. I thought there might be something there that audiences would be interested in.
RK: There definitely is. I understand the script was acquired by Millennium just last year. Can you tell us a little about the process of selling the script?
CR: That was an interesting process. Katrin and I, we’ve been writing for several years now. We’re the proverbial “nine-year overnight success.”
KB: Creighton and I actually met in a screenwriting class in Philadelphia thirteen years ago… He had attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, graduating from the English Honors Program. He fell into a regular corporate career for a few years. He took some screenwriting classes at night and really felt he loved it, that it was his passion. He was getting up at 4 a.m., before his corporate job, writing before work, going to his job, coming home at night, and then screening movies and studying scripts and writing weekends. We met in screenwriting class in 2000, and at that time, I was also working a corporate job, doing the same thing.
CR: In 2002, I was fortunate enough to win the Academy Nicholl Fellowship with a Korean War epic script called, The Chosin. That really gave me the confidence and impetus to focus solely on screenwriting as a career. Katrin and I started to write together, and we moved out to California [in 2007]…
We said, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to try every way we can”… We had a number of scripts that looked really promising, that someone was going to buy and for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. We had different representatives. In 2011, we offered another spec script of ours, called Cali … That’s when we got Gersh, with Devra Leib and Alex Lerner at Kaplan/Perrone. Alex looked at our body of work – we had been writing for over nine years – we had over twenty completed screenplays. He looked at all of them and said, “The one we’re going to go out with first is Olympus Has Fallen.” Katrin and I were both thrilled because we always believed that this idea was such a good idea and it would make for a successful movie.
From the fall of 2011, when we sign with them, until March of 2012 when it went out, we did four full rewrites for them to make it as strong of a script as possible. It went out. It sold to Millennium. We were very thrilled with that. Our reps told us that Millennium is buying it – they’re probably going to make it, so I think we should take this offer.
RK: And what were some of those revisions?
KB: I think with our reps, whenever you have a spec script that you’re dusting off because you haven’t worked at it in a little bit, you want to go through it and do a Page 1 update –
CR: There was substantial reworking of the plot and the backstory, some twists that they felt maybe wouldn’t be the best way to do it. We changed taking out a lot of the political dialogue – that was one thing [we were specifically told], “There’s too much politics in here” –we got to strip that all out because the audience isn’t going to care. So we stripped that out and just rewrote, focusing on character. Their notes were excellent.
RK: Writing an action-thriller is actually not as easy as it first may seem. You’re obviously conveying a lot of visuals without actually seeing them. Is there any special way you go about writing action in your scripts – or at least a way you changed from the first attempts at doing it?
KB: Creighton is a phenomenal action writer. He just has a gift for putting words on the page, choreographing the scenes where the reader is able to follow them, where they make sense, where you don’t get lost along the way. I think that’s been just because he has been literally getting up every single day for as long as I’ve known him – thirteen years – and even before that, maybe fifteen, sixteen years.
CR: We only write something that we would love to see. When we had it in our heads – I always had that image of C-130 coming over the Lincoln Memorial and down the mall. I always had that image in my head of the Secret Service fighting guys with automatic weapons in the Grand Staircase of the White House. I always just thought that would be an amazing set of visuals. It comes to you when it’s in your head.
RK: Just out of curiosity, how was it to see that on the big screen when you’ve been working on it for years?
CR: Unbelievable. It was fantastic. Seeing what was in your head, on the screen like that – it’s a very rewarding feeling.
RK: Winning Nicholl was the major impetus to move out here to L.A. What are your thoughts on contests in general?
CR: I definitely felt very fortunate to win Nicholl. Since the script that won was a hundred-million dollar war epic, it didn’t lead to a sale and didn’t lead to the movie being made. It did lead to my signing with my first agent. It led to a lot of meetings in Hollywood. It mostly made me feel that I was a confident writer.
KB: It gives you confidence. A lot of people will poo-poo some of the writing contests—maybe not Nicholl—but some of the writing contests, and we tend to disagree with that. You can figure out where you stand. Am I good at this or not? Sometimes it’s hard when you’re just sitting in your own house, writing, nose to the grindstone. Sure, you show your family and friends but, of course, they tell you everything is great. And it gives you the motivation when you’re working in a situation where you’re not getting income. You’re a struggling screenwriter.
CR: You get up in the morning, it’s still dark out and you’re working for free and you’re hoping that somebody, somewhere, someday is going to be interested in what you’re writing on the page. That can be a lonely thing for writers and takes a lot of perseverance, a lot of courage and a lot of faith to finally get to the point where you’re getting paid to write.
KB: You look for encouragement where you can. You start to second-guess yourself sometimes when you go, “Oh, there’s a lot of luck involved and a lot of elements outside of your control.”
CR: There’s luck, there’s timing. Like I said, we had a couple other real near-misses that could have gone our way, and for whatever reason, over the years they didn’t. Katrin and I are both believers that things happen for a reason, everything in its own time. But at that moment, when you don’t get it, it’s frustrating and you just have to stay the course and keep persevering.
RK: One of the most difficult things about being a writer is sitting down in an essentially empty, silent room, in terms of your demons. Is there anything you guys found that is beneficial to coping with the psychology of writing?
KB: I think we have a support system with the two of us. I think that was huge. We also had some very close family members that have never given up on us and some close writer-friends that have been incredibly encouraging.
CR: Since we moved out to L.A., there are a number of friends who are very talented and they understand. They understand that unless you’re a writer, doing it every day, you don’t quite understand what it takes to get there. That’s why any writer with the perseverance and the talent to break through, we have our ultimate respect for. It is not an easy thing to do.
RK: I can imagine. That brings me to the fact that you’re not only a writing team, but a married writing team. How does that work out?
KB: It actually works out really well. We both enjoy the process of collaboration. I really think that prepares you. We collaborate everyday with each other. When you’re moving forward in the process and working with an actor or a director or a production company, getting notes – we collaborate every day so it’s something that comes pretty naturally to us.
CR: It helps to make us efficient writers—and fast writers. Two heads are better than one. We’re really 50-50 partners, throwing everything we have into it and for whatever reason, our talents seem to mesh.
RK: At this point, when you achieve this kind of success, is your next move to brush off some of the screenplays that you had in the past and revise them to perhaps sell? Or are you still trying to find original content?
CR: Both, actually… We’re now working on a supernatural action-thriller. But over the course of the last several months, as Olympus has been in production, we’ve meet with a lot of people, and we’ve pitched them a lot of script ideas that we had written or were in the midst of writing. That’s some of our – I don’t know if you want to call it older stuff – but stuff that was already existing that we now are developing as well. But we’re constantly coming up with new material on our own.
KB: About reps, they really do push us to find that next new idea – that next, new spec idea. And I think that’s what the town is always looking for. That’s what we’re working on right now.
CR: That’s one thing that we’ve learned as writers: no matter what your working on right this second, always be thinking the next fresh original idea that you can write. As a writer, the most important thing that you have is a great idea. And then, if you are truly a writer with the ability to put it on the page, you’ll be able to execute and have someone interested in it down the line. But you constantly have to be generating fresh, original ideas. That’s the life-blood of any writer.
KB: … even for us, for example, Olympus Has Fallen would never have seen the light of day had we not moved out here in 2007 and wrote five other spec scripts at that time. One of which got the attention of our new rep. It was another script that we had written, on spec, for free while we were struggling.
RK: It’s some version of kill your darlings – the one script that people start off with is the one they hold dear to their heart, but it’s the next nine that you write that could get you in the industry.
CR: You never know which script is going to be the one. For the Nicholl Fellowship, actually, the year that I won, I entered two scripts – The Chosin and Learning to Fly. Learning to Fly had won the Script Magazine Alliance-Atlantis Contest already. I knew that script was pretty good—I didn’t know about The Chosin. So when they were both entered that year, when Learning to Fly got knocked out in the semi-final round, I thought well, that’s pretty much it. Then The Chosin just kept going and going and going and ended up winning. And I didn’t think that that was even the better of my two scripts. So you never know which one is going to resonate with someone.
RK: Absolutely. Thank you, Creighton and Katrin for taking the time to talk with me.
Olympus Has Fallen is now playing in theaters.
Interview by Ryan Kelly for Script Magazine.
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