This is the next post in a series of interviews with writers who have had their first films, web series, television assignment, etc. make it to the big or small or computer screen. It is an effort to find out what their journey was to their initial success.
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Next up: an interview with Dwayne Alexander Smith, writer of See Dick Run, Free Fall and the novel 40 Acres
Writer/producer/director/novelist Dwayne Alexander Smith decided to make movies after seeing Star Wars. With a Super 8 camera, he made an animated short titled Shoes that won him a scholarship to filmmaking camp. Later he dropped out of college to make movies, first working at a film equipment rental house and then as locations assistant on various feature films. He started writing screenplays to earn enough money to finish his first feature, Doomsday Stew. The film never got made, but he sold a screenplay, Joe’s Last Chance, and since then has earned a living as a professional screenwriter. He has sold or optioned six spec screenplays and has done numerous rewrites for different studios. Most recently he wrote a novel, Forty Acres, which was published by Atria Books.
What is the name of your first screenplay that was produced?
Well, the first screenplay I sold was JOE’S LAST CHANCE. It was packaged with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cedric the Entertainer and one million was spent on development. Unfortunately, Arnold decided to run for Governor and the project was put into turn around. My first writing assignment was on a project called KIDNAPPED for Queen Latifah’s company, Flava Unit and Lionsgate.
Kidnapped was a family film about a group of kids who stage their own kidnapping in order to punish their stepfather. Lionsgate loved my script, but when the directors came on board and made changes, the studio decided not to make the movie.
The first produced project I wrote was a movie called FREE FALL. Although I’ve been writing professionally for over 13 years, until last year when Free Fall was released, none of my screenplays had been produced.
I wrote Free Fall as a spec script, meaning I came up with the idea and wrote it on the hope that my agent and manager could shop the script and ultimately sell it to a studio.
Free Fall is a thriller about a woman, working late in an office building, who witnesses a murder. Fleeing the killer, she gets stuck in an elevator. Now, she’s trapped and can’t escape, but the killer can’t get to her because she’s trapped.
After I finished writing, the script made the rounds but did not find a buyer. Just when I thought the script was dead, a producer, Warren Zide, asked if he could try to find a home for the project. Warren came through by setting up the project at a company called Trancas Entertainment. Trancas’s claim to fame is that they own the very popular Halloween franchise. Free Fall remained in development at Trancas for another year before it finally went before the cameras in the summer of 2013. The finished film was released on DVD in October of 2014.
- Tell me a little bit about the experience of having the project come to completion.
I’ve sold a lot of specs, but up until Free Fall none had ever been made. It’s a great feeling to walk onto a movie set and realize that all the construction and all the people working are there because of something you dreamed up in your head. It’s a great feeling but a little scary as well. You begin to question if your material was really good enough to justify all the fuss.
I’m sure a lot creative people have bouts of self doubt, especially when literally millions of dollars are being spent on the material they dreamed up.
- What was the hardest obstacle to overcome in achieving that first project?
Along the way there are several battles to fight. There are a lot of creative people working on the film and not everyone sees eye to eye. As a writer you have to have very thick skin. A lot of changes were made to my Free Fall script, many that I did not agree with. But over the years I’ve learned that after a director comes on board, it’s pretty much out of the writer’s hand. Everyone is there to serve the director’s vision and if the writer has a problem with that, tough.
I maintain my sanity by reminding myself that each script is just product, and once someone buys it, it’s theirs to do with as they please.
- What have you learned about the industry when it comes to being a writer?
Very few people in Hollywood respect screenwriters. Everyone you meet, producers, directors, receptionists, all feel that they have just as much knowledge of the craft as you do. You get notes from the strangest places, like the director’s wife or the producer’s neighbor. It’s frustrating and a little insulting. No, it’s a lot insulting. I have worked hard to master my craft. My screenplay isn’t good because of luck, it’s good because I put in the hours and busted my ass to make it good. Another aspect of this is that producers are always trying to get free work out of screenwriters. They even have a name for it, they call is a producer’s draft. They spend millions of dollars on production, but can’t spare a few extra grand to pay the writer for another rewrite? If you have the good fortune of becoming an A-list writer you might not ever encounter this offense, but if you’re like most screenwriters, grinding out a living day-to-day, you’ll be asked to do free work routinely. And here’s the twisted part, if you don’t bend over and take it, they’ll label you “difficult to work with” and look for a more cooperative writer. Usually this means a writer who’s desperate to break in, even if they don’t make a dime.
- What are you working on now?
As far as screenwriting goes, I’m working on a thriller spec script called MISCONDUCT. Since publishing my first novel, FORTY ACRES, in July 2014, I’ve been focusing a lot of my energy towards writing novels. After I complete Misconduct I plan to write three novels. I’m also trying to find my way into writing for television. Today movies are all about pre-package blockbusters based on pre-existing material. Television is the new frontier for writers. Television is where all the chances are being taken, and with new outlets like Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, there’s an ever-growing need for good writers.
- What is your favorite movie or TV series?
The big cable dramas are my favorites. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Homeland, etc. Honestly, there aren’t any movie franchises right now that excite me. I’m not a huge fan of comic book movies. While those movies are full of eye candy, they always seem to fall in the story department.
- Where do you think the movie and television industry is heading? What do you think its future is?
Television is the new frontier for writers. Television is where all the chances are being taken, and with new outlets like Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, there’s an ever-growing need for good writers.
Movies, on the other hand, is turning into an event only option. I believe that in the future movie theaters will be reserved for super blockbusters in IMAX 3D that can demand a premium ticket price, and everything else will go straight to the boob tube.
- What parting advice do you have for writers?
Some of my answers might sound bitter, but believe it or not, I’m very happy with my career and with the work I’m doing. Every profession has its ups and downs, and the same goes for the writing game. If you love writing, and most writers do, writing professionally is a great way to make a living because you never really feel like you have a job. I feel amazingly lucky to get paid for making up stories and characters. Although I’ve had some tough times, I wouldn’t trade the journey I’ve experienced so far, for anything. I can work reclined on my sofa in my underwear sipping home brewed coffee with no one looking over my shoulder. Can’t beat that.
- What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do to get away from the industry?
I play a lot of poker. Maybe too much.
- Tell us something about yourself that many people may not know.
I created a reality series called TRUE COLORS for Sony Television. True colors was a hidden camera show that put unsuspecting people in sticky racial situations.
We created a soft pilot of 17 segments that were released on Sony’s Crackle Web Channel. The show was great and generated lots of feedback from the audience but ultimately Sony felt the show was too edgy for broadcast television.
If you look hard enough you might be able to find a few True Color segments online.
And check out the other interviews in the series:
Haifaa Al-Mansour http://ow.ly/ITabq
Chad Crawford Kinkle http://ow.ly/HXLq0
Mikey Levy http://ow.ly/HA9Xm
Hilliard Guess http://ow.ly/HcOmr
Amir Ohebsion http://ow.ly/H8aPq
Donald McKinney http://ow.ly/GvPfn
Michelle Ehlen http://ow.ly/GvPr1