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 Todd Niemi writer/producer of Backgammon
Todd Niemi was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and, other than a few years spent on a farm in Ferrum, Virginia, was raised there. He developed an interest in screenwriting while in college, and though he made several attempts to write a screenplay after graduating, it wasn’t until he lost his technical writing job in 2009 that he completed one. That first script, The Captive, which was based on Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity narrative, was finished in the fall of 2009 and optioned several months later. Unfortunately, due to the poor state of the economy at the time, the producer was unable to raise enough money to fund the project, so the film was never shot.
What is the name of your first screenplay that was produced?
Backgammon is my first produced screenplay. It’s based on the novella “Bloody Baudelaire” by Raymond Russell. Ray and I collaborated on the script. Backgammon had its world premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival on April 17.
- Can you tell us a bit about the journey as to how it came about?
After things fell through with The Captive, I was searching for an idea for my second screenplay. When I read Bloody Baudelaire in late 2009 I thought it could make a good independent film because it had few characters and limited locations, so I asked Ray for permission to adapt it into a screenplay and he kindly allowed me to. I wrote the first draft in early 2010, then Ray and I collaborated on the second draft, which I posted on InkTip late that year. In 2011 I was contacted by Francisco Orvananos who was looking for a script for his first feature. He ended up optioning the script and in the summer of 2012 the film was shot in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. The movie as filmed was based on the third draft of the script which included edits made by Francisco.
- Tell me a little bit about the experience of having the project come to completion.
Overall, I’d say my primary emotions are ones of relief and gratitude. I’m relieved that it’s finally completed, as I expected the film to be out sometime in 2013 or early 2014 at the latest, but there have been the inevitable delays. Movie making is such a complicated process and there are a million things that can go wrong to derail a project, so it’s a big relief to have the film finished. (I haven’t seen the final cut of it but I hope to soon.)
I also feel a tremendous amount of gratitude. To Ray and Francisco, in particular, as they’ve made me a produced screenwriter, which has opened doors for me on other projects, but I’m grateful to ALL the people who were involved with Backgammon.
I should also mention that I feel a bit nervous, as I’m concerned about how the film will be received. When you’ve worked hard on something, had to make compromises in order to get it done, anxiously awaited its completion, etc., you can’t help but worry about how others will respond to it.
- What was the hardest obstacle to overcome in achieving that first project?
The hardest part was letting go of the script and allowing Francisco to make changes to it. Ray and I were pretty much in agreement on everything regarding the script, but Francisco had his own ideas, of course. When writing the script Ray and I had been very faithful to his book, and I was hoping that aside from a few minor changes that might have to be made, the script would be shot as is, but that didn’t happen. In retrospect, it was foolish of me to expect little to no changes to the script. Film is a very collaborative medium and one should expect that the script will be modified to suit the director’s vision for the movie.
- What have you learned about the industry when it comes to being a writer?
I’ve learned that it’s a much more difficult industry to break into than I realized! When I first started out I had no idea how many people were writing scripts or how many scripts were circulating in search of a producer. Had I known these things I might not have bothered to attempt screenwriting, so I guess it’s good I was ignorant of what I was up against! I’ve also learned, though, that with a lot of hard work, persistence and some luck, you CAN beat the odds.
I’ve also learned that, even after achieving some measure of “success,” such as getting a script optioned or a film produced, additional work is guaranteed. There can be long periods between projects (I’m talking “years” here), so don’t quit your day job if you have one.
- What are you working on now?
I just finished a treatment for a producer who’s attracted the interest of Lionsgate in one of his projects, and now I’m working on the first draft of the script. I also have several spec scripts that I’m either completing or polishing. One, The Elephant Lady of Thailand, is named after the book by Dennis W. Shepherd. It tells the true story of Lek Chailert’s efforts to rescue the elephants of Thailand from captivity and abuse. Another spec is based on the inspiring true story of Scott Sonnon, the founder of TACFIT, who overcame childhood bullying, obesity and dyslexia to become a world champion martial artist. I’m also doing some minor rewrites on the script for The Dark Return of Time, a feature to be shot in Paris and London next year. Like Backgammon, it’s based on a novel of Ray’s, and the script is a collaboration between Ray, Rosalie Parker and I.
- What is your favorite movie or TV series?
That’s a tough question for several reasons: for one, I’ve been without a TV for 4 or 5 years, so I’m not up on most of the current TV shows. A few that I watch online are Game of Thrones and The Walking
Dead. I also watched Breaking Bad and True Detective when they became available online. I tend to limit my TV watching to shows that I hear a lot of buzz about simply because I’m curious as to why they’re
I’m still partial to the TV shows and movies I loved while growing up — Happy Days, The Waltons, Star Trek (the original series), A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim), The Wizard of Oz, The Ten
Commandments, It’s a Wonderful Life, King Kong, all the Abbott & Costello movies — or ones set in historical periods that interest me, e.g., I love Jeremiah Johnson, Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans because they deal with periods of American history that I find fascinating. Oh, and anything by Hitchcock. I love me some Hitchcock!
- Where do you think the movie and television industry is heading? What do you think its future is?
They’re both obviously moving more towards VOD viewing. More and more TV shows are becoming available online soon after the episodes have aired on TV. It’s a similar situation with movies. In fact, it’s quite common now to be able to watch a movie online while it’s still playing in the theater. I don’t think theatrical releases of movies will ever disappear, but there will be fewer and fewer of them, and more of them will be reserved for big budget, tent pole films. With such large, flat screen TVs available today, many people prefer to relax in the comfort of their own homes while watching a movie — and to save a few bucks while doing so!
Also, online content providers such as Amazon and Netflix are creating more original programming, and I think this will be a growing trend for years to come. Now’s a great time to be a screenwriter because there are more potential markets for scripts than ever before. Look at all the web series there are now, for example, something which didn’t even exist just a few years ago.
- What parting advice do you have for writers?
Plan for success in the long term. If you think you’re going to write a script or two and break into the industry in a big way, you’re likely setting yourself up for disappointment. While that MAY happen, the chances of it occurring are very slim. If you have realistic expectations from the outset you’re more likely to stick with screenwriting until you actually do achieve some success.
Network, network, network! Connect with people in the industry however you can, whether it be in person at a local film group or via social media. I’ve made some great contacts in the industry through
Facebook, and doing so has led to some work for me. You never know when a connection you make may open doors for you.
Try to be supportive and helpful to your contacts in the industry. This is a tough business, and doing what you can to make the industry a little nicer can only help you in the long term. Some will remember the help and support you provided and return the favor when they’re able to. This is a business that requires collaboration and cooperation. Remember that.
Put at least as much effort into marketing your scripts as you do into writing them. I spent over two years querying literally dozens of producers, managers and actors about The Dark Return of Time script.
If I hadn’t been so persistent the script would be gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. Many writers put tons of effort into writing the best script they possibly can, but then they give up too easily when it
Comes to marketing it. So I’ll repeat: you should put at least as much effort into marketing your polished script as you put into writing it.
- What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do to get away from the industry?
When I’m not writing (or thinking about writing!) I enjoy watching movies, reading fiction and poetry, researching subjects that interest me, observing nature, taking walks, hiking, listening to music, and spending time with my family.
My computer is my lifeline to the industry, so if I want to get away from it all I have to do is avoid using my computer for a while. That’s a very effective method of escape!
- Tell us something about yourself that many people may not know.
When I was young I wanted to grow up to be an Olympic track and field athlete. I had hopes of emulating the great runners of the past, such as the flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi. In 1925 he came and ran at Crocker Field in Fitchburg, MA. In my great aunt’s photo album there are some pictures she (I presume) took of him when he was racing there. I ran at that field multiple times while growing up, and I dreamed of one day winning a professional race there. My ultimate running goal was to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
And check out the other interviews in the series:
Louis Pappas, http://ow.ly/LxRji
Allan Brocka, http://ow.ly/LfQNy
Gregory Blair http://ow.ly/KZj9s
Josh Kim http://ow.ly/K7obx
Jim Thalman http://ow.ly/JQ8YT
David Au http://ow.ly/JwM0A
Dwayne Alexander Smith http://ow.ly/J8GJI
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
Louis Pappas, The Halls of Jacob, The Last Hit, screenwriter, screenwriting, screenplay