TRANSCRIPT EP2- Becoming a Writer Director with James Fox

Updated: Nov 10


How to Become a Writer / Director

AUDIO OF THIS PODCAST IS AVAILABLE HERE


Episode summary and Transcript


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Welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry. I am here with James Fox, writer, director extraordinaire, founder of Dawn Runner Inc. We are going to talk about being a screenwriting director. He will be taking us through his journey and sharing some fantastic tips for people just getting into screenwriting.

Geoffrey

How are you doing, James?


James

I'm doing great. I hope everybody's staying safe and healthy out there.


Geoffrey

Oh yeah, I had to shave off the beard, so now I've got the quarantine stubble, so I'm trying to grow back. Hence, I want to start out a little bit about how you stumbled into it because I'm known for my stumbling into screenwriting. I want to hear your story because I've heard it's pretty impressive.


James

Okay, well, I started off a genetic engineering major straight out of high school, though; I stumbled pretty far and hard. It's more like falling down a mountain, But I quickly found that I did not enjoy being in a lab by myself all hours of day and night, much too social for that, so I just picked up and walked away. Basically, one day I gathered my stuff out of the lab and walked out and then I was, I don't know what I'm going to do, I have no idea, so I tried some other things. One of my friends from high school was trying to be an actress. She's taking all the acting classes down in LA, she came up to our hometown for an audition that was happening, and she was, Can I get a ride? I had to take the bus here, and I was, oh, I will give you a ride, and I took her to this place, and it was kind of shady. It felt to me it was weird, hotel conference center thing, and I was, I'm gonna stick around and just make sure everything's okay. So, we're walking in, and there were two PA's and one of them was, alright, you come with me over here and then you're going over there. The guy took me, and I was like, okay, where are we going? And I got into the funnel and, I couldn't get out (laughter) the casting funnel, and they walked me into a room that was filled with people that look they could be my brothers or cousins or something and they were , do you have a script? I'm thinking a script for what? I'm never gonna forget this epic PA's eye roll and so she handed me this packet and asked if I had a headshot, resume, anything. I'm thinking, what is going on? I didn't know any of the language, you know, headshot to me was, you know from playing doom and getting an instant kill with you know, I don't know what's happening.


Geoffrey

Yeah, don't do that (laughs)


James

Yeah so, she gave me these lines and says you are gonna be teamed up with Tim over here. You'll meet Tim alright, go for it and walked away and all I knew is that I grew up a big team sports person football, you know a team relays on track all that stuff. So, I'm thinking oh my god, I have a team. I don't know what game we're playing and so I started reading the script as my lines were highlighted., I told the guy that I don't know what I'm doing here. He said none of us know what we're doing here. And I don't know what that means.


Geoffrey

Wait was that the director who said that.


James

No, my scene partner (laughs) he was having some kind of existential crisis, you know, about I don't know what I'm doing here either and so I kind of got the gist, I had to memorize these lines, you know, I never took drama or anything that. So, I I knew that, Tim really wanted the roll and I didn't want to let him down. Well, if I do badly, he's gonna do bad. I don't care but you know, so I tried really hard and actually did really well I felt and next day, I got a call back and play the lead characters flashback character in Vietnam. I had a couple big names in it and I'm not going to share the title because, you know, whatever you can research it and find it


Geoffrey

I'm sure we could find it.


James

But yeah, it was the hardest I've ever worked in my life. Being an actor, you know, I got to jump out of a helicopter hovering 15 feet over a puddle carrying a giant machine gun. I got to bounce off of trampolines during smudge pots exploding. I got to hang out with the special effects team, the pyrotechnics team from Oh god, what did they do?

I want to say it was Independence Day, but it's been 25 years now so the memories actually getting a little hazy. Anyway, they've done some really big stuff and I just have this memory of them pulling up in a converted ice cream truck with a big painting of a mushroom cloud on the back of it and the guy kicked open the door. A bunch of helium cans went rolling around and he jumped out smoking a cigarette wearing a tank top that said I blow stuff up and I was like, I found my career (laughs). I think that the acting was really tough. I was exhausted every day; it was 115 degrees where we were shooting, I was in full Vietnam garb. It was wild but after we wrapped for the day, every day, I would become a director's assistant just because I really liked his job. You know, he got to sit under the umbrella people brought him cold drinks. He got to tell everybody what to do. It wound up being really neat and in, you know, all jokes aside, what I found incredible was the way that he held the whole story in his head and any given moment that this was actually based on a real person, the story that we were telling, and that guy was actually onset.


Geoffrey

So, you had the full experience.


James

Yeah, absolutely


Geoffrey

Yeah. I mean, it's Serendipitous. But I have to say, because I know a lot of people that didn't chase their dreams, you have. I mean, most people, I think wouldn't even have had the bravery to choose to not do what they've committed to in college, they would just stick with it, and then end up living their experience being in debt and, you know, not being able to find the way But you knew you knew deep down , I'm not supposed to do this And when that happened, you took that step and it led you on to this amazing path where you find yourself now and I think that that says a lot about your character that you're able to, to find that inner voice and listen to it and I think that's great and then to end up on a on a gig where you get , full exposure to the whole, you know, film industry is amazing. Well, so you went into directing, right?


James

Yes, directing and producing.


Geoffrey

And how long did you do that before you decided you wanted to start writing?


James

So, it's interesting. I enrolled at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in a directing program and I was transferring with a bunch of credits so I ran out of electives so I started taking other you know, course classes right started taking writing, I started taking producing and my screen writer, one teacher, was just incredible, and really just kind of inspired me to write I wrote a comedy for my first thing and it was my first we had to write a feature in screenwriting one and I had no idea what I was doing and I was just, okay, get a copy of final draft.


Geoffrey

Typical first screenplay (laughs)

James

Yep, and, you know, she was teaching us and it was being really an incredible experience, but you know film school is so dark, everybody's dying characters are dying there's so much suicide , you know, every story was just , oh my god.


Geoffrey

Sure, it has nothing to do with late teen emos right? (Laughs)


James

(laughs), No, of course not I wanted to kind of buck the system a little bit and do something different so I wrote a romantic comedy a really swingers esquire romantic comedy that was all about , you know, a bunch of guys trying to find themselves and failing horribly the entire way and she thought it was great she just gushed about it she was , you know, the comedies great pacing, you know, you've got some formatting errors, but whatever.


Geoffrey

I mean, but that's a great tip though. So when you want to stand out from the pack, you want to do something different and if you have you know, if you're in a class that, and everybody's writing dark sad things about nihilism. You're gonna kind of get looked over but you do something creative and interesting, it gets noticed. My very first script broke out into festivals all over the planet. I did it in a Rashomon style where I totally broke structure. I brought in a little Alfred Hitchcock, where I start out with what you think is the protagonist, and then I kill her off on page 10 and that's the inciting incident and then you end up falling a different way. So, people either hated it, or said this is the best thing I've ever read. So yeah, I think breaking free and doing something totally different is an excellent I methodology to really push yourself as a writer and to do it on your first script is… well that's crazy.


James

Well, I mean, I think I recognize that, Hey, I could write one of these really dark things right and do what everybody else is doing. But then in order to, stand out, I have to be the best and I'm not the best screenwriter. You know, I could do something different and I'm gonna stand out just based on the fact that I'm doing something different.


Geoffrey

Yeah, you're exceptionally modest because you've won several awards for your screenwriting. I just want the audience to know that he's being very humble here, I could see some of the awards in his back shelf there (laughs)


James

This was you know, 20-year-old me or 21-year-old


Geoffrey

Yeah, I gotcha.


James

I can't keep up with these guys who've been doing it since they were eight years old right, they literally quote the script from Pulp Fiction to me, you know, action lines and everything.


Geoffrey

Wow. It doesn't mean they're good (laughs)


James

But to me, I was intimidated, you know, I have no record. So you know, now, I'd like to think that I've honed to the craft a little bit, I took something that I wasn't naturally good at and worked really hard to become good at it.


Geoffrey

I love that and I love that you look at it as a craft because that's definitely something that I preach right? I don't know how you feel but I feel that there's two mindsets, you can have a screenwriting, you can be an artist, or you can be a craftsman and artists I feel are the writers who don't want anybody to touch their work, they can't get feedback and they have to make it their own way, which is fine if you're writing and directing your own stuff but if you're working on spec or a hire gig, it is a craft at that point because you're being hired to work on someone else's vision and it sounds that's kind of the similar take that you have as well.


James

Yeah definitely I think that as artists, you know, my mom is a muralist. So I grew up with artists in the house, she was a professional muralist and in a very successful one, whereas my dad's an engineer, so you know, I have an interest in art, I got to see them attack problems from totally opposite directions and come to the same conclusion so I definitely feel there is art to writing, definitely and I think there's a lot of instinctual stuff that the artist writer does but there's a craft layer too and I think that's a lot of the research and development that happens and the first draft is all art, you're free, you're doing what you want and then the craft comes then it's the putting it in the frame adding it making it presentable making it producible and that is the craftsman part.


Geoffrey

I love that you that you can dance between both of those. So, when was the moment that you decided "I've got to start founding my own company and really start making stuff”? I mean, when did that happen? Because I know there are a lot of screenwriters out there that are burgeoning filmmakers. They're getting ready to start trying to create their own business and as someone who's done it, I can tell you it's difficult job. It's a big commitment. I don't want to say it's my wife but it's definitely my mistress (laughs) I would want to know what's the story behind the moment where you realize you wanted to do it?


James

So again, it’s kind of came down to this team thing, I was going through film school. We kind of built this team that started producing stuff and actually landed a directing gig for a huge client my senior year at the academy and did a three commercials campaign for them. It was a huge gig so I got to bring in a lot of the people that I had been working for years with, I guess, three years with at the Academy to be my dp be my producers be my ad and it was kind of towards the end of that everybody was , well, you know, in a couple months, we're going to graduate and what are we going to do then? And I thought, why don't we just keep doing this? You know, we work really well together; we just completed this massive campaign. Let's just keep rolling with this.


Geoffrey

So, when you got that initial gig, did you have to pull in people that you just knew right away? Or did you have time to build it out? How much of a pressure campaign was there?


James

It was pretty pressurized, actually. So yeah, I would think it was kind of one of those thing I already knew the people that I wanted, if I'd had more time, I probably would have picked the exact same people that I picked because I've worked with a them, I knew what to expect from them that was really the moment for me as I kind of sat back in the director's chair, which I was very rarely in and said, we could shoot a movie tomorrow with all this equipment you know, if we had a script ready to go, I've got the people here to do this. Why don't we do this? And it became an obsession really. We really just kind of started doing great work and it started rolling. I think, within the first six to eight months of our founding we started turning away work.


Geoffrey

Yeah, that says a lot. It says it all right there. So, do you feel it was word of mouth or were you getting out there and really advertising.


James

I think it was a little bit of both. I was doing a lot of just calling around sending out emails doing the work right, but I think the main thing was word of mouth. In the Bay area, people kind of move jobs a lot so we'd work with one marketing director, and then they'd move to another company and then they'd say, Hey, we need video. I'm at this new place. Let's go. In fact, we've followed one marketing director to, I think six or seven different locations and we've done work with her at every company along the way.


Geoffrey

Yeah, I think that says a lot. So when you can create something original and creative and put a lot of talent behind it, I mean, that shows and because you're in a competitive market, I mean, there's a lot of production companies out there so to be a successful one and to be able to turn away work. It says the client kind of quality that you guys are putting out and that will carry word of mouth and I think that is something for I think any kind a burgeoning writer directors out there getting ready to start on business to know is to not skimp and obviously they have an eye for talent you have, you can obviously find people that know what they're doing and then be able to get them behind you which really says a lot.


James

And I think that there are two really important things that you have to consider when you're going to make your own production company, is there work in the area? You know, I have a friend who lives a very remote part of the Midwest, and there's no work for 200 miles in any direction and he founded a production company and dumped his life savings into it and wanted to build a soundstage up and then quickly realize that he was gonna have to fly people in to shoot stuff and because there's just not and I actually spoke with him a lot about it, and we had a lot of good talks about it and he's actually now he's put up a building, he's put up his own sounds, he flies people in for his projects and he does a lot of consulting work in San Diego alone so he gets to shoot movies he wanted to do and then he consults on film projects as a producer, globally so I'm not saying don't do it I'm saying do it smart. Do your research.


Geoffrey

Yeah. We fix your script for instance, you know, there's a lot of companies out there and it's something I really wanted to do and help people so when I was looking at it I thought is there a niche market? and then I realized that most people just give notes on screenplays, but we treat you more as a mentor so we kind of don't want to just improve your script, we want to improve you as a writer so that's the approach we've taken through that niche. We've helped a lot of people and our reputation has grown and I think you've got to find your niche as well. What would the niche for Dawn Runner because I'm sure you guys have a specific type of genre you lean on.


James

Oh, we really like the sci fi genre and there's a reason for that though. We are big on innovation and technology for the space and for the industry. So one of the things that I wanted to do right out of film school was, let's take advantage of some of the technology that's out there that you know, we were still in changing bags and my first day in film school, I took apart a bollix in a changing bag and put it back together. My head not to flash the film, and I'm , I'm a director, man (laughs) and so there were still a lot of really weird processes where I was , why do we need you know, six people around the camera? I you know, I think that there's ways that we can develop technology to do this for us and we did more of a you know, reducing errors and reducing the number of people we required to have on set because that made our budgets go further and made everything you know, easier but we found that it helped a lot with visual effects a lot with introducing that computer graphic element, because we had all this computer data that could transfer between computers and so we developed a lot of in house technology to really allow really that stuff pop and we worked with Nvidia, we did some stuff with Dell, we were working on some technology pieces that I don't really opening up, we shot an entire film on green screen.


Geoffrey

Well, I've seen a lot of television shows have done green screens just as their sets now and some better than others we could say you were more in the forefront of that technology?


James

Not on the green screen itself, but on some of the company things that kind of help make it easier because doing virtual sets is not easy but being able to do that in six months opposed to two year, that's a big deal for us.


Geoffrey

It's interesting to me, because when I've seen it on shows, right, you think wow, that was seamless and really impressive and then I've seen it on shows that have a good budget and it's obvious they're not in a castle and so I just wonder, is that due to time? Is it a budget thing? I mean, what do you think?


James

It could be either, it could be poor planning. You know, there's a lot of elements that go into it. I think that virtual sets virtual site extensions, and just computer graphics, computer generated graphics in general get kind of dis bad rap is the band aid for poor production planning where it's there's a famous catchphrase that I don't want to use but, you know, there's the whole idea of , Oh, well, there's a big problem there because in this shot, you can see that there's a town down there and we're supposed to be in medieval world, and we'll just paint it out later.. You know, you'd be shocked at how much budget and time you increase, just by saying that over the course of one production, it balloons really quickly. So I mean, just rot scoping is a nightmare so even just painting stuff out, you know, it's , I don't know so it's something you got to be careful of and we wanted to do the sci fi, we want to do the fantasy films all those stories in hindsight, I have a tendency to be very brute force about my business and what we're gonna do, it's that whole strength of will thing, right?


Geoffrey

You say brute force I say focused.


James

(Laughs) Yeah. I think you have to be focus in order to slam your head through the brick wall willingly, right? So, I wanted to do sci fi and fantasy and nothing was going to stop me, a budget not stopping me. If I could go back and tell myself something, when I first made my company, start with stuff that we could do cheaply, you know, there are there are there are comedies that are really high quality and really good stories really compelling. They have no visual effects at all, top to bottom cast of 10 you know, eight locations and they're super good. I think I got this weird thing where it's unless there's a spaceship blowing up and kids being sucked out of airlocks and whatever, it's just not worth my time.


Geoffrey

I love the vision. I think it's interesting to say rom com because you'll see a lot of indie screenwriters that are going into filmmaking will focus more on cheap horror, because there's a market for that but then I always think the effects aren't there and it's very niche based and I'm not sure it's as successful as everybody says it is but I think if you can make a decent rom com, there's got to be market for that.


James

Yeah absolutely, I think even dramas and stuff are great, you can tell amazing stories in the drama genre, psychological thrillers awesome. I think that there's an aversion to looking at the pieces that you have and the tools that you have and saying, Okay, what can I make with this? I definitely did that. What could I realistically make? I had cameras I had lights I had sets you know, I had a space to shoot obviously screams sci fi with no budget right but you know if I could go back shooting something , a seven, totally something that you can do and it's a good story right so just look at what you have and work with that you can make a good story with that. I mean, that's now you know, 40-year-old me thinks that's the fun that's the challenge is here's what I have what can I make that's cool and compelling with this.


Geoffrey

I love it. So, are you working on anything nowadays? Got anything coming up?


James

Always working, I got a bunch of really exciting stuff coming up. I am working again


Geoffrey

You're working in the corona virus pandemic ladies and gentlemen I just want to point

that out.


James

Which is awesome because it's given me the opportunity to catch up, I've worked harder ever every day since we went until a quarantine than ever before because it's everybody got off my back and I can just focus and get stuff done so I'm contracted to direct and attached direct to feature films coming up and production was delayed because of COVID-19 but we're working on trying to get out there as soon as things open up and we can actually shoot and travel. We're going to get those done it; the names of the film are fresh off the grill and quarantine Island. Those are coming up pretty quick.


Geoffrey

What's the genre there?


James

My first horror films, I'm really excited about it. It's got an amazing team. You know, the people on the team were just incredible and so talented that I just I can't wait to watch them work.


Geoffrey

You're breaking out of a genre; you're going into something new. You're testing yourself that's the right mindset.


James

Well, I feel people are very niche, especially production designers and some of art people, there are people who say things , I only work in horror, I only work in fantasy so being able to work with a new pool of talent is really exciting for me and just seeing what they bring to the table and the energy that they have, you know, I think that it's gonna be great. They're gonna be great films.


Geoffrey

I think it's fantastic. It's important to break out of the genre that you're comfortable with. I mean, I preach that all the time. I was a psychological thriller writer for a while, and I went into horror and comedy and then just broke off from there. I think you should be able to be a jack of all trades and dip your toes into several pools because it just makes you better and so I'm excited to see it. Now, I know a little bird told me that you're doing an adaptation. I've done several of those as well and they are exceptionally difficult to do because you have to not just be truthful to the story, but then you have the author that you have to make sure you don't want to say placate but make sure they're happy with it so collaborate.


James

Yeah, so me and one of my longtime friends and he was a member of Dawn Runner for a long time before I moved away, and we've stayed in touch and collaborated on some pretty amazing stuff. We've got a pilot down ready to go for A.K. DuBoff's CADICLE universe. I have the benefit of actually having read the books and being a fan too. I'd already pretty intimate with this world. I know, basically every book I consume, I start thinking about how would I shoot this? If I was, you know, put in charge of it but Daryl had never read it. So, you know, he got the books right away and we started, you know, talking it out and it's a great universe. There's tons in it. The characters are deep, and the author has been amazing to work with. I mean, we floated some pretty significant ideas, you know, I wouldn't say changes but some maybe some reorganizations of things that would make things kind of flow more cinematically for an episodic and she's just been amazing. We instantly developed this relationship where she was totally fine calling us up.


Geoffrey

Well, the issue with adapting is, at one point, you have to just try and adapt the essence of the story and make changes. I was on a gig where the entire script was adapted. Well, it was difficult because this was a game of thrones style book that I had to adapt into a feature, but it was a fun concept. I was really excited to do it and the challenge, you know, because if you can adapt a book, you're a decent screenwriter. It's a struggle, but it's a good challenge.


James

Yeah. I mean, it was definitely challenging. It's a huge multi-generational spanning, you know, lots of time passes through the course of this series, you know, epic space opera. I mean, there's so much detail and just so much stuff and trying to distill that into you know, a 16-minute episodic format. It was incredibly challenging but really rewarding. I had a great time through the whole process, and I'm really looking forward to seeing it.


Geoffrey

Well, I think this has been fantastic. I appreciate you being on. If you have any other tips or anything for burgeoning writers going into directing and potentially starting their own little companies. What would you suggest?


James

There are two things that I would recommend while one it's hard, stay the course, it's challenging. I can't tell you how many late nights I've had, I can't tell you how many painful let downs that I've had but it all balances out. It's kind of a matter of frequency, and amplitude. It's this moment really sucks and yes, if you had gotten that gig, you would have been great. You know, oh, man, you didn't get that award but you were nominated but it's balanced out and I think that, at least from my experience, that the highs are generally on average, higher than the lows.


Geoffrey

Yeah, I think peaks and valleys are real and you're gonna get low and I think the important thing there is to have a strong supportive structure. You have people around you that you can call and unload on or go get a drink with whatever you need and I mean, I have writers in my close circle that were rising together in the field, which is kind of cool, but we'll still call each other and be , Oh, my God, you know, and just kind of vent for a minute and then you'll say to the person, just so you know, this is what you're complaining about. Now, five years ago, we would have never thought we would complain about this. It's huge.


James

And it's one of those things where; it always feels terrible in the moment, right. But you get through it, and then you've realized that those are the learning experiences. Those are the things that drive you. My dad used to always say you don't learn anything from success and happiness. I think that's one of the really profound things that has stuck with me , I'm not scared to fail I've fallen flat on my face several times but you get up and you go, Wow, that hurt. I don't want to ever do that again. How can I avoid that? The second thing that that I would say is, well, I said, there's two things and there's probably more like 30 but well, you know, just go into it with your eyes open. Do your researches realize what's happening, right? It is hard. The film industry in itself is tough. It is a tough industry. If it were easy, we would be a world of filmmakers, right? It's the coolest job on the planet. Everybody knows this and everybody would jump out of their career in a heartbeat if they were, Hey, you could be the next Tom Cruise tomorrow, everybody. No one's gonna say no to that but I think that there's a lot of misconceptions about our industry and the sacrifices that we have to make in order to exist in it and where there is sacrifice, , you know, it's tough. It is a tough industry and you're going to make sacrifices and I mean; I've stood up against moments where I've literally weighed, do I want to do this? And unless you are hardcore in the film, industry, space, and mindset.


Geoffrey

I think you're absolutely right and sacrifice isn't just about choice, I mean, I lose entire days, if not weeks of just time gone from investing into enacting my vision and my dream 60 to 80 hour work weeks disappear. Oftentimes, I'll ask my wife, what day is it? I mean, I just don't know and especially if I'm on a writing gig, I'll be working on a script 12 to 15 hours straight day after day, the sacrifices is all around and you have to be committed or you're not gonna succeed you can't just dip your toes in the pool, you have to dive straight in and keep going. You have to keep swimming, so I think that's fantastic. James love having you on. You're definitely a mentor to other writers and we're excited with your new projects and I think this is a great episode for anybody looking to really go into writing, directing, and even creating their own their own business.


James

Well, thank you. It was a pleasure being on and the other thing I'd say is when writing directing don't make yourself a castle, collaborate, just because you're the writer director doesn't mean that you're right all the time. I think it's a team sport and you can do a lot more as a team than you can as an individual.


Geoffrey

That is tip number three out of the 30 things that James could have talked about. Thank you, James!


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