FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Tales from Development Hell with Dustin McLean
31 Jan, 2014
Meet Dustin McLean, a mid-western filmmaker who went straight from film school to Hollywood. This might be the first time you have heard of Dustin, but it won’t be your last. This Taylor University and FSU Film school grad is determined to go places and go places he shall. Working with writing partner Corey Womack, they have gotten a screenplay optioned in their first year in LA, and they have significant interest on a TV pilot.
Dustin himself would chalk this success up to sheer grit. However, it is clear that underneath that determination is an empathy and depth, or as one industry professional has phrased it “Dustin is a whatever it takes filmmaker with a heart.”
We at iheardin have been lucky sit down with Dustin at the beginning of his cinematic career. He has shared with us his trials and tribulations: what he has learned in the trenches and how to survive development hell. Join us for this in depth interview and be sure to check out Dustin’s film Anya (15 minutes) below.
JD: What was your student thesis film? What was it about?
DM: My thesis film was called Anya and it centered around a female KGB agent sent to assassinate Jack Kerouac. It’s actually more of a love story – with some action and suspense.
JD: What did you learn most from the process of making it?
DM: Write what you want. People hear that and think, “obviously,” but I feel that it is the the first thing that filmmakers forget when they want their work to be liked or loved by an audience. You start with what they would want to see or what is most likely to get produced — that’s not really the way to write. It’s your story. You know what’s right. Start there.
JD: What did the complete film get you? What did it not, especially when you were out in LA?
DM: With my thesis film there seemed to be this anomaly that occurred along with several other exceptional films from our class. It seemed that they were passed over at festivals for falling into the weird gap of being very professional but not made by professionals. Programers will grab some of the shorter, often rougher, projects and showcase them, and then include longer shorts that are made with notable celebrity directors and cast. It’s possible that I’m simply looking for a reason to explain why it didn’t do well at festivals. But a much rougher, six minute short of mine got into everything I sent it to.
Ironically enough, my film was invited to several women’s film festivals. All we had to do was prove that I or my producer or my co-writer were women. We weren’t. It couldn’t play at any of them, which is sort of a shame.
Shorts are a mixed bag. I had a great experience there that certainly made me a better filmmaker, but as far as where a short can get you in LA: short films rarely have that much mileage. They are useful IF an influential party happens to watch it AND love you. I consider myself lucky that I got Benjamin Scott to watch the whole thing.
JD: What advice would you give people about what to do after their first project?
DM: Keep moving. The short might be great or it might be terrible, but a short deserves no more that 6 months of your life, tops. Write something else. You should be writing through that entire process anyway. Writing the next thing, I mean.
JD: What advice would you give about moving to LA?
DM: Move here when you have to. And come prepared. For writers and directors, I feel like you should have several features ready to print before you head out.
Writing takes time and it’s like anything else: you need to write all the time if you want to be good at it. You need several features you would be happy to hand to any executive to read. And you need to be honest with yourself about that. Don’t just hand out a 68 page first draft of something because you think it’s pretty good or a 145 page opus because you think it’s an all-inclusive work of art. An executive can tell if your script is too short or too long just by picking it up.
All that to say: take your time. Build a library and keep drafting. Make your scripts great.
And learn to write query letters.
Query everyone. Before I left for LA I had written about 11 feature length screenplays. I took the one I considered to be the best and I queried approximately 1100 producers, managers and development executives. I found their names and contact info anywhere I could, but mostly from IMDB Pro.
Out of those 1100, I received about 30 responses. Out of those 30, 10 told me they weren’t interested and 15 requested the script. The remaining 5 said to query them again later.
JD: Can you tell us about your script?
DM: The Sainthood of Bethany Wolfe follows the title character who she loses her parents at a very young age. The priest who takes her in tells her she is destined to become a saint, she rejects that identity and becomes a contract killer instead. It’s a romantic crime-drama with a supernatural thriller element.
JD: What was the origination for your idea?
DM: I’m a big believer in Godard‘s philosophy: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.”
Actually, I love strong female characters. I think there needs to be more of them. I had played around with the idea of having this obsessive-compulsive, female, contract killer and sort of getting into her disorder and where it came from.
Together, my writing partner, Corey, and I started putting together a story with spiritual elements, action, and romance. Then we just kept stirring the pot.
JD: What was the process that you and Corey took?
DM: Corey and I sit down and outline until we hate the story and each other. Then we outline some more. We work out character bios; where they’re from, how they talk. That stuff. That process usually takes us 6 to 8 weeks on something like Bethany Wolfe.
Then we’ll do a scene by scene breakdown and get it to about thirty sequences -which will eventually be broken down into more scenes.
We usually start by writing the last scene, it’s good to know where you’re going. On the early drafts we usually set obscenely high page quotas for ourselves. It helps avoid being overly precious and it definitely keeps us motivated.
Corey and I also tend to compete a little with both the quality of what we’re doing and our page counts. It’s a good time.
Then we take a break and send it out to a few people for notes.
When we come back we analyze the notes, try to get to the root of the problems and start doing purpose outlines that trace elements like characters, props and themes.
Then we dig in again.
JD: What were the different options it underwent?
DM: Well, initially we wrote it to make in Chicago. But it just wasn’t coming together. I also felt that we could take it to another level and wanted to see if it had any legs, so I began that querying process that I detailed earlier. The responses were generally positive, and eventually Benjamin Scott read the script and wanted to make it.
Regarding the partnership that followed, Ben would tell you it was my persistence. I’d follow up with him, ask if he needed help at his company or with other projects and eventually we met and he liked me. That’s a big part of it. You need to be persistent but likable. You have to be aggressive but not to the point of turning people off.
Last summer Ben and his business partner decided to option the script, and after watching my thesis they agreed to keep me attached as Director. But, as these things go, the company is undergoing some severe restructuring and the project is currently in turn around.
JD: What is it like to be in limbo?
DM: Well, awful. You get so close to making something and then it flies off course because of the weirdest things. It’s frustrating. Maybe I can elaborate more on it later, but what it comes down to is this: people can be waylaid by their own hubris – and they can take down a lot of people or projects with them.
JD: What did it teach you about the industry and working with people?
DM: Well, the first thing it taught me is to trust my instincts. There are people you want to do business with and there are people you do not. If you get a bad feeling, then don’t. It’s not worth it.
The other major take away from the experience so far: even if you have a killer script and people like what you’re doing, you still have to come up with a plan to overcome the fact that, in the eyes of this industry, you haven’t done anything yet.
No one wants a “first time” director or a DP who hasn’t shot a feature. That’s why you really need to be persistent and insanely driven.
David Fincher once talked about how he wanted to go to film schools and give a lecture that starts by asking one of the “fresh faces” to tell him about the movie they want to make. As soon as they started to speak he would say, “Shut up and sit the fuck down.” If they did then he’d know that they weren’t ready for the industry. Because the film business is full of “shut up and sit down!”
I’d say he nailed it.
JD: What are you working on in the meantime?
DM: Right now, the biggest things are a TV show called Jake and the Possum and a little indie feature called Betaville. We are very excited about both. We’ve taken a few meetings on Possum and we’re at the point where people are trying to put something together for us which is awesome.
The pilot is based on a concept we developed with Kyle Reid, another FSU alum. We call ourselves The Brain Trust, imbibe a bit and then come up with ridiculous ideas loosely based on Kyle’s personality.
Betaville is a small indie, sci-fi thriller. We’re really happy with it and we have Jas Sams (V/H/S) attached to star and co-produce.
JD: Can you give us some synopses of other ideas you have? What are you hopes for the future?
DM: Jake and The Possum is a fun concept about what it means to be a man in our current time. It’s about a guy who calls himself “The Possum” because of his unique abilities and the effects his lifestyle has on his best friend.
Betaville is about a girl who is — for lack of a better word — a robot and her journey to uncover her real abilities and find her true purpose. It’s a thoughtful, small film that focuses more on character and theme, but does have some action elements.
Photos courtesy of imdb.com and Georgios Demitrios Telonis.