Wednesday, July 08, 2009

AFF Filmmaker Follow Up with Bill True

Bill’s feature script debut, RUNAWAY, was hailed by critics as "Brilliant" and "Hitchcockian" and premiered to universal accolades at the Tribeca and Toronto film festivals.  It went on to screen worldwide at Avignon, Woodstock, Vail, Tel Aviv and other fests.  Bill also took the top prize at the prestigious Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference for his work on RUNAWAY, which is set for release in Summer, 2009.
His follow-up, the supernatural drama, "Incarnation", is projected to shoot in late 2009/early 2010.  He is also hard at work on a new spec script, "Lightseekers", and a new TV procedural drama, The Blender.

Bill is also a rising star on the professional speaking circuit as screenwriter-in-residence for SagePresence, a consortium of working filmmakers who teach professionals Hollywood methods to bring dynamic "stage presence" to make-or-break moments.  In addition, he teaches and speaks around the country about screenwriting and breaking into the movie business.  He's received rave notices for talks in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, and other cities, and he has been a both a featured panelist, moderator, and favorite pitch competition jurist at the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriters conference four years running.  He is currently an artist-in-residence at IFP Minnesota, where he teaches beginning and advanced screenwriting.

AFF spoke with Bill about the rollercoaster ride that was "Runaway" and the connection between the business and film worlds. 

AFF: Tell me about your film that screened at the 2005 festival and won the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature.

Bill: "Runaway" is a psychological thriller starring Aaron Stanford as Michael Adler, a young man on the run with his eight year-old brother, Dylan (Zach Savage), whom Michael is trying to keep safe from what we come to believe is some pretty unsavory stuff at the hands of their father (Michael Gaston) and mother (Melissa Leo). 

Michael takes up refuge in a small town and hides Dylan in a flea-bag motel room as he works at a local convenience store.  There, he meets Carly (Robin Tunney), an acid-tongued high school dropout who’s trying to dig her way out of the hole that is her life.

As the two grow closer, it becomes increasingly difficult for Michael to hide his secret past.  And eventually, past and present crash together with—how shall I say..?  Devastating results.

The movie also features Peter Gerety and Terry Kinney, to round out an amazing cast.  It was directed by award-winning indie filmmaker Tim McCann and produced by Al Klingenstein and David Viola.

It was the first feature script I’d written.

I had taken a stab at TV writing in the mid-90s and almost got a show launched on one of the cable networks, but the deal fell through and I was broke.  I had a family to support, so I took a job in Corporate America and moved up the ladder very quickly.  I liked what I did, and I certainly liked the money.  And for the first five or six years I was in my corporate job, I figured that I would just continue to do that for the rest of my life.

But my friends wouldn’t let me forget.  They’d keep asking me, “When are you gonna face the facts?  You’re not a corporate guy…you’re a film guy!  Why aren’t you doing that?”  Eventually, I listened, and I decided that maybe I’d shoot a micro-budget feature on mini-DV and see if I could get it into a festival or two.  And so I wrote "Runaway".

Along the way, I had started to meet some folks in the film industry, and a few of them were nice enough to read the script.  The feedback I got was very positive.  The only warnings I got were, “You’ve really got something here.  Don’t shoot it yourself.  You’ll ruin it.”

At the same time, I had entered a draft (of which I was none too fond) of the script the Nicholl Fellowship competition.  Turns out that it made it to the semi-finals and placed in the top 1% out of something like 6,000 scripts.  After that, I started getting a few calls and emails from production companies interested in the script.  One of those companies was Filbert Steps Productions (which had won the Sundance Audience Award and Austin Film Festival Audience Award in 2000 for "Two Family House") out of New York.  As soon as I took a look at the Filbert Steps website, I knew I wanted to work with them.

After a little finagling (and a little white lie), I got them to read the script (they wanted me to just send a logline).  They all loved it, I guess, and a week later I was on the phone with Al (who headed up Filbert Steps) talking about optioning the script.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Melissa Leo in "Runaway"

AFF: Were there any major challenges in making this film? 

Bill: I certainly don’t want to characterize the process of getting from script, to option, to production as easy.  There were plenty of bumps along they way…

Like what I have affectionately come to call “the revolving wheel of Carlys”, where over the course of preproduction we had, at one time or the other, Anna Paquin, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bethany Joi Lenz, Natasha Leone, and Rachel Lee Cook (just to name a few) interested or attached to the project.  A month of so before our scheduled start of production, in fact, the production company struck a deal with Rachel, and we announced her as Carly.

A week before start of production, she apparently had some concerns and dropped out of the movie.  Thank God for Bob Gosse (who co-founded the ‘90s indie powerhouse, The Shooting Gallery), who raised Robin Tunney and got her to read the script overnight.  She called the next morning, saying she was in.  We had to push production back a week, but we still had a movie!

But for all purposes, the production, itself, came together relatively smoothly.  We got all these amazing people—at the top of their game in their respective fields—on board to work on the movie.  Personally, I felt really good—like I’d done my job well—because most everyone, at some point during production, came up to me and said something like, “I had my choice of several projects to work on, but I am working on this movie because your script moved me.”  That was quite the thing for a first-time screenwriter to hear.  Very cool.  And very humbling.

The biggest problem with this movie has been getting it released.  The story of how this movie will eventually see the light of day could be a chapter straight out of Peter Biskind’s book, “Down and Dirty Pictures.”

"Runaway" was on all of the big “movies to watch” lists leading up to its premiere at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, and it played to sell-out crowds and got great reviews.  At the premiere party, I remember the producer walking up to me, putting his arm around me, and asking, “How does it feel to have your first movie picked up by Warner Brothers?”

It felt pretty good.

But then something happened.  I won’t go into it all here, but suffice to say that a month after I left Tribeca we still didn’t have a deal.  Even worse, somehow, something slipped through the cracks, and eventually the interest faded.  When Warner’s interest went away, so did everyone else’s.

It was an interesting and painful thing to witness—how this movie that had everything going for it, and that everyone was certain would play well in art houses and cineplexes alike, was suddenly DOA.  Even getting accepted into (and playing to more packed houses and great reviews at) the Toronto Film Festival couldn't save it.  Even winning AFF.

The movie languished for about a year-and-a-half as the producers went on to make another movie.  Then, I met this exec named Brent Emery at—of all places—the Austin Film Festival.  He watched "Runaway", loved it, and put the company that held the rights (the producers shut down Filbert Steps at the end of 2007) in touch with Starz Home Entertainment.  They wanted to release it, but suddenly there were rights issues (foreign rights had been contracted out, and the movie was already released in certain territories).  Nearly a year went by, and eventually Starz fell off the map, too.

Finally!  At the beginning of this year, a great distributor saw the movie and liked it.  I am also guessing they liked the idea that Robin Tunney is co-starring in one of the highest-rated series on network TV, and that Melissa Leo got nominated for an Oscar this past year.  Regardless, I am happy to say that a deal is currently being finalized, and it looks like "Runaway" will finally hit the streets sometime later this year.

Aaron Standord and Robin Tunney in "Runaway"

AFF: You have attended the festival several times since "Runaway" won. Do you have any favorite memories of your time at the festival?

Bill: Man…so many cool things have happened at the past four AFFs I’ve attended, it’s hard to choose.  I’ve really enjoyed judging the pitch competition, being a panelist, and, of course…the Driskill Bar.

But the highlight of the festival for me would have to be the day I won…and nearly didn’t make it to the awards luncheon.

After the Friday night screening of "Shop Girl" at the Paramount Theatre, I somehow ended up chatting over beers for hours with director Anand Tucker and stars Jason Schwartzman and Claire Danes.  I kept pinching myself.  I mean, whoulda thunk?  As I recall, I finally landed in bed around 2 AM.

I woke up feeling slightly hungover.  I also woke up feeling completely LATE!  I was scheduled to be on a panel at 10:15, and a quick peek at my cell phone informed me that said panel would start in exactly 25 minutes.  I didn't shower.  I barely splashed water on my face.  I think I brushed my teeth.  I threw on jeans and a T-shirt, and tossed a sport coat on for good measure.  I wanted to at least look, you know, somewhat “professional”.

Right as the panel was beginning, Kelly Williams, the film program director walks in and taps me on the shoulder.

"Hey, Bill.  You're going to the awards luncheon today, right?"

Now...when a film festival director asks you a question like that, how are you supposed to answer?  "Absolutely!"  ...Right?

Not me.

"No...I'm heading out for a run and a shower after this panel."

Kelly got this look on his face.

"You sure?  It would be great to have you there in support of your movie."

"One of our producers, David Viola, is the guy with the actual 'film credentials',” I told him.  “I'm here on a panelist's badge.  I don't think I can get in.  Maybe David should go."

I grabbed my cell phone.  "You want me to call him?"

"No, no, no," Kelly insisted.  "David can do what he wants.  We'd love to have the writers from all the competition movies at the luncheon.  I’ll get you in.  Just show up."

All right, I thought.  I sighed.  The shower would have to wait.

After the panel, I got my run...sprinting across downtown to get to the Austin Club in time for the luncheon, that is.

I get to the door, and a very nice person working security informs me that my name is not on the list.  I try on a "Kelly Williams told me..."  No go.  After five minutes or so of trying to wrangle my way into the place, I turn and start heading down the steps.  It’s not gonna work.  Just then…

"Bill True..?  RUNAWAY..?"

Next thing I know, a very official-looking person holding a clipboard is grabbing my arm.  She's literally dragging me back up the steps and into the main ballroom.

A minute later, I find myself seated at this table right in front of the stage.  Across from me is the cast and crew from one of the other movies in competition.  These are the folks that were going to win, I thought, because they were sitting at the table closest to the stage.  I was very happy for them.

And then a strange thought occurred to me.  I was also sitting at the table closest to the stage.  And Kelly Williams had been acting very strangely when I said that I wasn't planning to...  Could it be?


I put the thought out of my mind completely.  I sat back and enjoyed the free meal.  I had a glass of wine.  I chatted.  I got to listen to Harold Ramis talk about how some of my favorite movies of all time came to be.  I got to see Karl Williams win his legendary screenplay hat trick (I am convinced the guy can't write a bad script!).

And then someone got up on the stage.  And then they were talking about the "Narrative Feature Award."  And I was taking a swig of pinot.  And then, all of a sudden, I heard the title of my movie.

And then I heard nothing.  Because no one was talking.  It was like a bomb went off.

I scan the room, waiting for someone to rise.  Everyone else is scanning the room, too.  It felt like hours were passing.  Dawn was breaking quite slowly in the molasses of my conscious mind. 

I eventually turn to the guy sitting next to me and chuckle: "I think we won."

He grabs the wine glass out of my hand and starts slapping me on the back.  "Dude!  YOU WON!"

Oh, my god!!!  He was right!

I spring to my feet.  Now I feel like a real fool because everyone was staring at me.  But I dare not move, lest I be wrong.  I wait for some other screenwriter to head toward the stage to accept an award.  'Cause I don't win stuff like this, I reminded myself.

There are no takers, and the people at my(?) table, like, pushing me toward the stage.  I still don't know what I am doing, but I decide it's safe to mount the stairs.  And then people are shaking my hand.  And then they put this thing in my hands that weighs about 15 pounds.  And then I'm in front of the microphone.

And as I scan the expectant faces of Hollywood's best and brightest, about to open my mouth and wing my first-ever acceptance speech, a profound thought occurs to me: I really wish I had taken that shower this morning.

Jurist Michael Barlow, Bill True holding the award for Best Narrative Feature, and jurist Alex Smith after the awards luncheon

AFF: You work as a consultant and business director as well. How have these experiences helped you in film? Are they related in certain ways?

Bill: That’s a good question.  More accurately, I’ve done a lot of business consulting in the past, and before I quit my “day job” I held a senior director-level position in a pretty large health care company.  Today, I am writing and producing full time, and I have also somewhat fallen into this really cool life where people are also asking me to speak professionally.

But to answer your question…they are absolutely related.

Back in the mid-90s I tried and failed at launching a career in writing and producing in TV.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with failure—it’s life’s great teacher of lessons.  But…

A little background…My partner at the time and I were trying to launch a kind of “Entertainment Tonight” for science fiction.  We’d somehow convinced the publisher of the biggest sci-fi fanzine, “Starlog”, to give us exclusive rights to use the logo and logline for TV, and we’d gotten commitments from James Doohan and George Takei (Scotty and Sulu from the original STAR TREK, respectively) that one or the other would be the host of the series.  As if that wasn’t enough, we had one of the big video game companies committed to putting up $40,000 toward a pilot.  And E! network was interested.

Yet, somehow it fell apart.  It’s not that we were stupid people; it’s that we were inexperienced business people.  We didn’t know how to leverage what we had—and we had a lot!  In the end, we were broke and lost, and the whole thing just kind of fell apart.

I treasure my time in Corporate America because it was my MBA.  I learned how to be a businessperson there, and I got hands-on, sink-or-swim experience managing projects with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars and affecting millions of people around the world.  I learned how to apply the same creativity and resourcefulness that I brought to artistic endeavors to commercial ones.

That was, I believe, the critical difference as I ventured back into the entertainment industry.  Because now I knew why they called it show business.  Even better, I knew how to operate in the business side, so when problems presented themselves I was more equipped to handle them and turn them into opportunities.

AFF: Your new film “Incarnation” is set to shoot this summer. Any specific plans for the film?

Bill: Well, I wish we were set to shoot this summer.  As you know, the movie biz is like the weather in my home state of Minnesota—wait an hour and everything’s gonna change.

We’re still hopeful, however, that we will be in a position to shoot sometime late ’09 or early ’10.

We’ve had a commitment to fund half the film from a great production company in LA headed up by a longstanding manager/producer who’s been a terrific cheerleader and supporter of mine for years—even flew out to New York to see the premiere of my first movie.  He’s an amazing and passionate Renaissance man that is plain brilliant at everything he pursues.

We had another investor group involved to provide the other half of the financing, and, thanks to our great casting director, Eve Battaglia, we were getting the script to topnotch actors.  About the time we put an offer letter out to our male lead, the investor group opportunity dried up.  Actually, "Incarnation" was to be part of a larger film slate, and the whole thing sort of fell apart in early spring.

We decided, though, that this was a great time to take one more look at the script and see what we could do to make it even better and an even more attractive proposition for new potential investors.  In the end, we moved on from our original choice for the male lead, so we also wanted to take a moment to check the tone of the script against our current understanding of the tone and vision for the movie.

We’re about ready to take it out again and see what happens.  Luckily, we have two other production companies that are at least interested in the project, like the script, and are equally intrigued to see what we come up with next in terms of the script and cast attachment.  Hopefully, that leads to more tangible involvement (read: money) to complete our financing package, and we’ll be announcing a production start date!

AFF: What are you working on now?

Bill: I’m currently finishing the next draft of "Incarnation", as I mentioned above.

I am also working on another spec script called "Lightseekers", which is about a guy who’s trying to keep his garage band alive long enough enjoy fame and fortune.  Problem is, the world has been overrun with flesh-eating monsters.  Kind of like (though I hate it when other people do this, so forgive me) "I Am Legend" meets "The Commitments".  But with strong accents on the satirical syllables.  It’s my comment on all things American Idol and Swine Flu.  I’ve pitched it to a few producer friends of mine in Hollywood, and they all seem to think it’s got legs.  One producer with one of the major studios keeps asking me when it’s gonna be done, so I guess I better finish it.

Otherwise, I was sought out by a guy who is tied to a pretty solid investment group to develop a procedural drama for TV based on the private investigator who took down, among others, the company that put out the Dalkon Shield years ago.  He’s quite the character, which is wonderful, as my initial thought was that I wanted to work on a procedural drama like I wanted a hole in me head.  These folks seem really committed to making it work dramatically, though, and they’re not only being very cooperative, but they’re allowing me a lot of creative leeway.  I am having a ton of fun working with this guy, and there are already two TV production companies chomping at the bit to get a look at the series bible.  We’ll see what happens.

I am also developing a feature based on one of my favorite science fiction books ever.  I had been working with a development executive at one of the larger management/production companies on the project, but in a  Hollywood moment, he left the company and the project lost its traction.  Now I am back hitting the pavement.  I can’t say any more on that right now, but I think it would make a movie that’s cool and funny and meaningful all at the same time.

Finally, I’ve had a number of people ask me if I was interested in producing someone else’s work other than my own.  I guess with all the development work I’ve done over the past few years, I am sort of getting a name out there.  Of course, I don’t know whether that’s exactly a good thing or not…  Okay…kidding aside…at first I shied away from the idea.  I’ve since had a shift in my thinking, and I am also in the process of scouting for a project to shepherd though as a producer.  So we’ll see what happens.   There have been a couple of near misses—properties that caught my attention—but nothing that’s really grabbed me yet.

For more on Bill, please visit

Its not too late to enter your film!

Very late deadline: July 15th

Just one more you reason you should be at the Austin Film Festival & Conference in October...

This year's panel discussions will feature case studies of the writing and script-to-screen production process with the writers and creators for such films and shows as Twilight, "Lost", Valkyrie, Watchmen, The Secret Life of Bees, "Mad Men" and the HBO hit series "Entourage".

No comments: