Danny Strong Describes His First Screenplay
Danny Strong is best known for the five years he played Jonathan Levenson on the landmark television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for which he was named "One of the top ten scene stealer's on television" by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also widely recognized for his four seasons as Doyle on "Gilmore Girls" and for his starring role opposite Amanda Bynes in the teen comedy "Sydney White." His script Recount, an HBO original film about the 2000 election debacle in Florida, was voted number one on the 2007 Black List, an annual list of the years top screenplays as determined by Hollywood development executives. Danny was named by Variety magazine as one of their "Top Ten Screenwriters to Watch" for 2007.
Question: What was the first screenplay you wrote?
Danny Strong: The first screenplay I ever wrote was called “Die, Harry, Die.” And it was about these two kind of Gen X-ers, although I don’t think Gen X even exists anymore, who were kind of lost in Los Angeles, who seek out to kill an old man for his rent controlled apartment. So it was this kind of dark comedy in the mold of “Harold and Maude.” And I wrote it. I’m an actor, so I wrote it for me to star in, as most actors do when they set out to write a screenplay. And it went very well. I really enjoyed the process. It was really fun for me. And when I finished it, I gave it to a few producer friends of mine, and they wanted to buy it without me attached as an actor. They just liked the writing. And I wasn’t willing to detach myself from it, and I ended up getting it optioned by a company for a very small amount of money with me attached as the star of it. And to show you what a bad decision that was made by the company, they ended up going under a year later, so clearly that kind of business model wasn’t effective. But just the idea that people responded to the writing so much, and that I enjoyed the process so much, I decided to pursue a career totally independent of my acting career, a writing career. And I decided then that I wouldn’t attach myself to anymore scripts, and just try and make it happen on a separate track.
Question: Did you take courses in screenwriting?
Danny Strong: Well, I had in college felt that I would write eventually, and I took a number of writing courses in college. I took screenwriting, playwriting and fiction writing. And I went to USC, so the screenwriting program is pretty strong there. But I’d also taken courses. I took Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting workshop. But I think that when you’re an actor, especially with my background, because my background comes a stage actor, you just read so many plays and so many screenplays that it’s a really helpful tool, because subconsciously you’re getting it over and over and over again. And I really think that anyone who’s interested in screenwriting, I couldn’t recommend more reading the great plays, you know, Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets and Strindberg and Ibsen, because those guys have to create the level of drama that you can only dream of in a screenplay. But they have to do it all on one set, which is much more challenging than a movie, where you can move to any location you want. I mean, even in a play, you can switch locations, but you’re still very, very limited. And you look at some of the great Arthur Miller plays, you know, “All My Sons”, or “The Price”, they all take place in one location. And in the case of “The Price”, it takes place in real time. So the entire two hours is the actual two hours that you’re watching on stage. So that kind of skill can be very, very helpful to any kind of writer.
Question: What’s the story behind Recount?
Danny Strong: Okay. Well, I had written several screenplays after that initial one I talked about, and each script furthered my writing career. “Die, Harry, Die” got me kind of started. Then my next script got me a manager who is a very, very good manager, very high level manager. And then my next script kind of blew up, and was the spec of the week in which it gets sent all over town, and many studios are seeing it all in one weekend period with the hope being that on Monday morning there’s going to be a bidding war over your script. And this was teed up for that, where it had all this heat, and then Monday morning came around, and no one bought it. But nonetheless, many, many producers wanted to meet with me. So I ended up taking about 50 meetings with producers all over town, executives at studios, and got signed by an agent, as well. Then my next script just didn’t do anything. So I had written four scripts at this point, and that’s over four years. And besides that initial tiny amount of money I got on that first option, which was a few thousand dollars. I had a few thousand dollars to show for four years of work, and I was, you know, a little depressed about that I was feeling like I was making a tremendous amount of progress and at the same time not breaking through in any kind of significant way. So I took a look at my scripts, and was trying to reassess what was happening. And then I realized that I was writing movies I didn’t want to go see, that I was writing movies that I was trying to sell, that I thought would be successful in the marketplace. They were all comedies. They got broader with each successive script. The one that blew up was a “Liar, Liar” type movie. Now, I thought “Liar, Liar” was very good for what it was, but that’s not my kind of movie. So I kind of made this decision after four years of progress, but as I was looking at it at the time, failure, although I don’t really think it was, but that’s how you feel in the moment. I decided I wasn’t going to write anything again until it was something I would want to go see. So that was the big decision I made. I was on “Gilmore Girls” at the time as an actor. Most writers who haven’t sold a script are trying to write themselves out of their day jobs. They’re usually assistants and don’t want to be assistants anymore. And I thought, you know, I have this perfectly healthy acting career. Why am I writing these types of movies? So I didn’t write anything for months. And then I went and saw, by months it was about three or four months. And then I went and saw the play “Stuff Happens” at the Mark Taper Forum, which was about the build up to the Iraqi War, told from many different perspectives, and I was so inspired by this play. It was so amazing. The audience was going insane. They were screaming at the actors, screaming at each other, boo. I mean it was this bizarre pep rally almost fight, and I thought to myself this is why I became a writer. This is why I became an actor, because of this. I love this. So as I walked out of the theater, I told myself that’s what I’m writing next. I mean, I literally made the decision I’m going to write something like this. I have no idea what it is, and literally within 60 seconds I thought of “Recount”, just the idea, what about the Florida recount? Maybe there’s something like this that I could do with that. But I had no idea what it would be. I didn’t even really follow the recount very closely when it happened. I was pretty disgusted by the whole thing and didn’t watch it. But I got in my car and I zipped home, and the closer I got to home the more excited I got, so I sped up and got home, went online and started researching it, and found a couple of books real quickly online that I thought could be helpful. Then ordered those books and that was the beginning of it. That was the genesis of the idea.
Recorded on: 06/27/2008
Danny Strong on his first screenplay, writing process and what inspired him to write "Recount."
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