2007 FilmMakers International Screenwriting Awards - Interview - Joe Acton

Filmmakers International Screenwriting Awards

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Joe Acton
CATEGORY 3 - (Comedy)
Diamond Prize Winner
Joe Acton
of Bellevue, WA

Born and raised in Alaska, Joe Acton grew up on hockey and plowing snow, and along with childhood sweetheart, Ann, had the unique experience of enduring the 9.2 Good Friday earthquake in 1964. An early career in law enforcement was interrupted with a Peace Corps commitment in Nicaragua where they both became fluent in Spanish and dysentery. Relocating to the Seattle area for a career change with their new daughter, Erica (now a teacher), Joe went on to attend law school and practice law. Then in the mid-80s, with their combined business interests and Joe's extensive legal background, the Actons founded VersusLaw, Inc., a legal research company, in which they maintain ownership.

In his spare time, Joe loves to fly – he holds a commercial pilot’s license – and, of course, he is passionate about writing. He has written newspaper humor columns, which were later compiled into the book Slumgullion; several screenplays; and is currently contributing to alt.campaign with the McClatchy Company. Joe’s latest movie project (Courage Doesn’t Ask), which he wrote and directed, showed at 35 film festivals in the U.S. and abroad this past year. Joe is currently working on several other projects at his home outside of Seattle, Washington.


I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter........

I had toyed with the idea of screenwriting for some time. As an only child, I'd spent a lot of time at the movies; as an adult I'd spent a lot of time wondering "How the hell did THAT get made?"

But, as they say, "Life is what happens while you're busy making plans" and the family always comes first. Jobs led to mortgages led to car payments, led to career. And at some point along the continuum, I think I'd quietly given up on the pipe dream of "writing for the movies" as my mom used to call it.

I didn't go to film school, had no formal – or informal training for that matter – and the only writing experience I could point to was having been a newspaper columnist. I owned a legal research company and life was just fine without all the uncertainty of the movie game, thank you very much.

The death of David Angell in the September 11th attacks changed my mind about all of that – every bit of it. Angell had written and executive produced three of the funniest television shows in recent times: Wings, Cheers and Frasier. And then, without even the gentleman's warning of a terminal cancer, his voice was silenced. He was at the top of his game – who knows what could have followed Frasier? Odds are it would have been funny as hell, though.

I don't know exactly when it was after the attacks, but at some point it became clear to me that that Tuesday morning stood for the proposition that tomorrow really and truly was owed to no one; that life was fleeting, fragile, and unpredictable.

I had spent years talking myself out of taking the risk: what if my writing isn't very good? What if no one likes what I write? What if everyone thinks this is just some middle-aged "phase" I was going through?

What if... what if.... what if... Screw all the "what ifs" and the naysayers.

I have things to say about life and I’m not going to die with a song stuck in my chest. And if "they" don’t like it, it’s just too damn bad


I know I've succeeded........ 

The short answer is that I know I've succeeded when the story I've told is more compelling than the story I could change it to. A good story is like a good trip: at the end you should be satisfied that you could not have taken a better journey.

Overall, I have a two-fold success meter: a) creating a story which compels people to examine – or re-examine – their lives through the actions and dialogue of my characters; and b) as I lean to endings with a twist, I must confess a certain prurient interest in the audience not intuiting the Big Reveal.

Al Gore is calling it his "Encore Career". I like that description and have summarily stolen it as my own personal adjective of success. Oh, come on – that's what writers do, we steal the good stuff.

As an "Encore Filmmaker" (go ahead, you can steal that one), success for me has nothing whatsoever to do with what a fourteen-year-old will go to see – I've already heard all the fart jokes.

That pretty much covers it for all the twenty-something's "coming of age" movies, with the possible exception I might consider doing an underwater, sci-fi, lesbian coming-of-age, slasher, comedy-thriller. But then, who wouldn't?

As an audience member, I'm really not very interested in you until you or someone you love has stretch marks. But by the time you hit 40 your ten-year high school reunion is no longer in your windshield OR the rearview mirror and you've moved on to some really interesting things in life.

Suddenly "Saturday Night Live" isn't nearly as funny as it used to be. When you hit the 40 mark, you've been sufficiently kicked around by life that you're interested in characters, dialogue and realistic storylines, i.e., you know a romantic comedy ends when the two leads get together, but you also know the real story is just getting started.

And that's where I come in. Any success I have had is largely a measure of people using what I write as a jumping off point for their own lives – talking points, if you will. I wish I were a really good writer, but I think all I am is a talisman of introspection. And as a measure of success, I'll take that.


My inspiration to write MARRIED SEEKING SAME.......

A lot of people assume that "Married" is autobiographical and I truly believe it would be a much more sellable project if I were to simply confess, "Yes, my wife and I were going through a rough period and actually did the roll playing in 'Married.'" But that would be a lie. Don't misunderstand, I'm in no way endorsing truth in a relationship. Guys: she NEVER looks fat in those pants; Ladies: it was ALWAYS good for you.

My wife and I have the dubious distinction of not knowing any couples our contemporary who have not been divorced. And without fail, each of them will confess they could have done more to "fix" the relationship, but at some point they had each said too much or done too little to be able to fix what they had broken together.

I had decided some time ago I wanted to do a romantic comedy for married or long-term relationship couples, because Hollywood seems to think that there is no life after dating. EVERYONE knows the two people at the beginning of a rom-com are going to get together, the question is really how tortuous to make the journey. But where's the journey if you're already married? Is it any less tortuous? Less funny? Less poignant? You're married so life's oceans simply flatten out for you? Like hell.

Equally important, why should people who are already hooked up go see a movie about people who aren't? When I went to see "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days" I walked out of theater and said to my wife, "How can anybody sympathize with a guy TRYING to lose Kate Hudson? If I got her in bed, it'd take her 10 days just to get out of the duct tape." My wife has a lot of faith in Kate Hudson – she said there's not enough duct tape in Seattle to keep Kate Hudson in bed with me.

I went home that night and started outlining "Married Seeking Same". Couples had to know that SOMEONE understood the challenges of staying in a relationship. That the redemption, rebirth and renewal of love is probably MORE important to a married audience than a dating audience.

More than anything else, I wanted the audience to understand that if you were willing to do all the crazy stuff we see in the standard rom-com to GET the love of your life, you should be equally willing to do some crazy stuff to KEEP the love of your life. And since the paradigm is that the leads in romantic-comedies ALWAYS get together, I wanted the audience to think about what this couple was doing – right up until the end, when the audience understands that they – the audience – should be equally prepared to go to those lengths to SAVE the love of their life.




FilmMakers Magazine: What inspired you to write?

Joe Acton: I grew up the only child in an alcoholic home. No, I wasn't abused, am not an alcoholic myself, haven't been in therapy, and had great parents who loved me dearly. Their addiction was born of many things – WWII, living in Alaska (drinking is a recreational sport up there, like golf but without the equipment), having crappy jobs – you name it. In those days, you didn't talk to a therapist; you talked to your bartender.

At any rate, I spent a lot of time alone, listening to the radio, watching television, going to the movies and, even though my daughter considers me a functional literary illiterate, a lot of time reading.

When you have alcoholic parents, you find yourself explaining a lot of things – sometimes they don't understand what's going on – sometimes you don't get it. So the need to tell a story – communicate, if you will, with an unwilling audience – became an important talent early on. Sometimes you had to be funny, sometimes you had to be serious – and sometimes you got mad, though couldn't really show it. And it's the "couldn't really show it" side that has caused – no, required – me to set it down to paper. When no other closure is available, there's always paper and pen.

I think good writers seek some kind of closure on the subject about which they write. Whether they get it or not depends not so much on how the piece is received, but on whether they can get what's in their head all the way down their arms, out their fingers and onto the keyboard.

And sometimes that's a long, long, long way.

FilmMakers Magazine: What did you do to prepare yourself to write your first script?

Joe Acton: I actually wrote three scripts contemporaneously, so for the purposes of this essay, we'll call "Married" the first – at least insofar as trying to go to an audience more broad than just my local area.

The first thing I did was become an annoyance to all my friends, asking them a raft of questions that were really and truly none of my damn business. Fortunately, they all thought I was going through a mid-life crisis and answered all my questions, secure in the assumption they were saving my marriage from either the obligatory red convertible or a series of lap dances at Ricks.

Then I did a lot of research as to divorce rates, length of marriage, rates of re-marriage, etc. Incidentally, the numbers are not as gruesome as you might imagine, though paper-rock-scissors still seems an operational selection process.

I hired a relationship expert to tell me if what I had the characters doing would pass muster with the counseling community. Let me just say I am now unclear as to what would NOT pass muster with the counseling community.

Finally, I got the best editor I could imagine to go over the project on a regular basis to give me insight into whether this was realistic or Hollywood. And let me tell you, my wife has very exacting standards. Except, apparently, in men.

Along the way I took a couple of runs at script consultants, both of whom advised me to put the reveal in the middle of Act 2 and spend the rest of the movie working through the couple's problems. I wanted this to be a romantic-comedy for married couples, so the reveal had to be at the end where we know the leads will come together. The twist in "Married" is that they are already together and intend to do whatever is necessary to stay together. Is the ending a clichι? Maybe, but so are most rom-coms, and so far no one who's been honest about it has said they guessed the ending in "Married".

My unsolicited advice is that if you use script counselors, do NOT let them tell you what the story is. Allow them to help you with character arc, dialogue, pacing, etc. But do NOT give over to them the right to change your basic storyline, no matter who they are, or what their credentials seem to be. It's your story. Live or die with it. But make sure it stays yours.

FilmMakers Magazine: Is this your first script and how long did it take you to complete?

Joe Acton: Because of the research and twist ending, I'd say the writing process took around 12 months.

FilmMakers Magazine: Do you have a set routine, place and time management for writing?

Joe Acton:
Time Management for writing? WOW – ask my wife if there is a phrase about which I am completely and totally ignorant and she will tell you, "Time Management is the natural enemy of Joe Acton."

For me, writing is an urgency-based creative process: it happens when it happens and trying to schedule it is like trying to schedule a memory. This assumes you are doing a creative spec script coming out of your own noggin. If you're doing a "write for hire" where the storyline is already set, the characters defined, etc. then you can probably count on better time management, as you are bringing to bear a set of technical skills, not necessarily an equal amount of creative grist.

I tend to do my best work at night, though I surmise the lack of distractions has much to do with it. Moreover, at night I tend to feel more relaxed – though once I'm into the actual story itself, it isn't at all unusual for me to go a couple of days without any real sleep.

FilmMakers Magazine: Do you believe screenplay contests are important for aspiring screenwriters and why?

Joe Acton: I think screenplay contests can be important, but not because you might sell a piece, or get representation or talk that hot aspiring actress into bed. NONE of that is going to happen (ESPECIALLY the actress). What will happen is that you have the opportunity to understand whether your writing is at all commercial.

The problem with most contests is that the initial screening process is ordinarily done by people who are new to the industry and thus least likely to identify a unique piece. Because of their youth, screeners are generally looking for something that appeals to them, which typically results in fart movies, explosions and coming-of-age pieces.

If you don't make the first cut you can generally assume the screeners didn't like your form or basic story. I started using stacked action and a lot of screeners hate it. I got a negative comment about formatting when I used the parenthetical "off the phone" to describe a look the actor would give the phone call just concluded.

If you don't make the first cut, you can assume THAT piece wasn't viewed as commercial by THOSE screeners. Submit the same thing next year, you might fly right by because now everyone is doing what you were doing, or the screeners are different and they love your piece.

But, whatever happens, treat it as a learning experience. William Goldman was right when he said nobody knows anything about making movies. The trick is not to dwell on what others tell you: if you don't win a contest, you can't assume you're a lousy writer; and if you do win, you can't assume the world will beat a path to your door.

Screenplay contests are a lot like life: some experiences are better than others, some are more rewarding than others, and some teach you more than others. But, none of them should change you – let the journey change you, not the destination.

FilmMakers Magazine: What influenced you to enter the FilmMakers International Screenwriting Awards?

Joe Acton: I liked the idea that scripts of similar genre would be judged by the tenets of that genre, not against those of another. In my view it is both impossible and unfair to compare a dramatic script to a comedy script or expect a family script to hold the attention of a sci-fi buff, etc.

It's very vogue to say that all scripts should contain the same structural elements, things should happen on page so-and-so, and my favorite of all, "you should be able to turn the sound down and understand the movie." But that's just not the way it works. In the real world, the only "formula" there is for writing screenplays is for those who have never written one and are looking for the yellow brick road. HINT: the yellow brick road was part of dream.

Filmmakers International's acknowledgement of this very basic difference as to the expectations of genres was the number one reason I chose to enter. I felt the contest was run by those who knew the industry, not those who merely observed it.

FilmMakers Magazine: What script would you urge aspiring writers to read and why?

Joe Acton: I don't believe there is one Holy Grail of scripts, the mastery of which will set a writer on a pathway to success. Again, I think it depends on which "genre" captures the interest of the writer and what he feels an inherent affinity for.

When I started, I'd download off the web scripts of movies being shown on television, and read along with the movie. That gave me some idea of the difference between what's on the page and what's on the stage, i.e., the actors may say the exact words on the page, but the manner in which they say them gives you a much better understand pacing, cadence, scene arc, etc.

My advice would be to select your 10 favorite movies and do a read-along. Then get the last 10 years of Academy Award winning scripts (both original and adapted) and read them. And then, pick up some "B" movie scripts and try to read them – I guarantee by the time you get around to doing that, you'll never finish one of them (if you can't find any, you can borrow some of mine).

FilmMakers Magazine: Beside screenwriting what are you passionate about and why?

Joe Acton: Being born and raised in Alaska, I've been a pilot since I was old enough to sit on my dad's lap and steer the family plane; I have a commercial pilot's license and there are few places where I feel as free as in the air. Unless it's 300 miles out to sea on a deep water boat; the whole family was either fishermen or deep water sailors.

But all that's inbred passion – things you learned to love because you didn't know any better. But age and experience tend to morph your passions and it's safe to say that besides screenwriting, I'm most passionate about filmmaking.

I wrote and directed "Courage Doesn't Ask" a live-action short which stands for the proposition that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. It has shown in thirty-five 2007 film festivals (only two gay festivals, weird, eh?) and is now being considered by the Academy.

My passion to make films comes from the realization that if you direct what you write, you ensure a level of control over characters and dialogue that were compelling on the front end of the project.

Given that I didn't go to film school, I don't have a "graduating class" of contacts in the movie business and as such recognize that the chances of breaking in as an Encore Filmmaker are vastly diminished. But since the movies I want to make won't attract studios anyway, maybe that's not a bad thing.

After all, isn't being an independent what Robert Frost was talking about: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Wood, film – hell, it's all pretty much the same thing.

FilmMakers Magazine: Who is your favorite Screenwriter and Why?

Joe Acton: I can't say that I have one favorite screenwriter. The craft is specialized and the artists unique. Carrie Fisher is great script doctor and Nora Ephron wildly successful. Who could compare the two?

Because I write character-driven pieces, I am drawn to writers who create intelligent dialogue. I like David Mamet, Richard Curtis, Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelly and Woody Allen – though you have to admit, a little Woody goes a long way (Oh, come on – like you didn't see that one coming.).

All these writers are masters of their own economy of expression and consistently write intelligent dialogue better than anyone else in the business. If you're looking for someone to be like, you can't go wrong with these guys.

FilmMakers Magazine: Name the director you would love to work with and why?

Joe Acton:
I like Sidney Pollock, Spike Lee, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott and Sofia Coppola. Each brings to the screen a sense of independence coupled with an unwavering determination to the project, no matter how (un) popular the subject matter might be.

All that said, I'd most want to work with Anthony Minghella; his movies are life-affirming and yet it seems clear by both his choice of material and interpretations thereof, he doesn't have a sense of entitlement as do many directors. Moreover, his approach to directing is founded in his sensibilities as a writer which, I think, keeps him focused on characters rather than explosions.

FilmMakers Magazine: Name the actor you would love to work with and why?

Joe Acton: Getting into the game a little bit older lets your define "success" on your own terms, i.e., you can be equally realistic and irrational, all at the same time.

The realistic side of me wants to work with actors who are sitting on the bench because they are seen by studios to be beyond their prime box office years; the great actors of the Baby Boomer Generation are taking character roles because it has been deemed that they don't appeal to younger audiences.

And, of course, everyone knows older people (40s and up) don't go to movies. Well, see... the reason they don't is there's nothing that pertains to them: they've seen all the fart-joke movies, they're not interested in another coming-of-age movie, and the rom-com doesn't apply to them.

I want to take actors off the bench, put them in contemporary roles that appeal to their generation, and put them back in front of the camera where they belong. There are plenty of compelling stories for the 40 and up crowd, but no one wants to take the chance. I've been lost in Bobby Frost's woods most of my life – give ME the actors on the bench and get the hell out of the way. We'll create a whole new genre of movies – we'll call it the "Encore Audience" (I've just about beaten this to death, don't you think?).

FilmMakers Magazine: Any tips and things learned along the way to pass on to others?

Joe Acton: Screenwriting is a lot like computer programming in that it's largely trial and error, and at the beginning, it's mostly error. Read as many screenplays as you can get your hands on. Don't believe your friends when they tell you you're good – if they knew anything they wouldn't be your friends. Never let someone else tell you what your story is – let them help you with the story, but no one knows the story better than you. Don't get pissed off if you don't win an award, and don't get cocky if you do win one – it could just as easily have gone the other way for both. When someone asks you what you do, tell them you're a writer and don't apologize, "I'm a screenplay writer, but I haven't sold anything." Not selling anything only means you're not a 'professional' screenplay writer – but you're still a screenplay writer. And stop asking, "How did that piece of crap get made?" because someday, somewhere, someone else is going to be asking the same thing about your stuff!

FilmMakers Magazine: What's next for you?

Joe Acton: I am working on two new pieces and trying to put together the financing to shoot "Married Seeking Same". In the meantime, I'm writing a "sitcom" for McClatchy Newspapers covering the 2008 presidential campaign. Entitled "Fade In" it is a web column written in a screenplay format and follows the travails of a public access TV station as it reports on the race. www.mcclatchydc.com/

FilmMakers Magazine: Where will you be five years from now?

Joe Acton: In five years I'll be writing and directing my own material. Between now and then I'll put together a financing facility that will go up to $1MM per film, which ought to at least get us in the door to some quality production companies.

With any luck, I'll have geriatric actors from the across the US – maybe the world – converging on my studio in their walkers, with legions of middle-aged MILF groupies standing in line to have me autograph their red hats, and I will have invested heavily in the new Centrum-Viagra one-a-day vitamins

Or my wife will have smothered me in my sleep, buried me in the basement and run off with our neighbor who borrowed my wood lathe and never brought it back. I think she misses playing with a little wood.


over bad-pun groaning.

MUSIC UP: something life-affirming like Clint Black's, "Put Yourself In My Shoes".


– The End –

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