Tuesday, December 15, 2009

KILLER SCREENWRITER - The Bob DeRosa Interview

Bob DeRosa (“The Air I Breathe”) is on a roll and taking Hollywood by storm. This is especially gratifying for us here at Coverage Ink., because Bob was the 2004 winner of the CS Open, the live writing tournament we’ve been judging for the past eight years. As the release date of his latest movie “Killers” (starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl) approaches, we sat down with Bob for a chat about the long, perilous climb to the top.

by Jim Cirile

Jim Cirile: Thanks for taking the time, Bob. At what time did the screenwriting bug bite you in the butt?

Bob DeRosa: I wrote my first short story when I was 6. I always thought I was going to be an author, write books and short stories. In high school, I started doing little video projects back before anyone had video cameras – they were these giant things that sat on giant tripods, and you had to rent ‘em out from the library. My best friend Ken Davis and I went to college together at University of Florida, and we just started making short films together (on) half-inch, crappy video. That’s all we could get our hands on. We made a 20-minute comedy, and people laughed in all the right spots, and we were like, okay, we can do this. I wrote almost a feature-length bad, bad vampire movie called “Spectre,” and that was the first script I wrote. I was a freshman in college – a long time ago.

JC: Did you ever think about going to film school in SoCal?

BD: Throughout my career, a lot of the conventional things that everybody else was doing just didn’t seem to work in my mind. I was at a great school with all my friends, a very creative group of people, making movies. We were making films literally all the way up until I graduated from U.F. This was in the heyday when they were promoting Orlando as kind of Hollywood East. That didn’t happen, (but) my heart is still part of that film community.

JC: So what made you realize it was time to load up the truck and move to Beverly? Hills, that is.

BD: After college, I was back in Orlando for quite a while, and I became a jack of all trades. I was writing and directing short films. I got into an improve troupe, and we were together for ten years. We toured Canada and started doing corporate gigs. I was a commercial actor. I did plays. I was assistant casting director on “Jeepers Creepers.” And I was assistant programmer for the Florida Film Festival for three years. That happened right when “Blair Witch Project” (emerged), and all those guys are from Orlando. We did the second-ever U.S. screening of it, and I was working for an amazing programmer, Matthew Curtis, who’s still there. And so I’m watching hundreds of films a year. I’m meeting filmmakers and traveling to Sundance and IFP market in New York and scouting films, and the whole time I’m still writing scripts. As a result, I kind of learned my own way, which goes back to the way things were in college -- I was on my own path.

JC: You couldn’t pay for experience like that.

BD: Exactly. And then the “Orlando Weekly” voted me Renaissance Man of Orlando. The entertainment editor at the time was just a big fan of Orlando arts in general. It was just an amazing time. I kind of got to the point where I (realized,) you know, I’ve kind of done everything I can do in this town. I was probably 31 at the time, and I was like, it’s time to make a go of it. So I moved to Los Angeles. I (decided) I was going to continue with my improv troupe but just focus on my screenwriting. It’s what I came here to do.

JC: You’re coming from a place where you’re established within a community. What was it like to come to LA and discover that none of that matters and nobody gives a crap?

BD: Yeah. Well, I was in the world of film but also still in the world of improv. We were really well-respected on the East Coast. But I would meet Los Angeles improvisers, and they would have no idea who we were. You want to send your résumé (listing) all the people you’ve trained with, to hundreds of people, but they don’t get it. And all of a sudden, it was like, Crap, I have to start over. (The improv troupe) all kind of went our separate ways, and we’re still friends and collaborating in certain ways, but for me, I was going to focus more on my writing.

I was very fortunate in that I had a couple of samples and an up and coming manager that I knew from Orlando. I literally got off the plane with the guy who’s still my manager today – Christopher Pratt over at Elements Entertainment. As a fledgling producer in Orlando, he hired me to rewrite a script for 600 bucks back in the late ‘90s. I had a script called “Gifted” which he was showing around. He was an assistant for a manager at Shapiro West. The only people he could get it to were the people at the very bottom of the ladder, but my stuff was getting read. We hit it off, and we were at the exact same moment in our careers. A guy with my experience level back then is not going to get signed by Christopher now. I was able to come out here and hit the ground running with a manager who believed in me.

JC: That’s exactly how it’s done. My clients are always asking me, “How do I get an agent? How do I get a manager?” The truth is that no big agent is going to give them the time of day. You have to find someone hungry who still needs to make his bones, who’s got some hustle and sees something in you that they can champion. The guys at too high a level, they have big clients they have to service.

BD: And Christopher was a hotshot. He was a pit bull even back then, but he still had a lot to learn, as did I. We learned together. Sometimes the industry would kick us both in the ass at the same time. Put this in print, Jim – I have never written a query letter in my life. I know it works for some people, but it was not in the cards for me.

JC: Wow. So what happened when you got out here and Christopher started showing your stuff around?

BD: I was fortunate in that I had (“Gifted,”) which was a little indie (script) that nobody would make but that everybody admired. That’s one of the lessons Christopher taught me, and it was a hard lesson – you can write little indie movies and scrounge a living and maybe get some things made, or you can write a studio films and work as a screenwriter. He encouraged me to embrace the genres that I used to love. So I went from a little romantic dramedy, and my next spec was an across-time zombie killing movie called “Hatchet Club,” which I wrote in six days – one of the best writing experiences of my life. Christopher loved it, who gave it to his boss, who also loved it. He made a call to ICM, and basically less than two years after I moved here, that script went all over town. A ton of people read it; Joel Silver took it in to Warner Bros. I was in my little apartment in Burbank, and I was like, Oh, my God. My life could change tomorrow.

JC: I recall you got about 40 meetings, but the script didn’t sell, right?

BD: Exactly right, but that’s what happens to everybody. A very successful executive who was a fan of “Gifted,” he needed to know that I could write a big studio movie. He read “Hatchet Club,” and he was like, “You’re the guy.” he was looking for a young, up n’ comer (cheap) screenwriter. He helped me develop an idea they had internally. We pitched it to (then Revolution Studios head) Todd Garner, who hired me for my first studio screenwriting job – “Untitled Romantic Fantasy.”

JC: Did that one wind up going anywhere?

BD: No, not at all. (laughs) I’ve been a very moderately successful studio guy. I got three studio jobs over the course of several years, so I definitely went through some hard knocks. I worked with some great executives, and I learned a lot, but it took me quite a while to realize that part of a writer’s job is to be able to tell them hey, this idea you have over here is great, but this one over here is not so great. And here’s why.

JC: Without making them think that you are difficult to work with. So how did winning the CS Open (“Creative Screenwriting” magazine’s annual time writing tournament at the Screenwriting Expo) figure in to all this?

BD: It put a little money in my pocket when I was a struggling writer. The thing about the CS Open is that I did it the (previous) year, and I lost badly. Didn’t make it past the first round, and I was pissed. I’ve noticed in my life that trying to do something in this industry and having people say, “Nope!” That really fires me up to figure out how I can turn a no into a yes. I had been doing all these 24-hour theatre shows in Hollywood, in which you write a 1-act play overnight, and they put it on the next night. It’s really fun and a great writing exercise. So I came in to the CS Open the next time with a really strong strategy. I was like, I’m gonna write it funny. It’s gonna have a twist ending. I’m gonna be creative with the way I interpret the rules. And I did that through every single step, and I kept moving forward and eventually I wrote the winning entry “Taco!,” which you named. You were like, “Vote for number three if you want to vote for ‘Taco!’” I was like, that’s the title of that one. The CS Open was an outstanding lesson for me.

JC: How did you meet Jieho Lee (director of “The Air I Breathe,” cowritten by DeRosa and Lee)?

BD: We programmed his film (“A Nursery Tale”) at the Florida Film Festival. Jieho was just one of those filmmakers that I met that I kept in touch with. Literally two weeks after I moved to LA, one of my one-act plays was put on by some friends of mine. Jieho came to the show and asked me if I could help write his debut feature, which he was going to shoot in Korea at the time. That became a 6-year journey of working together on and off. “The Air I Breathe” was just one of these passion projects we kept coming back to. I basically helped him realize his vision.

JC: So you were working on “Air I Breathe” on the side as you did your studio gigs?

BD: Yeah, and I’ll be honest. There were some pretty lean times. There were those big gaps between the jobs, and I was floating myself on credit cards. Then I’d get the next job, but I’d be scared to pay off the credit cards because I needed the money to live for the next eight months. It was a very precarious six years.

JC: Did you get a nice career bounce off “Air I Breathe”?

BD: It absolutely helped my career. It was an insanely positive experience. I was in Mexico City for every day of the shoot, in every producer’s meeting, every notes meeting. I was a part of the team, and that doesn’t happen very often. “Air” as a spec had plenty of fans, but because I cowrote it with Jieho, I couldn’t use it as a sample. And I hadn’t written a really good sample since “Hatchet Club.” It had been years. Here I am with a produced movie but no sample, and Jieho’s too busy editing to write a new script with me. I was kind of unhirable in 2006. The other samples, everybody had seen them already. Also they were kind of scattered. I had a romantic indie film and a zombie movie. They didn’t know what box to put me in. So I was angry – but as I said, it was a good, positive anger. So I basically said, I’m gonna write a spec, and I’m going to put in everything I love to do, everything I’m good at.

JC: That was “Five Killers” (later renamed “Killers”)?

BD: Yes. It was a high-concept, character-driven action film that was romantic and funny but not an outright comedy. (It’s about) a retired hit man, whose wife doesn’t know what he used to do, finds out that he’s got five killers hidden in his life, and they’ve all been activated – and there’s a $20 million contract on his head. The twist is they were planted in his life three years ago, so it could be anybody – his best friend, the secretary at work, the mailman. It was a fun concept, and Christopher really approved of it. I turned in the first draft, and he gave me some really good notes and “Save the Cat!” by Blake Snyder. And that was a lightning bolt.

JC: For all of us.

BD: Yeah. Oh, my God. The thing is that everything that’s in Blake’s 15-point beat sheet, I had in the script. They were just all in the wrong places. So I reboarded the whole movie and turned the next draft in to Christopher. And get this. It was my birthday, and Christopher calls me and says, “You knocked it out of the park, buddy.” And I realized I hadn’t heard that in years. It had just been so long since I’d written something fresh. I literally cried.

JC: That’s amazing, and yet more testament to the brilliance of the late, great Blake Snyder, too.

BD: I can’t sing his praises enough.

JC: So how did you get “Five Killers” set up?

BD: I did another tiny draft, and basically by January, 2007, we were ready to go. I didn’t have an agent at this point. I’d left ICM a couple of years before. Christopher felt, OK, now it’s time. He was at Elements Entertainment at this point, partnered up with some other great managers. So he was able to get me in the room at Endeavor and a couple of other agencies. I really liked (the Endeavor) team. They talked a lot about packaging and had actually packaged “The Air I Breathe.” They full-on signed me and started packaging at that point, trying to get their directing and acting clients interested.

JC: A long, slow, painful process.

BD: Oh, God, it was so slow. I was frustrated and broke at this point, and it was like, come on! At the same time, Jieho had finished “Air I Breathe” and started showing it to distributors and buyers. Lionsgate saw it, loved the film, loved Jieho’s directing, and they hired Jieho and I to adapt a video game project for them, and they attached Jieho to direct it. It wasn’t a big money job or anything, but it was something. So they called Christopher and asked if they could read “Five Killers.” Christopher said no, because he didn’t want any buyers to read it (yet.) Lionsgate called back a few weeks later and said, “What if we read it, and we really liked it? Hypothetically.” Somehow Lionsgate got a copy when nobody was supposed to have a copy, and sure enough, they really liked it. I wrote it to be this $25 million not-too-big action film, which is exactly what they make. And they were like, “Hey, what if we bought this script that you’re not selling?” So they made an offer, and it was not a bad offer at all. It was just enough to make me go, “Uh, Christopher, I have a lot of credit card debt.”

JC: So why didn’t Christopher blast it out wide at that point with an offer on the table?

BD: We didn’t want to just sell it. The plan all along was to package the film with a director and an actor or actress and make the movie. So we were like, Well, fine. If you want to buy this, we’re going to ask for the moon. We made a really aggressive (counter) offer. The writers strike was coming up, and we knew they were going to want to shoot this pretty soon. We asked for everything we wanted at that moment, and they said yes. And then we had to sell it.

JC: Yeah, I guess so!

BD: I turned in my final draft to them right before the strike. After the strike, they brought in Phil Joanou (“Gridiron Gang,”) who is a great action director and had really great ideas. I was really lucky at that point. That’s usually the point where a writer gets kicked off a project, but I owed them a draft. And I met Phil, and we hit it off. So I did a couple drafts with Phil’s notes. So for at least a year I was doing drafts with feature directors, and by the time I finished my last draft with Phil, the studio was even more enamored with the script. At this point the budget’s starting to rise, and it’s becoming more of a star vehicle. They brought in Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s Eleven”) to do a polish, and he did a great job, and he did what they wanted to take that $25 million movie and make it more of a $50 or $60 million movie. They ended up parting ways with Phil – I think Lionsgate was starting to see it more as a comedic film. As opposed to an action film comedy, they started seeing it as a comedy with action. (Director) Rob Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) came on, Ashton Kutcher (“That ‘70s Show”) came on, and then Rob had just shot a movie with Katherine Heigl (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and she came on. Now it’s tentpole-sized. I mean, it’s funny for me, because it’s still my story, still my characters – I just went through credit arbitration, and I got my credit – story by Bob DeRosa, screenplay by Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin – but it’s a bigger movie, a funnier movie. It’s definitely evolved in Rob Luketic’s hands. I haven't seen the first cut yet, but I think it’s going to be really, really cool.

JC: An amazing cast – Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, and oh, Martin Mull! I love that.

BD: And Catherine O’Hara.

JC: Yeah, SCTV. How cool is that? Larry Joe Campbell… This is the second time you’ve had this incredible ensemble cast assemble around something you’ve written (“The Air I Breathe” starred Brendan Fraser, Forrest Whitaker, Kevin Bacon, Julie Delpy, Andy Garcia and Sarah Michelle Gellar.) Could you ask for better casts in either of your films?

BD: I am so fortunate and really excited and happy. I love actors and always have, and I will always write for actors. And so it’s a vindication to get such fantastic casts. It’s a dream come true, it really is.

JC: Why did they change the title (from “Five Killers” to “Killers”)?

BD: In my version of the script, the fact that there were five killers was right up front. There are five killers, and they’re coming for you. They make it a little more of a mystery in this version – how many killers and who the killers are. It may not be five killers anymore.

JC: And next up?

BD: I have a brand-new spec, another action/comedy, and Christopher is doing the exact same thing. He is putting together his dream package to hopefully get the movie made. We’ll see if somebody tries to buy it away from us. I think we’ll be particularly aggressive this time.

JC: Awesome. Bob, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Wishing you the best, and looking forward to “Killers.”


"Killers" opens 6/4/10 in wide release.

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