Interview with Feature Film Writer Zak Olkewicz

This week’s interview is with feature film writer Zak Olkewicz. He shares the ins and outs of screenwriting in Hollywood from pitching to the process of rewriting. Zak’s career took off after selling horror-thriller INK AND BONE to Dimension Films in 2013. Since then, he’s worked on a slew of projects, but let’s start out at the beginning…

How did you start out in the industry?

I actually went to school for video game design. I was intending to do that as a day job. Then as I graduated and had friends who got into game design, it’s very much a 90-hour a week job, so that doesn’t make sense for a day job.

I had just started dating Katrina [my now wife] at the time, and she said, “Well, let’s just be poor and you can do writing.” I was like, “That sounds great.” So I picked a good person to be with for the rest of my life.

I started working at a tracking board website, interning. They wouldn’t pay anything. Needing money, I basically offered to start a script coverage department for them.

I started and ran their coverage department for two years. We built a part of the site to bring people in. It was all developmental coverage. It was all people in, like, Iowa, who would send me their scripts. I would give notes back like, “This is what you should change, this is what works, this is what doesn’t.” And to be fair, most people were people who would never work in the industry, they were doing it as a hobby. But we came up with a system that was cool. We would recommend people that, if their scripts were good enough, we would recommend it on the website and newsletter and get people signed. It was cool and actually a fun thing.

I did that well into once I’d been signed. That was essentially my day job.

You were writing that whole time?

Yeah. I talked them into letting me work from home because I don’t need to do coverage in an office. Wrote half the time. Did coverage half the time.

What was the process up to getting signed?

Lengthy. It’s very complicated. It’s kind of like this joke I heard on a Scriptnotes podcast; asking someone how they got signed is like asking someone how they lost their virginity. It’s all basically the same thing, but it’s always different.

The person who ran the website I was working for asked me to work on a project for him. It was something he had and was circling around, and I wrote a draft of that for him. Then through his website, to drum up heat, he put me on one of his lists that was like “top scripts of the year.” Then, I got interest in the script from that, but because he didn’t want to share the script with anyone, he just wanted to draw up heat, he told me I couldn’t share that script with anybody. So I ended up having to bull rush and finish another one of my scripts, so that I could send it to people. By doing that, I ended up with a script that was decent.

I asked a friend of a friend to give it to their manager and tell them that I had a lot of managers interested in me. It was sort of true in a vague, if you squint at it and look at it from 300 feet away it’s true. He read the script really quick, and liked it, signed it. As a bonus for signing me, he got me signed with my agent.

How long did it take you to write the script that you bull rushed?

Luckily, it was close to done. It was a harried week of me fielding emails asking to read it, while I was finishing it.

Did you intentionally pick horror to get into or is that something you fell into?

It’s funny because the script I got signed on is action, it’s not actually horror. We basically went out immediately with that script because a lot of times when you get signed, if you get signed in the time of year when scripts go out, you’ll just go out with the script that they signed you with. That’s part of why they sign a lot of clients near October or near February because that’s when scripts go out a lot of times. I mean, vaguely, in that window.

When they signed me, I went out with my script immediately. It got an okay response. There was a hurricane, so I feel like I blame it on that. But it had a decent response, and it actually got set up with another production company that was, because I was such a baby writer, was like we’ll come in and give you notes but we’re not going to option it, and we’re not going to pay for it, which is very typical when you’re just starting out.

So, I actually wrote Ink and Bone, while I was waiting for notes from them because I write really fast. It was basically Christmas break, and we had two weeks off. No one was responding to my emails because they were all off in Hawaii or being rich somewhere. I wanted to do something, when everyone came back in January, so I wrote it in two weeks. I gave it to my manager. He used to work for Dimension, so he slipped it to them. They preemptively bought it so we couldn’t go out with it, which is cool.

What is funny about that is because it was my first sale, everything I did for two years was horror. I always say, if someone held a gun to my head, horror is what I would do, but the script that I thought was going to sell was the action one. That ended up petering out for a lot of different reasons, but Ink and Bone went strong and that got me another job later on.

You write fast! How long do you spend on rewriting or incorporating notes?

It depends. I think I started a better writer than I was a rewriter. Rewriting was a skill I had to work a lot on. Again, I’m going to quote Scriptnotes a lot, but they had a joke on there. When you ask a writer to change the color of the couch, it seems like it’d be an easy thing, but what you don’t understand is that the writer has created this world that is as real to them as humanly possible, but walking in and being like, “Why isn’t the sky orange?” It’s like, “I dunno, because it’s not.” So I feel like I had a little bit of that sometimes.

One of my biggest strengths is that I get so excited about everything. I joke that I go into a meeting and come out excited to do this lesbian, laundromat, squirrel movie that they pitch me, that I really, really have to write all of the sudden, which is really good and really bad. I think one of the bad things about it is when I’m writing a script sometimes, unless someone objectively tells me, “This scene needs to go out,” I assume everyone loves everything as much as I do, so I never want to cut anything out.

That’s a big learning experience the past couple of years, just like when someone asks you to write something, they’re not really going to mind if you throw some stuff out. If you throw some stuff out that they liked, they’ll tell you.

There’s a big joke that when you get notes sometimes, they say, “I like everything. Don’t change anything. We want you to add these 30 pages of scenes, but make it shorter.” You have to figure out what you’re going to cut and make executive decisions about the scenes to make the stuff that they want work.

One of the first rewrites I ever did was that exact thing. I had a script work. It was 105 pages. They gave me all these notes and I was like cool, all I have to do is add these things. So I ended up turning in a script that was 128 pages, and they were like, this guys doesn’t know how to write. So I think a lot of that kind of stuff is, not hard, it’s like being a good writer is like the entry-level requirement. I have a friend who gives me a script occasionally.  It’s very wordy, very lengthy. I keep telling him that he needs to cut it down. And he’s like, “Well, I keep hoping people will see how good it is and be okay with it being long, like Quentin Tarantino, people like that.” Quentin Tarantino has done more harm to people starting out as writers than is humanly possible.

So much of it isn’t about being a good writer; it’s about figuring out how to write a good story like it’s an Ikea manual. That’s kind of how it works. Being able to write things really short and terse. And kind of get to the point. The script is essentially… people want to watch the movie. You’re spending all this time on description that no one is going to read. Best case scenario, no one will read what you wrote, they will only see the movie. If you’re talking about the sun coming through the window, and it’s taking you four paragraphs, then there’s an issue.

How would you say that your writing has developed over the years? How long did it take you to get that first script that you were ready to show people and then get to the point where you are a professional writer?

I still wonder if I’m a professional writer. That’s always part of being a writer, self-doubt and thinking you’re terrible. I think that there’s a thing about screenwriting specifically – I wrote long form before that. I wrote short stories and stuff like that. I think it’s harder coming into screenwriting from that because the rules are opposite in a lot of ways. You kind of want to be as flavorful as possible in long form, whereas when you’re writing a screenplay you want it to be as short as possible. And all of the best screenplays that I’ve read, I can’t tell you descriptions in them. For me, a big part of it was being able to look at structure and the big picture as opposed to what the individual words are. That’s really big. There’s a really specific feel to a screenplay.

A lot of times when I was doing coverage as a reader, on the first couple of pages you can tell if they know how to write. It’s not even necessarily that they are a bad writer. If you got something where the first description was seven lines long, you’d be like okay, this is probably not going to go great. It’s like learning a language well enough that you don’t sound like a tourist. So I feel like that was a big thing that I had to learn.

Before I got signed, I figured that out. I feel like my writing’s evolved in the sense that I think I’m getting better. But I think it’s been more about how to navigate the actual business. One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the last few years is that I very much focus on one thing at a time. That’s how I write. If I write more than one thing at once, it starts kind of bleeding into each other. Like if I tried writing a comedy while I was writing a horror, my horror movie would get funnier and my comedy would get really gory.

Being able to manage multiple projects is so important. A lot of writers aren’t good at it. I wasn’t good at it when I was starting. Now it’s to the point where I can kind of work on one project in the morning, then pitch something else that afternoon and do a phone call about something else at night. I still have to refresh myself and go through the motions. I don’t think I started with those skills.

Writers are treated kind of shitty. In the features side. Not as much on the TV side. On the features side, writers are treated kind of disposable. A reaction to that is that a lot of writers feel like their craft is the most important step. I think it’s a much more important step than the industry thinks it is. But at the same time, I had a director come onto one of my projects last year, and one of the first things I said is that, “This is your vision coming into it. It’s been my vision the last year and a half while I’ve been rewriting it. And I think it’s very important that it’s your vision going forward.” Just like it’s got to be the producers vision. Just like it’s got to be everyone’s vision who’s involved in the project. The biggest thing you can give them is ownership of the project. The biggest thing you can give them is being a part of it.

A lot of writers want to push back on stuff that doesn’t really matter. When a lot of the times, you can go, “Okay, I like this scene better than the other, but let’s do it this way just because it will make the producer feel like they are a part of the project now. It’s a different vision. I assume I don’t know everything.” I think that’s a big thing people learn starting out.

When you’re starting out and you’re amateur and you’re doing it on your own, it’s so by yourself. You’re in a cabin in the woods, essentially, writing this manuscript that’s going to change the world. Then you get into the industry, it’s never like that. When I sold to Fox Searchlight, the pitch I sold they loved and they bought it, and they told me it was the shortest pitch they’d ever bought. It was amazing, and I was on cloud nine. Then when we started getting into outlining it, I realized that what they bought wasn’t what I thought the movie was. And it was kind of a rough experience to quickly change gears and pretend that what I wanted was exactly what they wanted. If I had gone in there and been like, “Well, that’s not the vision.” They would have been like, “Okay.” And hired someone else.

Leading up to getting signed, I think that it’s about being a writer that people think will work well with others and can do the actual craft. After that, it’s how do you rewrite and how do you react to notes.

For a while my biggest mantra was that if I get a note, I don’t push back ever. I sit on it. Because my first reaction a lot of times is, “That’s not what the movie is.” I find that if I wait, and I kind of think about it, in a couple of days I’ll be like, “You know what that’s not bad.” Or even sometimes, “You know what that’s better.” A few years into my career, I thought that was great but in some ways it gets me into a lot of trouble. I end up saying yes to people, trying to make sure everyone is happy, and putting myself into positions where then later I have to say no, and they thought I already said yes. It’s learning how to navigate that stuff. Now, I’ve basically learned that I need to raise the concerns upfront and say, “I’ll look at it and I’ll try it.” Not just say that sounds great and then go try it on my own.

In a lot of way, that’s speaking to the same thing I was talking about earlier, making sure things aren’t insular. Making sure I’m not doing things on my own. Making sure I’m looping people into the process.

That’s something that literally in the past couple of week’s I’ve learned. Because I did a writers’ room at the beginning of the year for a feature project. The showrunner of that is a great writer – very successful – and I think watching him write and how he works and deals with people has been a masterclass in how I should do things. He’s not afraid to push back, but he’s not afraid to try stuff. It comes from a very strong place. What’s interesting to me is that, and what I’m realizing this year specifically, accepting both sides and being the ‘bigger person’ in a lot of ways makes me look weak in meetings. Because I’m not pushing back, because I’m taking what everyone says and internalizing it, then getting back to people with my thoughts. I realize that it can make me appear like I don’t know what I’m talking about in a meeting, when I do, but I was just trying to be nice or overly open minded.

I think that kind of stuff you can’t anticipate. You don’t know how you’re going to be in a meeting. I pitch really well. People really like me. They think I’m not a weird person to talk to, which is exciting. A lot of writers have a problem with that. Writing and pitching could not be more opposite. But I’ve always loved doing speech class and that kind of stuff. So I kind of assumed that it would translate into that. And there’s so much politics about how you have to address things that being open to change is important to people when you’re starting.

Being a good writer is entry-level. There are a lot of writers who aren’t very good but are really good at the other things. Ultimately, what I’ve found is that it makes better movies. Because if you’re not a great writer, but you’re better at dealing with people, then you’re going to be more open to the process and having people come in and fixing your shitty writing.

Writers tend to take writers they don’t like that are successful and be like well that’s a fluke, but in reality it’s not a fluke. It’s them doing the other parts of the job really, really well. And I think that if you’re a shitty writer, but you can pitch well and people like you, you’re going to end up selling something for a million dollars that they bring in somebody else to rewrite because you’re a shitty writer, but you have a million dollars and your movie gets made. It’s interesting how that works. It’s definitely not how I thought it worked before I started.

It’s like anything else. It’s like working at an office or working anywhere. There are always those politics and things you have to navigate it. It should just be about the job and the artistry.

Do you go and network? Do you engage the political side in that respect?

I would say that one of my biggest flaws is that I don’t network. I don’t go out to meet and greets. I don’t go to parties. A lot of that comes from the point that I just want to work a lot of the time. Which makes me sound more determined than I am because mostly I want to go home and procrastinate and then work.

But I try to network on a small scale. I feel like if you put me at a party where I don’t know anyone, I’m not good. I will not talk to anyone. I will sit in a corner and nurse a drink and convince myself to go home and feel shitty for the rest of the night. But, I try to meet people and keep up the relationships with the people I work with. At the beginning of the week, I ask myself who can I get lunch with that I haven’t talked to in a while. Foster relationships. That’s an important part of networking. Even the writers’ room at the beginning of this year, is because of a friend. And, through my manager, I have some friends who wrote one of the Marvel movies. That happened because they were friends with a director who they went out with a pitch for years earlier.

Any kind of networking you can do is important. You can’t be by yourself not doing anything. I also think, especially if you’re not signed and you’re not going out on assignments, if you’re still working, I feel like networking is almost more important.

I think it’s so important to get different views points on your writing. Because I know what I think is good. If I had no input from other people, I would keep going towards that one singular goal. But I feel like everyone who comes in is going to give you a different viewpoint, or you’re able to read their writing or interact in some way, you’re going to have more dimensionality to your writing.

I know people who network so much that they don’t write. Find that balance of forcing yourself out there at the same time that you’re getting your work done.

You’re a producer on Lights Out. How did you transition into producing?

I came in and worked on Lights Out really early on because my manager was trying to sign that guy right when that came about. And then in working with him and developing a take, because I was going to write it, a friend of mine who was producing something else came and was like, “I really want to produce this. Can you put in a good word for me?” So I put in a good word for him, and he came on and was producing with me to write and David Sandberg to direct.

Then through the course of that, we kind of realize that my take, essentially, wasn’t where David wanted to go with it. So, I stepped back and as a consolation prize, they were like, “We’ll make you a producer on this.” Kind of 100% in name only, just for helping out in the early stages. It literally was a thing where I was like cool, I’ll be a producer on this. Didn’t really hear anything back. They went off and did their own thing. A year later I heard they started shooting, and I was like wait what, I thought I was a producer on this.

That’s again another example of a weird and complicated thing. It was weird and bittersweet to go see LIGHTS OUT. I’m really good friends with the director, David Sandberg. But it’s weird to go see that movie because I almost wrote it. And, I’m kind of bummed out because I didn’t get to write it, but I’m really excited for the people involved because I like them, and I’m happy with the version they created. That’s another lesson you have to learn working.

With INK AND BONE as an example. One of the things that happened with Dimension was that I did all these rewrites for them, and they loved it. They brought in a director, Evan Daugherty, the guy who wrote SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. I’m friends with Evan, too. This was years ago, but basically, Dimension called my manager and they were like we brought in Evan, he has this really big take that’s a really huge M. Night Shyamalan twist that we’re going to put at the end. But they wouldn’t tell us what it was. They didn’t want it to get out, but they were like, “You’re going to love it.” So I remember having a conversation with my manager being like what’s weird about that is that the best case scenario is this movie gets made, I go to the premiere, and I don’t know how my movie ends. Which is such a weird foreign concept. But it sums up how the industry works.

I just finished a project that I’ve been working on for 3 years, that is the one that I sold as a pitch. I wrote a draft. It got a director. This year we started going down the path with the director and rewriting it. I’m happy with it in the sense that it got pushed forward, and I think it’s the director’s vision, but it’s not necessarily something I would have written from the start. And the studio is really excited about it. It’s the exact same scenario, best case scenario, this version is going to go out, and I don’t know that I can defend some of the choices in it outside of “the director or producers felt strongly it should be this way”. Like I said, I love the director and I hope that it’s great. I want to sit in that theater and be totally wrong and all of the things we’ve fought over for the last year, I’m like, “You were right.” Being able to internalize that is kind of important because there are so many things outside of your control. As a writer, by necessity, you are the first step, and there are 50 steps past you. It’s never going to be what you think it is.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to do what you’re doing.

Being able to internalize how you need to change without taking it personally. There’s so many times where it’s like I’ll get a note or turn in a draft and they’re like this is the worst thing I’ve ever read. And it’s like, okay, it’s not the worst thing you’ve ever read, where do we go from here? Not having it be an ego blow as opposed to having it be something that you need to work on and change. Even on the other side, I’ve had examples where I was trying to rewrite something but the producers weren’t being clear because they didn’t want to be upfront and hurt my feelings. I think that being able to not take everything personally is important.

Also, like we talked about earlier, being able to write well is an internal process, completely on your own. It’s good to have a writer’s’ groups and other viewpoints, but you’re the person who has control over that. Then being able to look outside of yourself and how the industry works, how you should deal with notes, and how you should deal with pitching, and all those things – that is where you have to look to other people to help you. Knowing when to internalize something and deal with it your own and when to externalize something and react to other people.

What do you wish you would have known before you started out?

This year is the busiest I’ve ever been. And I kind of realized halfway through the year that, if I’m really lucky, I won’t ever be less busy. When I started, it was like, once I’m a good writer this will be easier. Once I’m signed, once I sell my first film this will be easier. And that’s never true. It’s like figuring out how to be happy with whatever stage you’re in currently is really important. The last month was really hard. Halfway through the month, I was like I need to figure out a way to make this work, so that even though I’m busier than I’ve been and I forgot what my wife’s face looks like, I need to figure out a way to be happy in this moment.

Take breaks and stuff. This actually goes to a CNN quote that was talking about Olympic athletes. It was saying the common trait in Olympic athletes is that they take their time off as seriously as they take their training time. They never miss a day of training, but they also never miss a day off.

I have a tendency to work as much as humanly possible, and I burn myself out to a point where everything that I’m doing should take one day and now it takes five days. Being able to be okay with where I’m at and being able to be okay with… I feel like it’s hard to say anything that’s not like a “it’s about the journey…” kind of a thing.

It’s true, though.

It is true. I feel like as human beings we always hope it’s going to be better. I feel like on some level we’re always like “once I have the promotion,” “once everyone likes me,” “once I exercise more,” “once I stop smoking,” whatever it is… Figuring out how to be okay when it’s happening is so important in this job because you’re unhappy a lot. Honestly. Not even in a bad way. The thing I just finished, I did 20 drafts of. And I would say 15 drafts ago is when it started getting into something that I wasn’t 100% happy with, and I still had to go into it every time being like, “Okay, this is a thing I want to get made. This is a thing I want to be good.” And figuring out a way to be excited about that and make it good again, not just do the notes by rote. It was good in a way, having to do that because it made me figure out a way to be just as invested in that as I was in the first draft that I wrote by myself. It’s been a great experience. It’s being able to be happy on the stuff that you aren’t super motivated by initially.

The other thing too, when you’re starting out, so many of your jobs are things you don’t want. Because when you start, it’s all the things they can’t go to bigger people on because they’ll never do them. So you’re getting these jobs that are movies that will never get made and for no money. Staying happy and motivated is how you’re going to get better jobs. Because people react just as much to you being happy as they do to you doing good work. So if you’re going in and you’re bitching or whatever, they’re not going to want to work with you. Whereas, if you take something that’s a shitty job and you’re talking about how amazing it is, and you’re finding ways to make it work, when they have better jobs, they’re going to want to offer it to you because it was a good experience working with you. That’s a key thing that not necessarily a lot of people do.