HomeFun Stuff3Way Screenwriting: An Interview with Bragi Schut

3Way Screenwriting: An Interview with Bragi Schut


3way had the opportunity to chat with one of our more established members…

Who is Bragi Schut, for those who might not be familiar with your work?  Can you tell me a little about yourself, and the roads you took to get where you are today?

Sure. Not sure how far back you wanna start but I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, as a kid in the 80s and that informed my story sense. I read a lot of comics as a kid, a lot of fantasy and science fiction, Robert E Howard, Tolkien, PK Dick, and all that stuff… film wise, I fell in love with the genre movies of the 80s.

That was such a high point for genre storytelling. Just as sci-fi ideas were and action films were getting tired and too familiar, along came people like Cameron and Bigelow and Spielberg and Ridley Scott and John McTiernan and they brought all these great new characters and ideas to genres that typically had been considered B-films — and they really elevated them and that blew me away.

So I grew up watching movies like Aliens, and The Thing, and Ghostbusters, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars and Die Hard (in no particular order!) and I just couldn’t get enough of them.

So I took some screenwriting classes in college and came out to LA with a bunch of friends when I graduated, and I just started interning and working on whatever film and TV jobs I could get. I worked as a model maker at Digital Domain for awhile, I did a lot of P.A.’ing, I worked as a producer’s assistant, handling phones, whatever I could get… I even did a bunch of reality TV. “Temptation Island” and “Average Joe…”

And at the same time, every night and every weekend, I was writing my original scripts and directing short films of my own. And I won a few festivals and some prizes, and then I was lucky enough to win the big one– The Nicholl Fellowship — for my script SEASON OF THE WITCH.

And while the movie didn’t turn out anything like I’d hoped or imagined, it still opened a lot of doors and it kick-started a writing career for me.

That script got me a lot of assignment work around town.

Would you be willing to talk about the first screenplay you ever wrote?  Do you still have a copy, and if so, do you ever revisit it?

The first script I wrote was an incredibly sappy coming-of-age story about kids growing up in Brooklyn, NY. It was semi-autobiographical, I guess, in that one of the kids gets hit by a car and dies and that happened to a very close friend of mine growing up, and it really shook me up.

But if I remember correctly, the script deviated from reality and involved a sort of “Ghost” type second chance. I really don’t remember much about it at this point and I doubt I could even find a draft anywhere. Probably for the best since it was pretty amateurish. But I put a lot of emotion into it. I just didn’t have the skills yet to do it justice.

Did you read a lot of TV/feature scripts when starting out? What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your perspective on filmmaking?

Yes, definitely.  I read a ton of scripts. I actually came out my junior year in college and I interned. I had two internships that summer, split between Lightstorm Entertainment (Cameron was my hero!) and a producer named Mark Johnson, who has a ton of credits like BREAKING BAD, and the Narnia movies, and BETTER CALL SAUL and one of my personal favorites, “A Perfect World.”

So I basically spent that summer reading scripts nonstop and writing coverage on them. If you do that, andread two or three scripts a day for the whole summer — you’re going to start to see what makes a script good and what makes it bad.

So that was an incredible education. As far as early scripts that I read and liked, I loving the writing of Frank Darabont, David Webb Peoples, James Cameron… I remember some scripts that I read back then and loved — and some got made. I remember reading an early draft of GATTACA that was fantastic. It wasn’t called GATTACA back then, it had some other title. But the writing was so good, you just knew it was gonna get made.

So after that summer, I was a pretty voracious script reader. I started collecting scripts and trading them with friends, and passing them around. If you’re serious about screenwriting I think you have to read a ton of scripts before you even start.

Otherwise…what are you doing? You don’t even know what a good script is until you’ve read forty or fifty scripts.

And ideally, even when you’re an established writer — you should keep reading. I think if you don’t, occasionally, you risk falling into your own little echo chamber — where you just don’t grow much as a writer.

When you first started to learn the craft, did you read/study any how-to books on screenwriting, and if so, which ones did you find to be the most beneficial?

Yes, tons. And I continue to read books on screenwriting to this day. I think becoming a screenwriter is a life-long pursuit, and you continually learn and teach yourself stuff and add tricks to your creative toolbox.

Early on,I remember really loving Linda Seger’s books, especially “Making a Good Script Great” and “Creating Unforgettable Characters.” Then I dug into Syd Fields and Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheimand Christopher Vogler… And I’m still exploring and educating myself as much as I have the time. At the moment, I’m reading Robert Mckee. And when I’m done with that, I’m probably going to dig into Vogler again. Or maybe something entirely new.

I know some writers love outlines, index cards, treatments etc., while others just dive right in.  What side do you fall on?  And I’m sorry for the absolutely standard question lol, but aspiring writers love to hear about the writing process used by successful writers!

I used to do index cards, and they work great. But I’ve sort of stopped that and I do a lot of outlining now. I start with a beat sheet — usually three to five pages long — and then build that out into full on outline. Which is anything from 10 to 35 pages and up.

I recently did an outline for a Netflix project — for a 1 hour drama that was about thirty five pages. And I think it was very thorough. That script will be a pleasure to write because I’m just going to let it sort of pour out of me, and have fun with it. I know the structure, I know the characters, it’s just gonna be about having fun with the dialogue and the mood and the world.

Once you’ve done the outlining and prep, you really know the story. I find at that point the script writes itself really quickly.

Does your research process vary depending on the project?  As in, have you sometimes just sat down and typed out a script solely from what’s in your mind, or are you pretty consistent with how you prepare and the time spent before writing a draft?

On some scripts the research is a huge element. On others, not so much. For example, when I was writing SEASON OF THE WITCH and THE LAST VOYAGE OF DEMETER, I found that I had to do a bunch of research to make the world feel authentic.

I ended up reading books on the Black Death, and historical books on the Crusades, as well as soaking up a lot of other fictional works written in that period, to make sure the dialogue felt authentic.

I also found myself constantly looking stuff up as I was writing, to see who was ruling France at such and such a time, and what was their title, and what was the hierarchy of the church back then, and what did a Benedictine Abbey look like and what are the different rooms and chambers called inside it, and so on and so on… It never ended. What did they do to people accused of witchcraft back in the day? I mean, exactly what? What was the process?

Even the geography and the terrain that the characters were going to pass through. I was hunting down old maps with the original town names and stuff, because all of that has changed.

With DEMETER it was a lot of research about old boats, and trying to figure out how sailors of that time might have talked and the language they used, and making the world of the boat and the terms they used, feel accurate.

If you don’t know a lot about boats and ships, and I actually do know some, you have a lot of research to do to make it feel real. Forget about “port” and “starboard,” that’s the tip of the iceberg. There are so many names and terms for the different parts of a boat, that even coming up with the proper scene headers requires research.

By contrast — on something like ESCAPE ROOM or SAMARITAN, I didn’t need to do much research because it was basically modern day, and I’m living in it (sorta), and I can make it feel real and grounded without much research.

Once you’ve finished the first draft of a project, how many people, and who specifically, do you let read it?  If you prefer, it can be specifically a spec script as opposed to an assignment.

When I finish a script I usually share it with a circle of friends and family and colleagues. That’s typically around six or seven people. I used to share it more widely and really field a lot of reactions, but nowadays, I tend to share it with less people.

But I still make sure to get some and I still look to see: are they all liking or not liking the same moments? What’s working? What isn’t? Are the criticisms in line which each other? Is there any consensus? When there is — that’s great. Usually that tells you there’s a definite problem. But sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes one person likes something while another doesn’t like the same thing, and then it’s up to me to decide — which opinion do I think is right?

Once you have received feedback, how do you approach the rewriting process?

Once I get the feedback, I sit with it for a bit and think about it. If the change is something that excites me and I think it will improve the script, I jump in and do it. I love to focus on character stuff in the rewrites. Action and plotting is usually not the problem. So I really focus on the motivations of the characters, and their tone of voice, and I look for ways to add depth and give them more substance. I do a lot of dialogue polishing, and I try to make sure the characters all have their own viewpoints and arcs, and make sure they feel unique and compelling.

I try to make sure every character speaks in his or her appropriate way. They should sound different from each other. I look for missed opportunities. I look to make sure that everyone’s motivations and why they are doing things is clear, and that we understand what that person wants.

Rewriting is huge. I sometimes have twenty or thirty drafts saved on my desktop. Sometimes more.

But a word of unsolicited advice?

Don’t keep asking the same friends to read multiple drafts of the same script. A) they will quickly regret helping you, and B) I find that the first read is the most valuable. Once someone has read a story, and formed an impression, asking them to read a slightly modified version of the same story isn’t going to affect the initial impression much. It’s diminishing returns. It’s already formed in their minds at that point.

The more valuable thing to do would be to give it to a new group of people and see what they think. If that second group responds more positively than the first group, then I think you can assume that you’ve improved the script and that the changes were wise.

I would imagine assignments really help pay the bills, but do you prefer working on your own specs, or does it not really matter as long as the material captures your interest?

Assignments are great, and yes, they do help pay the bills. But in my case, lately, I’ve been fortunate to have sold a lot of original material. DEMETER was original, SEASON OF THE WITCH and SAMARITAN, and I recently sold another original project.

So I’m eager to get back into spec scripts as soon as I can.

The original scripts, if written at the right budget level, and with a strong concept and great characters — they find a home. Eventually. And that’s usually where I find the greatest passion, the original stuff.

You have an upcoming film – Samaritan – with Sylvester Stallone.  First, congrats on that!  IMDb lists the logline as A young boy learns that a superhero who was thought to have gone missing after an epic battle twenty years ago may in fact still be around.”It sounds like a great premise, and I’m curious how you came up with the idea.

I can’t say too much about that, without spoiling things, but I can say that I was expecting a baby at the time and a lot of my fears and uncertainties of becoming a dad led me to some interesting character ideas. And I’ve always been a comic nerd and I love heroes.

And I’m also pretty stubborn, and when I had the idea and people started telling me that it was pointless to write an original superhero film without any underlying IP, I thought — screw that, I’m gonna do it.

Luckily, Stallone read the script and believed in it, and he got it made.

What are your feelings on the long road Last Voyage Of The Demeter has taken up to this point, where it appears it is going to finally get made, and are you still involved in any capacity with the rewrites that have taken place?

I did a LOT of rewrites on that project. A LOT — in caps. But at this point, no, I’m no longer involved. The director, Andre Ovredal, has graciously kept me in the loop with occasional update and casting news, and set builds and stuff… but no, in general, I’m not involved. Which is probably for the best. I put a lot of blood sweat and tears into that script and I’m not sure at this moment that I have the fortitude to face it again.

How involved were you with Escape Room 2?  IMDb lists a lot of writers, and I didn’t see too many specifics online, so it’s a bit hard to tell what your involvement may or may not be.

I did a draft early on, based on what the director, at the time, wanted to do for the sequel. But at the end of the day, he didn’t like the draft. So I stepped aside and the director brought a bunch of new writers in and they did a number of drafts.

I have no idea what the story is now or where they went with it.

Frankly, the idea that I originally pitched as a sequel, which I wanted to write, and I think would have been a lot of fun — was something the director wasn’t keen on. So I don’t think we were on the same page. And when that happens, the best thing to do is get out of the way and let the director do what he wants. Because in film, typically, the director steers the boat.

In TV that’s not the case. But in film, it is.

Anyway, I enjoyed the experience on the first film and I had a great experience with the producer, Neal Moritz, and we have another project together, and hopefully more down the road.

But as far as ESCAPE ROOM, I’m not involved in the sequel.

I read in a previous interview that while you did settle on Raiders Of The Lost Ark as your favorite film of all time and the reason you entered the film industry, it was pretty close with Ghostbusters, Die Hard&Aliens.  Is there anything you’d be willing to add as #5 on that list?  And if so, why?

Oh my God. Tough question. But since you’re putting me on the spot — I’ll go with THE SEVEN SAMURAI, just to have one black and white classic on the list.

If you’re able to discuss any future projects you are working on, I’d love to hear what some of them may be, including if you have any thoughts on directing a feature film in the future. 

I can talk vaguely about stuff — but not in much detail. And yes, I’d love to direct something at some point. I have an idea for a sort of fantasy/thriller movie that I may finish writing at some point and send to some of the low budget horror financiers, to see if anyone will take a chance.

But I have to finish it first.

On the TV side, I’m wrapping up work on another season of the Lego animated series NINJAGO, and developing a hard-R anime project with Dan Dominguez and Brad Graeber at Powerhouse Animation. I’m also developing something I can’t mention by name, other than to say it’s a well-known fantasy project, and it would be a dream come true to work on it.

But it’s early days.

Lastly, I’m adapting a Jeff Lemire comic but I can’t really discuss that either. All of this is TV stuff, though, and I’m eager to get back into some feature work when my schedule opens up.

I have several treatments in various stages, including the fantasy/thriller project and an 80s throwback action film very much in the tradition of“Die Hard.” My 80s roots showing again…

Thank you for your time Mr. Schut! 

My pleasure! Thanks and “hi” to everyone at Write to Reel.

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