David Brind is a Hollywood screenwriter that made his feature debut with the Sundance favorite, Dare, starring Emmy Rossum and Zach GIlford, in 2009. From writing shorts and features to pitching his own television series, he knows a lot about this business we call show and how crazy it all can be. Here he delves into the process of development and pitching scripts, however, when it comes to writing, he knows it’s all about your voice and digging deep.
Let’s jump right in. It’s always fascinating finding out how successful artists got their start. What’s your story?
I went to film school at Columbia University for filmmaking. I never wanted to be a writer. I did a few internships in L.A. in the summers and when I graduated from my undergrad at Yale, I worked for Delia Ephron (sister of Nora) as a research assistant. Over the course of that next year I was going through a lot of stuff and I had to get it out. And I wrote a feature. Delia read the script and she said, “When it comes to characters and dialogue you either have it or you don’t. You have it.” She recommended that I go to film school, so I enrolled at Columbia. I wrote Dare originally as a short there and everyone really responded to it.
You’re a proponent of making your own material.
Yeah, I am. You find your voice that way.
And that was the first incarnation of Dare?
Yeah. We made the short in 2004 and it got into a few festivals in ’05. That fall I wrote the feature and by summer 2006 I had a first draft done. Did you see the short?
I think so…
How long after you raised the money did you start production?
We raised money by February 2008 and started shooting in May 2008. But we had been casting way before we had money.
How did the talent come about?
There were a lot of young actors that wanted to play those roles. We were very close to casting someone as the leading woman and we got a call from Emmy Rossum’s manager that said she was very interested – “please don’t cast it, she’s going to make a video. Hold off until you see it.” And we did and the video was fucking amazing. If you want to see an actor kill an audition – she recorded the other peoples’ lines in garage band and she was doing the audition to the computer by herself. She just nailed it and made it really easy for us.
What was the feeling of Day 1 of production and people are acting out material that you’ve written?
I was a producer as well so I was working before that. But it was awesome. It just went really well. We shot a pivotal scene on the first day and the actors really understood the material – we had talked a lot before we started and they asked questions about where the material came from emotionally – what I was thinking in my head…
So it was very hands on experience?
It was a writer’s wet dream. Usually you’re not involved in the process, but I was on set every second. Zach brought a different level to the character – differently than how it was written.
So the film had gotten into Sundance. What was that like?
It was stressful because you’re trying to sell the film. But we got in the competition category, the most prestigious category for a US film. We were in there with Precious.
Did you have to pitch Dare?
We had meetings – but it was more on the director. It was more about him presenting his vision and how he wanted to do it.
So how did you get the representation you had when Dare premiered?
The first thing you have to realize about that is it doesn’t mean you’re going to get jobs all the time and work. CAA reps me. I went into Sundance with representation. Sometimes agents go and are looking for new clients, but getting an agent is just a step in the right direction, not the be-all-end-all.
So as a writer starting out, would you suggest actively look for an agent, or make your own stuff and let then let them come to you?
I think it’s a “build and and they will come” thing. But it depends on what you want to do. If you want to write for TV, you really do need to work as an assistant and work your way up. My cousin created Suits on USA and he started out as an office PA on Everybody Loves Raymond. Or you need to start writing pilots. And have enough samples to get yourself a manager/agent.
So let’s say I have 5-6 pilots in my portfolio…
You don’t need 5 or 6, just 1 good one. Most agents I talked to don’t want to read spec scripts anymore. Some do. Certainly the big agencies would never have me write a spec as a writing sample. They want original pilots.
And how would you go about shopping that pilot around?
If you don’t have stuff that gets attention on its own, like a short or web series, I guess you just have to network to a certain degree. Competitions will help you. Austin Film Festival has a TV writing competition, there’s the Nicholl Fellowship…I guess just get repped or get noticed. Most of the time you get repped because something you’ve done gets noticed. But not always.
There’s no set way.
There’s no set way for anything.
What did you learn from going through the journey of getting Dare produced and made?
I’m still learning. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket for sure. I think it’s important to know your priorities. Because there are so many fucking writers in this business and the only thing you have at the end of the day that’s different from anybody else is your voice. Your experiences and who you are. And you have to go into that shit and you have to get deep. Even for broad comedies – like why did Bridesmaids succeed and all these other comedies flop? Because there is pain in that movie. Clearly Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo were going through some shit. Being women and being single, having friends that weren’t, how you feel about yourself – and all that stuff came out in this comedy because it came from a really real place. And they weren’t afraid of it, or making themselves look bad, and trying shit…that’s what I think distinguishes things. I’m finding more and more that if I don’t care about it, I don’t really want do it. I don’t want to fight for jobs that are meaningless to me, but sometimes it gets hard because you need the money.
I think figuring out what your voice is and figuring out what kind of stories you want to tell and the more specific you are with that, the better. That’s how you distinguish yourself. That’s how you rise above the rest of the crop.
For a screenwriter just starting out that doesn’t know their voice, do they have to just go with what turns them on creatively…?
Yes. You have to look at movies that you like and that affect you. Why do you want to be a writer? With Dare, it came from a very personal place and it was something I needed to share and tell and express and work through my own shit. So I guess my question to that writer is, why do you want to be a writer? And then, from there, if you want to make people laugh – figure out what makes you laugh. And then try and think about stuff in your life that you’ve gone through that is from that ilk.
But its very much going into yourself.
I think so. Get it into your head. Even with action movies, that are like, the bomb action movies that you want to create. Get your juices flowing. It’s a terrible job.
Have you an interest in TV writing?
Pitching a comedy this week.
Talk about pitching.
It’s terrible I hate it.
(laughs) So, like, when people think of pitching, it’s you in a room with executives…
Yeah. That’s it. Everybody has a different idea of what pitching should be, but I was guided by my agent and manager to bring the personal into it. Why are you the only one that can tell this story? Why are you interested in this? That voice. Why you? Why not the guy who’s already written 10 shows? You’re selling yourself as much as the idea. During the pitch, you talk about the world of the show, sum it up into a logline, then introduce characters specifically.
Comedy is all situational, there’s no dramatic arc. In drama you have to be very specific about whats going to happen and where things are going to go because they have to know that you have the ability to do this for 5 seasons. 10 seasons. They’re different. Comedy is all about – can this sustain itself? Drama is what happens to character dramatically, emotionally, and plot lines.
What are your goals?
Create own show at some point – half hour cable show or 1 hour drama. I’m more fulfilled by drama or dark comedy. I like to write stuff for women. I’m working on an indie that I’d direct. I like to write things that affect people – about how they feel about themselves and the world. That’s what I want to do even though I might not get ahead the quickest that way…
What shows inspire you?
Currently, The Good Wife is well written and smart. Mad Men is a great and well written show. The Comeback with Lisa Kudrow that was cancelled but it was brilliant. And I’m watching Friday Night Lights right now – its so great, deeply affecting, emotional and thoughtful.
Is that funny, like friends like Zach Gilford who you worked with on Dare – how is it watching stuff that they’re in? And you knew them in that time, but didn’t watch the work?
I feel lucky to know people that do good work. Because there are a lot of people that are famous…
Lets say that you wanted to write for The Good Wife, can you tell your agent that?
Yeah, but they’ll tell me that it won’t happen. Its hard to get staffed if you haven’t been staffed before. Lower staff writing positions tend to go to diversity writers.
So how does that work? They submit you to the producer and the network. And then they review your writing sample?
So that’s crazy – your writing sample might not have anything to do with –
Correct. But they wont submit you to something you don’t have the right sample for. They submit you for shows that your material matches. If you write for soapy women, you won’t get submitted to NCIS.
What are you working on next.
Pitching a half hour comedy. Writing on spec a comedy I pitched with Sandra Bernhard and Melanie Griffith. I’ll take that out when I finish it.
How do you get these meetings?
The only way to get meetings is through representation. You bring someone on board that adds value to you, then go out. Based on separate writing samples. A manager/agent will pitch on the phone to producers that they have clients and will send to them samples and a logline. Then the producers request a pitch, and if they like it, they say they’d like to develop a pitch with you, and then they’ll go with you to the networks and pitch it the show.
Whats the shelf life of a script to be used for a writing sample?
It depends.Sometimes they’ll send the script or maybe even the DVD if it was already made.
How different was Dare from the script?
Pretty close. The ending is completely different because of editing.
Wait…I did see the short! They’re in the pool!
Yeah! We’re working on a sequel to that too.
All this time later and you’re still invested in the story…
Yeah. It resonates with people and I think that means it’s important to keep exploring. It’s still a passion project of mine and I can’t wait to see what will happen with it next.