It’s fair to say that screenwriter Michael Starrbury is an inspiration. He’s an actual, breathing, real life professional screenwriter. That is, he actually keeps himself well oiled, well groomed and well fed writing scripts for a living, and in just a few years he’s becomes one of the hottest, most sought after screenwriters in the business.
He first came to public attention when director George Tillman Jr. came on board to direct Starrbury’s original screenplay, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, which was brought to him by associate producer George Tarrant, who long championed the script. However, even before that, Starburry attracted the attention of industry insiders when his action thriller script, Watch Roger Do His Thing, made the coveted yearly list of best unproduced screenplays known as The Black List in 2011.
Since then, he’s been busy working on several film and TV projects, including the sci-fi feature, The Great Unknown, for Warners, and the action comedy, Fully Automatic, also for Warners and producer Joel Silver.
And, by the way, did I tell you that he’s doing all this, not from L.A. or New York, but from his home, which he shares with his family, in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota?
So how does he do it? How does someone become a screenwriter, and what’s the process that one goes through to become one? Those are just some of the questions I asked Starrbury when I had a chance to talk to him recently.
And of course, why he prefers to stay in Minnesota…
SERGIO: You have to know that you’re one of the most envied persons around. You’re a successful, working screenwriter who has actually sold scripts, even having one of them produced and in theaters. And unbelievably, you’re doing it all from your home in Minnesota, which we’ll get to later. But first of all, why screenwriting? It‘s not easy for sure and most who try, fail. So what made you say, I want to try my hand at it?
STARRBURY: (Laughs) Well, for me it began, I think, when I saw Pulp Fiction. That film moved me in a way that I hadn’t felt moved by a movie before.
Now that’s interesting. I’ve had other filmmakers tell me the same thing, but, of course, you’ve seen other films and the thing about Fiction is that the entire film is made up of ideas, scenes and situations from other, older films. So why not those films instead of Fiction?
Yeah, but at the time I wouldn’t have known that. But there was something cool about it. It was just cooler than other movies. The tone of it was just different from anything else I had seen. It didn’t feel like Do the Right Thing, which I had also loved at the time. It didn’t feel like that kind of movie. It was like “Wow! You can really go and have some fun making some movies like that” It looked like everybody was just having a good time. And what really made it stand out was it felt like a movie, watching a story or stories unfold. I really liked that about it.
But here’s the thing about Pulp Fiction. It didn’t make me want to become a writer. It made me want to become a director. I thought I wanted to direct, but I didn’t have anything to direct. So I sat down to write a screenplay and I fell in love with the process. I just loved it. I loved the formatting, the way you have to think about structure and these act breaks and all of that stuff. It was right up my alley and since then I’ve just never stopped.
So what was the process of learning how to write screenplays, because it is a craft. Did you read books or take classes for example?
The first thing I ever read to learn screenwriting was a screenplay I bought. It was the Pulp Fiction screenplay. I wanted to see how it was written. I remember reading that script and the first thing it said was “INT. DINER” and I had no idea what “INT.” meant. I even called the book store and asked them what does “INT.” mean and they told me “INTERIOR”. (Laughs)
And so after that I just finished reading it and I would devour director’s commentaries on DVDs.. That was my thing, but I would pick up books here and there, Syd Fields’ books and others on the basics of screenwriting. So for me it was watching a ton of movies, reading books to grab on to screenplay structure and terminology and, yeah, that was it. And, of course, I read every script I could get my hands on. I read produced scripts and the scripts that were on The Black Listt every year and I enjoy reading those stories and picking up tips and just trying to get better at it.
It’s all about constantly working at it, learning the craft of screenwriting. I’ll bet you now consider your first attempts at screenwriting pretty bad now, right?
I would say my first three feature scripts sucked. I wouldn’t show those to anybody today. (laughs) But at the time I didn’t know they stunk. I just thought I was doing what everybody else was doing, but that turned out not to be the case.
And I bring that up because people who want to be screenwriters seem to get the impression that you just knock something off and it’s a masterpiece. It’s very long learning experience. My first screenplays I think I burnt them. I don’t even look at a page of those things anymore.
(Laughs) No, I couldn’t look at my early stuff anymore. It would be embarrassing. If they ever got out there I would be totally embarrassed by them. It’s a learning process. But, you know, it’s hard to convince the newer writers of screenplays that the first one or two may not be the one. But you just battle through it and you’ll get better.
So when did you know you had “it”? That you wrote something that you instinctively knew was good?
Well there’s the McKnight Screenwriting Fellowship in Minnesota and it’s pretty competitive and I entered a screenplay, a comedy that I had written, and I was a finalist. I didn’t win, but the fact that I had advanced in anything was such a confidence booster for me that I felt like: "“O.K. I read that script and I think I can do even better than that." And that one got a little bit of shine so eventually I just felt that I was getting better and better and just kept at it. There really wasn’t some "A-HA!" moment… well actually I shouldn’t say that because there was something about Mister and Pete that was different from everything else I had written.
And I was just about to get into Mister and Pete. What number script was that for you?
Wow. (laughs) Wow. (laughs) Wow. (laughs) It’s in the teens for sure. Yeah it’s up there. It’s a pretty high number. I had a script that I wrote before that was on the 2011 Black List that I actually wrote before Mister and Pete. So even at that point, when I wrote Mister and Pete so I would say 13ish or somewhere around there.
So what was the genesis for that script?
So it’s 2008 and there’s a lot of talk about the financial crisis, Wall Street and the middle class disappearing. So I’m in my office, I don’t remember what I was working on at the time, and I was thinking why don’t we ever really explore what happens to the working class, like kids from the projects, and I’m a kid from the projects, and what happens to them during these times?
So I was reflecting on it and I realized that it doesn’t really matter who’s in the White House or what’s going on, on Wall St. There’s a constant struggle in cities that feels separate from any so-called economic situation going on in America whether we’re thriving or not. So I felt like, now is the time to tell that story, to tell the story about these kids who are born into these things that they have no control over. And the cycle will continue unless someone stands up and realizes that accepting help is O.K.
Well let me ask you, are you ever satisfied with anything you’re written, even scripts that were sold, produced or on the Black List of whatever? Or are you always in the back of your mind, saying to yourself, I could have done that a little better?
Always! I mean Mister and Pete is shot and is in theaters and I know if I looked at that script right now I know I would be making some changes. (laughs) And that’s how I am and it could be just maturation. You know, you get just a little bit older and you start to see things in a different way and over time you feel that you can always improve things.
But with Mister and Pete I had a pretty strong belief that I had something that people would respond to. I mean I wrote this script about a Black kid and an Asian kid and, believe me when I tell you that I had no idea if it would ever get made. The idea was to show people that I could handle drama because I had been writing action comedies and action thrillers and things like that.
But I have a friend, George Tarrant (associate producer of Mister and Pete) and I make sure that he reads everything that I write. He’s straight up "story" and tells me where I need to tighten it up and he does it in way where it improves my story. He’s not trying to infringe on it or put his twist on it. He knows what I’m going for and he’s been a great help in making me a better writer.
And you bring up an important point: writers should have someone who has knowledge about screenwriting and who won’t b.s. you about your work. I dare say most writers, when they give a script of theirs to someone to read and ask them for their opinion, are really saying: “Tell me that you love it”. That’s not going to help you as a writer.
Yes exactly. I mean there’s no point in having someone tell you "This is great!" Actually you don’t want that because then you have to ask yourself “Now what? If this is great then why isn’t anyone interested in it? Where do I go from here?" I love people telling me you can work on this some more.
One of the early things I would get is: "it’s so well written... ," and I always took that as code for: "They like the way I write, but they don’t like what I was writing about." And actually that’s perfectly fine because at least I know that there was something to work on, that I had to be a better storyteller. I think that getting honest notes like that will only help you to improve as a writer.
There’s really no point in anyone telling you that your stuff is great, unless it’s the head of a studio and they’re getting ready to greenlight your script into production. Just having somebody tell you it’s good, well that kind of critique isn’t going to make you better. I think having in depth talks about story and character and even questioning them, asking them “Well this is what I was trying to do. Do you think I pulled that off? Or how did you fell about that scene? Did it hit you in any kind of way?" Those are the kinds of conversations that I think you want to have about your script in an honest way.
But let’s get to the fact that you’re based in Minnesota and you didn’t relocate to LA, which is what everybody tells to anyone who wants to get into the business to do, especially screenwriters. So why didn’t you pack up and go?
Well I probably would have moved if I didn’t have my family - my wife and my two kids. But I think it wound up being advantageous for me not to move. I was talking to a producer yesterday about how the perspective is different for me here. I mean I’m out to L.A often, so I know what it’s like out there. People competing and elbowing each other and trying to get some shine. I know what that’s like. But here, at home, in Minnesota, it’s peaceful and quiet and I’m just a writer in my office.
I don’t feel the pressure you have in L.A., no distractions. If you want me, you really have to want me because I'm not going to drive for a meeting in the middle of the day. (laughs) My time is valuable, so if you schedule for me to come there, that way I know that you’re going to have my attention because we both took the time out to make this meeting happen. I’m not around the corner so we can't do this at anytime. So that ended up being helpful.
Now I would say this though. I don’t know if I would recommend it to people to just write where you are. I would say, for me, there were some negatives about it, if you want to call it negative. I could have written some TV shows, maybe I could have staffed on some TV shows but obviously I can’t do that from Minnesota. I knew that going in, and that was fine. But I think you can write features from anywhere. It really depends on what kind of writer you want to be.
And finally the last question, and most clichéd one, but I have to ask it, what advice would you give for screenwriters out there who want to be where you are?
I would tell them to write those stories that you realize, from the bottom of your heart, without a doubt, you can execute better than no one. There are a lot of professional writers out there who are great at their jobs writing the same kind of spec scripts that I see. But you have to find something and write the way only you can write, in your voice. That’s going to make it stand out. You find that story and you just execute it the best way you can and I think people will find you.
Take my Black List script, Watch Roger Do His Thing. The logline is about as generic and dry as it gets: "A hit man tries to escape Chicago with his wife and leave his old life behind." It’s the simplest log time, a story that we’ve heard before. I wanted to tell that story, but the way I went about it, I wanted to challenge that genre in a way that it hadn’t been challenged before and it’s the script that got me on, and that started to get me noticed. I wanted to take these stories that we were familiar with and really do them in a way that would stand out and give them their own voice.
P.S. By the way Starrbury will be
hosting two Q&A sessions after screening of Mister and Pete Saturday and Sunday Nov. 2nd 8:10PM, and
Nov. 3rd 2:30PM at the AMC Southdale 16 in Edina, MN