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Friday, June 27, 2008

Writers to Watch: Joshua Zetumer

by Margaux Froley Outhred

I was recently able to pin down screenwriter, and someone I am proud to call a friend, Joshua Zetumer, to ask a few questions about his screenwriting career. In technical terms, it's safe to say that Josh's career has "blown up" in the last two years.

We met three years ago, both as struggling screenwriters, and it's been awe-inspiring to watch Josh's quick ascent into the Hollywood echelons of "working screenwriter". He's been a favorite of the Development insider list, THE BLACK LIST for three years running. His script, "Villian" is in development with 2929 Productions. He has another script, "The Infiltrator", also in development with Leonard DiCaprio's company, Appian Way. His spec script, "Man of Cloth", has Hugh Jackman attached to star. Josh recently completed the production polish on the current James Bond film, and now Josh is adapting "Dune" for director, Peter Berg. Whew......

Josh was good enough to answer a few questions exclusively here on the Rouge Wave:

What was the script that launched your career?

I wrote a thriller called 'Villain' that got me an agent at UTA. It took about six years of writing obsessively—shitty script after shitty script—before anything happened. 'Villain' started off as an exercise. I'd written some bigger, unfocused scripts, and I wanted to see how much mileage I could get out of two characters and one setting. I found I liked the characters so much, I decided to make the whole thing revolve around the slow reveal of their backstory rather than the plot.

Have you stayed working within that genre?

Definitely not. It's much more creatively satisfying to treat writing as an exploration of your own abilities. Also—and I'm sure this isn't news to anyone—it's easy for studios and executives to put you in a box if you stay in one genre. 'Villain' is a thriller about a guy stuck in a claustrophobic fire-watcher cabin. After people read it, the projects they threw me were not only thrillers, they were 'guy-trapped-in-X' movies. "Would you do a movie about a guy trapped in an elevator?" "What about a woman trapped in an attic?" I wanted to do something totally different, so instead I took a job for Warners writing about British spies in the IRA.

How do you think your writing style/voice has changed by working on assignment rather than spec-ing a script?

I'd like to think it doesn't matter whether your writing a spec or an assignment. A studio is hiring you for your voice, they probably don't want you to change it too much. I feel like your voice should be changing naturally over time as you keep exploring, keep getting better (hopefully). I play the drums in my spare time, and a teacher once told me, "If you ever make a recording that you're 100% happy with, quit". That's a little dark, but I think it's similar with writing. If you don't feel like you're growing, stop.

How much work do you have to do, ie, research, taking meetings, coming up with "takes" on projects, before you get the job?

In my limited experience, the projects worth doing are usually pretty competitive. Unless you're J.J. Abrams, you're going to be doing a lot of free work. It's silly, but I get kind of like Daniel Plainview from 'There Will Be Blood'. If I want the job and I hear they're talking to another writer, I instantly go to a place of (insert crazy theatrical accent) "Why don't I own this?" If you really love a project though, coming up with the take is equal parts fun and frustration. It's shittily exciting, I guess.

What is your current job? And what's the coolest thing about it?

I just got hired to adapt 'Dune' for Pete Berg. I think I just really love sandworms.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Margaux Froley Outhred,

I am truly jealous of this interview on Josh Zetumer, because I will never be this good.

I find that I enjoy writing for myself only.

I have 4 scripts and work full- time at an auto assembly line.

If I don't option any of the scripts, I will most likely join forces(investment) with upcoming directors and producers and make it happen.

I cannot and will not write for others. What? they give me an outline and they expect me to crank out a screenplay, based on their vision. Not interested.

Sorry, I'm don't want to be that good. And really, I don't know how is that possible, to write for others and I really don't want to know. Writing for others, so scary and painful and hard.

But to those who can do it, you guys have a gift.

Josh Zetumer is writing the screenplay for "Dune" , that's a dream come true.

Only if I can do that.


PJ McIlvaine said...

Very cool. And don't sell yourself short, Margaux. Never say never!

PJ McIlvaine said...

Sorry, I meant Anonymous don't sell yourself short!

row said...

Great post. I love reading about folks like this Josh. You mentioned that it was his "Villain" script that landed him an agent and subseqently jumpstarted his career but you didn't mention how that happened. I'm curious to know how he got the script recognized. Yes I'm an aspiring screenwriter and the writing of quality screenplays aside (which should always be first priority) this is the only ohter thing that there really is to such a career i.e. getting your work read by those who can push it into production if it's any good. Since I don't live near any major film hub it is really hard to meet the friend of a friend of an uncle of a girlfriend at McDonalds or a producer at a cocktail party. I'm know for a fact that many would-be writers have this gripe but that's the nature of the beast...