Interview: Andy Demsky
– Andy Demsky, writer of Totaled (2012 Script Pipeline Contest winner)
Without giving away too much of the concept, what prompted you to come up with the idea for Totaled?
A few years ago, a friend was telling me how his car had been totaled and I should have been listening to him, but instead my internal English Major was geeking out on how much that one word packs into it. If you say your car is totaled, I know there was a wreck, probably pretty bad. There was surprise, fear, and uncertainty, maybe pain, but certainly drama. Someone got pissed, someone may have faked an injury. Police may’ve been called. The car had to go to a body shop for evaluation, phone calls had to be made to an insurance company, someone along the line shouted “This is bullshit!” and the owner is now faced with a lot of decisions and on and on. All this in just one word. An entire story outline.
From there, I thought, “What if a person could be totaled?” Deemed to be not worth the cost of repair. What kind of person would that be? What kind of world would that be?
Do you feel that, when writing a comedy, there should be a larger, serious purpose behind it all, or is the humor itself all that matters?
The comedies that stick with me most are the ones that have a similar density of storytelling as dramas, movies like In The Loop, Foot Fist Way, Humpday, Juno, Sideways, Waiting for Guffman, Election. What works best for me is when you push the tone of the story just past drama into comedy. I love how Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Jody Hill and others can get this very tricky thing right.
But that’s all personal preference. The truth is you can point to a lot of very successful comedies, that I also like, which story-wise don’t aim for 21-ounce-steak storytelling at all like Anchorman or Hot Tub Time Machine. So I think you can do either. Ultimately, it has to take the audience off-guard in ways that spark laughs.
The writing process, for you personally. What keeps you motivated? Where do most of your ideas stem from, and how do you go about evaluating what to pursue next?
Great movies, great scripts are very motivating—all the movies I’ve seen over and over such as Blue Velvet, Barton Fink, Defending Your Life, David Cronenberg’s Crash, Lawrence of Arabia, Brazil, were like doing drugs, just enthralling. They all made me want to do that, too. Ideas come from everywhereand nowhere. I’m working on something now that comes straight out of my geeky obsession with History Channel conspiracy theories. With Totaled, it began with a single word. With another project it came from my sick, sad nerd-love for Basil Rathbone and the old Sherlock Holmes series. And others are just stray thoughts while jogging or driving or lying awake at night. Sometimes I steal ideas from my kids. I’m not proud.
The projects that I focus on currently are those that I’m most likely to sell. Money actually does bring me happiness. On top of that in about six years my son will go to college and unfortunately he’s extremely bright, charming, and has wide range of interests.
All of which means he’ll probably end up going somewhere stupidly expensive, which will require me to sell as many scripts as humanly possible between now and then. His sister is only two years behind so I don’t plan on sleeping a lot over the next ten years.
As someone who lives outside of Los Angeles, since you have experience with story development, dealing with producers, and so forth, how beneficial do you think it is to live near Hollywood? Does it matter?
It’s important to live in or near L.A. The only reason I’ve gotten away with it so far, I think, is because I live in Napa Valley, which is familiar, weekend-getaway turf for a lot of people in the entertainment industry. A number of my friendships in the business actually originated here in wine country over dinner or at winery events, things like that, rather than in L.A. In addition, I have a lot of flexibility in terms of getting to L.A. It’s an hour flight and, to be honest,I’ve developed a huge crush on the Sacramento Airport. That said, though, setting up meetings is much harder and more cumbersome from here. Getting to last-minute meetings is impossible. And probably worst of all, I’m not in the mix on a day-to-day basis and that puts me at a disadvantage. Everything takes longer, all of which just makes me work harder to create un-put-downable scripts.
What do you feel are the most crucial elements in a screenplay? What gets your work noticed by industry?
Whoever said “don’t sweat the small stuff” didn’t write screenplays. Every page, every scene, every word, every character, every idea is important and needs to be put under a microscope. I’ve re-written Totaled, in major ways, at least 25 times and in smaller ways too many times to count. And it’s still not right.
You have to be your harshest critic. Your willingness to rewrite and re-edit has to border on a kind of mental illness. And I think you have to not only be willing to collaborate but to actually enjoy it.
Overall, I think that first screenplay has to come with a mix of originality and familiarity. You have to have an original concept, characters, set pieces, and plot. However, since I’m not going to shoot this and raise the funds myself as a writer/director, I need to sell this to a producer who can imagine a poster and trailer and who can assure investors that their money will be returned with crazy interest. That means there has to be an element of familiarity. In a producer’s mind, as far as I can tell, the average audience member should have some sense of what the story is about, that they’ve seen some iteration of this before and want to see it again through a new lens.
Personally, I love diving blindly into unfamiliar territory. The films of the Coen Brothers, David Cronenberg, Lars Von Trier, Peter Greenaway, or David Lynch are good examples. But in order to sell my first screenplay, I know I’m never to sell something like Fargo or Drowning By Numbers.
At the end of the day, what wins: concept or execution?
No,execution. No, concept. Or. . . .