Interview: Haji Outlaw
– Haji Outlaw, writer of Deadmen (2013 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest runner-up)
You were a former Script Pipeline finalist with a TV spec for the comedy Eastbound and Down. Your 2013 runner-up screenplay, Deadmen, is a western (technically), yet a “lighter,” psychological western. What’s the transition like writing straight comedy to this type of material?
Honestly, the transition from straight comedy to Deadmen wasn’t much of a transition. It just comes down to telling a story and characters for me. As long as the story and characters are interesting, I’m ready to write it. I actually wrote the first draft of Deadmen about four months after I wrote Eastbound. Even though I’ve done standup for nearly 10 years and wrote Eastbound, the majority of what I enjoy watching are not comedies. My favorite TV show of all-time is The Wire (and currently Breaking Bad), and my favorite movie of all-time is The Matrix.
Few, if any, studio execs would recommend someone write a western—it’s simply not a marketable type of film at the moment—and yet, you managed to pull off a fresh, unique take on the genre that was thoroughly engaging and original. What inspired the concept?
The concept was inspired when I got the idea of a grim reaper telling a guy to kill himself. I woke up thinking about this idea two days in a row and knew I had to write this screenplay. The Western angle simply came in when my roommate, months before this, said that I could write a good western. At the time I wrote Deadmen, I had only seen three westerns (Unforgiven, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and 3:10 to Yuma). But I always loved the lone gunslinger type character. Whether it be Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or Jack Burton from Big Trouble In Little China.
Do you think more writers should take risks on concepts? Should they worry much about marketability?
I think writers should write what makes them happy. Because in the end, it’s going to come down to the people with money (producers, studios, etc.) to take a risk on turning a screenplay into a film. I would like it if these people took more risks, but like they say about any business, it’s a business. And a business is always in the business of being a business. . . . I do think writers should worry about marketability, if they want to not sleep on a futon.
What’s your writing background in general? How’d you get started?
I started writing creatively in grade school. By 5th grade my teachers all thought that I would grow up to write books. While I still may write a novel, between 7th grade and junior year of college, I don’t believe I read an entire book, let alone wrote one. This was mainly due to teachers telling me that I couldn’t write anything creative in their classes. But my dislike of school is whole different subject.
After I graduated from college, I started writing for myself as a standup comedian in Chicago. As I started to get more and more work as a standup, I realized that my comedic voice is not broad, but more of a niche. And the ability to write in this niche would work very well in television and movies, which is what I’m pursuing now, along with doing more standup.
How far outside your writing comfort zone do you go, if at all? Is it important for writers to test their talents, so to speak? Challenge themselves in this respect? Or is it wiser to stick to your guns, write what you know, what you know you’re good at?
I can go as far outside of my writing zone as the story and characters will allow. Once the story and the characters are not interesting to me, I’m done. . . . I think it’s important for writers to push or challenge themselves. But I come back to a quote from a man, who in my opinion was the most charismatic wrestler ever, The Rock, who said, “Shut your mouth and know your role!” That’s how I feel about writing. If your voice is unique and your talent is special, I think your writing will come through no matter what genre you’re writing in. If Tarantino wrote a romantic-comedy, it would definitely be a Tarantino romantic comedy. And I believe it would be that way because he would love the story and the characters he created. And yes, I just equated myself to Quentin Tarantino and gave myself first billing.
Where do you see the film industry headed with regards to the types of projects produced, studios and indies alike? In your experience, should a writer follow the trends? Do they need to? Or is it simply a matter of writing a good script and hoping someone finds interest eventually?
I think big studios will continue to do what they’re doing, to a certain extent. They need to make big movies with big budgets. And in order to do that, they need to do broad movies. That’s simply what big studios do. I’m sure they will do their best to avoid flops like R.I.P.D. or John Carter, but that won’t stop them from making big-budget movies. I think independents will take more risk as far as the films they make because they don’t need to do $250 million at the box office to break even on a picture.
A writer should do whatever is necessary to get their screenplay turned into a film. Whether that be following or bucking the trends. While I do think that a great script will garner attention for a writer, the reality is that no one shows up to a movie theater to read a script. TMZ has proven that people would rather watch celebrities leave restaurants and nightclubs than watch most scripted television shows. So I would say that a good script is a good thing, but a good script with a star attached is ideal, at least in the business of filmmaking.