Interview: Jason Vaughn
– Jason Vaughn, writer of The Synth House Wife (2012 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest winner). Synth is currently in the latter stages of development and is headed toward production.
Describe the process of writing The Synth House Wife. Where did the concept stem from, and what type of story did you want to tell?
My concept was triggered by that scene in Minority Report when John Anderton takes the precog, Agatha, to a hacker who helps people live out their fantasies. I thought, what if an entire story was focused on a man going someplace to relive one night of his life? What if this fantasy involved a woman he loved? What if the facility could create a physical simulacrum of her? And, if he wasn’t going for sex (as other people would, in this future), then why was he going?
Thinking of trying a short story, not a screenplay, I worked out a two-page sketch—a fuzzy beginning, an even fuzzier ending, and scattered bits of a blah-dialogue middle. I had never attempted science fiction, and, though the idea intrigued me, I felt I didn’t yet have the power to make anything out of it. So I deleted the file. Weeks later, while happening to look at a script as I watched its film, I discovered that screenplays are, after all, just words written down by mere mortals (and nowhere did I see that you have to be a rocket scientist).
Within two weeks I’d bought some software and written close to twenty pages of what was clearly destined to be a quieter type of movie. The questions that got it rolling were the architects of what it would become.
Moody, character-driven sci-fi/futuristic dramas are, relatively speaking, a rarity amongst the many comedy, action, horror, and straight drama specs. Do you think it’s a tougher genre to write, at least in the sense of piecing everything together regarding plot and creating a unique world?
I don’t have enough genre experience to answer this with authority, but I’ll say that, at least as far as world-building is concerned, science fiction is perhaps tougher than the others (unless you’re talking about multi-genre films). No matter what you do, something that’s been done before is going to leap out. You’ll think you’re being totally fresh and then someone’ll come along and say, “Cool,man—that’s just like Blade Runner.” What??? Just because there’s a synthetic human???
If you’re writing a family dramedy, the fact that you set it in a small Midwestern town probably won’t ruffle any feathers. But if it’s a sci-fi drama showing a crowded only-“night”-scenes metropolis with Asian influences and lots of rain, you’ll never hear the end of it. In one descriptive passage in an early draft, I mentioned rare vehicles and taxis, and that there was “not one rickshaw among them.” I tried to keep this mindset going through the whole thing, but was fine with the fact that I wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel.
As far as plot goes, I don’t think a futuristic drama is harder to write. It all depends on who you are. If I had to come up with an espionage thriller, my head would probably explode.
What were some influences on your writing?
While writing the first draft, I was influenced by my own life, and by the films and thoughts already running around in my memories; I didn’t actively watch any movies to get creative juices flowing. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Exotica, however, seemed to speak louder to me than other films, at that time. After the initial draft had gone through its first Script Pipeline contest, and then through additional consultations from development pros, I watched specific movies over and over, hoping to absorb something. I was drawn to Before Sunrise; Before Sunset; Two Lovers; Synechdoche, New York; The Dead Zone; and Snow Angels, among others. Later, toward my second entry into the SP contest, I watched Adventureland every night for ten days and began to feel addicted to it.
Should writers always “go with their gut,” even if that genre is less marketable than, say, a high-concept comedy or action screenplay?
Yes. Definitely. Because you’l be more likely to finish a story that you’re driven to tell, or at least one that’s pleasurable for you to write. Screenplays, as you know, rarely exist without being written. If everybody thinks the R-rated animated children’s film you came up with is just plain crazy, then you can always make adjustments. Or you can set it aside, emboldened by the fact that you wrote a script. After you finish that first one, the mystery of screenwriting will forever live in your mind as a thing that’s possible, even if you still have no idea what an INTERCUT is.
You had entered the Script Pipeline contest before, but didn’t quite crack the top 20. What do you think changed in this latest version to garner interest?
I tried to enter scenes later and leave them earlier, to beef up the subtext everywhere, and to give my protagonist a few more obstacles. An overall cleaning and tightening-up made a big difference. If I remember correctly, I cut ten or eleven pages.
Surprisingly to us, you noted that this was, technically, your first feature script, albeit it’s gone through numerous revisions. For the writers who only have one script and think it’s next to impossible to win a contest or snag industry attention, what would you say? Does being a “beginner” (whatever that really means anymore) matter?
As of now, though I’ve started two others, I still have only one feature script completed (and it still needs work). It would be nice if this fact could give other beginners a little hope. When you hear about well-known writers who finished twenty scripts before making their first sale, it can really knock the wind out of you. But if you’ve got an idea that grabs hold of your mind and won’t let go, a story that seems to answer some of its own questions while you’re asleep, and causes you to jot notes down at work when you should be working, then there’s a good chance someone else might also feel something for it. Even if you don’t get anywhere with your first contest entry, you can take advantage of a consultation (as I did), and find out what’s working and not working. (This is necessary, I think, as your loving friends and family can’t always be trusted.) Then you can submit again. And again and again, if you haven’t burned the script in a rage. Ultimately, though, if you don’t need to write, then you’re a beginner who should probably begin somewhere else.
Writing in other mediums, as you had, prior to penning The Synth House Wife: do you believe that helps? Is it easier for a poet or a fiction writer to transition to screenwriting?
I think previous writing experience has to help in certain ways, even if only making your script less painful for others to read. This can be big, because if a reader can’t get through the first five pages without stumbling over huge ugly-sentence blocks, dull dialogue, and at least fifteen typos, will they really want to keep going? That said, my short-story and poetry experience didn’t help me much with structure, or with throwing obstacles at a proactive—as opposed to a passive—protagonist. I still have plenty of work to do in those areas.