Interview: Kevin Jones
A 3-time Screenwriting Competition finalist and eventual competition winner (the 2013 Great TV Show Idea Contest) with his pitch for the adventure/fantasy Horizon, Kevin Jones has been more involved with Script Pipeline than any other writer to date. His work is best labeled as “grounded with a twist of supernatural,” but it was his phenomenal crime/drama screenplay Southbound that first gained traction with Script Pipeline execs in 2009. While continuing to pursue film and TV, Kevin has also branched off into writing fiction.
You’ve been in the Script Pipeline fold for. . . many, many years now. We’ve kind of seen the evolution–and the creative and career struggles–firsthand. Lots of close calls, and while we’re glad we helped play a part in some of those, we’re also just as dejected that the big hits haven’t yet panned out. But you’ve kept writing. Non-stop. What gives you the motivation?
The main motivators for me, to be a bit sappy about it, are all the people rooting for me, who’ve become invested in this little adventure of mine over the years. At this point, were I to stop, it would be like cancelling a TV series just as things are picking up. Okay, so maybe that’s a slightly inflated example. But Script Pipeline, my wife, friends and family and writing colleagues, they’ve all been with me since day one. They’re often all more optimistic than I am, which has kept me afloat on more than one occasion. I want to pay it back, and stories are my currency.
Which leads me to my second motivator. Storytelling is the only thing in the world I’m pretty good at, followed by video games and sometimes cooking, so not a ton to fall back on. But in all seriousness, there’s very little that I find as fulfilling, that gives me that sense of purpose, like “yeah, this is what I’m here to do,” than writing. And hearing people read–and actually enjoyed–my stories? Nothing like it.
In your Script Pipeline winning pitch Horizon, which we thoroughly enjoyed helping you develop into a pilot, you and writing partner Erik Howell created an outstanding canvas for a long-running series. It’s turned some heads in the past few years, and we’ve unabashedly labeled it “the best overall TV pilot we’ve ever read” (well, as of this interview). Without getting into the details of the concept, tell us how you formulated the story from its early stages, how it took shape, and why you chose to draw from mythology.
It actually came into being rather unexpectedly, while I was struggling to find a Big Story to tell. I tend to write small, very character-driven genre stories, and have always been encouraged to think bigger, more high concept, all that. The very first form Horizon took was a single sentence on a legal pad, as the pitch for a feature film. I tried to develop that feature back in 2010, which was met with stern disapproval given the cost of it (Me: “So it’s set on a ship–” Them: “Nope.”). I even tried writing the feature version, out of spite, but it was just so overwhelming, it could go so many places and had too much potential to be constrained to two hours. It wasn’t until the Great Idea Contest that I really started thinking of it as a series, which of course was the perfect vehicle for something of this scope. I’d never done anything TV before, so it was all new to me. I came up with that three page pitch in a very short period of time (I winged it) and it just. . . worked. Conceptually, at least. It’s evolved a lot since then, but that’s when I–and Script Pipeline–knew something was there.
I drew a lot from my childhood when developing the show, which probably sounds really weird if you know what the show is about. But I was a Lego fanatic as a kid. Only child, big yard. I staged epic stories full of wildly disparate characters and aesthetics (different Lego sets) who were all somehow occupying this time and space at once, and that became a cornerstone in the building of this show’s world. Erik and I developed a Why Not? philosophy, to keep us from limiting ourselves and falling into ruts. Rather than approach exciting what-ifs with “too far-fetched,” or “it breaks things,” we say, “why not try it and see what happens?” Given the nature of the show, it would be a disservice to not shoot for the stars at every opportunity. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and often we uncover absolute gems. In my original outline, the main cast came face-to-face with a fantastical new enemy at the close of season one. It’s a This Changes Everything twist. During a phone call, Script Pipeline suggested we meet these characters at the end of the pilot. Which definitely broke things. But. . . why not? So we did it. And that change made the show.
I half-joke when I say I drew from myth as a way to make it easier to market. I had the pitch developed before noticing the obvious parallels, and I just thought it was such a cool way to retell and reimagine this timeless odyssey, so I went all in. I’d never done anything like that, and it was really fun and challenging, swimming through this classic tale and finding interesting ways to translate it into this new world and journey we were building. And maybe, just maybe, it would make the project that much more approachable and exciting for studios and audiences alike.
We’ll spare the details of Horizon’s industry journey thus far. Any writer can realize the additional challenges in penning a bigger, more imaginative piece, and the hurdles in getting it produced. That doesn’t deter you from your creative niche, but that has changed your approach to some of the scripts that followed. Was it easy? To pull back and take budget and market viability into consideration? How does that alter your writing process?
The process of trying to get Horizon made was extremely informative. One of the first things people tell me after reading the pilot, without exception, is “this show is expensive.” And back at the beginning of this journey, I liked to point at Game of Thrones and Walking Dead and Westworld as some sort of counter-argument. “They can do it, so can we.” But those are all backed by intellectual properties and known showrunners, and they’re hardly the norm; when I met with one of the first production companies willing to take on Horizon, their meeting room was lined with posters of their past projects, all of which were film adaptations of massively popular books. I think that’s when I realized how out-of-left-field Horizon and, by extension, me and Erik are. Yes, it’s expensive. But it also has no built-in fan base, our names do not generate buzz–hell, we don’t even have credits! Even snagging that elusive meeting with enthusiastic people and all of the pieces seemingly lined up, for a project like this it’s still very much a longshot. That was an eye-opener for sure.
But it didn’t deter me. I mean, these are just the sorts of stories I like to tell, I can’t help it. And honestly, I still don’t take budget or market viability into consideration when deciding what to write. (Cue the sound of prospective reps fleeing in terror). By which I only mean, we’re still going to tell the stories that we’re inspired by, we’ll just approach them a bit differently. Our next series is set largely in a post-apocalypse Las Vegas and surrounding wilderness. It’s big, it’s expensive. But being aware of that going in, the story is constructed in such a way that things could be scaled down, relocated to a small town in New Mexico with half the cast, shifted tonally, and nothing would be lost. Whereas Horizon needs to be a big high seas adventure, this time we began with a much more intimate core and built up. We still told it how we wanted to tell it, but we allowed for more pliability this time.
I know I ignored the market viability part, and that’s because I think it comes down to timing. I’ll never give up on Horizon, but right now might not be its time, and that’s been the hardest thing to come to grips with out of all this, for both of us.
The feature screenplay that put you, more or less, on the map with Script Pipeline was a crime/drama, originally titled Southbound. Personally, like Horizon, I remember the day, the place, and the time that I read it (I know it seems silly, but as a development exec, there’s no greater thrill than reading something you love). Was this script a detour from what you’re accustomed to writing? Every other script, with the exception of another TV pilot, has integrated an element of fantasy, or monsters, or horror. How are you able to cross over into different genres so seamlessly? Do you intentionally try and carry over similar themes that speak to you personally, or do you build up from the concept or character?
The supernatural is definitely my wheelhouse, but the first handful of scripts I ever wrote–aside from Black Tide [2008 Script Pipeline finalist]–were all crime thrillers (though one of them had a semi-supernatural element). And the reason is this: even though monsters and magic are my favorite, and they’re pretty easy to come up with, it’s tough writing a supernatural story that really, effectively frightens people, sticks with them, keeps them awake. You don’t just need a cool concept and some stingers, but a world that pulls the audience in, characters they’re afraid for, stakes they empathize with. Writing those early crime scripts taught me how to make the reader really care, especially since the protagonists were almost always the criminals, or in the case of Southbound‘s Annabelle, underwent very unexpected character arcs. Magic is easy, but now I can also confidently throw unique, well-developed characters that the audience is invested in, right into the path of that magic.
I write pretty much exclusively supernatural stuff these days, but there have been a few crossovers, and when I do that, I tend to mirror the above process. I use my experience writing magic and fantasy to take grounded characters and worlds and push them to their limits. I like to think that the magic still exists in those stories, running just beneath the surface but not quite breaking through, and that makes them all the more interesting, both to write and to read. There are a few characters in Southbound, especially the most recent iteration of that script, that definitely test the barrier between real world and supernatural. I just love that.
I’m definitely a concept/character-first person. Horizon is one of the few instances of starting big-picture and working backwards, and it was tough. I find a lot of joy in just letting the story go where it will and following along feverishly scribbling. Often it ends up as something completely different than I thought it might be when I started, and always the better for it. They do tend to share some common themes, but I think that’s just a product of the types of stories I tell, rather than me setting out to make a point.
Behind every great writer is a great support system. We see it time and again. Who’s been the driving force, or forces, propping you up, pushing you in the right direction?
I really do have a great support system. Enviable, in fact. You hear about writers who have friends and family who ask them, “Glad you’re still writing but you’re also looking for a real career right?” I have never had that. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but for some damn reason everybody in my immediate circle has had nothing but unwavering faith in me and this dream. Ten years I’ve been at this with precious little to show for it, but there they stand like oak trees. My wonderful wife Kendra has been a steadfast supporter since I was 20 years old and showed up with a How To Write Screenplays book in my backpack. People will always warn you not to put too much stock in what those close to you say about your work, but her and the rest of my family are never too shy to tell me when I’ve missed the mark. They listen to my tales of woe and are ready with encouragement and advice.
I also have Erik, whom I met in undergrad film studies and have been working with ever since. He has great instincts, and our creative differences mesh oddly well. It’s also great to have somebody who is entrenched in this business and knows how turbulent and maddening and stressful it can be. (I mean, we’re developing a supernatural thriller set in the TV world, and the supernatural stuff is the least ridiculous part–I think anybody in this industry would agree.) He’s a collaborator, a confidant, and an incredible friend. The same could be said for Script Pipeline, who have been right there with me since that first contest. They’re always willing to listen, to advise, to read and offer fantastic feedback and support. It feels almost unfair, having people like this in my corner.
And finally, there’s my dad. He had faith in my writing career before I even knew I wanted to be a writer. He watched me playing with those Legos and knew I was a storyteller and never let me not believe it myself. He died in 2012, and one of the last things he asked me was, “How’s your play?” (He had to write it down, as he couldn’t speak by that point). He meant Southbound, which was his favorite of anything I’d done. At the time, we had a director attached and were looking for talent, so I assured him it was moving forward and looked promising. He seemed satisfied by that. While he’ll never see any of these stories be made or published, his belief in me is one of the reasons I’ll never stop trying.
The writers who have been in a similar situation as yours, who have been relentless in their efforts over years, had bits of recognition, and are still toiling away in the pursuit of reaching that next echelon. What do you tell the ones who start doubting it’s worth it?
As long as it’s still your dream, then it’s worth it.
It’s very disheartening, sure. I keep getting older, I see my colleagues flying up the ladder past me, I wonder if I’m even any good, and I tell Erik “I quit” at least once a week. But who am I kidding? If I locked all of these things up in my head and threw away the key, they’d scratch around and howl until they drove me mad. That isn’t to say you have to drain your very soul just to get it done. I’ve made some poor choices, allowed myself to be walked over and used and disrespected, all in the pursuit of just trying to get the deal done, and I don’t encourage that. It’s okay to step back; it’s not a race, as much as it might feel like it.
Also don’t be afraid to pivot. I have a few scripts I’ve adapted into novels and honestly, that’s just the better medium for them. If your project isn’t sticking, don’t give up–and don’t hesitate to explore other avenues. I have anxiety hits every time I sit down to work on a book project, because it feels like I’m giving up a little on Hollywood. I’m not. And I think the fact that even crosses my mind means my heart is still in it, and as long as that’s the case, it’s worth all the bullshit.
KC Jones was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, developing an early obsession with storytelling in the form of Stephen King, video games, Legos, and making movies on Dad’s bulky RCA camcorder. Surprising nobody, KC is an only-child. After producing a (highly experimental) senior class video, KC enrolled in the film program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas to try and make this film career dream a real thing, focusing primarily on directing and production. Shortly after graduation, KC decided maybe it was best to stick with writing.
After connecting with Script Pipeline in 2008 with the sci-fi/horror script Black Tide, KC went on to write crime-thriller Southbound, which was very well received by the industry, despite never getting produced. KC placed again with Script Pipeline in 2011, with the urban fantasy/mystery Superstition, which lately has been adapted into KC’s first novel, Full Cold Moon. The 2013 Script Pipeline Idea Contest winning pitch for the TV series Horizon has been the biggest creative endeavor yet for KC and collaborator Erik Howell. Though they are still on an odyssey to get it made, they have plenty of other projects in the works, for television and big screen, while KC has an unhealthy number of new novels started.
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