Interview: Micah Barnett
– Micah Barnett, writer of The Rabbit (Warner Bros.) with Chris Tucker attached to star. Micah also sold the television project Ricochet to NBC in 2013. In 2010, after receiving a “Recommend” on his screenplay The Merc List, Script Pipeline introduced Micah to manager Jake Wagner, who later signed him.
What’s your background in the industry? What made you become a screenwriter?
I was an English major in college and didn’t study film or even consider it a career, but I always loved movies. And I remember with only about a month before graduation I read an interview in some school publication with an alumni, Wendy Finerman, who talked about producing Forrest Gump. This was the first time I really thought about where movies came from. . . and I realized that, hell, someone has to actually create all of these great movies I’ve been consuming since as long as I can remember.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to just move to L.A., and after bouncing around some production-type jobs, I became convinced that I had to write a movie. So I began writing. Of course, it’s not that easy to just to write a movie, and for the next several years I worked as a reader. I was lucky enough to work for some A-list producers and have the opportunity to read all of the best stuff coming through town. I consider this my screenwriting/film school. Having to read a script, then write a synopsis, then write up comments/notes and explain what works and what doesn’t work–and maybe most importantly, have an opinion on the commercial prospects of the project. . . do this every day for a few years, and the result is a pretty good understanding of the craft of screenwriting.
But of course, understanding how a screenplay works doesn’t mean you can write one. I wrote a half dozen scripts, that I hope no one will ever see, before The Merc List.
After some development, your script The Merc List received a “Recommend” from Script Pipeline in 2010 and caught the interest of a manager. What do you think was the determining factor? Was it the concept, the execution, the fact it was (and still is) a marketable genre. . . ?
I think the genre and marketability of a concept is important, principally in getting people to sit down and read the script in the first place. Writers sometimes forget this is a business and that the majority of people who read your script are looking at it as a commodity. “Can I sell this concept?” Once they start reading, it’s up to the story and execution to keep their interest. But it’s still a commodity. The question then becomes, “Can I sell this voice?”
The Merc List is a sci-fi action movie, and I think what caught people’s attention was that it had an original twist to this easy-to-market genre.
Every writer needs professional feedback before circulating their script. You know that, and most great writers realize that as well. But why, then, do so many screenwriters circulate their work “cold,” without ever getting an eye on it first? Does it simply come down to a fear of rejection? A misunderstanding of story editing? Besides, of course, improving their script, what are some of the other benefits of going through the development process?
Having got my start as a reader, I’m a big believer in coverage and getting blunt feedback. I also think deep down most writers realize the importance of getting feedback. However, fear of rejection definitely looms larger for beginning writers. The key maybe is to be more afraid of sending out a script that isn’t ready.
Because I’ve done critiques on so many other scripts, I know that the feedback from coverage, or other sources, is never personal. I like to look at it as data about my product. But in order to utilize the data you need to understand how to interpret the data. A good phrase I’ve picked up along the way is “the note behind the note.” I always try to look past the specific comment and get to the core problem. Why did the reader make this suggestion? Why did they not read the scene the way I intended?
The bottom line is that no one writes a submission-worthy script on the first attempt. If they say otherwise, they’re lying. And the best way I’ve found to get a script ready for all those wolves eyeing you as a commodity is to run it through a gauntlet of readers. Make it through that gauntlet, then your script will be ready.
Tell us about The Rabbit, which sold to Warner Bros. a few years back and has Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) attached. Was it a departure from the material you normally write, or was it within your comfort zone?
The Rabbit is definitely right in the middle of my comfort zone. It’s essentially Midnight Run, but on steroids. It’s a fun, action-y piece that at its core is familiar, but it has an original angle that makes it feel fresh. I’m hopeful it gets made, because I really fell in love with the characters along the way and can’t wait to see them come alive.
One lesson I learned from developing Rabbit is the importance of industry allies who are passionate about your project. From the beginning, my manager and agent and producers all loved this character and world as much as I did, and their enthusiasm really helped in the writing process.
Is it crucial for screenwriters to stick to one specific genre? Do you think there are certain genres sort of interrelated a writer can easily skip over to, relatively speaking?
I think a person should write whatever world they find interesting. I actually think stories and movies that borrow elements from other genres are some of the most effective. For example,Bourne Identity is an action movie, but it works so well because it has a punch in the gut romance at its core. And I love comedies like 21 Jump Street which ratchet up the suspense with crazy action scenes.
But you’re right in that it’s not easy. The best work comes when the writer is aware of what they’re doing. They know the rules of a genre, and they know how far they can push certain elements.
Same for the feature and TV series transition. Besides structure, how different is it going from TV to film?
Like a lot of writers (and audiences) I love TV these days. I also think it’s a relatively easy transition from film, although I’m just beginning the process. The main difference is that TV scripts are designed around the cliffhanger. In a movie, you can’t leave any unfinished plot lines. At the two hour mark, everything needs to be resolved. I watched a David Mamet interview in which he compared a screenplay to a jet airplane. Every single part needs to have a purpose, otherwise the whole thing blows up. But in TV, the goal is to keep the audience looking at the horizon. It’s essentially one teaser after another. Each act is a teaser. Each episode is a teaser.
Another big difference is the collaborative nature. The writer needs to be able to collaborate. There will be a lot of notes, and the writer will have to very quickly digest the feedback and jump back into the writing.
Your experience working with companies like NBC and some of the major studios: was it what you expected? If not, how so?
My experiences with producers and executives have been positive. These people are all smart and talented professionals. If they’re working with you on a project, it’s because they believe in the project, and they want it to succeed.
Something else that always strikes me: they’re all movie geeks. They love movies. They love TV. That’s why they work in this business. So no matter where each party comes from, once you’re in the room with a producer or executive, you will always have this common starting place.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m always working on the next big idea ...