Michael Nilon's Elongated Journey to Arcadian

Michael Nilon's Elongated Journey to Arcadian

Arcadian might mark Michael Nilon’s first sole credit as a screenwriter, but he’s been involved in the development and production of hundreds of other movies.

For decades, Nilon worked as a talent agent before then becoming a manager. Nilon is the partner and owner of Stride Management, while he’s also the manager of Emile Hirsch, Emily Tosta, Cara Jade Myers, Mike O’Malley, and Nicolas Cage.

But over the last decade, Nilon has turned his attention to more creative cinematic endeavors. He’s produced nearly half-a-dozen films and even devised the story for Jason Momoa’s 2018 action thriller, Brazen.

During the pandemic, Nilon dreamed up the story for Arcadian. As the single father to two twin sons, he was directly inspired to scribe the action horror film about a dad and his pair of teenage boys trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. He showed the script to Cage, who was immediately impressed and wanted to star.

But while Arcadian’s journey from script to screen might have been relatively simply, Nilon’s path to screenwriting has been anything but. He told me—and Pipeline Artists—about starting out as a news anchor, his burning desire to become a screenwriter, and why talent agents and managers are shocked that he made the transition.

Gregory Wakeman: You’re originally from Philadelphia, talk to me about becoming interested in films there.

Michael Nilon: I went to school in Philadelphia—Swarthmore College. I was an English major, which everybody said was worthless at the time. But it turned out to be a good thing for me. I didn't really know what I wanted to do after college, but I got a job working as a sportscaster, of all things, in Anchorage, Alaska. That was really my first job out of college. It was a lot of fun. I'm a sports fan. But I didn’t want to be a sports journalist. Because that takes it a little too seriously.

So, I went back to school for radio, television, and film at Syracuse. Then somebody said, ‘You should start reading the trades,’ like Variety, Hollywood Reporter. I just started reading all of them. Then there was a trip that was sponsored by the school out to Los Angeles. I knew I really wanted to live out here. I moved out after grad school. I got a job as an agent at CAA. I was there 18 years. Then I segued into being a manager. One of the reasons I wanted to be a manager was that I wanted to have the opportunity to be a little bit more creative.

That was a very good call.

It turned out well.

How old were you when you moved out to L.A.?


What made you want to become a talent agent?

I was really trying to be in the thick of things. I knew the Creative Artists Agency was a big company with a lot of reach. I really liked being an agent. It was a fun job. It was creative. You help to package a lot of movies and make things happen. You participate in great careers. It was really fun. But as I got a little bit older, I wanted to write more. I'd visit sets. I’d watch. I'd think, ‘I could that.’ I saw the evolution of my career. I wanted to become more of a creative person. A producer. A writer.

How old were you when you decided to make that transition?

I became a manager when I was 43. The first movie I really produced was The Trust. That's actually the first movie that Nic (Cage) did with Ben Brewer (Arcadian’s director). That was a very difficult process. It was just a tough movie. But it was very fulfilling and very rewarding. It wasn't really until my mid 40s that I started to do stuff that I would consider more creative.

Media has a fascination with younger creatives, you know, "30 under 30" lists etc. Do you think that’s changed in recent years?

I think so. I hope so. I think that if you can do it, you should do it. You shouldn't limit yourself. It's an odd thing to say. But I don't know if I could have written anything at that age. I didn't have the patience. I think I needed to read all those scripts to kind of have a better sense of what I felt was working and what wasn't working.

Were you always a horror fan?

I like all movies. I definitely like horror movies. I don't like them more than any other genre of film. But I always like a well-executed horror film. I'm very impressed when someone can write a good horror film. I think it's difficult to do.

Where did the idea for Arcadian come from?

It happened during COVID. I was a single dad. I have twin boys who are now 16. They were 12 at the time. I have them half the time. What we would do during COVID, just to kind of try to stay sane, was make dinner every night. You couldn’t be on your phone, too. We would talk. I didn't tell them bedtime stories. They were too old. But I started to tell them stories that I made up. I told them a version of Arcadian. I just made it up. I remember it was a protracted story that was kind of all over the place. But I had their wrapped attention for half an hour. It made me think, ‘This has got to be good. There's got to be something there.’

It’s like watching a focus group in action.

It made me want to think more about it. Then I had a conversation with a producer and a financier friend of mine. She said, ‘Are you writing anything?’ Because she knew I’d worked on Brazen. She was a producer on that. I said, ‘I have kind of an idea.’ She said, ‘You should think of something that doesn't have many characters. That's in an isolated location. That can have special effects.’ I was like, ‘Okay, okay. I think I got one.’ So, I wrote it.

What’s your writing process?

I'm not that prolific as a writer. I've only written three things. But I have a specific formula for me. I write the story first. I write the entire story. Scene by scene. Then when I have the story done. It’s around 20 pages. It takes me about three days.

How long are you working on those days?

12 hours.

And you end up going down different tangents?

Yes. Just trying to just think of cool stuff. Then when I have the story down, which I think is the hardest part, I write the script. I wrote the script in less than a week. Five days.

What was the process after that?

I showed it to Nic (Cage). He read it. He thought it was terrific. Then I showed it to a couple of other people. Some agents, whose opinions I trusted. The response across the board was very positive. So I was encouraged to move forward with it. That really is how the director search began. I got some agents and some producers, and they ran with it. There was a time where different directors raised their hands and said they were interested in doing it. I had to put on my producer hat and talk to all of them. We finally settled on Ben [Brewer]. We were able to get a really nice cast. I think that's because a lot of people took the screenplay seriously and took it seriously as a project. That's what’s been very nice.

What was it about Ben that stood out?

I've worked with him before, on The Trust. Nic and he got along really well. He had a VFX background. He knew what we needed—that the relationship component is a father son story and also a brother story. He has a brother, who he's very close with. He got a lot of the subtext of the relationships. He did an amazing job, even though he didn't have enough money and didn't have enough time.

What did you want to achieve with the film?

A few things. I definitely wanted it to just be an entertaining story that people could watch. I wanted people engaged and to care about the characters. Cinematically, I wanted there to be a lot of hope in the movie. A lot of love. Because it was a pretty rough time during the pandemic. I was trying to be very hopeful. I wanted to show we are resilient, especially younger people. It is a love letter to younger people about how you can conquer the monsters.

What’s your plan moving forward? Still work as a manager? Focus on screenwriting?

It's really funny, because I have a profile in the entertainment community. I've been doing it for 30 years. A lot of people know me. The fact that I've actually written something that's been produced is perplexing to a lot of people. They're like, ‘Why? You did? What?’

That’s so funny that they would find you transitioning to screenwriting to be so odd.

Very funny. It's not surprising. People have been very kind about it as well. It's not like anyone is trying to keep me down. That's been very encouraging. But others were like, ‘How did that happen? How did you do it?’ I was like, ‘Well, we didn't have anything to do for a year.’ I think a lot of people just don't accept me as that, because I did a certain thing for a long time. That is totally fine. I don't have any problem with that at all. Because I fully intend to continue being a manager. I own a management company. But I definitely want to be writing.

*Feature Photo: Michael Nilons (photo credit Erika Goldring/JanuaryImages)

Raised in England but now based in the US, Gregory has written for the BBC, New York Times, The Guardian, GQ, and Yahoo Movies, to name but a few, all while defiantly trying to keep his accent.
More posts by Gregory James Wakeman.
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