The Fantastic Two: An Interview with Screenwriters Ian Springer & Jeff Kaplan

The Fantastic Two: An Interview with Screenwriters Ian Springer & Jeff Kaplan

My buddy Jeff  Kaplan held my latest script in his hands. It was in good shape. Great structure, sparkling dialogue, vivid characters. A major theme that gave brilliant insight into the human condition. For notes, I was thinking polish. Maybe some third act restructuring. Minor stuff.

Jeff flipped open to page 10, right where I was doing the meaty work—introducing the main characters and establishing their relationships to each other.

I didn’t like what I saw.

The entire page had a giant X slashed across it.

The. Entire. Page.

The giant X, as we know, is every screenwriter’s nightmare. A complete negation of every last bit of yourself that you dared to spill onto the page. I looked at my friend—what madness was this?

“It’s funny, but you don’t need it. It doesn’t serve the story.”

My jaw fell slack. Cutting “funny” was a surprising note to come from Jeff—who, along with his writing partner (and another good friend) Ian Springer, were comedy writers. Sometimes big, Apatow-style comedies, sometimes arthouse romantic comedies—but always comedies.

They encouraged the funny in my scripts—even if it didn’t always serve the story. But that morning over coffee at Fred 62, something had changed. Jeff was looking at scripts through a new creative lens.

The truth was, my good friends were evolving as writers.

A few years before that, Jeff and Ian got their big break—they won a competition and a production company paid for them to make a feature film. Then, a familiar story followed—general meetings, aka the water bottle tour—compliments on their writing, a string of well-received pitches …

In other words, not much.

Even with a feature under their belt, they couldn’t find work. Without a clear path forward, they weren’t sure what to do with their careers, until encouragement from a successful friend inspired them to take a chance. They decided to pivot away from writing comedy and move into drama.

It was new. It was strange. It was a struggle. They doubted themselves—but it paid off.

After making the switch, Jeff and Ian went from not particularly employable, to in-demand writers with several script sales—not to mention a Marvel movie—under their belt.

I’ve found their creative journey to be compelling, informative, and inspirational in my own work. So I thought I’d have a chat with them about how their decision to try something new jump-started their career—and how their story might help other screenwriters facing a similar crossroads.

“I don't like talking about myself this much cause I'm from the Midwest,” Ian tells me as we start the Zoom. I know this to be true. But I’m also confident that once I get him talking about screenwriting, the jokes, word-for-word quotes from film and TV, and insight into craft will come naturally. That’s just who my friends are.

Interacting with Jeff and Ian, you get the sense they’ve been partners for so long that they’ve formed a Borg-like hive mind. There’s a synchronistic flow to their conversations; like they speak the kind of language twins develop in the womb—they often finish each other’s sentences, when they begin jokes, they’ll both say the punchline at the same time—even if the joke is improvised.

Ian confirms as much to me, “Yeah, we have one brain for two people, which is not enough. People always say there's two of you. So you can work twice as fast. No.” They’re basically an old married couple, all unspoken bonds and snarky back and forths. It’s fun to be a spectator.

But it wasn’t always that way. When they first met at a summer school program at Boston University—they hated each other.

“It goes with your romcom frame because it's very much a romcom. It's when Ian met Jeff,” Ian tells me. “We didn’t like each other in high school, fast forward to when we lived across the hall freshman year at NYU—still didn't like each other. Then one day, my roommate said he was having a girl over. Jeff's roommate was out of town. So he offered to let me stay in his room, and we bonded over our love of 80s classics, The A-Team and Mr. Belvedere.

“Ian knew all the words to the introduction of The A-Team, which was like my first indication that he has this photographic memory that is really impressive and amazing. But to my credit, I knew all the words to the Mr. Belvedere theme song …” Jeff continues, puffing his own 80s pop culture minutiae feathers.

Ian interjects, “So then it was, that’s it—let’s write scripts together forever.”

And that’s what happened. At first, they bonded over their love of classic comedy—as Jeff explains, “I think we had slightly different influences, but definitely Annie Hall was a huge one. The playfulness, the emotion, I think being an only child, I was attracted to stories like The Apartment where lonely people found a soulmate. I felt like that would cure the loneliness, right?”

“But then there's another thing that was really influential—I remember seeing Meet The Parents and thinking it was really funny. And then I read a Sight and Sound film review about it that said it's really about what happens when you bring a Jew home to a bunch of Gentiles. And then it's really about this social satire hidden in jokes. And I remember thinking—‘that's better than doing a drama that's explicit’—you can hide satire in a comedy and everyone goes to the theater and has a good time.”

Ian Springer (l) and Jeff Kaplan (r)

Like Jeff, finding escapism in comedy is something that drew Ian towards screenwriting. “I loved Steve Martin growing up. I always liked not having to feel my feelings right in a movie theater. Why would I want to feel my stupid feelings when I could watch Steve Martin share a body with Lily Tomlin? Clearly, that's way better. And later you go into film school in New York. And of course, you want to be the filmmaker who lived in New York and made romantic comedies set in New York, like Nora Ephron and Edward Burns.”

For many of us who went to NYU during that magical time, that was a singular aspiration. Being a smart New York filmmaker who made smart New York movies for smart New York audiences, funny enough to make you laugh and insightful enough to make you think. I spent many late nights at the Waverly Diner on West 8th, dipping my buttery toast points into over-easy egg yolk, adorned in black turtleneck and thick Marcello Mastroianni glasses, daydreaming of my romantic New York movie life. It was my—and many of our—raison d'etres. Who we were and why we went to film school.

As a native New Yorker, I knew I’d never leave the island of Manhattan.

(Author’s note: I’m typing this while sitting from my cushy home in the San Fernando Valley.)

After college, Jeff and Ian pursued that dream, writing comedy scripts at a clip that was hard to keep up with. They were not the type to get stuck on one idea for a year, trying to make it “perfect.” As we all know, “perfect” doesn’t exist in the world of screenwriting. And of course, if you’re productive—and talented—people notice.

Their work got them signed to a top comedy manager and meetings followed.

But work didn’t.

It’s a familiar story.

“They say that in Hollywood, you can die by yes,” Jeff tells me. “We had written a script (Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship) that killed in general meetings. So we thought we could keep doing what we were doing forever because our samples were well received, right? People would read our script, take meetings with us, tell us you're great. You know, we could have starved that way.”

But one day, their luck changed. After winning a competition (which, I’ll brag, I told them to enter), a production company paid for them to make their great New York romantic comedy, the script that was getting them all the buzz.

After writing comedies for years, the two of them thought this was their big break. Roll out the red carpet, Los Angeles, Ian and Jeff are coming. Cue stretch limo and the flashing bulbs of clamoring paparazzi, hungry to catch the slightest glimpse of the phenomenon that is Springer / Kaplan …

“That's why I came to Los Angeles, because we shot this movie.” Ian says with an affable sarcasm that often shows up in his dialogue. “And I was like, all right, coming to L.A., we're gonna live at the Chateau Marmont for six months. And then … no one cares.”

“We always thought if only people could see [the script] the way we saw it. Then they did. And they went, ‘Meh.’”

Jeff and Ian are both quick to point out that everyone who worked on the film—especially the actors—did a great job. But it wasn’t enough to move the needle on their careers. Sisyphus had an easier gig. The next step? They decided to write a big, broad, 4-quadrant comedy guaranteed to sell.

“We spent a year writing that script.” Ian says. “It was a ‘group of guys’ script that was popular at the time, like Old School, or The Hangover. We sent it to our manager, and he called us on a Saturday, which he never did. And he said, ‘Guys, this is great. This is so smart and mature and professional. I could see this being a hundred-million dollar Will Ferrell movie.’ And we were like, wow. That's so exciting. And even if that doesn't happen, we get a rewrite, a punch up, a polish—you know what we got? Not a thing, not a phone call, not a meeting.”

Did I mention this was a familiar story? I once pitched a film to one of the big three talent agencies. Afterwards, the head of one of their departments said, “Come with me”—and walked me to their screening room. An impressively massive and expensive one. They put one arm around me, and gestured out dramatically towards the seats with the other. With a big, performative bellow, they told me, “This is where you will premiere your movie. The first of many. The world, this industry—is yours.”

Needless to say, that script’s still available if anyone’s interested!

Getting the opportunity to live out their dream made Ian and Jeff realize that having a great script—even a feature under your belt—doesn’t mean that the industry wants to buy what you’re selling. It’s the kind of bleak realization that almost all screenwriters are destined to have. And of course, desperation can kick in—you chase “what’s popular” rather than staying true to your creative vision.

That’s what happened to our heroes, as Ian points out, “For the next year we say that we had writer's block. But it's not that we weren't writing, it's that we weren’t writing anything good that we believed in or were passionate about. It was very cynical. It was like, what can we sell? What’s our manager going to like? It's tempting, but you can't be cynical because it just shows up on the page. So if I was to give somebody some advice, don't do that.”

My friends—who were usually such prolific writers, the guys who didn’t sit on an idea for months or years at a time—found themselves stuck for an entire year.

As any writer knows, a nightmarish creative purgatory isn’t a great place to spend the workday. Ian and Jeff sat for months, spinning their wheels, pondering their next step. They knew it was time for a change, but they couldn’t figure out what that change was.

That is, until inspiration came from the unlikeliest of places—what brought them together that first night in the dorms—their shared love of 80s classics: specifically, the world of 80s wrestling.

I’ll pause here to say Ian is a wrestling encyclopedia. When he first moved out to L.A., he crashed on my couch for a few nights. Every evening, the sounds of WWE echoed around my living room until the sun came up. I once stuck my head out at 4 a.m. just to see if he was actually awake, and our eyes met—the guy had a billion dollar smile on his face. The passion is real.

After a year of being cynical, stuck for an idea, unsure of what to do—Ian found inspiration in what he loved. He came up with a pitch for a "Game of Thrones" style pilot set in the world of 80s wrestling called "Territory."

It was just an idea. Not anything they’d write, after all—they were comedy writers and this was an hour-long prestige drama.

But that all changed when they brought it up over drinks with a friend.

“Our one friend who was successful, Jon (Watts), was having drinks with us when Ian pitched that show.” Jeff recounts, “And I probably wouldn't have thought, let's do it. But then Jon said, actually, this is really cool. And then they started telling fun stories [we could use in the show]. So, by the end of the conversation, I was like, oh, that actually does sound really cool.”

It was a gamble. But what did they have to lose? Ian talks about their mindset at the time, “What we were doing was not working. So out of pure desperation, instead of feature comedy, what if we tried an hour-long television drama and then people liked how funny our dramas were?”

The next day, they started breaking the story.

Now, of course, not everyone has a buddy like Jon Watts to give them creative encouragement—but one way to know if your ideas have merit—no matter how random or seemingly “off brand” they are for you—is to run them past friends, especially fellow writers. Last year, I offhandedly brought up an idea for a children’s cartoon show to a friend. It’s not a genre in which I had any experience, but my friend loved it and encouraged me to start bringing it up in meetings. I did—and it’s led to work. As the old lotto commercial says, “Hey, you never know.” As a writer—one of the most important things you can do is take your ideas out for a test drive with friends.

Jeff agrees—one of his big pieces of advice is to start a writing group, “You need to get out of your bubble. Talk to other people who are also writing, pitch them ideas and brainstorm. See what people respond to—and not just write what you want to, but what actually gets a reaction from the group.”

Not that writing something out of your comfort zone is easy. It’s hard. Really hard. And doubt starts creeping into your mind. It certainly happened to Jeff and Ian.

As Jeff tells me, “We had tear-your-hair-out moments, where we couldn’t figure out the story. We'd never done it before. It was like, uh-oh, you thought you'd have a script in three months and now you don't.”

Ian interjects, “It wasn't just late at night. It was during the day. We didn’t know if it was going to work, but we just kept plugging away.”

After several months of toil, and getting feedback from friends, they decided they had a draft ready to share. Who was the first person to get the script? “Our big comedy manager, who we thought of as our movie dad. We really wanted to please him.” Ian pauses for a second, a sort of bittersweet smile hitting his face. “He was not a fan of this drama thing.”

Sunk cost fallacy is when people are reluctant to abandon something because they’ve put a lot of time or effort into it. It’s human nature, but it’s also super bad for you—personally and professionally. Sticking with scripts, relationships, or even, yes, with representation that isn’t working just because you’ve been at it a while?

It’s just a waste of time. And life is short.

So what do you do if your manager won’t send out a script you love? If they rep comedy writers, but you’re thinking maybe you’re not a comedy writer anymore? As hard as it was, they had to make a big decision. They bet on themselves—and this new script of theirs.

As Ian recounts, “We decided to fire him and then go out with this new script that became our calling card. And if I was to give somebody a piece of advice, I would say bet on yourself.” One underrated—but crucial—key to success? Having enough confidence in your work that you can make big, brave, bold decisions about it. Decisions that might backfire.

But it didn’t. Thanks to Jon, "Territory" got into the hands of one of the top agents at CAA and before long, the industry took notice. Ian tells me, “All of a sudden people knew who we were. And we went out to HBO and Netflix, they didn't all want to buy it, but they knew our names, and they knew that we were pretty good.”

They ended up selling "Territory."

They found something that worked—and stuck with it. Their next script, another hour-long based on a true story, was about a safecracker. Jeff continues, “A friend of ours slipped that to a producer and that producer called us in to pitch on a feature. And next thing you know, we were writing features that were not straight comedies, they were real stories. So now we're back in features.”

As Friedrich Nietzsche (or Rust Cohle) said—time is a flat circle. Ian and Jeff were back to where they started, this time with a new approach.

Jeff talks about how they’ve changed, “When you're doing the high-concept comedy, at least for us, it was about ‘what's the funny hook of the idea?’ Now we start from a place of character and genre.”

Now this is the Jeff Kaplan who gave me notes that day at Fred 62. No longer the comedy writer, focusing on “what’s funny”—but the drama writer who, as Ian tells me, “focuses on what would really happen.”

"I’m reminded of 'Curb' when Larry wants Cheryl to be in the 'Seinfeld' reunion because she was his real-life wife. And Jerry says, ‘What does real have to do with what we do?’ I feel like that is how we thought when we ran really hard at the comedy structure.”

Ian recounts, "And we thought that was where it's at. It's not like, what would it really be? Or what's the emotional story that we're telling? I think we have much more of a focus on that now.”

Work begets work—with this new approach to writing, Jeff and Ian's career finally took flight, as Jeff tells me, "[The safecracker script’s] producer hired us to do another script, Disaster Wedding, which is a big disaster movie that takes place during a destination wedding. He sold that to Warner Brothers. Around the same time we were asked to do the round table for Marvel and got to know the execs there, and then they asked us to pitch Fantastic Four. We went through a long pitch process and landed that job. And, of course, that opened up even more opportunities.”

Cue red carpet unfurling. Jeff and Ian are now in-demand writers, busy and always working. And that ain’t easy.

I won’t say that their creative pivot was the sole reason for their success, the stars always have to align (right script, right time, read by the right exec) but watching their trajectory firsthand has been exciting and inspirational. I ask them if they have any insight to give to fellow writers who may be facing their own career crossroads.

“There's a balancing act,” Jeff tells me. “You need to get a charge from what you're writing. You have to have a certain amount of passion for it. But if you only write things you're passionate about, you don't deserve a cookie for that. If you think you have an idea that's commercial and one that you're really passionate about, which one should you do? I would say, is there anything you can find to be passionate about the commercial one? If you try to write the commercial one without finding your passion for it, it's not going to work. So don't waste your time.”

Jeff corrects himself, and I think this is key, “Commercial is kind of a bad word. There are other words you could use: more gettable, more exciting when you pitch it. Something that gets other people excited might be a better way of saying ‘commercial.'

Ian follows up, putting a finger on what “gettable” means, “These are things you fight when you're young. It's this meets this and you think, that's hacky. But it's really not. It's about clarity. And that's what Marvel is really good at. The identity of the movie. This one is a John Hughes movie, and this one is a thriller. It gives you clarity: this is the movie that I'm writing. This is the show I'm writing. And so there's nothing hacky. It's just really clear. Everyone knows what you're doing.”

He continues, “I would also add because we see this happen all the time with our friends. You get stuck in the trap of ‘I don't know what to write.’ So I'm not going to write anything until I come up with the perfect bulletproof idea that no one can say no to, but that's never going to happen. It's like love—you're not going to find it if you're looking for it. It's like when we wrote "Territory." We didn't write it thinking this is definitely going to sell. But we thought it would be a good drama pilot, at a time when producers were looking for good drama pilots, and we were passionate about it.”

Jeff interjects, offering the kind of no-nonsense insight that can only be gleaned from a decade of life as an Angelino, “What you don't learn till you come out to L.A. is that everyone sees movies as like stocks and bonds. If you're a no-name writer with a good script, your actual stock or bond isn't worth that much. First of all, is the idea completely undeniable if you're a no-name writer? Maybe that will get your stock up. They're not looking for good writers. They're looking for an undeniable idea plus an actor plus a producer.”

Ian chimes in, “... and by the way, none of that is what they teach you at film school, because I don't know that it can be taught. What they teach you is structure—on page 10, here's what should happen. When we first started out, we ran really hard at that, and we're very good at that. Then we were asking, why isn't this script selling? Well, because no one's ever said, ‘I'm gonna buy this script because it has great act structure.’ Nobody cares about that.”

I bring up rigidity—it’s easy for writers to get caught up in the idea of “this is what I write” or “this is my creative voice”—I think that can get in the way of success.

“In a way you have to be really rigid and confident that what you're writing is great to start out.” I imagine Jeff speaks from experience here. “Because if you knew how hard the struggle is going to be—you wouldn’t start at all.” Ian continues, “You need the rigidity to start. But when that becomes ‘this isn’t just what I write. This is who I am. This is my identity.’ Pump the brakes a little bit.”

Ian pauses for a quick beat, thinking carefully about his next words. Then says something that sums up our entire conversation perfectly, “Be true to yourself until you're absolutely convinced that's not going to work. And then maybe consider being true to yourself in a slightly different way.”

And that’s what they did. After hitting a dead end, they were able to find success by evolving as writers, while never betraying what made them excited to be writers in the first place.

For all the fuss about A.I., a computer couldn’t have come up with a more piquant observation about the writing process. Long live the human mind.

I often think about the notes Jeff gave me that day at Fred 62. Last summer, I made my own creative pivot. After years of writing half-hour comedy pilots, I decided to write an hour-long.

The resulting script, Meme Girls, is a comedy thriller based on a very insane (and very true) story about two Russian spies—a cheerful analytics nerd and a stone-cold nihilist—who road trip across the U.S. posing as influencers, spreading chaos while tearing apart the fabric of American society.

Just as I was completing my final draft, I flipped open to page 10. I noticed lots of funny—but I didn’t see a ton that served the story. With Jeff’s giant X in my mind, I did a quick redraft, paring away jokes and focusing on what would happen—paying specific attention to the emotional and character beats. Right after I hit “save as PDF”—I submitted it to Script Pipeline’s TV Pilot competition.

And I’m proud to say that—out of almost 3,400 entries—it won.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of being part of a community, especially as a writer. Too often, we find ourselves alone, sitting in front of our screens, clicking and typing away, mindlessly scrolling through our feeds. Our society encourages this behavior—we're consumers, and it's easier to sell us things when we behave that way.

Because community is something that's difficult to commodify, society doesn’t place enough emphasis on building one. But we must.

You can't be a writer if you're living in a vacuum. Whether it’s having the chance to discuss your ideas, finding someone to pass your script to producers, or schmoozing with old friends for a Pipeline Artists profile—a writing community is an invaluable resource.

If you don’t have one, stop the scrolling and start building it right now. They may just give you the inspiration to evolve as a writer, and be true to yourself in a different way.

Seriously, start building.

*Feature photo Jeff Kaplan, Ian Springer (MGMT Entertainment)

A writer / director who has created over 700 episodes of content, Matt ran two seasons of a 1/2 hour TV show, and won awards at Tribeca, Final Draft Big Break TV, Script Pipeline TV, & Cannes Lions.
More posts by Matthew Manson.
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