Matias Caruso: Proof that Nice Writers Sometimes Finish First!
Interviewed by STS’s very own Anthony Cawood
You know how articles and interviews always make note of when someone in the “business” (be it actor, director or more) is genuine, nice and down to earth?
Well, that’s to be expected – because sitting down for a chat with “good peoples” is ALWAYS a breath of fresh air.
Which is why we at STS are thrilled to be able to give you an *exclusive* interview today with writer Matias Caruso – Grand Prize Winner of 2014 Page. Born in Argentina – and a homegrown veteran of Simplyscripts – Matias has always been a joy to read and chat with, and a gentleman master of his craft. (You’ll note that STS has featured several of his short scripts over the years. Ones we were more than enthusiastic for, and truly honored to showcase.)
Recently, things have gotten really exciting for Matias. Now signed to CAA, he’s got tons in the works – including a high concept thriller entitled Mayhem… starring Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead!
And yet we STILL managed to corral Matias long enough to have him sit down with STS’s Anthony Cawood (interviewer extraordinaire.)
So pour your strongest coffee and settle in for one terrific read. ‘Cause with anything regarding Matias Caruso (affectionately known by SS’ers as “Mr. Z”) – that’s never close to a surprise! ☺
Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on how you got into screenwriting?
A: I discovered my love for movies when I was a kid. Birthday party entertainers used to project movie clips and I was amazed when I first saw Indiana Jones trying to outrun the giant boulder, or Luke Skywalker using his light saber. I remember the feeling of being transported to new, exciting worlds… But when I grew up, my world turned out to be a sterile cubicle maze where I was trapped full-time working as a lawyer; a world that generated all the stress of trying to outrun the giant boulder… but without the excitement.
I could have stayed there forever, but things started to change when one day I wrote a short story. Showed it to a few lawyer friends and they dug it (allegedly). One of them is an entertainment attorney, so he works with production companies in my country and reads lots of scripts. He told me I had a very visual style and that maybe I should try writing a script.
So I said “Cool, what’s a script?” because, like most people in Argentina, I believed that the actors and the director were the ones who came up with all the cool stuff on set. But when my friend gave me a script to read, I soon discovered that movies were actually written first by people who, to quote Spielberg, “dream for a living”. And I was hooked.
Q: I’m assuming English is not your first language? What sort of challenges has this presented?
A: Right, it’s not. When I started writing 11 years ago, my English was very rusty; I could spend a full hour trying to figure out how to word a descriptive paragraph. It really slowed me down. But many scripts and years later, I got the hang of it and now it isn’t a problem. Every now and then I have to check online dictionaries/translators to check on a particular word or phrase, but not as much as before.
Q: For other writers facing this challenge, any tips or suggestions to get to your level where it isn’t evident at all?
A: English courses are key I think (I attended a bilingual school). I’d also advice reading in English (scripts, novels, comics, blogs, whatever) and writing in English every day in order to practice. Watching movies with subtitles in English or no subtitles at all also helps.
Q: I think you first appeared on SimplyScripts back in 2005, was this when you first started writing?
A: That sounds about right. And yes, that’s when I started writing.
Q: Your first credit, at least according to IMDB, is the 2008 short, Forgotten, did that get optioned and made?
A: I sold it to an indy filmmaker in Alaska I met online. And yes, he shot it.
Q: Did you learn anything from that experience and subsequent shorts?
A: You always hear that scripts are just a blueprint for the movie, but that really sinks in once you see for yourself how much scripts can change during production.
Q: Obviously you’ve written a lot of shorts, many of which have been on SimplyScripts, did you start out with shorts and then move to features?
A: I started with both at the same time more or less, but at first my English wasn’t polished enough to give a feature a try, so my first few features were written in Spanish and nobody at SS saw them.
Q: Of the filmed shorts which is your favourite and why?
A: “Numbers”, because of its great production value.
Q: And of those not filmed, which is your favourite?
A: Probably “The Tower of Wishes”. I love fantasy.
Q: Any other shorts in pre-production we should be looking out for?
A: An Irish filmmaker is trying to find financing for a supernatural thriller titled “The Touch”.
Q: Would you advocate writing short films, why do you think they are useful?
A: While I think features should be the main focus of those who aspire to write professionally, writing shorts on the side can definitely be useful. They can be completed in just a few days, which means the writer can get feedback from peers shortly after typing “fade out”. Objective feedback is key to identify sticking points and hone the craft, so it’s helpful to workshop short scripts on the side during the long months in which the writer works in isolation to finish a feature.
Also, if the short does well at film festivals and/or becomes viral, it can lead to working and networking opportunities.
Q: When it comes to Feature scripts, how do you approach structure in your scripts? Do you follow any particular method?
A: Yes, I follow a method which has been slowly evolving throughout the years. It’s a mix of advice I picked from books/articles about the craft, advice I got from working writers, tips I gathered from reading hot scripts, and a bit of my own half-baked theories about what works best.
The subject is too big for the scope of an interview but here are a few basics guidelines that help my process: The first act is roughly 25% of the script and sets up the conflict, the second act (50%) escalates the conflict, and the third act (25%) resolves the conflict. And conflict in my stories usually come from a character (protagonist) who must achieve something (goal) facing big resistance (obstacles/antagonist) or else something very bad will happen to him or someone he cares about (stakes).
Q: Same question for characters, yours are always vivid on the page, how do you go about these creations?
A: I do separate worksheets for the main characters where I write their bios, and defining traits. I also see if they fit any well known archetypes which I then research. I re-read these character worksheets a few times during the writing process, not to lose track of what makes them tick.
Q: What are your thoughts on structure models like Save the Cat and the like?
I’ve read lots of how-to books. Some were useful, some weren’t, but overall I think it’s a good habit to be an avid student of the craft.
Save the Cat is my favorite. While I don’t take everything Blake Snyder wrote as gospel (nor any other guru for that matter) he used to be a working writer so his advice comes from experience, and that’s a plus. Also, I write genre/popcorn movies so his method and my creative instincts align. A writer who, for example, likes European independent cinema might find Snyder’s method to be too formulaic and “hollywoody”. And that’s okay. It’s about finding what best works for you.
Q: What was the first feature you wrote and how did you get it out there? Did you query Producers, enter competitions, use Inktip, etc?
A: The first thing I ever wrote was a short story and my first feature was an adaptation/expansion of that story. It sucked big time so I didn’t shop it around. It was a learning experience, not an earning experience, but I’m okay with that.
Q: You are one of, if not the most, successful writers to use and contribute to SimplyScripts, how has the site helped you develop?
A: I think Pia has more produced credits than me, but thanks
SS and Moviepoet helped me a great deal. It’s hard for me to be objective about my own work, so getting objective feedback from peers has always been key in my learning process. Even more so when I was just starting out, and that’s when I discovered the site, which allowed me to get my work read and reap the benefits of joining a writers community.
Also, each time good news come my way, Don gives me a shout out on the site and that’s been helpful as well to make my work known (Thanks, Don!)
Q: There are a ton of people out there who offer coverage services, position themselves as guru’s etc, what your view on such services?
A: Nowadays these services are so many and varied that it’s hard to have one single view about all of them collectively. I’d say it’s a case by case basis and it depends of what’s being offered, at what price, and what are the credentials/experience of the guru. Based on that, I believe that some are helpful and some not.
Q: What are your thoughts on the business side of screenwriting, getting your scripts ‘out there’ and networking to make connections?
A: The most common pitfall (in which I fell into myself) is worrying about the business side of things prematurely. Networking and making connections becomes relevant only once the writer’s craft is polished enough to get industry people interested in his work. It usually takes many years and many scripts to reach that level, so until that happens, any time spent at networking events or sending out query letters is time better spent writing. There’s not much use in connecting with industry people, only to have them pass on the material because it’s not ready.
Once the writer can write at a professional level (or close), then I subscribe to the common view that he must be proactive in getting his scripts out there.
Q: If you’ve used services/sites like Inktip, SimplyScripts, The Blacklist, what’s your view on this type of model for screenwriters to get their scripts seen, and hopefully picked up?
A: I used Inktip and Simplyscripts for shorts and both sites helped me connect with filmmakers that responded to my work. So they’re definitely worth it. Never used them for features, though. And I’ve never used The Blacklist.
Q: Carnival ended up on the annual Blacklist as well, any interest since then/options etc?
A: The script was actually optioned before the Blacklist placement. By the time the list was published, there were already two producers on board collaborating with major agencies to try to find directors/financing. And I had already travelled to LA for a round of general meetings with industry people that had read the script. So the interest was already high and there wasn’t much room for the project to become hotter. Maybe the placement sped up some pending reads, but that’s hard go gauge. A couple of indy filmmakers did contact me to discuss potential projects, though.
Q: What are your thoughts on screenwriting competitions, obviously you’ve had a massive win with Page in 2014, but thoughts in general? Any other successes?
A: I think the contest route is a legitimate way in. I placed in Page and Trackingb and both helped my career in very meaningful ways. Some contests are solid and some don’t have industry relevance. A quick look at the success stories listed in a contest’s website, can let you know if their winners/finalists get traction with relevant industry players or not. I would advice entering only those that do, like Page and Trackingb. The Nicholl Fellowship is another one that’s definitely legit.
Q: Aside from the monetary prize from Page, what else has happened since?
A: Just in case, to avoid confusion, the Page script and the Blacklist script are one and the same (used to be titled “Three of Swords” but now is titled “Carnival”). Thanks to Page I met the producer who optioned the script. He had some interesting notes and I did like 10 drafts; the development process was very intense but also very rewarding because we ended up with a much stronger version. He then started sending out the script, another producer came on board and I had representation offers from 5 agencies.
Q: I believe that you were signed by CAA after winning Page, how has this been for you?
A: It’s been great. My agents circulated the script among production companies/studios and the script has gathered fans. I travelled to LA for a round of general meetings in which I got to know some wonderful people, and was offered the opportunity to pitch for writing assignments.
Q: I’ve always wondered, when you get asked to come to LA and do general meetings… who asks? And who pays for you to travel?
A: It’s usually the manager and/or the agent who tells the writer his work has had enough positive responses to warrant a trip and sets up the meetings. For a round of generals, it’s usually the writer who pays for the trip (that was my case). I heard of writers who were flown to LA by studios/production companies, but those were cases in which they had already been hired to write a specific project.
Q: So you have agents in CAA, do you have a manager as well and what’s the difference in your experience?
A: Yes, I have a manager as well.The manager gives general career advice, reads scripts and gives development notes, acting in general like a writing coach. The agent is more like a salesman; his job is to sell the writer’s material (not developing it) or put the writer in rooms where he can get hired for writing assignments. Also, managers can attach themselves as producers in their clients’ projects, while agents legally can’t.
Q: News broke in March that your script, Mayhem, is going into production. How did this script come about? Is it another spec or were you commissioned to write it?
A: It’s a spec I wrote back in 2010 which used to be titled “Rage”. Thanks to a contest placement back then, I signed with a couple of managers who then circulated the script to producers. It’s been a rollercoaster of good news/bad news ever since, and I had to do countless drafts to address notes from producers, director, actor, etc. But finally, everything came together recently and it’s happening.
Q: So what is Mayhem about and any idea when it’s likely to film?
A: It’s about a corporate law office that’s quarantined because of a virus that makes people act out their wildest impulses. Follows the story of a lawyer who is wrongfully fired on that day and must savagely fight for his job and his life.
It’s been shooting in Serbia for two weeks already. The director is posting cool updates on twitter (@TheJoeLynch) and instagram (thejoelynch).
Q: I think there’s a saying that you need to write something like seven feature scripts before one will be good enough to get sold, what was your golden number and do you agree with the sentiment?
A: Experience is a good indicator of skill, and the number of scripts written is a good indicator of experience. But I’d say it’s impossible to come up with a magic number because there are many other variables to factor in (like talent) which can’t be measured so easily. “Seven” doesn’t sound like a bad estimate, but in my case it was definitely more than “ten” (not sure about the exact number).
Q: What projects are you working on now and when can next expect to see your name on the credits?
A: I’ve recently completed a sci-fi/thriller script for director Marcel Sarmiento who’s working with producers to secure financing. Also working on an action/fantasy pitch with a production company and starting to outline my next spec. Don’t know if any of these will get to the screen one day, but let’s hope
Q: What’s the best and worse screenwriting advice you’ve been given?
A: The best: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”.
The worst: “Hollywood is too big and far away for you, focus on your country’s film industry instead”.
Now for a few ‘getting to know Matias’ questions
Q: What’s your favourite film? And favourite script, if they’re different.
A: Ha, it’s impossible to name just one. Can I cheat a little? “Avatar”, “The Matrix”, “The Dark Knight”.
Some unproduced scripts I really liked: “Medieval” and “Goliath”
Q: Favourite author and book?
A: I think Stephen King is the author I read the most and liked most consistently.
Best book I’ve read in a while is “Ready Player One”.
Q: Beer or Wine (or something else)? And which variety?
A: Red Bull + Vodka
Q: Favourite food?
Q: Football team? Favourite player?
A: Not a football fan nowadays, but my favorite player is Messi. He’s a wizard.
Q: Any other interests and passions?
A: I used to play the electric guitar back in the day, maybe someday I’ll have time to get back to it. I like jogging/doing exercise, reading, videogames, and going out with friends.
Q: Born in Argentina, still living there? Any thoughts about moving to LA?
A: Yep, born and still living here. I think the next step for me is to start travelling to LA more often for meetings. Depending on how my career continues to evolve, I’ll decide about moving permanently.
Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters of SimplyScripts?
A: I still remember that day many years ago when I submitted my first script to the site. It was a short script written in broken English and everyone could tell right away I wasn’t a native speaker. Yet everyone was so helpful and encouraging, which helped me take the first step in a very long journey. So thanks SS friends, you’re good people (Except you, Bert. You’re pure evil).
About reviewer Anthony Cawood: I’m an award winning screenwriter from the UK with over 15 scripts produced, optioned and/or purchased. Outside of my screenwriting career, I’m also a published short story writer and movie reviewer. Links to my films and details of my scripts can be found at www.anthonycawood.co.uk.