The following is from an interview with the brilliant and talented James Fox. A finalist in 2019.
What's your background? How long have you been writing? And what made you choose and or transition into screenwriting?
My background is in Directing, mostly, with a little producing and writing scattered throughout. I've been writing off and on for about 10 years now, but just in the last year have really been focusing on writing. My main motivation for writing more was the fact that I have more stories to share than I have time to produce. With production on a project from discovery and development through post-production and final delivery being a few years, I realized I was prioritizing some stories and leaving others to decay. Writing is a way I can get those stories out there, and fulfill that drive to create!
What screenwriting training have you received? And what were some of your biggest breakthroughs?
I went to film school and took several screenwriting classes. I also have had the unique opportunity to work with some incredibly talented screenwriters over the years who have shared techniques of the craft and provided me amazing guidance on how to improve my writing. I think some of my biggest creative breakthroughs came in the writing of SOL, my MilSciFi series. There was so much research to be done, and I had the chance to collaborate with some pioneers in the sciences - and we just got to play with "what could be!" Applying all that research, and really digging into the voice of the characters made for some wicked fun when it came to writing the pilot. I think all the feedback helped too. With a great group of readers and festivals, providing insights I was able to really hone the edge on the story and make it a polished piece.
What else have you written? What writing habits work for you? Do you write in short bursts or long shifts, in the morning or late at night, do you write at coffee shops, at home, or at the office when no one else is looking?
I've written several feature films, several pilots, a few shorts, and a couple of novels now! I've really embraced this whole "writing thing" wholeheartedly. I've loved every second of it! The best practice for me is kind of a two-fold process. I do a ton of upfront research and development; I really sit with the characters and dwell on the world. It overwhelms me, it's all I can think about for weeks. Then, it builds up and I sit down to write. I'll usually do about 60 pages in one sitting. I watch the film in my head and follow along with the writing. Then I spend a couple of days processing what I did. After any major overhauls that need to take place, I dig into the revision process which can last months. As to time and place, I write everywhere and all the time. Airplanes, coffee shops, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store - I've even voice-to-text in the car. When inspiration strikes, I'm ready!
What's the title of the script you entered, and what's it about?
It's called, "Sol" and it's a hard-science look at what humankind's first full-scale war will look like in space. It centers around a Martian colony that revolts against the centralized systems government. Think of it as "Band of Brothers" meets "Battlestar Galactica." It follows many characters, and the death count is high. It's dark, gritty, and sadly - quite realistic. It is thick with corruption, greed, bad policy, and the relentless and unapologetic advances in technology aimed at killing people in mass quantities.
Where do you look for inspiration and what inspired you to write this script?
The inspiration came from a crew-person on a shoot I directed. This person was ex-military, and they shared a story about their time overseas in a conflict. Evidently, the amount of red-tape required to get ammunition to a base was so heavy, they wound up in a forward position without any ammo. They took fire daily, and couldn't do anything back. This lasted for several days. Obviously this person had a bit of a cynical outlook on it, but they said, "Someone didn't get paid their bribes or lucrative government contract - so the ammo was held up." This thought really had a profound effect on me. The fact that soldiers could be stuck without ammunition, fighting a war in another country, all because someone didn't get the right red-tape lined up! Insanity! So, I decided to explore the idea of a mass-casualty war, that was started for little more than profits. I'm a huge fan of SciFi, and I decided that a gritty realistic future war sparked by corporate greed sounded pretty fun.
Describe your process? Do you outline your story first? Do you use notecards or a beat sheet? Or do you simply sit down and let it flow?
It can vary project to project, but really I do a lot of the beat sheet and outline process in my head. By the time I'm done researching, and thinking about the story - it's there, ready to write. However, I do write down pages and pages of research and character notes. I believe in building the world in such a way that it becomes a living/breathing place. The only thing I have never really done is the whole index card thing. I feel like I do that process faster in my head. The few times I've attempted index cards, I got wildly frustrated.
What was your experience with our festival? Are you happy with your involvement? What did you like most about your experience? And what could we improve on?
I had a wonderful experience with the festival. The one-on-one consultation was incredible. The feedback was great, and I applied a lot of it to another round of revisions of the script. I feel like this festival helped my project secure more selections and festival wins, so it was kind of the "win that kept me winning." I'm always a huge fan when festival officials reach out directly and personally to selections/finalists. This festival was incredible in that regard. As to what could be improved upon, honestly not much. I'd say more integration with things like IMDB, Coverfly, MovieBytes, etc. Make the win mean more. Exposure is critical for us writers - so the more we can get, the better.
What are you writing now and what do you plan on writing in the near future?
I'm about half-finished on the novel for "Sol." It's been quite fun to go from a pilot to a novel. All that backstory that went into the building of the pilot, but didn't exactly make it on the page now gets a spotlight in the novel version. I'm also working on two additional pilots, a comedy and a fantasy-horror, and a based-on-true-events crime-drama that is the craziest story of abuse-of-power and greed that I've ever heard. With that project, currently untitled, I am actually getting to speak to the people directly about the events. It's an overwhelmingly immersive experience to have direct access to the source. I'm also directing two feature films - so my calendar is quite full!
Any advice for those about to dive into their first feature-length screenplay?
Explore your process, and ignore anyone who tells you you have to do it a certain way. Yes, there are huge benefits to learning and deploying the tried-and-true processes of those who have come before you. I'm not saying ignore the rules, I'm saying learn them and see how they feel. Writing is creative, and if the legalism of someone else's process cramps your style - try something else. But - and this is the critical part - have a process! Be diligent with the work. Don't half-ass anything. The most crucial advice I can give you though is: pay for real coverage of your script when you feel compelled to name that file "Suchandsuch_FINAL." Have your friends, your parents, your teachers all read it - absolutely! But, pay for an industry professional to read it and provide coverage. It's so important, and industry pros can recognize when something has had coverage versus when it hasn't. Lastly, have fun! If you don't love this, every second, then don't do it.
Last, but not least, what have been your biggest victories since entering our festival? Any more awards, any representation, any options, connections, new opportunities, and or plans to move to New York or LA?
I already live in California, within easy striking distance of Hollywood - but I get to avoid the daily traffic. Since being a finalist at this festival, I've won several more festivals and been a finalist or selection in many others. Sol has an incredible laundry list of festival wins at this point. There have been several interested agents/reps, and I've had the opportunity to pitch a few times. Sol is an expensive show, and it's waiting for the right network to take it on. I did receive some amazing feedback from one of the pitch sessions, they said, "This show is deep and provocative, and has the potential to change the way scifi is shown in any future television series, forever."