Screenwriter Greg Sisco Shares His Worst Movie Pitch
edited by Sam Kolesnik
Screen Fervor talks with award-winning screenwriter and published novelist, Greg Sisco, about his success on the festival circuit, his experience as a screenplay judge, his advice for new screenwriters, and more.
Last year was a big year for you. You won several screenwriting awards, including the Horror Screenplay Award at Austin Film Festival, as well as the award for Best Feature Screenplay at Nightmares Film Festival. How has winning these awards helped your screenwriting career?
I remember seeing a meme once that listed the "levels of friendship" and they were something like, "Help you move," "Help you move a body," "Help you kill someone," and finally, "Read your screenplay."
It can feel like a fucking nightmare getting people to read your work. Especially people who are in the industry. We do a lot of begging as screenwriters if we want anyone to pay attention to us. What started to change for me last year was that people who work in the industry were actually seeking me out and contacting me to ask for my script instead of me begging them -- producers and directors who'd done films that I'd seen and enjoyed. That's been a new and welcome experience.
You specialize in the genres of horror, thriller and dark comedy. What draws you to those genres? Ever think about writing an upbeat family script?
Yes and no. I don't think genre or tone is ever really my starting place with a piece of inspiration. It usually has more to do with a concept, a character dynamic, or a scene that's interesting to me and then the rest of it starts to build around that. A lot of that early work happens subconsciously and I think I just have a mind that is drawn to the darker side of things.
Art is nice for sort of dealing with the things we have trouble talking about and maybe it's just that I like to have an avenue to meditate on those darker thoughts. I'd be happy to write something more upbeat and family-friendly if I stumbled on a premise for something that really seduced me, but so far I don't find myself actively seeking it out. I'm comfortable in the dark.
In addition to writing your own screenplays, you have also volunteered as a screenplay competition judge for the Women in Horror Film Festival. Is there any element of judging screenplays for competition that informs your own writing process?
Oh definitely. The thing about judging competitions is you end up reading work from writers who are at a huge variety of skill levels. You're in a position where you have to be thinking critically about what is working and what isn't, and why. That can really help to give perspective on your own writing and teach you things about how your own work might be perceived when you submit to places that are receiving submissions like the ones you're reading.
It can also give you a sense of trends, of things about your writing that might have seemed clever or unique when you came up with them that a lot of other writers are actually doing already. Plus, at the end of the day, it's just fun. Especially if you're somebody who likes to enter competitions and attend festivals. You end up being able to meet people whose work you've read and who you know are talented, and that's a nice privilege.
Name a screenwriter who has inspired you. What’s your favorite work by them?
I really like Charlie Kaufman and the way he plays with form. I think Adaptation is one of the best pieces of writing about writing that I've ever seen. Most of the time, writers in movies tend to whine that they're blocked for a while and then hammer out a masterpiece in a twenty-second cigarette-fueled montage, and that's about as much as the art of writing is explored. But that script almost reads like an essay on writing where Kaufman is meditating on what writing is and how it works both as an art and a business and also airing his grievances about everything that sucks about it. I just love it.
If you can disclose, what project are you currently working on? Anything in the pipeline for 2019?
My next big project is still in pretty early stages and it keeps changing. I don't even know whether it's a screenplay or a novel yet, but it's a bit of a horror and a bit of a social satire on the ways technology is changing our lives. I don't want to say much this early on, but at its most basic, the idea is to follow a relationship between a family and a smart house that goes from being a lifesaver to being something that rules over their lives.
Pitch us your worst idea for a movie.
Gator-Copter! Half alligator, half helicopter. A group of scientists experimenting with gene-splicing accidentally create a giant, flying reptile that rages through cities with a thirst for blood. Enter our hero, a marine biologist experimenting with controlling animals through small electric shocks. In another life, he was a world-class helicopter pilot. But after a horrible crash killed his wife, he swore never to fly again.
Now, his unique skillset makes him the only person who might perhaps be able to mount the Gator-Copter and pilot it into capture to save humanity, if he can only conquer his fear of helicopters. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Greg, this sounds like a masterpiece and all, but Helligator would be a way better title than Gator-Copter." Silly you. Trying to make Gator-Copter better. You're missing the entire spirit of Gator-Copter.
If you could offer a new screenwriter any piece of advice, what would you say?
I find broad, sweeping advice to be really hard to give, but one thing I'd recommend is this. Try to make your goals into things that are entirely under your control. If your project is written in hopes of selling or securing an agent, getting you discovered, or any of those things that are dependent enormously on other people and on luck, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you are writing to get better, to have something simple that you can produce yourself, to try to improve your dialogue, or your skill at conveying things without dialogue, or your use of suspense, romance, or humor — or to be able to say you've written a feature — these are goals where you're the only thing standing in your way.
If you do that, you'll keep getting better and you'll keep getting that endorphin buzz that comes from accomplishing what you set out to do. Not to say you shouldn't put it out there in competitions or submit to literary managers or whatever path you're hoping to take, but to the extent that you're able to keep that stuff in perspective as secondary goals, the rejections won't hurt as much, because you still fucking did what you set out to do.
And tomorrow you're going to set out to do something else and you're going to fucking do that, too. And if you keep getting better and you keep putting your work out there, those secondary goals are probably going to start taking shape eventually. But even if they don't, you've gotta remember that you still fucking did it.
Where and how can people stay updated on your work?
On GregSisco.com there is a box where they can sign up for my mailing list. I try to send out an email every month or two with a little about what I'm up to. I'm also pretty active on Facebook (facebook.com/TheGregSisco), where I do a lot of dicking around trying to be funny. I tend to accept friend requests from anybody who looks like a real human being. Twitter probably isn't a good bet though. I neglect that shit like a Trainspotting character does a baby.