Michael Kospiah is a screenwriter and playwright based out of NYC. To date, he has two produced off Broadway plays, a Feature (The Suicide Theory) and a Short (The Dead Guy in the Trunk), made thus far.
Now available on Netflix – and highly recommended as an indie gem – The Suicide Theory was made with director Dru Brown and Seven8 Media. So far, it’s won the Grand Jury Award in The Dances With Films Festival.
The Dead Guy in the Trunk? Made by Scheffilm Productions in Australia.
Here’s what was discussed… all details any aspiring scriptwriter should know.
Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on yourself and how you got into screenwriting?
A: Ever since I was a kid, I was huge into movies. Every time I’d go to see a film, it was like an event for me. I actually remember every film I’ve seen in theaters dating back to childhood (I’m pretty sure). But I was into action films mostly; Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme. Eastwood. A lot of Kung Fu films. Mostly rated “R” movies. Only my mother and my father allowed me to watch rated “R” movies. I still remember my mom taking me to see Lethal Weapon in theaters when I was five or six years old (and it was awesome). However, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. And they were timid about allowing me to see PG-13 films. In fact, they only really allowed me to watch films they watched. Most of them I HATED. But my grandmother in particular was a HUGE Hitchcock fan and allowed me to watch all of his films as well as his TV shows (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Alfred Hitchcock Presents). She also let me stay up and watch old Twilight Zone episodes. And I thought they were awesome. It introduced me to a whole different genre of film/entertainment that I liked – and it didn’t depend on explosions and hand-to-hand combat. And then I saw “Psycho” when I was 12. And it changed my life. It was so unique. And the twists and psychology of the characters intrigued me. Once I found out that films were written first, I was all about it. It was what I always wanted to do. Soon, I started watching film-films like “Taxi Driver”, “Pulp Fiction”. And those films made a strong impression on me as a young teen, further fostering my desire to write movies. From that point on, I made it a point to watch as many films as I can. I remember writing my first “script” when I was 14. It was a corny creature feature called “Attack of the Killer Groundhogs” that I wanted to film myself with a camcorder my grandmother gave me for my birthday. I remember my mother finding the 20-or-so-page script written on yellow-lined paper and saying something to me about all the profanity… LOL. I wanted to get my friends involved as actors, but at that age, everyone was starting to smoke pot, party, chase girls, etc. In other words, everyone I was friends with was “too cool” for making cheesy films. So, it was a while before I actually started reading actual screenplays and making an effort to learn the craft. Not until I started college.
Q: And how many features, shorts, etc have you written now?
A: Hmmm… I lost count around 25 feature screenplays, and that was a few years ago. I’ve written a few screenplays as a ghostwriter as well that ended up never seeing the light of day (not worth the shitty pay). I’d say about 30 or so feature length scripts and probably around 20 or so shorts. Roughly.
Q: Did you undertake any formal training, courses etc, or just jump in?
A: I did take a screenwriting class in college and did take classes at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in NYC, but the classes never actually showed us, in detail, how to actually write a script. It was more analyzing film and identifying acts, character arc, etc. Which was helpful. And I had read enough scripts to have an idea of what a screenplay looks like. But I remember writing screenplays as a very green “wannabe” writer and posting them on websites like Trigger Street and Zoetrope and getting my ass handed to me by other more experienced writers. And to tell the truth, the harsh criticism really helped me. And the fact that I wanted to be a great writer attracted other kinder writers with more experience than me to help steer me into the right direction (in terms of which books to read, which screenplays to read, guiding me through a lot of the nuances of writing description and action, dialogue, formatting, structuring, hitting the right beats, developing characters, etc). Simply Scripts also has helped me become a better writer. I’ve received some great advice from other writers on here a long time ago when I first started visiting this site (around 2006/2007). And I still get great advice from members (though I don’t frequent the site as much as I’d like to these days).
Q: How did the filming of your script The Suicide Theory come about?
A: Well, I actually posted the script on this site back in 2008 and it received A LOT of feedback, a lot of positive responses. Tons of comments. I started getting a ton of emails from directors and producers. But a lot them wanted me for their own projects based on their ideas. The script was considered a bit too dark by a lot of them to get investors interested in funding the project. But they liked my potential. One of those directors was Dru Brown based out of Australia. We co-wrote a few scripts but nothing really came of them. Meanwhile, I had another director out of the U.K. option The Suicide Theory. And after a few years (including an option extension) I didn’t really see much movement in terms of making this a film. So, I decided to make The Suicide Theory a free agent after the 2nd option expired. Literally, almost a week later, Dru emailed me after a few of our scripts failed to build traction, asking me if The Suicide Theory was still available. And, yeah, that’s how that came about.
Q: How can people see The Suicide Theory?
A: Right now, it’s available in the United States on Netflix, Amazon and Itunes. It’s also still available to rent on demand on most cable outlets (Cablevision, Time Warner, DirecTV, etc).
Q: And your short, The Dead Guy in the Trunk, how did the film maker find you and the script?
A: Again, the script was discovered on Simply Scripts a few years back by director/producer Lucas Scheffel (again, out of Australia), who I ended up becoming friends with. Good guy.
Q: Dead Guy is a great little short – really well shot, any more in the pipeline?
A: I took a little break for a while. The business end can be a little taxing mentally. But I usually focus more on features. Though I’m sure I’ll come up with a few more shorts here and there. That year that “Dead Guy” was found, I actually wrote four other shorts and sold three of them. Yet, only “Dead Guy” ended up getting made. We’ll see what happens.
Q: Have you used services like Inktip and 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 a very long time ago (like about 10 years ago) and got nothing out of it. Though that may be because I wasn’t quite there yet as a writer in terms of skill level and “selling” my story. I am thinking of joining again, giving it another whirl now that I have experience. I’ve heard good and bad things about The Blacklist. Never tried it. I understand, on top of the monthly fee, you have to spend additional money to get reviews. And the script only gets sent out if you receive a score of 8 or more by the reviewer. Or something like that. My advice is, if you have the money to spend and you think it gives you a nice shot at exposure, then shell out the dough. But I would make sure that the script is in great shape before investing that type of money. I would even send it out to a few well-received coverage services first. If you don’t have the money for that, websites like Simply Scripts and Script Shadow help (if you can get through to Amateur Fridays – haven’t visited Script Shadow lately, not sure if they still do that or not). Just get as much feedback as possible from writers you believe have a decent background.
Q: Have you used, and if so what are your thoughts on notes and coverage services?
A: Absolutely. Of course, I’ve used notes from review sites as Triggerstreet, Zoetrope and Simply Scripts (all free, although I don’t think Triggerstreet does that anymore). And I have paid for coverage services in the past and they were mostly helpful. These days, I have a lot of seasoned and successful screenwriting pals that I trust. Though I would definitely consider a coverage service if needed. And if the prices were reasonable and the company had a good word-of-mouth thing going for it.
Q: And have you entered and/or won any screenwriting competitions? What are your thoughts on competitions in general?
A: I have never entered a screenwriting competition before. Maybe I’m just a cheap bastard. But I do have mixed feelings about competitions in general. I had a hard time trusting the process, especially getting past some of their readers in order be seen by the industry pros. One of the things I question with a lot of the readers for these competitions is their qualifications. Last thing I want to do is pour my heart and soul out into the script just to get turned away by a college intern. But, I’ve heard good things with a few competitions (PAGE, Final Draft’s Big Break, Austin Film Festival, American Zoetrope and, of course, Nicholl’s). I may consider entering one of these things soon. Whatever helps get you more exposure, I suppose.
Q: How do you approach structure in your scripts? Do you follow any particular method?
A: It depends on what kind of story I’m going for. I wrote a stream-of-conscious kind of story with a heightened sense of reality (ala David Lynch), so obviously, the structure isn’t as A-B-C as it would be in other, more conventional stories. The Blake Snyder beat sheet can be a good one to follow in terms of structuring a script, but I feel it can be limiting if you just stick to that and that alone. If I’m writing something more “conventional”, that beat sheet comes in handy. It also depends on what my character’s goals are, too. I don’t know, structuring a screenplay to me is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or doing a crossword. I just try to fit the pieces together in the best way possible. I usually have my characters in mind first. Yes, your characters are VERY important. But once I truly get to know my characters, they tend to take me where I need to go regardless of what I had outlined. As I write the script, I often times find myself rewriting the outline along the way. And my outlines aren’t usually that detail oriented because of that. I’ll include scenes I have in mind, write down what I want to accomplish in each scene, some imagery I’d like to include, motifs, meaning, etc. But I try to keep it basic. The characters ultimately, at least with me, dictate where my story goes.
Q: What projects are you working on now and when can we next expect to see your name on the credits?
A: I’m working on a horror feature right now. One of my favorite sub-genres of horror – home invasion. Trying to put my own twist on it, make it unique yet viable. I also have a “passion project” of sorts in the pipeline. I’m at about page 20 with that one and have been stuck there for a bit. That one will take some time.
Now onto some more general questions.
Q: Do you have a favourite film genre?
A: My favorite genre to write is probably suspense. I gravitate towards darker material. It used to be crime-drama. Over the years, it’s kind of blended together in my style. My favorite to watch is horror. I’m working on my first horror feature right now. I’ve tried writing horror before, but it’s always turned into a drama or suspense film with elements of horror. I tend to blend genres in stories I write without noticing it.
Q: What’s your favourite film? And script, if they’re different.
A: My favorite film is Taxi Driver. Just ahead of Psycho. Barely. Taxi Driverinfluences more of my writing. I’ve always been drawn to the flawed “hero” or “anti-hero”. Because that’s how I’ve always seen myself; flawed with good intentions. I think a lot of people see themselves that way. I guess that’s why so many people identified with the Travis Bickle character. Everybody has their moments of social ineptitude. Everybody knows what it’s like to be lonely and awkward. And it was unlike any other film I’ve seen up that point when I was 12-13 years old. Mainly because there really was no plot. And I fucking LOVED that. It was a journey into madness. This guy was obviously whacked, his perception of reality skewed. But we’re seeing this world through his eyes. And, for some reason, we kind of understand his behavior. And that frightens us in a way. Yet, we root for the guy. Just a great, great film. It’s probably my favorite script, too – I love Paul Schrader! But, to mix things up a bit, I’ll throw out the screenplay for “Sideways”. I loved the movie, but I read the screenplay first and actually thought the script was better. And it was just so expertly written. I was in my early 20s when I read it, still trying to find my stride as a writer. And it REALLY helped me with formatting, learning how to write brief yet effective description and action and making the page actually look good (white space, 1-3 line action/description paragraphs, when to jump to another paragraph). Yes the film was fine, I loved the bookends (someone knocking on his door at the beginning, him knocking on the love interest’s door at the end) and it had a lot to offer structurally and with character arcs, character relationships, all of that. But the script really helped me learn how to actually WRITE a script.
Q: What’s the best and worse screenwriting/film making advice you’ve been given?
A: The worst I’ve ever given is to quit – LOL. It can be frustrating. The hardest part is after you’ve finished writing the script (up until it’s on the screen, it’s never really finished). The business end can be extremely frustrating. It takes a lot of patience, not just selling your product, but once the product is sold. There is a lot of waiting involved. The best advice I’ve given is to keep writing. Find your voice, find what you’re GREAT at (not just good) and stick with that. Not to say you should only write in one genre or write about one thing all the time. But stick to things you are passionate about. And if you’re writing for hire, find something that in that story you can relate to and be passionate about. It’s easy to spot a script without heart.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters on SimplyScripts?
A: Keep improving upon your craft. Get good advice. Find other like-minded writers such as yourself and surround yourself with them. Make as many connections as possible. Always keep learning and be willing to learn. Have confidence in yourself but know what your skill level is and keep improving upon that. Always get as much feedback as possible. From trusted peers. Peers you don’t trust. And if you have the money, shell out the dough for coverage services. Enter as many screenwriting competitions as possible. That’s one thing I wished I would have done more (and something I’m considering doing more of in the future). The only way you become something in this industry is if you’re noticed. Exposure is important. Yes, there is a lot of luck involved but you have to create your own luck. Be seen, be heard. I had a film out in theaters here in the United States (albeit select theaters for a limited time) and I STILL don’t have an agent or a manager. Having a produced film isn’t enough. Send out queries to reputable agents, managers and producers. But make sure your script is top notch. You only get one chance to make a first impression. A good script is not good enough. And, most of all… keep writing.
Q: Any thoughts on the Oscar contenders?
A: I’m always excited about the Oscars. Some good films this year although nothing I’ve seen is as good as last year’s “Whiplash”. “The Revenant” was solid. Great acting. That’s my pick for Best Picture. I was disappointed “Straight Outta Compton”, “Ex Machina” and “Creed” weren’t nominated for Best Picture. “Creed” was my favorite film of the year, but I’m a Philly boy at heart and huge “Rocky” fan, so I’m biased. Hoping Stallone grabs that Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He was phenomenal.
Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters out there?
A: SimplyScripts is a great site for writers of all skill levels. Take advantage of the resources this website offers… for free! Every time I’ve done Q and A’s with audiences, I’ve always mentioned this website. It’s a great learning tool… if you stay active in the community. Read scripts, meet other writers. I’ve met a lot of great writers AND great people on here that I’m proud to say I’m friends with outside of this site.