Making a movie is easy: A 3‐step process that worked for ‘Prisoners’
by Adam Kolbrenner
They say getting a movie made is harder now than it has ever been. They said that last year, too. And the year before that. And so on, as long as any of us remember. I’m here to tell you it’s so easy!
For the hardworking artists of the world, how do you get your movies made and get them into theaters? Well, not quite like this:
On Friday, September 20th, 2013 the thriller Prisoners will open at over 3,000 theaters around the U.S. The screenplay was written by Aaron Guzikowski. It was financed by Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros will distribute. The director is the Academy Award nominated filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Denis assembled an all‐star cast of Oscar winners and nominees: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo. Denis recruited the 10 time Oscar nominated Cinematographer Roger Deakins and the Oscar winning Editor Joel Cox.
The early reviews on the film are stunning. We just had the world premiere at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival that just was chosen runner up for the 2013 Audience Award, and we were hand selected as the “sneak” screening at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival. My company, Madhouse Entertainment, produced the film with Kira Davis, an unwavering and unflappable producing partner.
The truth to the making of Prisoners is that it was an incredibly difficult, and therefore incredibly rewarding accomplishment to be associated with the film from its origin, as just an idea for a movie. It had a lot of people say it should never be made. The subject matter was too difficult or it was too dark in its story. But for all the people who doubted, we had many more who believed it should be made. It is ultimately belief in material that will drive a film to the end goal of seeing the film finally released in theaters. How much gas do you have in the tank to make it to opening weekend? In hindsight, perhaps ‘easy’ does not properly define the Prisoners journey.
#1 – It all starts with an envelope
Let’s go back to 2006. It was a simpler time in America for screenwriters (you know, pre‐WGA Strike). It all started with a query letter from an unrepresented screenwriter named Aaron Guzikowski. A hard letter … in an envelope. With a stamp! Not a blind email or submission through a website. A letter.
I picked up the letter and quite liked that this writer had an odd last name and lived in Brooklyn, NY. I love Brooklyn. So, I called him and he sent me his first script, which I read and called him again to say I can’t sell it. But, he can write, that voice was there. So we agreed we would work on a new idea for a film that we can develop together. This might take a few tries, but we’ll get there.
Several months later, a PDF one page movie idea arrives in my inbox. The story for a movie called Prisoners. In a flu-induced haze, Guzikowski came up with an idea for a movie. To be sure, the bones of this idea are what evolved into the final production, but we began an epic journey at this point. Guzikowski in Brooklyn, and our literary management and production company Madhouse Entertainment in Beverly Hills. As literary managers, we develop material, so, we assumed this would be a normal process.
Guzikowski had a soulless job in Manhattan. He’d commute from Brooklyn in utter misery each day to an advertising firm where he focused on stuffing envelopes with those inserts you get in your mail from banks and car dealerships. We spoke and emailed thousands of times. We never met in person. We would be giving notes to Guzikowski and he’d actually be standing inside the company supply closet, which doubled as his writers room. There would be a knock at the door, and he would hand off supplies to employees who gave him a look as if to say “people are not supposed to be handing me pens from a closet” and he would shut the door without offering an explanation. We went through draft after draft of the screenplay. While most screenwriters would throw their hands up and declare “I’m done, send it out” Guzikowski never wavered in his belief that this process was working and he stuck with this arduous process.
This went on for over 2 years. And in 2009, we had a finished screenplay.
#2 ‐ Let’s make a deal
We sent the screenplay to all the agencies. This was the first real step, let’s get Guzikowski his first agent and get this script out to the world and maybe sell it!
Every agency passed. They all said it was too tough a script to get made. Too dark, not commercial, not good enough to get a movie star. One agent said that if he wrote something like ‘Avatar’ they would reconsider. Really? ‘Avatar’? Really? OK, I’ll be right back with that for you.
After 2 years, we were nowhere. I was about to call Guzikowski to say that this work of art we sweated over for this amount of time was not quite good enough. And then one agent did call from Endeavor (pre‐WME): his name is Adam Levine. He said simply “It’s the best script he’s ever read.” Victory!
Guzikowski flew to Los Angeles the next day for the first time. We were going to meet at Endeavor and it dawned on me that I had no idea what he looked like, so we went to dinner.
Within a week of this moment, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale were attached to star in the film. Bryan Singer was reading to direct. The script shot out to the world in a blaze of fire and was read by hundreds of people overnight, trust me, I have the emails. Guzikowski was back in Brooklyn living a dream. This was the hottest screenplay out there. An old photo even appeared of him on Defamer. Offers were coming, hands were shaking, and agencies were merging!
6 months later. Guzikowski was still working his temp job. You see, the script hadn’t sold. And Guzikowski was still schlepping into Manhattan to stuff envelopes.
And then there was a call from Alcon Entertainment on July 4th, 2009. 3 people: Andrew Kosove, Broderick Johnson and Kira Davis. Best line I’ve ever heard: “This episode of Entourage will come to an end now.” Alcon purchased the script outright with no actor attachments. Kira Davis, who first read and championed the script, would be producing with Madhouse Entertainment. And finally, we were able to call the screenwriter in Brooklyn and tell him the pot of gold will be delivered to his home.
#3 ‐ Pack up for the hike
Making movies is a lot like climbing Mount Everest (so I hear, I don’t like the cold weather). In order to climb Everest you have base camps along the way … and you have Sherpas to help you ascend to the mountain top. Having a great screenplay is the first base camp. But many more base camps will be required. We needed our filmmaker. We needed our lead Sherpa.
From 2009 till 2012 we had multiple starts and stops on the road to making the film. Plenty of interested people both behind the camera and in front, but for all the right reasons we kept looking. And then, riding into town, came this amazing French-Canadian filmmaker named Denis Villeneuve. Have you seen his Oscar nominated film Incendies? No? Well then you need to watch it immediately. It is brilliant.
Denis Villeneuve became our lead Sherpa. He packed us up on his back and poured his heart and soul into finding the right cast and crew and taking everyone to the top of the mountain. And he sure did. Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, some of the most amazing actors on the planet. The cast and crew across the board exceeded all our wildest dreams.
They say ‘it takes a village’ and just like that, we had our village.
The movie is complete now. Marketing is going strong. The reviews are coming in. And any minute, people will be lining up to buy a ticket.
And somewhere a screenwriter is preparing a query letter to send out. Will you read the letter? We will. Will you write the letter? You should. It has to start somewhere.