Flatiron Hot! recently had the privilege of sitting down with Jacob Krueger, the screenwriter responsible for critically-acclaimed drama The Matthew Shepard Story, to discuss a wide variety of topics ranging from the current state of Hollywood to Krueger’s unique approach to teaching screenwriting. In the interest of brevity, the latter part of the interview will be published on Thursday.
Flatiron Hot: What is your basic take on why so many bad movies come out of Hollywood?
Jacob Krueger: It’s not like Hollywood is just bad. Look at some of the movies that came out this year, like Beasts of the Southern Wild; totally brilliant. That said, there’s a culture in Hollywood that’s all about the blockbuster. People forget that everything starts with a great script, because they’re so busy looking for existing properties that have a built-in audience and then adapting them into film form.
The good news about this for emerging writers is that it’s very rare that a Hollywood executive actually gets to see a great script. So one of the exciting challenges of teaching screenwriting is helping my students to navigate the realities of the Hollywood system, while holding onto their voices and creativity as writers, so they can create the kind of projects that demand a producer’s attention.
Flatiron Hot: Why do professional screenwriters seem to have so much trouble making these adaptations good?
Jacob Krueger: One of the things I teach in my classes is that to write a good script, you need to find a personal connection to the material. Unfortunately, the amount of money flowing around in Hollywood sometimes clouds this personal connection.
If a studio approaches you and asks: “Would you like a million dollars to write a movie?” you usually say yes. It doesn’t matter what the movie is. It could be the worst idea you’ve ever heard, but they offer a million dollars to write it. And then they put even more pressure on you.
If you say no, your agent is going to drop you and you are going to lose a connection to a producer and it’s going to negatively affect the rest of your career. So what ends up happening is, producers come to writers and they have these ideas – and sometimes they’re good ideas – but the writers are often doing it for the money and not because they actually have a connection to the story.
Flatiron Hot: Is it possible to write a screenplay you’re not personally invested in?
It’s not impossible to write something well that you don’t have a connection to, but it’s very hard for most writers. When you try to serve the audience as opposed to telling the story that’s in your heart, it’s really hard to do anything authentic.
Flatiron Hot: Can you talk about writing The Matthew Shepard Story?
Jacob Krueger: First off, Judy Shepard is the bravest woman I’ve ever met. It was a scary process because I wanted to honor her, but I also wanted to be honest about her and I wanted to be honest about her son.
Movies are dramatic, which means you have to dramatize the internal world of your character. I was lucky enough to spend two weeks with Judy and Dennis and they poured their hearts out for me, and they were honest and brave.
This allowed me to get to know them and to get to know their son. Then I had to trust myself that I knew them enough that I could guess what their internal world was like and I could shape a journey that happened through that internal world in a way that was dramatic.
Flatiron Hot: What do you make of the notion that film is becoming a less relevant medium compared to high-quality TV dramas like AMC’s The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad or HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. What do movies have to offer that serial TV dramas cannot?
Jacob Krueger: One of the reasons you’ve seen such a resurgence of television is because some television producers got really smart and they said: “what would happen if we went out and hired some playwrights to write these series for us.” And playwrights generally get much better education than screenwriters, because they learn not only the craft of writing, but also the art.
I think one of the cool things we can do as screenwriters is ask ourselves what would happen if we took the same approach with feature films, and focused not only in telling well-crafted stories, but also in telling stories that move us deeply as writers.
Flatiron Hot: Why is television receptive to good writing in a way that Hollywood currently is not?
Jacob Krueger: In Hollywood, the producer is king. In TV series, the writer is king. Well, I should clarify: the network is always king, but series are run by writers and that’s why they’re staffing amazing writers and that’s why they’re approaching things in a much more organic, natural way.
The good news is there’s nothing stopping new writers from taking the exact same approach to their screenplays, and using it to create compelling scripts that demand the attention of anyone who reads them.