20 Questions Interview: Screenwriter Dayan Ballweg

Dayan Ballweg adapted T.C. Boyle’s best-selling novel “The Tortilla Curtain” and Frank Baldwin’s “Jake and Mimi” for Scott Steindorff’s Stone Village Productions. His script “Young Americans” was optioned by Samuelson Productions and Gold Circle Films. In this interview he gives advice to young screenwriters, talks about the challenges of adaptations, the reality of screenwriting, and of a crazy development meeting with Gene Simmons (yes, the guy from KISS).

1) You were a finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting contest, which helped you get a foot in the door. Do you think contests are a viable means for writers to break into the business?

Dayan Ballweg: Contests are a really great way for people who are not L.A. based to get their work seen and evaluated. While living in New York, I entered the Nicholl twice — making it to the semifinals the first year, and the final ten the second — and the Chesterfield once, where I got nothing but a lovely form letter.

The interesting thing about the contest scene is not so much the award/cash prize element; it’s the people that lurk on the periphery. Producers that can’t afford studio-level options start trolling these lists early in the process, and you would be surprised by the people that will make contact with you at various stages of the competition.

Some of these are good people with passion, but no money, and some of these are outright predators who will eat you alive and wear your skin. I have had my experiences with both.

2) What was the process like after finishing in the top ten with your script (“Young Americans”)?

DB: The day the Nicholl Finalists were announced in the trades, I was still in New York. I came home to sixteen messages on my machine. The first was from CAA. I called the agent back, who asked me the question: “You’re not one of those ‘artist’ types are you? How do you feel about making lots of money?” I crawled under the covers, and didn’t come out for an hour.

I met one agent in New York, then came out to L.A. for a week of meet and greets, after which I decided I was really better off with the New York guy. I flew back, pounded out my follow-up project, turned it in to him…and then waited. After a month, I called his office and was informed that he had “passed away.”

By way of an actual timeline, that was January of 1996. The Nicholl script wasn’t optioned until the summer of 1999 (by a producer I met on that first trip to Los Angeles). And I didn’t get my first paid gig until the winter of 2002. So, even minuscule success can take a looooooooong time.

3) I remember reading that “Young Americans” was being made by Samuelson Productions and Gold Circle Films and it had a director, Andy Hurst, attached. What happened to the project?

DB: This will sound a little like a canned answer, but the truth is pretty benign. Samuelson and Gold Circle held the option to “Young Americans” for almost four years. It was an on-again, off-again thing the whole time, and was my first experience with the development process. I learned a lot while watching the film come together and fall apart over and over, with different permutations of cast and director.

When the fourth option was renewable at my discretion, I took my ball and went home. No hard feelings. We still use the script as a writing sample, and every now and then people will get strangely passionate about it. I think most working writers have a script like that — one that you feel artistically detached from, yet it’s still out there living this weird little life.

4) You’re listed as Kasi Lemmons’ assistant on “The Caveman’s Valentine.” What did the experience of watching a director go through the day-by-day rigors (and possibly behind-the-scenes wrangling) of a film teach you about the moviemaking process?

DB: When I was at film school, representatives from the DGA came to talk to us about their trainee program, which is a great program — if you want to learn the skills to be an Assistant Director. But if you want to learn what a director really goes through day to day, be a Director’s Assistant.

Kasi was amazingly inclusive throughout the process, and early on she shared with me one of the greatest lessons she had learned as an actress, which is something a lot of people on the Internet don’t get: with few exceptions, no one sets out to make a crappy film. The process that you have to pass through from development to release is so incredibly grueling, so loaded with compromise that anyone who survives it should be cut a little slack.

Being a director’s assistant is great because you become the pipeline through which all information flows. People quickly realize that while you have no actual power, you do have the director’s ear. You’re the one driving them to and from the set, bringing the meals in their trailer, and sitting through dailies. So everyone from the producers to the department heads to the talent is forced to use you as an information conduit. It’s an intensely political, but ultimately inspiring experience.

5) How did you end up with the job of adapting T.C. Boyle’s “The Tortilla Curtain”?

DB: This one’s a little long-winded. But it’s probably at least interesting.

I owe that — and my whole career, frankly — to Richard Pearce. He hates it when I say that but it happens to be true. Dick is a far better director than anyone gives him credit for, and he’s had some amazing experiences that have really given him a wide perspective on life. His background is in documentaries (he was a cameraman on “Woodstock”), so he approaches everything with that observational style in mind.

Anyway, when “Young Americans” was still at Gold Circle, at one point they were out to directors, and his name came up. On the day he was going in to meet with them, he wanted to meet me first to discuss both that project, and another thing he was working on called “Tortilla Curtain.”

I went everywhere the night before looking for a copy, and every bookstore was sold out. Finally, I went to the library and checked out this pathetic battered copy. Since I didn’t have time to read the whole thing I found a synopsis on-line to see the overall story.

So the next day, I sit down with Dick at Starbucks and have an amazing conversation about “Young Americans” where he just keeps nailing everything about the material — one of those times where someone has actually found stuff you never realized you put there — and then he says let’s talk about “Tortilla”…

We talk for ten or fifteen minutes and then he says, “So what are you going to do about the ending?”

The ending of the book is a controversial topic. People who love the book really love the ending. Hollywood people who all passed on the book all really hate the ending. While I knew how the book ended, I had no idea how the film would end.

“We’ll figure it out.” I walked out and called my manager and told him that I might have gotten a job. Dick called me after his meeting with Gold Circle, which didn’t go all that well, and discussed the book with me some more. A day later Scott Steindorff, the producer who was financing the script (who also deserves huge credit for taking a chance on me), called and suddenly there was an offer on the table.

Two days later we were crawling under a freeway pass a couple of blocks from a labor exchange, and talking to day laborers in Malibu. I still don’t know how it happened. Every experience before and since has proven that to get a job in Hollywood you have to lobby for it. That one literally fell into my lap. And everything else sprung from there.

6) What were the challenges you faced writing the adaptation?

DB: The book is problematic as a movie in that it switches back and forth between two specific tones. The Mexican storyline is written in a vaguely poetic style, taking the title’s cue and going in a Steinbeckian direction. The Anglo storyline is written in a much more broad, satirical voice in which all the characters are pitched like the Annette Bening character in “American Beauty.” So I had to find a middle-ground tone between the two — as well as solving the age-old Hollywood problem of making the lead white characters “sympathetic.” Otherwise you don’t get movie stars to play the roles, which means you don’t get the movie made.

Let me just side step here for a second and say that I could give two shits whether my characters are sympathetic as long as they are empathetic. I have no problem with a character doing awful things as long as you can put yourself in their place and see how you might do the same thing.

So I made a lot of changes, mostly in the third act. But I have a great deal of respect for Boyle, so whenever possible I tried to at least imagine how Boyle the satirist would rewrite Boyle the dramatist or vice versa to keep it as much in his moral universe as possible. And based on the overall response to the script I would say I was reasonably successful. I (perhaps foolishly) think that if he were to read the script he would like it.

I should say here that an offshoot of the whole on-line script review process is that Boyle read your review of the screenplay, which praised the script while savaging the book, so I think he has a bit of a bad taste in his mouth about the whole thing. Which is unfortunate, as I love his work. I would adapt “Drop City” or “East is East” in a heartbeat if I had a chance.

(Note: My review of Dayan’s script, which I loved, was admittedly over-the-top and hyperbolic, but I hope I can be excused because it was written in a paroxysm of pleasure: I had found a close-to-unknown script written by an up-and-coming writer, and it improved on a book I thought was flawed. I did savage T.C.’s novel, and though I’m sure he couldn’t care less what I think, I wish I could take some of the bile back. T.C., wherever you are, consider this my mea culpa.)

7) Can you go into a bit of detail about the changes you made to the novel, and how the changes helped you reshape the story and characters?

DB: There were basically three major changes and everything else kind of just spun out semi-organically from there…

I started by collapsing the timeframe of the novel — down from almost a year to just under four months. Using the third trimester of America’s pregnancy to take me through the beginning of the third act. I literally had a big calendar going on the wall, with every scene on a Post-it, so I could tell you exactly how much time had elapsed between every scene.

I figured the best way to write social drama is to “bury the lead.” Neither storyline could be directly about race relations in Southern California, or else it wasn’t going to play. So I began by giving the love story to Candido and America.I was hoping to avoid the obvious melodrama of border crossings, labor exchanges, and homelessness by filtering it all through the question of whether they could make their marriage work. I wanted it to be universal enough that the characters couldn’t be marginalized, and sexy enough to attract name talent.

For the Anglos, I chose to go a different route. The core relationship there is a parental one — between Delaney and Kyra’s son Jordan. This enabled me to handle some of the racism material indirectly as each of them judges the other based on the “right” thing to do. I wanted their detente at the end of the script to enable some level of closure — to give you some level of hope for these characters, since I couldn’t put too neat of a button on the racism.

8) Richard Pearce wasn’t able to see the film through to production and another director was hired. But you stayed on as the film’s writer. What was it like to be in the middle of all this, trying to keep everyone happy, transitioning from one vision to another, and still maintain your own vision and the script’s integrity?

DB: When Luis Mandoki came onboard as the new director, I gather there was some talk of having a Spanish-speaking writer work on the script. But for one reason or another, it never happened. So Scott (Steindorff) brought me back in to meet with Luis and do a ten-day polish with three objectives: more humor, a cleaner ending, and a shorter length.

My perspective on these situations is that you listen to what they want — and even if you don’t agree with it — you try to boil it down to the essence of the note. If they hate something, even if you love it — it’s in your best interest to alter it to get the point across that they want. Because if you don’t, someone else will. You kind of have to fold your ego up and put it in your pocket.

I delivered the rewrite in seven days. Everybody was thrilled. It went out to talent. Cementing the interest of at least two Academy Award winners. And then it simply went away. This is one of those things that happens that people tell you about, but you don’t believe until it does. No one’s fault. Luis is shooting another movie in Mexico. Most of the talent is still theoretically involved (and if I sound vague here, it’s because the cold hard truth is once you turn your draft in, you don’t hear anything unless it involves rewrites), but as of right now, there is no start date.

The funny thing is I was just at Sundance, waiting in line for a movie and chatting with the guy behind me. He asked what I did, and when I mentioned “Tortilla,” he told me that his management company represents a director that is “doing that movie.”

So, provided it’s true — a new director translates to new momentum, new challenges — and unless they bring in a “name” to rewrite me — (it probably means) another set of notes.

9) With a legitimate project under your belt at that time, with a producer praising you in “Variety” about a script that deals with tough material, and having written something that attracted (at least temporarily) major talent, does the atmosphere change for you in town, or is this type of activity too common to shock wave?

DB: More meetings, yes, but definitely not a “shock wave.” I think the reason that you contacted me to do this Q&A in the first place was that you wanted to provide some perspective on a regular working writer as opposed to an overnight phenom. There are, if not thousands at least hundreds of me’s out there — writers that can give them that “Barton Fink feeling.”

So, yeah, it felt good to get that attention, and it led to me signing with my first, real, aboveboard agent. But, I think there’s a weird side effect with book adaptations. In the case of “Tortilla,” the manuscript had gone out before publication, and everybody read it, and everybody passed on it. I think enough people liked it, that when they read a screenplay that they felt solved the — and I’ll use enormous finger quotes here — “problems” of the material, they wanted to meet me.

But since they didn’t remember those specific issues (bearing in mind the average annual reading load of a development/studio executive), most of them remembered the book as being something they liked but didn’t buy. They didn’t really have a strong sense of just how much heavy lifting was involved.

So other than one or two producers, most of these meetings were of the “very nice to meet you, talk to us again when you have something we can make” variety.

10) Which brings us to “Jake and Mimi.” You go from a complicated story about race relations in California, to adapting Frank Baldwin’s sex thriller. What was it like dealing with that Ezsterhasian material, and how exactly did the material come to you?

DB: “Jake and Mimi” came about because Scott Steindorff was so pleased with the “Tortilla” adaptation that he wanted to get me on something else as soon as possible.

I had been a big fan of Baldwin’s “Balling the Jack” so when he sent me “Jake and Mimi” I was expecting something completely different. It took me a while to wrap my head around it, but eventually I came up with a take. Scott asked me to come in and discuss it. I showed up at the office, where he promptly informed me that we had to go pitch it to his partner on the project. Once we were in the car, I asked who his partner was, and he answered “Gene Simmons.”

My favorite moment from the meeting was when I was talking about some of my problems with the book and I said, “The problem is that the protagonist is a sexual predator.” Gene looked at me, completely deadpan, and said, “I have no idea what that means.”

He then went on to do five minutes of stand-up about how Tom Hanks was f—ing Wilson in “Castaway,” and how bogus he thought “Moulin Rouge” was — complete with faux-musical and balletic moments. All this while sitting in the basketball court-sized office filled with Kiss memorabilia.

An hour later, I called my girlfriend and left a message saying, “I just had the most f—ed-up meeting. And when I say f—ed up, I don’t mean f—ed up bad. I mean f—ed up f—ed up.”

I still took the job.

11) When taking on an adaptation, do you feel a duty to the novelist to keep his novel intact (or at least the “spirit” of the novel), or do you feel that it’s now a totally different animal and you have to do what it takes to make it a good script, even if that means changing it top to bottom?

DB: Every situation is different — bearing in mind that I’m doing it now for the third time, with at least one more in active development.

I think you take your cues from the producers. They’re generally pretty clear about what they do and do not want from you. Sometimes they require innovation. And sometimes they want you to be just clever enough without really stretching too far.

Fortunately, this is one of the few times I’ve been happy that I’ve been forced to do treatments. Because in the room it can seem like you all want the same thing — and everybody is caught up in the momentum and energy. If you can get something concrete approved before you start, then at least you’ve got backup that you really did intend to do something radical all along.

I tend to write all my own dialogue, but that’s just because I have my own f—ed-up style, and usually when I lift directly it just doesn’t mesh. When there is a viable story structure in place, or good set pieces, I leave those alone — since those are the elements that got the material optioned in the first place.

I feel for the writers I’ve adapted. I haven’t been rewritten yet, but I’ve come close, and the thought of it was heartbreaking. Sometimes the writers who rewrite you will be better than you. Often they’ll be worse. It’s just part of the deal.

12) You have the one original (“Young Americans”) and two adaptations (“Tortilla,” “Jake and Mimi”) under your belt. Are original screenplays a more personal experience — since you mold the characters straight from your mind — or can you make an adaptation your own, too?

DB: Actually, I’ve written seven original features and at least five original shorts. I’m currently working on my third feature adaptation. Just so we have the actual numbers for perspective.

To me originals are like painting, whereas adapting is more like sculpting. There’s a large chunk of material that you have to mold into a recognizable shape, as opposed to the blank canvass or open structure of an original. You can still make an adaptation your own — but it feels more like having an editor present as you work. There’s less time and room to pursue what could ultimately be a wrong choice.

However, the problem with originals for me at this point is that development people and producers want to shoehorn you into a niche or genre. So that you’re the “quirky romantic comedy” guy or the “he-man-woman-hatin’ action/thriller guy” and that tends to be all they want you to do. I’m finding that by building a niche as “the adaptation guy” it enables me to bypass the issue of genre — at least a little.

13) What do you think is the harshest reality for new writers?

DB: The biggest ones to my mind are representation and money.

For example, everybody should know what it means to be “hip-pocketed.” This is most common when dealing with a junior agent. Usually to bring on a new client, it has to get some kind of group signoff. So if the agent is not entirely convinced they can sell you to the group, they’ll say they want to work with you — but you are not really represented by the agency. There is no official record of your existence. They call you a lot and meet with you to follow your development, but there is only so much they can do on your behalf. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s kind of a client apprenticeship, and it can lead to good things. Just most “baby writers” don’t know this happens. It can be a harsh reality when someone calls your agent at William Morris and they say they’ve never heard of you. Not that this has ever happened to me. Ahem.

Money is the other thing, and it’s good to understand how it breaks down. Say you’re getting paid $100,000 for a first draft = $60,000, and one set of revisions = $40,000. The first $60,000 is then further broken down into two steps — commencement = $30,000 and completion = $30,000.

Okay so start off with taxes. They come off the top. Technically you’re self-employed, so estimated taxes are roughly 30 percent of gross. So that’s nine grand off the top. Then assuming you have a “team” — that’s ten percent to a manager, ten percent to an agent, and five percent to a lawyer — also off the gross. So that’s another $7,500. Then guild payments of 1.5 percent of gross — so that, if I’m doing my math right, is another $450.

So your $30,000 check in one day has been knocked down to $13,050. Which is still good money for twelve weeks’ work. You’re still taking home $1087.50 a week. But it’s a lot less impressive. And no one understands it. People perceive you as being much more successful than you really are.

14) What do you think is the biggest mistake young writers make — both in their scripts and in how they approach and handle the business end of things?

DB: I think the biggest mistake young writers make is they stop writing. They finish one script and assume that it will be good enough to get an agent, start a studio bidding war, and jumpstart their career.

This happens, but generally when it does, it ends in disaster (see: Troy Duffy/”Boondock Saints”). The best way to get hired is to have a body of work. People might hire you if they like one of your scripts, but they are more likely to hire you if they like several of your scripts.

The other big mistake I see — and this one gets a bit depressing, but bear with me — is a failure to understand that the reason the mainstream film industry is called an “industry” is because it is about creating a product.

To a certain extent this means generating material that can be made with movie stars, marketed with hit soundtracks, boiled down to pithy sound-bites, and released in malls across America.

Remember that I’m talking about spec screenwriting here, not filmmaking. “Dark” rarely sells. “Controversial” rarely sells. “Unconventional” rarely sells. Hell, “earnest” rarely sells. Any one of us can provide examples to the contrary, but those really are the exceptions, not the rule.

For the most part, the studio gatekeepers — the development executives — want good, solid genre fair. And you don’t have to like it. But you should understand it. And make peace with it. Because it is a reality of working within the system. Of making a living within the system.

Incidentally, this is still something I wrestle with every goddamn day.

15) People talk all the time about pitch meetings. How you have to sell yourself even more than the material. What’s the experience of pitching like, and does it hold true that you need to display personality and be able to sell yourself?

DB: Pitching often makes me feel like Jack Lemmon in “Glengarry Glenn Ross” — I might as well be selling widgets or real estate.

After you’ve given the same pitch ten times, it can start to lose meaning. You know the beats of the pitch. You fine-tune it so you know exactly what line to go up on to get a laugh. You learn what people don’t respond to, so you “Trojan Horse” it past them. And after a while, it can be like an out-of-body experience where you just hit the “on” button and listen to it coming out of your mouth. It’s something you have to do though. To work in the business, half of what you do is being a salesman and building relationships.

The development process can be so prolonged that it helps a lot if you are funny, weird, charming or whatever — because as they “try you on” in the room, they can’t dread the idea of talking to you over the course of a couple of years.

16) Every screenwriter — and every human walking the earth, it seems — wants to direct. Have you thought about it, and what does it take for a young, inexperienced writer to get that shot?

DB: Yeah, okay, I do want to direct, but only my own stuff. Of the stuff I’ve already written, only two would qualify — my first script, “The Godzilla Diaries,” and my last original, “Kingdom Come.”

For a young, untested screenwriter who wants to direct, buy a digital video camera. They’re getting cheaper all the time, and the quality of the image is surprisingly good. Having been to Sundance the last two years, it is getting harder to tell what has been shot on DV versus film, and most festivals feature digital projection now — so the transfer issue is becoming moot.

Going back to my earlier answer about the limitations of the industry, it’s better to bypass all that crap by making your own film than it is to rage against the machine. It’s become a lot easier to break through as an idiosyncratic filmmaker than it is as an eccentric screenwriter.

17) I’m going to have to ask for your indulgence here. This is something I like to ask people. Pushing aside how outlandish, impossible or (in the case of certain novels) long it may be, what is your fantasy project?

DB: Dream projects are tough, because it always breaks your heart when you know you didn’t or can’t get the job. Just this week, I was crushed to find out Andy Walker is writing the Evel Knievel movie. I’ve had a take for about four years that is sort of a “Little Big Man” version of his story.

I would have given my left nut for a shot at “Kavalier & Clay,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” “Lives of the Monster Dogs” or “Carter Beat the Devil.” I’m sure “Geek Love” would be the death of me, but oh for the chance to go down in flames with it.

Currently I’m tortured over “The Dogs of Babel.”

18) I think you referred to yourself somewhere in here as a working screenwriter. We often hear that writers are bullied and used in Hollywood. From your perspective, how do you feel Hollywood treats its writers?

DB: Yeah, writers get treated like doo-doo in Hollywood, but that’s the way it’s always been.

Read Fitzgerald’s “Pat Hobby” stories. Read Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run” and then jump ahead to Wagner’s “Force Majeure.” They’ve said it so much better than I ever could.

19) You’ll have to indulge me again. Here’s something I want to ask every person silly enough to sit down for these “20 Questions” interviews. Something I like to ask creative people, because the answers fascinate me. It’s a cheat, but I want all the favorites: CD, movie, script (as written and as filmed), TV show and book. Feel free to list explanations and runner-ups.

DB: A partial list of favorites:

Music: repeat offenders include Tom Waits (everything but the operas), Badly Drawn Boy, Costello and Bowie.

Movies: too many to count…“All That Jazz,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Citizen Kane,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”… (I could keep going here, but no one really cares.)

Scripts: Unproduced — “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “A Crowded Room.” Produced, but I like the scripts better — “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich.”

Books: I love Michael Chabon. He writes books that feel like they were plucked from my head and written just for me — I can’t wait for his next book about a fictional Jewish homeland in Alaska. John Irving is hit and miss, but when he hits he rocks my world. “Widow for a Year” is one of the best books about the creative process I’ve ever read. Jonathan Lethem is problematically eclectic, but never boring.

TV Shows: Currently drooling at the thought of upcoming seasons of “The Shield” and “The Sopranos.” “Arrested Development” is the funniest thing on television right now. Really looking forward to more of “Carnivale,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Six Feet Under.” Oh, and “Angel” this season is a really pleasant surprise. I loves me my Tivo.

20) To put a cap on this, since we focused on the reality of screenwriting: what’s the best advice on writing that you’ve gotten from someone else, and what do you wish someone had told you when you first started out?

DB: Wow. I think the thing that always comes back to me was one of the few nuggets I harvested from my fancy NYU education. A teacher there named Bennett Sims asked us on the first day of class “Who here likes to write?”

Thinking ourselves the best of the best, the cream of the crop, we all raised our hands. He smiled and said, “That’s bullshit. I don’t care who you are. No one really likes writing. It’s fine to say that you like ‘having written.’ When you have an accumulation of pages that you can point at and go ‘I made that.’ Introducing yourself as a screenwriter at parties. But the actual writing is solitary, hard, grueling, draining work. And only a complete masochist would say he likes writing.”

I don’t always agree with that. But I have my moments, where I’m just completely in the weeds. Beating myself up. And I can take some small comfort in knowing that’s it’s not just me.

As far as what I wish someone had told me, I’d say learning how long things take. Even when you have a deal, there are snags everywhere. On average things take six months longer than you think they will. And no matter how much you point at your contract and say “that’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” it just doesn’t matter… Time flows differently here. Do what you can to protect yourself. Mind, body and soul. Because no one else will.