Q&A with Evan Spiliotopoulos

Apr 25, 2014 by

Evan

Interview with Hercules screenwriter, Evan Spiliotopoulos

Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes):  What is your background? Where and what did you study and how did you get your first job in the industry?

Evan Spiliotopoulos:  I moved to the States from Greece straight out of High School. Got an undergraduate degree in Film Theory from the University of Delaware, then a Masters in Screenwriting from American University in DC. In ’95, I made my way to Los Angeles and got a job as an intern on a TV movie called “Trial By Fire” starring Keith Carradine. I ended up working mostly with the line producer. After a few weeks, he asked to read something of mine, liked it and recommended me to a producer named Avi Nesher who had just done a deal with the Sci-Fi Chanel for a series of million dollar movies and was looking for writers to develop his ideas. I was cheap, hungry and able to string two sentences together so, for Avi, I fit the bill. I ended up working on two films as a credited screenwriter and a couple more as “story editor.” The results were… not the best. But they gave me my start — and really served to illustrate how sometimes having any produced credit is better than none. It means you were good enough for a producer to give you a shot, it makes you a more proven and seasoned writer.

Kevin:  What is a typical writing day for you like and where do you do most of your writing?

Evan:  Writing bookends my day. I have a room in my house designated as an office. Occasionally, if it’s not too hot, I’ll take my laptop into the garden. But in general I prefer the silence and isolation of the office. I’ll write from 10am to 1, then live until 10pm, then write again until 1am. So six hours of writing generally a day. In between, while engaged in other things, my mind tends to be working on the script. I find ideas pop up when I’m driving mostly, and of course the shower. This summer I was on set in Budapest for Hercules. Writing was done at the production office until we started shooting. And then, the set.

Kevin:  What is the logline for the first screenplay you ever wrote and where does that script reside currently?

Evan:  I wrote my first script when I was 16. It was dreck. For reasons of global security, it is currently locked in a crate in a secret warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant. If I told you the logline, you would die in seven days.

 

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Kevin:  How did you get your first agent or manager?

Evan:  This story is actually the definition of finding a silver lining in a bad situation. In early 2000, I had a script set up with a hot action star of the day. This was a very big deal for me as I had not been hired by Disney yet and my only produced credits were cable B movies. Unfortunately certain, shall we say, “shifty” entities were involved in the film’s financing and the producers ended up suing each other. Result: the film never got made. Caught in the middle of this insanity, I was forced to find a lawyer to protect my script. My lawyer, Sean Marks, took one look at the mess and said, “This would never have happened if you had an agent.” So he hooked me up with a great agent named DJ Talbot at ICM. Fourteen years later, Sean is still my lawyer and DJ has become my manager (my agency is now UTA). And from this terrible incident, my career took off.

Kevin:  You’ve written a number of animated films such as Jungle Book 2, Tarzan II and The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning. What special considerations go into writing animated features as opposed to live action?

Evan:  In live action, you are limited by budget and practicality. In animation, you are only limited by your own imagination. As technology and CGI develop, live action has become more like animation — but there are still things that are manifestly too expensive or simply impossible to create. No such worries in animation. You want your human characters to be changing into animals every time they sneeze? Done. Planets falling out of orbit and line dancing? No problem. Volcanoes erupting in tune as part of a geological orchestra? Doable. I remember spending one day in the bullpen on Disney’s Three Musketeers discussing different ways to beat up a turtle.

Kevin:  How did you make the transition from writing primarily animated features to big budget, action adventure films like Hercules and Wanted 2?

Evan:  I worked as a staff writer at Disney animation for eight years. In 2008, I felt it was time to get back into live action. Thanks to Disney, my credits had grown and my name was more recognizable and a step more respected in the industry. I was approached by producer Barry Josephson to adapt a graphic novel titled “The Last Call” into a live action script. “The Last Call” was the ideal marriage between where I was and where I wanted to go. It told the story of two teens, Sam and Alex, who get trapped aboard an interdimensional express filled with strange creatures. In atmosphere, it was the live action take on Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” I loved the project so much and was so confident in the material, I quit my Disney job before I even started pitching. On the third day of taking “The Last Call” out, Universal stepped in and bought it. That altered the town’s perception of me as a cartoon writer. Then on the strength of my “Last Call” draft, Universal brought me aboard “Wanted 2” and then “Snow White and the Huntsman.” After that, I was accepted as an action writer.

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Kevin:  You adapted supernatural action thriller Seal Team 666, from Weston Ochse’s novel, into a feature with Dwayne Johnson attached to star. What is Seal Team 666 about and what was the most challenging aspect of adapting the book into a feature film?

Evan:  Putting it simply, it is “Predator” but on a global scale. Imagine the military unit from “Predator” plunged in the world of “The Conjuring.” The challenge is tone — we want the film to be exciting and scary but still feel grounded.

Kevin:  You wrote a script based on the 1970’s Atari video game classic, Asteroids, but the film has yet to be produced. Can you dish a little on what the storyline of Asteroids is?

Evan:  “The Great Escape” in space. Asteroids is a classic science fiction space opera in which a defeated humanity finds the hope and courage to rise up against far more powerful and seemingly invincible aliens. It was a lot of fun to work on. I think the catch with that one is budget. Not exactly an indie.

Kevin:  In addition to Asteroids, you were hired to do a rewrite on the script based on the board game, Ouija. Do you find it more challenging or liberating to write a story based on a video game or board game that has no real story and little source material do draw from?

Evan:  I find it far far more liberating. The issue with adapting a beloved game that already has a detailed story or mythology is that fans are often married to elements that simply do not function in a film narrative. So invariably you will be letting people down by choosing not to include what may be their favorite parts. Being given nothing other than a title and a basic idea is far more exciting as you get to create an entire world, devise the rules, give birth to the characters. If you do a good job and the movie turns out well, now whenever people play the game, they are bringing your creations into their experience.

hercules banner

Be sure to see Evan’s new movie, HERCULES starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by Brett Ratner, in theaters July 25th, 2014!

Kevin:  If you had to do one of Hercules’ Twelve Labours, which would you choose and why?

Evan:  The Belt of Hippolyta. Amazons. Bondage. ‘Nuff said.

Kevin:  What are your favorite screenwriting resources?

Evan:  imdb is the go-to place for information. I love “Written By” the WGA magazine for its in-depth interviews and for promoting screenwriters as a community. Also simplyscripts for its seemingly endless library of online screenplays. In terms of books, I swear by Viki King’s How To Write A Movie In 21 Days.

Kevin:  Lastly, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters, or is there anything else you’d like to share?

Evan:  Learn the history of film. I cannot tell you how many hopeful screenwriters I meet who are ignorant of the roots of our medium. Never watched a silent film. Never heard of D.W. Griffith or King Vidor. Writers whose cinematic universe begins with Star Wars. This is like becoming a painter without any awareness of the Renaissance masters. Or in more practical terms, it is like becoming a lawyer without any knowledge of precedent. Watch old movies. Study the evolution of the medium. Learn from the past. Your writing will grow richer.

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BONUS Q’s:

Kevin: Who would you rather have lunch with: Chris Evans or Evan Rachel Wood?

Evan:  Ha! I’ve worked with them both on “Battle For Terra,” an animated feature I wrote a few years ago. Both are great people and enormous talents. But, with respect to Chris, I’d rather have lunch with Evan Rachel Wood.

Kevin: Which special forces team is your favorite: Army Green Berets, Air Force Pararescue or Navy SEALs?

Evan:  All three of course are extraordinary. But given my involvement with SEAL Team 666, it would be treason not to go with the SEALs.

Kevin: Other than Dwayne Johnson (in the upcoming Hercules film you wrote), who made the best Hercules: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Hercules in New York), Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) or Tate Donovan (Disney’s Hercules)?

Evan:  Here’s the thing. In the original legends, Hercules is very different from his portrayal in most films and contemporary stories. While Hercules is often heroic, he is just as often vain, brutish, selfish, needlessly violent and a bully. The best representation of the authentic Hercules is Nigel Green in the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts.  But given these three choices: Sorbo.

 

Kevin

Kevin

I invented the Frappucino. My dream is to visit Dollywood. Sometimes I host a podcast on writing @ScriptsScribes. Only one of those things is true.
Kevin

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