I work at the corporate headquarters of Kohl's Department Stores in the marketing department, and just like a bit of good gossip, news of Steve Smith's success with his screenplay, Summer of '84, spread fast. Steve is a senior copywriter (and my co-worker) by day and a screenwriter and author by night. He just got back from Vancouver where one of his screenplays came to life – in 2018, people everywhere will be able to see Summer of '84.
Read on to learn more about Steve's career and his advice for future screenwriters, plus you can catch some behind the scenes info and photos from the filming of Summer of '84:
My Midwest Is Showing: You wrote the screenplay for Summer of '84. What did that process entail? How long did it take?
Steve Smith: Summer of ’84 is the sixth feature-length screenplay I wrote with my writing partner, Matt Leslie, and our first produced feature film. The idea for the movie came from our love of 80s movies and pop culture, and wanting to write a movie in that same vein, using modern storytelling techniques and themes so it would feel relevant and fresh today while still giving you the feeling of watching something from back then. We’re both big fans of movies like “Stand By Me,” “The Goonies,” “Lost Boys,” “The Burbs,” and from that sprung the idea to write a movie about a group of boys in the suburbs who come to believe that a newly revealed serial killer at large in their community might actually live in their neighborhood. It might be someone they personally know. Making SO84 feel authentic and real was our driving force when coming up with the turns of the story and where it ends up going. So many movies about teens end up feeling like a Scooby Doo episode, where the bad guy is left yelling, “I would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids!” That’s not reality. If a fifteen-year-old kid figured out the identity of a real serial killer, things wouldn’t end so neat and clean.
In terms of the writing process, ours is an interesting one because Matt lives in LA, so we’ve had to work out a method that overcomes the obstacle of the distance and the time zone issue. First, we talk together on long phone calls over a few nights to create an outline in a Google document, working out the entire movie down to a pretty good level of detail for every scene. We have to do this so that when we start writing the actual script, everything’s mapped out and there won’t be any major plot holes created by either person. The outline stage typically takes a couple weeks up to a month, depending on the project. Once we’ve locked down the outline, we move onto the actual writing of the screenplay. We break the story into twelve sequences, each one representing 8-10 pages of script (the sweet spot for a screenplay is to be between 100 and 120 pages, though the closer to 100 you can be, the better). Matt writes all the odd numbered sequences, and I write the evens. We send each other each sequence as we finish them so that we can keep an eye on how the story and characters are tracking, and make sure the voices of the characters sound the same throughout the script. Then we compile all the sequences into one master draft. We’ll get back on our marathon phone calls at that point and work through every page together, refining and rewriting, and at the end of that process, that’s our first draft. We send that to our manager and agent, who give us notes, and then we do a revision. When we’re all happy with the revised draft, that’s the one that gets sent out to production companies, studios, and financiers for consideration.
All told, each script takes us between 3 and 5 months. Summer of ‘84 took us just over 3 months from starting the outline to finished draft. It was just under a full year before the script was sold, we did a “production pass” on the script to incorporate notes from the production company, and we started filming the movie right around 16 months after we completed the first draft.
MMWIS: You were on set during the filming of the movie – what was it like to see your screenplay come to life?
SS: Being on the set was incredible. It was the first movie set I’ve ever been on, so that by itself would have made the experience special, but having it be the set of a movie I wrote put it almost into a surreal place. I actually couldn’t be there for the first two weeks of filming, so for me, arriving at the start of week 3, I basically walked off a plane and straight into a fully up-and-running world that, until then, had only existed in my mind and as words on paper. When you see this small village of people running around doing all this work with all the equipment and trailers everywhere, and you realize that everyone’s there because you sat for weeks at your computer and came up with a story, it’s this odd mix of pride, shock, humility and gratitude. People don’t realize that on a lot of movies, the writer isn’t even allowed to be on the set, so I was very conscious of the privilege and unique opportunity, and I tried to soak it all in. It was a dream come true to sit behind the monitors and watch the movie being filmed, to hear the dialogue we wrote and rewrote and agonized over to the tiniest detail finally coming to life through our incredibly talented cast. It was definitely a highlight of my life as a writer to collaborate with the directors and the actors on all the various production rewrites that needed to happen along the way, either for budget or time reasons, or physical locations being a little different than what we’d imagined when writing and requiring different blocking of scenes. Such a fun process to huddle together, come up with a solution and then turn around and shoot the new material right then and there. Throughout the shoot, I had this constant inner conflict going on about taking as many photos as I could so I’d always have them, but also never looking away so I wouldn’t miss a second of the real experience of being there. Everything moves so quickly and you’re so completely focused on every detail of bringing that movie to life that by the end of it, it feels like you were in a totally different world. It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had before (but will hopefully have many more times).
MMWIS: How did you get involved in the film industry? What was your education and career path?
SS: Screenwriting is basically a combination of different things I’ve always been interested in. I didn’t realize that it was something I wanted to pursue as a career until I was in college. What I started out wanting to do was actually animation and comic book illustration. I’ve always been big into comic books, and my afternoons were dominated by cartoon series like the 90s X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman The Animated Series. I thought that’s what I wanted to do for a career. I looked into various art schools, but ultimately ended up going to UW-Madison to get an undergrad degree and then pursue a master’s at a full-on art school after that. While I was taking art classes at Madison, stuck doing unending rounds of still life pieces and static images, I was getting really creatively frustrated. Then I took an elective creative writing course and rekindled something in myself that I’d forgotten. When I was in elementary school, two stories I wrote and illustrated won state awards, and in those comic books and animated series I loved so much, it was always the story and the characters that I connected with so strongly. Once I took that writing course and I was free to create worlds and characters and plotlines and themes, I realized what I had been looking to do all along was tell stories. My writing instructor often told me that he could tell I was an artist because my writing was vivid and full of visual detail, and when the second story I wrote for that class was published in a local magazine, he encouraged me to jump from art over to writing. I ended up graduating with a BA in English with a creative writing emphasis, and my thesis collection of short stories won an award for writing excellence through the university. During my senior year, based on my love of movies and TV, I thought I could combine my writing with my visual storytelling sense into writing for the screen. After graduation, I moved to L.A. to attend the UCLA Extension Program for Screenwriting. I learned screenplay format, story beats, how to break down movies to identify act structures and character arcs, the necessary tools of the craft, and there was also a workshop component that involved weekly table reads and critiques of our material, which was instrumental in learning how a script should sound when performed. After UCLA, I spent the next 8 years working on spec scripts, being part of a couple weekly writers’ groups, submitting scripts to contests (placing well in most), and attending a host of seminars, workshops and conventions, trying to meet as many people as I could while soaking up as much information and instruction that I could to further my own craft. That was all done on the side of having a full-time job as a copywriter for various movie studios like MGM and New Line. When I moved back to Wisconsin, I kept at it, churning out scripts and partnering up with Matt after the first script we wrote together won the grand prize in a screenwriting contest. In the last couple years, we secured representation and had our scripts start getting into the hands of the real decision makers. There are a few annual lists of the “best of” spec scripts that haven’t been produced yet, voted on by executives, agents and managers in the industry, and we’ve made those lists the last two years, including 2016’s Young & Hungry List, which is the top 100 new writers to watch in Hollywood. All that finally led to our selling Summer of ‘84 and getting it produced.
MMWIS: What advice would you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
SS: For someone wanting to be a screenwriter, I would offer a few pointers. First off, if you’re young and can afford it, try to get into one of the top screenwriting programs, like USC or UCLA. You’ll learn a lot and get a ton of practice out of it, but that’s not the real reason why. A degree in screenwriting really isn’t worth anything on its own. The reason why one of those programs will be incredibly beneficial is that you’ll meet a ton of people there who can help you. You can be the greatest screenwriter in the world, but just as important as being a great screenwriter is your network. That’s my second piece of advice: Your success is dependent on who you know, how many people you know, and how well they know and want to work with you. I’m not very outgoing by nature. Not that I’m shy, I’m just the quiet one in the room taking it all in usually, and I don’t really enjoy small talk or going out to meet people. And that’s been a big struggle for me trying to break into screenwriting. Remember that moviemaking is a business full of performers and people who love to talk; if you want to work with those people, you have to be one of them, or at least learn how to fake it when you need to. By going through a screenwriting program, some of that networking will be done for you. Third, watch a lot of TV and movies so you know the end product, but also read a ton of screenplays. It’s much easier to study a movie or show when you’re reading the words on the page and not distracted by the visuals or music or performances in the final product. They say a screenplay is a blueprint for a movie and not meant to be read on its own, which is true unless you want to be a screenwriter. An architect who only studies finished buildings will never learn how to construct all the things happening behind the walls or down in the foundation. Same thing with screenwriting. And lastly, “breaking in” takes far, far longer than you can imagine, so make sure you really love writing and be willing to stick with it for as long as it takes. I’ve been writing screenplays for 13 years, and “Summer of ‘84” is my first produced one. Those 13 years have been full of critiques from every side on how each script could be better, what to change, why things would be hard to cast, why it would be hard to raise a budget, why your idea is too close to another movie (even if that other movie came out a year after you wrote your script), and all other manner of reasons that people can use to say no to you. You have to shrug it off and keep writing new projects. Think of all that as a test, where only the strong will survive. Believe in yourself, show everyone you have the strength to keep going against all odds, and eventually, someone will notice and say yes.
MMWIS: What's a normal day like for you?
SS: I hope my normal day doesn’t scare away any prospective screenwriters. Ha. A normal day for me begins at 7am. I have a 5-year-old daughter, so she and I get up and get ready for our day at the same time. My wife is a teacher and has to be out the door before we do, so she’s usually running around getting ready until she leaves. I walk my daughter to her bus a little after 8am, then head to my job at the corporate headquarters of Kohl’s Department Stores. I’m a senior copywriter in the marketing department there, working on campaigns, presenting ideas and writing a lot of the copy you see in Kohl’s stores. From 9am to sometime between 5pm and 6pm, I’m there working that side of my writing brain. I leave there, drive 35 minutes home singing to the radio or daydreaming ideas for scripts or noodling on difficult aspects of something I’m working on. I get home and have dinner with the family right away, then we hang out together for a bit. After playtime or bath time for my daughter depending on the day, I’ll put her to bed at 8:30pm. Then I’ll spend time with my wife until she goes to bed around 9pm. I might read a bit then or review notes on a project I’m working on, and at 10pm, I’ll get on the phone with Matt to work on one or more of our projects (or I’ll write screenplay pages if we’re at that stage). We’ll work through until around 2am on average, when we call it a night because we’re getting groggy. But it’s hard to just go to sleep immediately after working on something for so long, so I’ll usually finish out the night by watching an episode of something on TV to unwind, and then I go to bed sometime before 3am. Then the alarm blares at 7am and I do it all again. That’s typically 5 nights a week.
MMWIS: What comes next for Summer of '84?
SS: Right now, the directors are working with the editor on cutting together the movie from everything we filmed. It’s kind of a radio silence period for me as they’re doing that. I can’t wait to see it all edited together once they’re done. From there, the plan is to world premiere the movie at the Sundance Film Festival this January. After that, it could go multiple ways, so the timetable is hard to pin down exactly, but everyone should be able to see it sometime in 2018 on movie screens nationwide.
MMWIS: Are you working on any new screenplays?
SS: Matt and I have a number of things going on right now. We’re working with four different companies on four different TV series that are in various states of development. We’ll be writing pilots for them soon. Another movie script we wrote was optioned by a production company and they’re having meetings with actors and directors to get them attached (we’re hoping that will go into production in the next couple months). We’re also working on two new spec scripts for movies right now that we’re really excited about, hoping to have one completely done by the end of the year. And on my rare nights off from screenwriting, I’m also working on my second novel. The first one, “The Sabrael Confession,” is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Without giving away any spoilers, Wisconsin and UW-Madison play a big role in that book. I’d love for my fellow Midwesterners to check it out.
MMWIS: What are you currently reading? Watching? Listening to?
SS: On TV, I’m big into the Berlanti-verse of superhero shows (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl), and I also watch Preacher, Turn, Legion, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead and You’re The Worst. I just finished binging all of Community, Glow, and Wayward Pines. I’m the worst when it comes to reading, because I tend to bounce around with a handful of books at once. Right now I’m reading The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix (an older X-men collection), The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas, The Power of the Dark Side by Pamela Jaye Smith (a book about writing villains), and Deliverance and Spiritual Warfare: A Manual by John Eckhardt. I’m also reading the pilot episode scripts for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community, Modern Family, New Girl, Scrubs and 30 Rock for research. And as for listening, lately I’ve been listening to a lot of St. Lucia, Friendly Fires, Two Steps From Hell, and Henry Jackman.
MMWIS: If someone was visiting Wisconsin for the first time, what would you tell them to do first?
SS: The first thing I always tell newbies is how awesome it is to shovel a driveway, and then I hand them a shovel and encourage them to try it out on mine. Haha. I’m actually always partial to telling people to go see the Milwaukee Public Museum, which is still my favorite museum anywhere. But I think it really depends on the season for me. In the summertime, I’d suggest walking around Milwaukee, seeing the Pabst Mansion, a show at the Pabst or Riverside Theaters, a historic riverboat tour or one of the Fests. In the fall, I’d say head out to the top of Holy Hill and take in the breathtaking view of all the autumn trees in full color. In the winter, I’d say nothing beats a stay at the Grand Geneva (especially around Christmas), including a day on the ski slopes, a massage at the spa and a candlelit dinner at The ChopHouse restaurant. In the spring, I’d tell people to go find wherever Hayward Williams is playing and treat yourself to a helluva show while tossing back a few local microbrews and waiting for it to warm up again. And in any season, I’d suggest having a cold New Glarus Spotted Cow with a Friday fish fry, a side of cheese curds, and finish it off with a warm slice of caramel apple pie from the Elegant Farmer (in Mukwonago). That’s Wisconsin.
MMWIS: Favorite thing about the Midwest?
SS: My favorite thing about the Midwest is the sense of calm, the open spaces, and the changing of the seasons. Nature, I guess. In the Midwest, and Wisconsin specifically, there’s a relationship to nature that I really missed when I was living in L.A., where everything is cramped, crowded and generally stays within the same ten-degree range year-round. It took a couple years after moving here to acclimate, but my L.A.-native wife feels the same way now. The connection to the seasons in the Midwest is unlike anywhere else I’ve been. I think a big part of the “Wisconsin nice” phenomenon is based on our shared experience of (and survival despite) the seasons. I love eating caramel apples as the leaves change and the wind gets brisk in the fall. I love in winter how light playing off the snow can make the night bright and everyone bonds together like one big team fighting against the cold. I also love all the open spaces, the rolling fields of green and the woodlands around the state that haven’t been taken over and destroyed by development. I’ve always felt very connected to, as well as energized and calmed by, nature, and when I’m away from the Midwest, that’s always what I miss most.
MMWIS: How does your Midwest show through your personality and/or what you do?
SS: I feel like my Midwest shows most strongly through my optimism, work ethic and the way I treat people I meet. People in the Midwest are known for being hard-working, always nice and down-to-earth, and I do my best to keep up the tradition wherever I go. I also try to nod to Wisconsin in each of my projects. Sometimes in a small way, sometimes in major ways. See if you can spot them.