❉ We talk with the writer of the high-concept action thriller which opens in UK cinemas today.
“It’s absolutely not an “Oscar Movie” – but it is a fun and exciting action film shot mostly in real time. The objective was to keep an audience on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes. And I think – I hope – it succeeds at that… It’s fun to write action films like these – and on a personal level, I get to work on my stress through the writing!”
With the UK release of the exciting and propulsive action thriller In the Line of Duty, the film’s screenwriter, Jeremy Drysdale, spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about his career, Grand Theft Parsons, his writing process, his thoughts on his latest actioner and what’s in store for the future!
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Jeremy. I was a big fan of In the Line of Duty. It’s exactly the sort of old-school, unpretentious programmer that the studios used to deliver once a month back in the day and that’s now sorely missed!
I appreciate that and I’m delighted that you enjoyed the film. There’s still great demand from audiences for these types of fast-moving action movies, and it was a lot of fun to put it together. Films like this used to sell very easily in the ’90s, but these days it’s getting tougher because studios have moved away from making them. They’re really concentrating more on the super-budget blockbusters and less the smaller, character-driven action films. I think that’s a real shame, because there’s an enormous appetite for them, as we’ve discovered.
How did you get into screenwriting?
I started out in advertising in my late teens, and I worked my way up to Creative Director at an agency. It was tedious work, but it paid very well – which can be a dangerous combination because when people are earning good money they just sit back and don’t take any risks. I’d saved up some cash and quit my job, which was sort of crazy because I didn’t have an agent or any formal screenwriting training. And then I just started writing.
What was your first creative endeavor?
I thought I’d write a script based on a true story I’d heard about Gram Parsons and his best friend and the pact they made that when one of them died the other would take the body out to Joshua Tree and set fire to it in the desert. This story became Grand Theft Parsons.
How were you able to get the rights to the story?
I called the body burner, a larger-than-life character called Phil Kaufman. The first time, he hung up on me. Then I called back and he hung up again. On the third try I think he realised I was going to be a right pain, so he made me agree to fly from London to his home in Nashville to meet with him in person because he wouldn’t discuss it on the phone. What I didn’t know was that he’d already been approached dozens of times about the rights to the story and he wasn’t interested in it being made into a film – so he assumed I wouldn’t bother. When I arrived in Nashville, I didn’t have a hotel room booked so he reluctantly let me stay with him and eventually I wore him down and he gave me a six month option to finish a script – just to get rid of me, I think. Within a year we were shooting in California.
So how does a screenwriter with no agent get their first script made into a movie so fast?
I’d written some specs which I hadn’t shown to anyone and I had some writing experience from my days in the advertising world, so I had a general idea about how to structure and format a screenplay but no professional training. I was lucky that it was material people really believed in and a story that people wanted to get behind – financiers were interested in Gram Parsons, so I had an immediate leg up. Financing came together quickly, and I was able to get an agent. Then, an up and coming director called David Caffrey got attached and a very young and hungry producer named Frank Mannion put it all together. He raised the rest of the money and we quickly cast Michael Shannon in a small role – this was before he got really big – and initially we were talking with Hugh Jackman for the lead.
So how did Johnny Knoxville eventually get cast?
Hugh had somehow got hold of a copy of the script and he wanted to do it in between shooting one of the X-Men movies and something else he had coming up. He only had this small window of time, and it ultimately didn’t work out because of the scheduling. But it was Hugh’s idea to bring on Johnny Knoxville, who at that time hadn’t done much acting – other than horsing around on Jackass. Hugh was instrumental in getting Knoxville involved, and ultimately it was perfect casting because Johnny was every bit as unusual and idiosyncratic as Phil Kaufman had been at the time Gram died. We were also lucky with Christina Applegate and got an amazing cast together for what was really just a small indie film.
Can you tell us a little about what you’ve been working on between Grand Theft Parsons and this year’s In the Line of Duty?
I’ve been writing full time and professionally ever since Grand Theft Parsons. I’ve done uncredited re-writes and polishes, have worked on a few video games and some TV and have sold a bunch of high-concept specs.
What’s it like being a script doctor? How hard is it to jump into a project with very little contextual knowledge and then be asked to preform written surgery on the material?
In many ways it’s easier to work on something that’s already in process, because you haven’t been around for the multiple years that the project has been in development and you don’t have that sense of tunnel vision that people who are really close to the material tend to experience. You’re basically asked to focus on something specific – character work or action beats or dialogue – and you just make the changes that feel the most natural. It was a lot easier getting stuff sold in the ’90s, so as a result there are now less projects being purchased. But the demand for script doctors is always there.
So, you’re really attracted to high-concept material?
Developing high-concept material is what I’ve been doing for the last few years and this is what led to In the Line of Duty. These concepts can really sell themselves, if you get them right. For instance, In the Line of Duty is about a disgraced cop who finds himself in a race against time to find a kidnap victim whose abductor he accidentally killed. She’ll die in 75 minutes unless she can be found and she could be absolutely anywhere in the city. It’s fun to write action films like these – and on a personal level, I get to work on my stress through the writing!
What did you think of how In the Line of Duty finished up? Did it live up to your expectations?
As always, there were a few changes that made it into the final film – but overall, I’m very pleased with how it turned out. There were some extra bits of banter between the characters that got added and a big action sequence got removed, but that’s a regular occurrence with any project. It’s absolutely not an “Oscar Movie” – but it is a fun and exciting action film shot mostly in real time. The objective was to keep an audience on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes. And I think – I hope – it succeeds at that.
Aaron Eckhart was a great choice for the lead role. Do you write with actors in mind?
I always write with actors in my head even if they’re not necessary exactly right for the role. When I was writing In the Line of Duty, I had Bruce Willis in mind because the character just felt very much like the sort of guy that Bruce plays so well. When I heard that Aaron was interested and ultimately that he wanted to jump on it, I got very excited because he’s a terrific actor and I’ve always been a fan. And it turned out that he absolutely smashed it. A nice guy, too.
Were you on-set during production doing on-the-fly script changes?
I was able to visit the set in Alabama for a week and had the chance to see lots of helicopters flying around during the action scenes – but I wasn’t doing rewrites or anything like that. They had their script locked in, so it wasn’t really necessary. You know how it goes – the writer is the last guy invited to the set! But I had it in my contract that I’d be able to check it out, and everyone on the team was supportive of me visiting and having some fun on set.
Steven C. Miller has become a prolific action specialist over the last few years. What did you think of what he brought to the table?
I hadn’t seen any of Steven’s previous films, but I knew his work and was aware that his sensibilities were a great match for the material. He understood what I was trying to do and he was able to bring some qualities to the process that made the film even stronger. I knew about his style of filmmaking and I love that he collaborates with the same team of craftspeople from show to show, all of whom are experts in their field. He also works tremendously fast – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director work that quickly before. He really knew what he wanted to get accomplished and he nailed it.
What’s your favourite film?
My favourite film is David Fincher’s Se7en. It’s perfect. The depth of character is extraordinary and the structure is brilliant. I sat completely rapt in the cinema the first time I saw it and actually shouted at the screen when John Doe gave himself up because that was so disappointing. And then… boom! It’s a film that I’ve come back to over the years many times. The final 15 minutes are incredible, and I think Fincher is one of the greatest directors of all-time.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a lot of stuff, because as a jobbing screenwriter I have to have lots of projects on the table. I’ve finished an action-thriller called The Game, which I can’t say too much about, other than what’s already available online. It’s based on existing IP and it’s one of those things that everyone responds to. There’s some money attached to the project, and we’ve got Pierre Morel on board to direct. It’s a franchise starter with an interesting angle on familiar genre elements and I’m hopeful that it’s finally going to happen next year.
I recently wrote an original spec called Badwater which I’m hoping also gets shot in 2020. There’s some great names and money attached, and it’s another high-concept action thriller. It’s set in a maximum-security prison outside of Las Vegas, and it’s about an inmate who is told his family has been kidnapped and he has to kill his cellmate otherwise he’ll never see them alive again. He decides to break out and kill the people responsible for taking his family, before breaking back into the prison without anyone realizing he was ever gone in order to give himself an alibi. Another fun, high-concept idea.
I’ve also got a script set in Hong Kong called Blank, which is about a guy who wakes up in a shipping container with zero memory of who he is and how he got there. It’s a frantic, kinetic action movie and I had a blast writing it, because it’s exactly the sort of movie that I love to watch. But I’m always trying to keep things grounded in character, because without any sense of motivation and context, it’s just things blowing up on screen – and that can get boring. There always has to be a strong sense of purpose. That’s what makes things work…
And I’m also working on two television projects. One is a commission from a broadcaster – a ghost story set in 1800s London, which is based on existing IP. It’ll be scary and thrilling and a lot of fun. The other is a post-war gangster drama set in London which is based on a true story. I’m trying to get that sold right now and it may just be the best thing I’ve ever written. Watch this space.
❉ Signature Entertainment presents ‘In the Line of Duty’ in Cinemas and on Digital HD from 3 January 2020. Directed by Steven C Miller. Duration: 99 mins approx.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.