Chad Callaghan Talks “Redshift”

Chad Callaghan Talks “Redshift”
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Chad Callaghan studied playwriting at Yale under Donald Margulies, where he was the school’s first gay sex-and-dating columnist (and yes, his mom read his column, and the ensuing conversations were just as awkward as you imagine.) He received an MFA in acting from the National Theater Conservatory and spent several years writing and performing all over the country. Eventually, he realized “Profession: Actor” was seriously limiting his Tinder prospects so he got into advertising because it’s sexier on paper. He and his mother are now working on a new version of their period legal pilot with a showrunner-led production company.

In 2017, Callaghan won the ISA’s Emerging Screenwriters Contest and Top 25 Writers to Watch with his sci-fi pilot Redshift, and in 2018 he won the Final Draft Big Break Contest with his period legal drama Portia’s Law (co-written with his mother, Hana Callaghan). His feature film script The MiIller Family Rifle, a dramedy about gun control, is currently in development with producer Aaron Cruze.

Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project that attracted ISA interest?

I was a stage actor for a long time – I have an MFA from the National Theater Conservatory and I spent about 4 years based in New York, cobbling together a living from regional theater gigs, but I’ve always been a writer – scribbling scenes backstage, setting up cabarets and readings of new plays with my cast mates. I came to theater because I was a gay boy in a Catholic school, and the theater department was a safe space for all the freaks, geeks, and weirdos.

It was where you could pretend to be someone else for a day. I’d always been a hungry hungry hippo when it came to consuming books – living inside a stranger’s head was heaven, and with the theater, you got to actually become that person. But I suppose I’m a control freak, so I wanted to wrangle control of the narrative, and that meant writing.

I really made the switch to focus on my writing when a short play I’d written (for a grad school acting cabaret, actually) was a finalist for a theater prize called the Heideman Award. That play got me a few interviews with ad agencies because everyone wants “content” now instead of “commercials.” And I realized, if writing full time was truly where I was headed, I didn’t have to live in New York. And I can’t tell you how relieved I was. The entire weight of an 8.6 million person island fell off my shoulders.

New York does a funny thing to you: to get from one place to another, you have to fight your way through a sea of people. Not cars, people. And so, little by little, you train your psyche to see people not as human beings, but as obstacles. You strap on your armor – probably a wool coat and an oversized backpack – you pop in your earbuds, and you head to war. The enemy is all around you, and their one goal is to prevent you from crossing Broadway. At least in LA, the enemy is an Audi. Or a Prius, more likely. People can be people again.

When I finally moved to LA, I got a job running the editorial department for a protein bar company, which was actually a lot more fun than it sounds. There were ad campaigns! There were cooking shows on YouTube! There were prank videos! But for those two years, I got up at 5 AM every day and wrote for 2-3 hours before work. I made a commitment to give my own writing the best hours of my day. And that’s when I wrote Redshift, the script that won the ISA’s Emerging Screenwriters Competition.

Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?

I’m a storyteller. Always have been. An acting teacher in college actually made us write all of our own material because she said writing and acting come from the same impulse. While the stage will always be my first love, I think the most exciting writing is happening on television right now, and I want in.

What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?

I think my career as an actor prepared me really well for screenwriting. Sure, there’s the whole dialogue thing – memorizing dialogue for a decade gives you a feel for the rhythm and impact of how people speak, but really I mean the resilience, the inoculation against rejection. Actors get rejected Every Damn Day. From the outside, you only see the “Yes” – the jobs that an actor booked. But for every 5-line role on an episode of CSI, there were 55 that actor didn’t book.

When you’re an actor, you’re the last person on the creative ladder – your job is to fit yourself into someone else’s vision. So you learn to focus on the talents you bring to the table, and absolve yourself of the responsibility to be something else – if you nailed the audition and still didn’t get the role, it’s not because you aren’t a great fucking actor. It’s because you weren’t what they had in mind, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

There’s a lot to learn there for screenwriters, I think. You put it out there, and you have to know that creative exec may ONLY be looking for horror comedies about an STD that causes women to give birth to vampire babies, so they’re not gonna get past the first five pages of your brilliant character study on postpartum depression (although, vampire babies might be a potent metaphor for that… can someone write this script, please?).

You have to love your script but expect that it will go nowhere. You have to be mentally moving on to the next audition – the next story you have to tell. Cuz that’s the biggest thing – there must ALWAYS be a next story. If you hang all your hopes and dreams on a single script (and yes, trust me, I know how much you bled for those pages), you’re doomed.

I also think screenwriters need a self-awareness about their skills. This one took me a while to learn, and I’m still learning it. For every writer, there’s something that just feels good. For me it’s dialogue, banter, letting two people fling barbs at each other. I can let characters talk circles around each other for days. But I haven’t always been the best with story. Which means that’s where I have to spend the bulk of my time – not doing the thing I love, because that comes easy.

I have to dig into my discomfort zone and double down on story because that’s where I’m weakest.

What is your winning script and why did you choose to write it?

Redshift is set in New York in 2079. It’s about a girl from Brooklyn who becomes the unlikely frontrunner in a global corporation’s competition to become one of the first colonists on Mars. As the competition’s challenges progress, she begins to suspect that the project’s billionaire benefactor may have sinister intentions. It’s sort of Hunger Games meets Interstellar. When I wrote this script, I was becoming fascinated by the role of corporations in a globalizing world, that companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX seem far more likely to put a man on Mars than any nation. Which led me to ask the question – what if a company was in charge of mankind’s future? Who would they choose? What traits would they value? How would that change the very idea of who we are as a species?

I’ve always been a sci-fi nerd, but I’d never actually written a science fiction script before. When I sat down to write Redshift, I’d been wading through the capitalist craziness of writing ad content for a big food company, and I’d been reading a lot of Michio Kaku books – he’s a theoretical physicist who talks a lot about where science is headed in the next hundred+ years. I think it was the confluence of those two things that made me ask the question that spawned this story.

How many drafts did you write before being accepted into the ISA Top 25 list?

Oh man, dozens. And the TOP 25 List is unique in that it’s not about one script – it’s about a writer’s momentum really, a growing body of proof that someone is dedicated to this career, to pushing forward, to telling these stories. I don’t think I’d have gotten into the TOP 25 off of this script alone. I think it was the confluence of about four years of work, and several scripts achieving some level of success in a few different contests, sort of all at the same time.

What did you learn with each draft?

Well. I’m good at taking notes. But sometimes that can be my downfall. When I sat down to write this script, I knew I had to dig into the story more and spend less time letting my characters zing each other in dialogue. So, imagine my shock when I got this note from a friend on an early draft: “This feels like an animated show.” And he didn’t mean it as an insult, let’s be real, some of the best shit getting produced today is animated, but under his note was the implication that my dialogue was very… basic.

I had swung so hard to focusing on story and letting the dialogue take a back seat that I had lost all subtlety and subtext. I was devastated. But it was an important lesson. Once you’ve found the story, all the tent poles to hang your scenes from, you have to get into the characters’ heads and set them free, let them surprise you. I was painting by numbers, and I needed to let myself color outside the lines. It’s a tough balance, and I’m still working on it.

What inspires your imagination?

I guess it usually starts with a character question, a relationship that fascinates me. Every single thing I’ve written is about outcasts and underdogs battling incredible obstacles, characters with lots of personal demons, working through them on some kind of epic scale. I’ve got a show about the first woman lawyer in the West, battling through the “marshes if ignorance” so she can earn a man’s paycheck and keep her family together.

There’s a show about an American cabaret singer trapped in the Philippines During WWII, who starts a spy ring out of her cabaret club to help the Allies win the war in the Pacific. I’ve got a show about a gay Mormon DJ. I love world building I guess, but really I love building a grand opera of obstacles, both internal and external, to throw at someone who shouldn’t be able to accomplish the things she does, but persists nevertheless.

Do you have a preferred genre you write in?
I imagine some people probably find it odd that most of my protagonists are women. But I honestly think I write women better than men, or at least I’m more interested in their stories. Growing up, most of my friends were women, and as a gay man, I think I feel more kinship with a woman’s struggles than a straight man’s. I don’t think I’ve written a single straight male protagonist, and honestly, it’s because I wouldn’t know where to start. We’ve got enough of those already, don’t we?

How do you train to improve your writing craft?

I just have to keep writing. Always something new, and always something that I can learn from. I’ve had to push myself to get feedback not from people who love me, but from people who will be honest with me. People who love me want to say something that will make me smile, and there’s room for that, especially when you’re down. I have one friend who’s a great writer himself, who always finds something kind and specific to say about my writing, so I know he’s not faking it. But he only ever says nice things, so I only send him something if I need an ego boost. Otherwise, it’s people who respect you enough to tell you it isn’t good enough.

I know I still have so much to learn, so I get my learning wherever I can. Right now, I’m churning through all the writing courses I can on this website called MasterClass. But the trap there is that I can procrastinate all day watching videos ABOUT writing without ever DOING any. Right now I feel like I’m procrastinating by doing this interview. So, I guess what I have to keep telling myself is pretty simple: WRITE MORE.

Do you have any mentors, heroes/ heroines?

God, I would love to someday be even half as good a writer as Aaron Sorkin. I want to live in his worlds where everyone is just a little smarter, faster, fresher, and sharper than me, in a world where idealism isn’t dead. On the stage, it’s Caryl Churchill and Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.

What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?

Don’t be afraid of rejection. Write the shit out of your script and then, when you think it’s perfect, when you think it’s THE ONE, send it out for feedback, and prepare to be crippled with self-doubt. Because actually, it isn’t ready. There’s no way. You’ll get GREAT notes from a friend who respects you so you can tear your script apart and build it back up. THEN send it out to contests, see if it sticks, if more than one person thinks you’ve got something.

I must have submitted scripts to literal dozens of contests over the course of two years. A script I co-write with my mom, the one about the first female lawyer in the west, we submitted an early draft to the Final Draft Big Break Competition and didn’t even make it past the first round. We submitted a better draft the following year and won the whole damn thing. So, persist. Rewrite. And then, eventually, let go. Move on, and do it all over again with a new story.

What is something that few people know about you?

I wake my roommate up almost every day singing made-up lyrics to pop songs. A lot of the songs are about bowel movements. He laughs, but deep down I know he hates me.

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