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“Put Your Protagonist Through Hell” Jason Keller Talks ‘Ford v Ferrari’

“Put Your Protagonist Through Hell” Jason Keller Talks ‘Ford v Ferrari’
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While attending Regent College in London, Jason Keller started to fall in love with film. “That’s where I got the bug and realized it could be a profession. Prior to that, I was a writer, but secretly. It wasn’t something I pursued.”

In London, Keller learned more and more about the complex world of screenwriting. In fact, he loved the idea of this world so much that he packed up and moved to Los Angeles to try and break into the business.

The idea of going to California was a big step for me. I packed up everything I owned and drove to Los Angeles and started to work in the business. I think I’ve done every job on a film crew that there is,” he joked. “I was willing to step into the business with no connections. I just wanted to soak it all up and learn at that level.”

Keller eventually experienced what’s commonly known as “development hell.” For 10 years, he made a living on sales, options, and assignments such as spec for New Line Cinema’s Sugar’s Sweet Science of Bruising, but nothing got a greenlight.

It was a different time for me. This was in the early to mid-90s, so before the Internet. There wasn’t the ability to go online and download a screenplay. There was very little information. The big screenwriting books were less available.”

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Jason Keller

A Screenwriting Education

While trying to uncover hidden lessons, Keller eventually stumbled upon a store in Los Angeles. ”There is a store on Hollywood Boulevard called Book City Collectibles and in the back room, they had a library of screenplays. These were hard copies this store had curated. For $12.50, you could buy a screenplay, so that was what I did in those early years.

I would scrape together money and pore over 3-4 screenplays. I wanted to know how other screenwriters wrote movies. What made one a great read and another not so compelling. At the same time, I was working in the business, trying to get any job I could get.”

It was an interesting education that I really didn’t realize was happening. I would go to work as a PA or in the Sound Department. I could see a movie on the page, then how it was practically put together. Those years were my education. I sold my first screenplay in 1999 or 2000. But you had to work to understand the craft. There were no websites or blogs about screenwriting.

During this education phase, Keller sold a script called ​The Whole Magilla​ to Mel Gibson, a story called ​Go Like Hell​ to Michael Mann, and did page one rewrites for Sylvester Stallone, but couldn’t manage to get his words on the silver screen.

It’s hard to make sense of why something gets made versus why something doesn’t. There are a lot of different factors. Timing is everything in the movie business when it comes to being a screenwriter. You can write something really strong, but the industry might not be interested in making that type of movie in that moment. We see this a lot in the studio film business, which contracts in a certain way.

Studios don’t make as many dramas, thrillers, or character-driven stories. They want big, franchisable movies. There’s always that battle between what we want to write or what’s a great story and what the told will respond to. That’s the struggle of a professional screenwriter.

It’s not enough to write something only personal to you. You also have to have an eye towards the marketplace if you want to get movies made. There’s a tricky balance. You don’t want to fall victim to the marketplace, but you also don’t want to ignore it.”

In hindsight, there are a number of reasons why Keller’s early works didn’t get made. But when one studio asked Keller to sign up for kidnapping and dismemberment insurance before traveling to Sudan for his research on ​Machine Gun Preacher​, something changed.

He soon received his first screen credit for the Gerard Butler thriller based on the true story of Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing biker who found God and became a crusader for Sudanese children who were forced to become soldiers.

The following year, Julia Roberts starred in his script for ​Mirror Mirror. Then he received a credit for Sylvester Stallone’s film ​Escape Plan.​ Now, he’s working with James Mangold, Matt Damon, and Christian Bale on ​Ford v Ferrari.

Uncovering Hidden Themes

It’s interesting to think about the similarities between my screenplays or what I’m drawn to. Mirror Mirror is kind of an outlier, but I do think I’m drawn to stories about individuals struggling to find themselves. I find identity is a theme that plays over and over again the things I’m drawn to and the things I write.”

That’s the correlation I see between the writing I’ve done and the movies I’ve had made. At the center, it’s about lead characters who are struggling to find who they are and where they fit into the world. Oftentimes, there’s also a father-son component, which helps me find my way into the story.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Matt Damon and Christian Bale on the set of Ford V Ferrari.

As screenwriters – in fiction or true stories – you look for a way to connect personally and those are two ways I connect to my stories. Looking at a protagonist and trying to find how they fit in are themes in the work I’ve written and what I look for.”

In addition to this foundation, the next big step for ​Ford v Ferrari ​was research. The logline for the new film reads, “American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.”

Keller grew up a racing fan in Indiana. “Growing up in Indiana, you were into two things: basketball and racing,” he joked. “I didn’t know specifically about that battle between Ford and Ferrari. Formula One and endurance racing wasn’t something I grew up with, but when I started the research, it started to come alive for me.

It was all about understanding that world, the players in it, their histories, and where they come from. Who was Shelby (Damon) before 1966 and what compels a guy like Miles (Bale) to push a race car to the limit, over and over again?

For both of these men, that meant hurdles to overcome. “The obstacles are the adventure of the story. The protagonist has to overcome obstacles and those obstacles have to land at certain moments in the story. But the obstacles were real. I didn’t have to manufacture them.

“As I dug deeper, I saw what these guys and this team had to overcome to keep a team together and build a car that would last. As I dug deeper, they became clear. But in terms of a screenplay, you have to put your protagonist through hell. In many ways, another theme for me was failure. It was an impossible feat and failure was the constant. They failed often, but from those failures, they build a better car, became closer, and fine-tuned both the team and the machine.

With a first draft of 200 pages, the difficult final stage was deciding what to cut. “If you’re deeply connected to a story, I think it comes off on the page. In a gritty character drama, it needs to come alive. It’s tricky to get these kinds of movies made these days. Maybe this movie does well and maybe Hollywood becomes a little more willing to make character-driven stories. Maybe the blockbusters will loosen their chokehold on Hollywood.”

If I’m talking to fellow screenwriters, I don’t want to discourage them not to write those character-driven stories, but it’s important for those writers to be conscious of the marketplace. There’s a way to do both. There’s a way to do a moving character-driven story in a way financiers see a potential upside to make money.

In this day and age, you have to be someone who studies the marketplace,” said Keller. “We have to become students of the marketplace and give it something it requires, while being true to the stories we want to tell.”

This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version ​HERE​.

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