‘Reach’ Screenwriter Trio Talks Process, Democratic Writing, & Cause Films
Creative Screenwriting Magazine took some time out to chat with screenwriting trio Grant Harling, Johnny James Fiore and Maria Capp about how Reach came to be, from a kernel of an idea to a fully-fledged movie.
The key to filmmaking often falls on collaboration. There are exceptions to the rule, but when talents combine—the writer’s idea, the director’s vision, and the producer’s organization—something remarkable can happen. However, individual titles no longer call for individual contributors. This is particularly true for the new film, Reach.
In many ways, the romantic and often idealistic image of an individual chipping away at a screenplay at a cluttered desk is no longer the reality. For Reach, Johnny Fiore started with an idea and then took that rough concept to his friend, Grant Harling. Together, they worked on a draft, but something was missing. Then, they brought in Maria Capp.
Many screenwriters will already feel like three contributors are too many cooks in the kitchen, but this particular trio developed a democratic system to make it work. The key, of course, was to let the story come above all else. Together, the writers were able to create something Maria described as “cautious and considerate,” in a genre somewhere between comedy, drama, and a cause film.
Collaboration To Defeat The Blank Page
In the movie Reach, the focus of the story centers on the socially awkward genius, Steven (Garrett Clayton), when he finds a pro-suicide support group because he’s being bullied by a former friend, Nick (Jordan Doww). The new quirky kid, Clarence (Johnny James Fiore), befriends the troubled youth and inadvertently stops him from taking his life.
“Everyone can have a bad day, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” said Maria Capp in regards to the characters in the film. “I’m a parent, so I brought to the table what it’s like to be a bully.” Maria has three children who have experienced bullying at various stages in life. That’s why the issue is so personal to her.
Unlike many films that dive into the tropes of bullying (picture Weird Science or even The Karate Kid), the screenwriters wanted each character to be grounded in reality. The individuals in the film were based on personal experiences to avoid Hollywood clichés. They also set out to move the audience.
“It’s hard to avoid clichés, because clichés are clichés for a reason,” voiced the trio. In an effort to avoid the old tropes, this meant being as specific and authentic as possible. Rather than labeling a character as a bully, the film set out to tell a story about kindness and how it can change someone’s life.
Breaking The Expectations Of Genre Films
“For me, cliché versus authenticity is when you see something authentic and truthful and you zone in on what you want to say—who do you want to move?—from that comes the storytelling in the writing to help you avoid the clichés,” said Maria. Also, Fiore would often stop the others if something sounded like a cliché during the screenwriting process.
Many viewers will notice that this bullying film isn’t really about bullying at all. Instead, the story takes a deep dive into character. What drives them? Why do they act out? If there’s an action at school, there’s also a scene to showcase elements of a broken home, misguided parenting, or various other issues that affect teens on a day-to-day basis.
“Nobody becomes a bully for no reason,” voiced the trio. “People are not born bullies.” The writers felt strongly about showing Nick’s broken family and showcasing other elements of a “narcissistic evil in the world.” They also put the same thought into the bohemian, worldly, homeschooled characters who live outside the system.
“We worked really hard to create characteristics that made Jordan Doww’s character (Nick) have situations that made him mean,” said the writers. “He wasn’t just mean for the sake of it.” He was expressing his pain in a mean way.
Shaping Characters Through Multiple Drafts
“At one point, there was more with Clarence’s history, like going to meet with friends he knew from the road. I think the main thing was that he was someone who doesn’t have a home,” said Johnny Fiore, who also played Clarence in the film. He too was looking for grounding, just like Nick (the bully.) “Without having this place to unwind, Clarence couldn’t process his day.”
With characters Clarence and Steven, there is somewhat of a give-and-take between the two. Clarence is helping, but he’s getting something out of it. “They both needed the connection,” added Fiore. “He saw an opportunity and he took it.” The writers made sure the character helped everyone else in the story.
Characters like Clarence have often been described as “traveling angels;” they act as catalysts for other characters to change, but don’t change themselves. According to the trio, they later realized his name might have even come from the subconscious. “Clarence” was also the name of the fictional angel in It’s A Wonderful Life and “West” may represent the character’s vagabond spirit, for example.
Likewise, with the character of Steven, many workshop readers encouraged the screenwriters to create a part where the character considered harming himself. Luckily, this is where the democratic nature of the trio came in. There were complications with the original draft, but the film script was actually simplified by adding a third writer.
Maria Capp lost a student to suicide and saw the aftermath of pain through family, community and friends of the victim. “Everyone in that situation reflects upon what they could have done,” said Maria. “The opportunity to have said something... we focused on the little things that can make a difference in the life of the person struggling.”
The writers didn’t want to tell a story that was only about suicide. Through the multiple screenplay drafts, they also had various versions with different deaths in the end.
Stepping Into The Characters
While writing numerous drafts, screenwriter-actor Grant Harling decided to portray Mr. Tony rather than Nick Perkins, as originally intended. Fiore joked that Harling aged out of the role (which is also true of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg in Superbad).
The character of Nick is a “time bomb of energy,” like a “safety valve on a water heater.” In the story, Nick doesn’t know where to place himself. “He’s frustrated at home with his dad, closeted at the time. He doesn’t know what to do or where to go,” said the writers.
This made it difficult to label Nick as the protagonist or antagonist. Instead, he’s more of a victim of circumstance who doesn’t get the chance to have a minor meltdown, so when things go wrong, the consequences are much more severe.
By the end of the story, fans hope the best for Nick, but Fiore wanted to leave things open to interpretation. “Great films don’t fill everything in for the audience. I think that’s what art’s about. However you believe Nick ended up is how he ended up,” said Fiore. “Not everything needs to be resolved.”
The Underlying Message Behind Reach
Clearly, Reach is a very personal film for the screenwriters. For Johnny Fiore, he’s actually seen both sides of the bullying situation in life; perpetuating a cycle. “When I was young, I was bullied. Then in the teen years, I became a bully for a few years. It was just what happened. It got done to me, so I did it to others.”
He stopped [bullying] in high school and would often return from school and sit on his roof to think. “I remember thinking, ‘I want everybody to be friends. I don’t want there to be these groups. Everybody can be cool together. There’s no reason to be mean. I just had this why moment.”
Fiore described this as “high-school thoughts,” but that vivid message stuck with him in such a way that this film is now a reality. Everyone has experienced some sort of bullying at some point, but things are much more drastic these days. Today, bullying leads to school shootings, adolescent suicides, and other unthinkable acts.
“Suicide doesn’t touch me personally, but I think if this can bring about a conversation where even one person doesn’t do it or seeks help, that’s worth everything,” said Harling. The film is a reflection of what’s going on in society, particularly for high school kids, which is now increasingly dramatic and painful.
For Maria Capp, the goal was to show the truth about parenting. “Personally, I wanted to make sure we showed that parents aren’t perfect and they make mistakes. This is also true for overbearing or loaded parenting, [where] they are doing the best they [can], but it had repercussions…”
To bring as much reality as possible to the screen, the screenwriters connected with peer-to-peer organizations like Active Minds and Teen Line. While the story isn’t really about mental health issues, it is meant to address teens and show them there are other ways to connect with their peers about bullying, suicide, and other issues.
The Pace And Tone Of A Cause Film
Because real life is both comedic and dramatic, the screenwriters wanted to make a cross-genre cause film. There were various versions and drafts that were darker, while there were also more comedic moments. Some of the comedy was actually cut because the script referenced other movies, which were too expensive for the Indie’s budget.
The character of Clarence, for example, was also a major movie buff, like actor Johnny Fiore. The writers originally included a scene where the characters connected over films like Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, and The Godfather, but they couldn’t afford the rights to show the clips.
In addition, there were also references to Dumb and Dumber, where the characters acted out a scene in school, which Fiore described as the “biggest baby killed.” Within these various limitations, however, the writers found a unified voice to shape the story into something remarkable.
Amongst their three-party system, Johnny Fiore and Maria Capp would talk out the various scenes while Grant Harling took vigorous notes or wrote directly into the screenwriting software. They always worked in person, rather than over the phone or other digital platforms. They also workshopped the story between drafts.
“Grant was the disciplinarian on the laptop,” joked Fiore. Grant Harling was in charge of organization and schedule. In many ways, he can be described as a stenographer or script consultant, while the other two would occasionally wander down rabbit holes to fill in the story. “Grant’s logic was the key for the film becoming a film,” Fiore added.
As Grant Harling clicked away at the keyboard, Maria and Fiore would scribble other ideas on a pad and paper. Then, they did a reading at Maria’s house with local actors about a year before production to get a feel for the story and make additional changes. Again, Maria focused on the parenting aspects of the film.
In addition, another director friend who they considered for the project also gave the trio a few simple notes. The notes included things like “end act one here” and “this guy needs a goal here.” After this process, they went to the whiteboard and dove in a little deeper with each character.
Leaving Your Ego At The Door
“A lot of writers wouldn’t be so open to sharing with everybody,” mused Fiore. In the conversation, it was clear that the three screenwriters didn’t focus on ego. Their odd number allowed for voting, which meant occasionally losing individual battles, but focusing on the story and the bigger picture, long-term. They even listed the writing credits alphabetically rather than having any petty disagreement.
While they’ve also all worked on individual projects, this is their first major project to really work and find it’s way into the mainstream. Fiore had the original idea and a flow to his story, but he’s not the type of person to grind out pages every day. Instead, he feels the need of being inspired to help the creative process.
Therefore, any lack of inspiration could be developed by another member of the trio, like a proper writer’s room on a series. For Grant Harling, he enjoys having someone else in the room to act as a sounding board. Otherwise, it’s possible to “go off the rails” or simply get stuck in his head. In addition, he helps the other two narrow down the focus of the story, “like guardrails.”
Maria Capp felt more obligated to tell this story than anything else. Perhaps due to her psychology degree, she loves to show the humanity amongst underdogs. She wants to show how a character can overcome obstacles by meeting other people, whether those encounters are purposeful or coincidental.
In the end, the screenwriters found a way to create a democratic process within the creative process, which may not work for everyone. However, it certainly sounds invigorating for writers willing to be more productive, focused on the story above all else, and less individualistic, when it comes to putting ideas on the page.
Watch the trailer for REACH here.
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