Tenured: One-Upping the Script
Chris Modoono discusses directing his own material, the challenges of adaptation, and the differences between writing for film and for television.
By Michelle Houle.
Tenured, penned by Chris Modoono and Gil Zabarsky, premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival this past April. The film tells the story of depressed, elementary school teacher Ethan Collins, who is forced to direct the school play as punishment for his poor performance. But inspired by his wife’s recent departure, Collins rewrites the play to reflect his marital problems.
Modoono teaches screen acting at New York University with Stonestreet Studios, where he met Zabarsky, the lead actor and co-writer of Tenured.
Creative Screenwriting talked to Modoono about directing his own material, the challenges of adaptation, and the differences between writing for film and television.
Tenured was based on your short, Teacher of the Year?
Teacher of the Year premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and they were really supportive of it afterwards. Sharon Badal, who’s the head of shorts at Tribeca, put it on her picks section online on her website, and it also had premiered online on Funny or Die. Tribeca put it on their United Airlines channel, so they were really supportive of it.
Then it got in front of the eyes of Fox Digital Studios and they saw it and contacted us and wanted to know if we had a feature length version of it, and we said no. So they hired us to write it and then to shoot it.
What were the challenges of adapting the script to a longer feature?
I think that our short especially, but to some extent shorts in general, you have such a small amount of time that you have to communicate in archetypes of characters. When we did the short, we had the depressed teacher and the ditzy teacher. Doing the feature gave us a lot of time to explore who these characters really were and really get into why they were that way and also show that there are a lot of different sides to them. So I think that was one of the biggest challenges.
A lot of the scenes that are in the short are also in the feature. But they all kind of take on a different meaning in different ways because the short happens so quickly and we’re just trying to build something very fast and go from the joke in a lot of places.
The cheerleading story’s in the short as well and that has a different feel to it because it’s a lot more about the two of them bonding over the ridiculous story that she tells and her realizing it’s ridiculous. And in the feature, it’s just about how ridiculous the story is in the first place.
When we developed that originally in the short, he’s really in the lowest of the low. What is the least possible inspiring story someone could possibly tell here to actually make him feel significantly worse. It’s just sort of how that story came to be.
What was the original inspiration when you first did the short?
Gil and I wrote it together. Gil Zabarsky, who’s the lead [in Tenured]. We had worked on another short together that I had written with someone else. Gil had developed on his own the character of that feature who says very adult things to young students.
We decided we really wanted to work on something together because we loved making each other laugh. We felt like it was time to write something together. After he had been doing that character for me to get a laugh, we realized maybe this is something we need to explore. It became, why is he like this? What situation would make someone act in this manner?
How do you inhabit your characters’ voices when you write?
Gil and I are big fans of this idea, which I think Quentin Tarantino originally said, of just getting the two of us in a room talking to each other. I think that our characters all represent different sides of Gil and me.
What is your writing schedule like day to day?
When we wrote this film we were both living in New York City. So we worked together in the same space. That meant that we would spend about two hours playing Super Smash Brothers on Nintendo 64. And then another three to four hours actually writing.
I moved to Los Angeles in November. Now that we’re apart, we work on Skype, which, because we can’t play Super Smash Brothers on Nintendo 64 over Skype, it’s significantly more efficient. We try and work two to three to four hours a night. Not every night, but every night that we can schedule together, depending on where we are in the process.
We’re not the most efficient because we play video games but also because for both of us it’s about one-upping the line. And it’s not about one-upping each other; it’s almost about one-upping the script as in, is there a better line here? Keep pushing it, keep pushing it. Like the absolute funniest or most meaningful line we can come up with for each and every single thing. Nothing really makes the page with us until we’re both like, ‘Yes, that’s totally it, that’s the exact line that needs to be there.’
I know that other writing partners or writing teams are like, ‘Oh, you do this scene or I’ll do that scene.’ We definitely do that to an extent, but we end up going back over it and rewriting all of it together anyway. It really comes down to that’s the exact right thing that we say in there.
What’s your rewriting process?
Because Gil and I met at NYU, one thing that I love doing is pulling a bunch of our acting friends together. I taught there, Gil went there, and we both know a bunch of talented actors.
Hearing it out loud like that really helps us with the rewrite. I think that we also internally, between the two of us, really love doing our own table reads. Gil as an actor is so tremendously talented at just jumping from character to character, and creating funny voices and characters for any of the different characters from the script. So when we read through it, it really does feel like we’re creating a real scene and it’s not just, oh let’s just say the words out loud.
Why did you and Gil decide to become writing partners? Did you connect when you were in school together?
Yeah I was teaching and he was a student. We made each other laugh a lot, and I think we both felt like there was a connection there. We both had similar tastes and we’re into sort of telling very similar stories. He had a voice that we really wanted to explore more. I think that’s sort of what brought us together.
And you both write mostly comedies?
Yes. So far. Even in Tenured, it’s a comedy, and no one would classify it any differently, but a lot of great comedies come from a real place of pain.
We’re afforded the opportunity to explore some of the sort of more dramatic questions you can ask in life. Why are we here and what’s my purpose? Am I on the right path? That’s kind of a big scene in Tenured. It’s not even am I on the right path; it’s more how did I get on the wrong path and how do I fix all this?
Those bigger themes can be very depressing or you can try and find the comedy in them. Those are always the comedies that I appreciate the most.
What scene in Tenured did you find the hardest to write?
I think it was the bathroom scene where Ethan tries to kill himself. Because even though that scene came from the short, and large parts of it existed in the short, it always was a question on our minds, ‘Does this still work in this context? Have we earned this moment?’
Because it is a much heavier moment, and I think for us it was important not to say, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten all the comedy out of the way. Now here comes the drama stuff.’ We really wanted to make sure there was comedy within that, really heavy dramatic moment as well, and that the comedy really drove the scene so it didn’t feel like there was all of a sudden a completely different movie. As co-writer on that scene with Gil and the director of the film, it was always, okay, is this the right tone for the rest of the movie, does this fit with the rest of the film?
How do you overcome writer’s block?
Super Smash Brothers. I think that overcomes everything for us. That’s legitimately a part of it just because we get stressed out about stuff and we need to sort of figure out a way to work around that.
But I think for both of us, whenever that happens, we revert to telling each other jokes or doing impressions of stuff that has nothing to do with whatever we’re working on. I just think getting into that rhythm of trying to make the other person laugh, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the scene we’re working on or the film we’re working on, that sort of gets the creative juices flowing for both of us.
At NYU, do you teach screenwriting or do you teach acting?
I teach screen acting. There’s a bunch of conservatories and I go to Stonestreet Studios which is a screen acting conservatory there. I teach screen acting from the director’s perspective.
Gil and I met at Stonestreet Studios. I had gotten to do a bunch of projects there, like write a little web series here, and have a bunch of students act in it. It really fulfilled a lot of different creative needs on my part.
Do you think your teaching helps inform the way you write?
Yeah, definitely. In a lot of different ways. I’m consistently working with students on scenes that they bring in. I see a lot of writing. I see a lot of different writers trying to communicate something in an individual scene. I see a lot of different techniques that work for me and what doesn’t. I think that definitely affects me. I think back to things where I hear something awkward or feel like something’s too expositional, it really jumps out at my brain. That alarm has become more acute as time has gone on and I’ve been exposed to a lot of different scene work that students have brought in.
What have you learned from directing your own material?
I think the biggest thing is to try and remember that even though we wrote it, someone who’s working on the film once we get ready to shoot it, whether it’s another actor or a production designer or the director of photography, may still have a better idea of how to execute it.
When you write, you get so used to picturing the movie a certain way in your head. If you’re writing for someone else, obviously you get very used to the idea of throwing that picture out to some extent very early on because you never know what a director’s going to bring to the table or what they’re going to want to do.
So I have the luxury of also saying, ‘Well, I get to make this look exactly how I picture in my head.’ But then I think the key is to remember, ‘Okay, but maybe someone else’s picture is better than mine.’
How do you separate yourself from your own script when you’re directing?
It’s definitely hard. I try not to get too involved with ideas about casting or ideas about other production elements like music or other post-production things. I try not to let too much of that seep into my head when we’re writing.
But it’s a balance because I think a lot of writers think in those terms anyway even if they’re not directing the material later on. I think maybe sometimes I go overboard. I just have to remember to be wearing my quote unquote writer’s hat right now before I switch to my quote unquote director’s hat.
And I think maybe I play it a little too safe. There’ll be times where I’m directing and I’ll think to myself, ‘Man, I could’ve had more time to think about this and really figure out the best way to approach this scene, but I was too afraid to start thinking about it prior to the directing process starting.’
What advice would you give to an up and coming screenwriter?
Just to keep writing all the time. Write as much as you can. Write every day. I had a boss once tell me I’m not a writer and I’m never going to be.
Yeah. So it’s pretty surreal for me to be talking to you after having that sort of happen to me in the past. It’s pretty awesome.
I think you just keep working at it and realize that almost no one is good at the first thing they write or the fiftieth thing they write. Every time you write something, you keep getting better. I feel like I keep getting better. Gil and I keep getting better together every time we do a rewrite of something, every time we start something new. It just feels like you’re always getting better.
Are you and Gil working on any new screenplays?
Yeah, we have a couple things. We have a script about a college student who cheats on an exam and gets caught. In order to get out of it, Satan comes to him and says, ‘If you sell your soul to me, I’ll help you get out of this.’ The kid thinks that that’s kind of a harsh price to pay. It’s a little too steep for him. So they end up working out a deal where the kid interns for Satan. And Satan becomes kind of like a good guy for him and a mentor. But then in the end he turns out like he’s really evil because, of course, he’s Satan. The title for that is Tuesdays with Satan. We’re just finishing up the third draft for that, trying to get that ready to shoot either end of this year or the beginning of next year.
I read that you’re also working on a television series?
Yeah, we have a pilot as well. That’s already written and ready to go. We’re actually sort of past with that. We’re working with a distribution company called The Orchard to go shoot this pilot and then they’re going to use the pilot to go around and sell it. We’re actually doing that with Burn Later Productions too, which is Paul Bernon and Sam Slater who did. They produced Drinking Buddies, which I worked on, and then Adult Beginners and Results.
We’ve been working together to try and find a new thing to do. So, hopefully this will be ready to go and that’s about a female assassin who works in this crazy assassination firm. She does actually kind of quit her job maybe to become an event planner.
What do you think is the biggest difference between screenwriting and television writing?
I think that television writing is more malleable in the sense that you write a pilot and you write a season one arc and you go out and start shooting that. Once you’ve shot the pilot and you’re still writing episodes, you can really say, ‘Hey, you know this smaller character that we had over here, is really compelling in a way we didn’t realize was going to happen or maybe the actor’s really interesting in a cool, different way.’ And you can start writing for them.
When you write a feature film, you write the entire thing out, sort of have it all figured out. You can make those adjustments as you go to some extent, but it’s a lot harder. Whereas with television you can really start to explore new characters, new story arcs as you’re going through the show and as you develop them.
What did you learn from Tenured, and how will you approach your next screenplay based on what you learned?
I’m always learning that you can say less than you think. We did a really good job of combing a lot of unnecessary exposition out of Tenured. But I figure there’s even more that we probably could’ve taken out and trusted the audience to get what we were going for.
I think the lesson I’m always learning is that you can trust the audience way more than you think. It really comes down to if I like it and I think it’s funny and Gil likes it and he thinks it’s funny, there’s going to be an audience for it.
What advice would you give to someone pitching their idea to a studio?
I think confidence is unbelievably important. I think you have to really believe that it’s the right thing, it’s the right idea. The confidence has to come from the idea that if you’re in the room with someone and they’re not going to say yes, you know the next person you see is going to say yes. Which I think kind of removes that feeling of ‘Please say yes, I’m begging, I’m desperate.’
That confidence is attractive, and people get interested in that. When you believe whole-heartedly in your own ideas and you know that no matter what, you’re going to get it made so the people you’re talking to would be really lucky to be able to come along for the ride. I think that’s the best way to be in a room and pitching.
Who are your screenwriting heroes or your favorite films that you get inspiration from?
It’s really all over the road. I grew up as a kid of the eighties loving Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, and those kinds of movies. Very early on, probably too early for my own good, I started watching Woody Allen as a kid and really enjoyed that humor and knew that even though I didn’t totally understand the joke it was funny and really wanted to be a part of the reason why it was funny.
I think that those are definitely influences. Wes Anderson is a big influence on me in terms of his style and in terms of his ability to strip everything away from his actors’ performances and still communicate really meaningful emotional ideas.
Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you want people to know?
Tribeca has been unbelievably supportive to us as filmmakers. It’s an amazing community to be a part of. Both the New York filmmaking community in general and Tribeca specifically. They’re just awesome, and they’re really supportive. They’re really cool people to be around.
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