Interview: Screenwriter Todd Farmer

Back in 2007 I had the chance to interview the fun Todd Farmer and as with most of the Hollywood types that I’ve had the luck of interviewing he seems like a cool guy. He talks about what it’s like being a writer in Hollywood and the problems that writer’s face (it’s the same old story I’m afraid).

You guys all know that I’m a big John Carpenter fan and as he’s written the script for the in-development Carpenter film Psychopath I was able to question him about that. He gives a few juicy tasters and gives details on other projects.

First up, what type of films do you enjoy watching? What are your top five films?

I enjoy watching good movies. Action, comedy, love story…I don’t care as long as they are good. But sadly good movies are becoming more and more rare. And you can test this theory. Remember when you saw Star Wars? Indiana Jones? The Sting? The Godfather? Alien? Remember the feeling you had when you walked out of the theatre? When’s the last time you had that feeling?

Who are your heroes past or present?

Firemen who run into burning buildings are pretty heroic. No one else comes to mind.

What inspires you? When you have an idea how do you develop it before you put it down on the page (screen)?

Back in college I had a Business teacher who used to preach that money wasn’t a motivator. I’ve come to the conclusion that he was wrong. Money and “stuff” inspires me. Since having a daughter the “type” of stuff has changed a little. No longer do computers and video games motivate me. Now it’s Bugaboos and Baby’s R Us. That said, on rare occasions I’ll read a good book or watch a good movie that fills me with a burn to rush to the computer and create. There are three ways in which I develop an idea. All three are unique. Sometimes I do an outline. And this happens only when I’m asked. Other times I will build the entire story in my head while I’m in the shower or working out or taking a walk with the family. And then there are times when I’ll just sit down with the idea and a blank page and just start writing. During those instances I let the characters and the situations dictate where the story goes. I think the later tends to be the most fun.

When starting to write a script do have the entire idea planned or do you just type away and see where the script takes you?

Both. Having the idea worked out is cool but sometimes that shackles you. And 9 times out of 10 the characters and situations will demand that the story goes in a direction you never planned and when that happens I think it’s best if you follow your gut.

Rewriting is a huge part of scriptwriting- is its tough trying to keep ideas fresh when working on one script over a long period of time?

I like the old fashioned way or writing something then polishing it. There comes a time when you will, like it or not, rewrite the magic right out of a story. Many times executives will read and reread a story so often that the ideas they used to think were wonderful become stale to them. The jokes they thought were funny become so familiar that they want to change them, or second guess that they are no longer funny. I think a big problem in today’s industry is that the best version of the film should have been made six drafts ago.

What’s the hardest part of working within the studio system?

There are so many hardest parts it’s hard to list them all. I’m growing weary of the lack of originality. It’s all remakes, sequels, books, comics and video games. It’s sad really. My favourite moves weren’t based on anything other than themselves. We used to say that there’s no formula for making a good movie. For every rule some blowhard creates you can find the 100 million dollar exception. Now the studios have a formula. It doesn’t always work and worse, sometimes it does. At least it allows for substandard movies to show a profit and thus justify the continual creation of substandard movies. Many movies made within the studio system lack vision. Used to a movie was the writer or director’s vision. The process has changed…is ever changing. No longer are the creative types making movies. They have become employees. Refuse to do as they are told and they are replaced. It’s like telling an artist what to paint, what colors to use, etc. Hard to come up with a Picasso if you won’t let Picasso do his thing.

You’ve spent over ten years now making a living as a screenwriter, do you ever look at the piles of scripts that you have written and then at your imdb page and get a bit angry that most of your hard work hasn’t seen the inside of a cinema?

You’re trying to put me in a bad mood aren’t you?

Tell me a bit about the development process that goes into filmmaking?

The process differs from company to company. If you stumble into the right group it can be a wonderfully fun process. With the wrong group it can be a nightmare. It’s the reason so many teams stay together making film after film, year after year. When you find the right combination it’s magical. But nearly every situation starts the same…with an idea. It’s up to the writer to put that idea into a story. The key really is to work with like-minded people. Many times you end up working with people who are terrified to commit. They spend their energy second guessing every twist, turn and story beat. Good ideas are tossed aside due to fear of failure. In the end the ticking clock catches up and those executives either dump the project
or are forced to move forward on a substandard mishmash of story. No fun for anybody.

Do you have any great un-produced scripts? Can you give some details and maybe well get a petition going and put pressure on the studios.

Well, I certainly have a stack of un-produced scripts. But I think that will always be a part of the journey. I used to say making it in Hollywood was Talent, Luck and Who you know. And I believe that is still true but I used to think those were equal parts. I’ve come to the conclusion that Luck plays the largest factor. The Talent needs to be a given but it really does come down to getting your script to the right person at the right time. All the cogs and tumblers of the universe need to fall into place. And even if you sell the thing the same goes for getting it made. As the writer you are the first step. For a good movie to come to fruition several hundred people need to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Lots of luck involved.

Can you tell me anything about Psychopath? What is the status with the production? Is John Carpenter still attached?

Psychopath is the story of a retired Fed pulled back into service after the Psychopath he locked up escapes. It gets pretty crazy pretty fast. John is still attached and an official announcement is coming soon.

Carpenter’s a bit of a hero of mine, what’s it like working with him?

He’s very laid back. Very funny. Very…cool. Easy to talk to…just an all around great guy. You don’t find that out here very often. Hollywood changes people. Especially celebrities. They tend to phase into this alternate reality where life is fantasy. But that hasn’t happened to Carpenter. He’s just a guy who loves movies and gets that big kid grin when working or talking about them.

Hollywood has a way of “typecasting” people. You’re now seen as “the horror dude”. How does that make you feel?

It pays the bills. The only thing that bugs me is the double standard. The executives who are telling me what I can and can’t write don’t just work with horror movies. They do comedies, action, drama, etc. But for some reason they only think I can write horror. Well, that’s not really true. At the end of the day they know that writers write. But typecasting just makes their jobs easier, that’s all.
Jason X. What were you smoking to come up with the space idea?


You’re currently working on another Messengers film, what’s the status? Any scoops?

I just finished the final draft on Friday. They brought the on-set producer from The Messengers back last week to start doing his magic so it looks like things are full steam ahead. It’s been a pretty interesting journey. I wrote the script for the Messengers several years ago. When Ghost House grabbed the movie in turn-around it had been rewritten already, so Ghost House never actually saw what I wrote. Over the years the story continued to change until much of what I created had vanished. Then, as a fluke, one of the executives at Ghost House read my original draft. Funny how odd life can be. So now, Messengers II is based on that original script. One script enters, two scripts leave.

When reworking someone else’s script do you tend to just do minor adjustments or page one rewrites?

It really depends on what the executives want. But many times I’ll get a script that I don’t think needs very much work at all. And I’ll tell this fact to the powers that be. Oddly enough when I do this I don’t get the job. I really do think executives look at a script so much that they forget what was wonderful about it in the first place and just start scrambling to change things.

How do you feel when the shoe is on the other foot and someone is rewriting your work?

I don’t like it.
A lot of writers move into directing, is it something that you’d like to do in the future?

Not really. I think most writers make the move because they get tired of watching their stories get rewritten and changed. As the director you have a little more power to protect your vision. But I don’t want to direct. Never have. I just want to find a director with whom I share a vision. I want to write.

Are there any actors/producers or directors you’d like to work with in the future?

I want to work with all of them. I want to work with as many as it takes to find that team that clicks. Then I want to just make movies with them into our 80s.

Tell me a bit about Alien Pig farm?

We know what happens when Aliens attack the White House and we’ve a pretty good idea what happens when they attack Sigourney Weaver. Alien Pig Farm is the story of what happens when Aliens attack a Kentucky pig farming town.

Is there more freedom in writing a comic book knowing that whatever you can imagine can go on the page without having to worry about budgets and schedules?

It’s like night and day. Alien Pig Farm is the first story I’ve written that when all was said and done remained exactly as I’d written it in the first place. Love it or hate it…it’s mine. That feels really good. Although we did edit ourselves early because the whole idea was that one day we’d make a movie based on the story. And that will happen.

Considering that you’re close with Thomas Jane, did you have a pass at the Punisher 2 script?

We talked about it some but for the most part we would keep our day jobs separate from our comic book stuff. I’ve talked to him about Messengers and others and he’s talked to me about Dark Country and so forth. We’re friends. He knows he can come to me with anything and I know I can go to him.

What’s up next for you film wise?

I’ve a couple of projects with Comic Book Movies. They produced the Batman movies. Both are departures from horror and fall into the action genre. Sleepers is heavy in scifi. Skullman is in your face action/thriller. Psychopath… well… that announcement is coming. Tom, Tim and I are talking to producers about Pig Farm and that, of course, would be a dream project. Then I’m about to start a script for RKO Pictures but it’s too early to talk specifics.

Are there any properties, comic, or novels that you like to write for the screen, maybe Alien Pig Farm, or is there a film you’d like to remake?

 None. I love comics and novels but I’d really like to watch a trailer and have no fucking clue what the movie is about. These days I watch a trailer and I recognize it from the book, comic or video game. I don’t hate making movies out of pre-existing properties. I think it’s great but I’d like a bit more balance out there.

My wife and daughter. Hands down. Hollywood can’t compare.

In fifty years what would you like people to say about your career?

“Man, that bastard could tell a story.”