For our latest interview, we spoke to Matt Young. Matt’s pilot STILL was chosen for the very first Sundance Episodic Story Lab after being hosted on the site. Today, we chat with him about how the past, present, and future have shaped his journey as a writer.
What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?
As a kid, I was pretty obsessed with the original STAR WARS trilogy. The harmony between the universe, the characters, and the story is incredible. They just got it all right. On the other end of the spectrum, I saw THE EXORCIST on cable way too young and it warped the hell out of my developing little brain. That movie is a clinic in creepiness and when I write darker stuff, I try to tap into the absolute terror I felt while watching it.
On the TV front, I remember seeing the emotional impact that an episode of HILL STREET BLUES had on my dad. Although I was just a kid, it was the first time I felt conscious of the powerful relationship between the screen and the viewer. I’ll never forget that moment and I guess it gave me something to aspire to – Does this script give the viewer a “HILL STREET BLUES moment?”
Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?
RESERVOIR DOGS just knocked me out when I saw it. Tarantino’s dialogue, his approach to structure, his clarity of vision are all kind of astounding. I was also really inspired by L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, ALIENS, BLADE RUNNER, THE USUAL SUSPECTS. A bunch of others – too many to name.
As for the decision to pursue screenwriting as a career, I was (and still am) very involved in the sketch and improv scene here in LA, and was doing a lot of sketch writing when I first moved to town. That turned into trying my hand at some sitcom specs and comedy pilot scripts, then features and hourlong stuff. At that point, I was really enjoying the process, but I wanted to study the craft in a more disciplined way, so I went back to school and got my MFA in Screenwriting at CalState Northridge. That intense study, accountability, and practice helped me find my workflow and my approach, and after I graduated, some stuff started happening career-wise.
Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?
I made my living as a commercial actor for many years before transitioning to writing full time, but I’ve also had some pretty weird jobs. I detasseled corn in the fields in Iowa when I was a kid. I was a gourmet cake delivery guy in Atlanta and I survived off of the cakes that didn’t turn out quite right.
How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?
I find ideas everywhere – out in my daily life, the news, my family, books. For me a concept usually starts to take shape when I can picture a specific character in peril or distress, emotionally or physically (or both). From there, I try to expand it a little and imagine other scenes and characters in the story. Who is this person? How did they get into this situation? What are they willing to do to survive it? What happens if they don’t survive? The scope of an idea usually dictates if it’s a pilot or a feature. Once I’ve fleshed out my concept a bit, I check the trades and ask my reps to see if there are any projects in development or production that might be too similar to mine. If I find that my idea wasn’t so unique after all (it happens), I either retool it, shelve it for now, or toss it and start fresh.
Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?
I’m big on Writing Sprints – an hour of uninterrupted, fingers-moving-on-keys, focused work with no distractions. I’m always amazed at how much I get done when I’m not typing a couple of lines then checking Facebook and Twitter for two hours. I try to do two or three sprints a day with breaks in between.
Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?
I loved MAD MAX: FURY ROAD so much. I can’t remember the last time I was that thrilled by a movie. It was relentless and so very bad-ass.
On TV, I can’t get enough of VIKINGS on the History Channel. I think HANNIBAL, BETTER CALL SAUL and GAME OF THRONES are amazing. I loved DAREDEVIL and BLOODLINE on Netflix. My wife and I are having a blast binge-watching PARKS AND RECREATION.
If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?
It would probably be a TV series with a strong genre element and a lot of heart. Maybe a supernatural FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS or something like that.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
I’d definitely still be doing something in the arts. I got to teach a few semesters of an introductory screenwriting class while I was in grad school, and I really enjoyed it. I would love to work in the academic environment again.
Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?
Vince Gilligan, Steven Spielberg, and the Coen Brothers (can I count them as one?). When it’s time to pay, we all reach for our wallets but Steven says he owns the restaurant and has already taken care of it.
The Black List:
How did you first hear about The Black List?
I heard about it on a podcast a few years ago, but at that point the site was only hosting feature scripts. The week I finished my original pilot STILL, the announcement came out that writers could post TV scripts. I went to a screenwriting event a few days later where Franklin happened to be a guest and he gave out cards offering a free month of hosting to all the attendees, so I went home and posted my script that night. And I’m so damn glad I did.
Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?
Everything changed for me after putting my script on the site. I got some solid feedback, and Franklin submitted my pilot for the inaugural Sundance Episodic Story Lab. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the program in which myself and nine other writers spent a week in Utah working on our scripts with some of the most talented creators and business minds in television. The feeling of collaboration and the spirit of generosity made the experience unforgettable, and I formed some wonderful relationships with the mentors and the other fellows in the program. Following the lab, I signed with CAA and have been taking a bunch meetings around town while working on new material. A couple of months ago, I was honored to have been included in the Black List TV Staff Writers Book, which led directly to some meetings, as well. Uploading STILL has resulted in a ton of great opportunities and experiences.
Any tips for writers interested in the site?
Write something that you love and would be excited to watch, and make it as good as you can. Only post your best stuff and pay for the feedback. If you’re not getting great reviews, take your script down, rewrite it, share it with trusted readers, rewrite it again, and either repost it when it’s stronger or start over with a fresh idea. The Black List is a unique opportunity. It offers real access to an industry that can otherwise feel impermeable. It is well worth your time.