An Interview with  Screenwriter Tom McCown

Tom McCown, Screenwriter

NY Elite: Congratulations on being an ISC finalist. What does it mean for your work to be selected at the International Screenwriting Competition in New York? 

Tom McCown: It means a couple of things to me, both professionally and personally.  Professionally, nearing the end of a career as a working screenwriter, I’ve been a finalist in more than a few film festival screenwriting competitions over the last few years – won a Best Horror/Thriller category in the Chicago Genre Screenplay Competition in 2019 – and ISC’s global reach and monetary award for the winners looks to be unmatched.  It reflects amazing support for screenwriting, nationally & internationally.  And being named a finalist in a submission pool that included nearly 2,000 writers is a huge honor.  Personally, serious medical issues over the last 5 to 10 years significantly diminished my ability to stay in the working hustle, so doing well in some prominent film festivals has been my attempted go-to in order to regain the possibility of re-entry back on to the film industry track.  Possibility is palpable when that’s all you have available to work with. 

NY Elite: Can you tell us about the work that you participated with at ISC? What is the story about? 

Tom McCown: Here’s the logline:  In the tumultuous social and political upheaval of 1968, a year in parallel as precursor to the tumult of 2020/2021, 11 year old ALEXANDRA YORK and her two best friends, MOOSE and CHARLEY – all three of whom are die-hard professional wrestling fans – go on an adventure of a lifetime to unmask the masked pro wrestling champion, Doctor X.

NY Elite: Can you tell us yourself and your artistic talents? 

Tom McCown: I started writing by publishing my poetry in small literary magazines around the country.  In the process, I realized I was more visually oriented as a writer than word oriented.   But I still wanted to write.  Sounds odd, maybe.  Like maybe I should’ve been an illustrator, which is too wide a swing away from writing.  Then, I also realized how much I love film and further, how visual writing is at the core of screenwriting.  I applied to the graduate program in the UCLA film school and was one of 13 chosen out of nearly 500 applicants.  I have an MFA from UCLA film school with a concentration in screenwriting.  I hold a Wm. Randolph Hearst Fellowship In-Residence award for screenwriting in the College of Communications/Film School at the Univ. of Texas-Austin.  And  along with the Chicago screenwriting award, I was an adjunct in the teaching of screenwriting at the Univ. of North Carolina School of the Arts/School of Filmmaking (UNCSA/SOF).  Teaching can be an art as well.

NY Elite: What scripts have you written so far? 

Tom McCown: I’ll list the most noteworthy.  HEART OF DIXIE (1987) was produced by Orion.  I was an uncredited writer on Disney’s animated MULAN(1997).  And I was one of like 15 writers hired to write a sequel to DIRTY DANCING, DIRTY DANCING II.

NY Elite: Top 3 favorite projects that you have been involved in?

Tom McCown: All of the above, but my top favorite was a rewrite hire for a screenplay written by two-time Academy Award winner, Horton Foote.  It was a huge challenge, both psychologically and creatively  because of Foote’s prestige, and it was my first job as a hired writer that allowed me to leave my day job.   I was working for producer Jerome Hellman (MIDNIGHT COWBOY & COMING HOME) and director, Michael Apted (COALMINER’S DAUGHTER & GORILLAS IN THE MIST).  We had weeks and weeks of meetings at Hellman’s place in the Malibu Colony and we weren’t realizing a better, more solid angle for the story.  

The project was called HEART MOUNTAIN and it was a love story a la Romeo & Juliet between a Wyoming farm kid and a Japanese/American girl who had been relocated with family to the Heart Mountain internment camp from California during WWII.  Being as green as green can be, not knowing any better, I thought I was supposed to depend on a need for direction and help of both my producer and director in this story development.  Luckily, I got a break when both of them paused the work in order to make other movies.  I took the opportunity to drive my jeep to Cody, Wyoming where the internment cap was located.  Upshot, it was the best idea I’d had at the time.  Wrote the script without producer or director counsel, and they loved it.  But here’s the kicker, and it can be common in Hollywood.  When submitting the script to the studio Hellman and Apted found out that Alan Parker had just started Day 1 production on COME SEE THE PARADISE (1990), same kind of love story, same internment camp production site, and our project was dead in the water.  It happens.

NY Elite: What type of scripts do you want to write in your career?

Tom McCown: Character driven stories with compelling emotional impact.  I write inside-out, meaning I don’t start the writing thinking about story structure.  I tend to have the germ of a story idea but I flesh out the characters first, then draw the story from who they are.

NY Elite: As a writer, what is the most important aspect of building a character? 

Tom McCown: For the lead character it’s motive.  What’s at stake for him or her?  For me, that’s what drives the story structure.  As important as motive is the build of emotion within the characters during the story drive.

NY Elite: What projects are you currently working on?

Tom McCown: I haven’t registered it with the WGAw yet, so I won’t be specific.  But it’s about the deep fascination in this country for violence in sports.  It’s a satire.

NY Elite: Do you express yourself creatively in any other ways?

Tom McCown: I gave up drawing as a young guy for organized sports.  Had a successful sports career from high school  into college.  (which led to all the serious medical later now in my life).  But I’ve gone back to drawing an illustrating.  It’s more of a stress release than a professional endeavor.  I wrote and illustrated a graphic novel.  And I also sing in the shower.

NY Elite: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career in filmmaking/writing?

Tom McCown: This is a big question.  The Hollywood film industry has been in flux for many years now for more than a couple of reasons.  The transitioning posture created by innovations in filmmaking – ie. digital versus celluloid – and then the addition of the streaming TV production platform has sort of blown up the entire creative and business filmmaking market, what to sell and how to sell it.  So, the result of that explosion has worked to nearly obliterate the notion of the traditional theatrical release to brick and mortar movie houses on the street all over the world.  How does this effect the “someone who wants to have a career in filmmaking/writing?” ?  

First, the studios are scrambling furiously to keep up with the system changes that are way ahead of them.  They’re pissed that they have to adapt to something that they once controlled.  They are either adapting/creating/innovating their own TV streaming sites in anticipation of the final collapse of the traditional theatrical street release, while also limiting what they will produce to sci-fi, rom coms, over the top comedies, and animation.  Studio screenplay development or development of screenplays with producers, who have studio deals used to be a fairly lucrative avenue of income for the screenwriter.  That’s in the past.  

The writer’s strikes in 1988 and 2008 made the studios/producers livid for the negotiated financial gains the WGA made during those strikes.  So, the buyers brought the hammer down.  But you kind of have to look at this is another, better way.  The explosion caused by new technologies in this transition also caused an explosion in the need for product.  A huge number of new production companies have appeared with an eye on buying screenplays for the streaming TV production venues which looks to be bottomless at this point.  And never mind some goof telling you to write to the trend of the market, or to pick a subject that has been done to death repeatedly over decades and put a creative new wrinkle into it.  That sequel-like kind of thinking comes from executives, who have no imagination whatsoever (something that’s just not a surprise).  Best advice?  From the late William Goldman, two-time Academy Award winner for BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.   …”Nobody knows anything.” when it comes to writing and selling a screenplay.  Write what you know, and write it the best way you know how. 

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