Michael Hamblin Interview
Preston, Idaho based screenwriter Michael Hamblin is the winner of the 2012 BlueCat Screenplay Competition for his script ‘The Emperor Of Wyoming.’ To balance out the joy of the $10,000 cash prize he’ll be receiving, we forced him to submit to an exhaustive interview for the BlueCat newsletter, which you’ll find below.
The Emperor of Wyoming is…
The fractured and dysfunctional family of an Idaho mortician and struggling author falls apart – and comes together – as he and his estranged son grapple with the moral and ethical implications of a bizarre mission from God, delivered by way of a talking corpse. Dark yet whimsical, tragic while infused with awkward hilarity, The Emperor of Wyoming is a heartwarming, fascinating meditation on familial love, bus theft, murder, and the importance of butterflies.
When did you start writing screenplays?
I would write strange little outlines and dialog on paper when I was seventeen (I just turned thirty-four) – I wasn’t sure what exactly consisted of a screenplay at the time. I just know that I was inspired by films and thought I would give it a try. By age 21/22 I was using a word processor and I wrote a lot of really poor stuff on that processor. A got a lap top a couple years later and finally purchased a copy of Final Draft.
Why did you start writing screenplays?
My Mother is an English Teacher, an avid reader, and a phenomenal writer. I started writing short stories in middle school and I imagine in the beginning it was to gain her approval and make her smile but I discovered I loved stories. I loved telling them and I loved writing them. I was fortunate to grow up in a home where movies and music was a large part of my parents lives. My Dad was a huge fan of all the classic Westerns, Jimmy Stewart, and by the time I was fifteen I had seen every film starring Steve McQueen. I believe it was my love for movies that instilled in me a desire to write screenplays.
How many screenplays have you finished?
Six. That includes “The Emperor of Wyoming” – And I have 25-50 pages written on another half dozen. A couple of those finished screenplays are co-written with my older brother Jacob. We spend a lot of time together talking scripts and writing. However, with our young families and jobs we haven’t always been able to get together and write and so each of us work on separate material independently. I really enjoy writing with him and I also enjoy writing alone – I think the mixture of the two is the best of both worlds for me.
How do you find time to write?
I make it a priority of mine. All of us have the same 24 hours in a day and you make time for those things that are most important to you. And even then it can still be a challenge but I find it quite satisfying to my soul. It has to be something you want really bad or you won’t find the time. Because sitting alone staring at a blank page is a daunting task and it’s a hell of a lot easier to find something else to do than sit down and write, like go to the dentist even. The brilliant Margaret Atwood says it best, “I have long decided if you wait for the perfect time to write, you’ll never write. There is no time that isn’t flawed somehow”
What aspects of the writing process do you struggle with the most?
I sometimes struggle to move forward. I will get caught up in the first 20-30 pages and rework them over and over. For me that has been a real battle. I think it’s paramount to get the story on paper, in its entirety rather than get caught up in writing Act One a hundred times. However, every aspect of writing is a challenge for me in some way. It has not come natural to me and I work hard at getting better.
What do you feel like you do well as a screenwriter?
I think I have a knack for dialog. And only recently do I feel I’m beginning to understand the true structure of a script. I didn’t understand sub-text for years but I’m starting to get it. I’m amazed at how long it has taken for me to start understanding this craft.
How does screenwriting make you happy?
Just writing in general makes me happy. There is no question that I write for myself before any other reason. It’s a terrific outlet for me, I find great joy in the written word and I adore the challenge. Especially with screenwriting. I’m not certain many people out there know just how difficult it is to write a good script, let-alone a great script. It’s all about story, character, and structure and to be able to pull that off in 90-120 pages while attempting to remain original is not an easy thing. I can’t think of any other form of writing more challenging than screenwriting but then again I’m quite biased.
What do you think is the biggest problem with storytelling in Hollywood?
Story is no longer an emphasis in Hollywood, they create products and masterfully market them to our youth. But I understand, Hollywood is a business and they run it like a business, which makes total sense. The only thing that will stop Hollywood from regurgitating the same movies over and over is if audiences stop paying to see them. And as a business I suppose your objective is to limit all risk and they have become quite skilled in doing so. It takes great courage and integrity to produce an original film, a fresh story, something that makes audiences feel and think. And for me, it’s sad that audiences are not demanding more of this. My greatest fear with Hollywood is that our “next” generation is getting so accustomed to these hundred million dollar budget, fast-paced, predictable movies that the demand for smarter, wittier, and more complex stories will not just subside but will disappear altogether. I would love to see “story” become the most important ingredient in Hollywood, it was that way in the 70’s and let’s hope someday audiences will force Hollywood to get back to that.
How can you improve in how you handle feedback?
You have to be thick skinned, especially in screenwriting, you cannot take anything personally. Feedback from trusted readers is priceless. It’s fascinating to me what I miss in my own scripts, certainly in the early drafts and getting a set of fresh eyes to go over it has saved me – It saved “The Emperor of Wyoming” – Had it not been for my most trusted reader (Thank you Tom) giving me first rate feedback-I would not have the script I have today. You can improve by being humble and listening and really pondering what others say about your writing. And they are not always correct but I have discovered that most of the time they are. And be willing to be that great reader for others. Find yourself a community of writers you trust and give the same effort in reading their material as you hope they give to yours. I cannot think of anything more beneficial than quality feedback. And as much as I love each member of my family (it seems they love about everything I do) their feedback is adored but not too helpful, simply based on the fact that emotions and feelings will always stand in the way. And so steer clear of accepting quality feedback from those who care more about you than your script.
What are your greatest fears about screenwriting?
I suppose I used to fear that I had no idea what I was doing but then I read a wonderful book by one of my favorite screenwriters, William Goldman – And he believes that no one knows what the hell they’re doing so what is the point of fear. And I agree with him. And also, fear is a silly thing, it’s a state of mind and I made up mine long ago that fear will no longer play a role.
What is your highest screenwriting goal for yourself?
I’m a big time dreamer but I’ve always been willing to work as hard as I dream and that has led to great things for me. I believe I will have a wonderful and long career in screenwriting. That belief comes from my perseverance and my willingness to work at getting better. I’ve never given up and I have learned to enjoy the journey, which makes all the difference.
What do you do to achieve that goal?
Work at it. Work at it. Work at it. I read, I write, I read, I write, and over and over I do this. And you have to believe if you do that you will eventually catch a break.
How did the inspiration for your script, The Emperor of Wyoming, come about?
In 2004 I was in my car, preparing to turn left at a traffic signal, the light turned yellow and as I was about to go a hearse came bustling by. It nearly hit me and I thought to myself…”Perhaps he was trying to kill me in order to drum up business” And I wrote that thought down and knew I wanted to write a story about a Mortician. The first draft of this concept was completely different than what is now “The Emperor of Wyoming” – I love the synopsis that was written by Bluecat concerning my script. I am impressed how well they were able to convey the story in just those few sentences. I believe that is exactly what the story is about.
How long did you work on Emperor, from conception to entry in BlueCat?
I wrote my first pages of this script in 2004 but I got stuck early on and didn’t force it. I remember Stephen King talking about his novel “The Body” which was adapted into the wonderful film by Rob Reiner “Stand by Me” and I remember Mr. King talking about his idea of these four young boys that are directly on the cusp of becoming men and wanting to write a story about them on a journey. However, he got stuck and rather than force through it he knew he needed to set it aside and come back to it. Years later he came up with the idea of these four boys going to find a dead body. That thread or catalyst happened to be exactly what he needed in order to move the story forward. I had the same experience with “Emperor” – I put it to the side and came back to it in 2009. I worked on it extremely hard for about 2 years with a couple breaks between. The array of changes this script went through is quite astonishing but once I discovered my story, I felt (for the first time ever) I might be onto something special. I just never gave up on it. I really fell in love with my major characters and just continued pushing forward in telling the absolute best story I could possibly tell. My focus was on story the entire time.
How did you first hear about BlueCat?
I’m not sure but I’ve known about Bluecat for years. “Love Liza” is a really wonderful film, I’m not sure if my interest in that film led me to search out Gordy Hoffman or if I discovered Bluecat in another way. After every great film I see I am quick to look up and research the writer. My submitting to Bluecat was a very conscience decision. I love what they’re about, I love that you get two script analysis’s back with every script and I truly believe Gordy’s emphasis (and the entire Bluecat team) is and has always been on story. I think they have great integrity, I absolutely believe they read and ponder every script and you get a whole lot more than you pay for. I can’t say that about every competition but I can say that about Bluecat.
What was it like finding out first that you were a quarterfinalist, then a semifinalist, then a finalist, and then the winner?
With each passing round my excitement grew. To become a finalist was an absolute thrill and I felt quite satisfied but winning was an awesome thing. I poured everything I had into “The Emperor of Wyoming” and winning is a sort of validation to my hard work. Had I won with luck involved I’m not sure it would mean the same thing to me. But I know my efforts, I know of the sacrifices I made to find the time to write this screenplay and that has made winning even more beautiful. The entire process was great, my wife and our families followed along with us and we all had a blast with it. My seven year old Son thinks we’re rich! He asked if we could buy a new car. I told him for ten thousand dollars we can barely afford to put gas into a “used” car. He doesn’t quite understand.
Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite, is from your hometown of Preston, Idaho, and shot the film there several years ago. Did you know Jared Hess, and were you at all involved with the production of Napoleon Dynamite?
I do know Jared. He moved back to Preston his Junior year, I was a year older in school and he is a really great guy; humble, smart, the kind of good guy that deserves all of his success. I have stayed in contact with him a little bit. Telephone calls and emails here and there and he has always been willing to give advice or read a script of mine. As far as being involved with the production, I was at film school in NYC when the production of Napoleon Dynamite began and so I was not a part of any of that. In fact, we didn’t know each other had interest in film until after Napoleon was selected by Sundance. The fact that both of us are graduates of Preston High School is completely coincidence.
Has news of your victory caused a big stir in Preston?
Once a movie from your small town of less than five thousand residents has premiered at Sundance, grossed millions of dollars world-wide, is picked up as part of Sunday nights “animation domination” and becomes a staple of American pop-culture, the winning of a screenplay contest doesn’t even make a whisper through the trees of that small town. I’m thinking the only thing left for me to do is win an Academy Award…Or move.
What advice do you have to other writers who hope to win BlueCat?
Read and Write. Read whatever you can get your hands on. Good books, poetry, short stories, fiction or non, screenplays, etc… And write as much as possible. It’s with everything you do, you simply get better by doing it. And my most valuable lesson has been the importance of patience. You can’t rush a good screenplay, they take time, deep down you’ll know when it’s finished and when it’s good. And don’t be afraid to write a bunch of bad ones in order to find that good one. I know Stallone says he wrote “Rocky” in one week but I don’t buy it. Imagine the countless hours he spent thinking about that story, dreaming it up, living with it in his mind, hoping and yearning for it to become a reality. Sure, the actual writing of “Rocky” (Which I believe is one of the great scripts) may have only taken him one week but there is a whole lot more that went into that screenplay than just seven days. I think of “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid”, another terrific screenplay – William Goldman wrote that over Christmas break during the time he was a Professor. However, when asked how long it took to write “Butch..” he says eight years. Though during those eight years he didn’t write a single word but it was always in the back of his mind, he was thinking about it, researching the characters etc… – Because to write something great or even good is going to take some time. And also, you have to start somewhere, I’m certain I would be banned from screenwriting if some of my early work was to get out. It really is that bad. I also believe it’s wonderful to dream but those dreams have to be equal part work, equal part dream. But above all, you have to be willing to follow the direction of my Mother’s personalized license plate, which reads…WRITE.