‘Prisoners’, written by 2005 BlueCat Finalist Aaron Guzikowski, scored the number one spot at the box-office during its opening weekend in both the US and UK. Since its premiere, the taut crime-thriller has been getting spectacular reviews and a healthy amount of Oscar buzz. Rarely does a grown-up film achieve such financial and critical success. Aaron’s screenplay crafted a gripping mystery that will be remembered as a shining modern example of the genre.
Currently in production on his new original series for Sundance Channel, “The Red Road”, we caught up with Aaron for a short interview about life before and after becoming a professional screenwriter:
BlueCat: Hey Aaron, thanks so much for taking the time to do this.
Aaron Guzikowski: Yeah, sure thing. Crazy times right now. I’m doing this TV show and it’s been a 24/7 affair.
BC: So what’s that like? How’s that going?
AG: It’s going good. We got an order to do six episodes for Sundance and AMC and I’ve been down in Atlanta now for about three and a half months. We’re finishing up the sixth episode this week and next week and it should air in February so it’s going good.
BC: That sounds great! But anyway, everyone here at BlueCat is proud and happy for your success, and we want to say congratulations on Prisoners. Which was awesome, by the way.
AG: Thank you, that’s great to hear. Very kind, very kind indeed.
BC: Everyone we were in the theater with was just covering their faces, going nuts, flipping out — it was awesome.
AG: Oh that’s great! I love hearing that. It’s an amazing thing and I’m so happy with how it turned out. So many talented people got together on that one and it was really really gratifying to see how it all kinda came together.
BC: Totally — now when did you realize you wanted to be a screenwriter? Why screenwriting and not some other form of writing?
AG: It’s interesting, I started out drawing and doing visual art, making short films. I had done some writing throughout my life, short stories and stuff like that, but I was kinda all over the place, doing music and different kinds of art. So probably about six years ago I just decided I would focus on one thing instead of being a Jack of all Trades and Master of None. And I just started writing scripts. I knew I wanted to make movies and I figured that was my best shot because I didn’t really have any kind of connections in the movie business. I figured I’d just start writing specs first and see how that turned out and that’s how it kinda came together. It was all very roundabout, so there was no sort of direct path. It was just sort of later on that I switched over to just writing.
BC: And what was your very first script? Have you revisited it?
AG: My first script was a horror script, a very contained horror script, and I do plan on revisiting it at some point and perhaps trying to direct it because it was a little bit ‘out there.’ No, wait. The first script I wrote was what placed in BlueCat in 2005. That was right before the horror script. The BlueCat script was about a statue that was found in the woods that could heal people of any illness. It was called Panacea, and it was the first proper full length feature script I wrote.
BC: Cool, now this interview will be going out to a lot of entrants in the BlueCat Screenplay Competition who are just trying to get their bearings — you know how it goes when you’re a struggling writer. What lessons did you learn from writing your first screenplay?
AG: It’s hard to say. In terms of the craft stuff you keep doing it and doing it and doing it and watch as many movies as you can and read as much as you can and get as many eyes on it as you can. I think it’s more just getting into a kind of permanent routine of doing it every day and I think that the craft and the actual mechanics of it and developing your voice are things that come from endless repetition and being obsessive and just enjoying the act of writing and doing it. That’s the key to it. Writing things that you would actually want to go see in a movie theater.
BC: And when you were starting out, when did you find the time to write while working your day job?
AG: I would get up really early, around 5 in the morning and write two hours before work. I’d write at night or anytime during lunch and I’d write on weekends. For me, I just really like writing early in the morning anyway. But you just have to do whatever you can whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether it be late at night or early in the morning or on weekends. Or get a job where you can write at work, like a security guard or something. But I just wrote during my free time. It can definitely be difficult, but it has to be done. You gotta find the time somehow and live your life at the same time, so it’s a bit of a bitch. You have to give other things up and give up your free time, and that’s always a troublesome equation.
BC: How did you stay motivated?
AG: It’s hard to say really. I think I just loved it. I liked making short films and I loved movies, and I’d come up with things that were so interesting to me personally that I felt compelled to keep working on them. I was trying to develop my skills as a writer. It’s about just really getting into the subject matter or the story or the characters and continuing wanting to chip away at that and live in that world for however long you can. I think writing is always very personal and that having a personal connection to what you’re working on helps you stay invested. Rather than just writing every day to become a better writer, it’s about the nature of what you’re working on and feeling connected to it and excited by it so you really wanna get back to it. You’re just there, writing a movie in your head that you want to see. You need to not think of it as work, but as something enjoyable.
BC: And what about your experience with screenplay competitions?
AG: I didn’t enter too many of them. I think BlueCat was the one I had the most positive experience with. I entered a few and placed in a few of them, but BlueCat was a good one because they actually believe in the material. Gordy Hoffman called me, they gave me some feedback. It’s not just a cash prize. You get some notes and some creative feedback and that’s always nice. Competitions are good in general to keep your spirits up and seeing how you can compete in terms of the large pool of people who want to do this for a living.
BC: What were some of the turning points in your career?
AG: I wrote Panacea and it placed in BlueCat, which was encouraging. It just kinda helped me to stay at it and think “There’s something to this.” I used the script I wrote after that to get a manager and the script after that was Prisoners, or an early version of it. I worked on that, going back and forth with my manager, for about two years. And I had never even really met him in person, just talked on the phone and I’d send him drafts every now and again and just go back and forth. When I finally finished it, I got an agent soon after that and flew out to LA. The script was received well and I was able to sell it and move out to LA and just start working. Doing studio assignments and other stuff like that. That’s pretty much how it came about. Definitely took some time, I think it’s about working on something way beyond what seems logical.
BC: So how do you know if a screenplay is done?
AG: I don’t know if you ever really do know. You can rely on other people to tell you when it’s done, but that’s hard. Even if it should get made into a movie, it’s still not done changing. They shoot it and it changes, they edit it and it changes some more. You just gotta have a kind of gut feeling that all of the elements are functioning the way they need to and it feels like a movie. Get to a point where you can’t make it any better and that’s how you know. It’s certainly not anything you can determine all the time and you have to find people you can trust to give you feedback and help you. But sometimes it can happen incredibly quickly and it all kind of organically falls into place and it’s done. But it’s never really done.
BC: How does your old writing routine compare to your new one? Any tips?
AG: Some people like to write in the morning, some at night. I’m writing full time so I treat it like all the other jobs I’ve ever had in my life. I work and try to write at least 8 hours a day if not more. And of course, many of those hours are more fruitful than others — usually in the morning for me, but it’s different for everybody. But you have to be your own boss and be strict about it in some sense. That works for me. Treat it like actual jobs with a deadline. If you don’t have any deadlines, you gotta create them for yourself and work an 8 hour day as much like a normal full time job and pretend that’s what it is.
BC: Who are some of the filmmakers and writers that have inspired you?
AG: Probably David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Steven Spielberg — a lot of the same guys everybody likes.
BC: We in the BlueCat office actually just recently watched Mulholland Dr. and it’s a different movie every time you see it.
AG: It’s strange you should mention that, I watched it a few days ago as well. You get older and you get to watch those movies over and over again and it’s always a slightly different experience. That’s a hallmark of the really great filmmakers. I just love movies in general and it’s a great thing to be able to watch the classics over and over again.
BC: Definitely. Now if you had one bit of advice for aspiring screenwriters, what would it be? If you had to tell yourself something back when you were entering BlueCat, what would it be?
AG: I would just say write movies that you would wanna watch. Write for the screen, not words on paper. Don’t get bogged down with the mechanics of screenwriting, think of it more as creating a blueprint for a piece of visual entertainment that you yourself would want to pay $10 to go see in a movie theater. You gotta look at it that way more than writing a story on paper with words and structure. You gotta come at it from the point of view as a final product and what the point of it all is and you just gotta write what you really want to see. I think that’s when you do your best work.
BC: Once again, thanks so much for taking the time for this.
AG: My pleasure, thanks for having me!