Real Writers Break In: No Rep? No Problem! Alan Sells His Spec Screenplay
Since I first met him, Alan Horsnail has been the sort of guy you want to root for. But it wasn’t just because he was a nice, humble, hard working guy; he was easy to root for because he was willing to do all the things he could do to get his work out there, seen and exposed. Not only did Alan lean on companies such as Roadmap Writers and The Black List that are so instrumental for emerging writers to pave his path; he managed to get his spec script, Midnight in the Switchgrass sold to bona fide industry producers EFO Films through Virtual Pitch Fest. EFO locked its funding in and attached such name actors as Bruce Willis, Emilie Hirsch and Megan Fox to the project, which recently wrapped production in Puerto Rico.
You had a steady to corporate job, but a few years ago decided to pivot to screenwriting. Why?
Filmmaking was always the plan from a young age, but life pulled me in a few different directions and the film school dream evaporated. I woke up one day feeling completely disconnected, so I bought a screenwriting book as thick as an encyclopedia and started writing terrible scripts at night with a newborn baby keeping me company. That was almost ten years ago.
As you got on your way, what steps did you take to learn the business and craft of screenwriting?
Things changed for me when I found an amazing screenwriting coach. She stripped away all these horrible writing habits and helped me understand how to develop my own style. It was a painful process, but I gained a little confidence and started to get some positive feedback. I found that interviews and podcasts with execs and reps gave me an introduction to the business, but networking has been a tremendous source of industry guidance and advice. It is incredible how many folks in the industry are willing to lend a helping hand to emerging (respectful) writers.
If memory serves, early in your screenwriting journey you focused on pilots. When and why did you decide to switch to features?
I was inspired by TRUE DETECTIVE and Nic Pizzolatto’s journey to Hollywood, so I set out to develop episodic content and wrote a few pilots. I had some promising doors open, but I was repeatedly told (by reps and executives) that my pathway into television would be extremely difficult for multiple reasons. It was a tough pill to swallow. I had spent years developing these pilots and really felt defeated, but I just could not bring myself to quit. I absolutely loved screenwriting. It had become my emotional therapy. So, I decided to let go of all the expectations, refocus on features, and just write my kind of movie… And that next project became Midnight in the Switchgrass.
Tell me about Midnight in the Switchgrass.
Years ago, I found this random FBI press release from 2009 announcing a program called the Highway Serial Killings Initiative that had been operating behind-the-scenes since 2004. Two quotes from the press release jumped out at me, “The FBI has compiled a list of more than 750 murder victims found along or near major U.S. highways systems, as well as nearly 450 potential suspects.” And, “If you want to be a serial killer, then being a long-haul trucker is an excellent career choice.” Midnight in the Switchgrass set out to be kind of a fictionalized origin story of that FBI initiative.
While many writers believe that you can’t sell your screenplay without an agent or manager, you were able to do just that. Can you tell me the journey that Switchgrass travelled, without a ton of industry advocates pushing for it and with the means available to most every writer out there, from being a lowly spec script to having started shooting in Puerto Rico pre-COVID-19?
A hustling screenwriter can 100% find a home for their project. I think the tools are available for emerging writers to get their material into the hands of decision-makers, the trick is having the material stand out when it hits that producer’s desk. Professional coaching and script development can really help give a project a fighting chance. I do not think writers are the best at giving notes to other writers. Just my opinion. Each producer has a specific checklist when evaluating a project, so a coach/advisor with industry development experience can potentially spot the same issues a producer might bump on down the road. So, utilizing the online tools can get a script through some doors, but the projects ability to hook the producer, executive or manager is the only thing that matters. Spaghetti against the wall is a bad strategy. People will remember not to read you again. Trust me, I know from experience.
What is the experience of getting big names attached to your project and getting your first feature made like? Would love to hear as much as you can tell us about it!
Ha. The whole thing has been crazy. I sat down for my first meeting at the production company and they said, “We’ve made an offer to this A-list actor to play XYZ role… He likes the script.” I literally laughed out loud. It was just a surreal introduction to the process. I have been a huge Emile Hirsch fan for a long time, so hearing he was on-board was a big moment. Bruce Willis and Megan Fox were announced at the same time and within minutes versions of the press release had circled the globe and been transcribed in every language. It was strange to see Switchgrass instantly become more than just a screenplay.
The highlight of the entire process was getting to lead a table read with the cast in Puerto Rico just before filming began. I was so nervous that everyone was going to finally hear it out loud and say, “wait, this actually sucks! Everybody go home!”. Hearing world-class actors read the dialogue was overwhelming and something I hope every screenwriter gets to experience… all the hard work finally coming to life. It is worth the hundreds of rejections and that awful, sinking feeling when you bomb out of a contest. Trust me, it is worth all the heartache.
The first scene filmed was a dialogue heavy scene where Emile and Megan’s characters discuss the scope of the situation. I watched from the video village and was a wreck. I just kept thinking, “Holy shit! Is this really going to happen?” And then Emile just absolutely nailed this monologue that is so vital to the story… and I knew then I could die happy. Another highlight was watching (from set-up to execution of) a big crane shot that runs almost two minutes. I had envisioned the shot as a continuous take when I wrote the script, but never discussed it with the director (Randall Emmett) until he had already decided to go in that direction. Amazing to see an idea come to life.
Now that your first movie is going… what’s next for you?
I have a new crime-thriller feature (Beneath Charcoal Creek) complete and hitting the marketplace very soon. Excited to start the whole process again, but I know it doesn’t get much easier.
Have there been any surprises along this journey?
Everyday seems to have a new surprise. Ha.
To be honest, one of the biggest surprises for me was when it came down to partnering with a manager. I was taken aback by how many manager meetings went the exact same way, “I love the Switchgrass script. Very cool that its going into production. What else do you have?”. So, when I met Jay (Jay Glazer w/ ROAR) and he focused the conversation on how to build my career and was prepared to discuss a roadmap to continued success… it was a breath of fresh air. I’m very fortunate to now have Jay in my corner.
You recently made the move to Los Angeles. Do you feel that not being here initially has made things more difficult for you, or has it had no effect? And, before you moved, how did you offset this with industry folks?
I do live in Southern California now, but was in Colorado throughout the entire Switchgrass process. Covid-19 has changed everything, but I was able to do almost everything remotely. I planned trips to Los Angeles about once a month and that helped me keep up relationships. People are okay with feature writers living outside L.A. but will ask you to come in for certain meetings. Television is completely different as writer’s rooms work closely together, but who knows what the future holds.
What advice do you have for other writers who, like you, may not live in Los Angeles, and are looking to get their first script out there without a ton of industry contacts, and with the means available to them?
As I mentioned earlier, the tools are available to writers from around the world to get their material in the right hands, especially now the world has gone remote, but the trick is getting someone to connect with an unproven artist’s project. Investing in professional coaching/development consulting has been extremely beneficial to my past projects and career. Just do a little research and ask around who is legitimate with a proven track record within the industry.
After a successful, decade-long career with Larry Ellison’s software giant Oracle, the Colorado native pivoted away from the corporate world to pursue his life-long passion for storytelling. Alan’s debut feature film, Midnight In The Switchgrass, is currently finishing production in Puerto Rico. The crime thriller stars Emile Hirsch, Megan Fox, Bruce Willis, Machine Gun Kelly, and Lukas Haas. Alan currently lives in Newport Beach, California with his amazing wife and perpetually bored young boys.
Larry mentions something I’d love to know more about:
“I was repeatedly told (by reps and executives) that my pathway into television would be extremely difficult for multiple reasons.”
Really inspiring! Great interview. Thanks Alan and Lee.