Recently I had the opportunity to meet and talk with John Swetnam, the writer of Stephen Moyer’s latest film, “Evidence” which hit theaters on July 19 and will soon be available on Blu-Ray and DVD. I wanted to know what the process was like from beginning to end from the writer’s perspective and John was kind enough to provide me a glimpse into the experience.
John: Stephen [Moyer] came in with smart questions, sort of attacking it and trying to do it right. As soon as the director said “action” they did it; never a wasted take.
How did your childhood as an “air force kid” influence you?
I moved around every two or three years and lived all around the world. I was born in South Carolina and lived in Japan, England, Korea and all over the states, Northern Maine, Southern Maine, Tennessee, Florida and Southern California. I think moving every two or three year is why I like movies so much.
Is horror your favorite genre and if not, what is? What’s your favorite movie?
No, not at all, probably action or action thriller would be my favorite. I like popcorn stuff. My favorite films are Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Gladiator, big popcorn, fun movies, but I like everything.
Would you consider yourself a horror/thriller writer? If so, why? If not, what other types of films do you want to write?
No. I have multiple projects going now and they are all over the place.
Can you tell me how how you got your scripts sold? Was it luck?
No. I graduated from college and came out to California in 2002. I always knew I wanted to make movies, but hadn’t committed to it before then. So I packed the truck, I drove out here and applied to a graduate school in Orange County. While in graduate school I started as a directing major but ended up getting a master’s degree in screenwriting. I then moved to LA, eight years ago.
Unfortunately, a master’s degree in screenwriting, it literally qualifies you for nothing, except waiting tables. I thought, “I have a master’s degree, people are going to pay me to make movies,” but no job, nobody cares. Having a master’s degree I was just good enough to be shredding Parmesan cheese on people’s salads. At the same time, I was writing. I wasn’t good at it, but I kept doing it, so I wrote about 19 scripts in my basement. I think Evidence was number 17 or 18. And that’s 19 scripts just writing them, hoping that one day, somebody would buy them.
I see you were a director and executive producer of a short called “Evidence” in 2011. Is there any relation to your full-length film of Evidence?
Yes, what happened was that I was writing for about eight years while waiting tables. I couldn’t sell anything. I’d written 17 scripts and at that point and didn’t understand or know what to do, so I decided to part ways with my manager and start fresh making my own film in order to have something to show to people. And, as it happens, as I was actually making it, the feature script started getting out there and it just went off on its own, so we didn’t even finish the short.
What inspired you to write Evidence?
I’d been writing for about ten years and I was writing a lot of things and I was trying to figure out what I could write that would provide the quickest way to get it on the movie screen. It was the kind of idea that you could sell quickly, that people can make quickly because it’s not going to cost $150 million dollars.
Was that because it was a “found footage” film?
Yea, when I wrote it, all the films like Paranormal Activities had come out and I thought, I knew it was going to be found footage, I knew it was going to be horror, but how do I make this something unique? I’d written the script, we sent it out to a bunch of buyers and it sold in January. It was bought by a company called Bold Films. Bold Films paid for the script, and then they attached Olatunde Osunsanmi, as the director. We got the money to make the movie and by August, we were in production, which never happens; that’s a very short window to sell a script and shoot it. Then, once the movie was made, we went to festivals to get people to distribute it and that’s when Image came in and they’re the ones who got it in theaters and video, etc. It’s a fun process.
The film is in theaters now, did you go see it?
I went down on Sunday and saw it and one of the actors, Albert Kuo who plays Steve, the magician was there. It was really cool to bump into him. I had seen a rough cut of it a long time ago, but I wanted to wait to see it on the screen with all the special effects and music, etc. It was cool.
How different is Evidence now from what you conceived it to be when you wrote the script?
It’s a really interesting process. When I’m at home writing the script, nobody cares, nobody’s paying me for it, I’m allowed to just sit there and do whatever I want. So, the very first draft of it was just what was in my head, what I wanted, what I saw. Then, what happens is we sold it, so I don’t own it anymore. Once I sign the contract, it’s somebody else’s; it’s like selling your car. Once you sell your car, if they want to paint it pink, it’s not your car anymore, but that’s my choice. Selling it to a company like Bold was great because they had “Legion” and they were working on the movie “Drive” with Ryan Gosling, which I knew was going to be really good and the producer, Marc Platt is just amazing. Because it was them, I thought, “this is a dream come true, please buy it.”
Then, what happens is that you bring in a lot of people, it’s a big process. The director has a vision, the producer has a vision and then when you bring in 100 people to work on it, it always changes, but everybody’s trying to make a really good movie, but every movie is just not going to be an Oscar winner; it’s just impossible. It’s an evolution.
It’s an evolutionary process for sure, but are you pleased with the outcome?
Sure, I think of movie-making as very gaseous; it’s just gas everywhere and you don’t know what you have until at the very, very end. As you’re making it’s just craziness.
When you started writing it, did you already know the end?
Yes, I knew I was going to do a horror movie and I knew I was going to do found footage. I used to live on Hollywood and Highland, the tourist’s district, and I remember seeing this bus of all these Japanese tourists, about 50 of them, and everyone one of them had a camera and cell phone them just filming everything. That’s when I started thinking, “I like that” so I thought of the bus accident and everybody’s filmed something so you start piecing it together. Then I thought, what’s the twist ending? I’m a huge fan of, and I have no problem saying it, of The Usual Suspects, and in homage to that film, I thought it would be fun to do something similar. When you watch the news and YouTube, etc., you always believe what you are seeing and I thought the idea of that was really interesting, and so I built toward that ending.
When I first wrote the script I wanted it to all build up to that moment in the film. There’s a line in the movie, one of my favorite lines, where he says, “you can’t fix this with editing” and she replies, “I can fix anything with editing.” I always had that line in my head because you watch these reality TV shows and its all editing, everything, but you just believe it and get in with it..
How involved were you in the production?. I was working a lot and was very involved with the rewrite process so, up until probably the day of production I was working with the director and the producers because we were rewriting it constantly trying to make it work within the budget. I was on set for a couple of days because I wanted to see Stephen (Stephen Moyer) do the monologue in the interrogation scene I had watched him on True Blood, I was a huge fan and to see him give 100% and to see him just dig into it was so cool.
Stephen Moyer wasn’t on set for that long was he? It was a very short filming period for him?
To even get something with that small a budget into a theater and to get a guy like him to do it; yes, it was very short, he was there for maybe a week. Most of his scenes are just in the police station, but he came in and just went to work. It was fun, it was great to watch.
Did you have Stephen Moyer in mind for the role?
When I sold the script I put together sort of a “look book”, my vision of the movie. I didn’t have Stephen listed, but I had a list of maybe 6 actor’s types such as, Dennis Quad, John Cusack, very much that type of guy, like leading man kind of the guy you just “like,” sort of. So, Stephen fit it almost exactly.
Radha Mitchell was completely off. That part was for a 50-year-old Spanish man. It’s a funny story because the name of the character is Detective Burquez, which is a super Spanish name. So I always thought of Esai Morales or somebody like that. I named him Burquez because that was my girlfriend’s name, and when broke up, I thought, I’m going to use her name in this movie and when the director told me that they were going to cast Rahda Mitchell as Detective Burquez the studio said, you can’t name a blonde Australian “Burquez.” So, I told the director, that’s my girlfriend’s name, we broke up, I need that name in the movie so, in the first scene of the movie, everyone is calling out “Detective, Burquez, Detective Burquez, and no one ever said anything that it was the weirdest, most Spanish name ever. Its little things like that are the funniest part about being a writer where you can put little things in for yourself that only I’ll know about.
Did the original script develop the characters more?
That was, I think the biggest thing in the development process, figuring out how much it would be a cop and how much horror/found footage. I think what happened was when you get into that kind of budget, it’s cheaper to do the horror stuff and at a certain point I think that’s what we thought people would want to see when they saw the movie. But, yes, in the beginning, there was more. I must have written a hundred pages of copy about Stephen’s character, trying to figure out exactly who he was, what happened to his daughter, what his specialty was, why he left, and about his relationship with Detective Berquez. The director was great because we would literally for weeks on end go back and forth and wrote so much stuff about those cops, but in the end, it seemed it was more about the horror.
I guess the most developed character was Dale Dickey’s character, at least we learned what she was there for?
Dale was great. Her little monologue, where she was talking about how God reaches down and touches someone for no reason and they become famous, but then, her husband, who was dying of cancer and for him, she says, “God’s got his stomping boots on.” She said it so cool and those little moments for me are just priceless.
The bus people all stayed the same. The two girls were based on people I know, aspiring musicians, aspiring actresses, so there was so much back story, but it’s hard to put that into a 90-minute movie.
And Stephen’s character, his daughter was killed by a serial killer; he used to be a big detective who worked on serial killer cases so that was his expertise. In one version he was a famous detective who brought down serial killers; a master of it. In another version we had done, the girls actually picked him, they picked him because of his past, they decided to target him because he was the master and they wanted to beat him, so it was really a game that they set up from the beginning to take down this big detective. And, when he goes into the serial killer monologue; that’s why he knows all that because he spent his whole life chasing serial killers, and he touched on murder being an art, and that part of his monologue I loved. “Murder is an art, but to them (the girls) it’s a sport.”
Talk about your film, “Into the Storm” (formerly known as Black Sky) and where did you get that idea from? And, what made you decide to write about the weather?
Because of Evidence, Todd Garner, a big-time producer who has produced 100’s of movies, emailed my agent saying he had read and liked some of the found footage I had done. It was a three-word email and it said, “Inspirational, tornado and POV.” I had lived in Nashville and my friends lost everything in a tornado and as soon as I saw those three words, I knew exactly how to tell this story in a very different way.
That one’s already done, we’ve just screened it last weekend and it will be probably be coming out next year. It’s a studio picture from New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers. It will be my first, big, big, big movie. Have you seen Twister? It’s like Twister, but with a fresh twist. When I saw it with the audience, it was unbelievable and so big and the special effects are absolutely amazing. The director used to work for James Cameron for 20 years and he’s this genius of framing and effects and I was just blown away. That will be the big one and then, “Step Up 5” is filming in September, and that is a fun dance movie.
If someone asked you to write something completely opposite, like a situation comedy, do you think you could do it?
I don’t know if I could do it, but I would absolutely try it. I’m up for any challenge.
What makes a good screenplay?
Here’s the thing, there are literally tens of thousands of people who write screenplays. I think last year 40,000 screenplays were registered, so there must be double that written. What I’ve realized is that there is no formula to a good script, there’s no short answer. You just know it when you read it. Some people are born with it, I wasn’t; I just had to keep trying, and trying and trying.
Are you strictly interested in writing screenplays?
I don’t think I could write a novel. I have ADD and I don’t think I could sit through it. I’m much more into movies and television. And, the thing is, I never wanted to be a writer; I still don’t even consider myself a writer, but writing is in me now.
In school, I started as a director and wanted to be a producer. So since I wanted to be a producer, I looked around for screenplays and couldn’t find any so I decided to just write my own. I figured it was going to be easy. How hard could it be? Nine years and 19 scripts later, my focus is now to move more into producing. I have a production company, Mad Horse Films. I still write, but I’m mostly into producing now.
I want to have 20 movies going at the same time. I can’t just spend two years on one movie; that’s just hard for me.
The thing with directing is that even though I never wanted to be a director, I do want to direct, because I’ve gotten to work with some really great directors and I learned so much from Olatunde and Stephen Quale from Into the Storm (fka Black Sky) and the director I’m working with now Scott Speer, is a huge inspiration for me. So, I see myself doing it, there’s a possibility I might actually be doing it this year, but it depends. I will direct something soon, but mainly it’s producing.
I’m the kind of guy who likes to “think big.” Some people would just say, “Oh I just want to be eking out a living; I just want to be able to write.” My goal is to be the most successful, powerful, writer, producer-director in the history of the universe; bigger than all of them combined, an empire, right? Am I going to get there? Probably not, but if you get halfway there that’s still a huge accomplishment. So, that’s the way I work, I want to be as big as I can get.
Evidence lies very heavily on technology, so how were you involved in all of that?
Going to film school certainly helped a lot because you edit your own films, etc. and all that kind of stuff helps. Stephen’s character in Evidence is really a director; he’s basically directing what he wants to see and how he wants to see it so the technology in the film was from experience and a lot of it is just made up. If you talk fast enough like, flow the DPI, put the shading in, nobody cares. It sounds good and it’s sort of like doing medical shows; you write a bunch of lingo and the people just buy it because it doesn’t matter; it’s just the idea of it that matters. But I love technology, I still love the idea of Evidence; the idea of what the movie is at its most basic, this detective comes in there and the only tools he has to solve the cast are these videos.
Tell me about your cameo in the film?
I’m in the very beginning, I’m sure you didn’t see me. It was right when Rahda meets Stephen. I was literally there for eight hours just standing next to them. If you look behind Rahda, I’m handcuffed. I was supposed to be a cop but I came on set and I had my hair kind of shaved and had my tattoos the casting said, “You can’t be a cop, you look more like a criminal.” That experience made me realize I never want to be an actor because it was an eight hour day and I’m in the movie for one second. I had to keep walking over and over and over again. That waiting is hard work because you are there for 15 hours, and you’re waiting but you have to be absolutely ready with this kind of preparedness.
Screen capture of John Swetnam’s very brief cameo in “Evidence.”
With Stephen and Rahda, I think the thing I learned from both of them was what it is to be a professional. Stephen came in with smart questions, sort of attacking it, and trying to do it right. As soon as the director said “action” they did it; never a wasted take. That was what I took from it as a writer and a producer and director that kind of mentality I want to take into my other projects. Yea, they have fun, but everyone is a professional. Even though it’s a cheap movie, it’s millions of dollars and that’s a lot of money, so every second counts. We’re all trying to make something. Everybody on that set and every set of every movie I’ve ever worked on is trying to make something great and if everybody comes in with that attitude, you have a better chance of making something great. It was fun watching him, just go to work. That’s the kind of people I hope to work with in the future and I hope to work again with Stephen absolutely and Rahda, I’m a huge fan of hers.
Stephen was super nice when I met him and he was kind of shocked that I was the writer, which I always love. Probably because I was dressed as a convict and in handcuffs, he was like, “Wait, this guy’s the writer?”
I want to thank John for spending the time with me and giving me a lot of details about the process he experienced with making Evidence. I wish him the best in his next projects and know he will succeed.
See more photos from the film in the “Evidence” Photo Gallery
The DVD and Blu-Ray will be released on August 20, 2013 and they are available now for pre-order: