Last blog post, we had an exciting opportunity to peek inside the mind of Matt Coleman, author of Juggling Kittens, who shared wonderful insights on his novel and the process of landing a movie deal. Matt was a lot of fun to talk to, so make sure you check out his interview here. Thank you, Matt!
In the meantime, my novel, Sinai Unhinged, has been in editing and while I’m anxiously waiting on news of revisions, I’ve spent time developing the draft of the next book in the Sinai series, and hammering out the screenplay version of Sinai Unhinged.
After all, that’s the Big Dream, right?
So, in search of more inspiration for how to make the dream a reality, I sought out Todd Tavolazzi, author of Looking into the Sun, another Pandamoon Publishing writer who landed a movie deal—already in pre-production. Let’s chat with Todd to learn more about this accomplished author and his powerful story about the Syrian Conflict.
Hello, Todd. For readers who are not familiar with you, please tell us a bit about yourself, your background and how your interest in becoming a writer evolved?
I’m currently still on active duty in the U.S. Navy. I attended the U.S. Naval Academy (1998) was assigned to drive ships as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) but always wanted to fly helicopters. I submitted and was granted a transfer into naval aviation as a pilot. I earned my Naval Aviator “Wings of Gold” in June 2002 and have loved every minute of it – which is probably why I’m still in the Navy!
I have always been a reader, and felt for a long time that I would never have the skill or inclination to write a novel. But after strolling through lots of really cool books at the local book store—but not finding the one that spoke to me most—I decided that I would have to write one … something that I wasn’t able to find in the books store. Many writers have heard the adage, “If the story you are looking for doesn’t exist, that means YOU must write it.”
I set a goal of writing something (of any length) every day. After several grueling months, I had a first draft of my first novel. I researched how to submit it to literary agents (with query letters) and actually got a few full manuscript requests! But after an endless period of waiting … every one came back with some version of “it had some good elements but it just isn’t for us at this time.” I saw the notes for what they were … the writing just isn’t good enough yet. I devoured instructional books on writing and attacked my next novel. It took about a year and a half to get my second novel in some semblance of order. I sent that one out to agents as well. I got about double the amount of full manuscript requests (six) and about an equal number of partial manuscript requests (which was encouraging) … but they all came back (after many months of waiting) with the same conclusion: the writing is just not up to par. There was a bit of feeling sorry for myself, and then there was the search for my next topic for my next novel (my third attempt).
Perseverance pays off! Your novel, LOOKING INTO THE SUN, has been optioned for a movie and that’s fantastic news! Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write this particular story?
I was working in Naples, Italy at the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet headquarters. My job was an elusive term called “strategic engagement.” It amounted to advising our Fleet Commander with recommendations for where and (most importantly) why to execute Key Leader Engagements (high-level meetings) with our European partners. This job required lots of real-world research and strategic analysis of the U.S. political, military, and economic relationships with our allies and partners in the region. During the course of the time I was stationed in Italy (2011-2014), the Arab Spring had materialized and the Syrian conflict caught fire.
As I researched the implications of the Syrian conflict on our relationships in the region, I uncovered horrific humanitarian crises developing in Syria, Turkey, and Jordan as Syrians were fleeing the conflict. I was most affected by the toll this conflict was taking on innocent Syrian children and wanted to do something to help. I decided that I could put some of the research I had done to work as a fictitious story (inspired by very real events) in the form of a novel. This was the impetus for my third novel, Looking into the Sun, eventually acquired and published by Zara Kramer at Pandamoon Publishing.
Looking into the Sun follows a seasoned freelance journalist and a Hollywood movie star as they form an unlikely partnership to heroically smuggle children out of a besieged Syrian village.
You’ve written a novel on a topic of great magnitude. To risk stating the obvious, perhaps every writer dreams that his or her story will make it to film. In what way, and when, did the idea of your work becoming a movie enter into your writing process?
Great question! I had dreamed about writing screenplays before I set out to write novels. But, if one does the math, there are roughly 300,000 traditionally published books (not including self-published books) per year. And, there are about 400-500 films released per year with many more scripts being sold or optioned each year that are not produced. According to the Writer’s Guild of America, only 4,760 TV and Feature writers were paid in 2017 … so, the odds are better to get a good book published than a screenplay sold. But, there are good things and bad things associated with each writing discipline. At the time, I saw my chance to write, and possibly publish, a novel better than my chances for landing a screenplay.
However, once I celebrated the fact that I was able to get my novel published by a fantastic (and author championing) independent publishing company (Pandamoon Publishing), I set out to look for option possibilities for the book. I quickly saw that if I was going to ever see this story on the big screen I was going to have to take the initiative. The first step was to write the screenplay. That meant cutting my 284-page novel down to no more than 120 screenplay pages without losing the core of the story (the art of adaptation). I went back to work, this time studying the screenwriting craft, and had a first draft in about three months.
That’s a lot of work! I’m sure many readers are wondering about the logistics of getting their novel into the hands of producers. How did that occur for you?
I put the screenplay through several re-writes to smooth the dialogue and the scene and action descriptions and posted it on a great website for screenwriters called InkTip (www.inktip.com). There, film producers, directors, agents, and managers sift through loglines and (hopefully) contact the writer for a look at their work.
After only a few months on the site, I was lucky enough to get a script request from Eric J. Adams at Sleeperwave Films. He took about six weeks to go through the script and then contact people in his filmmaker’s network to find out if the subject matter would be something that investors may be interested in funding. Luckily for me, he agreed to option the screenplay and we have been making steady progress through script development, finding investors, and most recently, finding a director (Bobby Roth) who can recruit name actors to star in the film (which will ensure more investors come onboard to fund the remainder of the budget).
That’s so exciting! Based upon your experience, what advice would suggest to other writers who dream of a movie deal?
After all of this, I would say… keep writing. The thing that makes a writer is the ability to consistently produce quality material. Most of us writers are somewhere on a scale between novice and professional writers (in whatever media we write). But the fact of the matter is that the more one writes (and gets quality feedback from readers inside and outside the writing and entertainment industry) the better one gets at it. As the quality of writing improves, so will the writing success. It will be incremental for sure—but each success will lead to more confidence, more discipline in sitting down to write, which will improve one’s writing, which will, in turn, create more writing success. It is a vicious cycle of discipline and perseverance (100% of the scripts, novels, poetry, or short stories that one never writes – will never be published or sold).
Good point. You can’t succeed by doing nothing. What was it like when it finally came to the contract negotiation process?
Pandamoon Publishing owned the rights to the novel, and they also owned the rights to any derivatives (like screenplays based on the novel). This is an important point that every writer should scrutinize in his or her contracts. I am not saying there is anything good or bad about one arrangement or another—it’s just a good practice to know what is in a contract so that, when film rights or derivative rights come up, it will not be a surprise to the writer or publishers what the situation is with regards to copyrights. In my case, Pandamoon owned the rights and negotiated with Sleeperwave Films on the screenplay option. I was included as a partner on the deal with Pandamoon Publishing, so when there are royalties that result from the eventual production of the film, Sleeperwave Films will pay Pandamoon per the contract and then Pandamoon will pay me, per their contract with me.
Books often get optioned as film, but the film never gets made and the options expire. Where does your movie project stand at this point, and what are the next steps?
Great question. At this point, the option agreement states, very specifically, how long the producer is purchasing the “option” to make a film out of the source material—in my case, the screenplay based on my novel (both of which Pandamoon owns the rights to, per our contract). If the producer has not exercised the option to produce the film based on the optioned material by the first deadline, then there will be a monetary fee that he pays to the copyright owner. In my case, that is Pandamoon Publishing. If he decides he cannot or will not be able to make the film, he has the right to not renew the option and the material will be what the industry calls in “turn around.” Essentially, the exclusive rights are returned to the owners and they would be able to sell a different option agreement to someone else if they chose. At this point, Sleeperwave Films has renewed their option agreement and they are still intending (and moving forward with) making the film (which was re-titled THE LAST RESCUE).
Great news! Realistically, authors rarely have input into casting, but if you did, who would be among your dream cast?
This is a tough question because there are a lot of people who could play the roles in this story very well … but the lead part of the freelance journalist is already cast by a great Syrian actor named Jay Abdo. As for the part of the Hollywood star… I would love to see someone of Bradley Cooper’s caliber in that role… but as you said … that would be the dream …There is a strong female journalist character that I would love to see played by someone like Jennifer Connelly.
So great to hear casting had begun! Fingers crossed that Bradley and Jennifer get wind of this. Will there be a sequel to this novel? What projects are you working on that readers can look forward to in the future?
I don’t think so. This novel and film were both meant to stand on their own. However, I am always writing something – and I have one novel that is about 70% complete and several screenplays that I’ve been working on so, hopefully I’ll be able to put something else out there soon.
Hopefully! How can readers find you?
And, finally, is there anything else you would like to add?
I listen to many podcasts about writing but a few of my favorites are The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter, and On the Page with Pilar Alessandra. They have hours of great screenwriting insights from people in the business.
For all the writers out there … keep writing, keep creating. There is plenty of room out there in the world for us all to share our work and enjoy the journey together. Thanks for the opportunity to put my experiences out there! I am always on the look out for how writers get done what they get done and find a sort of motivation from everyone’s success stories (even small ones) … because it tells me that even small successes can (and often) will lead to bigger successes with time and concerted effort – and if it’s happening for others ...why not me?
Thank you, Todd! Absolutely true! I want to say thank you for your time and, of course, a special thank you for your service! Looking forward to seeing this movie come to fruition!
As we see, there are many paths to success. I reckon that the successes of Matt Coleman and Todd Tavolazzi are due in large part to their great attitudes. As writers know, the writing journey can be a rollercoaster of high-highs and swooping plummets. Belief in oneself, and in the story, is paramount to getting off of the rollercoaster in one piece, selfie-in-hand, ready to ride again.