SCREENWRITER PROFILE: JIM SCHWEITZER

Originally published on MovieBytes.com (Friday April 13, 2012):

An interview with screenwriter Jim Schweitzer regarding the Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition.

Q: What's the title of the script you entered in this contest, and what's it about?

A: The script is called "Take Out," and it's an action/comedy project I co-wrote with my longtime pal Ryan Myers. With it, we wound up placing 2nd in the "Action" category of the Fresh Voices Original Screenplay Competition. 

Quick synopsis: 

Chris Fetzer is an earnest but gawky twenty-something sandwich-delivery guy in San Francisco's Chinatown. His favorite customers are Feng Jiang (a middle-aged former martial arts master who owns the junk shop across the street), and his scrappy, beautiful daughter Amy, for whom Chris carries a major torch. 

After Mr. Feng is killed by Chinese gangsters who are looking for something important at his apartment, Chris begins to see Mr. Feng looking back at him through the bathroom mirror. The two of them soon realize that an antique amulet Mr. Feng gave Chris to protect him has somehow caused the older man's spirit to merge with Chris' body, giving Mr. Feng partial control over Chris' actions.

When the police prove to be no help in finding the killers, it's up to Chris, Amy, and Chris' Kung-Fu co-pilot to fight their way through a seedy criminal underworld in search of answers. Along the way, Chris also hopes to find a way to catch Amy's romantic interests...even as her overprotective father keeps one hand on the puppet-strings.

Q: What made you enter this particular contest? Have you entered any other contests with this script? If so, how did you do?

A: I honestly don't remember who suggested entering the Fresh Voices contest. But I do recall the main reason we did: Feedback. Each entry before a certain deadline was eligible to receive notes from the first-round reader. And as first-time screenwriters, we were pretty keen to get some opinions on our work from an unbiased third party. 

We got the notes from the judge pretty quickly. That was the first indication that we'd made a great choice in entering. The feedback was nothing short of excellent. It was VERY clear that the reader had read our whole script, and had done so carefully. He or she had really "gotten" what we were going for. The elements that they had liked were called out specifically, and in the areas where there was criticism, it was presented constructively, and with a thoughtful tone. The reader obviously took his or her responsibility seriously, and were pretty blown away by the respect we'd been shown because of it. I said it at the time, and it would still be true whether we had placed or not: The feedback alone was more than worth the price of admission. 

As for other contests, yes. Our unexpected success with Fresh Voices gave us the confidence we needed to enter "Take Out" into quite a few others, as well. But, being as most of them are annual contests that are still currently underway, we won't know the round placements or final results until they're officially announced. We're looking forward to seeing if it continues to do well, however.

Q: Were you satisfied with the administration of the contest? Did they meet their deadlines? Did you receive all the awards that were promised?

A: In a word: Tremendously. 

Fresh Voices' Coordinator Seth Reynolds was particularly patient, understanding and accommodating, and really helped us out when we came up against an issue with our entry. 

We had entered the script by the deadline, but there was a problem with processing the payment of the entry fee. So, rather than just hand us a disqualification and wash his hands of it, Seth contacted us to give us an opportunity to rectify the issue. As it turns out, the credit card we had used had mistakenly frozen due to a computer error! It took us some time to get it straightened out...But as soon as it was, Seth let us know that everything was fine. We were still in the contest, no problem. He didn't have to do that, but it was really great that he did, and we very much appreciate it.

Fresh Voices was also very on top of meeting their deadlines. Results went up when the contest website indicated that they would, without exception. And as they did, we were flabbergasted over and over that we kept advancing! We had really only entered for the notes, so our progression was a very pleasant surprise. Still is, really.

As for the awards, we were also quite pleased. Within a day or two of the results postings, we received communication from Fresh Voices' partners about how to redeem the prizes. We did, and they were delivered as promised. 

Unfortunately, it does bear mentioning that there WAS one component of the prize package which we did NOT receive: The subscription to "Script" Magazine. However, I want to stress that this was NOT the fault of Fresh Voices, since the magazine had ceased operations between the time the contest started, and the conclusion of it. Even so, we did get an e-mail from Seth explaining the problem, and letting us know that Fresh Voices would be supplying an equivalent prize, should one become available. So even THAT misstep was handled professionally, even though it hadn't been Fresh Voices' problem in the first place.

Overall, there wasn't a single facet of the way Fresh Voices was run that I was not impressed with. It's clear that Seth and the rest of the staff are committed to the contest's integrity, and it shows at every turn.

Q: How long did it take you to write the script? Did you write an outline beforehand? How many drafts did you write?

A: We had been working on another (now tabled) script that just felt like it wasn't going anywhere, so Ryan sent me a short synopsis for what would eventually become "Take Out" in the hopes that we could work on it next. But I loved the idea so much on the spot that we back-burnered the other project immediately, and wrote "Take Out" first.

It came together really quickly, thanks both to Ryan's excellent story outline, and our overall enthusiasm for getting it down. All told, From concept to WGA registration, "Take Out" wound up going from "FADE IN" to "FADE OUT" in just 28 days! 

The version of the script that wound up placing was our first draft, as well as being our first completed script. Since then, we've used the feedback notes we received as the basis for some minor cleanup on the formatting, as well as a few little tweaks to the dialogue. But for the most part, the version we're currently shopping is still more or less that same initial draft.

Q: What kind of software did you use to write the script, if any? What other kinds of writing software do you use?

A: We used Final Draft 8 for all of what actually wound up on the page. Since Ryan lives in Chicago, and I'm in Minneapolis, Final Draft's "CollaboWriter" feature came in extremely handy. That, along with Skype, formed the basis of what we used to actually write in real-time.

Q: Do you write every day? How many hours per day?

A: I do. But that's largely because I'm lucky enough to be able to say that writing is also my full-time day job. I'm a Product Copywriter in the creative department of a sporting-goods retailer. We have a heavy catalog circulation and large online presence, so I spend about 40 hours a week meeting deadlines and routing copy blocks to our layout folks. It's a really great job, I work with some fantastic people, and I enjoy coming to work. 

The only drawback is that sometimes, after spending eight or nine hours a day writing, I just want to come home and decompress. Because of that, finding the discipline to work on personal writing projects can be challenging. Imagine spending all day in a high-volume kitchen at a restaurant, only to come home and have your family say, "What's for dinner?" That's the textbook definition of a "busman's holiday," and it's how I feel a lot of the time.

But that's just one of the many reasons I'm lucky to have such a strong partner. Ryan is great at a lot of things, but he really excels at motivation. If we make a commitment to write at a certain time, I'm gonna do my best to keep it. Plus, being tied to the success of someone else also helps. I've let MYSELF down plenty, but I'm not quite so cavalier when it comes to other people's dreams.

Q: Do you ever get writer's block? If so, how do you deal with that?

A: Once in awhile. And it's usually due to being burned out from work. Sometimes we have tight deadlines, and there's occasional overtime. Some days, I just want to come home and WATCH a movie...So even the thought of trying to WRITE one just makes my hands ache. 

But again - having a partner helps. Ryan can get me excited about working on a script even when I feel like I couldn't possibly type another word. And knowing that we're in this together fosters a lot of team spirit. 

Another thing that can often break a slump is for me to remind myself how lucky I am. I have a fantastic wife, a great job, two awesome dogs, and a lovely home. And relatively speaking, my job plays to my strengths, so it often doesn't even feel like work. Taking the time to remember that my WWII-veteran Grandfather never got "Foundry Block," and that my retired-cop dad never got "Police Block" certainly helps me keep things in perspective, too. Can you imagine? "I dunno...I just can't bring myself to arrest crooks, or make traffic stops today. My heart's just not in it." Yeah...THAT would've gone over like a pregnant pole-vaulter. 

My grandfather and dad both put their LIVES at risk to keep food on the table, and worked hard to provide for their families. I know that. And I also know that I have it pretty damn good, so I do my best not to take that for granted.

Q: What's your background? Have you written any other screenplays or television scripts?

A: Even as a kid, I always knew I wanted to write for a living, so that was the path I tried to stick to. I majored in English and Theatre at a small liberal-arts college in Wisconsin, and though I had small detours as a stage actor and a drummer in a rock band, most of my adult paychecks have come from word-smithery of some form or another. 

"Take Out" is the first feature screenplay that either Ryan or I have completed, though we both have plenty of work under our belts in other areas. My first publication came when I sold a one-act play to a university English textbook as a Junior in High School, while my more recent efforts grace the backs of better toilet tanks everywhere. Ryan was selected for inclusion in a compendium of children's poetry as a grade schooler, and is currently a student of the Chicago Portfolio School's Copywriting program. He's also written episodic scripts for a web series.

Q: Do you live in Los Angeles? If not, do you have any plans to move there?

A: No...We don't live in Los Angeles. However, that admission should most definitely be read to have a big, fat "YET" stapled onto the end of it.

Frankly, if I'm being perfectly honest? The promise of someday soon being able to live in L.A. is one of the biggest reasons I'm chasing a screenwriting career. 

Please don't misunderstand...I've lived in the general area my entire life; most of it in Milwaukee, and in the Twin Cities the last 5 years. I was born and raised in the Midwest. It's always going to be "home" on some level, so I'm not about to libel it. Minneapolis in particular is a truly lovely town. The people are nice, the neighborhoods are safe, there are plenty of fantastic restaurants, museums, theatres and music...All of the stuff that make living in cities great is here in spades, certainly. 

BUT. 

Though spring and summer here are honestly breathtaking, anyone who has ever suffered through a Minnesota Winter and lived to talk about it? They'll gladly regale you with tales of chilled horror that'll give you frostbite just from the WORDS ALONE. Fall and Winter can be downright BRUTAL here. Although this past winter was about as unseasonably mild as I've ever experienced, LAST year's swung toward the polar extreme in every sense of the word. And once you've endured the torture of seasonal snowfall totals of just under 20 feet coupled with an average temperature of just about -20°F or so for a few months running...? Palm trees and endless beaches have a way of calling to you that's pretty irresistible. Living in Chicago, I know Ryan doesn't really have it all that much better. So we're probably looking forward to it more than either of us would care to admit. 

Again, don't get me wrong...It's not that we don't have a lot of great stories we want to tell, that we don't love the craft, or that we're not committed to really making our careers successful. That's not it at all. But there's just simply no discounting the massive appeal of Southern California after this many seasons of wet feet, slippery roads, hip-deep snow, fender-benders, icicles in my moustache, dry skin, bulky outerwear and cold, Cold, COLD. Not to insult the woes of current Cali residents, but I'd be happy to risk a few earthquakes, mudslides, Santa Ana winds and wildfires if I know I've shoveled my last. 

Therefore, yes...As soon as we have the opportunity, we plan to head out West to find our way. Here's hoping we're able to fly before the snow does again (...and here's ALSO hoping my boss doesn't read this any time soon. He's a really good guy, and I'd hate to even present the APPEARANCE of not being happy at work).

Q: What's next? Are you working on a new script?

A: In the future, we certainly have plans to write plenty more together. We have a great personal and working relationship based on years of laughs, and very complementary skill-sets when it comes to getting stuff down onto the page. We just have a lot of fun working together, and I don't see that changing. 

To that end, we keep a constantly-updated file of loglines we hope to get to someday, and we're committed to doing whatever it takes to get 'em down in some form or another. We're still in the middle of the tabled project we may someday resume, about done with the first act of something brand-new, and we're even putting the finishing touches on an hour-format TV spec over this weekend. 

It must be said, though: No matter what happens from this point forward, we owe a big debt of thanks to Seth and Fresh Voices for giving us our first big, straight-out-of-the-gate shot of validation. We very much appreciate the opportunities our placement has provided us, and absolutely plan to be ambassadors for the contest as we wear their cap-feathers proudly. And to anyone who is considering entering the Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition: You absolutely should not hesitate to do so. Our experience was just overwhelmingly positive on every level imaginable, and I have no reason to believe that yours would be any different. 

Good luck, and never stop writing!