I had a great time picking screenwriter David Congalton's brain about his movie, Authors Anonymous. I think in any creative endeavor, there's a rich story behind the story, and I'm pleased to be able to share some of that with you. Also, as an author, I feel that I've learned a lot about the publishing industry over the years, but I know nothing about the film industry. I'm fascinated by Mr. Congalton's experience bringing this screenplay to life and I'm so appreciative of his willingness to answer my questions. So thank you, Dave, for allowing me this opportunity! It's been a pleasure to chat with you!
Without further ado, I'm delighted to present my interview with David Congalton!
S.J. Lomas (SJ) : What sparked the idea for Authors Anonymous and how did you decide to tell the story as a screenplay? (I think in terms of novels or short stories, so screenwriting intrigues me.) David Congalton (DC): I’m older. I came out from the Midwest to California in 1987 to be a screenwriter and wrote 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 really bad spec scripts in a row. I went nowhere fast, falling on my face and racking up serious debt. Got married, relocated to San Luis Obispo, and shifted my emphasis. I stopped screenwriting totally and signed on at the local newspaper as a reporter, then became a local radio talk show host, freelance magazine writer, and ran a writers conference for 12 years. So I dropped out of Hollywood for about a dozen years. In 2005, my wife and some friends talked me into giving screenwriting one last try. Here’s the difference. Those early scripts truly sucked, but they were also based on big, broad, commercial concepts (“What if…..”). This time around, I drew from my own experience, so the movie I sold, the movie I’m about to sell, and the movie I’m writing now are all more personal. It’s an important lesson that took me a long time to learn. It’s write what you know, so in 2005, what did I know? Writers.
Also, all this is inspired by my relationship with our good friend novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde. Back in 2000, she had this incredible run of fortune, securing an agent, a book deal, a movie deal, and an invitation to the White House for a private screening of “Pay It Forward” with President Clinton. “Pay It Forward” made Catherine a national, if not international celebrity.
And I was jealous. Why was Catherine getting all the attention? My wife Charlotte immediately put me in my place. “Catherine does the work,” she reminded me. “You don’t do the work.” That kernel of truth and Catherine’s journey became the essence of my script five years later.
SJ: I thought each character totally nailed a particular stereotype of writers, or writer wannabes. You must be well acquainted with many writers to capture this so well. What kind of inner circles of writers are you part of?
DC: True confession time. I’ve never been a member of a critique group. Nor would I. Instead, I ran the Central Coast Writers Conference in California for 12 years. I’ve also interviewed a wide range of authors on my radio show over the years, so believe me when I tell you that I know the plight of the unpublished writer, the writer chasing that dream of publication. Yes, I knew a self-published author who had a signing in a hardware store. Yes, I know a writer who is successful, but only graduated high school and feels insecure. Christopher Guest says that comedy is “reality plus one.” I know that sounds obtuse, but I get it. You draw on what is real and you give it a spin, which is what I tried to do throughout.
SJ: Like the characters in Authors Anonymous, I'd say most authors are dreaming of scoring a movie deal. How did you get your screenplay off paper and onto the big screen?
DC: Oh, dear. You really don’t want to know. I wrote the first draft of “Scribble” in September 2005. We ended up going into production twice and falling out of production twice (with different casts each time) because the money disappeared (Or never existed to begin with). We finally were able to secure financing in 2012 when Kaley Cuoco read the script and agreed to star. The producers changed the title to “Authors Anonymous” simply because research shows that movies that begin with an A, B, or C get downloaded more on VOD. I have no idea what this new title means. To me, it will always be “Scribble,” but I’m just the writer. I owe everything to my mentor, the late Cathy Henderson-Martin, who died far too young last November. Cathy was a veteran casting director. I was able to get the script to her and she was able to get things rolling for me. As I always stress in my presentations, it’s all about networking and making connections. Every success I’ve had as a writer (26 years now) is through personal connection. Finally, screenwriting is not for the faint of heart. Your chances of getting a movie produced is about 1 in 5000. Believe me when I tell you that it will be the single, hardest thing you ever do.
SJ: When did you find out who had been cast? Did anyone match what you'd envisioned in your head while writing?
DC: I got the word in June 2012 that we would be shooting that August. Everything happened so quickly. Dylan Walsh, Teri Polo, and Jonathan Banks were all cast less than a week before shooting began. Our director was a former casting director so she called in favors all over town and assembled a cast quickly. I have the honor of having written the final role for Dennis Farina who passed away in July 2013. He became John K. Butzin. He was exactly as I envisioned. The others were all pleasant surprises. I don’t think Dylan Walsh gets enough credit for being Alan. He was amazing to me.
SJ: Did you get to visit the set during filming? If so, what's your best story from that experience?
DC: We shot in and around Los Angeles in August 2012 over a 17 day period. I was on set every day, mostly just staying out of the way. The highlight has to be that first day for a first-time screenwriter. We shot all the scenes at Dr. Mooney’s office in a single day (Dylan Walsh was incredible in knocking out scene after scene). But you walk on set for that very first time and you see how the crew has gone into your mind and transformed this doctor’s office in Pacific Palisades into the office of Dr. Alan K. Mooney. I mean, they have certificates with his name framed on the wall. There are photos of him and Colette everywhere. You have all this stuff in your head and then you’re standing in it, surrounded by actors playing characters you created, saying dialogue you wrote. What a creative rush.
SJ: John K. Butzin has quickly become one of my favorite fictional characters of all time.
Even his name is perfect. How did you come up with it?
DC: I remember being online one day and looking at the web site for a university. They had a secretary in a department with the last name of Butzin and I smiled the minute I saw that name. Poor woman, I thought. But I can’t explain my imagination too much. I know I have ADD and my wiring is a bit different than normal—things just pop into my mind. And when I made the decision to do the script, everything just came pouring out. First draft was finished in less than two weeks. There’s a scene where Alan recites names for possible characters into his recorder. Well, those are all names I came up with from my beginning days as a writer back in high school. Oh, by the way, I also wrote previous movie scripts about a dog who becomes human to rescue his kidnapped owner and I also wrote “Frovers.” A lot of the jokes in the movie are clearly personal.
SJ: What is your favorite scene from the movie?
DC: There are two that stand out because both are word for word from the script. The first is the scene in front of the Fitzgerald apartment where Henry learns that the love of his life has never heard of his personal hero. That’s followed by the scene in the critique group when Henry is talking about his characters, but really he’s talking about his relationship with Hannah and she shoots him down. You have to remember that Henry is based on me, so I’m partial to his scenes, but clearly anything with John K. Butzin is money in the bank.
SJ: Do you ever think about these characters anymore or is the story finished and only new characters in your head now?
DC: No, I’m done with the writing group. They took seven years of my life, thank you. I will always be grateful. I will never forget, but I’ve moved on, definitely.
SJ: I really love this movie. Will there be another from you coming out soon? If so, can you tell us anything about it? DC: Thank you for asking. Yes! We are currently in pre-production on my next script “Seven Sisters,” a slightly different story about a man who overcomes personal grief by hiking the famed Seven Sisters of Central California. I’m working with a different creative team and it’s all going great. Hope to be shooting later this year. Meanwhile, working on a third script. Always be writing. Always. SJ: They keep asking it in the movie, so I have to ask, who is your favorite author? DC: I would have to say Richard Brautigan, the San Francisco beat (or off-beat) author, famous for such novels as “Trout Fishing in America” and “In Watermelon Sugar.” I discovered Brautigan back in the ‘70s and he blew my imagination wide open by demonstrating that there were no creative borders. He made me want to become a writer. It’s no coincidence that the famous author in “Authors Anonymous” is named Richard Brodwell. Sadly, Brautigan committed suicide in 1984. He was only 49. I’ve become friends with his daughter Ianthe through Facebook. In terms of nonfiction, Joan Didion is a writing god. SJ: What are your top 5 favorite movies? DC: It’s nearly impossible for any movie lover to be restricted to only five all-time favorites. My list, emphasizing the beauty of the original screenplay, would certainly include “The Third Man,” “Casablanca,” “Chinatown,” “Local Hero,” “Network,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Sideways” and a little gem of an indie film called “In Search of a Midnight Kiss.” But I could easily name ten, twenty, more.