Last April, Summit Entertainment optioned the sci-fi action spec Arena written by first-time feature writers Toby Wagstaff and Darren Howell. The story of Arena revolves around a group of modern-day soldiers mysteriously transported from the thick of battle to a terrain-shifting landscape where they must fight the best warriors from different eras and histories in a gladiatorial fight to the death or be killed by the all-powerful operators of the "Arena."
The UK-based Darren, 39, was in L.A. a couple weeks ago for a round of meetings with producers, agents, and lawyers. By pure chance I met him in a bar at the hotel where he was staying. We got to talking and the next thing I know, he’s agreeing to be interviewed for this blog. Cool! OK, let’s get started, shall we?
JV: First of all, big congratulations on selling Arena! When did the script sell?
DH: Thank you! I think we kinda knew at the beginning of March that Summit Entertainment was going to option it. Then there was a period of to-ing and fro-ing between them and our lawyer—which seemed to take ages! But I remember it was Good Friday when we got their "official" offer. Couldn't have happened on a more aptly named day!
JV: How long have you been writing screenplays?
DH: I've been writing for absolute ages. It started as a hobby, you know, creating worlds and then knocking them down. All for fun! I wrote a [book] manuscript about ten years ago that got rejected about six times in the UK, so I thought I'd turn to movie scripts. I'd like to go back to the novel one day, or at least convert it into a screenplay.
JV: Whereabouts in England do you live?
DH: I live in a town called Cheam in Surrey, which is just south of London.
JV: What was your occupation prior to selling Arena?
DH: I was, and still am, a tube driver. You know, the subway. It's all very boring, but pays the bills for now. It's funny, our agents took us out for lunch while I was in town, and all they wanted to talk about was the Underground. They seemed to think it was really exciting! It was all pretty surreal.
JV: Will this script sale give you the freedom of becoming a full-time screenwriter – or do you anticipate going back to a "regular" job?
DH: At the moment I'm not in a position to leave the Underground, what with the dollar to pound exchange, but who knows. That's my dream, to write full-time.
JV: Do you have plans to move to the Los Angeles area – or are you perfectly happy in England?
DH: Well, I have two small children, so I don't know if LA is somewhere I'd consider moving to. (No disrespect!) Although, maybe somewhere quiet and sleepy in California could be an option. It would make sense to come out on a more permanent basis, but I'd like to get another couple of sales under my belt before I decide. My manager seems to think it's an option I'll have to consider eventually.
JV: In learning how to write a marketable screenplay, which do you feel helped the most: how-to books, seminars/classes, studying pro screenplays, watching a ton of movies, trial and error, a little of everything?
DH: When I decided to write a screenplay I did a lot of reading: books for advice, and screenplays online to get the "feel." I've always been an avid movie fan/buff, so I think that helped as well. But ultimately, I have a great writing partner. I've learnt so much from him and we get on fantastically well. I couldn't have done it without him. Thank you, Toby!
JV: To date, approximately how many screenplays have you completed?
DH: As a lone entity I've done about six or seven, both TV and movie. As a partnership, we've completed two, including Arena, but we have the seeds for about another three or four, plus we have my solo projects to return to.
JV: Have you ever entered a screenplay into a competition? If so, what was that experience like?
DH: Never entered a competition.
JV: While writing Arena, how did you and Toby, who is based here in Los Angeles, divide the work?
DH: At the beginning of the project, there was a lot of idea exchanges via email and Skype. Thank God for the Internet! Then, when we'd got the story into something we considered solid, we'd go off and write our own takes and then marry them up. For us it seems to work pretty well.
JV: How exactly did you get your script into the hands of the powers that be in Hollywood?
DH: Well, I went out to L.A. in 2005 for the Fade In Pitch Fest. I met my manager there and pitched him a script I'd already written. He liked the idea and asked me to mail it to him. He read and loved it, and assigned Toby, who worked for him at the time, to develop it with me. We worked well together and decided to become co-writers, which was great for me, having a full-time job and two children. It kinda took the heat off me.
JV: Did you and Toby have an agent prior to the sending the script out?
DH: No, we only got an agent off the back of Arena. We had two of the big five after us, which was nice!
JV: OK, you get the call that Arena had just sold – what happened next?
DH: I had a lovely bottle of Champagne waiting on ice! Although, if I'm truthful, I don't think it's still fully sunk in. It's all still a bit of a dream.
JV: Tell me a little about your experience visiting Los Angeles earlier this month.
DH: We had some great meetings. Everyone really loved Arena, so that helped us get a foot in the door. They liked what we had to offer and we were pitched several projects, which we're taking a look at.
JV: So what is the current status of Arena?
DH: From what I understand Summit is eager to get going ASAP. They're currently in the process of attaching a director and are down to the last couple of guys. No, I can't tell you who they are! We met with one of the candidates while I was in L.A . He seems like a very cool guy. We've had some general notes and ideas for improvement, but it's nothing that's going to change the dynamics of the plot drastically, and we're not getting into rewrite mode until the time comes.
JV: Producers are fairly notorious for kicking loose the original writer(s) and bringing in a writer with a fresh perspective. Do you anticipate staying with the project from start to finish – or do you think the producers have other plans?
DH: Who knows! I sincerely would like to stay with Arena until the end, and we seem to have a good relationship with the producers, but again...who knows!
JV: Most novice writers think they’ll be on Easy Street once they’ve sold that first script. Do you think there’s any truth to this notion?
DH: To sell one script is fantastic—to sell another would be the cherry on the cake! I'm just taking each day as it comes, but I don't think either of us is under the illusion that we're on Easy Street after just one sale. If anything the pressure upon us has increased since the sale—especially now we have an agent and lawyer to feed! For instance, we have our first script, "The Duritz Find," we're getting ready to rewrite, now interest in it has reignited due to Arena's sale. Plus, we're doing a treatment for New Line, through Benderspink (Arena's producers), for a big sci-fi comic book adaptation. Plus, we're bouncing ideas at the moment for three projects pitched to us during the meetings. And, of course, we're always throwing ideas out between ourselves for future ideas.
JV: From your perspective, what’s the MOST FAVORABLE aspect entering the world of professional screenwriting?
DH: It's just a dream—to do something you truly love. To get to this point, it's been a great ride.
JV: From your perspective, what’s the LEAST FAVORABLE aspect of entering the world of professional screenwriting?
DH: The flying! I hate it! Another good reason to move out to L.A., I guess. Plus, I'm not good in meetings or pitches. I find them really daunting. It's strange, I can talk general bullsh*t with anyone, that's no problem—and I can do karaoke no problem—but talking about stuff I've done? I freeze. Thank God for Toby, he seems to love meetings!
JV: And finally...what’s your best advice for screenwriters who aren’t necessarily located in the Los Angeles area?
DH: With the advent of the internet, and technology as a whole, I don't think [living in Los Angeles is the] necessity as it probably once was. Everything we could do face to face, we can do online. Although, I do kind of miss that personal interaction, so I think it's important to try and get out when I can. Hopefully, as things progress I'll be able to get out more often, despite the flying!
JV: Thanks for your time, Darren. I wish you the best of luck with Arena as well as all your future projects!
APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)