Navigating Hollywood, Episode 11:
Scott Teems, Writer, Director, Producer: Halloween Kills, Rectify, Firestarter, The Exorcist, Transcript
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Allen Wolf: Welcome to the Navigating Hollywood podcast. My name is Allen wolf and I’m a filmmaker, author, and game creator. My new book, based on my upcoming movie, The Sound of Violet, was just named the Best Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year by the Readers Favorite International Book Contest. If you’d like to check it out, go to thesoundofviolet.com or wherever you buy books, and let me know what you think.
Navigating Hollywood encourages and equips entertainment professionals to live relationally and spiritually holistic lives. If you work in entertainment, be sure to visit navigatinghollywood.org to discover the complimentary courses and see how you can get involved.
Today, we are joined by filmmaker Scott Teems. His projects include HALLOWEEN KILLS, that he co-wrote with David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, and upcoming will be THE EXORCIST, which he also wrote with those same writers, and Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER, which he adapted for the screen and will executive produce.
Scott adapted Stephen King’s, THE BREATHING METHOD, which is in development with Spyglass for director Gore Verbinski, and he wrote the upcoming sequel INSIDIOUS 5. Scott also wrote the screenplay adaptation of the bestselling novel CUTTING FOR STONE.
Scott’s previous credits as a writer-director include the award-winning films THAT EVENING SUN, HOLBROOK/TWAIN, and most recently, THE QUARRY. Scott was a writer and co-executive producer of the popular Netflix series NARCOS: MEXICO, and he wrote, directed, and produced three seasons of the acclaimed, Peabody Award-winning Sundance TV drama RECTIFY.
Wow, Scott, you’re so impressive. Welcome to the show!
Scott Teems: Thanks, Allen. Good to see you, buddy.
Allen Wolf: Great to have you. My first question, after reading through all the incredible work you’ve done is…why don’t you smile in any of your pictures?
Scott Teems: I have to keep up the mystique, you know.
Allen Wolf: That’s what I wondered. I wondered if you were sending out a persona of, like, I’m a serious person, I make serious stories. But I looked, I really looked for pictures of you smiling. I couldn’t find one of them.
Scott Teems: That’s funny. Oh man. I feel shame now.
Allen Wolf: I’m just campaigning for at least one smiling picture of you somewhere.
Scott Teems: You and my wife, both. That would be a good win for all of us involved.
Allen Wolf: (laughs)
Scott Teems: I don’t have any lips. It’s weird. I don’t know. I don’t like smiling. Sorry. Trying to keep up that image. No, I’m kidding.
Allen Wolf: Aaaaaah. Well, I think you’ve got a great smile. So hopefully we’ll see more of your smile. Well, the work you create is very intense. thrilling, and dramatic. How did you develop those sensibilities?
Scott Teems: Guess I was just born with a bit of a jaundiced eye and a sort of healthy dose of pessimism goes along with an unsmiling vibe. I don’t know. I know that I develop them as much as that was just sort of, I didn’t purposefully develop them, I suppose. Those have always been the kinds of stories I’m drawn to and ever since. Not only as a filmmaker and writer, but also as a film watcher, as a young person, I just always felt myself drawn to those darker stories. And I think I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why and uncover some of those reasons or as part of the exploration of some of the stuff I write about, is sort of searching for those reasons, and why I’m drawn to those stories.
Allen Wolf: Did you grow up in a very serious household?
Scott Teems: Not serious. I come from Georgia. A lot of laughter. My dad is very funny person and you know, just lots of jokes. I think I probably always felt like an outsider. I think I was trying to reconcile a lot of these different feelings as a young person. Like feeling, like I didn’t quite fit in. Didn’t belong, coming from the south. There are certain expectations of masculinity that prevailed. Not just in the South but it was in that way where I come from. And so for me ,as a young kid who was like, there were sort of three sort of facets of who I was.
I think I was this sort of jock kid, like football player, like all my friends were. There was this person who had this new faith in high school trying to figure out what I believed about God. If I believe about God. And then I was this artist who was silently blossoming over here in the darkness and trying to figure out how to reconcile those things, and they didn’t all coexist very well.
So I think feeling that the wrestling of those, with those things, with those ideas, who was I, who did I want to be. How do I become that person in this place? Do I have to leave this place to become that person, you know, lots of those questions that tended to push me toward more dramatic kind of stories, perhaps. That I could ask deeper bigger questions, I guess
Allen Wolf: When you were growing up, did you feel like the artistic side of you, you had to hide?
Scott Teems: No, No. I don’t think it was frowned upon in an active way. I just think I was interested in stuff that other people weren’t. Like when I was in high school and I got into European cinema. There was nobody around I could see. And I liked metal. And, you know, I listen to Earth. I listen to heavy doom metal. I was always like listening. I was always off the beaten path a little bit from other folk But I also, you know, love people and I had lots of friends and I was still very fortunate to grow up in a really, just a warm environment with the people I liked to be around. So, you know, it wasn’t, I’m not suggesting that I was like some kid who had no place. It was more like the person inside of me was trying to figure out who they were, versus the person I was as a child. I mean, I’m still trying to find out who I am, you know, it’s not like, I’m in my 40s, and it’s still, I mean, hopefully, we’re all growing and evolving, not settling for who we are and that’s certainly what I’m trying to do.
Allen Wolf: Well, something I really appreciate about your work is its level of authenticity. I remember watching Rectify and marveling about the realness and depth of the story and characters. What was your experience like writing, directing, and producing that series?
Scott Teems: It was really, probably the most fulfilling creative experience I’ve had. In part because it was the most collaborative. There were four seasons of that show. I worked on the last three. It was created by a guy named Ray McKinnon who I had, who was in my first film, so I directed Ray in That Evening Sun, my first movie. He also produced that movie. So we got very close and he asked me to come work on his show a few years later.
It was like a family in the best ways, a lot of honesty. And just a freedom to really express yourself, to push for things, to fight for things, to tell the best story because we all believed so deeply in the story we were telling. We all believed in Ray’s vision so much and he empowered us to bring ourselves to that story. just made you make you passionate for it. And it was doubly so for me because the story was set in Georgia. It was about people and places that I knew, raised from Georgia. So we had that extra level of connection. I had that extra level of connection to the material, which made me that much more passionate about it, which I think is a huge reason why you felt that authenticity in that show because we were, we were people who lived that and knew that world and those characters.
It was my first time working in television. So to have the space and the time to explore deeper character over a period of, that show was 30 episodes, I think, in total. And so, having that long period of time to really, it’s more like a long novel and really being able, that’s the beauty of television — to tell long-form stories and dig deeper. Not every single moment, every single beat has to advance the plot or the story as it has to usually in feature films. So, it was just a real, you’re able to have so much more nuance and subtlety when you’re doing that kind of long-form storytelling.
Allen Wolf: How did you first get started in storytelling?
Scott Teems: I always wanted to make movies as long as I can remember, you know. I was always the kid who had the camera. My dad, he would have, he was always like what we would call now an early adopter. It was not like a phrase back when they were growing up. But like we had the first video camera on my block. We had the first VCR, you know, and had this black and white video camera we bought in 1980 that was cord attached to the, literally attached to the VCR. But like the thing on my dad is he would never then update the stuff so we had that same camera when I graduated from high school fifteen years later. But I had a camera in my hands from a very early age, a video camera, Super 8, whatever. And so I started making movies in middle school. I had a teacher in the eighth grade who really encouraged me and let me make little movies in lieu of book reports. And so, I made these little movies in eighth grade, all through eighth grade. I made, like, we’re doing, like, Greek mythology, and I did the story on Hercules, a little movie, but I made it about as two little brothers and it was called Mercules and Jercules the two little brothers.
Allen Wolf: A classic!
Scott Teems: A classic. And so I did that and we made these little movies. But she really encouraged me and kind of gave me that permission to sort of try that out and sort of explore who I was becoming as an artist and who I wanted to be as an artist and it went on from there. And so I went to film school.
Allen Wolf: Where did you go to film school?
Scott Teems: Went to Georgia State University in Atlanta. The whole time I was in college in Atlanta, it was like, Atlanta’s the next place, Atlanta’s the next place for film. We’re all like yeah, whatever. It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen. And I graduated and it didn’t happen. So I moved to New York and of course, moved to New York and like a year later Georgia film explodes.
That’s okay because I’m glad it wasn’t happening because I might have been influenced to stay, and I think the best thing I ever did was to move away.
Allen Wolf: And why is that?
Scott Teems: Because it made me get out of my comfort zone. It made me have to really decide if this was what I was going to do. Because moving to New York, especially where the cost of living is so high, and I’m there every day and money’s just burning a hole in my pocket. I was newly married. I got married right out of college. Every day you’re there, it matters because money is going out the door and there’s no time to screw around. And so I think for me, if I had been in the comfort zone of my hometown, I would have, there’s the tendency to fall back on the back-up plan. So I’m like, well I can still work my job and do this on the weekends or whenever I have time and I know myself and I need to put my feet to the fire. And I think knowing that I had a wife to provide for and a couple years later we had our first child and so growing a family, not wanting to be impeded by living in New York We wanted to have a family so we were going to do it, but that just creates, obviously a higher cost of living, more pressure, but it was good pressure because I had to really ask myself why I wanted to do this, you know, is this really my passion enough to pursue it. Do I have the talent and I had to be really honest with myself. All these questions that you must ask that, I think you ask a lot quicker, when you are paying, you know, four thousand dollars a month in rent and, you know, you’re working making $10 an hour selling shoes in Long Island City, which is what I was doing at the time. I just felt like it really helped me focus, and it really helped me not waste time. And I think I progressed a little quicker, probably than I would have if I just stuck around Atlanta.
Allen Wolf: So did that experience in New York then lead you to developing that Evening Sun as your first feature film?
Scott Teems: Indirectly. So I moved to New York and I got a job and there was a community of artists they’re called The Haven that I got involved in pretty soon after landing there. This was artists of all types. I mean New York’s great because there’s actors and singers and dancers and writers and playwrights, screenwriters. All kinds. And we had this community of artists. We’re supporting each other, meeting together regularly, all in our 20s, mostly young folk, you know, just trying to pursue their dreams. And so that was a great community.
Through that, I met a guy named Terence Berry who ended up producing all my short films and then he produced That Evening Sun, and Terence also funded me to go to Act One. He helped me. I couldn’t even afford to take the screenwriting class called Act One, which was seminal for me. I took it in 2001 in New York and it was a huge, huge deal for me. And I met a lot of people, made a lot of connections that all were building on top of each other, but Terrence, I couldn’t, like I said, I was making ten bucks an hour selling shoes, and I couldn’t afford the tuition to go to this summer program and Terence, to his great credit, and I’ll always thank him for this, put the money up for me to go. He believed in me, put his money where his mouth is, said I want to be a producer, I want to produce your work. I want to send you to this thing, and he did.
And that was the beginning of our partnership, and we made a few films together. And then I wrote a bunch of bad scripts. I was in New York for about five years for a bunch of bad scripts, made a lot of short films. Each one a little less bad than one before it, and played some festivals, and that kind of stuff, and kind of got my sea legs, sort of, in doing making movies and writing, and figuring it out. And I moved to Los Angeles in 2005. And the first thing I wrote when I got here was That Evening Sun and then that took about three years to get it made. But Terence was a huge part of that and having that New York community was a huge part of that. And those people are still my friends today and a lot of them live here today in Los Angeles. It’s just been the through line, having that community has been such an important part of my story, and my journey, for me, and my wife and our family. It’s been imperative. I saw some of those guys just a couple of days ago and we see each other regularly and it’s invaluable.
Allen Wolf: And how would you say, looking back at that experience making That Evening Sun shaped you as a filmmaker ?
Scott Teems: It’s the first movie, you make your first feature, it’s seminal in so many ways. And it set the table for everything that was to come. But personally, it really just affirmed this hope that I’d had that the kinds of stories I wanted to tell which, to a large degree, remains small Southern stories about men and violence and God, and how those things intersect and collide and explode together, that those kinds of stories could connect to people. That Evening Sun, you know, it didn’t, it didn’t make any money. But it won some awards, it got me representation and built a ton of bridges for my career, which was great. But more than that, it connected with people. And it didn’t connect with a hundred million people but it connected with people when they saw it, when they had a chance to see it. And that’s why I want to tell stories. There’s great value in escapism and those things are, you know, have a place in the world for sure. It’s just not what I want to do. Despite, you know, my resume, how you might perceive my resume, especially writing studio movies, but we can talk about that. But I don’t see them that way, you know.
Allen Wolf: Well, your newest film is Halloween Kills. What was it like continuing the story of the serial killer, Mike Myers?
Scott Teems: It was a thrill to work on a franchise. It was my first sort of franchise movie and that was fun. For me, it was more fun to work with my old friend David Gordon Green and that was the first time we’ve had a chance to work together. We’ve been friends for a long time. He was a real early supporter. David is a kind of guy who just really helps his friends and helps people that he believes in. David was a real big advocate for That Evening Sun. In fact, he emailed Roger Ebert and asked him and told him about the movie and told him to watch it. And Ebert watched it and reviewed it, which is one of the kind of great thrills of my early career. And so Dave is always just been a friend and a fan and a supporter. So this is the first time we’ve had a chance to work together, which was a ton of fun and it was also great to work with Blum House again who I’ve made, done several projects with. And this is our first released film and those guys are fantastic. And so it was just fun to work with my friends on that movie. And when you get to make a big, scary blockbuster movie, it’s a different kind of thrill and sort of scratches that itch that you have as a kid you when you want to make movies.
Allen Wolf: In their review of the film, Variety wrote, “Never was there a film truer to its name. They’ve sliced up with kitchen knives, hollowed out with a fluorescent strip light, bisected with a chainsaw and impaled on banisters. The body count is phenomenal. We love this stuff. You know we do.” Why do you think audiences love to see that kind of violence?
Scott Teems: I mean, that review is a little over-the-top. I would, well, I would start by saying I’m not entirely convinced this is a healthy love. In fact often it’s not. And what interests me is really trying to scrutinize that fascination with violence through the acts of violence themselves in some instances, like in Halloween Kills, to understand our complicity as members of the audience in that violence. That’s something we’re really interrogating about in Halloween Kills. I mean, that’s literally what the film is about. It’s about mob violence, and herd mentality and the sort of disastrous ramifications thereof. And now look, is it lofty for me to sit here and say, Halloween Kills has all these big ideas? Maybe, but if you’re not trying to say something then why the hell are we doing any of this? I’m not interested in just killing people
For me, this stuff means something. It’s not violence for violence sake. Look at the end of the day, I don’t direct the movie and I don’t, I can write it. I can try to give some sort of substance to what’s happening. Ultimately, it lives its own life. The director makes his choices, her choices, and the audience has their own interpretation of that. And people are going to choose to see what they want to see. But I certainly am at least trying to talk about something a little bit deeper inside of this shell. I mean, that’s the beauty of working on a big movie, that’s going to reach a hundred million people or whatever it is. You have a big much bigger platform to say things, much bigger responsibility, sure. I’m trying to ride that line and find that balance. You can be a lot more direct and subtle and nuanced when you’re making the core of That Evening Sun because you know, they are much, much, much smaller budgets, but you also have a much, much, smaller audience.
And so there’s a trade-off, you know, you have to be a little more blunt maybe are a little less overt over here for the bigger audience but you’re saying something and it’s all about threading the needle and finding a way to have a point of view. A point of view is all I care about it. I don’t care if I agree or disagree, I want you to have a point of view. I’m interested in that, in your perspective on things, as a storyteller. If I’m watching your movie, I want to know what you think about this. I don’t want some neutral position. Express something and I’m interested in that. So I’m just trying to do the same thing.
Allen Wolf: IndieWire wrote that “Halloween Kills is unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” Is that what you were going for?
Scott Teems: Gosh. Well, I certainly hope not. I mean, I hadn’t read that review until you told me about it and I hadn’t read any reviews, really. And all I can do is sort of shrug my shoulders. That review in particular is hard to take seriously when it’s got so much snark and it’s a very snarky review, which is totally fine. I mean, it’s fine. I’m not here to criticize the critics. When you sign up to write a franchise sequel. I mean, you know, I’m writing Insidious 5, I’m writing the next Exorcist. I wrote Halloween Kills. You know that comes with the territory. People love to like, just shoot bullets at the thing that’s been around for a long time. And that’s totally fine. I don’t mind that.
But like I say, I believe there’s something. deeper happening in Halloween Kills. And some people will be willing to take a deeper look into what the film is saying and some people won’t. And that’s okay. I wrote it for the people who will. That’s what happens with art. I mean, like, people are going to misinterpret it. I would say that’s a misinterpretation but that’s okay, that’s their interpretation of it. And hopefully there is room for interpretation. If it’s too didactic then its, what’s the point? It’s like another pamphlet. Art, hopefully is more subtle and nuanced and is about the whole experience. And therefore it’s open to an array of interpretations. I try so hard not to say some people are going to get it and some people aren’t. I don’t like that language because maybe there’s nothing to get, maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe it’s all, maybe it’s, what does he say? “Unclouded by conscience or delusions of morality.” I mean, come on. Maybe that’s what it is.
Allen Wolf: It’s hard because when you hear the bad stuff like that’s the stuff that kind of stays with you and the great stuff, you can be like, oh, yeah, and find reasons to dismiss that. So I apologize for not reading the wonderful things that people are writing about Halloween Kills.
Scott Teems: I think it’s fine. I like to interrogate this stuff. I think it’s interesting. When I did read those reviews, there seems to be an unwillingness to engage the movie in anything other than the surface level, which is fine, which is to be expected, but hopefully audiences will and we’ll see something underneath.
Allen Wolf: Well, you mentioned when you were growing up that you experienced a faith journey. Can you describe what your spiritual journey has looked like?
Scott Teems: Yeah, I grew up in the church, you know, when you’re from the south it sort of like, comes, at least in the 80s when you grew up in the 80s, it sort of and before that obviously it comes with the territory.
Allen Wolf: That you’re just expected to go to church on Sunday.
Scott Teems: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s a cultural expectation. And then in the 90s, as I got into high school, that expectation began to shift, you know. And I think there was a change really where that expectation went away, that obligation went away. People stopped going to church, my family sort of stopped going to church, because there wasn’t a judgment anymore in the community. If you weren’t, if you didn’t go. But then I sort of started going to this group called Young life that I found through my high school, my friends there. And that’s where I sort of had an encounter with Jesus.
Allen Wolf: And what does that mean to have an encounter with Jesus?
Scott Teems: A, I was introduced to this like idea that God ,was a personal God, was available to people to have a relationship with. This is an idea that I hadn’t really ever had before even though I had grown up in church. I hadn’t heard it in that way. So I started wrestling with that, then just had some encounters and some personal spiritual experiences that confirmed to me there was something bigger happening, some things that I know to be true in my own life, and then I began to see the Bible in a different way, began to read it in a different way. And that is how I connected with Jesus.
Allen Wolf: Mike Flanagan, who’s directed many horror films and TV shows such as The Haunting of Hill House said recently, “Horror affords us the opportunity to really look at ourselves and the things that scare us, that disturb us as a society and individuals. It’s incredibly powerful.” Do you agree?
Scott Teems: For sure. I mean, I was never a big horror fan growing up and not even as I became a young writer. I was talking to Scott Derrickson and he was sort of explaining his philosophy on horror. He had made some horror moves at that point. This is probably 15 years ago, and he was just saying how horror is the one genre that treats evil as a real thing and that naturally opens up so many opportunities for spiritual exploration in conversation, and that’s why he was attracted to horror and that provoked me to look at it in a new way. And it was not long after that, that I began to pursue my first horror project and I found that to be true. Evil can be treated as a real entity and therefore dealt with in a serious way that can provide a lot of interesting opportunities and I think that’s what Halloween ultimately is about.
Allen Wolf: I find it refreshing when movies don’t psychologize evil away. When they don’t try to say, evil is something only caused by circumstances in The Ring, which was a remake of the Japanese film Ringu and directed by Gore Verbinski, who you’re now working with, the main character thinks the girl is doing evil things because she had a terrible childhood, but I love the twist when she realizes the girl is doing it because she’s evil. And, you know, with your spiritual perspective, do you feel like that gives you a different point of view on the issue of evil when you approach these projects?
Scott Teems: I hope so. I mean, I think another film that does a similar thing is Silence of the Lambs where ultimately the viewer is forced to reconcile the fact that Hannibal Lecter is just evil. The trick is, as a person of faith, trying to navigate these waters. Is Hannibal Lecter evil or is there evil inside of them? Can Hannibal Lecter be redeemed and the grand sense of the word and the Christian sense of the word? These are the questions. That’s what The Quarry is ultimately about. I mean, like it’s really about this guy who’s murdered people, who is at the end of the movie is asking for forgiveness. Does he deserve it? And that’s really what the, not spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it, but I mean that’s what the movie’s about and you have to wrestle with that question. But I, you know, and of course they’re competing, obviously is the psychological damage that comes from abuse is a real thing and that can cause people to do terrible things. But also, evil exists in the world. I believe that and that’s also a thing. And you can let it in and you can nourish it in other ways. And you can not defend yourself against it or whatever. I just love wrestling with the questions, and I liked that The Ring does that, and Lambs does that. And I’m trying to do it, too, in my own little way.
Allen Wolf: How have you used your background to approach the upcoming sequel to The Exorcist?
Scott Teems: You know, it’s early days still with that but I think it’s just exciting to have a platform to explore these ideas in a more overt way. I mean, I think that’s what’s interesting and to have collaborators who are open to these ideas. I think one reasons they like having me around is because I do share a certain perspective, and I have a faith and that’s a big part of my life and but it’s not for everyone on that team. And so, you know, I can add a different perspective.
I mean, that’s really how the best ideas are made. Rectify often gets quoted as being one of the great portrayals of a Christian character on television, which it was fascinating this character, Tawny. And I think the reason is because she’s not a caricature. She’s a sort of warts and all representation of a person, a full human. And the reason that she was able to be created as a full human in large part because of Ray, she was Ray’s creation. But as we moved her and progressed through through those four seasons, the last three years, that writers room was made up, there were five of us including our assistant who worked with us a lot. And in that room, the five of us, you had a Protestant, me, you had a sort of lapsed Catholic. You had a non-practicing Jew, you had a secular humanist and you had a stone-cold atheist. And the five of us wrote this show together.
And so what happens is, everything has to pass the sniff test. Everything. Nothing, no propaganda gets through. It has to be honest and truthful. And if it’s truthful, it will make its way through that gauntlet of people. All different perspectives. And so for that character, anything that I wrote or anyone else wrote, it smelled like propaganda, it wouldn’t make it through.
What you end up with is a refined sort of version of a real person, a real character. You need to be tested, you need to put your ideas in the world and have people push back on them. That’s collaboration. That is, that’s truth-seeking. That’s honesty. That’s a humility to be wrong. If God is real, if Jesus is real, if these ideas are true, then there’s no harm and there’s no fear and putting them out in the world, in letting them make live. Because if they’re real, then they will survive. If they’re true.
You know, I don’t have to protect them. If God is real. I don’t have to protect him. He will be real. There’s power in that. I think freedom in that. Freedom as a writer to explore all the questions, all the concerns, all the anxieties that come along with living in the world. Man, it’s hard to live in the world. It’s hard. It’s hard to make movies. It’s hard to tell stories, hard to live in the world and not get, not come away with a bunch of bumps and bruises. But if you have a faith then you don’t have to try to protect or deny that, you know, and it can it can pour out through your work and your art, and I think the more honest art makes for a better world. That’s just my opinion.
Allen Wolf: I assume the new Firestarter film stars Drew Barrymore. She’s an adult. She’s still setting everything on fire. Is that right?
Scott Teems: I pitched that. But nobody went for it. Got shut down. No, it’s not. It’s a retelling of the story. What’s cool about that is I’ve done a couple of King adaptations. What I liked about the opportunity to do Firestarter, was that we already have the original movie, which is a pretty by the book, literally, by the book adaptation. It follows the book pretty closely. And so that’s already there, that exists. And so I had freedom to explore another way to take to tell that story. It’s the same story essentially but it’s just, you know, another way in. We don’t need the same thing qe already saw. I’m trying to create a new perspective. Yeah. I’m excited. That movie shot this past summer and so will come out next year, sometime, and it’s very exciting.
Allen Wolf: Now when you’re adopting something for Stephen King, do you work directly with him?
Scott Teems: No. In part, it’s because he’s got, at any point, thirty to forty projects in development. And he’s writing his own stuff. Still it’s just, it’s incredible. But you know, King has this wonderful, amazing thing he does where he will let people option his stories for a dollar and if the stories are available, there’s very few stories available. But ten years ago, there were a few more and I optioned one. That’s how I sort of broke through ultimately to kind of start a career running more commercial movies as I optioned The Breathing Method myself for a dollar from Stephen King through his agents. It comes with this contract, which is really intense. But the core of it is basically you have six months from the time they give you the contract to deliver a script to Stephen King who then has script approval. And so if he approves the script you keep going. If he doesn’t you’re done, and you’ve wasted a dollar and six months of your life.
Allen Wolf: So this is true of any, even studio films? He’s optioning them for a dollar.
Scott Teems: Yeah, he can. Yeah, he will because he gets paid when it gets made so he can afford to do that. Like I’ve option several stories and if I’m negotiating for a short story like That Evening Sun or a novel, like The Quarry, I’m optioning these things, I might pay two grand or five grand or $1,200 or whatever to get to lease the rights for a year to try to make the movie and then you get to pay for it when you finally make it. Well, King doesn’t need your $2,000, right? So he just says, have it for a dollar. Try it out. See if you can get it made, see if you can write a good script and when you do, then he gets paid on the other side of it. So he makes his money when he gets paid or he gets a gross or whatever. So it’s a fantastic system because it helps young writers like me. So I option it. He reads the script. He says, yes or no, and then you go on and that’s it. I’ve had very little interaction with him. But he so far has liked what I’ve done with his stuff and he’s approved everything. So we’ll see.
Allen Wolf: How do you stay spiritually healthy in Hollywood?
Scott Teems: I don’t think it’s any different in Hollywood than anywhere else, really. I mean, it requires discipline and commitment and focus. And it just has to be a priority. For me, it really is about grounding. It’s about grounding and my faith. Grounding in my family and which keeps you humble. I mean like when you have kids, you know, kids will make you humble real fast. They don’t care what movie you made or whatever.
Allen Wolf: Was there a moment during your career when you felt discouraged and wondered what your next project would be?
Scott Teems: What time is it? Yes, I’ve felt that way. About every day. But that’s what faith is. I think you just keep climbing that hill. The best advice I ever got, when I took Act One, and these two writers, Chris and Kathy Riley. Great writers. They came to teach us one day and they said, look, every one of our friends we know who have made it, by making it, they meant simply that they make their living as a writer. They don’t have to have another job for all. For all of our friends who do that, it’s taken them on average about ten years.
And I’d come to New York about six months earlier with the delusion that it would take me about two years to figure out if this was going to happen or not, and I was newly married and we said, let’s go up there and give it a couple of years. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll go back, and we’ll say we got to give it a try. And so that idea of ten years was like the scales fell from my eyes, and it was a whole perspective shift. And I was able to come home and talk to my wife and say, look I think it’s actually going to be more like ten years. Are we prepared for that journey? Are we together prepared for that? I think a lot of the struggles… You and I have both seen marriages fail, friends leave, things fall apart for people. And I think a large part of that is because of expectations.
You think it’s going to be one thing but it’s really going to be something else and therefore your expectations are unmet. That’s where problems start and about in two years, then the person’s like, when what’s going on? When are you going to give up your silly dream and move on with whatever. So, so I was able to go home and say, okay. how about, it’s more like ten years. Are we down for this? And we were like, yeah, let’s keep going.
So, seven years later, I made That Evening Sun, but that was an indie film and made it for a million dollars. And I worked on it for five years. I made a sum total of $20,000 in that film. $20,000 will last you five weeks in Los Angeles, as you know, so it’s, it’s not like I was living on that money. So, even though that movie got me an agent and got me all that stuff and it won awards, it was just a little indie film.
So you couldn’t take that film and then parlay that into writing some big movie, because it just wasn’t that. It was about an old guy on a farm.
So, cut to two years later. I’m dead broke. Haven’t got another thing yet. Can’t get anything off the ground, and I’m desperate. I have at that point, I have three young kids at home. And I’m broke. I’m getting very hopeless. And so, I called a friend who I knew produced reality television, and I said, I got to have a job. I need something and he gave me this job, very graciously, and they sent me down to to west Texas to direct a reality TV show.
And, you know, and it was really, really, really, really hard, hard, hard experience for me. I didn’t like what we were doing. I was alone in west Texas for the summer and the people there. It was tough. It was really tough. So, and I got really despondent there and thought, this is probably it. You put a camera in front of someone who knows they’re supposed to be entertaining. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire and then they wanted more gasoline on that fire to do these outrageous things that I found sort of reprehensible. And I found myself being asked to whatever direct this stuff I couldn’t. So I spent a lot of time, I prayed about it. I talked to my wife about it. I was really torn about it. And I said, I have, I can’t do this, but yet we had all these bills to pay. And we said, look, we’re going to, we’re going to have faith. We’re going to trust it something better will come out of this if you really, if you really can’t do it.
I don’t want to put bad stuff into the world. I don’t want to make the world a worse place by the stuff I put into it. And I was so grateful to my friend and I don’t want to let him down. He had gone out on a limb to give me a break. I felt terrible about that. I was going to have to say, I don’t believe in what you’re doing here. It was really hard and I came back home and I left that job early. I got home. And about a month later. I got my first studio gig, writing a job that came out of that and that was the fall of 2011, which was exactly 10 years after I took Act One and I haven’t stopped working since.
Allen Wolf: Wow.
Scott Teems: The 10-year rule is the takeaway from that. So unmet expectations are really important, you know. Properly calibrated expectations are the key to life in general, but especially to a relationship.
Allen Wolf: At the end of your life, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind?
Scott Teems: I want to be known that I was an honest person, that I had integrity, that I was kind. And that I put something of value into the world. So that’s really, I can do that, I get one of those things that will be a success. I’m aiming for all of them. We’ll see how it goes.
Allen Wolf: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being my guest, Scott.
Scott Teems: It was fun.
Allen Wolf: I really appreciate hearing about your journey and your work as a filmmaker. Thank you for just being so open about your life.
Scott Teems: Yeah, it was fun.
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