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Interview : Tom O’Connor, screenwriter of The Hitman’s Bodyguard

It is often true that good things come to those who wait. This was never truer than with Tom O’Connor, screenwriter of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” who waited years for the film to come to life. Tom sat down in a local Hollywood café to give Moviehole the word on the ever-changing industry as well as some tips to impatient writer newbies.

Moviehole: How did you get started in writing?

Tom O’Connor: In college, I minored in theater and I studied playwriting – David Mamet, Eugene O’Neill, but I didn’t do anything with writing at the time. I wasn’t ready to be a writer yet but a lot of stuff ended up in the back of my head. I ended up working in advertising with commercials like Nike, that got me to L.A. with an advertising agency and it got me used to writing as a daily thing. Like writing on deadline, being creative on deadline. But I came from the east coast where I had never thought of writing movies or for TV as a job – I thought magic elves did it or something (laughs). I met writers and started writing scripts on the side, it was a gradual transition and I was able to quit my day job. I moved into it over time.

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” was the script that got my career going. I wrote it on spec, it sold in 2011 to Skydance Media.  They bought it and it got me my Writers Guild card. It sold right away – it made the Black List long after it sold.

Moviehole: How do you write, what’s your method?

TO: I get up early and turn off the world for the morning hours and write until the afternoon. I unplug the Internet and turn off the phone. I might think of ideas one day, and I might do a rewrite another day. How do I get from this scene to that scene? How do I fix this character issue? How do I get from this moment to that moment? It’s a little like being an architect. You’re just trying to get this house to stand up and not get pulled over.

Moviehole: Do you outline?

TO: I do, every script I outline more and more. I work in Highland, which is the software that John August created, it’s really helpful and you can move seamlessly from a treatment to a screenplay, because it’s all the same format; you’re not worried about page breaks or line breaks or screenplay formatting until later. I will start writing paragraphs like prose, almost like a novel. I write it that way, and then I’ll transition it into scenes. I also jump back and forth.

Moviehole: Did your writing background help?

TO: My family are a family of writers and my dad was a journalist, we’re very verbal and very much in love with the word and reading. My background in advertising helped. With “Hitman” I could see the trailer and the poster and I thought, that’s a movie, I knew what the common market needed.

Moviehole: Were you creative as a kid?

TO: I wasn’t writing formally, I was creative — but I didn’t have the discipline to sit down and write until well after college. Also being creative with other people, screenwriting is very much about adapting to other people’s needs, like the studio and the director, and advertising is like that too.

Moviehole: On the movie, were you able to get on set and do rewrites?

TO: It was a great process, the movie took a long time to get made – Millennium Films picked it up and Ryan (Reynolds) got on formally so I got to do drafts with Ryan and the studio. Ryan is great about development – not just about his own character, but all the characters and story and development.

He brought up “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” a number of times, one of his favorite movies, that was definitely an influence. We had to change directors close to the last minute, it was nothing nefarious, just that the previous director had contractual commitments on another movie.

Patrick Hughes (director) came on and he was great, he took the reins in a short period of time and put his own stamp on the material. It was a really good process, I saw that thing through so many revisions on and off for years, at the end you have to hand it off and let them do their thing on set. It was nice to turn it over to them and have them bring the movie to life in this cool way.

In their interplay, Ryan and Sam (Jackson) were such great pairing. Sam’s character was originally written as a 35-year-old Irishman in the draft. But when Sam’s name came up, we were all, “that’s perfect” and it was such a great contrast with Ryan; Ryan is a 40-year-old guy, Sam is older, and they got different energy but also they got along really well. That casting worked out great.  We were really fortunate that it came together that way.

Moviehole: What was the biggest challenge of this film?

TO: I would say the biggest challenge was keeping a consistent vision of course of the rewrites, different directors off and on, different ideas on how the movie would go, and being able to stay flexible through a succession of different  people.  I had to be flexible to seeing different points of view while also holding what made the movie work together. This movie was an endurance test (laughs). I really started in 2010, it’s been off and on for six years, that’s a lot of time, although I was doing things in-between.

Moviehole: What has been the challenge of your career?

TO: I can tell you that very successful writers have their moments; it’s not all about making money or not,  it’s about are you creatively satisfied, are you feeling good? I think what I would say to anyone in their career, just get back to what you love to do and write. If that’s what you are meant to do, you’ll go back to that, and the slings and arrows will just fall away. I really fell in love with it, the frustrations in writing were nothing compared to the frustrations in advertising. Once I worked in advertising I thought “if this is what I’m going to be doing the rest of my life I’m going to drive off a cliff, this is bad!” It’s a great field to start on, but it’s a small box to work on.

I think for me, like “Hitman” is the first thing that sold. I remember I was in my apartment in 2010, writing the first draft and I wrote a dialogue exchange between Michael Bryce (Reynolds) and Darius Kincaid (Jackson) where Bryce says, “My job is to keep you out of harm’s way” and Kincaid says “I am harm’s way.”  I got out of my chair running around my apartment giggling like a little girl because I knew this is a movie! Whatever is going to happen, that’s a trailer moment, that’s a character anyone could understand. So all the ups and downs that were writing in general, that scene always stayed the same, that was the core of these two people and the movie. That was my little rock in the midst of the storm.

Moviehole: Who are your writing idols?

TO: Aaron Sorkin, Elmore Leonard, David Mamet – primarily they have specific voices particular to them. I love their work, I watched “West Wing,” I reread David Mamet’s plays, Leonard’s novels.

I was thinking about Shane Black when he was at the peak of his writing career, he said something like “I didn’t write any scripts to make money, I wrote them because I liked those kinds of stories.” I think that’s advice for younger writers, write the stuff you like and what you want to see, the things that are exciting to you.

I say that as someone who broke in with a commercial script which I didn’t write because I thought, “oh, I can sell this thing” — it was a cool story where I liked the characters and for something you want to go see.  Pursue the kind of career you want to have. If you are lucky to get any traction in this business, producers and so on will pull you in to help achieve their agenda which could be great. Make sure you are not pulled into others’ agenda if it’s not what you want to be doing.

Moviehole: I had read an article once where it said if you want to be scriptwriter, write a low-budget film — if you write a bigger film like a Sci-Fi film, people would think it’s too expensive.

TO: I disagree with that, because you are thinking, is the movie is going to get made or not? You should really write the story you want to tell. If it doesn’t get made and the writing’s amazing, you get the opportunity to write other things. You should be writing the story you want to tell, especially these days. Most writing careers aren’t based on writing original pieces of work, they are based on writing a great script that makes everyone want to work with you. Look at the business, that applies to everyone, people who sustain careers these days aren’t usually writing their own material exclusively — maybe TV writers, but look at Christopher McQuarrie (profiled by this writer in Moviehole awhile back) who wrote “The Usual Suspects” — he’s a brilliant writer with original material, but what he’s doing mostly these days is being a director on “Mission Impossible” and being a writer/producer on big-budget movies.

You would assume Chris McQuarrie would have smooth sailing from that time on (from “The Usual Suspects”), but big-time writers have ups and downs, feelings of discouragement that’s never going to go away. I have successful friends who feel they need to go to the well and change up what they are doing. Tell a story that excites you, don’t lose that, I’d tell that to anyone.

Terry Rossio has a great line, something like, “If you are trying to be a writer and you love it, keep doing it until it’s no longer fun to try.” There’s other things in life; like having financial security, friends, a family, having a life — sometimes aspiring to be a writer can block you off from those other parts of life.

Another writer named Josh Friedman on his blog said the only guarantee as a writer is that you will spend a lot of time being alone in a room wondering if anyone will ever give a s—t about what you write (laughs).  That’s every writer.

Moviehole: Are there any books you recommend about writing?

TO: I’d recommend all of them once, and then take what feels useful to you and then discard the rest. I do enjoy Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass. Sorkin is fun, he is very honest about the process and confident and self-effacing.

Moviehole: What is your hope for the future, your biggest dreams?

TO: For right now I don’t look too far into future, fingers crossed and if “Hitman” does well enough, I can do more original material. I have a couple of original ideas I just wrote on spec; a historical drama, I will see where it goes, it’s under wraps right now.

I just want the collaborative art with actors/directors, getting to work with great people is really fun.  The only piece of advice from someone else is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, about being a writer. This movie took seven years to make, which is not unusual for movies. When you are an aspiring writer it’s hard not to be impatient, but when you finish a script and are waiting for an agent or actor to read it, be telling your next story.

I try to follow that advice now. It’s better for your mental health too. If you like writing, you are happier when you are writing.

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