Writer Elan Mastai is getting a lot of attention for his debut time-travel novel All Our Wrong Todays.
Back in 2013, when he was an up-and-coming screenwriter, I interviewed Mastai for Canadian Screenwriter magazine. Some people are fun to interview, and he was one of them. We talked about not waiting for your big break, writing to your voice instead of suppressing it to be more marketable, and his role in Uwe Boll's Alone in the Dark -- considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made. (When I asked him about it, he said, "Oh, you know about that,")
Here's the full Elan Mastai Q&A:
Elan Mastai finds his voice
by Philip Moscovitch
Toronto-based feature film writer Elan Mastai has worked his way from cable-access sketch comedy and a six-week screenwriting course to booking studio assignments in Hollywood. His screenplay for The F Word made the Black List of Hollywood's best unproduced scripts – and has gone on to be made into a film directed by Michael Dowse, and starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. Along the way, he's learned the importance of authentic voice and genuine collaboration.
How did you wind up writing your first feature while you were still a student?
I got that job purely on moxie. I ran into a woman I knew who was an assistant to one of the producers at Keystone, and she got me a pitch meeting. They were looking for ideas for a sequel to MVP, which was a movie about a chimp who plays hockey. My only goal was to not humiliate myself – but as it happened, I got hired to write an outline, and then the screenplay. The whole process from pitching to having the movie greenlit was five weeks, which gave me a totally distorted idea of how movie-making works.
You also wrote Alone in the Dark, directed by the notorious Uwe Boll.
That movie wound up being so radically different from what I expected – and I realized that fundamentally the director and I wanted to make a completely different movie. I wish it had turned out to not be so ridiculous, but it was a great experience for me – it was a huge step moving forward as a writer. I came out of it feeling emboldened about my own creative process and the importance of trusting my instincts.
Was that the catalyst for you working on more collaborative projects like The Samaritan, which is nominated for a Canadian Screenwriting award?
After Alone in the Dark, I thought, instead of just selling my script, what if I start the process with a director? The Samaritan came out of a conversation with David Weaver. We got together and started shooting ideas around. In the first draft, I think I was trying to see what David's vision was and trying to execute that. But we ended up with a script that wasn't 100 per cent working. And then I said, instead of each of us trying to suppress our writerly voices to have a compromise, let's both go into it guns blazing, pull the story back and forth, and see what we get out of it. That's when it really came to life because it had a real personality to it.
How did you get involved with The F Word?
A producer friend of mine, Marc Stephenson, thought I'd like the play, and we went to see it. I loved the premise and I loved the characters. It was a simple setup and I thought it was relatable and universal. It felt like I could maintain the integrity of the story and the vision of the playwrights [TJ Dawe and Mike Rinaldi], but also make it my own.
By this time, I'd figured out I need to be writing towards my voice, instead of trying to suppress it in order to somehow make something more marketable. It became the first movie I'd written that I felt truly sounded like me. It had my voice and point of view and sense of humour – and I thought this would make it harder to get it made. But it turned out to be the opposite. What sold it was that it was unique.
You've said elsewhere that writers shouldn't wait for their big break to magically appear. Can you elaborate?
I'd say my “big break” was the attention I got in LA for The F Word, but it was the years of less-than-glamorous writing and rewriting before those doors opened that allowed to me take proper advantage when it unexpectedly happened.
The worst situation is if you get the break and you're not ready. You haven't been writing and writing and writing, and figuring out your strengths and weaknesses. You haven't filled up your toolkit as a writer. If you haven't done that, then you'll screw it up – and that's even worse. You'll be paralyzed. If you're ready for it, then you can really take your career to the next level.
By the time The F Word started circulating, I'd written 15 screenplays and had three made, even if they were smaller movies. I'd been through the process, so I was ready. I was green for Hollywood but I wasn't green for the movie business.