I'm thrilled that Meg Pokrass is interviewing author, playwright, screenwriter and producer Steve Jones here. His film, Cracked Eggs, was selected for the London Independent Film Festival, and you can watch it here. It featured Jared Harris, who plays Ulysses S. Grant in Spielberg's Lincoln. As well as co-authoring a memoir, Steve is currently working on a novel, a play, and a black, comedy drama feature film as writer producer. Thank you, Meg (and thank you Steve) for this wonderful interview.)
Steve, how did your interest in becoming a screenwriter and film producer begin? Where did you begin your journey?
I guess it started out as a mix of inspiration and ignorance -- blissful ignorance!
How do you mean?
In the early ‘90s I worked for a design agency in Frankfurt and wrote my first ever article on the subject of digital design for a German magazine called “Page.” One day I was sitting at my desk writing Apple Mac troubleshooting guides for the designers and I thought to myself, I could turn this stuff into a book.
I didn't know anything about publishing but, by coincidence, I found out that the Frankfurt book fair was kicking off the following week. I somehow managed to get an entry pass and walked in, found the publisher that I thought would be suitable for my book, pitched the guy on the stand, showed him my magazine articles and he said, "Great, we'll send you the contract next week." That was it.
I wrote the book in 6 months and it was published a year later. I really thought that this path of zero resistance from idea to manifestation would be the model going forward in the creative world. Oh boy, how wrong I was on that one. I was blissfully ignorant of the challenges that lay ahead and this naivety, coupled with an inspiration and a passion to write, eventually propelled me into new adventures further afield, whether it was pitch meetings on Hollywood studio lots or on the terraces of the beach hotels in Cannes. But those are long stories.
So you transitioned into creative writing?
Yes. I moved back to London and -- having written some poems in college, just for myself really – I decided that I wanted to write a novel.
Was it published?
Not even close. I abandoned it after about 6 or 7 pages.
Theater is what happened. I discovered the works of playwrights such as Pinter, Beckett and Mamet. I was also inspired by Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction” which was out at the time. Setting aside the arguments regarding gratuitous violence, the dialogue in that film just blew me away. It was the first time I'd ever heard friends and work colleagues rave about dialogue. And I guess dialogue was something I honed in on; especially in the context of darkly-comic pieces that had an absurdist skew.
How does this relate to the novel?
I was watching a lot of theatre at the time and the osmosis of that experience kicked in. Whenever I sat down to write, these three characters -- who were sitting in this dingy room -- kept popping into my head. But there was a problem: these guys weren’t out of a book; they were out of a play. And they were demanding my attention. I was curious to know what was going on in that room so I switched to play format and began hammering out dialogue. And I just kept on writing. This then turned into the play, “Charlie Don’t Surf.”
What’s the play about?
Three drug addicts in a squat waiting for a drug dealer -- who never turns up.
The Beckett influence?
Indeed. An agent described it as “Waiting For Godot” meets “Trainspotting,” although, as the play has evolved over time and transitioned into a non-linear screenplay (with multiple story lines), the Beckett influence is less apparent.
Please talk about the evolution of your short-film "Cracked Eggs." What an engrossing twelve minutes of a movie, both spooky and at times, darkly funny. Watching feels like a world you don't want to leave, as though you could jump in and learn more, like the best short stories do...
Thank you. Well of course film is a collaborative medium, and we were lucky to have such a great cast: Carol Starks; John McGuiness; Jonathan Hansler; and of course Jared Harris, who was recently Emmy-nominated for his role in “Mad Men.” But cast on its own does not guarantee the success of a film. I think we’ve all seen plays or films, with great actors, fail because of misdirection. So, I have to give credit to my long term collaborator and the film’s director, Eric Loren. Eric, a seasoned actor himself, is brilliant at steering actors in a subtle but incremental way, guiding them from cold reading to blistering performance. On first glance his directorial style appears to be quite calm, gentle but after a while I realized that he’s boiling the frog slowly.
How do you mean?
It’s subtle but demanding; an incremental turning up of the heat so that, by the end of the rehearsal period, the actors are performing at their peak. You see it in those final, climatic scenes of “Cracked Eggs.” And of course Eric’s visual talent was key when it came to adapting the short play into a film especially in the egg scene which, in the play, was left to the audience’s imagination. That’s the subtle interplay with theatre: the audience fills in the gaps.
So “Cracked Eggs” was a short play initially?
Yes. And that’s an interesting story. Going back to my journey as a writer: after I’d knocked out a first draft of “Charlie Don’t Surf” I looked round and thought to myself, who do I know? The answer came back: no-one. I had no contacts in either the theatre or film industry. I knew Eric was a professional actor but we didn’t really know each other. I also didn’t know that Eric was a director. All I knew was that he was the only name on my ‘warm contacts’ list. I got the script to him via a mutual friend. In the meantime, I sent out the script to agents and artistic directors and experienced the baptism of fire that is the ‘rejection letter.’
How did that feel?
As a first-timer, it was tough. In those early days a rejection letter could throw me off kilter for one or two days but later I learned to shrug them off much faster. The best mantra for rejection is one word, “Next!”
What happened next?
More rejection letters: some encouraging, some not. Then Eric called. He told me that he liked the play and wanted to organize a reading with some of his actor friends. This was a defining experience for me. These were all professional actors and two of them went on to become household names in the UK. To see actors of that caliber read my words, and to respond in a very positive way to a play which started out as a kind of tangential detour, was an exhilarating experience. It was the first time that I thought to myself, maybe I can do this.
I then received a letter from a London-based fringe theatre saying that they had read “Charlie Don’t Surf” and wanted to commission me to write a short play, as part of a new writer’s season.
And that’s when you wrote “Cracked Eggs?”
Yes and no. The theme of the writer’s season was, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” So I dreamed up this post-apocalyptic, wacky, light comedy set in New York. I went through weeks of work-shopping the piece and I had about one week left to submit the final draft. Rehearsals were pending and Eric was attached to direct. He called me. He wanted to meet up. I assumed that he wanted to give me some last minute notes. I was wrong.
We met in a coffee shop in Oxford Street and he hit me with the news: he didn’t feel that this was the right play for me, at that time and that my first staged play needed to be have more impact. I agreed. What that meant however, was this: all the weeks of work-shopping with the artistic directors and the other writers was now lost time. I had a week to write a short play that would have to be written, submitted and accepted from the get-go.
On the way home certain images came into my mind: stories I’d heard, distant ‘80s London experiences recalled, urban myths remembered. By the time I arrived home I had the bare bones of the darkly-comedic “No Exit”-like scenario that is “Cracked Eggs.” I wrote the play over a weekend and it premiered a few weeks later.
So, how did “Cracked Eggs” end up as a short film featuring Jared Harris?
Well, that’s a long story but it ties in with my transition from a writer to a writer-producer. I turned to producing on the advice of a Hollywood agent who offered to meet me, but not, represent me. We met for breakfast one morning in a cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard. And it also ties in with my other film/animation projects; the commissioned book-adaptation work; and to the memoir that I am co-authoring. In fact, the memoir project only came about by chance, as a result of another film meeting in Santa Monica itself. Sometimes you don’t find stories – stories find you.