How to Sell Your Screenplay: Learn from Indie Producer, Noah Lang
Jake: My special guest today is Noah Lang. You just finished a really interesting film, This Is Not A War Story. I thought this would be a wonderful interview for our final podcast in the Sell Your Screenplay Series, because this film is not what most people would traditionally consider a “likely” movie to reach production, much less a release on HBO Max.
So many new writers think that selling a script is about “selling out” or doing something commercial, when in fact, often the exact opposite is the case. So I’m curious, what’s the origin story of This Is Not a War Story? How did this happen?
Noah: There are a couple of parts here that’ll be fun to unpack. The first thing is that Talia Lugacy, who wrote, directed, and is one of the leads in it, produced it with me. She’s a force of nature. I love her. She’s so talented.
We met in New York and Brooklyn years ago. She was developing it– this was called 8000 Shots at the time– and just the rawness of it, the realness of it all.
My family has a history of interest in veterans issues, and as a person of progressive political leaning, I was interested in it.
But more so than anything was this: this filmmaker is going to get this done and come hell or high water.
As a producer, that’s what you’re looking for, those people that are unstoppable. That was the impetus for diving in, and we were in the fortunate position that there was private financing to do it, at a very small level. In terms of what you were saying, we made it for the number that the market could sustain doing a film like this.
There are massive exceptions for dramas, justifying much larger budgets. Those tend to be star-driven: A-list directors, Academy Award stars, and things like that. In this case, the calculus for someone like me is that this is a filmmaker I want to work with. I love this project and I think we can grow and keep doing things together.
She also had the benefit that her first film, which was a Tribeca Film Festival selection and a New York Times critics pick up, starred Rosario Dawson, who then Executive Produced this with us.
We had some kind of good strategic elements to be able to play with, so kind of jumped into the deep end on that one rather quickly. It’s a film that we’re incredibly proud of. We’ve managed to sell it to HBO, an Independent Spirit Award nomination, good reviews in The New York Times, Roger Ebert, Film Threat, Hammer To Nail, all sorts of nice places.
Now that we’re heading towards the end of its initial life cycle, it’s also the tool we use for the next thing, which still has Talia’s identity, but it’s slightly more commercial and has a different set of ambitions.
In terms of what you talk about in this series, there are different benchmarks for selling your script. In a way, it’s almost like making your script can be one step towards doing more things that you’d like to do. A lot of writers have very disparate interests, others have very similar ones.
I admire [Justin] Benson and [Aaron] Morehead, who made The Endless, Resolution and Spring. What I saw there was that they were very deliberate about a progression in the size of the movie they were producing, so that they could keep taking those steps to be able to get to the place that they ultimately want it to be and do interesting things along the way.
This Is Not a War Story is a good example of what we can do, and a lot of our greater ambitions, within the framework of a film of this size. And it stands as a testament to what we think is possible for projects going forward.
Jake: I love what you said about the unstoppable force. One of my very talented students is an entrepreneur. He used to be an angel investor. I’m always interested in these kinds of things.
I was asking him, “when you’ve got all these different people pitching you projects that can make money, how do you know which one to choose?”
He responded, “It’s so simple, Jake. I choose the one who is going to do it even if I don’t give him a dollar. Because that’s the one who’s going to succeed.”
Noah: Totally. And what’s nice too, because of the prevalence of the internet and social media, the ways that we engage with all kinds of content, is the ability to be able to do things at a smaller scale and adhere to larger goals.
You see there’s a model of “proof of concept” short films becoming features, or micro horror shorts that are extrapolated, like Lights Out. That is becoming a tried and true model, and that wasn’t possible a long while back.
Now, it’s a model that I’ve used several times. We did it on a movie called Minor Premise. We did it on a movie called The Strange One. We did it on a movie called The Climb. But the point is, there’s the availability of incubating ideas now, that wasn’t there before.
And in a kind of broader sense, my experience with selling things at the studio level has had many frustrations, as I’m sure you and your students have had, with several successes and a lot of frustrations and confusions.
I do think that what’s interesting about meeting with talented young writers is an element of education. You can try to sell at the Studio level, but you can also be thinking about connecting with producers like myself, who are motivated to get movies made at a modest number, because we’re trying to grow with our filmmakers.
I’m not independently wealthy. I can’t finance movies myself. But I can be in the foxhole with you and I can fight to get the thing made. Together we can watch each other’s back, progress up the chain, and get stuff done.
I think that sometimes something gets lost in the way that people romanticize being a screenwriter. Everyone wants their script to be Andrew Kevin Walker’s Se7en; “I’m going to be at a video store; someone’s gonna ask for my script, boom, suddenly, I’m a made man.” The truth is, there are a million ways to make it. You just have to have a sort of openness of how it can look and what you define as success.
Jake: There’s so much value to what you’re saying about finding your people. Sure, if you happen to bump into Martin Scorsese, and he’s interested in your script, that’s frickin’ great. But often the people that you really should be targeting are the ones in your generation, the ones who are one step beyond where you are, that are hungry for that new content.
Noah: Yeah, and that motivation and thinking is a nice thing to have top of mind in every interaction you have in the industry.
Sometimes going to a more junior agent about a piece can benefit you, because they’re trying to look smart, they’ve got their eyes on something that everyone else doesn’t know about.
I started as an assistant 11 years ago at a company called Cinetic. All the assistants, we’re all constantly of trading intel. And that’s where you build your tribe inside the industry. And then, in a greater sense, you’ve got to find your people, because it’s lonely business otherwise.
You guys can find ways to help each other. Whether it’s sharing information or contacts, helping each other get your scripts better, designing [pitch] decks, helping someone write a budget, all those things can help.
Jake: Yeah, what you’re sharing is valuable and I think a bit more gritty and real than the fairytale story, where someone grabs your script, and suddenly you’re rich. And also, sometimes somebody grabs your script, and suddenly you are rich… and then 15 years later, your movie still isn’t made.
There’s a tremendous value to taking control of your own career: How do we do this? How do we put ourselves in a position where people can’t say no to us?
I’m curious. When a new writer approaches you, somebody that you don’t know, what is the balance between being obnoxious and being unstoppable? How do you like to be approached by new writers?
Noah: I wish I had a one size fits all answer! I will say, some people send blast emails to everyone listed on IMDb. My email is not even listed there anymore, and somehow still a lot of these same writers are sending me loglines. It drives me crazy.
If someone finds me and it has a personal touch to it, “I loved Here Alone…” or “Seeing how you guys pulled things off with The Climb movie…” makes me feel like, “Oh!, you want to talk to me because you think that there’s sort of shared ethos or philosophy or whatever it is.
I respect and appreciate that; I understand where you’re coming from. I can’t guarantee I’ll like your script, or even that I’ll have time to read it, but people have found me through cold outreach.
This guy, Brandon, we’ve been working with– he’s just great. Found us through the grapevine, and he’s wildly talented. A writer with crazy ideas, that’s what I’m looking for. There’s no lack of fun elevated genre things out there, but I want to find the next Hereditary.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the mainstream horror world. But I’m trying to find a singular piece within a very crowded marketplace right now.
To go back to your question, if you have a compelling logline and are personal in your outreach, I’ll be much more receptive for sure.
Jake: That’s valuable. A lot of the pitchfests inadvertently amplify this myth about what a pitch is supposed to be– we think it’s like Shark Tank, a song and dance, but it’s not! It’s connecting with another human being, it’s about knowing who someone is before you start trying to sell them something.
I’m also curious, particularly on This is Not a War Story, you took a unique approach to the development of that piece. I would love to give my writers a little peek behind the door. What does the development process look like on a piece that’s not being created in the traditional Hollywood model?
Noah: The interesting thing about it, as a broader example of what you’re talking about, is the idea of building trust within a community that you’re then going to represent, whether it’s in a film or in the scripts that you hope to make into a film.
Talia realized she had the framework of characters that fit into the context of the veteran’s experience of trauma and PTSD. And so she built trust with those communities. To do that took a long time. She’s remarkable for having fought to do that and built these relationships across the years with them. That’s what translates into the movie being great.
A big part of the movie’s identity is being upset with the mainstream representation of the military, and coming home from warfare, and the lack of true representation of the issues of moral injury and post-traumatic stress, suicidal ideation, etc.
I recognize that everything I just said doesn’t sound commercial, but making stuff right now, you need to do things that have a huge impact.
I always say, the market doesn’t know what it wants. Ever. A great example right now is Squid Game, where everyone keeps being like, “Everyone passed on Squid Game” in a way that happens every other week, something that doesn’t make sense on paper, is like the soup-du-jour.
If you’re writing about something that has to do with something real, of a real subculture, a real group of people, get involved and understand that subculture! Figure out ways to get that authenticity. Because when you have that within something, even if you’re a raw writer, you’re writing from a real place.
When you have people who come from a specific background or community such as law enforcement, the military, medicine, etc, who write something because of experiences they went through, those stories tend to be intense and interesting.
I bet you multiple drafts of that script were like, nonsense, the writing was bad, the structure was impossible to decipher, but it had a lot of integrity because it was real, you know? So I would say, the more you can pull from the authenticity of what you’re writing about, the better I can help you.
Jake: You want to feel like this is the only writer in the world who could have written the script.
Noah: That’s a good way to put it.
Jake: I love what you’re saying about voice. I worked for many years on the Hollywood side of things. Even there, it was always true. When you’re working with a famous writer, it’s often about the hook. “Alright, what’s the pitch?” But when you are working with a newer writer, it’s always about voice, because at some level, you’re going have to go to bat and fight for this person and you’re not going to have “their last movie made this much money,” to fall back on.
The script has got to be provocative in some way.
What are you looking for right now? What excites you most?
Noah: Oh, man. I always say– this is a bit of a cop out, but– I kind of love everything. Probably my favorite movies of all time are Terminator 2 and Airplane and Aliens. But then I’m obsessed with Place Beyond The Pines. I love rural thrillers. Contained sci-fi. If someone ever had an idea like Cube again, it would be my favorite thing ever.
Right now, what’s interesting to me are things that feel infinitely makeable. Look at something like The Guilty with Jake Gyllenhaal and the original foreign-language film.
This is a dream! It’s compelling. It’s a good actor’s piece. It’s a thriller. And you can do it in 15 days, anywhere in the country, as long as you have your location. I want to do ambitious things, but sometimes you just have to be thinking practically.
With filmmakers I work with, I’ve made the sales at Studio levels that require all these massive levers to be able to happen. There’s a lot of virtue too in writing and trying to produce things that can be produced at a modest level, have opportunities for good actors, and can be done.
So I’d say I’m interested in contained screenplays right now. Within any genre. Thriller, sci-fi… especially thrillers. Frankly, I’d love to do a contained thriller. I even think of shocking stories, like Jeff Nichols first movie, or like The Interview, this old Australian movie with Hugo Weaving, where you can have stakes and do it within certain confines.
So that’s me right now. My hope is always to try and find a writer with an identity. Voices that I think are going to have a lot to say.
Like I said before, I don’t have money, but I can help nurture talent of different kinds. That’s something that I’m good at. I tend to work with my filmmakers again. Not a lot of producers have that experience.
Jake: Your resume speaks for itself, your IMDB for itself. It’s easy to have a lot of producing credits if you have a ton of money, but when what you’re showing us is that you can go out and fight for a project, you can make unlikely things, if you put the right team together and you know how to proceed with that.
So I’m curious, for a writer who wants to produce their script, maybe it’s a short, or it’s a low budget contained feature. What do you think the most common mistakes are that people make when it comes to producing? Let’s assume they have no experience, they’ve never even thought of producing something before. What are the most important things for them to think about?
Noah: Well, I’d appreciate the ethos of just making stuff. “Move fast and break things” in the tech jargon. But for people that haven’t done it a lot, or at all, there tends to be a lack of respect for the necessity of very good people doing the traditional jobs.
Don’t hire your buddy who wants to be a DP someday. Spend hours on Vimeo finding the greatest young DP who’s ever shot. Maybe he or she hasn’t even done a feature, but they’ve got an incredible eye. I think they could do something special with this. Take the time for those things. Get those things right.
Don’t shoot on all white walls. Find ways to make the spaces we’re inhabiting feel rich and real. If it’s an elevated idea, just try and flex with things. Think about ways to make the production design feel bigger. If you’re gonna stay tight, do some things in the background that make it sing.
Whatever it is, just take the time to ensure you can get some people in the trenches with you that bring a lot of straight up, qualitative skills to it.
You just want something that looks good. And that goes for acting as well. The nice thing about acting is there’s no lack of talented actors that would love to just make stuff. You just need to be patient and find them. Don’t cast your friends unless they’re very good actors… in which case do it.
Jake: It’s true, all of life is casting. That’s the secret of life. You surround yourself with amazing people, and they elevate you, and you put one person that’s the wrong fit, and it will bring the whole production down.
I’ve seen so many new producers shortchange themselves on pre-production. They’re racing through pre-production because they want to get it made so badly! But the less money you have, the more important is that your DP is incredible, the more important it is that your line producer is incredible, that your sound person and stars are incredible. That’s an amazing piece of advice.
Noah: Thank you, it’s just about margins of error. They get smaller. The lower your budget gets, the more prepared you need to be for any unforeseen thing that could come up.
There’s a cool movie called The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, which is a standoff movie. The filmmaker made a whole bible that was just like everything it was the entire film– what we’re feeling and seeing. That guy gets it. If that took him five years, then, when he has his 20 days to make the movie, he’s already made it, in his head, a million times. And it’s not just in his head, here’s a physical document.
If you do eventually want to get to a position where you can just straight up sell a script, that’s how you get there. It’s not winning the lottery. It’s punching a timecard, finding ways to get your name out there a little bit.
Make something! Go do it! Doesn’t matter how small or seemingly insignificant the festival is, go meet people. That’s how I think you get to where you want to be in any creative position, and in entertainment. Put yourself out there as much as possible.
Jake: I’m going to ask you probably the most common questions that people ask me. A writer gets their script to someone in the industry, the producer, agent, or manager says, “I’m so excited to read this…” And then they never hear from them again.
Writers always want to know what to do in that situation. “Do I send them an email? Do I call? What is too frequent? What is not frequent enough? How much pushing should I do?”
How do you like to be interacted with by a writer, when you’ve got their project, you’ve got a million things to read, and you’re behind on getting back to them? What’s the best way for them to handle it?
Noah: I am not against the follow-up at all. It’s not like I have an assistant! There are a lot of things going on.
The thing to avoid is when “Hey, don’t read that, I’ve got a new draft!” When you send something to me, this should be the draft you want me to read.
But if someone doesn’t follow up, I would say, “I’m sure there is so much going on. If you don’t have time to read it right now, would it be okay if I contacted you in a couple of months?”
Sometimes people like me would appreciate that extra time.
Candidly, I’m dealing with a lot of chaos and finishing up a couple of projects right now. I’m not reading as much as I would like. But they have no way of knowing that!
Offer them a little bit of grace; I think that’s a good thing. But you shouldn’t be afraid of [following up]. Be polite, and recognize that everyone’s got lives and desperate concerns to deal with at any given time. And that should be all fine.
Jake: I think that’s a wonderful piece of advice. Since we’re about to wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share about This Is Not A War Story?
Noah: I think it’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. It’s always fun to make things. Sometimes it’s not so fun, but the outcome is always fun. But it’s much better when it’s something that has a lot of impact and meaning to people. It’s translated in that way.
I think that when people watch it, they recognize that. If you have HBO Max, it’s available from now on. In six months we’ll be doing a special edition Blu-ray. And in a couple of years, it’ll be a on AVOD, like Crackle, Tubi, Vudu, and all that. Until then, it’s exclusive to HBO.
So, if you’ve got HBO, please watch it. If you plan to watch the Spirit Awards, March 6th and we’re nominated for the John Cassavetes award. It’ll be on IFC. Appreciate it if anyone watched it!
Jake: That’s incredible, congratulations. Such a wonderful place to end. So often, when writers think about producers, they forget that producers are also artists.
As producers get into this business, sure, they’d like to make money, but producers get into this business, just like you do, because they want to say something.
Your art is about what you want to say, it’s not just about what you can sell; if it was just about that, you could make a lot more money selling any other kind of merchandise.
So to end this How To Sell Your Screenplay series on the spiritual side of things, say something that matters to you. Then go find somebody who wants to say something similar. That’s how you find your tribe.
Noah: There are a lot of dirtbag producers out there, I will not deny it. But most producers aren’t mustache-twirling supervillains. They’re filmmakers that want to help, advocates for stories, and for figuring out how to do something difficult.
Everybody needs everyone in this industry; It’s a miracle anything works. But we are in the fight together. So I hope that people can have a bit of grace towards the process of getting anything made. Because it’s so Herculean to do it. We all want to make money, because we all have to make a living. I have my second kid on the way! I’ve got to make money.
There’s a world where you can have integrity and also make a living.
Jake: Thank you for such an inspiring interview. I appreciate your time, good luck with the cause and with this award.
Noah: Thank you. I appreciate you having me on. Look forward to hearing the episode and telling people to listen. Thanks so much.
*Edited for length and clarity