Spec Spotlight: Joe Ballarini, Writer of “Skyward”

By April 29, 2017Main

This article first appeared on the Final Draft blog and is re-published here with permission.


Joe Ballarini has sold a lot of spec scripts. But Skyward, the spec he sold recently to Fox, may be the most consequential one yet. Every writer has that “one special story that you keep in your heart,” says Ballarini. “And this is one of them.


Based on a true story, Skyward tells the incredible tale of two East German families who escaped over the Berlin Wall by building a hot-air balloon in their garage. Ballarini fell in love with “this remarkable story of escape and rebellion and the search for freedom without the use of weapons.”


Constructing a hot-air balloon is harder than it might seem. To see one inflate up-close is to witness an eight-story-high behemoth rise from the ground and take flight. The families had to acquire enough fabric to cover two-and-a-half basketball courts. “They didn’t want to be found out,” Ballarini reminds us. “You couldn’t exactly just go and grab these miles of clothing that were required for it. So they had to go and get different clothes from different department stores.”


Add to this the fact that there were no hot-air balloons or balloon companies in East Germany. The two families—led by electrician Peter Strelzyk and bricklayer Gunter Wetzel—learned about propulsion systems, aerodynamics, and viable materials by trial and error. Some of the errors forced them to start over with a new balloon.



“It’s pretty incredible for them to have done this without ever actually seeing one in person, without ever actually having flown in one.” Their courage moved Ballarini profoundly; their anger at their government’s intrusion on freedom and privacy, their yearning for a better life. On the flip side, Ballarini could also relate to the families’ nagging worry that their situation wasn’t worth the risk. “I think I’m brave writing a spec screenplay. They’re making a spec hot-air balloon.”


If a script centering on a border wall seems well-timed, it’s because it was not an accident. Ballarini began looking into East German escape stories “about a year-and-a-half ago, when the election started rising and there was mention of a wall.” Though he was excited by the story, work and life took over, and the screenplay sat unfinished for most of the year.


But during the annual Hollywood lull around Christmas, and with a newborn at home, Ballarini rediscovered Skyward with a more urgent perspective … a father’s perspective. “I connected to this story on a visceral level of wanting to protect your family and going to such great lengths to protect them.”


Halfway through the script, Ballarini realized that Disney had made a similar film starring John Hurt and Beau Bridges over 30 years ago, Night Crossing. Nearly every writer has experienced that particular panic upon discovering that someone else had the same idea. But Ballarini’s lawyers assured him that, because it is a true story, he was in the clear, and the writer forged ahead.


Dramatizing a true story is tricky business, especially when one doesn’t have the opportunity to get to know the people who lived it. Ballarini strove to be true to their spirits, looking for goalposts along the way to inform him of where his characters might have found themselves emotionally. For instance, a footnote that Peter’s son had to take over and help build the rig let Ballarini know that the children, for their own safety, had been kept in the dark. “That moment when he says ‘I need your help’ is a great father-son moment.”


Don’t expect Peter and Gunter’s wives to be hovering ineffectually in the shadows. “I didn’t want this to be, ‘It’s two men doing daring things, and their wives were terrified the entire time.’ The only way you could pull something like this off is to have an incredible life partner.”


The writer’s relationship with his own wife, and the strength he witnessed in her through pregnancy and childbirth, strongly influenced his depiction of Doris Strelzyk. Doris partners with husband Peter in the risk and responsibility, double-checking calculations and doing quality control. Ballarini didn’t want the wives to “just be the wives. I wanted them to really be the companions and the ones who were also driving this train … in a fun way, they’re fighting to be the main characters themselves.”


Known more for writing family adventures (My Little Pony) or paranormal scripts (Dance of the Dead, The Residence), Ballarini is not keen on message films. “It feels very medicinal, to use my producer Karen Rosenfelt’s words,” he explains. And a recounting of a historic event can easily fall flat emotionally, zeroing in on facts and timelines and neglecting the spiritual center.


But with Skyward, the scribe found a voice he has never been comfortable expressing before, one he realizes now has been lurking within him for some time. It’s a voice that is “a lot angrier, a lot more urgent, a lot more paranoid, but couched with a need and a desire for freedom, hope and inspiration.


“I said some things in this script that I don’t normally say.” When Skyward went out, Ballarini worried that this newfound rawness might spark negative reactions. A big plus about writing fantasy, he muses, is the ability to hide: “‘That’s not the way I feel. That’s the way a blue orc feels … Oh, no, I’m not talking about that, I’m actually just talking about the politics of being a pixie.’”


In the end, though, Skyward was a story that simply would not let him go. And, judging from the ardent response so far, Ballarini’s impassioned rendering of it will connect deeply to many.


“For every spec you see that I have sold, I have not sold a lot of stuff. I’ve written a ton of things that weren’t that good, which was me chasing the spec market.” 


With his first spec sale, Ballarini consciously wrote in things like catchphrases and a bit with a dog. But the writer cautions that quips and quirks alone won’t suck people in on a deeper level. “I do write big, fun, fancy movies and big, fun family adventure films, but I always try to have them be slightly relevant to the time that they’re in.” Inviting the audience into the characters’ mindset will elevate their emotional experience, even in a spy comedy. 


For Skyward, Ballarini “put the popcorn aside for a moment and put some steak and potatoes out there.” His previous historical dramas include Saigon A Go-Go, a spec about American entertainers in the Vietnam War, and The Nativity for New Regency. “I always want to keep pushing and keep expanding and exercise different muscles in my toolbox. If you have one zombie tool in your toolbox, you’re going to just do it over and over again.” 


Ballarini’s first love was, and is, directing. “I’m always writing with a director’s hat on and trying to make it as visual, as cinematic as possible.” In Skyward, in which an article about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta sparks the idea for escape, the writer painted a visual by having the protagonists pin blueprints for their makeshift hot-air balloon around the magazine photo of balloons flooding the sky. 


Ballarini does at least one short a year to maintain his directing chops. But he keeps writing features with bigger budgets than a first-timer would be granted. He actually began Skyward with the intention of directing, but soon realized it would be too expensive for an indie. Over time, Ballarini’s learned that writing with the mindset that the writer alone will direct can stop a project that might have gone further. That said, he helmed an indie-comedy feature, Father Vs. Son, a few years ago and is developing something to get him back in the director’s chair. 


But the scribe considers himself lucky to be a working writer. “My job is actually to entertain children and inspire people.” People want to believe in monsters under the bed, and Ballarini has found a way to play all day and build worlds for a living. “You do really have to immerse the audience, even if it’s an enchanted forest or if it’s East Germany in 1978. You have to create that entire world. And I do like creating fun worlds and exploring them.” 



As a storyteller whose tales tend to revolve around children, teens or women, Ballarini was conscious in Skyward of writing a 30-something-year-old guy as the lead, possibly for the first time. He himself responds well to strong female characters or, more accurately, “just strong characters that are so much more.” 


He enjoys writing females partly because it is acceptable to explore their vulnerability, their emotional honesty, without portraying it as weakness. “I don’t know if we’ve seen that guy yet who can encapsulate the complexes of everything inside of you.” Ballarini infused his Skyward leads with this vulnerability, making them “as expressive as possible while being 36-year-old German men.” 


While he longs for the day when audiences just see an amazing human being onscreen rather than a groundbreaking African-American character or an unorthodox female character, Ballarini recognizes that we’re not there yet. “I think, especially in this time, it’s super-important to represent intelligent females—intelligent female characters that are powerful, not just because you put a sword in their hand.” 


Ballarini’s penchant for fantastic adventure and kid protagonists shines in his upcoming projects. Greenglass House, based on Kate Milford’s novel, follows two children unraveling the mysteries of their smugglers’ inn as peculiar guests show up. And the graphic-novel adaptation Imagine Agents, with Michael Keaton attached to produce and star, is “essentially police rescuing kids from these crazy imaginary friends.” 


The writer’s first children’s book series debuts in June: A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, about a secret society of babysitters protecting the world against the forces of darkness. “It was my chance to be director, writer, actor, composer, costume designer, set builder … just everything.” A health scare and a frustration with development hell triggered the revelation that Ballarini wanted to write a kid’s book. “What if you kept cooking meals and no one was there to eat them?” he groans. “I just want to see something get made that I can give to my grandchildren.” 


Certain that no one would ever want to make the story into a movie, he went after a publishing deal instead. But intellectual property is king, and “As soon as we got a publisher, now studios are interested in it.” Walden and Montecito snapped up Ballarini’s as-yet-unpublished books, with the writer slated to adapt them. 


The need in the novel form to explore and express more of the character’s inner journey has freed up the scribe’s screenwriting. A prose writer can’t get away with a sidelong glance and a beat. “In a book, that better be a paragraph. That better be a page.” In Skyward, for instance, Ballarini physicalizes a character’s discomfort by having him scratch his neck and light a cigarette, offering meaningful insight that a “beat” would not. “Prose writing invited me to be a little bit more messy and a little bit more mushy, more descriptive, a little bit more human.” 


Meanwhile, Ballarini is learning how to work with a newborn at home. “I drink a lot more coffee than I used to,” he laughs. On a serious note, he says that “It’s very difficult because there’s the temptation to half be with your kid, like, ‘I’m writing, but you’re also right here with me.’ And I want to be able to give him my full attention.” And the writer can’t speak highly enough of his wife, who has pushed him back to work in his downstairs office while she cares for their child upstairs. “She’s just been incredible.” 


Having precious, little spare time forces Ballarini to prioritize baby and work over notorious time-stealers like Twitter wars. “It focuses you like never before and also opens your heart up like never before, too.” 


With such a varied and successful background, Ballarini has a lot of valuable advice for writers. “Stop procrastinating and start writing because you’re going to have to rewrite it, and then you’re going to have to rewrite it again. So get over it, get used to it, and get to work because it’s a process of constantly reworking your stuff.” 


Also, be aware of the human tendency to reject any notes out of hand. “There’s a big part of us that says, ‘They’re wrong! How dare they do that?’” Ego can block writers from making changes that improve the story. Ballarini encourages writers to instead view others as allies who want to make the movie with them. 


Be fearless, and strive for a high degree of professionalism. “Seek the people you want to work with and try to get in touch with them,” he encourages writers. “If you do have people that acknowledge your work and really like your work, be true to them. Be good to them because they’re your allies. 


“Just write stuff that you actually genuinely love, not stuff you think is going to sell.” Take the pulse of what people are responding to, Ballarini says, but don’t obsess over it. “However you feel after taking your read of the world, go write that. Then do it again. And then do it again. When it doesn’t work, do it again. My hard drive is full of projects that haven’t happened or are about to happen. And you just can’t give up. You can’t give up.”


Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. Check out her website at dickflicks.net or tweet her at @hotpinkstreak. 


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