By Tom Dever
Independent filmmaker Andrew Kightlinger is no stranger to success. From winning the Grand Prize at the 2016 Slamdance Screenwriting Competition for his screenplay Great White Shark, to an impressive portfolio of short films and low-budget features, Kightlinger is poised for his big break. His latest project, the recently completed indie drama Tater Tot & Patton, follows a wayward millennial as she escapes to a South Dakota ranch, unhinging her Uncle’s placid alcoholic life. We recently caught up with Kightlinger to get his thoughts on the craft, as well as his advice for navigating the tumultuous tides of the film industry.
Brief background and how you got into writing. From LA? Move to LA? Did you study writing? Did you always want to be a writer? Etc.
Bred in Madagascar. Brewed in South Dakota. Microbiologist parents. Somehow I got into film. Explain that biology… I studied Government and French in undergrad. Did the film school thing at Boston University, where my screenwriting professor hammered in this primal notion: “What is the story?” A simple yet confounding gambit.
I started writing after seeing “Jaws” at age 6. I would scribble down ideas for Jaws sequels. Jaws went to space. Jaws teamed up with the Joker and fought Batman. I think I got all the way up to Jaws 32. From there, I never stopped. In high school, college, and onward, I always relished the musicality of words on the page and furthermore, the exploration of humankind’s capacity for empathy.
Via BU, I was placed in an LA internship with my heroes at the Kennedy-Marshall Company. While working there, I was bequeathed a titanium nugget of advice to leave LA and go back to South Dakota to make films AKA ‘make mistakes’ and only return to LA when I could open the proverbial doors without using a battering ram.
I did just that — moved back home and made movies on my own accord. The completion of my latest feature “Tater Tot & Patton” and winning the Slamdance Screenplay Competition opened the door to management and eventually coming back to Los Angeles. I literally moved back in early Nov of this year and now I’m shopping my next directorial project, a sex-trafficking drama called “Polaris”.
Can you walk us through the process of how you signed with your manager?
Managers and agents always say ‘we’ll find you.’ True statement. Do the work. Honest work. And they MIGHT find you. The long story is: I wrote a feature (“Tater Tot”) and raised a minuscule fortune to produce and direct the film (it wasn’t a solo effort — a team of great people made the film in the middle of South Dakota). We cast great actors including the incandescent Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day) whose management embraced the project and passed it around. Hello, Principato-Young Entertainment.
Now — don’t just sign with any manager. Make sure they’re reputable and have a great client list. I’m repped by Allen Fischer at PYE. He’s a great guy who trusts my process but also hits back with honesty. Every meeting is a delight. If you can muse with your manager about the virtues of drinking Yellow Tail, he’s a keeper. Ultimately, DO. THE. WORK. Allen and I are now working on agents and getting “Polaris” set up.
What was your previous experience in film production? You seem to have quite a bit more than the average screenwriter.
Post film school, I made a way-too-expensive short film that lead to a way-too-cheap feature that was a Mad Max-Star Wars mishmash called “Dust of War”. Tons of mistakes were made. I got a few offers to direct direct-to-video action movies but I asked myself: What career do I want? What kind of stories do I want to tell? If I’m going to suffer for art, the suffering better feed my soul.
I retreated to short films to reinvent myself (at the ripe age of 24) and those shorts lead to raising funds for “Tater Tot & Patton”, which was meant as a calling card.
I think a lot of writers have a misconception about simply sitting down and having great writing come forth from their fingertips. Do you have a specific process or method where you work your material up to the professional level? Outlines? Treatments? Beat sheets?
I always outline, always beat sheet. At the very least, I have the beginning and the end figured out. And sometimes I need a title. That may seem petty, but the title often encapsulates the theme. Theme informs character and all that follows. It’s what the story is about.
Every theme is a deep dive into the self. I wrote “Tater Tot” in 13 days. It was catharsis for losing my mother to heart disease. My Slamdance script “Great White Shark” was written in 5 days (revisions galore). That script was about identity. It took me six months of research (books, undercover work) to crack the first draft of “Polaris”. My walls were covered in white boards of multicolor notes, dialogue exchanges, and diagrams of missing teenagers left behind by society.
Screenwriting allows me to tap into my more analytical proclivities. I relish writing within the confines of structure and narrative expectation. From there, creativity blossoms! Of course, one must never be slave to structure — but my god, there are RULES. Learn them to break them. Don’t break things you don’t understand. That’s called cruelty, or at worst, stupidity.
We know you used ScreenCraft’s service years back; do you have a developmental tool you feel is most effective or beneficial?
Find trusted sources to read your material. Not friends who will tell what you want to hear (or worse yet, people with zero taste). Find those brutally honest a-hole friends whose a-holiness comes from a place of deep trust and admiration. Or use a service like ScreenCraft, where you’re guaranteed to get unbridled feedback. I submitted an early draft of “Tater Tot & Patton” to ScreenCraft and got feedback that addressed real narrative issues. I heeded all of them EXCEPT ONE to the betterment of the final product. And candidly speaking, once we hit the editing room, I wish I had heeded that final note. I tell EVERY screenwriter I know to use ScreenCraft (was not paid to say this). This is genuine love.
For your process in general, do you do a lot of revisions as you go or do you do the vomit draft then go back and revisit?
I teeter between the quest for immediate perfection and vomit. I often abscond to a cabin in South Dakota with coffee and cans of sardines and I binge write a draft in a week. Because after that, I run out of sardines and I’ll starve to death. So my process can be described as ‘masochistic’ or ‘odorous’…? And I ALWAYS revise. Even when the trusted a-holes say ’it’s genius!’, there’s always room to revise and improve.
How did your production experience inform your writing process? Is it different to be writing a film you are going to direct?
My production background informs my screenwriting as much as it hinders it. I get bogged down in blocking and budget when I should be focused on characters giving me guidance. Writing and directing are both benthic endeavors, whether in tandem or exclusive from each other. A smart writer should learn the ins-and-outs of production so they can meet the expectations of the machine. And a smart director should learn that writing is harder than hellfire.
What is the most important production aspect writers should consider with their projects?
Locations. Be smart/expedient with locations. Because location informs budget and budget informs if you can get your damn movie made. I was born and raised in Madagascar and would kill to make a movie there but there’s a reason I haven’t written one… Someday…
From a craft standpoint, what do you feel is the hardest part about getting a screenplay where it needs to be?
Getting lost in minutiae because you scrutinize every single word and think it’s all horrible. So getting past draft one is always the hardest. After spewing a first draft, I ask myself: “Is this a movie I want to see?” If the answer is ‘yes’, I approach the revision asking myself a new question: “Is this a movie I want to make?” The revision process becomes a task of opportunity.
From a purely career standpoint, what is one thing you think a lot of screenwriters don’t realize or comprehend about production, distribution, etc?
The screenplay is a blueprint to build a REALLY expensive house. A good writer blesses that blueprint with truth and love and pathos, but in the end, it will be smudged, crinkled, stained, and probably torn up and strewn into a maelstrom. A smart writer will understand that the business will leave you behind if you can’t adapt. Swim upstream always. Grow legs if necessary.
Even for a writer as successful as you, surely you have had to face rejection at some point. Any advice for writers dealing with the discouragement that comes with rejection?
There are very few geniuses in the world. Everyone else has to work hard. I’ve got tons to learn and rejection is part of that process. I remember seeing a piece at LACMA. It was a basketball floating in a fish tank. I scoffed. The person next to me was brimming with admiration for the piece. That scenario accompanies every piece of art EVER. Rejection is the price humankind pays for having the capacity for passion.
If you could go back 5-10 years and give yourself one craft or career tip, what would it be?
Never sacrifice friendships for art, but also know when certain arrows have poison tips. Practically speaking, make sure everyone involved in your film KNOWS what kind of film you’re making. Filmmaking is already a Frankenstein process. Make sure everyone is at least creating the same monster.
Now that you have another project nearing completion — what’s next?
“Tater Tot” is seeking distribution and I’ve spent a year researching/writing/revising “Polaris” with the help of PYE. That’s now being sent out now as my next directorial effort, hoping to attach talent and find the money. Meanwhile, I’m writing something commercial to SELL because I’m running low on sardines.
Favorite Movie: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Possibly the most empathetic movie ever made.
Favorite Craft Services Item: Pocketfuls of Hot Tamales
Favorite Books: “L’Écume Des Jours” by Boris Vian — and I kid not, “The Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck”
Fav Music to Write to: Jerry Goldsmith galore — Marilyn Manson or NIN for dark stuff — always Chopin’s Fantasia in C-Minor for the final 3 pages