Q & A with the Thornton Brothers

Thornton Brothers

Chris and Jason Thornton are professional storytellers who seek to entertain audiences via thematically charged films, TV shows, books and comics across various genres while specializing in darker, provocative, character-driven narratives ranging from “micro” to tentpole in budget. They are members of the WGAw and repped by UTA and Rosa Entertainment.

Cactus Jack is their feature directorial debut. It’s the story of a reclusive hate-monger who starts a venomous, vitriolic podcast from his mother’s basement and makes enemies far and wide—until one comes to silence him. Think a cross between Taxi Driver and Talk Radio for the podcasting generation. You can help the guys out with their crowdfund campaign (and see their totally NSFW red band proof-of-concept teaser)

What’s the last thing you read/watched you thought was incredibly well-written (Book, TV or film)

Fuck, that’s hard. Not because we look down on stuff, but because we’re so busy trying to make our own shit that we barely have time to consume like we used to. Hmmmm. Just rewatched Network lately, so that definitely should be mentioned. Paddy Chayefsky was an absolute beast. Sure. Network. Can’t go wrong with that.

What’s your writing background? What was the project that got things started?

We’ve kind of always been innate storytellers. We come from a strong line of liars and bullshitters, and as largely unsupervised kids in the projects outside DC we’d play out really elaborate, raw extended throughlines with our action figures and made our own comic books and honed our sensibilities between bouts of watching R-rated 80’s shit on free promotional HBO and Showtime and role playing. We started screenwriting together maybe fifteen years ago, but after writing three scripts that shall never see the light of day we stopped for a few years before coming back to it in ‘07. That project was a script called Heart, about a dying, psychotic Vietnam vet who gets an early release from prison and—since he can’t get on a donor’s list—tracks down the man whose life he saved forty years ago in ‘Nam: he wants the dude’s heart. It’s a very dark, fucked up, pulpy who-do-I-root-for story, which finished in the Top 30 out of like 5,000 entries for the 2009 Nicholl Fellowship (since dismantled and currently turning it into a truly dastardly novel). From there we started talking to managers but it was our next script Mechanicsville that really hooked our manager (shoutout to Sidney Sherman of Rosa Entertainment, who still reps us) and first agent (started at WME but since jumped to UTA). M-ville’s kind of a Kentucky-fried heist flick about how shit hits the fan when two gangs of bank robbers try to rob the same small town bank on the same day (Hell Or High Water stomps all over it now, unfortunately). That one started getting us legit meetings, led to our first assignment and opened the door to pitch shit, etc.

Your current big project is crowdfunding to produce your original independent film CACTUS JACK. What’s the story behind that?

Part of this is definitely about us tiring of being stuck on that movie/TV development hamster wheel, and all of these unproduced projects forcing us to look at our shoes and mumble “no” when people hear what we do and of course follow up with “Oh yeah? Anything I can see or read?” Part of it is about trying to make a feature film for relatively very little money, because screenwriters will never “move the needle” on a project like in-demand directors will… but for the most part it’s a sick little story we just have to get out there as quickly as possible. It’s very zeitgeisty, very of-the-moment as it holds up a twisted, frothing-mouthed funhouse mirror to this already “big top” election cycle. Once we started talking to our actor (Michael Gull, a very talented dude whose skills we tailored the very conception of the film to), we knew we had some dynamite shit on our hands, and as far as we were chomping to push the envelope into radioactive territory, we knew none of our contacts or fans in Hollywood would take a risk on this thing until it was made and we proved our point.

So we found a micro-investor to help us make a teaser for the film and launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo. We need all the help we can get, time is running out, and though we have recent some offline help from friends and family who couldn’t back us through the campaign, it’s pretty dire! We’re going to make the movie come hell or high water, but every penny helps push production value (plus pay and feed cast and crew) and you can preorder a copy of the flick for $25. So—please, lend us a hand in making this batshit, gonzo little monster of a movie!

Your writing style is very vivid and descriptive. Did that come naturally or was it something that took time to develop?

Both. It takes a long, long time for some people to hone their voice and honestly, it should be an ongoing process and evolution for your entire writing life. But you have to have a voice to be honed in the first place. A lot of writers are sadly like those poor souls on American Idol who have no business auditioning in the first place—but hey, who are we to deny the delusional their dreams? Whatever keeps them from shooting up a shopping mall. ;)

Have you always worked together? Is one of you the specialist in a certain area, like one does more writing and the other handles directing, or do you split it evenly?

We’ve sort of always worked together, for the most part. Though we each have our own skills we complement the other with, we do tend to each spearhead a project nowadays while the other acts as more editor and muse. So yeah, we each have our own pet solo projects, but they all fall under the Thornton Brothers umbrella eventually.

Do you only work on your own scripts, or have you done some assignment work as well? Do you have a preference?

We’ve done both, for sure. Hard to sustain a career, or even kickstart one, without doing assignment work. The nice thing about it is people actually give you money to commence writing something! It’s crazy. Not at all easy to do, trying to feed yourself or help provide for others in the arts. Some might even call it foolhardy, but yeah…we’ve done both. Selling something you wrote yourself, from your own mind and heart, is infinitely more satisfying. And while we’ve had some very fun, interesting experiences collaborating in a development sense with assignment work or on successful pitches that became scripts (if not movies), no matter how smooth or inspired a collaboration with an outside party it’s never quite as liberating or just straight up fun as going out into the creative wild on our own and coming back with a kill.

You’re also filmmakers as well as writers. What do you consider the benefits of working on a film, from both the writer and filmmaker perspective?

Making or even merely being witness to the construction of an actual film is pretty invaluable for screenwriters, in our collective opinion. You really start to see how to separate the meat from the fat, and how what works on the page might not be as impactful in the moment or on the screen. Editing film/video also really helps hone your sense of timing, pacing, and flow as a storyteller… and how effective and economical you can be with visuals, allowing characters to shut the fuck up sometimes, how to convey info without big, clunky dialogue exposition bombs, etc.

Also, if you can we say go for the hyphenate… again, no screenwriter is ever going to have the kind of clout a successful director has. That said, many don’t have the temperament or skillset required (not that there’s one narrow band of disposition that allows one to direct), but writers often have murkier personalities. It’s worth making a film or two to find out if you’re a writer-director or filmmaker versus just a writer is not a bad idea. But if you know off the bat you don’t get along with others, have trouble verbally conveying what you mean to say, then save yourself the grief. Take our word for it: directing even modest, “micro” films ain’t for the faint of heart. Also, keep in mind that some stories demand to be told in this medium. Others don’t. Some work better in prose, or even in poem of song. Marrying the right medium to the story is also part of the trick.

When working on a script, do you have a reliable source for notes?

We are our own most reliable source of notes. It helps that there’s two of us but honestly we’ve both tried to become total fucking samurais when it comes to self-editing. You have to be. It’s not only a matter of putting your best foot forward when you go to show your work to reps or the public, but even if you were going to Emily Dickinson that shit away in a kitchen drawer until it’s discovered posthumously years later—your story deserves to be the closest to “perfection” it can be (which is objectively unattainable, but approximated through the filter that is you. It is YOUR story, after all). Oh, and our manager is usually good for one killer note.

What are the 3 most important rules a writer should know?

Ew! “Rules!” Haha, in all seriousness though maybe Rule #1 should be: There Are No Rules. There’s no one way to get noticed, to have a career — and anyone who tells you there is is probably trying to sell you something. But if you want some real nuts and bolts:

1. Always approach storytelling with Character at the forefront.

Even if you outline a predetermined plot to get started with a map, veer off of it when you find it incongruent with a character you’re rendering. If there is falsity or fallacy baked into the behavior of your characters, no matter how tightly constructed your narrative, it will start to crumble.

2. Be careful with twists and “reveals.”

We see it all the time, from the stuff we watch and read (and have written in the past) to many of the scripts we’ve consulted on. It’s a natural storytelling tendency, to want to surprise an audience, but only do it with REAL PURPOSE. Be careful with the big climactic “backstory reveal that made the character tick all this time.” Very rarely works.

So much more satisfying is a simple story told well. If you do work with twists, make it work like The Sixth Sense. The film works with or without it until the point it hits, and it is truly revelatory. It’s not that M. Night held something back to show how clever he was. Don’t do that shit. It’s awful. Put your cards on the table and tell your damn story.

3. Don’t be a slave to the idea that a story needs a transformational character arc.

This is something that a Blake Snydered Hollywood succumbs to far too often, in our opinions. First: in film arcs very, very often feel shoehorned or forced in. Especially if not much time passes, or it comes near the end (must overcome his fear to succeed, or must learn to be a team player—blah, these themes have become true platitudes). If you open with a loving mother and wife whose husband and kids are murdered and she becomes a vengeful, murderous black widow from there—sure. Inciting Incident forcing a catastrophic arc that sets a character on a trajectory works. That feels authentic. And in TV, longform character change feels authentic. Some of the most potent stories of all time are great specifically because a character does not arc. Think Shakespearean tragedies, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, etc. Sometimes it’s “the right man for the right job,” and the transformation is supposed to occur in the viewer. That’s where real catharsis lives: in the viewer. Give it to them.

Reader of this blog are more than familiar with my love and appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Well, there are two of us. Chris likes pumpkin, and Jay will eat anything. Literally, anything. There’s a reason we don’t include headshots.

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