”No one cares what race, creed, color or species you belong to or what country or planet you came from. If you are a good writer, you are valuable – and eventually you will get hired.”
Evan Spiliotopoulos interview by Journalist Dimitra Bogri exclusively on Efimerida of NY. The talented script writer talks about the beginning of his career, his work on the firm Hercules, Greece as well as his future plans, among other things. Truly enjoyable.
Born In Athens, the child of a Greek Father and a Greek American Mother, raised at Vrilissia. How did you decide to move to the US and how did you kick start your career as a script writer?
I loved movies. And I loved to write. So it was a natural combination to become a screenwriter. When I graduated high school, I knew the only way I could break into films was by moving to the US. Greece’s film industry is on life support and making a living off screenwriting is extremely rare. I moved to the US and pursued Undergraduate studies in Film Theory, then received a Masters in screenwriting. In 1995, I moved to Los Angeles. Once a career is established, a writer can live almost anywhere — but to get a career started you have to be in the middle of things in LA. I knew no one in town. Not a soul. But my first week, I took a seminar called Flash Forward that guided new people on how to make connections in the industry. The most obvious way to get in was accept any job, no matter how little it paid or how lowly it was, just to get a foot in the door. I became a Production Assistant on a TV film, basically answering the phones in the office. But a producer took a liking to me, read one of my scripts and liked it and passed it on to another producer who had just signed a deal with the Sci-Fi Chanel. A month later, I had been hired to write low budget science fiction films for that cable network. And slowly, I accumulated credits and learned my craft.
Writing script for the Hollywood Industry sounds like a huge task. What were some of the difficulties you were faced with in the beginning?
When I moved to Hollywood, I had no connections at all. I had to work to get to know producers and executives willing to read an unknown writer’s script, much less hire them. Also writers need agents. The catch is that it is hard to get an agent unless you are working but it is even harder to work unless you have an agent. The system is set up in a way to test you and make sure that only those who are stubborn and persistent survive. The other issue with being a writer is something actors face — constant rejection. When you are starting out, you have to go for a hundred jobs in the hopes of getting one. There is also something aggravating specifically to writers — everyone thinks they can write and so everyone has a thought, a note, an opinion. You are always dealing with static and have to focus on the suggestions that benefit your script instead of hating it or leading it in the wrong direction. Think of it as juggling chainsaws: a writer has to satisfy the producers, studio, actors and director. That’s a lot of different creative minds.
Tell me a bit about your partnership with Disney?
In the fall of 2000, Disney read an original screenplay I had written and felt that the style matched what they were looking for in animation writers — very descriptive and imaginative. They hired me to work on Jungle Book 2 and were so pleased by the experience that they put me on staff for eight years during which I wrote almost a dozen animated films including Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Mickey’s Three Musketeers, Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure and The Little Mermaid III. After ’08, I left to pursue a career in live action, and returned to Disney this year to write the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast.
How easy or how hard is it to write when addressing a younger audience?
Not hard at all. The key is not to talk down or underestimate your audience. Kids are smart and sophisticated. Like adults, they are looking for a story with great characters and an interesting plot. Of course there are some obvious guidelines: careful with violence, watch your language, don’t go too dark. But the greatest films for a younger audience can be scary and emotional: think of Bambi, think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. These are classics because they don’t shy away from true feelings. Same as the best of Pixar.
I can’t help but ask about your work on the movie Hercules. Tell me a bit about your experience in writing for this film as well as working with Dwayne Jonson.
The experience was extraordinary. Entirely because director Brett Ratner is a wonderfully generous and inclusive filmmaker. And producer Beau Flynn is so warm and collaborative. Every writer should have the opportunity top work with professionals like them. They kept me involved in every step of production from casting to shooting in Budapest to editing. I got to see every stage of a film getting made. A stunning educational adventure. To add to that, Dwayne himself is just about the nicest, kindest — and largest — person you will ever meet. Playing Hercules had been his dream for a long time and he considered himself an honorary Greek once he got the part. When I first got hired, he thanked the producers for hiring his “fellow Greek,” Evan Spiliotopoulos.
Evan Spiliotopoulos with actor Dwayne Johnson and director Brett Ratner.
Do you believe there is a recipe for success or do you also believe in luck?
90% hard work, 10% luck. There is an expression — every overnight success was ten years in the making. If you write and write and write you get better. And when you get good, someone will notice. The industry is looking for one thing: quality. No one cares what race, creed, color or species you belong to or what country or planet you came from. If you are a good writer, you are valuable — and eventually you will get hired. Now, luck of course is a part of it, but I think luck plays into how quickly you are found or what projects you get to work on. Another word for luck could be “timing.”
A lot of young Greeks are moving to the US with a goal to fulfill their dreams. What is your advice to them?
Be humble and be prepared to work. If you are a writer and want to work in the US or any other country make sure you have a full mastery of the language you intend to work in. If you are an actor, work hard to lose or reduce your accent otherwise it will limit you. If you are a director, cinematographer, editor, etc, come with an impressive portfolio. As for the humble part, please understand that it does not matter how famous you were in Greece, how big a star, or how much critics loved you. When you come to Los Angeles, you are starting from absolute zero. Unlike Spain, or France or Germany, Greece is a tiny market. Greek actors or filmmakers are completely unknown until they begin winning international awards and receiving international attention. Therefore they do not cut tickets internationally. That means you cannot afford to arrive in LA and believe the doors will magically open. Everything you have done up to this point in your career is preparation, not completion.
What is your opinion of the movie industry in Greece? With so many talented people how is it we haven’t seen a flourish of the movie industry in Greece?
The film industry in Greece is on life support. We had a spectacular film culture in the 50s and 60s when films like Electra, Stella, Never on Sunday, Zorba and The Red Lanterns were scoring either Oscar nominations or international awards. After that, and until Dogtooth, only Theo Angelopoulos drew attention to Greece. The problem in the ‘70s and ‘80s was that video killed the industry. Producers discovered they could shoot projects a whole lot cheaper and make great profit and did not care that quality and creativity dropped to the bottom. The main problem today, however, is that we are not a film-friendly country. We do not have the structure, the laws, the system or really the desire to invite foreign productions to film in our country. For every The Two Faces of January, we chase away a dozen of other productions. Worse, films that do film in Greece, like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, often have negative things to say about the experience. So now we have developed a poor reputation. For me the game was badly lost in 2003 when we managed to chase away both Troy and Alexander — two massive productions which would have brought money and exposure to the country — but also experience to our Greek filmmakers. Hungry, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Malta, even FYROM are luring international projects right and left. Their local talent is brushing shoulders and working side by side not only with famous actors and directors but more importantly with award-winning cinematographers, costume and set designers, editors and make-up artists. Craftspeople who can teach and provide valuable experience to our own talent. I feel that for every one Greek thirsting for the opportunity to work on a foreign film, there are nine who actively resent and “snob” foreign films. In my opinion it is an arrogance bred of insecurity.
You work with a lot of famous and infamous people in Hollywood, what is the common perception about Greece?
Everyone loves us. Period. Greeks have a reputation as warm, friendly, hospitable, slightly crazy, and enormously fun people. Tell someone you are Greek and usually they break out in a smile and share memories of some magical vacation they once had in the Greek islands. Absurdly, sometimes interviewers ask me if I ever encountered any prejudice in Los Angeles because I am Greek. None whatsoever. As I said above, no one cares where you come from as long as you can do the job you claim you can do. Now regarding our current situation, I find there is massive sympathy with the Greek people… but also many feel it is time we joined the 21st century in certain matters.
What is your message for the people back in Greece?
Follow your dreams. Listen to your heart. Do everything out of love.
What are some of your plans for the near future?
The Huntsman is coming out April 22, 2016. Beauty and the Beast is being released on March 17, 2017. I am currently working on several confidential projects for Sony with The Huntsman producers and writing a live action version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker for Universal. There is also a project called Seven Wonders at Fox, based on a book by Ben Mezrich and produced by Brett Ratner an Beau Flynn that I am very excited about.