Novel to Script to Screen – One Writer’s Journey

An Interview with Chuck Hustmyre, author of “House of the Rising Sun”

(A little set-up from Larry here.)

Admit it.  You’d love to see your novel adapted and playing on the big screen.  You envision opening night, you in your tux or killer heels (heck, maybe both, I don’t judge), you imagine yourself there in the dark munching popcorn while watching the sea of dimly-lit faces staring up at the characters you created, saying your lines (for the most part, directors tend to change things), riveted, unable to tear their eyes away. 

Admit it.

And if you can’t see it there, you’ll take a direct-to-DVD deal.  Happily.

Some writers — the more famous they are, the more this is true — bemoan the adaptations of their work, usually after they’ve spent the big check that gave the filmmakers the right to do anything they want with it.  Sometimes they sue to get the rights back or have their name taken off the credits.  But you and me… no, it’d be a dream come true.  Even if you’re standing in front of a Redbox or in the aisle at Blockbuster instead of a mutiplex marquee.

That’s where I saw Chuck Hustmyre’s “House of the Rising Sun.”  At a Redbox.

I’d known Chuck and was familiar with the pending movie deal, and I’ve posted a link to the trailer here on Storyfix.  (Note: Definately Rated R.)  It’s good stuff, too.  Gritty, smart, a study in noir and a cut above what you’d expect in a film positioned like this.  A darn site better than the latest Nicholas Cage.

Now that the film is out I thought I’d ask Chuck to share a bit about this journey. 

And by the way, the novel is available at Amazon, paper or Kindle.  Amazon also has the DVD (here), in case your local Redbox doesn’t. 

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How did this happen?  What was the status of the story – published, or not – when the movie people found it?  How did they find it?  How did it go down?

The novel originally came out in 2004 from a tiny POD publisher in Oregon. It sold fewer than 100 copies, or so I was told. Fortunately, one of those copies fell into the hands of a local film producer in my hometown of Baton Rouge. He called me and asked if I would consider writing the script adaptation — for free, of course. I had some experience with screenplays and had written two or three by that time, so I said yes.

That began a saga that lasted several years. The local producer brought in a buddy of his from L.A. who he had gone to film school with and who had since gone on to win two Academy Awards for a couple of big blockbuster movies. The awards were in a technical field, and now this guy wanted to branch out more into directing. I was hoping that with his two Oscars he could raise the $4 – $5 million budget. But it seems money is always tight no matter what your trophy shelf looks like.

Fast forward to 2010. I got all the rights back from the POD publisher, and with the producer’s option long since expired, I decided to start shopping the script myself. I sent out dozens of queries on my own and used a query service that sent out hundreds more. One guy — that’s all it ever takes — in L.A. passed my query onto a buddy of his who was looking for a gritty crime thriller. That producer took out another option on it — again, no money changed hands. And then he started shopping it to other produces who had money.

From that point things started to move fast. There were some rewrites along the way, but in October I sold the script to a Toronto-based production company, Berkshire Axis Media, and the producer, Mark Sanders, started shooting the movie in December. The budget dropped to $1.5 million, but the results look a lot more expensive. Mark already had a deal with LIONSGATE for distribution in the U.S. and with Cinema Management Group for foreign sales. So far the film has sold in more than a dozen foreign countries.

With the movie in the works, my literary agent shopped the book around and sold it to Dorchester in New York. We also sold the translation rights in Russia and Poland.

The new edition of the novel came out July 15, and LIONSGATE released the movie on July 19.

You got screenplay credit… how did that go down?  Then the director re-wrote you, were you involved?  Didn’t see your name in the acting credits (did see the Director’s though), were you asked?  How were you treated?

I wrote the script, so I got the screenplay credit. However, this was a non-WGA production, and the director did some rewriting on the script and claimed half the writing credits. When a production is covered by the WGA, a production member, such as the director, has to change more than 50% of the script to claim a writing credit. That wasn’t the case with my script — I think about 70% of the finished film is from the original script — but the director took the credit anyway. I guess a directing credit wasn’t enough for him. He also wrote himself into the movie and took an acting credit.

As far as how I was treated. I think every new screenwriter imagines he or she will be treated with some respect and be considered part of the production team. The truth is, once you sell the script, you’re a nuisance. Nobody wants your input. Nobody asks for your opinion. My wife and I flew up to Michigan to watch a little of the shooting. They actually thought we were extras. Everyone was courteous, but you could tell they had better things to do than talk to us.  

How do you feel about the final product?  I liked it, by the way.  Batista was a surprise.

 I like the movie, but I have to say I do not like the changes the director made. I had a much bigger role for the character Jenny Porter, played by Amy Smart, than made it into the film. I also had a much different ending. My ending was definite and lacked the ambiguity of the film’s ending. And of course, I wish they had filmed it in New Orleans, but that was a business decision.

What has been your experience now that the film is out?  Has it changed the prospects of the novel, and/or your other work?

Having a produced movie has opened some doors for me. I now have a manager who is aggressively trying to sell my new scripts. But things haven’t changed as much as I thought, or at least hoped, they would. Hollywood agents still won’t answer my emails. Producers are not bidding on my next script. Selling my next novel has not been any easier. In fact, even with a movie in production, selling the novel “House of the Rising Sun” was not easy.

That said, the pay for a low-budget screenwriter is certainly better than for a mid-list author, at least in my case. 

Anything you’d like to add, and/or, advise other writers hoping to live this dream?

I really am reluctant to give any advice because every situation is different, but some general principles seem safe to reiterate. Don’t give up. If you give up you’ll never make it. But be realistic. Selling a novel to a big publisher or a script to Hollywood (even low-budget Hollywood) is about as difficult as picking a winning lottery number. Not quite but almost. A hundred things have to fall into place, most of which you have no control over. It’s as much luck as anything, but, of course, you can’t get lucky if you’re not trying.

Also, it’s not true that if you write a great story the market will find you. That’s bullshit. As an unpublished novelist or unproduced screenwriter every door — and I do mean every door — is closed to you. If you want to succeed, you have to find the right door and kick it open.

Visit Chuck Hustmyre’s website HERE. 

He has three other novels out, as well (linked from his website), all of which are waiting for me on my Kindle.  If you like the genre, then you’ll like Chuck’s stuff.  I know I do.

4 Comments

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4 Responses to Novel to Script to Screen – One Writer’s Journey

  1. Thank you for the interview. You’re correct that it’s a lot of writer’s dream to have their story picked up by Hollywood and converted to an on screen conversation. What’s so important to explore in that regard is how screenplay structure and novel structure are intertwined in the aspiration, so maybe I’ll do a breakdown of the novel and the movie and we’ll see what it looks like. Peace, LL

  2. Just when I think you couldn’t possibly top your last effort (Story Engineering, my freakin’ bible), I get this fantastic offer in my inbox. Who wouldn’t want a great excuse to buy and read one of these thrillers, get a great free e-book and help an amazing author and teacher get the recognition he deserves? On my way to smahwords right now! Thank you

  3. monica rodriguez

    “If you want to succeed, you have to find the right door and kick it open.”

    Thank you, Chuck, for the motivational kick in the pants. And thank you, Larry, for constantly providing us with info that will help us find the right doors and know what we have to do to kick them open.

    Off to practice my kicking form…

  4. Scott

    Hey, Larry

    Read your blog about Chuck Hustmyre’s House of the Rising Sun. I was a part of the project and read his original script and it was beyond awful. The director had to rewrite the script because the actors and distributors demanded it. No one could get through the first 20 pages without pissing themselves laughing. It was truly the worst attempt at a screenplay ever undertaken. Hustmyre’s script was filled with plotholes and was pure cheese. It read like a cliche’ made out of cliche’s. So before you publicize such nonsense do a more thorough background check and at least contact those people involved in the production and distribution of the film. I know for a fact that the Director wasn’t given his cut of the film and Editor hired out of Toronto was of the lowest caliber. Hustmyre’s reference to Mark Sanders as a producer is also a joke. That Sanders guy demanded that another rewrite was done in which characters were combined in which the film would’ve had a run time of 70 minutes. Truly incompetent.