A conversation with writer whose script made the 2013 Black List.
From professional snowboarder to commercial director to Hollywood screenwriter, Jon Boyer has had an interesting journey taking him from Canada to Los Angeles. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Jon about his background, his script “Free Byrd” which landed on the 2013 Black List, and his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
Today in Part 4, Jon shares what it was like to have his script make the 2013 Black List:
Scott: It’s interesting, too, some of the choices you made in the story. One of them is really not having your prototypical antagonist character. I guess it’s really the dementia.
Scott: From a writing standpoint, that’s a net plus. I mean, it’s kind of weird to say that about dementia, but it gives the narrative a nice ticking clock, and then you actually see him devolving. When did the dementia idea come into play?
Jon: It’s funny because I looked at old notes from when I first came up with the idea, just actually recently, and I was laughing at this. It was all about money before and I felt, “No, let’s not leave that in.” He was broke and he was trying to get back all his money. Talk about a lame motivation.
But it’s really tough writing any story that doesn’t have that opposing character that’s the constant pushback. That antagonistic character that just stops you from moving forward. In this story, I tried having a nemesis. I tried having an old business associate or an old something, but nothing felt right.
I tried to have that and it just never fit, and I always thought that, “This guy needs to be his own worst enemy.” He’s the protagonist but, in some ways, his dementia, obviously. He’s also the antagonist because it is time, and nothing is more crushing to anybody than the passing of time when you don’t have any.
Scott: You mentioned earlier that he’d like to go out on his own terms and that, because of the accident he had, he had to hang up his guns, if you will. It’s once the dementia, that news, hits, that he basically sets into motion the inciting incident that, “I’ve got to get my act together,” because he says straight on to Cole. He says, “What do you want to leave when you’re gone?”
He’s asking that to Cole, but isn’t he also asking that of himself?
Jon: Yeah. It’s like him having to say it out loud for it to be real. There’s that confessional moment in the script too. You can think it, and think it, and think it, and we all do that. But, until you actually verbally say something, it doesn’t really land with ourselves. I definitely think that’s something that Billy is feeling right there.
He’s asking himself that, like, “What am I doing? What am I going to leave? What am I going to be remembered by? The crashes? Is that it?”
Scott: There was interesting bit of business where Cole goes online to look at his YouTube videos. He’s comparing number of views, and Billy’s got way more hits. Billy’s thought is that, in part, because he was living so close to the edge and so close to danger.
Jon: Yeah, because there’s legacy there. He’s a legend, there’s a big difference between fame and infamy, or legend. In any sport really. There’s basketball players like Michael Jordan, but there’s still all these new amazing basketball players, and everybody’s like, “Oh, my God. They’re amazing,” but there’s still never going to be another Michael Jordan. There’s never going to be another Wayne Gretzky. There’s never going to be another Tiger woods.
Jon: There’s always that one person that stands out and does things because they did it first. They didn’t follow anybody. They were the standard.
Scott: Using that kind of Jungian language, that legendary status is kind of a shadow hanging over him. He’s got to confront that, which is eventually what he does in the story, and in a very interesting way. Let me talk to you about that ending. I don’t want to give it away to people who haven’t read it, but you do a very interesting twist with Cole. That really surprised me.
Jon: It surprised a lot of people to the point where a lot of people kept asking, “Why? Why did that have to happen?”
Scott: I can understand why Cole would do it. I mean, I totally get why he would do it, so they’re asking it from the perspective of you as a screenwriter, why did you do that?
Jon: Honestly, I don’t know if I can completely remember exactly why I chose that moment to happen, but I think I wanted something so jarring that it not only jarred the audience, but it jarred Billy. Because he was ready to just give it up again and I needed him to be activated. I needed him to be activated to the point of no return.
You think he’s already got that halfway through the script, which normally, by screenwriting standards, you want that midpoint of “I’m not going to look back,” but I wanted that low point for him also to be this jolt forward like, “If I give up now, I’ll never forgive myself, and I’ll never be able to live tit down.”
Scott: That certainly contributes to that All Is Lost reversal at the end of Act Two.
Jon: Indeed it does.
Scott: Then you’ve got a very lyrical, poignant denouement with Maggie. How soon did that evolve, that you knew that that was where you were going to end the story?
Jon: I knew that ending before I knew the middle of the script. I’ve had this script compared to The Wrestler, and Crazy Heart, but with motorcycles. I’ve heard all these things. Remember, in The Wrestler, you don’t really see him land that rope dive? You just see him jump into the air and that’s it. I struggled for a long time before I wrote the ending, “Do you want to see him actually do this final jump? Is it that important?”
I kept asking myself, “Is that what’s it’s about?” It’s not about that. It’s about the intention. It’s about him learning what really matters in his life, and everybody else around him also learning that about themselves.
I just wanted that ending to leave you with this…You know that pit in your stomach that sense of longing, but happiness and sadness all in one? I really wanted to achieve that and I think I did. [laughs]
Scott: You provided a nice segue there into the business side of things. When this made the semifinals at the Nicholl, were you repped at that point, or no?
Jon: No. I didn’t know anything about how the business worked. I just was trying to write something small I could direct. Everybody always asks, “How did you get an agent?” It’s that same old chestnut which I don’t know how to answer. I was aware of screenplay competitions, but I had never once thought “I’m going to be a screenwriter.” It wasn’t really my goal. Like I said, I initially just wanted to write a small movie I could direct. But I didn’t know how I was going to raise the money. Then one day my wife comes home from work and says a coworker tells her about this screenplay competition called the Nicholl Fellowship done by the Academy Awards.
I looked into it but the deadline was in a month and at that time I literally had a first readable draft. I thought, “Maybe I’ll try to do a rewrite. Maybe I can get a rewrite in and fix some things that I felt were problematic in the script.”
I struggled, and tried to get it done, but maybe got halfway through the draft. I didn’t get it done. I went, “Ah, this sucks. I’m not going to do it.” But my wife tells me, “Whatever. It’s 50 bucks. Just enter it.” So I did and forgot about it. Then, some months later I started to get emails from the Nicholl saying my script had advanced.
I got to admit it was really exciting. It’s not that that I was looking for validation but, without a better term, it was validation that other people have read this and it’s connecting with them, so I was like, “OK, I think I’ve got something.”
Interview (Part 4): Jon Boyer
I didn’t really understand what it meant until they asked if I minded if they included my name