My conversation with the writer of the winning script “Death of an Ortolan”.
Justin Piasecki wrote the original screenplay “Death of an Ortolan” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Justin about his background, his award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to him.
Today in Part 3, Justin details his creative process in coming up with a key character in the Protagonist’s Walter’s life — a death row prisoner named Reed. It is an intersection that will change both men’s lives:
Scott: We’re going to jump ahead to one of the inmates that he befriends, Reed. We’ll talk about him in just a second. That the same sort of empathy he has for the bird he projects onto Reed. It’s a similar sort of thing. It’s like the bird and Reed both are the death penalty. There’s a kind of savagery or brutality I think is the word you used earlier. Is there some sort of connectivity do you think between those two?
Justin: Sure. There’s certainly thematic parallels. Everything that’s done to the bird, describe that meal here, someone else will say savage. If you go to some places in France, they would say it’s delicious.
If you ask some people here, “What do you think of the death penalty?” They’ll say it’s savage. You go to another person next door that maybe has had somebody taken from them and they may say it’s just, or necessary. I try to respectfully acknowledge each of those.
Then there are the physical parallels. The recipe’s steps to prepare the bird: caught, caged, blinded, force fed, and ultimately killed. Those are all mirrored by the prisoner, and plausibly so, those steps all happen in our system, either through fate of prison life or actual policy.
In both cases, the challenge isn’t complication, the original Kobayashi Maru approach. The meal is not difficult in the same way it’s difficult to safely prepare a poison blowfish. It’s a challenging meal to make because it takes a certain turn off switch of consciousness to finish it.
Scott: It does. Let’s talk about this other primary character in this script, Reed, who’s one of four death row inmates who are transferred to this prison.
The way that Walter’s got this chief kitchen officer gig at this prison that’s pretty white collar crime type…but then there’s an incident that happens at another prison which requires them to transfer four death row inmates there, which is really almost like a call to adventure. How would you describe Reed and his circumstances at the beginning of the movie?
Justin: Jeffrey Reed is a death row prisoner who was partially blinded in prison, a bit of a psych case, and when he’s transferred to Walter’s facility the chef discovers he’s refusing to eat.
Scott: I really like the way that you track that arc. Reed is a character who is the one that’s most tied to Walter’s emotional and psychological transformation. They start off in this conflictual manner where basically Reed is complaining about or critiquing Walter’s cooking, which he really gets upset about, Walter does.
But we find out that’s a ruse, that essentially why he’s saying that he’s not going to eat this food is because he’s going on a hunger strike. The reason he’s going on a hunger strike is to try and elevate his situation, get somebody’s attention, because he contends that he’s innocent of the crime that he was convicted and sentenced to death. Then that sets into this central mystery once Walter gets into that sphere of influence. Is Reed guilty of murder or not?
How soon along in the process did you come up with that idea, that you wanted Walter to get involved with a prisoner who may or may not be guilty and in effect put Walter on this path of I guess it’s almost like an investigation, a clue gathering thing? How soon in the process of crafting the story did you come up with that idea?
Justin: I always knew he’d be looking into the case, but I wanted to stick with his expertise. I wanted to keep his battle in the culinary arena. What’s the most challenging thing for somebody that makes food and not just for the love cooking but hunger issues seeded in his own backstory. A hunger strike was truly the antithesis of everything he knew, and would make for a very great, but also very personal challenge.
Scott: Because he himself, Walter, as a youth because of this condition, circumstance in his life, he knows what hunger is like, like really powerful hunger.
Scott: Walter has this powerful arc. He starts off very isolated in his life and living…In many ways, this is going to be a strange association, but he reminds me of Rick in Casablanca. He’s become this kind of closed off guy. He doesn’t want to do anything with anybody else. He’s gotten out of touch with his original…For Rick, it was more of a political idealism. For your guy, it was the joy of cooking.
I’m reminded of Joseph Campbell who says that the point of the hero’s journey, it’s not a journey of attainment, it’s a journey or re‑attainment, that Walter becomes in a sense revivified through this experience of getting to know Reed, of his exploration and investigation. He’s kind of drawn back and pulled into life. Isn’t that a fair assessment of his arc?
Justin: Yeah. The challenge was how to reintroduce food to him. That was a rotating door of first act tries. I needed to figure out how do you put this guy in front of death row meals as a new experience for him. This is something that reignites him.
Scott: You have an interesting set of ticking clocks going on in the story because there are these four prisoner and some of them get executed. So Walter does have to do these last meals for them. Each one of them is almost like a chapter heading in his progression of becoming more and more connected to what’s going on here, potentially particularly for Reed. It’s quite a fascinating arc that he goes through and very nicely done and handled there.
There’s a couple of other relationships I want to talk about real quickly. One is the young black inmate Vince who himself aspires to be a great chef. That actually reminded me a bit of the Andy Tommy relationship in “Shawshank Redemption” where Andy was teaching Tommy so he could get the high equivalency. This is like that father son type of a relationship in a way.
Justin: Yeah. This kind of a begrudging father dynamic, like, “Oh shit, I have a kid.” He doesn’t want to help Vince at the beginning of it, probably because that enthusiasm for food reminds him of himself at one point which is the last thing he wants to be reminded of.
That was actually a spin-off from that rotating 1st Act door, spin one if you will, which was to make the inmate that he really forms a relationship also be a surrogate foodie. I decided that they’re just two separate relationships that he’s going to have.
Here is a script reading from “Death of an Ortolan”:
Tomorrow in Part 4, Justin and I do a deep dive into some of the key creative decisions he made in writing “Death of an Ortolan”.
For Part 1, go here.
Part 2, here.
Justin is repped by CAA and Zero Gravity Management.
Interview (Part 3): Justin Piasecki (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.Interview (Part 3): Justin Piasecki (2016 Nicholl Winner)