He has written the screenplay for the upcoming action-adventure film The Huntsman, and the live-action fantasy film Beauty and the Beast. He’s also known for writing Hercules, Jungle Book 2, and Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure. How honored and excited was I to interview Greek-American Screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos? Incredibly honored, to say the least. Evan shares with us his favorite aspects of the film process, working with a dream cast, such as that of The Huntsman, and what it’s like to bring animated characters into real, tangible people.
Can you share with me a bit about when you first knew you wanted to be in the film industry? I know you studied Film Theory, what inspired this?
When I was three years old, growing up in Greece, my parents took me to see the animated film Asterix the Gaul. Other kids cry or make noise during the movie. I was completely silent, watching everything unfolding on the big screen. Then when the movie ended, I started crying because I wanted to see more. I was so loud that the theater owner gave me some lobby cards from the movie to shut me up. That’s when I probably caught the film bug.
When I finished High School in Greece, I came to the US to study. I knew I wanted to get into film but my family feared it was not a serious occupation. So when I was accepted into the University Delaware, I majored into Political Science… then switched my major to Film Theory after the first semester. I felt Film Theory provided me with a foundation; a knowledge of the history of the art form and its evolution through the years. It also exposed me to classic and foreign language films.
Share with me how you first started out as a writer and what those first few years were like for you.
I moved to Los Angeles the summer of ’95. I had by that time written a portfolio of ten screenplays and had won some awards but I did not know a soul in the business. I was fortunate to take a seminar called Flash Forward on my first month. Among the advice the seminar offered was approaching established people in the business and asking them to become our mentor.
Among my mentors was the producer Michael Manheim who offered me a job as an intern on a TV film called Trial By Fire. That experience gave me a better understanding how films came together on set. I got along with the line producer who knew a company called Mahagonny Pictures that had just signed a deal to make million dollar movies for the Sci-Fi Channel and needed writers. He passed on my work as samples, they liked my style and hired me. I made two low low budget films with them, then did not work for four years. That period was the worst — self-doubt, dwindling finances, constant rejection.
Then in the summer of 2000, Disney hired me as a staff writer, again based on a writing sample. And from then I began to build my career.
If I may say…I LOVED the Heffalump movies…yes I did! Tell me about writing all of these fantastic children’s stories. You’ve worked on so many great ones! And then, you moved into different genres after, starting with Hercules.
Thank you, the Pooh’s Heffalump Movie was one of my favorites. Writing for Disney was the best training a screenwriter could have. Being on staff means working constantly, pitching to executives, creating stories, rewriting the other staff writers. I compare it to a factory in terms of the structure and discipline we developed. The scripts themselves are no different than live action films. In animation, you are only restricted by your imagination whereas in live action you are beholden to a budget – but in terms of characters and plotting, they are the same. Audiences, be they adult or juvenile are looking for a good story.
What’s the writing process like for you? Can you share with up and coming writers more about your process of writing screenplays? Maybe even share some of your favorite aspects of the process from start to finish…being seeing your work on the big screen.
There are two formats. One is coming up with an original idea, the other is rewriting a prior writer’s screenplay. In the former, anything might inspire you. A person you meet with a unique character, a piece of music, an image, a sentence someone spoke. I like creating a detailed beat sheet, a roadmap through the screenplay. I find it helps avoid writers’ block. I also love writing to specific actors because it helps with the sound and tone of dialogue and building character.
Rewriting another’s work, as with Hercules means taking the elements that you most like about the previous screenplay, then addressing issues and points where story and character could be stronger by creating your own scenes and dialogue. This is tricky and difficult as your work and the work of the original writer must blend seamlessly.
One of my favorite parts of the process is the round table script reading. You get to hear your words spoken by your cast and brought to life. Can be quite emotional.
Of course the reward of seeing your name in big letters on the big screen in a completed film is inspiring and renews your motivation. It is a form of validation.
Evan, I’m so excited…you have some incredible films coming up…let’s start with The Huntsman! What can you share about writing it, and about the film? How did you get involved in writing the screenplay?
I had written the greenlit draft of Snow White and the Huntsman so I knew the world and the characters inside and out. I was first approached to develop a spin-off involving the character of Eric, the Huntsman, in the summer of 2013. Three ideas immediately came to mind: developing Eric’s past and showing what happened to Sara, his wife; bringing Charlize Theron’s terrific Ravenna character back; and creating a new villain. Also I wanted this film to be lighter in tone and demonstrate more humor than “Snow White.” I am enormously proud of the results. The cast is a dream, with Hemsworth and Theron returning, and Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt as new faces. I think director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is a major talent.
Of course I have to ask the same for Beauty and The Beast! I’m so incredibly thrilled about this one as well. Same thing, how did this come to fruition for you and what has the process of writing it been like? Can you also explain how it’s been different?
The biggest difference is that while The Huntsman was built from the ground up, Beauty is a faithful retelling of the animated film but expanded, re-envisioned for live action and with some new characters, new songs and fresh twists. I was brought in having worked with Disney in animation for eight years but also familiar with big live action movies. So I was a good choice to bridge the two forms of storytelling. My main direction, other than the points I mentioned above, was really bringing the animated characters, their demeanor and their motivations into the live action world and make them real people. Beauty is going to be massive. Director Bill Condon has made a film that transcends the musical genre.
Over the past few years you have also ventured into producing films, such as Bereave which is how I connected with you. How did producing come about for you and will we be seeing more producing from you as well?
I have been involved in producing three shorts because I believed in the material. Bereave was the first feature length project with which I helped. I was brought in by the brilliant actress-singer Elena Charbila. I liked the creators, the Giovanni Brothers, but I admit to also have been lured by the presence of Malcolm McDowell and Jane Seymour, both of whom are simply astonishing in this. I probably will be delving more and more into producing, but writing is my calling.
I know I’ve already given away part of the answer to this question, but what are you currently working on and what’s to come in the future?
There are projects in various stages of development. I am working on a live-action version of The Nutcracker for Universal as well as a confidential project at Sony but it is too soon to tell.
Don’t miss The Huntsman, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, scheduled to be released on April 22, 2016 by Universal Pictures. Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon, is scheduled to be released on March 17, 2017 by Walt Disney Pictures.
Thank you so much for your time, Evan!