Celebrating the writer: Jonathan Perera
Jonathan Perera (pictured above) was honoured at the WGGB Awards for Miss Sloane, the first screenplay the former lawyer and teacher had ever written. In this special Q&A for the Writers’ Guild, the Malaysian-based, British writer talks to WGGB Film Committee member James Hughes about his incredible journey, which has seen him become an inspiration to screenwriters around the world.
What was your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer? And how long was the gap between that initial inclination to actually screenwriting with intent?
It all happened quite recently. I had no intention of being a writer until I was in my late 20s (I’m 34 now). I was bored out of my mind and utterly miserable at a big corporate law firm. I belonged there about as much as a vegan at a Brazilian rodízio. I never wanted to be a lawyer, but it’s one of the better-paid graduate jobs, and I had uni debts to pay.
Once the debts were cleared, I handed in my notice and quit the legal industry. Colleagues either thought I was out of my mind, or that I had a killer start-up idea. In truth, I only began to toy with the idea of screenwriting in the two months prior to my exit, when I was forced to confront the question that had been tormenting me for more than a decade: what do you want to do with your life?
The process was simple and binary. I made two mental lists:
LIST A: What are you interested in? (Long list!)
Cars, blah blah…
LIST B: What are you good at? (Considerably shorter list)
Umm… Pro Evo.
This isn’t helping.
(A little while later…)
Aha! Writing. Yes. I recall some teachers at parents’ evening telling my mum that I had a way with words.
Seriously, I had some awareness that I was good with language from an early age. When I was bored as a kid, I would write short stories or fake scouting reports for promising young footballers. I would never let anyone see them; I just did it for fun. Creative writing assignments were always my favourite at school. I was (and remain) hopelessly innumerate. I think all of the connections were sucked into the language centres of my brain.
Attempting to reconcile Lists A and B, I considered some form of journalism, but ruled it out: it lacks the strong creative element that I knew I would enjoy from my school days. Movies seemed like the perfect fit. I love movies, and I’m better at writing than anything else (Pro Evo and Champ Manager exempt). I should write movies!
That was it. I’d never even read a screenplay, but I decided I wanted to write movies for a living. From that moment onward, I went all in. I taught English in China and South Korea, using my free time to educate myself in the basics of screenwriting, and develop a script of my own. Three-and-a-half years later, Miss Sloane and I had been optioned by FilmNation, John Madden was attached to direct, Jessica Chastain to star, and I had reached a point where I needed to quit my job to work as a screenwriter full-time.
What films and screenplays have inspired you?
The first film that really blew me away was The Terminator. I think I saw it when I was five or six; we were passing around an illicit VHS tape at school. Another film to leave a huge impression early on was Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut, Duel. Strangely, both are based on similar premises: something indestructible and unstoppable coming to kill you for no good reason.
In high school, it was all about Tarantino: Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. I saw Memento at university and was so impressed by the complexity and ambition of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s body of work. I discovered foreign-language classics: City of God, Oldboy, Battle Royale.
With a list like that, you’re probably wondering where a verbose political thriller like Miss Sloane came from. But as I grew older, I watched a lot of The West Wing. I developed a great respect for Aaron Sorkin and Tony Gilroy. When a producer in Hollywood likened Miss Sloane to a hybrid of those two writers’ work, it was the greatest compliment I have ever received.
Once I started reading scripts, I enjoyed anything by Steven Knight. Dan Fogelman was always a joy to read. Early on in my writing education, I read Source Code by Ben Ripley, and it was so good, it was actually demoralising: how could I ever author something as ingenious at this?!
How did you study screenwriting? And what was the most enlightening aspect of that study period?
The bulk of my education consisted of reading and analysing other writers’ work. I read one book on screenwriting, which introduced me to the basic rules of structure, and simple devices such as setups and payoffs. I found that I was already aware of these principles, simply by watching movies – I just didn’t know the industry names for them.
The real enlightenment came from rigorous analysis of other scripts (preferably ones that had not been made, or that I hadn’t seen – there was a website that posted unproduced scripts online. It has since ceased to do so).
When a script was good, I was determined to figure out why it was good. I remember reading Crazy, Stupid, Love, sitting frozen in my apartment in Xuzhou, China. It was -18 degrees outside and there was a hole in the kitchen ceiling. The script made me forget all of that. One scene made me laugh out loud, which is rare for me. As soon as I laughed, I immediately re-read the scene and deconstructed it, to see how Dan Fogelman made me forget that I couldn’t feel my toes. Every time I read something good, I wanted to understand why it was good. On the contrary, when I read a script I didn’t enjoy, I would try to understand what was lacking, and how it could be improved.
Once I had a firm grasp of the basic tenets of screenwriting, my attention turned to figuring out what kind of story I wanted to tell.
Where did the inspiration for Miss Sloane come from?
I watch a lot of TV news. Or rather, TV news often drones on in the background as I go about my daily business. One day, there was a BBC HARDtalk interview with a man I had never heard of, Jack Abramoff. A high-powered lobbyist in D.C. who had recently been released from jail, he was discussing his career and his new book.
I was barely paying attention to begin with, but by the end of the interview, I was glued to the screen. I had some awareness of what lobbying entailed, but watching the interview made me realise that it could be an interesting subject to explore on-screen. It’s a secretive, poorly-understood industry, which wields huge influence over people’s lives.
I rushed to my laptop and hammered out some notes and ideas. I wanted to write something that was part political drama, part espionage thriller. I originally conceived it as a TV show, with flash-backs to Elizabeth [Sloane]’s Congressional hearing spanning the entirety of Season One.
The problem was that I had no real education in TV. I had been exclusively studying film, reading feature-length screenplays, and researching the inner workings of the film industry. So I decided to write it as a movie script, at least initially.
I then proceeded to the research phase. I ordered a copy of Jack Abramoff’s book, and learned as much as I could about the lobbying industry in America. Having a legal background definitely helped me to understand the world and the characters. But watching that HARDtalk interview set everything in motion.
Where were you when you received word that Miss Sloane, your first screenplay, had a financial offer from Hollywood?
I was in a hotel room in Bangkok, on winter vacation from my elementary school in Korea. I got an email out of the blue from my agent, saying that FilmNation had made an offer to option the script. I had taken a general meeting with FilmNation over Skype (from my classroom, in South Korea, with 10-year-olds waving in the background) a few weeks prior, but this wasn’t unusual – I was taking lots of generals at the time, as the script was going around town and producers wanted to know who I was.
The offer was completely unexpected. I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had representation. When I finished the script, I didn’t plan on showing it to anyone. It sat on my hard drive for months. I wanted to continue my education, write three or four more scripts, and then start cold-querying. I only decided to throw a few query emails out to talent managers when I saw an article in Variety that The Weinstein Company was planning to make a movie about gun legislation, with Meryl Streep in the lead. I knew if that movie got made, Miss Sloane would be dead on arrival. So I Google-stalked talent managers, got some email addresses, and cold-queried them. My manager, Scott Carr, requested the script, loved it, and became my first contact in LA. So already, that was a win in my book. I had no idea what was to come.
You worked exclusively throughout production as the film’s sole writer. How did the sold draft develop into the shooting script during this time? What was the most significant change?
Once John Madden was attached to direct, we met in London for a week, and then Skyped regularly when I was back in Korea. John had a very astute note about Elizabeth’s emotional state: in the draft that FilmNation optioned, Elizabeth had the appearance of emotional vulnerability, but once you reached the end, you realised that she was never actually conflicted at all: she was merely executing a plan. In other words, she was too far ahead of the game, and never really troubled.
John wanted her to experience a real emotional conflict, and we achieved that by developing and deepening her relationship with Esme. Elizabeth makes Esme the public face of her campaign, and then betrays her by outing her history on national TV. To Elizabeth, this is acceptable; it was done in service of their cause. She could not foresee the unintended consequence – that Esme’s life would be put in danger. The emotional impact of this, and the subsequent breakdown of their relationship, completely changed Elizabeth’s state of mind in Act III, and added a layer of emotional complexity and catharsis to the climax and denouement.
The protagonist of a movie is often used as the title, but in your instance, you opted for Miss Sloane rather than her full name. What was the thinking process behind this and did you receive any pressure from Hollywood to change the title?
The script was actually optioned by FilmNation as Ms. Sloane. The title seemed to fit, given how many times in the script she was referred to as ‘Ms. Sloane’ (especially in the Congressional hearing). My reps liked the title, because they felt it would help attract talent to play Elizabeth, which is one of the key factors in getting a movie financed.
Further down the line, John suggested that we go with Miss Sloane instead, because it sounds patronising, in line with the tenor of the Congressional hearing.
What advice would you bestow on other screenwriters based outside of the Hollywood studio system?
Firstly, technology is your friend. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to be a screenwriter, you needed to live in LA. Not anymore. In more than four years since I got representation, I have only been to LA three times (one of which was for the Miss Sloane premiere). In that time, I have been consistently busy with writing work. I am settled in Asia, and I have no plans to move. Also, from a research perspective, the internet is invaluable. I was a Brit, living in South Korea, writing about Washington politics. I’d never set foot in Washington! But the pool of research materials available online is so vast, many producers assumed the script was written by a D.C. insider. Anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can write a script set in any country, industry or time period.
Secondly, if you’re not tied down to LA, make the most of your mobility. Seek out new experiences. Try to live and work in as many different countries as you can. For the inquisitive or analytical mind, there is no better education than working abroad. Do as many different jobs as you can. I once heard it said that the spec market is flooded with rom-coms because most screenwriting graduates fresh out of uni have never had a serious job, so all they’re comfortable writing about is their failed relationships. It would have been harder to write Miss Sloane without the experience of working in corporate law.
At the Writers’ Guild Awards you won Best Screenplay for Miss Sloane, in a category filled with vastly experienced screenwriters. How did it feel when your very first screenplay was chosen above the work of your established peers?
The word that best describes the experience is ‘surreal’. Not just winning the award, but my entire first foray into the movie industry. I was leading this bizarre double life; taking general meetings over Skype with LA at 6am, developing the script with John Madden in the evening. Then, during the day, I would go off and teach five classes of elementary school kids, to whom John Madden and Jessica Chastain meant absolutely nothing. Amazing things were happening in different time zones, but it was business as usual in Busan. I was reading email updates and wondering whether it was all a paranoid delusion.
Winning the award in preference to such experienced writers was the final great surprise, in a process chock-full of surprises, all the way back to 31 May 2014: the day my manager responded to my cold-query. Above all, I am happy that some people enjoyed and appreciated my script, and the resulting movie.
Has the experience of Miss Sloane influenced how you now approach your screenwriting?
Yes, I think so. I was lucky enough to spend time on set and work with the actors. It was a wake-up call to view a scene from their perspective. When I was writing, I would tend to focus on the logic of a scene, and whether it was advancing both plot and character development. When approaching a scene, actors appreciate a better sense of context. I would often enter a scene in the middle of a conversation, and it threw some actors – they wanted to understand how the conversation reached that point, even if it wasn’t expressed on the page.
Rewriting the script for production was a lesson in efficiency. My tendency is to overwrite (as you may have noticed), so it was a good exercise in cutting verbiage, coming into the scene as late as possible, and getting out early. These are good principles to write by, but I sense that taking them to extremes can denude a scene of humour, originality, and voice. I think we found a good balance in the shooting script.
Can you tell us about what you are working on now?
I’m constantly busy with assignments, studio rewrites, and my own spec work. On the assignment front, I just finished work on a script detailing the monumental fight for compensation in the wake of the horrific Thalidomide tragedy in Britain. It’s an incredible true story, and I have high hopes that it will make it into production. I also recently sold a pitch to a studio for a World War II espionage thriller with a great actor attached to play the lead.
On the spec front, I’m developing a series bible for an original TV show set in Rio de Janeiro, which is set up with a production company in LA. I’m also developing an original, grounded, character-driven sci-fi feature with a brilliant young European director.
Watch a clip of Miss Sloane