Exclusive Interview: Writer Chris Galletta on Sundance 2013 Film 'Toy's House'
For those of us who can remember life before we were plugged into technology, we may remember a time when we had nothing better to do but disappear into a forest with our buddies and wreak havoc out of the eyesight and earshot of the grown-up world. Those days, however, have come to pass. Now that Sundance 2013 has also come to pass, so too shall our series of interviews with screenwriters of feature films from this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. For our final interview, we present our conversation with Toy’s House screenwriter Chris Galletta, who describes the influence of Amblin Entertainment movies on his first produced feature-length screenplay, the waiting game to find the right director for the project, and the decision to stop trying to write like the next Charlie Kaufman and start writing what he knows.
Toy’s House, which originally appeared on the 2009 Black List, is Chris Galletta’s first produced feature-length screenplay. Receiving strong reviews at Sundance, Toy’s House was acquired at Sundance by CBS Films for North American distribution and QED International for international distribution.
This interview was conducted via phone during the Sundance Film Festival and has been edited for clarity.
Looking at the schedule, Toy’s House premiered at Sundance last night [Sat. Jan. 19]. How did that go?
You know, for me, it went amazingly. I have a very different perspective than most people because I’m really close to the project, obviously. You go through the entire process of writing the thing, which took me about 18 months. Production was another 2 months. All told, you’re talking about years of work. Because, not unlike other writers, I’m a little neurotic, I can only really think about what’s not up there [on-screen], ways that it could have been better. I’m being really hard on it, criticizing [my work] all the way through. Then suddenly it screens, and people are laughing and having a great time. It was a very boisterous reception, people were clapping, and I suddenly went, “This is a movie.” Which is a pinch-yourself kind of moment. It was the culmination of a lot of work, but it suddenly made everything well worth it, which is a great feeling.
Give us a quick summary of the story that takes place in Toy’s House.
Toy’s House is about three teenagers who grow tired of living with their parents. They feel they are being controlled, manipulated, suffocated–it’s a comedy, so it’s nothing too heavy. They decide to run away, build a house in the forest, and do this Thoreau-thing of being their own men. Obviously, it goes haywire because they’re a bunch of dumb kids that don’t know what to do. We’re trying to harken back to some of those Amblin movies that the director and I grew up loving like The Goonies and E.T., and things that have some of that atmosphere of being a kid in the woods in the ’80s and early ’90s. The story struck a chord with me, and hopefully it will strike a chord with people like me because I remember what it was like. I’m 31, and I remember what it was like to grow up not being plugged into anything, so it’s going to be interesting to watch modern teenagers not f***ing around with iPads and stuff for the duration of a feature film. I think there’s a chance that people from my generation will like it even more than teenagers, just to be like, “Aw, man, I remember that, I remember going to the woods and causing trouble.”
Does the movie take place back in the ’80s or ’90s or does it take place in present day?
It takes place in present day, but it was inspired by my time growing up in the early ’90s. We had to come up with creative ways to disconnect [the characters from technology] because that’s the thing in movies now. So many movies that we love from our childhoods would be so different with the way communication is handled these days. I got some really good notes from our producers on ways to handle this idea of disconnecting them because it was something I wasn’t dealing with in early drafts because I thought people would take it on faith. But the producers said, “No, you have to understand, everybody is plugged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s a conscious effort to not be plugged in.” And that’s something that I hope we reflect more in the movie now, to treat everything about the people as realistically as we can so that the audience will go along with this crazy plan.
Where did you specifically get the idea for this story?
It’s a hodgepodge of things. First of all, I was in film school at the time, and I needed to finish a screenplay or else I wasn’t going to graduate [laughs]. The other thing is that I had been struggling for years to write something that was like Charlie Kaufman, but my attempts to do it were bullsh*t. This idea of like, “I’m gonna have this story with all these rules and it’s gonna be this big puzzle and it’s a game, and it will be like The Truman Show and these Charlie Kaufman movies where you’re sticking to an idea very closely.” I guess high concept would be a way to describe it, but it’s even more than that. It’s more of a rubric of a movie, like the way Inception is. I love that stuff, I love to watch it, I just have a hard time writing it. So the second piece of the puzzle was, I need to do something simple, otherwise I’m never going to finish. I’m sure a lot of writers can relate to the idea of writing like a madman for a weekend and you have this great first act, and then you just put it away because it becomes insurmountable, you bit off more than you can chew. I wanted to do a smaller story so I could finish the thing.
The third thing was the ol’ “write what you know” idea, what environment am I most familiar with? I grew up on Staten Island and spent a lot of time in the woods, and I was pretty active and met a lot of weird families and weird people because it’s a pretty weird place. I thought, I love nostalgia movies, the way E.T. and The Goonies and movies like them make you feel. They make you feel that nostalgia, but not in a dirty way where they’re manipulating it or where you have to feel ashamed of it because they’re really good movies. The filmmakers obviously have reverence for that time [of childhood].
I looked back to some experiences growing up, and I remembered how much fun I used to have at my friend’s house during the summer when we were like 13, 14. His parents were divorced, and his mom, who he lived with, worked full-time. So, from 9 to 5, we had the run of this house. I thought it would be very funny to literalize the idea of a bunch of inept teenage kids being heads of the household. I thought that was a simple enough idea that people could wrap their heads around enough that it could be a movie. Finally, I thought this is something that I could finish because it’s a very intimate story, and I’m not dealing with all these rules and all these characters and high concepts, and I’m not world-building, which was something I had aspired to do earlier, and I still do. But I was just never finishing. And I still have never finished one of those scripts [laughs]. I have all these wannabe masterpieces in the drawer, but I’ve only finished a couple of scripts and they’ve all been stories about characters who change in ways that are relatable to people.
When did you write the first draft of Toy’s House?
I was working at the David Letterman show at the time when I started writing it, and I had a full-time job. So I probably spent eight months as a weekend warrior, just spinning wheels, writing a couple of pages a week. And then I started to realize I could really finish this thing and that I wasn’t going to be able to finish it with a full-time job. So I ended up quitting the job and taking the gamble and finishing the script. I was lucky enough to get an agent, and then from there we were able to get it to this company Big Beach and then it got produced. So it was a stroke of good luck, but the whole process of writing the thing between the time I started it and finished it was about 18 months. But if I hadn’t been working full-time, I bet I could’ve finished it in maybe six months.
This script appeared on The Black List back in 2009 and went into production during the summer of 2012. What was that journey between getting on The Black List to finally getting this project in front of the camera?
It was a bit of a waiting game, and I got nervous a lot. Basically, right around the same week The Black List came out, Big Beach bought the script. That was also the same month I wound up getting an agent, so everything happened really fast. The plan was to shoot it the very next summer, the summer of 2010. But we had a hard time, well, not that we had a hard time attaching a director, but we were trying to be choosy. I mean, I’m not a production executive, so I don’t know the total nuts and bolts of the whole thing, but the thinking seems to have been to try to take down these couple of white whale directors if they were available or hear out people who had not made a feature yet but had a lot of passion and had a lot of talent. And we wound up with Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who found us and pitched us, which is always a great thing to feel wanted instead of running around trying to land any number of top one percent directors who are busy until 2019.
It was great when Jordan came along, we were ready to shoot in 2011, and then we wound up going out and looking for co-financing because I think Big Beach wanted to spend a little bit more money to make the movie a little bit more, I don’t know, legitimate looking, I guess. I mean, you want to spend a little bit more because you want to do justice to the fact that you do need some imagery and you do need some scale and you do need to make these woods look a little bit mythic for the movie to work. Then Big Beach teamed up with Low Spark Films, which is based out of Ohio. Shortly thereafter, we got Nick Offerman, which was amazing. The entire cast fell into place within weeks of Nick Offerman signing on. It’s really about attaching things: attaching co-financing, attaching directors, attaching cast. That can take ten years, that can take three months, you never know. I consider us pretty average. I have a lot of friends who are wallowing in much worse development situations than I did. I don’t really know of many times where it’s been, the script is bought and produced within that calendar year.
You said Jordan Vogt-Roberts reached out and pitched the production. How did he find you and what was it about his pitch that made the production team decide he was the person to direct this film?
Well, it wasn’t my call obviously, but Big Beach is great to their filmmakers and they did let me get involved and they kept me in the conversation constantly. I think if I ever felt really strongly about anything, it would be seriously considered because they do love the script and we have a great working relationship. I did all my revisions in their office. Big Beach became a sort of professional family to me. They were very open about who they were thinking about for directors and cast. Jordan might have gotten the script from his agent, or he might have come across it from a friend because it was on the Black List, so a lot of people were passing it around, I guess. That’s what happens with Black List scripts that aren’t totally locked down, they get passed around. Essentially, Jordan did find it and read it. We’re around the same age, he’s a couple of years younger than me. I think it connected with him the way the idea originally sparked with me, just remembering what it was like being a kid and having this option of this rustic, fake viking man existence and just wanting to go through the woods and do bad sh*t until you don’t have any excuse to do that anymore.
Jordan made this amazing lookbook, he put together a ton of imagery and a ton of storyboards, he made a short film starring some unknown high school kids. He attacked this thing with a fervor that I don’t think anybody else had attacked it with, and they took him very seriously. Then he wound up making a rip/tone reel, a trailer for our movie comprised of movies with similar themes and tones, and it was incredible. As soon as we saw this thing, we said, well, this is the guy. I still watch that rip/tone reel sometimes, and I get chills. It’s very, very good.
Once you decide to write a story, what steps do you take to eventually get to a draft of the screenplay?
I’ve got two scripts, one was Toy’s House, and another one is a studio script. I sold a pitch to New Line Cinema, and then I was commissioned to write it. So they’re two really different things. Writing a spec script, obviously you have to be self-motivated. I would write thirty pages and then hate the thing, and I said, something’s gotta give or I’m never gonna finish any work this way. So I adopted a much more disciplined approach, almost like someone dieting where you just say, I have to make small incremental changes. I just said, I’m gonna try to write a page or two a day. If you write two a day for a month, you have a lot of pages. Just like if you workout five nights a week, you’re gonna lose weight.
I didn’t outline. I don’t enjoy outlining that much. I think some of the fun of comedy is surprise. For Toy’s House, instead of outlining, I started writing scene after scene after scene, just interactions, and whatever interactions seemed funny, I would build on those. It took me a long time to finish the script because I sequenced the movie after I wrote all the scenes. It was a very vignette-driven script. I probably had three hours of Toy’s House material, and eventually you start to carve away the stone, and wind up with a final draft of about 110 pages. It was pretty loose, it’s full of dialogue and there’s not a lot of plot stuff. I was insecure about that, but then I started looking at Judd Apatow movies and Adam McKay movies, and they were very dialogue-driven and sketch-driven and vignette-y also. And I just kind of went, you know, this is funny and if the audience likes the people, then I don’t think anybody is going to dock me too much for a lack of more conventional plot mechanics. And I think Jordan agrees. Jordan encouraged me and encouraged the parts of the movie that were more vignette-y and looser and more astructural, and that is always a great feeling when the stuff that you’re insecure about or that you’re scared about winds up actually being the stuff that attracted the director to it.
With a studio script, it’s different because you have a three-month deadline, so I did extensive outlining for that because I was panicked that I would never write anything that fast. I had to outline extensively so that I could finish my job on time. I just couldn’t mess around. I had a lot of fun outlining it, the rewrite was a lot of fun and I collaborated with the director a lot, we tried to crack each other up. It all happened much faster because you’re on deadline, you’re on contract. I personally would never want to be known as a writer who didn’t hand in his work on time. You can always buy yourself a couple of days or a week for something if you feel strongly and you’re not ready because they are sensitive to how vulnerable it makes you feel to hand something in that you don’t feel represents your best stuff. But you don’t want to be a guy who is a month over or two or three months over, which is not uncommon. I’ve heard of guys being a year over.
What was the most challenging scene or sequence of Toy’s House to write, and how did you solve that problem?
When you’re screenwriting, you have to deal with what the character wants, and that drives the plot, and you have to deal with what the character needs, and that drives the growth and the change of the character. It was hard for me to separate those two things without giving the kid an unhappy ending because he wants his independence and to be in the forest, but I think so much of independence and self-reliance can and often does steer people toward a path of loneliness. You can become a very lonely person if you put too much stake in those values. I wanted to make sure that, while my character does become more self-reliant and more of a man than when he started out, I also wanted him to confront relationships as opposed to running away from them. It was tricky to balance both of those things. It was tricky to have our cake and eat it too, where I say, I want this kid to learn things, I want him to become his own man, I do want him to be independent, but at the same time, I want him to recognize that the answer does not lie in running away from the real world. It was hard to do that, and I hope we did it. That will be up to you guys, the audience, to decide.
We would like to thank Chris Galletta for his time and generosity, especially during his busy schedule at Sundance. We would also like to thank George Nicholis of PMK-BNC for arranging this interview.
Be sure to check out our complete series of interviews with screenwriters from the Sundance Film Festival 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Have you delved into your past to write a compelling story for an audience today? How did you reshape your personal experiences to put together a story that would resonate with an audience? Share with us in the Comments.