April 20, 2018
Emily Carmichael On Making Blockbusters That Matter
We chat with the action-adventure writer/director about living the Hollywood dream with integrity.
I had a blast with this chat with Emily Carmichael. She is as much a fountain of wit, humor, and intelligence as her body of work would suggest.
Her short films RPG OKC , The Hunter and the Swan Discuss Their Meeting, and Stryka are all full of heart and deeply entertaining. Carmichael has also won awards for her animated series of shorts called The Adventures of Ledo and Ix.
Look, let me not be impersonal about this. I love Stryka. She gives us a world populated by humans and aliens, and through wit and humor and earnest character work, leaves us with something we should give a damn about for longer than the length of that movie.
It’s an aces short film, and I definitely recommend you check it out.
What’s she up to these days? Everything.
She co-wrote Pacific Rim: Uprising. She’s currently working on the script for Jurassic World 3 with Colin Trevorrow. Carmichael is also currently writing the script for Joseph Kosinski’s remake of The Black Hole. He’s the director behind one of my recent favorites, Oblivion. The idea of Carmichael and Kosinski teaming up to reboot The Black Hole is very exciting. Well, read the chat. You’ll see my real-time reaction to that news.
Oh. And, Steven Spielberg and Colin Trevorrow have agreed to produce her feature-length directorial debut, Powerhouse.
Our conversation ranges from writing advice to practical solutions to fighting for representation in film. While you should read this entire chat, there’s one point I want to bring up to the front. These words resonated with me, and I hope you’ll see their importance as well.
“Anybody that hires only white men has a policy of hiring only white men and should not be seen as having done that by accident.”
When we talk about practical solutions to the representation in cinema, like inclusion riders and other things, keep in mind that this doesn’t happen by accident. When you make something, have a conversation with your creative team. Remind them of your policy for diversity. Make sure they are on the same page.
As she says in the interview, these conversations are made to feel scary by design. Be brave. Call out your concerns. And keep in mind that the community of like-minded individuals is standing behind you every step of the way.
A Conversation With Emily Carmichael
William: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I really appreciate it.
Emily: I’m really excited to be talking to you! Film School Rejects gave a great review of my short film RPG OKC.
William: Yeah we did! I just watched Stryka, and it’s so good!
Emily: I’m so glad!
William: For the past year at Film School Rejects, I’ve been interviewing indie filmmakers at various stages of their career. What I’ve learned is that thing we all know. Success isn’t born in a day. So, what’s your success story? How do you wind up writing blockbusters and making your own movie with Amblin Entertainment?
Emily: Well, for me, I’ve been really interested in storytelling basically all my life. As a kid, I was really into drawing and sculpting. I got into writing in fourth grade when I read a short story about time traveling pilgrims to my fourth-grade class, and they cracked up. Their laughter was addictive. I was like, “Holy shit. I need more of that. All the time.”
When it comes to writing, I’ve always been interested in writing things that are funny, accessible, that engage an audience. I love seeing my films in a room full of people because I love hearing the audience’s reaction.
Then I started doing cartoons. It was a way to put together visual art and writing. In college, I wrote a play. There was nobody around to direct my play. So, I directed the play myself.
It was really like that scene in The Force Awakens when Rey uses the force on Daniel Craig. You realize that in some way, you don’t know or understand how, but her whole life has been preparing for this moment. She knows how to do it. But, she doesn’t know how she knows.
That’s really the way I felt when I directed my first play. Something about being a writer for as long as I have has trained me to be a director. Somehow, the tools as I needed for a writer, that I was longing to have as a writer, are tools that I can only access as a director.
I think of writing and directing as intermeshed or interconnected. Even though I’ve had a wonderful time pitching other people’s scripts – and I have discovered that that is something I like to do – I want to direct.
I was one of the directors who pitched to direct Cowboy Ninja Viking. That is a project that is very dear to my heart. I was really rooting for it. Now, I’m excited to watch it.
That was a huge experience. Pitching on a lot of different movies, pitching to direct the work of other writers. I also love writing things for other directors. I’m writing Jurassic World 3 with Colin Trevorrow for him to direct. And I’m writing The Black Hole for Joe Kosinski to direct.
William: Whoa! I didn’t know that.
Emily: Yes! You didn’t know that? It’s super exciting! I’m actually working on it right now. Are you a fan of the original?
William: Yes. Fuck yes! That’s awesome.
Emily: I’m having such a good time writing it. I’m so excited about this project. I’m doing the robots, Vincent and Bob, today. Right now, on my computer. I think you’ll like the new rendition of Bob.
William: Excellent. I’m very excited right now. Sorry. I didn’t know about that project, and you blew my mind. I apologize for interrupting your flow.
Emily: I’m so happy to meet another fan of the movie.
William: There are so few people who name check that movie. I suppose that’s sort of what pitching on other directors’ scripts buys you, right? A chance to touch a lot of different genres and ideas.
Emily: For sure. It’s certainly faster to pitch on somebody else’s script than it is to write your own.
William: Do you have a different creative process when you’re working on other people’s ideas versus bringing forth your own?
Emily: Yeah. It’s definitely case by case. In the case of Jurassic World, Colin and I are going to be writing together. He will have all the input he needs to have in the moment as we work. In the case of Black Hole, I’m writing it. At some point, I’ll hand it off. Then, Joe will make it into the movie that he wants it to be. There are two different processes. I’m actually starting work on Jurassic on Thursday.
William: That’s so cool! What a sentence to be able to say. Well, let’s keep talking collaboration. What is it like to contribute your words at a beginning stage, then watch what surely feels like your baby at that point, go away, and then be made into a different thing? Is that a strange process, or do you put your words out there and then you’re over it?
Emily: For Pacific Rim: Uprising, there was a moment relatively early on when I just sort of had a sense for the first time of how much of a collaborative effort it was. I do remember that that felt a bit dizzying. And a little bit shocking. I think I’m much more used to it now. I really enjoy celebrating Pacific Rim. I have no hurt feelings about the fact that the particular script I wrote isn’t the script that they shot.
William: So, here’s my thing with Pacific Rim. Some of the elements of the story, I really gravitated to. Like, Charlie Day’s character. Especially his evolution as all the stuff that comes to light with Alice. It’s funny to me because I felt like a dummy afterward. As soon as the Alice reveal comes, I feel like I should see the plot twist coming. But, I didn’t. At all.
Emily: I am so happy that you brought that up. One of the big lessons that I’m learning at this stage of my professional life is the lesson of clarity, and how to write things that are clear. In the case of important plot points, how to write things that are 100% clear so that 100% of the audience knows what’s going on.
The thing about clarity is that it’s often hard for us to judge what people will understand and what they will conclude. So, a great example of that is that some people in the creative process were absolutely convinced that everybody would know what the plot twist was as soon as they saw the Alice scene. In fact, I was one of those people. I remember that it seemed impossible to me, at the time, that anyone in the audience could see that scene and not immediately see the twist coming. But the fact of the matter is, almost nobody sees it coming.
William: That’s so wild. And, also, me!
Emily: I think one of the reason’s the twist is so effective, is that Steven directed all the scenes as if the twist wasn’t coming. And then it comes. You don’t feel the movie subtly foreshadowing that point; even though, when you look back at what happened, it made sense that the twist came. I think that’s cool.
William: Speaking of Charlie Day and Pacific Rim. I saw a red-carpet interview where he gave an answer to a question about how he sees his role in the film and his relationships with other people. He described Herman and Newton as more than buds. They’re guys who have genuine real romantic affection for each other. From your perspective, what’s it like to see actors take on this interpretation of your material?
Emily: I feel like it is a rich and accurate depiction of a true fact about the characters, that they’re romantically in love with each other.
William: Does that make your heart sing a little bit? When you see an actor embrace that choice?
Emily: I’m overjoyed that that relationship resonates for people. I’m totally pumped and psyched about Charlie’s embracing the queer romance between those characters.
William: One of the indie filmmakers that I talked with was Ingrid Jungermann. She made-
Emily: Oh yeah!
William: Have you see her Women Who Kill?
Emily: I haven’t, but I know all about her, and I’m so psyched to see that movie.
William: If you even have an inkling that it might be up your alley, definitely put it to the top of your queue, because it is worth a look. Well, let me not make it specific to her. We talk a lot about representation in movies today. Expanding the demographic of people that can see themselves on the big screen. What do you see as cinema’s role in increasing representation? And, what do you see as your own ability or interest in helping bring that to the foreground?
Emily: That’s a great question. There should be romantic diversity in cinema. There should be opposite-sex relationships and same-sex relationships. We should have people of all genders. We should have non-binary characters in cinema. Especially when we’re talking about blockbusters. They’re for everybody to see and for everybody to enjoy, which means everybody should be represented in them. There should be a real diversity of your characters when you’re making a film that you want everybody to see.
We’re operating under pressure. We’re operating in a system that is going to tend to shift everything in a white direction, and everything in a male direction. There’s that sense that sexuality gets bounced down in the queue.
I’m definitely suggesting non-binary actors for roles in Black Hole, which I think should totally be done by a non-binary actor. I think that would make perfect sense. There are a lot of roles that could be filled by non-binary actors, right? The same way that there are a lot of roles that can be filled by women.
You’ve kind of got to suggest stuff and bug people. Sometimes, it feels embarrassing. And sometimes it feels like you’re going to get in trouble by being the person that’s like, “I think this is sexist, and the female character should do more.” Or, “I think this movie should have more female characters in it.” Or, “I think it’s time to have this romance be a same-sex romance.” Doing all that stuff can be really scary, but also sometimes you have a wonderful surprise. Sometimes the executive will be like, “That’s a great idea! We haven’t thought of it. Let’s do it!” That’s really gratifying.
William: It’s so scary though. Right?
Emily: It’s really scary.
William: I’m a straight white dude. So, I recognize that even in those conversations, it’s just flat out easier for me to say what I think in that moment. But, I’m still scared in those moments. I guess I’m just thinking out loud. I don’t know how we change that conversation. How do we make it easier to feel like it’s an easier thing to do or a less scary thing to do?
Emily: The more we do it, the less scary it’ll be. But, remember. Sometimes, we forget that racism and sexism aren’t happening by accident. They might not be happening as the result of an overarching diabolical plan, but the people around you are making choices that support racism and sexism. If you have a different agenda and don’t want to live in a system of racism and sexism, you will be in opposition with people. People will disagree with you. People will criticize you. People will try to embarrass you. Sometimes people will try to embarrass you because they themselves are embarrassed.
I guess what I would say is that if you are somebody, and you are arguing for fair representation in a work of fiction, and you’re shy about it, and you’re embarrassed and you’re worried that you’re going to get in trouble, and you’re worried if you’re going to do a good job of suggesting that, my heart is with you. My heart is with you in that moment.
Just think about all the people who are cheering you on in that moment. We’re cheering you on even if you don’t pick the right words or your voice kind of squeaks. We’re cheering you on.
William: I like that a lot. That’s kind of a cool thing about art, right? The conversation is sort of circular in that way. The more that people see those successes happen on screen, the more comfortable somebody gets with, say, Charlie Day going on the red carpet and declaring his characters love for Herman. That dynamic makes it way more interesting. You get better movies. Maybe the next person that comes along realizes that that’s not so scary.
Emily: Yeah. Yeah, but it’s no accident that it’s scary. The system we have has continued for as long as it has because it’s scary to divide them.
William: Oh, I definitely agree.
Emily: But, Hollywood! We can change the world tomorrow if we all work together. Right now, I’m feeling optimistic that we’re going to have more in representation in our movies.
William: From your perspective then as a filmmaker, what are the practical choices that we can make in everyday life as filmmakers to help realize that change?
Emily: I think it’s good to have a conversation with your team at the start, and for everybody to talk out loud about their commitment to fair hiring. Have the conversation out in the open, so you know that people are on the same page as you. If people aren’t, you will know that as well. Once I get to the phase where the project is starting to be real, and we’re hiring people, then I sort of remind people, “Let’s remember that we’re not going to have a policy of hiring only men. We’re not going to have a policy of hiring only white people. Neither of those are our policy.”
If you don’t have a policy of hiring only men and white people, you will not hire only men and white people. That is the way that the world knows that that wasn’t your policy. Anybody that hires only white men has a policy of hiring only white men and should not be seen as having done that by accident.
William: Yes! Well, let’s pivot slightly. What about Powerhouse? What stage is that at right now?
Emily: We’re in the middle of some very exciting conversation. I’m optimistic and excited that we will be shooting that movie very soon. It’s a family drama about powers. There’s wonderful dialogue, great character work, and amazing superpower fights.
And, hopefully, we will derail a train! We might be unable to derail the train, given budgetary concerns. But I’m really, really hoping there’s a fight on the train, and the train gets derailed, and it bounces to the bottom of a snowy ravine. Hopefully, you’ll get to see that.
William: Well, I’m in. Which also sounds pretty challenging to shoot on a budget. Speaking of, what challenges are you excited about as an artist right now?
Emily: Right now, I’m immersing myself in the art form that is the action-adventure story. I am asking myself questions like, “What makes the perfect supporting role? What makes a great love interest?” That’s a question that I’ve been asking myself and other people a lot. The other day, I was on Facebook being like, “Guys. Tell me about your favorite love interest in cinema.” I got a list of love interests and what makes a great one. As a playwright, because I wrote plays for many years, I didn’t really think of characters in those categories because I wasn’t directly engaging with traditional form. Now I am directly engaging with traditional form.
I want to take the tradition of action-adventure storytelling and take it to the next level.
William: What’s the next level? What does that mean for you?
Emily: The perfect action-adventure story has romance. It has humor. It obviously has great action. It’s an action-adventure story. The plot should have a certain type of beauty to it. I’m getting really into the study of outlines, and the study of story structure. Ideally, you want a movie that if you had to cut it down to a 30-minute version, it would be really powerful. If you had to cut it down to 1-minute version, it would be powerful. If you had to explain it in 5 sentences, they would be powerful sentences. Somebody would maybe be interested in learning more about the story.
The ideal is sort of a fractal harmony of where the movie is rich, and the movie is nuanced, and the movie is complex, but at the same time, everything in the movie is cohering around one idea.
William: Fractal harmony, I dig that. How do you play with that? Do you feel like you have the freedom? I assume you’re loosely talking about your experience with Powerhouse?
Emily: I’m actually talking about Black Hole and Jurassic when I talk about adventure movies that are “using and continuing the received tradition of adventure stories.” I would say that Powerhouse innovates on the genre. Not every great movie innovates on the genre. Some movies are in the genre. They’re genre movies. They’re great genre movies. I think that Powerhouse has an independent heart in a way. It has an independent spirit because it’s trying to do something different with genre.
William: Yeah. I like the idea. It feels to me what you’re really saying is you want to take the tender love and care that an indie film has and bring that sensibility to blockbuster entertainment. To make something fun that can be popcorn entertainment, but with some depth to it.
Emily: It better be fun. I love that description. Absolutely. I’m trying to bring the highest level of care for its character to action-adventure storytelling.
William: It sounds like you found yourself in a playground where you can go out and get the chance to experiment and have fun. Real genuine, creative fun with these very big projects.
Emily: I am having such a good time right now. I have never been happier. I have never been happier than I am working on these movies.
William: That’s so cool.
Emily: It took me so long to get here. It took me so long to get here, and I’m just so happy and grateful to be doing what I’m doing.
William: Yeah. Well, in fourth grade, when you’re writing your time traveling pilgrims story, did you envision 25 Years Later Emily having the chance to go out and play with The Black Hole?
Emily: You know, in some ways, I feel like I’ve been leading up to this my whole life. I didn’t know what the studio system was in fourth grade, but in some way, I feel like everything I’ve done and learned has led me to this point.
William: Yeah. I was going to say what’s next for you, but damn. What’s next is everything that’s in front of you right now. Holy shit. Right?
Emily: Yeah, man. It’s all happening now.
William: Do you even have time to think much further into the future?
Emily: At this very moment, I am super focused just on the projects that I’m engaged on at this moment. Obviously, I have great wholesome dreams for the future. I want to direct a superhero movie. I want to spawn a franchise. Try to spawn two franchises. You know? I want to be able to support new artists and support diverse artists and build a Hollywood that’s inclusive. I have a lot of goals for the future.
William: I like every one of those goals. Colin Trevorrow, back when Powerhouse was announced, described you as “the next great writer/director of the kind of movies I love. Her ability to find the humanity in genre storytelling is a superpower in and of itself.” If what’s next for you is to set up your own production company and start directing the way that things can go, and bring in representation and other voices like yours, then hell yes. That’s amazing.
William: Let’s take over the world.
Emily: Let’s do it. I’m so into it.
William: Do you have anything that we haven’t gotten into that you want to chat about?
Emily: I said a lot of stirring and grand things about story structure. I’m satisfied that I got to pontificate. That’s great. I always like to say, “Remember that diversity is simply the absence of discrimination.” It’s not diversity that has to explain itself. When our representation is diverse, we should conclude that it is normal.
William: Right! That is the conversation that I had at the Chattanooga Film Festival with a couple of different filmmakers. We saw a good short called Emergency directed by Carey Williams and written by Kristen Davila. Two African American dudes come home to their place, and they find an unconscious white woman in their house. The whole movie is, “We have to call the cops, but how do we make that work out okay?”
In that way, representation is so important on screen because I lived my life experience as a white straight dude. Those are my life experiences. I can do what I can to open up my ears and listen and open up my eyes and see the things that are going on around me. But that movie gives me an experience that I would never even think of on my own. That is the beauty of film. Like, Roger Ebert said. He got it. Movies are empathy machines.
Emily: Yeah. Yeah. That’s why storytellers are powerful. Story is everything! It’s so true!
William: So, what advice would you give young storytellers?
Emily: Well, my standard advice to young writers is to learn to make outlines before you write future scripts. Young writers often have many and fancy complicated reasons why they don’t want to make outlines. I have heard all the reasons. None of them are convincing. You should make an outline. I’m also getting super into the Pomodoro Technique, which I recommend for all creatives.
William: I don’t know anything about what you just said. The Pomodoro Technique.
Emily: It’s so great, and it’s so simple. You work for a set unit of time. Twenty-five minutes is traditional. You work uninterrupted for those minutes; then you make a note of having done so. That’s it. That’s the whole technique.
William: Just 25 minutes of creative effort.
Emily: Now I do half hour Pomodoros because I have bulked up to the next level, but 25 minutes is the traditional starting time. You can learn about it. There are tons and tons of material dedicated to the Pomodoro Technique, and I strongly recommend it.
William: What do you think that gives you? Does it help your brain reset so you don’t get interrupted? What’s the return?
Emily: It keeps you from getting distracted because it allows you to persuade yourself to set distraction aside. Then, if you keep track of your progress, you can see in minutes how long it takes you to do, for example, this revision of Black Hole. That’s amazing. That’s amazing power. It’s amazing information. You can go back, and you can see the days you were more productive. You can see the days you were less productive. If you work, you know it. You know that you worked, and you get satisfaction from having worked. A really classic thing that can happen is, you do a bunch of good work in the morning, maybe you get distracted and you’re not that productive in the afternoon. You go to bed feeling bad about yourself. Feeling really down.
With the Pomodoro Technique, you’ve written it down. You’ve taken accurate notes and accounting of that productive morning, and you can use that to motivate yourself to have another productive day.
William: That’s super cool. I like that a lot. I’m probably going to start doing that.
Emily: Yes. Yes! The Pomodoro Technique is for you.
William: Always learning! Is there anything that you’d like to promote or point people towards if they want to learn more about you?
Emily: That’s a great question. Watch my shorts. They’re online. Just Google my name. Watch all the films. All of them are there. Check out Film School Rejects review of RPG OKC.
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