Basil Iwanyk is a prolific film producer at Thunder Road Pictures known for box office hits including Sicario, John Wick, The Town and Oscar winner, A Star Is Born. He spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine outlining his views on the state of the business.
“I grew up in New Jersey and you grew up doing one of three things – you commuted into New York City and ran your own business, or you became a lawyer or a doctor… neither of which appealed to me,” he said. Iwanyk confessed to discarding the medical route early on because he can’t stand the sight of blood. “I always loved movies. My father was a movie nerd, so I became one too. We rented videos all the time. I loved reading and storytelling.” He never considered his passion to be a viable career option until it did.
- I thought watching movies was something you did to distract yourself from real life not a career.
Action Movies: An Aesthetic Art Form
On a whim, he went west to Los Angeles to attend film school and gave himself two years to break into the business. And break in he did. He got his start working in the mail room at UTA which lead to his first co-producer credit on K-19: The Widowmaker. Iwanyk never set out to make action movies, although they’ve certainly highlighted his career. “I never had a conscious aesthetic of these action movies even though they define my tastes.” He cites the action in John Wick which feels real.”The actions, the characters, the way they speak and dress can’t feel fake.” Basil does extensive consultations with Special Ops, the military, or whatever the case may be, to ensure that the professional action on screen reflects real life. “Audiences can subconsciously pick out BS,” he added.
- My action movies are choreography. It’s dance. It’s geography.
Basil Iwanyk has been involved in the film business for around three decades. He’s seen many changes in the landscape, but also, many constants. “Every time you pitch a movie, there’s an inherent ‘no’ in the room. It’s safer for people to do that than take a chance.” This film producer has a somewhat more optimistic attitude. “Every time I open a script, I think ‘Could this be great? and pray that it is.” Whenever he hears or reads a generic take on a story, he encourages the writer to give him a fresh spin on it to make him love it. “When I look at a new script I want to:
- Be inspired
- Say ‘I think I know how to get this made’
- Say ‘I think this is gonna be fun’“
For instance, he may notice that fifty percent of a screenplay is working, while forty percent needs work. He’ll focus on that forty percent to make it work. “I’ve never understood producers that reject a potentially good script because the third act’s too long. Fix it. It’s what producers are supposed to do.” He believes that producers need to avoid the fear and negativity that often leads to rejecting screenplays and take a chance on new material and writers.
Despite the producer’s love of action conspiracy thrillers, Basil is acutely aware of genre clichés on our screens. “As I’ve gotten older, I’m less tolerant of them. If I see a cliché, I’ll see how I can make it different, either through casting, or directing to turn it on its head.” He relished adding the element of surprise to his movies. “Clichés can work if they have a certain flair and fun.”
Screenplay Paradigms – Get Messy
Iwanyk recalls his early days at an executive at Warner Bros. where screenwriting templates reigned supreme. “It was the day of Robert McKee and other script gurus and every story had a defined roadmap. Nowadays, people are more forgiving of deviating from traditional screenplay structures in favour of elevating a writer’s voice and magic.” The voice could be “silly fun” such as John Wick or the realism of Taylor Sheridan in Sicario. “Sicario defied traditional screenplay structure. It was all over the place.”
“People appreciate the messiness in a film as long as you have some kind of vibrant point of view and story ambition. The cookie-cutter screenplay is no longer in vogue.” Basil stated that diverse voices weren’t sought after early in his career. “Voices were monochromatic back then. Working writers looked, sounded, and wrote the same.” How things have changed.
“If a writer had an eclectic voice, they would be obliged to adjust it to fit the mainstream Hollywood paradigm. Now, you underline that eclectic voice.”
Writers shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss storytelling paradigms, but they should not slavishly adhere to them either. They are guidelines not mathematical equations. A writer can write a perfectly-constructed high concept idea which hits the story beats at the right time, “but it lacks a soul. That’s what is different now – people are looking for a soul.”
Basil has made several attempts over the year to venture into the television space, but the TV gods haven’t been on his side so much. “I still think in movie terms. I try not to, but I can’t train my brain to do it,” he lamented. He applauded the range of television shows these days. “When I started, TV was either half-hour comedy or hour-long drama. Now there’s half-hour drama and all kinds of things.” Fortunately, his bulging film slate more than makes up for it.
Some producers prefer scripts with some level of talent attachment, finance, or distribution attached. Basil Iwanyk prefers “naked” scripts without any attachments. Sometimes, certain attachments, no matter how attractive, add expectations and baggage to a project and ironically impede its ability to get made. Other times, the early attachments are either unavailable or uninterested when the movie is ready to shoot. “For me, it’s all about the script. Of all the elements of a good film, the most important is a good script you control so you can be nimble in producing it.”
Hundreds of screenplays pass through Thunder Road Pictures every year. “Of those, maybe three are exceptional. If we’re lucky, we get to produce one of them. I really want to read the next Charlie Kaufman… something with voice.”
Many screenwriters, particularly early in their careers, are told to write something to a budget with a higher chance of being produced. Then, they can focus on their high budget passion projects. Basil Iwanyk rejects this advice. “Writers should write. Don’t look ahead at how it might be made. Writers shouldn’t put a studio executive or producer hat on. Be invisible and write something that you think is great.”
As if Mr. Iwanyk didn’t upset the applecart enough, he also advises screenwriters against writing their next screenplay based on what sold recently or did well at the box office. “Don’t read the trades. A certain type of film isn’t getting made, until it is.”
Believe in yourself and go for it. Block out the noise.
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