Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Passion, Success, and Longevity In and Out of Hollywood: An Interview with Michael Grais

by Ann Baldwin
Michael Grais

Michael Grais is an accomplished screenwriter, producer, director, author, and writing/filmmaking instructor. His first professional screenplay, Death Hunt, starring Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, and Angie Dickenson was produced by Academy award-winning producer, Albert S. Ruddy (The Godfather); it attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, who hired him to co-write, Poltergeist. Michael then co-wrote and produced the sequel, Poltergeist II.

He executive produced Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quad, Alec Baldwin, and Winona Ryder. Then he went on to co-write, produce, and finance the successful Marked For Death for 20th Century Fox, starring Steven Seagal. He produced another box office hit, Steven King’s Sleepwalkers, for Columbia Pictures and wrote Cool World, starring Brad Pitt, Kim Basinger, and Gabriel Byrne for Paramount. He executive produced Who Killed Atlanta’s Children, the highest rated movie of that year for Showtime. An accomplished showrunner in episodic television as well, Grais oversaw production of 22 episodes of the syndicated series The Immortal. He recently published his debut book Christa’s Luck (Ingram Sparks 2015).

Still at the top of his game with many irons in the fire, Michael took time out to interview with me about his long and fruitful career in Hollywood and shared his simple, yet sage, advice for screenwriters and filmmakers pursuing a career today.

Ann: How old were you when you first knew that you wanted to be in the film industry, and did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter first, before producing and directing?

Michael: It was after my freshman year in college at a small school in Maine, I saw the movie Blowup by Antonioni and knew that’s what I wanted to do. First, become a photographer and then move into film. I was on my way to Peru, South America with the school in Maine and first went down to New York with two buddies; we slept in the car and in the morning, I ran over to admissions to NYU Film School. He asked me what I wanted to do in film and I described to him the screenplay I was writing. He first asked me how old I was, I told him seventeen, and he said he was surprised I was that young, given what I’d described and then said, “You’re in.” I asked him if he didn’t need to see my transcript/paperwork. He said, “No, you’re accepted.” That evening I got on a plane to Peru. I knew I wanted to direct back then, but had no desire to become a producer.
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Ann: What year did you move to L.A. and begin your career in the Film and TV industry and what was that like for you?

Michael: I went to graduate school to get my MFA. It was early 70’s. I lived with my girlfriend in a one bedroom furnished apartment in a lousy part of town and started meeting people. A couple who were having new success as writers introduced me to my first Hollywood “friends” and my first Literary Agent.

Ann: How long did it take you to get an agent, once you moved to L.A. and were you able to get work in the industry without an agent?

Michael: I got an agent right away with the screenplays I wrote while in college, which had nothing to do with the curriculum of the school. I just loved it. I really don’t think a career in writing necessitates going to college at all (I can hear parents cringing). For me, now, I would go straight to L.A. Get out and live life, find a story you love, go to a course in screenwriting like Writer’s Bootcamp or a workshop I run or other successful writers run and get started. College was a waste of time for me. I didn’t learn how to write screenplays until I got to L.A. It is a rough business to get into and tougher to stay in. So, if you want a backup plan, do go to college and learn something that will make you a good salary.

Ann: What drew you to want to work on features versus TV? 

Michael: At that time TV was considered a second tier position for a writer. Everyone I knew wanted out of TV because it was so highly controlled. Today, I’d rather write for TV than film. Really creative shows are getting made and great writers, actors, and directors are flocking to cable TV.

Ann: What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve experienced in the industry over the years?

Michael: The “Industry” is more about BUSINESS than SHOW than it once was. Most, if not all, are owned by multi-national corporations. They want to make sure, as much as possible, that they will make money on their investment. Pre-sold titles from: TV shows, movies, books, plays, blogs, anything that has a proven audience is safer for them. Indies struggle but get things done cobbling together different companies to make a film that would never be a studio picture, but certainly just as good. Marvel or Marvelesque type movies are what have become the biggest money makers and a franchise like Fast and Furious is what most can’t begin to compete with, in visual effects and great scripts and cast. The original Fast and Furious was not a big budget film, it was a great action film hoping to be a franchise. It was a hit. Proven! Now writers are probably working on Furious 8. The studios want what succeeded yesterday; that hasn’t changed.

Ann: How and when did you first meet Steven Spielberg? 

Michael: I met Steven in the late 70’s. He was a fan of my writing and had seen the first film I wrote, Death Hunt (with Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson, and Carl Weathers), and he liked it. My partner and I went over to his house one night and he showed us the movie A Guy Named Joe and asked us to do a new version of it. Then he started talking about a ghost story he was excited about doing and we got talking about our weird experiences. I said I’d rather do the ghost story than the other film. He said, “Okay,” called our agent the next day, and we were hired!

Ann: Do you tend to prefer writing spec scripts or scripts for others and what are the pros and cons of doing one over the other? 

Michael: I really don’t have a preference; writing scripts for others you get paid money up front and that was a factor in wanting to do that when I started out. The original material it’s based on is most important. You have to be passionate about what you do. I don’t write spec screenplays anymore. I have what I’ve written on spec in a slate of pictures that have half the money to make them all; so, I’m seeking the other half of the financing.

Solo, Jennifer, & Michael Grais Photo by  Jak Wonderly
Ann: How does it usually work, when you’re working with another writer? Do you tend to each take a specific aspect of the story to work on such as dialog or scene descriptions or do you usually work together on all aspects of the story? 

Michael: My screenwriting partner was my business partner. I did the vast majority of the writing/physical producing, while he was growing our company. When we would be hired or think of something to write on spec, we would work out the story together and then when we had an outline, I started writing. He would read what I wrote and make comments and suggestions and sometimes write a few scenes. We knew each other and were good friends since 6th grade so it wasn’t a typical writing/producing team. He pushed me to produce and I just went along with it and grew to love that aspect of filmmaking as much as writing. When co-writing Christa’s Luck with my wife it was not the same; it was more joyful. Jennifer is a terrific writer in her own right. Christa’s Luck is a very empowering novel for young girls. The book cover says: It’s about a girl, her horse, and the last wild Mustangs; that’s true, but it’s a great adventure story based on a real event with very well drawn realistic characters. It has gotten great reviews by pro’s and readers alike on Amazon. I’m really excited about its trajectory.

Ann: I read your book Christa’s Luck and love your story; I think it would make a great film, any plans to write the script for it?

Michael: If someone wants to finance it, I’d love to write it and produce it with them.

Ann: Do you have a passion project you’re currently working on that you can share with us what it’s about? 

Michael: I’m working on a book, funny enough, it’s a sci-fi thriller for a London publisher.

Ann: Which past film project is your favorite and why? 

Michael: Poltergeist, because it was the biggest hit. Death Hunt, because it was my first produced film and attracted such an amazing cast. Marked For Death, because we made a small budget action film a big box office hit. Also, you’re rewarded very well in the movie/TV business if you’re successful.

Ann: Do you enjoy writing horror films and why? Do you enjoy watching them as well?

Michael: I don’t go to horror/slasher films and have never enjoyed them. I enjoy almost any other genre. But, I do enjoy writing a scary story; I don’t mind scaring the audience. The Chittering, my latest sci-fi thriller, scared me just writing it!

Ann: When marketing and selling your spec scripts, what avenue do you tend to approach first, getting actors/actresses or directors attached to your project or looking for the financing and distribution?

Michael: First, I look for a buyer by getting it to a studio or production company that has the money to make it. If that doesn’t work out or the script isn’t something a studio would want, I go after the money. I can hire actors and a director after the money is in and the script is good; then, you can have a shot at getting anyone. Distribution is the last element to lock in and will happen if the script and cast are good and bankable to some extent.

Ann: What made you decide to move away from L.A. and what eventually drew you to Sonoma, California?

Michael: I left L.A. to have different experiences. My business partnership had come to an end and I just wanted to go away and write whatever I wanted without someone (studio exec/producer, financier) telling me what I should write. I was fortunate enough to be able to leave. So, I wrote seven screenplays and a novel (all on spec), before I got to Sonoma, while living in Mexico and New Mexico; they’re good places to write. I came to Sonoma, because I always wanted to live in Northern California and my wife knew Sonoma from workshops she attended here and had made some friends. When I got here, I knew this was home; she already knew!

But, if you want to start a career in Hollywood you really can’t do it without spending a lot of time there, getting an agent, and meeting people. Unless you’ve written a BEST-SELLING something or a HIT something it is very difficult to get a spec script bought and produced.

Ann: You have your own production company, GraisBoyd Entertainment, do you only seek to produce your own scripts or do you also seek other scripts as well? 

Michael: My company was created to sell my screenplays. Apart from that, I was hired as a script doctor to do a rewrite on a big studio picture this year and got it greenlit (financed), after I rewrote it. They had to have the script appeal to a major movie star and I know how to do that.

Ann: Are you willing to share any of your trade secrets as to what appeals to a major movie star, when they read a script?

Michael: Think of Ego, when describing his/her age and their looks. Think of who his/her audience is; are they men, women, or both? Put yourself in his/her shoes and think of what a heroic character (if he/she is the hero not villain) would do! Make it something we haven’t seen one-hundred times before. A writer has to crawl into the skin of the character the actor/actress is playing and the actor/actress themselves and be true to both and the story. This comes naturally to some writers; the good ones. Get enough notes on the script from the producer/actor (as possible) and that is a roadmap to what they want. If possible, talk to the star about the part they’re going to play; they know more about the character than anyone, which is why they’re the star! Producers can be a problem if they don’t know what the star really wants. Try to get to the source and see everything that star has done on film and you will have a good idea of what to write. 

Ann: What do you recommend for screenwriters and producers just starting-out? 

Michael: Get your butt to L.A., start finding out what’s going on, and who you need to meet to make things happen. Be an intern (or get coffee) for a producer or studio exec., go to parties with people who’re doing the same thing you are (seeking a career), and get information and connections.  Do anything you can to make friends and get in the door and then figure out where you’re going from there. You’ll learn a lot doing that! 

A first time producer is different. You need only buy or option a great piece of material and get the word out that you have the MONEY to make FILMS and the agents will be calling you.

Ann: Who have some of your mentors been through-out your career and what are a few of the things they taught you? 

Michael: I didn’t have a mentor. I talked my way into writing an episode of the TV show Baretta and then worked for that show rewriting episodes for about a year; I also wrote a few episodes of Starsky and Hutch and KOJAK.

Ann: What is one of your funniest experiences being in the industry?

Michael: I was hired to write a screenplay for an exec at a studio. I turned it in on time. The exec hated it! Sent me away to rewrite it. I didn’t do a thing to it. I knew it was good and I also knew it was what he had asked for. I gave the same screenplay to him six weeks later and he loved it.  He must have been in a bad mood the first time he read it or a movie like the one I wrote had tanked that week and he was scared. Hollywood runs on greed and fear; like the stock market, it is similar. I love the quote from Michael Douglas’s character in the film Wallstreet: “If you want a friend get a dog”.

Ann: What is one of your scariest memories being in the industry? 

Michael: Coming into my office on the MGM lot after the second day of shooting my screenplay Poltergeist II and discovering on a readout from the studio that we were $200,000 over budget; on day TWO! We always made up for the shortfalls, but this was my first production and I was very green. $200,000!! Yes, I was scared; I was so scared, I’ve never gone over budget on a film or TV show that I’ve produced.

Ann: You have incredible diversity from TV to films to books, and from romantic comedy to action to horror to thrillers and you’re a triple hyphenate screenwriter, producer, and director; did you ever do any acting and do you feel all of your multiple skills have been a large part of your success?

Michael: I’m not interested in being a film director, even though I’ve done some small stuff. It’s a really difficult job and it only appealed to me before I saw what it entailed (laughter). I love doing short films with students as a learning experience. The Promised Land I did with students from The University of New Mexico, Taos High School, and people from town. It was a great experience. We made an hour pilot for a TV show. It ran on the internet site Strike.TV, which may not be available today; I don’t know. I did act, while I was at NYU Film School and think it was probably the best thing I did to learn about writing. I love working with actors. I think the good ones are just amazing. So, I would love to direct a play here in Sonoma or anywhere.

Ann: What are some of the current projects on your slate that you can share with us, so we have something to look forward to? 

Michael: I’m focusing on the book and getting the other half of the money to make the slate of films I wrote. I’m also making a part of my house into a studio to paint in. I’m a few weeks away from starting the first painting of the year. We’re waiting for the cement to dry.

Ann: Thank you again, Michael, for taking the time to interview with me, it’s been an honor and a pleasure.

If you’d like to learn more about Michael Grais, you can visit his website at http://www.graisboydentertainment.com/ and to purchase a copy of Christa’s Luck, you can go to http://www.christasluck.com/ here is their fantastic book trail http://www.christasluck.com/book-trailer/