Sunday 9 February 2020

My First Spec Script Sale - by Brandon Rhiness

John, 316 was the first feature-length screenplay I sold and I thought I’d share the story of how it all came together. Perhaps aspiring screenwriters will find it inspiring!

The time frame from story concept to the film's release was about four years. Back in 2015 I decided to start taking screenwriting seriously. I’d been writing scripts since I was a teenager and I’d made a few (quite awful) short films. It was all for fun. I never took it seriously as a career and I’d never shown my scripts to anyone outside my immediate circle of friends. However, after getting laid off from my day job, I made a life-changing decision. Instead of looking for another job, I chose to dive in and make screenwriting my career. And I’ve been doing it ever since.

I look serious when I write. 
I wrote like crazy, turning out short scripts one after the other, improving my skills along the way. Then I moved on to writing features. For the first time, I began pitching my short scripts to producers and filmmakers. It was reassuring when the responses I received were overwhelmingly positive. 
Before long I was selling short scripts and being hired to write others. It wasn’t a huge amount of money but between that and the money I was making writing comic books, I was making ends meet.

Me reading one of the comic books I wrote.
Hometown newspaper did a story on me!

This brings us to John, 316. I’d written a few other features (horror and thrillers) but one day I remembered a conversation I had with Knighten Richman. Knighten is also a filmmaker and we lived together for a year or so back in the late 2000s. Knighten worked at the Alberta Hospital, a mental institution in our city. One day somebody asked him something along the lines of, “Do you ever get people there that think they’re Napoleon and stuff like that?” Knighten said it did happen and the most common instances were people who thought they were either Jesus or Darth Vader.

I didn’t really think much of this until years later when I was brainstorming ideas for my next script. I thought back to Knighten’s comment and an idea hit me. What if a strange man who thought he was Jesus showed up at a mental institution and the patients began to think he was the real deal? I thought that could make a great movie, so I began working on an outline.

Colin Matty as "John Doe" from room 316.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to Knighten since I moved out back in 2008 which was seven years ago at the time. And I kid you not, the day after I came up with the John, 316 concept, I ran into Knighten downtown! Completely out of the blue. I told him about the new project I was writing based on what he’d told us about the hospital.

I wanted to get more information from him, so we agreed to meet later that week. We met up and he told me a bunch of stories about the hospital and the stuff he’d seen. Some of these stories made it into my first draft of the script and a couple made it into the movie.

As a “thank you” for his input, I asked if I could name one of the characters after him. He agreed. So it was cool to see a guy named Knighten up on the screen!

I began writing the script but ran into trouble. Usually when I have a strong outline, the script itself comes quickly and I’m happy with my writing. But this time, it just wasn’t working. I had great characters and some great scenes, but the story just went off the rails and wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I rewrote and rewrote but it just became a convoluted mess. I got frustrated and abandoned the script. I figured I’d move on to something else and maybe one day I’d go back to it. But in the back of my mind, I fully expected to never touch it again.

Happier times writing.
I started receiving interest in my other scripts and people began hiring me to write screenplays for them, but I still hadn’t sold a spec script or had a feature produced. One day, I saw a post from someone named Jarvis Greiner on a Facebook filmmaking group. Jarvis was also from Edmonton and was looking for scripts to direct. I reached out to him and we met for coffee. I gave him a few of my scripts (the horror and thriller ones). He said he liked my writing but wasn’t into those genres. He asked if I had anything that was more drama and inspirational. With much hesitation, I told him I had one called John, 316. It was unfinished and frankly, not that good. (At that point I considered it the worst thing I’d ever written).

Jarvis Greiner
When I told Jarvis the premise of the story, he was interested. He wanted to read it. Honestly, I didn’t want him to read it. I figured he’d get half-way through and be like, “This sucks.” So after making it absolutely crystal clear that it wasn’t finished and needed a lot of work, I sent him the script. He loved it. He liked the story and the characters but agreed it needed work.

Over the coming months we met up frequently to work on the script. Another filmmaker we knew, Michael Schaar-ney, joined us for some of the meetings to offer his input. (Michael ended up playing Dr. Lucas in the film).

Eventually, we had a finished script! At this point, I stepped back from involvement in the project and let Jarvis do his thing. I moved on to other writing projects and Jarvis went out and raised the money to produce the movie. He directed it himself.

Skylar Radzion as Misty.
Even though I wasn’t on set day-to-day, it was great to hear all the buzz about the shoot around town. I liked seeing all the social media posts about it. 

Many of the people I’d met since starting this crazy movie-making journey were involved in the production as either cast or crew. It was so cool to see it all come together.

The film was in post-production for quite a while and was just finished recently. It is now screening at film festivals and is doing well. It has won or been nominated for awards, including Best Indie Feature and Best Actor. Everyone worked so hard and did such a great job!

Griffin Cork as Knighten Richman

Afton Rentz as Abby and Neil Chase as Bill.
This goes to show that you never know where an opportunity will come from. I never would have imagined that what I considered my worst script would be the first one to sell. But through a series of coincidences, that’s exactly what happened.

I’ve sold more scripts since then but I always think back to my John, 316 experience and how things can come together if you keep putting in the work and follow up with opportunities that come your way.

I hope anyone reading this is inspired by my story. If I can do it, so can you!

If you want to know more about me and what I’m working on, you can check out my Facebook page. Just search for “Brandon Rhiness.” I'm also on Twitter: @brandonrhiness 

And keep an eye out for Hot Box, a stoner comedy I wrote and directed. We're aiming to have it out on Amazon Prime and other services in March or April 2020.

Good luck, everyone!

Brandon Rhiness

Brandon Rhiness - Picture by Kristin Zabos Photography.