Dave talks shop with the prolific straight-to-video screenwriter in a career-covering chat.
Michael D. Weiss is a Schlock Pit icon.
Since his first produced script (Crocodile (2000)), he’s turned his hand to Nu Image action movies, slasher franchises, and studio sequels, resulting in a dozen screenplays that have become direct-to-video gold. Weiss also penned Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2008), which went on to gross over two hundred million dollars at the worldwide box office, and he was the original writer on Around the World in 80 Days (2004) with Jackie Chan.
We recently caught up with him via a Transatlantic phone call to his Los Angeles home, and quizzed him on how he got his big break, as well as life at Miramax in the ‘90s.
The Schlock Pit: Let’s start at the beginning. When you were a kid you admit that you had a movie camera in your hand all the time, while in school you fostered a real passion for creative writing. At college you made several short films and upon graduating you moved to Los Angeles and –
Michael Weiss: [Interjecting] Wait, wait, wait. You’re right – but HOW do you know all this?
TSP: We pride ourselves on research!
TSP: You ended up as a PA on indie movies like Roadside Properties (1992) before later becoming VP of Production at Miramax (1995 – 1997). This was a golden era for the company, so why did you leave to follow a career in screenwriting?
MW: Two things. I had written scripts, both in college and upon moving to L.A., but I didn’t know anyone. I’m twenty-one years old, and I learned pretty quickly that who you know matters more than what kind of a writer you are. Networking is SO important. I had aspirations to be a writer, but I just couldn’t make any progress, so I started working.
At Miramax, on two different projects, I experienced two very stubborn writers. They didn’t want to take notes, they were very argumentative – and you know, it’s a collaborative medium. Now, as a writer, I’m constantly getting notes from executives, producers, directors. These are people who want to help you. They’re not beating you up to be mean, they want to help. Anyway, this experience gave me a lot more perspective, and it coincided with the opportunity to go and work for a writer – Jonathan Hensleigh.
TSP: You credit him as being your mentor, don’t you?
MW: Yes. I was at Miramax, although this primarily involved working at Dimension on films like Scream (1996), Nightwatch (1997), Phantoms (1998) – really for Bob Weinstein who was trying to do all these genre movies. We were still doing a new Halloween [Halloween: H20 (1998)] as well, and Children of the Corn [Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)]. Even then, as you can see, I was working on genre movies.
So I had a friend who had this job with Jonathan, but he had just sold a script and decided it was time to leave that position, so it was offered to me. He said he knew it sounded like an assistant job, and also a step backward, but he thought I should do it – so I did. I was really like his apprentice, and yes, I did go from being a VP to pretty much an assistant.
However, I learned so much from him. The class I teach at UCLA is drawn so much from what I learned from him. Anyway, while I was working for Jonathan, I was able to spend more time writing, and I wrote a script called The Darkest Hour, which again was a kind of horror / action movie. That script got me an agent, then I met a producer, and I that got me another meeting on a script I wrote called Death Clock.
This whole chain of events really opened me up creatively, and it got me a whole new circle of contacts. With regard to getting into Nu Image and Avi Lerner, I knew a guy called Brad Weston, a producer on a load of stuff at a number of different companies, and I met him working at Miramax, but he was now running production at Nu Image, and he brought me in. He needed someone who knew what they were doing to write these low budget action movies. Now that I knew people in the business, the doors were open.
TSP: How did you find those early Nu Image assignments? Octopus (2000) you wrote single-handedly, but Crocodile was a collaboration, wasn’t it?
MW: Crocodile was the first that I wrote. I didn’t really work that closely with Avi, I was more involved with Boaz Davidson and another guy named John Thompson [Nu Image’s Head of Production]. Nu Image was honestly one of the best working experiences I’ve had in my whole career. They were smart. They were nice. They were fun. It was like being part of a little club.
When my friend Brad got me in, I went to meet with Boaz. I noticed there were a few other people in the room, but he began to pitch me the idea:
“There’s a group of teenagers on spring break, then they rent a houseboat, and a crocodile is pursuing them.”
I asked if he wanted me to go home and write something up, but he said no, there’s no time [laughs]. He then pointed round the room: “That guy will do your deal. That person is the production manager. That person is the assistant director. You’re hired, now go and start writing.”
That was a dream come true. My first writing job!
These pictures were being made so quickly that they wanted me to write Octopus soon after. Crocodile was in pre-production, and they brought Adam [Gierasch] and Jace [Anderson] in to do the production polish for Tobe [Hooper]. While they did that, I got put on Octopus and saw it through ‘til the end. I’m just looking at all the posters for them on my wall now! [laughs]
TSP: Obviously, Avi and Boaz are very specific with the way they want their movies made. How much freedom did you have with the six films that you wrote there?
MW: Well, for Octopus, I remember going down to see them. They brought me into this big conference room, and I see this giant poster staring at me and it has my name on it! Before then I hadn’t heard of it at all [laughing], and they’re like “Well, this is your next movie!” before going on to say that they’re already selling it at the AFM, and running through the story. “Now go home and start writing…”
Boaz would tend to come up with the nucleus of an idea – a simple concept like there’s a submarine and an octopus attacks it. With regard to production, they had a facility in Sofia, Bulgaria, and they were very clear about what they could do, but then they always tended to evolve thematically. You know, they’d decide to make a bunch of creature features, then they’d do some military based pictures. They were always so creative. I did eight scripts for them in three years, and six got made. I’m really happy with that.
TSP: Three of your scripts were directed by Yossi Wein. He seems to be a bit of an enigma. Did you ever meet him?
MW: I… I don’t think I ever met him. The only director I met who shot one of my scripts was Isaac Florentine (U.S Seals II (2001)). I did some rewrite work for him on a film later on as well. The thing about Isaac is, he’s a true martial artist! I’d go to his house and he’d be working out, and… [laughs] He’s a really nice guy, but I’d be sitting there thinking that he could pretty much kill me with his bare hands! Isaac is cool though. He was a real badass when he did those action movies.
But Yossi, no, I never met him. Of course all these movies were made overseas, so it’s possible he didn’t live in the United States. I think Octopus II (2001) is probably my favourite of all the Nu Image movies that I wrote.
TSP: Agreed! Moving on, Death Train (2003) and Sudden Damage (2003) would be the last two movies produced for Nu Image. A break ensued, then you found yourself in the fold of the major studios.
MW: My manager brought me the idea for Death Clock. He’d found a website that we could utilise in tandem with it and, of course, The Ring (2002) had just come out so we could sense themes that may generate a green light. We went to Warner Bros. and cooked up a pitch. It was a time of course when spec scripts were still selling and pitches were still selling. They liked it, and said that if we can get Joel Silver on board then there’s a chance it can get made. So we pitched it to Susan Levin – now Downey – who was VP of Production at Silver’s company, and they agree that Warner’s should buy it!
This was my first big studio sale, but, concurrently, one of my friends from Miramax, a guy by the name of Cary Granat, had just started a new company called Walden Media. He called me, said he had money and that he wanted to remake some classics, so told me to go and read Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island and then pick one. I said I’d like to do Around the World in 80 Days and he hired me! So once more, a connection that I’d made now said that they trust me and they wanted to work with me.
TSP: How did I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer (2006) find you?
MW: It’s funny. I looked up my notes for it. My management company had somehow heard that Sony was going to do I third I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) movie. They knew Amanda Cohen at Original Films, reached out to her, and put me up for the job. I worked out a pitch with my manager, and it was just one of those typical bake-off pitches where they heard a bunch of proposals from a variety of people and picked the one they liked the most. When they hired me, it was supposed to be a feature film shot in 3D. Have you heard this from anyone else?
MW: I forget if I had worked on Journey to the Centre of the Earth yet (which was 3D) or not, but the thought was that they were going to put it in theatres as a 3D picture. Eric Feig was a producer on the first two movies, as was Neal Moritz, and it was these two guys who I worked on the script with. So yeah, it was a fairly standard procedure in terms of getting the job.
TSP: Were you left alone to write the script?
MW: I only saw myself as part of the team. As I told you before, in terms of my experience at Miramax with very individualistic writers, it taught me to approach things in a collaborative way. Feig and Moritz were equally as creatively important as I was. I never wanted creative freedom. I would just go to Neal’s office and sit with him and Eric, get their ideas, and go from there.
TSP: There was a big change just prior to shooting wasn’t there, with the appointment of Sylvain White?
MW: Yeah, I had worked extensively with [original director] Damon Santostefano for about a month. He had an office in L.A., and I’d sit with him during pre-production. I honestly don’t know why the switch was made. I don’t think it was a creative decision. Had Sylvain White’s Stomp the Yard (2007) come out yet?
TSP: No, not at the time.
MW: OK. Well it sounded to me like it was a business decision, not a creative one. I didn’t have any contact with Sylvain White, so I’m not sure if he or anyone did a rewrite. Do you know?
TSP: Not as far as we’re aware.
MW: Well, I never worked with Sylvain, so if any changes were made then he must have done them himself. Have you heard of any reason why Damon was replaced?
TSP: No. Obviously I know that he was well-versed in the template of DTV sequels, having done Bring it On: Again (2004), but I have no idea. Sylvain had only done the one feature – Trois: The Escort (2004) – and he’d worked primarily in music videos, so it seemed an unusual decision.
MW: That is one mystery. And another is just when the decision came to not make it in 3D, and to not get it into theatres. It must have been a business decision. I don’t know how that happened.
TSP: Well, when we spoke to Claudio Fah for the Blu-ray release of Hollow Man 2 (2006), he explained to us about the success of Starship Troopers 2 (2004) for Sony, and I think the money that that film made pretty much revolutionised their approach to sequels in general.
MW: Interesting. When I worked on Butterfly Effect 2 (2006) for New Line, I remember them liking it a great deal, but having this whole debate whereby they said how it would cost $25 to $30 million just to put it into theatres. Remember, this is the mid-’00s when the DVD business was still booming, and Blockbuster still existed. So they said if they released it straight-to-DVD, they could bring in around $30 million, while their costs would only be around $4 or $5 million.
TSP: What did you find to be the key differences between the way Nu Image and the studios operated?
MW: At Nu Image, we were moving so quickly so I’d see them a lot more. For studio films, and I’m working on a couple right now. [Pauses] Hmm… I can’t tell you the titles, but I’m doing something for Universal Home Entertainment and Warner. The way those go is I go off and write a script, then ten weeks later I turn it in. They call me, I go in for a notes meeting, and then go back home to redraft. Yeah, but typically – even on Hostel III (2011) – you don’t have a great deal of interaction with the studio. But yeah, I’d see the Nu Image guys around once a week! Not that I mind my interactions with the studios; you know, I get to go and hang out on the Warner Bros. lot, which was my Hollywood dream!
TSP: Did I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer teach you anything with regard to how you approached the sequels that you went on to write?
MW: Good question. Not so much. IK3 was a sequel tied in to the mythology of the other movies. Essentially it had the same villain. Most of the other sequels I’ve worked on have set out to sequelize the concept. Although Jarhead 3 (2016) I guess does have a link, with Dennis Haysbert reappearing as the same character from the original. IK3 is pretty unique with regard to everything I’ve written.
Have you seen Deep Blue Sea 3 (2019)?
TSP: Yeah! It was good fun.
MW: I’m working on something with the director of that, John Pogue.
TSP: Great! We’ll look forward to that.
MW: It’s doing really well for Warner Home Entertainment right now. So the studios are still making these movies. The ones I’ve done for Universal have gone direct to Netflix, so we’ll see if the same happens with the others.
You know, I teach screenwriting at UCLA and I do sometimes wonder what the students think. They’re being taught by the guy that wrote Hostel III and all these schlocky movies, and I do sometimes question if they think I’m qualified to do it [laughs]. But I’m very proud and happy to have worked on so many movies that got made.