Mark E. McCann's Beautifully Broken Inspires On & Off the Screen
“Based on a True Story.”
We’ve all seen those words in countless opening credits. There’s something powerful about knowing the events of a movie actually happened to someone. From thrillers like Captain Phillips to dramas like 12 Years a Slave, the fact that these films are based on actual events gives them a whole other dimension. These aren’t just the brainchild of some clever screenwriter throwing twists and turns at meticulously crafted characters. They’re actual histories. The drama, the conflicts, the revelations all happened to real people. They could have happened to you.
This is why no movies are more inspirational than ones based on a true story. Remember the Titans hits home because we know people who lived it. Schindler’s List inspires us because it recalls a real-life example of human compassion. Patch Adams makes us feel good because of the effect he had on real people’s lives. Similarly, Beautifully Broken, co-written by InkTip screenwriter Mark E. McCann, inspires us because it tells a true story of love and compassion. The film tells the story of three diverse families from different countries, whose lives are affected by the Rwandan Genocide. It’s an uplifting story of hardship, hope, and reconciliation. As the three families’ stories intertwine, audiences can’t help but be in awe of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of forgiveness.
Equally inspiring is screenwriter Mark E. McCann’s journey from unknown writer to produced feature writer. The Arkansas-based writer has no formal screenwriting training but never let that discourage him. McCann did what any smart writer would do: he read scripts, he wrote scripts, and he was proactive in getting his material out to producers so that he could achieve his goal of seeing his scripts made. This year his hard work paid off.
This last August Beautifully Broken was released in theaters. This is McCann’s first produced feature writing credit. He was hired by producer Brad Allen of BIG Film Factory to rewrite the script for the film. The two connected on InkTip when Allen optioned one of McCann’s scripts, which is currently in development. Remembering McCann’s talent for dialogue, Allen also brought him on to rewrite Beautifully Broken. The film secured a wide release across the country and has been well received by audiences and critics alike.
Mark E. McCann took a break from his busy writing schedule to sit down with us to discuss his career, experiences with Beautifully Broken, and writing process:
InkTip: Tell us about yourself. How did you get your start in screenwriting?
MM: I’m forty-nine, and have worn many caps throughout the years: security guard, sheriff’s deputy, police officer, detective, crime scene investigator, and writer. I’ve been writing most of my life, making up stories, and using my imagination. When I was a little kid, I would lug my grandmother’s old manual typewriter around –which weighed more than I did! But growing up, nobody ever told me I could actually be a writer. It was only when I became an adult that I figured that out. You don’t have to have anyone’s permission, certification, endorsement, or blessing to be a writer… you just do it! For the last 20 years, I’ve been writing screenplays. I have no formal training, just lots of trial and error. I’ve read books and magazines, entered contests and received feedback, and – of course – watched LOTS of movies. Movies are my passion. My first job was at a movie theater, where I could watch free movies and get a paycheck.
I got started in screenwriting quite by accident. Back when the Internet was in its infancy (the days of dial-up and “You’ve got mail!”), I ran across a movie producer in an AOL movie chatroom. We were discussing films, and I told him my idea for a movie –completely unaware that what I was actually doing was pitching. To my surprise, he asked me to send him the first act. I didn’t even know what a first act was! Fortunately, a friend of mine had bought Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting book a few years before, so I borrowed it and got a quick lesson on the craft. I wrote the first act and sent it in, and to my surprise the producer requested the entire script. Of course, there wasn’t one yet, so I worked like mad and got it cranked out and shipped off. Ultimately the company passed… but… I got an amazing phone call from one of his people; I believe her name was Kirsten Friedrich. She called to tell me that I should stick with screenwriting. I didn’t realize how monumental that was at the time; actually taking time to call a new writer and encourage him… but now I realize just how significant that act of kindness was. At her advice, I continued writing screenplays, learning with each one – and now I owe her a career!
InkTip: How did you hear about InkTip and how long have you been using our services?
MM: I’ve used InkTip ever since I can remember seriously getting into this business. I’m a huge fan! My first produced script was a short posted on InkTip. Within 24 hours of listing it, I got three offers to make it! It was called CABIN 6 and was made by Michael McCaffrey just outside of L.A. It completely surprised us by going on to win awards, getting shown at film festivals, even on the big screen at the Arclight Theater on Sunset Blvd.! It – incredibly – gained distribution on DVD! It’s currently available for streaming on Amazon. These are very remarkable accomplishments for a short film, and I have InkTip to thank for all that… they put me in touch with Mike and the pieces fell into place. It was the same with Brad Allen (the producer of Beautifully Broken). I’ve always said that InkTip not only opened the door for me but ushered me in and introduced me around!
InkTip: How did you get hired to write Beautifully Broken? What was it that made you the right writer for the job?
MM: The reception of Cabin 6 was quite the surprise, so I decided the logical thing to do would be to expand the story into a feature film (now called Crossed Hearts). That script was optioned several times many of which were through InkTip, thank you very much! One of those producers was Brad Allen of BIG Film Factory in Nashville. Brad has been absolutely amazing to work with! We mesh so well that it’s downright unnerving at times… on more than one occasion we’ve called each other to express a thought or idea, only to find the other was having the exact same one! Unfortunately, Brad wasn’t able to get Crossed Hearts into production (not yet, anyway… though he’s still trying!), but he later called me and said they had gotten involved in a project that was based on a true story. Recalling my work on Crossed Hearts, specifically the way I did dialog, he wanted to know if I would do a pass on the existing script. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity and rewrote a version. It had a working title of Letters to Rwanda but ultimately became Beautifully Broken.
InkTip: What are your favorite films and how has that influenced your writing?
MM: I’m a drama guy. Some of my favorite films are Shawshank Redemption, An Officer and a Gentleman, and It’s a Wonderful Life. While they certainly aren’t real people or events, the thing I find most appealing is that they could be. People (myself included) love Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Spiderman… but know they will never duel with a lightsaber like Luke Skywalker, or cast stunning spells with wands, or sling webs while fighting evil supervillains. BUT… they could find themselves in a life-changing situation like Andy Dufresne, or fighting to escape their past like Zack Mayo, or facing a situation where they want to jump off a bridge and have to be shown that they matter like George Bailey. To me that’s the appeal of drama… it’s something we can all identify with; a commonality. We all love, laugh, cry, have dreams, etc.
InkTip: What unique challenges were there in adapting actual events into a screenplay?
MM: Most of the script was already complete when I got it, so many of the beats were already in place. Still, when writing about real events you have to be careful to balance creativity with reality. The imagination kicks in and tends to want to take over everything, so you have to be careful about straying too far from the base material. You can take liberties, of course, but adding too many events that didn’t happen can cause problems. In this case, one of the people the movie is based on was also the executive producer (Randy Hartley), so that helped us to stay grounded.
InkTip: Beautifully Broken follows three separate families. Was it difficult to stay on top of the three intersecting narratives when writing the script?
MM: Absolutely! When I first read the script and notes, I was confused by the three storylines because there wasn’t a traditional protagonist or antagonist. Two of the storylines intertwine early on, but the third kicks in almost at the end of the movie in a surprising way. Then it’s like, “Oh! I get it!” I actually even addressed the three storylines in my draft, comparing them to the waters in Rwanda; they start out as streams, then merge and grow until they eventually become a raging river. It was a metaphor for the characters’ lives joining together and becoming stronger. The river imagery actually made the final cut, and you can see them throughout the movie.
InkTip: What advice do you have for writers when working with producers?
MM: When possible, find one that’s a good match for you. Making a movie is like getting married and having kids: you’re entering into a relationship that’s going to produce something that potentially lasts forever. Compatibility is paramount, whether it’s creative, personal, stylistic, etc. A bad marriage will usually end in an ugly divorce, and so will a bad partnership. If you don’t get along with the people you’re working with, it can suck all the joy out of writing.
Also, listen to what they have to say. Sometimes their ideas are right on the money, while other times not so much. You may not particularly like a change they suggest, but at least let them give it. Again, it’s a relationship, so there has to be give and take. Let them say their piece. And if you disagree, be tactful about how you tell them. Leave the drama on the page.
InkTip: What’s one thing you wish you knew earlier in your career?
MM: Budget is everything. Writing a galactic war epic with huge set pieces, tons of special effects, and a cast of thousands may be fun… but it won’t do you much good if it doesn’t get made. Two people yelling at each other in a room, however, could be filmed by most anyone with a camera. Never forget that there are maybe a hundred people who can make a hundred-million-dollar film, but there are a million people who can make a hundred-dollar film. As the budget comes down, the odds of getting produced go up. I wish I had learned that sooner.
InkTip: Please tell us about your writing process. Do you have a writing routine? A specific way you approach a new script? How do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing?
MM: I don’t have a routine in that I have a set writing schedule –because I don’t. Some days you sit down and the ideas come like a flood… other days it’s like squeezing water from a rock. This applies to both new scripts and rewrites. Personally, I like rewriting. Facing the blank page and writing something new can be daunting. It’s likened to shoveling through an eight-foot snowdrift; you’re overwhelmed, cold, and tired. You don’t know where you’re going, and you sometimes wonder if you’re even going in the right direction! Rewriting, on the other hand, is like picking up a polished rock and seeing the potential for cutting out the gem inside.
When I’m tackling a new project, I start with a diagram on a blank sheet of paper. I use the Syd Field paradigm so I have a rough idea of what my acts are. It’s kind of like planning a road trip; before starting out you have a rough idea of what route you’re going to take, but you don’t fully know what you’ll see along the way. It’s a balance of planning and spontaneity. I also have a place at the end of the script I call the “boneyard.” I write down all my ideas here and pluck them out from time to time when I find where they belong in the story.
As far as knowing if an idea is worth pursuing, it depends greatly on the idea itself. Sometimes you have an idea that seems incredible at the time, but when you try to flesh it out it only falls apart. What I love is when an idea won’t go away. It’s there when you wake up… it’s there when you take a shower… it’s there when you’re driving to the grocery store… it’s there when you’re cooking dinner… it’s there when you go to bed. That’s when I know I have to see it through because it just won’t leave me alone.
InkTip: What’s next for you in your writing career?
MM: I’m actually halfway through writing a novel right now. I started it a few years ago when the movie business wasn’t exactly breaking down my door. I’m about 80,000 words in –much too far to quit now!
With Beautifully Broken hitting theaters, however, writing scripts has very much returned to the front burner again. I owe a huge thanks to Brad Allen and the guys at BIG Film Factory (Chuck Howard and Martin Michael). Not only did they give me my big break by working on a produced feature, but they also gave me my first feature writing credit (both on screen and the poster!) They’ve opened many doors for me. Brad introduced me to Kevan Otto (A Question of Faith), who I wrote a script for that’s in development (tentatively called Harmony). Kevan in turn introduced me to Kevin Rushing, whose script I did some rewrites on before it went into production. That one is called Fearless Faith and wrapped in June. It should be slated for a 2019 release. Brad also took my latest script and showed it to another production company who was looking for just such a story. Brad has been a real champion of my work!
I guess it’s really up to God at this point how things turn out. If these three films are the end of the line, I’ll consider myself lucky for having even gotten invited along for the ride at all. If, however, He has more work in store, then I’ll roll up my sleeves and get to it!