From Public Relations to Made-up Desperations: Q&A with Acts of Desperation Screenwriter Nathan Illsley
For any screenwriter wondering if you can get your script produced and not live in Hollywood, Nathan Illsley is your proof—yes you can! Born and raised in Massachusetts, the public relations executive resides in the city best known for its tea parties and sports teams, Boston. Long obsessed with movies, he took up screenwriting as a personal challenge to get the ideas in his head on the page. He hadn’t expected one of his scripts to be picked up and produced, but that’s exactly what happened after he posted Acts of Desperation on InkTip.
His dark comedic thriller was discovered and optioned by producer/director Richard Friedman in 2013. But on the verge of production, everything came to a halt. “I thought the movie was dead,” Nathan said, “but out of the blue, the team resurrected it more than four years later and we haven’t looked back.” The award-winning film stars Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas, The Goldbergs), Jason Gedrick (Backdraft, Iron Eagle), Treva Etinne, and Kira Reed Lorsch. The film will see a worldwide release in early March on most streaming services, DVD, and Blu-ray. We chatted with Nathan, all the way from Beantown about, his successful script and approach to writing.
InkTip: You’ve been using InkTip since 2013. How did you first hear about InkTip and how has your experience with InkTip been so far?
Nathan: I found InkTip kind of by accident. I was searching for resources for screenwriters on Google, and InkTip came up high on the list. I’ve really enjoyed using the platform so far and clearly the results speak for themselves. I can’t think of another service that has a similar volume of successes.
InkTip: Acts of Desperation is a thriller. Are those the films you love to watch or is it simply the genre you feel the most comfortable writing?
Nathan: Thrillers are definitely one of my favorite genres, but as long as the story is engaging and I care about the characters, I’m a fan of any type of movie. Act of Desperation is a bit of a hybrid and more of a black comedy than a thriller in some regards, which is why I had so much fun writing it. I’ve always enjoyed films where characters get into trouble and don’t fully know how to deal with it, and I think that theme can work equally great in a comedy like The Hangover or a straight thriller like A Simple Plan. Here we did a little of both elements. That being said, I’ve written everything from rom coms to a zombie comedy, so as long as the story and characters are fun, I’d be comfortable writing just about anything.
InkTip: The script was primarily an ensemble piece. How did you keep each character’s voice and motivation distinct, especially when the driving force for all of them is a sense of desperation?
Nathan: I think what was most important for me was to make sure each character could stand on their own. Before I start writing, especially if it’s an ensemble piece, I try to create character backgrounds, random personality quirks, motivations, etc. and I make sure they stick to those regardless of the scenario. You need to believe these characters are real people and would act the way they do in every scene, so it’s really important for the writer to know the players front and back from the start. Quentin Tarantino said something to the effect of “I don’t write my characters’ dialogue, I get them talking to each other,” and I think that’s a great way to think of it. Create your characters, then insert them into the story and see how they react.
InkTip: The film is winning awards on the festival circuit. How does it feel to have the feature film from your first produced script winning?
Nathan: It’s amazing and not something I would have predicted when I started writing. Like I said, I started doing this for fun, so getting any kind of recognition for it is incredible. The team that worked on Acts of Desperation, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, was incredible, and it really came through in the final product. I could write the most amazing script ever, but without the right talent producing the film, it wouldn’t mean anything. The cast and crew made the movie what it is, and I feel extremely lucky to have worked with this group to create something that I consider very special.
Nathan (center) on the set of Acts of Desperation
InkTip: You mentioned creating backstories for your characters. Can you please tell us more about your writing process?
Nathan: Personally, I start with a very general idea, just a one or two sentence premise that I think I could build out. From there, I create a few of the main characters and try to build their personal stories, as well as the ways in which they come into contact with each other. The next step is, for me, the hardest but also most important. I develop a full several page treatment detailing a scene-by-scene breakdown that summarizes the entire plot of what will eventually become the screenplay. This helps me stay organized in terms of story flow and also gives me a beginning, middle, and end to work towards. Then I just start writing the actual screenplay. If a certain scene doesn’t work or needs to be retooled, I do it as I go along. The treatment is very seldom the same at the end of my writing process as it is at the start, but I like to think it’s because I learn more about my characters and the story evolves as I go along.
InkTip: How do you decide when your script is worth pursuing or when to go back to the drawing board, so to say?
Nathan: One of the most important things I’ve learned is that once I finish a first draft, I need to let it sit. There’s a huge sense of pride in finishing a screenplay, but that excitement can sometimes make you think the story is better than it actually is. Before I submit a script or consider it “done,” I let it sit for at least a week or so before going back with a fresh set of eyes and giving it another read. You’d be amazed how many lines don’t seem as clever or how many plot elements don’t quite fit when you give yourself time to get over the initial accomplishment.
InkTip: What are your favorite films and how has that influenced your writing?
Nathan: My favorite film is Burn After Reading by the Coen Brothers. I think I’m pretty alone in that opinion, but for whatever reason it hits me in just the right way and is the one that’s inspired me most. In terms of dialogue, the balance of comedy and dark overtones, the absurd characters, and the overall way the story is crafted has just stuck with me and something that’s really influenced some of my own writing. Tarantino is my favorite writer though, and I think any aspiring writer should take a read of his scripts. He’s a master-class in world-building and creating characters that people remember.
InkTip: You’re working on another project with Richard Friedman. Can you tell us more about it?
Nathan: It’s a documentary about two brothers who were in a relatively popular rock band in the 60s, but who had a tremendous falling out that really broke up the band and split them apart for years. It’s different from anything I’ve done before, but the story is incredible and something I think we’re really excited about. Vince Lozano and Leslie Bates who produced Acts of Desperation are producing this as well, and Geoff Levin, who composed the score for AOD is at the heart of the story, so it’s great to be working with this team again on something completely different.
InkTip: What advice do you have for writers regarding forming working relationships with producers?
Nathan: Network as much as you can, and write as much as you can. I know it might seem pretty basic, but I’ve quickly found that the entertainment industry is hugely based on who you know, so forming connections any way you can, whether it be through sites like InkTip or by meeting people at festivals is really important. I think putting yourself out there is critical too. If you have a script you’re proud of, get it online and try to get it in front of people who might be interested. And it goes without saying, but the more scripts you have, the better chance of someone finding it, so don’t stop writing and don’t be afraid to try something different.
InkTip: Anything else you would like to share?
Nathan: I’m going back to Tarantino, but the most important thing I’ve ever heard was on how he learned to become a great writer. He said, “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, no, I went to films." Watch movies, and read screenplays. Learn what works from your favorite movies, and learn what to avoid in stinkers.