February 25, 2013

SCA Family Stories: Max Taxe

Recent Black List Recipient Sits with SCA

Students in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Writing for Screen and Television program are told right off the bat that a career in Hollywood is a marathon, not a sprint. However, for alumni like Max Taxe ’11, their career path could get jump-started more quickly than anticipated when their work receives attention early on.

SCA recently sat down with Taxe to discuss his screenplay Goodbye, Felix Chester, which made the 2012 Black List, his time at SCA and his advice for budding screenwriters.

Max Taxe '11

Let’s get your name, degree and graduation year. My name is Max Taxe, and I graduated in 2011 from the Writing for Screen and Television program.

Let’s talk a little about your Black List script. The script I wrote that made the Black List is called Goodbye, Felix Chester. I know people hate this term, but it’s a dramedy about a seventeen-year-old kid who’s been dying his whole life and finally finds out that he has one month to live, so he focuses all of his remaining time on trying to lose his virginity to his dream girl. It’s in the vein of something like Juno. A little absurd, light hearted in a not-so-light-hearted situation, and it has a ton of heart.

For those who don’t know about the Black List, how would you describe it? The Black List is an annual list by Franklin Leonard, who used to be one of the heads of Will Smith’s company Overbrook [Entertainment]. It started casually amongst friends to find those scripts that weren’t being produced yet were considered some of the best scripts of the year. Because he had to read for such specific production purposes, he wanted a sense of what’s good out there that wasn’t coming across his desk, which writers to look out for, and that casual list turned into this yearly event that’s taken on a much larger significance.

There are the big name people, like Quentin Tarantino, who get on the list, but there are also people like me who are sneaking into the industry, and it’s a huge help. Now, Leonard’s extended the service as a new program to try to find even more writers. It’s a great service to find quality scripts that people might not be talking about enough.

What does it mean to you to be included in the company of other Black List scripts?
I’m incredibly honored and flattered. I just turned twenty-four; I shouldn’t be here! USC prepared me to have a very long-term plan; I was ready to work for years and years before even getting a nugget of recognition, so it’s kind of mind-blowing for me. It’s been a wild ride.

Did you write this script while you were a student? This script came in a lot of phases. I wrote the first draft during the summer while I was at USC, just to see if I could function outside of the classroom. Then I worked on it in the rewrite class with David Clawson [CTWR 543 - Advanced Feature Rewriting], and he changed how I view rewriting. I later made some final revisions to turn it into the script it is today.

That rewrite class, though, was the major difference for this script, and it also had a profound effect on my writing going forward. I came in with a draft that a lot of people liked, people were enthusiastic about it, and then I remember Clawson came in on the first day, put my script down, and said something like, “This is a page one rewrite. Start over.”

As terrifying as that was, and slightly heartbreaking in that brief moment, it was like a massive weight was lifted. It allowed me to just tear into the script, and form it into what it ultimately ended up being. It helped me embrace the entire rewriting mentality, which now, outside of school, has been huge.

How did Clawson and the other teachers at USC specifically influence your work as an artist? I was fortunate to have a lot of teachers who were very willing to accommodate my constant need for attention [laughs], because I would constantly email them questions, I’d be ready with new changes every couple days… I think what David Clawson did and what other teachers, like David Isaacs and Tom Benedek did, was really help you to embrace your voice, which I don’t think any of us were really conscious of while we were writing since we were so focused on getting the structure right, figuring out the story twists; we were still obsessing over the mechanical aspects of writing at the time.

They always tried to widen it out and focus on why something is inherently ‘you,’ and I think those lessons and embracing that mindset has, by far, helped the most in my career. Whether it was with Goodbye, Felix Chester, or any of the scripts that have followed. Just embracing what makes this unique to me instead of focusing so much on the mechanics of it all.

What was your background before you came to USC? I’ve lived in Los Angeles my whole life, so I was vaguely familiar with the business coming in. In high school, I started writing plays and short stories but was kind of late to the game when it came to screenwriting. I had never written a screenplay before, never even considered it. I applied to one film school and lucked out that the second I started writing a script, I realized this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I really wasn’t prepared. I had a lot to learn, which I think helped me a lot in film school. I came from a place where I was, at best, a playwright, and even then, I was a fairly raw writer.

Do you have any advice for people going through the application process right now?
The application for the screenwriting program is not a small application, so I think if you’re willing to get through that, that shows some level of commitment in the first place. I think the biggest key to programs like this is to be yourself. Don’t try to fake it. No student will ever really find out why they got in. To my knowledge, there are no tricks or gimmicks that’ll boost your chances. The best thing you can do, and this applies to writing anywhere, is to be true to your voice, write what you want to write, enjoy it, and I think that level of enjoyment tends to come across. This business will never be easy, there are no shortcuts. Represent yourself the way you’d want to be represented.

What’s something you wish someone told you before you came to USC that you could have benefited from? The nice thing about the film program is that so much of it is leading you down the path of just making the mistakes and learning from them, as opposed to trying to help you avoid them. I guess the only thing I’d recommend is to enjoy it a little more. Film school is such a great experience because there’s so much camaraderie and passion behind it all.

For me, I think the biggest thing about film school wasn’t necessarily learning how to write a screenplay, because the mechanics of that aren’t the hardest things in the world. It’s being surrounded by people that are equally as passionate and driven in the same field as you. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else. Even in the industry, you don’t get that complete focus toward one goal. So just step back and enjoy the company of those people while you’re not in as much of a real-world pressure cooker just yet.

Do you have any recommendations of classes you think students should check out?
The Screenwriting program does such a good job of building a balanced, interesting class schedule. I’d make a recommendation, since you have so many classes you’re required to take within the program, to actually take classes outside of the School. I took a lot of philosophy classes, I took some jazz classes, and it gives you that necessary release. I’m the kind of person who wrote constantly; I voluntarily killed off my social life to write more, so I think having something else going on in your life will always help you out immensely.

A specific film-oriented class I hope will eventually be required is the Pitching [CTWR 555 – Pitching for Film and Television] class. I took it with Trey Callaway, and it seems like such a simple class: how to pitch a script, how to pitch a story in various forms, how to represent yourself in a meeting. Now that I’ve gone on a bunch of meetings and have had to represent myself constantly, those lessons I learned in that class, the basics and the practice really helped. I mean, for our final, we had to pitch in front of four industry professionals. You don’t get better practice than that. I think it’s a skill that, while it isn’t technically writing, is so important to the career of writing. I couldn’t recommend that class more.

What’s the next step in your career? I’m currently working on my next original script as well as a few pilots. I just signed with my agents, so we’re trying to get Goodbye, Felix Chester made. We realize it’ll have to be someone’s passion project because a story about a dying kid isn’t going to storm the market. Now it’s just up to me to get those next original pieces ready, all while pitching on other assignments. Just throwing myself out there and working like crazy.