by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to meet God and ask any question you’d like? That’s the essential premise of writer/producer Ken Aguado’s new film, An Interview with God. Ken has a track-record in Hollywood spanning 25 years. In addition to his work as a producer and screenwriter, Ken is the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible and a contributor to this site.
Ken recently sat down with me to discuss the faith film market, how to keep a story you’re passionate about contained, and the balance between message and entertainment.
Angela Bourassa: Hi, Ken. Thank you for taking the time to do this.
Ken Aguado: Nice to talk to you. As you know, I’ve been a big fan of your site for years and years.
Angela Bourassa: That’s always nice to hear. So let’s dive in. Is this the first feature length script you ever wrote?
Ken Aguado: Yes, that’s right, my first script. I was a late bloomer.
Angela Bourassa: How did your experience as a producer inform your writing process?
Ken Aguado: Really, it was very helpful. When I was thinking about what I might want to write, I knew I didn’t want it to be a superhero film or some other epic. First of all, those kinds of films are really hard to get made, despite the fact that they seem to be everywhere. And I didn’t have access to some well-known IP to adapt, so that was a disadvantage. And, probably like many first-time writers, I wanted to write something meaningful and from the heart. The producer in me knew that the place where dramas were still getting made was in the faith film space. So that’s what I chose.
Angela Bourassa: There does seem to be quite a bit of opportunity, relatively speaking, in the faith film market for interested writers. What advice would you give to a writer crafting a faith-based screenplay, both from a producer’s and a writer’s perspective?
Ken Aguado: Yes, it’s a huge underserved marketplace. And the dramas in that space are usually low budget — under $2.5 million — and many have grossed $30 million to $80 million at the US box office. As for my advice, I think you first must have an affinity for the topic. Most screenwriters I know are not attracted to the genre. Assuming you are, it would be ideal to find a beloved novel or true story to adapt. That always gives you a leg up in the marketplace. But, again, that also means you must be attuned to that part of the marketplace. I had some very specific ideas I wanted to tackle, so my process was to go original.
Angela Bourassa: Was there anything about the writing process that surprised you?
Ken Aguado: I’ve developed so many scripts in my life and worked with so many writers, so I think I already had a good appreciation for the process. I have enormous respect for screenwriters. Weirdly, I probably learned more about myself in the process than screenwriting, per se. For example, one of the underappreciated skills a screenwriter must have is the ability to put their butt in the chair for months at a time and grind through draft after draft. So, I learned that I probably became a producer because I didn’t have that skill! The work-around for me was to write really, really fast, and that’s what I did. I wrote my script in about six weeks, mostly between the quiet time of Thanksgiving through the new year.
Angela Bourassa: In this story, you do a great job of continually raising the stakes by strategically revealing important bits of information throughout the story. You also purposefully mislead the audience about one aspect of the story and then reveal your twist near the midpoint. So my question is, how did you go about plotting out the story? Were you aiming for a big reveal every however-many pages, or did the structure work itself out in a more organic way?
Ken Aguado: Let me first say that I’m not a fan of most faith films I see. While I appreciate their message and intent, many of them play more like 90-minute “prayer rallies” than cinema. I am a Hollywood guy, so I vowed that my version of a faith film would contain the narrative values I love. An Interview with God is really more of a character mystery than anything else, with two to three major plot twists along the way, including the one big misdirection you cite. The film is not what most people are expecting, based on the concept.
To plot the film, I just did a two to three page outline, by acts, with the twists, by acts. Maybe I didn’t know better! But I am not a big believer in the 20 page outlines that some writers do. And, as a producer, I never like to get those long outlines from the writers I work with, although they might do a detailed outline for themselves. As it turned out, my script ended up very close to the layout I did in my outline.
Angela Bourassa: The premise of getting a chance to ask God all of your questions is so enticing. I’d imagine it could have been very easy to make this a 200-page script with all the various topics you might be tempted to include. And I know that’s a problem that writers in all genres face when they’re delving into a world that personally fascinates them. How did you go about crafting the interview scenes so that they kept pushing the story forward?
Ken Aguado: That’s a great question and the short answer is that I was very mindful of not letting my personal obsessions get the better of me. The long answer is that my general inclination is to underwrite, and I did not let the dialogue go “naturalistic,” which tends to eat up the page count as characters fumble to communicate. The scenes are very focused and play more like a tennis match or battle of wills. And, as a producer, I wanted the option of making this film for very low cost, so I limited my first draft to 90 pages. The shooting draft ended up at 99 pages, after I incorporated notes and expanded the scope a bit.
Angela Bourassa: Final question. What advice would you offer to someone who wants to use their script to get across a particular message? Not necessarily a religious message, but any sort of moral or lesson.
Ken Aguado: That’s another great question. In one sense, all screenwriters should have a message, or theme, in their work, even though most commercial films and series are pretty simplistic such as, “Good triumphs over evil” or, “To find love, you must first love yourself.” I think “message” becomes a problem when the viewer senses more agenda than entertainment. I like to half-joke that the plot of every film or TV series is just people we like not getting the things they want. But this is another way of saying, stay focused on creating compelling characters and give us a reason to turn the page. This is what I tried to do with An Interview with God. And if the film also makes you think, that’d be fine with me.
Update: An Interview with God is currently available on Netflix.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.