by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Matt Lieberman is having quite the moment. Since 2018, a whopping seven films have been produced from his screenplays including The Christmas Chronicles 1&2, Scoob!, The Addams Family, and the upcoming films Free Guy and Rumble.
I recently had the chance to chat with Matt about his writing career, his definition of “high concept,” and how not thinking of four quadrant scripts as “family films” has contributed to his success.
Angela Bourassa: I wonder if, to start things off, you could tell me a bit about your backstory – how you got interested in screenwriting, how you got your big break, all of that.
Matt Lieberman: Okay. I’ve always loved movies, was always into writing. I didn’t really put it together that screenwriting was a career until late in my time at NYU. I took a course in screenwriting there where I was the only person who finished a script, so the teacher took me under his wing and kind of showed me how to get representation and gave me a boost.
I also realized that it’s something I love to do and something I didn’t have to ask for a bunch of favors in order to do. If you want to produce, you need a lot of money and a lot of favors, so it was something I could do by myself in my own room. I moved out to LA armed with a basic idea of how to query agents and managers and a sense of the movies I liked. I gravitate toward high concept movies, and I think that gave me a leg up, especially in terms of selling original ideas.
Angela Bourassa: Sure. So did you pretty much go straight from film school to working as a screenwriter?
Matt Lieberman: No, there were probably… ten years? (How many years?) There were many years in between of hustling. I got an agent, I would say, pretty quickly. But to go from moving out to LA to becoming a professional screenwriter took a couple of years and a couple of scripts – at least a half dozen scripts.
Angela Bourassa: Okay. What did you go to film school for, if it wasn’t for screenwriting?
Matt Lieberman: Back when I went to NYU, you could either do film production or film theory. So I did film production, and it was mostly making short black and white films, documentaries, videos… and screenwriting was almost supplementary. You had one or two required a screenwriting classes, but that was it. There was no clear path. That was more graduate-level work.
Angela Bourassa: Interesting. Is producing still something you’re looking to do or that you’re doing now?
Matt Lieberman: Yeah, I’m getting more producing credits on my scripts that I’m selling and projects that I get to work on. I love working with other producers, too. As a writer, I feel that some of my favorite producers are writers – they usually have the best notes, for sure.
Angela Bourassa: That’s great. You’ve obviously got a lot of great credits and a lot of exciting things coming up. I saw that Free Guy was on the 2016 Black List, but you’d actually already sold it when the list came out, is that right?
Matt Lieberman: Yes, I sold that first week of November 2016.
Angela Bourassa: Did making the Black List have a big impact on your career or was it just sort of icing on the cake at that point?
Matt Lieberman: Yeah, the Black List was icing on the cake. Selling the script, much more important, and having the sample itself definitely made the biggest impact. I don’t recall ever someone saying, “Oh, well, you were on the Black List, so that’s why I called you in for this job,” or something. Though I’m sure that happened, too.
Angela Bourassa: Which did you write first, Free Guy or The Christmas Chronicles?
Matt Lieberman: Christmas Chronicles I sold in 2012.
Angela Bourassa: Oh, wow.
Matt Lieberman: Yeah. It was a spec script, I wrote it pretty quickly, and then had the dream spec weekend where there was a lot of buzz about it, and I got the call on Tuesday that Chris Columbus loved my script, which was like a dream come true, and he bought it with his own financing.
Angela Bourassa: That’s amazing. Okay, so that took six years to get made and now you’ve turned around Part 2 in two years… That must have been a bit of a whirlwind.
Matt Lieberman: Exactly, well, that’s how it kind of seems to be, ya know? Development takes a long time until a major piece or a timeline gets involved. In the case of The Christmas Chronicles, it was Netflix who got involved and they needed a film for 2018, and they got involved in the end of 2017, so it was like, “If you can hit these notes within (I think it was less than two months?) then we will give it a green light,” basically.
And then with The Christmas Chronicles: Part 2, they wanted it in two years, so you have this ticking timeline with Kurt Russell and Chris Columbus’s involvement. So, yeah, it’s much easier than, “Here’s a great piece of material, but what do we do with it? Who do we get attached?”
Same with Free Guy. Fox always loved it. Always championed it. We were working on it… but nothing. There were directors flirting with it, but nothing serious… and then Ryan Reynolds read it one day, and it was the same thing. Ryan Reynolds loves your script? Boom, rocket ship. Suddenly it jumped a million hurdles.
Angela Bourassa: That’s great. So with Part 2, I don’t imagine when you wrote the first script, you had an idea of what a second might be. How did that come together for you? What was that process like?
Matt Lieberman: Yeah, I did not have any idea that this would be any kind of franchise when I sold it. [Laughs] It was like a small found footage Santa movie. Two kids capture Santa, but Santa was barely in it. We added more Santa for Netflix when they became involved. So then, when I visited set for the first one, Chris approached me and he was like, “Kurt and I have been thinking and we have a couple of neat ideas for a sequel,” and then I was like, “Oooh, we’re talking sequel? This is exciting.” And then once that film wrapped, I sat down with Chris and we outlined what the next movie could be – how to build out the world, how to make a sequel that felt like it had a reason to exist. And that’s how it came together.
Angela Bourassa: That’s great. You mentioned that high concept is your big thing. I feel the same way. For me, that’s what draws me to an idea and what I get excited about in the first place. I’m curious what your definition of high concept is.
Matt Lieberman: That’s a great question. Something with an ironic hook, I think. And it has to organically be about something, thematically. When those two things are in place, it passes the test. Whether it’s a piece of IP – I kind of approach IP this way, too – whether it’s a piece of IP that everybody’s heard about or a spec script that I’m making alone in my room, [I ask] is this idea something that, if I saw it in a couple of lines, I would be like, “Oh, I wanna see that. That’s an exciting idea. I see where it could go, and it would get me to buy a ticket.” My favorite movies growing up were Groundhog Day, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters… So I definitely gravitate towards those types of ideas.
Free Guy, for example, came about because I was like, “What if you had the cheat codes to life? What if there were powers out in the world that you just needed to unlock?” And then I kind of backed into this idea that it was a Grand Theft Auto-type world and it would be a background player, and then it really clicked.
Angela Bourassa: I love that. So, what would you say then is your defining characteristic as a writer? Is it simply high concept, or four-quadrant theatrical stuff? What makes an exec say, “Matt Lieberman is the guy we need for this particular project”?
Matt Lieberman: Yeah, I would say both of those things. High concept, four quadrant. I’ve been doing a lot of family films, and I think it’s because I don’t look at them as family films. I just try to find what the big, cool idea is that would get me as an adult as excited as it would my daughter. So yeah: ideas. I’m definitely an idea guy.
Angela Bourassa: How old is your daughter?
Matt Lieberman: She’s eleven.
Angela Bourassa: Eleven. Okay, I was going to ask if being a parent slows you down, but probably not so much, since she’s pretty self-sufficient at that age. (My son is four.)
Matt Lieberman: Yeah, having a kid I definitely shifted from writing all night to writing during the day, which was definitely a change for me. But other than that, it hasn’t really slowed me down. I like writing a bunch of things at once, I like working on multiple projects at once. I’m good at compartmentalizing, I guess.
Angela Bourassa: Well, what’s your secret?? [Laughs] So, I in this last year signed with my first agents and got a manager and things have been kind of blowing up for me in my own screenwriting career, which is—
Matt Lieberman: Congrats!
Angela Bourassa: Thank you! It’s been very exciting, but it’s also very overwhelming having multiple different things to pitch on and writing at the same time. How do you manage your day and your time so that you don’t end up… See, for me, I’ll be writing one script but thinking about a different one and then I just get nothing done. So how do you make that work in your brain?
Matt Lieberman: Right, well I do the same thing, too. But I think for the most part, I usually think it’s good not to overthink things. I feel like when I just have one thing for some reason – like during the quarantine, I’ve thinned out my workload and just concentrated on one or two things, and I don’t know if it was better because I think I then tend to overthink things and drill down harder than I normally would. I think usually someone’s knee-jerk reaction is pretty close to the right reaction, and you can spend a month and probably get to the same place you would have got if you just had a week.
So I give myself deadlines. I self-impose deadlines, so if a producer calls like, “How’s it going?” I’ll say, “Oh, I’ll have it for you by the end of the week” sometimes if I don’t even have something. And I’ve almost always met that date.
Also, when you’re working on something – I don’t know if you find this – but if I start working on something in the morning by 9am, by one o’clock I’m usually pretty done for the day with that.
Angela Bourassa: Sure.
Matt Lieberman: Unless it’s really flowing. So rather than just sit and look at the internet for three more hours, I switch gears, put something else in front of me, and look at that with fresh eyes.
Angela Bourassa: That’s good. What about managing your writing versus meetings? Do you have, like, morning is your writing time, and if you have generals or pitches, you try to put them in the afternoon?
Matt Lieberman: That’s exactly it. Morning is definitely my better writing time, my best writing hours. So if I have meetings, I’ll put them in the afternoon. Obviously, these days, Zoom has really helped. You don’t have to kill a whole afternoon going to one meeting. You could just get in and out. I hope that sticks around a little bit when this is all over… But yeah, you definitely have to know your own flow and you tailor to that.
Angela Bourassa: Going a little deeper there, how do you feel about Zoom meetings and whether they’ve improved things? Has the way you pitch changed over Zoom versus how you would do it in a room?
Matt Lieberman: A little bit. I have mixed feelings about it. Like I said, I love not having to kill a whole afternoon to go to a meeting and I like not having an exec feel obligated to have chit-chat for twenty minutes when you just want to get to the business. [Laughs.] That being said, you definitely do miss a little bit of the in-person – there’s something a little lost there.
And pitching is different. You have to be a little sharper, I think. If you have a visual aid, you kind of have to have that all ready to go, ’cause a little stumble could take somebody out of it. And then, of course, they have their dogs barking or something in their house, too, and it gets really distracting. But I do prefer it over a phone call. Phone call pitches are the absolutely worst for me, because I just picture everybody rolling their eyes or something and I get really insecure. At least with Zoom you can see if somebody’s smiling back at you and responding or not.
Angela Bourassa: Right, right, that’s good. One last question: since you’re such a prolific writer, and it seems like you get things down pretty fast, have you explored other mediums, like writing short stories instead of spec scripts? Or I know execs are always ending meetings with, “If you find an article or a short story that you want to do”… Do you look for material like that on your own or do you normally wait for things to be brought to you? So two questions, I guess.
Matt Lieberman: I definitely look for material on my own for sure. It’s definitely good to be proactive as long as you’re working with your representatives, and you’re not going down any kind of road on something that doesn’t belong to you. But reading is definitely important to coming up with ideas and getting into an idea mode. It’s not like an idea just pops into your head – that happens maybe once a year? You really have to be looking for ideas.
And I’ve wanted to write a short story or a book. It’s definitely funny to me how you can pitch something and it’s a pitch and then the studio buys it, but if you write that pitch into a book form so essentially there’s a treatment, even though it’s a short story, suddenly you have ownership of it, that you don’t have if it’s a pitch. But yeah, I have yet to do that, but it seems like something smart, if somebody has the capacity to do that.
The Christmas Chronicles 2 is currently available on Netflix. Free Guy is due out in 2021.
Angela Bourassa is a working screenwriter, the founder of LA Screenwriter, and the co-founder of Write/LA. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela is repped by Fourward and UTA.