Beer and Tacos with Critic-Turned-Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill


Fantastic Fest 2007: Awards ceremony

2011 has been a banner year for local film writer C. Robert Cargill. Cargill, known to Ain't It Cool News readers as Massawyrm and to readers as Carlyle, recently celebrated his 10-year anniversary at AICN. In even better news, the movie critic just signed a deal for the production of a screenplay he wrote.

A couple of weeks ago, we sat down for beer and tacos at Austin's famous Torchy's Tacos.

Slackerwood: How did you start writing?

Cargill: I wrote my first story when I was five. It was a Scooby Doo episode where I drew all of the pictures and wrote the story.

When I was 15, there was a girl that was kidnapped in San Antonio and this captivated the town for some time. At some point they found a suspect, a guy that had helped with the search. They raided his house, after which his name and picture were all over the news. Everyone was talking about him. They were talking about him as though he was guilty. It was a huge media circus. I all of 15 years old, asked myself how could they treat him like that. This really pissed me off. I wrote an editorial and sent it to both local newspapers. The following week, both newspapers printed it. That editorial was the first time my parents realized that I was serious about it [being a writer] and I got the first taste of being published. So I wrote a couple more letters to the editor, kept writing, went to college, studied philosophy and film and was always working on stuff.

When was the first time you were published professionally?

The first time I got paid to do it was when I was 30. I had been blogging for five years but not for pay, for secondary benefits. I decided I was going to make a go at writing, because this is what I loved, so I quit my day job, my wife said, "I'll give you a year. If you can make a go of it great, if not then you will need to get a job and writing will be your hobby."

Within a few months Harry [Knowles] decided he wanted to pay me at Aint it Cool News. After that I was contacted by Later that year a project we worked on, "The Real Deal" got picked up and we got paid for that as well. So now I am ekeing out a respectable existence doing it. By the end of the year I was making more than when I had a job. At this point it was a no-brainer for me to keep doing it.

How did you end up writing for Harry and AICN?

I had gone to a very early screening thrown by Harry of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I was talking about it in the AICN chat rooms and one of the guys on there, Anghus Houvouras who had a small website called Guerilla Film (no longer around), asked me to write up a review. I said yes and he posted it. That review got more traffic than anything he had ever posted. It got 50,000 hits in a day and in the year 2000 that was really exciting. He asked if I would come on and write regularly for him. So I came on and wrote a few articles for him.

I had begun hanging around with Eric Vespe [aka Quint at Ain't it Cool]. At some point Eric asked, "Why aren't you writing for AICN?" I told Eric I wanted to stay where I was. These guys offered me my shot and I wanted to stay loyal. He asked me again and my answer was pretty much the same. He asked me a third time, and by this point I was not getting on any lists or going to any screenings. I was like, hey these guys will publish my writing and give me something to write about.

So Harry brought me on as the indie-indie guy. Harry would get stacks of VHS and DVDs of independent undistributed films and didn't have time to watch them. He wanted to have a guy sit down and watch them and write up the best of them, and get them some exposure. So that's what I did and how I got my gig. That was the summer Harry re-injured his back and he couldn't go to a lot of movies. So he gave me movie tickets and said I need to write these up for AICN.

C. Robert CargillWhat year did you start writing for AICN?

2001. It was 10 years ago this month.

You said you got paid the first time when you were 30. So how old are you?

I'm 35. I've been writing for Harry for 10 years. Five of them were for free. He got me to write for him for five years for absolutely nothing.

So lets talk about your new gig -- who's your writing partner?

Scott Derrickson. He's directed a number of films: The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

How did you meet him?

He has been a frequent reader of AICN since he was in film school in the 90s. He started reading my stuff and noticed that we had incredibly similar taste in films. Whenever I would recommend a film he had written off, he would go see that film and fall in love with it like I did and then he started writing me letters about that. I think the first film he wrote me about was Bug. I wrote him a letter back, unsure if he was who he really said he was. Occasionally, when you write for AICN you get "trolls" who pretend to be somebody that it's hard to verify. You get cautious about that stuff. I wrote him back and we eventually corresponded about a number of different movies.

There was one point where Harry laid into him really hard. There was a five-minute scene of The Day the Earth Stood Still posted online. Derrickson had a great day because everyone had great reactions to it. A lot of the blogs really liked it. And then Harry saw it and wrote his take on it. Which was particularly vicious and just tore it apart. It changed his [Derrickson's] entire mood and it changed the way everyone looked at it. He wrote me and was just heartbroken: "What do I do? I didn't expect to be so viciously laid into. If he didn't like the scene that's cool but he's taking a tack on the movie that I don't think is fair."

I wrote him back a letter essentially saying, you have to understand Harry is the son of a comic book vendor. He spent the better part of his childhood going from convention to convention and his dad would leave him in the film room. He's seen The Day the Earth Stood Still projected easily 50 times. This is one of his childhood favorites and here's a fan of the original who thinks you are doing it wrong. Read it from that perspective and you'll get what Harry's talking about. He wrote me back saying thanks and that he didn't know that about Harry. That makes sense. He re-reads it and it made sense from the standpoint of a fan.

We started writing back and forth even more. He's like, "Hey, I really want to meet you and I want you to see my movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Can I fly you up for the premiere?" I'm like, sure I'd love to meet, and that's how we met. We met over dinner the night before we went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still. And we've kept in touch ever since.

How did the screenwriting angle come in?

That's where the story gets crazy. My wife and I hadn't been on a vacation in a long time. A couple of friends invited us to Vegas. We picked a random weekend and while I was there I was Twittering about it and Scott messages me on Twitter saying: "Holy crap you're in Vegas. I'm going to Vegas tomorrow. We have to get together and get a drink."

He messaged me when got to town to visit his brother. So we hung out, did the strip and ended up at Mandalay Bay and decided to have drinks. And by the fifth White Russian I am nice and buzzy and Scott's like, "Let me run this movie idea by you to get your opinion." I said, "Sure, I'll give you my opinion I have after five White Russians." He told me his idea and I really liked it. So I said, "Now that you mention it, I've had this idea for a movie bouncing around in my head for a while." I told him my idea and he liked it. So he said, "When you get home, write it up, submit it to the WGA as a treatment so that I can start taking it around." I'm like, sure.

Ran into him the next day and he's like: "Hey, that idea you told me about, write it up and submit it to the WGA." I'm like, "All right, cool." Next day, I am at home totally Vegas-ed, he's like: "Hey Cargill, I know you are tired I just want to remind you to write it up and submit it to the WGA so we can take it around." It just so happened that the next week I was going to stay at his house when I when I headed to L.A. to see Red State.

So this all happened in the last six months?

Yes! This all happened in January and it was insanity. Things happened really fast. I was already scheduled to go out to L.A. and stay with him [Derrickson]. And now he has this pitch he wants to take around. He set up some meetings with people who might be interested in and one of them is Jason Blum. Jason Blum hears the pitch and says right there, "I want to make this movie."

So it's been several months of putting the deal together and everything assembled and there it is. It's one of the superfast stories. You either have the overnight story or the five years of beating feet and I had the superfast all of the sudden: "Hey look, we want to make this movie."

Scott's idea was, we're gonna sit down and see what it was like to write with each other. After writing with me for a couple of weeks he's like, "I want to write with you. I love this experience and I want to keep working with you." And I feel the same way.

Did you do that here or did you do that in Los Angeles?

I do it here and he does it there. We spend about an hour each day on the phone with each other catching each other up. We also message each other back and forth via email and Twitter. It's easy in this day and age for two people to work very closely together without being in the same state.

So you and Scott write together but apart?

Yes. We have a very interesting workflow. He has kids so he's an early riser. Het gets his kids off to school and he is ready to work. By 9 or 10 his time he's read to go. I'm a night owl, I go to bed between 5:30 and 7 in the morning. So I'm up all night writing sending him pages by morning, he wakes up, revises those pages, does his work and has me pages by the time I wake up. We do our phone call about what's next and we pass our work like that. So 20 hours of a given day we are working on stuff. We work very quickly together.

Is this the first screenplay you have written?

No, I've written a few other screenplays for my own edification.

What can you say about what you're working on?

We are making a horror film. It's a horror film that revolves around the discovery of a crime. And that's pretty much all they want out about it now.

When it comes to a horror film ... a horror film is sold entirely on the notion of its idea. You don't have to show a single special effect in a horror to scare the hell out of people. You just set up the movie and people are like, that sounds good. Horror is so interesting because you can do so much with so little.

How far along are you?

The script's done. We wrote the script in about six weeks. Like I said, Scott and I work very fast. Right now they are setting up when we are going to shoot it and getting everything together so we can shoot it. We're shooting the film this year and Scott's directing.

Who's your favorite screenwriter?

Brian Helgeland. Actually it's a tie -- it's Brian Helgeland and Shane Black. But I know Shane, so it's kind of a cheat to say that. Brian wrote Man on Fire. Both Brian and Shane write some of the best man dialogue. If they were still writing Spaghetti Westerns today, Brian and Shane would be writing them.

If you could write for any director on the planet who would it be?

Tony Scott.

What's your favorite movie he's ever done?

Man on Fire.

Fantastic Fest 2008: Fantastic Feud

Read Cargill's blog Not Quite There Yet to keep up with his film criticism and other writing projects.

[Photo credit: "Fantastic Fest 2007: Awards Ceremony" by Jette Kernion; "Cargill and Zack" by Debbie Cerda; "Fantastic Fest 2008: Fantastic Feud" by Jette Kernion. Used with permission.]