Sunday, January 17, 2016

Five Minutes with Screenwriter Matthew Dressel

In 1993 I had the opportunity to be an extra in a Hollywood film, Iron Will. It was indeed exhilarating, with the result that I ended up pitching a script idea to the Disney producer here in Duluth. He ultimately said he would read what I wrote, which lead to a second screenplay in a different genre. Though he flattered me and encouraged me to come to Hollywood, I declined as "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." I had a job and I've known a few people who were lured away to pursue dreams than eventually turned to ashes. 

Even though the competition is fierce, there are still opportunities for serious writers who wish to produce films or see their stories translated to film.

Last week I met Matthew Dressel, a local screenwriter here in Duluth who has been involved with the industry for more than a decade. I asked him. I asked if he might be able to share part of his passion and offer suggestions to others with film making aspirations.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in screenwriting?

Matthew Dressel: I’ve always been interested in telling stories and filmmaking. I know it’s cliche to say that I’ve been interested in filmmaking for as long as I can remember, but it’s true. When I was five years old, I used to relish the times my dad would borrow my grandpa’s VHS camcorder (the massive kind you’d lug over your shoulder.) I’d look for an opportunity to use it and even tape myself doing banal things like reading the Movies section from the newspaper. Eventually I realized the camcorder could be used to tell actual stories, and so I started making short films. This desire to tell stories carried through high school and into college. If I could find a way to incorporate a short film into a class project, you’d better believe I did it (even when it wasn’t entirely appropriate.)

While I enjoyed being behind the camera, I found that my strength and passion was really with the storytelling. I wanted to tell stories that really resonated and struck a chord with people. And the best kind of stories to do that with were comedies, because I would get instant gratification. With any other genre, you need to wait to hear what people thought of it, but with comedies, there’s no real ambiguity. And because comedy is so subjective and personal, whenever I am able to make someone laugh with a joke or a story, I feel like I’m connecting with them in some way.

EN: You’ve had a measure of success. What kind of training did you undergo to prepare? What has been most valuable?

MD: I was entirely self-taught, and didn’t bother to read any books or take any classes. Whenever I would open a book on screenwriting, I would just get really anxious and close it by the end of the first chapter. The reason is because every single book I ever read starts with a couple chapters detailing why you WON’T make it in this industry. I know the authors are trying to “be real”, but honestly, eventually it just feels like they’re trying to scare away the competition.

So I turned to reading professional scripts. I figured the best way was to read what was selling, and just copy that. I also involved myself in an amateur screenwriting message board, and traded work with other aspiring screenwriters. This was essential in my training: learning to take criticism. The people I ran into on this board were some of the toughest critics I’ve ever handed my work to; most of them were downright trolls. But, in the end, it just gave me thicker skin, which is absolutely essential for this business.

EN: You mentioned an appreciation for the Coen brothers and their work. What is it about the Coen brothers that resonates with you?

MD: I love the Coen brothers’ versatility. There isn’t a genre those guys can’t knock out of the park. And I love how they take each genre and inject so much meaning into it. Their movies are never base level. They always have a lot to them, which inspires repeat viewings. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen Barton Fink. In fact, I just watched it a month ago and noticed something I had never noticed before that changed my entire interpretation of it.

From a story standpoint, I love how their movies are about people making decisions (usually bad, and usually involving money) that lead to a whole host of ever-mounting problems. And depending on the genre, that can either lead to hilarious misunderstandings and confusion or a horrifying amount of death and destruction. And either way, it’s entertaining to watch. Their movies are never boring.

EN: What are you currently working on?

MD: I’m currently finishing up a thriller with a director from Australia. Drawing inspiration from the Coens, it’s about a guy who makes a very bad decision that leads to many, many problems for him. It was interesting because the decision this guy makes is very bad, but he’s put through the ringer pretty bad throughout the entirety of the film, so I really had to think about type of ending that was right for him. Do I absolve him of his sins with a happy ending, or show that his wrongdoings set his fate in stone? It was tough. Honestly, I wanted a downer ending, but I don’t think that’s how it’ll go.

I’d love to stop writing about death and people killing each other for awhile. My last two scripts have centered around it (one a comedy, one a thriller), and it’d be nice to write something fluffy for a change.

EN: Movies take an incredibly long time from idea to silver screen. Why is this?

MD: It’s hard to boil this down to a simple answer but I’ll do my best. In the end, there are just so many people involved, and each time someone comes aboard, the project (and its trajectory) can change drastically. Couple that with the fact that movies need two things: (1) money and (2) actors. Actors won’t sign onto a script without money, and the money usually won’t come without actors. So it’s a long process of waiting one or the other out. It can take years.

EN: Is the screenwriting group that you are part of an open group that others interested in screenwriting can attend or be part of? Can you describe the group and what you do?

MD: Yes, the group is entirely open to everyone. It’s for both filmmakers and film lovers alike. It’s called The Duluth Film Collective, and it’s mainly comprised of three sections: our official meeting, Creative Coffees, and screenings. Our official meeting (once a month) is a chance for everyone to get together, have some food and drinks, and talk about movies. The Creative Coffees are a chance for creatives to come together and discuss works-in-progress, share scenes and just provide feedback. It’s a fun chance to watch the process of someone working on a script from conception to the finished product. And finally, we get together to watch screenings of recent films and discuss them afterward. It’s a great group and I’d really like to see it flourish even more than it already has.

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Learn more about Matthew Dressel and his work at

Photo credits: Top left, courtesy Matt Dressel. Lower right, Ed Newman. Painting by Ed Newman.

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