Like many of us, Tobias Iaconis ‘93 arrived at Haverford College unsure of what career he wanted to pursue. He was only sure of his love for movies, storytelling, and writing. A few years into college, he became interested in film production and developed a specific interest in screenwriting. After graduating from Haverford with a degree in English and a concentration in creative writing, Iaconis moved to Los Angeles to chase a career as a screenwriter.
Iaconis attended a screenwriting program at UCLA, where he met his eventual screenwriting partner, Mikki Daughtry. Soon after, he discovered a production assistant opportunity at a nearby entertainment company. Despite competing against some professional writers for the position, Iaconis’ writing ability and film pitches shined brightly, and a few key recommendation letters from previous bosses helped him secure the job. He captivated studios with his pitches, and over time, his writing ability attracted attention from Hollywood executives.
After writing a few movies that never made the big screen, his first official film, Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia, starring Joe Manganiello and Ken Anderson, was produced in 2009. A few years later, Iaconis officially began his writing partnership with Daughtry. Together, they wrote their first theatrical films: The Curse Of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini and Raymond Cruz, and Five Feet Apart, starring Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson, both released in 2019. Their newest film, Nightbooks, produced by the great Sam Raimi, was released on Netflix on September 15th. I had the pleasure of talking to Iaconis about Nightbooks, as well as his favorite movies, writer’s block, screenwriting tips, and more:
JM: What are some of your all-time favorite movies? Which movies or screenplays inspired you to start writing and continue to inspire you today?
TI ‘93: Well, there’s an entire generation of filmmakers and screenwriters in Los Angeles that are here because of the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, and I certainly am among those. I saw Star Wars when I was six years old in San Francisco. I think I ended up seeing it six times in theaters. I just fell in love with it. So from my sentimental perspective, I would have to put that movie at the top of my list because it really set my feet upon the path that I’m on now. Nearly 20 years later, I think the first Matrix movie was another really seminal film for me. I loved the visual spectacle of it, the originality, how novel it was. How it brought, like Star Wars, brand new things to the table when it came to filmmaking. But at the same time, it had this really powerful story and compelling characters that really emotionally engaged you along the way, so that these amazing action sequences didn’t feel empty. You deeply cared about the outcome of every moment, every frame of that movie, because you cared so much about the characters that inhabited the story.
Have you ever experienced writer’s block? And how do you work to overcome it?
In some respect, it feels like I battle writer’s block every time I sit down to write. Writing is extremely difficult for me. A lot of writers, including myself, will say that we hate writing, but we love having written, right? The process is painful. It’s really hard work, and your sense of self-worth and self-esteem is wrapped up in that work. If people don’t like the writing, a lot of writers will interpret it as sort of an indictment of their character. I wouldn’t say that I have faced what one would traditionally call writer’s block, which is sort of staring at an empty page for days and weeks on end. Fortunately, I haven’t had that experience, at least not yet. But I definitely feel and fight a massive amount of resistance every time I sit down to start a new page. Once I’ve started, it becomes a little easier.
Do you have a favorite character or favorite scene that you’ve written?
Mikki and I both loved crafting some of the scare sequences in The Curse of La Llorona. The Curse of La Llorona is part of The Conjuring universe, which James Wan began with the first Conjuring movie. And something that James Wan had done in The Conjuring, which he really perfected the art of, is extended scare sequences, scary sequences that have their own beginning, middle and end inside the larger story. There’s several sequences like that in The Curse of La Llorona: there’s a bathtub sequence, there’s a sequence where a young girl finds that her beloved doll is outside of the house and she’s not supposed to go outside because La Llorona will get her if she goes outside the house, but she really wants to get this doll. And so these sequences, it was a real joy crafting.
As an aspiring writer myself, it seems incredibly difficult to build enough tension to write a good horror scene.
It is, yes. This is Mikki and I’s first piece of advice to any screenwriter: the first thing that she and I try to do when we approach a story is find the love story we’re trying to tell. That is always the spine, the core of any movie that Mikki and I write. If you get the love story right, you will care about those characters. And when you care about the characters and put them into scary situations, the audience will feel scared for them. If as an audience member, you’re feeling pretty cold towards the characters inhabiting the story, even a really well crafted scare sequence is not going to move the needle very much because you really don’t care what happens to these people. Find a love story and try to get that right. Get people hooked on that, then it will make your job much easier when you’re trying to scare them or thrill them or even make them laugh.
And then the other piece of advice that I give and still do to this day is read scripts that Hollywood is really getting excited about. When Mikki and I were hired for The Curse of La Llorona, we read James Wan’s script for The Conjuring and studied how he built the scare sequences. And that was super helpful to us.
Thank you for that piece of advice. Leaning into more talk about horror movies, how did you get into writing a film adaptation of the book, Nightbooks?
Prior to Nightbooks, we had a relationship with Rommel Adam, an executive at Ghost House Pictures, Sam Raimi’s horror movie production company. We had a prior relationship working on some other movies that never came to the light of day, but we really liked each other and we stayed in touch. When Ghost House Pictures and another producer, Mason Novick at MX Entertainment, got their hands on this book, they sent it to Netflix. Netflix was very interested in doing an adaptation. And so Ghost House and MX and Rommel and Mason started sending the book to a number of writers that they had worked with previously. And Mikki and I were among them. My son, who was I think 11 at the time, read the book. We all adored it, so we fought hard for this job. Producers listened to the pitches of a handful of writers, myself included. And then they picked their favorite pitches from among those and brought us in to pitch Netflix. I think there were maybe three or four other writers that were pitching for the job. Thankfully, Netflix picked Mikki and I to proceed with the adaptation.
What’s it like working with legendary filmmakers such as Sam Raimi (Nightbooks), Tim Matheson (Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia) and Justin Baldoni (Five Feet Apart)? Did you ever feel any pressure working on those screenplays? How did you deal with that pressure?
Yes. Filmmaking is a deeply collaborative art form. You’ve definitely touched on one of the more challenging aspects of it: you’re collaborating with brilliant people, people whose brilliance is intimidating. So it can be a scary and nerve-wracking experience. I’ve been fortunate that the people that you’ve mentioned have been very welcoming and open to what I and Mikki Daughtry bring to the table. They’ve made the collaboration easy, and I’m super grateful for that. Especially with someone as massively experienced as Sam Raimi. Part of our approach is to sit at the feet of the master and absorb as much as we can from him. At the time, Sam Raimi is expecting Mikki and I to do most of the work in crafting the story and so we just need to, at some point, boldly ride in there with our ideas and lay it out for him and then listen to his response, hear what he likes, hear what he doesn’t like, and then make the changes. Writing is rewriting. And so hearing feedback, getting notes, and making those changes is a huge part of working with anyone in Hollywood. But especially with folks that are really gifted, and really experienced, sometimes much more so than Mikki and I are.
Besides reading and writing scripts, for aspiring screenwriters, are there any other tips that you have or any resources that helped you along the way?
Yes. So I think the best written resource that I have found on the craft and business of screenwriting is a website called wordplayer.com, started by the writing team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio back in the 90s. The website hasn’t changed much––it still looks very much like a mid-1990s website––but it is a series of columns, most of them written by Ted or Terry, but also some guest columnists. Deeply studying all the wisdom in wordplayer.com was a huge piece of my own personal film school. I think it’s probably the very finest and instructive material written on screenwriting that’s out there. There’s plenty of screenwriting books to recommend and many of those are quite good as well. But wordplayer.com really is something special, a bit of a gem. Can’t recommend that enough.
One thing that I have found to be helpful that an aspiring writer can do without actually making the move to either of these big cities [New York or Los Angeles], is screenwriting competitions. There’s dozens if not hundreds of screenwriting competitions. Most are probably ignored by Hollywood. Obviously, every screenwriting competition will advertise itself as your way into the biz, and I think generally that’s very unlikely. But they can help you over time. They can help you see what screenplays people are responding to and what screenplays people are not responding to. There’s the Nicholl Fellowship, which is sponsored by the American Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Austin Film Festival has a screenwriting competition. Those two competitions, I would say, if you do well, it’s very likely that it will draw some attention from folks in Hollywood. And of course, you can enter screenwriting competitions from anywhere in the world. The only downside is the costs can add up. These competitions can charge anywhere from $25 to over $100 per screenplay submitted. But I found that that is a useful tool in one’s belt to gauge where your strengths and weaknesses lie and what output is working and what’s not.
And then I guess the only other thing I would mention is that I didn’t realize how important pitching would be to a screenwriting career. When I first started on this journey, I thought I would just write some brilliant pages, someone would read it, buy it, make the movie, and that’s all there would be to it. But more often than not, that’s not the case. With The Curse of La Llorona, Five Feet Apart, and Nightbooks, all of those started with pitches. Mikki and I would go in a room, usually a conference room. There would be maybe half a dozen executives and some producers in that room. And you would tell your story to them, orally, for 15 or 20 minutes, and hope to hook them. Pitching is an art form in and of itself. It’s my least favorite part of what I do. I’m not naturally any good at it. It involves a lot of acting––it’s really a bit of theater with a cast of one, or in Mikki and I’s case, a cast of two. And for writers, most of whom, including myself, are natural introverts, it’s definitely a setting that’s not comfortable. As any aspiring screenwriter is writing screenplays, it would not be a bad idea to concurrently work on pitching. Work on condensing your screenplay idea down into 15 or 20 minutes. That is very difficult: picking what you want to say and you have to, of course, omit a lot. So condensing it down to that and then practicing it, recording yourself on your phone, playing it back to yourself, will definitely come in handy when the time comes. No one had told me that skill would play such an important role in my development and in my career. So, I’m letting you and everyone out there know. Work on your pitching.
Awesome. My final question before I let you go, and again, thank you so much for your time: What would you say to the student who is interested in screenwriting but worried about taking such a huge, and potentially financial, risk for this sort of career?
It is very risky. It is more risky now than it was for me in the mid-90s because Los Angeles and New York, the two epicenters of the entertainment business in the United States, are so expensive to live in. They are economically hostile environments. Los Angeles was expensive when I rolled into town and it’s so much more so now. So there is a huge risk to coming here. That said, it is very difficult to make headway into the industry without physically being present. Since in the early 90s there was no such thing as the internet, one would think that the internet nowadays would democratize opportunity a little better. But I found that Hollywood is not a pure meritocracy. It’s also about relationships. And I’m not talking about unfair relationships or, you know, unearned relationships like “my dad is head of a studio so I’m getting a screenwriting job.” I’m talking about, you know––here’s a perfect example. Again, I go back to my first screenwriting job. Universal had read my sample script, loved it. They wanted to hear my pitch. I was competing against three or four other writers that Universal had worked with before. And Universal had liked working with those other writers. Universal had never worked with me. So even though they had read one of my screenplays, even if they had liked my pitch, even if they preferred my pitch over all the other pitches, I very likely would not have gotten that job because I was too much of an unknown for Universal. They didn’t know how it would be working with me. Would I be a collaborative partner in this filmmaking process? Would I be responsible? Would I be professional? All those sorts of things. The thing that made all the difference for me was that a woman, Belinda, was head of Universal Television at the time. And she made a phone call on my behalf and told the group I was pitching that I was a very responsible, nice guy, pleasant to work with. And I had gotten to know Belinda 10 years before. I worked with her when I was a computer guy for the company that Belinda worked at. I literally was the guy that would fix your printer jam, help you adjust the margins in Microsoft Word. That’s what I was. And that’s the kind of work I did for Belinda. All I did there was my job. I just did a good job being the best IT technician I could be. I think also at one point, Belinda had some young children that needed to get some new computers for some junior high school work. I helped Belinda get her daughters set up on some new computers. So seven years later, I’m up for this job at Universal. I emailed Belinda. I haven’t seen her or talked to her for seven years. I tell her what’s happening, that I’m up for this job. She has no idea––she never even knew I was a screenwriter, she only knew me as a computer guy. But she emailed me right back, and she said, “Tobias, of course I remember you. I am happy to call over there.” And she gave a character reference. That’s all she was doing. She had no idea if I was a good writer or a bad writer. But that wasn’t the point. I just needed somebody to tell them that I would be a good partner in making this movie. And she made that phone call. There was another gentleman I had worked with at a different company who also was able to make a similar kind of phone call. “Tobias is a great guy. I had no idea he was a screenwriter. But he was always very helpful and very pleasant, very responsible.” And so I tell that story because if I had not been in Los Angeles, working as an assistant, working as an IT technician, I would not have made these relationships with people in that very random, but also very faithful way. That paid off for me at that moment when I was up for that job. So that’s why I encourage people to, if they can, come to LA, go to New York, and get a job in the business doing whatever. Again, I was only an assistant, I was an IT guy. The people I worked with had no idea that I was going home and writing screenplays. But that wasn’t the point. I was just trying to be the best colleague that I could be. And that, you know, that paid off in spades.