When David Branson Smith C’06 visited Philadelphia this past spring, he hiked from Rittenhouse Square to the movie theater at 40th and Walnut. Inside, he discovered that it hadn’t changed much since his own Penn days. Except for this: when he sat down to watch A Wrinkle in Time, he first saw a preview for the movie he had just finished working on.
It was a surreal moment for Smith, who remembers himself as an “unremarkable” student in film classes at Penn, but has now won the Sundance Film Festival’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Ingrid Goes West (2017) and recently overhauled the script for Adrift, which came out on June 1.
With those two miles-apart films—the first a low-budget dark comedy, the second a $35 million action-drama—Smith is watching his screenwriting career pick up speed after more than a decade of almost-there’s. “I spent so long writing scripts that would get a little bit of attention in a narrow orbit of executives,” he says. “Now I just feel really, really grateful.”
Smith showed up in LA two weeks after graduating from Penn. His first job, a production assistant gig on the Spanish-language version of “Deal or No Deal” (“Vas o No Vas”), mostly involved snapping photos of potential contestants against a white wall and tacking them onto a board.
“My plan was basically to come out, start working, and then figure out how to get a job in the movie business,” he says. Soon he found a way in: a mailroom post at the talent agency Endeavor. Smith talked with Gazette contributor Molly Petrilla C’06 about what it’s like to work your way up in Hollywood, his accelerating screenwriting career, and why he approaches every job as though it’s his last. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
After “Vas o No Vas,” you went to work in the Endeavor mailroom. Why was that a bigger opportunity than it might sound like?
The mailroom is basically a pool of potential laborers who wait until assistants quit or get new jobs. It’s this system that still exists in Hollywood where you start at the bottom, literally delivering mail to the agents, and then slowly but surely you can get on a desk and you’re that person’s assistant. I was in the mailroom for four months and then I got a job on a motion picture lit desk, which is an agent that represents writers and directors.
How did that job affect your own writing?
As an assistant, you’re on every call and you get to see every script that comes through. I quickly started to see how it worked and have a better sense of my place in it all as a screenwriter.
My boss Tom Strickler represented [the screenwriter] Michael Arndt, who had won the Oscar that year for Little Miss Sunshine. That was really inspiring because Michael had been working as Matthew Broderick’s assistant and—like me—scrambling to write at night. Tom also represented [director] Bennett Miller, who did Capote and Foxcatcher. I remember getting to listen to 45-minute-long calls with [Strickler] and Bennett talking about Foxcatcher and going through the script. I started getting a deeper sense of how people who I admired and whose movies I liked operated.
And it was [at Endeavor] that I met my friend Teddy, who I wrote with for the first five years of my career. We started writing at night while we were assistants and did it as a let’s just see if we can do this thing. He had written scripts before, so I felt like he could provide the screenwriting expertise that I had proven not to have at Penn.
You eventually worked for Mike White, the writer behind School of Rock and—when you were with him—the HBO show “Enlightened.” What was that like?
It was the job I had been trying to get since I got out here. They were just going into production on season one, and I really admired him as a writer, so I was really excited to work for him. He ended up being a supercool guy who encouraged me to write at work. And whenever he needed a vegan lunch or for me to pick up his parrot or to walk his bulldogs, I did that.
It was also my first time on a real set after being in the movie business for years. So I got to be there writing and watching Jonathan Demme directing barefoot and shouting ‘cosmic!’ instead of cut and crying at takes. I felt like I was inching closer and closer to actually writing full time and getting a movie made.
And then you did: Ingrid Goes West. How’d that story and script come about?
I had lunch one day with Matt Spicer, the director and my co-writer [on Ingrid]. We were both 10 years into being in LA and we were commiserating over not getting anything made but feeling like we were close. We conceived of this idea as something that we could make for under $1 million and went into it with the expectation that we would make it as a true, low-budget indie. Then we finished the script and we actually got Aubrey Plaza attached pretty fast.
Ingrid is about a twenty-something who’s consumed by her Instagram obsession—which means it’s a story that couldn’t have existed even a decade ago, before Instagram. Did you worry about capturing such a precise moment in pop culture?
I feel like it is aging well, which was our biggest fear initially. We worried that we were boxing ourselves into a moment in time, but I think that if we continue to spiral into social-media-obsessed, data-mining life, then maybe it’ll continue to be relevant.
And what about the tone of the movie? Did you set out to write it as a dark comedy, or is that something that clicked into place during the writing process?
Tonally, it was really hard [to write]. We knew we wanted to do a dark comedy, but we tried to write it as a comedy. We were picking from real life in our research—people that we knew—and trying not to take ourselves too seriously. We always thought about Ingrid our worst impulses magnified by a thousand. She exhibits pretty outsize tendencies, so there was the temptation to go really hard and try to be biting, but we tried to measure the tone and make it clear that we weren’t just making fun of this world. We were almost celebrating it as people who used Instagram and thought of it as this amazing little portal into our generation. It was a full-spray approach of satire everywhere, and we hoped the audience would get that Ingrid was a lonely person living in a ridiculous world.
What was it like going to Sundance with Ingrid?
I’d never been to Sundance before, and I’d always vowed to only go if I had a movie there. That week was one of the best parts of the entire process because I had dreamed of it for so long. Sundance, for me and for this type of movie, was the goal. Then on top of that, we got the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the end, which was completely unexpected and really special. I think it was actually the first award I had ever won in my life.
How did you feel about Ingrid’s reception in general?
There are always going to be some sour grapes out there, especially with a movie like this, but we got a lot of praise and response from people who are our peers, which felt really good. I was reading think pieces where someone was deconstructing my script, so that was amazing. The only time that it got negative, irony of ironies, was when I got too deep on social media and the Twitter mentions.
And then how did you get involved with the Adrift script?
I was just finishing up [writing for the Lifetime series] Unreal. I got a call saying that there was this movie that was going into production in a couple months and they needed someone to come in and do a pass on the characters and dialogue. It ended up being a lot more than that. I got hired on it pretty quickly and met with the director, Baltasar [Kormákur], and [star] Shailene Woodley a couple times, got their marching orders, and literally started writing in the director’s hotel room at the Chateau Marmont.
It was a crazy four weeks where I was just working on it non-stop. I did a draft, handed it in, and then just as I was sitting back to look for the next job, I got a call from the director saying that they wanted to bring me on to do another month of work on location, which was in Fiji. I was there right up until the Friday before they started shooting. That’s when I finished my draft and handed it in. I really just went head first into [this script] and let it consume my life for two months.
How did you get through that period of such intense writing? That’s a lot of pressure to be working under.
It was the first situation I’d ever been in—and I kind of enjoyed it as a writer—where the stakes were so high. Everything that we were doing in that last week was having such a dramatic effect on what would be the actual shooting script. So it felt like there were a lot of eyes on me. It was like, if I don’t make this scene as good as I can make it, then I will have failed all these investors and people that have expectations. Guided by wanting to prove myself, I just worked. But I reached the end of my rope in Fiji. I couldn’t even type by the end of it.
And what are you working on now?
I’m actually about to go meet up with Matt [Spicer]. We’re writing what will hopefully be his next movie. It’s pretty early stages, but it’s going to be another technology movie—but much different. A little bit more in the model of The Truman Show or Her or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I guess there’s a term for this, which I just found out yesterday: ‘soft sci-fi.’
Does it feel like a lot of opportunities are starting to open up for you in Hollywood now?
Kind of. It feels the same, but with a little added pressure. My meetings and everything have taken on more significance now. I think that the silver lining of spending 10 years writing scripts, working in random assistant jobs, and trying to figure out my place in Hollywood is that it’s going to keep me in check, hopefully, and make me go into each project as if it’s my last—thinking I should be so lucky, and that this has to be the best script that I can possibly come up with, or else I’ve not done my job and they won’t let me make another one of these.