With Ingrid Goes West and Adrift, screenwriter David Branson Smith is finding Hollywood success after a decade of almost-theres.
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 forIngrid Goes West (2017) and recently overhauled the script for Adrift, in theaters over the summer.
With those two miles-apart films—the first a low-budget dark comedy, the second a $35 million adventure drama—Smith is watching his screenwriting career pick up speed after more than a decade of almost-theres. “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.
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 cowriter [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 20-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.
How did you feel about Ingrid ’s reception?
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 nonstop. 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.
How did you get through that period of intense writing?
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.
What are you working on now?
A script that I started writing in 2010 with two of my collaborators is finally being turned into a movie with Ridley Scott’s company producing. It starts shooting in Massachusetts at the end of August. It’s called Jungleland, Max Winkler is directing, and it will star Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell.
I also re-teamed with Star Thrower Entertainment—the producers ofIngrid Goes West—to option Elliott Holt’s 2013 novel You Are One Of Them, which I’m currently adapting into a feature script.
Are opportunities 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.