You've Never Heard of One of Hollywood's Most Prolific Screenwriters
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the entertainment industry is not your friend.
By Libby Coleman
Mike Vukadinovich’s career took off when he was blacklisted. Er, actually, Black Listed.
In 2011, one of his scripts landed on the Black List, an annual compilation of the industry’s favorite unproduced scripts. It’s “the gold standard when it comes to prestige and attention, especially for writers who are not yet established,” says Tom Nunan, visiting professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. And just like that, Vukadinovich says, his phone was blowing up. Assistants whose names and numbers he didn’t know called him to congratulate him. The script, called The Three Misfortunes of Geppetto, sold to Fox in his first major sale. Most importantly, the Black Listing led to Hollywood’s most coveted currency: meetings.
Since then, the deals have kept coming — even though Vukadinovich’s concepts are often incredibly strange and not necessarily “commercial.” The Three Misfortunes of Gepetto, for instance, grew out of Vukadinovich’s meditations on Pinocchio’s puppet-maker father and why he wanted a child so badly (short answer: an evil nemesis, a curse). His second Black List appearance was in 2014, for The Secret Ingredients of Rocket Cola, an absurdist original comedy about twin brothers with opposite personalities. Separated at a young age, they are eventually reunited to save the family business, even as they’ve fallen in love with the same woman.
Vukadinovich’s star is rising, no doubt, but with an odd caveat: While many of his scripts have sold to major studios, none of them has been made. His independent film, Rememory, was produced but didn’t wriggle its way into the hearts of distributors. Which is to say: He’s sold scripts, but has anyone gotten to watch? “When I sold Geppetto, my parents were like, ‘When’s it coming out?’ ” he says. “I was like, ‘Never, maybe. I don’t know.’ ”
Will this underdog ever see his creations break a box office? All is not lost. He’s set to pen the script for the adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth, a deeply beloved children’s novel whose film adaptation could draw millions. Then again, the project has become a tad cursed as it was redeveloped from scratch after being at a different studio before Vukadinovich came on. Indeed, Vukadinovich nearly said no, nervous about being faithful to such a beloved book: “You don’t want to be the guy who totally screwed up The Phantom Tollbooth,” he says.
When Vukadinovich, now 36, and I met this year, he was about to go to his first screening at Sundance for a script he cowrote starring Peter Dinklage (Rememory). Wearing circle-framed glasses and bearing a writer’s physique, he told me that this A-List film festival was the biggest moment of his career to date.
He sheepishly says he still doesn’t quite understand L.A., though he grew up close by in a suburb called Fountain Valley. He and his brothers obsessed over film. As the youngest, Vukadinovich was usually forced into the stuntman roles. For college, he hitched over to Loyola Marymout in L.A. to study English. Writing dialogue for plays was, he says, the first creative writing skill he was any good at. Vukadinovich fell in love with the work of Hal Ashby and Samuel Beckett, especially the more obscure plays, like Krapp’s Last Tape. “There’s always a sense it can break into a surreal world or go to a surprising place and break the rules,” he says of the plays. He graduated and went on to an MFA program in playwriting.
He found some success as a playwright, winning a spot at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But finances, as they often do, became an issue. So Vukadinovich made playwriting a passion project, writing dialogue for the stage only in his spare time, and took up a good, responsible day job: writing screenplays. As it turns out, movie scripts don’t pay much, but, he reasoned, they could still pay a lot more than playwriting does.
His move from plays to film was more common than you might suspect. After all, dialogue is at the heart of both stage and screen, and some of Hollywood’s most revered writers, like Aaron Sorkin, started out as playwrights. Sorkin bloomed in his mid-thirties, just as Vukadinovich is doing now. This has meant years of treading for Vukadinovich and nearly taking a 9-to-5 job. He was Black Listed just in time.
Nowadays, most of the scripts Vukadinovich writes are pitched to him, a dramatic reversal from the plebe life of a newbie Hollywood screenwriter. In the pipeline: a Channing Tatum–helmed adaptation of the novel Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. But top of mind at the moment is The Phantom Tollbooth, he says. The film may prove to give him his escape velocity into stardom, and his parents may just get to see this one made.