Todd Klick is a Swiss Army Knife of talent. In addition to writing and publishing two books about writing, Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know and Beat By Beat: A Cheat Sheet for Screenwriters, he is also an award-winning screenwriter. Klick’s latest work is the film Followed. Wanting to learn more about his career as well as Followed, I was able to interview Klick for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Todd Klick: I love Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Long Rain, and reread it every few years. His books The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man blew my young mind. The stories of Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway have also brought endless joy in the wee small hours of the night, especially Dolan’s Cadillac, Travels With Charley, and The Old Man and the Sea. Michael Crichton’s memoir Travels, though, is the only book I’ve read four times. I laminated that paperback’s cover and spine because it was getting pretty beat-up.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry? Was there a specific moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Klick: There wasn’t one light bulb moment. It was more like I was building tiny increments of courage along the way. I was a naïve farm kid growing up, so for me to move to a massive city with millions of people like Los Angeles seemed too big a leap at the time. But I took baby steps by first visiting Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York, and then living in Paris, Venice, and Rome. I discovered in Europe that my mind thrived in big cities. Access to their abundant art, music, books, and ancient architecture thrilled me. And since I’m a huge fan of Hollywood movie history, Los Angeles turned out to be a natural fit. I adore living in Southern California. My tribe lives here. I feel a sense of home.
Yanes: You are from Lebanon, PA., a fairly small town surrounded by farmland and woods. How did this area shape your imagination? Are there any legends from this area that still haunt you?
Klick: My dad, who was raised on a Lebanon County farm by Mennonite parents, got “saved” when I was three years old, and started taking my mom, sister and me to a Pentecostal Assembly of God church. The small, red brick building welcomed a congregation of about 70 farmers, carpenters, mechanics, and their families. I grew up around faith healers, speaking in tongues, and witnessed the “casting out of demons.” Nearly every day of my elementary school and teenage years, however, I feared God would condemn me to Hell for eternity because I was a sinner. It was a terrifying existence. I’ve long since given up the burden of religion, but some of those haunting Old and New Testament stories, and the Pentecostal hellfire and brimstone sermons, trickle into my tales. Storytelling is my way of exercising those childhood demons.
Yanes: You have written two books designed to help writers, Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know and Beat By Beat: A Cheat Sheet for Screenwriters. Since you’ve written these two manuscripts, how has your perspective on writing changed?
Klick: First, I have to confess, I didn’t mean for Something Startling Happens to become a book. To learn how movie stories worked, I would often analyze three or four great films simultaneously, breaking them down minute-by-minute with a stopwatch. I then applied what I learned to the structure of my own screenplays. That’s when my stories advanced to the top of competitions. I made the Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinals, then the PAGE International Screenplay Contest finals.
After that, I started optioning and selling scripts. It was other screenwriters I met in Los Angeles who suggested I pursue a publisher about my new ideas on film structure; they thought my insights were original and could help other screenwriters. So I queried the #1 publisher of film and television books, MWP—Michael Wiese Publications—who published Save the Cat and The Writer’s Journey. They loved my manuscript—which was a rough collection of my research notes at the time. They thought my minute-by-minute approach was unique, and offered me a book deal. The book became a bestseller for them, so they offered me a deal on my follow-up, which eventually became Beat By Beat: A Cheat Sheet for Screenwriters, which I’m particularly proud of. MPW allowed me, with Beat By Beat, to created my dream screenwriting book.
Yanes: Your latest film is Followed. What was the inspiration behind this movie?
Klick: When I saw social media influencers risking their lives for “likes” or more views, it troubled me. What if, I thought, one of these influencers risked his life inside a legit evil place, and got in way over his head? Around that same time I had a fascination with the history of the infamous Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It seemed like the perfect place for the influencer to explore for his vlog. Followed’s director, producer and I eventually stayed overnight in the Cecil Hotel (also known as Stay on Main), to do research. We booked a room on the 14th floor, where serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez lived in the 1980s. We half-jokingly “saged” ourselves afterwards to ward off any evil spirits who may have followed us outside. Some of the creepy sights and sounds we experienced that night made it into the story.
Yanes: As the writer you had to turn the script over to the director. Could you describe how this transition of power felt? On this note, were there elements of the script Antoine Le brought to life in a way you didn’t expect?
Klick: As a producer on the film, I had no problem turning my script over because I saw a couple short films Antoine Le directed in college, which our mutual friend Matthew Ryan Brewbaker, produced. The films showed directing and producing promise. After I wrote the first draft of Followed, which at that time was called Hotel, Antoine would often call me with ideas that the script inspired. I was happy to try ideas he was excited about—he thinks very visually. He suggested I change the story’s timeline from one night to three nights so he could build more tension—a slower burn, which I liked. Matthew Ryan Brewbaker also called with ideas, which I would implement. The rewriting stage was a fun collaboration between the three of us. My original 100-page script expanded to 140 pages. Antoine shot just about every page, which Matthew edited down to a tight 93 minutes.
Yanes: DropTheMike – the main character of Followed – reminded me of several YouTube and social media personalities. Were there any personalities you were thinking of when shaping this character?
Klick: No one specifically, but I did watch many hours of influencers’ vlogs for research. We also cast the talented Matthew Solomon, who plays DropTheMike, early in the process. I would listen to Matthew’s improvisational scenes over and over until I locked into his speech rhythms. After that, it was easy to write dialogue for his cadence.
Yanes: The horror genre is filled with stories in which people have to visit haunted places to pursue wealth and fame. Given how much value DropTheMike places on subscriber count and social media presence, what are your thoughts on how this new digital/fame currency is shaping society?
Klick: These types of influencers are misguided people who have abandoned healthy doses of compassion and empathy for attention and money. And since they are charismatic figures with a platform, their charisma inspires impressionable children who follow their lead. But charisma, when used for selfish gains, eventually destroys them, and their followers. Consider the lives and followers of David Koresh, Charles Manson, and Jim Jones.
Yanes: The found footage genre has been around for decades at this point, yet, Followed still felt fresh. What steps were taken to make sure Followed didn’t feel repetitive?
Klick: “Found footage” would be a misclassification for this movie. Followed is the first feature film to tell a story through a social media influencer’s vlog posts. It’s not someone finding rusty film canisters, a VHS tape, or a video camera with lost footage inside it. A more accurate description of Followed would be that it’s a “social media horror film.”
Yanes: When people finish watching Followed what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Klick: That a lust for “likes’ leads to destruction.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Klick: In the last year, I’ve completed another horror screenplay; a sci-fi/horror anthology script; and I’m currently writing a limited-series drama based on a true story.