The Killer Script: Grad’s Assassin Story Hits the Big Screen

Vancouver Film School In Focus Magazine – Issue 16 Cover Story
(Check out the June/July issue, and many more!)

It had been six years since Writing for Film & Television graduate Seth Lochhead first broke the page on Hanna, the teenaged assassin screenplay that captured the minds of critics and audiences around the world this spring. It was one of the first ideas he pitched to his instructors near the beginning of his year at Vancouver Film School.

Even then, in 2004, Seth was sure of the first scene sequence: a girl running through a snowy forest hunting a deer.

That creative seed bloomed this April when he attended the Hanna premiere in New York City – though he came close to missing it entirely. After getting lost in the subway system, Seth raced across Union Square to arrive at a red carpet full of photographers and promotional banners.

“I walked up the red carpet, and I was like, ‘Am I too late?’. It was very surreal because they make you walk the red carpet and you get your photo taken and there are 15-20 guys calling, ‘Look over here! Look over here!’ It was very weird because, obviously, my life isn’t like that. My life is: I sit in a coffee shop and I write.”

Though irrevocably changed in the wake of Hanna‘s success, Seth’s career was largely under the radar for years. Now just shy of 30 years old, he graduated from the Writing program at VFS in 2005 and, like many of his fellow graduates, soon began querying agents, managers, and producers – anyone and everyone who would be interested in reading his work. Many (in fact, almost everyone) left Seth’s queries unanswered, despite the fact that he had whittled his email pitch down to a single line and proposition: A young girl is trained to be an assassin by her CIA agent father. Do you want to read my script?

After clicking “send” approximately 400 times, the Los Angeles-based management company Circle of Confusion offered a response. They requested his script, kicking off a mutually beneficial relationship that would soon create the first big sale of a VFS Writing student screenplay to a major player in the industry – in this case, Focus Features.

Seth felt the effects of a hungry industry almost instantly: first came a ranking on the 2006 Black List, an annual listing of the most-liked unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, then an array of job opportunities flooded his inbox. It was definitely a surreal experience for a first-time writer torn away from his daily regimen of café food and free wi-fi.

“I was getting like 10 possible jobs a week,” he says, adding that these weren’t straight-up offers for work. “It’s like a cattle call and a bunch of people pitch on the same project. It was very flattering to get all that attention, but again, it wasn’t real attention. It was something that I didn’t understand right away. All Hanna did for me, as a screenplay, was put me on people’s radars for potential work.”

He was invited into the running to write screenplay adaptations for He-Man and Sherlock Holmes. Although these jobs eventually went to A-listers with a lot more industry experience, Seth benefited from making those connections and found homes for more of his original work. Warner Bros is now developing his horror-action script, Governess, which Michael Bay (of Transformers fame) will produce. Then there is Cader, “a western with zombies”, that Hammer Film Productions is taking on. The studio was previously known in the ’70s for their vampire genre movies, but more recently they relaunched operations and produced the remake of the Swedish hit Let the Right One In.

While submitting pitches for these high-profile projects, Seth’s script for Hanna continued to go through the development cycle without him – a common scenario in the Hollywood system for first-time writers after they sell their work. A number of industry-vetted screenwriters signed on to do a rewrite, turning it into more of a genre-friendly thriller. (The second writer credited on the film, David Farr, was one of them.)

Seth remembers thinking that his vision for the project was always “an art-house movie with action elements, not the other way around.”

Director Joe Wright couldn’t have said it better. When he signed on to direct Hanna, he brought it all back to Seth’s original vision and reined in the more conventional aspects of the story. The two worked tirelessly together on the production draft, sometimes staying up all night in Wright’s apartment in Berlin, Germany.

Throughout the steep rise in Seth’s young career, he has struggled to keep things in perspective, acknowledging that it’s easy for emerging writers to lose sight of why they started writing in the first place.

“It was a very hard couple of years,” he says. “And it was a lot of fun. I met a lot of cool people and executives, cool directors, but it was always about learning and reconciling the hustle, the show, the pitching – which I’ve never been very good at, even at VFS.”

VFS Writing faculty member Brian Casilio was the first instructor to help guide Seth through the “fleshing out phase” of his final project, and also the mentor he credits for Hanna’s hunting weapon of choice: a bow and arrow.

“One of the very real benefits of working and teaching here at VFS is that you get to mentor a lot of young, enthusiastic, and talented writers at the beginning of their careers,” says Brian. “[Seth] came to me in that first week with the story complete, from beginning to end, in a five-page document. And our role was to colour it in, add the flavor to it, to make it a more complete story.”

The curriculum has evolved to keep pace with the industry, but all Writing students still go through the same process when writing a feature screenplay: pitch an idea, write an outline, develop a treatment, then crank out the script pages.

Instructors work closely with students at each point to make sure the stories are as tight as possible before they break the page on those first drafts. Though Seth admits he’s since strayed from a tightly structured development process, opting to instead write “organically” and deal with plot problems as they arise, the results of this training show in his work.

“It was very intense,” he says of his year at VFS. “It provided a great community of people looking to learn and to teach, and it allowed me to explore myself as a writer and to help others and have others help me. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, or since, actually. Writing is a very isolated, lonely art form. And coming to VFS, you still have to isolate yourself and get that work done, but you also have this group of people who are willing to read you and analyze you and talk to you about your work, which is a very important thing when you’re starting out.”

For now, Seth is committed to living his life in Vancouver while the call to go south is getting stronger. Selling screenplays to Hollywood while maintaining his daily writing schedule suits him just fine. It may be a couple of years before either Governess or Cader hit the big screen, but one thing that’s not in doubt is whether these scripts will closely represent the creative vision Seth has for them; if Hanna proves anything, it’s that you can’t deny a passionate writer’s will to see an idea through to the finish line.

“I was amazed and very impressed to see how much of Seth’s original vision was up on the screen,” says Brian. “It really was spectacular, and that really speaks to his strengths as a writer and strengths as an individual. To maintain and broker his vision through the very convoluted Hollywood development process for six years, to hang onto that vision and see it realized up on the screen speaks very highly of his talents and his persistence.”

Check out an on-camera interview with Seth, his special visit with current students, and the entire story behind the script at vfs.com/hanna.

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