Justin Lader was profusely apologetic. He had driven back to Los Angeles late the previous night after attending a Duran Duran concert in San Diego so he could download a film he needed to watch before heading into a string of meetings.
“I’m kinda fried,” he said, settling down with a Corona at a West Hollywood wine bar recently. “It’s been a crazy couple of days.”
Crazy couple of years, more like. Since his debut film, The One I Love – a standout fave at Sundance – bowed on Netflix in 2014, the screenwriter is taking meetings, fielding offers, being brought in on rewrite jobs. That first film, which was directed by Charlie McDowell—who shares screenwriting credit—and starred Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass and Ted Danson, scored an impressive 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and netted Lader an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay. It’s a vaguely sci-fi/supernatural film that starts with a young couple going away for a weekend to fix their marital troubles.
His follow-up, The Discovery, has drawn an enviable cast, including Robert Redford, Jason Segal and Rooney Mara and again features McDowell as director and co-writer. It will screen on Netflix in 2017.
Cinema Thread: Tell us about your next film.
Justin Lader: Robert Redford’s character is a Steve Jobs/Albert Einstein type, a famous scientist who was able to scientifically prove that an afterlife exists. As a result, people start killing themselves to get there. The movie takes place two years after that. The suicide toll has skyrocketed. But it’s also a love story and a family drama and as the story progresses, something happens and it becomes a bit of a mystery.
CT: Was it easier to get the second movie made on the back of the success of the first?
JL: It’s never easy to get any movie made. It’s always a struggle. You take a step forward, a step back. You get financing, lose actors, the start date is pushed because the financing falls through. We went through the whole nightmare that everyone goes through. There’s definitely a misconception that once you break in, it’s all roses. But if you are able to Trojan Horse your way into the business, you get the meetings. You get people who will pick up the phone. But the gap between that, and getting millions of dollars to make your movie, it’s like the Grand Canyon.
CT: You grew up (in Florida), wanting to make movies. How do you think the business has changed since then?
JL: The middle class of movies that I grew up with—the $40 million to $70 million world—has disappeared. We now live in a world that’s all remakes, sequels, reboots, intellectual properties.
…and the dirty word that nobody likes to talk about – luck.
CT: So what can young filmmakers do to compete in that climate?
JL: If you have the sensibility to make a movie that, 10 years ago, would have been a $50 million movie, and you can tell that story economically— now, because of Netflix and Amazon, there’s an avenue to release them where they can find an audience. But you better deliver on the premise, and it better be good.
CT: Did you have a plan B for just in case things didn’t work out the way you’d hoped?
JL: I don’t know if I did. The only other thing I was good at and enjoyed doing, even when I didn’t have to do it anymore, was working with kids. I was part of an after-school program, and to this day, whenever I’m in town, I try to work there a few times a month, with kids from kindergarten to fifth grade. If I wasn’t doing this, I definitely would be working with kids in some way.
CT: It must have been daunting then, graduating from film school and not knowing what you were going to do next?
JL: It’s never a good time to graduate from film school, ever. And I graduated in 2008 when the economy crashed. There’s no reason I should be sitting here right now talking to you. A lot of people I went to school with moved on to other things. I do think a lot of (success) is perseverance…and the dirty word that nobody likes to talk about – luck. The younger you are when you get into it, the more you can wait for your luck to kick in.
CT: So there’s no magic formula to success then?
JL: I think if you put in the time, and you work really hard, and you’re grateful, and you’re gracious in how you receive whatever life throws at you – it makes the stretches when luck isn’t coming your way a lot more bearable. But if you take things for granted, look for shortcuts and see this as a glamorous job and that’s the only reason you want to do it— if it doesn’t work out, that will embitter you. People who love this process, more than the result, tend to be happier than those doing it just for the rise to the top of the mountain.