Adam Sztykiel on the set of Undateable

Who: Adam Sztykiel is a Los Angeles-based, Michigan-raised screenwriter and producer whose latest project is Undateable — a new television comedy series for NBC debuting on May 29th 2014 at 9 PM. Sztykiel will be a writer on the show, and executive produce it with Jeff Ingold and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence. The show’s debut will cap a decade-long ascent up Hollywood’s professional ladder for Sztykiel, since he sold his first screenplay in 2003. That script would go on to become 2008′s Made of Honor. Before that, Sztykiel attended the University of Southern California, where a class taught by television executive Michael Wright helped convince him to focus on screenwriting as a way into the film industry. Those efforts led to a variety of freelance jobs, including a stint writing for the 2001 MTV Movie Awards. Following the sale of his Made of Honor screenplay, Sztykiel did uncredited rewrites for several other films, before breaking through with the script for 2010′s Due Date — director Todd Phillips‘ first film after his box-office hit The Hangover. Camera In The Sun talked to Szykiel for a June 2013 interview about his evolving career as a screenwriter for film and television, his approach to designing the storyline (and route) for a good road movie, and the finer points of putting together Undateable.

What’s the latest with Undateable?

We’re about to start the writers room, and we’re doing a little recasting of a couple roles. We shoot, technically, our second episode in August. So compared to movies, which I’m used to, and usually take years and years, the pace of this is still taking some getting used to.

It’s very cool to be working with Bill Lawrence, because Scrubs was sort of a seminal show for people my age, and I came of age as that show became popular. Everything that show did feels so common now — how it uses music, and how it really employed the single-camera elements, like the whip-pans, and the cut-tos, and the fantasy sequences, and the voiceover, and all the stuff that I think really feels pretty standard and commonplace now. I mean, I remember watching it, and it just felt so fresh and cool. It was one of those shows that felt like, “Oh, this is about people not so far removed from my age.” Just a funny show. I mean, that’s what I remember from the first episode, where there’s the crazy fantasy sequence of Zach Braff running through the hospital in his short shorts as if he’s in a marathon. And it was just such an inventive show — which to me is sort of like the definition of a writer having a voice, where it’s really unique. This was a show about young interns at a hospital. It’s not the most original idea in the world. But the execution of it is entirely original. I think that, for the most part, is what I was attracted to about it. And then all these years later, to get to work with Bill — he’s a guy that was running Spin City when he was in his 20s, and then created Scrubs when he was younger than I am now. The guy has just been so prolific in television for so long. There was very rarely a time when Bill Lawrence wasn’t creating great television. And that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to sit next to, and have his input on stuff, and get his point of view, and pick his brain on “Hey, how do you think this should play out?” or “What’s the logical next scene in this particular story?” Stuff like that. He really has a solution for almost anything, just because he’s seen pretty much everything.

If you were to ask, “What are the reference points for what Undateable could be compared to?” When everyone sees your show’s set in a bar, they go, “Oh, it’s Cheers.” Or if it’s two guys who have very opposite personalities in an apartment together, “Oh, it’s The Odd Couple.” Or if it’s a bunch of undateable guys trying to figure out how to connect with women, “Oh, so it’s The Big Bang Theory.” There’s a lot of really, really well-established successful hit classic canon shows that I think we tiptoe on that territory. So I do think that you immediately run the risk of being compared to those shows. You’re gonna lose that comparison almost every single time. Especially when you’re the new show. I mean, there’s no way that anyone watches the pilot of a multi-camera sitcom and goes, “God, it’s better than Cheers.” It’ll never happen. But I do think that what Bill brings to it is just a very smart approach to how to build a show for success. For example, on Undateable, Bill’s mandate from day one was, “We should work to find and populate this cast with stand-up comics. Because they know how to handle an audience, they know how to hit a hard joke” — which is a little different than a single-camera show. You have to find the right group of guys. In a multi-camera sitcom, in front of a live studio audience, the pure comedy is at a premium. There’s probably nothing worse than having to do a show in front of an audience that isn’t laughing. And if you get stand-up comics in there, those guys really know how to make stuff work. So we did that. We cast Chis D’Elia from Whitney, who’s a fantastic stand-up comic. One of his best friends is Brent Morin, who plays the other lead. Another one of their friends is Rick Glassman, who’s also a stand-up comic. And then another is Ron Funches, who’s also an incredible stand-up comic. It was one of those things where Bill really wanted to look for those people, and we found them. And when we actually shot the pilot, not only was he right about how it was gonna play, it could not have been better. Those guys just know how to work an audience, and they know how to find laughs where maybe there aren’t big laughs. They know how to to turn small laughs into big laughs, and how to turn big laughs into applause moments. All that stuff is really an intangible thing. And I think the other great thing is, because they all knew each other, it felt like an actual genuine group of friends on stage, which is something that is very hard to do in a pilot.

My writing style is toward the movie structure. The story begins, there’s an inciting incident, some stuff happens. If it’s a two-hander, like it is with Due Date, there’s a moment where the two protagonists get in a fight, go their separate ways, and then everything sort of gets resolved in the end. Overarching, that’s gonna be the structure of any of that stuff. The pilot episode is like a little miniature movie. The inciting incident is that Chris D’Elia’s roommate moves out, and he gets this new roommate, Brent Morin. And Brent owns a bar, so Chris comes to hang out at the bar, and meets this group of guys. And he realizes, “Oh boy, I can teach these guys some stuff,” and takes them under his wing. Then around minute-18 of the show, Brent and Chris get in a big fight, go their separate ways, and then they resolve it. The end of the show is, “This is gonna be a great friendship.” That very much is a movie structure. And what I realize now, as a TV writer, is that there’s not gonna be a big rift in every episode. That’s really an establishing episode. And I think that will be a big challenge for me — figuring out the rhythms of a TV episode week-to-week, in terms of, “You find your ‘A story’, your ‘B story’, your ‘C story’. There’s conflict. It gets resolved.” It’s theoretically simpler than a movie. But I think to tell that sophisticated of a story in 21 1/2 minutes is challenging. I’m really impressed with people like Bill, who have done it hundreds of times, and sort of inherently know how to do that stuff. The good news for me is that we have a great writing staff. We’re gonna spend the first week or two just talking about characters, fleshing out characters, talking about storylines involving those characters. I think that’s really the mandate from NBC, our studio Warner Brothers, Bill, myself, Jeff Ingold — all the way down to the writing staff, and even the cast. We want to make sure all the storylines and all the episodes come from a place of characters. I think that’s where great TV comes from. Scrubs is a fantastic example of that, where every one of those episodes, those characters are so clearly delineated. All the episodes, and all the storylines are coming out of those characters. So you are invested episode-to-episode in how things get resolved through those characters. And I think where shows run into trouble is when they start just generating stories that have nothing to do with character, and entirely to do with circumstance.

How did you become interested in cinema?

My dad just loved movies, and would take me and my three younger sisters to movies. It was always a very big deal. And his philosophy was, “If you don’t throw up from the amount of candy you consume at the movies, it wasn’t a good experience.” So it was always just a big part of our life growing up. Then as I got into high school, I got into the theater scene, and was doing a lot of plays. I just got very lucky that the friends that I met in high school in the theater department, as well as the guys that I knew since I was five, all turned out to be sort of movie nerds. So we were those guys that were waiting for Pulp Fiction to come out months and months before anybody in our neighborhood even knew who Quentin Tarantino was. I just got lucky with a good group of friends who were into that kind of stuff.

Pulp Fiction is definitely a movie that I remember as being an event when it came out. And it’s one of the first movies I remember seeing with an anticipation of seeing it as a piece of cinema. That movie, and a handful of others that came out in that 3-5 year range, I think really helped inform the kind of style that I’m drawn to. You know, I’m definitely drawn to hearing people talk, and dialogue-driven themes, and larger ensemble character-driven pieces. As a comedy writer, I think I’m even attracted to the iconic scene when Eric Stoltz has to stab Uma Thurman in the chest with the adrenaline pen, because she OD’d. Somewhere in the back of my mind, that’s always playing when someone says, “We need another set piece in this big comedy you’re writing.” And in my mind I’m always thinking, “What’s the comedy version of stabbing someone with an adrenaline pen?” Which I think ended up in Get Him to the Greek anyway. But you’re always looking for that level of just “at the edge”. I’d be more attracted to a comedy setpiece which felt like that, as opposed to something a little more hijinx-y or “safer”, for lack of a better word.

Swingers was another one that I remember seeing and thinking, “Oh yeah, this is a movie that I feel like I’m almost ready to live in the world of this movie. These people talk like people I know talk. And it’s told in a way that not only am I laughing at it, I almost feel connected to it.” And a million times over, whether I’m pitching something or writing something, I go back to that movie and say, “Well, it’s a dynamic like Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau had in Swingers.” Because I think that movie has gone on to become much more of an iconic movie. But at the time, I don’t think everybody realized that was sort of a generational movie that these guys made. That one left an imprint, in a way, as I got into high school. I also started to watch and appreciate Woody Allen movies. I always thought they were funny, and amazing, and hilarious. But they were always a little bit detached, because it was an older guy dealing with relationship stuff in New York in a very intellectual Woody-type comedy. So there was always this tiny disconnect. And then when I saw Swingers, I was like, “This is it. If someone I knew made a Woody Allen movie, it would probably come out like this.”

How did your high school theater experience inform your later screenwriting?

There was a great theater department at my high school, and there were opportunities to write and direct your own plays when you were a junior and a senior. So we got into that. And it just sort of made it feel like a very natural transition to go into screenwriting, filmmaking, all of that stuff.

Acting was invaluable, because I bring that perspective to my writing. As a writer, I think you have a tendency to go, “Does the story make sense? Is everything paying off?” Sometimes you forget that at some point, if you’re lucky, it’s gonna get into the hands of an actor, and they’re really gonna read it for themselves and go, “Why do I want to play this character? What’s exciting about this? Are these words interesting to me to say as a character?” And I think that coming from a theater background, and an acting background, that’s always in the back of your head. How is an actor going to read this, and respond to that? And then the theater background itself is valuable just because at such a young age, you don’t even know it, but you’re getting indoctrinated with this idea that you don’t have certain special effects and editing, and all these things that movies have. You don’t have that on the stage. So you’re able to write without the crutch of “and then something explodes…” or “and then we travel 3,000 years into the future…” or “we jump-cut to…” I mean, all that stuff is invaluable, and I think I used all three of those things this morning in something I was writing, but you don’t need to go there. You’re comfortable living in a simpler, sparser space as a writer.

What was your path from attending USC, to selling the screenplay for Made of Honor?

I moved out here. I went to USC. I took this fantastic class. Basically, once a week Michael Wright, who now runs TBS and TNT — and at the time, he was at CBS — would come in every Wednesday night for a few hours, and more or less just be like, “Look, film school’s great, but here’s how it really works out there.” And every week, he’d bring in an agent or a manager or a producer, just so we could get an idea of what those people do. Then they’d leave, and he would say, “OK, here’s my take on the whole thing.” Then he’d take questions. And the very first class, he basically said, “It’s film school. Who here wants to be a director?” 90% of the hands go up. He said, “I’m gonna tell you right now, if your plan is just to graduate and be a director, it’s not a very good plan.” And he said, ” The odds of anyone hiring you to direct a movie, I don’t care how good your short is, it’s just very slim. Because there are too many people out there that have directed feature films already who would rather have that job.” And of course this was right before the digital video revolution, where you could make movies super-cheap. So he was still talking about 35-millimeter studio film. And his advice was, “If anybody in here wants to be a director, you should start writing today. Because the best way to become a director is to have material of your own.” And the director in me thought, “The man makes a very good point.” I basically went home that night and started writing. So skip ahead a couple years, I’d written a few screenplays. Due to typical Hollywood weird circuitous circumstance, a guy I went to high school with, his sister works in the industry, and she’s friends with these guys who are starting their own management company. So my friend reads something I wrote, gives it to his sister, she thinks it’s good, she gives it to them. They’re looking for clients. I meet with them, and basically become one of their first writer clients. And they still represent me to this day. We basically go through the process that I think most writers go through, which is they say, “What are you working on next?” I tell them, “I’m writing like a bocce ball comedy that I’ve almost finished.” They read that. They really like it, send it to a few people. They go, “Yeah, people really like it. Let’s put you on some meetings.” Then I write two or three or four more screenplays. Same results, but generating a little more. Every time it’s like, “Yeah, nobody wants to buy this, but people really liked it. Take a few more meetings.” You’re just doing meetings, meetings, meetings. Finally, in 2003 they said, “What about a movie about a guy who has to be the maid of honor in his best girlfriend’s wedding?” I said, “Yeah, that could be really funny.” And so we wrote it, did a bunch of notes on it, got it ready, and then finally that became Made of Honor. That was basically the first thing I ever sold, and sort of put me in a position to then have a career. And so that was 2003 that I sold it, and it came out in 2008. In the interim, I’m just doing rewrites, writing other screenplays, continuing to work. And then when that came out, it was very good for my career. Then after that, I would just get lucky. Due Date was the next one after that, and I was lucky enough to work with Todd Phillips on a couple other things. I did a lot of work on Project X. I’ve just been lucky to work with a lot of good people, like Todd and Shawn Levy, and now Bill Lawrence. To be honest, the story of my career is just working with very, very talented creative filmmakers and storytellers.

What was your experience writing for the 2001 MTV Movie Awards?

That was in my early 20s, and a friend of mine — who’s also a television writer out here now — we at the time had a TV show pitch for what amounted to the exact same show and concept as Undeclared. So obviously when we heard that was happening, it sort of killed that dream. But we were working on it with Joel Gallen, who was producing the MTV Movie Awards at the time. So they basically brought us in, 10-12 writers, to just sit around the table for a day and go, “What would a funny sketch be?” or “What are movies that we could parody?” and come up with those silly sketches that they would do at those shows back then. And it was around the time that Almost Famous had come out. So we pitched a parody of Almost Famous called “Almost Stamos“, in which they get “Jesse and the Rippers” from Full House back together and go on tour. And I’m young, so I’m like, “Yeah, that seems funny to me.” And at no point am I like, “Yeah, most of America probably would not get that.” But we thought it was hilarious.

I think most writers would probably tell you that they would love to write the thing they aren’t writing — just by virtue of the fact that because they’re not writing it, it seems like it wouldn’t come with all of the same difficulties that what they are writing does come with. Which is obviously not true. I think I gravitate towards comedy because — and this may sound sort of shallow — but though I am getting into my older age, I don’t really have the life experience or maybe the necessary background to write the kind of grounded awesome dramatic stuff that other people are.

What was your approach to using locations in Due Date?

I think there’s a pitfall in trying to engineer character and story around locations. I’ve definitely read and/or seen some stuff where you can tell someone thought, “Oh my god! It will be amazing to just do a scene at this particular place!” And I think that doesn’t always work out. If you have a scene that you write, and then it fits into an amazing place, that’s different. In Due Date, Todd and I always knew that the underpinnings of Zach’s character was that this was a guy whose father just passed away, and he’s not ready to let him go. So there’s him carrying the ashes, and this fake thing of, “Oh man, that’s a bummer. I would have loved to have gone to the Grand Canyon for my Dad, who loved it. I’d love to get rid of his ashes there.” And then comes the moment where it was all bullshit, and he didn’t really wanna do it, because he’s not ready to let go. Obviously that fits really well with an amazing visual place that looked fantastic when shot, and which I think added to the gravitas of that moment. But other than that, we just knew they had to start in Atlanta, because that’s where we were gonna shoot — and then end in L.A., because that’s where we were gonna shoot. Everything else was just sort of along the way. And when I started to kick stuff around with Todd, I thought, “OK, they’re gonna go along the South.” And then you start to think of things out of that. “What if they accidentally went into Mexico and the Grand Canyon along the way?” I mean, you start to spot things and go, “With these two guys together, are there any complications that can arise out of that?” And that’s how we approached it — just looking at the path and saying, “More importantly, what trouble can Zach get them into as they go along?” But we knew that they were going to have to make a stop along the way to hook up with Downey’s friend, who’s Jamie Foxx. So by virtue of where they were, that became Dallas. Other than that, it’s mostly about those two guys butting heads, and then where along the way the big flare-ups are gonna happen.

The biggest challenge of a road movie is not being episodic. It’s also a very easy trap to fall into in a comedy. You want to generate as much comedy as possible. You want to build as many set pieces as possible. And because you’re on the road, it’s very, very easy to say, “OK, they pull over, something crazy happens, they get out of it, they get back in the car, and they’re on the road again.” Almost every road movie is gonna have some element of that, just because of the nature of they have to get from A to B. So you can’t stop anywhere for too long. It is a huge challenge. And the way that we addressed it, and did the best we could, was the ticking clock of, “We’ve got to get there by this particular time”, and then having Zach’s undercurrent of trying to part ways with his father emotionally. So it doesn’t feel too episodic. But I think it’s hard in a road movie not to get some degree of that. Only because, again, geographically you’re leaving stuff behind. That’s just the nature of it. The thing that happened in Atlanta can’t really come back to bite you in Phoenix. It’s hard to make those things happen logically. And I think you try to tie things together a little bit, so that it’s a little less episodic. An example in Due Date would be what sets everything in motion. Downey’s character thinks he left his wallet on the plane, and therefore can’t really travel without Zach’s help. And then the reveal at the Grand Canyon, of course, is that Zach took his wallet and had it the whole time, just because he didn’t want to be alone. And it’s not that it un-does the episodic nature of the rest of the movie. It just sort of gives it a little bit of an underpinning. So I think as an audience, you go, “All right, there was a reason behind all of the things that have been happening along the way.”

What’s your take on the look of New York City and Los Angeles as film settings?

So much of New York is just inherently iconic, and it’s so shootable. I mean, it’s hard to make a movie in New York and not make it look derivative, because you’ve probably seen almost every nook and cranny. But it’s hard to make it look boring. I think the movies that do it well — and Woody Allen does it really well — do capture the energy of New York, and the bustle, and the inability to have any private space. So those movies definitely gave me a sense of what New York was like. And that probably, in a weird way, scared me off of applying to colleges there. But L.A. is different, because it’s so sprawling that it’s very hard, I think, to capture “the spirit of Los Angeles” in a movie. I remember seeing Falling Down. In a weird way, it’s a great L.A. movie. I don’t know how good the geography is, but he’s going through the backyards when he’s in Beverly Hills or Bel Air or Brentwood; and then he’s in the weird Nazi guy’s surplus place; and then there’s the freeway; and then the pier at the end. And so that’s a good movie, I think, to realize that this is a very disconnected place.

But then you think about it, and Boyz n the Hood is an L.A. movie, and Laurel Canyon is an L.A. movie. I think there are certain L.A. movies that are good at capturing parts of L.A. But I think it’s very hard to capture Los Angeles as a whole. And that was also what I learned when I moved out here. You can live in Santa Monica or Venice, and it feels completely different than if you’re living in Beverly Hills or the Valley. I mean, L.A. really is like 200 cities crammed into one city. All those movies sort of built up this idea. It’s funny, I think the movies that portray L.A. in bad ways are the movies that sort of are how people think of L.A.

What about Detroit, Michigan?

It’s very similar with what I was saying about Los Angeles. I think most people have a certain image of Detroit in their mind, and most movies that use Detroit more or less reinforce that image — which isn’t obviously the greatest image in the world. You know, a movie that I thought portrayed Detroit and Michigan in a unique way was Out of Sight. It just felt authentic, but different than anything else I’ve ever seen. The fact that a city like Detroit — which I think is not on a lot of people’s radar, other than the negative things that are happening now — it shouldn’t have a stereotype when it’s shot, and I think it does. I can picture the cold concrete dystopian vibe that it has. And Out of Sight definitely didn’t have that. There was a robbery that took place in either West Bloomfield or Farmington Hills, or somewhere like that. But it all felt completely organic and natural. This is for sure where I lived and grew up, and is not offensive to me in the way it’s portrayed.

What Jaws did for sharks in the ocean, Robocop did for Detroit. That’s the image everyone has of it. And unfortunately, as a city in the ’70s and ’80s with the crime, and then going forwards with the corruption, we have not done a good job at moving away from that, or convincing people it’s not like Robocop. But the kids that I grew up with, that’s what we thought of it too. I remember going to see Terminator 2 with a bunch of my friends. And the opening of Terminator 2 is all those skulls piled up. And we’re in a packed theater, and one of my friends three seats down yells out, “Detroit!” And the entire theater erupts in laughter and applause. It’s so sad that’s what we all associate with our city. But Robocop definitely set the precedent that we have not done a good job to undo since it came out.