How a financial advisor sold his first screenplay to Hollywood
By Matthew Stepanic | January 12, 2021
The lights go down, a lion roars and the salty taste of popcorn hits your tongue as you munch on the treats your parents bought you. Your body vibrates both from the speakers and your anticipation as you’re about to watch your first movie in a theatre.
Many of us have vivid memories of our first experience in a theatre, and it’s no different for Kurt McLeod, an Edmonton financial advisor who recently sold his first movie script, Copshop, to Hollywood studio Open Road Films.
“The first movie I remember seeing in theatre was Jurassic Park,” explains McLeod. “I’d seen the poster, but I didn’t know what ‘Jurassic’ meant. I knew and liked Steven Spielberg because I had seen E.T. I remember being in awe when the dinosaurs first appeared on the screen and I discovered what the film was actually about.”
He fostered his love of movies throughout his childhood as his parents regularly took him and his brothers to the Rogers Video or Blockbuster in St. Albert, where they’d rent stacks of movies at a time. McLeod remembers staying up all night talking to his brothers about the exciting moments and deeper meanings of each film.
Despite his love for movies and writing while growing up, McLeod never planned to become a screenwriter. “I was all about sciences and math in junior high,” he says. “I wanted to be a doctor.” He went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (regularly ranked as one of the top 25 universities in the United States) and was prepared to go to medical school, but a course he took in his freshman year changed that trajectory: philosophy. The subject was completely new to him, and he says he didn’t understand what the course was about at first. “I got a D on my first paper,” he admits, “but, after that first month, it clicked and I realized what the professor was talking about; the big questions about life.” McLeod loved having philosophical conversations with family and friends, and he connected with the subject so much after that realization that he switched his major.
After he graduated with his BA, he did his Master’s in Screen-writing at the London Film School. Even with this degree, writing remained just a hobby for McLeod, as he feels more comfortable maintaining the security of regularly paying, nine-to-five job.
“I’m a square,” he says. “Writing feels like a luxury and I feel self-absorbed when I want people to enjoy my work. Plus, I tried being a broke writer for a couple of years, and I didn’t like it.”
So, while attending George-town, he fueled his passion by taking on summer jobs in Los Angeles, hoping to make connections in the industry. To find work, he’d look up production companies in directories and email his résumé until one of them bit. The door was opened at United Talent Agency, and McLeod describes the personalities and grind as exactly what you see in TV and movies. “I started in the mail room and ended up doing pretty much anything. Sometimes someone would throw money at you and say, ‘Get me frozen yogurt right now.’ Or your phone would ring late at night because someone liked and trusted you and would want you to pick up something across town.”
At his first interview with a Hollywood agent, McLeod remembers wanting to come across as cool, so he talked about a gritty indie film he’d just seen: Narc, directed by Joe Carnahan, which the agent loved. Not only did this make a good first impression for McLeod, but as this interview was one of his first Hollywood experiences, he feels like he’s now come full circle. Carnahan serendipitously is now directing McLeod’s first movie: Copshop.
While he was in film school, he worked on a multi-genre spectacle that would, as McLeod describes it, cost a billion dollars to make.
“People who read the script liked it, but we knew it would never be made into a film because it didn’t make business sense,” McLeod explains. “I was approached by a manager who liked the script and he said, ‘For the next one, can you write something that would actually be made into a movie?’”
The feedback inspired McLeod, and he decided to start an exercise in constraint: Write a script with few actors and locations. After a meeting where he bounced ideas off one of the movie’s now-producers, Mark Williams of Zero Gravity Management, the action-thriller, Copshop, was born with this philosophy. It takes place mostly in a small-town police station and features the battle between three key characters — a professional hitman, a smart rookie female cop and a double-crossing con man.
Since the movie started filming in the fall of 2020 in Georgia and New Mexico, McLeod has little responsibility until the film comes out. “I’m a fanboy at this stage,” explains McLeod. “If the pandemic wasn’t happening, I’d want to go to the set. But I wouldn’t be there to tell anyone what to do — and they wouldn’t listen to me.” Once the script left his hands, he had little power. However, he does receive updates from producers and can excitedly give the nod when actors, including Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo, sign on to the project.
Some of what McLeod will see on the screen may even surprise him. Carnahan has done his own rewrites and polishes on the script to add his own voice and quirks to it, and hasn’t consulted with McLeod yet about it. This process is very much the norm for Hollywood movies by first-time screenwriters, where the director’s name will do more of the job selling the film to audiences.
“Some writers may be nervous to imagine that they’ve changed something, but I’m not stressed about it. It’s actually a nice buffer between me and the audience.”
For a novelist, McLeod elaborates, an audience directly consumes their work, whereas, for a screenwriter, even if the crew shot all of his descriptions and dialogue word-for-word, the actors, director and film editor would inevitably add more to the final product. “My script is just a blueprint,” he says. “I’ve become less precious about it.”
While he waits for the thrilling day when he can see his script on the theatre screen — or on his living-room TV, depending on our future COVID restrictions — he has no plans to change anything about his day job or run off to Hollywood. McLeod appreciates the balance between his two jobs, and how he’s able to be two different people in each. “As a professional advisor, I’m an extrovert and client-facing, and I need to communicate ideas to people directly,” he explains. “While, as a writer, I’m an introvert and I’m self-conscious. I write stuff in my dark cave, and I feel like I just push it under the door to someone else and I hope that they like it.”
While he continues to raise his family in Edmonton and enjoy all its amenities, he’s hoping to leverage his Hollywood connections for people in the province who want to break in. “I want to help get more movies shot here in Edmonton and Alberta, and not just of prairie landscapes and mountains,” he explains. “My life-long goal has been to get a movie made. So what’s next? I want to stick the lightning rod in and help out the industry here.”