Before the filmmaking boom happened in Georgia, you had to go to Hollywood to work full time in the movie biz. That’s exactly what Atlanta native Michael Lucker did after college. He landed a dream gig as assistant to Steven Spielberg, then went on to find great success as a screenwriter of action and animated films.
Lucker returned home to Atlanta in 2007, tired of L.A.’s smog, traffic, earthquakes and lack of seasons. He remains active in the industry as a screenwriter, director, producer, and a professor of screenwriting at the University of North Georgia and Emory University. He also conducts screenwriting workshops through his Screenwriter School. We talked about his career, the state of the industry in Georgia and his new book released this week, “Crash! Boom! Bang! How to Write Action Movies” (Michael Wiese Productions, $26.95).
How does a suburban kid from Atlanta who grew up watching Steven Spielberg films get from commencement day at Chamblee High School to working side by side with him a few years later?
Luck. I moved to Los Angeles after attending Boston University’s College of Communication. I landed young, broke and green on a buddy’s couch in Pasadena and sent out 100 resumes to everyone I wanted to work for in Hollywood. I got one interview. It was with Steven Spielberg’s company. After being there one week, they said Steven’s assistant was leaving and asked if I wanted the job. The following Monday, I was on the scoring stage with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a 90-person orchestra scoring the soundtrack for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Were you star-struck at first being around so many celebrities on all the different film sets? You must have so many behind-the-scenes stories.
When your boss is Steven Spielberg, who are you going to be star-struck by? It was surreal at times, for sure, but I got used to it. And yes, there are plenty of stories, but I signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) back then, so I’m afraid very powerful men in dark suits and sunglasses would show up at my door and cart me away if I disclosed any.
After you left your position with Spielberg, you worked in creative affairs at Hollywood Pictures before pursuing your own screenwriting career. Was it like taking a leap of faith, or were you established enough to feel like you had a head start?
I leapt courageously, then fell flat on my face. I had a writing partner, and we optioned a screenplay to Paramount. It got us enough money to buy macaroni and cheese for about six months. We moved to the beach and labeled ourselves screenwriters. Then reality set in. We typed furiously until we got out another script, which landed us a writing assignment at another studio. This enabled us to upgrade our meal plan to Hamburger Helper.
You were a writer on the Academy Award-nominated animated film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” Is the cliche true, is it really an honor just to be nominated, or is it nerve-racking?
We weren’t nominated as screenwriters; the movie was nominated as best animated feature. The experience was bittersweet, because despite our screenplay getting the movie greenlit and us working on it for over a year, the studio ended up giving sole screen credit to the writer who was on it before and after us, which broke our hearts. So I didn’t watch the Academy Awards that year; thus, I had no rack of nerves whatsoever.
Wow. Does that sort of thing happen often?
Every day. The trick is learning how to navigate the slings and arrows.
Being someone from Georgia who’s worked at the highest levels of Hollywood, what are your thoughts on how the film industry has grown in the state?
It’s so exciting to see the boom in production here, going from $280 million in 2008 to $7 billion in 2016. Now that the governor passed the same tax incentive for post-production that led to the boom with production, it’s about to grow even more. What will be interesting to see is how the state deals with it and if we can capitalize on the momentum to begin creating original content here, not just produce it. Right now, we ATL creatives still have to fly to L.A., New York and D.C. to hawk our wares. It would be great if all we had to do was drive to Midtown.
Your book, “Crash! Boom! Bang! How to Write Action Movies,” came out on May 15. What can aspiring screenwriters get from it that they can’t from the many other screenwriting books out there?
Stories, really. There are a lot of “how to” books on screenwriting. But not many from writers who have been in the trenches, worked with major studios and gotten movies made. I not only share the ins and outs of plot points and character arcs, but give a glimpse into the writer’s path via mine, good, bad or ugly. It’s pushed me a bit out of my comfort zone, bearing my warts for all to see, but I’ve found the real-life anecdotes are what make breaking into screenwriting feel accessible to students and others.
Finally, as if you didn’t already have enough on your plate, you also moonlight as a rock ‘n’ roll drummer in a band. Which came first, dreams of Hollywood or the desire to be a rock star?
You kidding? I’m just doing the movie thing until my music career takes off. Know anyone in Nashville?