An Interview with Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz
by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz are two of the screenwriters for the upcoming Spike Lee joint BlacKkKlansman. It is the story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and this film has received very positive reactions on the festival circuit and won the Grand Prize of the Jury award at Cannes. The movie is set to be released on August 10. I had the great fortune of being able to sit down and talk to Mr. Wachtel and Mr. Rabinowitz about BlacKkKlansman and their influences and experiences as screenwriters.
Jason F. Koenigsberg: How did you hear about the true story that inspired BlacKkKlansman and what about it made you think that it would make a good screenplay and a good movie?
Charlie Wachtel: It all started out when I was looking at Facebook and somebody had posted a story about this guy who was calling up the KKK, he was the first ever black detective in the Colorado Springs police force and there was a link in the article to this memoir that he had written. So I ordered the book, I read it, and thought that this was interesting and I shared it with my writing partner, Dave, he read it and we both kind of got on board.
David Rabinowitz: Yeah it was, or is a pretty crazy, true-life story, that we assumed someone would probably have the rights to. So we contacted the author, and the publisher and the author’s manager and we found that at that time no one did have the rights. So we said, ‘OK, why don’t we take a crack at this?’. We sent in the one sheet of what our movie could be. We also sent them a legal agreement, that basically said we have the right to adapt this, we never had the rights, we just got the permission to adapt it on spec, and then we worked with the author to write a screenplay adaptation.
JFK: So did you write a treatment first and then the script?
CW: Yeah we wrote a detailed outline, while the detailed outline was happening we had an opportunity to pitch it to a company called QC Entertainment. We pitched it to Sean Reddick and Ray Mansfield and this was while we had just started to write it from our outline.
DR: Yeah and they really liked it and they said ‘hey, we are in early pre-production on this thing called Get Out with Jordan Peele. This was an easy conversation to have with him and so a couple of months later we had a draft of the script to QC and Jordan read it and we had Jordan on board as a producer. It worked out pretty great, timewise it was pretty crazy how well it turned out.
JFK: How did your script end up on Spike Lee’s Desk?
DR: So the script was with QC then in September of 2016 we had a meeting with QC and Jordan. Jordan gave us notes on the script which we used to do a re-write and then five months later Get Out came out, and it was like the biggest thing in the world. Then suddenly things started moving and Jordan was even at one point considering to direct this. After Get Out we had a producer, we had QC who was now on board as the production company, and they were both basically on top of the world. At that point, Blumhouse got involved and it went out to a list of directors and Spike was one of the directors at the top of the list. The next thing we know we got a call one say saying ‘Spike Lee is directing the movie’.
JFK: What was it like the first time you met Spike Lee and sat down with him to discuss your script?
CW: It did not exactly go like that. We did not meet him until the Cannes Film Festival. He was great when we talked to him and it was all surreal because we met with him just a few minutes before the movie was about to debut and it was all happening at the same time. We did not actually sit down and talk with him until after the movie was complete.
JFK: You mentioned Cannes, what was Cannes like? Can you describe what it was like for first-time screenwriters to be at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world?
CW: It was crazy. In a lot of ways, it was kind of like a business trip for us. We had meetings, we made a lot of contacts, we got business cards, but then that one day, the day of the premiere, that was like the craziest day. It was like there was a cocktail hour where we met Spike and all of the actors, and then we were whisked to this motorcade, and then the motorcade took us to the red carpet and someone just opens the door and you’re there on the red carpet standing behind the actors. Then you walk the red carpet and there are all these photographer’s snapping photos and then you walk up the stairs and you sit down and you’re in the theater and everybody’s already sat down and a minute after we sat down the movie starts. So it was like a whirlwind.
JFK: How was BlacKkKlansman received at Cannes?
DR: BlacKkKlansman at Cannes was received super well. We are thrilled with how well it was received. Critically it has been mostly positive so far, which is great. When we were watching the movie, that was the premiere and it played really well. People were laughing at the right times and reacting. There were even applause breaks in the middle of the movie, it was received very well. Once we got to the afterparty the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes started coming in and it was review, after review, after review, and they were all positive. So it was a very surreal experience and definitely gave us a lot more to celebrate.
JFK: Do you think the reception of BlacKkKlansman or the fact that it was greenlit in the first place has something to do with our political climate with racism being more prevalent in the news than it has been in previous years and how the Trump presidency has empowered racists to be more vocal recently?
CW: Yeah I absolutely think it has. The current political climate definitely has made this subject matter a lot more relevant. I don’t think racism itself is necessarily more prevalent it’s just that there are a lot of people out there that are a lot more comfortable politicizing their racism and legitimizing their racism and coming forward to be vocal about it. Without getting too political I think that these are things that since Trump won the presidency in 2016 have been on everyone’s mind. It is constantly there when you turn on the news and you can’t avoid it. Whenever you have a film that is trying to use race at least as one of the subjects for a platform of a greater debate or a greater discussion it is going to get attention. But one thing I will say is that as far as politics go this is ultimately a film about the bad guys being the Ku Klux Klan and that should be a thing that everybody should be able to get behind. Even though Spike Lee is going to put his own political spin on it like he has for everything that he does. I think that there is nothing really too controversial or nothing should be too controversial about the film.
DR: At the same time Spike does take aim at certain things that are happening today. Especially things in the United States. So yes the film is extremely political in that way.
JFK: We keep talking about Spike Lee, one last Spike Lee question what are some of your favorite Spike Lee films? Were you really familiar with his work? He is very controversial and not as popular in mainstream cinema as he used to be but he is still certainly very well known and had been very active in recent years.
CW: I really like Do the Right Thing (1989), 25th Hour (2002) was a good one. I really liked Bamboozled (2000).
DR: I think for me Do the Right Thing is my favorite. I really liked 25th Hour also. We were both huge fans of Spike Lee before having any idea he was going to be involved in this project.
JFK: Do you think Spike Lee was the right director for your script? How much of your original script was altered during the transition to the screen?
CW: I will say that when we started writing this, we joked that Spike Lee was going to direct it. The bones of the story are very much still in place. There is a lot that is the same. Pieces of dialogue or the overarching plot and certain characters are still the same and scenes are how we wrote it, a lot is intact. Spike in doing his directors pass he did stylize it a little bit more.
DR: He put in his voice and made it extremely political and that is something that you want from a director because you want the film to be in their voice. You want it to be a singular vision.
JFK: Was there a specific film or moment that drew you to the movies and made you want to pursue a career in the movie business?
CW: I think for me it was sometime in high school where Dave and I worked together on video reports instead of written reports and this would often times entail us having to direct, act, edit and write and work with actors, or student actors, and sometimes ourselves acting in it and I think that was where I personally got the creative bug to pursue it and think that it was something that I could possibly do and be good at as well. As far as movies that I saw when I was younger I remember when I went on a family vacation to Universal Studios and I saw and learned a lot about how the movie Psycho (1960) was made and it just blew my mind. Obviously, I knew movies were not real, but that was the first time that I really saw that the movies were something that involved a lot of artistry that goes into how these things are made and it all seemed very fun to me. My first time in LA I was 13 years old and going on a studio tour and that really changed the way that I felt about movies and moviemaking.
DR: I think for me being really young and seeing Jurassic Park (1993) and Star Wars (1977), I know they are very common answers for movies that inspire people but they are for a good reason. Seeing those made me a big fan of movies at a young age but then it wasn’t until high school when we were making those video reports for class that I got super into film and got more into indie film, got more into stuff like the Coen Bros. films and then started to get kind of obsessed with screenwriting. I started writing scripts in high school. That made me think ‘hey I want to actually pursue this as a career’.
JFK: So you guys met in school and kind of grew up together, from there how did you get into screenwriting as a career? How difficult was it to find success in Hollywood as a writer?
DR: We met in 6th grade growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey and have been friends and working together pretty much ever since.
CW: When you move out to LA, I moved out first of the two of us, and you move out here and it is very daunting. There is no roadmap to success. Everyone has their own path. Everything that you do is out of your control so you control what you can control and the one thing that you can control is the writing and the work. Individually we both kept at it writing separate scripts and then by the time Dave moved out here in 2012, we joined forces and the first thing we wrote was a TV pilot and we thought that that process had gone pretty well for us. We both had different strengths that we brought to the table and the second thing we wrote together was BlacKkKlansman.
DR: No matter who you talk to it’s hard to break into this business and there is no one way to do it. For us, it was really happening upon the right piece of material at the right time and having the vision for it. Also, writing a good script that people were interested in. Plus, Charlie having worked in the industry as an assistant for years, having the right contacts helps. So it was a lot of pieces that had to fit together correctly in order for this to happen for us.
CW: I moved out here in 2009, I worked at a talent agency and for a few producers while doing my own writing, directing and producing stuff independently on my own.
DR: I worked as a freelance video editor and oceanographic artist mostly working on marketing videos and then writing on the side.
CW: I would like to emphasize that while BlacKkKlansman is our second attempt together it is not our second attempt overall. We have written a lot individually so we were not starting from scratch.
JFK: One last question, you touched on this a little bit, what advice would you have for up and coming screenwriters, actors or directors trying to break into the business?
CW: I would say don’t worry about the intangibles, the things you cannot control, focus on the work, focus on everything that is on the page because writing is free and you can always control that part. If you are really into writing and you enjoy it and you are good at it and you have done your homework, you’ve watched as many movies as you can, you’ve read as many scripts as you can get your hands on that have sold in Hollywood then the hope is that through osmosis you’re going to get better and better. And also being open to feedback, if you show your script and you get criticism the ones who make it are the ones who make the adjustments and they rewrite, and they rewrite, and they rewrite. And the ones who usually don’t make it are usually the ones who are too up their own ass for lack of a better way of putting it and those people usually don’t last long.
DR: If you want to write, write. Write a lot, write as much as you can. Get opinions from people, get feedback. Quantity leads to quality. If you want to direct, direct. Find ways to direct and make stuff for as little cost as possible. Make mistakes and learn from them and go from there. Your next one will be better. Same with writing, you make mistakes, your next one will be better. You want to act, find ways to act, there are a lot of opportunities out here. Participate in as many things as possible. It’s really just about focusing on the work and trying to do as much of it as possible so you get better.
CW: Less talk about what you love and what you want to do and more actually just doing it.
BlacKkKlansman is coming out August 10. See it at a theater near you.