Please enjoy this interview with Black List writer Jack Waz from the new issue of Backstory.
Did you know that during his time as president, Bill Clinton misplaced the country’s nuclear codes? Somehow this fact avoided becoming a major headline, and instead this small nugget of United States history serves as the inspiration for a script that landed on the revered Black List. Reports vary about the exact details of what happened, but one retelling insisted the codes getting lost went under the radar because it happened almost at the exact same time Clinton was becoming embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal that captured the entire nation’s attention. This appealed greatly to screenwriter Jack Waz. “I really liked the idea that there’s a gigantic national security scandal no one knows about because the other biggest scandal of all time happened at the same time,” he says.
Waz knew he wanted to work in the film industry from a young age and followed through on that promise. Even though he lived in Philadelphia, he took an internship at the G4 channel in Los Angeles while in high school and would travel to New York City to perform and take classes with UCB. He got his film degree at Emerson in Boston and then moved to L.A. and worked as a production assistant on the likes of Cougar Town and Whose Line Is It Anyway? Before long, he moved into coveted writer’s-assistant positions for USA’s Satisfaction and then Epix’s Get Shorty. Being a writer’s assistant is usually the first step en route to a career as a television scribe, and though Waz aspired to be exactly that, he never stopped working on feature scripts in his spare time, eventually penning an action-comedy titled Clusterfuck that couldn’t seem to get the traction he wanted. His manager, John Zaozirny of Bellevue Productions, with whom he signed in 2015, encouraged him to consider a true or semi-true story, as those are the types of tales that get buzz and land them noted honors like making it to the Black List. Waz remembered reading about the Clinton/nuclear code story and so The Biscuit was born.
The script follows a young teacher named Amanda, who is frustrated by her inability to have a child with her dimwit husband, Todd. Their only chance is in-vitro fertilization, which will cost $50,000 that they do not have. As it happens, President Bill Clinton stops by Amanda’s school to read to her students. He asks to use the bathroom and somehow inadvertently drops the country’s nuclear codes—a small document known as the biscuit—and Amanda stumbles onto them later. A local pawn dealer helps them identify exactly what they are and how much they could be worth. With no real national security risk because the codes would be replaced anyway, she and Todd seek to sell them to get the money to start their family as Clinton’s chief of staff Tim Novak tries to track them down and save his boss’ reputation.
Waz’s process began with copious amounts of research into the Clinton administration. “I gave myself a master’s in the Clinton impeachment and how the ’90s White House operated,” he says. “You have to know everything about what you’re writing. You make up the fun stuff and the details in the margins, but you have to know how things basically operate in order to write something really good. What is the world? Who are the key players? Once I know what the world is, I go out and hike.” Hiking may not seem like a conducive way for a writer to get work done, but it’s critical to Waz’s M.O. It’s actually how he outlines. “The beauty of living in L.A. is we have a park system in the middle of the city, so while I walk I type notes on my phone. Usually at the top of the hike, I’ll put those notes into paragraphs and put them in my computer when I get home.” He has also come up with an ingenious way to organize his thoughts—via the listmaking app Trello. He used it extensively during a stint working for The Office’s B.J. Novak’s tech company li.st and instantly knew the program would be perfect for creating a digital white board he could use while working on scripts.
The Biscuit is a refreshing comedy script for this day and age. Unlike the endless stream of raunchy, R-rated comedies that are similar in tone, it doesn’t try to tread that territory. It’s PG-13 and funny without being crass. Waz notes that such a tone was an evolution and that early drafts of the scripts were more edgy, similar to HBO’s hit political series Veep. “It was originally more vulgar and more off the wall,” he says. “But a note I got from my wife [Nikki Baida, a development exec in the industry] said to tone it down and think of it as a PG-13 comedy.” So he brainstormed and soon found his inspiration in 1990s political comedies such as Dave or Dick. “It’s not about the wittiness or cutting remarks. Instead, you’re focusing on the insanity of the event. There was also something about the ’90s that was pure, where it was a decade of great growth and optimism and there’s something almost quaint to it now, which I kind of like.”
Waz was insistent on not using real historical figures to populate his story—save for Clinton himself, of course, who the script has actually making an appearance. So while he had the backbone of the story from real-life history, he was working with a blank canvas about how to flesh out the plot. He crafted his lead Amanda as someone forced to go against something within themselves for a great reason, something he sees as ripe for both comedy and great emotion. “She is based on my mom, an incredible woman who taught me right,” he says. “Part of her is also based on my wife, and part of her is based on me feeling powerless until you realize you have that one thing that allows you the keys to the kingdom. Everyone dreams of getting their golden ticket, and I love the idea of Amanda, who is a very sweet character having to compromise her values just the slightest bit to achieve the American dream. There’s something uniquely American about being able to compromise yourself in order to get what you want.”
His process resulted in over two dozen drafts, but one of the most important notes he got came from Zaozirny near the end: Cut some 30 pages from the latest draft and have the final version come in around 90–100 pages. “I had a lot of fat there,” the writer says. “There was a lot of stuff I really liked, but it didn’t necessarily have to be there so I went through with a machete and hacked them to pieces. I could see what doesn’t work and didn’t let my ego get in the way. You have to get rid of it without emotion.” He points specifically to a major action set piece at kids hangout Discovery Zone, and the plot was barely changed after he removed it. “I loved the sequence, but it was needless.” Once the script was at fighting weight, things started to click. “One of the things I learned from my wife and my friends who are execs is to turn scripts in that are tight. If you turn in something that’s 90–100 pages, it’s going to look a lot nicer on their reading pile than something that’s 120–140.”
Waz was also careful to not take the easy way out and smash his readers over the head with overt references to today’s political climate. “The script is political but not partisan,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want it to be preachy. You don’t want to treat the reader like a child. You don’t want them to feel like they need to learn from you. They can draw their own connections.” If the reader chooses to find them, there are definitely parallels between the events of the script and what’s happening in the world today, but that was not his goal. “There’s an evergreen quality to politics in that it’s fucking insane, and we’re currently living through an insane political climate. If nothing else, you can say we’ve survived crazy situations before and we’ll most likely survive whatever comes next.”
He delivered The Biscuit to Zaozirny in September 2018, and his manager got him enough meetings and support for it to make the Black List that December. “I wrote a script about politics and getting a script on there is very similar to a political campaign,” Waz jokes. “It’s a lot of meetings, a lot of shaking hands and a lot of networking in the best possible way. You’re essentially campaigning for you and your story.” The push clearly worked, and though The Biscuit isn’t headed for a movie theater near you anytime soon, the writer says it has helped him make the move to features. But he has also returned to TV where he is newly staffed as a writer for an upcoming Hulu show we cannot mention here. Though Waz’s talent is clear to anyone who has read The Biscuit, he is quick to credit others for his current career ascension. “John and my wife gave the script a gigantic push for me. They helped me get this thing to the right people and get me in the right meetings. They really laid out my future for me. It’s opened a lot of doors that weren’t open to me before.”
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