In Theatre Trip’s “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most inspiring people in the theatre industry. And today we’re doing a special feature on John Susman – a screenwriter, playwright, and director who has wonderfully balanced a career that spans both the film and theatre worlds.
John Susman is the director and writer of the film Game Day, which recently concluded its theatrical run and was released to Amazon and On Demand on November 1st. Game Day stars Romeo Miller and Elizabeth Alderfer, with original music by Romeo and Master P. And we’re especially excited to feature John Susman on Theatre Trip since he actually began his career in theatre!
Please note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase through one of the following links, we may earn a small commission on the sale at no additional cost to you. See our disclosure for more info.
What was it that initially inspired you to pursue a career in film and theatre?
“I always wanted to be an inventor. When I went to college, I planned on studying biomedical engineering, but I felt constrained by the narrowness of that path and wanted to be more creative. I got interested in the technical side of filmmaking. I knew that theater and film were related and set out to get a grounding in both.”
Can you tell us a bit about your film Game Day and what inspired this project?
“Game Day is about a brilliant entrepreneur who loses everything and who, by starting over at the bottom, transforms herself into someone she would never have become otherwise. I’d worked in the corporate world and had seen really smart people languish, because they didn’t know what strings to pull and what levers to push. I also saw mediocre people, who after playing a round of golf with management, suddenly get noticed. I thought the subject would resonate.
I originally wrote the script with a male lead. It placed for some screenwriting awards and was selected by the IFP. My producing partner, Stuart Wolf, thought it might be more interesting with a female lead. I resisted, thinking it would be unbelievable, until he brought me to a tryout for the WNBA. There was a woman who was playing a pickup game with some guys and totally dominating the play. That convinced me.”
What was an average work day like when directing this film? Can you maybe give us a little “day in the life” breakdown?
“Contrary to what most people might think, filmmaking has little in common with the award shows—except for the people. It’s not glamorous. It’s physically demanding blue collar work. That said, it’s a lot of fun. Still, I would get up at 4:30am, meet my producing partner, Stuart Wolf, drive to the set and start around 7am and work until 7pm. Or if it was an overnight, we’d start at 7pm and work until 7am.
It can be incredibly exciting as well as frustrating. You use everything you’ve learned in life, and every skill set you’ve acquired. It’s also incredibly taxing and exhausting. You really need the weekend to rest and catch up on sleep.”
So what inspired the transition from playwriting into screenwriting?
“You can’t ignore the economic differences. Film and television writing present many more opportunities to earn a living than playwriting. I’ve always loved movies. I also love theatre, but playwriting is mostly dialog-driven, whereas, screenwriting is structure and mostly visual. Screenplays are the linchpin to most films. You can certainly make a bad film from a good screenplay, but it’s hard to make a good film from a bad one.”
And rewinding the clock a bit – How was your time at Steppenwolf Theatre? Was a career in dramaturgy/literary management the original plan?
“John: Steppenwolf was such a terrific and unique experience. There aren’t many times in life when you get to work with such a concentration of talented people. I was so lucky to be there. I worked most closely with Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise. They’re both incredibly generous, and I learned so much from them. It was wonderful to observe how the ensemble worked, from considering a script (the best play readings I’ve ever attended) to full production.
My original plan was to be a playwright in residence—but the position didn’t exist. What they needed was someone to manage and read the scripts that came in and work with the directors on productions. I figured, why not—I’d do that and write as well. Being on the other side of the desk as well as seeing how all of the elements came together in a production—in hindsight, I can’t think of a better way to learn.”
“In a business of rejection, it’s hard to stay positive. If you think you’ll never make it, you probably won’t. But don’t write your own rejection letter.”
What would you say has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face in your career so far?
“There are so many challenges both economic and creative, but getting produced is probably up there on every writer’s list. There are only so many slots on a studio or theater’s calendar, and it’s tough getting into one of those. With streaming services doing more of their own producing, there’s more opportunities, but they’re more interested in what will increase their subscriber base so that’s another challenge.”
And what has been one of your happiest career-related moments?
“I can’t think of one specific moment. That said, the entire process of making Game Day—from preproduction, to principle photography, to editing was one of the greatest and most challenging experiences of my life. When you get the opportunity and privilege to do what you love and are most passionate about, it’s like mainlining the greatest drug in the world.”
The number of hats you have worn in both the film and theatre world is very impressive! Do you have any tips on how to pursue multiple interests for the other multi-passionate artists out there?
“Thanks for the compliment. The only tip I have would be to say “yes” to any reasonable opportunity, even if you think it’s beneath you. You can learn from every experience, and you meet people as well. In a business of rejection, it’s hard to stay positive. If you think you’ll never make it, you probably won’t. But don’t write your own rejection letter.”
“Say yes to any reasonable opportunity, even if you think it’s beneath you. You can learn from every experience, and you meet people as well.”
Are there any specific books or resources that you would suggest to budding writers or directors?
“There are so many books by screenwriting gurus, but not many by masters who have been there and done that. One reason I love, and sometimes reference (ask Stuart Wolf, my producing partner!) William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade is that he speaks from his own personal experience and accomplishment—and what amazing experiences and accomplishments. It also contains his famous maxim about the movie business: “Nobody knows anything.” So true.”
What’s next for you?
“It’s a story about a prince who’s been imprisoned since birth because of an evil prophecy. He gets released for one day and is given the chance to redeem himself and prove himself worthy to claim the throne and his rightful place. It’s in the Game of Thrones genre but with a Groundhog Day twist.”
What did you think of this interview with John Susman?
Are any of you working as or aspiring to be a writer or a director? We’d love to hear all about what you’re up to in the comments below! In the meantime, you can check out even more of our interviews with inspiring people in the theatre industry!
Want a weekly list of stagey surprises?!