Check out our exclusive interview with talented screenwriter and director Sutton McKee.
Sutton’s extensive catalogue includes feature film scripts, television series pilots, and he’s working closely with a manager to get projects acquired for development. He has directed and produced commercials and industrials around the world; including India, Africa, Indonesia, Paraguay, and Mexico. The first project he wrote and directed in LA was the award-winning web series “THE WRONG GUYS FOR THE JOB”.
Sutton recently began adapting his screenplays to short-form to create filmed projects that serve as both proof-of-concept ‘sizzles’ for features, and also stand alone as short films. His first short with this strategy is RIPPLE, a sci-fi thriller. RIPPLE is now on the festival circuit, which kicked off last December with an ‘Audience Favorite’ win at The Hammer Museum’s prestigious ‘Open Projector Night’. He shot a second short adaptation of a feature script, PUSHED, a poignant suspense drama, which is in post-production for an international festival run this Spring. Sutton acquired the rights to a compelling autobiography and has adapted it into a television series with a high-profile producer attached.
We recently sat down with Sutton to find out a bit more about his motivation:
Hi Sutton, please tell us what you believe shaped you an artist?
I grew up in Arlington, Texas in a conservative, southern Baptist home, and as a kid, I never really felt like I fit into the world around me. I was able to blend in to the community and tow the line in my younger years, but as I entered my teenage years I began to question things (as most teenagers do), and found the walls and trenches of some belief systems difficult to navigate. I increasingly began to no longer be satisfied with the answers, “well that’s just the way things are” or “well that’s what we believe.” After high school, I studied visual communication and dramatic writing at Texas Tech University. This creative environment nurtured my ‘outlier’ self, and helped me find my voice – hopefully one that would provoke thought and even change. While there will always be a special place in my heart for the Lone Star State, I never knew a place could feel so much like home before moving to Los Angeles.
When did you know you had a passion for storytelling and filmmaking?
My family didn’t watch a lot of movies or TV. When I was in seventh grade, I met a kid named, Jordan who quickly became my best friend. Jordan grew up the total opposite of me. His mom was a young single mother, who loved movies and had one of the largest collections I had ever seen. I remember staring at the shelves in awe of all I had missed over the years. I would sleep over at Jordan’s house every weekend possible and stay up all night watching movie after movie. I couldn’t get enough. It truly changed my life.
Cinema was a window into a reality that I always hoped existed. Not only were my experiences, feelings, emotions and struggles not unique to me, but the world became so much more exciting and bright. Flawed, messy, beautiful and dangerous, I experienced first-hand the power of storytelling and the power of film. It was like everything shifted inside me. The realization that I could be a part of creating the world I wanted to live in was overwhelming. And all this through one medium… Stories. More importantly, other people’s stories. People like me. It was that year that I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker.
What inspires you to create new stories?
I am infinitely fascinated with people, the world, and what makes us all tick. It is the way my brain works. I love the idea that there are so many ways in which you can tell a story. I get such a thrill in thinking through all the perspectives, themes, characters and lenses through which you can take an audience on a journey. Whether I am sitting down with a fellow writer or producer spit balling ideas or simply waiting at a red light watching the woman on the corner sell roses, I can not help but be inspired, asking myself what’s the story here and how do we best tell it.
I also love being on the other side. Films, TV, plays, musicals, listening to someone around the dinner table, there are few things I love more than experiencing a great story. The idea that I get to make a living telling stories is beyond comprehension. I truly believe stories are the most powerful tool we as humans have and I am grateful every day to be a part.
What was the inspiration for your feature screenplay, RIPPLE, and the short that is now on the festival circuit?
One night I was standing in my bathroom brushing my teeth, when I swear I saw someone standing in the doorway next to me. But when I turned there was no one there. I am sure this has happened to almost everyone, but it got me thinking…
I love science. I have always been fascinated by string theory, Schrodinger’s cat and the possibilities of parallel universes. What if there were infinite universes, exactly like our own, in which perhaps we make slightly different choices than the ones we do in this universe? What if there are exact replicas of this universe moving in parallel to each other? How would one prove such a thing? This sent me into a deep hole of researching quantum mechanics, quantum suicide, quantum physics and the philosophical question, ‘is our future destined to be a reflection of our past.’
Obsessed with the layers and themes, I decided to write a story about the possibilities of a machine that enables one to jump into multiple parallel universes and what that might do to a person with a troubled past. Is it possible that there might be a dimension in which you didn’t make a decision you made in your current dimension? And if you were to jump to that new dimension, what happens to the you already there? @ripplemovie
What moved you to tackle the powerful topic of domestic spousal abuse in your story, PUSHED?
So often domestic abuse is looked at in a very one dimensional way. I wanted to dive in deeper and explore the psychological aspects of someone who has been trapped in a quiet abusive relationship for years and explore what that can drive a person to do.
The story idea came from a question I have had in my mind for some time. “How far will people go to maintain certain perceptions?” All our decisions have consequences. They all affect us on emotional and sometimes even physical levels. I wanted to explore these concepts. The picture I kept coming back to in my mind was a perfectly put together woman, who from the outside has it all. Money, success, the perfect husband, perfect family. But underneath the surface, under the perceptions, is a world of violence, fear, anger and fracturing reality. I wanted to paint a realistic portrait of domestic abuse from the perspective just below the all too common layer of perception over self-worth. So much so, in the film our main character has constructed a false reality that she has trapped herself in, bringing the pain beyond the external and physical and into the internal and self-inflicted. @pushedthefilm
What’s next for you as a writer/director/producer?
I am currently putting the finishing touches on two pilots I hope to go out with soon, before diving into my next feature project. I am very excited about the new feature endeavor, as it is in a genre I have yet to tackle.
If you had to choose one, which one would you choose – writing or directing?
My first love is collaboration. Therefore, directing tends to be what I prefer to do. As a director, I have never been one to create something in my head and carry that vision out to the final product, exactly as I first saw it. Part of the magic of filmmaking is the evolution of a story with each new piece of the puzzle everyone brings to the project. Everyone reads a script through a different lens. I love working with the different department heads to craft each and every aspect of the film to serve the story we are all trying to tell.
In the feature space, the writer is generally not as big a part of the larger filmmaking process. This is one reason I am excited for the potential opportunity to work in TV with the current novel adaptation I recently finished. As a writer, one of the things I admire about television is the confidence in the writer’s vision beyond the page. I would also love to be a part of a writer’s room. In the same way a film director works with all the departments to create the visual narrative of the piece, I would love to work with a team of writers to both create something that we collectively see through and carry on for a period of several episodes and seasons.
What are the most inspiring and most difficult parts of working in the entertainment industry?
The most inspiring is all the people for which you get to work with and the impact we can all collectively have on the world. There are so many amazingly talented people in this industry that inspire me to be better and work harder.
The most difficult is the slow pace at which the industry sometimes moves, particularly in its decision-making processes. This is why when you find a team that works well together, moves quickly and efficiently, you stick together!
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Can’t-do attitudes. In filmmaking it is rare that you have everything going in that you need to complete a project. Nine times out of ten, you are underfunded, under equipped, tight on time and a couple men / women down. It is in those moments that the greats rise and those with limited imagination and a less than optimal work ethic sink to the bottom.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
What is your personal motto?
Always be the calmest person in the room.
What are the ﬁve things you can’t live without?
Sarah, Friends, Love, Freedom, Great Stories
Best advice ever given?
‘If you want to be a person who makes an impression in Los Angeles, be the one who truly cares about people. The one who is there to create relationships, not just make connections.’
Who has been the biggest inﬂuence on your life?
My wife Sarah is my biggest cheerleader, toughest critic and truly the only person who has believed whole heartedly in me and my dreams since day one.
What did you learn from your biggest failure?
When I graduated high school, I had a landscaping company that took care of over thirty client’s yards per/week. A lot of these clients had been with me for a long time. Some were past teachers, friends, friend’s parents, grandparents, etc. They were more than my clients. A lot of them were my friends. It was a company I had started when I was twelve and one I was not ready to let go of when I moved away for college. Eighteen years naive, I decided to hire a couple of local guys to run the company, while I managed things from school, ﬁve hours away. Long story short, it was a disaster. By the end of my ﬁrst semester I had lost half my clients, my phone was ringing constantly, and I was traveling back and forth to put out ﬁres most weekends. Finally, I decided to call it quits, sold what was left of the business and took with me what proved to be an extremely valuable lesson. No one will ever care for and take care of something you create like you will. And sometimes, like my landscaping company, there can be no success in sticking around. Sometimes you simply have to get out of your own way and let it go.
Do you support any charities?
My wife and I have supported an amazing crowd funding non-proﬁt organization for many years called Adopt Together. Each month, we choose a family to support with a donation toward their adoption. Little did we know when we began this tradition, that one day it would be us using the site to raise funds to adopt our own daughter, which we are currently in the process of doing. We also support an all girl’s orphanage in India called, Children of Hope.
As a writer and producer, I find it both important and rewarding to work on projects that have a related potential to raise awareness and focus attention on a particular cause and even serve as a catalyst for social impact.
As a producer, I strive to embed a philanthropic aspect into the business plan of each and every project.
Favorite movie and why?
AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Not because it is the greatest ﬁlm ever made, but because of the impact it had on me at a young age.
I remember watching AS GOOD AS IT GETS for the ﬁrst time and thinking, ‘wow, I have never experienced anything quite like this before.’ I remember watching it again and again over a period of a few weeks trying to understand what it was about it that spoke to me so deeply. Looking back on it now, I think that was the moment I fell in love with characters and the idea that it is not the plots of ﬁlms that stick with us, but the characters and the journeys they take us on.
Favorite director and why?
Over the last several years I have absolutely loved Denis Villeneuve’s work. If I chose to follow in a director’s footsteps, his would be the ones. As a lover of long tracking shots and extended takes, I greatly admire the confidence in his story telling – both visually and narratively. From Prisoners to Sicario, Arrival to Blade Runner 2049, I love studying his films and how he moves his audience through the narrative and characters. Villeneuve has a seamless ability to cross genres. Personally as a writer, seeing his unwavering trust for his audience is something I also admire greatly. I am always impressed by his confidence in the visuals and performances to carry the story along and bring the audience where they need to go, even if it means it may take a few moments or days after the credits to fully appreciate all the layers.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I would love to be directing my second feature ﬁlm and/or ‘show-running’ a TV series.
Describe yourself in 3 words?
Outgoing, Driven, Storyteller
Quote: “Life is an ever-evolving mystery of beauty and grace in every single moment.”
Holiday Destination: Summer: Possum Kingdom Lake, in the foothills of Palo Pinto County about 90 miles west of Fort Worth, TX Winter: Anywhere where I can ski or snowboard
Food: Thai Curry or Pizza
Restaurant: The Sit Down in Los Feliz
Drink: A smokey Mezcal on the rocks with a lime
Song: Bohemian Rhapsody
Sports Team: Texas Tech Red Raiders
Television Show: My two favorite shows of 2018 were probably SMILF and KIDDING.
Last series you binge-watched: BIG MOUTH
Where we can follow you?
Photographer: Jeff Ellingson @jeffephoto