Jonathan Perera’s story is inspiring, interesting and very Hollywood. He grew up in the projects of London. He finished university with a ton of debt and went to work for a law firm to pay off what he owed and then moved to South-East Asia. There he traveled around before settling in South Korea to become a teacher. That’s just the beginning, I sat down with Perera at the Four Seasons to discuss how he went from teaching in South Korea to making the rounds with local press at the junket for his screenwriting debut, Miss Sloane, a timely topic. The film stars Jessica Chastain as a powerful Washington lobbyist, a woman who is about to take on gun control and the fight to have a 2-week wait list passed. Miss Sloane risks her career and faces her toughest opponent in this slick and gripping thriller that sees Chastain deliver an empowering performance.
***NOTE: This interview contains MAJOR plot spoilers***
Awards Daily: How did you get into screenwriting?
JP: I’m trained as a corporate lawyer. Not that I particularly wanted to be a corporate lawyer, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. Education is expensive in the UK, more so in the US. The question shifted from, “What do I want to do” to “I’m going to have a mountain of debt at the end of my degree, what do I need to do to pay this off?” Working in a law firm was the obvious choice, so I joined one of the big corporate slaughterhouses, stayed a few years and that was long enough for me to pay off my debts and run out the door with very little idea of what I actually wanted to do.
I made a few mental lists. List A: What are you interested in? Football, cars , architecture. List B: What are you good at? A shorter list which consisted of language and words. I always enjoyed writing short stories and working with language and was hopeless with numbers. I thought I was interested in football and I like working with words, so why not be a sports journalist.
Moving down the list, I like movies. So, I thought, why not write a movie? That’s actually how it came about. I knew nothing about screenwriting. I had never read a script in my entire life. I knew that as a lawyer you’re working 16 hours a day, so in order to pursue this, I needed the free time to teach myself the basics of screenwriting. I quit law to much dismay, and people thought I was insane.
I went to teach English in China just to keep a roof over my head while I taught myself the basics. I read scripts, analyzed them, what worked, what didn’t work. I read one screenwriting book and went through it with a highlighter.
After a year in China, I moved to South Korea and taught elementary school students. It was there that I planned and conceived Miss Sloane. I got my representation with that, and it got optioned from there. I was taking meetings from my classroom at 6am because of the time difference. I’d be holding Skype meetings during a break in class with the kids waving behind. That was my introduction to Hollywood.
One meeting was with Patrick Chu at Filmnation in 2014, I had looked at their website and wanted to work with them, but I had no idea that I’d get an email from my agent saying Filmnation just made a financial offer on my script.
I didn’t intend to show this script to anyone. I wrote it and forgot about it. It sat on my hard drive for a few months. I saw an article in Variety about Weinstein wanting to make a movie about a similar subject with a female protagonist and that set alarm bells ringing. I thought if The Weinsteins thought there was an audience for this, then maybe someone will like it. I reread it and thought someone would like it, but I didn’t know anyone who lived in the USA. I had no connections what so ever.
I got the email for Scott Carr, sent him an email, a very short one. I heard back from him immediately and sent my script. A few weeks later, he emailed me saying he loved my script and wanted to know if I was local and wanted to go for a drink. That’s when I dropped the bomb telling him I was British and living in South Korea. He agreed to meet over Skype and we went back and forth. He showed it some people, UTA circulated it, and that’s how it all happened, from my classroom in South Korea.
AD: And here we are, the joys of modern technology.
JP: Exactly. This could not have been done in a pre-internet age.
AD: Miss Sloane is a fierce character. I got the Miss Sloane haircut because she was so empowering and just the sort of character we need one screen and often lack. So, I have to ask, who was the inspiration for her?
JP: [laughs] I love it. You need to go red. Well, she’s somewhat based on my mother.
AD: No way.
JP: I was raised single-handedly by her. She is very strong, like a bulldog, she gets stuck into something and doesn’t let go. I must stress that the good things about Sloane come from her. My mom isn’t manipulative or deceitful. [laughs].
AD: Oh good, because I was going to say, what would she say about that?
JP: That’s all me. [laughs] She’s somewhat inspired by my own mother. She was born in Czechoslovakia, grew up in communism. She defected at the age of 19 and ran to London with a suitcase and a firm belief that she would never see any of her friends or family ever again. That’s my mom in a nutshell. I had a good role model.
The more deceitful aspects of the lobby world in Miss Sloane are generally from my research.
AD: How much did you have to do?
JP: It was a huge help because the background in law was a similar world, I was familiar with the setting, the dress, the talk, everything is fast-paced and snappy. I had to research the lobbying more than anything. Lobbying and law are like brothers, they’re somewhat related, although lobbyists don’t need to be professional or qualified lawyers.
Capitol Punishment by Jack Abramoff was a great help. He was a lobbyist, sent down for something. He did time in federal prison and wrote an expose on how lobbying actually works and it was incredibly helpful that made me picture the world.
I read as many articles as I could about lobbying and how they were influencing political debates, funding, and what a day in their life might look like. I went so far as to download PDF’s from the Jack Abramoff hearing which were emails that he had sent to his colleagues to get a feel for how lobbyists communicated with each other.
AD: Isn’t it crazy how much information we can get online?
JP: It levels the playing field. If they’re prepared to do the research. They just have to go and get it.
AD: Did you have any trepidation dealing with the subject?
JP: No, I just wrote it because I found it interesting. Even when I knew we were making the movie. It’s a piece of entertainment, set in a fascinating world and deals with a subject that’s pertinent to American politics. It’s not intending to change anyone’s position or mind. I wasn’t worried about getting heat from anyone.
AD: Did it change much from the script to what we see on screen?
JP: Not terribly. John came on board and made some astute observations. The structure and how it all plays out is the same as the first draft. What John identified incredibly smartly, was a way to make Elizabeth more emotionally vulnerable and conflicted than she was in my original draft. In the draft, she had the appearance of being vulnerable, and we come to the end, we realize she’s two steps ahead all along, and she was playing everyone. In the finished movie, she’s still two steps ahead, but she’s still ethically conflicted about what she’s doing and the tactics she’s employing to win this fight. It’s a small subtle change.
AD: I loved the cockroach. Where did that come from?
JP; [laughs] The cockroach. That idea came from ten years of living in Asia, I had cockroaches on my brain. When we first moved out there, my mom who’s usually tough, our first year there, would shriek. After ten years, we just shrug it off.
So, where did it come from? I wanted her to pull the rug from everyone’s feet and I wanted to come up in a cinematic way. It would be boring if she had said, “I had you all bugged.” I thought about how to make it visual. So, you’re writing these words that’s intended to be more seen, so it has more impact if it has a visual motif, and that’s what the cockroach is. I wanted to make the best possible version of Elizabeth performing visual surveillance on these guys.
I’m a junkie for internet news.I read an article once about MTI boffins who had actually been able to make this cockroach, it’s a real thing. They perforate the thorax and attach a crafty listening device to it, and they control it remotely.
AD: That’s so insane.
JP: It’s a real thing. Jessica told me, she read that in the script and didn’t think it was real until she Googled it, and she found out it was. It exists. It can be done, and that’s when I put it in.
AD: It’s been incredible talking to you.
Miss Sloane premieres at the AFI Fest on Friday November 11