Profile: Bay City Screenwriter Matthew Waynee Finds Success in Hollywood by Delving into the \'Unknown

    icon Jan 11, 2007
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It's quite remarkable to have unexpected success after years of labor.

As we all strive to do our best and attempt to accomplish our goals in life, every so often we are reminded that there is more than a glimmer of hope when hard work pays off. And it's even better when it's glowing in your own back yard.

A virtually unknown All Saints class of 1991 graduate, Matthew Waynee climbed the ladder, becoming an author and a teacher whom now can add the distinction of being an accomplished screenplay writer to his resume. His persistence, ideas, and geographical agility have landed his work on the silver screen.

With his first effort making its way into the right hands, Unknown is now a first-class national independent movie picked up by the Weinstein Company and issued around the world. An intense, psychological thriller with an all-star cast made up of Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Joey Pantoliano, Bridget Moynahan, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto, and Peter Stormare. It premiered in Bay City January 4, 5, 6, and 7, at the State Theatre, featuring Waynee each night answering questions post show.

Coming home from Los Angeles for the movie premiers, Waynee took the time to answer some questions for the Review and shed some light on his insight on the industry, hard work, and the proud nature of coming home to introduce his first masterpiece.

"I've been back here since Dec. 30th," said Waynee during a phone interview last week. "I flew into Grand Rapids and spent New Years Eve with some of my high school buddies and then drove here on the 1st. There are four screenings at the State Theatre and there is one screening actually in Grand Rapids at the UICA."

Unknown was a perfect fit for the State Theatre in Bay City after discussions began a year ago.

"Basically I was back here last January and the Weinstein Company was trying to figure out when the movie was going to be released. But I just talked to a few different people and I got in contact with Mike (Bacigalupo) at the State Theatre and the two of us have been working together. I mean he's done most of the legwork just to get it here to Bay City is something. It was made independently with a great cast and the Weinstein Company picked it up to distribute. It's being released internationally to about 30 different countries, but it's been out in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, D.C., Dallas, Houston - the top 20 cities across the country."

Waynee said the idea behind Unknown dates back over ten years.

"It was actually an idea I came up with while at college. I did my undergrad at Notre Dame until '95 and then I actually did Teach for America, so I was a high school English and Drama teacher for three years in Texas before moving to Los Angeles. I was at Notre Dame and reading some Greek Mythology and there's a great myth about Prometheus - the god who steals fire from the other gods and gives it to humans. As punishment he's chained up to the top of this mountain for 10,000 years, and basically this hawk comes down and eats out his liver."

"From this I developed the notion that the gods thought he was a villain and the humans thought he was this great hero. It was like, well what if you were chained up in a prison and you just didn't know if you were this sadistic murderer or if you were this good guy? Like what would you do if you just didn't know? And that was the idea that spun into Unknown, where five guys wake up and they are all locked up inside this warehouse and some of them are shot, some are beaten up and some are tied to things.

As they all wake up, none of them remember anything. They don't know who among them are the killers and who are the victims. And it's just that sort of interesting question - what would you do if you were in that situation?"

While he didn't know how to write a screenplay of that extent at the time he conceived Unknown, Waynee stayed up an entire night writing a 40-page outline’ around it.

"It wasn't until I went to USC and moved out to Los Angeles when I took some classes and just really learned Formatting and Technique and the proper way to write screenplays that I took the idea that I developed out of those years and transformed it."

Being a first time writer, Waynee was excited just to have a chance to see his creation come to life.

"By the time I finished writing it to the time it actually got shot, it was probably a good four years," he said. "It went through a couple of people who claimed they had money and didn't or thought they knew how to put it together and didn't. It's just from really being persistent and not being willing to give up, which is one of the biggest things out in Hollywood."

"Hollywood is such a difficult industry, I mean there may be 100 films that get released nationally each year out of the thousands that get submitted, even though they get picked up and start getting made, but then either money falls through or actors fall off and it's very, very challenging. I was hoping it would come together, but I definitely didn't imagine it would be this great."

The incredible casting helped take Unknown over-the-top and put Waynee in the position of knowing he was going to have some certainty to the notion of success.

"Even with the good cast, it was still made for $3.5 million, which in Hollywood is pretty much no money at all," said Waynee. "So a lot of independent films just hit the bigger cities and stuff like that because they don't have enough publicity money behind it. I mean, for a film for $3.5 million, for them to get all those actors, I would have been lucky and happy if we would have had one actor, but they thought it was a great script and a great concept and they all just kind of signed on and worked for their base rate. All of the actors took pay cuts to be a part of this film."

Waynee said he didn't have any choice on matters when the director took over and began to film.

"First time writers a lot of times are lucky to be able to do some re-writes, but once people pick it up, (the company) are kind of in charge of it and pick the director. And it's the director that was able to go in and get Jim Caviezel and Greg Kinnear and Joey Pantoliano to all be part of the film. Filmmaking is definitely a collaborative process and ultimately I would love to be a writer and director and that is what I am looking to do. Writing something and getting these great stars into it would have been something I never could have done as a director, so it was just a better step for me to give control to somebody else."

Living in Los Angeles all-year around has helped Waynee break into directing as well.

"Since I've been out in Los Angeles, I've probably directed eleven short films," he said. "I've done a couple of music videos, a couple TV commercials, so it is ultimately what I want to do and I've actually had some meetings as a writer where people said, 'If you sell a second screen play, we'd be willing to let you write and direct that third one.'  So it’s definitely progressing the way I want it to."

For his own part in promoting Unknown, Waynee says he's about to wrap up his promo tour and move on to his next project.

"It's out in Spain right now and it's out in England. I know it's already been out in Japan and Portugal. But this will probably be it for me as far as going out and publicizing it. I think the DVD is supposed to be released in either February or March if I’m not mistaken."

"Right now I'm working on some new projects: A couple novel adaptations and actually comic book adaptations that producers are trying to make into films. That's what I'm concentrating on. Now it's more about focusing on the next project and getting it finalized."

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