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How teaching English in China led 'The Wall' screenwriter to his big Hollywood break

by John Horn and Michelle Lanz with Monica Bushman | The Frame

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John Cena, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Doug Liman and Dwain Worrell at a Q&A following the premiere of "The Wall." The Wall Movie (Facebook)

It's a harsh Hollywood reality that many aspiring screenwriters never end up getting their big break.

Like many before him, Dwain Worrell shared a longing to make movies. Only he was working in China— more than 6,000 miles from Los Angeles— with no connections in the entertainment industry. 

Now his film "The Wall" starring John Cena and  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is in theaters. It's the first movie that Amazon Studios has produced through its open submission site:

Set in 2007, “The Wall” is about two U.S. Army rangers who have been sent to investigate a sniper attack in Iraq. They believe the enemy shooter has left the area, but they are mistaken. The two are quickly wounded and pinned down, with a small wall offering the only protection between safety and death. The film was directed by Doug Liman, who made the first "Jason Bourne" film.

When Dwain Worrell joined us on The Frame, we asked him about how living in China affected his writing and how the online submission form at Amazon Studios changed his life.

Interview Highlights

So how did you first get connected to Amazon Studios?

Amazon has an open submission for screenplays, and at the time I was overseas and I didn't have any connections with anyone in the industry. And Amazon was one of the only websites that wasn't blocked in China — I was in Beijing at the time — and since it was one of the only sites I could submit to, I shot it over to them.

And what were you doing in China at the time?

I was being a bit of a bum of an ex-pat. [laughs] I was doing a bit of everything — I was there for 10 years, so I studied Chinese maybe my first three or four years, and then I started getting into translating, teaching, and I was doing a lot of acting as well.

So you submit through Amazon Studios' online submission system, and then how long does it take to hear back about your script?

This was a very fast process, because I wrote this screenplay in two weeks and did a clean-up rewrite in one week. So it was three weeks altogether, I submitted it immediately after, two weeks later they responded, and then within a month and a half I was talking to agents and preparing to move back to the United States.

What was the initial germ of the idea for this story?

I was trying to figure out a film that was smaller scale, something that would be easier to produce but would still have the intensity and breadth of a big-budget blockbuster. Films [in one location] are a lot easier to produce — they have a smaller budget, one or two characters, and it's a lot less risky. The other end of it is "The Avengers," and there's very little middle ground nowadays in the film industry.

A couple years ago, you were teaching English in China. Now you've got "The Wall" coming out and you're working on "Iron Fist," so it sounds like things have changed about 180 degrees in a very quick amount of time.

Yes, yes. Some people believe that I got lucky, and I do agree, I did get lucky, but while I was in China I was writing the entire time, just bad script after bad script. I have about 10, 15 useless scripts under my belt, and finally a couple hit.

And there were advantages of living in China as a writer — the cost of living is very low and I was making pretty good money working three or four days a week, so I had a lot of free time. In the beginning, I was fresh out of college and was just having a good time, but those last few years in China I was really using my free time to write and work.

I also think that, linguistically, learning Mandarin had a huge influence on my writing and on "The Wall." The movie deals a lot with language and how people can camouflage themselves in language, and a lot of that I learned by learning Chinese. It opens up different spaces in your head.

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.

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