Matthew Allen

'90% of what you experience is rejection' — The world of screenwriting, as told by Japan expat Matthew Allen

By Arthur O’Keefe

Matthew Allen, Australian by birth, is both a resident of Tokyo and a Hollywood screenwriter. He primarily writes for veteran producer Mario Kassar, whose work includes such iconic films as "First Blood" (1982), "Total Recall" (1990) and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" (1991). Allen has also taught screenwriting at Tokyo Gakugei University and The English Language Film School Japan.

Even in the age of telework, accelerated by anti-coronavirus measures, Allen’s job situation is unusual. Here, he talks about his life in Japan, how he came to work in film, and his take on the pandemic’s effect on the industry. He also offers advice for those who might aim for a career in screenwriting.

Born in Sydney, Allen spent his early childhood in Canada. His mother was assigned to the Australian High Commission in Ottawa as an information officer. His father worked as a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), specializing in news and current affairs. With both parents in media-related careers, it seems unsurprising that Allen became a screenwriter. He cites his father as a particular influence.

“Though my father wasn’t in the film industry, he knew a lot about how movies were made,” Allen recalls. “We often talked about it when I was a kid, which sparked my interest in the idea of working in film.”

At the age of 10, Allen moved back to Australia, taking a slight Canadian accent with him. Though seen as a quasi-foreigner by classmates, this was not a source of unease for him.

“I never felt bullied over it,” he says. “I was seen as different, but not in a way that felt alienating. I also later spent a long period living back and forth between the U.S. and Japan before settling down in Tokyo. So I don’t feel particularly ‘Australian,’ nor possessed of a strong national identity, which is fine. Rather than an ‘expat,’ I think of myself as a ‘no-pat,’ a term I believe was coined in Singapore.”

In 1998, as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, Allen went to UCLA to study screenwriting in a one-year exchange program. He studied under Richard Walter, whose former students have written screenplays for such films as "Highlander" (1986), "Jurassic Park" (1993), and the Hollywood version of the Japanese rom-com "Shall We Dance?" (2004). Allen also interned for production companies headed by Jon Landau and James Cameron, respectively producer and director of the then-recently released "Titanic" (1997). Returning to Australia, he graduated in 1999 with a BA in philosophy. The next year, he went to Tokyo.

Living alternately between Japan and America, Allen began teaching English in Tokyo area language schools, then later universities. In Hollywood, he worked at a paid internship to help develop the film "Chicago" (2002), among others. He went on to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in film production from Chapman University.

Allen worked in Japan partly to fund his graduate studies in the U.S. It was difficult, but he is grateful to have received financial assistance from his mother as well as a scholarship from the university. To complete his MFA, he shot a short film in Japan, then went to the U.S. to edit it. He graduated in 2006, and has lived in Japan continuously since then.

“I’d first visited Japan when I was 15, accompanying my father on a business trip. I enjoyed it, and wanted to know more. I became obsessed with Kurosawa movies and read a lot of Japanese history. Then I started writing some Japan-related material, including a screenplay as part of my scriptwriting coursework. In 2000, after my first year living here, I went to the U.S. But a big reason for moving back to Tokyo again was that I’d fallen in love with a Japanese woman. So we got married.” He and his wife have a son, 14, and a daughter, 11.

“Over the years, my view of Japan has changed from a Japanophilic obsession to Japan being just home. I love Japan, but not necessarily the way a ‘Japanophile’ would. I’ve met too many Japanese to hold stereotypes about them. There’s a big diversity of opinion and lifestyle here.”

His decision to live in Japan affected another decision: to pursue screenwriting instead of directing.

“At first, I wanted to be a director, so I worked hard learning the trade. But to hit the ground running with film projects right after moving to another country, all while maintaining a ‘day job,’ is much more difficult in practical terms than writing, which you can do anywhere with just a pen and paper. Also, in graduate school, I’d noticed that I got really good feedback on my writing, but not so much on my directing. So my new situation, plus the evidence that I had more of a knack for writing, gave me the impetus to focus exclusively on screenplays.”

Pursuing his newly-determined goal, and working hard to both produce script content and establish Hollywood contacts, Allen was eventually able to give up the “day job” of teaching and has worked as a full-time screenwriter since 2019.

So what does being a full-time screenwriter entail? According to Allen, it’s not so cut-and-dried.

“Words like ‘full-time’ are hard to quantify in terms of screenwriting. Full-time isn’t much different than freelance in terms of the process. You still get paid job-to-job, but there’s more money, and the jobs come more regularly. This is essentially the result of being directly contacted by a producer to be tasked with script work, instead of working through an intermediary. So for me, being full-time means being a scriptwriter without the need to keep another job.”

So how did he get to be full-time, by whatever definition?

“Long story short: I had been doing better as a writer, though not enough to quit teaching. Then I got a phone call from Mario Kassar. I grew up on his movies, and he’d long been a hero of mine. He produced films from the 'Rambo' and 'Terminator' franchises, among others. He liked my writing, and needed someone for a job in Indonesia, where he’d been hired as a consultant for a company there called MD Entertainment. So I went there to meet him, and we hit it off. I was hired as a script doctor, which is a screenwriter hired to improve or rewrite an existing script. I’ve been working with him on other projects since then.”

Though Allen’s job situation has improved, the coronavirus has of course affected things. However, it hasn’t been completely negative.

“Not to minimize the seriousness of it, but there was a beneficial result, ironically enough. For the previous 10 years, I’d had to bend over backwards to make myself as accessible as possible to the people in Hollywood. Basically, jumping on a plane to Los Angeles at the drop of a hat. The standard logic has long been that you need to be in LA to compete effectively. But now I’m on an almost equal footing with the writers living there, because just like me, they have to meet producers online.”

Currently, an internet search for Matthew Allen will result in little in the way of screenplay credits. This is because much screenwriting includes the development of existing screenplays which are then turned down by studios. Even screenplays which make it to film often include writers whose names never appear in the credits. One example of this is script doctoring.

“As for being a script doctor, I can’t say the names of the movies I’ve worked on, because it’s like being a ghost writer. I work to improve the script, but I’m not credited. A lot of scriptwriting involves this sort of work. My only proper credit is 'The Nanny,' a horror movie in which I am listed as an additional writer.”

Despite living in Japan, most of Allen’s work isn’t Japan-related. “It’s ironic,” he reflects. “I came to Japan to make films about Japan, but I’m not ‘in’ Japan in terms of my writing. That’s largely because I work for Hollywood, so the material I encounter is more often about America.”

There are exceptions, however.

“I was once hired by an American director to write about a subculture of Japanese fans of Indian movies starring an actor named Rajinikanth. So to research, I met these people who go to cinemas and recreate the Indian movie-going experience, where they throw confetti in the theater.

“I was also hired by an American producer to adapt a book about the Japanese wartime hero Chiune Sugihara, who saved about 6,000 Jews from the Nazis by giving them exit visas in Lithuania, where he was a diplomat. It was a Hollywood project, though connected to Japan.”

Perhaps his most intriguing experience as a screenwriter was also related to Japan, albeit indirectly.

“In film school, one professor I was in awe of was Leonard Schrader. He was a mentor to me, and a major influence. Sadly, he has since passed away. He lived for many years in Japan, and co-wrote one of the Tora-san films ('Otoko wa Tsuraiyo'), a Japanese movie series about a traveling salesman, as well as a Japanese spy movie called 'The Man Who Stole the Sun.' He also co-wrote a movie I love called 'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,' about the writer Yukio Mishima. So anyway, I was recently hired to work on an existing script about eugenics. It turned out that the script had been through many writers since its inception. One of those writers, 20 years previously, had been Leonard Schrader.”

So, what does it take to be a screenwriter?

“Passion, hard work, grit. You need a thick skin, because 90% of what you experience is rejection. But the reason to be in it isn’t glamor. Your chances for that are pretty low. I recall some advice from Martin Scorsese in the trailer for his Master Class. He says that just wanting a career in movies won’t cut it; you have to need to tell a story through this medium. The only reason to go into filmmaking is that you are so obsessed with it, you can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s going to be painful, but what gets you through the pain is that filmmaking is all you know.”

The author teaches English at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo. His published writing includes articles for The Japan TimesMetropolis and PopMatters.

© Japan Today

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Make a note of the word 'no-pat' - I like it! I want to use it more often in conversation.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Wonder if this guy ever worked with Wim Wenders?

movies vs concrete!!!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Lol. I just started studying scriptwriting (for fun). I've currently working my through loads of good books at the moment. Man, there's so much to learn. Thanks for the motivation there matey hehe. As Les Brown says 'You've got to write even if nobody reads your words because that was given to you do'. And.. to chime in on the 'debate'..I believe if you don't speak pretty good Japanese (i'm lower intermediate so not that great) then you'll never truly experience Japan. I felt I only experienced a 'surface' level experience when I lived in Tokyo due to the fact I couldn't really speak to anyone (in their language) lol. However, I've now got 67 sentences from Kuromukuro added to Anki, so give me another ten years and I'll be good to go!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I wish there was an edit function. Typo tastic above!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

A hefty amount of big movie name dropping there but not much in the way of work he could label as his own! 

The cruel reality of screenwriting. Loads of writers who have written stories that will never be seen, others fixing scripts. Other doing various work that they never get credited for. All making good livings, but...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The guy is probably not making a lot but really seems to love what he is doing so he is better off then many in that regard!! An interesting story, wish him well & hope to see his name on the big screens

JT needs more stories like THIS

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“Over the years, my view of Japan has changed from a Japanophilic obsession to Japan being just home. I love Japan, but not necessarily the way a ‘Japanophile’ would. I’ve met too many Japanese to hold stereotypes about them. There’s a big diversity of opinion and lifestyle here.”

Wise words indeed.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Thank you for this excellent article about the talented Matthew Allan who is devoted to his profession. It highlights the hard work and endurance that is required in order to do what one loves best.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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