“The Marksman” is the second directorial effort from Clint Eastwood’s longtime producing partner Robert Lorenz, previously a three-time Academy Award-nominee for co-producing Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” (2003), “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), and “American Sniper” (2014). In his latest film, “The Marksman,” Liam Neeson plays an Arizona rancher who saves an orphaned Mexican boy from a drug cartel and subsequently has to deal with the killers as they now are after both of them.
The script of “The Marksman” was written by Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz. They met in 2005 at Columbia College Chicago as student and teacher—professor of storytelling and screenwriting—and only a few years later, they became writing partners. But success as top-notch screenwriters didn’t come overnight; they labored over the screenplay of “The Marksman” for a decade, but the result is a compelling action drama, starring Liam Neeson, for many years one of the most sought after Hollywood stars, and directed by Robert Lorenz. He also helmed “Trouble With the Curve” (2012) with Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, and John Goodman in the leading roles.
“The Marksman” was shot in New Mexico and Ohio during the fall of 2019. Released in the U.S. on January 15, 2021, it became number one at the box office for two weeks, beating out “Wonder Woman 1984,” when only forty-five percent of the U.S. theaters were open under restrictions due to Covid-19. The film also turned into one of the highest grossing independent films of the year; it still finds new audiences, now that it’s available on digital platforms, Blu-ray, and DVD. Meanwhile, the theatrical release of the film is scheduled for the upcoming weeks in various territories overseas.
But let’s get back to the screenwriting team of Danny Kravitz and Chris Charles. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a film degree, Mr. Kravitz moved to Chicago to pursue a career in writing and music. When he realized it took him longer than expected, he began teaching screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
Mr. Charles co-founded the production company Throughline Films in 2012 and has been producing and executive producing features for over a decade. One of his latest films, “The Cleaner,” starring Shelley Long, Luke Wilson, and Lynda Carter, will be out later this year.
During this Zoom interview, they talked about the screenplay of “The Marksman,” working with Robert Lorenz and Liam Neeson, and their craft as screenwriters. And what a joy it was to hear them talking about their work, views, and knowledgeable insights.
Mr. Kravitz and Mr. Charles, you started as teacher and student and then ended up writing the screenplay of “The Marksman” together. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
[Danny Kravitz] In 2005, I was Chris’s feature film screenwriting professor; Chris was one of my first students. I was very green. I just started working as a professor, and Chris wrote a really wonderful scene in one of my classes—it was so sophisticated, and there was so much humanity to it. I said to him, ‘This is good; someday you should reach out when you graduate, or if you decide you want to make a film.’ And then, a few years later, Chris had graduated. He called me up and asked, ‘Would you really want to write with me?’ And I said, ‘Sure, let’s give it a try.’ So we wrote a little coming-of-age intergenerational story, and from that, we launched into “The Marksman,” which was the second thing we wrote together.
[Chris Charles] I took Danny’s class—that’s when we first met—and we began writing together shortly after that first script. We really enjoyed exploring the character dynamics and themes of that story. It dealt with redemption as well as characters who experienced loss and had challenging, difficult pasts. They had to overcome that and heal, so we wanted to revisit those dynamics and themes in our next script together. I read a lot about the conflicts taking place on the U.S.-Mexico border back in 2009, and I thought it would be interesting to tell a story in that region with characters caught up in these conflicts on both sides of the border. Once we discovered the characters and the circumstances and why they needed each other in their lives, Danny and I just fell in love with these characters. We knew very early on that we had something special.
In the past, many films were also set on the U.S.-Mexico border, like “Sicario”  and its 2017 sequel. Is it difficult to compete with films situated in the same region that, directly or indirectly, deal with similar topics?
[Danny Kravitz] It’s not, but only because our film is differentiated by a lot of things. While “Sicario” is very much about the border situation, its tone is quite thilleresque with a nice amount of violence. Our story was really and ultimately a human drama; these characters find each other and help each other. Although the setting was similar, tonally, it was very, very different, so they were able to co-exist. And also, we had a protagonist who went on quite a journey of healing. The role of Jim [played by Liam Neeson] is a little different from the protagonist roles in “Sicario.” And Liam Neeson—that’s the other factor—was so perfect for that role; he plays an older gentleman at a different stage of his life than some of the characters in “Sicario.” So it was okay, they co-existed, there weren’t too many comparisons, because once the movie starts, you realize, ‘Oh, this is a totally different story within that realm.’
How did you write the screenplay? Was there a certain method that worked for both of you?
[Chris Charles] When I still lived in Chicago, Danny and I would meet in person; we’d meet at the coffee shop and read scenes together. But largely, our collaboration has been a remote one, so we were well-equipped for this pandemic. Since I have been living in Madison, Wisconsin, for the past few years—which is a few hours from Chicago—we had our routine; we talk on the phone a lot, we work real-time together in Google Docs on treatments, and we can see each other working real-time. After so many years working together, I often watch Danny complete a sentence that I’m thinking in my head and vice versa. We have this shared brain in some ways. So yes, our process has been a good one for remote working, but we do try to talk daily whenever possible, even if we’re just talking about a character or a scene, and we’re not necessarily doing a ton of work. We just constantly try to be in this creative space together, and it has been a great collaboration.
[Danny Kravitz] Film is so collaborative—it’s entirely collaborative—but screenwriting also requires stepping away from everything and being in your own little bubble of thinking. Chris and I can efficiently move in and out of those worlds as opposed to we’re on top of each other all day. It’s hard to get that space to just create on your own and bring something back, so we’re enjoying our process.
When you finished the script, what was the next step? Where did you take it to then? Did you go to Los Angeles to talk about it with producers or production companies?
[Chris Charles] We had a gentleman named Tai Duncan who was a fan of an early draft of the script. We tried to get it off the ground with him for a few years, but the timing just wasn’t right. A movie like ours is not a political film, but it deals with the topic of immigration, so the timing wasn’t always right, depending on the climate in Hollywood and things that were going on in politics in the U.S. And then, a few years later, Tai called us and said, ‘Hey guys, I’m at Zero Gravity Management now [Mr. Duncan is President of the film and television production and management company, and also produced “The Marksman”]. I always loved that script. Are the rights still available?’ And they were. So we got back together, did some revisions, and with Tai we could get the script out to some incredible Hollywood directors and actors. A lot of amazing people read it over the years. A lot of false starts, too—one day, you think an A-lister is attached and is interested, and you think the movie’s going to happen, and the next day they pass for whatever reason, and you’re back to doing revisions. So it was a rollercoaster for a period of time. But eventually, Tai got the script to Robert Lorenz, Clint Eastwood’s longtime producing partner, and Robert joined the team as our co-writer and director. That really gave us the momentum that we needed to ultimately get Liam Neeson attached.
How did you and Robert Lorenz collaborate on the script?
[Chris Charles] When Tai Duncan told us that Robert Lorenz had signed on to the project, he said we were very fortunate, because Rob is the nicest guy in Hollywood. Tai’s assessment was spot on. Rob was an amazing collaborator who respected the story and welcomed our ideas as we worked toward our collective vision. We did a number of revisions together as the script was submitted to actors until Rob ultimately did a final polish draft. His creative contributions really elevated the script and made it accessible to a wide audience.
What was his creative input as a director during filming when he worked with the actors?
[Danny Kravitz] Rob is a brilliant director. In every way. No one is better in their approach to working with actors. I can’t speak highly enough about Rob Lorenz.
Did you also visit the set?
[Danny Kravitz] We did. The movie was shot in New Mexico for much of the action that takes place in the Southwest, and the rest was shot in Cleveland, Ohio. I happen to be from Cleveland, Ohio, so Chris and I could stay with my family and visit the set. The locations in Ohio were aesthetically very beautiful and were able to convey that modern western aesthetic. We were able to watch Rob and Liam, and that was really a rewarding experience. That was great.
A European screenwriter once told me that he used to visit the set of his films, but now he doesn’t anymore because when he did, things were always different. For example, the door was on the left, while in his imagination, it was on the right.
[Danny Kravitz] For Chris and I, it was the opposite. It was exactly what it had been in our heads. We expected that to happen because we had worked so closely with Robert Lorenz, and we understood his visual vision; we shared our visions for visuals and settings. So when we got to the set, we couldn’t believe how much was straight out of our heads from ten years earlier when we first came up with the idea.
[Chris Charles] It was a real treat. Rob had shared his look book for the film; the imagery he chose was straight out of our imagination. So, as Danny said, we knew early on that Rob was the right person to steer the creative ship for this film. And then for us to show up on the set in Danny’s hometown, I will never forget our first day. It was the scene with Liam teaching Miguel—played by Jacob Perez—how to shoot a gun. That was one of our favorite scenes that had survived countless revisions over the years. It was just part of the humanity that attracted us to this project and to these characters; seeing Liam as this surrogate father figure, dealing with this child who is still in grief and just trying to find his way in life; to see that unfold with Liam Neeson, master actor, and with Robert Lorenz, that was like taking a masterclass in film.
[Danny Kravitz] One of the reasons why that was one of our favorite scenes—and I think that might differentiate “The Marksman” from movies that are a little more hard-hitting—is that Liam is teaching the boy how to shoot a gun because he is curious about guns. The real key to that scene is that Liam is teaching him to never use a gun against anyone. So he’s entertaining the boy’s curiosity, but he’s very careful; he’s there to protect the soul of this child.
Is that maybe the message you’re trying to tell? Never use a gun, never use violence?
[Danny Kravitz] Overall, for the story, not really. One of the subplots had to do with Liam’s wanting to protect this boy from turning into an angry and potentially violent human being. He tried to protect his innocence because the boy is grieving after the death of his mother. The boy is on a journey that could take him down a path of revenge and violence, and so one of the thematic storylines is about Liam trying to protect him from taking that path.
[Chris Charles] Liam’s character, a former Marine, has seen the darker side of humanity and knows first-hand what taking a life does to a human being and what price you have to pay. He recognizes that this boy who’s not a young man yet—he’s still lingering in childhood—has these desires for revenge, and he sees this boy at a crossroads. The boy could take a very dark path and end up very much like the cartel villain who is pursuing them. So Liam’s character takes it upon himself to assume that protector role.
You are both very passionate about your work as screenwriters. What are, in your opinion, the dos and don’ts when you’re writing a script?
[Chris Charles] The don’ts are not to try to force it. If one of us is having a busy day or there are too many distractions… we have, over the years, become very good at understanding when it is a good time to collaborate. We’ve been working together since 2005, so we’re friends, and we know each other so well. We recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we have this nice yin and yang balance. One of the things that we have been able to do very successfully is divide and conquer. We spend a lot of time collaborating on the structure and treatment; we probably spend more time than most writers on treatments because we really want to discover our characters and the story before we start writing. But when it comes to the actual screenplay itself, we may pick and choose scenes, and one of us will try one scene while the other one tries another. We’ll share them, revise together, and we just keep doing that throughout the entire screenplay—eventually molding everything together into this one uniform voice. But it’s a collaboration that we have been working on for years; we’ve definitely been able to work out a lot of the kinks and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
[Danny Kravitz] In terms of the craft of storytelling, what Chris and I continue to learn is that one of the dos is to be as authentic—really truly authentic—as we can be with the characters and what they might think and feel, or what they might say. We find those stories are more rewarding and more engaging, and we get to a point where the story starts telling itself to us, and the characters start speaking to us. It’s when we’re at that place that things feel authentic. There’s a time and place for all kinds of movies; some are more or less realistic than others, and that’s fine. But Chris and I still search for and find that authenticity, and the don’t would be if it doesn’t feel that way, it probably isn’t ready.
I once had an appointment with a studio executive at Paramount, and his secretary was a former screenwriter; she even launched the career of an actress who later won an Academy Award as Best Actress. Unfortunately, as a screenwriter, she just didn’t get a second break. In other words, is it tough to be a screenwriter? Screenwriters are never in the limelight, we never see you.
[Danny Kravitz] Achieving success and continuing to have success in terms of writing a script that then gets produced, it can be extremely difficult to make that happen. There are many stories like the one of the friend that you’re talking about and that you’ve met. A lot of people write something that doesn’t necessarily get made. That is the nature of how the business works. There are a lot of scripts being written, and very few movies actually get made. That said, if you get to a point where you’re fairly decent at it, and you kind of know what you’re doing, if you work really hard at it, and if you’re smart enough about writing stories that the audience hopefully would enjoy—or you suspect they would enjoy—that can help you to move forward. But putting food on the table is always difficult. One of the challenges of being a screenwriter is that you commit a lot of time and energy to something, and when you start your career, you still have to try to make a living. That will continue forever until you get very successful. But the rewards are unbelievable. I mean, it’s so much fun to do, and you’re walking around, living in this world, you’re solving problems, and if you get the good fortune and the experience of having your movie made, and a wonderful actor like Liam Neeson plays the leading role—there are harder things.
[Chris Charles] It’s interesting; I understand the points you bring up, like how screenwriters often work in the shadows and don’t have the limelight of the director and the stars. But it is rewarding in so many other ways. I’ll never forget when Danny and I were on set, just thrilled to be there for as long as we were, meeting everyone. Many of these people were industry veterans who worked alongside the likes of Clint Eastwood, and some of them would come up to us and thank us. Then I would say, ‘Thank me? Thank you for being here.’ ‘No, thank you for writing this story because that’s why we’re all here. It all started with you guys.’ It seems so self-evident, but we never thought about that until somebody said, ‘Thank you for writing this story that was so meaningful, that we all wanted to be a part of it.’ We were very fortunate to have Liam Neeson and great production value. But this was an independent film; it was not a big studio film. Nobody was getting rich on this, so they all chose to be there because they believed in the story. They believed in supporting Rob and his career as a director. It was incredibly meaningful to be a part of that. And the other thing is that over the years, Danny and I have learned to understand and appreciate the joy of the process. We know that some of the scripts that we write may never get produced. But we’re having fun writing them, and we’re growing as writers; we’re becoming closer as friends. Maybe this one script doesn’t get made, but it spawns another idea that does, and that’s exactly what happened with us. Our first script is still on the shelf and has yet to get produced. We’re not going to give up on it. We’ll get back to it when the time is right. But we needed that first script to teach us some lessons and grow as writers to ultimately lead to “The Marksman.” So yes, it is challenging, there are plenty of ups and downs, but I think the important thing is if you love what you’re doing, just don’t give up on it. And eventually, something is going to get made.
[Danny Kravitz] Unless you don’t really have a choice. If you’re a writer, you’re going to write. You’re going to do your thing.
When you watch a film, do you watch it like a viewer, or do you tend to pay attention to the structure, the characters, things like that?
[Danny Kravitz] The way I experience it, I watch a film, and if it is made and written with a certain amount of craft, and I can separate myself because I’m engaged in the story, then I watch it as a regular viewer. Afterwards I find myself thinking about all the things you mentioned, and more. But when I get caught up, I don’t get to that starting point.
[Chris Charles] I have the additional burden as a viewer. I’m also a producer, so I understand the process at a very detailed level. Many of my colleagues are unable to watch a film without some form of analysis. I feel bad for them because I’m one of the lucky ones; if it’s the right film, and if it’s really working, I can just shut that part of my brain off and get lost in the story. I can feel like a kid again, being lost for a couple of hours in the cinema. If I watch the film a second time, then I’ll probably analyze it because I want to learn from it. If a movie doesn’t hold my interest or if it’s not good, I’ll probably start analyzing it upon the first viewing. So it really depends; if the filmmakers succeeded in creating that world and allowing me to get lost in it, then I’m always a willing participant.
[Danny Kravitz] Sometimes you can’t help it. Last night, I started watching a series on Netflix that someone had recommended. I didn’t really care for it, and after twenty minutes, I turned it off. But the first three or four lines, a character was saying to another character, ‘Hey listen, even people who make mistakes are allowed to be happy.’ And then the story went on for a few minutes, and I turned it off because I didn’t care for it. But as soon as the character said that particular line to the other character, I thought it was a really smart thing to do as a filmmaker or a storyteller, where you introduce the major arch that the character is going to go on, and you do it in the first three seconds of the movie, so those things don’t get by us. When they happen, you can step aside and go, ‘I appreciate that,’ and then get right back into it.
As you’re writing your screenplay, when do you know it’s what you want, that it’s not too much or too little, not too fast or too slow? I think those things can be traps if you don’t pay attention.
[Danny Kravitz] Yes, that’s very difficult. I can tell you a lot of it is the level of craft that you have and how evolved you are in your craft that will get you to a certain point where you stop and say, ‘I really don’t see how doing any more would be effective.’ You reach your level of excellence for that moment. And then you step back. If you step back and come back to it and start to see that it needs to change, you’re off and running. So you get to a point where you stop and say, ‘I think this is as good as I can do.’ Hopefully, that is good, and it goes on to succeed. In film, you have the luxury or the good fortune of having other collaborators who are often smarter in some ways, or they can see things that you can’t, and eventually, all of you get it to that place where it feels like, ‘It is what it is now.’ But until you get it to that point where you say, ‘There’s nothing more I can do to make it good,’ you’re always trying to make it better.
[Chris Charles] I’m not sure that I’ve ever gotten to a point where I’m one hundred percent confident, knowing the script will continue evolving through director revisions, and actors will make it their own. It will continue changing throughout production into post-production. It’s just this constantly evolving thing. Danny and I often talk about that process to see things from different perspectives. There will always be these blind spots you’ll have as a writer or a writing team when you get close to something. So when you do have those other collaborators—your director, your producer, the rest of your team—they can really help you identify those and refine the material until it gets to a point where it’s close enough. But I’d love to meet a writer who gets to a point when they can say, ‘This is one hundred percent, and I don’t need to touch it again.’ I’m not sure that writer exists.
[Danny Kravitz] I don’t think so either. I saw an interview once with a director, and he said, ‘The movies that you think are going to be amazing and successful sometimes don’t connect with an audience.’ But one of the really wonderful benefits of having your work produced at a very high level is that you get to see it come to completion, and all those blind spots are revealed. You learn a tremendous amount from that. I think Chris and I are much better now than we were two years ago, simply because we can see how it goes from your brain to the page to the film to the audience, and then right back to you. You learn so much from that, and then there are fewer blind spots.
I don’t think it is necessary, but is it helpful for a screenwriter to live in Los Angeles?
[Chris Charles] I don’t know if it is as necessary as it used to be. Obviously, Los Angeles is still the center of commerce for this industry, but especially with the pandemic, we have seen many people working remotely and still getting the work done. Danny and I have been to Los Angeles a number of times, we’ve taken meetings, but for most of our careers, we have worked out of the Midwest. Most of those interactions have been done on the phone and virtually via Zoom, so we do not feel the need to relocate. We’re really happy to be living here in the Midwest and going to Los Angeles as needed.
[Danny Kravitz] And for aspiring writers particularly—filmmakers in general too, I suppose—as I still teach screenwriting at a college, I still have students, and I hear this question a lot. I firmly believe the most important thing is to write write write and get very good at your craft. And you can do that anywhere. Some places are more supportive of your need to get good at it. Maybe it costs less to live there; maybe you have a nice job and a little routine that allows you to write more. There are countless stories that I know of, of people that go to Los Angeles because that’s the place they feel they need to go to succeed, and it swallows them up a little bit because maybe it was too much for them initially. So I tell everyone, ‘You need to be good at what you do, and then you can go wherever you need to go.’ But I don’t think you need to be there to be a writer at all.
Are you working on a new project in the meantime?
[Chris Charles] Yes. We are working diligently on our follow-up script, also set in the Southwest region. This is a bit more of a father-son thriller mystery, so it’s a little different from “The Marksman,” but again, it explores the same character dynamics and themes that Danny and I feel compelled to revisit in our work together. We’re in the early draft stages right now, so we’re not quite ready, but we look forward to getting this script out, and hopefully, “The Marksman” will help us get this next one off the ground. But, as you said earlier, even with a successful first endeavor, there are no guarantees. We’re very aware of that. So we have to put in the time and the hard work to get this second film made as well.
After the success of “The Marksman,” do you tend to write your screenplay with certain actors in mind?
[Chris Charles] Yes. It’s interesting you mention that because Liam was on our shortlist of dream options for the role, and what a dream come true for us to have him sign on to play the protagonist in our film. So, of course, we’re thinking about Liam and a few other actors. It really helps to think of real people as you’re working on the authenticity of the dialogue—and it’s fun too to imagine the possibilities.
[Danny Kravitz] But I’ll tell you, if the part is not good enough for one of these actors to get interested in, it’s worth examining it because they are often the best first viewer. And if they want to play the part, you’re usually on to something.
[Chris Charles] That’s true. We’re very aware that your first audience is not the general public. It’s agents, managers, A-list actors—it’s people who have the power to green-light movies. As writers, we’re always aware that a first draft is intended for those people, and the script will continue to grow from there.
[Danny Kravitz] But there’s a nice distinction there. I would put the actors and directors in one pool and the agents and managers in another. They all have their different needs and things they bring to the table. One thing I can say about Liam Neeson—which is why he’s such a dream to work with—is that he’s such a literary and thoughtful man. When we were able to understand that he reacted in a positive way to the script, we were excited because that’s a guy we respect for a good reason. He’s well-read, he’s smart, he’s a good soul.
Would you also be interested in producing a script of your own?
[Chris Charles] Yes, depending on the script. In fact, there were earlier drafts of “The Marksman” that my partner [John W. Bosher] and I of Throughline Films had talked about, potentially producing at a lower level. So yes, it’s really interesting for me. I like to look at a script through the lens of a producer, thinking about how to attract A-list talent. There are many things producers look at when reviewing material, and there are many considerations when it comes to green-lighting projects. A lot of writers—for the right reasons—write things that they’re passionate about, that move them, without necessarily considering the people who need to green-light and finance these projects. Is this a wise investment? Does this appeal to a wide demographic? So if you can consider all of those things from the conception of your story, you’re going to give yourself a much better shot at actually getting it produced because the odds are already against you in this business. Danny and I do whatever we can to stack the cards in our favor going into it. That’s not to say that we write things we’re not passionate about; we don’t feel we’re compromising on that. We just understand what is commercially viable, and we write stories that we’re passionate about that can meet the criteria.
“The Marksman” (2021, trailer)
Did you maybe consider to co-produce “The Marksman” with Throughline Films?
[Chris Charles] “The Marksman” was done at a very high level that I hope to one day reach myself as a producer. As much as I’ve learned from the writing perspective, I’ve also learned quite a bit from the producing perspective going along on this journey.
[Danny Kravitz] “The Marksman” was targeted at such a high level, with such a big budget—that was a little out of our grasp at this point in terms of producing. And that was fine. We were happy with that because we knew what a big undertaking it was.
Are you pleased with “The Marksman”? Is it the film you hoped for?
[Danny Kravitz] We are both happy to say it is. It really is, and we recognize that is not always the case. But it’s extraordinary to me that I’m happier than I ever thought I would be. The film ended up everything I wanted it to be, and then that was augmented by some incredibly beautiful things I didn’t understand would have the impact they did for me. So it is really one of those wonderful stories that has a great ending. My own story, I mean, the writing of the movie, and then seeing it made into a movie.
[Chris Charles] I feel the same way. We’ve heard those stories of writers who, by the time their movie is done, and after countless revisions and other writers—often studio meddling too—the end product is nothing at all like their original vision. So for our first script to get produced at such a high level and even surpass our expectations in so many ways was extremely gratifying. We’re very fortunate.
June 17, 2021
THE MARKSMAN (2021) DIR Robert Lorenz PROD Robert Lorenz, Tai Duncan, Mark Williams, Warren Goz, Eric Gold SCR Robert Lorenz, Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz CAM Mark Patten ED Luis Carballar MUS Sean Callery CAST Liam Neeson, Katheryn Winnick, Jacob Perez, Juan Pablo Raba, Teresa Ruiz, Sean A. Rosales