Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Sam Akina and Jules Jones

How a pair of Seattle screenwriters became a Polish sensation with their hit romantic comedy 'Planet Single.'

By Seth Sommerfeld October 12, 2016

Sam and jules sm9eie

Seattleites Sam Akina and Jules Jones have found cinematic sucess on the other side of the globe.

Deadpool is an unkillable superhero, and he showcased his power in early 2016 by laying waste to international box offices with his titular film. Deadpool debuted at #1 in every foreign market except one... Poland. That's where the Merc with a Mouth met his only formidable opponents—a Seattle screenwriting couple that doesn't even speak Polish and their smash hit Polish romantic comedy, Planet Single.

Through a series of events that started with taking their indie film to the Cannes Film Festival and meeting a young Slovokian director, Seattleites Sam Akina and Jules Jones have become arguably the hottest screenwriters in Polish cinema. They've produced back to back Polish box office hits with Letters to Santa and Planet Single. The romantic comedy Planet Single centers on a chauvinistic pretty boy talk show host and a reserved music teacher who meet up through an internet dating site. They soon turn her journeys through the world of internet dates into a sketch segment on his show. But just when it seems their chemistry is blossoming between the pair, she meets a potential Mr. Right on one of her dates. This Saturday, the Seattle Polish Film Festival (October 14–23) screens Planet Single, the highest grossing film of 2016 in Poland. 

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Akina and Jones about their odd path to the top of Polish cinema, the process of writing a film in a language you don't speak, their issues with the local film scene, and jokes that don't work across cultures.

How did you initially get involved writing Planet Single?

Akina: They had been working on it apparently for a year and a half with some other writers in Poland. And I had written a movie for the director Mitja Okorn before this, which became a big hit called Letters to Santa. So we already had a working relationship there. Initially he signed on to executive produce it. He’s currently working on a project in Hollywood, so he’ll be doing his first movie for a studio. But it takes a long time for that process to happen, so while he was waiting to hear back, he decided that he was going to direct Planet Single. And once he did that, he told the producers that he would only direct it if they would bring us on to rewrite it.

Jones: Or to write it, really. Because we never saw the original script. So we started from scratch based on discussions of ideas that they had for the plot, and then bringing in our own ideas.

Akina: So that was March 2015, and they had a shooting deadline already. They knew that they were going to be shooting initially it was July, which ended up getting pushed back to September.

Jones: It was a huge time crunch, because we basically had two months to get all the information of what they wanted the movie, and then then write pages and pages and pages and send them back, and argue in broken English on conference calls for sometimes five to seven hours about whether these pages were good or bad. It was very intense.

How did you initially connect and develop such a strong working relationship with a foreign director like Okorn?

Jones: So about 10 years ago, Sam wrote and directed a sort of awesome B-movie called action movie called Bullets, Blood & a Fistful of Ca$h and it went to Le Marché at the Cannes Film Festival. So we raised the money to go there with our movie. We met a lot of people and one of the people that we met was Mitja Okorn, a young Slovenian skateboarder/director who really hit it off with Sam right away. We also met a Polish producer there who just produced Peter Greenaway’s latest film at the time. And Greenaway is one of my heroes, although she said he was not that great to work with. [Laughs] We introduced her to Mitja, and she eventually hired him to come to Poland and direct a television series [39 I pól], which became one of the most popular television series in Poland. From there, his relationships in Poland grew. And throughout this whole time, Sam was writing for him. Mitja was waiting for an opportunity to bring us on as writers on one of his Polish projects.

Akina: And then after the TV series was successful they offered him the chance to direct a feature film, and that was Letters to Santa. When he got that opportunity, he convinced them to bring me on to rewrite the script.

Do you speak Polish? If not, how do you write across language barriers?

Jones: Nie rozumiem po polsku. That means “I don’t understand Polish.” [Laughs]

Akina: So everyone [we work with] speaks in English. What we do is write in English, and once we have it written and finally everyone is kind of happy with where it’s at, then it gets translated. And there are a lot of things, especially when you’re working on a romantic comedy, that are funny in our culture, but may not be funny overseas and vise versa. The producers that were in this project are very intelligent and very cultured, and they speak excellent English and excellent Polish. They’re very funny guys as well. So being able to have them there to say hey, this joke doesn’t work in Polish, but if we change it to this or we modify it or do this or that, then it’ll work better. So it was a collaboration between five or six different people weighting in on the calls.

What’s an example of of joke that didn’t translate?

Jones: I think it’s better if we go in the opposite direction, with jokes we wrote that they changed, and we don’t understand why it’s funny.

Akina: There’s a joke where it’s like a person introduces this salon worker and says she’s a “hair psychologist.”

Jones:  And they just roll in the aisles.

Akina: Everyone thinks it’s hilarious. And it’s not funny to us. But it has to do with their Communist past. Apparently in Communist times everyone had a sort of fancy title for shit that was really basic.

Jones: So you weren’t a “trash collector,” you were an “expert recycling reclaiming pathologist.” Or something. That’s how they explained it to us when we were like, “Why are people laughing?”

How did you two originally connect?

Akina: We met on a film set in 2005. There was an independent film called The Dark Horse that was shooting on Orcas Island. Jules was working in production, and I was working as a second assistant director. And we kind of met on the set.

Jones: It was a little bit of a meet cute. He gave me a compliment that I thought was sarcastic, and then I felt guilty later when I realized he was being sincere. [Laughs] So we sort of came to each other’s attention in a sort of strange way.

What was the compliment?

Jones: I was working in product placement, so I was contacting all sorts of companies and asking them to either donate products or send us products and money in exchange for being featured in the film that we were working on. And I was feeling really down on myself because… I dunno… I just have high standards. And right as I’m thinking, gosh, Jules, you suck. You’re terrible at this. This guy just walks up and goes, [super sarcastic voice] “Hey I heard you’re doing product placement and got like nine companies involved. That’s really cool.” And I was like, it’s more like 30 companies! And it’s not nice to be sarcastic! And I stormed off. And later on I was like, maybe he thinks nine companies is good? Maybe he meant that? And it turns out he did. He actually wanted to work with me because he thought I was so good at it.

What projects are you currently working on?

Akina: We have our own production company [Attackships on Fire], so we do commercials for big brands and stuff like that. Funny enough we just got off the one with Michal [Chacinski] and Radoslaw [Drabik], the two producers of Planet Single, and they want us to write the sequel. They are planning to do two sequels to the movie.

Jones: And in the meantime, I am adapting an Egyptian feminist novel called Woman at Point Zero with another writing partner of mine. And we are in development on a project that we would like to produce ourselves, an indie feature film about a young rapper who has to travel across the country with a baby in his car and has a lot of adventures. [Laughs] A sort of dark, surreal comedy.

What keeps you in Seattle seeing as it’s not exactly a cinematic hotbed?

Akina: I moved to Seattle in 2000 to go to film school at Seattle Central Community College. And that film program is defunct now, but it was a great program. I love Seattle. I’ve always loved Seattle, even back to when I was listening to grunge music in high school. I came out and visited the city in ‘97 or ‘98 on a road trip and I was like, fuck, I love this place. It’s interesting because most of our work, our business the commercials we produce like Dell is a big client of ours, they are based out in Austin. SunPower is based in California. Most of our work is done outside of the state, so we don’t need to live here for work. It’s just I personally love it. I love the weather, the people, the scenery, and it’s just my favorite place in the country.

Jones: Well, my family is here. I love Seattle, I’ve always lived here. For me one of the main reasons, besides just enjoying out life here, is that I’m in a band called Ephrata. We’re a sort of a shoegaze/indie pop/indie rock band. And I love my band and I don’t want to leave. So until my band breaks up, I’m not considering leaving Seattle ever.

What do you think of Seattle as a city for filmmaking?

Akina: I’ve been making productions here since 2004, and I know most of the people who are in the independent film scene out here. Obviously there are some talented people out here. I tend to think that Seattle’s film scene isn’t honest enough about what is good and what is not good. I don’t think that there’s critical dialogue that is necessary. When you’re creating things, when you’re making art or telling stories like we do in film, we’re trying to illicit response from audience. There isn’t enough earnest discussion in Seattle. People go oh, congratulations you made this short, you’re awesome! Great you used a jib, awesome!

That’s my big problem with Seattle’s independent film scene. People are thin skinned and you can’t be thin skinned when you’re trying to do this. You’re trying to tell stories and you can learn more from good criticism than from a bunch of people patting you on the back for effort. No, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t lit properly. The jokes didn’t work. And I don’t want to sound like an asshole or something, it’s just I noticed in other cities where there’s a film culture that is thriving—we lived in LA for a couple of years we do a lot of work in New York—people tend to be a little more earnest with their opinions than they do in Seattle.

Jones: Yeah. Sam and I have had this conversation a million times, and I pretty much agree on everything. Seattle is very supportive, and that’s amazing. It’s really easy to make connections in the film industry and have people who will come out and work on a project. There’s a lot of people here.

I think that Washington state needs to invest more in the film industry. It needs to make Washington a better place for productions from the outside to come in and shoot and hire local people. It needs to be a more financially hospitable place for larger local productions to happen. If we were having more of these large scale productions going on, people would progress faster and we would have a little bit more clarity as to what constitutes good work versus bad work. We would be able to improve.

Akina: That’s the thing. Why would a production want to come to Seattle? How many great cinematographers do we really have in Seattle? There’s maybe a handful. Like Sean Porter is awesome, but it’s like how many Sean Porters are there floating around Seattle? Not many.

Jones: The thing is a lot of the time they also leave. So we get these people who do start to get better, and then they move away because the work is in other places because Washington state doesn’t have the tax incentive that other places have. Our friend Megan Griffiths was talking in an article about how she and Lynn Shelton wanted to have a major television show shot here. The network that they were speaking to thought it was a great idea for a show, but they refused to shoot it in Washington because they would be losing money. Any other place that they could go, they would get 30 percent or however much percent of their budget back. So it’s a losing proposition for large budget projects to shoot here, unfortunately. If we had business here, then we wouldn’t be losing so much of our talent to LA, Atlanta, and New York right now.

How do you feel about the upcoming screening of Planet Single as part of the Seattle Polish Film Festival?

Jones: I’m excited! We’ve seen the movie a million times. It’s not the movie we get new things from, it’s the audience. You always wonder [if it’s going to translate]. Like, wow, okay, there’s a lot of jokes here that are for Polish people. We understand the trajectory of where the joke started and where it ended, but sometimes don’t know if it’s going to come across. With everyone that we’ve shown it to—even people who are not our best friends and aren’t there to humor us or make us feel better—the moments that matter seem to absolutely resonate with American people as well, so that’s really exciting. We were at the premier in Warsaw and we heard what beats hit the best and heard people sniffling at the parts where you were supposed to cry. Will I feel that here? Will it happen in Seattle? Or will people just sit there and think wow, these writers are terrible. It’s a little nerve-whacking, but so far all the times that it’s been viewed for an audience it’s be translating, and that’s gratifying every time this happens. But it is scary.

Seattle Polish Film Festival: Planet Single
Oct 15 at 7:30, SIFF Cinema Uptown, $10

Seattle Polish Film Festival
Oct 14–23, Various venues, $10; Festival pass $80

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