“It’s got Entourage’s pace and tone, but with lots of Oceans 11-like heists and complicated plots and stuff like that,” said Burns, 36, who was brought on to the Nuke ’Em Boys project just a few months after winning the Best Screenwriter Award at TFS’s 2017 graduation ceremony.
“Adam Till, who runs the (Writing for Film & Television) program at TFS, contacted me and said he’d been in contact with someone from the production world – a stunt coordinator – who had a pilot that needed a bit of an overhaul and put me in touch with him.”
From there, Burns spent the next year or so rejigging and rewriting Middleton’s pilot, which follows a special effects team’s ever-escalating feud with an actor who throws them under the bus for a stunt gone wrong.
“I kind of rewrote a good chunk of it, added a few characters and changed the tone a little bit,” he said.
“It was really just a matter of massaging it from the writing perspective because Kirk’s a stunt coordinator guy with creative talent, but he’s never really done professional scripts…so he felt like he was too far down the rabbit hole on it, and he needed some other hands on deck.”
When, after a year of flushing the script out creatively, Burns came to a point where he, too, needed a fresh set of eyes on the Nuke ’Em Boys project, he immediately thought of his fellow Class of 2017 TFS writing alumnus.
Fleury, with whom Burns has bonded at TFS over a common love of professional wrestling, made for “an easy personal and creative fit” on the team because he also shared the show’s comedic sensibilities, Burns said.
“I was brought on to kind of add some more humour to it…to look at it and punch it up a bit,” Fleury, 27, said of his role as story editor, with a focus on punch-ups, on the Nuke ’Em Boys team.
“So, I basically just go through the scripts line by line, and if I see a line of dialogue or a bit I can add, I just throw it in there. Then we meet up and run everything by (Middleton), and if he likes it, we throw it in, if not, we just find something else.”
While the novice writers said they “for sure” feel the pressure of writing a project that is essentially born of someone else’s vast experience in the world of film, both Burns and Fleury have found Middleton’s depth of industry knowledge a bottomless resource.
“The strength of the show comes from his expertise, so obviously we’re going to lean on that as much as possible,” Burns said of Middleton, whose resume boasts special effects credits on projects ranging from Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated Away From Her and Paul W.S. Anderson’s action thriller Death Race, to TV series such as Anne With An E, Private Eyes, and Star Falls.
“He’s been in this world for 20 years…whereas we’ve only been on a few sets, so it can be tough sometimes to bridge those gaps in knowledge. But he’s a really great resource and we can just always just call him or text him – and if we haven’t nailed something, he does tell us.”
Currently in pre-production, Burns said he’s hopeful Nuke ’Em Boys will begin filming here in Toronto sometime early in the new year.
Once it goes into production, both he and Fleury expect to be on set in their capacity as writers – and, in Fleury’s case, potentially as an actor, as well.
“We’ll be on set in case anyone needs a line tweak or direction on anything regarding the script,” Burns said.
“And if the show gets picked up, we’ll both be staff writers. That’s part of the deal with doing the pilot and all this stuff on spec – it sort of creates a doorway you can walk through.”
When asked what advice they’d give fellow aspiring screenwriters coming up through Toronto Film School’s Writing for Film & Television program, both Burns and Fleury agreed on their top three: Write with other people. Write what you like. And write a lot.
“It’s always good to bounce ideas, because everybody has different viewpoints and tastes on, so they can give you feedback that you never would have thought of,” said Burns, whose other big project in the works is Cherry Street – a feature-length dark comedy he’s collaborating on with another TFS graduate.
“It’s important to have your little circle and to try to share things back and forth and get feedback, because you really never know if something’s good after a while. You sometimes get so far into an idea – you love it, you hate it, then you love it again, and then you’re not sure. So it’s always good to have a sounding board.”
That sentiment was echoed by Fleury:
“It’s important to write what you like, because sometimes you can fall out of love with things fairly quickly,” he said, noting that his other side project, Zombie Beach II, is due to begin shooting in summer 2020.
“You just have to keep finding different ways to do things and talking to people. And don’t work alone – it’s very depressing doing it alone.”