As Southland residents were grounded by snow and subsequent cold earlier this month, those who turned to Netflix for entertainment may have found themselves watching a new movie written by a man who grew up in Palos Heights.
“Lift” opened worldwide on Jan. 12, but its screenwriter, Daniel Kunka, couldn’t stop thinking about the Southland that morning.
“My family is mostly in Chicago,” Kunka said. “It’s great to know they can watch Netflix on a snowy day and stormy weekend. I hope people enjoy it.”
“Lift” is Kunka’s second screenplay that became a feature film. In the film, Cyrus, played by Kevin Hart, leads a team formed to steal gold from a passenger plane while it is in the air.
The idea for the “elevator” was inspired by an article Kunka read about how gold bullion is transferred between banks on passenger planes. He found the concept interesting and came up with the heist story and characters that are now on Netflix.
But Kunka’s career in Hollywood has been less a get-rich-quick heist and more an example of the hard work and dedication required to make movies. The script for “Lift” came to life as a feature film nearly 15 years after Kunka’s ideas first hit the big screen in “12 Rounds,” starring John Cena.
“It makes me appreciate it even more because it may never happen again,” Kunka said. “So many things have to go right to make a movie.”
Initially, Kunka “wasn’t a big movie person” while growing up in Palos Heights.
“We watched a lot of television, but my family didn’t go to a lot of movies,” Kunka said.
Although he occasionally watched movies at the Crestwood theater, his primary interest was writing. Kunka loved the creative writing class he took at Marist High School and spent his free time reading a creative writing magazine.
He found the first script he read in this magazine. This made him interested in aspects of cinema that he had not given much thought to before. After graduating from Marist in 1996, he entered the screenwriting undergraduate program at the University of Southern California.
Although he had no family connections to Hollywood before entering the industry, at USC Kunka befriended a fellow student at USC, which connected him to Universal’s story department, which subsequently led to an internship.
Kunka had the opportunity to see how readers reported to executives about scripts and how studios responded to scripts. He also had the chance to read the scripts. This experience helped him fall in love with both the artistic and business aspects of Hollywood.
“Talking about movies and seeing how it works in real life took me away from the academic world,” Kunka said.
After graduating from USC, she remained in Los Angeles and was hired as a full-time assistant; While working for a producer at Universal, he continued to work on screenwriting specifically for the film.
“As much as I loved television, I also always enjoyed writing for features,” Kunka said. “I found my first success here.”
This success was in writing the original spec scripts. To make movies that people want to see, he regularly comes up with ideas for scripts that he hopes studios will want to buy. And he writes scripts without any guarantee.
“It looks a lot like a normal work day,” Kunka said. “I get up in the morning. I send the children to school. I go to my office with a cup of green tea and write my daily articles.”
In addition to “Lift” and “12 Rounds,” Kunka also sold scripts that did not make it into production. The “Yellowstone Falls” script made it to the Black List, an annual collection of beloved Hollywood screenplays that have not yet been produced. He also has two games in development, “Crime of the Century” and “Space Race”.
For a long time, Kunka wrote most of his writing in Chicago or the Midwest. He also created some characters with origins in Chicago.
“I always make people White Sox fans if they need to be baseball fans,” Kunka said.
He spends about 3-6 months writing a script before trying to sell it. He said the lifestyle wasn’t for everyone and could be “scary” for young writers who doubt themselves in a tough industry.
“If you write a few scripts that don’t sell, it’s like you’ve wasted a year of your life with nothing to show for it,” he said. “If you’re used to working and getting paid every two weeks, this is quite a change. “Due to the way the cycle works, there are years when I earn very little money, and there are also years when I earn more.”
Kunka said he would never give up his job to find another day job.
“I have a lot of freedom in where and when I write,” he said. “I have a lot of freedom to do things with my kids. There’s a lot of freedom that comes with that, but risk is part of it. “It’s not for everyone, but it definitely works for me.”
Kunka said it was incredibly satisfying to see one of his screenplays being made for the movie “Lift” and to know that the movie was getting such a big hit with Netflix advertising. But it was also strange to know that people in nearly 180 countries were consuming his work.
“I definitely enjoy it,” Kunka said. “It’s really strange to think that something that didn’t exist outside of the 120 pages I started writing at my desk about three years ago can now be seen all over the world. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that.”
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Kunka’s children are now old enough to be aware of what he is doing. And a movie on Netflix is more tangible than the scripts he sold for them that never saw production. But instead of basking in the success, Kunka returned to work on the day of publication and spent the morning writing a new script.
“This is what I know and what comforts me,” he said. “You can’t get involved in this. The ‘elevator’ is gone now, it’s been removed. Now it’s up to the next one because I want to do it again.”
The next step is not as simple as following the success formula. Kunka said that in reality, filmmaking is expensive, decisions are not taken lightly, and many things have to go right for a film to be made.
“I don’t know that there’s that big of a difference between this script I wrote and the scripts I’ve written in the last 15 years that have sold and haven’t been made yet,” he said. “It’s very difficult to make a movie no matter what.”
But Kunka has turned producing stories for films into a much better career than he ever imagined. And he has no intention of stopping now.
“I’m so grateful that I was able to last this long,” Kunka said. “It’s nice for me to know that I can continue to write stories and come up with ideas that people want to pay me for. … We’re at a point now where I’m sure this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. “I am very lucky to be able to say that screenwriting is my career.”
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.