Mark Steilen is driving – that’s what people in Los Angeles do – after leaving a meeting at ABC. And he’s talking to a reporter on the phone through the car Bluetooth system about his new movie, “Tag,” when he interrupts the interview.
“By the way, I’m driving past Warner Bros. with our billboard up and it’s really cool,” he said. “If you make the big billboard on the side of Warner Bros., that’s cool because it’s a big huge studio wall. So that’s like a career moment.”
He then resumes telling the story of how he, a guy from Spokane who graduated from Gonzaga Prep, ended up writing and producing a movie about 10 other Spokane guys who graduated from Gonzaga Prep and the playground game they’ve been playing for decades.
“Tag,” a new comedy directed by Jeff Tomsic, is inspired by the story of the Spokane “Tag Brothers,” who a few years after high school decided to keep their friendship alive by playing tag. Each February, the guy who is “it” goes in search of another player to tag, and the one who is it at the end of the month holds the dubious distinction for the next 11 months.
Like much of the world, Steilen learned of the game in 2013 from a Wall Street Journal article by Russell Adams. He was at his home in Santa Monica, having coffee, when a friend from Spokane called and asked if he’d seen the article.
“I pulled it up on my iPad,” he said. “I thought, man, that’s a great idea in search of a story. I thought the premise was so solid.”
He called a producer friend of his, Todd Garner, who agreed the idea had merit. Then Steilen asked his younger brother Nate, who lives in Spokane and who knew some of the Tag Brothers, to reach out on his behalf.
“I was a little concerned that I would be the L.A. guy who would be calling them,” Steilen said.
When Patrick Schultheis, the Tag Brother who happens to be a lawyer, called, Steilen first gave him the names of some agents, so the guys would have someone to look out for their interests. Once the group had hired one, Steilen made his pitch.
“This is the leap of faith they took. I said, ‘I can’t buy your life story right now, I can’t throw money at you, but if you give me a couple weeks, I think I can sell it to a studio, in which case they’ll have to buy your rights and it might be more money.’
“They were cool,” Steilen added. “They trusted me because they knew me through brothers and sisters and the Prep world.”
For the Tag Brothers, having a fellow Prep guy involved in the process was a big plus.
“That was the determining factor,” said Mike Konesky, one of the Tag Brothers. “Because Mark had gone to Prep, and was from Spokane, we knew him and his family. … It just made sense. Rather than trying to explain to somebody else who is completely new about Spokane and our high school, it will be a lot easier to go with someone who knew us, knew the background, knew the town and we’d met before.”
New Line snapped up the film, which initially had Will Ferrell and Jack Black attached. Steilen wrote the early drafts, and a second screenwriter, Rob McKittrick, did the final pass.
As the project moved along, and “Horrible Bosses” became the model, ideas for casting shifted. Steilen had met Jon Hamm at the Golden Globes in 2016, he said, and told him about the movie. Soon, Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress were on board.
Steilen is the oldest of six siblings, all of whom went to Prep. He attended elementary school at Our Lady of Fatima, and “had the world’s greatest teacher there, Sister Alice Blessing, who told me I was going to be a writer and to not fuss around with anything else. She told me what to do and I did it.”
Steilen said he left Spokane the day after he graduated in 1977, heading for the Tri-Cities on a “bored-out Kawasaki 250 Enduro” that cost him $180 and he thinks may have been stolen. He worked that summer at Hanford, hauling tools, and making enough money to pay his tuition at the University of Washington. He later attended University of Massachusetts, the University of Southern California and the UCLA film school before finding a career as a script doctor on films such as “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber.”
Now he’s a writer and producer on the Showtime series “Shameless,” a writer for the HBO series “Divorce” and he won a Golden Globe for his work on the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle.”
For awhile he and his family lived in Spokane, while his work was in L.A. “Once I started working in television, that became impossible,” he said. “My goal is to get back there.”
He’s “overjoyed” at how “Tag” has all come together.
“In the best of circumstances, movies are very difficult. Also, tonally, this is a movie that could have been mishandled in a thousand different ways,” Steilen said. “And it wasn’t. (Screenwriter) Rob McKittrick, the guy who did the last pass after me, did a terrific job. Jeff Tomsic, the director, is just really funny, thoughtful, big-hearted guy. Great filmmaker. And what a blessing to put that cast together.”
He hopes people come to the theater and enjoy some laughs. He also hopes people take inspiration from the Tag Brothers and the dedication they’ve shown to keeping their friendship alive.
“I do hope that it rings for people that way,” Steilen said. “I’m hugely fortunate in that my dearest friends are the guys I started kindergarten with in Spokane. … I hope people get a kick out of it and laugh their asses off, and if it makes them go see their buddy and have a beer, then that will have been worth the effort.
“And it’s really great to share it with Spokane. When you get (a movie) you think your whole hometown can enjoy, then that makes it incredibly special.”