Scotty Mullen says much of what it took for him to be a success as a Hollywood screenwriter and casting director is because he grew up in Hays.
“There’s so much room to dream, a lot of room to think,” said Mullen on Thursday as he drove Interstate 70 to Hays after arriving at Kansas City International Airport from his home in Los Angeles. “I always thought I was so bored, but the big sky and wide open highway, they give you a lot of room to think. That was a gift that Hays gave to me.”
Talking by phone, Mullen explained he’s on his way back for his 25th high school reunion at Hays High. It’s been three years since he’s been back to his hometown. But his experiences in Hays the first 19 years of his life are always close to the surface.
“Experiencing small town life, it enriches stories,” Mullen said. “I always go back to my memories.”
Lately he’s been thinking of the days he spent at the Hays Public Library, since Hallmark contacted him recently about writing a movie about a librarian.
One of Mullen’s better known credits is as co-writer on the cult classic camp parody comedy action "Sharknado" series. While he’s in town this weekend he’ll be at the Hays Arts Council at 6 p.m. on Sunday to offer encouragement and tips to young kids from the area looking for a career in Hollywood. The conversation is free and open to the public.
That kind of dream is not out of reach for someone from Hays, he said.
“Just tell a story, and if you can tell a story, you can be a writer,” Mullen said. “If you’re not a jerk, and you learn a format, and you can be professional, you can make it.”
A strong work ethic has helped, something he learned working as a bus boy on weekends in the 1970s at the Village Inn Pancake House. But that’s not all he learned from the pancake house.
“When that 2 a.m. bar rush hit, we’d be swamped with all these drunk college kids and adults,” Mullen said. “As a writer, you get a lot of material watching those interactions.”
Throughout grade school and high school, Mullen wrote stories. He learned that the simple act of writing each day is an important habit for any would-be writer.
“I wrote and I wrote and I wrote,” he said. “Looking back, I was totally laying the groundwork for what I’m doing today.”
Lots of people in Hays helped him along the way. One he recalls was Gladys Wellbrock, who wrote suspense books under the psuedonym G.F. Bale. Mullen’s ambition in high school was to be a romance writer, and after attending a book signing for Wellbrock at Gulliver’s Bookstore, she agreed to read a book he’d written.
“She told me ‘Listen kid, you know how to write, but you need to get out there and get some life experience,’” he recalls.
Mullen ultimately ended up in Los Angeles, making good money working in advertising and marketing. It was a safe, secure job, but he hated the work, because he really wanted to write. It took a chance encounter in North Hollywood with an old friend from Hays Middle School to make the big scary jump to screenwriter. From their childhood bond he trusted Adriane Kelly, now a life coach, who helped him realize his writing dream was plausible. Next thing he new he had a credit as screenwriter of the 2014 horror slash comedy movie "The Coed and the Zombie Stoner."
“I still use the same skills I learned back in Hays,” Mullen explained.
As a second grader at Lincoln Elementary, his teacher Mrs. White, now Jan Park, gave the students manila envelopes to fill with stories they would write and read to the class.
“I remember it like it was this morning,” he said. “I would read my action stories to the class and would put my friends in the stories, and they would laugh.”
He employed a similar technique for "Sharknado," by injecting celebrity cameos into the script.
Whether scenarios, relationships, drama, plot lines or characters — many elements of Mullen’s work have seeds in Hays, including a character in his 2016 Showtime movie, a modern-day telling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable from The Asylum film production company. Mullen named the heroine, Merlin’s ancester, Krista, after Hays High School friend Krista Gagelman. Gagelman made the dying request to Mullen, “Don’t grieve, just name the character after me.”
Brenda Meder, director of the Hays Arts Council for the past 28 years, isn’t surprised by the success of a hometown boy, especially Mullen, who she praises for his accomplishments.
There have been others too, she points out, because strong arts leadership by qualified and talented educators in the area supports the local schools and their learning objectives.
Other high-profile successes have been visual artist Chris Cooksey, who earned his undergraduate degree at Fort Hays; independent film actor and Hays native Jeffrey Staab; award-winning actor and tenor Brent Barrett, a 1975 graduate of Hays High School; and actor and Hays native Jacob Gutierrez. But Meder counts the teachers, band directors, artists and others who teach and perform at less high-profile jobs as equally successful, and important to the success of the arts culture locally.
By fifth grade, each student in Ellis County is exposed to no less than six professional performing arts experiences in the Beach-Schmidt Performing Arts Center, Meder said. On Nov. 12, for example, 400 fifth grade students from Hays, Ellis, Victoria, Plainville and Russell will attend a live theater performance of "Frankenstein" at the Beach-Schmidt Performing Arts Center.
A child growing up in Hays and Ellis County, as well as schools in Plainville and Russell, will know that the arts matter, Meder said.
“They’ll know they are important and that they have a contributing role in our society that makes the world a better place,” she said. And any child with a dream such as Mullen’s, will find support. “We’re here to say ‘go you,’ The community at large says, ‘That’s cool, you can make that happen.’”
Meder’s own interest in the arts started as a child. Growing up in Victoria, her dad was a farmer, raising cattle. But Albert Braun also loved music and was a square-dance caller for many of the local dances.
“He loved dancing and singing,” Meder recalls of her father, who passed away three years ago. She also loved music, as well as drawing and writing. Meder went on to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees in communications with an emphasis in theater from Fort Hays State University.
The Hays Arts Council works with 12 elementary schools in five different towns in three different counties, typically collaborating with other area arts organizations, schools and venues. Typically the arts experience in Hays reinforces an educational goal, whether the topic is literacy and ways to tell stories, civics and government, ecology and the environment, or other subjects, Meder said.
It makes a difference.
“That crazy King Arthur movie, I probably wrote the first draft of that in second grade,” Mullen said. “Some of the ideas I had in high school, I think of today and how I could make them work. I’m finding a way now to harness that imagination I had.”