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Exploring strange new worlds with writer-actor Dustin Milligan

May 6, 2021
5 min read time

When you chat with a genuinely nice human who happens to be very obviously passionate about writing — your own chosen profession— and listens to Star Trek: The Next Generation on a regular basis (and if you’re not sure why that’s the best show ever, I’ll just direct you over here for a brief pause), ya just can’t help but be drawn in.


While I didn’t share with writer-actor Dustin Milligan — whom you may recognize from Schitt’s Creek, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, 90210, or a lengthy IMDb page of other credits — that a TNG communicator resides on my desk, I did get to pick his brain about the writing process when it came to his new feature script, The Drop


“What happens when you have an entire industry shun you?”

That’s the question Milligan’s sci-fi/action-adventure explores in an ode to the heightened, stylized, gritty crime thrillers of the ‘80s and ‘90s. His love of neo-noir and references like Dark, Altered Carbon, and The Fifth Element right across the board to the Naked Gun movies and Back to the Future trilogy created the seeds of influence in aesthetic and tone for The Drop.

Set on New Year’s Eve, 1989, we follow a no-fucks-given, cocaine-loving, blacklisted ex-journalist moonlighting as a “stringer” on the radically neon streets of Los Angeles, who has the story of a lifetime drop out of thin air, right in front of her — literally.

The feature script evolved from a single piece of dialogue that stuck with Milligan from another piece he wrote: “…and she just appeared, in the middle of the freeway, out of nowhere…” So after six months of that line rattling around in the back of his head while falling asleep to the tune of Star Trek: The Next Generation and absorbing “sci-fi through osmosis,” Milligan heard an ad for a docuseries about modern-day stringers in LA, “And suddenly it hit me. This rush came over me ‘cause it all finally clicked, you know? I jumped out of bed and wrote out a little, three-sentence outline of what would, almost two months later, become The Drop.”

Milligan’s successful start in Hollywood came as an actor, through which he’s had incredible experiences in front of the camera — such as his time on that recently acclaimed little Canadian show as Ted Mullens, the loveable veterinarian. Milligan notes his opportunities to improvise the character a little and midway through the series, go into the writers room.

“The writers on [Schitt’s Creek] were very much on deck and available. Dave West Read, Rupinder Gill… There wasn’t a separation between writers and ‘the talent’ as there was on other shows I’ve been a part of.”

Next up, Milligan is re-teaming with Gill on Rutherford Falls. All of his cumulative experiences have continued to inspire Milligan’s love of the collaborative process that is filmmaking.

“I’m the guy that hangs around between scenes, enthralled with the mechanism of how the entire project comes together. There’s no one script or performance that will make it great. It’s that translation of how many people are involved to strengthen the project as a whole,” he said.

“It was only about four or five years ago that I really decided to put the effort in and commit to the idea of writing.”

With another slow-burn, sci-fi mystery feature and a handful of half-hours to his name, Milligan is also working on a couple of projects collaboratively — one under wraps, and the other with longtime friend and co-writer Aaron Brooks.

“Aaron and I first met on the Vancouver acting scene back in 2003. In addition to partnering on a few feature specs over the years, we also have a half-hour sci-fi comedy we were recently pitching around town. He's one of my best friends and my closest ally in writing. To this day, we still bounce ideas off each other and give notes on new scripts or outlines. He's actually finishing up his first-ever novel!”

For Milligan, transitioning, in a way, from acting to writing has always been the plan.

“I derive so much joy out of sitting down to write and making myself laugh — that effort toward completing something. Writing is something I’m going to do for the rest of my life. Even if no one but a Big Break reader ever sees it.”

Though Milligan had previous reservations about the contest scene, he submitted The Drop to a couple of the bigger ones and made top three of the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest®’s sci-fi category.

“I was shocked and pleased,” he said of the process. “[Big Break] has been an incredible tool with hands-on follow-through with a group of people that genuinely care.”

The experience, especially that of writing the initial script, is what it’s all about for him.

“It gave me the confidence to home in on my voice and what brings me joy. The first script I wrote was huge for me for two reasons: It taught me that I wasn't going to get where I wanted to go by writing what I thought other people wanted me to write, and it gave me the single line of dialogue that sparked the story for the script that allowed me to finally find my voice as a writer. At least, my voice so far.”

Seems Milligan is already light-years ahead of the game, picking up on one of the key factors in writers’ success: The all-important voice.

“I feel like I’m at the beginning of my journey,” he said.

“We’re all wild, creative storytellers.”

To other wild, creative storytellers, Milligan is animated (and adamant) in saying, “To the bits of success; to the knowledge and podcasts and structure research — put it aside. I imagine I’m the audience I’m writing for. That really changed the process for me. I write those worlds and jokes; creating things I'd be excited to be a part of and would jump at the opportunity to direct and produce... You have that opportunity when it’s just yours before you go out into the world with it and it becomes everyone’s baby as part of that collaborative process. Impress yourself.”

Photo Credit: Angel Gzowski via CBC

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