ARTS Jacobson-Larson and Leeb.JPG

Writing partners Nicholas Jacobson-Larson and Dalton Leeb received a spot on the 2017 Black List for their script STRONGMAN, a dark comedy centered on Star Wars’s David Prowse. The duo, also internationally known for their roles in music and television, have churned out several scripts, including a sci-fi script recently purchased by Netflix.

Two kids grow up on the same street, a couple hundred feet apart, yet never meet.

One goes on to become a world-class conductor. The other, an actor starring in the country’s biggest commercials.

Years later, working in different roles on the same project, their paths finally cross thousands of miles away from that quiet Anoka County street. They form an instant friendship, merging their talents and love for writing and begin churning out hit scripts.

It’s a plotline most people would have a difficult time dreaming up.

Most people, perhaps. Yet not the duo of Nicholas Jacobson-Larson and Dalton Leeb.

They aren’t just dreaming up this fantastical storyline, though. They’re living it.

The pair has gone from Anoka County kids to hit successes in Los Angeles, teaming up on several writing projects since meeting six years ago, most recently having a script purchased by Netflix.

With some adventures sprinkled in-between.

“I don’t know if I put that much thought into it, just kind of went head-first”

It didn’t seem to be a question of if, more so what and where.

What role would music play in Jacobson-Larson’s life? And where would it take him?

“My family is all very musical,” Jacobson-Larson said. “My mom was a piano teacher until my sister and I both started piano lessons at 4. I don’t think we had much of a choice at the beginning, it was kind of expected. I started playing piano at a very young age. From there I started playing cello, sax — guitar became kind of my principle instrument. Growing up in a musical family, it was very natural to kind of begin taking lessons and I didn’t really think about it too much after that. I sort of always figured I would do something with music.”

While some might be led to believe a future in music isn’t practical, for Jacobson-Larson, the opposite held true: it was encouraged.

Early on, he was taking turns at a wide variety of instruments and styles, alternately learning classical piano and cello while sampling electric guitar rock, pop and jazz. A broad musical education was laying the foundation for his future career.

“My family has a fair amount of professional musicians in it, so I could always see it was a viable option, whereas some people without that might see it as more of a risk,” Jacobson-Larson said. “People aren’t always lucky enough to have the support I had with family and teachers. Michael Halstenson, the orchestra director at Anoka and Northern Symphony Orchestra, is still a very, very close friend of mine, a musical mentor to me since fifth grade. Also, Michelle Hayes and John Lace were other music teachers I had that were really supportive. It didn’t seem like a risky thing or all that crazy. I don’t know if I put that much thought into it, just kind of went head-first.

“I don’t know if there was necessarily a moment, like the cliché where you hear a piece of music and know that’s what you want to do. Honestly, it was more inevitable I guess. I had the support, I had the fascination with music, and it just kind of fit.”

“Sounds crazy, I know”

Music was the early love for Jacobson-Larson.

Up the road, it was film taking the spotlight growing up for Leeb.

“As a kid, I was obsessed with movies,” Leeb said. “Every Friday after school, we’d swing by the video store and rent three for the weekend. I devoured everything. We’d even re-rent and rewatch our favorites when there wasn’t anything new on the shelves. I just couldn’t get enough.”

A few years later, Leeb wasn’t just watching movies – he was creating and taking part in them.

Soon, an internal tug-of-war arose – follow a path centered on more practicality in math and science, or chase after his dream by traveling down the road of acting? Stay around home, having grown up in Coon Rapids and attended the University of Minnesota, or head out to L.A.?

“When I got a little older, I started writing screenplays and acting in short films with friends, although in school my focus stayed mainly on math and science,” Leeb said. “Growing up, I always had those dual interests: math/science/programming on one side, and writing/acting/storytelling on the other. The former led me to college, and the latter brought me to Los Angeles.

“I was born and raised in Coon Rapids. I spent my whole childhood there. Then I went to college at the University of Minnesota, where I got a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in math. About midway through college, I knew I was going to move to L.A. after graduating, but I wanted to finish school first. It was strange: I was on this very clear path, heading toward a career as a programmer, but I had already decided I was going to step off it at some point and take a really big swing at a different dream. So I got my degree, saved up a little money from my software engineering job (not nearly enough, as I’d soon find out), then quit my job, packed up my car, and hit the road. After graduating, I worked as a software engineer for a little while ... before quitting and moving to L.A. to pursue a career in acting. Sounds crazy, I know.”

“I knew I wanted to do something in music, but didn’t really know what”

The decision had long been made to follow a musical path for Jacobson-Larson. After graduating from Anoka High School, it was a matter of how to begin the next chapter.

“I sort of bounced back and forth between Berklee College of Music and the University of Minnesota for a few years really. I knew I wanted to do something in music, but didn’t really know what. For a while I was a pretty serious guitar player; I thought I wanted to be a studio musician.”

Looking for guidance, Jacobson-Larson leaned on the advice of Halstenson.

“He was helpful in helping me identify the areas I could improve, like a good teacher does, and encouraged me to go to music school, go to Berklee, and I got a composition degree there,” Jacobson-Larson said. “I always had an interest in movies as well, so I thought movie and storytelling film-scoring would be a pretty obvious fit.”

Advice that ultimately led west to L.A. for Jacobson-Larson as well. And to the doorstep of dreams.

“It was all I thought about”

Early years in Los Angeles had different focuses for Leeb and Jacobson-Larson, but a shared experience: putting forth all-out effort at whatever job they could find in navigating tough times early on, with the hopes of eventually breaking through.

“The first few years were tough,” Leeb said. “Living in L.A. is expensive, so I worked a ton of random jobs to stay afloat — at a bookstore, as a tutor, as a freelance programmer and more — while studying acting at a small theater school in North Hollywood. I threw myself into training, spending all my time rehearsing with classmates, putting up scenes, watching movies and reading books about acting and theater. It was all I thought about back then.”

After a few years, Leeb’s acting career began taking off — 30 seconds at a time.

Commercial appearances began piling up; ads for Wendy’s, Progressive, TimeWarner Cable and GameStop’s Battlefield 4 video game to name a few.

“After several years of classes — and acting in a lot of plays and student films — a friend of mine got a job as a commercial agent and started sending me out for auditions,” Leeb said. “I got really lucky and booked my first national spot almost immediately, which allowed me to finally pay off my student loan debt from the ‘U.’ Soon after that, I started making a living as an actor. I was able to quit all of my part-time jobs and focus on acting full-time, which was pretty incredible.”

In a flash, he had gone from small productions to being on the screen in front of millions. The biggest spot was a commercial in the premier annual television event in the country, the Super Bowl.

“I ended up shooting quite a few ads over the years,” Leeb said. “One of the biggest was a Super Bowl commercial for Bridgestone Tires. The shoot was crazy, in the best way possible: I spent several days in San Luis Obispo hanging out with an animatronic killer whale, screaming like a maniac in a speeding SUV and watching a stunt driver spin doughnuts at the edge of a pier as a helicopter hovered nearby filming the action. Another highlight was acting in a spot directed by Justin Timberlake. He was great to work with, a really friendly, supportive, down-to-earth guy. I also worked in TV and indie films a little — a particularly fun experience was starring in this dark comedy called ‘Feeding Mr. Baldwin’ with a bunch of hilarious people — but the bulk of my acting work has been in commercials.”

“You have to be OK hearing a lot of ‘no’”

The journey was similar for Jacobson-Larson. Early years in L.A. were spent freelancing wherever he could, for whomever he could.

It was sink or swim. Crescendo or bust. There was no fallback.

“I’m an optimist to the point of it maybe not being healthy,” Jacobson-Larson said. “I see things working out. I see a lot of people who move out to L.A. or New York to pursue some big dream, and for them they need to have a backup plan, where if it doesn’t work out in five years they say, ‘I’ll go do this.’ I never had a backup plan. It was kind of do or die — I’m either going to make a living doing this or I’m going to fail and not be able to pay rent or be able to eat. When the stakes are pretty high, that motivates you to work harder.”

He wasn’t waiting around for a big break. He was building a foundation of experience brick by brick, waiting for the last one to put him in a position to gain the spotlight.

“It’s a common misconception that there is such a thing as a big break,” Jacobson-Larson said. “You see the tip of the iceberg, this one project, but there’s this massive submerged thing below that represents all the hard work, all the jobs you worked before you got this one people are recognizing, all the rejections when people said no. As a conductor, composer, whatever, you’re trying to get all these jobs and most of the time they go to someone else. That’s the reality of it. You have to be OK hearing a lot of ‘no’ and be undaunted by that.”

Eventually, Jacobson-Larson had the chance to compose music for Amazon studios. And Hulu. And FX. And do score preparation for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol,” “John Carter” and FOX television’s “Alcatraz.” Not to mention working for composer Michael Giacchino on “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

To name a few.

“The first few years are difficult for sure,” Jacobson-Larson said. “You don’t know anybody, especially when you’re trying to get started as a freelance composer. How do you start doing that from nothing? I didn’t know anybody, and you’re trying to convince people to pay you money to write music for them. If you haven’t ever been paid money to write music, it’s difficult to convince someone to do that. So it’s a bit of a Catch 22, I guess. There’s a whole lot of working free or very low pay for the first few years you’re getting your feet on the ground. Like any freelance, you do a job and you hope the person enjoyed working with you and word of mouth hopefully spreads.”

“I honestly thought someone was playing a joke on me”

After early adversity, Jacobson-Larson and Leeb were thriving in their fields in the early 2010s. Diverging paths from yards apart in Anoka County had converged, working in different roles on the same project in L.A.

Now, it was finally time for them to meet.

“We met funnily enough at an after-party for a web series he was starring on and I wrote the music for,” Jacobson-Larson said. “I had never met him until then. We were talking and he said where he was from – it was such a bizzarely specific place to be from. We probably rode our bikes past each other growing up.”

“When we chatted for the first time, he randomly mentioned the street he grew up on, and I was like, ‘Wait, you’re not from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, are you?’” Leeb said. “Turns out he was, but that wasn’t even the craziest part: We grew up right down the street from each other. Our houses were like 50 yards apart. It was surreal — I honestly thought someone was playing a joke on me. We knew some of the same people in the old neighborhood, hung out at the same park and swam in the same lake, … but we never met back then. Not until we both separately moved to L.A., then randomly crossed paths.”

After over three decades somehow never meeting, the connection was instant.

Shared interests meshed with complementary styles. Both found an opportunity for friendship, and to forge a new path together in writing.

“We became fast friends after that,” Leeb said. “We were both huge movie and TV fans and had really similar tastes, so we’d spend a lot of time talking about what we had watched recently and dissecting what worked and what didn’t. So when Nick was commissioned by the Naples Philharmonic to write a children’s concert piece (similar to ‘Peter and the Wolf’), he asked if I’d be interested in co-writing the spoken narration. I jumped at the chance, and we had such a great time collaborating that we decided to start writing screenplays together, something we had both done separately in the past, and then we just kept on writing them, as I kept acting and Nick kept working as a composer. A few years after that, we wrote a script called ‘Strongman’ that led to us signing with CAA, and then just recently we made our first sale with ‘Endurance.’ … I’ve been obsessed with stories my whole life, and from a very young age I tinkered with writing my own. First as little comic books. Then short fiction. Then scripts. I’ve always loved it. There’s nothing like the feeling of stumbling across a new idea that stirs your imagination, moves you or makes you laugh. It’s a lot of hard work, but when it comes together, it’s magical.

“I’ve always had an interest in dramatic writing, whether it was plays, musicals, movies,” Jacobson-Larson said. “Throughout my 20s, I just fiddled with a lot of that stuff on my own. I wrote a musical that was produced (in 2006). … We both had these separate ways we were living, me music, him acting, and writing for us has been another creative pursuit we both really enjoy.”

“There are no shortcuts”

While writing has taken on a prominent role, both have remained engaged with their original pursuits.

Jacobson-Larson is still active conducting, doing more orchestra sessions as well as recording sessions on the drama “The Hate U Give.”

“That was a higher profile thing for me,” Jacobson-Larson said. “There are certainly gigs I’ve done, I’ve worked in the music department, not as the composer, but at the time those were really meaningful credits — ‘Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol,’ the ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ movies at a low level, bottom of the totem pole, but when you can say I worked on ‘Blah Blah Blah’ movie, it’s helpful to move on to that next level.”

In 2019, another career highlight arrived when Jacobson-Larson was part of a worldwide tour alongside Grammy winner Michael Bublé.

“Conducting for Michael Bublé is a big feather in my cap,” Jacobson-Larson said. “It’s like, well, you’ve been working with a bunch of people — all it is, is people saying, ‘I need a conductor, do you know someone who would be good and not be a jerk?’ It just takes time, working long enough and people will work with you. There are no shortcuts.

“It’s pretty difficult to pick favorite collaborators. People I work with again and again and again — if it’s a filmmaker, you work with them on their first movie and hopefully that relationship is cemented and they’re going to call you every time they have a need. Each collaboration is something that I really treasure. I get something different with the different people I’m working with. Obviously with Michael Bublé, Alan Chang (the musical director), all the wonderful guys in the band and the crew, it’s musicianship at the highest level. It’s kind of like college again, buses, hotel. That’s really, really fun, to keep things light.”

Working on projects of different types – at times musician tours, at others film scoring – and of different styles requires a flexible and diverse set of musical skills. An eclectic musical background, cultivated by playing several instruments growing up, has led to the ability to carry out a wide range of scores. Sometimes even within the same film.

“I might have to do something like a John Williams score and also literally do hip-hop tracks,” Jacobson-Larson said. “I love that challenge of having a style of music I’m not super familiar with and being forced to learn the conventions of that genre and then harness what I’ve learned into writing something new. … It really depends on the project. I’ve worked on a bunch of different things related to each other musically. It could be working with some friends arranging some songs for a singer; there’s a song that already exists and I’m adding strings to it. That’s very different from, for instance, something I did for a New York Times ‘Almost Famous’ doc. For that, that’s something I’m working directly with a film director who says we need this type of music at this spot and this there, and I’m writing everything, getting it approved by the director, going into the recording studio to record an orchestra, conducting those recording sessions.

“You definitely adjust and modulate your approach depending on the personalities of the people involved. Bublé is so incredibly laid back and such an easy guy to get along with, really, really fun. On tour in each city we stop with the band, we have the brass and rhythm sections that travel everywhere, but we have 16 local string musicians for just that one concert that have never played with us. I meet them at 4:00 the day of the show and we take about an hour to run through all of the music, which is more than an hour — the concert is around two and a half hours. So you have to be very detail-oriented and be able to go through the music theory very quickly. Michael comes out for sound check an hour later and then it’s time to open the house for fans coming in. Michael sets the tone. Our rehearsals are very efficient. We like to joke around and have fun. There’s a lot of laughter — it keeps it really fun for everybody. We take the work seriously, but not ourselves seriously.”

In the process of managing several projects at once, Jacobson-Larson is still flourishing as a conductor as well, leading concerts in L.A. of varying types of music.

“Depending on the composition, some music can be incredibly challenging from a rhythmic standpoint,” Jacobson-Larson said. “It doesn’t sound anything like 99% of the music now. Those pieces are sometimes very, very challenging, but also very fun because you get to learn how to do something new and that’s how you grow.

“If I get a little flustered looking at the score, it connects back to the eternal optimist where I want to say no because it’s a difficult score, but I always say yes, and I’m always glad that I said yes, because I’m growing as a musician through that process.”

“We can’t wait to unveil it to the world”

Together, Jacobson-Larson and Leeb earned a spot on the esteemed 2017 Black List — which provides a spotlight for top unproduced scripts and has included films such as “Juno” and “The King’s Speech” — for their feature spec “Strongman,” a dark comedy centered on David Prowse, the actor behind the mask of Darth Vader in Star Wars.

n 2020, they sold a sci-fi spec script titled “Endurance” to Netflix. Simon Kinberg, a prominent screenwriter from the “X-Men” franchise as well as “Sherlock Holmes” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” has signed on as a producer.

The timeline has not been released, with the coronavirus pandemic impacting several projects.

“We can’t say much — the details are being kept under wraps — but it’s a story that we’re really passionate about,” Leeb said. “We had an absolute blast writing it, and working with Simon and Netflix has been a dream come true. We can’t wait to unveil it to the world.”

Having spent a decade in Los Angeles, the measuring stick of success, cliché or not, is not as much in the high-profile professional endeavors as it is in the friendships maintained and gained along the way.

“The satisfaction is less derived from feathers in my cap professionally and what I’m doing, and more in that there are a lot of people back home in Minnesota I’m still really close with, and a lot of people in L.A. I’m close with,” Jacobson-Larson said. “I met my now-wife out here. That’s really how I measure the question of how far I’ve come.”

Whatever comes next, the pair plans to keep on writing and working together, having gone down winding roads to a shared path of success.

“I think keep writing movies, keep writing music, keep conducting,” Jacobson-Larson said. “If I can do some version of those three things I’ll be happy. I’ve realized over the years, I’ve gotten advice from very successful people to focus on just one thing and just give all your time. If I did that I’d certainly be a better composer. I’ve totally resigned to being mediocre at three things than being great at one. If people still will pay me a living wage to do it, I’ll be happy.”

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