Palos Heights native’s career hits high with Kevin Hart movie

When residents across the Southland hunkered down earlier this month for the snow and subsequent chill, those who turned to Netflix for their entertainment may have found themselves watching a new release written by a man who grew up in Palos Heights.

“Lift” released worldwide on Jan. 12, but its screenwriter, Daniel Kunka, couldn’t help but think that morning about the Southland.

“My family is still mostly in Chicago,” Kunka said. “To know that they’re able to watch Netflix on a snow day and a storm weekend is great. I hope people enjoy it.”

“Lift” marks Kunka’s second screenplay to become a feature length motion picture. In it, Cyrus, played by Kevin Hart, leads a team recruited to steal gold from a passenger plane while in midair.

The idea for “Lift” 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 now featured on Netflix.

But Kunka’s career in Hollywood has been less of a get-rich-quick heist and more an example of the hard work and dedication it takes to make movies. His screenplay for “Lift” came to life as a feature film roughly 15 years after Kunka’s ideas first hit movie screens in “12 Rounds,” starring John Cena.

“It makes me appreciate this one more, because it may never happen again,” Kunka said. “It’s crazy how many things have to go right to make a movie.”

Initially, Kunka was “not a big film person” while growing up in Palos Heights.

“We watched a lot of TV but my family didn’t go to a lot of movies,” Kunka said.

Though he saw movies once in a while at the Crestwood theater, writing was the interest that took hold first. Kunka loved a creative-writing class he took at Marist High School and spent his free time reading a creative writing magazine.

It was in that magazine that he found the first piece of screenwriting he’d ever read. It got him interested in aspects of film he hadn’t previously thought much about. After he graduated from Marist in 1996, he entered the University of Southern California’s undergraduate screenwriting program.

While he had no familial connections to Hollywood before venturing into the industry, at USC Kunka became friends at USC with a fellow student who connected him to Universal’s story department and a subsequent internship.

Kunka got to see how readers reported on scripts to executives and how studios responded to screenplays. He also had a chance to read scripts. The experience helped him fall in love with both the artistic and business sides of Hollywood.

“It got me out of the academic world — speaking about movies — and actually seeing how it worked in real life,” Kunka said.

After graduating from USC, he stayed in Los Angeles and was hired as a full-time assistant, working for a producer at Universal while continuing to work on his screenwriting, particularly for film.

“As much as I loved TV, I always enjoyed writing for features,” Kunka said. “That’s where I found my early success.”

That success was in writing original spec scripts. He regularly generates ideas for scripts he hopes studios will want to buy to make movies people will want to see. And with no guarantees, he writes the screenplays.

“It’s very similar to a regular work day,” Kunka said. “I get up in the morning. I send the kids to school. I go into my office with a cup of green tea and do my writing for the day.”

In addition to “Lift” and “12 Rounds,” Kunka has sold scripts that have not gone into production. His “Yellowstone Falls” screenplay made the Black List — an annual collection of beloved Hollywood scripts that have yet to be produced. And he has two, “Crime of the Century” and “Space Race,” in development.

For a long time, Kunka set much of what he wrote 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 a baseball fan,” Kunka said.

Daniel Kunka attends the Netflix's "Lift" World Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 08, 2024 in New York City.

He puts anywhere from 3-6 months into writing a script before trying to sell it. The lifestyle is not for everyone, he said, and can be “terrifying” for younger writers facing self-doubt in a hard industry.

“If you write a couple of scripts that don’t sell, it’s like you’ve wasted a year of your life without anything to show for it,” he said. “If you’re used to going to work and getting paid every two weeks, it’s quite the change. There are years where I make very little money and there are years where I make more money because of the way the cycle works.”

Kunka said he would never give up what he does to have another day job.

“I have a lot of freedom 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 it, but the risk is also part of it. It’s not for everybody, but it definitely works for me.”

With “Lift,” Kunka said it was incredibly satisfying to see one of his scripts made and to know the film received such a prominent push with Netflix’s advertising. But it was also strange to know that people were consuming his work in roughly 180 countries.

“I’m definitely enjoying it,” Kunka said. “It’s really weird to think that something I started writing at my desk just over three years ago and didn’t exist except for the 120 pages I wrote can now be seen everywhere in the world. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it.”

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Kunka’s children are also now old enough to be conscious of what he does. And a movie on Netflix is more tangible to them than the scripts he sold that never saw production. But rather than simply relish the success, Kunka got back to work on release day, spending his morning writing a new script.

“That’s what I know and is comforting to me,” he said. “You can’t get caught up in this. ‘Lift’ is now gone, lifted off. Now it’s on to the next one, because I want to do it again.”

That next one is not as simple as following a formula for success. Kunka said the reality is that movies are expensive to make, the decisions aren’t taken lightly and a lot of things have to go right for a movie to be made.

“The difference between this script that I wrote and any of the scripts I wrote that have sold over the last 15 years that haven’t been made, I don’t know that there’s that big of a difference,” he said. “It’s very hard to make a movie, no matter what.”

But Kunka has made crafting stories for movies a career that is even better than he imagined. And he doesn’t intend to stop now.

“I feel very grateful to have made it this long,” Kunka said. “It’s nice for me to know I can continue to write stories and come up with ideas that people want to pay me for. … We’re at the point now where I’m confident this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life. To be able to say that screenwriting is my career, I’m very fortunate.”

Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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