On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films 9781477311943

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On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films

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On Story

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Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their

Iconic Films a u s t in f il m f e s t i va l e di t e d b y

Barbara Morgan a n d Maya Perez for e wor d b y

James Franco u n i v er si t y of t e x a s pr e s s

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aus t i n

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Copyright © 2016 by Austin Film Festival, Inc. Foreword copyright © 2016 by James Franco Sydney Pollack’s contributions copyright © 2016 by Sydney Pollack All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America First edition, 2016 Requests for permission to reproduce material from this work should be sent to: Permissions University of Texas Press P.O. Box 7819 Austin, TX 78713-7819 http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/rp-form The paper used in this book meets the minimum requirements of ansi/niso z39.48-1992 (r1997) (Permanence of Paper). Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Morgan, Barbara, 1962–, editor. | Perez, Maya, 1970–, editor. | Franco, James, 1978–, writer of supplementary textual content. | Austin Film Festival (Austin, Tex.) Title: On Story—screenwriters and fi lmmakers on their iconic fi lms / Austin Film Festival ; edited by Barbara Morgan and Maya Perez ; foreword by James Franco. Other titles: On Story screenwriters and fi lmmakers on their iconic fi lms. Description: First edition. | Austin : University of Texas Press, 2016. | Includes bibliographical references. Identifiers: lccn 2016006706 | isbn 978-1-4773-1090-8 (pbk. : alk. paper) Subjects: lcsh: Screenwriters—Interviews. | Motion picture authorship. | Motion picture producers and directors—Interviews. | On story: presented by Austin Film Festival (Television program) Classification: lcc pn1996 .o49 2016 | ddc 808.2/30922—dc23 lc record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2016006706 doi:10.7560/310908

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Dedicated to Wes Craven, Gary David Goldberg, Harold Ramis, Garry Shandling, and Stewart Stern

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Contents

Foreword: Tips by James Franco ix Acknowledgments xi Biographies xiii Introduction by Maya Perez 1 1 . c r e at i ng c l a s s ic c h a r a c t e r s 3 A Conversation with Shane Black, David Milch, and Sydney Pollack, Moderated by Barry Josephson 5 2. h e roe s a n d a n t i h e roe s 17 A Conversation with Paul Feig, Jenny Lumet, and Aline Brosh McKenna 19 3 . “ i n t h e n a m e of m y fat h e r a n d of t h e t ru t h! ” 31 Up Close with Terry George 33 Terry George on In the Name of the Father 35 4 . “c a n i t be d on e , fat h e r? c a n a m a n c h a nge t h e s ta r s ? ” 39 A Conversation with Brian Helgeland, Moderated by Barbara Morgan 41 5 . “at t ic a ! at t ic a ! ” 49 Brian Helgeland Presents Frank Pierson with the Distinguished Screenwriter Award at the 2003 Austin Film Festival 51 vi

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Robin Swicord on Dog Day Afternoon 54 Up Close with Frank Pierson 61 6. “ hous t on, w e h av e a probl e m.” 65 A Conversation with Ron Howard, Moderated by William Broyles Jr. 67 A Conversation with Ron Howard, Jim Lovell, Sy Liebergot, John Aaron, Jerry Bostick, Michael Corenblith, Al Reinert, and William Broyles Jr., Moderated by Jane Sumner 78 7. “ i f nob ody l o s e s t h e i r h e a d, nob ody w i l l l o s e t h e i r h e a d.” 87 Up Close with Callie Khouri 89 Callie Khouri on Thelma & Louise 98 8. “ i t ’s grou n dho g day ! ” 105 A Conversation with Harold Ramis, Moderated by Judd Apatow 107 Danny Rubin on Groundhog Day 123 9. “ h av e t h e l a m b s s t opp e d s c r e a m i ng? ” 137 A Conversation with Jonathan Demme, Moderated by Paul Thomas Anderson 139 Ron Nyswaner on Philadelphia 144 A Conversation with Ted Tally, Moderated by Álvaro Rodríguez 146 10. “ i l ov e t h e sm el l of n a pa l m i n t h e mor n i ng.” 179 A Conversation with John Milius and Oliver Stone 181 1 1 . “ i a m gro o t.” 193 A Conversation with Michael Green, Ashley Miller, and Nicole Perlman, Moderated by Álvaro Rodríguez 195 1 2 . “ w h ic h s t ory d o you pr ef er?” 213 Up Close with David Magee 215 Afterword: Some Things I’ve Learned by Bill Wittliff 223

Contents

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Foreword Tips james fr anco

When I played Saul in Pineapple Express I said, fuck it, acting should be fun. No more twisted, self-centered, James Dean demons for me, just go with the flow. There was one thing that was important: Saul should love Dale. That was the secret that made Saul so much more than just another dealer in another stoner comedy. He really cared about something, and that made the audience care about him. In this case he cared about Seth’s character, just like I care about Seth. Then I played Scott Smith, Harvey Milk’s lover. I’m still surprised by the response to that character, people love him. The secret there: minimalism. The fi lm is called Milk, not Smith, and that’s how I played it: as a supporting lover. Thus, as a supporting actor to support Sean Penn, whom I also love so much. In Howl I played Ginsberg, and I was all alone most of the fi lm. My scenes were speeches given to an unseen interviewer, like Jason does in Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason. All I did was get down Allen’s cadence by listening to him read “Howl,” over and over. All the versions he did, over the course of forty years, so many recordings . . . He wrote the poem, and then the poem wrote him . . . In 127 Hours I knew the key would be show, don’t tell, because the character just does. I knew the audience would have a real experience because I wouldn’t be telling them how I feel, I’d be feeling. And people passed out. The experience was so real, people couldn’t help even their bodies from being affected.

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And when the character does talk in that movie, he does it to his little video camera; I look right into the lens, ostensibly talking to my family and friends, but I’m looking right at the audience, so it’s like a Shakespearean aside, without breaking the fourth wall. And to that little video camera I talk about my feelings in the most intimate way. It’s like I’m talking to the people in the theater, as if they’re all my friends, and I’m telling them everything there is to know about me. That’s what movies are, the dressings we lay over our most vulnerable selves. Clothing to give artistic shape to the raw muscle and bloody bones of our essential beings. Whether you are actor, writer, director, producer, cinematographer, costume designer, the movies you make reveal you. You make the movies, but once they’re done, you realize that the movies turn around and make you.

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Acknowledgments

Founded in 1993, Austin Film Festival was the first organization of its kind to focus on the writer’s creative contribution to fi lm. Since then, the organization has been dedicated to furthering the art and craft of story telling through a number of programs, including the On Story Project, a collection of resources for audiences who love movies and are interested in the creative process. The On Story Project is made up of the Emmy Award– winning television series Austin Film Festival’s On Story; the On Story podcast; a one-hour On Story radio program; the Austin Film Festival archives—video and audio recordings of hundreds of panels with screenwriters and fi lmmakers from over two decades—at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University; and, of course, the book On Story—Screenwriters and Their Craft, published by University of Texas Press in October 2013. Where On Story—Screenwriters and Their Craft dispensed inspiration and writer advice, On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films takes readers behind the scenes, revealing the creative process behind some of the most iconic movies of our time—the stories behind the stories on the screen. Foremost, we wish to thank the exceptional screenwriters and fi lmmakers whose conversations make up this book: Paul Thomas Anderson, Judd Apatow, Shane Black, William Broyles Jr., Jonathan Demme, Paul Feig, Terry George, Michael Green, Brian Helgeland, Ron Howard, Callie Khouri, Jenny Lumet, David Magee, Aline Brosh McKenna, David Milch, John Milius, Ashley Miller, Ron Nyswaner, Nicole Perlman, Frank Pierson, Sydney Pollack, Harold Ramis, Al Reinert, Danny Rubin, Oliver Stone, Robin Swicord, and Ted Tally. These artists generously shared their stories and experiences, and we are indebted to them for en-

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riching our lives with their fi lms. Special thanks to Erica Mann Ramis, Rebecca Pollack, and Rachel Pollack for their permission. We are so pleased to again be working with the University of Texas Press, and are thankful to David Hamrick, Jim Burr, Nancy Lavender Bryan, Lynne Chapman, Molly Frisinger, and Sarah McGavick for their assistance in putting this book together and getting it out to the world. Thank you to Deena Kalai, Esq., for her friendship and legal guidance with the On Story Project. Barry Josephson, Álvaro Rodríguez, and Jane Sumner, we are so grateful for your continued and unwavering commitment to the Austin Film Festival mission. Thank you to the following individuals for their enthusiastic support and dedicated attention to this book: Miguel Alvarez, Linzy Beltran, Nan Foley, Erin Hallagan, Jo Huang, Jardine Libaire, Brian Ramos, Roy Rutngamlug, and Katy Stewart. Special thanks to Fabienne Harford, Allen Odom, Sonia Onescu, and Trey Selman for their diligence and invaluable help with this book. Finally, we thank everyone who has helped to make the Austin Film Festival and the On Story Project what they are today: panelists, fi lmmakers, moderators, volunteers, interns, attendees, transcribers, sponsors, Festival members, board members, Fred Miller, Marsha Milam, our friends and families, and the late Mary Margaret Farabee—a dear friend and tireless supporter of the arts. The Austin Film Festival and world film community thrive because of each of you.

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Biographies

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director, screenwriter, and producer. Some of his fi lm credits include Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice. Shane Black has been responsible for creating a number of box office blockbusters, including the first two installments of the Lethal Weapon series and The Last Boy Scout. His other fi lm credits include The Long Kiss Goodnight; his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; and Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys, both of which he cowrote and directed. Black made his television directorial debut with the original Amazon series Edge, which he created with Fred Dekker. William Broyles Jr. cocreated the Emmy Award–winning television series China Beach and wrote or cowrote the screenplays for Apollo 13, Cast Away, Jarhead, Unfaithful, The Polar Express, Flags of Our Fathers, and others. Jonathan Demme has directed and produced more than forty movies and has been nominated for twenty Academy Awards. His work includes Beloved, Melvin and Howard, Philadelphia, Who Am I This Time?, Rachel Getting Married, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Silence of the Lambs, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. Paul Feig is a multitalented creator working successfully as a filmmaker, writer, producer, and author. His film credits include Spy, The Heat, Bridesmaids, Life Sold Separately, I Am David, Unaccompanied Minors, and a reboot of Ghostbusters with a female-led cast. Feig created the critically acclaimed xiii

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series Freaks and Geeks and served as director and co-executive producer of The Office. He has directed episodes of the television series Arrested Development, The Office, Nurse Jackie, Bored to Death, Weeds, 30 Rock, and Mad Men. James Franco is an actor, director, artist, and writer. He starred in 127 Hours, which earned him an Academy Award nomination; Pineapple Express, which earned him a Golden Globe Award nomination; Milk; Spring Breakers; and many others. He is the author of several books, including the novel Actors Anonymous, the short-story collection Palo Alto, the poetry collection Directing Herbert White, and the memoir A California Childhood. His writing has been published in Esquire, Vanity Fair, N+1, the Wall Street Journal, and McSweeney’s; his art has been exhibited throughout the world, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and MoMA PS1 in New York. Terry George is a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland. He cowrote In the Name of the Father, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. His other fi lm and television credits include Some Mother’s Son, A Bright Shining Lie, The District, Hart’s War, Reservation Road, and Stand Off. He wrote, directed, and produced Hotel Rwanda, which was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay. Michael Green serves as executive producer of Starz’s American Gods, based on the Hugo Award–winning novel by Neil Gaiman. Green was the creator and executive producer of NBC’s Kings and ABC’s The River. He has written and produced other television shows, including Heroes, Everwood, Jack & Bobby, Smallville, Cupid, and Sex and the City. Green’s feature work includes cowriting the Warner Bros./DC Comics adaptation of Green Lantern. Among the fi lms Brian Helgeland has written and directed are Legend, 42, A Knight’s Tale, and Payback. His screenwriting credits include L.A. Confidential, Man on Fire, The Taking of Pelham 123, Conspiracy Theory, Green Zone, Blood Work, and Mystic River, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Ron Howard is an Academy Award–winning fi lmmaker who has helmed some of the most popular fi lms of the past four decades. His film cred-

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its include In the Heart of the Sea, Made in America, Rush, Angels & Demons, Frost/Nixon, The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, The Missing, A Beautiful Mind, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ransom, Apollo 13, Far and Away, Backdraft, Parenthood, Cocoon, Splash, and Night Shift. Howard has served as an executive producer on a number of award-winning films and television shows, including From the Earth to the Moon, Arrested Development, Parenthood, and Felicity. President of Josephson Entertainment, Barry Josephson produced Enchanted, Aliens in the Attic, Life as We Know It, and Dirty Grandpa, among others. Josephson is the executive producer of Fox’s longest-running onehour drama, Bones; Turn: Washington’s Spies for AMC; and for Amazon Television, Edge, the action Western from Shane Black and Fred Dekker. Callie Khouri’s screenwriting debut, Thelma & Louise, was nominated for six Academy Awards. She received an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Writers Guild Award, and a PEN Literary Award for Best Original Screenplay. Her other feature screenwriting credits include Something to Talk About, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and Mad Money, the latter two which she also directed. Callie created and is writer, director, and executive producer of the original television series Nashville for ABC/Lionsgate. Jenny Lumet is the author of Rachel Getting Married, for which she received the 2008 New York Film Critics Circle Award, Toronto Film Critics Association Award, and Washington DC Area Film Critics Association Award. She also received an NAACP Image Award. She is the author of the screen adaptations of The Center Cannot Hold and The Language of Flowers, and doctored Remember Me, Bobbie Sue, and Honeymoon with Harry. She authored the pilots The Weissmanns of Westport, Crazytown, and The Beresfords. David Magee wrote the screenplay for director Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi, based on the award-winning novel by Yann Martel. The fi lm received thirteen Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film. Magee also wrote Finding Neverland, directed by Marc Forster and starring Johnny Depp, which went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film. His fi lm Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was written with Simon Beaufoy. Magee is currently writing a fi lm for Disney about the continuing adventures

Biographies

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of Mary Poppins, based on the book series by P. L. Travers and directed by Rob Marshall. Aline Brosh McKenna is best known for her 2006 adaptation of the popular novel The Devil Wears Prada. For that fi lm McKenna was nominated for Writers Guild, BAFTA, and Scripter awards. She has written seven other fi lms, among them, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, and We Bought a Zoo. She is the cocreator and executive producer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. David Milch wrote an award-winning script for Hill Street Blues in 1982 while lecturing in English literature at Yale University. The script earned an Emmy Award, a Writers Guild Award, and the Humanitas Prize. Milch spent five seasons on Hill Street Blues, earning two more Writers Guild Awards, a second Humanitas Prize, and another Emmy. In 1992, he cocreated NYPD Blue, which garnered a record twenty-six Emmy Award nominations in its premiere season and won the Emmy Award for Best Drama Series in 1994–1995. Milch took home Emmy Awards for Best Writing in a Drama for the 1996–1997 and 1997–1998 seasons. The first season of NYPD Blue also earned him a Humanitas Prize and an Edgar Award for screenwriting. Milch was creator and executive producer of the HBO series Deadwood, John From Cincinnati, and Luck. He is currently working on an adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country for HBO. John Milius wrote the legendary screenplay for the film Apocalypse Now, released to theaters in 1979. Apocalypse Now was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and honored as one of the Writers Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays. Milius also wrote Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Wind and the Lion, Big Wednesday, Clear and Present Danger, The Hunt for Red October, Flight of the Intruder, and Geronimo. In 1982, Milius cowrote and directed the cult classic Conan the Barbarian. Other writer/director credits include Red Dawn and Farewell to the King. Ashley Edward Miller met his writing partner Zack Stentz over the Internet, a consequence of their mutual love of all things Star Trek. Miller and Stentz have written and produced well over a hundred hours of television, from their start on Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, to the Twilight Zone revival on UPN, to most recently Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and

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Fringe. Their first feature credit was 2003’s Agent Cody Banks, and recent fi lms include Thor and X-Men: First Class. Miller and Stentz are currently working on several projects in active development, including feature adaptations of the novel Starship Troopers and the eighties TV series The Fall Guy. Miller is currently working on the new Power Rangers movie, as well as the Acme Looney Toons movie. Barbara Morgan cofounded the Austin Film Festival in 1993 and has served as the executive director since 1999. As a filmmaker, Morgan produced the fi lms Natural Selection, Antone’s: Home of the Blues, Portrait of Wally, and Spring Eddy. She developed and produces the TV series Austin Film Festival’s On Story, currently airing on KLRU and other stations. Ron Nyswaner wrote the groundbreaking fi lm Philadelphia, for which he received Academy, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Writers Guild award nominations. Other screenplays include Smithereens, Soldier’s Girl, Mrs. Soffel, The Painted Veil, and Freeheld. He is a writer and co-executive producer on the CIA drama Homeland. Nicole Perlman won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Sloan Grant for Science in Film for her screenplay Challenger, which placed on the 2006 Black List. She was named one of Variety’s Top Ten Writers to Watch in 2006 and was listed in The Playlist’s Ten Screenwriters on the Rise in 2013. She serves on the steering committee for the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a nonprofit organization that aims to bridge the gap between scientists and fi lmmakers. Nicole has written for Fox 2000, Universal Studios, National Geographic Films, Disney Studios, Cirque du Soleil Films, DreamWorks, and Marvel Studios. She cowrote the 2014 blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, which won the Nebula and Hugo awards. Perlman is currently working on the Gamora comic book series for Marvel Comics, a feature adaptation of the best-selling novel Wool for 20th Century Fox, and Captain Marvel for Marvel Studios. Sydney Pollack was a director, producer, and actor. Nineteen of his films received Academy Award nominations, including two for Best Picture. His fi lm credits include Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, and Out of Africa. The latter two are on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 romantic fi lms. In 1985 he formed Mirage Enterprises. Under

Biographies

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that banner he produced the films Presumed Innocent, The Fabulous Baker Boys, White Palace, Major League, Dead Again, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Sense and Sensibility, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Quiet American, and Cold Mountain. Harold Ramis was a screenwriter, director, and actor whose films include some of the most popular and influential comedies of our time: National Lampoon’s Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, Multiplicity, Analyze This, Bedazzled, Analyze That, The Ice Harvest, and Year One. Ramis directed several episodes of NBC’s acclaimed series The Office. Four of his fi lms are listed among the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Movies. Al Reinert has won national awards as a newspaper reporter, magazine journalist, documentary filmmaker, and feature fi lm screenwriter. He cowrote the Academy Award–nominated screenplay for Apollo 13. Álvaro Rodríguez cowrote the children’s movie Shorts and the bloodier Machete. In television, he wrote for two seasons on From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series. He is currently developing several feature and television projects, including Outlaw, from the producers of Peaky Blinders, and a feature fi lm adaptation of Tu, Mio, a coming-of-age novel by Erri De Luca, with producer Paola Porrini Bisson for Oh!Pen Productions. Danny Rubin’s screen credits include Hear No Evil, S.F.W., and Groundhog Day, for which he received the 1993 British Academy Award for Best Screenplay and the London Critics’ Circle Award for Screenwriter of the Year, as well as honors from the Writers Guild of America and the American Film Institute. He wrote the popular screenwriting book How to Write Groundhog Day and is currently working with composer Tim Minchin on a musical comedy stage adaptation of the film. Academy Award–winner Oliver Stone has written and directed over twenty full-length feature fi lms, including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, Salvador, Wall Street, World Trade Center, and The Doors. His other fi lms include Any Given Sunday, Alexander, W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, U Turn, and Savages. His screenplays include Midnight Express, Scarface, Year of the Dragon, and Conan the Barbar-

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ian. He has produced or coproduced a dozen films, including The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Joy Luck Club, and Reversal of Fortune. Jane Sumner, who covered the Texas fi lm and television industry for twenty years for the Dallas Morning News, now reviews books for the News and writes about movies and books for the Austin American-Statesman. Ted Tally has written plays, television scripts, and numerous screenplays. He won an Academy Award for his adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. Bill Wittliff is a distinguished screenwriter and producer whose credits include Lonesome Dove, The Perfect Storm, The Black Stallion, and Legends of the Fall. With his wife, Sally, he founded the highly regarded Encino Press and the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. Wittliff ’s fine art photography has been published in the books A Book of Photographs from Lonesome Dove, La Vida Brinca, and Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy.

Biographies

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On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films

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Introduction m aya p er e z

In 2012, Austin Film Festival cofounder and executive director Barbara Morgan and I put together the transcripts that would make up On Story— Screenwriters and Their Craft. Our goal then was to make available to a wider audience the captivating and informative panel discussions that take place at the annual Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference. We recently had launched the television show Austin Film Festival’s On Story and gifted our archives, consisting of recordings of more than twenty years of Austin Film Festival panel conversations and post-film-screening Q&As, to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. For the past two decades and counting, Austin Film Festival’s mission has remained strong and consistent—furthering the art, craft, and business of filmmakers and screenwriters and recognizing their contributions to fi lm, television, and new media. What we now call the On Story Project is a natural progression of this mission. As this introduction is being written, we are putting together the sixth season of the TV show, now broadcast by PBS-affiliated stations in over 80 percent of the national market. Austin Film Festival’s On Story Project produces a free podcast and radio show, the latter a PRI program, which invite listeners into writers’ rooms, fi lm sets, and the creative minds of some of the most prolific voices in fi lm and television. And, just weeks ago, we delivered our collected and digitally transferred archives to the Wittliff Collections. So, how does this second book differ from the first? Where On Story— Screenwriters and Their Craft dispensed writing advice from such luminary screenwriters as Steven Zaillian, Lawrence Kasdan, Caroline Thompson,

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and John Lee Hancock, On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films takes readers behind the scenes, revealing the inspiration and creative process behind some of the most iconic movies of our time. Ron Howard talks about the first time he read the screenplay for Apollo 13 and how, despite being jostled on a crowded commuter train, he was brought to tears. Years before sitting down to write In the Name of the Father, Terry George coincidentally escorted a “loudmouth drunk,” Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, out of an English pub. Brian Helgeland remembers that making a spur-of-the-moment trip to his dad’s old apartment in Brooklyn and seeing a billboard of Jackie Robinson were all the signs he needed to agree to take on 42. Robin Swicord recounts a master class with Frank Pierson that would inform and inspire her through her own successful screenwriting career. David Milch and Shane Black reveal how their parents have been the inspiration for some of their most memorable characters. Callie Khouri’s story of growing up and feeling like the world in which she belonged was so much bigger than the one in which she lived was later reflected in her iconic characters Thelma and Louise. Ted Tally shares that his father was dying during the time Tally was writing The Silence of the Lambs and that the scenes between Clarice Starling and her father were the most emotional for him to write. With several hundred rich, in-depth conversations to cull from, the greatest challenge in putting together this book was the page limitation, which forced us to reduce the number of transcripts we could include. We hope you enjoy the ones we selected and that you watch—or rewatch—the movies discussed with new insight. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our personal experiences and emotional responses make their way into the work we create, and we revisit certain themes again and again. Now turn the page, and let these fine fi lmmakers tell you the stories behind the stories they brought to the screen.

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A Conversation with Shane Black, David Milch, and Sydney Pollack m o d er at e d b y b a r r y j o s eph s o n

barry josephson: David, would you tell us a little bit about the inception of the Sipowicz character [from NYPD Blue] and his counterpoint to David Caruso’s character? david milch: Sipowicz was a character largely based on my dad, who was kind of an acquired taste but someone I loved dearly. My dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He was a brilliant guy, a surgeon—that’s reassuring, isn’t it? When you grow up in an atmosphere like that, you attune yourself to interpreting what would seem to be a gesture that’s offputting—say, getting your balls beaten off—and try to figure out how that’s a gesture of love. Sipowicz was a character I really liked. I thought he had an endearing enough personality, and it was a mystification to me when the network said no, you can’t have that character as a central character. They said I needed to locate as a surrogate for the audience a character who was more accessible, identifiable, and admirable. Then hope over time that the audience learns to identify those same qualities in what might be considered more average personalities and situations. josephson: Riggs and Murtaugh [from Lethal Weapon] are two other conflicted characters. Where did they come from? Where did some of the suicidal notions for Riggs come from? shane black: I think there were two things working. One was a desire to do an homage that lived up to the expectations of the hero I’d gotten from Westerns, which my grandpa was a big fan of. I wanted to do an urban gunslinger sort of thing: a guy who’s still obsessed with the Vietnam War in the same way everyone else thinks the West had been gentrified and tamed, but he alone knows everyone’s wrong—that violence still lives

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with us. So Riggs sits and watches TV all day, and everybody else, normal folk, they revile him from their little cocoon of illusory safety . . . until violence intrudes on Murtaugh, the suburban guy, and Murtaugh has to come and knock on Frankenstein’s cage and say, hey, everyone reviles you and hates you, but you’re right. The violence is out there, but we’ve forgotten how to handle it. We need our gunslinger back. And so Riggs comes out of his cage and says to Murtaugh, the man who’s gotten old on the job, look, are you prepared to go back to being a gunslinger and do this my way? In terms of [Riggs] being suicidal, that was something the studio hated. I think the one thing people remember about the first movie was that the character wanted to kill himself. That is the other side for heroes. In a way, I don’t think heroes like themselves. I’m also displeased at the way in movies crazy people are portrayed as sullen or depressed, when they can be incredibly manic and smile in your face while they’re having a knife stuck in them. Yes, there was a desire on my part to do damage to myself in a way that translated into heroic fiction, through the fi lter of my alcoholic grandfather who read Westerns. josephson: Sydney, in Out of Africa the characters are so enduring. There were several books you pulled from, and you worked with Kurt Luedtke on it. I know it took a great deal of development on your part. What was it that needed to be assembled for those characters to work? pollack: Well, first of all, I have to make it very clear that I’m not in the same league with these people. I mean, I don’t start with a blank piece of paper. My job is a different one, and I’m in awe of what they do. I couldn’t, if my life depended on it, put a blank piece of paper in a typewriter and write a character. That’s not what I do. I have another kind of job, which is to facilitate the writing, to be a bit of a cop but also an enabler. I want to ask the right questions that can be effective and helpful and sometimes not. Out of Africa was a book I couldn’t figure out how you could make into a movie, and neither could a bunch of other directors who tried it, until there was a biography written that gave us incidents. It was the only reason I got it made and the other guys didn’t. It was a character piece, and I was petrified the whole time we were doing it that we didn’t have any narrative in the picture. I was worried it wasn’t going to sustain itself because it was all characters and conversation. I kept saying, we don’t have any incidents that are narrative; there isn’t a story moving forward. She goes to Africa, her husband plants coffee, the coffee burns, Redford dies, and

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she goes home. And this is almost three hours. What is the story? What is the narrative line that’s happening here? So, again, my work is more like a cheerleader/cop/sheriff. I sit down and drive the poor writers crazy asking questions. For me, it’s always, what’s the spine of the story? Since I can’t write the script, I can only direct the movie from what the spine of the story is. For Out of Africa, once we found an idea to make it about, it told us what had to be written, and it was very helpful. milch: I would like to add that you have to take everything we say with a grain of salt. What Mr. Pollack was saying about not being a writer is the lie he tells his legs in order to liberate his imagination. I’m not saying he is a writer, but the classifications made between directors and writers are false distinctions. In an effective production, whether it’s film or television, there is interpenetration of roles, which one hopes is based on trust. Now, let me suggest, for example, an ongoing theme in so many of Mr.  Pollack’s fi lms—wonderful, wonderful fi lms—is in a way, what Hemingway’s theme was, which says that style is enough; that the motions of grace are also the deepest movements of the soul. When Mr. Pollack said, “I have to find the spine,” he was saying it’s about narrative. In fact, what he was trying to identify in the movements of the story is that thing to which his soul responds, which is style. Although the bareness of a character’s life seems devoid of a certain kind of event, the process of the story has to recognize that style as a way of living and for those characters to accept that that is enough between them. You know, when asked what The Brothers Karamazov was about, Dostoyevsky said, it’s a track by which we’ll convert people to the Russian Orthodox Church. There are all sorts of ways we, as collaborative artists, try to be respectful of another process, to speak in its language when we’re talking to someone who works primarily in that language. I remember in Three Days of the Condor, when style comes to be the substance of the story is when he comes in and sees everybody’s dead. The convention established here is that this really handsome library-type guy shows that style can accommodate every kind of violence. You never know what’s coming around the corner. And those unities occur in every one of his fi lms. If those are my final words, I’m content. pollack: (Laughs.) Thank you. josephson: That theme continued in the movie, when the CIA rogue chief is killed, and there’s this assassin, and Redford of course thinks he’s there for him. But he’s actually on a different payday. And in They Shoot

Shane Black, David Milch, and Sydney Pollack

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Horses, Don’t They?, the line, “I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser”—in all your movies there are those lines, those moments, and it must hit home for you, the work the writers have done to drive you forward and be passionate enough to make these movies. Shane, to that point, you pretty much wrote Lethal Weapon on your own, without much collaboration. When Dick Donner decided to make the movie, what was that collaboration like? Did the script change? black: The script changed a little bit. I love what Dick did with it, but finding the spine was the hard thing. That’s something else I would hesitate to advise young writers about. When a director of Sydney Pollack’s stature says writers find the spine intuitively, I’m saying, save him the trouble. Find him the fucking spine before you give it to him. It is your job. But I would sit down with Dick Donner and we’d look for the spine, and God forbid, Dick would see something on the way to work that day, because he’d want to put it in the movie. But out of that erratic process—and this is what’s so beautiful—comes a unity when everyone realizes you’re speaking the same language, and that basically there’s two things going on in this story: there’s the plot, and there’s the story of the character, and where they start and where they end up. It’s what draws artists to a movie, and I don’t even know what it is, but it applies to directors and to writers. It’s, “I want to do a movie set in Havana, Cuba.” Why? Because it speaks. It doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have six characters that make six versions of the movie, or have six different plots, but there’s something that needs to be said about Havana, Cuba. And so that is the overall shape. The way I start to get a character and a movie is I picture the trailer. Because I remember seeing movie trailers that look terrific, but when you go see the movie, it’s terrible. Why? Because the trailer painted a vague shape for you that already exists out there in a platonic way that you sense but did not quite see. And this trailer, as all these shots run together, suggests a movie I’d really like to go to, because it looks so fucking neat. But they didn’t find the shape when they made the movie. They just gave us the suggestion of one that was better than the one they eventually settled on. So, to me, you find the shape, and then you go inside the shape and find the spine. That’s the essence of it. josephson: David, you’ve had to invent a lot of characters. Is there a process you have that’s worth sharing about your commitment to doing it? Is some of it observational from life, or is it all coming from your head? Where do all of these characters come from?

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milch: Mark Twain used to say, every time a character would come to him when writing, he’d realize it was the second time he’d met him and that he’d met him for the first time on the river. Let me digress for a second. I always wanted to sell a show in which Jews confront ordinary domestic problems—like untangling a cord would be the first half of the show, and the second half would be Jews listening to a gentile describe his most serious health crisis. And then deprecate it: “This by him, is an illness? The healthiest day I live, I’m twice as sick as this son of a bitch ever dreamed of.” I think there is a whole complex of associations that create a character, and the trick is to try not to force or draw characters completely from a past experience, or to think of a character as an abstraction. I have a rather different way of proceeding, which is I won’t think about a story before I begin it. I try to proceed intuitively and associatively rather than consciously. That’s not a good way to make a lot of friends among actors, but there’s no right way to do it. The idea of the spine has punitive associations that I associate with taking a beating. So in order to neutralize that process, I won’t think consciously. I won’t allow myself to think consciously for the same reason I won’t work with a computer. I won’t have any machines. I don’t have a phone. I don’t have any of that stuff, because any instrument of order I want to destroy. And so what I do is dictate. I have witnesses, interns, with me at all times so I don’t kill the machine trying to civilize my idea of fun. I used to get loaded on acid, go out with a shotgun, put a stocking over my head, hold the gun to a guy’s head, and say, “Look at this stupid bastard. He thinks I’m robbing him.” That suggests a certain ambivalence towards order, and I have to be very careful to not let the art, or the process of articulation, impede the process of storytelling. pollack: I think that’s really profound. I have terrible ambivalence when I’m working to get financing before a writer has even written. Or when there’s discussion about an outline, which I think is a horribly destructive thing. Now, I’m not willing to say that in all cases, because there are some writers who really can work with an outline, but most of the ones I’ve worked with, an outline stops rather than enables free association, or wherever the hell it is that the writing is coming from. So, I want to applaud what David said. For some, there is an approach to making fi lms in which all problems are solved prior to the fi lming and the fi lming is a recording process of what they already know, and I can’t tell whether it’s because I don’t have

Shane Black, David Milch, and Sydney Pollack

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the attention span or I don’t have the discipline, but I can’t do that. I’ve seen great fi lms made that way, and it’s the discipline that’s required by our business. The studio expects us to work out all of the problems and then go and do it, but I can’t work it out until I’m shooting, because the shooting is the knowing process of it. I don’t know the film well until I’m shooting it. But it drives actors nuts. I don’t like to rehearse, but sometimes you have an actor who literally can’t move. I don’t like to confess this to actors, but I think something more marvelous happens when the tree doesn’t have roots that go that deep in the ground; it’s easier to move, things can happen more easily, and there’s something to be said for that. I know it’s the opposite of what people like to think, but . . . josephson: I experience this a lot, where sometimes you’ll see a movie or television show and you can see how the studio, or others, have compromised character or compromised the work. It’s often said you can see the studio’s hand all over that, or the network’s hands all over that. Sydney, how do you protect that? In all of your movies, the characters ring true. How do you protect them? pollack: In my experience, the studios get vilified in that way. I don’t think the studios want the job we have. They’re afraid of it. They may talk big, but their fingers are crossed that you’re going to deliver something, and they go, “Phew, I don’t have to get involved. That’s really good.” That’s the happy way to do it. I’ve never had a studio take a film over. The movie is my cut. The movie is the director’s cut. Nobody ever took ten minutes out, or fifteen minutes out, and I don’t think I can recall, even for a fi lm I produced, where the studio misbehaved in that way. I think studios give the dumbest notes I’ve ever read, but I don’t feel they wield an axe. I haven’t had that experience, and I haven’t really seen it, though I hear about it all the time. josephson: In working with actors, is there a need to protect the characters you and the writer have created? pollack: That’s a losing battle. You can’t trick an actor or intimidate an actor into doing it your way, because they’re working with their own guts and soul. There are only three possible outcomes: either you’re going to convince them to do it your way, they’re going to convince you to do it their way, or you’re going to find a middle ground. You can’t be afraid of any of those choices. You just have to find what is the truth in the discussion. What you can’t do is go in and say, “I’m gonna show this guy who’s

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boss. I’m gonna get this bastard to do it my way.” Because then they’ll show you your way without conviction. They dog it if they’re not really behind it. I used to have arguments with actors and would say, “Let’s try it this way or try it that way.” And then you get to see an actor showing you just how bad your idea is: “I’ll show you your way.” milch: Do you know Hubert Selby? He wrote Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream. Hubert Selby said there are only two motivations: there’s fear and there’s faith. And a studio smells which moves the artist. The reason nobody bothers Mr. Pollack is because they feel his faith. He wants the responsibility. What the studio is looking for is somebody who isn’t afraid. The moment they feel that the artist, whether it’s the director or the actor, is afraid, then they try and control the fear, because the executive’s job now becomes, not the finished product, but hiding the fact they’ve got the wrong guy. That’s how you get such shit from the studios. josephson: I want to talk about your inspiration to write. Shane, I know you’re a voracious reader and love mystery and certain pulp fiction. And obviously, Mark Twain is an inspiration with you, David. Is there something to that for you? black: I’ll tell you really quickly why I write. I picked up a comic when I was eight years old, a horror comic. It was in the trash. The story is about three or four pages long and opens with a corpse coming out of the ground, flesh coming off, and it’s been in its grave with its headstone. Now it’s coming up and walking toward a house up on a hill, and as it walks it watches flashes of the life it had before it died, before it became a corpse. You see the parents, and how they had this malformed baby who grew up to be this monster, a sort of overgrown, gawky, retarded child. And, in a flashback, you see the parents beat it relentlessly, and you see it in the corner cowering with its teddy bear, while his dad canes it. This monster goes up to the house, and you’re thinking, oh boy, the parents are going to get it. So this shambling fucking thing bursts through the door, and there’s the dad we recognize from the panel on page three, and he goes to the dad, pulls the shotgun, and shoots him in half. Just then, the mother comes running and screams. The monster, on the way up the steps, pushes her, and she goes over the banister, falls, breaks her neck. Wow, he killed both his parents, he got the revenge. But he keeps walking, and he walks up the stairs and down the hall, and you see the corpses behind him. He goes into his old bedroom, gets his teddy bear, and goes back to his grave. The last

Shane Black, David Milch, and Sydney Pollack

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panel is him pulling the dirt in, but he’s got his bear so he can sleep. And I was so moved by that. He didn’t want fucking revenge. He just wanted his teddy bear because he couldn’t sleep in his grave, and I was in tears over that. That’s a fucking comic book. Just read all the time, anything, it doesn’t matter. milch: Everything you write is a conversation with everything you’ve ever read. There’s a wonderful essay by T. S. Eliot called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot’s argument is essentially Mr. Black’s argument— you have to feel. Someone once said paternity is not a matter of blood, it’s an apostolic succession. The models you’re blessed to encounter in other people’s work, you respond to them and reshape them. Unless you have a sense you’re working in a tradition, and revere the tradition you’re in, your stuff just won’t have resonance. Now, a lot of us have to disinfect if we’ve been exposed to a kind of elitist approach to literature, in order to gain access to our own imaginations. We have to encounter our tradition in popular culture rather than in highfalutin culture, because our experience in highfalutin culture’s been punitive, and we can’t feel like it’s right to have a conversation with Melville or Shakespeare. Now, that’s nonsense. But any way you can find your mother and father is a good way, and people find it in different places. My wonderful teacher was Robert Penn Warren, and now if I write a scene I think, “Mr. Warren would have liked that scene.” I’ll literally imagine him watching us shoot the scene in heaven, and he’ll laugh. I never used to be able to imagine a father of that sort, and it’s art that allowed me to do that. That’s a great thing. pollack: Questions I get from writers are: What does a director look for when he’s reading a script? And what characters will make you say yes to a script? I don’t have a rule of any kind. I go by feeling. I try to imagine a year from now, when I’m still living with those people. Do I give a shit about it? There are a lot of things I would be perfectly willing to spend two hours in the movies seeing, or watching on television, but in order to go the distance on a fi lm, I have to ask myself if I am really interested. Do I really care enough to spend a year and a half on this? When I was younger, I used to be able to do them in a little over a year. Now, it’s a couple of years, or three, because it takes longer to prepare and longer to edit, and then you have to watch how it’s getting marketed. It’s a long haul. I try to imagine waking up every morning with these people in my head. I have lunch with them. I have dinner with them. So I don’t have any rule. It’s just in my gut. I have to be really moved by them in some way.

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As far as novels go, they scare me to death because the really good novels, you’re losing so much of what makes it good, which is the prose. I’m always saying, what’s the vocabulary translation in movies of this gorgeous paragraph that makes you read Richard Ford or somebody that can make you weep with just words? And you say, there’s no way I can do that in a movie. There’s just no way, so I used to joke with a friend all the time about how much fun it is to do bad novels because then you can make it better. There’s this odd thing that a lot of creative people are snobs. In that sense, you can’t have any shame if you want to do plot. I mean, a lot of times people are very good at writing wonderful lines and scenes, but they’re lousy at plot, because it’s embarrassing to, say, open the door and then the body’s bleeding all over here. My friend always said to get one of those shitty dime novel writers to write a plot and then go make that movie, and you know it’s true. I’d much rather take a bad book than a good book. Memorable Characters

milch: Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, there was such yearning in that character to be of the world. Everything he said and everybody that he met, you know, “You were my brother; you should have looked out for me a little bit.” And when he was trying to court Eva Marie Saint, they were at some playground, and I think it had to do with his sense of inaccessibility to a normal life and to the past, and he says, “The way those nuns used to beat me, I don’t know what,” and the “I don’t know what,” there was such sweetness in it, such a yearning. black: I think there’s a character tip to be had in that a lot of writers feel like having characters state the simplest of ideas in the most convoluted and byzantine language possible. They’ll put those ideas in the mouths of their characters, these wonderful prosaic lines, but look at Marty Scorsese and the opposite’s true. He gives the character all these complex thoughts, and emotions struggling for supremacy, but a limited vocabulary with which to express them. And watching them try to say something dreadfully profound, and ageless, using words they don’t even quite understand themselves, or language that is limited to the world they know, that’s what makes you love a character. milch: It’s the felt reality that the character and the situation generate that creates a vocabulary appropriate to it. In King Lear, there’s a moment where every form of respect for the human family has been gutted. The

Shane Black, David Milch, and Sydney Pollack

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daughters have thrown out their dad, and they’re turning on their husbands, and they’re tortured, and I think it’s Regan who says to Albany as they’re torturing this guy, and they’ve already gouged out one of his eyes and she says, “The one will offend the other. Out, out with his second eye.” And then a character we haven’t spent any time with at all says, “Sire, I’ve served you since I was a boy and never better than when I tell you now to stay your hand.” And you want to jump up, because in that context, the ornate phrasing has gained access to your imagination. You may have read a couple of days ago, this family was executed in Florida by the side of the highway. They can’t figure out why the hell they were shot, but the mother was found holding her two children and I imagine the last thing she said was “no.” She will not make them see what’s about to happen. So in that context, you know, just two letters say exactly the same thing, and it’s our job to create the environment that makes a particular kind of vocabulary appropriate. So the question isn’t, is there one right style? It’s, how do you gain access to your own and to your viewer’s imagination? You know, the question of the language of Deadwood has been an ongoing pain in my genitals. The character of Wu starts with only one word, “Swedgin.” What I was trying to show was the emotional associations— that if you have just one word in your vocabulary, if you’ve gained access to the viewer’s identification of the personality that’s involved, not the underclass, whether they’re Chinese or American Indian or black are invisible. Their job is to not impose their presence upon the dominant class. They’re successful when they seem not to have any language at all. And yet if you pass a man on 125th Street and he’s silent, you can feel with no words at all a transaction between the two of you—oftentimes, you know, “I’d kill you, if I could.” I wanted to have a character, a minority character, who had only one word, and yet was someone with whom the audience could generate a very complicated relationship. Until finally, the audience tries to learn his language when you realize, at the end of the second episode, that Wu has kept faith with Swearengen when very few other people do. I had him cut his queue, which they did in the Chinese war so that when they died and their bones were sent back home, they could be identified. I had Wu cut his off and show it to Swearengen, and he said, “Swedgin, hang dai.” And now we try to learn Wu’s language, because we’ve gone out in spirit to him, and that’s why the question of language to me is the second question you ask. The first is, how have you come to recognize your brother or sister in that character? And if you’ve done that, they can speak any way you want them to. 14

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The way we speak is the most accessible dramatization of how we bear the weight of the past on the way we behave in the present. What we choose to say, and how we choose to say it, what words we slur, when we stop—all of that is a dramatization of how all of the events that have brought me to this moment are born to me in the moment of the action. You want to pay attention to that; it’s a pretty good tool. The other thing to keep in mind—and I’d hope you’d listen to the content of this, rather than the way it’s expressed, by way of affirming so much that’s wonderful in Mr. Black’s work as a writer: “Passion in its profoundest is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play its part. Down among the groundlings, among the beggars and rakers of garbage, profound passion is enacted. And the circumstances that provoke it, however mean or seemingly trivial, are no measure of its power” [from Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville]. That is to say, the story of the man coming out of the grave to find his teddy bear is a shadow enactment of The Brothers Karamazov. It’s simply a different setting, and it’s the job of the writer to prepare your expectation to feel the passion of that moment, no matter how seemingly trivial this setting is. black: It’s basically the idea of making it about something. A lot of scripts I read don’t seem to be about anything in particular, except the plot, where the people go, what they do, and how it all works out. They’re not about anything. I’ll tell you something strange though, about creating characters. When I was younger, my mother was in trouble, so we walked on eggshells. No one said anything bad because you didn’t want to make Mom depressed, because in her head there’s this horrible world where, in the end, she dies. So we kept our voices down. Now, there’s a scene in Long Kiss Goodnight where a woman’s struggling with this rage she has inside her, and she goes home to her family, and in the midst of her being so mad, the father turns to her and says, “For Christ’s sake, why don’t you just shut up!” And just as he starts to yell at her, there’s a knock at the door, and this guy with a gun tries to kill everybody. And it’s a direct consequence of the psychology of my childhood: troubled woman wrestling with a demon, going to hurt herself; he screams at her, and the world ends. The guy literally comes in with a shotgun. You’ll often find reflected in your work all kinds of interesting things derived directly from your subconscious. That’s why sometimes when you’re having trouble with a character, go to sleep and see what happens when you wake up. Let your subconscious do some of that work for you. Anyway, there you go. Shane Black, David Milch, and Sydney Pollack

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milch: May I add to that? What I was saying about dialogue as the instrument by which you suggest the weight of the past on the present. I can give you a specific example that I think will help you to see what I mean about how the truth is the drama of our lives. Most of the time, we can’t accommodate the weight of the past on the way we live. That’s our tragedy. That’s our frustration. That’s our sadness. Now, Mr. Black just told a story about how, as a writer, he had an event, which at the naked level of plot, seemed to have nothing to do with his past. And suddenly, it occurred to him that the way a child tries to control an uncontrollable environment is to make himself responsible. Why did my parents get divorced? Because I was a bad boy. That gives you a hold on things. If I’d been a better boy, they wouldn’t have gotten a divorce. If you yell at your mom, she’ll die. Now, having shown how the weight of the past was expressed in a very indirect way in his present, the way that Mr. Black brought that moment home, because our present is this transaction right now, was by saying four words to you: “Anyway, there you go.” Which is to say, there’s no way I can make you understand and accept, implicitly and inferentially, what the connection of my past is to the way I work in the present, but in humility, instead of saying that, he cryptically and almost dismissively said something which is uncommunicative: “Anyway, there you go.” That’s dialogue.

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A Conversation with Paul Feig, Jenny Lumet, and Aline Brosh McKenna

paul feig: I think any character you shine the light on, and make the lead of something, becomes a hero. I personally like underdogs, but I find underdogs to be heroes. I have a hard time with superheroes because they seem so invincible. Even when they’re having a hard time, it’s not that hard. They have a bus dropped on them and still get up somehow. I guess, for me, heroes are people in everyday life that you don’t notice when you walk past them on the street, but if you look into their lives, you get compelled by what they’re going through and get drawn in. Those are the heroes I like to write about. jenny lumet: I think of people making choices and people really believing what they’re saying. I think it’s very possible for every character to be telling the truth at every single moment and for those things to be completely contradictory. So, what does “hero” mean? Someone who keeps going with their own truth. I’m sure people can think that Darth Vader was a hero. He was really convinced, and he kept going. aline brosh mckenna: When you’re working on a script, you want to look at every character as though they’re the movie’s lead character. So each major character, and even the minor ones, has their own point of view. I like to define characters by thinking, if this guy was the lead in this movie, what would his story be? You can think of Bridesmaids where it’s [Melissa McCarthy’s character’s] story, and how she would describe that story and what happened to her. The other thing about a hero is you can define them by what opposes them, and sometimes that is a person, and sometimes that is a force or a society. That’s one way to think of the hero/ antihero thing: what is the force opposing them? It helps in making your

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lead likeable. The more unstoppable the force that opposes them, the more overwhelming the odds. feig: I always think of an antihero as being the villain in a weird way. I think those are the hardest movies to make, where you’re rooting for somebody who’s loathsome. I always have trouble with the word “hero.” I did a show, Freaks and Geeks, a number of years ago, and one of the reasons we got canceled was because the head of the network hated that our characters weren’t heroes. His whole thing was, “What’s their victory? To me a hero needs a victory.” Action movies have this “Here’s the larger-than-life person who’s going to take you through these things,” and they work so well in that way because it’s very clear-cut and defined. Again, I just find a lead character becomes somebody whom you root for. Bridesmaids was interesting because Kristen [Wiig] wrote that script, and at first we had a hard time because it’s not a character making very good choices. It’s somebody on a downward trajectory, but there’s still a hero, because by seeing that she had a business at one point—you see a picture of her on the wall, where she’s in front of the grand opening—we know she used to be great and strong and healthy. And now you meet her at her lowest point, and so that’s a hero where you’re like, “Oh, I want you to be that person that you were.” So it’s almost like rebuilding the hero, somebody who’s just trying to get their life together. And that’s probably the most heroic thing you can do. mckenna: When we were making 27 Dresses, one of the huge problems we had was people saying, “She’s a loser, she’s pathetic, why would you hold someone’s dress while they pee?” We really had a lot of trouble with that. In the development process, people always wanted to make her super sexy and a winner. So I had my own personal joy and vindication in seeing Bridesmaids. She’s so flawed, she’s making so many mistakes, and one of the great moments of the movie was the moment where you, as an audience, are getting irritated with her, and Melissa shows up and says, “You’re awful, and you’re not being a good friend.” To allow particularly a female character, but really any lead of a comedy, to be so flawed and continue to make bad choices is really extraordinary. I think that movie really changed the landscape for what is doable. Also, in Rachel Getting Married, she does a lot of— lumet: She’s impossible! Her whole family is just impossible people! mckenna: But you connect with them, and you understand what they’re doing. You understand why she’s doing what she’s doing. You

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see those relationships as valid, and you understand what they’re going through. So you don’t judge it; you connect with it, and you understand it’s real. Her dilemmas are real. lumet: I was doing some work on a script recently, and I said, “Can I have this protagonist just have stolen her sister’s boyfriend?” And the exec said, “Oh, you can’t come back from that.” And I said, “Well, I wrote a movie where this girl got shitfaced and killed her brother, and everybody liked it.” So you can come back from some stuff. mckenna: Another great example is Sideways, which is a movie I love. You’re kind of getting to like him, and you think he’s sort of the loveable loser that you’re going to root for, and then he steals money from his mother. And somehow it makes you love him more, because there’s something so pathetic about that. You really understand the depths of his life at that point. feig: I’m most led in my writing by this quote George Bernard Shaw said: “All men mean well.” And I think that’s what’s most compelling. I thought of an antihero: Scarface. That’s a guy who means well. He’s got a reason why he’s doing this stuff. And it’s not just like mustache twirling, you know, “I’m gonna be evil.” The evilest guy in the world’s got some compelling reason why he thinks he’s doing a great thing. And I think we, as audience members, find that really compelling because we can relate on various levels. We have minor versions of that in our life, unless we’ve done really big things, big terrible things. It’s what they always say, like Dante’s Inferno: the devil’s much more interesting than whoever the hero is, because a benevolent hero is not that interesting. If you have them, they have to be flawed. It’s why Raiders of the Lost Ark is brilliant. Indy’s scared of snakes. He needs something to humanize him; just a good person walking around is boring. lumet: Well, here’s a question: if Juliet didn’t take the poison, what would we think about her? I feel passionately that those are some heroic characters. I feel she’s more heroic than Romeo because of it. And if we can talk about Othello for a second. So there’s Othello and Iago. Iago is one of the greatest villains in literature because he never says why. His last line is, “I will speak no more,” and he’s put in a starvation cage for all his terrible deeds. I believe there was a great quote about Iago: “Iago is a man who stabs men in the dark for fun.” He destroys lives and he never says why, while Othello is a fellow and a very valuable general. He’s kind of like Will Smith. He makes a lot of money and wins a lot of battles for his employers, and he believes they love him for that. Now, Othello

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Script pages from Bridesmaids

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can’t believe that Iago exists and would try to destroy him, but the audience, we’re like, “I know Iago. I get it.” But Othello doesn’t. So does that mean we’re closer to Iago than we are to Othello? Could you say that Iago is a hero because he is so committed and will die without a word for his cause, whatever his cause may be? Is that heroic? Isn’t that what Mel Gibson did in The Patriot? I think that the antihero enjoys a great liberty that the hero does not. mckenna: Although people do talk about being “likeable.” You want to feel like you’re on their side, even if they’re not making great choices. But the terms “hero” and “villain” you don’t hear. In fact, you hear “bad guy” more than you hear “villain.” And constructing a great bad guy is a talent unto itself. feig: Well, the term “likeable,” we get hit with that all the time. In Holly wood, what’s ironic is television is much more ahead of the game these days because television is all antiheroes, like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I mean, these characters lie endlessly to their wives, lie to everyone. It’s sociopathic, but it’s so compelling. And I can’t help but root for Walter White. I just get so caught up in his story. “Make more meth! Take down those drug competitors!” And I don’t know why! I don’t like that world, but to watch it, it’s a window. The biggest thing we’re always trying to figure out is what do people want to see? You don’t look at it like, “What’s popular now?” You have to run it through your own filter of, “Would I be interested in seeing that?” Then when you get in touch with it, you can really reject a lot of stuff quickly, because you go, “Yeah, I wouldn’t go out to the movies and see that.” That’s the biggest thing to figure out. mckenna: There is something different about the way you process a television show from the way you process a movie, and how much [more] you need to be pulled by your lead in a movie than in a TV show. Television shows also tend to have a broader ensemble and more ways to get into it, with more time to develop their shows. The Sopranos is arguably one of the great achievements in any kind of storytelling with a not-very-likeable hero. But I think in a movie, you might not feel like you had enough time, and it might not have worked as well. feig: I can never figure out why I’m so compelled by Tony Montana [from Scarface]. He’s a really despicable character. It’s just fun to watch the downfall of somebody crazy. lumet: Let’s talk about Tony Montana for a second. What Tony Mon-

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tana wanted was what you see on TV. It’s what almost everybody wants when you’re a little kid but you’re so far away from that: this beautiful, shiny, America stuff. For Tony Montana, it was probably beautiful at one point. And that performance was so heartbreaking because he just got it wrong. mckenna: It seems in the seventies it was so “in” to have an antihero, to have somebody who was so flawed. It’s interesting to look back and see that even a really pedestrian movie from the seventies will try and do something unique with its lead because that was just what was happening. In the seventies it was sort of de rigueur, in a funny way, to make the character flawed and messed up. And then you look at an era where Pretty Woman comes out and the lengths that they go to make her “prostituteness” adorable. feig: She won’t kiss. mckenna: And I think there’s a little bit of a swing back around now. I’m thinking about movies like Argo and Flight and Silver Linings Playbook. All these movies have leads that are a little bit more flawed and bumpy. As you said, it goes with the zeitgeist. Miranda Priestly and Women Antiheroes

mckenna: The thing that I didn’t want to do was make her [Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada] a cartoony bad guy, for the same reason that the fashion world didn’t need to be spoofed, because it’s already ridiculous. Miranda’s already over the top by virtue of what she does and how she does it. I connected to her in many ways, as much as I did to Andy [the protagonist]. And certainly the director did, too. The way I think of it is, anybody who’s ever gotten the wrong Starbucks order has had a Miranda Priestly moment. You know, where you’re sitting there and you’re like, “Oh my God, how hard is it to do a decaf?” And that’s just her life. Again, all heroes mean well. If you stopped her on the street, what she’s thinking is, “I’m excellent. I do my job excellent. If I was my assistant, I would be excellent. Why is it so difficult for others?” I think the thing Meryl [Streep] plays the most in that character is she’s honestly perplexed as to why people can’t do these super simple things she’s asked them to do, like get the coffee or get an unpublished manuscript. In reality, she’s really sadly rooting for you. And she has reached out of her own comfort zone to hire a smart, “fat” person to do that job. So when you start looking at

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it from her point of view, that’s what I felt like that character needed, and certainly that’s what David [Frankel] wanted to do. We wanted to make sure that you get that she does have her own grievances. They may be exaggerated, and you come to learn how skewed her priorities are, but I don’t think you ever feel like she’s some cartoon villain. And that was the fun of it, putting her in situations where she really feels besieged. And I think some people really do relate to her. I found a lot of men really connected to her in an interesting way. And I think part of it was there’s an extreme dryness to the way she did that. It’s not florid, and it’s not over the top. It’s very utilitarian meanness. feig: When we did Bridesmaids, I had the same thing with Rose Byrne’s character, the Helen character. I was like, “I don’t want to do the bitchy blah blah blah.” So I was like, “How do we make this a real character?” So we hired Rose, who’s a real actress. But the first scene where you meet her always makes me laugh, where she comes walking up and she’s spinning in the big dress. We had all these interactions with her and Kristen where she was like, “Oh, did you come from work?” Subtly putting her down, but not in a mean way. We drained everything out, so when you watch that first scene, she just walks up and says, “Hi, thanks for coming,” and walks away. And everyone hates her. mckenna: The most genius thing in that movie is when she cries— which is also a thing you’ve seen before in a movie. It’s like, “Oh, she’s the bitchy girl and she cries.” And she’s crying, and then Kristen says, “You look ugly when you cry,” and she goes, “Do I? No, I don’t. No, I look great.” It’s such a great spin on that moment where the mean girl has her vulnerability moment, which you might not have seen before. feig: But that’s the fun of everyone meaning well. I have no patience for two-dimensional kind of arch villains. It’s not interesting. mckenna: Again, you want to be able to experience the movie as if a different character told the story. If Rose Byrne’s character told the story of the movie, it’s like, “I had this new friend, and unfortunately she had this loser that I had to deal with. And I did a lot for her, and I tried to help her, and I gave her a lot of terrific advice.” Because the funny thing is Rose is right about a lot of things, and the food does give them diarrhea. So if you look at it from her perspective, there’s a completely legitimate point of view. feig: Yeah, from her perspective there is a toxic friend that is poisoning her other friend.

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I find it interesting how women’s roles go through these shifts, and I’m always curious why it is. Because you look at the movies of the thirties and forties, they have such strong female characters. They’re smart and running things. And then when you get to the seventies, and especially the eighties and nineties, women get very passive. They’re always the drag. The hero wants to save the world and they’re asking, but why aren’t you here with your family? mckenna: I really think Lena Dunham has single-handedly invalidated an entire kind of heroine. A young-twenties romantic comedy heroine is now going to seem super corny because of her. It makes me so happy young women are going to see that. And she’s not doing it from a place of, “I want to empower women.” It’s just her truth. When you work on a romantic comedy, there is a point where somebody’s going to ask you to make her trip. There’s always a point where somebody says, “Maybe her flaw is she’s clumsy.” Am I making that up? feig: No. That is a thing. mckenna: Because that’s a flaw people seem to be able to forgive: tripping. But every once in a while, there’s something that comes along to shake things up. I think Bridesmaids is a shifting moment for women. I think Lena is going to be a shifting moment for women. I think there are certain kinds of heroes that come along and really kind of change the conversation. feig: Well, it depends who the fi lmmaker is and how they view the world, because I think comedy was a boys’ club for a long time. So that’s why women were just relegated to these ridiculous roles. I love The Hangover, but poor Rachael Harris with that role. mckenna: If you look at Saturday Night Live in the Amy Poehler/Tina Fey years, women were crushing it. I think the idea that women are not as funny is ridiculous. I just read a Joss Whedon quote, where somebody said, “Why do you think you write such strong female characters?” And he said, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” lumet: Well, I reserve my right to be as completely flawed and idiosyncratic and fucked-up as any other gender, or any other color. I have a little bit of a rage factor. No, I embrace it. I take a bit of an issue with Lena Dunham, actually. I applaud this young woman for having the freaking courage to do this, and I think she’s incredibly brave. However—and there are some people who really know and get it but—I don’t know what the stakes are in that show. I don’t

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know what will happen if these girls don’t get what they want. I feel like if someone gave them all a book contract, or a recording contract, their lives would be fine. And maybe it’s because I’m not relating, but I don’t know. Will they die? No. Will their parents never speak to them? And it’s not about privilege, because the family in Rachel Getting Married was a very privileged family. But the main characters, the family, would’ve dissolved. I don’t honestly know what the stakes are [in Girls], and I don’t want to disrespect her, because she’s amazing, but I cannot find the key to that show. If anybody wants to explain it to me, I would love it. But if we’re talking about heroes, are they heroes because they’re not pretty? Are they heroes because they are warts and all? Are they heroes because they let us see into the lives of women? Well, we have had unattractive men, warts and all, and we’ve been looking into the lives of men for the past fifty cinematic years. So why are these girls heroes for doing that? mckenna: We could probably debate this, but I think what’s extremely heroic about her is something she said in the first episode, something which really made me laugh: she said to her parents, “I think I’m the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.” And I think a woman stepping forward and saying my point of view matters, my experience matters—who I want to sleep with, what I want to do for my work, and my hopes and dreams—is very much Woody Allen. No one’s tumbling down an elevator shaft, but they are still comedies of manner, by and large. Obviously he does dramatic stuff, too, but in the Woody comedies, you have this sort of central clown figure, who’s very willing to make fun of himself but is really putting himself at the center in every way, as the protagonist of these kind of slender comedies of manners and observational things. And I think for a twenty-two-year-old woman to say, “I am that, and I am worthy of that, and this is what my existence is,” I think it’s going to revolutionize female heroines, especially in that age group. lumet: I hope it does. Politically, I completely applaud her, but what happens to the girls in that apartment? I don’t know what they want or what happens to them if they don’t get what they want. mckenna: Did you feel that way about Sex and the City? lumet: I aspired to that friendship. The shoes and clothes were all fabulous. The emotional money shot for me was, “Dear Lord, let these friendships last.” Because I felt like for these women, who are hardworking, kickass women, their friendships were the only things sustaining them. They were mature enough to know that the choices they were making were poi-

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gnant. I’m trying to get into Girls. I feel like the relationship in Sex and the City, with those four women, if one of them walked away from the relationship, the viewers and the other three would be devastated. Well-Rounded Characters

feig: It’s the same reason why I like comedy that has drama in it. Life is not all hilarious; life is not all tragic. Tragedy happens, and you’re laughing in that same moment. We’ve got people who love us, and then people who hate our guts. It almost doesn’t mix because people know different sides of us, depending on what our circumstances are. It’s like you’re friends with somebody, and they go, “Let’s work together.” And you see, “Oh my God! Who’s this monster? That’s who you are when you work?” But those are the different kind of hats we have to wear, and I find the best characters have to have all those sides. I think the great thing for an audience is to be surprised by those sides. And again, for television, it’s easier to do that because then you can go, “I can subvert this this week, and I can subvert that next week.” mckenna: Sometimes you can make a mistake by picking a genre too cleanly and having the funny character never be sad, or having the serious character make the audience feel like, “Oh, come on, you blow your nose. You pee; you’re just like everybody else.” feig: That’s why those of us in comedy occasionally get impatient with the people winning all the awards for drama. [Getting] a mix of laughing and emotion is hard, because otherwise you’ll see this: dramatic, and so dramatic, so dramatic. I get it, and I like those movies, too, but I don’t find them true to life, because the tensest, saddest situations I’ve ever been in involved somebody making a joke at some point. lumet: There will be enough people once you get your script to a certain place who are going to say, “You’re gonna lose your audience.” So wait to let them tell you that. And write what you’re gonna write. Seven hundred people are going to tell you that. So don’t tell yourself that. Wasn’t Dirty Harry a sociopath? But he had his own truth. I’m sure nobody said, “Make this guy more sympathetic. Give him a smaller gun.” feig: Have him trip.

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Up Close with Terry George

Getting Started

I believe the best way to break into the business is to try to find some work with a local amateur theater. I find with theater you’re engaged in the process. You learn how to interact with actors, practice blocking, and basic drama. You get to know set designers, lighting technicians, et cetera. Before long you’ll have worked with a group of people who, between them, could constitute a film cast and crew for a short film, for example. If you get to know actors, take them with you. Actors are the most generous with their time because they want to practice their craft, particularly if you have a project that interests them. So that’s my biggest advice: get into theater. The Essence of Truth

With a nonfiction fi lm like Hotel Rwanda, you want to capture the essence of what the real people went through, capture their reality and transmit it to screen. That’s the big challenge. I also felt a real responsibility to history. For better or worse, Hotel Rwanda is going to become how many people learn about the Rwandan genocide, in the same way that Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields, and Missing are how most people might learn about the particular historic events they portrayed. You have to remember the obligation to history. You can’t distort history for the sake of the story. Universal Stories and Character Perspective

I find stories based in real life through newspapers, books, people’s recollections. When I find a story that intrigues me, the first question I ask 33

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is whether I can universalize it and also turn it into a piece of entertainment. I use that term very broadly. I believe cinema should engage emotions such as empathy, outrage, sadness, jubilation. I also look for a character that can become a surrogate for the audience and that can take an audience into a place they might never experience or imagine. Who is the character I can tell this through? Who is the character that will become the audience, their eyes and ears? Who will walk them through the story and explain everything through relationships, lifestyle, and encounters? In Hotel Rwanda, it was Don Cheadle’s character. It was pretty much the same with Helen Mirren’s character in Some Mother’s Son: she was the eyes of the audience.

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Terry George on In the Name of the Father

I first met Jim [Sheridan] at a play called A Couple of Blaguards by Frank and Malachy McCourt. The play later evolved into Angela’s Ashes. Jim said he ran a theater, the Irish Arts Center in New York—which was, and still is, a tiny space on Fifty-First Street and Eleventh Avenue—and I said I had written a play about an escapee from an Irish prison. So I took my play to Jim, and when I walked into the Irish Arts Center, Sheridan was painting the floor of the stage black, but he was painting it backward into the corner. When he saw me, he said, “Oh!” and he had to walk across the paint, tracking paint all across the floor. He took the play, directed it, and ended up having to play the second lead because the original actor playing the second lead decided it wasn’t worth the train fare from Connecticut to come down and do this play. At the end of the six-month run, Jim said to me, “I’m going off to Dublin to write and direct a fi lm about Christy Brown.” I knew who Christy Brown was, and I said, “Oh yeah, a drunken Irishman with cerebral palsy, that’s going to be a fucking great hit in America,” and that turned out to be My Left Foot. At that time, the Guildford Four prisoner Gerry Conlon had just been released, having served fifteen years, and he had written a book called Proved Innocent. Gabriel Byrne had the rights to the book, and he contacted me about writing a bible on the screenplay. I took that bible to Jim, and that became the basis of the script. We talked through the story and scribbled out scenes for about six months, and then we crashed a draft out over three weeks at the Chateau Marmont in LA. Jim already had Daniel Day-Lewis on board when he turned it in to Universal, where he had a de-

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velopment deal. They thought it was better suited for October Films. I remember it was the last week of September 1992. That Friday, Last of the Mohicans opened, and on Monday, Universal came back and said they had changed their minds; now they wanted to do it. I equate when you make a movie, particularly a biopic or the adaptation of a book, to the process of making brandy. It’s all about distilling, finding the essence of what the story is, and boiling it down to those two or so hours of screen time. The process often compels you to meld and compress. In order to do that with In the Name of the Father, we took certain creative license. He and his father were never actually in the same cell together, but they were in cells next to each other, for instance. Daniel never attempted a particularly close resemblance to Gerry Conlon, but instead went for the spirit and the resilience of the man. You’re trying to capture the sense of the person. It was the same with Hotel Rwanda and how Don Cheadle played its hero, Paul Rusesabagina. You try to embody the person as you’re writing the dialogue and, at the same time, tell a broad sweeping story. When In the Name of the Father was released, it was hugely controversial in Britain and considered a pro-IRA film, a proterrorist film, by many in the press. Jim Sheridan and I were denounced for making a propaganda fi lm. I remember sitting with Jim Sheridan in his home in Dublin one afternoon, and the phone rang. It was a reporter from the Daily Telegraph, which is a conservative paper in Britain, and they were interviewing him for a piece. Jim tends to philosophize a lot, and I knew the Telegraph would have no interest in printing what he really had to say. In the middle of the conversation I hear him say, “We’ve told a story that’s actually greater than the truth; it’s the essence of the truth.” I thought, “We’re fucked now,” and sure enough, the shit hit the fan. A politician mounted a campaign in Parliament and the courts to have us sued because we had said “This Is a True Story” on a poster. Our lawyers demanded we change that to “Based on a True Story.” It transpired that two of the main contentions against the “truth” of our fi lm were Giuseppe Conlon wasn’t in the same cell as Gerry Conlon and that in the British legal system, lawyers don’t speak in court and barristers don’t “approach the bench.” The real truth is that ten years after the fi lm came out, the British prime minister Tony Blair made a personal apology on behalf of the British people to Gerry Conlon and the other victims for what they had suffered. It’s twenty years now since we made the film, but I think it’s a caution-

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ary tale of what happens when a country goes into a frenzy of fear about real or perceived threats. When that happens, the law of the land starts to get bent and people are scapegoated. Clearly, we are caught up in that cycle of fear right now. I think there are a lot of Gerry Conlons—innocent patsies or naïve and foolish people who will be locked away for most of their lives because of a collective knee-jerk reaction to the stresses of these violent times. That’s basically what happened with the In the Name of the Father story. It’s a cautionary tale. It’s timely about where we are today, as well. Jim Sheridan made a conscious decision to start the fi lm with a recreation of the IRA explosion at a pub in Guildford that killed five people and injured dozens. The audience needed to understand the horror of that event. We then contrasted that event with the scene of Conlon and two other petty thieves stealing lead off a roof in Belfast. At the time of the bombing there was a particularly ruthless IRA unit operating in Britain who were, in fact, responsible for Guildford and who managed to evade capture for months, despite being pursued by all the security forces. I suppose we felt, how could these twits, these idiots, do this thing? I’d actually met Gerry Conlon in Southampton, perhaps a month before the Guildford explosion. There were IRA bombs going off all around England at that time. I was working in construction, and I was in a nightclub having a drink with another Irishman when we heard this drunken Belfast accent saying, “I’ll kill you. I’ll get the IRA to shoot you.” This was not the thing to say in an English pub. So we grabbed the loudmouth drunk and led him out of the club. It turned out to be Gerry Conlon. We told him to shut his mouth and go home before he got us all beaten up. Two months later, I was back in Belfast and read that Conlon had been arrested for the bombing. I knew instinctively that he was innocent, but there were similar cases happening in Belfast frequently. Then I read how his father had also been jailed and subsequently found guilty. It was a particularly sad example of the framing of innocent people in order to satisfy a public hungry for revenge. Sheridan and I did three fi lms on the Irish Troubles together. We did In the Name of the Father, which catalogued the first years from 1969 to the midseventies. That early period was a time of street riots, gun battles, and army occupation. The second film we did together was Some Mother’s Son, which I directed and Jim and I wrote together. The war had settled into a period of stalemate and vicious bombing, assassinations, and death

Terry George

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squads. It culminated in the IRA hunger strikes of 1981. Some Mother’s Son was mainly about the tragic choices forced upon the mothers of the hunger strikers. The third was The Boxer, which was set around the tensions leading up to the IRA ceasefires and the peace process. It was a trilogy that we hoped would catalogue and celebrate the sufferings and triumphs of ordinary people during those years.

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A Conversation with Brian Helgeland m o d er at e d b y b a r b a r a m o r g a n

Working Your Way In

brian helgeland: When I was going to fi lm school, I wrote a bunch of specs but couldn’t sell any of them. I had an agent, and one day he said, “I need to see you.” I thought, “Something’s sold,” so I went in. He took me to the back and said, “Look how many shelves your scripts are taking up.” He asked me to take them all, so I literally found myself walking around Sunset Boulevard with my screenplays in my arms. To his credit, he called me about two weeks later because he had a friend who had an idea for a horror movie but didn’t know how to write it. I was just about to go home, but I thought, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” It was called 976-EVIL, and it got made. Then I got hired to write Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Then I wrote a spec horror fi lm called Highway to Hell, which got bought and made with many bounced checks along the way. Then a friend of mine [Manny Coto] and I decided to become action movie writers. We wrote an action movie spec together called The Ticking Man. It was very well known at the time and was one of the first scripts to sell in the spec craze of the early nineties. From that, things opened up more for me. I did a Viking movie at Warner Bros., and then I wrote a spec Sherlock Holmes movie that they also bought. L.A. Confidential was at Warner Bros. I’d read the book and was determined to write L.A. Confidential, but I couldn’t get a meeting. They said, “You’re an action movie writer. We can’t have you do this.” So I went to [director] Curtis Hanson. We hit it off and found out we have a lot of the same ideas. That’s how I wormed my way in. He didn’t have time to get started on it, so I started, and then he came on. It was a bad penny. Warner Bros. couldn’t get rid of it, and they put

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it into turnaround. We’re both stubborn, so neither of us wanted to be the one to give up. We just did it for free, basically. We worked on it, fiddled around, came back, and worked on it some more. We rehearsed in a church hall on Hollywood Boulevard, and when we did the action scenes, we’d map out the scene with chairs and have Russell Crowe crawling on the floor and popping up on chairs. It was such an orphan movie. We had no money to make it, but with every bad thing that happened, you just loved it more and more. barbara morgan: How true did you stay to the book? helgeland: It’s not true to the plot because the plot in the book is enormous. There are two serial killers in the book, and in the movie there is no serial killer. That’s how big that book is: everything in the movie plus two serial killers running around. It’s a big book. What I’ve found is, if you are true to the themes of the book, the author doesn’t care what you do. If you start to monkey around with the themes, you have an angry author on your hands. We were always true to the themes of the book, and James Ellroy was always on board because of that. I think my favorite thing in the screenplay that’s not in the book is Tomasi. Ellroy can tell people haven’t read the book because they say, “I love the book, and the thing with Rollo Tomasi . . .” It’s hard to explain, but the Kevin Spacey character, there’s a whole other way he dies in the book that didn’t help the movie, so Rollo solved a lot of problems. morgan: That was a big-hearted project that ended up getting great recognition, putting you into a different category of writers in Hollywood. How did it get you to your next project? helgeland: I was working on Payback, but I was doing it on spec, thinking that if I did a great job, I could convince Warner Bros. to do it. I had an office at the time at Warner Bros., and one day I ran into Mel Gibson. He was looking through my stuff and pulled the Payback pages out. He started flipping through them and asked what it was. I told him, and he said, “Let me read it when you’re done.” I thought he was just being nice, but then I found out he was never nice. I finished it and sent it to him. Two weeks later he called me up and said, “I have to start shooting Lethal Weapon in January, so I have Thanksgiving to Christmas off. Can you be ready?” I just said yes. Thirteen weeks later we were shooting. We wanted to make this movie that was down and dirty—this seventies kind of crime fi lm—and make it for no money. That’s what Gibson wanted to do, too. He’d done one big-budget movie after the next. We did

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the whole movie for $19 million. And then the domestic rights were sold to Paramount for $30 million and the foreign rights to Warner Bros. for $35 million. When Sherry Lansing saw the movie the first time, she said, “Where’s my $65 million Mel Gibson action movie?” I said, “I don’t know. I made a $19 million crime movie.” That was the beginning of the end. They wanted me to reshoot it, and I would have done it in a second, but I had this guy who was doing it for the principle and not the money. I thought, “Well, I have to see that through somehow.” Next thing I knew, I won the Academy Award for L.A. Confidential, but they still said, “We’re going to get rid of you anyway.” It always bugged me that I hadn’t finished it [Payback]. My agent started talking to me about it, and so I e-mailed them. Paramount said I could have access to all the footage, so I spent an enormous amount of time on it, and eventually it came out on DVD. I’m happy there’s at least some other version. [Porter] is a very straightforward guy in my script, and two-thirds of the movie that came out is basically the first two-thirds of what I wrote. He wants his money, they send these guys to kill him, and he shoots it out. It’s his straightforward way of dealing with the world. The ending is vague, whether he’s going to live or not. He’s shot up, and his girlfriend gets him and is driving him out of town. They wanted a much bigger ending, so he ends up kidnapping the son of the head of the syndicate. But he would never leverage another person. This guy is straightforward and in-your-face. It was all something that character wouldn’t do. He just shows up in the office and says, “You have my money, and I want it.” If you get fired off a Mel Gibson movie, it’s going to be hard to get your next directing job. That’s not true of writing. I can always write my way out of any difficulty. At the same time, I really enjoyed the experience and wanted to get something else going. I was looking through old ideas, and years ago I had come across this whole thing about jousting. I’d made notes about it and set it aside because I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I flipped through all the notes, and one said that you had to be of noble birth to compete. Immediately, I thought, “The main character can be a peasant.” It’s like a screenwriter wanting to direct. I basically applied all that experience to a fi lm I wrote called A Knight’s Tale. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, really, but one day it struck me: my best stuff is always about identity. It’s why I was attracted to L.A. Confidential.

Brian Helgeland

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The Russell Crowe character thinks he’s smart enough to be a detective, but everyone else thinks he’s just muscle, not too bright. I seem to be attracted to stories about people trying to know who they are when no one else believes it. In A Knight’s Tale, he knows who he is, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to show it to anybody yet. In Payback, the character gets doublecrossed and thinks he knows what he’s doing. Suddenly his world is turned upside down, and he thinks, “If I can just get my money back, I can make myself right again.” It’s why I was attracted to Mystic River. It’s a guy trying not to be who he is, a gangster, but he can’t really escape it—it’s in his DNA. The thing about adapting books is, I never worked on one I didn’t relate to. I know I can do a good job if I can relate to it. Clint Eastwood had his agent send me Mystic River, and at the end of the day, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to simplify the plot and the number of characters and tell the streamlined version. In L.A. Confidential you could take things out and mold it back together again, but in Mystic River you had to keep the plot. morgan: How is it to go from being a writer and directing your material to working with somebody like Clint Eastwood, knowing he can change what’s in the script? helgeland: The great thing about him is he just hires people he thinks know how to do their jobs. If he thinks you know what you’re doing, he doesn’t have any interest in telling you what to do. He had a page of notes, and that was it. The first script I wrote for him was a thriller. It was ninety-five pages long. He hefted it and said, “How long is this?” I said it was ninety-five pages. He said, “This is already one of the best scripts I have read in my life.” He knows what it’s like in the editing room: 120 pages isn’t really two hours; it’s a good two hours and forty minutes. morgan: Back to A Knight’s Tale, how did your experience doing action work and putting Russell Crowe on chairs affect putting somebody on top of a horse with a big stick in his hand? helgeland: It was a lot of prep. We got horse wranglers and started training the horses to not shy away from lances. We ended up finding two guys in a stunt show in Las Vegas and asked if they’d like to be in a movie. We needed armor, so we found some Australian guy who made armor and stained it in tanks of chemicals. It felt like we were preparing some army to go off to war. You had to invent this whole world. We built a 360-degree stadium to joust in and filled it with people. 44

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morgan: Now you’ve moved into another area. Have you wanted to do something like 42 for a while? helgeland: I was preparing without knowing it, because I got involved in a couple of biopics that never got made. I had never written about a historical character, so I did all this research. I’d known the Jackie Robinson story since I was little, but I didn’t really know the details of his life. Then my dad called me out of the blue. He’s in his eighties and was born and raised in Brooklyn. He said, “What are you doing? I want to visit my old apartment in Brooklyn.” So we’re in Manhattan, and my cell phone rings. It’s the producer of 42, Thomas Tull, and he says, “What do you know about Jackie Robinson?” I said, “I know what everyone knows: very brave guy, broke the color line in baseball, died young.” He explained that the life rights had come up, and he was trying to get them from Mrs. Robinson. As he explained all this, the bus stopped, and I was looking at a billboard of Jackie Robinson. So I went to buy his autobiography. Then on my way to Kennedy Airport I saw a sign for the Jackie Robinson Parkway. I figured that was enough. I called the producer and said I was in. A week later I was in Mrs. Robinson’s office in New York, pitching to her how I would do it and listening to how she’d been trying to make the movie for thirty years and was worried she was going to die before she got it made. We wrapped the day before her ninetieth birthday. I came to the project with admiration but not knowing a lot of details. The more I read, the more I thought I would be very lucky to be involved. morgan: How was it dealing with the pressure of having such an iconic subject and working with a family that has a lot to protect? helgeland: Mrs. Robinson had a lot of ideas. I talked to her from the start because where biopics go wrong is, the more story they try to tell, the less story they can tell because everything becomes a snapshot: Here he is when he is seven. Here he is when he is twenty. You have different actors playing him at different times. So I said, “Let’s just focus on 1947, his rookie season with the Dodgers, and the year leading up to it.” We could get a story going that way, hopefully illuminate the man that came before and point toward the man who came after. I sent the script in and was finally summoned. I walked into her office having no idea what she thought. As a preface, there was a scene in spring training where Robinson scores on a balk while Mrs. Robinson watches in the crowd. I needed someone to describe a balk for the audience, so I have her ask, “What just happened?” Then the sportswriter describes a balk. Brian Helgeland

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Mrs. Robinson came in with the script dog-eared and Post-it notes all over it. I thought, “I am dead.” She said, “Let me ask you a question: In what world do you think Jackie Robinson’s wife doesn’t know what a balk is?” So I said, “It’s a very hard thing to describe to the audience,” and she said, “Well, have someone explain it, but don’t have it be me.” Then she said, “The rest is pretty good.” He died in ’72, so she’s been a widow for forty years but has kept him with her every day. When she saw the movie the first time, she liked how much they kissed. Basically, she got to be with her husband again. At that moment I thought, “If nothing else, I have done that.” morgan: Which of your scripts is your favorite? helgeland: My favorite script I ever wrote was Conspiracy Theory, but it’s not my favorite movie. If all my negatives were burning in a warehouse and I could go in and save one movie, it would be Man on Fire. The collaboration, the way I wrote it and the way Tony [Scott] shot it, was a perfect combination of script and director. There’s a scene where Denzel Washington is talking to Christopher Walken about the kind of bad road they’ve been down together. In every movie with those kinds of characters, they sit and talk about things that they would never talk about. I had written a scene at a barbecue. The kids are playing around. Denzel looks at him and says, “Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” Walken goes, “No, I don’t think so.” After those two lines, you understand the whole world between these two guys. No amount of phony reminiscing could take the place of that. Writing Habits

I function best if I write early. I can’t write at night. I can’t think if I’ve been awake too long. I’m at my desk from six in the morning to about four, but I write 80 percent before noon. I use music a lot. I’ll play random music and start to pick up on things that speak to what I’m writing. I put them in a fi le. If I’m working long enough, I may have sixty songs I can put on a loop. I can’t explain how it helps me, but it’s in the background and helps me somehow. I sit at my desk in front of a ten-foot-long corkboard, which never has an index card on it. I only put images on it. I have a huge collection of photography books. I google images for hours a day trying to find things that speak to what I’m doing. They could be abstract or specific things. As I outline, I’m constantly pulling these photos. It helps me to keep it visual. 46

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I outline excessively. Probably 60 percent of the work is outlining. When I’m outlining, I’m all over the place. I’ll think of something for the end and stick it in there, even though I don’t know how to get there. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You put in all the pieces you can figure out, with the edges being the easiest. Even though you know what you’re doing later on, you might find something that changes or informs it somehow. Adapting versus Writing an Original

If you’re writing an original, you’re the architect. If you’re doing an adaptation, you’re more of a contractor. It’s not the best analogy, but it’s like looking after someone else’s child. It’s as if your sister says, “I can’t take care of my son anymore,” and you have to raise him. You have a great responsibility to the novelist to get it right in your own way. I never saw myself as a writer to begin with. I always saw myself as a fi lmmaker. It’s just that writing is the way I got myself into it. Either way, you’re trying to figure out how to make a movie. It’s an odd thing with screenwriters: they get left out of the filmmaking title. This sounds like hocus-pocus, but I figured out that the only person who could make me a director was me. I just had to start thinking it in my head. I had to start turning down writing jobs. If a writing job came along, I asked if I could direct it, and if not, I said I didn’t want to do it. Each job just became another delay to directing and an excuse. The problem with directing is that, unlike writing, there’s no place you can go off and figure it out by yourself. Every mistake you make is printed up in the dailies the next day, and you don’t have time to fi x them. That’s why you prep so hard. You’ve got one shot at it.

Brian Helgeland

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Brian Helgeland Presents Frank Pierson with the Distinguished Screenwriter Award at the 2003 Austin Film Festival

brian helgeland: In 1997, I was in London working on a television show and searching the record shops for the soundtrack to Cool Hand Luke, my favorite movie since I saw it when I was twelve years old. You have to know, I’d been looking for this album for years, and I’d never had the sense to just go to the catalogue and say, “Is this in print? Can I order it?” I had a Saturday off and went down to Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, and in the soundtrack section there was Cool Hand Luke on a German label, and there was only one copy. I can’t express how happy I was; it was beyond words. So I bought it, took it back to my hotel, and while I was at the desk trading some dollars for pounds, I heard people behind me in the lobby talking about how they had just that day returned from a safari in Kenya. These people had been traveling on a plane from Kenya to London all day, and they were Americans, so out of curiosity I turned around and looked. I think there were five or six people there, and one of them was Frank Pierson. I didn’t know him then at all, but I recognized him as president of the Guild, and obviously, the writer of my obsession. I’d never approached anyone before, but I went over to him and he was in the middle of talking, and what I didn’t know was that Frank’s not always in a good mood—certainly not when he’s been on a plane flying from Kenya all day. I stood a respectful distance away from him, waiting for him to finish what he was saying, but he wouldn’t look over at me. He just kept talking about what he was talking about, and at a certain point I felt really embarrassed and was just about to step away when he looked over at me and said, “Can I help you?” I replied, as if he didn’t know, “You’re Frank Pierson.” And he said yes, and I just stared at him. I didn’t know what to say, and he finally

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put his head into his hand, looked down, shook his head, and said, “Please do not tell me you became a writer because of me.” I was flummoxed and I just said, “Well, I wanted to tell you that my favorite movie ever made is Cool Hand Luke,” and he was like, “Yeah, Cool Hand Luke. Good for you.” I started to walk away and he said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’ve come to direct a television show,” and he said, “Meet me at the bar at five o’clock.” I went up to my room, and I suddenly realized I had to give him my soundtrack to Cool Hand Luke, so it was sort of the greatest sacrifice I ever made. I went down and spoke to him and gave him the soundtrack, and I’ll always remember, very literally, it was one of the finest days of my life. And that’s my preamble. I think if Frank had only written Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, this award would’ve been given to him three years ago, but the problem is, he won’t stop writing. I think he has credits in six different decades, and that’s an amazing accomplishment. His work, to me, shows a man whose anger about the world has never faded. I mean that as a great thing; he’s just never given up being mad about the inequities of the world, and I think that’s a fantastic thing. He taught me that dialogue can be a weapon and that ideas are still more dangerous than bullets in any movie ever made, and I can tell him now that yes, I did become a writer because of him. I’m sorry about that. But to paraphrase, what we have here is an amazing ability to communicate. Thank you very much. frank pierson: Well, I don’t quite know how to answer that one, but I’m glad that you came along and justified whatever it is that’s inspired people to follow in my footsteps. That is, to become a screenwriter—a very strange profession indeed, when you think that our words are probably read by fewer people than any other kind of writing that exists. A successful screenplay written on assignment and convincingly performed is probably read by no more than two hundred people and that’s it. We get paid all this money, and all over this country there are poets and thousands of books of poetry being published, there are readings of poetry in bars and clubs every night, and they’re not getting paid a damn thing for it, and that’s such a kind of irony that I thought of this morning. At any rate, I just want to thank you deeply and say that about ten years ago, Bill Wittliff gave me a call and said some people down in Austin were thinking of having a fi lm festival that celebrated screenwriting and only screenwriting. I was still president of the Guild, and I brought that to the attention of the Writers Guild because we had been asked for

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their approval and cooperation in starting all this, and it tells you something about the state of mind of Hollywood screenwriters that at first they didn’t believe it. After I convinced them that this was all real, I was privileged to come for the first festival here in Austin, and it was amazing how fast it came together. We’ve come a long way, and I just want to congratulate and thank everybody involved with this and everyone here today. Thank you so much for the honor and the privilege of being here.

Brian Helgeland and Frank Pierson

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Robin Swicord on Dog Day Aernoon

I saw Dog Day Afternoon in the theater at an impressionable age, my twenties. I was already trying to write and figure out what is a movie. The great thing about coming of age during those years, the 1970s, is that you think, “Wow, I love movies, man, I just want to do this.” The bad news was that it all kind of ended when the blockbuster was born. There was a peculiar time when the studios had kind of collapsed, yet there were tax funds available from the federal government, and people put money into things like Sam Peckinpah’s movies and Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail. The person who green-lit Dog Day Afternoon was John Calley, whom I worked with—he was my producer on The Jane Austen Book Club, which I wrote and directed. He worked at three different studios and started the careers of more people than I could possibly name, and Dog Day Afternoon was exactly the kind of movie he wanted to see. That’s why he green-lit it. He was a wild man. Frank Pierson was a screenwriter of high repute for decades, and at the point most screenwriters of his stature retire and take all their money to go some place more beautiful, he decided he would stay in LA and keep working and teaching at AFI, which was where I got to see him give a master class on Dog Day Afternoon. He was a rangy guy with white hair and a white beard, kind of scruff y, with an Irish sense of outrage. He was a great storyteller. To me, the opening sequence for Dog Day Afternoon is the most economical way Frank could have possibly started it. The one thing you want out of a heist movie is to know that there is a plan. Then, when the plan starts to go wrong, it gets interesting. Because they all have their assigned

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jobs for this bank heist, right away you understand the plan. But in Dog Day Afternoon, they depart from it instantly, and they depart instantly because of something that comes out of Sonny’s character, which is that he is compassionate, and he is willing to let the bank security guy go after Sonny and his partners take over the bank. So right away you know something about Sonny, which is he’s not cut out for this job. He is a compassionate person, and now we’re intrigued. Oh my God, where is this going to go? We know it’s not going to go according to plan. We’re not even three minutes into the movie, and it’s already interesting! Frank was a big person for planning ahead. He said, “Screenplays are not vomited. Screenplays are built.” And so he had decisions to make. He’s working from a magazine article about this guy, and he has to decide, “Where does this story start? What happens next? How does he get into trouble? How soon do I show the cops?” And as he says of the film itself, “Is this a movie about the private secrets of a homosexual couple? Is it about the entire event? Do I show the police point of view? Is it entirely from the police point of view? Are we outside that bank or inside the bank?” And the first decision Frank made was that it was going to be told from Sonny’s point of view. It was going to be told inside the bank. And the reason why, Frank said, was because Pacino was in the role. You don’t cast Al Pacino and then shoot the thing from outside the bank. He said it was a completely practical decision, but he also said his perspective on the guy was that Sonny’s character is like a magician. He acts as though he can fulfi ll your dreams and aspirations, so this character will be like, “I’ll get it for you, what do you need?” but he’s a fuck-up. He ruins things as he tries to help, Frank said. So that’s the dramatic character. You can accurately imagine what he’ll do, so you’ll get the joy of anticipating it. You’re so in the palm of his hand that when the cops show up, you are thinking, “Oh, well, now what’s going to happen? He’s not going to give up. He’s not going to start killing hostages. How is he going to get out of this?” So what we know of his character—that he’s compassionate, that he wants to help everyone—has put him in this situation, which makes us anticipate. We’re now wondering, what’s the next thing? One of the things Frank said in terms of structure was there should be that moment where the character cannot go back and can only go forward. Old rules no longer apply. He said, “You’re a stranger in a strange land, and you have to figure out how to go forward in chaos. So the climax is the realization, ‘I now understand how I can free myself from the situation.’”

Robin Swicord

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We are driven into Sonny’s arms as soon as we meet him. We might’ve been thinking, “Maybe he’s a little crazy,“ and then we meet his wife and think, “Oh my God, this is what you’re married to? You poor, poor thing.“ I think it was really necessary to reembrace Sonny in this way when he has shown us his madness, and it’s just a gorgeous orchestration on the part of the screenwriter. According to Frank, Sonny’s mother was really not like that. Frank understood this character is actually a little closer to Frank’s mother than to Sonny’s. You feel how overbearing his life is, and you don’t know the surprise that’s coming, but it helps you understand things when you get the real surprise of who Sonny’s actually talking about when he says, “I want my wife brought down here.“ It’s completely a testament to how seductive the film is that this guy Sonny can have a heist, go into a bank to steal a bunch of money, and be disappointed that there isn’t enough. He then stays long—he overstays— taking the extra risk that allows Sonny to put himself in the predicament, and yet we never say, “Why does he want the money?“ Leon wanting a sexchange operation is why he wants the money! That’s the first time that motive enters. It deepens your understanding of what really makes Sonny tick. He’s not just a madman, there’s something important to his heart that Sonny wants. It’s about a relationship. That’s what Frank said about the whole sequence with Leon. I personally lived through that era of the early seventies. I was living in Tallahassee, Florida, in the South. There was a lot of casual racism and casual homophobia that was just part of the fabric of the culture, and the same was true when I moved to New York in the late seventies. I thought I was going to go to the Promised Land where the liberals lived, and instead I found a kind of provincial town with people slugging each other all the time over race, and guys on the street were calling each other faggot, and so forth. It wasn’t any different from the South, it was just they had a slightly different accent. Frank was extraordinary in that he was looking at his own time and commenting on it. It’s amazing that he had the vision to see past the cultural prejudices that were around him and say, “I want to speak to that.” So that’s the other thing that makes this fi lm so extraordinary. The fi lmmakers deliberately set out to tell you a story about a man who turns out to have done it all for a man that he was in love with—so bizarre, for that time. And now you have to get an actor who wants to do that. Al Pa-

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cino had come off of The Godfather and felt “too depressed,“ he said, to take on this role. He was too tired to do it. So Frank went through a long courtship and conversation with Dustin Hoffman, and then Al Pacino said, “You know, I think I want to do it.“ What happened, Frank said, was that when Pacino got the script, Pacino looked at it and he said, “I’m not going to play a guy who’s gay.“ Frank said that Pacino said, “All these embellishments you added, all this stuff, I’m just not going to do it.” There was supposed to be a thing that really happened in the true story, in the news accounts, which was a kiss on the street, in which these two people had to play out their farewell with each other in front of everyone else. Pacino said, “I’m not going to do a gay kiss, so you’re just going to have to figure out how to do it.” So Frank figured out how to do it. He put Leon on a telephone across the street. Frank decided to use something out of the zeitgeist, which was, “Those crazy vets, those My Lai massacre guys could do anything. He could snap.“ There was a lot of suspicion about people coming back from Vietnam. In fact, I was working with a Writers Guild workshop in LA, and that’s one of the things the older vets talked about: when they came back, everybody was afraid of them. Nobody welcomed them. And so here was Frank building on something that’s already here by including this one little biographical thing about the John Cazale character—he was in Vietnam. So now we’re worried when he turns to Sonny and says, “I’ll take all these guys out, I’ll kill them all.” It’s chilling, yes, but what he’s really saying to Sonny is, “I love you.“ After Pacino said, “I’m not going to do these certain things,“ they had to pull out everything that was physical, steamy, raunchy, or mentioned anything about their relationship life. Frank had to figure out how to encapsulate the whole relationship in one phone call, and so he kind of stitched the script back together out of all these little missing pieces. He figured that he would use a monologue technique. He just vomited up everything that the characters could remember about their relationship and everything that they felt about their relationship. It’s like an automatic writing exercise where you put the timer on, and you just write very deeply in your character’s voice without paying any attention. Then you see what comes out. The right-brain technique. He then took those monologues and cut them back together, and he gave them to the actors whole and had them deliver their monologues interrupting each other, and they taped that. They put it on tape. That’s [director Sidney] Lumet’s idea. After twenty minutes they

Robin Swicord

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stopped it, and they used a transcriber to digest everything down and created the two monologues from that technique. In my opinion, in terms of the story, there wasn’t a technical reason for Sonny’s mother to come down to the bank. I think that with the homophobia of the time period, they needed to create a reason for him to be turning to a man for love. At that time there was still some belief, as if there were a drug that went around inducing the idea—and in fact there was a joke at that time: “My mother made me a homosexual.” “Really? If I give her five dollars, will she make me one?”—playing on the cultural belief that if you were gay, you had some kind of overbearing mother in your life. So Frank created from a trope of the time. Having the mother arrive probably isn’t necessary to move the action forward, but it does subliminally make the case that it’s okay for Sonny to be in love with Leon—his mother made him do it. When Sonny ends his moment with his mother by saying, “I’m a fuckup. I’m an outcast. If you get near me, you’re going to get it. You’re going to get fucked over and fucked out.” I thought it was one of the most truthful moments. I felt like Sonny was really speaking his truth. It’s like, “I can do all this, and be a magician! But who’s the man that’s behind the curtain?” Once that person is revealed, Sonny has to say, “I’m incompetent and I’m not who I want to be. I’m a gay man and I don’t want to be that person.” That’s why he’s the outcast, and it’s so painful; he’s been made powerless by these two women. You see this as he says Frank’s lines, “That’s not you, that’s not you.” If you feel that way, you’re completely disempowered, and so it’s important to the story. The best part of it comes out of his disempowerment—because the heist story becomes all about Sonny trying to control what’s next with the cops. Sal also says to Sonny, “I want them to know that I’m not gay.” So how much could that have hurt Sonny? That’s just like saying, “I want to make sure they don’t think I’m that low,” and yet they’re still going forward together as partners. The Ending

Where else is it going to go? Someone’s going to be sacrificed. And that’s the other thing. Frank Pierson is a great screenwriter. He taught Aristotle’s Poetics, so somewhere he’s going to get to this idea of sacrifice. Yet right now, no hostages have been sacrificed; it’s been very bloodless. Sonny’s had to give up his privacy in order to have his wife brought down to visit him, and 58

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he’s lost Leon’s love; but he’s also lost Leon’s love before. So something big, something further, has to happen for us to feel the power and importance in the end of what Sonny’s experience has been. That’s what’s so beautiful, when they’re walking out of the bank. They’re all kind of roped together. It’s like, “In there we were a family. We loved each other. And you accepted me even though you knew I loved Leon, so I’m going to wrap you around me as I go out into the world.” Sonny wants what he deserves and what’s coming to him because he has served his country, and that’s the thing they promise when you join the military: you have the right to a military funeral. So it’s like he’s calling in all the chips, all the stuff that’s been promised him, just in case it goes wrong. He wants, as he says, to have the respect he deserves, and to not be treated like some common bank-robber gay guy that has two wives. A trope that many screenwriters know is you have to let the story’s events unfold in such a way that we don’t see things coming, but are so truthful we feel they’re inevitable afterward. You do this by sleight of hand, like in Little Miss Sunshine. We don’t know what little Olive’s talent performance looks like, though she practices it off screen during the fi lm; yet given that the person who’s teaching her is this raunchy old dude of a grandpa, we should have figured her act was not going to be “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” But we forgot that, through the skill of the storyteller, so when the strip scene starts happening at that contest, you have that fabulous and delicious thing of, “Oh, of course, yes!” It’s surprising, but it’s inevitable and it’s delicious—we love that. That’s one of the things we go to movies for. Lumet and Pierson did do improvisation in rehearsal. They really wanted to capture that feeling of “This is real life.” They really didn’t want to work solely from a fi xed script. There’s a script of Dog Day Afternoon that is Frank’s script. He was involved in the sequential decision making of improvisation because of the way that Sidney Lumet likes to work. Lumet works very, very quickly. He’s like, “We’re in this room and we’re going to shoot in this direction; we’re going to shoot every scene from this direction. We’re not going to move the camera until we have finished everything in this and that direction.” They don’t do coverage on the same scene. They’ll pop to another scene and stage that part before they turn around, so you’re having to shoot out of sequence within scenes, and that’s just for the economics of moving really quickly. They saved $300,000 by finishing eight days early on this fi lm. There was a dispute about the end, and it had something to do with Robin Swicord

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pay. And this speaks very much to Frank Pierson’s fabulous character, to his integrity. He was not happy with the ending of the movie. He felt like the pacing wasn’t right in the ending, in this cat-and-mouse game of going back and forth. He felt it was kind of slow, and he asked his executive, John Calley, “We’ve finished early, we’ve got a little extra money. Let me recut the ending just to show you.” I can’t even imagine that happening today, but the director, Lumet, was willing to do it. But at the end of the day, Calley said, “No, we saved some money and we’re not going to spend it now.” And the fact that Frank, now decades after this movie came out, is railing, “Goddammit, it just doesn’t work. I didn’t get to do this editing thing, and it just wasn’t right. It was too slow and it should’ve been fast”— you have to love that. This movie really succeeded, but that was Frank. He was like, “Never say die.” I believe there were moments of improvisation, but this was a rehearsed film. Lumet always rehearsed his films, and that’s how he could shoot so quickly. He likes to know what’s coming. So there was quite a bit of exploration, and Frank was involved in that. That’s the healthy relationship where actors are trying another line and it’s funny and better than the thing you thought of. It happens all the time in the theater. It’s just that we’re so cut off from that process, as dramatists who are working for the screen, because it’s not built in the way movies get shot. Actors aren’t actually that available for rehearsal. They’re coming off another movie and you get them for two days before they start your project. But Lumet doesn’t work that way. There were many drafts of Frank’s screenplay—you can see all the notes scribbled on them at the Academy’s library, or wherever Pierson’s papers have ended up. You can see some of the back and forth and see at what point in which draft did the original line get crossed out and the line “Wyoming” get put in. We are actually in the middle of a moment similar to what was happening in the sixties and seventies that created the conditions for Dog Day Afternoon to be made: the film business is collapsing. So you get to write anything you want because they’re not going to buy your script, they’re not going to hire you, and you’re not going to get an agent. You don’t have to please a studio to be a fi lmmaker. The one piece of advice I would give is, be bold. Be as bold as Frank Pierson was and John Calley was and Sidney Lumet was. Go write that stuff and do it the way they did. They got their friends together and made a movie in the streets of Brooklyn. They brought it in under budget because they knew what they were doing. So go have fun. 60

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Up Close with Frank Pierson

Dog Day Afternoon

As far as writing, the Sal character was based upon somebody else in John Wojtowicz’s life. John was a really interesting guy, because he would cruise the streets and would find these kids who were working as prostitutes and try to help them, try to save them. He talked about being a wizard and trying to cure everybody’s ills, so I wrote him, as it was described in the screenplay, as fifteen years old, a little bit retarded. About halfway through this whole thing, they’re getting worried about what they’re doing and what’s going to happen to them, and Sal says to Sonny, “You know, back there in the beginning when you were talking out in the street?” And Sonny very hastily says, “No, no, we’re not going to do that, Sal.” Sal says, “No, it’s okay. You don’t do that, I’ll do it, throw them out in the street.” And that’s the moment Sonny really understands. It’s the moment the Pacino character truly understands what he has done here is killed innocence. That is the greatest crime in people’s lives, and he realizes he’s done it to this kid, and that’s really devastating to him. That element of fear, of mayhem and death, somehow came through Sal. What Cazale brought to the part is irreplaceable. The Golden Age of Film

As the new generation of fi lmmakers coming in, we knew the movies we were getting to work on at Columbia and Warner Bros., and to a lesser extent Fox, were very welcome. Brando’s stupefying performance in On the Waterfront kind of revolutionized everyone’s attitude about acting. We were talking about method—realist acting styles, writing styles, and directing styles. It was a hell of a lot of fun. 61

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The mergers of the studios really changed things—the ownership and extension of governance of motion picture companies by businessmen who come from another discipline. You’ve got people who worked for CocaCola and IBM, business school graduates, sitting in a story meeting, that kind of thing. That’s what’s really happened—the analysis of stories by marketing individuals and bringing in the marketers. They tell you what can be sold and what can’t be sold. We have fewer and fewer choices to make as viewers. It always happens slowly. There’s a story about how to kill a frog—that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it’ll just jump right out, but if you put a frog in cold water and just let it slowly heat up, the frog just goes to sleep and never knows when it’s dead—and I think that’s what happens. On Writing

It took me six months to try and write the screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon before I began to understand why I really cared about it. That’s the most difficult thing for me, because I’ve already done enough that I’m now digging in other places for what will move my heart; and then, once you get me on that, it’s a matter of why I’m putting my ass in a chair and keeping it there long enough. I never write nothing; I always write something, even if I can’t think of what it is. The scene is sitting there, and for some reason I can’t figure out what the characters are saying. There’s something I don’t know about this scene. I don’t know this character well enough to know. I need to examine those characters more and find out who they are. I’ll even set down my stupid exercises: How will this character change a tire on the freeway during rush hour when it’s raining? Will he do it the way Warren Beatty would, and take off his shirt so that people could see him? Or would he be the kind of person who would go very slowly over the shoulder and drive at five miles an hour, ruining a perfectly good $200 tire to get to a service station where it can be changed? Or would it be someone who would just get on the car phone and say, “I’ve got a flat tire, what do I do?” He just calls somebody for help. You just have to write something every day for two hours. Go to your computer and write. You can become addicted to it, after years, if you write two hours a day. If you don’t do that, you feel funny. It gets you back there. There’s less pain and feeling funny about the fact that every day, when you sit down, when you’re doing the first draft, you don’t have a good idea of

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what that scene is going to be like. Two hours from now, you’ll have something on the computer or on the page that you could not have had happen otherwise. It’s a very scary feeling to not know what you’re doing. You don’t feel that you’re in control. It’s scary. The outline is almost always useless, but you have to have some sort of plan. It’s like you need some sort of map. I think it’s a psychological prop more than anything else. It’s like being in a strange country and having a map that you know has some errors in it, but at least if you pursue it, you’ll find where you’re going, even though it might not be what’s indicated on the map. I don’t have the depth of imagination to begin with nothing and make it into something. I leave that to novelists and poets. I really do need something concrete to start from. There’s an old Hollywood joke about the writer who, when he dreams, he just has this wonderful complete picture. It’s everything. It’s Technicolor. It’s girls, boys, song and dance, and in the morning when he’s trying to remember the dream he had, he really can’t remember what the story was. He puts a pad and pencil by his bed, and he dreams the best dream he ever had, the best movie he ever dreamed. And when he wakes up, he’s scared to turn on the light because he’s afraid that the idea will go away. So he just jots down the essence of the idea for the picture and goes back to sleep. In the morning, as he’s making his coffee, he remembers the note, and goes to read it. It says, “Boy meets girl.”

Frank Pierson

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A Conversation with Ron Howard m o d er at e d b y w i l l i a m b r oy l e s j r .

william broyles jr.: Your fi lmography is an extraordinary thing. You have everything from popcorn movies like the Da Vinci Code to serious political dramas like Frost/Nixon; fantasies like Willow; romantic comedies like Splash; a Western, The Missing; a classic drama like A Beautiful Mind. What is a Ron Howard movie? ron howard: When I fell in love with the medium, I appreciated all of the genres, and as an actor, I began to work both in comedy and drama, even goofy sci-fi movies like Village of the Giants. That was campy and fun. But once I realized I was going to have a career as a director, the only sort of careerist decision I ever made was that I was going to try to prove to myself and to the creative community that I could tell all kinds of stories. I admire a lot of fi lmmakers, but probably Billy Wilder the most, for his range and ability to explore various genres. And while I have pursued that, it’s not my primary interest anymore. In fact, it kind of ended in some ways with Apollo 13. That was a pivotal point for me. I learned a lot about storytelling. I learned a lot about myself and to trust the audience, because in many ways it was a very sophisticated story. The screenplay dictated that, as did the actors, and I think having all the astronauts around made me check that desire to play to the audience and instead just tell the story. In the last, you know, ten, twelve, thirteen years I’ve continued to work on a variety of films, but now it’s never an exercise. Now it’s always a story I believe in—a subject, or a set of characters I’m fascinated by for a variety of reasons, that I believe I can bring something to. I take pride in the fact that I don’t think you could identify a “Ron Howard movie.” I sort of hope you can’t. A really fine character actor is able to inhabit a character

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in a story and make you forget about their other fi lms. I hope to be able to achieve that as a fi lmmaker. What I care about is just trying to understand the possibilities of the story, really come to understand it and look at the resources, tools, talent, and amount of money we have to work with, and just try my best to apply those resources in a way that fulfi lls the possibilities of the story—for its sake, for my sake, and for the audience’s sake. Whatever that is, I really work to try to never impose anything of myself on the movie. broyles: I think one of the things that makes a Ron Howard movie is that transparency. In other words, if you are watching actors, and they are acting, you realize it’s their craft or style that is getting in the way of what they are trying to do. And one of the things that I admire so much about your material is that you don’t get in the way of telling the story. You let it emerge and come out. That’s empowering for all of the people that have worked with you and very liberating for the audience, too. Can you share some insight into how you pick a script? What is it about a script that makes you say, “I have to make this movie?” howard: When I was reading Apollo 13 the first time, it was a very dense, complicated script that wound up going through lots of drafts and work and so forth, and certain things worked better than others in my mind. But I was reading it on the train, the Metro-North line. It was crowded, and I was standing, jammed in, and reading. I got to the end and I knew the doors were going to open, but I started to fight off tears, standing there next to a bunch of commuters. I just remember feeling that something that adds up so powerfully has a wonderful chance to be a remarkable movie. At that point I really wouldn’t have ever let anyone else work on it. Of course, my partner, Brian [Grazer], is very important; his advocacy or criticism of a project I am considering is important to me. Same with my wife, Cheryl, who has always been an important creative secret weapon for me. But if a script reaches a certain point where, despite the various land mines I’ve learned to identify—and by the way, those land mines don’t always turn out to be the problem you think they are when you are reading the script, but you’ve got to bet on something, and so you’re reading and you’re guessing this is a problem and this is a strength and trying to weigh it—but when it reaches the point where I think, “Well, if I let it go, I know it’s good enough that somebody else is going to make it, and can I stand the idea of anyone else getting to do the fi lm?” So it’s that jealous greed.

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Then you might as well make the movie. That means you have to do it because it’s a movie that deserves to be made. But it’s a combination of the subject, the setting, and the characters. And then the other thing— and this is what we really honed and worked on a lot and I learned a lot about with Apollo 13, which is such a sprawling story—was the need to find ways to create suspense. I decided from that point on, any movie you do, whether it’s a fantasy, a broad comedy, a drama, or action, that they’re all suspense pieces. When you see something that is doing that page-turning thing—a scene ends and it’s pulling you into the next one, and the characters are surprising you in some way, and it’s not unfolding in ways in which you would predict or expect—then you really feel like you are onto something very special. Those are the kind of movies I love to see. And when I find it in a script, I want to build around that and make the film. broyles: I think that one thing you did to create suspense in that movie that was so effective is you invested us, the audience, in characters in the movie who didn’t know how the movie was going to end, in the tripod: the astronauts, the flight controllers, and the family. howard: There was a pivotal moment—it was early, when I had just begun researching. We were talking about what the next draft might look like, and we had this reunion in mission control. There were like twelve or thirteen of the veterans, mission controllers, including Jerry Bostick, flight dynamics officer. And in talking to them, I saw something that went even further in this direction than had been in the script, or maybe was in the script and I didn’t identify it, which was somebody saying something like, “We felt like we were MASH doctors and suddenly our buddy was dropped on our table, dying, and we were trying to save him.” And that was such a compelling, emotional, human idea, I began to see it not just as survival in space, but also as a rescue story. And the combination of those things gave it a lot more suspense and tension. And the challenge is then to sustain the tension when you know the ending. But the key is to invest the audience in the journey that the characters are going on. So, it’s not so much a matter of what the outcome will be, but what it’s going to be like for them in trying to reach that conclusion. And how will they be when they get there? In the broadest terms, maybe they’ll live, maybe they’ll die. But will they be broken, will they have lost something they care about, will they be vindicated or validated in some way? What is the human journey going to be? When you start to delve into those central characters and understand

Ron Howard

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what’s making them tick, you make the audience relate to them as human beings—whether they are the people you’re rooting for or the people you are rooting against. If you start to really understand them as humans, almost in a journalistic way, people stop thinking about the end and they become focused on the details of the scenes: what they’re learning about the characters, how they’re relating, and what their own experience might be facing some level of adversity like those characters are facing. And then, as Bill said, the other thing is to occasionally move away from the central characters and invest emotionally in the characters who are observing it, who have a deep emotional connection with what the outcome will be. I think those two things meant a lot with Frost/Nixon. I saw the play, I loved it, it was riveting. But immediately as I was watching the play, I remember feeling, if we could do more with the secondary characters, if we could cut to them in the viewing room, if we could understand how invested they are in the outcome of these interviews, it’ll break down the distance we have and create some relatability if you can’t relate to characters as iconic as Nixon or David Frost. If anything is going to be entertaining on any level, comedy or drama, it has to carry a message; it has to present some ideas. Whether they’re silly or sophisticated, you have to understand them in order to present them. That’s a very important thing to me in reading a script. Working with Actors and Bette Davis

Working with everyone involved in the key positions, from the screenwriters to the DP [director of photography] and editors and actors, I really love to create an environment where there is collaboration and open dialogue. It’s supposed to be this place that’s as safe as possible for people to take creative risks. I want them to feel like in this environment they really have a chance to excel. There aren’t impediments to putting their best foot forward, because different people work in different ways. You need to use your prep period to talk about the fi lm in a way that people begin to see what it is you are looking for in the film. Or they may make a counterargument that you, the fi lm director, might actually embrace and understand and it may alter your perspective. Once you’ve begun filming, if you’ve got everyone pulling creatively in the same direction, because everyone now understands what the big ideas in the fi lm are and what we’re going for, suddenly everyone’s contributions become more valid and you wind up having to say no fewer times. So when you do say no and re70

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ject somebody’s idea, they’re very comfortable with it because they know they are operating in spirit with a director who is willing and excited to say yes. It particularly works with actors. It’s one of the things my father, Rance, taught me very early. I had the chance to direct a TV movie in Dallas starring Bette Davis, and I was really kind of terrified. She wanted to do the role, but she didn’t like a few things in the script. She didn’t like some of the ways I was casting it, and she was challenging me in various ways. She kept calling me Mr. Howard—this was on the phone, I hadn’t met her in person yet—and I said, “Ms. Davis, please just call me Ron.” And she said, “I will call you Mr. Howard until I decide whether I like you or not,” and hung up! So you can see I was losing sleep. I was probably twenty-five or twenty-six at the time, and I was talking to my father about it. My father, who had worked with a lot of greats along the way and been on a lot of sets, said, “Trust me, she’s great. That means she wants to be directed. She needs to know you are ready to direct her. You don’t have to bully her, or anyone, but do your homework. Be prepared, and build that trust, but do it with confidence.” It turned out to be the greatest advice ever. And it’s not about being stubborn or digging in. On the first day of actual fi lming, it was “Mr. Howard” all day, but it was congenial. The next day of filming, we’re outside of Dallas, it’s August, so it’s eight fifteen in the morning and it’s already ninety-eight degrees. I decided to wear a jacket and tie because I saw these pictures of her as a young leading lady and all the directors always had a jacket and a tie. So even though it was ninety-eight degrees, I had on a jacket and a tie. She was sitting there on the set and I came walking up behind her to give her a direction because I didn’t quite like what she was doing in the first couple of rehearsals. And she turned around and went, “Ahhh! Ohhh! You frightened me!” And then loud enough for the crew, she said, “Oh pardon me, I was so frightened! I saw this child walking up behind me and I couldn’t help but wonder what of any consequence could this child possibly have to say to me?” And she laughed for the crew. And so I kind of laughed myself. I popped a Tums or something, but I leaned in and gave her the direction. She made the adjustment, and she was a little tense about it, but she did it. The day went on and we just kept doing it. It was a TV movie, so we were doing a lot of scenes in one day. Finally, toward the end of the day, I said, “Well, Ms. Davis, I don’t think you should cross from here to there, and that line, I think you should try this other point, and that’s gonna set up a camera angle change that I want to make.” And she said, “Oh, I don’t think Ron Howard

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that will work, but I’ll try it. I’m always the director’s kid.” And she did. We tried a rehearsal, and she did just what I asked her to do, and she stopped the rehearsal and in front of everyone said, “You’re right. That is so much better. Thank you.” And we went ahead and finished up that scene. And when the day was over, I said, “Ms. Davis, you’re wrapped. We still have a couple of shots to do, but thank you. Great day. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And she said, “Okay, Ron, see you tomorrow,” and patted me on the ass. So, different actors work in different ways, and it is really important to understand that. I was talking to Joe Torre, and he said, “Well, starting pitchers are different. You have to understand that. Everybody else has one set of rules; starting pitchers are a different breed.” Here is a guy who was a world-class catcher as well as being a manager. Well, actors in lead roles are a different breed as well. They really are artists, and it’s frightening. I understand how terrifying it is to act, so I try to be protective but also work in the spirit of always moving things forward with a level of practicality. I’ve never had a more extreme example of it than on Cocoon, where four lead guys were just so different. There was Wilford Brimley, a really intense but brilliant improvisational actor; Hume Cronyn, a theater star and a playwright, very formal, everything is organized; Don Ameche, who was an old-style Hollywood actor, which meant hit the mark and say the lines; and then Jack Gilford, who was kind of vaudevillian. They were all very uncomfortable with Wilford’s improvisation. But I took them all aside and just quietly said, “I really like this script and I always wanted to do the script, but I also really like the exchange, energy, and naturalism we are getting with Wilford.” Then I might do the director thing and say, “And by the way, I don’t think he is so good when he just does the script, so we have to help him out.” We got this great balance, and Don Ameche was the only one that couldn’t improvise. He was terrified, and our writer— he wasn’t ultimately the credited screenwriter, but he did a lot of great rewrite work—a guy named Dennis Klein who came out of television, he was on the side during rehearsals in the first week of shooting, slipping Don ad-libs on little pieces of paper. And everybody would be, “Hey, good one, Don!” and it made him feel a lot better. For me, those kind of environments are exciting to work with and create in. Again, it reflects the approach I take in trying to utilize the resources that are available for a project to try to fulfi ll its possibilities. I’m very fortunate to have this great support team at Imagine: my long partnership with Brian Grazer and our head of development, Karen Kehela 72

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Sherwood. There are always interesting projects coming my way. What excites me the most is great writing and great acting—when the actors soar. Frost/Nixon was practically a vacation for me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t lose sleep or get headaches and stomachaches. But it’s the kind of work that really holds my interest. A Beautiful Mind was very much that way. Apollo 13 had this unique blend of physical and mechanical stuff, but it was so exhilarating because we were on this mission to reflect what it might have been like to be in a capsule in the most realistic way possible. That was endlessly fascinating. The Dan Brown stuff, from a character standpoint, is so much about moving the plot. It’s never that sort of Frost/Nixon deep exploratory stuff, but it’s a whole other kind of exercise. Although there is nothing quite as exhilarating as sitting with an audience that’s really enjoying your fi lm, if I were only allowed one experience, it would not be the successful premiere. If I had to choose between the successful premiere and all the struggle of going on the adventure, the expedition of actually exploring and making a movie, I would choose the expedition. I’m inspired by anything that surprises me. There have been so many stories that have been told, and it’s difficult to find something that is expressing an idea in a fresher, original way. But when I find that, that’s inspiring—when I see the chance for a really bravura performance; for example, when I found out Jim Carrey wanted to be the Grinch. I knew there were all kinds of challenges involved with making that movie, but I also really wanted to see what it was going to be like for Jim Carrey to create that sort of character. That was a tough shoot and a struggle in a lot of ways, but I wouldn’t trade those moments where he was just so electric— kind of alone in his cave, dealing with little Cindy Lou Who or the dog, inventing. It was something really extraordinary to behold. I’m looking for those real highlights: a theme, a set of characters, something which just kind of screams out at me that I want to be involved in, again, trying to realize the possibilities of this. After I started having early success, I did go through a little period where I was a bit of a deer in headlights and was a little bit thrown as to what I would do next. I didn’t want to lose this thing I’d always dreamed of having, which was a sustainable career directing fi lms. I decided I wanted to be a director. That was going to be my career. I wanted to be involved in a company. I wanted to help support that company when need be. I wanted to be involved in as many interesting stories that I could possibly be involved in. And I was going to view the thing, the career, a little bit the way an actor or an executive producer views a season Ron Howard

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of television. If they are conscientious, they care deeply about every single episode. They kill themselves, but there is another one next week. So they live or die for that thing, they give it everything they’ve got, but when it’s over, it’s over. And they are always thinking of what the next episode is going to be, even as they are shooting that one. And I feel that takes a certain amount of pressure off. I’m always lost in the movie, but I’m also thinking about what else is out there and dreaming about what else I might do. I’m not much of a careerist, and if I were to run down the list of projects I thought were going to be hits and the ones that I really wanted to do but didn’t think would probably break even, I’m probably not even 50/50. I’m not good at predicting it. Brian Grazer is much better at prognosticating about those things, but nobody’s perfect. That’s one of the things that I learned to take a degree of comfort in. If you commit to make a movie, you give it everything you’ve got. You show it to audiences. You show it to test audiences, which even though I’m a final-cut director, I still like to do. They can’t make me do things I don’t want to do, but I like to know what audiences feel and learn from that; I feel that’s where responsibility ends. Even though I’m rooting for the films to do well, and I benefit financially when they do, I gain leverage in the industry when they succeed. It’s very good for Imagine when we have hits, but all of those things, I don’t really think I know how to predict, and I’ve kind of removed that pressure from myself. When I think the right project comes along, I take that leap and decide pretty quickly. Some would argue, looking at my fi lmography, that sometimes I decide a little too quickly. But I wouldn’t throw any of them back. I feel I’m still growing and looking forward to what the next couple of decades yield. Lessons from Dad

My father is a natural teacher and really brilliant at distilling very complicated ideas. He used to write in television and wrote a lot of spec movies. He and I wrote Grand Theft Auto together. His life as a character actor was one thing, but he also was almost constantly in his office writing something, and he was also constantly learning. And I watched that process. There was a guy named Lajos Egri that he studied with. He was a very significant, early dramatic structuralist who talked a lot about the art of dramatic writing. There was a workday pragmatism to my father’s attitude about what I was doing. He was a confidence builder and a great teacher, and because he was a freelance actor and writer, he had time to actually 74

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come to the set with me and really help me learn my lines, to interface with directors and all the people who might have questions. He was really trying to teach me how to act and not be like a trained animal, which happens to a lot of little kids: they have a cute look, they have some things they can do, and the directors and everyone else milks that for what it’s worth, but they aren’t really learning how to act. I think it’s those fundamentals that my father passed along to me. Also, when I was a kid and I would go back to public school, there would always be a little bit of a thing. I’d wind up having to get in some wrestling matches with people to prove myself to the class. But sometimes they’d say, “Well, what’s it like being a movie star?” And I never knew how to answer that question. I went to my dad, and he said, “Well, first of all, I know they use that phrase ‘movie star,’ but you’re not really a movie star. You’re an actor on a series. You’re a professional actor, and you’re good. But here is how you might answer it. Ask them if they have a paper route. And if they do, you know, you two guys do about the same thing. They have to get up in the morning early, fold the papers, make sure they’re right, throw them on the bicycle, deliver them, and then they can go on about the rest of the day. You have to get up in the morning, learn your lines, go to work, deliver them, and then you get to go home and go on with the rest of your day. And it’s work. It’s a job you do, and it’s a job I do.” I think that really simple view of what it is has served me well. And last but not least, here is a guy who, without ever reaching his dreams of becoming Gary Cooper, left a farm in Oklahoma and has made a living acting and writing for sixty-some years, and it’s pretty inspiring to me, that doggedness. I have always felt really blessed to have the kind of control over my career and the kind of opportunities that I’ve had, but I know firsthand not to take them for granted. Advice to Screenwriters

I think in order to really understand narrative and how it works, you need to become a student of it. None of the courses you can take, or the books you can read, or the schematics you can write down, none of it replaces inspiration. You must work from a place of inspiration, but what all that other stuff does is it helps you gain objectivity about your piece. When people are scratching their heads and saying, “Yeah, it’s good, but . . . ,” you can look at it and say, “Well, where is the story letting us down? Where are the characters failing us? Where are those basic ideas that Aristotle beRon Howard

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gan identifying? Where are they working and not working?” And be really ruthless about that. Be as ruthless about your writing as you can. Share it, let people read it, and really listen to what people have to say and then decide, because you can’t do everybody’s notes. Then you decide. That’s your job. And by the way, new technology—two-minute fi lms for handheld devices, stuff to go on YouTube—it all boils down to story: how well executed it is, how well thought out it is, how surprising it is. And when you bump into something and say, “Well, it has to go this way because this, that, and the other”—if you like it because it’s an awful lot like other things that have worked, to me, that should be a red flag. You should say, “All right, we want to achieve this, but we can’t do it the way eight other movies have done it. Let’s look at the characters again. Let’s look at this again. Somewhere in there is a more original way to achieve what we need to achieve.” Editing

We edit the fi lms fifteen minutes from my house in an old dentist building we bought. I’ve worked with the same editors since Night Shift, Dan Hanley and Mike Hill. They’re fantastic; they’re creative. I certainly give them a lot of leeway to try their ideas. I don’t dictate what the cut should be from the beginning. I might give a few notes, a few ideas, particularly if I’ve shot a lot of footage around one complicated scene, so they have a little foundation to work with. But for the most part I want to see what it is they’ve distilled from the footage. That’s really where the movie is made. As important as the writing is, those really are the plans, and as great as shooting is, that’s gathering the raw materials. It’s all the clichés, but the editing room is the final rewrite. In fact, it’s often incredibly valuable for writers to sit in the editing room for a day. I don’t get to do it on every film, but many times I have been able to. They’re available, and it’s always very useful because it turns out writers can be pretty ruthless with themselves when they finally see stuff and it didn’t work quite the way they wanted it to or how they expected. Editors can be very clear about helping you take it to that next level. I live with the films very intimately for a long time after they’re shot. From in Front of the Camera to Behind It

As a little kid, I saw my dad directing plays. He never directed fi lm, but he used to direct theater in the Los Angeles area. A lot of the directors on The 76

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Andy Griffith Show had been actors, and I became very interested in the whole process. I loved hanging around with the actors. I was exposed to a lot of the writing process because the cast of the show was allowed to hang around for an hour or so after the read-through. You could hear the writers talk, hear Andy and others with real clout talk about scenes that were bothering them. It was a great education. I also began to see what the camera was about, and the sound people and every other phase. I saw that the director was the person who got to play with everyone and interact with everyone. As I said earlier, I fell in love with the medium of movies and the different kinds of stories that could be told and the different kinds of feeling you could draw from an audience. I was feeling it as a moviegoer as I moved into my teens, and I really wanted that experience. I didn’t necessarily feel empowered to do that. I didn’t feel I had the talent or that it was really my responsibility as an actor to feel ownership over those moments and that kind of audience reaction. I wanted to take on the responsibility of something that appealed to me. I learned a very important lesson when I began directing, and fortunately I learned it while making short fi lms. I was making these shorts and writing the scripts and getting professional actors, my family members, and other people to be in these things, and none of their performances were very good. They were certainly better in other things than they were in my fi lms, and I was really disappointed in that. At that point I wound up acting for a TV director, a famous director named Tom Gries, who won many Emmys on a drama written by Lanford Wilson called The Migrants. It was very good writing. I loved the experience of being in this film. I realized when it was over, I thought that Tom Gries was a great director and he really helped me. I realized he’d only given me about a half a dozen real directions during the whole shoot. This was the beginning of a rule called the “six of one, half a dozen of another.” If I think I know what the objective is for a moment, a sequence, whatever it might be—if the DP or the production designer, or certainly the writer and absolutely the actor, has a way of achieving that, I will shut up and not give my direction as long as the objective is being achieved. Because what I found is when people are working with ideas that they own, that are born of their own imagination, it’s richer, it’s deeper, it’s more committed. If it’s going in the wrong direction, I’ll move in and start talking about it. It’s still a little different from something that emerges from their own imagination and their own instincts. That’s what I learned. I learned to kind of shut up a little bit.

Ron Howard

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A Conversation with Ron Howard, Jim Lovell, Sy Liebergot, John Aaron, Jerry Bostick, Michael Corenblith, Al Reinert, and William Broyles Jr. m o d er at e d b y j a n e s umn er

jane sumner: This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. At no other festival will you see a lineup like this one. Now let’s meet our real-life heroes. We’re going to focus on what they did during those four breathless days in April. Captain Jim Lovell, the commander, you saw him in the film as the captain of the USS Iwo Jima, the recovery ship. John Aaron and Sy Liebergot were EECOMs, which stands for Electrical and Environmental Communications, and were mission control flight controllers on all manned Apollo missions. Sy was played ably by Clint Howard. John Aaron was off duty when the explosion occurred. Arnie Aldrich called him to mission control early to assist the mission control team in understanding the problem. Later, flight director Gene Kranz put him in charge of rationing the spacecraft’s power during the return flight, and it was Mr. Aaron who developed the power-up sequence that permitted the command module to reenter safely on limited battery power. Loren Dean played Mr. Aaron. Jerry Bostick was flight dynamics officer on Apollo 13. He was one of the key flight controllers responsible for the rescue. He also served as technical advisor on the movie; and his son Mike was coproducer, and it was Mike who suggested Mr. Howard acquire the rights to Commander Lovell’s bestseller, Lost Moon. The rascally writing team of Al Reinert and Bill Broyles Jr. got an Oscar nomination. Al started out as a journalist for the Houston Chronicle, and by Apollo 13, he had already written, directed, and produced the powerful Oscar-nominated documentary For All Mankind. And although he no longer lives in Texas, I think of Al’s screenwriting

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partner on Apollo 13 as “our own” Bill Broyles. The fifth-generation Texan was founding editor of Texas Monthly, creator of the China Beach TV series, the author of Brothers in Arms, and his many screenplay credits include the cosmic and comic: Cast Away, The Polar Express, Jarhead, and Flags of our Fathers. And Mr. Michael Corenblith, the gifted native Texan and the University of Texas at Austin graduate. He was responsible for the stunning look of Apollo 13, and if you were around in 2004, you know he did that amazing set for The Alamo out in Bee Cave. He also designed How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frost/Nixon for Mr. Howard. Mr. Bostick, I understand you have a story about the line, “Failure is not an option.” jerry bostick: Well, first of all, I’m surprised that it got so much attention. Bill and Al, as the scriptwriters, had asked if I would meet with them. They wanted to get a sense of what makes a flight controller tick. So we had lunch at a Cajun barbecue place in Clear Lake, and I tried to answer all their questions about how fl ight controllers are trained, how we try to write mission rules, and how to be prepared for any event that might occur. But of course, on Apollo 13, there weren’t any mission rules for that kind of a problem, so we had to wing it. One of them asked me, “Well, at the time of the explosion, weren’t there a lot of people in the control center who panicked?” And I said, “No, of course not. We just laid out all of the options, and failure was not one of them.” I sensed immediately that Bill was getting bored with the conversation. And then I found out years later that they went into the parking lot and said, “That’s it!” al reinert: You’re talking about a couple of crack screenwriters. I remember when you said that, Jerry, and I remember looking at Bill, and I think I said, “Okay, we’re gonna steal that.” sumner: I want to say that in my twenty years at the Dallas Morning News writing about fi lm, I interviewed more than one director whose ego could take its own physical. This was not true of Ron Howard. We watched him grow up. He did one of his first directing jobs in Texas, and he kept the same hat size. ron howard: Well, that’s just ’cause the hair fell out. sumner: Mr. Howard, I’ve always wondered, is it true John Travolta passed up the role as Jim Lovell? howard: No, we never talked to John about that. I tried very hard to

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get Travolta to do Splash, however, but that one went to Tom Hanks. There were a lot of names on the list people at the studio wanted me to consider. Early on I realized Tom Hanks loved the space program and knew so much about it. When I began talking to him about the screenplay and the story, his instincts about it were so pure. I just felt his knowledge and belief in the story were going to carry this inherent drama and that he was going to be a very important collaborator. And at that point, he had done Philadelphia, but it wasn’t out yet. He had done some comedy-dramas, but nothing really hard hitting. So when I would tell my friends Tom was going to be in this movie, they would say, “Are you doing a comedy about space?” And I would say, “No, no, no, it’ll be great.” By the time we actually made the movie and it was released, he had won two Academy Awards in a row, and we were very happy to have him as our dramatic leading man. sumner: Let me ask you and Mr. Corenblith, were you involved in the five hundred parabolic arc flights you had to endure for the weightless scenes? michael corenblith: I wouldn’t say endure. It was nothing but pure fun for us. But the answer is yes, we were—five hundred plus. More time weightless than John Glenn’s first orbital fl ight. howard: Twenty-three seconds at a time. It was quite an interesting drill. We were always trying to come to terms with how we would do the weightlessness. And it had been done in movies, but it always involved wires and it was pretty transparent in its sort of manipulation of things. Then Spielberg told me—I was talking to him about this movie, and he said, “I think they used to bolt the Gemini down into this airplane and practice doing EVAs [extravehicular activity] that way.” So I asked around, and lo and behold, he was right. It was a great clue. I started to think, “Well, if they could bolt the Gemini capsule down and practice EVAs, we could bolt our set down and float around inside it.” For a while, NASA wasn’t going to cooperate, and then there was a little talk of renting a Russian plane. The insurance companies didn’t like that one too much. Captain Lovell stepped in on our behalf at NASA. We were given one test flight to vet us and for us to determine the feasibility of all of this. In order to actually do it, we had to go through two or three days of flight training, physicals, and take written tests so their insurance was covered. Our test mission was the most exhilarating thing ever. Within days we had the green light to go ahead. Did you ever talk directly to anybody, Jim? jim lovell: Well, no. I knew this was really going to be innovative in

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the movie industry. I wanted to have the most realistic zero gravity that we could, and I had been on the Vomit Comet, as they call it, but I thought this would be perfect if we could do the movie in some of the zero G work in the spacecraft. So I talked to NASA about it, and of course they were always saying, “Hey, this is a government process. Go to a commercial airliner to do this.” And finally they said, “No, you can’t do that. Let’s do it.” And so that’s when it went ahead. I remember sitting at the Oscars, and I said there are only two movies that are in contention for special effects: one is Apollo 13 with the zero gravity, and the other one was for a movie called Babe. Now, if you don’t know what that was, it was about a talking pig. There have been plenty of movies about talking animals. Guess who got the Oscar? howard: Babe. But one of the things I was proudest of, and then we’ll get off the zero G, was that we planned every mission. Every fl ight, we were going to do about ten setups. We would average about forty parabolas a flight for a couple of hours, and we had to plot it out very carefully, storyboard it, and act it out. We were not allowed very many people. The actors had to basically gaff their own props, wardrobe changes, and all of that. We would rehearse it, and then we would move quickly because they would do a parabola, then come out of it, and then go right into the next parabola. There was no sort of leveling off. They just go from one to the other. So I had to be able to yell out, “Shot three!” and people knew what that was. The actors quickly adapted to this, but one of the problems was when you had to do a second take. Because when you do the parabola, you’re floating, then you hit the ground and slam to the floor. You learn how to do this so that you don’t get hurt, and it’s all padded, but then they pull out of it and now you’re pulling two Gs. Then everybody is sort of pressed to the floor, and suddenly now you’re floating again. So there’s not much in-between, plus the engines are droning. At one point—and I’ve never seen Tom Hanks look more admiringly at me—we were in the middle of it, and I had pressed myself over. And I said, “In the next take, don’t forget to look over the bill and hesitate before you reach out for the button.” And he looked at me like, you are out of your mind, but I love you. And they made the little adjustment. So I found a way to actually direct when we were pulling two Gs. It was a small triumph. sumner: In 2000, the Vomit Comet was decommissioned and was given to the city of Houston. It is displayed at Ellington Field, if you ever want to see where that happened.

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howard: I’m not sure I ever want to see it again. They have a little cocktail called Scope’s Deck, which was scopolamine and exocrine. The scopolamine kept you from throwing up and the exocrine kept you from falling asleep. And that helped. We only had one instance where a camera operator did lose it all over Bill Paxton. But Bill Paxton is the kind of guy that when the shot was over, he just said, “Was that cool or what?!” Bless his spirit. I’m sorry. The Structure

william broyles jr.: The structure is very simple, suspensewise. Will they get up? And will they get down? So that is suspense right away. One of the challenges is, how do you keep the suspense when we all know that they do get up and they do get down? We considered from the beginning a kind of tripod for the movie, with the capsule being one, mission control being one, and the family being the third—the key being that although we know what happens to the people in the capsule, the people in mission control and the people at home don’t know. So part of the brilliance of what Ron, and everyone, did was to make the drama so powerful that the audience becomes invested and becomes the characters. You look at that liftoff, that extraordinary sequence, and to me, the emotion always hits when they cut to that two-shot of Marilyn Lovell and Fred Haise’s wife. That’s where the emotion comes in, because suddenly I’m feeling what they are feeling. Every now and then we thought, shouldn’t we have an antagonist? Shouldn’t someone be a bad guy? And then you realize that the story is so much bigger than that. That the heroes, interestingly enough in this, are not just the astronauts, but all these controllers on the ground. And I think that’s a really interesting contrast with the kind of ethic we’ve seen in the country in the last ten or fifteen years. howard: There was a real turning point, and of course it’s a survival story on one level. That was what was immediate to me. That it was a kind of thriller and a test, a story of human endurance that has real dramatic value. There are fi lms like that that have worked over the years, but when I actually went to Houston and was researching it for the first time and met with mission controllers, actually in the old mission control room, it was a real revelation and changed the way I approached the fi lm. One of the things that immediately became apparent to me was somebody described the circumstance as though they were MASH doctors, two miles off the front lines, and somebody had been dragged in, and then plopped on their 82

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table dying, and it was their buddy from boot camp. That’s the way they felt about these three guys. That was so clearly the case that in addition to being a survival story, it became a rescue story. I thought that added a tremendous dimension to the whole thing. The idea of really investigating what the journey meant to them individually, starting with the Mattingly/Swigert switch; starting with Lovell’s desperate need to want to go and getting the mission and it frightening Marilyn, his wife. All of those are very human touchstones that we can relate to. Identifying it and really building on it creates suspense, and the idea is to get the audience off the big picture and follow the details. To ask themselves, what price are they paying for enduring this thing? What is the test to their character, to who they are? Directing Mission Control

howard: Much of the detail is not scripted, but I wanted nonstop activity and for it to be authentic. So if something doesn’t make much sense, I’m going to cut it, but I told the actors we were going to have two cameras going all the time. The mission controllers who look the most alive are going to get the most screen time. They suddenly made good friends with people like Jerry Bostick. We took the scenes that were concisely written and we would build them out into a two- or three-minute scene that basically encompassed what we were learning about the transcripts. So the first cut of the movie was extremely long, and we had to take it back to what was basically scripted. But it was infused with this air of authenticity, as the actors in the capsule in mission control really knew what the procedures were about, and they were following them. It gave it a kind of logic that resonates. The Manual Burn

lovell: As Ron showed in the movie, which was very accurate, coming home we were coming in below the proper corridor to make a safe landing. So we had to do what we call a manual burn. We had everything turned off by this time, including the guidance system, the computer, and the autopilot, which helped us stabilize everything. So when they said we have to get back into the corridor, otherwise we’re not going to make a safe landing, this was disconcerting to us. It turned out that on Apollo 8, on my first fl ight to the Moon, I had inRon Howard et al.

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advertently disengaged the guidance system and the computers, so I had to relearn that all over again. So there was some training on 8 that helped me on 13. It was pretty interesting. I’ll tell a little secret to everybody here: that of course the experts on the space programs said, “Well, you know, this was not really the way it was; there are 125 different little defects in this movie, like Lovell didn’t have a red Corvette, he had a blue Corvette.” But if you see the final sequence of the movie, we had to do the manual burn. The Earth is in the background, with the fi lm being shot behind the vehicle, and you can see the flames coming out of the engine, and we’re moving back and forth to try to get on the proper course. That was not the case. We were burning vertical coming into the Earth because we had to change the angle to make a safe landing. And when I mentioned that to Ron as a consultant, he said, “It’s a lot more dramatic to show you coming in like that.” I said, “Okay, we’ll leave it that way.” howard: I’d really like to hear from the mission controllers about their perspective. Not so much about the movie, but the experience of the mission itself. sy liebergot: I wanted to go home. I was unfortunate enough to be sitting at the console on the last hour of my eight-hour shift, and the tank blew up as a result of my asking for an extra crew activity called “stir the cryos.” I look back on this and talk about it, because it turns out that the cryos-stir and explosion could not have occurred at a better time. There was no guarantee, by the way, when the crew would stir the cryos tanks to make them homogeneous so we could get an accurate reading on the quantity gauge. So they would do this once a day, in the morning, and we would get an accurate reading, and take a pencil, and plot it on a piece of graph paper back in those days. Now, the tank wiring had been overheated. It was charred, cracked, and it wouldn’t have taken much of a jiggle to short these two wires to cause a spark. And as a lot of you know, a little bit of hydrocarbon and a lot of pure oxygen makes a big fire and explosions. We had exactly that. At forty-seven hours into the mission, we stirred the cryos. The tank didn’t blow up. Now, these tanks were all the same, all the way through, including Apollo 11. At forty-nine hours, we lost the quantity gauge on O2 tank two that apparently had nothing to do with the explosion. So we decide to stir the cryos again to see if we could make it come back. The tank didn’t blow up. There was nothing to say that at fifty-six hours, when I asked for the extra stir, that the tank would have blown up. There was nothing to say that the tank, or the wires, wouldn’t

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have shorted out and caused an explosion when Jim and the guys woke up in the morning and stirred the cryos. But it could have occurred just as well when they were down on the surface of the Moon and Jack Swigert was tooling around in lunar orbit and he stirred the cryos. If that had happened then, they would have died. If it had happened on Apollo 8, they would have died in three hours. So it couldn’t have happened at a better time, it turns out. So I went from “no good deed goes unpunished” to my lucky stir, it turns out. Also, a lot of people don’t know this—I wrote about it in my book—but here’s something I found out from Jim Hannigan, who is the branch chief for the lunar module flight controllers. On Apollo 10, prior to the mission, during the mission training simulations, the simulation guys, whom I always called “those who are always out to get us,” decided they would test the Apollo guys. There were no lunar module guys around, so they decided to put a failure in and put in an un-isolatable leak into the hydrogen tanks, and what that meant was loss of all power for the three fuel cells. Same failure we essentially had on Apollo 13. Well, the crew died. And the flight director who was on duty at the time said, “Unrealistic failure. It’ll never happen.” It happened within two hours of the time that it actually happened on Apollo 13. Those sim guys are eerie, I tell ya. Anyway, that’s enough of that.

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Up Close with Callie Khouri

I grew up in a small town, Paducah, Kentucky, but I should’ve grown up in New York City. I think I could’ve done so much more if I had been in a place where I knew anything at all was going on. I really got a late start. I watched a tremendous amount of bad and good television. I watched every episode of The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I watched a lot of old movies. We had two movie theaters in our town, the Columbia and the Arcade, and my mom would drop us off there on Saturdays. One day she dropped us off for an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Frenzy. I was around eight years old, and I never forgot the feeling of thinking, “This is totally inappropriate!” I read anything I could get my hands on. I started reading Joseph Heller when I was eleven or something, Charles Dickens, the complete Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Jane Austen, James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut. I just needed stimulation. It was a small town, and I smoked a lot of pot. I think it’s really common in small towns everywhere. You take your kids to a small town, there’s nothing to do, and so they do drugs. It was the seventies, and that’s what everybody was doing. I also listened to a lot of music. I had an older brother and sister—they were ten years older—so the Stones, Dylan, and Led Zeppelin were in the house. My parents listened to a lot of jazz, so I listened to a lot of Dinah Washington, Dionne Warwick, Sarah Vaughan, and Miles Davis. I listened to a ton of music. In the den at night when everyone else was asleep, I was rocking out. I left the day after I graduated from high school. I moved to Boston for the summer and lived with my cousin. That was the first time I thought,

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“You’ve got to be kidding me. Why have I been holed up in this pen for so long?” I felt like I’d been in prison. There was a whole city with big museums and tons of movie theaters. Even in Boston in 1975 there were more movie theaters in one block than there were within two hundred miles of where I lived. The summer I was there, there was a lot of racial tension over busing, over everything I’d grown up with in the South, and the race thing always bugged the shit out of me. I was uncomfortable the whole time because I thought, “This is so wrong, and people just accept that this is how it is.” I had a real love-hate thing with the South, and I still do, but it’s not just the South that’s racist. I think I was aware of it because my dad was Lebanese and had dark skin. He was a doctor, but there’s a very subtle form of racism, and he made us aware of it. Then I went to Boston, and it was a really tense place to be. I was there with all my white guilt, thinking, “What should I do? How can I tell them I’m on their side?” There were some incredibly tense moments that summer. I got on a bus one time, and this guy was ranting. He was so angry, and I was just sitting there. There were only three white people on the bus, and everybody else stayed really still while this guy went off. The thing is, I agreed with everything he said. Not one thing he said was wrong, and I totally understood his anger. I completely agreed. Maybe it was because as a woman you also inhabit a world that asks you to be less than you are. With any kind of oppression, you can say, “Yeah, that totally sucks.” Anger is the appropriate response. You’re not a human being if you don’t respond to that. In any case, it made me start thinking of the world in a much bigger way than I had been in Paducah, Kentucky. Before, it had just been this nagging feeling. Then I started to realize it’s not just a small-town problem. The whole world is having some serious problems. I was in high school when my dad died. I started doing plays because it was so hard to be home at night without him in the house. I needed something to do, and rehearsal went till 10:00 p.m., so that’s how I started. It was great. It was a lot of fun, and it brought out the ham in me. I really loved drama, and comedy, too. It was an aspect of myself that I’d never even considered. When I was in college at Purdue, the Guthrie Theater would send people down, and we would get to do master classes. We did a lot of Tennessee Williams. We did a wide variety of things. Once, the Juilliard company came, and it was when Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline were madly in

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love. They would be wrapped around each other making out all the time, and then they would go on stage, doing The Robber Bridegroom and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unbelievable! It was so great. I had no idea theater could be that great. You saw none of the work. You only saw the characters. Then you’d see them off stage, and they were completely different. On stage, every single fiber of them became a character. The physical and vocal control, the understanding of every word coming out of their mouths, the nuance . . . it was absolutely stunning. Obviously, it was the writing that got them there. They were doing the best plays ever written. More than a Competent Amateur

I think there’s a part that has to be more than just you. I honestly believe, at some point, some other thing has to be summoned that comes from outside or inside you. I’m not sure how it gets there, but when you’re writing at a higher level than you feel you’re capable of, there’s something else at work there. You almost have to conjure it. With Thelma & Louise, I was called to it. That was the greatest writing experience I’ve ever had, and I don’t expect I’ll ever have that again. I’d never written anything before, so I had nothing on the line, but I got this idea and it felt like something had come to me. I had a responsibility to get it on paper. It consumed me. Literally, I would wake up in the middle of the night to write. That doesn’t happen to me now. I wish it did, because when it does, it’s a lot easier than sitting there and having to think of it. That’s not to say I didn’t have hours and hours where I sat there knowing where the story was going but not how to get there. I didn’t outline it. I didn’t know each scene. Each time I sat down, I just knew I had to progress the story. I knew nothing about screenwriting. I didn’t read any books. I remember one day I was in a bookstore, and I picked up a Syd Field book. There was a diagram inside, and I was like, “Oh, shit, math,” and I closed it. I knew if I started trying to learn rules or limits, I wasn’t going to be able to do it. It’s one of the problems I have with all these structure workshops. You know what a story is. It’s a beginning, middle, and end. What the fuck else do you need to know? Just watch a movie! You know how stories get told. Charlie Kaufman’s not reading, fucking, “On page twenty-three, have an inciting incident.” You know what I mean? People know how to tell stories.

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Don’t say there’s this one way to do it. What that does is gives you stories like other stories that have been told, and that’s not what you want. You don’t want to tell the same story. There’s no math. It should be a total feeling, visual experience for screenwriters. It’s got to be a visual experience. It really irritates me when they say, “Well, there are only twelve stories.” No, there aren’t. There are millions. Even if they have things in common, they’re all a little bit different. It’s not the same old story. It’s our job as writers to make sure they’re different. Nashville and Writing for TV

We have a six-act structure, and we have each character in every act. It has to be set up a certain way. I suck at it. But I’ve got a talented room of screenwriters. They’re wonderful, smart, and experienced, and they all know exactly how to do it. Sometimes I just sit there, watch, and think, “Goddamn, man, I wish I could get my mind to work like that.” Sometimes, I’ll watch them start down a path, and I’ll think, “Oh, they’re doing that because that’s the structure, the point in which X or Y has to happen,” so I say, “Wait a minute. What really would be going on with that person? Let’s talk about where they’re at emotionally. Let’s get back to where the character is emotionally and solve it this way.” If we can do that, then there is something useful I can bring. I know the characters—how they talk, how they feel, how they think—but when it comes to setting up arcs for acts and stuff like that, I glaze over. I’m useless. I did write the pilot and the second episode, and I’ve written other episodes, so I’m not as useless as I’m making it sound, but still, I wish I was better at it. There’s quite a bit of difference between writing for film and writing for television. I’ve never written with anyone else for film, so it’s kind of a lone process. With a writers’ room you’ve got nine other people all working toward the same goal. Somebody comes up with an idea you can expand upon, and then they build upon that. It’s a much more collaborative process in the writing stage than anything I’ve done before. It’s fun. It’s really a rewarding thing for me after years of being in the room by myself. Some days it can be really fast-paced and exciting, and other days it looks like you’re walking into a ward full of the most depressed people in the world. Even then, it helps to have company. Because we have to do twenty-two episodes, there’s not a lot of time for sitting around pondering. You have to get it on paper. You have to get a draft out.

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I think the most important lesson I’ve learned about writing for film and television is that procrastination is part of it. It’s a lot harder in television to take the amount of time I like to take to write, but I don’t get as upset if it takes a few minutes for things to come to me. Sometimes you spend a whole day not writing anything, and by the end of the day you’re completely demoralized. Then the next day you have a big, full day. It’s not like a nine-to-five job, but you still have to sit down and write stuff even if it’s bad. Expecting it to always be there when you show up just doesn’t happen. I think I give myself a lot more forgiveness about that than I did when I started. It’s different when you have something you’re dying to write, as opposed to something you have to write, but even when you’re dying to write, you still will clean your house, go through your mail, take the dog for a walk, make sure the laundry’s done, or whatever other little thing you can come up with before you start writing. I’ve never been one of those people who jump up in the morning and go straight to the computer. Once I start, it’s the last thing I’ll do all day. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Everything I got after Thelma & Louise was “women, women, women,” and I got to the point where I thought I’d pretty much said everything I had to say on the subject of women. Nobody wants to do the same thing over and over again. In the meantime, I tried to get a baseball movie made that was a romantic comedy, and I was also working on a script about the Pettys, the stock-car racing family, and that didn’t get made. Then suddenly Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood comes to me, and I thought, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. No!” It was exactly what I didn’t want to do. I remember driving through Utah with my then husband. I finished the book, rolled down the window, and—I hate littering more than anything— threw it out. I thought, “These motherfuckers! I can’t believe this is what they want me to do.” I couldn’t see what I was going to bring to the story, and again, I was trying to get something made that wasn’t about women. So when they offered me the ultimate female movie, I was mad and thought, “I don’t even know how to tell that story.” Then it happened that I was getting on a plane with Courtenay Valenti, who worked at Warner Bros., and we were talking about it because our mutual friend Lorenzo di Bonaventura was the one

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who had offered this to me to direct. I said, “I don’t even know what this is about. I mean, it’s about friendships, but . . .” She said, “I know exactly what it’s about,” and explains that it’s about the relationship this girl has to her mother. Her mother has damaged her so completely, she’s carrying it with her, and it’s totally impeding her whole worldview. Then her friends come and humanize her mother for her. In the book, they weren’t together. She’s at a cabin by herself and everything happens on the phone. But when Courtenay said that to me, I said, “Oh. Okay. I can do that.” Immediately the whole thing became crystal clear. I got it, but I had to change a lot of what was in the book. I didn’t want to do anything to put off fans of the book, but certainly having her alone in a cabin with people calling and telling her stories over the phone wasn’t going to work, so I had to come up with a device to get them all together. Doing Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was an incredible experience because I got to work with so many brilliant actresses: Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, Shirley Knight, Fionnula Flanagan. I was so excited to go to work every day. Ellen Burstyn is one of my idols. It was absolutely thrilling to watch her process and be part of that. I love directing, so getting to direct something you write is really, really fun. It was my first time directing, it was with all these incredible people, and I loved it. I think that’s the most fun I’ve ever had. On Directing

It’s just more writing, more storytelling. It’s the same thing. If you’re a screenwriter, you have to come at it from a visual point of view, so when you don’t get to actualize your vision, it’s very frustrating. There’s always the part where you imagine it, and then you go to the location and it’s different. Then you cast it and it’s different. Then the actors do it and it’s different. Then you edit it and it’s different. At least you’re writing it the whole way through, and for me, writing is a visual thing. When I was doing Something to Talk About with the director Lasse Hallström, I was on the set every single day. I was at the camera at all times. I was standing there with him. I was as involved as a writer could be. It was that collaborative. One day, one of the editors was talking to Lasse and then turned to me and said, “But it all begins with the words.” Something rose up in me. I said, “No, it all begins with the picture in my head. It

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doesn’t begin with the words. It begins with the picture, and I find words to describe that picture. Don’t talk to me about words. I’m the screenwriter.” I felt it was a complete misunderstanding of the process, because we are writing pictures. Novelists write words. They create entire worlds, but our writing is specifically designed to be a picture, so the idea that we are somehow left out of the process of making it a picture . . . I just don’t know. I always encourage writers to think about it like that. Think about the picture. Think about the scope. They hate it when you direct the script in the writing, but when I’m writing, I know whether something’s going to be a close-up or a wide shot. I take exception to, “We do the wordy part, and everybody else takes care of the rest.” To me, that’s not what it is at all. When directing television, I know I have a limited amount of time to tell the story. If I want to put a big, sweeping shot in, I won’t always put it in at the beginning or the end, because we may have to cut it for time. I have to figure out how to get my big shots right in the middle of the scene. Once Syd Field broke it down, it seemed obvious, but at the time I knew simply that every story has a beginning, middle, and end, and the end had better be a big one. Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end, and that economy is the soul of screenwriting. You want to come into a scene in a way that tells everyone what’s happening, and you want to give as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time. I often try to think of the whole scene as if I couldn’t use words. What would the pictures be? What would I need to show to tell the story if nobody said a word? Then I use the words to reveal what the characters are trying to hide from themselves or someone else, and what they want that they don’t want to come out and say. What resentments are they harboring? What secret dreams do they have? I use the dialogue to kind of paint or fill in. Films that Inspire

There are so many fi lms I absolutely love. I love old film noir, Out of the Past, Lonely Are the Brave . . . I love a lot of black-and-white fi lms from the fifties and forties where the women were heroines—movies with Myrna Loy, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Bette Davis, and those kinds of actresses. Those movies really inspired me. Those characters—smart, snappy-comeback women—really made me want to do it. Of course, Katharine Hepburn films were incredibly inspiring. Too many pictures to name.

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Creating Characters

When I start working on a character, I really just sit there and think about them. I think about them like any friend of mine I’m trying to figure out. I wait for things to come to me about them. When I know who they are— what kind of toothpaste they’re using, what they’re thinking about, what they’re not saying, as opposed to what they are saying—then I can start writing them. Then it’s just crafting a line that either reveals something about them or gives you information that’s pushing the story forward. You’re constantly making finite choices about what kind of information is going to come out of the character’s mouth. Is it going to be something about them, is it going to be something that pushes the story forward? You’re also trying to make the dialogue sound as natural as possible and give the character a distinctive voice. How do they speak that’s different from how I speak? What’s their rhythm? What’s the pitch of their voice? What’s the speed at which they speak? I have to hear that before I can write it. Where Stories Come From

There was an incident that happened when I was growing up, where a woman confronted her husband at a bar in her nightgown. She had been waiting at home, finally got tired of it, got in her car, went to the bar, and was like, “Get your ass out here right now!” She was out in front of the bar, and he had to come out. She was like, “Get home!” So that stuck with me for years, and I used it in Something to Talk About with a character played by Julia Roberts. There are little things that stay tucked away for years, and then when you’re writing a character, they pop up, and you feel like, “Oh my gosh, this is a perfect moment to use that story.” When I was writing Nashville, I did start thinking about Connie Britton very early on because I was having trouble finding the character. I thought, “If I had to say someone was going to play her, who would it be?” And all of a sudden I realize, oh, it’s Connie Britton. Once I had her in mind, she became the embodiment for me to write that character. Then I just had to make sure she played the role. There’s inspiration everywhere. You just have to pay attention to people and try to know what they’re thinking, I guess. I pay attention to people. If I’m in a coffee line or wherever, I try to figure out the people who

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work there. This is their job, but what do they want? What are they doing that’s not this job? What are their lives like when they’re not here? What are they like? If you listen to people, there are little clues all over the place. To me, those are the little things that go into making up a character, so I just try to listen a lot and get people to talk and tell me their stories.

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Callie Khouri on Thelma & Louise

The whole feeling of the movie came at once. It was like getting punched in the heart. My first thought of the movie was a kind of broad idea about two women going on a crime spree. I knew it was two average women who were not criminals, who were only outlaws in the sense that the society we are asked to live in is so insane that you can’t help but break the law if you are truly yourself. It was really one of those bolt-of-lightning moments I wish would happen more regularly. So I let that idea marinate for about four months and just asked myself a lot of questions about who the characters were. Where did Louise work? What did Thelma do? What were her days like? What was her husband like? I knew the ending, so I just had to figure out where to start. Once I felt like I knew who they were, I started writing. I wrote it from beginning to end, a scene at a time. There were times I would go for weeks without writing anything. I didn’t know what my next step would be, and I would just wait. Then it would show up, and I would write it. It wasn’t like I was channeling it. I literally had to wait, and the idea would hit me. Sometimes I would try to write, and nothing would happen. I remember one night I tried drinking whiskey, thinking that would help, and it didn’t work at all. So I ended that kind of approach. My friend Jessie Nelson says, “You just have to show up for the muse.” So that’s what I tried to do, and it worked. It was a really amazing experience, because I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I know if I had heard a bunch of rules about how to do it, I wouldn’t have done it. I didn’t read any books about how to write a screenplay because I knew as soon as there were limitations, I would feel inadequate. I couldn’t do anything to make myself feel inadequate. That was

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my main struggle. I didn’t tell people I was writing it because I knew the slightest bit of discouragement would stop me. I’m sure there are people who write who know what I’m talking about, especially if you live in LA. Everybody is writing a screenplay, and you know if you say you’re writing one, people will guffaw. So I just quietly went about my business, writing it on the sly. I’d never written anything before, and I had no idea how to do it. I just knew that people did it. I was producing music videos, but I watched people get stuff made that made me think, “Are you kidding me? That fucking clown got somebody to give him money to make a movie?” It was happening all over the place. So I thought, “Why can’t I be that fucking clown?” Mainly, I just wanted to see if I could finish it, because up until then, that was my biggest problem. That was my single goal. Beyond that, I had no idea what would happen. Louise and Thelma

I thought about it for about four months, and then I wrote it in six months. When I started thinking of Louise, I thought of her as a woman that no one would see. She was like Naomi Judd, a woman who wears makeup in such a way that you can’t really tell what her face looks like. Faith Hill is like that, too. A lot of women. They have faces that go on over their faces that completely change them. You have no idea what their real faces look like. That is so fascinating to me. It’s a way of hiding who you are. Louise was a character who hid. At first, I thought, she’s like one of those people at a huge office building in a big middle-American city, sitting at the front desk and directing you where to go. You have no idea what her life is, but she’s there to present a very specific kind of face and not show any of her real personality. That’s how I started thinking of her, only because I knew she was going to have this big part of herself that was in hiding. Later I thought, “No, that’s not quite it,” but I just let the idea marinate until I knew who both of them were. Even though I grew up in a small town, I was a country club kid, and I saw all the wives—the way they lived, what they did with their days, and what they thought was important. I felt like you were expected to be less than you were and be happy about it. I also wanted Thelma to not have so many options. She was doing her job, what was expected of her, getting married, and probably having kids—and for whatever reason they hadn’t

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gotten around to that. Her husband was the king of their tiny little castle, and she went about her day trying to figure out what he wanted without ever really thinking of herself that much. I wanted women I could love, that if I met them I’d feel like I knew them or would be friends with them, even though they were from a slightly lower social strata than the one I grew up in. I hadn’t prepared myself to become a professional. I wasn’t going to be a doctor. I wasn’t a business major. I hadn’t done any of that stuff. So these were the kind of women I was going to know in my working life. I was going to be a waitress. I did a lot of that, and I’m glad I did. The exposure is so important, not just to people you work with, but when you’re doing a job like that, you’re certainly in touch with the public every day. You come in contact with all different kinds of people in a very specific way, and you get to really look at and listen to them. Anyway, I felt like I needed to put them in a place where they weren’t going to have the money to get out. Money was going to be an issue because money was an issue for me, and because there’s a powerlessness that comes along with not having money that cannot be denied. Money is power. There’s no getting around it. On Completing the Script

I was euphoric because I loved it so much. And completely sanguine, thinking, “I’m going to try to get somebody to give me money, and I don’t know how many years it’s going to take, but I’m going to make this movie.” I was so happy I could not see straight, but I still wasn’t handing it out to people to read. I was really careful about it because I was working at a production company. I worked with guys who are still producing movies, like Steve Golin, who runs Anonymous Content. I would never have given it to them, because I’d worked as their assistant, and I thought, “They’ll give me $5,000, tell me how lucky I am, give it to some director, change it, and then I’ll be even more pissed off than I already am.” I showed it to a friend I had been producing with, Amanda Temple. Her husband, Julien Temple, is a director who did the movies Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy. He is a fabulous director, and Amanda was one of my closest friends. I loved her so much, and I let her read it. There was one other person I let read it, and she was working for Steve Golin. She was their script development person, but she was a really good friend

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of mine, and I let her read it as I wrote it. I would give her scenes, and she kept saying, “Oh my God. Keep going.” I just thought, “She loves me, that’s so sweet.” I didn’t really think she was responding so much to the material. I knew it was a compelling story I was telling, and I was having fun telling it in a way that was unexpected. You want to surprise people, and I felt I did that. So I let Amanda read it, and she fl ipped out. So she asked, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to direct it.” She said, “Okay, let’s start trying to get money.” So we set about having meetings with people and trying to get financing. At some point she said, “I want to give it to my friend Mimi Polk. She works for Ridley Scott. They get a lot of foreign financing, so she might be able to set us onto somebody who can give us some money.” So I said okay. Then Mimi called and said, “I’d really love to let Ridley read this.” I thought, “Oh no. Dream’s over. He’s going to read it and say, ‘What? No!’” But that did not happen, so I’m glad he didn’t say no. Once they were shooting, I was only around a little bit when they needed something rewritten for a specific location. I did get to visit occasionally, but that was incredibly painful for me. Jonathan Demme said after he made Swing Shift he never agreed again to make a fi lm on which he didn’t have final cut. I don’t think I would ever make a film with anybody who wouldn’t want me on the set if I wrote it, and I really don’t want to make a fi lm that I don’t direct, because you’re separated from it. You pour every bit of yourself into it, they say, “Thank you! Goodbye!” and you never know what’s going to happen to it after that. It’s really painful if you care about what you’re doing. If you’re in this job to make money, just get stuff made, and don’t care how it turns out. It was never about that for me. It was a really personal thing, so any separation from it was incredibly frightening and painful. That said, the movie’s incredibly close to my draft. I was really lucky. I was lucky in the casting, for one thing. The tone of the movie is tough. It’s not easy to pull off, because it has to be serious and funny and all these different things at once. I didn’t think it was something just anybody was going to be able to do. It was going to take a certain type of actress to do it—two of which I got. We talked about it endlessly, and Ridley questioned me on a lot of it. He asked, “How do you think this is going to work? They’ve just shot this guy, they’re sitting in a coffee shop, she’s crying, she breaks this cup, and they get into a fight. Is that supposed to be funny?” I said, “Yeah.” He asked, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, it’ll work.” I could see it so clearly. I knew you

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were going to be with them, and that was the most important thing. Whatever the setup, you had to be with them when the whole thing started so you would be able to go with them for the whole ride. It was a very conscious thing. The Final Shot

To me, it’s a half full, half empty glass of water test. It tells me where they’re coming from and what their experience of the movie was. A lot of people see it that way. I sent them off a cliff, so it’s not an insane conclusion, but it was not a suicide. To me, it was an allegory. It was flying off into the mass unconscious and leaving them hanging in the air, so that years later, we’re still talking about it. I didn’t think of it as a suicide. The Brad Pitt Role

It was originally offered to Billy Baldwin, but he turned it down to do Backdraft, so we started the search for the right actor. Brad Pitt showed up and was perfect. He had never done anything. Thank God, Ridley had the good sense to cast him, because it wasn’t like anybody knew who he was. He sure took it and ran with it. “A toxic feminist movie” (US News & World Report)

I was stunned because I think anyone who knows me knows that is not where I’m coming from at all. I thought there were a lot of hysterical responses to it and overreactions. I thought, “Wow, people are really threatened.” All I can say is, if you’re a man and you felt threatened by it, now you know how women feel every time they walk into the movie theater. I wrote it in 1988, and I remember sitting in a theater with my husband—not the husband I have now, but the one I was going to marry at the time. We were at a movie, and we were there with another couple. I don’t remember what movie it was, but it was the one where Arnold Schwarzenegger puts the gun to the woman’s head, says, “Consider this a divorce,” and kills her. Even the guys looked at us like, “Okay, you girls run to the car, and we’ll cover you.” It felt so hostile, like, Jesus Christ, are you kidding me? This is entertainment? So those were the kind of movies that were out at the time. The inspiration for the truck driver was truck drivers. I didn’t put any10 2

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thing in the movie, except blowing up the truck and confronting him out of his truck, that I didn’t witness or experience. So that was not fiction to me. I’d like to see a show of hands of any woman who has ever had an obscene gesture from a stranger. It’s fairly common for females to receive that kind of unwanted attention. I think being in charge of your own exploitation is no better than being exploited by somebody else. It’s unfortunate. There’s a book that came out around the time Thelma & Louise came out called Backlash. All of a sudden there was this stripper culture everywhere and this push to sexualize young girls. It makes me very sad. I think it’s really damaging to both men and women. I wasn’t trying to be a screenwriter. I had, literally, nothing at stake. The only thing I was going to do was finish it. That was my only promise to myself. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night. There’s the scene when they call Darryl, and Louise says, “If he knows anything, hang up,” and then Thelma hangs up and says, “He knows.” I woke up, wrote that scene, and went back to sleep. That was the kind of stuff that was happening. In the interim, were there times when I wanted to throw my computer out a fifteen-story window? I haven’t done it, but I’ve had many, many moments like that. I think that just goes along with being a writer. Avoiding Texas

I had to use a map because I had to figure out, if they’re going to Mexico, and they’re starting in Arkansas, why aren’t they going through Texas? There’s no reason not to go through Texas, so I had to come up with a reason not to go through Texas. That was something that happened as I was writing the script. The whole backstory of Louise’s rape was not there when I started it. That was all a function of having to get them from Arkansas to the Grand Canyon. When I was writing, I had real people in my head. I could see them, although I don’t remember what they looked like now. Once I saw Geena and Susan, they were instantly the characters for me. It was an amazing thing. We were shooting the scene at the bar, and I walked in and saw the two of them sitting there at the table. It was the most bizarre feeling, because this thing that had been in my head for such a long time was suddenly right in front of me. I’m a little more sanguine about that now, but it is kind of amazing when it becomes real. Something Ridley and I talked a lot about was the look of the fi lm. I Callie Khouri

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said, “It’s got to be a love letter to the West. It should start out looking like a Sears catalogue and end up looking like if Maxfield Parrish painted the West. It should be almost a heavenlike picture.” I thought he really accomplished that many, many times. I wrote the whole thing longhand. When I go back and look at it, it’s amazing how much stayed the same. That never happens. It’s never happened since, that I’ve done a few drafts and haven’t made big changes. I’ve had to cut whole characters. What you do once you’re working for the man is a very different thing. Thelma & Louise really had a life of its own. It was going to come into the universe, come hell or high water, and I got to be an instrument of that.

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A Conversation with Harold Ramis m o d er at e d b y j u d d a pat o w

judd apatow: What movie do you look back on and think, “That’s the one we had a great time making”? harold ramis: Every single one of them, without exception. And I don’t say that as a Pollyanna, because there have been nightmare situations, but I thrive on disaster. I’m very excited when things go wrong. I’m really attracted to outlandish and excessive human behavior. Any experience with Bill Murray is better than any other experience because he does things no one you know would ever do. Every ride with Bill is a potential adventure. I say this with love and considerable distance, because I don’t talk to him and I don’t see him, but the memories of doing those fi lms with him, or even doing a film like Vacation .  .  . When I design productions, it’s kind of the best of all possible worlds for a social person, because you assemble everyone you like. If you’re lucky, you pick a beautiful place to make a movie, or a real interesting place, and then you’re with them for like, months, with nothing else to do but focus on the work. It’s like an excuse: “Can’t drive the kids to school, can’t help you with your homework, I’m working.” apatow: My wife is so onto that. She considers all work play. So if I’m not working and I say, “I’d like to go to the movies with my friends,” she’s like, “You fucking hang out with your friends all day long.” ramis: I had the same thing with my first wife. I said to her, “I’m working so hard for you, blah, blah, blah, you don’t appreciate it.” She said, “You love your work. Don’t ever claim this is hard for you.” apatow: Were you like that in the beginning? Like, were you nervous because you were directing for the first time, or it didn’t matter because you were high? 107

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ramis: Well, that helped get me through the early stages, but that only worked for the first ten years of my career, I think. apatow: What was the first movie you directed? ramis: The first movie I directed was Caddyshack. apatow: So you started at a very low level. ramis: Well, it was a low level. I didn’t know anything, and we were already kind of corrupted by the initial success of Animal House, which I’d written. I had been professionalized for ten years before Animal House; I’d been paid for writing and performing starting in 1968. So in ’78, when Animal House came out, I felt I could always support myself. I was through the job-struggle period; things were happening just as I thought they should. I went from improv comedy on the stage to doing television stuff, and then wrote a treatment for Animal House. The movie gets bought, movie gets made, it’s a huge hit. Producers were literally waiting outside screenings to meet me and Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, saying, “What do you guys want to do next?” It was like a dream. So I said, “I want to direct the next thing I write.” And Jon Peters, the producer best known as the hairdresser that married Barbra Streisand, he looked at me and said, “Well, you look like a director,” because I was wearing a safari jacket at the time and aviator glasses. apatow: Did you guys all get money from Animal House or did you get screwed? ramis: Well, we didn’t get rich. I got $2,500 for the treatments, and Chris, Doug, and I split $30,000 for the final product. Ten apiece. And they slipped me another two grand because I did the final polish. We shared five net points of the movie: 1.6 each. There were no gross players in the fi lm, and it was relatively low budget. So when the movie came out, we did a quick calculation and thought, “Hey, we’re going to make some money.” I think we made in the under $500,000 range, but then, in ’78 that seemed like a lot of money. I literally took the review to the bank, Home Savings in Santa Monica, and bought a house on the review of Animal House. Second City

apatow: For a lot of us, Animal House was the first R-rated movie we saw with our parents. We remember those boob shots while sitting next to Mommy and how uncomfortable that was. Tell me a little about Doug Kenney, who is a legend in National Lampoon, and also about your thoughts on

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this group of people that’s doing a lot of work together and as the years pass by and that crew separates. What was that social world like for those funny people? ramis: Having Second City as my first professional experience was great. Second City is so different from stand-up. In the world of stand-up, you really talk about killing—not just killing the audience, but killing the other comedian. It’s a competition every night of stand-up. You want to be better than anyone else. The whole thrust of Second City is to focus on making everyone else look good. In that process, we all look good. It’s more than collaborative. Your life on stage depends on other people and on developing actual techniques for creating cooperative work. We have rules, guidelines, games, and techniques that teach that. It fosters a spirit at Second City that exists to this day. Anyone who’s ever worked at Second City can run into any other generation of Second City players and they instantly share a language and an approach to their work. I did about three years of Second City. The shows are six nights a week, eight performances a week, so that’s a lot of stage experience. It’s all material you’ve written yourself. John Belushi got hired from Second City. We were in a show together, and he got hired to go do National Lampoon, and they did a big Woodstock music festival parody called Lemmings. It was a big breakout show for John; Chevy Chase was discovered in that show, and Christopher Guest. John was able to write his own ticket at the Lampoon, and the Lampoon wanted to do a radio hour, a nationally distributed radio show that built a studio in the Lampoon building. They let John be the producer. John brought me, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Brian Murray, and Joe Flaherty from Second City. We all moved to New York and had this great, cohesive, Second City spirit. My first day at Lampoon we were sent up to the radio studio, and all the editors at Lampoon were in the studio doing a musical version of Moby Dick, as if performed in a regional theater. They even put floorboards on the floor of the studio so when you walked around it sounded like a stage. We were all given parts, and that’s where I met all the editors. My fantasy that it was exactly like Second City, that these guys all worked together every day, turned out to be completely wrong. They all hated each other. They were all geniuses, half from Harvard, half from every where else. They were extremely competitive, very vicious. Doug Kenney was the really sweet guy, a hippie dropout from Harvard, that started the National Lampoon and then took a year off to live in a teepee in Martha’s Vineyard. He’d written a book called Teenage Commies

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from Outer Space and was their resident adolescence and puberty expert. So we did a stage show from Lampoon—John, Gilda, me, Bill, Brian, Joe. We took it on the road, then we did the radio hour for a while, and then Ivan Reitman saw us perform in Toronto. He wanted to do a movie with the Lampoon. I said, “What about a college movie?” So Doug Kenney and I teamed up, and then later we brought in Chris Miller. But Doug was always really elegant. He wanted to be Cary Grant; he wanted to be Chevy Chase, basically, but he didn’t have the performing chops. But he was as smart as could be. apatow: So those were the salad days, socially, for that group? It wasn’t like, “Oh no, the group broke up because . . .”? ramis: Not then. After Animal House was successful, we joined with Brian Murray and wrote Caddyshack together. Doug produced it, I directed it, Brian acted in it, and we were so arrogant and diluted that we thought Caddyshack would be as big as Animal House. To have your first movie be what was then like the biggest comedy ever, it set the bar a little high. Doug was already troubled, already wrestling with self-esteem issues because of family-of-origin problems and substance abuse issues. We had a horrific press conference for Caddyshack; it was one of the worst public events I’ve ever attended, and it was kind of my fault. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to get Chevy, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight on the stage to talk to the press?” Well, they scheduled it at nine thirty in the morning. None of those four had ever been up at nine thirty in the morning. Doug showed up at the conference drunk, stoned, coked up, and sleepless. Chevy was rude to the press. Rodney was totally out of it. Bill was crude and off-putting. And the press was hostile. At one point Doug stands up and tells them all to fuck themselves and then passes out at the table. Chevy concludes his last TV interview of the day with Brian Linehan of Toronto, and Brian says, “Chevy, what would you say about so-and-so?” and Chevy says, “What would I say? Can I say fuck you, Brian? Could I just say fuck you?” This is a televised interview. The next day someone sends me a clipping that says, “If this is the New Hollywood, let’s have the Old Hollywood back.” So Doug was depressed, and I get a call, and Doug says, “I’m going to Hawaii with Chevy for two weeks to clean up.” You do not go anywhere with Chevy to clean up. I thought, “This is a potential disaster. I cannot go on this trip.” Chevy came back, Doug did not. Doug fell from a high place on the island of Kauai, and his body was found a couple days later. It was

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beyond tragic. I’d been in a room with this guy eight hours a day for two movies. He’s like my brother and best friend. And he’s much loved by a great number of people. It was sobering, but in a way, it became like a Rorschach test for each member of our group. Some thought suicide: Doug was a victim of his own substance abuse, his own depression, whatever. Some thought accident: he was careless, just fate, existential accident. Others thought murdered by drug dealers on Kauai. And there was no evidence for any of it. It just depends on how you see the world. We eventually concluded that Doug slipped while looking for a place to jump. Same with John Belushi. John died two years later of an administered overdose, but it’s not a suicide when you let a stranger shoot you up and you don’t know what’s in the needle. If you’ve even gotten to the point of putting a needle in your body, it’s a form of suicide. It’s a reckless suicide. John Belushi was pulled twice from a burning bed. Happens once, kind of a wake-up call, you think. Twice, start thinking maybe you have a problem. apatow: You always hear that when Caddyshack was being made that everybody was on drugs and partying during the shoot of a movie. Was that what it was like? ramis: Well, everyone in the world of that age was on drugs and partying. It was the eighties in Florida. There were hotels literally built of pressed cocaine. They had so much cocaine they just used it as construction material to make walls. There was a lot of that going around. apatow: I’m always fascinated when I hear about people being on something when they’re taping Saturday Night Live. I think we got drunk once in the writers’ room of The Larry Sanders Show and then just went home and wrote nothing. When you were directing that movie, were you sober? ramis: Well, one of the miracles of substance abuse—and those who’ve had a substance abuse problem will know this—is that when you use something enough, eventually it loses its effect, whatever it is. That’s why addicts have to take more and more of it to get high, because you’re not even high anymore. People would come up to John Belushi at parties and just hand him drugs because they thought that was the way to John’s heart. They’d give him a little gram bottle of cocaine and go, “John, you want some coke?” And he’d go, “Yeah, the whole bottle.” You become a glutton. It’s a form of gluttony. If you’re high all the time, that becomes your sober state. The big difference would be not being high. Eventually, all of your judgments become relative to that state. It seemed no different. That was

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the miracle of getting sober for me, that it’s not different. It’s the same. I have the same problems, I have the same urges and desires and ideas and thoughts. I don’t need to be high. Eventually, getting high, I realized, just made me sick. I was sick. apatow: Is it kind of boring dealing with the impact of your body of work on people? Like how much it means to people? To comedy fans and movie fans, these are the movies that had impact in their lives. Can you feel that anymore? ramis: Well, grandiosity is the curse of what we do. There’s a great rabbinical motto that says you start each day with a note in each pocket. One note says, “The world was created for you today,” and the other note says, “I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe,” and you have to balance both things. The culture is what it is. I’m as much a product of our culture as I am a participant in it. It’s very gratifying on a personal level to know people responded so much and cherish those fi lms. Any of us who make fi lms or work in the arts, we aspire to have a dialogue with the culture, with our audience. Our audience could be an audience of one, like when you grab your best friend and say, “Read this, what do you think?” Our little hearts are pounding as our friend reads our thing, our poem, or looks at our painting, or reads our script. If they like it, our spirits soar. We can get grandiose from the approval of very few people. My ex-wife, watching my friends and me, she actually wrote a script of her own called Geniuses Together, because everyone was a genius. We’re all geniuses, right? And, of course, genius is a big thing. It shouldn’t be taken so lightly. But we all want to be, and studios are quick to tell you you’re a genius, because everyone is constantly hyping each other. If you’re a genius, I must be a genius. So I wrestle with being a real person and being a public person. Being a public person naturally involves the whole cultural response to these movies. apatow: If you look at the entire generation of people that you began with, very few of them have continued to work at a high level. There are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, crashed or their work crashed. Then you look at other people, like Larry Gelbart, who is still a great writer after fifty years. Do you attribute that to anything? I mean, no one was funnier than Chevy Chase, but you get a sense that at some point something happened to him in his life. What do you attribute your sanity to? ramis: The worst thing for Chevy was believing what people wrote about him. When people told him he was the Cary Grant of our generation,

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he actually believed it. And the shtick that made him famous, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” That WASP arrogance of being the perfect American male: I’m taller than you, I’m stronger than you, I can beat you at anything, I’m funny. He believed it. And it was true for about five minutes. What eventually happens in all our lives is we’re faced with developmental challenges. It’s always, “Now what?” We all start out to work for certain reasons. I think most guys in the room would recognize that we work to meet girls. The last line of Caddyshack is, “Hey, we’re all going to get laid,” and it was an improvised line that I can’t even believe I edited into the movie. Getting laid is just a metaphor for getting all the things we’re supposed to want when we’re adolescent. We want to be rich, we want power, we want to be attractive to people, we want all the perks of success. And then we’ll leave out of the discussion what happens when you don’t get it. But let’s say you’re Chevy and you do get it. You’re getting all the perks, people offer you money, women are throwing themselves at you, you’re famous. So now what? Now it becomes a measure of character, of growth, of development. Who do you want to be from that point on? You’re rich and famous, so what do you have to say? You’ve got the stage, you’re on it, now what? You’re there. Growth is hard. Twenty years after Vacation and he’s already done Vegas Vacation. He says, “We’ve got to do something together,” and I said, “Well, what are you thinking?” and he says, “Swiss Family Griswold.” My first thought is, “Do I need to do another Vacation movie? Does he need to do another Vacation movie?” So I said, “Maybe it would be better to do something you’re actually interested in, like an issue in your life?” When you’re almost sixty years old, there’s got to be something more going on. What are the challenges of being a grown-up in the world? Start with something that’s important or interesting to you and then that’s what you make the movies out of. It’s like the rat in the experiment. It just keeps going back and hitting the lever to get the same reward each time. It’s all about growth and development. I’ve tried to find meaning or create meaning in each of the fi lms—and a meaning that’s specific to me, meaningful to me at that time in my life—with more or less success. All I can address is the sincerity and the meaningfulness for me. apatow: And you don’t think Vegas Vacation does that? ramis: If I had to do a Vegas fi lm, I would be looking for, what does Vegas say about society? What does this mean to me? What does this say about the addiction to gambling? What does this represent? Everything

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means something, intended or not. Every story tells a big, subtextual story. It’s all rich. It’s all subject to interpretation. That’s the fun of it, isn’t it? When we see generic work that has only one interpretation, so what? You might as well stay at home and watch another rerun of Friends than see another romantic comedy. And I don’t mean to be down on romantic comedy. apatow: Unless the guy’s never had sex for forty years. ramis: That was a good one, though. That transcended romantic comedy. apatow: Transcended to a whole new vision of life. When you talk about how you enjoy the disasters and the difficult moments, I’m not like that. I usually end up on my back in surgery when something like that happens. So I don’t get that, the enjoying the pain part. But maybe that’s because I’m in pain the whole time and you’re not. And when it gets even worse, it’s like, “Can’t I just have my low-level hum of stress and suffering as we do this?” When you think of the three worst fights, what’s the one that comes to mind, like, “Wow, that was really ugly”? ramis: My first job out of college, I worked in a mental institution for seven months. I kind of learned how to deflect insanity—how to deal with it, how to speak to schizophrenics, catatonics, paranoids, or suicidal people. It sounds funny, but it really expanded my tolerance for extremes of human behavior, which turns out to be great training for working with actors. They have an incredibly hard job, and most of them are already a little bent. That’s why they’re actors in the first place. They have a desperate need to get out there and show or reveal something about themselves. Even as a teenager, you’re in a room full of people and someone is acting out. God, that’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s always the person who’s in big trouble. The rest of the class sits there and goes, “Wow! Did you hear what he said to the teacher? That was great!” We all wish we’d said it, and we’re fascinated by the result. Then you meet someone like Bill [Murray] who says things to people you can’t believe he said. You watch like a sociologist or a psychologist, looking for the impact. I’ve seen a total stranger come up to Bill on the street, “Bill! Love you on Saturday Night!” He says, “You motherfucker! I’m going to bite your nose!” And he wrestles him to the ground, a total stranger, and bites his nose. apatow: Does it make it impossible to maintain a relationship with somebody like that? ramis: It keeps you constantly alive to possibility. Anything can happen. It frees your imagination, even as a writer. What can happen?

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apatow: You always hear stories of conflict during Groundhog Day. Was any of the conflict with him about trying to rein in and focus the energy? ramis: Never a creative problem. Bill kind of passive-aggressively takes his anger out on the production itself but never on me. I’m too calm. I don’t offer him anything to go after. So he would go after the producers, go after the costumers. Whoever was around had to take it from him. Or he’d go back and trash his motor home. And I’d say, “Well, now you’ve trashed your motor home, so . . . good idea.” No one fights with me. I’m just a detached observer of this extreme behavior. One time we were shooting on the movie Vacation, and it was 110 degrees in Arcadia, and we’re shooting a scene where Chevy and his family have arrived at Wally World. They park a mile away so they can be the first ones out at the end of the day. They run across the parking lot to the tune of Chariots of Fire, slow-motion shot. But it’s 110, and the pavement’s about 130 because it’s been sunny all day in Arcadia. Everyone’s really angry. Anthony Michael Hall gets heatstroke and has to go to the hospital. We continue to shoot with Chevy, and he’s really irritated because it’s so hot. He kind of blows a take, and he’s loading luggage on top of the station wagon, and he’s holding this duffel bag, and he screwed up and he’s really mad, and I’m sitting in my chair and I think, “He’s going to throw that bag at something.” And I see him look to his left and there’s a light stand, and I know he’s processing, “I can’t throw it at the light,” and there’s the sound cart, “Can’t throw it at the Nagra. Can’t throw it at the camera.” And then he looks at me and I go, “He’s going to throw that bag at me.” And all this takes place in a split second, and of course he throws the bag. And I was so ready, I just put my foot up and knocked it to the ground. And that was the perfect opportunity for me. I say, “Come here,” and I take him away from the set, but not so far that everyone can’t hear us. This is my opportunity so the whole crew can hear. And I say, “You fucking asshole. Everyone’s been out here all day. The crew’s been out here longer than you have.” I’m waving at the crew now. “They’ve been here since six in the morning. We’re all tired, and we’re all hot, so if you can’t control yourself, why don’t you . . .” And the crew is now ready to applaud me. I’ve both cooled Chevy and made allies with the crew. So I try to turn adversity into something positive. apatow: At what time in your life did you get interested in Buddhism? It seems like it’s an influence on your approach. ramis: My best friend in college introduced me. We went to San Fran-

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cisco together and we graduated college in ’66. The word “hippie” had not been coined yet. We were “freaks.” We called ourselves “freaks” and “beatniks,” and we went to San Francisco. The Haight-Ashbury was flowering, and Jimi Hendrix was playing—Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, the whole thing. Everything was happening. My roommate David Cohen, he was really stunned by it. We were both really powerfully affected by this radical energy that was going on. It was political, it was cultural, it was consciousness, it was religious, it was everything. David had been in four years of psychoanalysis, all through college— everyday, formal, Freudian psychoanalysis. Very rigorous. So when he got to San Francisco he made a methodical investigation of all the new religious and spiritual movements, from bioenergetics to yoga. He became a full-fledged Zen monk and finally a Zen priest, and worked his way up through the Zen Center and stayed there more than twenty years. I so admired his practice and this amazing calm it brought to him. I started reading Buddhism and thinking about it, but I don’t claim to be Buddhist. I’m too lazy. And then I met my wife. She’d spent her college years in a Buddhist meditation center in LA, and her mother lived for thirty years in a Buddhist meditation center. And everything I’d heard and read about it so impressed me. I grew up Jewish, and then I found out that American Buddhists are less than 5 percent of the population and 30 percent of them are Jews. It’s kind of an amazing statistic. It fits nicely with this Talmudic approach to life, which I’d been evolving. I’m so lazy, I just did the very superficial investigation of Buddhism and distilled it down to something the size of a Chinese take-out menu. It’s literally that size, it’s three-fold, and I call it “The 5-Minute Buddhist.” It reminds me of how to think. Not what to think, but how to think. It’s a good response to existentialism, which is a psychology I embrace. There’s an actual school of existential psychology, a discipline, and that’s the one that makes the most sense to me. Breaking into the Movie Business

ramis: I snuck into the movie business through stage performance. People liked what my friends and I were doing, and they said, “We want to make a movie, do you have any ideas?” I had extraordinary college experiences, as we all did. I’m sure most of us who went to college said, “Gee, you could make a movie out of this.” So I said, “Yeah, I want to do a college movie,” and I hooked up with some very good people, and that was it. 1 16

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apatow: So in your college experience, somebody killed a horse? ramis: We did some pretty extraordinary things, I have to say. There were some people who went nuts when we went to college. Everyone knows someone in the dorm who does something really weird. Dan O’Bannon, the guy who wrote Alien, was at school with me. Dan O’Bannon used to do some pretty strange things. He faked his own suicide in the dormitory hall. He went in the hall, fired a blank pistol, took toilet paper drenched in ketchup, threw it against the wall, then packed the rest on his head. Then he laid down on the floor. apatow: How long did he hold it? ramis: No one really bought it. I mean, that’s the thing. Ghostbusters

ramis: My inspiration was Dan Aykroyd, who wrote the original Ghostbusters. Prior to Belushi’s death, Danny had written a couple of scripts he thought would be good for him and John, all buddy comedies. Dan had a family history of psychic experience and people who were mediums and ghost visitations, and he was interested in the paranormal. Dan wrote an amazingly fanciful, highly technical movie called Ghostbusters, and the assumption was that ghosts were everywhere. The random mesh of microwave transmission has poked a hole in our reality envelope, and spirits from other worlds were entering our reality, and as a response, professional teams of Ghostbusters, not unlike the Orkin Man, have sprung up and are in the business of ghost elimination and removal. That was the premise. The script was all over the place and had huge problems. It had no characters. Danny knew what they looked like, but he’s not great on character. So we took that material, and I thought, that is a brilliant comic edge. To take the supernatural, something in our culture we’re conditioned to think of as “whooo,” you know, and to treat it with the mundanity of exterminators or janitors, that’s comedy. Comedy lives on the edges. So I thought, you can’t go wrong with this premise, and I knew who the characters were right away. I was able to see it. We actually moved back in time. Something he hadn’t done in his script was to develop where the Ghostbusters came from, who they were before the formation of Ghostbusters, the beginning of it. We went back to the prequel of what Danny had written, and Danny and I worked on it together. He’s a tremendous guy, very generous and lots of fun to be around. Basically, I brought it to Ivan Reitman first because he had successfully directed Animal House and Harold Ramis

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Meatballs and Stripes. Dan’s plan was to get Bill Murray to be the second Ghostbuster, and he had lunch with Ivan, and Ivan said, “Let’s get Ramis to play the third guy, and we’ll get him to write it.” They were at Art’s Deli on Ventura Boulevard, and they came to see me right from their lunch, and I read the script and said, “Yeah, let’s do this.” Groundhog Day

ramis: The premise for Groundhog Day came from an original script by a writer named Danny Rubin. He had this wonderful concept, and Danny’s kind of a dilettante Buddhist himself. I read his original script and there were some big problems in the script, but it was very convincing in where it was coming from. It was out of shape and didn’t know if it was a comedy or not, and there were some things that seemed to be in the wrong order. But despite its flaws, I ended up crying at the end. I had this feeling like it’s the It’s a Wonderful Life for our time. I’m a sucker for that Frank Capra stuff, so I thought, if it moves me this much, even as misshapen as the script is at this point, this is definitely a movie. When I first heard the concept, my producer said to me, “You should read this script.” I said, “What’s it about?” and he said, “It’s about a guy who lives the same day over and over.” I said, “Yeah, that sounds like highconcept stuff, where’s that going?” And he said, “No, no, you got to read it.” So I finally read it and saw it had the potential to be much more than its premise. So I went to work on it and got some good advice from one of our development people, Whitney White. Danny’s script had begun with Bill’s character, Phil Connors, already trapped in this time warp. So Whitney said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the beginning of it? His reaction to getting caught in the time warp instead of starting in the middle?” I said, “I don’t know, I promised the writer I’d never do that,” and she said, “Well, you can write it. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to use it.” So I wrote it, and it seemed important to the movie to show the genesis of the time warp and his initial reactions. So we shaped that up. I wrote a major rewrite by myself, and then I brought Danny back, and then Bill and I did the final on-our-feet kind of revision. Working with Bill, you just know he’s going to come up with so much great stuff that the last draft of the script is the one that’s written on camera. He’s always going to be better than the script, no matter what you’ve written, no matter how perfect it seems for him. He’s going to do better. You have to leave that door open. Whenever I worked with Bill, the script was always a suggestion of what we might do. 118

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Actors are nothing if not self-revealing, or at least self-presenting. It’s kind of remarkable; it almost seems like a cliché to say comedy comes from pain. But real comedy is connected to the deep pain and anguish we all feel. I worked with Robin Williams. I did an obscure fi lm with Robin called Club Paradise, with Peter O’Toole, Jimmy Cliff, and Twiggy. It’s a wonderful mess, but it’s a wonderful movie in a lot of ways. Robin is one of the most deeply melancholy people you’ll ever meet. You can just see it all over him. It’s what makes him so human, and I love and respect him. And Bill is as serious as a person could be, deep down. He’s like, raging, angry, full of grief and unresolved emotions. He’s volcanic. And they want you to know that. Comedy gives them a place to work out ideas and entertain, and these guys love to entertain, but they want you to know that they feel. I think that’s part of what it is. You go see Robin Williams do stand-up and you can’t get more laughs than that. I’ve been on stage. I know what it feels like to have those waves of laughter. It’s like being bathed in love. Once you’ve had it, it’s like a drug. It wears off, and then you need more. I want the audience to feel something more than that. I want them to feel my pain. So I don’t think Bill has played his rage adequately. I wanted Bill to play Randy Quaid’s character in The Ice Harvest. I wanted him to be this enraged, scary villain, which he could do great. He would be great. But he didn’t want to do it, so . . . apatow: As someone who is an existentialist with a dash of Buddhism, if that’s your philosophy, you seem like a serene, happy person. How have you taken the darkest philosophy there is and found peace for yourself? ramis: Well, serenity is an illusion. But if anything is possible, if I can do anything, then there’s a limitless capacity to do good. That’s what Groundhog Day is about. In Groundhog Day Bill destroys all meaning for himself. Buddhism says our self doesn’t even exist. The self is a convenient illusion that gives us ego. And in conventional terms, of course it exists. There’s a name and a picture on your driver’s license, and you’ve got to get dressed in the morning, and your paycheck is addressed to somebody. So you have a self, but it’s really an illusion. I did a group exercise, and we were asked to face another person and in two minutes describe ourselves. I started describing myself, and from the very first statement, started thinking, “Well, that’s not really true. That’s what I like to think about myself, but I’m not as good as I’m saying.” It’s all a projection. So then we switched partners, and they said now tell this person who you are. So I did a corrective on the first wrong view of myself, and as I’m telling him, I’m thinking, “Well, that’s not me, either.” The whole point of the exercise is, Harold Ramis

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we’re not who we think we are. We’re only occasionally who we want to be. We’re not what other people think we are. The self kind of evaporates as a concept. If you can take yourself out of these existential issues, life gets a little simpler. If life is full of possibility, and I stop thinking about myself, you end up where Bill ends up at the end of the movie—in the service of others. By the end of the movie, he has every moment scheduled where he can do some good. He’s always there to catch the kid; he’s always there when the old ladies get a flat tire. We even cut some things out where he’s always there to put his finger on a package someone was wrapping, so they could tie the string. I called it Superman syndrome. How the hell does Super man find the time to talk to Lois Lane when he could be stopping a dam from breaking? There’s always some good you can be doing, which can make you crazy, too. There’s a condition I call altruistic panic, where you feel like you have to do something for someone somewhere. So if life only has the meaning you bring to it, we have the opportunity to bring rich meaning to our lives by the service we can do for others.

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Script page from Groundhog Day

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Script page from Groundhog Day

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Danny Rubin on Groundhog Day

When I had the idea of writing about a guy who repeated the same day over and over again, I was so excited, and the ideas were just bursting. I couldn’t work fast enough, but I knew that I had to figure out really quickly what day it was that was repeating. Is it his birthday, an anniversary of something, Christmas, a leap year, you know, February 29, that sort of mystical, magical day? I thought, let’s just look at the calendar, and I opened the calendar, and the next holiday I came to was Groundhog Day. I went, “Perfect. It’s unexploited. No one has done a movie about this before. It’ll be just like the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and they’ll show it on TV every year.” I mean, I dreamed big. I knew about Punxsutawney at a time when most people didn’t. I had been working with a comedy group in Chicago, the Wavelength Improvisational Institute. One of our jobs was performing at big conventions, and we had done research for a show we were doing for Bell of Pennsylvania. Somehow the whole idea of Punxsutawney had come up, and I had found out about it then, so it was great being able to use this information. I knew it was about this little festival and that whoever Phil was, he should be stuck in an uncomfortable place. I thought that Punxsutawney was perfect, that a weatherman would come to the town and he would be out of place and he would feel superior. The Buddhists were big on Groundhog Day from pretty early on, but so were Christians and so were Jews. Many people were embracing the movie. Somebody wrote a thesis on homeopathy in Groundhog Day. There is a professor of philosophy in Pennsylvania who has been teaching Groundhog Day as the perfect articulation of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. Duh! I’ve learned a lot from having written this. I’ve learned a little about

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Buddhism, about those other religions and how people view the movie. Psychologists write me all the time telling me they prescribe this film to their patients. It’s just sort of an honor to be at the center of all that, or have it swirling near me, or to touch me from time to time. I think all of this was able to happen because it was always a story about a human life. From the very start, it was Siddhartha. It was about a young man’s journey through life, only it all happened on the same day. I don’t ever tell anybody what it’s “really” about. It doesn’t mean any one thing. It’s about whatever you draw from it, and everybody seems to draw so much. It’s a beautiful thing. I wrote it several times over different periods. For the original draft, I brainstormed and took notes for weeks and weeks, and then I decided I just had to push it out and sat down and wrote it in four days. I wanted to write it quickly, and I saw very clearly Phil would be living his life in stages: the stage where he is trying to escape, the stage where he is acting out his adolescent fantasies, the stage where he is depressed and becomes suicidal, and the stage where he thinks he is a god and starts helping people. I thought, what if each of those were fifteen minutes long? And I added them up, and I had seven acts. I thought, that’s like a TV movie, so I will divide it up like a TV movie and make it seven acts. I’ll just sit down and write it out. I gave it to my agent, and he said TV movies are a very specific kind of craft. He said, “Just make it into a feature film. Take out the act breaks, and smooth it over.” That was the only additional writing I did on that. Then a year later, it got optioned for Harold. I had meetings, took notes, and then I disappeared for two months. I just wrote every day until I had finished a draft and turned that in. After that, Harold did a draft, and it got green-lit and they cast Bill Murray. And then Bill and Harold were working on it and struggling with some issues, so Bill said, “What about the original writer?” and they called me back in, and I worked with Bill to do another rewrite. Then Harold got a little worried that it had moved so far away from what the studio had green-lit. At the time, I couldn’t understand the significance of Harold being so bewildered—I had always seen him as a very calm and positive guy. So then we spent a couple of weeks in Woodstock on the set going back and forth. Is this scene in, or is that out? Harold and I would divide up pages—you write that scene, and I’ll write this scene; then we’ll meet up in a few hours and let’s compare and rewrite each other’s and get it fi xed up. So then we had a good draft, but not quite good enough, and Harold disappeared for a couple of days and came up

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with a solid shooting script. It all started going together. He knew how to do that. I’m still amazed. I spent years trying to understand what the heck he did so I could figure out how to craft a screenplay so well. Still, I thought between the two of us, we were a good balance of tastes. The process wasn’t perfect by any means because Harold and I were coming at the project from very different places, but I think in retrospect it was ideal, because look at the product. You cannot argue with that at all. And of course, the process for me was just as you would imagine: exciting and grueling and heartbreaking and exhilarating. When Harold optioned the script, one of the first things he said was, “I love that you started in the middle, love that you started with the repetition already going.” Harold had told me, “We are not going to change the beginning.” Cut to a few months into development, and one of his associates, Whitney White, says, “You know, we miss going through the process with Phil and having him discover the day and discover the repetition. I think that would be fun, let’s try that.” So we did, and that turned out to be one of the big breakthroughs in restructuring the script. We started backing it up a little bit at a time, at first cautiously, to the night before, when they are pulling into Punxsutawney. Then a little bit more, and it started with him getting in the van and driving from Pittsburgh. And that’s the way the fi lm started at shooting. They had to go back and shoot a new beginning, because they decided to push it all the way back to the TV station. I wasn’t a part of any of that discussion. This whole development process was often frustrating for me because the movie I wrote was not really a Hollywood studio movie. It did not conform to romantic comedy conventions. It wasn’t designed to be a genre movie; it was designed to be something else. And I thought it was very successful. Basically, when I sent it around to get it produced or looked at, everybody called me in for a meeting but no one wanted to produce it. I must have gone to fifty meetings. I got work off of it. It was a great calling card, but nobody looked at it and said, “This is a movie we can produce.” In fact, what they said to me was, “I love Groundhog Day but we can’t make it.” Even knowing what I know now, I would not have been able to make all the decisions that went into making this movie. I knew I didn’t want it to be a big adolescent comedy. And Harold knew he didn’t want it to be a marginal, quirky, independent fi lm. At the time, though, we were not speaking that general language. We were being specific with each other: Do you think that Rita should have more of a character? What caused this repe-

Danny Rubin

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tition? Where does the story start? Where does it end? How does it end? There were a lot of questions that we were debating constantly, and it was fun and exciting, but I saw no way through the woods. It was one little piece at a time. Ned Ryerson

Ned Ryerson came out as one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever created. I was embarrassed, at first, that I made him an insurance salesman because it seemed like such a cliché. But I actually had an experience when I was young and my dad said, “Oh, you should talk to this guy about insurance.” I met him and the guy would not shut up. He was in my face, and after I realized he wasn’t going to dismiss me, I had to leave. He started following me out the door and he kept talking. I walked to the car and he was still talking. I was inside my car and he was still talking. That was my Ned Ryerson. Just a really relentless fellow, the kind of person whom you wouldn’t want to see in a small town, because you couldn’t get rid of him by any other means than just slugging him and being done with it. When I wrote Ned, I did not imagine Stephen Tobolowsky totally going for it like that, totally over the top. I just love how a good actor and a good director make whatever we do that much better. When it’s done right, it’s a total multiplier. I love laughing at my own stuff as if I am discovering it for the first time because it’s through somebody else’s interpretation. The Ned encounter happened pretty much the way I wrote it, but most of the dialogue with Ned didn’t happen till the very end of the script. The way I had it, Phil just keeps punching this guy, no matter what else happens. It’s become a habit. Even after he is a god and everything else, he still punches the guy. Then at some point, he stops and goes, wait a second, who is this guy? It’s like a war that somebody had fought years ago and they still hold a grudge, but they can’t even remember what the original feud was about. So that’s when Phil decides to stop and just talk to him, figure out who he is. Then he figures out who he is, and oh, right, an insurance agent, and he goes back to hitting him again. My point of view about Ned and Phil was that even though Phil is very developed and enlightened and selfactualized by the end of the story, he is still human. He is still a person and he still just wants to punch that guy. I thought that was a humanizing element. Harold was very good about keeping things consistent and clean and unambiguous, and he followed the progression much more naturally.

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Script page from Groundhog Day

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He wanted Phil to get rid of Ned without having to punch him—finding a different way by hugging him a little too close, and at the end, by actually buying insurance from him and they’re best friends. I thought that was a little bit of a dishonest cheat, but it sure is satisfying, isn’t it? The Psychiatrist’s Office

I had a section in this script originally where I thought Phil would seek out expert advice, to find out if he was crazy. In my mind, he is lying there talking to the psychiatrist, having this personal session, and slowly we pull back and realize we are in the lobby of this hotel, and the psychiatrist is just a guest getting ready to leave. To me that was funny and the way I pictured it from the very first. Harold said, “What if it was a local guy, but he fancies himself a psychologist?” I wrote it a bunch of different ways in the lobby, and Harold would change it to the psychologist’s office, and I would change it back, and he would change it back. The thing is, it is totally unimportant, it didn’t matter, but when you’re real close to these things, you can’t really tell what’s going to be important and what isn’t. The Pickup Scene

That whole sequence, the whole pickup scene, was in the original script, but it wasn’t between Phil and Rita. It was between Phil and this other character I had—some other woman who lived in town. He had already been with Nancy and did the “What high school did you go to?” pickup with her. Now he’s doing this “getting it right” pickup stuff with this other character. He just sees Rita around town, and it becomes very casual, and then he starts realizing he is in love with her. They have a wonderful day together, but at the end of it, she says, see you tomorrow. And then he is heartbroken because he realizes he will never have a long-term relationship with anybody. He will always be frustrated with this feeling he has for Rita. It was Harold who turned it from whatever it was I had originally written into a romantic comedy. And if you have a romantic comedy, there are a couple of things you have to do. One thing he did was to put the weather station scene at the beginning. That was not just to introduce Phil and the kind of person he was, but it showed us Rita and what she was like. It kind

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of created that imagery of her in our mind as floaty and dreamy. So that was part of it, and the other thing had to do with the pickup scene. Harold said, “You know, when you have a really great idea for a scene, you’ve got to give it to your major characters. You can’t throw it away on a minor character.” So that was a big lesson. The biggest change from the original script was that first time you heard “I Got You, Babe” and saw Phil waking up. That was how the movie opened. He mouths the words to the radio while it’s happening, and you go, how did he do that? How did he know what they were going to say? So he’s already in the time loop. Then he gets up and casually knocks his suit bag off the back of the door where it’s hanging—knocks it off the door for no particular reason. We find out later that every time he wakes up, the first thing he does is look at the door to see if the bag is still on the ground or not, as a way of checking to see if the day is repeating or not. Harold replaced that action with a simple broken pencil. The final scene in the movie, Harold and I both wrote a lot of different ways, and I didn’t even know what the final version was until I saw the movie. I was delighted by it. Harold wanted to have a version where Phil runs downstairs and plays the piano really quick and realizes it wasn’t a dream and that he really can play the piano. To him that was definitive, but then he chose something simpler, which was just looking out the window and seeing that it is different. When I wrote the original, I just needed to come up with an ending that was funny and that was on the same level as the sort of surprising nature of the whole movie. So what happened is, he wakes up, and he is so excited it’s finally February 3, and Rita is not all that into it. And as she leaves, we realize that she had been repeating February 3 over and over again, and it always starts with her waking up with Phil. It’s not that that was a better ending by any means, or that any of my choices were better. They were good, they were really good, but when something is really good, it’s hard to let go of because you really can’t see what the whole is, and the whole I was seeing was not the same [that] Harold was seeing. This is part of the reason that development is so difficult. Even Harold’s final shooting script was just an intuition, his best guess, because even after he shot it, he cut a number of scenes that he had shot thinking they were necessary, but they weren’t at all. So much of the writing and shaping happens after you have done it and put it together in the editing room, and other opinions come in and things become clear.

Danny Rubin

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Scenes That Didn’t Make the Movie

One of them is a library scene. It was actually at the bed and breakfast, and it answered the question, how long was Phil in the time loop? How do we keep track of that? I always had in my mind that the whole point of the experiment was that Phil lives longer than a single lifetime. Having this repetitive day was a way of getting at eternity and eternal life. He lives a very long time, and in order to show that, I had him figure out how to mark his time in a way he could remember. It’s hard because you can’t write anything down, you can’t mark a calendar. I decided if he read a page of a book every day he could remember where he was. So there’s this big bookcase in the bed and breakfast, and every morning he goes down and reads one page of one book. So, you know, by the time he has gotten to the last page of the first book, it’s probably been a year. Then he gets to the end of the row and gets to the bottom of the shelf. Then there is this very momentous day where he reads the last page of the last book of the last shelf, and you see him put it down, and then you see him in a very depressed way walk all the way back to the beginning to start all over again. I thought that this was visceral, and I really wanted this weight of time to come across on the screen. Harold was talking with the studio, and they said, “That’s way too long. People’s heads will explode. It can’t last that long. Let’s make it last two weeks.” They were kind of adamant, and this was where Harold was quite ingenious. He is not only a good guy, he is creatively smart. You’ve seen his real funny stuff and innovative stuff, but he was also, I think, a smart politician. He knew how to succeed at getting a movie through the studio system. In this case, he took out the bookcase and took out any reference to how long Phil had been there. Then people could use their imaginations about how long Phil was in the time loop, and there was no reason to have a fight over it. I think he thought that a lifetime was too long anyway, and his sensibility was that maybe Phil was there for ten years, and I think the fi lm kind of feels like that. It’s rumored that I had ten thousand years of repetition because that has Buddhist overtones. And this delights me to no end, but that wasn’t true. That wasn’t my intention. The other scene you’ll never see is the gypsy curse scene. The studio didn’t like the fact that we didn’t explain the time loop. They said, “You have to have a reason.” And I said, “Are you crazy? Do you want me to write a stupid gypsy curse scene or something?” And they said, “Write a gypsy

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curse scene.” So I wrote a gypsy curse scene. I hated having to write this stuff. To me, one of the best things about the movie that made it so unique was this existential quality. None of us knows how we got here. Any choice of plot device seemed so arbitrary: “Oh, well, it was a magical clock, it was a genie, it was a black hole in time.” The whole movie would become how to undo the curse, and that was not my interest. Harold the politician said, “Danny, write it. We’ll shoot it, we’ll throw it away, and they’ll never miss it.” I don’t know who he was trying to manipulate, me or the studio. Or maybe it was just how to get on with business. I wrote it, and actually, they never shot it. They just never got around to it, and somehow it was okay. So I was very happy about that. Harold shielded me from a lot of the studio politics, so I don’t know very much about those battles. I do know that he had to deal with my complaints, which he usually did with generous inclusion. For example, I kept nagging at him to take out all the topical humor and the crazy stuff I didn’t think belonged in the movie. I didn’t know for sure the film would have any longevity, which it apparently has. You can’t predict those things, but I did have a feeling that it had a classic feel to it, and I didn’t want it polluted by selling it short, making it topical, and so Harold agreed with me on those things. I was so strong about it that Harold was like, “He must know what he’s talking about.” Bill Murray

The original script had been written for someone a little younger than Bill, so I had to adapt his age and adapt to Bill’s speaking style and how he is funny. So I was working with Bill in New York, and Harold would call, and Bill wouldn’t want to talk to him—I don’t know why. There were big decisions that had to be made, and I think Harold was pretty frustrated. Bill was more aligned with my philosophical approach than Harold’s comedic approach, but once the camera started rolling, everybody was very professional and it just happened. It unraveled all of the tension. That romantic scene with Phil talking to Rita while she’s sleeping was, I understand, pretty much Bill’s improvisation. He told me it was a moment he had actually experienced in his own life. He improvised a lot of the little funny, quippy lines—you just hear Bill all over it. I don’t know for certain which lines came from Harold and which from Bill, but things like “Hairdo” just sort of feel Bill-ish.

Danny Rubin

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Phil’s Transformation and the Writing Process

I think it was pretty clear you wanted the character to be able to “travel.” If he is going to wind up being selfless and charming and friendly and helpful and not egotistical and all those altruistic, positive things, you have to start with him being none of those things. It wasn’t that he was a horrible person. In my mind, he was just one of these arrested-development types who was stuck. I think that’s how people relate to it: stuck in repetitive patterns, seemingly unending, and unable to get out. I guess, through the process of the film, and in a very logical, sensible way, Phil was able to transform and get out. I think that’s part of why the movie feels so meaningful to people. It feels real. Like a person like that really could change in the process of daily living. People find that encouraging. When I wrote the original script I had index cards. I still have them, and it’s interesting to look at them and shuffle through them. I started with corkboard, but there were too many cards for that, so I would toss them on the floor: “Oh, that’s an act one idea. That’s an act three idea.” I did the same with characters, like the character progression ideas. You might write down five things you want to see the character do and spread them out and look for scenes where they can be put. Then you just stare at it for a while and try to get some feeling, and eventually a scene emerges that you want to write. It doesn’t always go in order, and then there are adjustments you look at, and then you read the whole thing over and wonder if the progression is smooth enough. I definitely don’t do it in my head, and I definitely don’t do it perfectly the first time, or third, or fifth. It’s a process, and you just have to choose your process, get into it, get something on paper, react to it, and change it. That seems to me what happens with development, too, but with other people in the room. You have to guess what their agendas are and try to second-guess what they mean when they say something. It’s impossible. Trying to do this stuff by committee is really tough, even when people are friendly and they are being honest with you and you are being honest with them. It’s hard to get at what you are really assuming in each case. For instance, Harold assuming it was a romantic comedy and me assuming it wasn’t, without being able to articulate it, leads to some pretty interesting cross talk. You think you have all agreed on something, and then you have not agreed at all. It’s very common. People who watch the movie often ask me about what finally changed

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Phil. I always thought that it was the most important piece of the puzzle for Phil to realize he can’t control death. That there are things in this world you can control and there are things you can’t. For him, that was the final point. There were things he could manipulate, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the old man from dying, and he fought that and fought that and fought that. When he realized he couldn’t, that was his moment of grace.

Danny Rubin

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Script pages from Groundhog Day

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A Conversation with Jonathan Demme m o d er at e d b y pau l t h o m a s a n d er s o n

The Silence of the Lambs

jonathan demme: Mike Medavoy, who was the creative head of Orion, had read it. He called me over and said, “There’s something I want you to read, and actually, I’m not going to send you a script. I’m going to send you the book.” I was like, “Okay!” So he sends this book, The Silence of the Lambs, and everybody knows you can’t commit to directing a book, you have to have a script. Ted Tally had started to work on the script, which I couldn’t see yet. It wasn’t going to be ready for months, but I read that book in one sitting and went, “Oh my God, this is a great novel. This is an extraordinary story, extraordinary characters.” I love thrillers, so I said, “Yes, let’s do it.” Casting Clarice Starling

demme: I met with Jodie Foster, and she said, “Clarice Starling is faced with the overwhelming obstacle of all these asshole men, and they may be brilliant assholes, but everywhere she turns, she’s faced with this.” She said, “I think that’s a great story,” and then she left, and I went, “Hmm, that is rather a great theme. I think I’m gonna take that theme and claim it, but I’m not gonna cast her,” because now I wanted Meg Ryan to play the part. When Harry Met Sally had just come out, and Joe Versus the Volcano, so I thought, she’s great. I think she’s a fabulous actor. I would believe her, but I wouldn’t believe Jodie Foster in that part. So the script goes to Meg Ryan, and word comes back very quickly like, “Good God, I could never do a movie like that.” She was actually slightly offended. And then Laura Dern came in, and Laura was just it. Laura had done some little movies,

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and I told the folks at Orion, “This is the one,” and they were like, “Jonathan, we’re really worried about that in the context of Jodie Foster, who won an Oscar, who everybody loves. She’s desperate to do this, and you want to cast a relative unknown?” They said, “Please meet Jodie one more time.” So Jodie came back—and I’m sure other fi lmmakers have had moments like this, but the moment came where I met Jodie again, and I was no more taken with her at all. We chatted, and we said good-bye, and to me it was saying good-bye forever. Then I went to the doorway and looked down the hallway and saw this young woman putting one foot in front of the other, walking down the hallway. I thought about how much she loved that part, and I thought how much my partners at Orion wanted her in that part. I just fell madly in love with her, and she did what she did. She just embodied all that fierceness. I named our production company Strong Heart Productions after Jodie’s sense of character. paul thomas anderson: How much do you count on or rely on moments like that happening? How much do you need to know? Is it worth doing something if you know this is a story of a woman trying to save another woman and get through all these assholes? Or do you depend upon some instinct drawing you to a piece of material—and maybe you don’t exactly know that part of it, and you’re hoping it will come to you. Or do you find those things? demme: I need a theme, as pretentious as that sounds. In order to make a good movie, I need a strong story, but I also have to know what it’s about beyond the narrative. All I knew with Silence, until I had that conversation with Jodie, was that it was a gripping suspense fi lm, but now I knew what to do, and I knew how to do it, and I knew how to shoot it. Discoveries in Production

anderson: Have you found situations where you got through an entire shoot or you’re in the editing room, or even further, and you think, I didn’t see that. Not that you’re not directing it, but that there’s something else unforeseen? demme: I did a documentary, a portrait of an Italian composer-musician whose music I adore, Enzo Avitabile. I had the opportunity, thanks to RAI television, Italian TV, to come make a portrait film of Enzo Avitabile, which would include a lot of sessions with guest musicians. I was fascinated with this guy. I thought he was adorable, and thought, “I know we can get a good

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movie out of this. We’ll have a lot of fabulous music, and he’s very interesting, and we’ll find out what makes him tick. We’ll go to the little township outside of Naples where he grew up, and that will be interesting, so it’ll be kind of a travelogue. It’ll be a portrait of this guy, and it will have all this great music.” So we made it, cut it together, and showed it to some festivals. It got an American distributor, and I went to see it—and I hadn’t seen it for quite some time—at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. And as I watched it, I was like, oh, my God, this movie is nominally about Enzo Avitabile, and yet—as is said in Naples and what have you—this is a fi lm about musical instruments and the people that play them, and what happens when a group of musicians play certain instruments together and create a certain kind of sound. It made me like the fi lm even more. I liked it before, but now I really like it. So that’s the only time that’s kind of snuck up on me. anderson: But when you approach your documentary stuff, you’re not walking into that knowing, “This is my theme.” I mean, you know the venue, but you’re collecting material, so how . . . demme: That’s true. No, and even I’m Carolyn Parker, which is a documentary I did on [PBS’s] POV—I think we got into theaters for a minute—but that was just this portrait, again, of this amazing woman who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward and whom I visited four times a year for five years after the floods. She was the first person in her neighborhood, even though it was unlivable in her neighborhood and her house, but she wasn’t going to let them bulldoze it and turn the neighborhood into greenspacing. Other like-minded people did that, but I shot this and we became amazingly close friends. She’s so magical that whatever she was saying, I would just, “Shot shot shot shot shot.” And we went to church with her. When we started the cutting of that film, this wonderful Israeli fi lmmaker Ido Haar came over and cut it, and what we discovered was that the church scenes became so vital. I had enjoyed the church scenes because they were singing their wonderful hymns and the congregation was very moving, but what I realized was that it was this faith in God that Carolyn clearly believes in so much that got her through these five years of trying to get back into her house. I was fascinated because I’m an atheist, and it was fascinating to me to be so moved by the portrait of somebody through her belief in God. anderson: You’ve had so many strong collaborations in your career, whether they’re performers in pieces, editors, cameramen, or composers. Who of these comrades do you feel have informed you the most?

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demme: I would name two names, Tak Fujimoto and Declan Quinn, two just great cinematographers. I depend completely on the cinematographer, even more than the lighting. If you don’t have a great cinematographer, it’s not going to look great. I started out and did all my first movies with Tak. The budgets got bigger and bigger, and then we did The Manchurian Candidate. We had a huge budget on that, and I didn’t want to make bigbudget movies anymore. I saw Napoleon Dynamite and thought, wait, this brilliant movie was made for $120,000 or something? That’s challenging. So I aspired to move away from that, and in aspiring to move away from that, Kristi Zea, the great production designer that I’d worked with— these are folks who were now earning a lot of money, therefore I couldn’t afford them—and Declan, who is a real maverick, we teamed up and did a bunch of documentaries. I trust that if Declan’s there and Tak’s there, I know it’s going to look great. They’re seriously storytelling cameramen. A lot of cameramen can make beautiful images, but they’re not taking responsibility to tell the story. The whole idea of, like, if you turn the sound down, what’s it going to look like. It’s not because they’re inventing all the shots. I’m going to invent the shots, and they’re going to do some, but they need to make sure the visuals are telling the story. So I know it’s not like it won’t look good. It’s going to have that added value, that vital added value where we’re visually telling the story right. That figure, the camera-person figure, is gigantic. anderson: How do you manage crises of confidence? What happens as a director when you’re faced with the inevitable, “What the fuck am I doing?” or, “How did I get into this?” Where, for an hour you think, “I know just what to do,” and then suddenly you think, “Well, wait, there’s limitless other ways to do this. Have I picked the right one?” demme: Immediately, I’m picturing the department store scene in The Master and the crazed approach you took to that scene. We’ve never seen a scene fi lmed like that before. You’ve got this way of seeing things, and you have an incredible team of people making that movie with you. So what I’ve come to understand that’s helped me tremendously shed that insecurity is that if it’s not working yet, that’s not my fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. We’re involved in a creative process here, and we’re engaged in collective invention. We’ve all gathered here together, and I have faith in my teammates, and I have faith in these actors. All I have to do, if I think something’s not working, is be able to as briefly and succinctly as possible express what I think is wrong. I don’t have to have any answer. I used to

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think for decades, “Okay, this isn’t working. Here’s why. What we should do is . . .” And sometimes if you do that with Tak Fujimoto standing there and ask him, “Okay, what do you think we should do?” then Tak might go, “Well, actually, I think we should drop the camera back in the corner and let a little oxygen into this and let the actors feel some relief from the overwhelming presence of the camera.” Or he might say, “Why don’t you just tell everyone to take a break for five minutes, because Barbara Steele’s a little freaked-out.” That idea of not owning the problem and being a member of a community, I think that’s very helpful. Nine times out of ten, it’s effective. Philadelphia and Ron Nyswaner

demme: Ron Nyswaner, Ed Saxon, Marc Platt, and I gathered with the passionate desire to make a movie that could somehow enter the public dialogue about AIDS discrimination, because there was no good news about people with AIDS. This was under Bush Sr., who had inherited Reagan’s heartless, vile attitude of discrimination, and there was just nothing coming from the institutions to try to find a cure. So we felt—we actually said this to each other—“We’re fi lmmakers. The only thing we can do to fight what’s going on is to make a movie that might affect some people, somehow or other, and add to the dialogue and add a different portrait, a different perspective on people with AIDS and just show the heroism and the tragedy of that.” When we started work on the script, we quickly discovered, oh, in order to get to AIDS discrimination, we have to somehow unpack homophobia, which was at the root of the AIDS prejudice. I know for a fact that Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young all wanted to say something on behalf of people with AIDS and ultimately victims of homophobia. So whether we thought it would make a difference or not—I can’t say we did—we were compelled to make that movie.

Jonathan Demme

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Ron Nyswaner on Philadelphia

When I’m most successful, I have worked with true stories: newspapers, magazines, people telling me stories—those are my sources. A long time ago, the great screenwriter Paul Schrader taught a class of mine, and he said, “Get your stories from newspapers, but not the New York Times. Go to the Post. Get those sort of bold stories.” I have found, the richness of what real people have done in life is usually much more compelling than what I come up with just sitting around my house and imagining. So that’s what I go to first, what’s going on in life. The movie Philadelphia, the subject was the beginning of the movie for me, and that was in 1988. The director Jonathan Demme, whom I’d worked with before and we were friends, called me and said, “One of my very best friends has just been diagnosed with AIDS. I want to make a movie about this. It’s the only thing I can do.” My nephew had just been diagnosed with AIDS, and people forget that in 1988, when you were diagnosed with AIDS, that was a death sentence. You were not going to survive. So we responded to that tragedy by making a movie, but it took us a long time to find the story to tell within that theme. And that took us through a lot of meetings and conversations and reading this book and reading this article. We realized the best way to tell a story about AIDS that would attract an audience is to tell it in a familiar, entertaining genre. The courtroom melodrama is a pretty compelling, triedand-true form for telling a story, so we married that theme, that subject of AIDS, to a courtroom drama, and created the movie that was Philadelphia. I was just so blessed to be part of the movie. I remember Jason Robards, one of the great actors in American theater and cinema, comes on board, and I’m a youngish screenwriter, and I just go up to him and I say, “Mr. Ro-

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bards, it’s such an honor that you’re going to be in my movie.” And he said, “Ron, I would be here if I had one line.” That’s how everybody felt when they came to work on Philadelphia. We were privileged. It was like this grace going on, and so many people in the movie were people with AIDS. I think we counted fifty people, from people who had good-sized parts, like Ron Vawter, to people who were extras or people who had just one or two lines. And I think, of the fifty, one of them is alive today. Most of them were dead before the film was even released. So when I watch that fi lm, I’m actually seeing a family album of a lot of lost relatives. Still, twenty years later, I have met people who say, “I was able to come out of the closet because of your fi lm. I was able to tell my parents that I’m HIV positive because of your fi lm. Your fi lm changed my life.” That’s a rare thing, and it probably won’t happen again, but that was actually the greatest time of my life.

Ron Nyswaner

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A Conversation with Ted Tally m o d e r a t e d b y á lv a r o r o d r í g u e z

álvaro rodríguez: I read a quote from you—this was after you’d won the Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs—where you said, “As far as I’m concerned, I’m still learning about film. It’s an evolutionary process. I’ve picked up a few tricks of the craft, but I still feel I don’t know how to write a screenplay.” ted tally: Well, you may have the same experience, which is that the lessons you learn on one screenplay don’t seem to carry over very well to the next one. On the subject, it’s so different, the genre might be different, the collaborators you’re working with are different. It always seems like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back as you try to learn how to be a better writer. The process of writing a screenplay is an exploration for the writer, just like the characters. rodríguez: So you still feel that way, that it’s an ongoing process. tally: Yeah! I still feel panic on the first day or the first week of starting a new screenplay and staring at that computer screen. rodríguez: Well, that gives me hope. I think that gives a lot of people hope. tally: It’s a lonely occupation until it’s not a lonely occupation, and then you wish it was. You know, you spend a year, or however long, working on a screenplay, and you’re in command, you’re the little god of the whole thing. And you can say, “The cavalry charges across the plain.” And you say, “Whew, that was easy.” And then you meet the people who are going to decide whether they’re going to pay for that or not—you know, whether they’re going to hire actors and a crew, and whether they’re going

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to distribute that—and suddenly it’s not fun anymore. And it’s not lonesome anymore, either. rodríguez: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you first know that you wanted to do this? That you wanted to write? tally: Well, I’ve wanted to write from the time I was really young. I was writing short stories and poems and struggling to start a novel when I was a kid. And then I got seriously interested in theater. By the time I was in junior high school, I did a lot of acting and got that bug pretty badly. I acted all through high school and in summer theater, church theater groups, dinner theaters, and the town’s little theater—anywhere I could find a play going on, and I would be in two plays or three plays at once. I continued doing a lot of acting all the way through college, but at some point, I guess when I was a junior in high school in a summer arts program, I got an opportunity to write a play. It was an arts program, and I was there for drama. And they said, “We’re going to do this play, and then we’re going to do this play, and for the last production of the summer, we’re going to do an absolutely new play. And one of you is going to have to write the play; we’re not going to do it.” And I wrote a little one-act play that got performed there. And so here was a new bug. And I thought acting was catchy, you know, but this was really wonderful. So from then on, I really wanted to be a playwright. That was my whole ambition through most of college and graduate school. rodríguez: So as someone who trained in theater, trained as a playwright, what kind of influences were you drawing from? tally: I wasn’t consciously drawing on movies when I was a playwright. I was in a very rich environment of theater productions at Yale, which has a lot of theater—professional theater company, drama school, and undergraduate groups—so there were always theater things to inspire, and I was near New York. I could see a lot of theater there. Movies to me were something impossible to imagine as a profession. I loved going to movies. I would go to a film society where you could see Citizen Kane for fifty cents, so my entire vocabulary of movies also happened when I was an undergraduate. They were never on TV when I was a kid, and you certainly couldn’t see a 35mm print of the great films. But you could see it for fifty cents at the law school film society. So whatever I know about fi lms, I was absorbing unconsciously during those years. But how do you make a movie? I didn’t understand how you made a movie if you lived in North

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Carolina, where I grew up, or if you were a college kid in Connecticut. This was before everybody could make a movie with their cell phone. I could understand how you’d get a few people together and put on a play in the dining hall or somewhere. But how do you make a movie? It was unreal to me. So I never thought of that as something I could do. rodríguez: Yeah, I had almost that identical experience. tally: But did you think, “Oh, I can do that”? rodríguez: No, not until my cousin [Robert Rodriguez] did it with El Mariachi, and then it was like, wow, suddenly the door is open, and let’s try to get in that door as quickly as possible before somebody closes it and figures out we have no idea what we’re doing. tally: Right. But I mean, if you’re just watching movies and thinking about maybe trying to write, you think, “Well, I don’t know anything about cameras. I don’t know anything about gaffers and key grips . . .” You know, what is all that stuff, and it costs so much money, and how do you even start? Nowadays you go to fi lm school, and then you have a great short fi lm under your belt after a year. You’re set up for a feature film by the end of your school career. rodríguez: That’s right. And a lot of people that are doing it just like you say, with their cell phones, or off the cuff, they put something up on YouTube . . . tally: Well, the means of making them has just gotten cheaper and cheaper. rodríguez: Do you think that there’s something lost in the experience that you had, and what people are having now? tally: Well, I think it’s helpful to have some background other than just fi lm. It could be real life. I don’t know anything about real life, but apparently, some people go through real life before they become fi lmmakers. And you know, I think any broadening experience that you could bring to it is going to make you a better writer. rodríguez: I had three semesters of creative writing and poetry at UT, which was fairly helpful in terms of reducing things down to their essential in the form of screenwriting. Same thing for being an entertainment writer at the Daily Texan—reading, writing reviews of films, doing interviews with people, getting exposed to those angles, and having to figure out what works about a thing. tally: So in that way, you were training as a screenwriter and just didn’t know it.

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rodríguez: Yeah, exactly. What do you think was the single best outcome of your experience at Yale? tally: It was the play Terra Nova. I was a second-year—it’s a three-year MFA program there—playwriting in the drama school, and you’re supposed to write a play for your thesis to get your MFA. This was during the wild and wooly seventies, when kind of anything went. And one guy, according to legend, turned in a stack of three-by-five cards with a couple lines of dialogue written on each one, and he said, “Shuffle those, cut the deck, and that’s the play.” And they were so impressed, they gave him his degree. I thought, I don’t know how that’s going to work professionally. It might be better if I had something I could sell when I come out of here. I don’t know what Yale drama school is like now, but back then theater was . . . it was a temple of theater. And everything else was the work of the devil: “Film, no. We don’t do that here. Don’t even mention television. We’re about the holy temple of theater.” So I thought, I’m going to graduate with absolutely no employable skills. And then I got the notion for this play—and I had only written one full-length play at this point—which was just a sort of knock-about farce, and I had a friend that was an undergraduate who had been on a research project in Antarctica. He was a photographer, and one of the little galleries had mounted an exhibit of his Antarctic photographs, and among them were photographs of this English expedition in 1910, 1911, that attempted to beat a Norwegian expedition to the South Pole. The base camp is still there. And you look at these haunting black-and-white photographs, and there’s a sleeping bag just the way it was left, and there’s a tin of biscuits and a teapot. It was very moving, and I thought, who are these guys? I never heard this story. And when I read about it, I saw a play in it, even though it’s set in Antarctica. How do you do that on stage? I just thought, this is a small, intense drama, and you could do this with just seven characters. So I spent the summer before my third year working on that play, and that play led me to being a writer, a serious, professional writer. I had an incredible stroke of luck to have thought of that play at that time. I ended up getting a professional production out of it and getting an agent in New York. I ended up getting playwriting grants and a part-time teaching position at Yale; everything came from that one play. rodríguez: That’s amazing. One of the other things that came from that play was the opportunity to write a screenplay.

Ted Tally

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tally: Yes. Eventually, that play was seen by a British director, the late Lindsay Anderson, who directed O Lucky Man! and If. . . . He had seen the play or read it, and he said, “I want you to write a screenplay for me based on an episode in the history of the British in India, the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny.” And I said, “I’ve never even seen a screenplay.” And he said, “I’ll show you one. Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.” And I said, “I don’t know anything about cameras and close-ups.” And he said, “Forget all that stuff, just write it like you were going to write a play. Except that you don’t have to pause to have the guys come out and move the furniture around. Just go right from one scene into another.” So I got a tutorial with Lindsay Anderson over about a year in New York and LA and London. Wherever he was, we would meet to go over my progress on this voluminous screenplay. I think it ended up being like a hundred and eighty pages. And he never had any interest in cutting it. He’d just say, “Oh, I’ve got another idea.” And of course it never got made, but it was an education from a very gifted fi lm and theater director in how you build a narrative in a screenplay, and how you build characters, and suspense, and plot twists. It was a free education in being a screenwriter. rodríguez: So he was the first mentor for you in screenwriting. tally: The first mentor in fi lm, and then . . . well, everything happens for a reason. Ten years later, eight years later, whenever it was, the only reason I got the job of doing the screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs was because that same studio is the one that I did the Sepoy Rebellion story for. And they remembered me from that unproduced script many years before and believed in me enough to give me another opportunity. rodríguez: I think that’s a great story for so many reasons—one of which is that a lot of writers would think, “I’ve spent so much time on this thing and nothing happens to it,” and you think that’s dead, it’s never going to be made. tally: You just never know. Basically, my experience is no day spent writing is ever wasted. I’ve written a lot of unproduced scripts. I mean, a lot of unproduced scripts, but I’ve learned something, I think, in most of them that maybe showed up in another script and made it work better. rodríguez: So after the experience with Empire, which was the Lindsay Anderson Indian project, how did The Father Clements Story, your first writing credit, come about? tally: You know, it’s been so long, I don’t really remember how. I had an agent, and she didn’t care much for movies. She was all about the the-

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ater and was a sort of legendary, old, mean lady . . . Helen Merrill. She was a photographer. She was very German and tough. And she would say— she had a very thick accent—“Vell, Teddy, you know, zey vant you to do zis television movie. I don’t care, but if you vant to, you can look.” So it was a rewrite, and I ended up being credited on it, and it got made. I couldn’t believe it. I was astonished, because I’d been writing for seven or eight years these screenplays off and on that didn’t get made, and I was just about ready to give up on getting something produced. rodríguez: So did that end up giving you a lot of inspiration, once it was actually made? Or did you think that this was it? tally: Well, when nothing happened for seven or eight years . . . I mean, I was getting paid, luckily. There were commissioned jobs. I was given a little bit of money to write, but nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, and then it all started happening at once. The TV movie got made, The Father Clements Story, and as that was being made, the movie White Palace with Susan Sarandon was green-lighted after two or three years of frustrating development. And just as that was getting under way, The Silence of the Lambs came along. So everything exploded. The Adaptation Business

rodríguez: Out of all the fi lms that you’ve been involved in, the ones that have been made, the bulk of those are adaptations of novels. How did you develop the skills and switch from being an original playwright, putting together your own material, to becoming an adapter of novels? tally: Well, it was by trial and error. But a lot of this also coincided with my wife and I having our first child. That’s when I really began to get more serious about screenwriting. I decided one day that I couldn’t keep trying to wear both these hats and not doing either one particularly successfully. I had to really concentrate on theater or on film until I could have a real success, a breakthrough. And fi lm made more sense because it was more lucrative. And also because if I was writing adaptations, I could approach it in a sort of businesslike way. I would know what today’s writing assignment was when I came in. I could work efficiently and then go home to my wife and child. I could get to my office and turn in a solid day’s work and know that after three or four months, I was going to have a producible screenplay. Whereas with a play you meander, and you go down the wrong road, and you get to page seventy-five and say, “Whoops, this should have

Ted Tally

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started here,” you know. At least for me, when I write plays, it’s like driving down a highway at night with no headlights, and you don’t quite know where you’re headed. You just hope that you get to some interesting destination, and sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. It’s wonderful exploration, but it’s not necessarily a very efficient way to make a living. Again, the good thing about adaptation is that you rarely are really stuck. You know, “Today I need to deal with what would have been chapters three, four, and five of the novel. I’ve got to do it in two brief scenes . . . but I have this thing that I can read, and read, and read, and then think, ‘Okay, I think I see how to do this.’” You’ve always got something to feed on, a road map, and so you rarely have a fully wasted day. You may write a long scene and then realize, “Oh, I didn’t even need that. I could have done this in one line of dialogue,” but you rarely have completely lost a day’s work. So it’s a more efficient way of writing than doing original scripts. It’s also, I think, historically easier to get them produced, because everybody’s got this book everybody can refer to and everybody falls in love with. Maybe it was a bestseller; maybe it brings in a little bit of its own audience. rodríguez: Was White Palace something that you sought out to do, or did it just fall in your lap? tally: White Palace was not something that I sought out. It just came across the door one day. I’m always drawn to stories with strong women characters. I don’t really know why. It may be because society puts up more difficulties for women to overcome, and the more difficult things your hero, your heroine, has to overcome, the more interesting they tend to be. It can’t be a coincidence that I have done all these movies with people like Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster. I’m drawn to those characters. rodríguez: I remember when the fi lm came out and thinking it was part of this late eighties, early nineties frank sexuality thing that was going on. Certain fi lms, sometimes with James Spader in them— tally: Usually with James Spader in them. rodríguez: Usually with James Spader in them. But the fi lm is not really that—there’s that element to it, but there’s so much more going on in the movie. It really is a kind of a richer character study than— tally: No, I like the drama of those two people. I like that woman’s courage. She’s uneducated, she’s poor, she’s really struggled all her life, but she’s smart, she’s strong, and she’s nobody’s fool. Susan Sarandon is very complimentary about that movie to this day.

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rodríguez: In a way, it’s sort of an unsung part, and that story has so much built-in conflict with the age difference, the class difference, all of these things . . . I highly recommend checking it out. One thing I noticed rewatching some of these fi lms is they seem to have longer second acts and very short third acts. I wondered if this had anything to do with your background in play experience. tally: I am not conscious of that, but when I’m writing a script, half of me is still thinking like an actor. And I’m thinking, “If I was acting in this scene, I’d be getting pretty bored by now, because nothing’s happening, or I wish I had a good prop to play with . . .” So I think maybe it helps when you’re writing for actors to have been an actor, even an amateur one. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we all remember about a movie. We don’t really—no offense to you or me—but we don’t really remember the writer; we remember if there was great acting in it. So if you walk away from something where there was an unforgettable performance, that’s what we have contributed to. rodríguez: As a screenwriter, and talking with other writers, we often get lost in the second act. We don’t know what to do in the second act. We’ve got a great idea for the finale, but it seems like—at least in fi lms like The Juror and Before and After and I think White Palace, especially— the second acts are really breathable room, and they’re for the characters’ development. tally: Well, I lucked out. You don’t get that chance much anymore, the way Hollywood is now, to write a movie where scenes can just breathe, where it’s not rushing to the next big plot effect, or the next explosion, or the next alien landing. It’s actually just two people talking, which can be incredible drama, and I’m very old-fashioned that way. I like movies where the special effects are the acting or the writing. rodríguez: I think that’s why people sit up and take notice in a movie like Inglourious Basterds, with that twenty-minute scene with just a couple of people talking. tally: Yeah, and they’re all tense. rodríguez: It’s so tense, and it’s so rich, and you’re riveted to the screen. tally: And maybe that’s part of my theater background, too. I trust the language to carry something and not just the visuals. I try not to be desperate for something interesting to happen visually all the time. I try to not overwhelm the audience. If you give them too much too early, then

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what do you do? And, you know, I have written screenplays that feel more like plays in much of their length. Jodie Foster always said about Orion Studios—which was a very fi lmmaker- and writer-friendly studio, as Holly wood went; that’s why they went bankrupt—she said they trusted their fi lmmakers to know what they were doing and they didn’t get in their way. I never got a single note from that studio. From that entire process. But Jodie said one time, if we had been trying to make that movie at any other studio, the first thing they would have said was, “What is this eightpage scene where these two people are just sitting and talking, Lecter and Clarice? There’s another one. It’s just ten pages that they’re just sitting and talking. We can’t do that. Those are cut, those are out.” That would have been the first thing to happen. rodríguez: So you think, had the movie been made today, it would not have been the same? tally: It wouldn’t be made today. None of my movies would be made. And the sad thing is that never mind those, a lot of the greatest movies that are our heritage, culturally, from the sixties, seventies, and the early eighties probably would not be made today. It’s very depressing. I mean, would Chinatown be made today? Probably not. They would say, that’s TV stuff, that’s a cop thing, that’s just TV. And it doesn’t look like Harry Potter. rodríguez: Let’s see, there are a couple of lines in White Palace that I have to quote because I’m curious to know if they were direct from the novel or if they were inventions of yours. tally: If they were good, they were mine. rodríguez: Okay. There’s a scene in which Susan Sarandon and James Spader are having an argument after he first takes her to his apartment and he won’t tell her how much his rent is. And she says, “Wait a minute, we get naked, and you get inside me, and you can’t tell me how much you pay for this place? Your landlord knows, and you’re not even blanking him.” And then, of course, “There’s no dust in her DustBuster.” tally: Yeah . . . I honestly don’t remember anymore about the dialogue. Something like that must have been in the book. What was embarrassing in that screenplay was writing the sex scenes, because in the book it just says, “They have sex.” What’s that giving an actor? It’s not giving them anything. And you can’t just absolve yourself of all responsibility, no matter how embarrassing it is to sit there and write this stuff. You have to say what you want them to do and what we see. Otherwise you’re cheating your actors.

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rodríguez: Let’s talk a little bit about The Juror. The Juror seems to me like it’s a plausible premise that gets more and more implausible as it goes on, but it’s still very compelling because of the dynamic between those characters. tally: Well, the Alec Baldwin character in that is very scary. He’s very creepy. That was back before Alec Baldwin was Alec Baldwin, before he was a full-time comedian. But he was very funny even then. In rehearsals for that, he was hysterical. He could do any accent. He’s very smart, very quick-witted. I didn’t get along with Demi Moore and was not involved in the shooting, so I have mixed feelings about that movie. I saw it for the first time at its opening, like everybody else, and was pleasantly surprised it hadn’t been messed up worse than it was. rodríguez: Well, I think it’s a pretty good movie, and what I really liked was, again, the breathing room with those characters, the dynamic that’s built between those two characters, which also seemed to me to have a lot of affinities with the Clarice and Lecter dynamic. You’ve also talked a little bit about the parallel between Clarice and Annie in The Juror, and these sort of empowerment-of-women stories. I think that speaks to a lot of people. tally: Women are just better characters than men. They’re more dramatic and they’re more empathetic. They don’t have to blow things up to get your attention. rodríguez: There are so many elements that are in that story that are going on about that transition from innocence to experience and learning how to be that thing that you’re going to be, and putting all those experiences into this new test. And I think that’s what really resonates with a lot of people. In The Juror, there’s a line that gets repeated, “Who’s going to protect you,” and in the end, it’s Demi Moore’s character who is the protector. tally: I always thought that movie would have been better if the two women had switched parts. If Anne Heche had been the central character and Demi Moore had been the tough side character. Again, I’ve been very fortunate. Most of these movies didn’t do that well at the box office. But I’ve been very fortunate in the actors and even the supporting cast. James Gandolfini is in that movie. Anne Heche is in that movie. I mean, that’s a great thing about movies compared to theater. That seventh- and eighth- and ninth-smallest part is still going to have an extraordinary actor in it: Alfred Molina in Before and After, and Philip Sey-

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mour Hoff man had a tiny part in Red Dragon. That’s something you can get in movies that you just can’t get as a writer in theater. rodríguez: And Before and After is based on a novel, as well as The Juror and Silence of the Lambs and many of the other fi lms. Before and After is about a small-town family thrown into disarray after their son is accused of murder. One of the interesting things I thought about watching that fi lm—and I didn’t know whether that was a choice you made, or if it was direct from the novel—was the idea that the son really doesn’t have a line of dialogue, or really appear physically in the fi lm, until about forty minutes into the movie. tally: I think that’s true in the book, too; he’s missing and that puts additional pressure on the family. It’s a book by Rosellen Brown. It’s quite a wonderful novel—another movie that would never be made today, because it’s dark and it’s not commercial, but it was Rosellen Brown’s premise. What grew out of it is her learning that a parent cannot be required to testify against a child, no matter what they know about a crime. And the whole thing grew from that idea. rodríguez: You have a lot of inner conflict between the characters. The fi lm starts off where Liam Neeson seems like the very warm, fatherly type as he’s playing piano with his daughter. And then once the accusation comes about the son, he becomes very closed off; he doesn’t want any interference in that. And Meryl Streep’s character is this small-town doctor whom you think is going to be more forceful and more direct, but she seems quite subservient to his will. tally: Well, they have no background whatsoever for what they’re going through. It’s sort of every parent’s second-worst nightmare, that your child might have committed a violent crime, because what does it say about not only your child but about you, and your values, and how you raised them? rodríguez: And so, with all of these different fi lms, what was your approach in breaking down the novel? tally: The process is always roughly the same, which is, the first thing is to try to figure out whose story it is. That may seem very obvious, but it’s not always so. In Silence of the Lambs, for instance, the novelist can go inside the head of multiple characters. Sometimes he’s in Hannibal Lecter’s head, and sometimes he’s in Crawford’s head, the FBI boss, sometimes he’s in Jame Gumb’s head, and he can show the story from their points of view. You have to make a decision, because you can’t do all of that in a movie.

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You’ve got to say, “No, I think it’s her story. I think it’s Clarice Starling’s story, so that’s going to be my main principle for editing this. I’m going to stay with her point of view. I’m going to try not to get ahead of her. As an audience member following the story, I don’t want to know more than she knows, because I want to experience it the way she is.” So you make a choice about whose story it is, and that’s the first thing that determines the editing of the book. If you can try to keep the audience in the point of view of Clarice, then they’re going to be scared when she’s scared. And they’re going to be surprised when she’s surprised. And they’ll find out stuff when she finds it out. It builds suspense by keeping the audience close to that character. So they feel like it’s their journey, too. It’s a constant mind game that you’re playing with the audience, a game of trying to anticipate their expectations and surprise them. Jonathan Demme says it’s better to confuse the audience for a couple of minutes than to bore them for ten seconds. You always want to be just a little ahead of them, but not so far ahead of them that it seems snarky. The perfect example might be when we’re way ahead of Clarice when she finally gets into Gumb’s house at the end of the movie. We know that she’s now in terrible danger, and she doesn’t know it. That’s building suspense. And then she sees the moth and realizes where she is, but Gumb doesn’t know it yet. So you’ve just ratcheted the suspense up like ten times. You’re constantly trying to put yourself in the shoes of the audience as well as the characters. It’s hard. We’re so inundated with story now—fi lms, television, the Internet— we’re completely inundated with stories, and the audience is seeing these scenes from the earliest age, and the audience becomes incredibly sophisticated in story terms. They’ve seen every plot in the world, they’ve heard every kind of scene, they know what a character’s like, they know when something’s about to jump out of the closet. The audience is so savvy that it’s very hard to be ahead of them. And that’s a problem for screenwriters. Especially if it’s a genre fi lm like a suspense fi lm, where the whole impact of it depends on at some point turning the tables and surprising the audience. Or having an ending that’s unexpected but feels not like a cheat, that feels right. rodríguez: There’s a lot of talk about how Thomas Harris was a reclusive writer and how he was going to very dark places in the writing of that

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Script pages from The Silence of the Lambs

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Script page from The Silence of the Lambs

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novel. Does putting yourself only in Clarice’s mind-set shelter you from some of the darker stuff ? tally: No, because you eventually have to do all of the dark stuff anyway. And even though you have this main organizing principle, that you’re going to stay with her point of view, in the nature of that story sometimes you have to cut away. I mean, you have to show the girl being kidnapped who’s going to be held prisoner. You have to show Lecter’s escape from Memphis, even though Clarice is not involved in that. And that’s dangerous; I mean, it’s a late, late point in the movie to break away from your main character for twelve to fourteen minutes, but you have to do it because that’s one of the great showpieces from the book. So, though you have these guiding principles, you have to sometimes step aside. rodríguez: The interesting thing, too, is that Clarice becomes this prism that you, as a writer, are helping to tilt slightly. As Clarice and as Will Graham in Red Dragon, they have to get into the mind-set of that darker killer. tally: You have to try to see the world from their point of view and empathize with that character absolutely, as if you had created that character originally. And that begins to guide you through an adaptation process. And then things begin to fall away because they’re not important enough to the character that you’re following, even though they might have been wonderful in the book, gripping in the book. Crawford, the FBI boss, there’s a whole subplot about his wife who’s dying off screen, and he has to deal with all the pressures of this massive investigation that he’s in charge of, and he has to deal with the Clarice character and how he’s mentoring her, and all this while his wife is dying and all he wants to be is by her side, and that’s a very rich part of the book that I tried to hang on to in the first couple of drafts in the screenplay, but at some point I realized, I have to let that go. I can’t do everything the book can do. rodríguez: So, do you feel like you had a pretty good handle on what was going to be jettisoned and what was going to be saved? tally: Yeah, and some of those things, I think the audience would end up not missing. Other things, well, there’s some fallout from that. You have to make tough choices. It’s such a game of time, and a race against time. You have so few pages to deal with to tell a complex story, and in that movie, one of the victims was really the Jame Gumb character, who becomes kind of a cipher. Because I don’t want the audience to know more about him than Clarice could know, we don’t get to see much of him, really, and we don’t get to understand what makes him tick. Ted Tally

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Again, Jame Gumb is more of a cipher than anybody else in the movie. Lecter, you can sort of in a twisted way put yourself into because Lecter is trying to amuse himself. He’s bored by everybody and everything, and he’s trying to amuse himself. And so you can sort of find your way into that a little bit. But Jame Gumb, I didn’t know who or what he was. The book can go into his childhood and his abusive mother, and how he sort of came to be the way he is. There’s no room for that in the movie because everything is in present tense. rodríguez: And then you got to do that more in Red Dragon. tally: It’s different, because in Red Dragon, that character is not such a secret for the whole movie. It’s just set up differently; it’s set up to be like parallel plots. rodríguez: In The Silence of the Lambs, I think that the cipher element to the character helps a lot because it’s so mysterious. tally: It helps a lot. It was very unfair to the actor, to Ted Levine. Many scenes that I had written didn’t give him much of anything to do. So a lot of that bizarre behavior had to be improvised on the set with Jonathan Demme, and Ted Levine did such a brilliant job that he couldn’t get work for years afterward. It was sad, everybody assumed he was like some weird pervert, and he couldn’t get jobs. He’s now getting much more work, and he’s getting to play cops and things now. He’s a wonderful actor. It was courageous of him to take on that part, and he got no help from the screenwriter, I can tell you that. When I first saw the dailies of some of those scenes, I said, “What the hell is this?” Jodie, too. She was stunned. I was stunned. It was so upsetting and weird. rodríguez: Let’s walk back a little bit to the beginning of Silence of the Lambs. tally: Well, I owe this one to my wife. I mean, the only reason I got this job was because of her. She was an art gallery director in Manhattan, and one of her clients and a friend of her bosses at her gallery was Thomas Harris, so I met him socially through my wife and her employers. We had dinner a couple of times. I told him I was a big fan of his—he had then written two books, Black Sunday and Red Dragon—and he said, “Oh, well, I have a new one coming out, maybe you’ll be interested in that.” And a few weeks later, he sent me a manuscript copy of The Silence of the Lambs. And I read it and I thought, “Oh my God .  .  . he’s topped himself again. Red Dragon was better than Black Sunday. Black Sunday was already good, and he’s done it again. He’s topped himself.” And when I read this book, I

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thought this could be the kind of movie that only comes along about once every ten years. It’s like The Godfather. It’s going to have enormous popular appeal, but it’s so smart and so sophisticated in its technique and storytelling that it’s also going to appeal to critics. It’s going to get both sides of the aisle. But I assumed the job was already gone, because by the time a screenwriter gets ahold of the book, even the manuscript, the deal has often already been made in Hollywood. So, again, my wife said, “Call your agent,” and I said, “It’s too late. William Goldman or somebody is already writing this screenplay.” She said, “Call your agent.” So I called and said, “Can you throw my hat in the ring for this?” And, you know, sure enough, Orion Pictures said—Mike Medavoy said—“Oh yeah, that Indian movie that you wrote with Lindsay Anderson . . .” rodríguez: And how soon after that was Gene Hackman attached to it? tally: Gene Hackman was attached by the time I was first talking to the studio about it, and some people might know this story already—Gene Hackman was attached to The Silence of the Lambs. He was going to write the screenplay, direct it, and star in it. Not too much ego going on there. He just hadn’t decided whether he was going to play Lecter, or if he was going to take a step back and play Crawford. And I remember—I literally had this conversation with Mike Medavoy, who was the head of Orion, or one of the heads of Orion—I said, “Gene Hackman is going to write the screenplay? You know, I was hoping for that job.” And he said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. He’ll never be able to do it.” He said, “Let’s give him a month. See how he’s doing, you know.” And he called me up later. He said, “Okay, Gene’s been working on it for a month. He’s on page thirty of the novel and page thirty of the screenplay.” So he said, “I’d like you to meet with him and discuss your concept of the movie.” So that’s what I proceeded to do over a couple of long meetings. I talked Gene Hackman into letting me do the screenplay, and when I was halfway through the screenplay, he quit without a word. rodríguez: Did you go into full panic mode? tally: Oh! It was a nightmare. I was probably like two thirds of the way through writing the movie. I didn’t have a signed deal yet—there was still some negotiating going on—and I hadn’t been paid yet. And now I find the studio hasn’t even signed the author’s rights yet with Tom Harris. And now my director has quit. So it was the worst maybe forty-eight hours of my life. I had already invested so much time and effort into this. And then

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I got another call from Mike Medavoy, and he said, “Stick with it, don’t worry about Hackman, we’ll find a better director, stick with it. You’re the only one, you’re going to be the writer on this, we’re going to go forward. Everything will get signed, it’s just legal minutiae.” And it was true. rodríguez: Well, that’s fantastic. How many drafts before Demme got involved? tally: Just the one. When I met Jonathan, I was almost finished with the first draft, and we had lunch. I’d never met him before, and although I had admired his movies very much, I couldn’t see any relationship between his movies and this one. They were all sort of comic, but they were wonderfully done. And when I met with him, I was so angry over everything in my so-called fi lm career right up to that point, right up through Gene Hackman dropping out without a word to me—and, Gene, if you’re out there .  .  . I’m still waiting for that phone call. But I was so angry over all the frustrations that I had endured for like eight years. Jonathan Demme was the sweetest, kindest, shyest man—it had nothing to do with him. I just spewed out, you know. I said, “Hollywood sucks. Hollywood cheats and lies and betrays you, and it promises things that it never does. I can’t stand it, and this is going to be the same thing again.” And he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He said, “I’m here to tell you your life has now changed forever. And I promise you that you will be the only one who ever writes on this movie and that I will never have you do anything on this that you don’t approve of. So let’s get to work.” And that was his attitude. I mean, he said, “You will never be replaced on this movie, nobody will ever change anything of yours without approval, I won’t make any major casting or any other decision that you don’t approve of, you can be on the set as much as you want to, and we start in November. So let’s go to work.” I couldn’t believe it. To this day, I can’t believe it, and of course, it’s never happened again. It definitely helps when the director is supportive, and they usually don’t want to see the writer once they start shooting. It’s like, “I got this now, thanks. Thanks for the words. See you at the opening.” But Jonathan Demme, and I must say, Brett Ratner, too, on Red Dragon, and Barbet Schroeder on Before and After—those were the three most collaborative directors I’ve ever worked with. You could be on the set as much as you wanted, and it was fine if you talked to the actors. I mean, Jonathan Demme literally called me and said, “We’re shooting a scene, a Lecter scene, and Tony [Anthony Hopkins] wondered if he could change a line.” And I said, “What does he want to say?” And whatever it was, I said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” I mean, you can’t imagine getting a phone call like that as a 16 4

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screenwriter. And I had a similar moment with Brett in Red Dragon. If a screenwriter and a director really work closely together, it’s an amazing thing. So I can’t take credit for all the things that were trimmed. That one just worked out. rodríguez: Now, there’s a quote—I think I saw it on the Blu-ray of The Silence of the Lambs—there’s a documentary about the making of the fi lm, and someone makes a comment that this was the exact right script for the exact right actors at the exact right times in their lives. tally: I think it was. Tony Hopkins had had a brilliant early career in theater and had made some movies that had some success. The Lion in Winter was his first movie, with Katharine Hepburn. But his career had fallen onto weak days, and he retreated back to England and was only doing theater acting. He had sort of given up on film. Jodie Foster had just won an Academy Award, and she was the exact right age to be the character. She had the heft to get it made. While she was proud of the part that she had played in The Accused, she didn’t feel like it really reflected who she was. She was proud that she had won an Oscar, and she was eager to strike again. And she knew this book. She called me while I was writing the first draft, out of the blue—I’d never met her. She called me up to sort of campaign for the part. So she needed the part. Tony Hopkins, God knows, needed the part. And Mike Medavoy said to me, “Jonathan needs this movie, and this movie needs him.” Jonathan had not had a hit, and this movie . . . Medavoy knew that the humanity that Jonathan would bring to this, the gentleness and the sensibility, would make it not just a slasher fi lm; he would make it something stranger, richer than just a spooky movie. So it was a perfect synchronicity of all these talents. There was an article recently where Jodie said—I guess because there was a twentieth anniversary of the fi lm or something—and she said, “None of us were ever that good before, and we’ve never been that good again.” rodríguez: It really is an amazing picture on so many different levels, but the dynamic, the relationship between the characters—everyone in that movie is perfectly cast for their part. tally: Yeah, it’s amazing. Sometimes everybody rows the boat in the same direction, but usually not. It’s such a complex enterprise, making a movie. You know as well as me, it’s hundreds of people working thousands of hours, and there are so many ways it can go wrong, and there’s only a few ways it can go right. It’s so hard to even make a decent or confident movie. rodríguez: I think that there’s a certain prescience involved, like you Ted Tally

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just talked about, you know: Mike Medavoy having the vision to know that Demme was the right guy, that these actors were the right actors. tally: It was strange because it felt that way from the beginning. It felt that way from the first day of shooting. I wasn’t there for the first couple of weeks when they were shooting in Quantico, Virginia, the FBI academy, and in Washington, DC—scenes that were later cut in DC. But when they got to Pittsburgh, it was the first time I had ever been on a movie set because the other couple of films I wrote, I hadn’t been invited. And Kenny Utt, one of the producers of the movie, came over to me, and I said, “How’s it going?” and he said, “Oh, we’re making a great movie,” and I thought, “That’s what everybody says in Hollywood,” you know. He said, “No, you don’t understand, we’re making a great movie.” He said, “I have not had this feeling on a movie set—I mean, the hairs rising on the back of my neck—since Midnight Cowboy.” And he said, “I know that this will be a great movie.” And at that point, they hadn’t shot a single scene with Tony Hopkins. They had only shot for about two or three weeks. rodríguez: So you weren’t necessarily surprised then that the script and the fi lm might become sort of textbook examples. tally: I just think it was a very fortunate series of things that happened, some of which looked like disasters at the time, like Hackman quitting. He had made Mississippi Burning, which was such a controversial movie, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with anything else that might become controversial. That’s what I later heard. But everything that seemed like a big bump in the road for that movie turned out to be happy accidents. rodríguez: One of the things that I think is also such a signature mark of that fi lm is the way it’s shot: the back and forth, the creation of intimacy, it’s just the way that the fi lm is shot. Is any of that in the script? tally: That’s Jonathan and Tak Fujimoto. And right away, we ran into a problem on the set. The first day I was there, they were getting ready to shoot the first scene between Lecter and Clarice, and they had built that set, Lecter’s prison cell, and I had left the description of the set the way it was in the book, which was that there’s three layers of bars and rope netting and mesh. And Jonathan said, “We can’t shoot that way. There’s too much going on in front of their faces. We can’t see their eyes. We can’t shoot that way. We’re going to have to do something radically different. And now. In a hurry.” So Kristi Zea, who was the brilliant production designer of that movie, a genius, she said, “We’ll use plexiglass. All the other

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cells on that floor will have bars, but his, because he’s a special case, he’ll have plexiglass. You can’t even get as close to him as you could with bars.” So they whipped that together overnight or something, and then the actors came to rehearse, and then Jonathan said, “They can’t hear each other.” I mean, this is the way fi lmmaking starts out, by being some theoretical thing with somebody at a laptop, and ends up with solving real problems in real time with the clock ticking, money flying out the window, and everybody’s standing around looking at you like, now what? You know, it’s like, “Okay, we got it to look right. We can shoot through these and see them, even.” They discovered the bonus, we can see her reflection while we’re looking at him. I mean, they could immediately see the possibilities, dramatically. So Kristi Zea said, “Okay, air vents. There’ll be air holes, and that way they’ll be able to hear each other.” rodríguez: . . . and smell each other. tally: And smell each other. So it’s just practical problem solving when you’re terrified and the clock is ticking. It’s how a lot of movie decisions get made. rodríguez: And were there a lot of scenes that were shot that were cut from the fi lm? tally: No. There were only a few scenes shot that were among the first fi lmed: scenes of Roger Corman as the FBI director, scenes where they go to the senator’s office in Washington, the mother of the kidnapped girl. And Jonathan said to me at some point, he said, “You know what, I didn’t direct those scenes very well. They’re just going to have to be cut.” Or sometimes he didn’t like a performance. He didn’t like some of Scott Glenn’s line readings at times, so he said, “I’m not going to embarrass the actor. I’m going to just trim it.” rodríguez: So how many drafts of that script . . . tally: There were really only—there were probably four drafts of that script. It changed very little. And that was the other thing: the things that he ended up trimming were only after consultation with me, after we looked at dailies and we talked on the phone and we came to an agreement that we could live without this or that. The only things that were in the script that he didn’t shoot, which we also discussed, were the flashbacks at the end—when they have the final scene between Lecter and Clarice, and she’s telling the story of the night the lambs were slaughtered when she was a little girl. In the original script, there were flashbacks to what she’s describing. You see her as a little girl, and you see her creeping in the dark

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Script page from The Silence of the Lambs

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toward the barn. The door is open, a light is coming out, something’s happening inside. It cuts back and forth between the flashbacks and the actors in Memphis in the present day. That’s how it was written, and actually, we were going to shoot the lambs sequence in Montana. That was going to be the last thing shot. You had to wait for the spring lambing season to do that. So it was going to be a whole extra film crew going out there. It was going to cost another million dollars, and it was put off to the end. Meanwhile, they’d shot all the conversation between the two actors in Memphis. And Jonathan called me one day and said, “I’m going to send you the dailies of this scene. Take a look at them, and then we’d better talk.” So I looked at these unbelievable performances, take after take after take. They looked as good as what you saw in the final movie, just with subtle differences. And I called him up and said, “These performances are unbelievable.” He said, “If I cut away from these performances to fl ashbacks, I’ll be thrown out of the Directors Guild.” He said, “Jodie Foster may win an Academy Award because of that scene.” This was like two and a half years before that turned out to happen. rodríguez: That’s amazing. tally: So I said, “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right. They’re telling the entire story without any flashbacks.” rodríguez: But there’s a moment in the fi lm with the flashbacks, where she’s creeping up to her dad, that works fine. There’s almost no dialogue in it, and it plays very well. It’s a very visual moment, and to interrupt that— tally: But I thought—you know, if you’re a screenwriter, you just always think, “I’m so smart, oh, I’m so clever,” and I had this whole flashback with that little girl who played her earlier in that movie, and she’s creeping out of this house up to this barn, and she gets inside and there’s a guy in a cowboy hat who’s killing lambs, and he turns around, and it’s Lecter. And I thought, genius. And Jonathan said, “Yeah, but we don’t need it.” He was so sweet whenever I would make some suggestion. Like, you know, when she finds the head in the jar, I said, “Jonathan, what if the camera rushed up suddenly closer to it, wouldn’t that make it scarier?” He said, “Ted.” He wanted to say don’t give up your day job. He said, “We have enough going on in this movie that’s scary. A head in a jar is nothing.” rodríguez: And the fact that they don’t do that kind of stinger shot, it’s like another level of creepiness.

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tally: You get a real sense of how you don’t want to overwhelm the audience with such a scary and dark, gripping movie. And that was one of the things we both insisted on from the beginning. I mean, people think of it as a horribly violent movie, and it does have some horrible moments, but there’s almost no literal on-screen violence in that movie. It’s always happening just out of your eyesight. When the girl is kidnapped, she’s hit over the head. You don’t see that. When the prison warden is trying to impress Jodie Foster with how horrible Hannibal Lecter is, he shows her the photograph of a nurse that he attacked, but you don’t see the photograph, you only see her reaction. That was in the script, and that’s Jonathan’s sensibility as well. The audience’s imagination will work harder than you know. Let them imagine it, don’t show them. And even in the most violent moment in the movie, when Lecter is hitting the guard, you don’t see the blows land, as you would if Quentin Tarantino were making it. In a weird way, given the subject matter of this ghoulish movie, it was incredibly important that it be tasteful, that it not be exploitative. The violence in this movie is awful, because violence is awful. It’s not there to titillate the audience. It’s awful. It’s disturbing. It’s disgusting. And that’s Jonathan’s sensibility. He and I would always rather see another character’s reaction to something than to see the thing itself. I think people like Jonathan Demme and myself are sort of dinosaurs now. We just want to tell a good story with good characters and good dialogue. As for the violence thing, Hollywood has cheapened violence to such a point that it’s like pornography or something, and I don’t like that kind of movie. I don’t like to see them. You know, it’s like at some point, you have children, and you want them to be proud of the work you do. rodríguez: Now, in The Silence of the Lambs, the idea about the characters of Lecter and Crawford being father figures to Clarice, how much of this are you thinking about in those terms when you’re writing the story? tally: I was very conscious of that. And at the time I was writing the screenplay, my own father was dying. So I would sit there at the computer, writing these scenes with Clarice and her father, and I would just—the tears would start. Thomas Harris, his setup, this equilibrium, this triangle . . . you have the dead father who can never be replaced, although she keeps wanting to replace him. She keeps wanting to eliminate the kind of evil from the world that took him away from her. He’s gone from her life, except in flashbacks. You have the evil father, Lecter, and you have the good father, Crawford, and they each have something to offer her. And yet

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she has to be stronger than either one of them. She can’t just be their little girl. To achieve this mission that she’s on, she has to grow beyond any of the fathers. Jodie, who was a literature major at Yale, is far more articulate about this than me or anybody else. She goes into this whole long rap about the dark forest of childhood fables and how you have to enter that forest and fight those demons, and she talks about the Brothers Grimm. rodríguez: Well, it’s very deep. It’s so rich. It’s so archetypal and elemental. tally: It’s not accidental. rodríguez: No, absolutely not. I had almost sort of discounted the ghost father, her real father, you know. I think of her as an orphan with these two substitute fathers, but that ghost father is really essential. tally: I was always terribly moved by the character’s courage. I think it’s the most moving quality for any hero. I mean, you are on some level doing a fairy tale. You’re doing a fable in modern clothing, and you’ve got a big bad wolf, and you’ve got Red Riding Hood, and it touches all that. We all grow up on those stories, and the best fiction has some of those classic storytelling underpinnings, those mythic underpinnings. rodríguez: I think that’s one of the great things about a movie, is that those things are there even if you’re not aware of them. You’re not thinking about them consciously, but it doesn’t lessen or take away anything from the impact of the story. tally: Yeah, you can write your doctoral thesis on it, and you could also eat popcorn while you watch it. rodríguez: It’s my understanding that when Hannibal was going to be published, that was something you were offered and you said no. tally: Well, after this movie was so successful, the studio went bankrupt, but other studios were after us for years to do a sequel. Jonathan and myself and the producers, we always said, “Well, Tom Harris is writing a sequel”—we had all had so much success based on him that it would really be completely unfair to try and do a sequel without him—“and he’s writing something, so let’s just wait.” And the wait got longer and longer, stretched out six years, seven years, eight years, nine years. We were all thinking like, “What’s going on?” And it took ten years for him to write the sequel because it turned out he was terribly blocked and frustrated in the writing. He didn’t know how to end it, and all kinds of problems came up. So finally, he did it, and we got the manuscript, and it was very disap-

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pointing. I mean, we loved him as a person, we loved him as a writer, but it seemed to us that somehow through the tortures of writing this difficult book, he had kind of betrayed his own characters. It was one of the worst moments of all of our careers, and I’m sure for Jodie, as well, because we just thought, we can’t do this. It’s so not what we set out to do last time. It seemed to fall into all the pitfalls that we avoided last time, with the sensational violence and the mean-spiritedness. It was a very, very awkward moment for us, with our collaborator. rodríguez: And what made you say yes to doing Red Dragon? tally: In Red Dragon, it was the opposite situation. Tom Harris didn’t like the movie Manhunter. He hated the movie, but I thought Manhunter was pretty cool. Tom Harris wanted a new version of it that would be truer to the book. And he even had an idea for some extra scenes of Lecter. And since it had his blessing, I said fine. I also felt that the Michael Mann movie, as good as it was, sold short the Dolarhyde character. He was a much bigger part in the novel than he was in that movie. It was much more interesting. There was more going on there. He’s not a cipher. So I thought, if you get a great actor in that part, that’s reason enough to do that novel again. And we got Ralph Fiennes. rodríguez: Was there anything that you were consciously trying not to repeat from that film? tally: No, I hadn’t seen it since it first came out. So, if anything, it stayed somewhat in my memory. There was nothing I could do to erase it. But, no, I concentrated completely on the book. rodríguez: It is a much more faithful adaptation of the novel than the Michael Mann version, especially with that character and the finale. tally: A lot of the Michael Mann version in my memory was about surface. It was all about a slick kind of look. The insane asylum looks like a spa—it’s all white, silver, and gleaming—and there would be a meaningless close-up on some decorative object in the foreground, cup and saucer or something. It was all great surface and [style], and also it just sort of ends. It’s like suddenly a truck runs over everybody, you know, and the ending in the book is much more drawn out and cooler than that. The problem with Lecter—as Tom Harris ran into himself with Hannibal and Hannibal Rising—is that the more you explain that character, the weaker he is. He’s so great in the first couple of books because he’s never really explained. We don’t want to know how he got to be that way. That reduces him into just an anecdote. I mean, he even says in one of those

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books, you can’t explain me any more than typhoid or swans. So when you start building something around him, you’re going to see too much of him. He should be like that guy who’s only on screen for twenty-five minutes. I don’t want to see him pick out his tie for the day and brush his teeth. Research

tally: When I read Tom Harris’s novel, I thought, “How in the world does he know?” I said to him at one point, “How in the world do you know the minute procedures that go on in a hospital for the criminally insane? How do you know that?” He said, “My mother does volunteer work in one in Alabama.” So I said, “Okay, you’ve done the research. I don’t have to do it.” I’m not going to do better than him, you know. Sometimes I pick the author’s brain for information that’s not in the book or for more background. For instance, I did this Afghan war story, a screenplay called Horse Soldiers, and I was able to meet the author, Doug Stanton. And I was able to get more information about the real-life soldiers in that story—how they dressed, how they talked, what they were like to spend time with. So I sometimes do research if I have to. But I think I’m generally better off studying the text. You want it to be truthful. You don’t want to say, “Black is white, the sky is orange,” you know. But you also don’t want to get so hung up over that if it impedes the writing. And if it’s going to become a movie, they’re going to bring in experts. They’re going to bring in people who say, “No, they wouldn’t do that.” I did rewrites on a Brian De Palma fi lm called Mission to Mars and was also credited as associate producer on that movie, and they brought in scientists, Mars scientists, to say, “This: yes, okay. This: no, this is implausible, but we’ll accept it because it’s Hollywood.” So sooner or later it does go through some kind of filter of critical expertise. Working with Actors

rodríguez: How much one-on-one did you have with the actors in your movies? tally: Well, a lot on All the Pretty Horses and a lot on Before and After. We had actual rehearsals for two or three weeks on Before and After, and it was like a play, making some changes with the actors.

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rodríguez: I think Before and After is probably the one that feels the most like a drama, like a play. tally: Sometimes there’s a lot of interaction, sometimes none at all. It just depends on, again, the personality of the director. But the director will say things like—Jonathan would say—“Don’t come to the set for the first two or three weeks, because I have to establish my authority over this.” It’s always sort of feeling each other out: Who’s wearing the pants this time? Jodie thought she was going to be wearing them in that movie [The Silence of the Lambs], and they had to sort of sort things out. And he also said, “Don’t let them come to you for shortcuts. Make them work. You know, they’ll come to you and want a shortcut for how to do something. And it’s better if they find it for themselves.” rodríguez: So, how much of the background as an actor yourself do you think informs the way you write a scene? tally: I think it helps to inhabit a character, you know. It’s unconscious, but you try to have a quality of empathy for everybody in the story, no matter how dark the character is. No matter how monstrous, you try to find something in them that’s human and something in them that on some level you can admire, if possible. And if you came out of being an actor, particularly a not very good actor, you want to remember that every character in the movie thinks the movie’s about him or her. What’s it really about—it’s about this doorman. And he’s only got a couple of lines, but I’ve built an entire character biography for him. And yes, that’s how to get a richer performance. You want everybody to feel like they could step forward and now they’re the star of that movie. It’s a quality of empathy with the characters. All the Pretty Horses

rodríguez: Cormac McCarthy, a very revered writer, has a style that’s almost stream of consciousness: no punctuation, paragraph breaks are few and far between. How is it adapting something like that? tally: That was hard. To me that book was so rich that I didn’t know what to leave out. And every movie edit of it was too long. Some of the longer versions I liked better than the shorter versions. It’s a three-hundredpage book, but every scene is so rich, and all the dialogue is so rich, you sort of don’t know where to cut it. There’s no flab in it. And he’s such a bril-

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liant writer. We’ve been accused of being too faithful to that book, and there could be some truth to that; if we had not been so in awe of this award-winning book and this genius writer, maybe we would have had a more successful movie. We wouldn’t have been there without him though, so you want to honor his vision. You know, everybody that works on the movie has a copy of that book that they’re thumbing through for more information. That’s a good thing about adaptations: you don’t have to put it all in the script, because everybody’s got their own bible and can go look up the background of that scene or what was in that scene that’s not in the screenplay: “Can I use any of that, subconsciously?” That’s a great benefit to doing an adaptation screenplay. rodríguez: In an interview, you talked about how, as someone who’s adapting these things, the last thing you’re thinking of is putting your own creative new material on this. Like if it’s not broke, don’t fi x it. tally: Well, you put in what’s needed. When you’ve winnowed down a three-hundred-page book to a hundred-page screenplay, you get a lot of gaps between scenes. So you have to invent some new scenes. You have to invent different transitions. You may have to change the entire scene order from what it is in the book. I still have scenes one, three, and five, but they’re no longer in that order, and obviously you have to invent new dialogue. You’re like that car without the headlights—you’re feeling your way through the process. The Adaptation Process

tally: I read the book several times, and I start writing all over it—you know, scenes get a check mark or three stars or one star. I don’t know what any of it means, it’s just like a reaction as I’m reading it. Or something’s a really strong visual, and I want to be reminded of that. The more you read it, the more the bones of it come through. This is what’s really important here; and this stuff is interesting, but it’s not as important. I don’t usually actually work directly from the book. I make a treatment, a scene-by-scene outline of what I think the movie would be, and some of it’s from the book, and some of it’s made up. It might end up being twenty-five pages long. And that’s basically the screenplay, that treatment. After the first draft, I rarely look at the book again, because the screenplay becomes about itself at a certain point, and when it becomes a diplomacy battle with actors

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and directors and producers, then it’s really not about the book anymore— unless they get some bee in their bonnet about the book . . . then you’re in trouble. Like Jerry Bruckheimer on Horse Soldiers. He had an absolute bee in his bonnet about little things in the book. I’m trying to write a sprawling war epic, you know, and he’s like, “Wait a minute, this one character loved to design album covers as a hobby.” I said, “Yeah? We’re on a horseback expedition in Afghanistan. Under fire.” “Yeah, but isn’t that cool? This guy? Gotta find a way to use that!” rodríguez: What excites you as a writer today? What kinds of stories excite you? tally: Because of the kind of work I do with adaptations, I like being able to reinvent myself. If I was stuck in my own imagination, I would have starved to death a long time ago, but because I’m doing adaptations of novels, or in the case of Horse Soldiers, a nonfiction book, well, suddenly I can do Western. Or I can do a science fiction movie, or I can do a war story, or I can do a love story. I can be a different kind of writer, explore different kinds of thinking, of feeling. That would be hard to do if left to your own resources all of the time. Unless you’re really brilliant, you know. Unless you’re a real writer.

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A Conversation with John Milius and Oliver Stone

john milius: Many of our perceptions of World War II come from fi lms, and those are the perceptions people wanted us to have. It’s only now that we can look at them another way. We couldn’t have made a fi lm like, let’s say, the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, where Americans are being blown to pieces and all that. Though some fi lms were pretty harsh during World War II, stuff like A Walk in the Sun, which is probably one of the quintessential war fi lms. oliver stone: Lewis Milestone, John Ireland, a beautiful fi lm. That and Men at War in the Korean War affected me. Those are the two most realistic fi lms I responded to as a kid. milius: Men at War I haven’t seen in a long time, but it’s stunning. I remember I saw it when I was a little kid, and it so affected me. And also The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It’s funny, these war fi lms were so patriotic and didn’t have anything unusual to say. stone: Yeah. That was a shock to a ten-year-old. milius: Absolutely. stone: Because the heroes often died in the end. milius: They seemingly die for nothing, and then in the end, they bring up the point, “What was this war for?” It’s funny, because there are so many World War II fi lms or Korean War fi lms, and a few of them stick out, but I remember the effect that fi lms can have. When I was growing up, living in La Jolla, it was not a fancy place. It was next to Camp Pendleton, so all the people who you knew were marine dependents. A lot of them lived in La Jolla. I remember going to

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this movie called Retreat, Hell!, and in the middle, these guys are running out of ammo and more and more Chinese are coming up, and all of a sudden the sky breaks open and here comes the corsairs and the flying boxcars dropping ammo. The audience stood up, all of these adults—not kids but adults, because they were fathers and wives—and they stood up and started cheering, because they needed that. Nobody knew when this war was going to end. stone: I think this is a very nostalgic point of view. And we are talking about our youth, but as we grow up, things change. I went over to Vietnam and spent fifteen months in the field, and John knows quite a few veterans and is quite a good shot himself. We may agree on nostalgia—I’m not sure where we stand in the present environment—but all I can say is, I’ve grown up with militarism and violence in fi lm for years. This is a staple of life. I say this in reference to what happened, because Platoon was a big victory for me. It went against the grain, because I was told again and again, from ’76 on, “You can’t make the movie, it’s too realistic, it’s a bummer.” Instead, we had Rambo and then Top Gun. Top Gun is a very well-made fi lm, but it’s very devious. It makes the statement of basically saying, “Yeah, bring on World War III.” That’s the way I see the fi lm, and I think it’s a horrible message. Platoon came out, and it was a brief antidote, and there was a series of those kind of movies, up and through the nineties, and what I think happened is really historically fascinating. I’ve said this before, but I noticed in the American culture a pullback into the shock and awe, this worship of technology, which we find in our movies again and again. Saving Private Ryan is a worship of a certain “America won the war” ethic, which does not allow for Russia or our allies’ huge contribution. Basically, without Russia smashing Hitler’s military machine, we would’ve lost millions of more men. But that’s another conversation. Pearl Harbor is an obscenity to me because it doesn’t really share what happened and it remythologizes history in the wrong way. Then we have Black Hawk Down. It’s shockingly remote, impersonal, and a Pentagon view of what the soldier should be that has not anything to do with the reality we saw. Black Hawk Down received several Academy Award nominations because it’s a very well-made picture, but it’s a lie. Everything was pulled and propagandized because the Pentagon was involved, and what happened? All the shock, awe, and all this great war stuff, and what do we do? We go right back into Iraq after having this spate of Vietnam films, including John’s, that made us question Viet-

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nam. So it was very disheartening for many veterans, including myself. And I can’t speak for all, but Iraq is a nightmare déjà vu situation. milius: I have to tell an Oliver story. I always quote this because you know I love this story. Everybody was raving about Saving Private Ryan, and I liked the beginning of Private Ryan. I thought it was extremely well done, and I asked Oliver what he thought of it. And of course he came through with flying colors and said, “I would have shot Tom Hanks.” stone: For people who haven’t seen the movie, Hanks drags his poor platoon halfway across France looking for one soldier, which is ridiculous in the first place. Practically every single member of his platoon is killed. What I’m saying is, once you start losing men, and eventually most of your platoon along the way, any leader’s credibility is going to come under question. Men don’t die for officers or sergeants when it makes no sense. They would’ve taken control of the platoon and, if necessary, killed Hanks. But the mission in the first place was not real—a product of a screenwriter’s mind. In other words, this was a wholly hypothetical situation, which allowed for a false heroism. The irony is the fi lm was treated as realistic because of the withering opening sequence on the beaches, and I think that sequence is very powerfully done. But after that it becomes a ridiculous, old, Frank Sinatra kind of World War II movie. milius: And I love it. stone: People will do tremendous things in combat. They will save, reach out for the wounded, try and save the wounded—bouts of heroism—but to sustain that plot, it borders on the absurd. It’s like a Waiting for Godot movie. milius: There are things in that movie that are very realistic and very well done. Then all of a sudden, everyone is bunched up together, talking—because he has to have everybody there talking—and of course, they were never bunched up together. Because that’s a good time to shoot them, when they are bunched up together. stone: But we have to be careful. There’s a bigger issue, which is calling together the national sacrifice of World War II and saying this is what’s missing in our generation—all that Tom Brokaw bullshit, like we’re guilty, like we didn’t do it right. The Greatest Generation, but they were scared shitless. I talked to a lot of the vets later—I grew up in New York, my father was a veteran. I remember guys who fought in the Pacific, and they would say it was a shit war. Island to island, they hated it. There was fear. Read any of the books, whether it’s [James] Jones or Norman Mailer. John

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knows them all. It was a shitty, hard, miserable existence. These guys were not these great heroes. They were heroic for surviving, but most of them will say, honestly, “Don’t make a big deal out of me.” milius: But they seem to say, which most survivors of war will say, “I was doing my job,” because that covers it. That’s about all you can say. And even in Platoon you have every character represented: Tom Berenger, he loves the war; he really has no place to go when that war is over. Willem Dafoe, who doesn’t love the war, but he does a good job. Then you have Charlie Sheen, who really wants to be out of there. So you have the spectrum. One of the best war movies, and probably my favorite war movie of all time, is a movie called Battleground, which is a William Wellman movie about the Battle of the Bulge. stone: Wellman was in World War I. milius: And everything is in that movie. You’ll see every character, every point of view. There are people who want to be there, people who don’t, people who are complaining. You actually see something that probably was never in an American movie before: you see a guy turn coward, and he’s the hero of the movie. It’s Van Johnson, and the SS is coming in, and there’s a firefight, and he gets up and runs. He runs around this bridge and flops down, terrified. He’s sitting there and realizes he’s broken. Then all of his buddies flop down with him and think he’s taken them around the flank, and all of a sudden they can shoot. But he knows he didn’t, and that was a very powerful scene. The Line between Realism and Drama

stone: Well, I’ve obviously played with that line. You take license because the real distance is further in reality. The enemy is harder to see. The violence is sometimes awkward and not graphic. I think we all have taken liberties in licensing to goose it up. I’ve been criticized for it because war is oddly beautiful; it’s got this fatal beauty. I think Terry Malick did a beautiful job with The Thin Red Line. It’s a movie with poetic voice-overs. Is that serving a purpose? Yes, in a strange way, it’s a fever. War is a fever for those guys. There’s something enticing about going into the army. If you’re a young kid and you see The Thin Red Line, you might want to go in. Apocalypse Now, you want to go in. Even Platoon made some of these kids want to go in. milius: The whole idea of the Vietnam War, and probably any war, if

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you look at it, there’s a sense of absurdity. A friend of mine who is a SEAL, he trained and had to get into the SEALs. He went through BUD school and trained and was so tough that way. And suddenly, he said, it was like a blink of an eye and he’s in the Delta somewhere, and they’ve dropped him off with no radio, no contact, and the next SEAL is a thousand yards down the rice paddy. He says, “What am I here for? How did I get in this much trouble? I’m hearing everyone in this country doesn’t like me. All the bugs are trying to get in me.” All he’s figuring out is how to stay alive for that night, until somebody will come and get him, and that’s realistic. That’s where everybody is, and so if you betray that, it’s not real. stone: Just to make one new point, which I think is overlooked too much: people ask me, what is the difference between Iraq and Vietnam? One of the differences is that we were truly a citizen-soldier, drafted army in Vietnam. In Iraq, it’s purely enlisted men, purely volunteers, and I think there’s a difference in values there. milius: What was very good about the draft, and why there should be a draft again, is because everybody should do national service, whether it’s being in the army or something else. They should have to have their lives interrupted, whether it’s working on the roads or whatever. The draft took people and said, “There’s something bigger than you. It’s gonna come in and mess with your life. It’s gonna take you and force you to live with people you don’t know about. And it’s gonna force you, in the case of Vietnam, you might get killed.” I remember when the draft was around. Big Wednesday surfers had no problem dealing with the draft. They went down and they made a sport of getting out of the army. But there were many who went in, and it was an interesting thing that whoever it was, whether it was surfers or hippies, they couldn’t avoid this problem. Some fled to Canada, and that messed up their lives. Whatever they did, they had to become engaged in the world, and what I think was really bad, is that kids have grown up without being engaged with the world. They’re not even engaged in what their country’s doing. They just want to sit at their computers. stone: I wouldn’t go that far. I think one of the best war films of recent times, and I know this is controversial, is Paul Verhoeven and Starship Troopers. You see a battle class, an elite class. These are elite soldiers, and as everyone in Iraq knows, have $15,000 worth of technology on them. I get the picture. But they’re all volunteers. They’ve become loyal to the army, and it becomes like in Rome, becomes almost a robotic force that’s divided from a normal American culture.

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milius: Yeah, they are, and the rest of the culture looks at them as cops. stone: And they come back with cop attitudes and military attitudes, and they bring that violence back. It’s a very strange time we’re living through. The consequences are still coming up, as I try to show in Born on the Fourth of July with what happens after war when a guy comes home in a different frame of mind. Representing the Vietnam War On-Screen

stone: The first successful Vietnam fi lm was The Green Berets. If John Ford had done it, it probably would have been a pretty good film, but because it was John Wayne and the Green Berets, it was a tired, typical, kind of 1950s fi lm. But it was very successful because people wanted to see anything about what was going on and because that movie came out right at the beginning of the war controversy. And the other film that came out at the same time that was very successful, and a very good film, was Patton. MASH was also very good. I think Coming Home stands out as one of the more realistic ones for me. I loved Apocalypse Now and I loved The Deer Hunter, but I think John would say they were a little larger-than-life. They were not in the reality levels of Coming Home, or what I attempted to do with Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. Different movies have different meanings, and they’re both huge symbolic fi lms, but I wish Brando had done a little more homework and learned his dialogue. Anyway, the point is, fi lms did take a twist. Rambo is a crucial fi lm because it made a fortune, and it was a revisionist point of view. The military didn’t fuck up in Vietnam, the politicians did. They stabbed us in the back, which is the old Hitler routine from World War I. Don’t buy it for one second. Military fucked up in Vietnam. The leadership was terrible. The policy made no sense. The base camps, the money . . . the whole goddamned thing was fought wrong to begin with. The policy of body counts, kill counts—some of the stuff we’ve learned we are using in Iraq. But we are still not mixing with the people. We are not getting the hearts and the minds. That’s how you’ve got to win these civil wars. There’s no way that our policy in Vietnam could have succeeded on a military level. Rambo sold the opposite theory and was very successful. I’m glad Platoon caused a few black eyes, I really am, because I think that class, some sunshine patriots, will always buy the Rambos.

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Patriotism

stone: In Born on the Fourth of July, the interesting thing about Ron Kovic is he wants to be John Wayne. He goes to Vietnam as a boy from Massapequa, gets his spine blown out, ends up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but keeps fighting back after great despair and comes back as another form of hero—a hero who questions authority, questions his government, unlike the John Wayne figure who went to Vietnam. But don’t forget Hamburger Hill was also a patriotic attempt, though I think much too pro-American. The guys who are running up the hill are the good guys. There’s no sense of the Vietnamese point of view. Forrest Gump is a wonderful fi lm, but it certainly has its own view of history: Vietnam is represented by the legless veteran Gary Sinise, whose point of view is wholly militaristic and not at all what Born on the Fourth of July stands for. milius: I liked Forrest Gump. It’s a good fi lm. You can enjoy a good fi lm, and you can disagree with it. There is nothing wrong with it. Actually, I liked that better than any of Zemeckis’s other films. Conan the Barbarian

stone: I was very impressed with the comic and twelve books Robert E. Howard had written. I loved the concept. I wanted to write a series that would go on like a James Bond series. They were long stories, and Howard had a very active imagination. The first attempt was too huge. John will describe it much better than me, but it was a huge attempt to open this thing with a bang. milius: I told Oliver when I wrote it, “This is wonderful imagery, but you can’t shoot any of it.” There was no way to shoot people sprouting out of the ground. They didn’t have CGI back then. I liked the concept of this guy growing up. I mean, there’s one line that comes from Howard in an early draft—he says, “I was born in a battle, and the first sound I heard was a scream.” I said, this is a character that just comes out of this chaos and has to make sense. I have to say, it inspired me. If I’d been allowed to make more, we’d still be making them. I really liked Conan. I think Conan is one of my best jobs. I just want to say before I forget, it seems war movies are divided into two types. One is like Platoon: you explain what’s going on, but the real story is about the struggle between this guy and these two influences.

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That’s what you follow, and so it really approaches everything else in the war bleakly. And those are very effective movies. The Bridge on the River Kwai is another. Apocalypse Now is not about the war; it’s about what’s at the end of that river. Then there are other movies, which can sometimes be very effective, like The Dam Busters. It’s simply about a mission and how they accomplish this. On Belief and Movies

milius: No matter how bitter and cynical you are—and Oliver was there, so he became very cynical—you still can’t accept the idea that your government is going to do something that’s a screwup. You think that behind it all there’s a really good reason for something we don’t understand. We were raised that way. But in fact, the most horrifying thing is when you realize that bureaucracies can screw up. stone: I bet George Bush saw Black Hawk Down and loved it. We know that Nixon watched Patton twenty times before he bombed Cambodia. Americans worship violence. They worship shock. They worship awe. They called it that. We went out and we did the same thing. And the media that was so anti-Vietnam by the 1970s, where did that media go? To sleep. And we keep doing it. I’m not as cynical as John thinks. I really hope and hope. But I feel sorry for the Iraqi people—the people from both countries who have been killed and wounded by the war. The best antiwar fi lm for me is Dr. Strangelove because it gets to the point. I think it’s brilliant. I think it shows the consequences of this kind of mad thinking. The sadness of this society for me is we read the newspapers every day, we watch television, we grow accustomed to having madmen in power acting insanely. We believe their behavior is sane, but it isn’t. They talk aggressively and we accept it. We’ve accepted so much from [the Bush] administration, and we’re sick of it. When War Films Do a Disservice to the Public

milius: I think when they cheapen human life, they do a disservice. The beginning of First Blood is pretty good because there’s this guy and the police pick on him and they hunt him, and then toward the end of the fi lm, he suddenly burns down the town and shoots everybody with his M60, and people are being shredded everywhere. Human life is cheapened, and

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it throws away everything the fi lm did good up until then. A lot of action fi lms just cheapen human life. I remember in The Thin Red Line, which I liked a great deal, that when they finally take the hill, every time they shoot, the Japs just fall down. Well, all of you know people don’t fall down when you shoot them. They scream. They thrash. It’s not very pleasant. And it was strange because the fi lm was so good up until then. Obviously, somebody advised him to do that. I can’t imagine he could’ve ignored that, because everything else was so carefully done. But I don’t like that. Whenever I see that in a film, I feel it cheapens human life. Rescue-Mission Films

milius: I like rescue-mission fi lms. It’s a human story, and you can approach the whole thing bleakly, but I love the idea that people are going to rescue somebody and bring them back—whether it’s some fantastic thing, like Missing in Action, or even going into the battlefield and bringing somebody else back. I mean, it’s one of human beings’ best impulses. stone: Well, Black Hawk Down is one of the prime examples of an aborted rescue fi lm. You know, guys go out, they get shot down. It’s a typical American thing about getting the casualties right away. This is a big issue in war. Do you advance your mission, or do you save the wounded? There’s no question in intelligent thinking—you advance the mission. Why would you endanger more people by saving the wounded? You become all fucked-up if the enemy gets away. You’ve got to keep going, that’s the idea. Then you come back. In Black Hawk Down, they kept sending more and more fucking people in there, and they get shot down. But one thing that stood out and just bothers the shit out of me is when the pilot is going down, and he knows he’s going down. Here he is, Mr. USA on the radio, signing off in perfect militaristic jargon. There was nothing human. milius: Yeah, I wanted to follow what was going on in Black Hawk Down, and I couldn’t in the movie. In the book it was very clear. What I thought was very good in the book was that these people were questioning themselves, saying, “Am I going to deal with my courage? Am I going to stand up to this situation?” The guy fast-ropes down, and by the time he gets to cover he’s shot three children, two women, and one terrorist. And now he’s in a whole other situation. He doesn’t know if he’s going to get out of there. And they didn’t really deal with that in the movie. They were just running

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around, shooting where they were supposed to. In the book, there was a lot more consequence to what they were doing, and I agree with Oliver. In the movie, there were no consequences. stone: Let’s talk about internal wars. I mean, how many of these crime shows have taught these cops how to behave? They run around, they pull out their gun, they all look the same. It’s the same thing—it could be Newark, it could be Mogadishu. What the hell is the difference? Crime shows are a form of police training. It’s a police behavior, police enforcement. It has a lot to do with military. Police and military crossover. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima

stone: I think Eastwood did a great job on Flags of Our Fathers. I think he was honest, and the fi lm had integrity. From what we saw of Dirty Harry, Eastwood was a different person back then. He was a very violent man. Clint Eastwood is so much like a John Wayne, if John Wayne had transitioned into another personality. The older man is far more mature and far more interesting to me. milius: I liked the book Flags of Our Fathers a great deal because of some of the views it shared on what and where we came from and how different we were from 1939 to 1945. What I found fascinating about the book was that three of those guys came from homes with dirt floors. We can’t conceive of that today. I thought, in the movie, these guys being taken aback by the phoniness of the situation they were put through—they knew what it was. They knew what it was long before they got there. I wanted more reflection on them and how they represented their cross section of America. The most interesting character in Flags of Our Fathers, the book, is the fellow who wrote it, James Bradley. His father ends up owning a funeral home and becomes a pillar of the community. He feels since he’s gone through war and he’s had this horrible experience, he can take care of the dead, and nobody else can do that. So he’s helping the community, and I thought that was a very noble character. I would’ve liked to see that movie concentrate on that, like, “What is able to come out of this?” My favorite war fi lm of all is Seven Samurai, which is a war fi lm. But I like Braveheart. I think Braveheart is very good. He did a really good job. He did good with the telling of the story and everything. Anytime you have the Scottish killing the English, it’s pretty good—getting even, you know. stone: I think those two examples are brilliant, good fi lms. Very well

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made, but also very important messages, because they had the soldiers defending the weak, those who could not defend themselves. Those that were fighting for freedom in Braveheart and Seven Samurai, they were defending people who were not warriors, they were farmers. I think that was the original mission for soldiers. I mean, I’m not a pacifist. There are times when you have to strike, and you have to be violent about it. That’s part of life. War is a part of evolution. War is not just shooting at each other. War takes the art of making fi lms, making a living, having children, and being born or dying. War is happening all around us, all the time, because it’s the nature of life. Although there are times of great peace, shooting wars are almost the regeneration of civilization. I thought we overcame that with the apes and made some great progress until the twentieth century. But we’ve had a setback. I really go back to the concept that we have to find a way in ourselves to get peace. The aggression in us is there, as Kubrick pointed out in 2001 and in Paths of Glory and A Clockwork Orange and Strangelove. It’s what you do with yourself to tame the beast. It’s a question of your character.

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A Conversation with Michael Green, Ashley Miller, and Nicole Perlman m o d e r a t e d b y á lv a r o r o d r í g u e z

álvaro rodríguez: Michael Green is the creator of Kings and the writer of, among other things, Green Lantern, Heroes, and Smallville. Ashley Miller is the writer of an upcoming Power Rangers fi lm and also Thor, the excellent X-Men: First Class, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Nicole Perlman wrote a small movie you may have heard about, if you like talking space raccoons, Guardians of the Galaxy. You three are responsible for some of the biggest comic book movies of the last two or three years. In the past there was a certain tone that signified what a comic book movie was, and then over the last ten or so years, maybe beginning with Tim Burton’s Batman, the tone started to change. How do you think the expression of the way comic books became translated into film evolved? michael green: Tim Burton’s Batman made a huge impression on everyone. It exploded my head, but there was another movie, Blade, that doesn’t get enough credit for cracking the genre. It was proof of concept. It’s not the greatest movie in the world, it’s not the worst movie in the world, but it was the first one that was based on a comic book that had a unique tone, that could hold that tone for an entire movie without becoming twenty other movies. People didn’t see Blade as a comic book movie, they saw it as a movie, so suddenly you could take these things and create a story and create a unique tone that didn’t belong in any other film. It was a genre again. ashley miller: I think the Blade issue is kind of interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but I believe you’re exactly right. I would’ve pointed to just tracing out the history of comic book fi lms. The first watershed event was Superman, particularly the first forty-five minutes. No costume at all, it was pure drama, and it works—some of the best comic book movie story195

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telling ever. It’s just emotional and it’s beautiful and it’s cool, and it’s got this incredibly unique vision. It departs from the source material in ways that actually help to redefine the source material. I think it’s difficult to talk about comic book movies without talking about Superman. I think Tim Burton’s Batman was another watershed event because it opened up the idea of how these fi lms could be visualized and what the audience would accept and what they wouldn’t accept. For better or worse, I love that film, and I love some of the things that came out of it, like The Crow, but I think the big thing that happened in the last twelve to fifteen years was the onetwo punch of Bryan Singer’s original X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man— maybe more importantly, Spider-Man 2. And, again, it gets to the issue of tone. Those fi lms decided what was going to be at the core of them was an emotional journey—a real character journey, not some Joseph Campbell shit. What really emerged was an opportunity for writers, for directors, to open up how we told those stories. Iron Man is not possible without Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. It wouldn’t have happened. The Avengers, frankly, as much of a big deal as that is in some ways, would not be possible without those movies that had come before it. I would say, to segue over to you [Nicole], that I think that we’re going to look at Guardians of the Galaxy in a couple of years in the same way we look at Superman or Tim Burton’s Batman. By the way, I forgot about The Dark Knight. It’s so different, it’s so much its own thing, that I think it’s blown the genre wide open all over again. nicole perlman: Thank you. When I was working on Guardians of the Galaxy, it was all about Nolan, it was all about Dark Knight, and when I would say, “I’m working on a project about a space raccoon and a talking tree and there’s lots of eighties references in it,” everybody was like, “What are you talking about? That’s never going to get made. It’s not what people want. They want really gritty, really dark.” And I really liked gritty and dark, and I love Tim Burton’s Batman. I mean, it was PG-13, but it felt Rrated, especially when I was a kid. The fact my father took me to see that movie was a big deal. That was a very important movie to me in showing what you can do in this genre, but then the Batman franchise got really jokey with the sequels. So when people got to talking with me about what Guardians of the Galaxy was about, they worried, “Oh, it’s going to be like Mr. Freeze and all these things that are very jokey.” It was hard to explain that it was going to be its own thing, but fortunately, it did well, so now I go into a lot of meetings and they’re like, “Oh.” It’s like what it was with Christopher Nolan, but now it’s, “We want it to be just like Guardians of

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the Galaxy but slightly different.” And hopefully, something new will come along. rodríguez: Let’s talk about the pull for you as writers between reverence and relevance—reverence toward the original source material and the influence of the Internet and fans saying, “Well, you know, this is not the way it is. They’re not being honest or true to the material,” and just telling a relevant and interesting story that the material was a springboard for. miller: When Thor came up, it was right after the writers’ strike and they were trying to get this thing off the ground. The project had kind of died along with the writers’ strike, but they wanted to get it back up and running because Marvel was at the point where they were making their machine go. Everything was a risk, and so they were looking for writers who were fast, writers who could collaborate, writers who understood genre, writers who loved comics, and maybe writers who loved Thor. So I go into this initial meeting, and I am waxing rhapsodic about the day my copy of Thor 337 showed up in my mailbox (back then we sent in mail on paper and it appeared in metal boxes, and when we opened it there was a chance of injury), and I saw this dude with a horse face and he had the power of Thor. It was Beta Ray Bill. Thor just happens to be one of my favorite characters of all time, and so we walked into that scenario, and to us it wasn’t, “Okay, we’re going to do a gig.” It was, “I really love Thor.” So let me tell you what I thought about what fans and the Internet thought Thor should be: I didn’t care. Not even a little. Not at all, because first of all, I felt like I would hold up my knowledge and understanding of the character against anybody. Secondly, you know what? It’s ultimately our responsibility to make that good and make that work and to interpret it, and in terms of the relevance of it all, I’ll put it this way: If I go back and I look at some of the books I loved when I was a kid, it’s like, look, storytelling in comics as it’s done in television, in fi lm, for better or worse, it’s evolved. It’s different, and in some cases, it’s more accomplished, more mature. And here’s the thing, when I’m thirteen years old and I’m reading it, it doesn’t read like something that is simple or something that is campy. It reads like something that’s real and resonant. So when we write these movies, we write to our understanding as thirteen-year-olds—what that emotional experience was. When I was a kid, I saw the Batman TV show as The Dark Knight, okay? Cesar Romero was like Heath Ledger. The scene where he puts the pencil through Burgess Meredith’s eye is just . . . it’s transcendent.

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green: Usually they end up hiring people who are tremendous fans, and whenever I get into a new project, there is always this moment of trying to access that bar mitzvah self: “What about this made me so obsessed when I was thirteen that I needed to wear the shirt to bed so that I could dream about it?” Secondly, when people talk about “fan reaction,” there’s a type of fan in comics that loves things so intensely they want to strangle it, kill it, dry it, stuff it, and sleep with it. You can’t do anything but play with their desiccated version. These things have storied histories—sixtyfive years old or older; decades of evolution—so there’s every version of every character, and they’re all fair game. The funny thing about people who love comics with that level of intensity, they often show affection through disdain. It’s like kicking you in the shins; it’s kindergarten affection. They just don’t know how to say, “I love you!” It’s easier to say, “I hate you!” but they get the words wrong. The thing about those people is, they’re coming anyway. They’ll watch it five times just to tell you how, “Th at guy is too tall to play Wolverine. He is too tall! Wolverine is 5’2”. We all know this.” Don’t worry about them, they’re coming. They’ve got the DVD—they’ve got Betamax, whatever it is. So ultimately, you have to discard that disdain. Writing is an ego-driven profession. When you sign up to adapt a beloved property, you are there saying, “I have the best opinion on this subject matter. That’s why I deserve this job, that’s why I took this job, that’s why I fought for this job.” You may be wrong, but that is what you’re saying. perlman: I come from a little bit of a different background in that I wasn’t a big comics person before I started. I liked all the very hoity-toity graphic novels and such, so when I got the job at Marvel, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be easy! I’m going to read the stories of who the Guardians are, and I’ll take them and put them into a movie.” And I remember sitting down—I had read the Dan Abnett–Andy Lanning versions—I was like, “Okay, well, this is the 2008 version. I’ll just start at the series beginning and then I’ll understand what’s going on by the time I get up to 2008.” And then I was like, “Huh.” Everyone’s a reincarnation of another person’s spirit that was merged with somebody else. One character flips between male and female when the wind strikes him/her. And I was like, “What am I supposed to do with this?” And it was a great moment of being completely humbled by the fact that people can follow all the different iterations and reboots of who all these characters are, but also I realized that what makes a comic book work or a comic book series over decades work is not necessarily what’s going to make the movie work. So what was great about Guardians of the Galaxy was when I chose it, one of the reasons 19 8

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I chose it was I knew I wouldn’t have to be slavishly loyal to the canon. I went in there with the intention of being loyal to the canon, but the canon made no sense whatsoever. The canon was the most convoluted thing in the entire world, so rebooting it was . . . I was a little worried. But then again, when I was writing it, I had no expectation the movie was going to get made. I had zero expectation, so I felt freed, in a sense, and I think it helped, in a way, not worrying about the fans, either. But then, honestly, I haven’t had a single person say anything negative about the way the characters were portrayed. Most people who were fanboys to begin with were just happy to see those characters make it to the screen, so that was cool. rodríguez: Is there ever a sort of holding back of saying, “Well, I’m not sticking to some part of this because I feel like I understand it well enough to take it further”? green: Not when it becomes a violation of what you believe is the core of the character. This is not a fi lm version, but I cowrote the Supergirl reboot of the New 52 for DC. I wanted to write a book that girls and women would be excited to read. They were doing so many hypersexual versions of so many other properties, and I wanted a book I could read with my daughter when she was a little bit older, and so I set the parameters. I talked to the artist: “Can we do a non-globular-breasted . . .” And I saw it and the outfit was actually appropriate, and it was this younger, athletic character. She was supposed to be a teenager, and we articulated a character for her. We articulated the emotions she was going to be experiencing that would be foundational for her arc. And it was going great until sales drop a little bit, and suddenly it’s like, “Well, can we have her kiss the bad guy? That would make a great cover,” and that was a violation of what I believed this character was about. Also, I noticed the boobs were starting to get a little bigger again. All of this was a problem, and so I stopped writing the books. So you pick for yourself the emotional cores, and you have to fight for them. In the case of the films you guys have done, especially, those have become the new reality. People then base their understanding of that character and those characters and that team and the affection that team has for each other on the film version. I remember writing a Batman comic and pitching a scene, and I got a note, “Oh, but that goes against what happened in the second Tim Burton movie.” They’d retconned the canon within the comic to fit the fi lm. That’s now how they understood certain origins and canonical moments. And that’s kind of amazing that we end up reinventing the reality for so many people. But it’s an essential part of the experience. These characters do change and evolve, and it’s going to Michael Green, Ashley Miller, and Nicole Perlman

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happen again. We’re going to live through how many reboots of all our favorite characters. miller: I actually don’t believe there really is canon when you’re talking about comics. There are certain things we take for granted and certain things that must be true. Superman must come from Krypton, Batman must have witnessed his parents being murdered in front of him, Peter Parker must have been bitten by a radioactive spider. Beyond that, everything is off the table. Actually, I want to see the one where Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered by a radioactive spider in front of him, see how that works out. The thing about it is that creation in comics, if you go back and you really look at it, it’s really about reincarnation. These things are reimagined, reinvented, rebooted all the time, sometimes in continuity. I have the anniversary Detective Comics issue that was double-sized, where Jason Todd originally became Robin—and I don’t mean like the Jason Todd who turned out to be the giant pain in the ass who ultimately got whacked because of a television vote. I mean the original incarnation, where he was essentially kind of a warmed-over Dick Grayson . . . and that didn’t really work out so well, either. The characters are constantly rethought. It’s just that there are some things about them at their core that must be true, or they are not who they are. So with respect to Thor, one of the big questions that we had, and it was the big question, was, how do you handle Donald Blake? For those of you who are not hip to Thor outside of the films, in the comics, Thor is essentially summoned when a crippled doctor named Donald Blake takes a stick and smashes it against the ground, and suddenly he’s Thor and he’s badass. In fi lm, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t work at all, because you’re on a journey with the character. We need you to be with that character, with that actor, and you need to be in that point of view. You can’t ask the audience to flip back and forth out of it, so how do you resolve that with Thor? The answer is that you don’t. Thor is Thor. He has to be. So in a lot of significant ways, the origin of Thor in the movies and how Thor is portrayed is very different from how he is in the comics, whether you’re talking about the 616 continuity or you’re talking about the Ultimates. perlman: One of the things that’s interesting, I think, in terms of the interplay between comic book movies, is that the comics then, as you were saying, reflect the movies. During the development process on Guardians of the Galaxy, they were talking to Marvel publishing, because Marvel publishing wanted to know what was going to happen for their 2010 run and such. So knowing that the movie is influencing the canon, I feel it 200

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does render the idea of canon a little bit moot in that everybody reinvents. The snake eats its own tail. I’m doing a comic book, actually, on Gamora, and so that’s sort of an interesting thing, too. It’s like, okay, the movie changed the comics to this character who now has a real ethical arc. She is sort of the ethical motor of the movie, and she didn’t really have so much of that in the comic. She would do good things in the comic—she would do nice things—but her whole persona is this assassin. But she starts out the movie and she’s already had her change of heart, and so I want to go back and explain what got her to that place in the comics. So going back to the origins, how that will affect future movies, I don’t know. But it’s interesting to see that there they’ve become so intermingled; every comic that does well is going to be considered for a movie. Whether it gets made or not is another story. rodríguez: Because of the pivotal moment that you, Ashley, just mentioned in Thor and Nicole’s reference to the Ouroboros, I’d like to say a word in defense of Joseph Campbell. Yes, Joseph Campbell is dead, and yet all those stories go back to the myths. Thor is completely drawn from Norse mythology, and all of those elements that are part of the comic are thousands of years old, and that’s one of the things I could argue. Now that I’ve said my piece, talk a little bit about trying to find a childlike wonder with the material and then also having a sort of an adult sensibility at the same time. green: I think you’re always looking for complexity and maturity. Not for nothing, the next place that comics are really flourishing is television, because you have a wider landscape. DC has all these shows, they’re great, their shared universe is already there. Characters can change over time, characters can come in, characters can go out. DC’s doing in TV what Marvel’s doing in fi lm, just at a much more rapid pace and with a lot more room to play, because television allows for time and complexity, maturity—and those things are called grown-up, but I think thirteen-yearolds enjoy them, too. I think the mistake is underestimating the thirteenyear-old self. For me, it’s about trying to capture the uncynical experience of going to a comic shop on Wednesdays and being so excited at bringing home the paperbacks and finding out what’s new in your favorite characters’ lives: “What is going on—Spider-man got the Power Cosmic?! What?! That changes my day!” It’s a big deal! It’s a gift to allow yourself to feel that big deal in a world where you’ve got stupid grown-up problems. But these shows are for stupid grown-ups. These shows are for everyone. There’s been a great vocabulary shift to describe this, though it seems to go back. Michael Green, Ashley Miller, and Nicole Perlman

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The word “geek” was used to mean, “Oh, the only people who like comics are this weird subset of people who we’re not friends with because they are not worth being friends with.” Which was bullshit! The cool kids sat around reading comics, too. Even more so now. Yet the word “geek” still makes the fan-base seem like something to be marginalized or marketed to, when it’s not. I’d love to retire that word. You look at San Diego ComicCon—they still send news crews down to talk about “geekdom.” There are some weird people, sure. They’re the best. But it’s a quarter million people. That’s not a quarter million weird people, it’s a quarter million awesome, excited people and five weird ones. That’s a big deal. Those are the people going to the movies and going opening night, and those are your evangelists. Those are the people who are like, “No, you don’t understand, there’s a version of Battlestar that is amazing and goes back to the title,” and you’re like, “What? Really? I’ve heard about it for a year, let’s check it out,” and then, “Oh my God, it’s brilliant. Let’s give them a Peabody.” perlman: I feel like the things that touch you when you’re young, I feel like it’s because you haven’t been exposed to quite as much. I don’t think you like things because they’re colorful or simple, whatever it is they think kids like. I think it’s because when you’re exposed to something really good when you’re young, you haven’t been exposed to ten thousand other amazing things yet, so it strikes you like a lightning bolt. You’re like, “Oh my God, really good things exist!” It’s like when you have a great teacher, and you’ve only had kind of crappy teachers up to that point; you love that teacher with your entire heart and soul. But the whole thing about loving those teachers so much was because they taught you. They treated you like an adult, and they showed you things that you’d never seen before. Suddenly, it was like this whole world opened up to you, and I feel like that with certain comics and movies. You become loyal to them because you haven’t been exposed to everything out there, and it hits you because it strikes you for what’s possible. I still get very—I guess I don’t even know the word—smitten, maybe. I loved Labyrinth when I was a kid. I loved all the Jim Henson movies, but I really loved Labyrinth, and I went to Jim Henson Studios the other day for a meeting. I was just in that state again. I was in that twelve-year-old-girl state of just being thrilled that something wonderful existed, and I think anything that makes us go back to that place is a boon for the spirit. miller: I think that’s all exactly right. When I think about what I responded to when I was thirteen, or how I responded, it’s really about what

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spoke to me and why things stuck. Why, for example, did the X-Men stick with me? Actually, I think about a panel from the Firestar miniseries. It’s just her hand and she’s looking at her palm, and from the lines on her palm you can see an M, and there’s this whole passage about how the M means that she’s special. Now, of course, the M in that context means, “Oh, she’s a mutant,” and it wasn’t saying, “Well, if you’re a mutant, you’ve got an M in your palm.” But what spoke to me was it was a story about someone who did not know who they were and was holding onto something that said, “You’re this, and you’ll be okay.” I mean, when you’re thirteen years old, that’s the thing you want to feel more than anything else. You feel isolated because we’re all isolated; we’re all afraid to reach out to each other when we’re at that age. We don’t even know who the hell we are, emotions are every where, our brains haven’t developed. So when you experience story, you experience it in a very special, unique way. As a writer, when I sit down, I look at this material and the things that spoke to me when I was that age. I tried to access that feeling, and I think there’s a lot of that in Thor. I think, perhaps in that movie, it inhabits Loki perhaps more than it inhabits Thor, and those feelings are present in X-Men: First Class, certainly. Those stories are not about canon. They’re not about even the mythology of it all. They’re about the experience of being a person who is just trying to figure out who they are and what it is they’re supposed to do and screwing up in every conceivable way. rodríguez: One thing you guys have brought up is this sense of rebooting, the reimagining of, reenvisioning of, stories and characters throughout time in various formats. For example, you brought up SpiderMan, which seems like not enough time has passed for this to be back up again in the same format. Why do those things seem to work or not work, and something that is lesser-known, like Guardians of the Galaxy, suddenly shows up on the cultural radar and becomes a huge new understanding of characters that maybe not everybody was familiar with before and they fall in love with it? green: Why so many reboots? The genre reboots itself constantly. These things get stale if they don’t evolve with the changing times. All myths get stale if you don’t let them change. It’s part of the joy of genre. The mistake is to think this is anything new. My old Wednesday bag, Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Marvel Tales, which was old Spider-Man books reprinted with new covers—there were four contiguous storylines going on with the same character, each in their

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own universe: in this one he’s married, in this one he’s not. That’s part of the experience, these different iterations of the same subject. It’s like jazz, in a way, or better yet, sitcom. You’ll take four different characters with four different personalities: she’s the slutty one, so every time she speaks, we’re going to make a joke at her expense about being a slut; this one, he’s the slutty guy—every character’s a slut in this sitcom—and this is the old one, we’re going to make “old” jokes. The audience comes to the show because they want to see the same jokes retold over and over. The situations change, but the core characters reacting to them are familiar. The core subject remains the same. miller: The history of storytelling is telling the story over and over again, performing it again, interpreting it again in a different way. Imagine a world where you would only have one version of those stories. It just doesn’t work, because when stories affect us, we want to tell our friends. I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, and somebody said, “So how was it?” and all of a sudden, I’m pitching the movie. I’m telling it, man. It’s just, it’s how we operate as human beings. When there are characters that are incredibly resonant, like a lot of the comic book characters that we’re talking about—Batman or Spider-Man or the X-Men—there is something about them that makes us want to experience them again and again and again. perlman: I think there’s something really interesting about that, this idea that comic book characters are similar to these stories that people told around the campfire, and everybody added their own flair based on their tribe or whatnot. I think there’s something about them being flexible in that way that you keep the core bones of what resonates with people and then you make it updated for the time or the demographic or whatnot, and that’s what keeps it alive. It’s kind of the passing—this so pretentious, I’m not going to say it, I’m not going to say it . . . the passing of the flame. But I think that there is something true about that. They are the new stories around the campfire, so it should be altered by whomever is telling the story, reflecting what’s going on in that day and age. Writing for Television versus Film

perlman: I would say that with a movie you’re telling an entire relationship—someone’s entire relationship, the story of their relationship— whereas a TV pilot feels like a first date. You want to make it really good. You want people to come back. You want them to fall in love with you, go

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home to their friends, and be like, “Oh my God, I met the most amazing person,” whereas the movie is sort of the whole arc of that relationship. It’s challenging to know what to wait on, what has to be in that first pilot compared to the arc, where it falls in the story, and having that space to really exist with the characters and give them room to be all the different versions of who they are and what they could be, whereas in the movie you know who they’re going to be in the movie. miller: I think that your analogy is really good, although there are definitely pilots like the Breaking Bad pilot where it’s like the first date, but then all of a sudden you realize you’ve had one too many drinks and the pilot is throwing you down and fucking you like crazy. The primary difference between television and film is one, structural; two, what’s the emphasis? I like to explain it this way: When an audience watches a movie, the question that they are asking above all other questions is, “What will happen next?” When the audience is watching a television show, they’re watching it and thinking, “What will that person do next?” They are, in many ways, the same question, but the subtle differences illustrate the difference between television and film. Film is primarily carried by the structure of the plot, which is driven by the character. In TV, yes, there’s structure in each episode, there can be structure in a season, but what’s pushing it forward is something that’s a lot more organic, a lot more difficult to control, something that is nearly impossible—unless you’re Game of Thrones and you’re block-shooting ten episodes. It’s nearly impossible to wrestle it into something that specific. That’s actually the reason why Breaking Bad had so few episodes per year, because the show was created in a very artisanal fashion. It took a year to make those episodes and for Vince Gilligan and his team to craft something that felt like a whole. That takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of money, so when you’re talking about the characters, they can still be the same people. You’re not just parceling things out and making the characters boring, you’re just coming up with more crap for them to do. It’s just how much time you have to tell it and how much money you have to achieve a certain scope. green: That’s very astute. Television also has a weird thing where the writers are in charge, as opposed to film, where the director’s in charge. The writer in a fi lm, especially comic book films, you’re often there to help the director see through the vision they’re going to impose whether you like it or not, and if you don’t impose it, someone else will be brought in and they will impose it. But in television, the writer has the opportunity

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to synthesize the vision and present it: “This is what I want to do.” I had an experience last year adapting League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that was really pleasant, although unfortunately it didn’t go to series. It was one of the rarer times where the studio came to me and said, “We own this property. We don’t quite know what to do with it.” I thought about it and said, “Well, here’s exactly what you do with it, you do the comic and don’t fuck it up. It’s got to be period. You want to do a shorter number of episodes, let’s give them a single case a year. Let’s do the comic.” And everyone there was on board with that method. But of course . . . Alan Moore. So I’m like, “Oh my God. No matter how good a job we do, he’s going to say this is terrible,” and for good reason. He’s had plenty of his works adapted terribly. So I wrote a letter to him directly: “Dear Mr. Moore, I’m a big fan. I have the opportunity to adapt your book, and I hope you don’t hate it. If you do hate it, it will be my fault and no one else’s, because what I’m going to do is do the version I think is best, and if anyone tries to get me to flatten it or do anything other than that best version, I’m going to punch them. If the final version sucks, it’ll fall to me.” This is the advantage of television: it’ll either be because I didn’t fight hard enough or I didn’t have as good of an idea as I should have. The vision I had split the difference between comics and superheroes. Superheroes are about characters associated with costumes and punching; superheroes can punch their way to a successful end and defeating evil. That is very different from, say, Chew, where a guy can taste things and see where it’s been, or Sandman, where he’s the god of the dreaming. They’re very different things. Yes, you can buy them in the same store, but Marvel is taking three of their smaller titles and putting them on television because that’s the place for that type of interpersonal, grittier storytelling— not a guy with an adamantium shield. It’s not a big notion for a big screen. Although in addition to wanting to retire the word “geek,” I want to retire calling television the “small screen.” Television is where the good things are happening. Big things are happening there. miller: They also haven’t seen the television in my house. It’s enormous. I think part of it is that before you make anything, before you shoot a frame of fi lm, here’s the thing you should know—and by the way, people don’t always know it when they start a film: What’s the movie? What’s the show? And if you know the answer to that question, you’re probably going to be okay. If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re probably screwed, unless you’re incredibly lucky and it just emerges in the process. Why is that significant to Alan Moore? So we were talking about the 206

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process of creation being a process of reimagining and rebooting. Okay, so let me tell you about a book called Miracle Man. If you’ve read Miracle Man, you know what it is, right. It’s essentially a reimagining of Shazam, of Captain Marvel. Almost everything that Alan Moore touches is in some way a very meta-commentary or reimagining of something else that’s been created. So what happens in the adaptation process that makes it difficult is you can get so caught up in the meta that it’s difficult to understand where the story really resides. So let’s say that you’re doing Watchmen, which I thought was successful in a lot of ways but I thought could have been improved if it were possible to step back from the detail of the book. If you could step back and say, “Oh, I get it. This is Nite Owl’s story,” because he’s the one normal, sane guy in the whole thing, and he is surrounded by lunatics, and this girl he’s got a crush on is kind of dating a god. That’s weird. It’s finding that POV and telling the story in a way [that] the audience understands it as fi lm. I think Alan Moore makes that a little more challenging, because his work, even though it’s beautiful and emotional, is also driven by an idea or a comment, and I think it’s the reason why League is a bit different. It’s probably the closest thing that he’s done to creating something out of whole cloth, even though he’s pulling in these characters you know. When we started working on X-Men: First Class, what we realized as we were shaping the character story and where all that was going was, “Oh, this is a historical bromance. This is a story about two people who come from different worlds against the backdrop of this massive war that’s about to break out, and they’re on different sides, and it’s about their identity and families and all these things.” That’s fine and good and that’s a good intellectual exercise for when you’re thinking about structure in some ways. But you also have to put that aside, step back from it, and say, “Well, really, I’m just writing a story about a guy named Charles and a guy named Erik, and they can do crazy crap,” and it’s just about their friendship and the dissolution of that. You can’t worry about the meta stuff. If you start worrying about the meta stuff, you’re screwed. perlman: For Guardians of the Galaxy, when I started developing that project, I didn’t see it as a comic book movie; I saw it as a science fiction project, because they are superheroes in the comics, but really, in the movie, they’re not treated like superheroes. They’re treated like members of their own species that have specific powers due to the fact they’re alien species or have been experimented on or whatnot; but yeah, it wasn’t about the powers so much. miller: And here’s the thing . . . actually, a better example might be XMichael Green, Ashley Miller, and Nicole Perlman

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Men, because you have to show some fealty to almost fifty years of comic book history. Then you also have to recognize you’re telling a story about fi lm continuity, which owes some fealty to the comic book history, but then you are also trying to stay away from certain elements of that continuity that just didn’t work—let’s call it, for the sake of argument, The Last Stand, or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Yeah, let’s just leave it there. So part of the exercise is, how do you reconcile all of that? In fact, there are even lines of dialogue that can screw you. One of the biggest arguments we had on X-Men: First Class was, in the first movie, Professor X, he’s talking about Magneto, “I remember meeting Erik when he was a seventeen-year-old boy.” And we thought, “Holy shit, how do we fit that into the concept of the whole film, when they were seventeen and hanging out in Austria, or whatever? How did that even work?” For the story we were trying to tell in First Class, that didn’t make any sense. So here’s the answer: “Nothing to see here, keep moving.” Because you have to let it go. Your first duty is to the story you’re telling, and if continuity gets in the way of that, in a way that can’t be reconciled and isn’t fundamental to how people understand the characters and the situation, “Bye.” perlman: Well, with Quill and Gamora, Quill and Gamora in the 2008 comics were never an item. Gamora, I believe, had some relations with Nova but not with Star-Lord, and so there was always the question of, did we want Quill and Gamora to get together? What would that look like? At no point, there was never any pressure to be like, “You guys have to make them kiss. Make them kiss like two kids mashing together a Barbie doll and a Ken doll.” So there was no pressure in that regard, but we did want there to be some sexual tension. I think it was handled pretty well, just in terms of, you get the sense they could have something down the line, but there was never a passionate love scene with Gamora and Quill in my drafts. It’s nice to have female characters who aren’t just there to be objects and the thing to be saved. rodríguez: So, as a constantly evolving medium, as people who are steeped in this world, can you see what the future is for the comic book movie? green: Well, certainly more of them. The audience has shown an appetite, and that’s awesome. There does seem to be a qualitative shift from comic book movie as presentation of core essential elements of the character to creation of a universe in which their existence is the standard. I think the characters are going to get richer and richer with the more screen time they get. 208

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miller: I think the fundamental truth of the universe is that things work until they stop working; and generally, they stop working when people learn the wrong lessons from their success or begin to believe the things they tell themselves about their successes. The perfect example is how the Marvel movie universe has been constructed. The popular myth is, “Oh, there’s always a plan that culminates in this thing or this thing,” and everybody in town believes it. So if you have a conversation with, say, for example, a rival studio that will remain nameless but it also has access to superhero characters, they will tell you they want to do it just like that. There needs to be a plan. There needs to be this thing or that. There are a couple of studios in town that work like that. I mean, for God’s sake, you have people having those conversations about monster properties or fairy tale properties, but the reality is Marvel has been successful because they were successful one fi lm at a time, and they were the beneficiaries of that when The Avengers was released. They had earned that goodwill, and the things that brought those movies together were organic to those fi lms. And there is always—even in Thor, there was a huge balancing act over, how much SHIELD do you have? I’ll tell you straight up, Agent Coulson was in Thor because Zack [Stentz] and I thought that Clark Gregg was effin’ hilarious in Iron Man. That, and one line when he calls him Son of Coul. Okay, so that’s a killer, we’re going to have that, and all of a sudden, he has a show on ABC. Clint Barton, Hawkeye, was an Easter egg. When we turned in that script, Kevin Feige said, “Wow, there are more Easter eggs in this script than the White House lawn.” It was an Easter egg, it was a throwaway line, and that’s exactly what you saw in the movie. Except he was just a sniper who was up there, and he was going to shoot him, he was going to shoot Thor, and Coulson said, “Stand down, Barton.” We didn’t put him in costume. It was just you either get it or you don’t. But they were all efforts to make the world feel bigger without shrinking the dramatic opportunities of the movie that was being made. I think the danger is that I think everyone is going to be so concerned about the larger universe, they are going to shrink the dramatic opportunities for their films, and fi lms are going to fail. It won’t be anybody’s fault. The audience is just going to get tired of movies where it feels like the characters aren’t organically moving through their story. That’s what’s great about Guardians of the Galaxy. Even though it ties into the rest of the continuity of the movie universe, it feels like its own thing. Those characters are free. That world feels like anything can happen, and it’s unfamiliar, and that’s great and the audience loves that. Michael Green, Ashley Miller, and Nicole Perlman

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perlman: And it was very, very hard to convince people that this was a good idea—not Marvel, Marvel always knows what they’re doing. But just the fact they weren’t part of the Avengers. They weren’t in that world. I think what you’re saying is really a good point, Ash, is that a lot of these other studios, if you ask them—let’s say, your Avengers version of the Justice League, or let’s say, the Avengers version of the Monsters—if you knew it wasn’t going to work and that wasn’t going to happen, would you still make all these lead-up movies? I bet they would say, “Probably not,” because it’s all in service to this idea of the juggernaut, and I feel like Marvel would. Even if The Avengers did poorly, they would have kept making smaller movies of these characters. I mean, partially because that’s what they’ve got, but also because they value those characters and they do something interesting. Each one is its own. They’re not just cogs in the wheel of the cogs in the machine building up toward that gigantic event. Even though they have that element to them now, they’re very much their own movie. I love that they take the superhero genre and graft onto it something else, like the seventies paranoia crime, paranoia thriller for Cap  2 [Captain America: The Winter Soldier], while Cap was the first real periodpiece superhero movie. So there’s so much they do that’s unique and original. They give those movies their shot at being their own thing, and I think that makes a big difference. Will they fail at some point? It’s a statistical improbability things will continue to be great forever, but I think as long as they continue to do service to the characters, and as long as they’re trying to do something fresh that people haven’t seen a million times, and as long as people care, I think it could go on for quite some time. green: That’s a really interesting point, superhero movies changing genres from being its own genre. rodríguez: With the success of something like Guardians of the Galaxy, which, even though it’s tied to other things, feels very fresh and new, will there be more reaching into the back catalogue to find characters that haven’t gotten fully developed in fi lm yet, as opposed to doing another Spider-Man reboot or Batman reboot? Do you think there’s more opportunity for some of these lesser-known Marvel/DC guys to have their own platform? green: I’m going to say yes, as long as there are enough stars to play them, because that is a limiting factor sometimes. You can have the best script, but if there isn’t the perfect person, it will not get made. Or at least not well enough. Thank God for Chris Pratt, who was a genius a long time

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before someone went, “We can put him in an outfit and it will work and it’ll be great!” Without him, would Guardians of the Galaxy have landed? I don’t know. I hope the answer to your question is yes, that fi lms will continue delving, as well as rebooting, because there’s an endless supply of content. The unfortunate, unnecessary consequence of all that, of course, is there are fewer original movies being made—the obsessive need to brand things because that is the only thing the audiences will go to. You can have a terrific movie like Edge of Tomorrow that no one went to see and has taught Warner Bros. the unfortunate lesson, “Don’t do that, we won’t go see it,” even though that was based on a comic. It was a very small one, but it wasn’t a comic book movie, it wasn’t a branded movie, and what a terrible lesson to have. I want people to go see lots of movies, and I believe people go when there are lots of great ones to see. miller: I actually think Edge of Tomorrow puts the lie to the comic book as marketing tool, or as proof of concept. First of all, I think that’s overblown. I think that’s something that emerged from this buying spree that occurred probably going on eight, maybe nine, years ago, when you’d have junior executives looking for material, running down to Comic-Con, finding comic books—“Let’s do Doc Frankenstein,” whatever the hell it’s going to be. When I saw Edge of Tomorrow, I was talking to one of my very best friends, who is a studio exec, and I said, “Hey, I saw Edge of Tomorrow, and I was so surprised at how great it was.” He said, “Ashley, a great movie should never be a surprise,” and he’s right. I think in that case the marketing kind of fell down, but what will happen is, organizationally—and this is how we’re trained as humans—when bad things happen, we circle the wagons, and it’s the other guy’s fault, or it’s the concept. “It wasn’t me!” Something like Edge of Tomorrow, I can imagine, would be difficult to market. That said, I don’t think that’s the reason why we’re seeing fewer originals. I think it kind of gets to what you said, which is that the studios are making these enormous investments now. You can either get a movie made that they can shoot for $10 million or $150 million. When you start spending $150 million, now you’re talking cash; now you’re talking people’s lunch money, and they get really concerned about that crap. However, it’s actually easier to get a studio to say yes to $150 than it is to get them to say yes to $80. That seems counterintuitive, but they start to get afraid that they’re not spending enough on cast or on the effects. They want to justify how much money they’re spending to make it so big, and it’s not until you get the number to a place where they feel comfortable, which is just an

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enormously stupid number, does anybody want to say yes. Then if you’re that executive you start looking for things to mitigate your fear about the $150 million decision you just made that you’re responsible for. So you go to things that people know, and it’s not just that, “Hey, comic books are popular!” It’s that somebody can point to a comic book title and say, “See? It’s that thing, and people like it, so if it fails, it wasn’t me.” perlman: I think it’s an interesting question about Edge of Tomorrow, because it was really good and fresh, and I wonder if that movie had been made at Marvel—of course, it would be a very different movie—but if it had been made at Marvel, I wonder if people would’ve gone to see it, because they’re like, “Oh, it’s a Marvel movie.” It’s like, even though it’s different and new and we don’t really understand what it is, we believe in the Marvel Studios brand. I’ve often wondered if Guardians of the Galaxy had been made at a different studio if people would’ve given it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe one day we can transcend the branding of the property.

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Up Close with David Magee

Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland was based on a play which took place over a much longer period of time. One of the first things that I decided was I didn’t want to see three sets of boys play these characters over time. I wanted to condense the action to one period of time. With that in mind, it should be the period going up to the making of Peter Pan. It’s an interesting question in terms of doing a real person’s story—how much do you play with the facts? We did begin the fi lm by saying, “Based on a True Story.” We condensed time severely; the events that take place in our fi lm actually took place over nearly a decade of time. And, in fact, James [J. M. Barrie] knew the father who had just passed away at the beginning of the fi lm, but we didn’t want to have so many scenes of mortality in one fi lm, so we put that in the backstory. The relationship between James and the Davies family actually took several years to develop, but in the film it takes place over one very long, intense summer. I don’t think there’s any question for anyone watching the fi lm that we’ve taken liberties with the facts, because there are boys flying around and there are fantasy sequences, but that’s a decision we made very early on. I didn’t think I would have the budget to make a film, so I was grateful that they would shoot it with anything. I would have been thrilled with Super 8. I didn’t anticipate that we would have a huge budget, so the fantasy sequences were originally much smaller. There is a big final scene in the movie, when Sylvia, the mother, imagines going to Neverland. In the first writing of the fi lm, we were trying to find a way to express that, and so I had them do the play in the living room, and then at a certain point, when Peter Pan says, “Let’s fly away,” Sylvia found her chair being lifted

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up. People from the theater were carrying her out to the backyard, where they had set up some of the scenery from Peter Pan. This way, we would see that they had gone to special effort to make it magical for her. And that’s all I thought we were going to be able to afford. That was the big one for me. We were going to open some doors and set her outside, and she was going to be able to experience that, and then we would see the look on her face, and it was going to be this glorious scene. Well, of course, as soon as I turned it in to the studio they said, “This is great, but make it bigger”—which you never hear—because I had been very constrained in my little fantasies. They were just kind of, “And he dances with the dog and he imagines himself dancing with a bear.” I saw this little moment where maybe he’s dancing with a guy in a bear outfit or something. I thought we could at most get away with that. And they said, “No, let’s put it in a circus tent with people all around. Let’s make it bigger.” That was fine by me. So it was really just a question of expanding on what I had already done, but that sense was still in there. We had already developed the script fairly thoroughly, and we made changes when Marc Forster came on, in order to fit his vision and to fit the logistics of the sets that we were actually able to get. When I wrote it, I had never been to London. I had just looked up where the play had taken place. The opening night of the play at the beginning of the film takes place at the Prince of Wales Theatre, so I said, “Okay, what does that Prince of Wales Theatre look like? Well, I imagine it has a big lobby.” So I wrote the big lobby scene . . . and when they went over to pick out sets, they came back and said, “David, there’s no real lobby in that theater. It’s about the size of this stage right here and that’s it.” And I said, “Well, we can change it, you know?” At that point they had already bought it from me, so I could say I’d never actually been there. I didn’t get to go over until the filming actually took place. Life of Pi

The first thing Ang Lee and I talked about was, what is this story about? What is this fi lm about? What’s the focus, what’s the center? Because there are a lot of ideas that are kind of thrown around in that book that don’t necessarily all go in the same direction—rich ideas that don’t necessarily focus on one idea. When you’re concentrating your filmmaking into two hours, you have to focus on the themes that are most important to you,

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so we agreed from the very beginning that it was a story about storytelling, about the power of stories to help us through our lives, to overcome the difficulties we face in our lives, about how we all have different narratives—religious, spiritual, atheistic, and scientific ways of understanding the world—that we have to rely on. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, you have to step back and say, “Okay, these are the forces that are at work, and as long as I respect those forces and understand them and deal with them, I can get through this.” That was what Pi was very much about for us. So, with that in mind, those aspects of the book that didn’t have as much to do with that theme fell away very quickly. For example, there was a lot of discussion in the book about whether or not zoos were good for animals—whether they enjoyed confinement and control and being fed on a regular basis, or whether it constrained them. Well, that’s all very interesting, but it’s a long movie if you want to get that part of the story in, so very quickly that fell by the wayside. On the other hand, there is a preface to the book that’s written in the first person, as though Yann Martel himself is telling us why he came to write this book, and he says something along the lines of, “I was in despair over the fact that my last book fell apart. I abandoned that manuscript, and I was wandering through India trying to figure out what to do next, when I met someone at a café who said that he knew a man whose story would make you believe in God.” Now, it’s fictionalized, but it feels very much like it’s the real writer Yann Martel talking. That scene is never returned to in the book, but we wanted to talk about storytelling and storytellers. Ang had determined this before he even talked to me, that he wanted to have the storyteller framing device that you see in the film, where we see the adult Pi, an accomplished yarn-spinner, talking to a writer, another storyteller, and passing a story along. So that became the framework for the film. The book has Pi touching on each religion, but it does so in a slightly different way than the movie. It’s a little more comical in tone, like, “Isn’t it funny that this boy believes in all of these different religions at once?” What we wanted to emphasize was the coming-of-age of a boy who is willing to accept every spiritual narrative that comes to him, and then he reaches a point where he’s disillusioned by them all. Th at was our own version of the first act. For us, the beginning of the book was probably the hardest to bring to the fi lm. In the book, for example, there is a mom, there is a priest, and there is a Hindu spiritual leader, and an atheist. Pi meets

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them all on separate occasions and has conversations with them separately on his journey. We couldn’t do all of those scenes, but we wanted to condense the idea that Pi was taking in all of those influences, so we made his mother the Hindu faithful, and we made his father the atheist. We kept the priest, who was in the book, and we had Pi visit a mosque at one point. We restructured it so you could condense all of those influences into a very few scenes. In the book, there’s a scene that’s played for comedy where Pi is a young boy and the father wants to teach him that animals are dangerous, so he says, “Come see this tiger. We’re going to feed the tiger a goat.” And they watch the tiger eat the goat, and Pi is faintly horrified, and the father says, “Now, what about an antelope? Is an antelope safe? No, an antelope has horns that can spear you. What about a zebra? A zebra can kick you to death. What about a . . . ?” And the father lists a dozen or so animals until he finally gets to a bunny, and he says, “What about a bunny? Okay, a bunny is safe.” That is the tone of the scene in the novel. We wanted to turn that into a scene of real disillusionment. Pi is twelve or thirteen and he thinks the world is safe. The world is like this zoo—everything is wonderful and protected. And then one day he meets the tiger Richard Parker, and he realizes there is a harsh, cruel world out there that he has never known before—Ang called it our bar mitzvah scene. And so our scene wasn’t played for humor; we played it for the intensity, and we focused on the relationship Pi has with his father. At that moment, Pi’s father is a rationalist, a scientist who basically says, “You think everything is a dream. You think everything is a party. You think that animal has a soul? No, that animal would eat you. That animal doesn’t care anything about you. If you think there’s anything in that animal’s eyes, it’s something you made up.” And that becomes something that Pi needs to understand for himself over the course of the journey. When we first started talking about the adaptation, Ang said, “What if each of the three acts was filmed to look visually different from the others?” After all, the first act takes place in a romantic India, the second act takes place at sea, and the third act takes place in a hospital. Now, we pulled away from that idea, but in the course of that conversation, Ang suggested we try writing a second act without any dialogue at all, from the shipwreck until Pi gets to shore—“Let’s try to write the whole thing without a word of dialogue. Just actions.” And initially that’s how we wrote it. The first act we wrote as a split-page document, with the modern-day con-

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versation about what Pi’s childhood was like on the left of the page and the flashbacks to when Pi was a boy on the right. This turned out to be a real hassle to write in Microsoft Word. Every time I made a change to one side of the page, the whole thing would shift—it was a nightmare. But initially the whole first act was written that way, the second act was written without any dialogue at all, and the third act returned to the split-page format. I think I was trying to prove to myself that I didn’t need voice-over, because it’s a truism in screenwriting books that you shouldn’t rely too much on voice-over. Eventually, I got to a point where I proved to myself that I wasn’t using voice-over as a crutch, but what I was missing in some scenes was what Pi was experiencing emotionally, where his thoughts were taking him. I decided that so long as I could convey in the moment to moment what Pi was going through, and I was trying to accomplish it without words, that I could use voice-over to convey his more abstract thoughts and feelings about what he was going through. That’s not cheating—that’s expanding on what you’re seeing. So at that point we started bringing voice-over in. And then it’s only natural, if you’ve got an animal in a boat with you, that you’re going to talk to it. So then to have Pi start talking to the tiger felt very natural. But it was only gradually that we brought out the voice in that character. The process of taking someone else’s work is, in some ways, more freeing, because you can see what you like and what you don’t. You can have strong opinions and be very critical without feeling married to the material. You can say, “That doesn’t work,” and throw a scene away—just toss things over your shoulder. You can be very cruel in your assessment of someone else’s work. When you’re starting from scratch, it’s not a reductive process; you just keep throwing ideas out, getting it bigger and bigger, creating a lump of clay you can mold. So you don’t start with your critical mind working as much. You’re really trying to run as fast as you can, throwing ideas out in a lot of directions so that then you can come back later and see what sticks. It’s very hard as a writer of a new work if you start with the head of, “This has got to be perfect the first time.” You’ve got to map a lot out first. On one hand it’s much more freeing to throw a thousand ideas on the table, but it’s much nicer to have someone say, “No, I’ve already figured out this much,” and just start from there. Ang talked to Yann Martel before I came on the project. Then Ang and I sat down, and one of his earliest questions to me was, “Do you want to meet with Yann?” And I said, “I don’t know, do I? I mean, do you think it

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Script page from Life of Pi

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will help?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know. He’s a novelist.” Then I said, “Well, no, then I don’t want to talk to him first.” It has to be hard for any novelist to look over your shoulder as you’re ripping chapters out and throwing them away. Or when you’re saying, “This scene is important, but I don’t like that scene,” you know, which you have to be able to do. You have to figure out your own way to do it. We spent nine months working together on the first draft. We went to India together to research the script, and we met a shipwreck survivor, Steve Callahan, who had survived for seventy-six days at sea in a fivefoot round inflatable raft, and talked to him about that experience. Those things informed what we were writing. Steve became our technical consultant on the fi lm. Once we had a draft that we liked enough to show the studio, we got notes from them and then went into a second draft very quickly. Two or three months later we were done with that second draft, which we showed to Yann, and he was very supportive. He had a lot of notes, some very specific. Yann was very concerned, for example, with the way in which Pi interacted with the tiger physically. In Yann’s mind, Richard Parker was also a stand-in for Pi’s relationship with God, so if Pi got too casual with the tiger, showed the tiger disrespect in any way, then Pi would be disrespecting God. There is a line in the book where it says that Pi can tell you a story that will make you believe in God. I think Yann believes that the book does that successfully—that it makes you believe in God. That isn’t the main point we wanted to convey in the film. In fact, when we have that line come up in the movie, Pi’s response is, “Oh, my uncle would say that about a good meal,” because I wanted to undercut the notion that we were going to try and make you believe in anything. What we were focused on in the fi lm was the power of that faith Pi had, and how it helped him survive on his journey. Are you going to deny someone the narrative they have constructed about life, whatever it may be, when without it they might not survive? That was a more interesting question to me. At the end of the fi lm, Pi asks the writer to tell him not which story the writer thinks is correct, but which story he prefers. Which is the better story? Pi’s trying to make a point about which narrative helped him survive. We’re not taking sides on which story is the more true or real. You pick your own narrative. It’s a Rorschach test, in a way. Your interpretation of this fi lm says a lot about your own belief system, your faith, what you want to take away from it. That’s the focal point of the film: Which story do you prefer?

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Aerword Some Things I’ve Learned bill wit tliff

My father drank too much, so my mother took my brother and me and left him. Jim was four, I was eighteen months; mother had no education, no money, nobody to help her. This was during the war. She got a job running the little telephone office in Gregory. At that time in Texas—particularly in small-town Texas—there was a stigma against any divorced woman. Jim and I felt that stigma, too, like we didn’t belong, like we didn’t matter. As I got older, more than anything, I wanted to belong—belong to a family, to a town, to a neighborhood—and I wanted to matter. I had one thing going for me: even as a kid I could tell a pretty good story, and in little Texas towns a storyteller—even one still in short pants—had the sense he was part of the community. I suppose that’s why I’m still telling stories. I’m still trying to belong, still trying to matter. And there’s another thing. Sometimes those characters you create become family, as real to you as your Uncle Herman and Aunt Paula ever were . . . Writers write. When it’s good they’re glad and keep writing. When it’s bad they throw it away—and keep writing. It’s as easy to get in the habit of writing as it is to get in the habit of not writing. Every storyteller is looking for a story. Every story is looking for a storyteller. (I know this has been said many times, but it’s worth repeating.) Don’t just write what you know. Write what you don’t know as well, and you may find you know that, too. Don’t do too much research—unless you want facts instead of truth. E. M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That alone is reason enough to write. 223

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Try to write from your heart. If what you write genuinely moves you, chances are it will move other people, too. Never show your first drafts. That’ll allow you to try anything at all before you’re at risk. Moving Characters in a Moving Story. Ah, that’s the ticket. Throw all caution aside and Feel Feel Feel. Reach as deep as you can to see what all you’ve got. Sometimes a character just won’t live no matter what you do. Other times a character pops up and you simply can’t drive him off the paper. He’s the one you’ve been praying for. Your writing does not have to be great; it does not have to change the World. It just has to be as good as you can make it at the time. It’s wonderful when something jumps out the end of your pen onto the paper and you say, goddamn, I didn’t know I knew that. Above all else, remember this: Do Not Be Boring.

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