November 8, 2013

Ironclad Screenwriting

            Hope you all had a wonderful Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, or respective eerie holiday.
            As some of you know, I’m a bit of a geek, and as such I’m very excited for the release of Thor: The Dark World tomorrow.  And since I’m always willing to be pop culture relevant—and I’m really slammed with other stuff right now—I thought I’d post a fun conversation I had with Justin Theroux, who wrote the third of the “Wave One” Marvel movies, Iron Man 2.  Justin was great to talk to, even when he had to bite his tongue about some still-secret plot points and reveals.  He also had a very positive and realistic view of working in Hollywood and working on a major tentpole movie (a sequel in a set of interlocking movies, at that).
            A few points, but you’ll probably figure it out as it goes.  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  If you see a long line of dashes (————) it means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article for one reason or another (there are off the record discussions now and then).  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Justin was specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something they’ve said to something similar I’ve said. 
            By the very nature of this, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here, though not many.  Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet.  It’s fun and you’ll get a bit more out of this.
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
            So, anyway, here’s me battering Justin with questions about Iron Man 2.


So… how does someone go from being an actor to screenwriter on a huge comedy to the sole writer on Iron Man 2

(laughs)  Your guess is as good as mine.  I don’t know.  I’ve been in Hollywood for about twenty years now.  I don’t know if that’s overnight.  Everyone has a weird road in this town and mine’s no different, I guess.  Everyone has a weird little story to tell.
Have you been writing all along?
I have, yeah.  If I were to thank anyone or lay it at anyone’s feet, it would be Ben Stiller who’s always been a very big champion of mine and always convinced me to do something professionally.  So Tropic Thunder was the first thing we were able to do together.  He was the one who first looked at my pages, years and years ago, and said ‘These are really decent pages.  You should be doing this more.’  He was the one that gave me the confidence.  So much of anything in the entertainment industry is confidence, and he was the first one to inject me with that.
Are you two friends?
We met… I was doing a play that he came and saw here in New York.  We met after the show and he was very flattering and I was very flattering to him.  I adored some of his earlier MTV shows and sketch work and The Ben Stiller ShowI thought was an unbelievably good show.  So I was gushing about that.  We sort of became friends over that.  That was in… 94?  95?  Four, maybe?  Somewhere early ’90s.
Were you a comics fan as a kid?
Yeah.  I was and am a comic book fan.  I wasn’t one of those comic book fans who ran out every week and bought whatever new issue was out there.  I sort of came into it backwards.  I read a lot of underground comics–Heavy Metal, Art Spiegelman, that kind of thing– but I also was an avid Spider-Manand Iron Man fan when I was a kid.—So I was a fan.  Not as probably die-hard as you might think, but I am a fan of the genre.
How did you end up on board Iron Man 2?
I had worked with Robert on Tropic Thunder and we had worked very well together and got along.  So he was the one who brought me over to Marvel.  He said ‘You should meet with Marvel.  You guys should sit down and see if you have any common ground because I think it would be a good fit.’  So I did.  I went when they were first gearing up for the very, very first initial push into development for Iron Man 2.  I sat with them for a long time and had long discussions with them about the character and that world.  We just hit it off.  It was a good match.  Shortly thereafter they said they’d love to have me and I was completely  flattered and floored, and we started developing the script right away.
Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. both said early on, if I remember, they didn’t want to be involved if there wasn’t going to be time to do a good script.  Were you already on board at that point?
Yeah.  I don’t know.  I don’t remember when they said that, but it sounds completely in line with the way those guys think and work.  They’re amazing quality control, both of them.  As is Marvel.  They were extremely hands on, even in the creation of the story.  It was enormously collaborative.  I never felt like I was abandoned to write the script by myself, even though I did the actual writing.  There was always someone to bounce ideas off of.  Kevin Feige, Jeremy Latcham, Jon Favreau, obviously, and Robert, they were always there to lob in their ideas and support.  It was a very socialist endeavor, the creation of the script.
I think the writing teams for the first film (Art Marcum & Matt Holloway and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby) had a couple of years working with Jon Faverau.  You came on and they already had a release date for the film and less than a year before they started filming, yes?
(laughs)  You try to forget.  While you’re doing it you really try not to realize the pressure you’re under.  You try not to focus on it, at least.  You have to fake it and pretend you have all the time in the world to create it, because if you put a calendar and start X-ing days off you’ll go crazy.  I sort of operated, as we all did, I think, where it’s like ‘Well, we’ll deal with that when we get to it.’  As we had to turn in pages to effects and the line producer, we did a lot of punting of things until we absolutely had to try to move the ball across the finish line.
What’s your method?  Are you an outline guy, do you use note cards, do you just like to shuffle it all around in your head, start on page one, and plow through?
I don’t know. I love discussing things with people, almost to a fault sometimes.  I’ll bug a bus driver if I really want someone’s opinion.  The way I love to work is with someone who I trust knows the material, like Favreau and Feige, and bounce ideas off them.  Those guys had the benefits of doing [the first Iron Man] and were well-versed in the pitfalls and problems of where certain ideas could take you.  They were great at helping me eliminate certain things.  They could dismiss things that otherwise I might waste time spinning my wheels in.  That being said, when it actually comes down to writing I prefer to just wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and just sit down and start hammering pages.  I write fat, usually, and hope the director can help guide me.  In this particular case Jon was good at guiding me towards what ——– on the one hand you’re trying to create a script that matches what Favreau’s vision is and what he wants to do.  I’m a big believer in being in service to the director as much as possible.
So you don’t use any outlines?
No, no, we did plenty of notecards and outlines and all the rest of that.  I think at a certain point you just have to start trucking through the deep snow and shoveling your way into it.  Or out of it.
How much did Jon actually get to work with you on this?  Was there time for the two of you to sit down and work the story, play with characters, that sort of thing?
Yeah, we met every single day in pre-production.  He was doing Couples Retreat for portions of that.  So we met very often, these epic sessions where we’d all—me, him, Robert, Kevin, and Jeremy—we’d sit in that room and beat through it.  Then I’d go away and do pages, come back, we’d beat through it some more, and I’d go away and do pages.  It was a very unified effort. We were all pulling on the same rope.  It was the way this movie had to work just because of the time frame.
What about Robert Downey Jr.  Did he have thoughts of his own for the script?
Yeah, absolutely.  Many days we met up at his house and scribbled stuff on cards.
Was it all for him?  Was it overall ideas or ideas for Tony Stark action and dialogue?
It was everything.  He’ got such an insane–insane in a great way–of working.  He’s just an idea generator.  He’s like a firehose with a powerful stream.  He’s one of those guys who’s just constantly percolating with new ideas and pushing into different areas and places where you didn’t think it could go.  There were certian idea he would have and you’d think ‘That’s completely insane.  There’s no way we could get away with that.’  He’d stick to it, and we’d write it and rewrite it, and we’d show up on the day and he’d perform it and–Oh, I get it.  That totally makes sense.  He’s the one who has it in his head.  There’s a lot of lightning firing off that guy.
How long does it normally take you to get a draft?
I honestly couldn’t tell you.  Even though we had a production draft that we ended up working off of, we were still developing whole chunks of it as we were shooting it.  Once we had the schedule for what we were shooting, we then knew we could go back in and since this is towards the end of the shoot we can go back in and really start finessing it.  So I was working on stuff on set all the way up until the very last day of shooting.

Now, how much of this was laid out for you from the start?  There was some stuff hanging there from the first movie, of course, but did you come on and it was already “Okay, we want Whiplash, Justin Hammer, the Black Widow, War Machine, the briefcase armor… give us a story.” 

No, no, no. To their credit, they really do give everyone involved in the process a blank slate to start with.  And that’s a blessing and a curse.  I think in the end it always ends up being beneficial to them.  You go in knowing anything is a possibility and they don’t shut any doors or windows to what you want to do until it becomes either cost-prohibitive or just doesn’t make sense with the brand.
            They’re firm believers that the fans are the shareholders in this whole thing, so they go in with the attitude of what do people want to see.  It’s not necessarily about what we want to do, it’s what people are expecting and what they want of this character.  And that’s a wonderful way to work, especially in this genre.  Everything was on the table and then it was just a question of taking things off the table.
            We opened up all the characters.  We opened up Whiplash and all the famous villains of the past and started picking up each one, rolling it around in meetings, and going “What about this guy?  What about that girl?”  We ended up getting three new characters for this movie–Whiplash, Black Widow, and Justin Hammer–and realizing there was a very powerful dynamic between those three.
How did you end up with Whiplash?
Y’know, there was a bunch… I won’t bore you with who we were looking at—translate ‘bore you’ as ‘get in trouble’.  It was really Jon’s idea.  I think Jon, very early on, had the idea of using Mickey.  We have sort of an energy theme going on, sort of a confluence of many things.  One is, our Tony Stark is a public figure.  Two, we knew we wanted to have this energy element to it.  What is the thing that’s inside him?  Could this thing become public?  Could it get out there?  It’s an arms race, essentially.  Then when we were looking at the different characters, we were thinking where can we sort of plug that idea into a character, and Whiplash—through Jon’s vision of what that character could be or become–what we all gravitated toward.  Weall thought that’s the guy.  Once Jon had pitched the way he envisioned that character, which is very different from a guy with a big ponytail and a cape, we thought that’s very cool.  These big energized whips emenating from his center chest piece.  It all, organically, started to take shape.  With the back story we thought we could have some fun there.
Now, in the first film one of the main elements was that Tony Stark had the only viable mini-Arc Reactor fused into his chest, plus there was one other one that would work for twenty minutes or so.  In the trailers we’ve got Iron Man, War Machine, Whiplash, plus what looks like a whole squadron of armored soldiers fighting them at one point.
Again, it sort of followed that….  If we walked into the room with anything, when we first started to develop, the one thing that was obviously on the table that we could not ignore was that he was a public figure.  That was the first little piece of clay that hit the table that we knew we’d have to build off of.   We thought, well, what comes with that?  What comes with that is a strange kind of arrogance, especially in today’s world, that that’s definitely going to entail?  Some kind of a newfound celebrity, to have a guy who’s a public superhero.  So there’s sort of an arrogance to Tony at the beginning of the movie that he’s the only one who is in possession of this technology.  So then the next dramatic device is… what if he’s not?  What if someone else can create it as good as he makes it, or almost as good?  That’s where we went with that.  What if the genie got out of the bottle?
War Machine is a little unusual because he’s not part of the “classic” Iron Man stories.  Rhodey is, of course, but War Machine was a much later addition.  Was this a concern, for you or the studio, since most of the successful Marvel movies seem to deal with classic elements more than newer ones?
I don’t want to talk about other’s people’s movies but… War Machine is not a dark force.  Our thinking was Tony is out in the world and has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew.  One of the themes of the movie is can one man be an island?  Are men islands in themselves, especially if you’re Tony Stark?  Again, without giving away too much, the War Machine armor and who’s using it really complements that idea or that theme.  I found it a relief to have that character in the movie.  And obviously Don is wonderful.  Only in the fact that they’re such good friends does that work.
Were you worried about the Batman issue?  Or I guess, Daredevil, since we’re talking Marvel…  That there are just so many character and elements crammed in here that there wasn’t going to be room for a coherent film story?
I wouldn’t say I was worried.  There were times where I felt that we had a luxury of riches.  It was like putting a bunch of desserts out in front of you an wondering which one you wanted to taste first.  It never worried me in that way.  If anything, it just made me want to work harder at servicing every one of them.  But I think we’ve done a pretty good job of tempering that and making sure that it doesn’t just turn into a Jackson Pollack.  Everyone has a purpose in the film, and I think as long as each one of those characters is well-defined and as long as they’re purpose-driven, then at the end of the day it just feels like a great big fun movie as opposed to a big, y’know, clusterfuck. (laughs)
There’s been some talk lately that this movie takes place before the Incredible Hulk movie which came out… well, at the same time as the first Iron Man.
(laugh)  I feel like Marvel has a great tradition of screwing the next writer. (laughs)  I think initially, when they first started interweaving it, things were considered afterthoughts.  Now—I don’t want to give away things happening in other movies—they’re starting to put a lot more thought into it and seeing it as a larger scheme.  We have things in our movie that are doffing their hats or perhaps telegraphing things that are going to happen in other movies.  That’s probably a much as I can probably say.  It wasn’t like we had a big meeting with Kenneth Branaugh about Thor.  There’s just enough cross-pollination to make it interesting, but not enough to start eating into other people’s sandwiches.
Was this something you were trying to figure out, how it all fit together, or did someone in an office just say “oh, this is the order?”
No, we knew we were going to have Nick Fury.  He showed up, you just can’t ignore it. And then there’s much smaller clues and things that we seeded throughout that will play out in other movies.  Obviously once Avengers is up and running you’ll start to feel the cumulative effect of those little jigsaw puzzle pieces getting put together.
I know there was also a point no one was sure if Samuel Jackson was going to be in the film or not.  Was that affecting you and your story?
Yeah.  For me, I just acted as if he was doing it.  We were putting him in.  He was going to go in.  It was up to the powers that be to make that happen.  I just kept writing as if he was going to show up on the first day.
Did you get a lot of notes?  Were you under the microscope, because the first film had been so successful?
Yes, but not in a way…  Marvel is a very special place.  Kevin Feige is probably the biggest comic book fan I’ve ever met.  He’s the biggest fan of his material.  He is, without question, one of the best keepers of that torch.  There would be times when we’d be bumping our heads or going ‘I don’t know how to make this work,” and Kevin would bring a clarity to the situation.  I’ve never experienced it with any other studio or any other creative process, where–literally–the head of the studio would be the one to go ‘No, you know what the fans want?  The fans want this, and at this moment in the movie this is what needs to happen and this is what we’re forgetting.”  He– and Jon, too– was great at just refocusing it.  He knows his brand and he knows his charcters so well.  He’s one of those guys who can tell you the day and date he saw this character or that issue came out or that movie premiered.  He just knows everything.  He’s encyclopedic.  I was always eager for him to put his two cents in an I would eek out his counsel on a regular basis.
Did the internet have a big influence on this?  Either for you or the studio.  Since the first movie people have been going crazy on the web with ideas and speculation, even more so once images and footage started appearing.  Does it affect your writing?
For sure.  Websites like Superhero Hype and IGN.  I wouldn’t say it’s an internet-made movie or anything close to that– because a lot of time people have ideas that have no bearing on what’s ultimately possible– but definitely.  There were times… As I said, the modus operandi of Marvel is that the only shareholders are the fans.  There’d be times when they would say ‘Oh, I read this thing, they’d be stoked if this happened.’  So we know we’re not on the wrong track pursuing that idea.  That’s really interesting and fascinating because it sort of puts a ghost partner in the room with you.  A shadow voice in the room.
Last question for you… now that Iron Man looks to be a successful franchise, did you leave some threads and ideas dangling for another sequel?  I know a lot of folks saw the Ten Rings terrorist group in the first movie as a hint towards the Mandarin…
I’m not confirming or denying that remark. (laughs)  I think that’s still in the distant future.  I would say if people looked for it they would definitely find it.
August 23, 2012 / 2 Comments

A Sly Discussion of Screenwriting

          Have I mentioned that 14 has been in the top ten at for the past week or so?  It’s been a pretty amazing week for me.

           That being said, I’m still trying to get caught up on a few things after Ex-Communication, so I think I’m going to let the ranty blog slide for another week or so.
            The good news for all of you is that “letting it slide” means I post another screenwriter interview.  Even if screenwriting isn’t your thing, you might get a kick out of this one.  It’s from two years ago—me talking with actor, director, and screenwriter Sylvester “Sly” Stallone.  You may have heard of him.  And, yes, I was told very specifically that he does prefer Sly.  I talked with Sly (see, now we’re on a first name basis) about his career and his then-upcoming new movie, The Expendables
            Now, I have to be honest.  While it was cool to be interviewing Sylvester Stallone, I wasn’t expecting much.  Foolish as it sounds, I’d been sucked in by his characters and figured I was going to be on the phone with Rocky Balboa or John Rambo.  The guy we all see parodied on SNL and Family Guy.  What I actually got was almost an hour talking with a very smart, dedicated, and funny screenwriter who loves Peter O’Toole movies and whose lifelong passion project is a biopic about Edgar Allan Poe.  
            A few points I’ve mentioned before.  I’m the one in bold, asking the questions.  Also, a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out.  A long line of dashes (—————–) means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Mr. Stallone endorsed any of the ideas here on the ranty blog.  It’s just me linking from something he’s said to something similar I’ve said.  And by the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here.  If you haven’t seen the first Expendablesyet, check it out.  You’ll get a bit more out of this discussion.
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
So, a few background questions…  I know you studied drama at school.  Was it your major or was it a side thing you expanded on?
           It was my major, yeah.
Did you study screenwriting? 
            Well, what happened was I wasn’t getting any parts (chuckles).  I decided…  I started writing these one-act plays.  There was this group that was putting on these shows.  At the time they were called “happenings” which is kind of like stream of conciousness, they were plays that were like Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” or “Rats” by Israel Horovitz.  And I thought, y’know, I’d like to try one of these one-act plays.  So I started writing and performing them.  They were one-man or two-man shows. And that was the beginning of my love for the written word.
There weren’t many books at the time.  Did you study existing scripts or just kind of wing it…?
            What I did was, believe it or not, after four years of college I got a job as an usher.  I would watch a show, for example let’s say M*A*S*H, and I would watch it six times a day for two months.  And I would break it down and I’d see what works and the timing and I got to get a sense of pace.  Or I’d see a movie that wasn’t very well recieved–I remember, for example, there was a Martin Sheen movie called No Drums, No Bugles, and no one ever saw it.  I was like, “Why is this place empty?”  So I would go home and try to rewrite scenes in the movie that was playing.  Just as an exercise.
            Then one thing led to another and I started writing about my experinces in school with things that I knew about.  It wasn’t until I went to the New York Library and checked out a book on Edgar Allen Poe that I finally wrote a screenplay that wasn’t solely about my experiences.
I was going to ask you… I know you did some work on Lord’s of Flatbush
            That’s right.
…but were there any feature screenplays before Rocky
            Oh, many.  Many.  Probably twenty, twenty-five.  I look at them now and they seem kind of quaint.  And they were using the old-fashioned format, which would be the characters name on the left margin and to the right would be the dialogue down the side.  It was pretty archaic.
Rocky got the Oscar nomination for best screenplay.  Plus a bunch of wins.  Was it intimidating having so much success with your first produced screenplay?
            Oh, yeah.  How do you follow that up?  The idea of Rocky, it was pretty simple but it touched people a lot more that I thought it was going to.  That kind of simplicity and rhythym, I didn’t know if I could do it again.  I don’t even know if I ever achieved it again.  Usually it was something that was kind of noticeable in the subsequent Rockys, especially 2 and in the last one, that I could fall into that rhythym which I felt very comfortable with.  Having a protagonist that would be that verbal.  When a lot of the action comes you don’t get a chance to write dialogue.
You’re an actor-screenwriter who wrote two major films to rekindle his career.  I think you’re unique in that.  Did you plan Rocky Balboa or Rambo as “comeback” films or were they just stories you wanted to tell?
            The power of the pen (laughs).  I wanted to close out the series, and at that time I wasn’t getting much work and I thought, if I ever get another chance, I owe a lot to these two characters because both of them ended on a note that was unsatisfactory.  Especially with Rocky Balboa, that’s the premise.  If it works it’s the perfect closure, whereas Rocky V wasn’t.  I didn’t know if it was going to catch on.  No one believed it would.  It took six years to get done on a budget that was pretty meager.  It was quite a long shot.  Put it this way– it was  a lot harder to get done than the first one (chuckles).
Do you write all the time?  Is there always something you’re working on, or do you wait for specific inspiration?
            I try to write a little bit each day, even if it’s not very consequential.  It’s like painting.  If you put a brush on the canvas a little bit every day, you’re still in the game.  Your brain is subconciously working. —- I always look at writing in a pretty basic way, which would be like an athlete who hasn’t participated in an event, say, in five or six years.  Now he has to get back in the ring and he’s very rusty and insecure.  But if he had been going to the gym all that time he would be somewhat prepared.
What first sparked the idea that would be The Expendables?
            I wanted to… and this is a real complicated journey here… I wanted to do a kind of “men being men” journey.  It would be escapism but there would be some profound thought going on– in the sense of what about our mortality?  What about our morality?–and insert that into the action film so it isn’t just about men blowing up things.
            So I thought what was a good format?  I looked at The Dirty Dozen and well, that’s World War II.  Then I was inspired by Dogs of War.  Now, I realized that my template would be a little similar, so we had to go out and purchase the Dogs of War script because I didn’t want to be accused of plagarizing.  Then I heard there was this other script which was, in my opinion, uncomfortably similar to Dogs of Warwritten by David Callahan.  I thought, well, I knew from the past we’ll be sued if there’s anything similar.  It always happens.**  On every Rockyor whatever, someone’s always had that idea first.  I said, this time I’ll just go out and see what’s out there that’s similar.  So that script was purchased.  Then I wrote what I think is an original, The Expendables, which doesn’t use one word, one comma, one iota from either screenplay.
When was this?
            About a year and a half ago.  It went through–and this is for real, you can come over to my office and see–it went through a hundred and forty rewrites.  I’m not talking about three or four pages, I’m talking about major rewrites because of budget and then cast changes.  For example, Forrest Whitaker was in it and he played a CIA agent.  Then I thought that’s not going to work, so that entire screenplay had to be done over.  Then Jason [Statham] came in and he talks a certain way.  Then Jet Li was brought in and I had to create a character for him.  Then I thought,you know, it’d be great to have Mickey Rourke in.  So before you know it… every time you bring in a major character like that it would cause these concentric circles where it just keeps going out.  What startes out as a little idea affects all 120 pages.
A hundred and forty drafts?  Is that like, here’s these first twenty that no one’s ever going to see cause this is my stuff, or was this all in production hitting a hundred colors of revision pages?
            The first fifty or sixty drafts… and I swear I’ve never seen anything like it.  We have close to two thousand pages.  Typed.  It wasn’t until about three months before that we went through all the colors twice.  My secretary was pulling her hair out.  Then I had some help from a friend of mine, Robert Kamen.  Robert came in and gave me a couple of ideas and I thought you’re right, let’s try to be more economical.  He was very helpful.
Do you like to write other characters for specific actors?  Was Christmas always written with Jason Statham in mind?  Was Gunnar always Dolph Lundgren to you?
            Absolutely.  If you spend a little time with them, everyone had a rhythym to their voice and a way they feel comfortable with dialogue. It’s almost a mathematical cadence to their speech patterns.  If you can capture that, the actor feels comfortable and you also know kind of how you can a make a sentence a little more clever using his speech pattern.  For example, in Rocky, Burt Young has a very unusual speech pattern.  He inverts words.  Instead of saying “You don’t like me?” he’ll reverse it,”Me you don’t like much,” which makes it very unusual.  So I would write according to their natural speech pattern.
How often do you have yourself in mind for the lead role while you’re writing?  Do you just write and then think, Hey, I’d like to play this part?
            I do.  I do (laughs).  But I realized in this particular ensemble you have to give some of your better lines away.  You just have to to keep a balance, to keep the law of nature working so one doesn’t overwhelm the other character and it’s lopsided.  That was the hardest part in Expendables, that everyone has their moment.  It has nothing to do with the action, it’s just an insight into what makes them tick. Then when you combine that with the action, you say, ahhh, I understand what this guy’s all about.  I know his motive and what really dwells in his heart.  Rather than just muscles.
If you don’t mind me stepping back, in general not just with The Expendables, it seems that most of the stuff you write is for you.  Do you want to write for other people?  Would you be interested in writing scripts where you had nothing to do with the movie past writing it?
            Well, for example, there was a page-one rewrite…there was a fellow, Norman Wexler, who had written the first Saturday Night Fever and he wrote Staying Alive.  They brought me in.  There were some issues with the script.  The studio didn’t like it at all.  It was a very, very dark journey that the John Travolta character, Manero, was taking.  So I sat down with John and I thought let it be a bit more optimistic.  Let’s take it in this direction.  It’s about redemption and so-on.  I took the script, put it away, and started from page one completely using John’s voice.  Spending time with him, getting his rhythyms, and really touching on subjects that as an actor it’s the same thing with a dancer.  The insecurities, the constant awareness that the clock is running and you have a certain amount of time to cross that goal line in your career or you’re never going to make it, so on and so forth.  I love writing for other people.  It’s much easier, actually.
Nowadays, what’s your usual writing method?  Has it changed over the years?  Are you an outline guy, a notecard guy, do you just start scribbling on page one?
            That’s pretty much what I do.  I’ll sit down and try to find, let’s say, the first ten scenes.  And there’ll just be one word– truck, airplane, meets girl, goes home, abandoned apartment– just write those, knowing that 90% of it will be unusable.  Maybe 95%. But the process has started and then subconciously, if I’m being honest with myself, if I’ve got a story that holds up, it starts to take a life of its own. 
            I’ve never been able to write a treatment.  Ever.
How long did it take you to get a first draft?
            My first draft would maybe be two weeks.  It’s pretty quick.  But I know going in that it’s far from perfect.  Some writers will labor an extraordinary amount of time on each scene  to get it right before they move on.  I assume that it’s not going to be perfect but I’ll get it the third time, the fourth time around.  It’s like cutting a diamond.  Cutting the facets.  You’re not going to cut it perfectly the first time. You have to keep going back and polishing.  Going back and polishing.
How many drafts did it take with The Expendables until you got to something solid? Something you knew was good?
            I would say it took a good twenty-five before we had what I thought was a workable film.  Then the elements of budget come into play.  You have to take a situation, a locale, that maybe had three hundred, four hundred people and you realize you have to cut it down to two (laughs).  In Rocky, the ice skating scene was meant to be in Rockefeller Plaza in New York, where they’re ice skating and there’s three hundred people on the ice and Christmas trees and carolling going on in the background when Rocky takes Adrienne on her first date.
Did something similar happen with Expendables?
            Oh, yeah.  Hell, yeah.  In The Expendables we’re supposed to take on Somalian pirates in the first scene.  As you know, it’s very expensive shooting that.  I had it written where they climb on board, they go across the deck, camera’s dollying in, so on and so forth.  That would take about five or six days to get that all proper.  And I thought, all right, why don’t we just establish boat, next thing is cut inside the boiler room and you see the pirates and the hostages.  So we never see the Expendables arrive or exit.  They just appear.
Now, you kind of touched on this… is it tough on set, as the writer-director, when pretty much every actor in your film is used to being the leading man?  I mean, you’ve got guys in bit parts who normally carry tentpole films.  Do you like ad-libs from actors?  Do you like them switching stuff around?
            If they come up with something …  The format I follow is we do it as written the first take or two.  Then after that I say “Let’s tear it apart a little bit,” and I’ll purposely start to ad-lib.  Some actors are very good at it.  Some aren’t.  You have to know.  Mickey Rourke will roll with it.  Other actors are not comfortable with it and you have to write them in as they’re physically reacting to what you’re saying.  They’re looking away, they look bored, this and that, they smile.  So they’re in the mix even though they’re not verbalizing.  You have to find the strength of these stars and capitalize on them and not expect them to be something they’re not.
The names are a little silly in The Expendables.  Harry Christmas.  Hale Caeser.  Toll Road.  What’s up with that?
            Yep.  Well, it’s Lee Christmas now.  Every one of those characters is based on…  Lee Chistmas is the world’s most famous mercenary, down in Honduras as the turn of the century.  I just thought,what a great name–General Lee Christmas.  Barney Ross was a great fighter in the ‘30s.  What  I was trying to come up across is every one of these guys, they don’t have an identity.  Their real name doesn’t matter.  They live in this kind of alternate universe where they have no social security cards, no driver’s license, nothing.  They’re fictional characters.  When Bruce Willis says ——-  I just love that when you have nicknames for characters that explain who they are.———Toll Road, Randy Couture, to get past him you’re going to pay a price.
We start right at the top with Gunnar pretty much snapping. Why did you want to start with one of the good guys essentially going bad?
            Because you don’t expect it.  You know at one time this guy was a great warrior who, through a human frailty, a weakness, became a drug addict.  He was unpredictable.  Even though we don’t belabor the fact that he was a drug addict, you sense it with certain words.  “When a guy turns Crankenstein on you, you’ve gotta let him go.”  Or another one goes “Put a shot in speed racer’s shoulder.”  I don’t want to see him shooting up or snorting.  He just has a problem.  It could be pills or whatever, but he’s got to overcome this.  By the end of the film you really embrace the guy.  At least in the final draft.
I thought it was interesting that this isn’t just the movie title.   They actually call themselves “The Expendables.”  Why did you want to have this be their real title?
            Self awareness.  They realize that if they’re gone it really doesn’t matter.  They’re in an expendable business.  Every mercenary on the back of his mind must know when he goes to a foreign land there’s a good chance he doesn’t come back.  He’s expendable and he accepts that.
There’s a nice bit where Tool is talking about the girl on the bridge.  It isn’t just about killing bad people–it’s about saving good ones.  Where did that whole theme come from?  Was it there from the start or did it develop through drafts?
            It developed.  Tool originally had a girlfriend who was half blind, going blind, and that was going to be Brittney Murphy.  We just didn’t have it in the budget.  Brittney Murphy was also a wonderful singer.  At the end of the movie people were questioning why would Tool be interested in this kind of girl when he has all these Hooter-type girls.  Then when you hear her sing you think she has real soul, she has depth.  That’s why he finally has come around to this kind of woman.  Now when that was taken out I needed a moment when the character who seemed like the biggest bon viant, who doesn’t give a damn, in the end really is tortured because he didn’t do what he could’ve done to save his soul, his morality.  And he’s saying to Barney, don’t make the same mistake.  You’ve got to do something for nothing. 
No spoilers in the article, but I’d like to ask you about the ending and maybe talk around it, if that makes sense…  In the end the good guys win.  Barney doesn’t get the girl and decides not to quit.  Gunnar doesn’t die.  It’s almost like a reset button gets hit.  Why not have more of a toll on the team?
            Right.  I thought about that.  This is kind of a morality play where I wanted to see these men again.  I always wrote it hoping there would be a backup so I could really get in-depth for the second one. I think when you’velived with people so long that to see them die…  I don’t know, it just put a damper on the overall sense of exhultation at end of the film.  That good can triumph over evil without having to cause death.  I know that’s a completely unrealistic way to look at it, but I’d learned a lesson from First Blood.  In the original First Blood, Trautman kills Rambo.  He puts a bullet in his heart and he dies.  We shot that ending.  I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to do it, but that’s the way it was written.  And then I said can we do an alternate where Rambo pours his heart out and he dies emotionally, but he’s given a rebirth.  A second chance.  When we ran the first screening with Rambo dying, the audience was so depressed.  I didn’t like the message that victory can only be achieved by spilling the blood of one of the heroes.  If we could accomplish both at the same time–the bad guys are vanquished and the good guys prevail–I think in this kind of film you walk out of there feeling good, rather than walking out going “Oh, I wish Jason hadn’t died.”  It puts a damper on it.  I’m not trying to make a one-off statement.  In Dogs of War everyone did die and it’s a whole other kind of film.  This is totally escapist fair with some moral message slipped in.
After doing so many action movies–as the writer and the star–is it tough to come up with “new” action scenes?
            Very hard.  What we did with this one was just go back to very simple mano e mano, man vs machine.  Very little CGI, and everything in the film is do-able by a professional.  Everything here could be accomplished.  Barney is the greatest shot in the world.  He’s so fast with the pistol it’s hard to believe.  But I went on YouTube and researched the fastest shot in the world.  There’s a man who gets off six shots in point-nine-tenths of a second and hits his target.  So everything in there is achievable, it’s just so fantastic it’s hard to believe.————–
Last questions… in the past couple years you’ve done The Expendables, Rocky Balboa, I’ve heard you’re working on another new Ramboscript…  
            I’m not sure about that one.  The last Rambo kind of tied the ribbon on the whole journey.  I don’t know if coming back out could spoil the whole thing.  What more can you possibly do?  Really?
You mentioned Poe at the start.  I noticed you’ve got a Poe project in the works on IMDb. 
            Yeah.  I’m really worried about doing it, though, because I’ve been talking about this since 1976.
So it’s the same thing?
            It’s the same thing. Every five years I’ll look at it say  “Boy, it’s sort of dated.”  Even though it’s a period piece, the writing styles have changed so much and the audiences way of percieving films is not the way it was in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  A Lion In Winter is one of my favorite films, but it’s all dialogue.  It’s incredible dialogue, but that school of acting has fallen by the wayside.  Now you have to think visually, too, and that diminishes the amount of dialogue.  For example, the inner workings of Poe’s mind.  We now get into his subconcious and you actually see his great gothic stories unfolding in front of you.  You take a journey through his mind at certain points in his mind and see the black cat, see the House of Usher, you see where it came from.
Looking back thirty-odd years… have you learned anything about screenwriting that you really wish you’d known back when you were writing Rocky?  When you sat down to work on Poe for the first time?
            I guess… I believe your first instincts, when you write with passion, are usually the best.  Quite often in multiple rewrites you become a little too slick, if you know what I mean.  You become a bit too polished and predictable.  When I was writing Rocky I just let it go.  For example, the speech in Rocky Balboa with his son, I wrote that while I was riding in the back seat of a car, just bouncing around.  One take, one time.  I was just writing from the heart rather than trying to get the audince on my side, trying to manipulate the audience.  I just wrote from my heart.  So to answer your question,  I think what I learned is try to get back towriting purely with your gut more than your brain.
Was there a point in there when you kind of forgot that?
            No question about it.  Rambo III became about the events around him and not the turmoil inside of him.  For example, I do a little painting, but I’m not a photorealist.  So people will say what is that and I’ll say it’s a flower.  “Well that doesn’t look like a flower.”  And I’ll say no, it’s what the flower’s thinking.  It doesn’t have to be so perfect.  It’s what I think is going on inside of the subject rather than on the exterior. 
            It’s all motivation.  If you know why a guy is going to war, really understand, that you’re with him on the journey.  When you know Rocky goes there, that he realizes that he is a bum and he’s never going to win, he’s going to get killed.  But, if he can just stand up, that to him is championship.  The audience is not expecting him to win, but they’re with him on just surviving and that is a great moral victory.  So that kind of thing.  It isn’t just random.  Why are you here?  Why here and why now?
(**It’s worth pointing out that, ironically, Stallone ended up getting sued over The Expendables.  Because of this interview I was subpoenaed twice and deposed once.  He won his case earlier this year.)
July 21, 2012

Hour of the Wolf

            Sorry, still running behind.
            I’d hoped to do something a little bigger for the ranty blog’s 200th post.  Ah, well. We’ll have to celebrate #250.

            Here’s one more huge interview with a pro to tide you over until I get my act back together.  This time it’s David Self, the screenwriter behind Thirteen Days, Road to Perdition, and The Haunting, among other films.  Last I heard, he was working on the adaptation of the God of War videogame. 
            I got to chat with David for an hour or so about working on The Wolfman, the big-budget reimagining of the classic Universal Monster movie.  It was definitley a passion project for him (as you’ll see), and he was a lot of fun to speak with.  Alas, monster movies don’t do that well these days because too many people go in expecting horror and then blame the film for these expectations.
            A few points I’ve mentioned before.  I’m the one in bold, asking the questions.  Also, a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  A long line of dashes (————-) means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply David Self endorsed any of the ideas here on the ranty blog.  It’s just me linking from something he’s said to something similar I’ve said.  And by the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here (although I did cut out one big one).  If you haven’t seen the film yet, check it out.  It’s fun and you’ll get a bit more out of this discussion.
            Also, this is one of the rare cases where I didn’t get to see the fim before my interview (considering I was generally doing interviews two or three months before the films were released).  My questions are based off one of David’s earlier drafts I got to read, so you’ll see some back and forth as we establish what does and doesn’t happen in the movie, and why some changes were made.
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
You work in a lot of different genres as a screenwriter.  Horror, drama, political, you’re doing Deathlok for Marvel, I heard…  How do you keep from getting pigeonholed?
That’s just IMDb (laughs).  I haven’t been working on Deathlok in quite a long time.  I did a rewrite on Deathlok.

I guess I actively try to avoid boredom.  I want to find new intellectual arenas to challenge myself in.  I try to find projects that are different, have a different hue to them, work in different genres.  I make an effort to do that.  That’s my short answer, and I guess people buy it. (laughs)
How did you end up on The Wolfman?
This came to me from a good friend of mine, a producer, Scott Stuber.  I worked with Scott a long time ago.  He brought me actually three scripts.  Andy’s script, a script  by Paul Attanasio, and one Mark Romanek himself had been working on.  Kind of in the fall of 2007, just before the strike.  Actually, August, late summer.
So there were three actual scripts?
At that point Andy had done what was the main draft.  Then they’d hired Paul to do a rewrite.  He got about halfway through and didn’t continue.  Mark Romanek started to work on it himself.  Paul, I think, was working at Mark’s direction at that time, and Mark got halfway through the script as well.  So they had two half-scripts and Andy’s script. When I came in I really wanted to work off Andy’s script because it was the most coherent and consistent one.  It was a complete script so it was the easiest to start from.
Were you all that familiar with the original?
Oh, yeah.  I love the original.  The original film is a landmark.  It was my dad’s favorite film and I used to watch it with him when I was a kid and knew it well.  So there was a little trepidation in going back and trying to come up with a 2010 version of it.
Was it tough shifting the story to a modern day interpretation?  Were these things you were dealing with or had Andy dealt with a lot of them already?
Andy had really introduced a lot of the new elements that are in our version of the film.  In terms of the father-son dynamic and also, well… (David and I talked about a bunch of spoilerish stuff here that I’m not going to repeat for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet)  …That’s a major change from the original, obviously.  That idea was an idea Andy introduced.  Going back to your question— that was dramatically the biggest adjustment.
So what were some of the issues they brought you in to address?  Was it director requests, studio requests, straight script problems?
I think one of the things… In keeping with the original, Andy did well preserving the werewolf lore that the original film introduced to our sense of werewolves.  Changing at the full moon, being bitten.  Some of the rules we take for granted now.  Silver bullets killing werewolves.  There were a couple older films… you’d have to do your filmography… that this film all pulled together.  Those elements Andy was very particular in preserving, which I think was really important.
Among those things that was challenging is that the whole transforming at the full moon really limits…is a real structural issue that we struggled with for a long time.  How to make the plot advance quickly and turn our characters into a werewolf quickly when you’re dealing with this rule of having the full moon.
Yeah, you get four weeks between each action scene.
Exactly (chuckles).  So by nature, the earlier drafts of the script had a very extended amount of time before you got to see Benicio del Toro turn into the wolfman.  That was really the largest issue that I was brought in to solve–how to speed things up a bit.  It was still a very challenging thing, given the rules of our film.  That was the largest note that I had to contend with coming into it.
Let me bug you with a couple of process questions before we dive into any more specifics about the film.  How do you normally approach a script?  Are you an outline guy, a notecard guy?
I generally like to outline, and I try to do the outline in one sitting, so it feels organic, to one moment and impulse.  The length of it can vary from a page to ten pages, depending on how much detail I’m seeing right off the bat in my head.  I just try to catch the organic impulse of the movie in one moment.  And then it mutates from there.
Now was it a lot different for you when you’re coming onto with an existing script, rather than starting from scratch?
Yeah, this is a very different process.  It’s a film that is sort of a flashing green light to go.  There’s a lot more collaboration.  You’re working with a director, a producer, a studio, that all have things they need to achieve to get to where they’re confortable making the film.
Was everyone attached?
Benecio was attached and Mark Romanek was attached.  They attached Tony and Emily Blunt after the draft I did in November.  And Hugo Weaving.  Those guys all came on after.  Although Benicio was just sort of… he wasn’t actively involved in development at that point, he was just waiting for us to do our job. ———–  I turned in my draft the night before the strike started and that was what they cast off of.  And then I was out on the lines
Do you have a lot of writing habits?  Do you write so many hours a day or only in the morning?
I’ve become more nocturnal with the advent of four of my children in the past couple years. Prior to that I was more of a workday type of guy.  I sort of now have a patched together day, where I work half of the day-day, and then after supper in the eveneing, after the kids go to bed, I have another work period where I tend to be pretty productive.  It was different when I was younger.
Do you have a page count you’re trying to hit each day?
More of a scene or sequence objective I set for myself.  Not so much a page count.  One of the other things I like to do… I get slower as I get closer to the end of the script, because basically I read the script from page one again every day before I start writing again, so I can get everything in my head. It helps me with consistencey issues and voice issues.  I don’t have as much reading to do on day two or three, but when I’m getting down to the end I’m spending an hour and a half reading befoe I start writing new stuff.
So was this more of a page one rewrite or a scene-by-scene?
Several scenes, like the sequence in the asylum, I just loved those.  There were pieces of Andrew’s writing that I just loved that I just cut and pasted those into the script I was writing.  I would tweak a word or two just so it made sense with what came around it.  I did start with an empty script when I started rewriting, but I had his sitting next to me the whole time as a reference.
Now, Lawrence would be kind of a grim, haunted figure in this even if he wasn’t bitten by a werewolf.  Why change him so much?
Yeah.  It’s interesting, the character Andy —–  along was a haunted guy who had this sort of gothic, dark back story that preceded the film and becomes uncovered during the course of the film.  So he definitely structured that sort of psychological drama in that mode.  It was an important decision.  It’ll be interesting to see how it translates in the final version of the film, but the notion was this was a guy who had lost himself in theater and burned himself out.  He was a guy waiting to be saved.
In the original, Lawrence Talbot is an astronomer, now he’s an actor.  Why the change?
That was Andy.  He was a guy who was haunted, who lost himself, was estranged from his family and has to come to home.  He’s taken on the least manly profession (laughs) in contrast to his father, this big-game hunter, depraved nobility kind of guy.
Was Ben’s murder in the beginning an added scene?  Why?
Yeah, we had several different versions of that.  I think it was challenging because——  A lot of that changed because of the physicality of the location that we had to work with.  There were a couple different versions which we had worked out, given the contingencies of the set.  This is the one Joe settled on at the end of the day.
Right in the beginning of this story you’ve got the old man on the train with the silver cane.  Why this odd device of a complete stranger who never figures into the story again?
Yeah, that version hasn’t made it into the final film.  We had a notion that this was not just an old guy, but there was this sort of implication that the creepy old guy could be Satan passing the cane along.  It didn’t make it (laugh), he just has the cane in the current film.  I thought it was just a good idea, it’s just his from the start now.  With the 2010 kicker of it being a sword.——I definitely tried to find a few places of connection for little spiritual totems of the original.
What about the connection between Aberline and Jack the Ripper?
Yeah (laughs).  Aberline was introduced in Paul’s draft as a pursuing character that then we fleshed out.  He chose the name Aberline.  I didn’t really connect that with that notion when I first read it, but then I looked up the name and said ‘Oh, this is the guy from In Hell!’ (laughs)  We thought that was a fun grace note to have. 
——-No.  I mean, Paul didn’t bring it up that he’d been involved in the Ripper case previously.  We added that dimension to it.
Benicio Del Toro has been known to rewrite a script or two.  Did he have a lot of notes for you?
(laughs).  No, he didn’t.  Not the script.  Benny is sort of… the process in independent films is a little bit different than this sort of film.  He didn’t rewrite anything but we had lots of conversations about his dialogue.  He certainly wanted to plumb his lines and stuff like that.  Not rewriting per se, but he had a lot of ‘Could I say it this way…?’  He’s a real professional.
Without giving too much away for the readers… there’s a big switch in how Lawrence becomes the werewolf.
I think as soon as you see Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins are both in this film… (laughs).  I think the audience gets some satisfaction about having their suspiciions confirmed.  I think his sense of betrayal is a good thing. Rather than it just being (chuckles) Bela Legosi, just some guy who randomly bites him.  I thought this was a good, meaningful melodrama.
Is it tough to do spoiler-dependent films these days?
Knowing that you’re going to be outed?  (chuckles).  Yes and no.  I think it’d be much harder to pull off a Sixth Sense-style film these days that really depended upon that surprise.  I think that would be very difficult to pull off now.  On the other hand, if you’re creating enough engagement and suspense in the moment, you can know the outcome of a film.  Something like Thirteen Days.  You’re sitting in the theater so you know the world hasn’t blown up.  But you can create tensions and suspense, and if you’re doing your job, in the moment people will forget that fact.  ——–
—That’s the magic of it, that you can suspend disbelief there.  Watching something that’s well-told you can forget that you already know certain aspects of it.  There’s something anthropologically gratifyying about that to me.  The yarn-weaving and the storytelling is the social, fun experience, not the knowledge itself.

Would you say this film is horror or more of an action-adventure story?
I think it’s a classic Universal monster movie.  I think there’s a little bit of difference between a horror film and a monster movie.  This has got that broader pallate that you’re talking about.  I think it straddles that.  It’s got horror elements in a bigger action-adventure film.

Last question.  I know this sounds silly but… why one word?  The original Chaney is two, The Wolf Man.  Is that just some oddity that cropped up?

By the production! I’m so furious! (laughs)  Every single draft and every single email I write to this day, I still write two words,”Wolf Man,” because I just can’t accept the fact that they’ve condensed the title.  I don’t know how it happened.  I don’t know where it happened.  It just was a spiral thing that began, I think, in the production.  Somebody compressed it and I’ve fought against it.  It’s not a silly question, it’s my pet jihad!

July 9, 2012

Seeing RED

            Very, very sorry it’s taken me so long to get something up.  I’m in the home stretch for the new book and it’s eating up all my time.  I haven’t had a chance to write out the animation post.  Or stay caught up on email.  Or… well, many other things.

            Anyway, here’s something a little different.  And it’s huge to make up for the time off. And there’s lots of pictures to help you deal with the fact that it’s so huge.
            Here’s one of those interviews I did a while back.  I’d wanted this to be a conversation I had with Nora Ephron back in 2009, but I can’t find my original transcript and don’t have the time to find the recording and type up a new one.  Alas, this has now ended up becoming an Ernest Borgnine memorial piece…
            So, here’s a very fun conversation I had with Jon and Erich Hoeber, two screenwriting brothers who wrote the action-comedy movie RED, based off the comic miniseries by Warren Ellis.  They’ve since moved on to do a few other big-named movies and are working on a sequel to RED.  Jon and Erich were probably one of my favorite interviews I ever did in my years at CS, and we talked for almost an hour about the many aspects of screenwriting.  It was far too much to use for the space I was allotted (despite repeated begging to the editor), and it’s even too much for here.  So what you’re seeing is a somewhat truncated version of that interview (about 2/3 of it).
            A few points, but you’ll probably figure it out as it goes.  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  If you see a long line of dashes (————) it means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Jon or Erich endorsed any of the ideas here on the ranty blog.  It’s just me linking from something they’ve said to something similar I’ve said.  And by the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here.  If you haven’t seen the film yet, check it out.  It’s fun and you’ll get a bit more out of this discussion.
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
            So, anyway, here’s me speaking with  Jon and Erich about writing RED.
So, let me ask this.  Why did you guys end up writing together?  What made you pick your brother as a writing partner?
E:  We kind of fell into it.  My background is music.  I studied composition and conducting.  At the same time my brother was in film school.  He called me to write some music for a film he was making.  It was, in a way, the first time we’d reconnected as adults, because as kids we’d fought like crazy.  So I wrote the score for his movie.
            A couple years later, maybe a year later, we were both in  Los Angeles.  I’d come out here to sell out and write jingles or something.
            Probably if we had any idea how hard it was going to be we would’ve been stockbrokers.  Whatever it is people do who have real jobs.
So, how did you guys end up on RED?  Was this something you went after or something that got brought to you?
J:  It’s interesting.  First of all, we’ve been big fans of Warren Ellis for quite a while.  What’s awesome is that we share a manager with Warren.  So we were able to run around RED and try to set it up with a little inside help, which was great.  But it was also a small, obscure-enough book that we were sort of operating outside the system.  We weren’t having to do battle for a big-money title.
E:  We also knew at that point Gregory Novak.  Around that time he had just started working for DC and he’s an executive producer on movie.  We got him involved  We got Mark Vahradian, who’s another producer.  And we ran around and tried to set it up.
When was this?
E: Initially we got hold of the book… I would say about five years ago. We tried to set it up then and we failed.  But we always liked it and we always wanted to get it done.  And then a couple years later we had the opportunity to try again.
J: Mark at that point had joined forces with Lorenzo diBonoventura, who’s a powerhouse.
E: So we tried again and we were able to set it up with Summit Entertainment.  We had written a very detailed treatment, and they basically bought it just off the treatment.
J: There was a fantastic meeting after they had agreed to hire us to write it, where they called us in for a ‘creative session.’
E: It was the best notes meeting we ever had.
J: We sat down with them and all the producers were there and their assistants were there.  They said ‘Well, guys, we really like the outline you wrote and we think this’ll be very cool.  So don’t screw it up.”
E:  That was it.
J: It was like that moment in Forrest Gump– ‘I shure hope ah don’t let him down.” (laughs).  Summit has been fantastic.  They have things to say and great opinions, but in a very collaborative, open way, as opposed to ‘Here are the studio notes!’  My way or the highway.
When you made the deal with Warren, did you buy the rights outright or was this a handshake deal or what?
E: We hadn’t bought the rights ourselves but we had agreed with our manager and with Warren Ellis that we would try to sell them and then they’d have to make a deal with both him and us.
J: No money exchanged hands but it was a secured position.
This movie has a really slow start.  It’s almost kind of an indie film, where we go for ten or fifteen minutes and… well, nothing happens.  Was that a tough sell?
J: The opening, from a writing point of view, was a fascinating thing for us to play with.  Obviously when there’s a marketing campaign you know exactly what you’re getting into.  But generating a cold script, when this was first crossing people’s desks, it was a very odd departure to have seven pages of relationship going on between two people.  Somebody at work and somebody at this house.  And seeing there were tiny little bits of oddness about him.  You know he’s not normal, but what’s his problem?  Why does he have this empty life?  He’s sort of pretending to be a human being but he’s not quite a person.  And the fact that it goes on– when was the last time you saw an action film that didn’t start with action?  The fact that you’re talking about this as ‘indie tones’–
E:  It actually makes us smile.
J: It was something that was a big ballsy choice for us.  For us the most important thing is that it’s a character piece that turns into an action movie.  Or is also an action movie.  As opposed to, here is our high-concept action structure that you’re desperately trying to stuff character in, which is how the jobs usually go.
Now, there area lot of differences between the graphic novel and the film.  Were these things that the studio wanted from the start, or were these things where you looked at it and said “cinematically, this would work better if…” ?
E: That’s very perceptive.  Our first take was hewed a bit closer to Warren’s original tone.  We loved the character he’d created, this guy leading this empty life and trying to figure out how to be human.  But obviously his original work was very, very, very dark.
J:  And we talked about that.  Wouldn’t it be cool to do a stripped-down, lower budget, John Boorman-style action film.  And that’s neat, but it’s sort of unsellable.
E: We came up with this very low-budget, very bloody version, and no one wanted to buy it.  Then when we revisited it a couple years later we sort of thought what if you just used this character as a departure, a starting-off point.  This relationship as a starting-off point.  What if this guy becomes sort of  a metaphor in a way for what happens to people when they retire in general.
J: And Warren Ellis’s theme of weapons of the Cold War left over, sitting around.
E:  Yeah, this dangerous, unexploded ordnance that’s left sitting around in the form of these people.  And what if you sort of expand that world.  So that led us to invent and create many, many more characters to populate this world.
J: And ended up as a radical departure from the source material.  But the big question we asked ourselves at that moment was the tone question.  What kind of a movie is this going to be like?  At the end of the process it always ends up being very clear.  Along the way it’s perhaps the most challenging balance of the whole creation process on this one.  A touchstone for us was going back to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.  Butch and Sundance was something we felt like you hadn’t seen in a long time.  It had that brilliant balance of character and humor but also those real stakes.  People get killed.  Our heroes die at the end of the movie.  You buy this threat that’s chasing them all the way along.
E:  There’s not a lot of movies that occupy that space, and I don’t know why. But the idea that you could have real fun and real jeopardy at the same time is something that’s very interesting to us.
J: Then, thematically, once you started playing with the idea of older actors, older characters with these massive histories behind them, that became another big driving force in the movie.  That was awesome.
E: We actually wrote this part for Helen Mirren.  We wrote it with her in mind.  You never do that because you always get your heart broken.  For Helen it worked because you’re writing a part for her that she hasn’t played in a very long time.  She’s been in gangster movies before, but everyone knows her now as the Queen.  But if you put a machine gun in her hand…  One way to sell this movie is just say ‘Helen Mirren with a machine gun’ and everyone starts cracking up.
J: It’s an amazing thing to take these iconic bad-asses and bring them back to that, which is a big twist of genre and a lot of popular perceptions.
The whole idea of the title, the meaning behind being flagged “red” is radically different.  When did that happen?
E: In Warren’s book it’s a code where he becomes active again.  We initially tried to put that in the movie but it didn’t really work.  And there was some discussion about whether the title was going to change or not.  But Summit really liked the idea of using the original comic book and we did to. So we thought, well, if we’re going to use the title RED we better get it back in here somehow.  We came up with ‘Retired- Extremely Dangerous,’ which has now become the tagline for the movie.  And that seems to work pretty well.  Everybody thinks that’s funny.  And obviously having Ernie Borgnine deliver it is just great.  He is the nicest guy.
J: Celebrated his 93rd birthday on set up in Toronto.  Bruce took him out, we took him out.  Just partying like a rock star on his 93rd birthday.
What’s your usual process?  Are you outline guys, notecard guys, do you like to get it all in your head and dive in on page one?
E: We write treatments.  Usually we’ll brainstorm the movie and one guy will go off and  write a treatment, and then he’ll flip it over to the other guy.
J: Jointly we create these incredibly elaborate, detailed treatments.  Which tend to be sort of the contract to keep everybody on track.  After the treatment’s set we just start breaking it up.  You write the first ten, I’ll write the next ten, and we start passing pages back and forth.  So everybody knows exactly what the other guy’s doing.  But our first push is to just get to the end of the movie as fast as possible.  Don’t look back too much, try to keep it alive and bright.  And sometimes one of us’ll latch onto a certain character a little more than another.  But once we get to the end we just start going through it again and again and again.  That’s the genius of partnership.  Constant fresh eyes.  Constant challenge.  Constantly challenging the other person.  What if we did it this way?  What if we did it this way?    So we are fast but massive rewriters.  Never stop pushing on it.  Which is why a lot of our scripts tend to be tightly integrated, complex movies where you’re juggling a whole bunch of things at once.
E:  No matter how well you outline there are things you can only discover when you’re writing the script. Voices and the way people do things and the little things that integrate from scene to scene along the way.  Jon actually invented the Ivan-Victoria love story when we were writing the script.  It wasn’t in the treatment.  Things like that are things you kind of discover along the way.
J: I’m always amazed when I hear writers–most of them tend not to be pros– but when people say ‘I don’t outline.  I like to discover it.’  And I’m like, man, I hope you discover an ending along the way, otherwise you’re going to be in a world of hurt.
E: We’re big believers in our structure.  If we have a structure that we really like than we never really worry that we can fill it in.  The big question is what’s the best way  to do it.  But we always start knowing exactly how the thing is structured.
J: As opposed to tone.  Tone changes.  Tone flexes.  Sometimes you just realize the thing you’re working on is a little funnier or a little a darker or a little different than you really thought once you start filling it out.  That’s a very odd and interesting part of the creative process.
How much of an outline are we talking about?
E:  We sort of do a ten to fifteen page treatment that pretty much says what every scene in the movie is.  But it’s short enough that it’s not unmanageable.  That you can’t just work with it quickly and move things around when you’re developing it. If you start to get bigger than fifteen pages, for us, it starts to become a big enough document that you start to get lost in it.  So we try to keep it short enough that it’s manageable and long enough that it has all the information in it.
J: It’ every scene listed and sort of an emotional check-in of where the characters stand.  What the beats and changes and emotional arc are.
How long does it take to get a draft?
E:  Usually about three weeks, I guess.
J: There’s two levels to that.  There’s the first pass through the treatment which generates 120 pages or 110 pages, and that’s probably three weeks.  But I think it’s probably another three weeks of going back and forth before I feel like it sort of looks like a movie.  He says three, I’d say six to get it to what I think you’re asking.
E: We rewrite constantly, and the more we do it the more complexity and refinement we get.  By the time we gave Summit our ‘first draft’ we’d been through it many, many times.
J:  But it was great because it was then at the point that they read that first draft and greenlit the movie.  And I have to throw out credit there to the producers, who in this case were incredibly about challenging us on things without telling us how to do anything.
E:  We’re at our best when someone tells us ‘Can you make this better?’ and we’re at our worst when they say ‘Do it like this.’  Because if they say do it like this you can only do it like that, and we always feel trapped. 
J: Because maybe the solution to that line or that character or that problem has nothing to do with that scene.  It’s an act and a half away in the movie.
One thing that really amazed me is that tonally this movie is so spot-on.  How did you manage that?  Comedy is usually tough to pull off in a comedy film.
E: One thing is, we do a lot of comedy but most of our comedy is not comedy that’s making an obvious joke.  It’s comedy that comes out of character.  All the characters take themselves seriously, but they have very different worldviews. So John Malkovitch has a way of seeing the world that is the complete opposite to the way that Sarah sees the world, and the two are naturally going to be funny when they’re put up against each other.  If you do it where it is really character based as opposed to more slapstick, then you get away with more comedy closely connected to drama.
J: Because the drama comes from the same place the comedy does.  It’s all character driven, as opposed to trying to just make up a situation.  The other thing, though, is that Eric and I have always written in a lot of genres.  We love to go see all kinds of movies, we love to go write all kinds of movies.   And we’ve been doing that for a long time, much to the annoyance of our management.———– It’s nice to have all those tools in the wheelhouse, which in a movie like RED really come into play.  You have to have this mystery-thriller line to hang it all on, which ultimately no one will care about but if you can’t make it look good people will flag you for it.
E: And you’ve got a little bit of  love story.  A little bit of action.  A little bit of comedy.  The trick is how to make it all one thing.  That is to say, it all has to come from the same place.  It all has to come from character.  It’s not like you’re taking these things and sticking them together.  You’re taking the character, which is the heart of this movie and the heart of any good movie, and finding different ways to express that character.
It’s apparent early on that the mystery behind Moses getting targeted is a lot more elaborate in the film. Did that grow out of having a larger cast or vice versa?
E:  I think in a movie like this you never care that much about what the mystery is.  You just want it to work.
J: After the fact, especially.
E:  Yeah.  It’s sort of a MacGuffin that allows you to let the characters do what the characters do.  We were sort of tweaking what that mystery was all the way through the script.  At the end of the day, it was simply what will sound interesting enough and what will mechanically work well enough that we can take several steps to get there.  I guess… we don’t care about it  It’s not where out bread is buttered.
J: We don’t care about it? (laughs)
E: Well, we care about it.  You have to do it well enough, but it’s not what makes the movie great.
J: Right.  It gives you a framework to have the characters that make the movie great.  You can’t ignore it, but that’s not why anyone’s going to see this movie.
E: At the end of the day you’ll remember if it worked or didn’t work.
J:  But what you’ll remember is “Old man, my ass,” or “I trained Kordeski,” or “If she didn’t love me, it would’ve been in the head.”
Let’s talk about some of the new characters, where they came from, what story-need they grew out of.  Sarah’s probably the closest to “in the book,” the person he calls on the phone every other day or so.  Why did that part expand so much?
And into a love interest?
J: It’s always good to have a girl in the movie. (laughs)
E: Part of it is this.  Warren starts with the premise of this sort of extremely dark character.  He’s done this his whole life and as a result he’s sort of become inhuman.  He’s not quite a human being and doesn’t know how to be a human being.  Starting with that premise, we asked ourselves the question, how do you develop that character.  And how you develop that character is across the course of the movie he realizes there is more for him than just being this old piece of the Cold War.  That he can have a life, that he can have a love interest, that he can sort of become human.  If you imagine that now as his arc, then Sarah is the character who can, across the movie, start to transform him.
J: It’s also great to have a character who’s an outsider to this group of insiders, just from a sort of exposition and comedy point of view.
E:  You’ve got a straight man with all these killers.
When did the idea for Cooper, or someone in that part, come into this?  He’s a younger version of Moses, but there are some very distinct differences between them.
E:  Cooper is… obviously we needed a great antagonist.  Everybody in this movie has a little arc, and obviously Cooper does, too.  What’s really interesting is there are big cultural differences in the CIA, between what it was like 30 or 40 years ago when people went to all these Ivy League schools with this sort of blue-blood culture, almost.  Also this sense of we do what we have to do and we don’t really talk about it.  Now the CIA is different.  It’s a little bit more corporate and a little bit more professional, in a certain sort of way.  In a certain sort of not-necessarily good way.  So these were some of the things we were thinking about when we were developing Cooper.
J: For me it’s a real cornerstone of how Eric and I write, which is about genre twist.  Any movie of size is going to be a genre movie in some fashion.  You’re going to have seen virtually every character before.  So for us the question isn’t going to be how do you come up with those characters, it’s what are we going to do to show you something you’ve never seen before within a genre that you’ve seen a thousand times before.
E:  How do you take that scene you’ve done a hundred times and do it fresh.
J:  For us a big example was Cooper’s introduction.  He’s on the phone, he’s talking to his wife, he’s talking to his wife, talking about kids, he’s got to get milk–and he’s killing somebody.  And any time in a scene you can do two things at once it’s obviously a good idea.  You’re establishing Cooper and you’re also really setting a lot of tone for violence and comedy that runs throughout the movie.  For us it’s really about those little mini-moments that end up having these big impacts and big ripples.  Like you said, he’s a junior version of Frank.
E: Almost every scene that we wrote is in the movie, but there’s one scene that’s on the floor, where Cooper is explaining to his wife how he fell down the stairs and got his shoulder dislocated.  We know that Frank did it.  You kind of see on her face that she knows that’s not true, but it’s a very subtle thing and I think it slowed the movie down too much, so that scene isn’t in.  This movie, very surprisingly, there’s very little of it that’s not on the screen.  In part, I think, because it’s so tightly plotted that almost all of it’s necessary.
            And that’s that.  I’m hoping to be back on track later this week, but just in case I’ll warn you it may be another interview.
            One way or another, go write.
            It’s what I’ll be doing.