Screenwriters on writing 2014
The screenwriters of some of this year's most talked about movies share the back stories to their films.
In 1988, along with 10 million others, I spent several days trying to decipher, decode and demystify “A Brief History of Time” by professor Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist.
Reading is not the same thing as understanding, and the professor did a fine job of making all 10 million of us feel simultaneously stupid and grateful, blissfully bamboozled, in awe and inept, shunted to the threshold of the incomprehensible to ponder the very, very big from a vantage of feeling very, very small.
What an icon Hawking is — a dramatis persona from writer’s heaven. His theories about time and space had deservedly made him famous, but it is his decade-on-decade outliving of a diagnosis of motor neuron disease (a type of ALS) and his ability to maintain his curiosity and sense of humor that turned him into a hero. In one man, here is an unprecedented juxtaposition of extraordinary mental prowess and extraordinary physical incapacity.
Back in 1988, when he told us that the universe was far more mysterious than we ever suspected, the world realized it had found a symbol for scientific genius that rivaled Albert Einstein.
Someone will make a wonderful movie about this man one day, I mused, never imagining that I would ever have any role to play in this.
In 2004, I reentered the Hawking universe from a different angle when I read the autobiography of Stephen’s first wife, Jane Hawking, “Traveling to Infinity.” As I turned her pages, the publicly known facts of the icon in the wheelchair faded to reveal a one-of-a-kind love story, the tale of a courageous young woman who fell in love with a young scientist at Cambridge University only to learn that he had been given only two years to live. Sure she had the strength to support Stephen during his ordeal, she agreed to marry him, but what transpired was an extraordinary 26-year union in which they explored the love of physics and the physics of love.
I was about a third of the way through Jane’s book when I felt an internal ratchet-click and resolved that I must catch the train to Cambridge, hometown to both Hawkings, and simply knock on Jane’s door and beg her to let me option the film rights to her book. To my eternal gratitude she let a stranger cross her threshold. She was encouraged enough by what I said that day to allow me to write a script, “then we shall talk again.” It was clear to both of us that she had stopped far short of granting me the rights I needed.
The years passed. With script in hand I knocked on a great many doors, but none opened. I was told there was little market for this kind of story. Why could no one perceive the remarkable, even unprecedented artistic opportunities here?
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” (Liam Daniel / Focus Features)
In 2009, I joined forces with producer Lisa Bruce, and, when Jane eventually signed over her book rights in 2012, we snared James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) to direct. Suddenly we were moving and moving fast. Eric Fellner, co-head of Britain’s Working Title, responded positively within 11 hours of being sent the script. Eddie Redmayne quickly agreed to play Stephen and Felicity Jones to play Jane. Filming began in Cambridge in October 2013.
One particular night of filming stands out in memory. We were staging Stephen and Jane’s first date — a re-creation of the 1963 May Ball for Cambridge undergraduates. We had 300 extras in black tie and gowns, two bands, a carnival and a few thousand quid worth of fireworks ready to erupt in the cold autumn night.
And then the professor arrived. A staffer was dispatched to halt the professor beyond the edge of frame. This was narrowly accomplished. “Action!” James called. The music struck up, 150 couples began to waltz, gloved waiters served Champagne from silver trays, the bands played soft jazz until the sky suddenly filled with supernovae.
I was told later the professor smiled. Perhaps, in that moment, he was young again, a nervous youth on his first date with the woman with whom he’d share half a life. Had I been at his ear I might have whispered:
“Professor? That’s Hollywood.”
My adaptation of “Gone Girl” began with a filthy, nasty amount of cursing. I really outdid myself. The [expletive] book was so [expletive] long and so [expletive] internal and so [expletive] unchronological … and what kind of [expletive] monster would write such a thing anyway? The answer to that last question was: me. I’d been cocksure certain I was the only person who should attempt to adapt my novel — it’s me, it has got to be me! Then, when my bluff was called and it actually came time to write the script, I realized, to my horror, I might actually have to write the script.
I had a number of abandoned screenplays on my laptop (plied with enough booze, I may tell you someday about my romantic comedy involving animatronic pigs), so I understood the form. But “understanding the form” only takes you so far.
“Gone Girl” is a story about a golden couple, Nick and Amy Dunne. Amy goes missing on their five-year anniversary, Nick becomes a suspect — then stuff really starts to happen. “Gone Girl” is as much about self-mythology and sexual gamesmanship as it is about a missing person, but the story has such an elaborate, Rube Goldbergian plot that my overriding fear was the script could become pure engine, a marriage plot with too much of the latter and not enough of the former.
So I listened to the audiobook and wrote down only the storylines that were absolutely necessary (or so I thought: Even some of these would go). I then put the plot points on notecards and taped them to my office wall because I’d read somewhere that’s what screenwriters did. I never looked at them again. I just left them there, to become a disturbing bit of wallpaper for anyone staying in the nearby guest room — my serial-killer scrawl with words like “DIES DIES DIES” or “THEY PLAY GOLF.”
What I did have at this point was a hazy outline of what the film might look like. Then I took a hot-pink stickie note and slapped it over my laptop. The note read: “IT IS A MOVIE.” It was a reminder not to be slavishly faithful to the novel. This had to become a film, not a series of scenes from the book. I wrote that first draft in the autumn of 2012 while I was still on book tour for “Gone Girl.” I wrote the final scene on a train from Chicago to Kalamazoo; on the ride home I decided to celebrate with a plastic glass of warm white wine. I sipped and read the scene. And thought: Not quite. I deleted it and started over.
I turned in the first draft to Fox on Dec. 14, 2012. By January, I was in Los Angeles meeting with David Fincher, thinking to myself: Do not gush like a tween and do not use the phrase “Fincheresque.” I was such a fangirl of his that I’d written certain scenes in the book — like the search in the abandoned mall — through his lens. (At one point, as we were trying to streamline the script, I suggested half-heartedly that we might, maybe be able to get rid of the mall scene, and his response, thank God, was an unequivocal no.)
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl.” (Merrick Morton / 20th Century Fox)
Fincher and I had a lot of talks: about the nature of identity, of relationships, of gender. About “Lolita” and “Clockwork Orange” and the dark bursts of humor in those films. We fattened the script up and then winnowed it down. It got sharper, darker, sexier, funnier and more dangerous because of his thorough, incisive notes. He forced me to articulate and explain scenes. There’s nothing better for a writer than being called on her own writerly [nonsense]: You stumble partway through a justification of mediocrity and then just stop talking and go back to work.
I sat in on weeks of rehearsals with the cast, which helped me tailor the script to fit the actors. As the troubled Dunnes, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike enlivened and illuminated their scenes — both Amy and Nick’s first meeting and final tête-à-tête are deeply indebted to them and Fincher. By September 2013 —less than a year after I began writing the script — I was visiting the set in Missouri, wandering through a 3-D version of a story that had been in my brain for three years. I thought of that stickie note that had flapped over my laptop for months, like a bright pink fortune cookie: “IT IS A MOVIE.” No expletive required.
Nicolas Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris
It all sort of started on a phone call like this:
Alejandro Iñárritu: I have an idea. I want to do a film in one long take.
Alejandro: A film about the theater.
Alejandro: A comedy.
Us: Who is this?
Roughly two years later, “Birdman” was born. There were myriad challenges in the writing of this screenplay (as inevitably there are with any script). The most daunting was dealing with the core principle of “one shot” narration. Before the first words on paper, we knew that the film would be crafted as one uninterrupted shot. This created two separate issues. Firstly, how we might avoid predictable or, worse, vacuous, transitions. All those moments between the actual “scenes” where not much is happening. Where the story isn’t necessarily moving forward. Where there is no tension. Not to mention we were writing a comedy, a form that relies entirely on rhythm. The second, and more complex, issue was that with no cuts we knew that whatever we left on the page would inevitably end up on the screen.
Fortunately for us all, Alejandro decided to shoot almost the entire film in rehearsals on the set, and that allowed us to write the last draft while witnessing how the scenes were going to play out in very precise detail. We could see every move of the camera blocking designed by Alejandro and Chivo (the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki), we could see the actors’ exact positions, etc. So when the actual shooting finally began, the screenplay was almost 100% of what you see on the screen now.
In the end, as the old architectural adage goes, “form follows function,” and this was going to be a movie about Riggan Thomson, our harrowed protagonist. Riggan is at a crossroads when the story begins, a once famous actor forgotten by the public, harangued by his alter ego Birdman (the iconic superhero he once portrayed) and disrespected by his family and his peers. In the opening frame of the film, Riggan is meditating, trying his best to silence the voice of Birdman in his head, the voice that unrelentingly reminds him of his own mediocrity. In the last scene of the film, he may finally achieve that silence.
Michael Keaton in “Birdman.” (Atsushi Nishijima / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Everything in the middle was going to be a roller-coaster ride through the mind and soul of Riggan Thomson (and, by extension, the masterful Michael Keaton). Form follows function, and while the idea of making a film in which the audience doesn’t see any cuts could conceivably sound like a contrivance, we feel certain that it would be absolutely impossible to tell this story in any other way. The camera feverishly and relentlessly follows Riggan through the story, allowing us to experience the situations he faces subjectively rather than objectively. We feel his pressure, his nerves, his adrenaline in a way that would be impossible if the story were manipulated through cuts and reaction shots.
Alejandro: Let’s make a dark comedy about an actor facing existential questions about life and art, and let’s do it in one long take.
Us: It sounds impossible.
Alejandro: It is.
Us: We’re in.
For the first time in a long time, I wanted to write a story without knowing how it was going to end. This is a tremendous luxury. Creative freedom is something that we all start with but is often lost in the transition from aspirant to professional.
I hadn’t written a spec like this in over a decade. My recent obsession with chef culture connected with a story I was kicking around about fatherhood and divorce and recapturing creative passion. I began to outline “Chef.”
I began to scribble images and scene descriptions and settings and characters. I wrote song names and menu items, described tattoos and even specific knives to be used. In about a half hour, I filled eight pages. It wasn’t enough to pitch, but then again I didn’t have to. It was enough to start writing.
I can’t express the excitement you feel when words start to rush out. Your brain does what it does. Your job is to feed it. I watched every food movie that I could. I watched every documentary and read every chef’s memoir I could get my hands on. I would fall asleep at night listening to “Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential” to let it permeate my subconscious. It was, after all, the book that first piqued my interest in the culinary world years ago.
Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau in “Chef.” (Merrick Morton / Open Road Films)
After completing the first draft, I knew I needed a trustworthy advisor to help me shore up the authenticity of the piece. I sought out chef Roy Choi of Kogi food truck fame.
Our first meeting consisted of me riding with him as he hit up all his restaurants like a mob boss collecting from all his operations. Instead of picking up envelopes, however, Roy was there to dispense guidance and encouragement. He is a Korean American but spoke mostly Spanish in the kitchen. As I shadowed him, he explained how and why he did everything. He had me taste the mise and sample the dishes that the line fired for him. I began to see the world through his eyes.
Finally, after six hours of driving, watching and eating some of the best food I had ever tasted, we talked. He had read the script. Things were wrong with it, but the story was solid. He impressed upon me how important it was for me to get the world right. Hollywood got it wrong most of the time. Chefs didn’t appreciate that. If I promised to get it right, he told me he would do whatever it took to help.
Over the next several months, under Roy’s guidance, I was off to the culinary school for intensive training, after which I was finally allowed into Roy’s kitchen. At first I served as a prep cook doing meticulous and painstaking work of preparing ingredients of the mise en place [setting up all the ingredients for the night’s menu]. I eventually worked my way up to line cook during dinner rush at Roy’s various restaurants. I distinctly remember being handed some ice water in a quart deli container by a busboy mid-shift. I didn’t even know I was thirsty, but that water was the best thing I ever tasted. When I remarked to Roy what happened after closing in the parking lot, he said I was ready to make the movie. That I got it.
John Leguizamo, Jon Favreau, Bobby Cannavale, and chef Roy Choi during the filming of “Chef.” (Merrick Morton / Open Road Films)
We filmed the movie in less than a month. We got lucky with the weather and even luckier with casting. Everyone worked for a fraction of what they normally earn, but it was fast and fun. The editing process was relatively short, and the theatrical run was the longest I can remember having. There wasn’t one billboard, but somehow the theaters remained full. Somehow the most personal film I had ever made connected with others in a personal way.
Most important, I felt renewed. The experience of the chef in the story soldiering through a midlife crisis of sorts by dedicating himself to that which inspires, forgoing the comfort of pattern and safety, was mirrored by my own journey. The film was my food truck, where I controlled the menu and the script was the sandwich. And, like cooking, the real joy came from making something I was proud of and then watching others enjoy.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
“They’ll never let us do this.”
We were proposing to make a major studio movie look like it was made in someone’s basement. The characters wouldn’t have fingers. Or knees. Or noses. Our story involved licensed characters from at least three different movie studios. We would need permission from J.K. Rowling, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan and the NBA. Not to mention the Lego Group, which wasn’t entirely convinced it needed to make a movie in the first place. Not to mention a Third Act twist sequence that we weren’t sure was going to actually work.
“Well, let’s just pitch it fast and maybe they won’t realize how crazy this is.”
So began “The Lego Movie.”
It was an audacious thing to attempt in feature animation. We wanted to use cutting-edge computer technology to make something as rough-hewn and messy as an amateur film. We were making a movie about a toy that inspires creativity. And we thought if we embraced the limitations of the medium, it would inspire creative solutions.
So every frame had to feel like anyone could have made it at home, if that “anyone” had millions of Lego bricks and sophisticated lighting equipment. Knees and elbows had to stay stiff. Explosions and water, even motion blur, had to be made of Lego bricks. Every brick would need computer-generated fingerprints and scratches and hair and (ew) dandruff. We had a two-hour meeting to decide how much dandruff there should be in the movie. The surprising answer: “Some.”
We took over the Animal Logic offices in Santa Monica, basically a big warehouse, far away from daily supervision. Chris McKay, our co-director, had the idea to start every day with an all-crew meeting. Designers, artists, editors, production coordinators. Even the IT guy. No agenda. Just a meeting to talk about one another’s work, tell jokes and get the creative juices flowing. Unquestionably, a very inefficient meeting.
Occasionally something great would come out of it. One of the assistant editors mentioned he had built a double-decker couch in his apartment once. A week later it had worked its way into an artists’ storyboard. We worked it into the script, and by the time the movie came out, the double-decker couch had become a major story point.
Instead of running a gantlet of formal storyboard reviews, we asked that artists and editors work quickly back and forth, without a lot of time for refinement, because we knew that, like a Lego creation itself, we were going to take the whole thing apart and rebuild it again and again. The same thing went for our actors and our design team and our animators. Each step was designed to evolve the story, make a character more distinctive, get to the core emotional truth of a relationship, add a joke and, more than anything, imbue the film with something that a movie about Lego had to have: a sense of creative empowerment.
Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) in “The Lego Movie.” (Warner Bros.)
A lot of movies follow the pattern of the Hero’s Journey, an archetypal story about a hero who is one in a million. An extraordinary talent preordained to be the only person who can save humankind. Our problem with that is that it lets the rest of humankind off the hook. We wanted to see if we could make a hero’s journey story where the hero was not extraordinary but extra ordinary — with no special talent whatsoever, who could be any one of us. If we could pull that off, maybe we could make a movie that empowered every person who saw it.
So just like those movies, we had a prophecy. We even got Morgan Freeman to say it. But we also got Morgan Freeman to tell the hero that the prophecy was a fiction. And that anyone who chose to believe it could fulfill it.
We set out to use a big commercial studio film as a Trojan horse to relay a message about the power and necessity of grass-roots creativity. We wanted to make a movie that made you feel more creative when you walked out than when you walked in.
Every movie is an attempt to answer some big question, and we had found ours: Can we make someone an artist just by telling them they are?
We sure hope so.
But it’s not like we’re scientists or something. We don’t know.
We’re artists. We don’t know anything. We just believe.
My “Wild” journey — and, seeing as I never set foot outside my north London office for almost the entire length of it, I should really stop using the title as an adjective — began with a review of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir in the New York Times. The review kicked off with an arresting sentence: “It’s not very manly, the topic of weeping while reading.” And it ended with another one: “The cumulative welling up I experienced during ‘Wild’ was partly a response to that too infrequent sight — that of a writer finding her voice, and sustaining it, right in front of your eyes.” I wanted very badly to read this book.
I think I may have skipped a chunk of the review, though, the stuff in between, because when “Wild” arrived through the post, I noted with alarm that a pair of hiking boots featured prominently on the front cover. This was a book about hiking? I’m not a hiker. I do go outside, sometimes, but only when strictly necessary, to travel from one urban amenity to another. I thought I’d read the first few pages, though, if only to justify the purchase, postage and packing. Twenty-four hours later, I was, like Dwight Garner of the New York Times, in a mess. I was also convinced that I was the right person to adapt “Wild” for the screen.
Reese Witherspoon in “Wild.” (Anne Marie Fox / Fox Searchlight)
A lawyer might describe this conviction as unsafe. There was the hiking thing, and the English thing, and the man thing: “Wild” has gone on to become a contemporary feminist classic and a long time ago, back in the 20th century, I wrote a couple of novels that became associated with a certain kind of masculinity. And the material wasn’t straightforward. The flashbacks were complicated and would need reordering, I felt, and if they were to work dramatically, I needed to find a way of externalizing Cheryl’s inner monologue.
Set against that, I felt I understood the book. It wasn’t about hiking, not to me. It was about grief, families, ambition, rage, disappointment and hope, and it was written with an urban liberal-arts sensibility that succeeded in placing anyone with the same set of values right there on the trail with Cheryl, screwed up, unprepared, determined to succeed in her ambition simply because there are no viable alternatives anywhere else.
And tonally, the book was a gift, piercingly honest, deeply painful, but funny and self-deprecating too. The great thing about adaptation is that you can, if you’re lucky, get to work on material that you couldn’t have generated yourself but that nevertheless speaks deeply to you. I had recently written two movies about young women (“An Education” and the upcoming “Brooklyn”); I hoped that those scripts and a few ideas about how to approach “Wild” might be enough to persuade Cheryl and the producers, Bruna Papandrea and Reese Witherspoon (who also stars), to give me a shot.
“Wild” moved toward production much faster than any film I’ve ever been involved with. Usually scripts get written slowly, by writers who know there’s no hurry, and then kick around for another four or five years, and the glacial pace can drive you insane. But I first met Bruna and Reese to talk about the project in October 2012, and found myself promising a first draft within three months; 10 months after delivery of that first draft, the movie had wrapped.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee and Reese Witherspoon on location for the movie “Wild.” (Anne Marie Fox / Fox Searchlight)
Moving at this speed meant a particularly intense pre-production period. Jean-Marc Vallée, the French Canadian director of “Dallas Buyers Club,” climbed aboard just a couple of months before shooting, and he needed every second available to put his stamp on the material. Jean-Marc would Skype me as soon as he got out of bed, from Canada, or L.A., or — just before he started shooting — from Oregon, and we talked about every scene, every page, every line. And when we’d got to the end, we went back to the beginning again. This is what happens in development, of course, but usually over the course of years, not days. It nearly killed me, but the torture was, of necessity, brief. I didn’t even meet Jean-Marc in person until we all met up at the Toronto Film Festival to promote the film.
Making a movie, then, turns out to be surprisingly easy; I’d just been doing it wrong for the last 20 years or so. All you need is a bestselling book that people are passionate about, an A-list star who owns the rights to said book and is committed to starring in the adaptation as soon as possible, and a director who has just come off an Oscar-winning movie. D’oh.
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
When I first sat down with director Bennett Miller to talk about the movie he wanted to make, one of the things that struck me was that “Foxcatcher” was a sports story, but not a sports story in the traditional sense. It was in fact the very mirror image of a sports story.
What begins with two talented brothers and the scion of one of America’s most storied families as they attempt to build a wrestling program good enough to compete at an elite level, slowly but relentlessly moves in the opposite direction, finally creating a toxic environment that will compromise the very things that sports and athletic competition are meant to engender.
Instead of building toward triumph and victory, the narrative begins after Dave and Mark Schultz have both won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, and from that singular achievement follows a dark and twisted path of power and ambition that ultimately leads not to a podium and the national anthem but to murder and ruin.
In creating the character of John du Pont, I paid great attention to writing dialogue that reflected the real John du Pont’s talent for sounding dull and uninspired. He had authored several books that are full of clichés and platitudes about winning and being a champion, and I used the tone and texture of his own words to build a character who tried hard to inspire people but left them unmoved and often embarrassed.
Where a more traditional sports story might have a parent or coach give a rousing talk before the big game, in this film every line of dialogue that John du Pont speaks is meant to do just the opposite. His words are intended to sound banal and trite, his encouragement meant to appear hollow and self-serving, so that instead of leading his athletes to victory he corrupts their character and destroys their ability to perform. Contrary to what might be expected from a sports story, there are no go-ahead touchdowns, no last-second free throws and no winners in “Foxcatcher.”
— E. Max Frye
A true collaboration
Even though Max and I never sat in the same room together, this script is a true collaboration.
Max’s draft back in 2007 opened my eyes to what this film could and should be. He’d banged the sprawled events of a decade into the rushed two-year run for Olympic gold. More important, he’d laid the structure for what felt essentially like a love story between these three men: Mark and David Schultz, and John du Pont.
Each scene, as I worked on the script over the next four years, through hundreds of hours of discussion with Bennett, then 5,000 more alone at my computer, began to feel to me like its own wrestling match between the characters: a grasping intimacy; a feeling out of weaknesses; an effort to dominate; a submission to the will and force of another.
Channing Tatum, left, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher.” (Scott Garfield / Sony Pictures Classics)
Both Mark Schultz and John du Pont had enormous resources: one the God-given gift of world-class athleticism; the other all the money one could dream of. But each lacked what they truly wanted: respect. Dave Schultz — magnetic, fatherly and unbeatable on the mat — became the grasped-after source of that respect for both men.
What Dave could bestow: his love, his grace, his approval, his respect. Dave — caught in between these two men and their desires — that’s what this film is for me.
Two scenes are emblematic in my mind: the opening scene of Mark wrestling the leather dummy because, with all his natural gifts, he can’t overcome his own demons, can’t get out of his own way. And Dave negotiating with Du Pont for Mark to be taken care of financially even if he leaves Foxcatcher Farms because Dave seals his fate in that scene. He negotiates Mark’s exit, proving his ultimate lack of respect for Du Pont. The movie can’t but end the way it does.
Lastly, this: I remember my talks with Mark Schultz over the years of writing. I remember his pain, his anger, the — even now — still raw and empty place in him that Dave, his beloved older brother, occupied. I hope we’ve served Mark well with this movie.
— Dan Futterman
In a sense, I’ve been writing “The Imitation Game” since I was 14. Or at least, I’ve spent my whole life since the age of 14 hoping and praying that somebody would let me do it. The craziest part? Somebody actually did.
I first heard the story of Alan Turing when I was a teenager. But here’s the thing about my teenage years, and I’m not going to sugarcoat this: I was not cool. I was not even a little bit cool. I wore an oversize “X-Files” T-shirt to school almost every day. I had a few friends — emphasis on “few,” please — and I loved them, but we were a very motley bunch of outsiders. Some of us were gay, some were straight, but most of us wore nail polish. (I certainly did.) Occasionally, lipstick and eyeliner.
We loved theater and movies, literature and computers. I went to space camp over the summer. I went to a camp one year completely devoted to computer programming. I spent two months in a poetry workshop on the Wellesley campus. This was Chicago in the 1990s, a cultural moment in which the idea that my friends and I would go in drag to school dances, obsessively re-read David Mamet, and still learn to code in C++ — it’s an old computer programming language, don’t even ask — seemed terribly fun, even if to everyone else it was pretty deeply weird.
Anyhow, it was at computer camp that I first heard the story of Alan Turing. But it was more like a legend, passed around the flickering campfire light from programmer to programmer. Did you know that the man who secretly invented the computer was gay? Or that during World War II, he was recruited by MI6 to break Nazi codes? Which he did by building this revolutionary machine, thus winning the war for the Allies? Only, it was all classified afterward? And then, when the government found out he was gay, he was arrested, persecuted by the country he’d just saved from Nazi rule, until he finally committed suicide?
No, I didn’t know any of that. But once I heard the story, I wanted to learn more. I needed to learn everything I could about him. Alan Turing was an outsider’s outsider — perhaps the most brilliant scientist of his generation, a social outcast who produced theories decades ahead of their time. A gay man who was able to keep secrets for the government so well precisely because he’d been forced to spend his entire life keeping his sexuality secret from a world in which a kiss between two men was literally punishable by two years in prison. For a weird kid like myself, who never felt like he belonged or fit in, Alan Turing wasn’t just an inspiration — he was a patron saint.
(As a Jew, my mother would be aghast to hear me describe anyone as a saint, but you get the idea.)
So now we cut ahead a few decades. I became a writer instead of a programmer. I published a mystery novel. I worked for a season on a sitcom. Things were going well, but there was always one story I wanted to tell: The campfire legend that had gotten me through teenager-dom. Somehow, even though Turing’s story had been told beautifully in books and plays, it had never made it to the screen. It was shocking to me — how come no one had ever made a movie about this amazing man?
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game.” (Jack English / The Weinstein Co.)
And that’s when, one night at a party, I met producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky. It turned out that they’d just acquired the rights to Turing’s story, and after weeks of pleading, they agreed to let me write a script on spec. They then introduced me to Teddy Schwarzman, who brought the savvy and the resources to make the film. Then, Teddy introduced me to Morten Tyldum, a once-in-a-generation filmmaker who understood the movie I’d always dreamed of making even better than I had. Then, Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, the rest of our cast, our passionate crew, and it felt as if our little band of committed weirdos kept growing in size. And we were all there because we were passionate about the same thing: telling Alan Turing’s story.
When I think about our movie, I sometimes like to think that maybe there’s a kid out there somewhere like me. Someone who doesn’t feel like she belongs. Someone who feels different. And that maybe, if we’re all really lucky, she’ll see our movie. And she’ll feel a little bit less alone. And she’ll know that even though she’s not like everyone else, she can still go out and create something amazing.
And then I hope that many years from now, I’ll get to write a movie about her.
Ten steps back “Into the Woods”:
1. December 2010. Rob Marshall phones: “Do you want to do a film version of ‘Into the Woods’?” Really? The 27-year-old musical I wrote with Stephen Sondheim is finally ready for a close-up? I timidly respond: “Yes! And any chance I could do the adaptation?” Much to my amazement, he says yes. Sometimes good news is hard to absorb. I hang up the phone and go back to playing FreeCell.
2. I was a youngish man entering fatherhood when we wrote “Woods,” a patchwork of classic fairy tales with an original tale sewn in. I had dedicated my libretto to my baby daughter. Now I approach this material from a very different vantage point. Sondheim agrees to come into the process after we have a first draft to show him. Rob urges me to let my imagination run free. Unlike on the stage, we can now see Cinderella at the ball and go up the beanstalk with Jack to the Giant’s Kingdom. Of course, the two-act stage structure has to be jettisoned and the film version shorter. Naively, I assume this will be a piece of cake.
James Corden and Emily Blunt in “Into the Woods.” (Peter Mountain / Disney)
3. Gee, this material is very intricately plotted. Who wrote this? There’s not a lot of slack here. Pull out one thread and the unraveling begins. For example, we agree to cut the Narrator character, so I have to find another way to fill in the storytelling gaps. Rob is from the theater and, not surprisingly, a wonderful collaborator. The writing pours forth.
4. And forth. Hmm, the script is too long. Painfully, scenes and songs are thrown out. The first 20 minutes of the play’s Act 2, eliminated. OK, that works nicely. Two characters, eliminated. Less nice, but we’re better for it. Mustn’t be precious. Rob reminds me, not every song has to be illustrated. We decide to make some changes, which require fiddling with the lyrics. You don’t fiddle with a Sondheim lyric.
5. January 2012. We show Sondheim the first draft and I’m nervous. Steve and I have worked side-by-side on every show we have written; and here I’ve been off in a room with Rob Marshall for months tampering with our creation. It’s like I’ve been cheating on my wife. He knows in advance that some of his songs and reprises are gone. We hold our breath for his reaction. As always, he is the consummate professional. He shares his thoughts and we are excited to hear them. He also willingly agrees to rewrite some of the lyrics.
6. July 2012. Enter the Giant. We submit the first draft to Disney and there are notes. Duh. Oh, the budget is not as big as Rob hoped? You mean we don’t get to see the Giant’s kingdom or Cinderella’s ball after all? OK, maybe it’s more fun for an audience to envision these places. I am also asked to “spell things out” more and I hate to spell things out. (That’s a playwright thing.) We have to consolidate locations and make even more script cuts. I am worrying that I no longer can see the woods for the trees. Rob remains calm as he navigates the shifting waters. In October, he mounts a reading. The studio folks attend. So helpful and thrilling for all of us to actually hear the screenplay together.
7. March 2013. Another draft is finished. More studio notes. I am beginning to understand the art of adaptation; the balancing act of honoring the source material without being a slave to it. Rob takes off for London to begin preproduction. I stay behind, write yet one more revision, then return to FreeCell.
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods.” (Peter Mountain / Disney)
8. August 2013. One last go-round on the script via conference call. Rob is too consumed with the prep to discuss the final details, so the producer Marc Platt takes over, and he is an excellent diplomat. Steve and I go through everything that is still in question. We win some points. We compromise on others. And we let go of those things that now seem less important. This process turns out to be more emotional than I expected. We’re letting our baby go out into the world all over again. And, like for any pair of parents, it hurts to let go. We should write a show about this. Oh wait, we just did and now they are making a movie of it.
9. May 2013. I am sitting in a theater and watching the first cut and am having an out-of-body experience. I can’t even remember what is and isn’t in the movie anymore. Wait, did they change that line? Whoa, that scene plays better than I could have imagined. I don’t mind the “spelled out” bits, and how great is this cast? My wife and my daughter, who is now 28, sit beside me. They’re laughing. They’re crying. My head is swirling.
10. When I was embarking on “Woods” I was chatting with a friend as her young daughter was having dinner. Actually, more like playing with her dinner, most of which was going everywhere but in her mouth. I casually asked my pal if teaching her kid table manners was going to be important for her. She looked at me: “James, I just hope I can teach this kid the difference between right and wrong.” That resonated with me when I wrote our show and comes back to me now. How well have I taught my child and what world have I — have all of us — left behind for our children? When Rob Marshall approached us about making the film, he said he felt it was time to retell this story. Of course he was right. A good fairy tale speaks to us at each stage of our lives. I watched the movie again. I began to forget that I wrote it and started to hear even more clearly at this stage of my life what “Into the Woods” has to say.
I like movies that are specific. Movies that home in on a very specific subculture, a specific discipline, a specific world. I started off making documentaries in school, so maybe that’s where it comes from — watching stuff like “Salesman” for the first time and discovering that it wasn’t just about a few Bible salesmen going door-to-door in the ‘60s but that it was about America and what it means to be American. I do truly believe that the smallest stories can wind up being the biggest, because it’s through the specific that a writer can best access the universal.
All this is to say that when I decided to write a movie about my experiences as an aspiring big band jazz drummer, I hoped that by zeroing in on a world I had lived in and showcasing the details that were particular to that world — the ticking clocks of the rehearsal rooms, the padded soundproofing of the practice booths, the trombonists emptying spit valves, the popped blisters and bleeding hands — I might be able to examine how that world reflected America as a whole.
Maybe I could also get at a few bigger questions: At what cost greatness? What does that word even mean — “greatness”? And what does it do to the minds of young people, those who are still searching for their place in society?
This was by far the most personal thing I’d ever written. I’d spent about five years of my life utterly devoted to jazz drumming, and I wanted to tap into the obsessiveness of that mind-set. Every hour of every day during those years I’d thought about nothing but drums and the raw technique I was desperately trying to master.
In school, I rehearsed, performed and traveled with the competitive jazz ensemble — led by a conductor who scared the hell out of me — and when at home I would lock myself in my basement and practice for six to eight hours a day. My hands were constantly blistered or bloody, my ears were always ringing, I tore through drumheads and drumsticks like there was no tomorrow.
Jazz drumming was my life — and it was both joy and agony. That that world now seemed to me as a writer so esoteric, so specific, was exactly the point: Jazz drums had become a bubble for me in those years, divorced from the outside world, and that tunnel vision had only heightened the intensity I felt day in and day out. … It all sounds insane — because, in a way, it was.
J.K. Simmons and director Damien Chazelle on the set of “Whiplash.” (Daniel McFadden / Sony Pictures Classics)
I guess art itself is insane. Its actual function is rarely clear, and yet people give their hearts and souls and lives to it, and have for all of history. Maybe it’s that burning desire to leave something behind, to be remembered. At one point in the movie, the lead character, aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman, declares that he’d give up everything if it meant he could be talked about at a dinner table, by people he’s never met, at some point in the future. We shudder and maybe laugh, because the kid is totally nuts. But I think there’s a part of every artist that can relate.
I certainly recognize those flashes of insanity within myself today. But with this movie I wanted to be very critical of the ends-justifying-the-means mind-set. I wanted to show the ways it could be pushed into abuse. As I was in the cutting room, it felt like the movie we were making could be read as either a total condemnation of a certain kind of arts education — the idea that “greatness” can be codified and bottled up and taught, and that in the case of an abusive instructor the ends therefore justify the means — or a celebration of an artist’s (perhaps necessary) insanity. I purposefully made the behavior on-screen as repellent as possible, so as to make the film’s ending harder to grapple with — the saddest “happy ending” I could imagine.
There are obviously other ways to be an artist. But as crazy and misguided and unforgivably cruel as Andrew becomes — I really do see this as a fundamentally sad movie — I think he gets one thing right: Art is and always should be irrational.
One of my favorite feelings is to be so engaged in the process of writing that the entire world is seemingly feeding up ideas. It’s almost like there are coded messages waiting in everything you take in. The “Boyhood” journey was a 12-year, intermittent-but-persistent version of that — filtering everything (world events, memory, current music, a study I read, etc.) to see if it had a home anywhere in the story I was telling.
It started when I’d been a father for six or seven years. The process of parenting had creatively dialed me back into a reexamination of my own childhood, and I felt compelled to make a movie not only about growing up but also about this new phase of my life: bumbling though parenting.
But as I compiled the memories, images, notes of scenes and dialogues, I saw they spanned way too many years to fit together in a cinematic package. It was time to return to my teenage ambition of being a novelist: The story would cover the entire public education grid of first through 12th grade, and I could bite off the whole notion of growing up — there would be a place for it all. With my fingers on the keyboard, the film that would become “Boyhood” struck me. This novel could be a movie — one where all the characters aged in real time. I had solved my story-telling problem — we could shoot it over a dozen years and cover it all.
After mapping out the detailed architecture of the story, I realized I had an incremental 12-year deadline to complete the screenplay. What a concept — the luxury of contemplation. The music was there, and now the lyrics would benefit from year-by-year gestation. While this narrative structure did present many impractical and challenging physical, logistical and psychological hurdles, it also offered up in abundance what we all seem to want more of in this world: time. That would be the uncredited star of the movie and our wild-card collaborator.
Ellar Coltrane at age six in a scene from “Boyhood.” (IFC Films)
While the foundation was autobiographical, I wasn’t precious about it because I knew my script would be shaped by the ongoing process of working with my actors, plus placing the story in a modern setting would sublimate it all.
It would be personal to me but also to my cast. Ethan [Hawke] and Patricia [Arquette] jumped in with an intense honesty not only about themselves as parents but as the kids they once were. Everything was on the table, and one of the greatest joys was watching Ellar [Coltrane] and my daughter Lorelei grow up and begin to participate in this same process.
I used the time between the shooting of each section to contemplate all the edited footage and talk with my collaborators. It was in this process where so many of the “bigger” ideas or standard “firsts” of a life went to die. For instance, I remember high school graduation, but it now means so little to me — it was like being an extra in an event of my own life. But why am I still thinking of hanging out in my buddy Danny’s car, listening to music and taking swigs of alcohol in our graduation robes?
Maybe it’s the expectations that go along with certain milestones (first kiss?), but what I sought to distill down in this story were the little intimate moments that linger in the memory far longer than you’d have ever expected.
Why am I still thinking of that junior high camp-out, or the year I received a Bible and a shotgun as gifts, and what does it mean all these years later? I’m not necessarily sure, but I hoped an audience might find the universal in these specifics, and come to care for these people moving through time.
THE NIGHTCRAWLER SCREENPLAY
reads like this … no interior or exteriors … no day or night … it’s one, long
tracing the career path of a young man named LOU BLOOM … there are minimal descriptions … no parentheticals to indicate action or emotion … and the text changes from this size to
in an effort to break through the page and visually engage the reader …
This writing style was the final element to fall into place after a journey that began years earlier when I saw the work of a freelance crime photographer named Weegee who prowled New York City in the 1940s. The idea for the film took shape when I moved to Los Angeles and discovered the modern equivalent: nocturnal videographers who roam the Southland in the never-ending search for a story.
I loved the intersection of crime, art and commerce. I loved that I’d never seen this world on screen. I thought it would be plot driven.
And then the character of Lou appeared.
He has no back story, no arc, is often unlikable and gets rewarded for all the wrong reasons. Maybe it was a reaction to the restrictions of studio scripts, but it was liberating to break the rules. My hero was my villain, and I learned as I went along. Writing it became a balancing act — trying to make Lou simultaneously engaging and terrifying — with the fear that a step too far in either direction would reduce the film to satire or a sociopath study.
Jake Gyllenhaal appears in a scene from “Nightcrawler.” (Chuck Zlotnick / Open Road Films)
I learned antiheroes are great vehicles for ideas and observations, forcing other characters to bend around them and holding a mirror to the world. I learned they can create humor, as the gulf between their perceptions and reality drift into the absurd.
I wrote it on spec, so I was working alone. I wrote most of it in a hotel room in London over a period of a few months. I never really adjusted to the time there, so I found myself writing at night, when the majority of the film is set.
I’m a morning person, but I became nocturnal, like the character. I usually follow an outline, but this time I put it aside. I normally give pages to people I trust, but this time I worked in seclusion. Every habit was going by the wayside. It was unnerving at first, but I felt in tune with the character and the story.
The film became very personal, and I knew early on that I wanted to direct it. I flew to Atlanta while Jake [Gyllenhaal] was shooting “Prisoners.” We instantly bonded and became creative partners. Jake didn’t change a word of the script, and I always championed his desire to create and explore. I wrote the part of Nina for Rene [Russo], who found a depth and vulnerability only hinted at on the page.
The one sticking point for several financiers was showing the implied sex scene between them. I declined to change the script and take their money because there’s nothing I could show that would match what the audience imagines is happening behind closed doors.
I believe writing is rewriting and spend the first half of most days doing just that. With “Nightcrawler,” the first draft became the production script, which has never happened to me.The entire process, from finding the right screenplay style to shooting, reminded me of something important, something I knew but had maybe forgotten: It’s fun to break the rules.
The number on my caller ID wasn’t one I recognized, but it said, “Midlothian, Texas,” and I knew it was the widow of Chris Kyle calling. He was the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, and, after four tours of duty in Iraq, he was gunned down in Texas by a veteran he was trying to help. That was 10 days earlier.
I wrote a screenplay about Chris, and we’d become friends in my two years of knowing him. I had texted him and told him I was turning in his script, then I made a joke only a sailor could love. “LOL,” he texted back. I turned in the script and the next day he was killed. It took every ounce of my courage to answer that call from his grieving widow. Hello?
Taya Kyle doesn’t mince words. “If you’re going to tell this story, you need to get it right … ,” she said, then her voice collapsed. I waited in silence until she could continue, “because, for better or worse, this movie is going to play a part in how my kids remember their father.” The weight of that sounded unbearable. But she was right. Those kids were 6 and 8, and I know what precious little I remember from that age; vague memories and faded photos fill the gaps as the texture of life slips away.
Taya Kyle, wife of the late author and former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, subject of the film “American Sniper.” (Dave Allocca / Associated Press)
But film lives forever. The burden was mine. For better or worse.
I first met Chris in 2010, less than a year out of the Navy. He was standing on Texas soil, but I was looking into the eyes of a man still struggling to make it home. The military complex spent millions of dollars training him to fight, but after a decade of war, they didn’t train him to come home and find peace. There was the memoir yet to be written that would be called “American Sniper.” It told of his exploits with unapologetic detail but seemed to contradict the turmoil I saw in his eyes.
I never got to the bottom of that turmoil with Chris, so it was a war story I wrote. It had overtones of his relationship with his wife, but it read like the story of Achilles in Iraq. Then Chris was taken from us. The hero dies at the end. It changed everything.
Taya and I spent four hours on the phone that first day. Three hours the next. Days turned to weeks. This is the same way she had conducted her marriage with Chris for those 10 years, over a cellphone. I didn’t try to console her or put a Band-Aid on her grief; I was building a character, so I asked the most personal questions I could. I tried to peel away the layers of this complex man, and she revealed him to me like only a wife can.
She was fragile but brave, and there was lots of crying, but she took me from their first kiss to their last. She revealed the tenderness of the man who had charmed her with sincerity and conviction and loved her until she could love herself. My questioning allowed her to relive their lives together, and to grieve. And as my understanding of him grew, so did the space between her tears. It was the beginning of a long road, but what seemed a burden became a privilege. That unknown caller revealed a story of beauty and loss to me, unlike any I’ve ever known.
Kyle Gallner, left, and Bradley Cooper appear in a scene from “American Sniper.” (Warner Bros.)
Everyone who came onto this movie, from Clint Eastwood on down, was gifted the same privilege. It felt like an honor to be able to tell their story because it’s not just the story of what is sacrificed when we send one man to war. If we are, indeed, the United States of America, what affects one man affects us all. His pain is our pain; his story is ours; a nation with a knack for aggression and an overwhelming desire to protect the flock, and the price we will pay. This is our sacrifice. For better or worse.
Those kids won’t see the movie for several years, but she did. Taya saw it and she stumbled out crying and hugged me. “I don’t know how he did it,” she said of Bradley Cooper’s performance. “You brought my husband back to life. I just spent two hours with my husband.” I hope those kids remember their dad, but if their memories fade and the texture slips away, we had the privilege of getting it right.
To make the movie “Locke,” I did everything the wrong way around.
The idea began as an ending (a baby crying on a phone) and I wrote backward up the highway to the point of departure. I pointed the camera not at an extraordinary man but at the most ordinary man I could conceive of, a man located directly in the center of England, culturally, socially and even geographically. I gave him a job in construction, working with concrete, and gave him a temperament to match. I named him after a rock-solid rationalist philosopher. I gave him a dilemma that wouldn’t even make the local paper.
I wanted to make “Locke” an “ordinary tragedy.” So in terms of “What’s the movie about?” it didn’t have wings to flutter. It was there on the ground, and it would be the job of the script to make it fly. I didn’t know if it was possible or even worth trying.
My theory as I set out to write was that people who sit in movie theaters want the screen to be a mirror as much as a window. Ivan Locke’s torment comes from a mistake anyone could make. It plays out on a road we all might drive on. There are no chases or spins because Locke doesn’t even break the speed limit. He’s not Spider-Man or Batman, he’s Man-man. I was convinced that when people look up at a movie screen, the place they look at most is the eyes of the actor.
For me it was a challenge but not really a risk. The budget was so low that if it died it would hardly even be mourned. The immaculately restrained Stuart Ford at IM Global signed off on the idea on just a paragraph (and, of course, on the star, but more of that later). I reassembled the team who had finished making my previous film [“Redemption”] only a few months before (with the exception of the brilliant Haris Zambarloukos, who as director of photography shot “Locke” so beautifully) and in the absence of anyone telling us to stop, we set a date.
Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke in the movie “Locke.” (Rebecca Ribeiro / A24)
But before that day came, there was a stroke of luck. I had the idea and the story and the method but needed an actor who could sustain 90 minutes of screen time alone. I needed the best actor in the world. Then I got a call asking me to meet Tom Hardy about an entirely different project. Fate doesn’t drop hints with any greater clarity than that.
I discussed “Locke” with Tom in October and we started shooting in February. We had no money, so to make this thing attractive to the rest of the crew I offered them a vacation from their normal routines. A short shoot period of 10 days. No retakes, no setups, no location moves, no continuity issues. We put three cameras into a car strapped to a low loader, put the script on Autocue and set off. I called “action” once, and we shot the entire movie, beginning to end, each time we hit the road. Then we’d break and do it again. And again and again.
The words were always the same, the performances always different. I was on the low loader with visual and audio contact with Tom. The rest of the cast was in a hotel conference room, supplied with red wine and biscuits, and an open phone line to the car. I cued them in sequence according to the script. We’d start at sunset and stop when it got light. At one point I had to show the cast some footage because they had begun to wonder if this was for real.
Fortunately, off screen, I had some of the best actors in Britain. The second most gratifying comment I get from audiences is that they forget they haven’t actually seen the other characters. The most gratifying response is that Locke is close to home. “It’s the journey my father/my brother/I never made” is a confidential comment I have heard from people at screenings from Salt Lake to Vienna.
“Locke” moves people, so I take that as proof. All you need is stupendous luck, zero budget and the best actor in the world. And a script the wrong way around.
Credits: Photos from top: Kirk McKoy, Robert Gauthier, Carolyn Cole, Ricardo DeAratanha, Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times; Miriam Douglas / Fox Searchlight; Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times; Kirk McKoy, Bob Chamberlin, Wally Skalij, Jay L. Clendenin, Ricardo DeAratanha, Mel Melcon, Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times | Produced by Tracy Brown