Screenwriters on writing
The screenwriters of some of this year's most talked about movies share the back stories to their films.
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
The film “Spotlight,” which depicts the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team — nicknamed Spotlight — uncovering the local Catholic Church’s coverup of sexual abuse within its ranks, was co-written by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy. Here’s their take on how the script came together.
Josh: For us, the story of “Spotlight” starts in 2001 with the actual Spotlight team nailing the story of a systematic coverup of clergy sex abuse in Boston. Of course, one might argue that the story began before that, with the [former priest James R.] Porter case in 1992. Or even before that, with Richard Sipe and the research he started doing in the late ‘60s. So, I guess it’s not surprising that as our story moves forward, it also reaches back, pulling up moments from the past in order to shine a light on the present.
Tom: Now you’re going to say that’s what a journalist does.
Josh: Well, it’s kind of what a journalist does. But what I was getting at is that, for me, our story starts on Kosciuszko Circle, the rotary in Dorchester, trying to figure out which turnout was Morrissey Boulevard, the road that would take us to the Boston Globe for the first time.
Tom: We’d both spent time in school in Boston but there we were, totally lost, trying to find the Globe.
Josh: To be fair, the Globe’s out in Dorchester. An institution apart.
Tom: But you were driving, right?
Josh: I was. And you were navigating.
Tom: It wasn’t our most successful collaboration. Kind of a miracle we aren’t still driving around that circle now.
Josh: Which is my point. That was the beginning of a screenplay and a collaboration. I mean, sure, we’d met over Skype and in person a couple of times before that. But we hadn’t really started to work together. And while I’d taken [Globe Spotlight reporter Michael] Rezendes out to lunch four or five times to nail down the basics of the story, those basics were just that. Basic.
Tom: Amazing how much we learned in those trips to Boston. I mean, we really didn’t have a lot to go on, but all those conversations with the Spotlight reporters, other folks at the Globe, the lawyers, the survivors … each one helped us build our story, add a new layer; each one gave us another angle to dig into.
Josh: And sometimes it was going back to the same people. Talking with Walter “Robby” Robinson or Sacha Pfeiffer or Mike a second, a third, a seventh time … like driving around that rotary, each time getting a bit deeper, learning something new about how the investigation unfolded.
Tom: We really were investigating the investigators. In some ways, I think that process helped us understand their process — how they had pieced together the story. It also got us much closer to figuring out what the story was about.
Josh: If I had a dime for every time you asked, “But what’s this story about? Why do we have to tell it now?”
Tom: You kind of wanted to kill me.
Josh: Kind of? The “investigating the investigators” also had another benefit; it was a fun way to start figuring out how to work with each other.
Tom: Thank God we’ll never have to do that again. I mean, the figuring it out. But seriously, that came fairly naturally, didn’t it?
Josh: Oddly enough, I think it did. I say “oddly” only because half the time we were on different coasts. But between the phone and the Skype and the long-distance screen sharing, we managed to get on the same page. And sometimes the time zone thing was helpful. I like to write late (much to my wife’s chagrin), so I’d stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. writing in L.A., then I’d shoot you something.
Tom: I could dig in when I got up in New York and by the time you got up we could get into it together.
Josh: Something else that helped is that we went round (and round) on the script more than a couple of times. We spent fall of 2012 researching, then the first six months of 2013 writing our first draft, then we both went away to work on other projects. So when we got back together to dig in again in the spring of 2014 …
Tom: We knew we loved each other.
Josh: I was going to say we had a shorthand.
Tom: Oh. That’s awkward.
Josh: We had a foundation. That made the rewrite process that spring … and the rewriting through prep and production, uh, productive. And fun.
Tom: See? There’s the love.
Josh: Can I get back to my metaphor now?
Tom: The rotary. Right.
Josh: I’m just saying, it’s a circle. Writing, reporting, collaboration, it’s a circle. The more times you go around, the deeper you get, the closer you get …
Tom: To knowing when it’s time to end the story?
Josh: Pretty much.
As soon as I’d sold my novel “Room,” I began to consider how the story of a child growing up in a locked room might work on film. Nibbles of interest from the industry had already started, but I was wary: I wasn’t going to let anyone make a voyeuristic abduction thriller or a sappy, cute-kid movie of the week out of my novel. I also knew I wanted to write the screenplay myself, not just to protect the material but because the challenge fascinated me: This story seemed a test case for what film and fiction could each do. So I took the unorthodox step of drafting my screenplay — before the novel was even published, before anyone could tell me what to do or how I should probably let a more experienced screenwriter do it.
Some months after publication, I got a 10-page letter from a fellow Dubliner, director Lenny Abrahamson. It was exemplary in its intelligent analysis of the novel and its confident vision of how he’d bring it to the screen. Aspects that alarmed other filmmakers — such as the fact of the first half being confined to one room — didn’t phase Lenny at all.
Over several drafts I worked with him to reshape my script, feeling I was learning film from a native speaker of that language. It wasn’t as if I was defense counsel for the book; quite often, it would be Lenny who’d say, “Let’s get back to how it was in the novel.” For instance, one of the first things I’d changed had been Jack’s long hair because I’d assumed that on screen that would be too distractingly androgynous, but the hair turned out to be yet another thing that didn’t scare Lenny. I remember him telling me that, yes, we could get a wide mainstream audience for this film, but only if we made it fearlessly.
Much of our working time together was spent swapping anecdotes about our kids because we were always trying to find — within this weird story of a childhood in captivity — what’s universal about the experience of trying to keep them safe, yet knowing you need to train them to leave you someday.
As we moved toward production, the creative circle widened and I got to meet the experts in charge of everything from scouting locations to making a realistic rotten tooth. What surprised me was how much I found myself enjoying this phase of handing over control, or rather, giving up any illusion that the screenwriter is in control.
The very things that make writing fiction my first love — the privacy, intensity, autonomy — can make it a claustrophobic experience. In writing “Room,” the novel, I’d often felt like the captor, Old Nick, especially when I was selecting their furniture from the lower-budget options on Ikea.com. But now, collaboration was lifting the weight off my shoulders; it was the designer who had to pick the old, stained rug; the head of costume who had to decide whether Jack would sleep in pajamas or a T-shirt.
One of those lines from the how-to-write-movies books finally became real to me: The script is only a blueprint. During filming, last-minute decisions have to be made because of weather or budget, an individual’s availability or the director’s flash of insight. Pushing for greater naturalism, Lenny often got the actors to improvise within a scene and I was startled by how much I liked the results.
People sometimes ask me to quantify how much I had to change the book, what percentage did I manage to keep? But that’s the language of accountancy, not adaptation.
A novelist shouldn’t write the screenplay unless she embraces the chance to change everything, to try to make the same magic all over again, out of different ingredients. (For instance, “Room” the novel gives hundreds of pages of Jack’s thoughts; the film gives him an expressive child’s body. The book is one boy’s story, and his mother is shown only in flashes, through his limited perspective; the film is a two-hander, with Brie Larson’s extraordinary performance bringing Ma right into the spotlight.)
Adapting fiction for the screen is an act of mysterious translation, and working on “Room” taught me much about both forms that I’d never known.
The first draft of “Brooklyn” is dated March 2, 2011. I wrote it a year or so before I’d even read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild,” a book I adapted, the movie version of which was released at the end of 2014. Five years is almost nothing in British independent cinema terms, the equivalent of a five-hour labor in a maternity ward. But what is unusual about this project is that this first draft bears a striking similarity to the finished film, and most of the hard work was over a long time before “Brooklyn” was shot.
The hard work over the next half-decade was done by the producers — funding and the right director were both elusive. Inevitably, there were lots of small changes made, especially when I began talking to director
“Brooklyn” is simple, but it has a shape that at times seemed like a joke Tóibín was playing on screenwriters who foolishly believed that they were smart enough to adapt it. “I have reached page 30 of ‘Brooklyn,’” I wrote in an email to my producers in January 2011, “the point at which, if I remember correctly, something is supposed to happen, according to screenplay experts. Well it has: Our girl has embarked on a bookkeeping course. It’s all shaping up to be a jolly exciting movie.”
And there may be a romantic triangle at the heart of the 262-page book, but, like the human heart itself, it’s not at the center. Yes, our heroine, Eilis, meets her first young man, Tony, more or less exactly at the halfway point, but her second, Jim, appears 40 pages from the end. In that first draft, this meant that Jim didn’t turn up until page 89 of a 109-page script. We managed to shunt him up a few more pages during the development process, but even so, every second of Domhnall Gleeson’s performance had to count, and it’s a tribute to his talent and charm that Jim offers Eilis a real and agonizing choice.
After the table reading, Domhnall made the case for an extra scene, and though actors will always make the case for an extra scene, the actor was right — Jim needed to be alone with Eilis, away from family and friends, if he was going to provide the function we needed from him. I went upstairs to an unused production office and wrote the scene there and then. It’s so much easier when the characters have been living somewhere in your head for several years.
When I finished that first draft,
Standing around kicking one’s heels while a teenager turns into an adult is a fresh horror to factor into the already difficult and time-consuming process of making films.
Every film project I have ever been involved with begins with someone, usually a producer, closing a meeting with one word: “Exciting!” If you are at an early stage of your screenwriting career, this word could be confusing: You might come away with the impression that “exciting” means that there is excitement involved, somewhere in the process. Well, there isn’t — there’s only work and waiting. When thrills do come, it’s years later and not always where you expect them.
There is a moment in “Brooklyn” when Eilis opens a drawer. On paper, this moment looked as dramatically promising as the bookkeeping course, but in the festival screenings I have attended, the audience responds to the ship-in-a-bottle scale of the movie, and invariably gasps. And that’s where the excitement comes, in the dark, in small and surprising places. It’s more than enough.
“Trumbo” became a movie because I knew two writers when I was a student at New York University in the early 1980s: Arthur Laurents (“West Side Story,” “The Way We Were”) and Ian McLellan Hunter (“Roman Holiday” — but with a crucial asterisk).
I met Laurents as part of a national playwriting contest in 1982. He told me how his Hollywood career became dust overnight because during the political witch hunts of the 1940s and ‘50s, he held strong progressive beliefs for which he refused to explain or implicate others. With each finely etched anecdote he told of friends turning on one another to save their jobs, marriages torn apart, lives destroyed or ended, I kept asking myself: What would I have done?
A few years later, studying screenwriting with Hunter, I told him how much I liked “Roman Holiday.”
“That movie,” he said, “was written by my great friend, Dalton Trumbo.”
In 1947, Trumbo had been the highest-paid writer in movies, until he famously defied the House Un-American Activities Committee, soon making him “broke as a bankrupt’s bastard,” to use a favorite Trumbo-ism. Facing a year in prison for contempt of Congress, he churned out what would become a romantic classic. Hunter sold it to Paramount under his name, just before he was blacklisted. When “Roman Holiday” won an Academy Award, Hunter received the Oscar.
It was Hunter who told me about Bruce Cook’s biography of Trumbo. I’d like to say I immediately saw it as a movie, but I don’t like to lie in print. In 2008, I told a friend the story of Trumbo’s life and he said, “That’s a movie.” I didn’t get it at first, but I’m glad I didn’t argue the point too hard.
It took seven years to get the movie made, but all the hurdles along the way were like the reversals and setbacks in a backstage comedy compared to the battles won and lost by Laurents, Hunter and Trumbo during their war against the blacklist.
Writing the screenplay, I thought daily of Laurents and Hunter, men I knew all too briefly but admired wholly, and Trumbo, who I only knew of but came to idolize. For seven years, I imagined walking in the shoes of all three, coming to realize that like most of us, I only watch and wait for the arc of history to bend toward justice.
But not too long ago, in this same sunny, slippery place I call home and workplace, they and thousands of others seized that arc and made it so.
History owes a lot to footnotes. In coming up with the script for “Bridge of Spies,” I do too.
I was reading a biography of JFK by Robert Dallek, “An Unfinished Life,” and in a section on Cuba, he described Kennedy’s attempts to secure the return of more than 1,000 U.S.-backed invaders who’d been captured after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy decided to send a guy named James Donovan to negotiate with Fidel Castro. Donovan wasn’t from the State Department or CIA. He was a civilian, an insurance lawyer. Why send him?
The footnote intrigued me even more: Donovan had come to prominence by first orchestrating an audacious spy swap in East Berlin exchanging Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy working on American soil for 15 years, and Francis Gary Powers, the U2 spy plane pilot shot down over the USSR. All this from an insurance lawyer I’d never heard of. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. I had to know more about this guy.
I started to dig around and slowly pieced together Donovan’s story. He was on the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials after World War II, but had retreated from public life and was partner at a mid-scale insurance firm in New York when he was tapped for the thankless task of defending the hated spy Rudolf Abel.
But what really brought his story home to me was when I met Donovan’s son, John, now in his 60s, in a midtown diner in New York. It was an emotional meeting I’ll never forget. John was so proud of his father and believed, as I did, that he played a major part in pulling the U.S. and Soviet Union from the brink during the Cold War, but history had forgotten him. I wanted desperately to honor his father’s story, and John gave me his blessing to try.
Cut to me in L.A. soon after, and with a week of back-to-back general meetings ahead of me I found myself unable to stop thinking about this remarkable man and a story that felt so cinematic and at the same time so relevant to our world right now with America and Russia facing off again, and with diplomacy changing beyond recognition.
So I started pitching Donovan’s story. Studio execs showed up expecting a gentle chat, but they got a 20-minute version of “Bridge of Spies” instead. On the Thursday of that week, with my voice now more than a little hoarse, I met Jonathan Eirich of DreamWorks in the Griddle Cafe on Sunset Boulevard. He listened and instantly said this was something
DreamWorks bought the pitch but it wasn’t until I was back home in London that I pitched Spielberg himself, this time over the phone. After I finished, I waited nervously for the verdict. There was silence and then the most exciting few minutes of conversation I’ve ever had in my life. Steven clearly knew that period of history well — he’d lived it as a boy growing up in Arizona — but he’d never heard of James Donovan or this spy swap, and he was fascinated.
He asked me when I would be able to write it and I killed myself to deliver the first draft in five weeks. I flew back to L.A. and met Steven in person for the first time. The amazing thing about working with him on every stage of the script was his drive to bring out the richness, complexity and nuance as much as possible. I knew from the start that the script had to have historical veracity, but Spielberg pushed me further; he was laser-focused on getting to the truth of the story and the characters at every turn.
I feel like I got lucky so many times on this project. From pitching the idea to Spielberg through to the first day of production was just 11 months. I always had Tom Hanks in my mind when I was writing the script — I knew he could convey not only Donovan’s principles but the fact that he was a badass who wouldn’t back down. Then the Coen brothers come on board — what a film school for a rookie writer, passing the baton back and forth with Joel and Ethan and finally writing into production and finding myself on set beside Spielberg watching Tom Hanks bringing James Donovan back to life in front of my eyes.
It was an incredible experience for me, but I know it meant even more to John and his sisters when they attended the premiere of “Bridge of Spies” in New York. Their father, an unheralded American hero, was no longer just a footnote.
When the opportunity to adapt “The Price of Salt” came to me in the late 1990s, I was young and foolish enough to have no fear of the challenges inherent in adapting Patricia Highsmith’s radical 1952 novel. After all, I’d known Highsmith pretty well over the last decade of her life. We’d even chatted about the book after she republished and re-christened it “Carol” in the early ‘90s. I thought it would be easy. It’s a deceptively slim volume, easily read in an evening or two. Light on plot and motored by the almost incantatory interior monologue of its young protagonist (Therese Belivet), the prose is functional and spare, in brilliant contrast to the passionate attachment — however restrained — between Therese and the object of her desire, Carol Aird.
What most excited me about tackling a script then, and still, was Highsmith’s refusal to engage in banal psychologizing about her characters’ sexual identities. Neither Therese nor Carol regrets the sexual choices each makes. Their identities are as natural to them as breathing. Neither attempts suicide. In fact, all of the novel’s lesbians — there is a third, Carol’s friend, Abby Gerhard — are more comfortable in their own skins than are the novel’s heterosexual, less settled characters.
I’d never read another novel like it, and its forward-thinking qualities still seem ahead of the times. Its delicate tone, its startling but understated subversion of cultural norms — these are the qualities I most cherished and fought to preserve through the writing process. But some of the same qualities that make the novel work so well are exactly the qualities that don’t work in screenplays: most notably, that Carol herself is a ghostly character, the scant details of her life relayed to the reader in shards, through Therese’s eyes — beautifully apt in the novel, so that the reader can visualize his or her own Carol. For film, a narrative life had to be created for Carol and a dynamic, shifting balance of power between the lovers substituted for the single point of view in the novel.
Eleven years later, we’d been through four drafts and double that in small revisions for directors and potential financiers who came and went. Every once in a while, Tessa Ross and Film4 — the other constants over the script’s development — guided us to keep the faith. I took other jobs, wrote and directed the film “Mrs. Harris” for HBO that was produced by Liz Karlsen and Christine Vachon (both producers of “Carol”). Yet “Carol” was the project I held closest to my heart.
And then the rights to the novel lapsed. I thought “Carol” had died. I resigned myself to its demise, however heartbroken I was. And I was fine with that. I’d lived with “Carol” longer than I’d lived with any lover; it was the first script I was paid to write. It taught me all I’d need to know — and some things I wish I never had to learn — about the craft of screenwriting. It taught me how to think on my feet and to tell the difference between how to fight for writing worth keeping rather than for writing I loved. I learned to be a diplomat in a decidedly undiplomatic industry.
I figured this was a great deal more than most writers are gifted with on any project and moved on. A year later, the call came from Liz Karlsen. She worked magic in persuading the Highsmith estate to grant her the option on the novel. She wanted to use my screenplay as the basis for the film; Tessa Ross, as ever, had our backs. Would I join them? I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
I said “no.”
I’d had enough, been through far too many false starts ending in disappointment. I was no longer the same writer who naively tackled the dark heart of the novel — I feared that, a decade gone, the writer I’d become would screw up everything that was fine about the script in the first place.
It took Liz a year to convince me to believe we could finally make this film. I took the leap and, much like Carol and Therese, we’ve never looked back. It was never easy, but it’s been something much better — it’s been miraculous.
“Suffragette” was a labor of love. Sarah Gavron, the director, and I had worked together before, bringing to the screen “Brick Lane,” which was based on Monica Ali’s novel of the life of a Bangladeshi woman living in the heart of East London. A woman who arrives in a country where she does not know the language and over time finally finds her voice. Delving into the past for “Suffragette,” to focus on the militant fight fought by a determined group of Edwardian women to gain the vote for women in 1913 Britain, was not dissimilar. Both stories focused on giving voice to the voiceless, the working-class, often illiterate foot soldiers who had not been written about before and certainly had not been portrayed in a movie before.
Supported by producers Faye Ward and Alison Owen, our producers on “Brick Lane,” we pitched the film as “a kick-ass movie where women in corsets get to blow things up.” It stirred interest. Both ours and financiers’. The producers talked numbers and we worked on the script. And kept working. Six years of working. As financiers came and went and we stumbled and then picked ourselves up again. Slowly we evolved it into a film that would take fictional composites of real working-class women and collide them with factual and iconic moments in suffragette history. Focusing on an intense 16 months when the 40 years of peaceful protest finally gave way to the militant activism that would lead to one woman’s death.
A wealth of research began to amass around us. Later we would download it onto a website to become the bible for the entire creative team to draw upon and add to. Newspaper articles, Pathé newsreels — serendipitously, Pathé also became a part of getting the movie made, in the brilliant form of Cameron McCracken. Photographs and police records, only declassified in 2003, revealed the extent of the intimidation and surveillance of these women. Medical reports that exposed the brutal torture and force feeding. Testimonials of working women who delivered these tiny, brutal and shocking insight into their lives in person at Westminster to try to gain the vote were haunting. Totemic suffragette memorabilia from medals to prison bread to the tiny red leather purse Emily Wilding Davison, one of the most iconic suffragettes and a character within our film, carried on a fateful trip to the Derby, close to the end of the movie. These became the carrots that led us on, kept us working and endlessly editing and reworking material.
And then we learned the budget — $14 million. Not bad. But hardly “The Bourne Supremacy.” The car chases went. The corsets stayed. Sarah had lunch with
Watching four of our actresses laughing and talking on the set — Carey, Meryl,
Now, as it plays for U.S. audiences, what is surprising and more important than the film itself is the conversations around it. Important issues, important discourse that hopefully echo the very tenor of the suffragette movement. Equality for all women across the world.
In 2004 I received a copy of David Ebershoff’s novel “The Danish Girl,” sent by independent producers Anne Harrison, Gail Mutrux and Linda Reisman. They were American (I was in London) and I’d never heard of any of them.
Would I, they asked, be interested in adapting the book for film?
At the time, I was busy struggling to deliver another writing project. And my daughter was still young, just about to start kindergarten. So “The Danish Girl” went unread for a few weeks. It lay on the desk, dust settling on its cover — a nagging reminder that I was falling behind.
I now find this period hard to imagine. Eleven years on, I can barely recall a world without Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, the women whose remarkable lives inspired Ebershoff’s fine account. Because once I opened the book… I was more than interested. I signed on straight away.
The novel told a fictionalized version of an amazing partnership. The underlying facts were simple: Einar Wegener and Gerda Gottlieb married in Denmark in 1904. He was a respected landscape artist, she a portraitist and fashion illustrator. The marriage was, by all accounts, extremely happy. But by 1930, Einar Wegener had ceased to exist, erased by the emergence of Lili Elbe, recipient of one of the first male to female gender confirmation surgeries.
This rediscovery of a transgender pioneer whose story had been swept away by the turbulent tide of 20th century history was astonishing enough in itself. But the element that had me truly hooked was the role Gerda Wegener had played, going shoulder to shoulder on the journey, enabling and championing her beloved spouse through a process of profound transformation. It was a love story between two people of rare vision and courage, each wrestling with their own ambitions and desires while remaining devoted to one another.
I circled the material. I had piles of research now, in the hope of restoring as much of the original story as was dramatically feasible.
The prospect of writing Lili was daunting. I needed to shape a role that allowed an actor to play Einar, the presenting male self, while also remaining absolutely connected to another self, at wild and unusual variance, below the surface. The writing needed to create space for Lili to be gradually revealed and finally, triumphantly, fully incarnated.
And then there was Gerda. It was vital to depict her selflessness, her unconditional love, but her goodness had to be active, radical. Gerda was the key for me, the way in. Gerda, who had observed the feminine in her husband long before they had spoken of it, who had seen and painted it, helped conjure Lili into life. If I began the film through her eyes, I was sure I could see the way.
So, I was off, and it wasn’t so long before we had a draft we were excited to send out. And that’s when something became clear: I needn’t have worried about the early delay.
Over the next several years, the producers (and later, our casting director, Nina Gold) were inundated with directors and actors keen to be involved. I’ve lost count of how often the film was very nearly made — sometimes it seemed to be several times in the same year — in various creative configurations. But it never quite happened. There were the usual problems — the vagaries of scheduling and so on — but in truth, finding the finances to keep the ship steady was incredibly hard. We heard the same story most places we went: Everyone loved the project, but the subject matter was risky. Simply put, the public was not considered ready.
It’s 2015. Caitlyn Jenner is Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year. My daughter stands an inch taller than me and is looking at universities. We’ve just released the film.
There are many things that enabled us to make “The Danish Girl” this time around. Director Tom Hooper, with his incredible passion and industry clout, bringing Working Title and thus Universal and Focus Features to the table. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, each of whose commitment was instant and unwavering. Of course, the real reason it was finally possible was this: Gerda and Lili were always way ahead of their time. But finally, we had caught up with them. A story about people willing to risk everything to live authentically suddenly felt like one that we needed to hear.
Transgender narratives are blossoming all around us. There is already a generation of young people who don’t recall the world ever having been any other way. I hope with all my heart that Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe can see them. And smile.
Four and a half years ago, my friend and manager, David Kanter, sent me a book that had come his way at Anonymous Content: David Lipsky’s “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With
I wanted to place the great chronicler of American popular culture, David Foster Wallace, in the American landscape he wrote about — in cars, on highways in the wintry Midwest, on airplanes, at McDonald’s and IHOP, in the Mall of America. Here was an opportunity to capture on film facets of the whirring intelligence, wit, imagery, obsessions and demons of a brilliant writer whose fiction is, arguably, unfilmmable.
“The End of the Tour” takes place in 1996, when Lipsky, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, accompanied Wallace on the last leg of the promotional tour for his novel “Infinite Jest.” Lipsky, then 30 years old, was a talented young fiction and nonfiction writer; Wallace, only four years older, was the newly anointed voice of their generation. A kind of tango evolves in the artificial intimacy of an interview; the men’s interaction fluctuates between suspicion, competitiveness, defensiveness, openness — sometimes from one beat to the next.
At my disposal was the 300-page transcript that was the heart of the memoir. I spent hours interviewing David Lipsky, who shared moments that weren’t included in his book, details that were invaluable. The challenge was to take this treasure-trove of conversation and carve out a dramatic narrative, to find the conflicts, mine the subtext, and write dialogue that melded with the men’s distinctive voices. I deconstructed all that rich, dense language and fashioned a collage out of it, creating new juxtapositions and contexts.
The script adheres closely to the itinerary Lipsky recounted in his book and eschews the contrivance of Hollywood escapades for our guys on the road. The drama lay in the subtle shifts and calibrations in behavior between David and Dave, who made very entertaining company.
The dramatic stakes were intrinsic in the film’s title: the final days of the tour celebrating the book that transformed Wallace’s career. When Lipsky leaves Wallace in Illinois and goes home to New York (after which the men will never see each other again), Wallace is confronted with the rest of his life, which will end by his own hand in just 12 years.
Wallace’s death is acknowledged in a prologue. There was no benefit in withholding that information or saving it for a title card before the closing crawl. Indeed, that news prompted Lipsky’s reflection on his encounter with Wallace, and contextualizes all that follows.
While Wallace may be the subject of “The End of the Tour,” Lipsky is its protagonist. We are viewing this portrait through his eyes. His subjective story is reimagined by a dramatist, then brought to life on screen by the director, James Ponsoldt, as interpreted by the actors Jesse Eisenberg and
“Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” led me to re-read David Foster Wallace in a new light. I hope “The End of the Tour” will compel moviegoers to seek out his books and revel in his remarkable voice.
“You’ve been pacing around mumbling to yourself for three days,” my wife said. “That’s usually a sign you’re about to say yes to something.”
I should not say yes to this, I told her. From a business point of view, it’s a terrible idea. It’s a self-published ebook about a man trapped by himself on Mars. The majority of the book is a first-person diary recounting of complicated science experiments. The plot hinged on things like ASCII tables, hydrazine and potato farming in one’s own excrement. None of this screamed “box-office potential.”
But I can’t stop thinking about it, I told her. I’ve been haunted by the book ever since I finished it. I find myself returning to it again and again. And I don’t know why.
“Well, it’s a story about a man trapped by himself on a planet,” she said. “And you tend to like stories about loneliness.”
Which was true. But “The Martian” wasn’t about loneliness. Or, at least, it wasn’t concerned with the standard depiction of loneliness. There was an optimism in the face of despair that felt unique. In some ways, it felt like a religious story: A man is trapped by himself in the wilderness and has to rely on his faith to save him. But in this case the religion in question was science.
My wife made the connection before I did. “Science as religion? Sounds like your hometown.” I grew up in Los Alamos, N.M., which is a town populated almost entirely by scientists. It’s a company town, as they say; the Los Alamos National Laboratory is the largest single employer in northern New Mexico. I spent the first 18 years of my life surrounded by physicists, chemists and engineers.
And I heard their voices in Andy Weir’s pages. I recognized their humor and optimism. The scientific method guarantees you are going to be faced with failure on a regular basis. You try things you don’t understand, you screw up, you learn from it. I’ve found this repetition of failure breeds a specific worldview. You treat setbacks as learning experiences, and it helps if you can make a joke about it from time to time.
That worldview, more than anything, was what I loved about “The Martian.” As soon as my wife pointed out the connection, I knew what the movie needed to be. The scientific method as a metaphor for life. You try, you screw up, you learn. You share your results and help one another as you go along. You occasionally make a joke to protect yourself from despair.
I told my wife I was saying yes. She nodded. “I know.”
Two years later, on the weekend the movie opened, I went home to Los Alamos and screened it for the town. I watched scientists I’ve known for 40 years laugh at jokes about relative velocity and cheer at scenes depicting trajectory calculations.
Afterward, I told the audience this was my love letter to the small town where I was raised. My voice broke as I thanked them. They reciprocated by approaching me in the lobby and warmly pointing out each and every scientific inaccuracy that occurred in the movie. “Did you know the low atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars would make it impossible for a storm to exist like the one depicted in the film?” I told them we did our best, but there were some compromises we had to make for storytelling. I thanked them for making fun of my failures in front of my friends and family. The theater usher who was standing next to me shook her head and laughed.
“Scientists,” she said.
Mark L. Smith
Management company Anonymous Content sent me Michael Punke’s wonderful novel, asking if I’d be interested in going to studios to pitch the film version. I loved the story, so I played out the pitch in my head … 1820s American wilderness … filthy trappers hidden behind beards and furs … our lead character will have most of his body torn apart by a grizzly bear … the environment is a vital character in the story, so there’s lots of snow and ice and cold … lots of it… oh, and there will be at least 30 straight minutes without a single word of dialogue spoken. That’s as far as I got before I imagined the faces of all the studio executives reacting to this amazing opportunity I was offering. I immediately called Anonymous and said, “Maybe I should write this on spec instead.”
So that’s what I did. I was excited about the challenge of writing almost a silent film, making the action and visuals so powerful that, hopefully, everyone would forget nobody was saying anything. And I’m a notoriously terrible outliner, so I just started jotting down random, action-heavy visuals — a lengthy opening battle scene to grab the reader, a crazy wild bear attack, a horse and rider being chased off a cliff, two men fighting to the death on an icy river. Then I was able to focus on the quieter moments, which would become my favorites — starving frontiersman Hugh Glass pretending a stick is a rifle as he aims it at an unreachable elk, a dying Glass seeing the image of his lost son standing over him, willing him to continue his fight.
And once I had the world in my head, I made sure my version of Hugh Glass was worthy of all the insane stuff I was going to put him through. Then I started writing, and the script just flowed — the characters, story, everything. I turned the script in and Anonymous loved it.
Within a couple weeks, they attached a director and actor. It was crazy how fast it was falling into place. The project was setting some kind of Hollywood land-speed record for going from script to screen. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
That was 2007.
The following years were a Hugh Glassian journey of Hollywood pain and survival. Every few months I’d get word that another amazing director or actor had attached and that the project was on the verge of happening, only to soon find myself riding that hope and good luck off a cliff like a runaway horse.
Then in 2010 Alejandro joined the fray, and a new exciting energy swept over everything. He’d read my most recent draft (my 12th … 13th … 20th? I’d lost count by then) and said he’d like us to work on a new draft together. I’d never collaborated with another writer before, but this was Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, so I think I said yes before he even finished his offer.
I was confident in the collaboration because we were both passionate about the core idea that this wasn’t just a revenge story. Revenge was only the spark that ignited an exploration into the will of the human spirit. This was a story of fathers and their children — of love, life and spirituality in a dangerous, frozen world that hadn’t been shown on screen very often before.
And we both wanted Glass’ journey to be authentic and visceral, so that we could see and feel what he was going through without having to hear the words… Zen and the Art of Human Survival.
Working with Alejandro will always be one of my favorite experiences and our end result is as true a partnership as I can imagine. Pieces of each of us are in every scene. And those scenes are brought to life onscreen with such incredible skill by Alejandro, Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki], Leo DiCaprio, and the entire cast and crew, that now, eight years after finishing that first draft, I still can’t believe how lucky I am.
On the one hand, I wrote my way into this movie on a dream. On the other, a nightmare.
The dream: Immigrant doctor discovers inconvenient truth about America’s most popular and lucrative pastime while trying to become an American citizen. The nightmare: Hall of Fame football hero, a living legend, withers in the back of a pickup truck, a stranger to himself, electrocuting himself to sleep because his brain is filled with sludge after playing America’s Game for 25-plus years.
Either was a good, vivid place to start writing this film. All with the multibillion-dollar industrial entertainment factory that is the National Football League waiting to scrutinize — I imagined — every word. Looking — I also imagined — for any way to keep this movie from happening. Big themes. Big stakes. And yet, to me, “Concussion” was really just a simple love story. Love of discovery and truth. And love between two outsiders — the doctor and the fellow immigrant who would become his wife. Can love (a.k.a. integrity, discipline, camaraderie) conquer all (a.k.a. cynicism, deceit, prejudice)? Can love save us?
But for me as a writer, for a savior to be activated I have to know first who needs saving. So, for the very first words of the screenplay, I went with these:
IRON MIKE WEBSTER, 50 years old but looks 70. Unwashed. Hair stringy. Granular thickness everywhere, forehead barnacled with scars. Fingers mangled in a permanent curl, as if gripping a ball. Surrounded by soiled clothes and Ding-Dong wrappers. Crucifix dangles from the mirror.
What the hell happened here? How did the strongest man in professional football turn into this creature? That’s what the audience was going to want to know.
Enter Bennet Omalu, pathologist of Nigerian descent; never watched so much as a freeze frame of football. The most imperfect — and thus perfect — guy to solve the mystery. Bypass concern about sports industrial Big Brother. Bypass concerns about the long arm of a multibillion-dollar corporation, or identification with and enjoyment of America’s Game. Oh, wait, that’s me. (I played football into my sophomore year of college and was, for a hot second, moderately concerned for my own brain health.)
What happened, it turned out, was that Iron Mike played football, and playing football gave him this awful disease called CTE, and that CTE was really a quiet but insidious epidemic; football players were always dropping out of sight, many to suicide; we just weren’t paying attention. And the NFL wasn’t talking about it. “NFL Is Family,” goes the league’s Rockwellian log-line this year. But the shadow of disease doesn’t mix well with the Cowboys and Lions on Thanksgiving Day, or Super Bowl Day cookouts.
Bennet was in trouble. How the hell was he going to tell this story? How was I?
It turns out I usually find myself writing about these guys. Lone wolves, Davids up against their Goliaths. I nurse this pet theory that writers really have one story to tell, that we dress up characters in different clothes and put them in different geographies and time periods but that the narrative, and the dynamic between the characters we create, repeats itself over and over again in everything we write. The way guys marry emotional replicas of their mothers, or women date essentially the same guy three times in a row. We’re stuck, as writers and as humans, in recirculating holes. The irony is that breaking free of one thing or another is usually the plot of the stories we tell, and the movies we make. That’s the dream.
Which brings me back to how I started writing this movie. I don’t know if I chose whistle-blowers as my narrative or some circumstance in my life chose them for me. After a couple novels, countless pieces of investigative journalism and a few movies now, I am telling myself that Bennet Omalu is my last David. Probably because, as far as unlikely heroes go, I don’t think I can ever care about a character again as much as I do him. The guy, how good he is at his job, how right he was about this very uncomfortable but important thing, how he never took his eye off the ball.
The ball not being a football but, well, love. After all, in the end, this is really just a love story.
Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
Though we both hail from New England — almost as geographically far as you can get from Compton and still call yourself an American — when the opportunity to write “Straight Outta Compton” came our way, we recognized immediately that the music as well as the story of this group of passionate artists would resonate beyond the confines of Southern California.
From Day 1, we knew that “Straight Outta Compton” could be more than a musical biopic for a specialized audience. We intended to use the story of N.W.A to create an event movie about America. A movie that explored the themes of freedom of speech, of race, of police abuse and more. And that wrapped up in all of those big ideas there would be a story about intense friendship between young African American men, a group that doesn’t often get their turn in the spotlight. And we hoped that these men and their journey would resonate with anyone who has ever been young, ambitious and passionate.
The job of working with real-life people to bring their story to the screen is a challenging one. You have to tell a great tale, it has to be more or less the truth, and it has to be damn entertaining. When we began the project, we sat down with Ice Cube and asked him, “Why do you want to make this movie? Why is this important to you?” Because although obviously we had a strong point of view on the material, ultimately it is N.W.A’s story, not ours. We had to serve as their collaborators to help them create the story that they were excited to share.
With those pie-in-the-sky goals in mind, then came the challenge of diving into the world and immersing ourselves in as much detail as possible. Because while Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the music of N.W.A are internationally known, the narrative of how they got to be famous isn’t. There are very few books written about them and those that exist don’t speak for the guys. We knew from the start that the only way to learn the true story was to dig deep with the people who lived it. We spent 10 months interviewing Dr. Dre; Ice Cube; MC Ren; DJ Yella; Eazy E’s widow, Tomica Woods Wright; and many other people who lived the story.
From these 10 months of interviews, we compiled over 1,000 pages of transcripts. This gave us insight into not only their history, but also the cultural and political ramifications of the band along with each individual’s personal journey. From these transcripts, the early drafts of the movie emerged.
In the five years between those early drafts and the release of the movie, we went through countless iterations while we pared down the story to its essence. Obviously, working with several powerful producers plus a director and a studio, there was quite a bit of discussion about which parts of the story to tell and which pieces weren’t essential. But we think that the movie you see on the screen is fairly close to the vision we had all those years ago.
There is much about the process that has been gratifying to us. The fact that the members of N.W.A are happy with the movie is deeply satisfying. But beyond that, we are thrilled that audiences connected with the larger ideas we set out to explore. The themes of freedom of speech, of race in America … these are topics that Hollywood screenwriters don’t often get the opportunity to explore. These are conversations America often shies away from having. We are honored to have been a part of creating “Straight Outta Compton.”