No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.
Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 2, Justin discusses “McCarthy” and why he decided this story would make a movie and how he went about crafting the script.
Scott: Perfect segue. Let’s talk about “McCarthy.” That’s not the first script you’ve written. How many scripts had you written at the point when you wrote “McCarthy”?
Justin: It was my fourth feature.
Scott: You were able to put on your development executive’s cap. You know that this is not something that conventional wisdom would say is in the wheelhouse of what would get made. What about this idea, this story concept, suggested to you this should be a movie?
Justin: I was amazed by Joe’s life, in terms of our perception of him as a historical figure, our very limited perception, versus the reality, and who he actually was. I knew that this was a very tough script, but I believed that if it was executed well, it could shed light on a guy who played a enormous role in the Cold War and American domestic and foreign policy in the ’50s. I was completely amazed when I was reading about Joe, about who this guy actually was. I had known so little about him previously.
I’ve always been a bit of a history buff. The extent of my knowledge about Joe has always just been he was a villain who created the House of Un‑American Activities Committee. He blacklisted people. Some of them were in Hollywood. Then he fell, and that’s that. I didn’t know who he was or why he did what he did.
When I first picked up this book called “Joe McCarthy: Reexamining the Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator,” I thought, “That’s an interesting title.” I was blown away by what I found. I thought Joe was simply an opportunist. He’s just a guy that wanted attention, that wanted to be loved and that’s something we see throughout his life.
When Joe was in the military, he, by all accounts, had a low‑level desk job. Joe returns home to Wisconsin and he’s telling everyone that will listen, “They called me Tail‑Gunner Joe in the army. I shot down 30 planes. I’m a war hero.” He always craved attention and love, desperately. That fascinated me. It’s just a very human side of him that we haven’t seen.
So I saw him as this opportunist who took an issue that was already at the forefront of our country’s dialogue, seized it and used it to ascend, but then…something crazy happens. Joe grew so deeply to believe in his own BS to a certain extent, and became incredibly paranoid by the end of his life.
There’s a scene at the end of the script where Joe is tapping a phone with a pen because he thinks he’s breaking up a wiretap from the Reds… that’s real. Thats how deeply paranoid he was. I was really amazed by his journey. As a writer, I am always attracted to the heavy drama and this certainly had Shakespearean qualities to it.
Scott: Pragmatically what did you think about the fact there were movies like “Good Night and Good Luck” or “J. Edgar” that had come out before?
Justin: “Good Night and Good Luck” was actually one of the inspirations for the script. I knew nothing about Edward R. Murrow prior to seeing that film. When I did see Good Night, I fell in love with it. I think what Clooney does in that film — that I aspired to do with this script — was capture the pervasive sense of fear and paranoia that hung over everything in that time period.
I felt like that really related to where we were as a country in post 9/11 War on Terror America. I had written the script before “J. Edgar” so I was completely unaware as to that piece, but “Good Night and Good Luck” was definitely a big inspiration.
Scott: I’ve tried my hand at a few biopics. I think it’s safe to say adapting a real person’s life as a screenplay is one of the most difficult tasks there is. First, most people’s lives don’t lay out with a coherent narrative structure, like a beginning, middle, and end.
Scott: And yet, you seem to have found one of them in the script, in “McCarthy.” Did you think of his life, as depicted in your script, as that kind of three‑act structure: rise, power, fall?
Justin: I actually didn’t. I was really resistant, when I was writing the first draft, to showing the rise. I came at this thing like this – I’m going to show you Joe at his peak on page one and then at page 100 I’m going to show you him at the bottom. It would just be a story of descent.
But, I think, as the drafts evolved what became most interesting to me was Joe’s rise. I think it’s the most revelatory. That’s actually the part of the script that I like most now, ironically.
It was really difficult figuring out how many years to tackle and how you encapsulate a life. How far do you go? I think films that have done it beautifully, like “Moneyball,” hone in on a very specific and contained period but simultaneously leave you with the sense that you’ve seen all there is to see. The goal was to find that moment – that peak.
Scott: Well, you led right into something I wanted to talk to you about. Let me present this statement and get your reaction. In a biopic, it’s almost more important what events and dynamics you choose to omit than include.
Justin: Absolutely. There’s just so much there. Joe’s life, “McCarthy,” in many respects, could have been a six part miniseries. He had a fascinating relationship with the infamous Roy Cohn, that I tried plenty of times to include bits of that in the script, but ultimately, it just didn’t work.
Scott: I’m assuming you’ve seen “Lincoln,” yes?
Justin: I have.
Scott: Did you get a sense that both of you, with your script and what happened with “Lincoln,” they took a similar approach. It’s really a slice of life. I mean, it’s like, they’re not attempting to say, this is the beginning to end of this character, rather this is a critical moment or period of time in the character’s life. Did you see a similarity between what you did in “McCarthy” and what they did in “Lincoln”?
Justin: I did not. But I’m honored you even made the comparison.
Scott: Another challenge for the story is handling all those time jumps, not only the transitions from time period to time period, and you must have had, I don’t know, 20, 25, but also, building a sense of narrative drive so that one scene or a set of scenes flows naturally and with energy to the next. How much of a struggle was that for you? How much effort did you put into that?
Justin: It was a struggle. I think the biggest challenge in scripts like “McCarthy” that cover a number of years and follow one character, is that audiences are often taken out of the story when there’s a time jump, especially in the first act. I didn’t want that emotional disconnect to exist. I desperately wanted a sense of continuity there, and struggled through multiple drafts to find that, but hopefully I did. It’s something that’s at the forefront of your mind because you want the audience to feel like they’re on one continuous journey as opposed to a disjointed narrative that’s all over the place.
Scott: I noticed that you used several pre-laps to help with those transitions. What were some of the other tricks and techniques you used to handle all those time jumps? Do you remember?
Justin: Very good question. I think montage was key in a number of respects. There are two big montages in the script. The first involves Joe’s coworkers beginning their first investigation into the US Army Corps. This is Joe’s first big stab at the issue, and he thinks that he’s onto a massive earth‑shattering conspiracy that will make him a hero. Finding a way to encapsulate the investigation into two or three pages was key. Toward the end of the script, Joe is about to be censured by the senate – which is this very rare demerit by which you’re completely publicly disgraced by your peers.
Joe has an opportunity to avoid that, but what he tries to do first is to rally the troops. Get out the vote. He meets with his fellow senators, jumping from state to state, and pleading his case. He’s telling them, “This is why I did what I did. You can’t censure me. I’m just a guy like you. I’m just fighting for the people.” I think placing those conversations, of which there were many, in one tight montage really helped compress the story.
Scott: You zeroed in on something that I think is probably key to the success of montages. Basically to come up with a central theme, a narrative for each montage that has a beginning, middle, and an end. There’s a flow to it. There’s this own unique little storyline. You did that with both of those montages. Were you conscious of that as you were writing those?
Justin: That was the hope. Yeah, thank you. You need to have a clear idea of exactly what the montage is, and not be writing a montage just to write montage because it’s fun and because it’s easier in some respects. When you have that clear beginning, middle and end, the tool is beneficial. It can work in such a limited amount of space.
I think Joe’s plea to his colleagues takes up a page or a page and a half, and that was something that was much longer in the first draft. But when you have a clear understanding of the thematic core of the montage, and understand exactly what needs to be accomplished, it becomes significantly easier.
Tomorrow in Part 2, Justin rounds out his insights into the writing of “McCarthy” and how he got his script into the hands of people in Hollywood.
Please stop by comments to thank Justin for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
For Part 1, go here.
Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.