David Guggenheim broke into the business in February 2010 by selling the spec script Safe House which was produced and has grossed $208M worldwide. Since that time, Guggenheim has sold two more spec scripts: “Black Box” to Universal and “Narco Sub” to 20th Century Fox, as well as the pitch “Puzzle Palace”. With several other projects in development and having made the Black List twice (2010, 2012), it’s safe to say Guggenheim is one of the hottest action-thriller screenwriters in Hollywood today.
I recently spoke with David about his background, some of his writing projects and the screenwriting craft. Today in Part 3, David shares his insights into writing the spec script “Black Box”:
Scott: Let’s move on to another big spec script sale, “Black Box,” which sold last year in a bidding war, and also landed on the 2012 Black List. Here’s that logline:
“When Air Force One crashes, a journalist discovers a cover‑up, after gaining access to the planes black box data, and must unravel the mystery.”
How did you come up with that idea?
David: I had the opening page of the script in my head for years. The idea of just seeing the plane crash into an ocean felt like such an opening for a movie. I didn’t know what’s going to happen next (laughs) but you just start playing out scenarios into your head and who do you want the main character to be — and just an important did he have a relationship to anyone on the plane, so he can have a real emotional connection to the crash and therefore, the story.
Scott: Whereas Safe House featured Matt as a pretty innocent protagonist, here in “Black Box,” the protagonist has a tortured past, due to the shocking death of his wife. What was it like working with a central figure, who’s laden with that burden of tragedy, and grief, and eventually a desire for revenge?
David: Well, that’s the fun of doing character driven action. You get to also tell a drama. And with black box it’s about the grieving process. That’s the journey that this character’s on. In between conspiracies to unravel and mysteries, and people trying to kill him and huge villains, you get, at the core, a small story about this one guy who lost his wife and how he’s struggling to come to grips with that.
Scott: You talk about the grieving process, of studying the drama of Alex’s grieving process, as being such a compelling emotional point of connection. How important is that for you… to have characters with some layers of things going on in action movies?
David: I think it’s critical, especially for action movies, because you want to, whether you’re successful or not, is to try to elevate whatever genre you’re working with. For me, the best action movies are always the character‑driven action movies and they’re the one’s you always remember. The Fugitive, In The Line Of Fire, two great examples and they set the bar so unbelievably high, I’m just trying to get there. I’m nowhere near close, but I’m trying, I swear.
Scott: You’ve got conspiracies working in both these movies. Do you think that conspiracies have a special resonance with movie audiences, and if so, why?
David: I definitely do because I think there’s always gonna be a Big Brother distrust feeling and for a story telling point of view, I think there’s just so much fun to be had in that shadow world. What’s really going on behind the scenes? The mistrust of the government is something that I don’t think ever goes away.
Scott: “Black Box” is another story where you feature a pairing of two characters with considerably different personalities, Alex and a rogue figure named Hirsch. Why these two characters, and what’s the appeal of you working with essentially buddy stories?
David: In Safe House, it was born out of the concept cause it was two guys on the run. With “Black Box,” I think he needed a partner because the story was much bigger and the things that he had to find out, he couldn’t have found out on his own. So Hirsch became a necessary character for the purposes of the story in that way. But overall, there’s the opportunity to infuse a great dynamic into the plot and give the story a new turn because for the first act, it’s just Alex and then there’s this new player and he can help the story evolve and then we get to explore their relationship and the conflict that comes from them on top of the conflict that’s coming from the plot and the people trying to stop Alex.
It’s always good to have one conflict coming out of characters going on with the conflict coming out of the situation, so that the action between two characters talking in a car is just as exciting as the action going on around them.
Scott: In reading “Black Box” and watching Safe House, a quote came to mind from the late screenwriter Jeff Boam, who wrote Lethal Weapon 2 and Lethal Weapon 3.
David: Wow. Thank you. He’s one of the greats.
Scott: The quote was, “People go to action movies because they have a deep‑rooted need to see a heroic figure go through physical torture and come out victorious.” Does that have any resonance with you?
David: I can’t agree with that enough. I think you want to see a character go through as many struggles and obstacles and get bloodied up and beat up, knocked down, and keep pulling himself up until the third act, where he emerges victorious. For me the most fun to do that is if you take your main character and make him the least likely to be able to succeed, not the expert. Make him the novice or the ordinary man. That just harkens back to Hitchcock films as well. It’s much more interesting for me to tackle an action movie from the point of view of someone who shouldn’t be in an action movie.
Scott: You’re working both the fish‑out‑of‑water and the underdog elements…
David: That’s a great tool that you’ve got, that screenwriters have, and it’s fun. As long as you make it believable that in an action scene they could do the stuff they’re doing, then I think you’ve got something there. Because then I think also the audience goes, “OK, that’s me up on the screen. That’s what I would be doing in that situation.” I think, again, you make a much more personal connection between the audience and the film, and all that is all great stuff.
Scott: Safe House had a lot of plot twists and turns, but I think you outdid yourself on “Black Box.” How do you go about doing that? Is that intuitive, or are you consciously saying, “I want a twist here, I want a twist there.” Or maybe you’re just following the choices of the characters?
David: A lot of times, I’m following the characters. I knew what some of the bigger twists were in “Black Box.” I knew I wanted it to be more twisty than Safe House, because Safe House was essentially a chase movie and this was going to have to be much more of a puzzle. But as far as knowing exactly what was gonna happen, it was little bit of both. I knew what the big twists were gonna be, but some of the smaller, character-twists, I just let happen as I was writing. Sometimes though you go off course and you call bullshit on some of the turns you make, but that’s what the delete key is for.
The benefit, when you’re writing specs, is you can explore more than when you’re doing an assignment for a studio. It’s like driving. If you’re being paid to go somewhere, you should follow directions, there’s a time you have be there. But if you’re not on a clock, you can get lost and find new routes and find yourself in places you didn’t think existed.
Tomorrow in Part 4, David reveals some tips about writing action scenes and sequences, and talks about what it was like to make the Black List.
For Part 1, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank David and ask any questions you may have.
David is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.