Jeffrey Lieber is a screenwriter (Tangled, Tuck Everlasting) and TV writer-producer (Miami Medical, The Whole Truth, Pan Am, Necessary Roughness). He also received co-writing credit for the pilot episode of “Lost”. I recently spoke with Jeff about his background, his screenwriting and TV writing projects, and the writing craft.
Today in Part 2, Jeff discusses his background as a screenwriter and his involvement with “Lost”:
Scott: Let’s talk about the movie side of things. First, the 2001 movie Tangled that stars Rachael Leigh Cook. That’s described on IMDB this way: “A young man that’s found bruised, beaten, and stumbling down a secluded road as the police trying to piece together what happened. An improbable relationship between a young woman and her two suitors gradually emerge.” What’s the back story on that project?
Jeff: It’s funny because it really was the first script I wrote, film script, and when I came out here with it I showed it to somebody who sort of stared at it in horror. It was in the wrong font. It was 15‑page, 17‑page scenes, like I’d written a play, right? And so I spent ‑‑ at the time it was called, “Conspiracy of Weeds” was the title that everybody read it under, and it was just a play about a guy at the time. I should say I was thinking about a guy at the time who had these complicated relationships in college and shows up two years later to try to clean them up and bad things happen and lots of stuff.
And I think that script was my education into screenwriting, because I must have rewritten it 30 times over the course of two years between when I came out here in ’94 and when it really became one of my calling cards in ’97. The joke of it was when it was optioned a couple different places and Rachael Lee Cook was cast, it was one of those things where anybody would have liked a Rachael Leigh Cook movie would not have liked my script, and anyone who liked my script would have never gone to see a Rachael Leigh Cook movie.
So it was the wrong actress and the wrong script for the wrong project, and it was basically an unwatchable film, but it was my education into film writing in terms of having to rewrite it and rewrite it and change it and alter it and rewrite it and do all the things that need to be done.
Scott: You mentioned Tuck Everlasting which came out in 2002, and that features William Hurt and Sissy Spacek. “A young woman meets and falls in love with a young man who’s part of a family of immortals.” What was your involvement in that project?
Jeff: It had been hanging around for a while, owned by Jane Startz. She’s a great producer who had been trying to get that project going. It’s a book adaptation. A wonderful book, a book I had read in middle school or grade school. I forget what it was. And it was a trap. The reason nobody would sort of move it forward was it felt genteel to people, right? It was a young female lead. It was a period piece. It was about growing up and all this sort of stuff.
And so, again, I credit it to having an acting background. One of the things I do fairly well is I pitch, and I was able to go in to them and say, “Wipe your brains clean and don’t think of it in terms of the book it is. Just think of it as a kidnapping meets a hostage situation meets a mystery.” And I was able to reframe what the book was in a way that they were finally willing to go forward with the project.
So I was the first writer on that and did a bunch of drafts and got it to a director and green lit, and then they brought in another writer to do some writing after that. But it was my second job. My first job was a script for DreamWorks and the second one was Tuck.
The first couple projects I did, one was a spec and one was assigned, both of them got made, which is not a small feat.
Scott: Unusual. I know some writers, they’ve done 20 projects or more, and maybe gotten two or three made.
Jeff: Yeah, I certainly paid later on. I got a pile of scripts like everybody else does it that felt like they should be something and never turned into anything. I joke a lot that movies are Christian and TV is Jewish, which is to say that movies never die, right? They are eternally alive, and at any point can be resurrected from the dead and come back. What is sort of comforting about TV for me is that once a piece has died for the most part they just die, and so it’s very cyclical and close ended and there’s a time clock to them.
Scott: Let’s segue to TV, starting with “Lost”, which you wrote the original pilot. What do people tell you when they ask you what was your connection with that series?
Jeff: My artistic involvement in the show ends as soon as the plane starts to plummets towards the ground. The show artistically, certainly, belongs completely to J.J., and Carlton Cuse, and Damon. I’m, certainly, proud to be part of it, but my involvement is more legal than artistic.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Jeff discusses several of the TV series with which he has been involved.
For Part 1, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Jeff and ask any questions you may have.
Jeff is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.