AMA with Black List founder Franklin Leonard

May 25th, 2016 by

Recently it occurred to me we hadn’t had a Q&A with Black List founder Franklin Leonard in quite some time and with all the changes in the movie and TV business, as well as a host of new Black List initiatives including the Black List Table Reads podcast, Black List Happy Hour networking events in 12 cities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., Black List Live! staged readings of Black List scripts, as well as numerous screenwriting workshops and fellowships available to writers worldwide, it’s a perfect time to check in on all things Black List.

So if you’ve ever had a question about the Black List, what it does, where it’s going, and how it’s impacting the screenwriting universe, here is your opportunity to get a response directly from Franklin Leonard himself.

For background, here is Franklin speaking at an Alliance for Artisan Enterprise event in November 2015 in which he provides an overview of how the Black List began and has evolved over the last decade.

If you have a question or comment for Franklin, please click Reply and head to comments and post it there.

Let me add I have gotten to know Franklin over the last five years of the blog’s partnership with the Black List. He is not only one of the smartest, most fascinating people I’ve met, he’s also just an all around great person who truly cares about screenwriters, screenwriting, and storytelling in Hollywood and beyond. When people talk about the need for ‘disruptors’ in the entertainment business, we are lucky to have Franklin taking the lead in that regard. And here is your chance to interface with him with your questions.

Q&A (Part 2): The Bitter Script Reader on “Michael F-Ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films”

November 18th, 2014 by

The Bitter Script Reader has hosted a screenwriting blog almost as long as I have, his first post going live on January 1, 2009. Over the years, we’ve crossed virtual paths countless times and I’ve come to know Bitter as one of the good guys in the online screenwriting universe. He even has his own YouTube channel hosted by his alter ego we have come to know and love as The Puppet. So when Bitter announced to the world he had written a book called “Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay Films,” I knew I had to get to the bottom of this right away.

I sent Bitter some questions. Here is Part 2 of that Q&A:

What’s your favorite Michael Bay directed music video: Soldier of Love by Donny Osmond or I Touch Myself by The Divinyls?

I Touch Myself by a country mile because it foreshadows so much about Bay’s later filmography. I really love the way the true meaning of the song is buried. Until recently, I had no idea it was about self-pleasure! I long assumed “I touch myself” meant that the thought of the lover was a very touching one for the singer, that they were speaking of an emotional pang rather than physical self-abuse.

In my defense, the fact the speaker was a woman threw me, because I was assured by every girl I knew growing up that women didn’t masturbate. But that’s the brilliance of the song, how the true meaning is so deeply hidden in the music. I appreciate that subtlety when contrasted with the raw animal-like sexuality radiated by Donny Osmond.

Another fun fact – this song was released in December 1990, right around the time the first Gulf War was flaring up, soon after the formal reunification of East Germany and West Germany in October. In that sense it’s a political song and a love song about two countries who “don’t want anybody else.” And because they are now one, when they think about the other, they’re actually touching themselves.

Jerry Lewis is maligned in the United States, but beloved in France. Given the ginormous success of Transformer movies in Asia, does that mean Michael Bay is the Jerry Lewis of China?

You know how every year, Tyler Perry makes a movie that opens huge? And then the next Monday, the trades fill up space with the standard article of, “Oh my god! Black people go to the movies too! Studios are now actively going to court this financial goldmine?” Then usually nothing changes. Studio films remain as un-diverse as ever until some six months later when the next Lee Daniels-directed or Oprah-produced film come out and everyone feigns shock over this “undiscovered” audience that no one realized was out there.

The genius of Tyler Perry is that he makes films for an under-served segment of the audience. A great many of these films may be critically dubious, but that doesn’t hurt him because people want to see representations of their experience on-screen. That’s why it confounds me from a business standpoint that we don’t market more to African-Americans and women, two of the most unrepresented demographics in studio filmmaking.

Bay’s a smart guy. He knew that if he set some of his last TRANSFORMERS film in China, it would do huge business there. And it did. So in conclusion, Michael Bay is not the Jerry Lewis of China, he’s the Tyler Perry of China.

Michael Bay does Boyhood. Go!

First order of business – let’s flip the genders. Second order of business, Bay is going probably prefer following the 12 years that lead her into womanhood. This will follow the lead from when she’s 16 to 28, at which point her age ensures she will cease to exist in the Bay canon.

I feel like Bay would be very interested in exploring the physical and sexual maturation of a young woman. You’d have to start at age 16 because starting with a five year-old, you’d never know if she’d grow up to be supermodel-beautiful. She’d be beautiful, of course. Strong. Confidant. Sexy. Owning her body. I imagine the film as a celebration of physical beauty.

And that’s when you realize he’s already started making this movie and is actually almost six years into shooting the film. You would recognize the individual segments as Victoria’s Secret commercials and when it’s all assembled, we’ll see Doutzen Kroes grow up before our very eyes!

Michael F-ing Bay

Michael Bay = Steven Spielberg minus what and plus what?

In the book, I make comparisons between Bay and Steven Soderbergh, at least in regard to how The Rock is to Bay’s catalog what Ocean’s Eleven is to Soderbergh’s. As well regarded as each of those films is, neither represents the artistic pinnacle for each one. Ocean’s Eleven is Soderbergh bringing his exceptional talents to bear on a simple heist film, while The Rock is Bay brilliantly coloring within the lines on a high concept action film. You won’t find any of the subversive messages or profound meanings that distinguish Armageddon or The Island, for that matter. Those films are basically Bay’s Solaris.

But what he has that Soderbergh struggled with was the ability to take those ideas and smuggle them to a wider audience within the trappings of a crowd-pleaser. True, The Island is his lowest-grossing film, but Armageddon hit the mark. For me, it proves his clear superiority to Soderbergh, demonstrating that a science-fiction film can deal with large matters such as man’s relationship with God and his need to reject religion – without alienating a large audience. If your readers are perplexed by this interpretation of Armageddon, I hope they’ll check out the book, where I break all of this down very carefully. Armageddon is essentially a story about man killing God.

As far as the Bay vs. Spielberg, I would say that Bay is Spielberg minus the fidelity to history, and plus maturity. In that, I mean that most of Spielberg’s crowd-pleasing films like ET or Jurassic Park seem to come from a pre-adolescent perspective. There’s a sense of innocence and wonder to them that many people lose in their teenage years. This is Spielberg’s secret, in that he captures those emotions and sells them back to us. When we watch a Spielberg crowd-pleaser, it’s a stimulus for sense memory associated with an earlier, pure-er part of our lives. Some use this criticism as a pejorative, but that is a remarkably difficult skill to master. It might be like trying to describe color when all you can see is black and white.

Bay is Spielberg plus maturity because his characters look at the world with the perspective of teenagers who have entered puberty. Perhaps to put it more crudely, Bay’s teenagers actually have discovered sex. He even shoots his films to reflect that view. There’s a much-maligned sequence in the first Transformers where the camera appears to leer at Megan Fox’s body as she checks under the hood of a car. That is not Michael Bay leering at Megan Fox, that his authorial skill at wedding our point of view to that of Shia LaBeouf’s character. We’re seeing her through his eyes, his sexual perceptions super-charged by hormones. It’s not a literal depiction of what Megan Fox’s character is doing in that scene so much as it is a visualization of how Shia’s character sees her. The pin-up girl appearance is filtered through the teenage perspective. Note how Bay almost instantly subverts the stereotype by revealing Fox’s character is more skilled at auto mechanics than Shia. In fact, nearly every single scene the two characters then becomes about how Fox’s character is the more competent and complex of the two.

So just as Spielberg can press the “innocence” buttons in us all, Bay triggers memories for a later stage of development. This is to his detriment because in reducing his audience to adolescence, they sometimes limit their view to what’s right in front of their face. They’re both master craftsmen of the image – it just works against Bay that he’s (at least in one sense) making movies more mature than some of Spielberg’s.

Finally what advice would you have for aspiring screenwriters whose dream gig would be to work on Transformers 8: Crime Time for Optimus Prime?

First, that’s a great title. If you walk into the room with that title, those kids are going to have to figure out how to land the assignment for Transformers 9 instead.  ‘Fess up, you’ve already got a pitch ready, don’t you?

I think Bay will probably have moved on from Transformers by the eighth film. In my book, I make a good case that Pain & Gain marked the moment where Bay sought absolution for any prior cinematic sins, with the fourth Transformers serving as a denouement, or coda. I theorized that whatever he did next would mark a completely new era for him. A couple weeks ago, it was announced he’s in talks to do a film about Benghazi, so I think I’m on the right track here.

But let’s say he’s lured back for TF8, which would be the middle film of the third trilogy. They probably backed the Brinks truck up for this. TF5 would have come out in 2017, probably with Peter Berg at the helm. Berg did that one just so he could make a political drama about suicide bombers.  Then came TF6 in 2020, and look, I love the Duplass Brothers but they were just the wrong choice for the gig. Can’t say they didn’t try, though. And then was 2023’s TF7, which was supposed to be a new trilogy and a new start. Problem is they shook up things too much by bringing in Catherine Hardwicke.

So now it’s 2025 and they’re hearing pitches on TF8. Bay wants this to be the Empire Strikes Back of Transformers films. Here’s my advice:

1) come up with eight really good, distinct action pieces and pitch those. Only those. You can figure out the story later.
2) Kill Optimus Prime
3) Resurrect Optimus Prime.
4) Don’t write “the camera spins around him.” Michael F-ing Bay KNOWS the camera will f-ing spin, okay?!
5) If the script is 100 pages long, you’re halfway there!
6) Racial dialects help distinguish the robots from each other.
7) The pitch should feel unbearably long, and if Bay doesn’t come out of it with a lot of questions, you were too straight-forward.

Have your characters use plenty of products. You want Bay to know you speak his language. When you get the gig, don’t try to outsmart him or second-guess his more intellectual themes. You’re there to serve him.

Most of all, tell him you’ve got a leg up on all the other writers he’s meeting with because you read The Bitter Script Reader’s book MICHAEL F-ING BAY, now available for a mere $4.99 on Amazon.

For Part 1 of the Q&A, go here.

You can buy the book for Kindle here and paperback here.

If you’re a fan of The Bitter Script Reader, here is a simple, easy and inexpensive way to show your gratitude for his many years of contributions as an online resource for screenwriters.

Twitter: @BittrScrptReadr.

Comment Archive

Q&A (Part 1): The Bitter Script Reader on “Michael F-Ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films”

November 17th, 2014 by

The Bitter Script Reader has hosted a screenwriting blog almost as long as I have, his first post going live on January 1, 2009. Over the years, we’ve crossed virtual paths countless times and I’ve come to know Bitter as one of the good guys in the online screenwriting universe. He even has his own YouTube channel hosted by his alter ego we have come to know and love as The Puppet. So when Bitter announced to the world he had written a book called “Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay Films,” I knew I had to get to the bottom of this right away.

I sent Bitter some questions. Here is Part 1 of that Q&A:

Let me start with a personal anecdote. Back in 2009, I walked out of a screening of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with my then nine year-old son Luke, and asked him, “So what do you think that movie was about?” He answered, “Blowing stuff up.” Over time, I have come to think that pretty much cuts to the heart of Michael Bay movies. However in your book, you seem to have surfaced a mother lode of creative inspiration at work in his cinematic oeuvre that has managed to escape 95% of movie critics. How did you make this discovery: Peyote or psychotic breakdown?

I think I’ll begin by quoting an actor who should be familiar to you for his legendary role as Sentinel Prime in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, one Mr. Leonard Nimoy. Very few people realize this, but Mr. Nimoy also played an alien named Spock in an obscure series called STAR TREK. In one of his last appearances as the character, he debates with Captain Picard the merits of attempting to reunite his people, the Vulcans, with their distant cousins, the Romulans. Picard expresses doubt, to which Spock replies, “I sense you speak with a closed mind, Captain. Closed minds have kept these worlds apart for centuries.” When my own thinking becomes too rigid, I cannot help but hear Mr. Nimoy’s voice in my head.

I sense you speak with a closed mind, Scott.

That, of course, is not your fault, but it is telling you invoke both hallucinogens and mental distress, both agents that would, of necessity, open one’s mind. Is it troubling that it is human nature to be so rigid in our beliefs that we need outside intervention to unwillingly strip us of that self-inflicted blindness? I genuinely hope not, and I suppose that on an unconscious level, that might have been what led me to write the book. Every now and then we need to be challenged, perhaps for no other reason than to make sure that we do not grow too inflexible as we grow older.

So to answer your question, there were no drugs or psychotic conditions – that I am aware of – that presaged my breakthrough. It was sheer force of will, an extreme effort at keeping all of my prejudices and prejudgments at bay, if you’ll pardon the pun.

As a writer and an educator, I’m sure you’re aware that the two words most vital for any creative to embrace are “What if…?” Having seen so much mockery of the latest TRANSFORMERS and Michael Bay specifically prior to the film coming out, I wanted to challenge that perception and take in the film with an entirely open mind. “What if there was brilliance in this film,” I asked.

I expected that I might find a few interesting nuggets that had passed others by. What I didn’t anticipate was realizing this film was in many ways, the Rosetta Stone to Mr. Bay’s entire oeuvre. It shifted my entire preconceptions not just of that film, but of the filmmaker and of every work he had helmed. I can only liken it to a religious awakening and as the 15 minutes of VFX credits reached their conclusion, I knew that I must revisit his work and preach the gospel of Michael Bay.

In your book, you note how Bay has all sorts of messaging at work in his movies — scientific, political, even theological. If he’s got such a comprehensive take on reality, why is he dicking around making movies when he could be President of the United States or starring in a hit reality TV series: “Bay Watch: For Reel”?

Lex Luthor once said, “Do you know how much power I’d have to give up to become President?” That’s not to say that Bay doesn’t have an affinity for politics. I believe one of his former stars once comparied him to a politician who used a great deal of personal charisma and popularity to rise to a station of significant political power. The fact is that Bay is at his best when he has total control. By design, our system of politics doesn’t allow that.

In the movie business, Bay doesn’t have to take the notes from the idiot executive who’s barely read the script and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In politics, brain-dead morons like Ted Cruz and Louis Gohmert keep getting elected. (I apologize for disparaging those unfortuate souls left in such a vegetative state by comparing them to wastes like Cruz and Gohmert.) If Bay had the ability to tell everyone else, “No, fuck you. I know what is going to work best for this country and I’m gonna give it to the people,” then it might be worth it. Putting him in a position where he’s actually accountable to other people would be a waste of a creative genius.

What I’m saying is that Bay’d be a lousy President, but a fantastic dictator. Right now he’s still able to reach people through art. Remember, Al Franken only went into politics after he stopped being funny.

Michael F-ing Bay

Michael Bay does Juno. Go!

Michael Bay and Diablo Cody on the same film? I’d love to see the trailer for that if for no reason other than the fact that Diablo Cody has a name that was meant to be pronounced by a Don LaFontaine-like trailer narrator. Try it – it’s impossible not to make it sound kickass!

Okay, so the first thing to understand about how Bay develops is that he’ll often start with the action set-pieces first. There’s always action in a Bay film. Even the lower budgeted Pain & Gain has a couple footchase scenes and some explosions. And what do you know – Diablo’s one step ahead of the game with the high school track team’s running scenes. The slow-motion shots of the young men’s privates undulating with each stride also hits the Bay quota of male homoeroticism. So this part of the film is definitely the same – except there’ll be a lot more of it.

Also, Michael Cera’s part is now played by Jai Courtney.

The other thing to realize is that Bay films are never about what they’re about. My whole book is built around this. When Bay wants to deal with man’s relationship with God, he makes a movie about an asteroid threatening the Earth. When he wants to criticize Hollywood filmmaking and franchises, he makes a sci-fi movie about clones. So if Bay wanted to make a movie about teen pregnancy, the last thing the plot would be about would be teen pregnancy. All of that is hidden. Obviously the first part of that would be to make the main character a male.

A great metaphor for pregnancy is the creative process, so our male lead should be making something. Let’s say he’s an inventor. But he’s in over his head and he doesn’t even want to be working on this project that’s going to consume nine months of his life. This is a Bay movie, so how about he’s making a giant robot. The adoptive family in the original Juno is replaced by the people who have made our hero build this robot against his will.

Who could have the power to do that? Who else? The U.S. Government. The Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner characters are now government bureaucrats. Since these are the “gravitas parts,” though, they’re now played by Gary Oldman and Helen Mirren.

Over time, our guy starts to bond with the robot. And then, after Gary Oldman gets inappropriate with him over a couple drinks, he decides the deal is off and sets out to go on the run with the robot. This is good because it gives us more chase scenes. It’s good to have your characters running from something in a Bay film. Along the way he picks up a stripper/MIT night school student played by Victoria’s Secret model Candice Swanepoel.

But here’s the twist, Helen Mirran catches up to him and the robot (who for some reason has picked up a Creole accent) and reveals that she needs the robot. See, she’s not just a government agent – she works for NASA and if we don’t sent that robot to land on a comet and collect a sample immediately, the human race will be doomed. Our hero realizes the best thing for everyone is for the robot to go back with the people who love it, even if it means he’ll never see it again.

So basically the same film.

Let’s say I knew nothing about Michael Bay. If you had to pick one scene from his movies that would convey everything I would need to know to grasp his essence as a filmmaker, what scene would that be?

This is an easy one because I call out to this in the book. In Pearl Harbor, there’s a scene soon after the attack where President Roosevelt calls a Cabinet meeting to demand they come up with some kind of counterstrike against Japan. His advisers all say that it can’t be done. FDR isn’t hearing of this, and says that he believes God put him in his wheelchair for a reason.

Then he pushes away from the table and pulls himself out of his wheelchair, waving off the offer of help from his aides. For one moment, he stands tall, free of the prison that was his chair and says “Don’t tell me it can’t be done.”

It’s a completely transcendent crowdpleasing moment that has absolutely zero basis in documented fact. It doesn’t matter that FDR probably could never have done such a thing. All that matters is through this moment, we feel his conviction as well as the belief in the impossible that must have been felt by anyone supporting FDR’s impossible plan in real life. As I say in the book, Pearl Harbor gains greater emotional authenticity the further it estranges itself from actual events or even reasonable plausibility.

That one scene and everything it represent is probably the most effective summation of Michael Bay’s extraordinary career.

In a /film interview, screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who has writing credits on three of the four Transformers movies, is quoted as saying that the Michael Bay approach to story is “quasi-experimental”. What would you consider to be ‘experimental’ about Bay’s storytelling and what would you consider to be ‘quasi’?

I’m not sure quasi-experimental is even a word. Wouldn’t that be like being “quasi-pregnant?” I can see where he’s coming from. You can pretty much draw a straight line for early surrealist works like Un Chien Andalou and Transformers: Age of Extinction. But what I think Kruger intended to do with that phrase was underline a statement he makes right before that, “you start to make your peace with the idea that logical sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all. It needs to be amazing fun for the audience. They need to be swept up, and be promised that they’re going to see things that make it worth spending money on a ticket.”

That’s Michael Bay in a nutshell – putting the audience first above all else. If that’s experimental in any way, it’s only because of the selfish self-indulgence of too many helmers these days.

Michael Bay does Little Miss Sunshine. Go!

I’m worried the idea is too small for Bay. Bay movies really work best when there are epic end-of-the-world stakes or at least big themes. His weakest film is probably Bad Boys II, which is a fairly routine cops-vs-drug-cartel story. He’s bored and you can feel how much he’s desperate to amuse himself because he pulls out every bell and whistle in his bag of tricks. It’s every Bay hallmark cranked up to 11. So the first thing he’d toss is the story in it’s entirety. The road trip aspect can stay, though. That’ll give us our car chases. Maybe we’re making a new kind of Cannonball Run here.

LMS is essentially about family. That’s the core ideal that drives it. So you take that, wrap it up in this car race and… oh shit! We just made a new Fast & Furious movie!

So if you want to see Michael Bay’s version of Little Miss Sunshine, I’d say Furious 6 comes pretty damn close.

Tomorrow the final part of my Q&A with The Bitter Script Reader about his new book “Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay Films”.

You can buy it for Kindle here and paperback here.

If you’re a fan of The Bitter Script Reader, here is a simple, easy and inexpensive way to show your gratitude for his many years of contributions as an online resource for screenwriters.

Twitter: @BittrScrptReadr.

Comment Archive

Your questions for Franklin Leonard

July 7th, 2014 by

I’ve met a lot of talented people in my time working in the movie and TV business, but certainly I’ve found Franklin Leonard to be one of Hollywood’s true bright lights. Occasionally I’ll see if he’s up for some questions from GITS readers and this appears to be a good time. So if you have any questions for Franklin, now’s your chance.

You may want to ask about the Black List. A lot going on there. Check out this list of initiatives launched in the last year:

Cassian Elwes / Sundance Film Festival – Black List

Hasty Pudding Institute Screenwriting Fellowship – Black List

Martin Katz/Toronto International Film Festival – Black List

TBS / TNT – Black List

Walt Disney Studios – Black List

Warner Bros. – Black List

WIGS – Black List

If you’d like more information on any of those or what Franklin’s vision is for the Black List, this is your opportunity to check in with the man himself.

Do you have questions about the state of the movie and TV business? Franklin travels in some very interesting circles re scripted entertainment, so he has a unique insight on current and future trends.

Advice for aspiring writers. His thoughts on resources available online for writers. Heck, you can even ask him questions about the World Cup as he is a huge ‘footy’ fan.

Head to comments, post your questions, and I’ll forward them to Franklin for his responses.

You may follow Franklin via twitter:



Comment Archive

KCET Spring Cinema Series Q&A’s

March 4th, 2014 by

A heads-up from GITS development assistant Wendy Cohen:

For you L.A. folks — the KCET Cinema Series continues its spring season TONIGHT at 7pm with a screening of the upcoming romantic comedy LE WEEK-END, featuring a Q&A with star Jeff Goldblum following the screening.

For more information, click on More.


Q&A: “Philomena”

November 25th, 2013 by

A heads-up from GITS development assistant Wendy Cohen:

For you L.A. folks — the KCET Cinema Series continues its fall season this Tuesday, November 26th at 7pm with a screening of the Coen Brothers’ highly-anticipated INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The quarterly series is hosted by nationally recognized film expert and Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond. Passes for the Fall 2013 KCET Cinema Series are now on sale. For reservations call 747.201.5800, download and mail the registration form, or buy your season passes online.

On November 5th as part of the series, a special Q&A took place at the Television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre following an advance screening of PHILOMENA, a U.K.-produced dramatic comedy which tells the incredible true story of one mother’s search for her lost son. Deadline Hollywood’s Pete Hammond sat down with co-writer, producer, and actor Steve Coogan to discuss his writing process, how he found the source material for the film, and the experience of working with and writing for screen legend Judi Dench. 

You can listen to a full audio recording of the panel on KCET’s website.

Below are some of the highlights from their conversation.

Pete Hammond: How did you become involved?

Steve Coogan: The movie for me began four years ago. I was in New York playing number three in yet another studio movie, and I was looking for a project — something that was different. I wanted to do something away from comedy — something that had more substance. And I came across this story online in The Guardian newspaper, and it had a real profound effect on me. I wanted to change the record in my career in a kind of way, and it was compelling and it fit the bill. I looked at it and thought, “someone should tell this story.” It’s about a mother and everyone’s got one of those, so… and with the article there was a photograph of Martin Sixsmith and Philomena together, and they were both laughing in the photograph and it seemed so at odds with the details of the story. And so I optioned the book that Martin had written, and Martin actually wrote the article in the newspaper. But Martin’s book deals almost exclusively with the life of [Philomena’s son] Michael Hess, who became very successful in Washington, and I didn’t really want to tell that story. I was more interested in using the two characters and exploring the ideas of faith and intellect vs. intuition, and I thought the two of them would be a good vehicle to have a discussion about those things.

PH: What I loved about the structure of the film and your screenplay is that it unfolds like a mystery story. It’s a detective story too, which any good journalistic movie is.

SC: I don’t think a studio would make this movie because they wouldn’t know what it was. Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a drama? And we liked the idea of having a little bit of intrigue in there just to drag the audience along. And also, I love Billy WIlder and how he’s able to put comedy and tragedy side by side. I think that’s what limits movies in a way — certainly with studios, because these are things that they have to delineate — it’s either this or this because it’s easy to market. And this is kind of a funny tragedy, I guess… I like where comedy and tragedy sit side by side. I don’t think it’s contrived. I think that’s what life is like.

PH: When you worked on the screenplay for this movie you had a lot of access. Both Philomena and Martin Sixsmith are still alive.

SC: My co-writer Jeff Pope and I built the script up from conversations I had with Martin and Philomena. I spoke to Martin at length as a journalist and then I said “I want to put you in the story.” He was discombobulated by that a bit, but that struck me as more interesting. I put a lot of myself into his character. He’s not quite as cynical as I portray him onscreen. And he’s not a lapsed Catholic either. But I’m a lapsed Catholic, and I wanted to put some of my own cynicism in there, and challenge my own thoughts. I spoke with Philomena and that found its way into the script. I mean, there’s a lot of artistic license, but not with the bones of the story. They’re all true.

PH: Can you tell us about Judi Dench’s involvement?

SC: Judi was my first choice. She was even on board before the director, Stephen Frears. I was writing with Jeff, and I said, “we should get Judi Dench to do this, because she would be fantastic.” And so I went to her house and told her the story, and she said, “I want to do this.” Before we showed her the script, if I remember correctly. We hadn’t finished writing at that stage, but what we did then — I said, “Jeff if we’ve got Judi Dench we should write it for her and play to her strengths.” So there’s a couple of scenes in the film where it’s just her face, and I knew that would be powerful enough without any dialogue. I had to pare away the dialogue in those scenes and just have her alone — these private moments that Martin doesn’t see. The only people privy to them are her and the audience, so it’s quite intimate.

Declare Your Independents! Be sure to check out Philomena and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Comment Archive

Q&A: “Dallas Buyers Club”

November 7th, 2013 by

A heads-up from GITS development assistant Wendy Cohen

For you L.A. folks — the KCET Cinema Series continues its fall season next Tuesday, November 12th at 7pm with a screening of the classic Hollywood caper THE GREAT ESCAPE.

The quarterly series is hosted by nationally recognized film expert and Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond. Passes for the Fall 2013 KCET Cinema Series are now on sale. For reservations call 747.201.5800, download and mail the registration form, or buy your season passes online.

Last week, as part of the series, a special Q&A took place at the Television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre following an advance screening of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, which chronicles the real-life story of AIDS patient Ron Woodroof and is generating more than its fair share of Oscar buzz. Deadline Hollywood film critic Pete Hammond sat down with one of the film’s stars, Jennifer Garner, screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and producers Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter to discuss the movie’s 20-year journey to the big screen, the challenges of abridging Woodroof’s story and creating composite characters, working with co-stars McConaughey and Leto, and the film’s death and rebirth during its perilous journey through the studio system to an independent film. 

You can listen to a full audio recording of the panel on KCET’s website.

Below are some of the highlights from their conversation.

Pete Hammond: How did you decide to do this story?

Craig Borten: It’s been a 20-year journey. The film business… it’s so hard and it will break your heart, and you get doors slammed. 18 years ago, Robbie read the first draft, and she said, “this is an incredible story. This is a story that has to get made.” And she’s like, “I’m gonna make this movie” — but she didn’t say it would take 18 years [laughs]. So it’s a testament to her drive and her passion. We got here and it turned out great. People are like, “Well, if you knew if it would take 20 years would you still have done it?” Sure, it was worth it.

PH: And it still has relevance today, 20 years later.

CB: The journey started when a friend sent me an article on Ron Woodroof. It was called “Staying Alive” and it was about the international grey market and these buyers clubs that were smuggling in underground AIDS treatments for opportunistic infections, and it included Ron Woodroof, this cowboy, and it was fascinating. And so I wrote him a letter and it was unreturned, and then I called a few times, and he answered the phone and said, “Be here tomorrow. You can interview me.” So I got there the following day, and spent three days with him, and the journey began.

PH: How many hours did you record with him?

CB: It was 25 hours. It took a couple of years for me to get a draft down. There were 4 options on it. There was an actor, a director, and many other producers — and around 2000 I met Melisa Wallack and we re-wrote the screenplay, and we sold it to another actor and another director, and then there was another actor and another director… life changed. And around 2009 Melisa said, “We’ve gotta get the screenplay back. We’re going to get it made and bring it back to Robbie.”

PH: The screenplay was at Universal Studios. It was stuck there and you couldn’t get it back until there was a certain point, right?

Melisa Wallack: The turnaround clause was 7 years. We sold it with Brad Pitt and Mark Forster and then we got it back and literally gave it to Robbie and said “Robbie, go make this movie.” And then I think she gave it to Matthew. He was the first person she gave it to.

PH: So, when you came into the project, where was it in terms of writing, and what did you bring to it at that point? What was it that you thought with this story that you could sit there and write this and knew it was right for you?

MW: I got totally sucked in by the character of Ron, I think, for the most part. I listened to all his tapes and then Craig convinced me to write it with him. Craig and I became best friends and we had a great time writing it. It’s always amazing when you get a movie made, especially like this.

PH: Robbie, you never gave up on this film. It was your pet project. 

Robbie Brenner: The film had several different lives. This probably was the type of movie that shouldn’t have been made under a studio umbrella. It should’ve been made exactly in the way and in the spirit that we made it — which was intimate, independent, small, personal, and where people were doing it out of the passion for the material, because I think that’s really what ultimately allowed the movie to get made. We shot the movie in 25 days. We made it for 4 million dollars. And it was amazing.

PH: That’s astounding. 

RB: On this movie, it was just a very small group of people. As we were trying to put the financing together, people would say, “Oh, I love the script, this is amazing, but the script’s been around for a long time… I don’t know if I want to make a movie about a cowboy that contracts HIV.” So it was really, really hard and we had to keep on lowering the budget in order to raise the financing… and so we wound up with 25 days, and Jean-Marc took the lighting package out. And he pulled it off.

PH: Rachel, I remember that Matthew McConaughey had lost all the weight and even then the film was in jeopardy. And I think you guys had to call him and say we’ve got to delay it two months. What did he do? 

Rachel Winter: It was 8 weeks before shooting, and we had to call Matthew and say, “We know you’ve lost a lot of weight, but is there a possibility we can do this in the spring?” And he’s like, “Absolutely not. We are doing this now. Get it together.”

PH: And how did you get it together? You found the dream backers here. 

RW: It was CAA, Cassian Elwes, Voltage, an equity component out of Texas… and everyone kind of banded together and said, “Hey, we are going to make this movie.” But this was a very short amount of time — there are deals, and there’s paperwork, and there’s things to get done. So we basically had three and a half weeks of paid prep on the film.

PH: Was Rayon [played by Jared Leto] a real character? 

MW: Rayon was a composite.

Jennifer Garner: Eve was so beautifully written that I just assumed she was real. And I did all this research looking her up, and I went and looked on microfilm at the library for Eve Saks, and I’m like, “I don’t know if she was before Google, I don’t know!” I finally called them and they said, “Yeah, she’s not a real person” and I’m like, “Oh. Thank you for letting me know.”

PH: She’s a composite too. You decided to do that, Craig, in creating these characters?

CB: Yeah, Melisa and I created that. We just wanted to get in so many points of view and we felt it was best to just create these characters to serve our story as opposed to pull from the real characters. Both of them are based on real people though, transgendered and doctors.

PH: Matthew and Jared Leto give some great performances. 

JG: You might have heard by now that Jared was in character the whole time we were shooting, but it wasn’t a weird thing. I couldn’t imagine him any other way. He was so thin he didn’t have any resemblance to the kind of rock star he’s known for — he came on the film much later after Matthew. He was on another level. It was haunting. I’ve worked with Matthew before, and you guys saw what he went through to do this film, and he was way down the pike when this movie came my way. You get sucked in by Matthew’s passion for something, you can’t help it. It’s contagious.

Dallas Buyers Club is now playing in limited release. You can buy tickets to the movie here.

Here is the movie trailer:

Background: “JOBS”

August 14th, 2013 by

This backround on biopics and the new movie Jobs from Wendy Cohen:

“Screenwriting Drafts of History”

Four years ago, when Gus Van Sant’s MILK, Oliver Stone’s W. and Steven Soderbergh’s CHE — political biopics as varied about the figures they covered as the critical praise they received — were in the midst of awards season contention, The New York Times produced this intriguing article highlighting the films’ screenwriters and their process of, as writer Dennis Lim astutely noted, “wrangling a life into the shape of a narrative.”

Here at GITS, we’ve talked about biopics as a movie story type — a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or subgenre.

One recent example we’ve analyzed is Aaron Sorkin’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, the effective use of Mark Zuckerberg’s two deposition scenes as a narrative device to travel back and forth in time, and jumps using lines of dialogue, pre-laps, and visual clues to serve as touch points for each transition.

Sorkin’s next project: a tell-all biopic of Apple innovator Steve Jobs, structured around three 30 minute scenes all set right before three major product launches. The products: The Mac, NeXT, and the iPod.

This will be the second biopic of Jobs. The first, Joshua Michael Stern’s JOBS, will be released this weekend.

The difference in structure between the two movies? Seismic.

As Scott has previously noted, biographical adaptations are one of the most difficult screenwriting challenges for two big reasons: 1) You have to find the movie in the subject’s real life story; in other words, you can’t let the facts get in the way of the movie you write and 2) What historical details and personal dynamics you omit about the subject is as important as what you choose to keep in the script.

At a Q&A following a special screening of JOBS, director Joshua Michael Stern spoke with Deadline Hollywood film critic Pete Hammond about his serendipitous collaboration with the entrepreneur responsible for the movie’s inception, working with a first-time writer and structuring the film around what he believes to be the most narrative-friendly and dramatic moments of Jobs’ life.


Below are several excerpts from their conversation.

PH: You never met Steve Jobs himself. What I think is so interesting is that it came from a guy way outside of Hollywood.

JMS: It’s a guy who owns a magazine in Dallas, Texas — and he tells the story that when Steve Jobs retired, his whole business shut down to give homage to that, and he thought “that’s interesting, that’s something that’s part of the culture,” so he hired a writer to write a screenplay. And he had seen “Swing Vote” and called me up and said “I’ve got a script.” At the time, it was 205 pages. We brought it to town and got it to Ashton, and it sort of took off from there, but he really was from outside of the system.

PH: It’s always tough doing a biopic as they say in the business as to what you focus on. How did you hone this to focus on those years and why did you decide to do it that way?

JMS: The story to me was about him and Apple. There’s going to be a lot of stories about Steve Jobs and a lot of movies about Steve Jobs. And the most interesting part of his life for me was everything before the iMac — that computer we all recognize as his first innovation. To me, to be honest, it was a story about a prince who’s raised by working class peasants who he loves and loved him, but he always felt he was bigger than them — then he sort of meets this ragtag group of guys and ne’er do wells and then he finally gets into the palace but he’s never seen as legitimate, and then he’s banished and then comes back resurrected and he decides that he has to take everybody out. The movie’s 2 hours and 5 minutes, and there’s a section, about 8 or 9 years there, where he meets his wife, he works at NeXT which doesn’t really do very well, he’s on the board of Pixar — so that section was the most interesting as to how to deal with that. The problem of his life was that a) The relationship with his wife was so secretive. There wasn’t much meat on the bones there. He was really in the doldrums during that time. So to hazard a guess as to what’s going on in his relationship with his wife would a) be conjecture totally and b) we wanted to respect that. And anything above the iMac — after the end of the movie — that history took off by itself. We know what happened. You have to decide what story you’re gonna tell, and this was just the story about him and Mac.

PH: Was there ever a consideration of doing this in another format, like a miniseries?

JMS: I think you could — that wasn’t what was presented to me — I think there is a lot of information. And the most interesting thing about Steve is that different people have different things invested in him and in his story. Everybody has something that they’re close to him on. We did every once in a while have a line that referenced something. But when you’re making a movie, there are certain things that are either just not active or because they’re such big issues you have to deal with it. And so when you deal with it, you have to actually follow it up. You open up a can of worms. Anyone’s life is always a balance of what would be interesting to know and what we don’t want to know. But I thought Steve’s resurrection was almost sort of a coda. But you had to pick and choose. It was tough.

PH: Can you tell us more about the script and the writer, Matt Whiteley?

JMS: Yeah, it was his first screenplay. It was interesting that he was making a story about Steve Jobs that was totally homegrown. I didn’t really touch the script. I’ve written everything else I’ve ever done. So, for me, the experience was having to step back and not really being able to touch the script very much, and I was really kind of shackled to the script. They had done so much research. There’s a scene in the boardroom and I had them build this beautiful boardroom and I filled it with extras during the scene, and they came in and said there were only four board members. And I said, “I built this huge room — what am I going to do with all these chairs?” So there’s a scene where he’s got his arms back and I have this huge wide shot that showed every empty chair, but I was really hamstrung by being within the accuracy of what was written, and Ashton had an encyclopedic knowledge as well. For his first screenplay, the writer did a good job.

PH: Amazing.

JMS: There’s going to be many movies about Steve Jobs. We’re the first out of the gate, so…

PH: It’s always good to be first.

JMS: In the original script we actually had a scene with Steve and his sister Mona walking through a park, and it didn’t really lead very far, but it created a relationship with his sister, which I think was an amazing story. I think it made it make sense that he was brilliant, because it came from something. The thing about the story of Steve Jobs is it’s not like Johnny Cash. It’s not like he got abused, he had a drug habit… He had great parents, friends… traveled, and then he came to and never left Silicon Valley. He worked eight miles from where he grew up. Everything was within that zone. Which was interesting to his personality, wanting things to be familiar to him. It kind of made sense when you started to get under the skin of him. I think we latched onto the fact that there was a sense that he didn’t belong, but he didn’t dwell on it.

Thanks to Wendy for this post.

A full recording of the Q&A can be found here courtesy of KCET, which sponsored the event. To learn more about the KCET Cinema Series, visit their website.

JOBS goes into wide release on August 16th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Q&A: Elgin James (“Little Birds”), Part 4

September 6th, 2012 by

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Elgin James who wrote and directed his debut movie Little Birds. Here is some background:

Elgin James’ first screenplay, “Little Birds,” was accepted into both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Sundance Directors Lab. In 2009, James was awarded a Time Fellowship Grant as well as an Annenberg Feature Film Fellow Grant. He was recently named as one of’s “American New Wave 25,” in addition to being selected as one of Variety’s 2011 “Directors to Watch.”

Homeless as a teenager, James was a fixture in Boston’s hardcore punk scene, founding a national street gang that targeted neo-Nazi skinheads and robbed drug dealers to give the money to charity. After years in that lifestyle, James renounced violence and relocated to Los Angeles.

“Little Birds” marks his feature film directorial debut.

Here is Part 4 of my conversation with Elgin:

SM: Talking about autobiography here, you’ve got these two primary environments in Little Birds. You’ve got the Salton Sea. You’ve got LA. Can you talk about what that meant to you, those two places, thematically? What did Salton Sea represent and what did LA represent to you?

EJ: Totally. I’d grown up in a small farm town, like a small, rural New England farm town and it looked nothing like the Salton Sea, but that’s like how it felt to me… dead, arid, and dry with no life. I felt like Lily; I felt too big for it. I felt like I was on fire. I was into punk rock at the time, and I’m like eleven, twelve years old, and with this stupid Mohawk that I had my poor mom shave into my head. I’m surrounded by like cows, and pigs, and sheep. All I craved was concrete. I craved the city, even when I was like nine or ten listening to Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen and hearing about knife fights, and the city, and the shore and all of these things in my imagination. That’s a life that I wanted, and then you go up and you get that life, and it chews you up and spits you out. I was really the Lily character and that’s why we go for LA. I tried to write it and then also shoot Salton Sea still with colors. The Salton Sea is very warm because it’s home. I didn’t know what I had until it was gone, and that’s where the Alison character comes in of just like… I wish I’d known what I had at the time, instead of being so obsessed with what I was missing and what I wasn’t getting. Even in my household, that’s one thing that Robert Redford set out for me or broke down for me is like… I was so obsessed with what I didn’t get from my father or my father’s shortcomings and the abuse… that I missed how strong, and quiet, and beautiful life my mom lived throughout. That’s really where the Alison character came from. The Salton Sea is basically my small town in New England and LA is supposed to represent Boston and the world.

SM: Here it is, this story that you instinctively came to, and it does have that Hero’s Journey arc, doesn’t it? It starts off in the ordinary world, goes off into this extraordinary world of adventure, and the characters… not to reduce it… but they learn something. They go through these experiences, these challenges, right?

EJ: Right. That’s so funny because I hadn’t read that until late, but you’re totally right. That’s what it comes down to. 10,000 stories or whatever the number was that we’ve had in our lives. It becomes our own language and our blueprint. That’s so funny. That’s interesting. It’s totally true.

SM: Well, Joseph Campbell was a smart guy.

EJ: Sure was.

Here is Part 1.

Here is Part 2.

Here is Part 3.

Here is the movie’s website.

Little Birds debuted in NYC on August 29th. It screens for the first time in LA on September 14th.

Thanks to one of my former UNC students Ariel Butters for setting the interview into motion. Ariel has been working with Electric City Entertainment, one of the producing outfits involved with Little Birds.

Thanks as well to Black List intern Justin Kremer for handling the transcription of the interview and turning it around as quickly as he did.

Comment Archive

Q&A: Elgin James (“Little Birds”), Part 3

September 5th, 2012 by

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Elgin James who wrote and directed his debut movie Little Birds. Here is some background:

Elgin James’ first screenplay, “Little Birds,” was accepted into both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Sundance Directors Lab. In 2009, James was awarded a Time Fellowship Grant as well as an Annenberg Feature Film Fellow Grant. He was recently named as one of’s “American New Wave 25,” in addition to being selected as one of Variety’s 2011 “Directors to Watch.”

Homeless as a teenager, James was a fixture in Boston’s hardcore punk scene, founding a national street gang that targeted neo-Nazi skinheads and robbed drug dealers to give the money to charity. After years in that lifestyle, James renounced violence and relocated to Los Angeles.

“Little Birds” marks his feature film directorial debut.

Here is Part 3 of my conversation with Elgin:

SM: Let’s talk about that experience with Sundance Labs and The Institute. From the time you had that initial inspiration for the script, to the time you started principal photography, how long a period was that?

EJ: I wrote it in – I had it and my wife had gone away for like a couple weeks… so I wrote it really quickly. I wrote it in a couple weeks; I just got it all out. It had been built up inside of me for so long. I didn’t understand all the things about how to write a screenplay. I didn’t know all that stuff, so I was trying to figure out that with the formatting and everything. I wrote “Little Birds” in a couple weeks, and then it was maybe like a few weeks after that or so, that I got it to Jamie Patricoff – who ended up producing it because he’d done one of my favorite films “Half Nelson” and he actually did not want to make the film. He wanted to meet me about my life story. He’d heard about it, and there was a Rolling Stone article so he wanted to make the big biopic if you will…a twenty million dollar movie. I wouldn’t meet with him about it, but I sent two friends of mine instead to bring my script to him. Understandably, he’s like “What? This gang member thinks he can write a screenplay?” Like “Yeah, no thanks.” This amazing girl, Katie McNeil, who had only been his assistant for a month and a half, took my screenplay home, read it, and then came back was like “Jamie, you have to trust me. You have to meet with this person. There’s something special here.” She’s like, “I see myself in this script. There’s something special,” which is incredible. Then, she went from an assistant to the producer on “Little Birds” because of that, and she’s now the Vice President of Development at Electric City, Jamie’s company…with “Blue Valentine”, and all those other great films. Sorry, Jamie got it and then I met with Jamie who sent me to meet Michelle Satter from the Feature Film Program. I didn’t even know what the Labs were; I’d never heard about them. I obviously knew Sundance and I’d grown up watching, like – I said in The New Yorker – like lay in my mom’s lap watching “The Sting” and “The Electric Horsemen” and “Butch Cassidy” and all this stuff that Robert Redford did, because my mom, like all red blooded women, loved her some Robert Redford. Then all of a sudden, I walk into this room and here’s Michelle Satter, and everyone else from the Institute or the program, and it was just like I’d come home. She even said – one of her quotes was – I told her my whole story up to that moment and then she was just like “Elgin, you’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd.” And yeah, they brought me to the labs and literally like my life changed. Then I’m there with everyone from Walter Mosley – who is like one of my favorite authors – to Scott Frank – who’s no slouch at screenwriting. It was really just incredible that way… to Wesley Strick to Tiger Williams… and just to have all these people talking to you. And then at the same time, I went there to the Labs- I couldn’t believe I was there… I was there with my other Fellows and they’d all already made films before, you know. They had films that appeared at Cannes and at Sundance and stuff. I was like the asshole like “Can you believe we’re here? Can you believe we’re at the screenwriting labs! Can you believe what he’s done? And what this writer’s done?” And they’re like “Of course, idiot. We’ve been trying to get here for a long time. We know why we’re here.” And Michelle Satter, she took me aside at some point – I’m not sure if it was a screenwriters lab or a directors lab – and was just like we’re not here…everything the writers would tell me was like “Yeah! That’s perfect! You’re right! Yessir! Yessir! Oh my god. Yes ma’am. Yes ma’am.” I was so happy to be there, and she was like “we brought you for your fierceness. You can’t lose that. We brought you for your voice. You can’t be so accommodating.” The whole thing is they push you to find out who you really are. They don’t push you to tell you ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong’. They have a screenwriter to tell you this is a story that I would write, or there’s certain physical things – it’s not like a class – it’s more like “why did you do that? Why? What does this mean?” And there are some screenwriters that wanted answers in “Little Birds”. And they wanted answers of why Lily cuts herself, and luckily through Michelle Satter and through the program, I was like “you know what? No. I’m not going to answer that, because when you’re a kid you don’t know why you do shit. “ I’m a grown ass man and I’ve probably done ten stupid things today. I don’t know why, and I especially didn’t know why when I was fifteen. They want to know, well was she molested? I was like “I’m not going to make that movie.” That’s not interesting to me. It’s beyond that. It’s not about – I think with screenwriting its like – audiences are smarter. That’s one thing we should know as like artists. You don’t have to answer everything, and you’re talking down to people when you do.

SM: It sounds like one of the things that you learned out of that experience, or maybe kind of honed down, was to find your voice and respect that. Stay with that. Don’t lose that.

EJ: That’s exactly right, and that’s really what they want out of you… is to find out who you really are and where you’re going to fight back. When you have people that are much more brilliant and much more successful and accomplished at what you’re trying to do than you, and they’re trying to tell you something…you’re going to find out how strongly you really feel about something, and that’s where you become an artist. If you’re like “nope… I don’t care what you say. This is what I have to do.” And a lot of things become bumping my head against it and being like… okay… but I have to find that out myself, and a lot of that came from the directing lab. When you have Caleb Deschanel, an amazing cinematographer, telling you where to put the camera and I’m telling him “no, I need to put it over here”, and I put it over in this other place and it’s wrong because I’m an idiot…I had to find that out myself, and that’s what’s so great about the labs. It’s the same way with writing. “Well okay, that may be the story you’re going to tell, but this is my story. “ What really they’re trying to get out of you is just…at least for me… was to go as deep, and as autobiographical as you can. Shed away all that other stuff, and just make it as honest and real as possible.

Tomorrow Part 4 of my Q&A with writer-director Elgin James.

Here is Part 1.

Here is Part 2.

Here is the movie’s website.

Little Birds debuted in NYC on August 29th. It screens for the first time in LA on September 14th.

Thanks to one of my former UNC students Ariel Butters for setting the interview into motion. Ariel has been working with Electric City Entertainment, one of the producing outfits involved with Little Birds.

Thanks as well to Black List intern Justin Kremer for handling the transcription of the interview and turning it around as quickly as he did.