Interview (Part 3): Anthony Grieco (2015 Nicholl Winner)

Anthony Grieco wrote the original screenplay “Best Sellers” which won a 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently Anthony and I had an excellent phone conversation in which we covered a lot of territory, his background and how he got into writing, a deep analysis of “Best Sellers”, and a discussion about the writing craft.

Today in Part 3, Anthony describes what he was thinking in working with the two lead characters in Best Sellers.

Scott: Circling back to Best Sellers, you can see that at work. You’ve got two characters. You’ve got to get them to that lockbox. Get them on the road, on the tour, the book tour.
Anthony: I believe that your lead character has to look up at you from page 25 and say, “You know what, Anthony? Fuck you for making me go to page 30, I hate your guts.”
Now you’ve got a movie. If your character looks up at you on page 25 and says, “I could go back and live a happy life on page 10, it’s OK.” Then you don’t have a movie. That’s the way I see it.
Scott: You’ve got the plot. You’ve got that covered because unless he goes on this book tour and make some money, he’s going to lose his house and unless she gets this book tour and is able to generate some book sales, she’s going to have to sell the business.
Anthony: To me, the A story and B story need to run parallel to each other at all times and there has to be stakes in both camps. For both characters.
Your external journey, there’s stakes. You might lose this publishing house. Internally it’s like, “The last thing I want to do is deal with this man who reminds me of a father who never paid attention to me. The person who continues to tell me I’m not good enough. That’s the last thing I want to do.”
It’s easy to talk about this stuff. Executing it is different, difficult. I sit here with new scripts and even though I’m a little more capable than I used to be, I still mull over those same questions with every new project.
It’s like, “How do I lock this person in? Are those stakes great enough? Would she be motivated to do this? Is this action true to the character I’ve created? Oh, man, I need to go back to page five and tweak this character trait because that doesn’t align.”
Scott: Don’t you find that it’s almost always about the characters? You become so engrossed by them and so compelled by them that you lose yourself?
Anthony: Yeah. I always start with characters. I try to start with characters that have the worst attributes that I carry with me. My knee-jerk reactions to the world are usually where my characters start. When I get to the end of the story, I feel like that that’s the best version of me. I didn’t even see it coming.
Scott: Like Harris, who at points, he’s got the Wild Turkey and shotgun thing going on a la Hunter Thompson. Then early on in the tour, he takes on this Howard Beale, “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves,” going with…
Anthony: My number one movie of all time is Network.
Scott: He’s got this, “It’s all bullshit” line.
Anthony: Unlike Howard Beale, who believes what he’s saying, Harris does not. It’s a smoke screen. He’s really talking about himself. He’s thinks he’s bullshit.
When I construct my characters, I start by asking myself, “What is the thematic value of my story?” Then I go, “OK. Let’s meet someone at the beginning of this story who doesn’t believe in that value.” To me, a screenplay or a book, they’re like a thesis. You’re trying to either prove or disprove a value.
The theme leads me to the character’s flaw, but I remove the word “flaw” and I replace it with the word “armor.” Giving them a flaw makes me inherently judgmental of my characters. It’s hard not to do that. You judge them. You shouldn’t judge them. When you replace the word “flaw” with the word “armor,” you instantly have more empathy for them. It’s like, “This isn’t necessarily a bad person, it’s simply someone who is protecting herself from something terrifying.”
That helps me into act two, which is like, “How do I throw rocks at this armor?”
Scott: In Best Sellers, you’ve got an interesting twist there. At first, it’s like Lucy thinks she can ride Harris’s YouTube notoriety because instead of reading from the pages of his book on his public appearances, he’s doing outrageous things like urinating on books.
She’s trying to ride that, but there’s no book sales going on or generated from that, which suggests that there’s no authenticity there. It’s a ruse. The title of his new book is “A Stiff Prick Has No Conscience.” What’s the derivation of that? I’m thinking that’s got to have some metaphorical self-reference to Harris?
Anthony: For me, it was not only a fun choice, but it was inherent of how he might think about things, but it comes down to impotence.
Scott: Yeah, because he does have urinary problems.
Anthony: The world I tried to create within the fictional book is that the last man on earth is impotent and the last woman on earth is barren. I thought, “Wow! Can things be any more miserable?” From his perspective, yeah, it’s impotence. Ironically, Harris does have a conscience.
To me, there’s a certain degree of symbolism there. I don’t expect people to dig too deep into that, but you asked me a question. That’s where my thinking goes with it. That’s where it went. Again, those things don’t have to be on the page, but it’s more important that the writer is aware of them.
Scott: Like Tarantino says, “The audience doesn’t need to know everything about the characters, but they need to know that I know everything about them.”
Anthony: It’s true. I mean, “Can I answer your question as to why Harris named his book that?” It’s like, “Yeah, I pretty much think I can. One of the reasons is he doesn’t think he’s good enough. A great metaphor for that is you can’t screw.”
Scott: It’s interesting because you do a reversal. There’s a dual mantra thing going on. “It’s all bullshit.” It’s interesting to tie it to this idea of armor. That’s like his defensive stance.
The best defense is a good offense. It’s all bullshit. Meanwhile, she has her own little mantra, “You’re the best. You’re the best.” There’s a reversal that goes on there because she’s concerned that she’s got the shadow of her father looming over her.
Yet, over time, because she digs into his book and makes these editorial comments, two things happen. One, he comes to see her in a new way, and eventually she does, too, that she is good at this. Then also, the bullshit thing goes away, too. It’s spun away when he realizes that, “You know what? No, she’s right. There is some merit to this book.” Right?
Anthony: Yeah. I have nothing to say to that. You nailed it. [laughter] That’s exactly right. That’s what I was aiming for. So much of this is like, “What do you bring to this script?” I’m an only child whose father expected nothing but excellence. He worked 70-hour weeks. He’d come through the door. He’d walk past me and ask, “How are you doing in school?” I’d go, “I got an A.” He’d muss my hair up, and he’d say, “You’re the best!”
That stuff sticks with you. “OK, I’m the best, now what?” It creates this fear of not doing just as well the next time. “I better do well because that’s what matters to him.” You bring those fears to your work. It’s your emotional truth.
Another truth is that because my father worked so much, I was much closer to my mother. In many ways, I’m the daughter she never had. [laughs] Believe it or not, this made it easier for me to imagine a female protagonist and I had a blast writing her. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel like it mattered. Character motivations and wants aren’t exclusive to any gender.
Mind you, it was amazing how many people asked, “Why isn’t there a love interest in this story?” I’d tell them is a love story. All stories are love stories, but this is also about reconciliation. These two become surrogate father and daughter to each other. It doesn’t have to always be about physical love.

Tomorrow in Part 4, Anthony shares what it was like to learn he had won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting and how that has impacted his life.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Anthony is repped by Paradigm and Aperture Entertainment.

Twitter: @SwimCharlieSwim.

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