Interview (Part 3): John Gary

There are several reasons I have wanted to interview John Gary for some time. First and foremost, he’s a talented screenwriter. Second, he has a unique vantage point about the craft as it exists in today’s Hollywood. John has been outside the system, worked inside it, achieved some success, then hit a rough patch, made some key personal decisions and acted on them, which has led to his current situation in which he’s writing two studio projects, one for Lionsgate, one for Paramount. He’s also smart and has a keen understanding of the business side of screenwriting. Finally, John is the person who coined the phrase The Hope Machine as it relates to the whole cottage industry of screenwriting ‘gurus’ and consultants. So I was pleased to be able to grab an hour or so of John’s time recently for what turned out to be an insightful conversation.

Today in Part 3, John delves more deeply into his script “Sarah” which is set up at Lionsgate:

Scott: There’s another major character. Can we talk about Janus?
John: Absolutely. I love Janus.
Scott: You have several big twists in the story. One of them is the nature of the relationship between Sarah and Janus. Janus is an artificial intelligence this professor has come up with in secret.
The first thing that strikes me about the Janus character is the sense of humor he / it has. In most portrayals of an artificial intelligence, the tendency is to be dry and without much in the way of personality, but not Janus. What was your thinking there?
John: I’m not interested in people who aren’t people. I’m interested in people. I just wanted to write Janus as a person. Yes, the fact that he’s a computer, that’s part of the story.
But I’m interested in his psychology, in Sarah’s psychology. I’m interested in why he thinks and feels the things he does. I’m interested in the relationships he has. I’m not interested in Hal. Hal is a cool character, totally interesting and fascinating, but he’s not really a person. I like people. I think that we relate to people.
I think we go to movies because we want to see people having relationships with other people, exploring how they’re thinking and feeling. Along the way, things blow up. In the end, we go to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron not necessarily to see things blow up.
We go to see Robert Downey, Jr. experience those things and grapple with what he’s done, which is partly why that movie doesn’t really work for me, because it didn’t explore that enough. It was more focused on the zazzle. Edge of Tomorrow was such a great movie because we were in Tom Cruise’s psychology, what he was going through. We felt him grapple with it.
The movies that affect us and that we like are about people experiencing great or mundane things, either way, but reacting to them in human ways. I wanted to see Janus react to this in a human way.
Scott: It’s really interesting, too, because all the major characters in this story have world views and experiences that we can all relate to. Janus, who essentially becomes a nemesis figure, you can completely and totally sympathize with him because of what’s gone on. It’s reminiscent of the novel, “Frankenstein.”
John: Totally.
Scott: You completely sympathize with that character.
John: Yes. The book, “Frankenstein” was absolutely something that I went back to and revisited before I started working on this.
Scott: How much research did you do? There’s a lot of science involved.
John: I did a lot of reading about artificial intelligence, mostly from a theoretical standpoint, and transhumanism and ethics related to artificial intelligences. Also a lot of research into robotics, to get a sense of what that world these characters live in feels like.
It’s interesting, because not a lot of that stuff ended up in the movie. That was just pepper that you’d sprinkle in, here and there. The stuff that I think makes it actually feel science‑y and authentic are the people.
Mostly, though, I just wanted to capture what it’s like hanging out with physics nerds, and what it’s like when you’re at a table with a bunch of dorky people in the cafeteria, how they behave, interact, relate, and what they talk about. You don’t have to do a lot of it. There are not that many scenes where Sarah is hanging out with those classmates.
Scott: Just enough to give you a sense of it.
John: Exactly.
Scott: There is a line which gets repeated three times: “You are in the serious shit. I am in the serious shit. This is some serious shit.” I thought it was such a great line.
John: That’s just this great moment where Sarah’s boyfriend realizes “Oh. You really are in trouble. Wait — that means I’m in trouble. What the hell is going on here.” It’s a fun beat.
Scott: Have you seen Ex Machina?
John: Yes.
Scott: What’s your reaction?
John: I loved it. I thought it was really interesting. I think the third act has so many things to do, it falls apart a little bit, but whatever. By that time, you’re already along for the ride. Besides, how else are you going to end that thing?
Ex Machina is fascinating because it explores all of these questions of, “Who are we? What do we do?” in a very confined way. It’s so narrowly focused in a very traditional sci‑fi way that’s really gratifying for a sci‑fi guy like me. It’s all character.
Scott: I’d look at that, because I thought it was terrific, too. I’d say, “Hollywood’s a similar but different mentality.” Everybody that I know who’s seen it really liked it.
That would actually benefit Sarah, because people would say, “Wow, that’s accessible, so therefore, I can cover my ass, at least.” Then, also be inspired. Think, “Why not do this?”
John: Lionsgate has been super‑supportive of “Sarah”. They’ve just been great.
Scott: I know you’ve got some other projects. Some, you can’t talk about, but are there any others that you can discuss?
John: There’s a project at Paramount that was actually something I started on before “Sarah”. A year ago, my agent called me up and was like, “There’s this project at Paramount you should totally go in for.” He sent me the script, and it was a spec that they had just picked up. There’s a well-known actor who is producing it. Really great guy.
I was like, “Yeah, that sounds really cool.” I went in, pitched on it and got it. That was totally great. It was interesting. After the pitch and when we were having our first story meeting, one of the producers said to me I got the job based on how much I focused on character, which was incredibly gratifying.
I spent probably five or seven of 15‑minute pitch, a third to a half of the pitch was about character. It’s a big sci‑fi, far‑future kind of script. There’s a lot of technology and a lot of whiz‑bang stuff, but the thing that interested me most about it is, “Who are these people? What are they going through? How is that relevant to us, today?” The studio responded to it, and the producers did. I’ve been alternating between drafts of that project and “Sarah” for the last year.
Scott: I’m really glad to hear that you got that gig, in part, because the fact that they said, “You focused on character, talked about character.” You know me. The blog, my teaching, I emphasize the importance of character over and over and over again. That’s gratifying to hear. Good luck on both of those projects.
John: Thanks.

Tomorrow in Part 4, John talks about what he means when he talks about Hollywood and The Hope Machine.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

John is repped by ICM Partners and The Gotham Group.

Twitter: @johngary.

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