by Chadwick Clough
Thursday, July 19, 2002
CC: What did you do after UCLA?
SM: I worked for a temp agency called Apple One. They specifically place
you in entertainment related jobs. I became a full time temp at New Line
Cinema and floated from desk to desk when assistants were out sick, taking
vacations…etc. That actually led to my first job. When a position
opened up, they were familiar with me and I hit it off with one of the
executives. I ended up staying there for two years as her assistant.
CC: When did you intern for Lucas Foster?
SM: I worked for Lucas when I was a Junior and Senior in College.
CC: How did it go?
SM: The internship was an eye opener, you know, you're in college, you
don't know anything. You're working for free, doing the most menial tasks,
making copies. You learn the copy machine really well. That was basically
it. You're copying scripts, sometimes your reading scripts because one
of the assistants wants a second opinion or something. I remember to get
the internship they gave me the first draft of The Truman Show, without
a title page. And I had to read it and tell them if I thought it was good,
and that was like the litmus test. And I didn't know anything; I was like,
"Oh this is so brilliant, you have to buy it!" They were like,
"yeah, yeah, we know. It sold for like a million two, a year ago."
CC: So then what was the break? Where did New
Line take you and when did you first meet Rich?
SM: Actually an assistant for Lucas Foster, Sasha Alexander, who
is now an actress, introduced me to Rich because Rich needed a producer
for his graduate film. She was actually going to be one of the stars of
the film but she was going to produce it as well. So she didn't have the
time because she was going to act in it. So she introduced me to Rich,
and I read his script and it was just this short film that was completely
insane. It was like a sci-fi farce of a 1950's serial sci-fi film. Totally
absurd. About a corporation that invents a teleportation machine and teleports
a man. The thought behind it is that you can't teleport a man's soul,
so they inadvertently resurrect God by trying to do this, and obviously
it brings about destruction.
CC: Did you guys make this movie?
SM: Oh yeah, we made it, it was 35 mm, it ended up being, you know 48
minutes with 70 special effects shots.
CC: And this was while you were at UCLA and he
was at USC?
SM: This was right when we both graduated. So instead of doing the standard
Europe trips after school we went and played with all the tools that we
had from SC and UCLA - we raided the school and took everything we could
and we had all of Rich's friends from SC working on the crew, Ryan Lewis
was actually part of our crew. We were all doing everything.
CC: And then, what happened when you finished
SM: We finished it and we just didn't have the money to properly edit
it and do the visual effects so I went off and took the job at New Line
and Rich went off and took a job at the post house so he could use the
machines at the post house. He was literally serving cappuccinos to J.
Lo and Puff Daddy doing their video. And he always jokes about replacing
tampons in the women's bathroom. That was his job.
CC: And then editing at night?
SM: We met our editor, Sam Bauer, there, because Rich was working with
him and we started editing it at night. Rich and Sam would stay after
work and edit every night.
CC: Did you finally get it to a place where you
SM: Yeah, we got it to what we liked, and then we kind of just sat on
it. It was just kind of our experiment and over the course, I believe
it was '98 - it was the holidays, late '97, early '98. Rich showed up
with Donnie Darko. It was like 158 pages and he gave it to me. I had been
at New Line for 8 months or so and I read the script and I was just blown
away by it. It was really long but obviously he was a talent that doesn't
come around very often. So we spent maybe 3,4,5 months kind of just streamlining,
getting the script perfect, and cutting like 20 pages out of it and focusing
all of his ideas…
CC: Did you send the short anywhere?
SM: Well, we didn't send it anywhere. He still wouldn't have gotten directing
work out of it unless he was trying for commercials or music videos. He
knew he needed a companion piece to become a director so he just decided
to write his own script.
CC: Did he know that you had already decided that
you were going to produce?
SM: Yeah, I mean I think we both wanted to do it all.
CC: So when you guys met? You just hit it off?
SM: We just hit it off.
CC: So who was the first person who saw it after
this 4 or 5 month - and did he have an agent?
SM: No, no agent. I had met a lot of people, basically worked
for the number two or three at New Line, in Development. That was what
I was doing for a year and a half; you know reading scripts, working the
phones. All that stuff that assistants love to talk about so much. So
when we got the script ready I sent it to 8 assistants that I had made
friendships with over the years as an assistant at each agency. You know
my favorite person at each agency and said you've got to read this. And
literally within two weeks it had worked its way all the way up the ladder
at CAA and they called and immediately were just like, "Who the fuck
is this guy?" And I sent him over and he signed in the room that
very day. That was Christmas of '98 I think.
CC: And he's still with that same agent?
SM: We're still with the same people.
CC: Did you do any rewriting? How did you work
to keep Rich as director attached?
SM: We never really did a rewrite. Rich sat in the room at CAA and said,
"You know, I'd love for you guys to represent me, but here are two
things, I'm directing the script no matter what," and he's 23 at
CC: With little to show for it besides an incredible
SM: He was like I am directing this and that's that. "And two, Sean
is producing it and that's that." They said okay fine, and they supported
that. Then went the year long process of going out on a thousand meetings
with every studio executive and every other producer that they wanted
to team us up with. An experienced producer- that was a year long process
and it was tough.
CC: What was the break?
SM: Well the break was, Jason Schwartzman had read it and we didn't know
it because he was represented by a different agency. We had no idea that
he wanted to do it for about a year. He had been asking his agents, "What's
going on with Donnie Darko, What's going on with Donnie Darko…?"
And they were saying nothing because nobody had bought it. We wouldn't
sell it as a spec and we wouldn't change into the teen horror film that
so many companies wanted us to do. So his agents rightfully were telling
him well nothing is going on with this. And we finally just heard through
the grapevine that Schwartzman wanted to do it. So we immediately called
his agent and said well listen, if he wants to do this and we attach him,
it's going to get made. He just came off of Rushmore. Obviously, he is
very talented. When Jason came aboard then out of nowhere Nancy Juvonen
and Drew Barrymore (Flower Films), they were obsessed with Jason - they
wanted to know what Jason was doing or what Jason was planning on doing…
because they just thought he was great. So Sharon Sheinwold, Jason's agent
at UTA, sent the script over to Nancy, and Nancy read it and just flipped
out for it. And accosted our agent at show west, when they were all out
there for some other movie. And literally we were there the very next
day; sitting in Drew's trailer on the set of Charlie's Angel's talking
with her about the script. And at that point we were in the 2 million
dollar range for budget and literally we sat in the room with Drew and
Nancy - and if you ever meet them they are just the nicest people in the
world and they just loved the script. And literally Drew said I'd like
to play the English Teacher - if you let our company come on and produce
this with you? And we were like, uh, yeah! So immediately our budget went
up to 4.5. In that room we had a start date because Drew had a one week
window between Charlie's Angels and Riding in Cars with Boys, which was
July 24 through August 1. So we had that one week window, which was maybe
three months away so we were immediately in pre production and we were
deciding between two financiers. We went with the one we felt most comfortable
with. That was that.
CC: When did Jason leave the project?
SM: I don't remember what month it was, but we were a few months out from
shooting, and Jason had to leave because he had committed to another movie
that was literally starting the week that we were going to start, and,
or wait, it was wrapping a week after we were going to shoot. And we couldn't
make it work because we only had Drew for one week. And so he unfortunately
had to pull out of it.
CC: Was he upset?
SM: Yeah, I mean I'm pretty sure he was disappointed, and we were kind
of terrified. We're like, oh fuck; the guy who got this rolling is gone.
CC: Was Drew worried?
SM: Everyone was worried at first, but it was Drew and Nancy who just
said, "Guys, don't worry about it, we'll find someone to do it."
So literally over the course of the next two weeks we met with every really
talented young actor. There were a lot of guys who were just really, really
great. But literally the moment we met Jake, we met him in Drew's office
at Flower Films, Jake walked in and he was like fresh out of his first
or second year at Columbia, really a smart intellectual guy. And Rich
always said he knew it before he sat down that he was it. Even after talking
to him, he is just such a smart guy, intellectual, and just fun guy to
be around. And we just started talking about the script and it was really
immediately, right after that we had to take a few more meetings because
we had already scheduled them, just to be polite. But we knew it was him
and that was that, that was the end of it.
CC: So you had the shoot date, Drew was able to
bring you up to 4.5? How were the next three months?
SM: They were absolutely crazy, just constant work - 20 hour days.
CC: When did Rich get his DP, or how did that
SM: We met with a few DP's,
CC: During that three months right away?
SM: Yeah, we thought that since our budget was so low, that we weren't
going to get an A-list DP, or at least we didn't think so. And our line
producer would give us just stacks of resumes of working DP's that we
might be able afford. We really couldn't afford anyone, to be honest with
you, but DP's we MIGHT be able to afford. And we started going through
them and we came across one - a music video DP who was this extremely
talented guy, and Rich really hit it off with him. We met with him and
the financiers just wouldn't do it. He'd never shot a feature. We'd have
a first time director with a first time feature DP and they were just
like, no. So we thought, "we're fucked, we're screwed." The
guy we want and we think would be great for it, they won't allow. It was
disappointing. So we went back to the résumé's and we get
this guy's resume - Stephen Poster. And he's got like, Strange Brew, which
is a classic, to Big Top Peewee; but the one that really got us was Someone
To Watch Over Me, which was, oh my god he shot a Ridley Scott Film. And
we were like, 'would this guy even be interested in doing this?' And Stephen
came and met with Richard at his place and he's an older guy, certainly
not OLD, but probably mid-50's. And he sat down and said the first thing
I want you to do is disregard our age difference. And the second thing
I want you to do is know that I never, ever want to be a director. And
they just totally hit it off. Stephen's a brilliant guy and he's one of
the main reasons why the movie looks like it does. Right now he's actually
the President of the ASC. He just came off shooting Stuart Little Two.
He's just kind of like this living working legend within the cinematography
community and he just did a brilliant job. He's the nicest, sweetest guy
you'll ever meet in your life. He was just a Godsend. Sometimes things
just completely work out and that was the biggest of them all.
CC: Is there anything else about Darko we didn't
touch on that you would want to talk about, from a writing standpoint?
SM: Well, it was a little bit different, because he was a writer/director.
But, when and if a script goes into production, the script is completely
malleable. And one thing that Rich did as a writer, and director - he
and Jake literally sat down for a week and went through every line of
dialogue that Donnie said. And a lot of subtle changes were made. He did
that with all the actors. So you're script is going to change and get
better. And we also, because of budget constraints, had to really condense
the script. We shot about 108 page script. When it was green lit it was
128. So it was good for that kind of movie because it made us really focus
the story. If not, I think there would have been a lot more confused people
than there already were, after it came out.
CC: So why don't we go on to, tell me what's happened
since Darko - you started Darko Productions, with Richard.
SM: Yeah, well Rich has 6 or 7 scripts that he's just sitting
on. Most recently we're doing a project called Knowing for Escape Artists
and Columbia. We're casting a lead right now, and once we get the lead
we're in pre production. It's our first studio-backed film. It was based
on a really good script, not a great script - and Rich just totally, page
one rewrote it and made it his own. He took all of the good ideas out
of that script and just put it through his head. So that's what we're
doing now, he's going to direct that.
CC: Are you guys still looking for other material
SM: Always. We have a couple scripts that he has not written and that
I have not written that we're just producing. And using our experience
over the past two or three years helps when working with young writers.
CC: And what would you say specifically you're
looking for, if there is anything specific?
SM: You know, I don't think there is really anything specific. It's just
originality. There is a great question in here about marketability.
CC: How much would you recommend a writer to go
with his/her most commercial or sellable idea?
SM: I think that's a fine line. When I'm looking at a script, I think
marketability is the wrong word for it. I think originality is the word
for it. Obviously, a more independent film would be more difficult to
put together. But as long as it's original and well written you'll be
able to find other ways to make it marketable. Because if it's really
well written and it's a really original script, no matter how dark or
how light, you're going to be able to cast it, and that's what they market.
They're going to market the cast. Whereas, one trap with a lot of first
time writers, including myself when I wrote my first script, is to fall
into trying to write a script that is based on one kind of running joke,
or running premise. And it ends up just being the entire thing… the
same joke… the same running idea. And it's not good writing. If you
want to be a working writer, I would suggest writing something original.
And if it just happens to be something that a studio exec would happen
to find marketable great. If not, it's still going to prove that you're
a great writer. Never try and write something only because you think it
will sell. That's the trap.
CC: What do you think makes producers keep reading?
Or you keep reading?
SM: It would be something original. Originality is everything. That's
how Donnie Darko got made because it was so original, and mind you one
of the most difficult films to get made was Donnie Darko.
CC: How hard was that decision regarding the money
and not just selling your script a long time ago?
SM: Well, that was tough. We could have certainly sold it off and made
money, but we wouldn't have careers. We could have let somebody else take
it and do what they want with it. Turn it into something its not. And
we could have walked away with a lot more money. We took the bare minimum
to survive during Darko. We had control over the budget so we dictated
what we were paid, and we were paid just enough to get by while we were
shooting, I mean it was nothing.
As far as the control goes, we kind of got lucky in a lot of ways. Since
we had Flower Films, and they had a few movies under their belt, and the
fact that we were at Pandora/Gaylord… We were their first green light
and they hadn't really set up an infrastructure on how to deal with production.
We really were left alone to do our thing. There was really no intervention
until editing, when they came in and just demanded it to be shorter. That's
where the problems came about, although its problems that come about with
every movie, every director and independent film- it's too long. But we
were left completely alone. We were on schedule all the time and we surrounded
ourselves with a tremendous crew, an A-list crew across the board. As
long as you're on schedule and not wasting money. We were just completely
left alone, which was great, I don't think they had time to bug us. They
maybe visited the set once or twice.
CC: Let's talk about advice for writers going
into meetings with agents, managers, producers.
SM: Do your homework, I would say. It is the number one thing I would
say, with any of those; agents, managers, producers.
CC: Take criticism well?
SM: Always take criticism well. That's the number one thing that a writer
has to be able to do. You have to realize this is the most collaborative
business there is. Everybody has their opinion, right or wrong, and if
you're not allowed to listen to it you're never ever going to make it.
CC: And everybody needs to respect the fact that
once you finish the script there's people out there that are trying to
sell it and make it happen.
SM: Yes, and getting in the business with agents, managers and producers
- its subtlety different for each one. Good agents work for you. That's
what they do; they make 10% of what you make. And good ones revel in that.
They just want to help you. There are a lot of really great agents out
there, but certainly there are a lot of really bad agents as well- just
as there are bad producer's bad writers, and bad director's and so on.
It's doing your homework, talking to people. If it's an agent, what other
clients do they have? Do you get along with them? Do you like them as
a person, not that that's completely necessary - it just depends on your
style. But really do your homework on that. Managers are on a different
frame; they kind of guide your careers a little bit more than agents do.
Certainly I think there are more bad managers than there are good managers.
I happen to know a lot of good managers, which is lucky. Rich doesn't
have a manager and we just don't plan on having one, simply because we
don't need one. When you're a writing, directing, producing team you don't
need a manager to take another 15%. Some writers really do benefit from
a good manager that can help you continually adapt your script and make
CC: Explain for aspiring writers how difficult
pitch meetings are? Why new time writers don't go in and pitch a project.
SM: I'll start with the back end of that question first. When you go in
to pitch something and you're pitching to an executive or whoever, you're
not going to be able to really pitch an idea and have then buy it for
you to write if they don't even know if you can read. If you don't write
something to show that you can write, how can they pay you to write something?
Even if you have a great idea, you can go in and pitch something and they'll
buy the idea and hire a writer to do it, but you won't be writing it.
Writers need to write and that's the bottom line. Even if it doesn't get
seen by people you need to keep writing. But in order to be effective
and sell a pitch, to get them to pay for your writing, you have to have
something to show people.
CC: Would you agree with the saying that if you
write something good you could drive down on the highway in LA and throw
it out the window and somebody will recognize it? In the sense that for
writers who are so attached to their project that they still believe that
it's something that needs to be told and it's a story that has potential?
SM: I never subscribe to the theory by writers that I've written something
so brilliant that nobody will recognize it, because "I don't know
people in this town." I'm not the son of so and so or the daughter
of so and so, I don't know anybody - I don't subscribe to that at all.
I think that if you write something great it will find its way to the
top, no matter what. It honestly will. If you write a great script it's
going to find its way into the right hands- unless you lock it in your
room and don't show it to people. There are a thousand people in this
town that are hungry, from interns to assistants. I mean an intern, even
when I was an assistant, if an intern walked up to me and said, "my
god, this guy wrote this brilliant script and you've got to read it,"
I would read it. And then I'd give it to my boss. And that boss would
give it to that boss, and it would get up there if it's good.
CC: So it doesn't matter if its agencies, production
companies, just get it out there?
SM: Just get it out there. If it goes into a studio or production company
first and they're interested don't go into anything without getting an
attorney and having an attorney draw you up a deal. Because that's the
only way you can get screwed. As long as there's interest you can find
attorney's out there, just the same way you can get your script out there.
And they don't work on hourly rates; entertainment attorneys take 5% of
what you make, so they're working for you, just like your agent or your
manager is working for you. They don't tell you what to do; they work
for you. It always upsets me when people say, "oh I've written this
brilliant script but nobody will give it a chance." I just don't
think that's true.
CC: And how about living in Los Angeles or New
SM: Obviously the majority of everything film and television happens in
LA. There's no doubt about that. But as a writer, you can live anywhere.
I have writer friends who are extremely successful…
CC: But if you had a script from somebody in New
Zealand and somebody said I can't come meet, I'm living here - would that
at all change things that somebody's living in Venice…
SM: It depends on what they wanted to do…
CC: But I mean if you wanted to make the movie?
SM: If I wanted to produce and make the movie? No, it wouldn't have any
effect on me. I think the only time they would run into a problem was
if he wanted to go pitch a story of theirs to all the studios, you can't
really pitch over conference room tables out of a speaker phone. But as
far as writer, you can live anywhere really. As long as what you write
is good, you can live in Iceland and it won't matter.
CC: How have things changed since Darko? For you
personally and in terms of what your vision is for future projects?
SM: Personally, it's a lot easier to get people on the phone, that's for
sure. Nothing changed financially; we're still struggling like we were
before. It was an independent film; we didn't make any money off of it.
Certainly people as…
CC: Did the bank make money? Who financed it?
SM: A company called Gaylord Entertainment. They'll make money in the
long run, certainly.
CC: Are they happy, can you go back to them?
SM: I don't know. Personally, probably not. They don't make the kind of
movies that we want to make. They made A Walk to Remember. That is not
really our taste and I think both of us know that. They kind of inherited
our film when they acquired Pandora; which was the French finance company
that distributed movies like Shine.
CC: But you and Rich are looking to go big next,
I mean bigger?
SM: Certainly, I think when people talk about going to "bigger"
films; I think that's kind of the wrong way to look at it -
CC: Twenty-five million and up?
SM: Yeah, I mean our next film will be twenty-five million or up. There's
no doubt about it. Studios can only make movies for a certain amount of
money. And they need to spend money to make money. That's how the studio
system works. We have a film that we're sitting on for another few years,
because it's going to cost $75-80 million to make and we know we couldn't
get that amount from somebody right now. But I think that a film should
only cost as much as it should and if we were to spend $20 million on
Donnie Darko it would have been really, really bad. It would have been
unfair for us to try and get that because what your film is should dictate
how much you should spend on it. And Donnie Darko was a film that all
the actors worked for scale. All the crew worked for scale as well. And
that's how it should have been. When you have a movie like Men in Black
II, that's 120 plus, that movie should cost that much because they know
how much they're going to make, it's already built in. There are films
out there where I hear their budget and I'm like, "well, where did
it go because it certainly didn't end up on the screen." So if I
were to go into a studio and ask for $50 million for a very small character
piece that takes place in a house that would be very irresponsible of
me. And you need to be very responsible with your money. Certain films
should be made for $5 million and certain films should be made for 100.
And certainly we would love to have all that money to play with but this
is a business, and I don't want to lose money for anyone.
CC: But the goal is to keep your vision just make
bigger movies, or spend more money?
SM: Well, we want to make movies that more people will want to see. Nobody
saw Donnie Darko. Thank God for DVD's, now people can actually see it
more. But we want to make bigger films in the sense that, 'I want to make
that film that comes out on 2500 screens.' That's a step that you strive
for but we have other films that are big ensemble pieces and it would
be irresponsible for us to try and make a big ensemble for $40 million.
You make it for 15, and that's just how you do it. You have to understand
everybody wants to make money, but that's not the only thing for us.
CC: That's what I was trying to get at.
SM: If you're doing that, I respect that too, but it's just not really
CC: But it's for your fans?
SM: Yeah. There are certain film makers out there that make the big budget,
really awful blockbusters that make an enormous amount of money, and more
power to them. I respect them for that because most of them know what
they're doing. I don't respect the guys that do big blockbusters and then
claim they should be up for Oscar's. Those are the ones that you're not
making art, you're making popcorn films. It's equally valid, just don't
try and cherry coat a popcorn film.
CC: Do you think it's easier to make a popcorn
film, than Darko for instance?
SM: I think it's easier to get made. It's certainly not easier to make.
CC: Right now would there be other scripts you
guys could have passed down that would have been easier to go with?
CC: So, its not "We made Darko, now we're
successful, now we're going to make one big one that's going to make tons
SM: No, absolutely not. You have to build a career. If we were to do that
we would lose the very few fans that we already have. And plus, I wouldn't
put my name on something that I wouldn't be proud of, just to buy a cool
car, you know? It's just not how we work, and I understand some people
have to do that. But we've learned to live on Yop Ramen, and we're okay
I don't think it's the sell out factor for me, and you always get upset
when someone does a really daring first film because they could get a
guaranteed first film for such a small amount of money and then they go
off and do the big studio comedy where literally they could phone it in;
phone the direction, producing, writing from where they are. Just to up
their quotes or whatever, it's the wrong way to go.
CC: How many producers did it actually take to
get Darko made?
SM: The producers on Darko who did something know that they did something.
The proliferation of producer credits is one of the most horrible things
in this town. You look at the credit list of these films, and mind you
I have this lithograph of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in my bedroom.
And it says, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, and nothing else.
And you look at other movies and there are 13 credited producers. And
I guarantee you 10 of them did nothing. It's just in their contracts,
they're either managers of one of the actors or writers or they're the
Executives at the studio, although most of the studios don't do credits.
There are attachments here and there.
CC: But people know that.
SM: Sure, but that still doesn't make it right. And it takes away from
the very few producers that actually pour their heart and soul into the
CC: Describe how much you and Nancy actually had
to do. What producing an independent film means.
SM: It means everything. Your job is to make everything go smoothly. So
you have to be on top of every single department. Whether its costume
or just the script itself, everything goes through you. And your job is
to make it possible and easy for the director to direct. And do their
job. And stay on top of the director and let them know if you think they're
doing something wrong or whatever.
It's different for me because Rich and I are business partners and we
do so much more collaborating than the standard director, producer relationship.
For Darko, the independent film it was two years nonstop work. For one
tiny little film that you're getting paid nothing for. It was full time
CC: And tell me now what it's like to be bouncing
around back and forth between studios, what that whole world is like.
SM: It's a difficult world, just because we're kind of like the Darko
guys. Ooh, these guys are dark and they'll never do anything that we can
sell. It's so not the truth. We could go out there and just sell a bunch
of Rich's scripts but we'd lose control over them and we're all about
control, because we know how quickly a good movie can turn bad… And
get sucked up in the system, with too many people adding their opinions.
There are a lot of really untalented people out there. And it's your job
to find the talented people within the executive ranks, producer ranks,
writer rinks. That's your job. All the way down to the crew. If you hire
a bad DP or a bad line producer who can't handle the crew or the budget,
that's your fault. You need to be on top of everything. And that kind
of functions into being a writer too. You have to realize these other
people around you are just trying to help. You'll know the people that
aren't trying to help, you'll know right away. People that aren't trying
to help show their spots very quickly.
CC: Also, as a writer, you have to write so that
it is easy for all these other people to come in and do their job?
SM: If there's something in the script and someone says I don't understand
this, then you need to look at that. If somebody doesn't understand this,
then an audience member is not going to understand this, so you need to
address that and you need to be willing to be collaborative. And if you
can't do that, you are not going to work as a writer, mark my word. You
will not work as a writer if you are a not a collaborative person.
CC: Especially for writers who don't have representation
what are some other guidelines you could suggest? In terms of, don't add
music, or go attack the story.
SM: Just don't regurgitate is the big one in terms of stylistically
and format wise. As long as you're writing in a script program the format
is going to be good enough. I would suggest reading a lot of scripts,
this helps. But do not every try to regurgitate another writer's writing.
People are going to respond to your writing style and you have to develop
your own style. And I don't adhere too much to these unwritten rules that
I learned in school that are just like, "don't add music, or parentheticals,
or notes to the reader. I personally don't like it when a writer adds
in a ton of shots, 'Cut to', or close up, etc. - unless that's a style
ingrained in the actual story… But if its unnecessary, if you're
directing your script as opposed to writing, that's bad. You shouldn't
be doing that. Let the director direct.
CC: Would any of this be any different than big
SM: No, no. People work their rate as readers, whether their agent's
executives or anything, they're not going to be too stuck up about the
standard original format that you'll learn about in the screenwriting
books. In my opinion, a lot of those books just throw out. There are certainly
good ones: William Goldman's one is really good. I don't subscribe to
screenwriting books telling people how to write screenplays. As long as
you know the format, and you can learn that by reading one script that
you can go buy or get from a friend in town. You can even order them on
line. Just as long as you know the format and the basic rules. Just develop
your own style. It's like if you're a novelist and someone is telling
you that you can't start a sentence with a preposition, when every other
great author in the world had proven that you can and should sometimes.
I don't subscribe to that. I think in order to be original you have to
write original. Rich actually puts lots of different stuff in his scripts
to make it more visual. Sometimes he'll put little diagrams of a drawing
that he can't describe perfectly, just so they'll get it right. If there's
blood written on the wall, he'll do some format thing where he'll show
it, he'll have it inside the script. I don't subscribe to these rules,
because those rules are made to be broken as long as you're not just going
against the standard format. And it would be hard to go against the format
if you're writing in a script program.
CC: But Darko had a lot of structural issues.
SM: But that's how it was written in the script. That's exactly
how it was.
CC: But Rich went to film school and so that seeped
out obviously, in more than one sense.
SM: Well Rich, obviously you're going to learn from reading and
writing other things, that's exactly how you do it. I don't think writers…
CC: But would you say to the point where the three
act structure is the key?
SM: I think if you're telling a good story it naturally has a
three act structure. I don't think you should freak yourself out if you're
writing and say, "Oh my God by page 35 I have to have my character
hit the first wall." I think that just naturally comes out. If you're
telling a story you know how long it is. Your three act structure will
come out of it naturally. And I think over outlining and being concerned
with where you're at in the story - it's just going to hold you back.
You can always go back and condense it to meet a more typical three act
structure. Or if you've ran long, you can go back and read it and my god
I'm really not getting into the story until page 50, well then condense
those first 50 pages, and there will be your act one.
CC: Do you or Rich use Outlines, Treatments?
SM: Rich certainly does not. He does not outline very much at
all. He outlines in his head.
CC: So when he sits down to write a script, I
know you said he can write a script in three days?
SM: Yes, he just shuts himself off and writes and it makes me
insanely jealous because I haven't been able to do that. I'm trying to
learn, but it's tough. Literally, we would be over at his house watching
the Laker game and 20 people are drinking and eating and having a great
time watching the Laker game. And he's writing a script with all this
noise around him and he'll write ten pages right there. You literally
have to shake him to get him out of it. He just concentrates and just
gets in the groove. Outlining works for certain people, I think, but I
found that speaking from personal experience, that over outlining is probably
one of the worst things that you can do. You end up spending more time
outlining that you do writing. And it won't feel natural when you're reading
it. I wrote a really horrible script because I over outlined it. And it
was like I knew where I was going and the next page it was like, 'get
there real quick, get there real quick'…it was a terrible script.
I never showed it to anyone. Literally, you should know where you're going,
but you don't need to necessarily write it down. I think writers who incessantly
outline, over-write their own story.
CC: How about advice for letting writers knows
when to put a script down, say you've been working on it for six months,
or a year, when do I start my next script?
SM: Oh, that's a tough one. That's a case to case one I think.
CC: In general, a lot of writers I've dealt with
have been working on a script for the two plus years that I've known them.
Well, more from a producers mindset what I'm trying to get at is, and
from what we've just been talking about with Rich, is that maybe that
script is good, and there is some good stuff there, but you need to keep
SM: Well, that's where the collaboration comes in. Every writer
should have a group of friends or professionals they trust. You value
their opinion and you should be willing to show a script that maybe you
are halfway done with it, and you're stuck and you don't know where to
go with it. Sometimes it just takes an extra push. You can give it to
a couple of your friends and get their opinion. And you've got to give
it to people that are going to give you an honest opinion, that's the
biggest thing. And you've got to be willing to take that criticism. And
sometimes that's all it takes.
Specifically I was writing a script and I kind of got stuck right in the
middle of it and I gave it to Rich. And I kind of got stuck in my own
foe pas, kind of a one joke thing. And that's why I got stuck, writing
a one line script.
CC: What books and movies influenced you as a
SM: Stephen King was probably the biggest author that I read growing
up. I was madly obsessed with all of his books. Stephen King's 'On Writing',
that is a book every writer should read. The moral of it is just sit down
and write. It's a great book for any writer to read, screen writer or
not. Movies, God, I'm really influenced by film makers. Spielberg and
Ridley Scott, any of their movies or Peter Weir, Fearless. Milos Forman
with One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest and Coppola with The Godfathers.
Those are the greats, the films I found myself becoming obsessed with…
CC: How about more independent stuff?
SM: Christopher Nolan, Memento and Insomnia. That guy can do whatever
he wants, brilliant guy. Spike Jonze is one of the next big guys. Sam
Mendes - if you can get Tom Hanks in your second film you're doing pretty
well for yourself. Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne - these are the next
generation guys. Obviously, Darren Aronovsky with Requiem for a Dream.
On the other end, really independent movies, I have a tremendous amount
of respect for Todd Solondz. All three of his films are brilliant.