Scott Frank interview
I’ve known Scott for over twenty years, ever since he was a student in my father’s screenwriting class at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Though not a screenwriter, my father was very smart, very creative, very supportive, had really good taste and was an inspirational teacher to a generation of UCSB screenwriters. Scott considered my father, his father and he was right. My father was as proud of Scott as he was of any of his sons. They had a rare relationship.
I’d drive up from L.A. and talk to my father’s devoted classes. It was a great thing to do as a father/son thing. It also turns out it was good for the students as well.
Scott Frank has become one of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters. He was nominated for an Oscar for GET SHORTY. When I asked Scott about having a conversation for this book, he graciously agreed.
Here it is…
FADE IN: EXT. PASADENA SIDE STREET - DAY Carrying a black leather book bag, TOM LAZARUS, shaved head, burly, walks in a hurry up to a three-story luxury loft building. On the wall outside the front door, he presses the code on the directory. SCOTT'S VOICE Yes. TOM It's Tom. SCOTT'S VOICE Come on up, to the top. EXT. LOFT BUILDING - DAY Sunlit exterior catwalks lead to Scott's Loft. The door's open. Tom walks in. INT. SCOTT'S LOFT - DAY SCOTT FRANK, forties, a few days worth of whiskers, a handsome man, in jeans and a black t-shirt. SCOTT Hey... They shake hands. Tom looks around. It's sumptuous good taste. TOM Great place. Two thousand square feet, two seating areas with comfortable couches and Arts and Crafts furniture, a mahogany pool table, and many original movie posters, of DEAD AGAIN and OUT OF SIGHT, and MINORITY REPORT, as well as LAURA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. SCOTT I love the neighborhood. There's writers and actors in the building. It's wonderful. TOM I want to be you when I grow up. They both LAUGH. Tom puts his mini-tape recorder on the marble kitchen island counter between them. He presses RECORD. TOM (continuing) We're just going to be talking. This is a process book. It isn't about celebrity names... SCOTT ...or how to get an agent... TOM ..or how to sell a screenplay, but it's about the process of rewriting and about being a writer. Okay? SCOTT Okay. TOM What do you want the readers to know about you? A long, long pause. Tom smiles. TOM (continuing) You're going to have to answer a lot faster than that. Scott LAUGHS. SCOTT Well, I don't know. TOM They're writers, or want to be writers. What do you want them to know about you so that they know from whence you speak? SCOTT In terms of like a bio? TOM That's in terms of your answer. (smiling again) I'm not going to be feeding you many of these answers. Scott smiles. SCOTT All right. TOM Notice how aggressive I've become. SCOTT ('intimidated') Oh, my God... LAUGHTER. SCOTT (continuing) And all this gets printed in the book? TOM Every word. Nice huh? SCOTT (sarcastic) That's terrific. LAUGHTER again. TOM (into the tape recorder) Scott's now running for the window. More LAUGHTER. Scott thinks for a beat, then... SCOTT I want them to know...it took me a long time to get where I am right now, that I've been doing it for twenty years, I've had seven or eight films made in that time. Four or five of which I really like. That I love, love writing and I couldn't live without writing. TOM That was my last question for you ...do you love writing? SCOTT Do you want me to hold that? TOM No, no, it's great, because that's what it's about. SCOTT (continuing) I want them to know I take it very seriously and treat it like an art. And I think unlike most writers today unfortunately, who treat it like a means to an end... as a way to become a director, or simply a way to make money. I really believe screenwriting is an art unto itself. A script can actually be a finished piece of art. It is something that is obviously then interpreted. Tom checks his tape recorder. It's recording. TOM Not just a blue print? SCOTT Not just a blue print. It becomes a blue print, but in my mind I treat it...I can't compromise ahead of time. TOM Does that mean that when you then finish a script, that your satisfaction is there...that the script doesn't need to be made? SCOTT My satisfaction is in the writing, in the solving of the problems while I'm writing....the process, for me, is the most satisfying aspect of everything. Standing in the back of the theatre watching a finished movie, trying to find satisfaction is very illusive... it's something you can't get hands or your head around. TOM Is that a result of the collaborative medium movies is? SCOTT It's a result of the process being so powerful everything else is a let down, that's what it is. TOM But, it's also the thing you do alone. SCOTT Yes. TOM Without other hands. SCOTT Yes. TOM That's what I find, once it leaves my computer, I have to get my satisfaction at the point. Scott nods. SCOTT Right. TOM Because I can't depend on anything else giving me satisfaction. SCOTT That's true, because it gets confusing after that. TOM Changing pace for a second...what do you think is the key to your success? SCOTT I've made a career of consistently being the dumbest guy in the room. Tom LAUGHS. TOM What does that mean? SCOTT That means always try to work for people who are smarter than you are. Always seek out people who are smarter than you are and it makes you a better writer. TOM Yeah, but what about the people out there who don't have that luxury...don't have that option? SCOTT It's a goal...it becomes a goal. And so if you're surrounded by people who you respect, working with people you respect, it becomes confusing when they start asking hard questions about your work. TOM "Hard questions" meaning? SCOTT Hard questions challenging the work, trying to make it "better." TOM And your feeling is they can be good notes or bad notes? SCOTT It's often difficult to tell. A bad note may be a good note that just doesn't fit with what you're trying to do. TOM What do you do in that situation? SCOTT I, after all these years, still have to try their note. I don't know they are wrong until I've tried it and I feel it go through my brain and my pen...and then I know it doesn't feel right. TOM Do you show it to them? SCOTT Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I feel I have to show it to them to make the argument that it doesn't work. TOM And if they don't see it? SCOTT They most often see it. And, by the way, most of the time I probably don't show it to them. Most of the time if it's so obviously wrong, I'd rather think about what their problem was with the scene or the section of the screenplay...and say okay here's their problem...their specific solution may not be right, but I do understand the problem they're having and if I try something that doesn't work or doesn't feel right, well then I'll continue to try to work on the problem. That doesn't mean that the problem has been misdiagnosed. TOM What happens when you get in the room and they give you the criticism and then they'll try and solve it for you? Do you encourage that? Scott smiles, then... SCOTT I listen. I don't know if I discourage it or encourage it so much as...you have to be careful because once I hear something, it plants a flag in my brain and stakes out territory in my creative subconscious and I don't want to write to that. What I'm looking for is direction sometimes. So, sometimes, even a bad idea might give me direction. What I don't want to do is get attached to something. I don't want to spit back something someone's given me. TOM This brings up the whole spitball thing that I believe should be outlawed by the Writer's Guild if they could legislate these things. SCOTT Really. Tom fusses with tape recorder again. SCOTT (continuing) We could move if it'd be more comfortable over there. He indicates the couches. TOM This is fine for me. This way you're close enough for me to attack you. LAUGHTER. SCOTT Can't let me slip away. More LAUGHTER. TOM Your career? Based on originals? Adaptations? Or? SCOTT Initially, it was based on originals. Lately, it's based more on adaptations. But, I'm back to doing more originals. TOM Do you like adapting? SCOTT I love adapting. TOM That's a form of rewriting. You're rewriting something for the screen. SCOTT It is absolutely a form of rewriting. TOM Do you have a process for rewriting? A system? SCOTT I don't know that I do. TOM Then, since writing is rewriting, let's talk about your writing process. How many drafts does it take to get to a first draft? SCOTT Dozens. TOM All rewrites? SCOTT All rewrites. TOM Over how much time? SCOTT I don't know, it's usually, off and on, working on something for about a year before I have a first draft. TOM How about "official" drafts, five or fifteen? SCOTT Closer to fifteen. TOM How do you know you're finished? Scott smiles. SCOTT I'm never finished. TOM How do you know when to show it someone? SCOTT A feeling. You feel like you've come to a full rest...in terms of the creative burst. I collaborate very intensely with certain producers I've worked with over and over. We go back and forth with the material and you feel an intensification - is that a word? - of the process. You feel it all rushing toward the end. TOM An arc of creativity? SCOTT Yes. And then you get to a point where it feels burnished for the moment, until people start reading it and you start getting the same sort of comments or criticisms over and over and you know, okay, that part's not done. I don't reread my own material, which is a flaw. I can't read it printed out. I reread what I wrote the day before. I go through... TOM (interrupting) Let's start at the beginning...you open up page one, FADE IN:, you write the first day, what's your process after that? SCOTT I rewrite as I go. I always rewrite what I did yesterday to get me into my work today. I'll start at the beginning sometimes and I'll go through the script up to where I'm at right now and then I work for a while and add another brick. Then, I'll go back and work on all the other bricks, then I add another brick. Tom raises his fist in the air. TOM That's it! Readers out there have to understand how to do this. Scott smiles. SCOTT Okay. TOM Right down to "I pick up the pencil and I begin to write." SCOTT Okay. TOM Do you look for specific things when you rewrite? SCOTT Yes. When I'm doing a pass, oftentimes I'll decide this script needs to be paced better, so I think about... TOM (interrupting) So you do a pacing rewrite? Scott hesitates. SCOTT I don't think I do one thing at a time when I do rewrite. I'm aware of the pacing and I go looking through the script for pacing, I will say sometimes, okay, this section is very slow. Why is it slow? What can I do? Can I intercut here? Can I put some of the dialog into voice over to just make it feel like it's moving. Why does it feel like it comes to a full stop here? What needs to be done to amp up the pace slightly? I may feel like a character has become not strong enough. The character may be a little too muted. So, I'll go through the script and I'll work on making sure his or her dialog is more pointed and their actions are stronger depending on what's wrong with the character. I'll focus on that. A lot of times, the bulk of what I do when I rewrite - I tend to like very complex narrative structures - and so things aren't clear, dimes aren't dropping in the right places... TOM You work from an outline, or cards, or beat sheet or anything to help organize your complex narrative structure? SCOTT I work with from anywhere between twenty and fifty pages of notes I've written. TOM Chronological notes? SCOTT No. They're notes about each character. They're notes about the place where the story takes place. They're research thoughts. They're snippets of dialog that I've collected in my head, that I know have to be included but I don't know where. And then, what I may do is organize the movie very generally, rather than a beat sheet I'll do a very general organization - just telling the story in my head - I might do that in a beat sheet format, I don't get that specific, because I've learned over the years, that when I'm specific, I end up straying from that outline. Because I so work from character, the more I learn and get into my character, I tend to stray from the beat sheet and if I adhere to it, it feels mechanical, whereas if I follow the character, I tend to get a better story. TOM As you write, I assume your characters develop over the course of your script and you go back and rewrite the front to sync it up to what you've learned about the characters? SCOTT Yes. I can't go any further until I've fixed what needs fixing. I have to go back. I can't pretend like it's fixed and go on to the end. TOM You also mentioned the flaw...or a flaw of your work is you don't read your own work. What does that mean? SCOTT It means when I have a draft, a lot people print up their pages and they read them. They read a hardcopy of their script. I panic when I do that. It all looks horrible because I'm in a weird mindset that is part loss of perspective, part intense concentration and utter lack of self confidence. So, if I go back it's very easy to push me off of something. I can go back and reread pages once I've handed them to you and you've told me they're good or, at least, decent. I can go back and reread them. Then, I feel safe to go reread them. TOM Going a little far afield here... LAUGHTER. SCOTT (worried) Un oh... They smile at each other. TOM If Scott Frank can't be confident, who can? SCOTT I don't know. This is a question I ask myself constantly. The irony is that when I talk to people about writing, the single most powerful characteristic of any good character is confidence and I lack it completely. Scott LAUGHS. TOM What I deal with as a writer, and I'm very lucky, is - most writers I believe have a mantra in their heads saying "I'm worthless, why would anyone want to read this?" Scott nods knowingly. TOM (continuing) My mantra is "I'd like to accept this Academy Award..." Scott LAUGHS again. TOM (continuing) It truly is. When I write I go "This is great. This is fuckin' fantastic." I'm a freak of nature. (after a beat) What do you do to get over your lack of confidence? SCOTT You can't write when you're being so self-critical, I get seized up and just can't function. So what I do is so - is a combination of things - I get so panicked because I've taken so long, you know, just angsting about it that I actually have to go to work. TOM How do you procrastinate? SCOTT I read, I take notes about the script, I do all the other work...all the busy work...but write. Sometimes I need to do that. Sometimes it's paid off that I've done that. I say look at all that junk I've done early on...and I can pull something out of it. But, oftentimes, it's about getting me to relax...and then the voices become more like the radio in the next room...all those voices, the mantra that I have... (smiling) ...that others have: "I'm a fraud, this is the one where they're going to figure it out. You got so much help on the last one." All those voices retreat like the radio in the next room and so it becomes - I'm aware of them, but they're not bothering me and I can go to work, because it's unrealistic to think you can ever completely remove those voices from your head. They're there. What you can do is manage them. And that's what I do. I manage them. TOM I'm more into the lobotomy school of screenwriting. Both men LAUGH. SCOTT I've gotten close. TOM When you're rewriting, is there anything you have to watch for in your writing? SCOTT Yes. Too much story. I tend to have diarrhea of the plot. Tom CRACKS UP. SCOTT (continuing) Far too much plot and, oftentimes, the mistake I make is I approach movie storytelling like I'm writing a novel. I want to try and find a way to incorporate all those artful digressions you have in a novel into a movie and it gets me into trouble. TOM So you know you have to watch that as you rewrite? SCOTT Yes. And I tend to fall in love with minor characters and give them too much position in the screenplay. TOM Common. SCOTT I'm sure. Therefore, the screenplay becomes weighted in the wrong direction and that, in turn, affects pace. TOM Do you have readers before you give your screenplay to a producer? SCOTT No. TOM So you make a very small universe. SCOTT Yes. TOM Okay, you hand in the script. You've done twelve drafts, you've gone through all your anxiety, you've done all your procrastinating, you hand it in, they wait too long to give you the notes... Scott smiles. TOM (continuing) ...they make you feel bad. SCOTT Right. TOM (continuing) They don't care about what you feel. How do you handle yourself in the notes meeting? SCOTT (after a long beat) Well... TOM They don't like the script. SCOTT I'm sitting in a meeting where they don't like the script? TOM They don't like the script. Or they like it and they don't tell you because they've forgotten positive reinforcement works. SCOTT I think that what I do is at meetings where they're either recognizing that more work needs to be done, let's put it that way. Tom LAUGHS. TOM That's the nicest way that's ever been put. Scott smiles. SCOTT I'm very fortunate in that most of the time they are very thoughtful and respectful. There've been times I've turned things in and I haven't heard from them for a while. There've been times where people have been sort of insensitive to the work that's been done. Most often, that's been in situations where I've parachuted in. People I haven't worked with before. I'm working with new people. I'm coming in to a production rewrite. I don't have a relationship with them. I come in and I'm doing something for the money. So, I take it all as part of the job. My feelings still get hurt, but it's part of the job. You still have to deal with their notes. The separate issue is I've written a script, I've angst over it for eight months, whatever, I'm turning in my first draft, the studio has issues and what I first do is: there's always a level of disappointment, even though you know the script isn't perfect, you're sitting there not hearing anything for a while because you're disappointed... TOM Because you want to be loved. Scott nods. SCOTT Because you want to be loved. It's a little like walking up to that girl's house for a date and you're imagining what it's going to be like when she opens the door, you've got your little bouquet of flowers in your hand and you're going to knock on the door and she's going to throw her arms around you and kiss you, but what happens is you knock on the door, her Dad opens the door, the bulldog jumps on you, knocks you on your ass... LAUGHTER. SCOTT (continuing) ...and you still get to go out with her, and she's still going to get in the car with you and go to the movies, but in the meantime you're picking yourself up. And once you pick yourself up, and you think about it and become reasonable, reasonable and creative at the same time, which are often... TOM (interrupting again) Are you defensive? SCOTT No. I can get angry if people are hammering on something and they're not understanding me. I get mad when I'm misunderstood. That drives me crazy. If I'm trying to make a point, and someone keeps coming back with the same thing that I know doesn't work. I know it doesn't work and people I love will come at me with it. Producers I admire and respect - there's a thing they just can't let go of...and then I explode. But, I won't sit there and explain. I think it's pathetic to sit there and say if there's something that doesn't work..and then you try and make an excuse which you often feel the instinct to do: "I did that because..." or "You asked me to do that." or whatever it is, all those things we've blurted out over the years. Tom nods. SCOTT (continuing) Now I keep an invisible piece of wood in my mouth, bite down and not say anything. TOM Tell me about it. SCOTT I try and hear what the real problems are. In those meetings, once I get past all this psychological stuff, there is usually a consistent vibration about something that isn't right and you can hear it. The middle of the movie isn't working. Or they hate this character. TOM It just may not be articulated. SCOTT Exactly. They just don't know what it is that is bothering them. Your job as the writer is to articulate that. TOM There are four Executive Producers on every movie these days. Seven producers. What do you do about contradictory notes? SCOTT It's tricky. You try to pick the smartest person there and decide who you're going to write for. And that's what I do. I'm going to put my chips on that person. TOM Is that the person with the most power? SCOTT It depends on the situation. It's the person with the most influence in the room. Sometimes they might not have the most power, you know they can have the most sway. It's tricky. Because, as a writer, you are perpetually in this position of having a voice and no say. Tom smiles. SCOTT (continuing) That's why it's hard to be on the set. Because you're standing there picking your battles all the time because you know they want you there, and they're glad to have you there, under the best of circumstances you're working with people who love you, but you know what, this train is going really fast and for you to jump on and say we missed the turn off... They both LAUGH. SCOTT (continuing) It pisses them off, even if you are right. You have to be very careful. TOM You mentioned you do production rewrites? SCOTT Yes. TOM You come in as a hired gun? Scott nods. SCOTT Very different sort of rewrite. Because you're re-fashioning bits of something that's already made. And you're trying to catch the voice of the piece that essentially isn't your voice. It may be something you appreciate or understand, but it's still not coming from you and therefore you're not inside it. The approach is entirely external. So, you're reading it and the first thing you do is very little. You try and make little changes just to make it feel yours. It's almost like running it through your typewriter just so you feel some connection to it. I try not to do the big things all at once. While I'm doing the little things bigger things start suggesting themselves. TOM Little things are? SCOTT Dialog that is obviously bad. Scene description that just doesn't work. Tom checks the tape recorder. TOM Big things are? SCOTT Where you need eight new scenes in this section because the story has gone off the rails. Big things are a new opening for the movie. One of the hardest things for me to write is always the opening because it's the most important. Either it comes to me right away from the very beginning or it's something I'm constantly thinking about. TOM And why is it so important? SCOTT It's the key of the song. Everything is hummed in that key after that. Oftentimes, you'll write another scene that later becomes the key to the song and you'll go back and rewrite the whole script. That scene tells you what the whole movie is if you go back. You have to remain open to those sorts of happy accidents. And so when you're doing a rewrite, the act of writing, just kind of cruising though it, fixing dialog, fixing description, doing things off the top of your head, slowly turns your outer brain off so your inner brain goes to work and that's when you get the big answers. And you know having read the script what's wrong with it. You know where it needs to go. You've read it and analyzed it and talked about the third act not working, whatever. Whatever they've brought you on to do. You know what to do, but you don't start fixing all of it right away. TOM Easier to see what's wrong in other people's scripts than your own? SCOTT Infinitely. And easier to fix. You're much less inhibited. TOM Even though you're not in the logic system of the new script and hooked in to the interior of the script? Scott leans forward. He's into it. SCOTT Because you're fixing the script, you're not making it great. You're fixing problems. It's very different. When you come on to do a production rewrite on someone else's script, you're there for a few weeks. Most of the time you leave vaguely unsatisfied, because you really haven't made it a good script. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you've made the characters better, you've deepened it. You fixed this or that, but really, it's an imperfect way to approach writing to sort of have someone with an original vision write something then someone else fix it. Oftentimes the first writer, and you're not allowed to say this, is a bad writer. They had a good idea, but they don't have the chops to deliver a screenplay with real flesh and blood characters, and real cinematic narrative. What they did have was a great idea and so those rewrites are major rewrites. In that case, someone comes in for not a few weeks, but for three or four months and really rewrites it. Those I avoid. Tom checks his notes, then... TOM How much do credits enter in your rewrite? SCOTT I don't think about it because I'm doing the rewrite --- for me a rewrite is putting on a red dress. It's a whore thing. It buys me time. In a very short period of time I can get money to spend more time on the things I really love and I only do it because I've taken so long on something I love and because I take so long then I need time. So I have to be careful. If I rewrite something for six months, that's not smart. But, if I rewrite something for three to five weeks, then that buys me six months. That's smart. Then, it's worth it to me. TOM You're brought in. You're given notes. This is what we want you to do - A,B,C,D. Do you do more? SCOTT Usually what happens is I'm given notes A,B,C,D and I do notes A,B,C,D. TOM Even though you see A through L? SCOTT If I have time to do A through L I'll do it. If I don't have the time I don't want to open those cans of worms because they'll say "Oh, yeah, go!" TOM So it leaves you with sending out a script you're not happy with? SCOTT I'm happy with the work they asked me to do. They've asked me to come in and fix these things and I come in and fix them. If there are other things I can fix, I most often try and do it. But, a lot of time, there'll be huge more global problems that you can't fix, that are inherent in the script. TOM And they've bought it... SCOTT ...and they're making it. If they're paying you by the week, they're making it. I stay away from that. TOM Loyalty to the original writer? SCOTT I usually like to have a conversation with the original writer. Before I take the job I ask why am I rewriting this guy? What's the situation? What I avoid doing is rewriting someone's original screenplay. I'm anxious about that unless the original writer is saying let's bring someone on. I rewrote something last year and the original writer wanted me to come on. I don't think he wanted to be rewritten, but he knew he was going to be...it was an unusual situation and they're all not like that. I have no problem rewriting people who have taken a gig, and I find writers who take gigs and turn it in on the last day of the twelfth week and don't do anything extra, do only what they're supposed to do and it's their script, it's not a rewrite, not a job for the money, supposedly something they did because they really wanted to do it and then complain about getting rewritten. I have very little sympathy for them. Because most of the time, especially a lot of the younger writers, they write this stuff as fast as they can, they have eight other things they're moving on to the next week, and you read the work, and I have very rarely been given a script where I said 'this doesn't need anything.' Tom LAUGHS. SCOTT (continuing) It just happened, actually, a month ago. They wanted me to rewrite something and I read it and said there's nothing for me to do here and I genuinely meant it. What a great script. And they kind of agreed. TOM That's nice. SCOTT It was more about appeasing an actress who wanted to exert some power. I said you're penalizing a guy for writing a good script, for doing what you asked him to do. It's not fair. But most of the time I'll have a conversation and find out what's going on. The only times I try and take credit are those times I come on... MINORITY REPORT was supposed to be a quick rewrite and we ended up writing a brand new movie. And in that case I will fight for credit because I wrote a whole new movie. TOM You got sole credit on that? SCOTT I shared credit with the guy I rewrote and was glad to. I've done that a couple times where I've come on and fallen in love with my job and in those cases I have more of an investment. TOM What do you think your most successful rewrite was? SCOTT MINORITY REPORT. TOM Based on a short story? SCOTT A Phillip B. Dick short story. TOM How close were you to the story? SCOTT Not at all. I didn't like the short story. TOM And your working relationship with the producers on that project? SCOTT Very good. Very, very good. It was a long, difficult...because, again, my brain wanted to create something enormously complicated. The short story was very simple and I... TOM (interrupting) I think you won. Scott LAUGHS. SCOTT Yeah...but that became a long rewrite. I rewrote a lot. The same thing happened with FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX. I started doing three weeks and ended up doing six, seven, eight months on that. But, then left...because I wanted to make a very different movie and they started to want to make that movie but when they realized what it was - I wanted to something very dark - so it was a very amicable parting and I think they had eight other people work on it later. TOM Other screenplays on your resume: WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES? An original? SCOTT Adaptation. TOM Of? SCOTT A Lawrence Block [?] novel. TOM Good process? SCOTT Great process. Jersey Films, who I've done two other movies with. TOM You respect the people in the room? SCOTT Very much. TOM They respect you? Scott nods. SCOTT Love that script. One of my favorite scripts. I really, really love that. TOM REVELATIONS? SCOTT A two week rewrite. TOM INTERPRETER? SCOTT A six month rewrite for Sidney Pollock of an original script by Charles Randall. That was one of those where we didn't so much as start over but re-oriented the whole story, the same characters, the same story, but told in a completely different way. TOM He fun to work with? SCOTT Sidney? Tom nods. SCOTT (continuing; after a long beat, precisely) He's very demanding of the material. We're both very hard on ourselves so in the room together one and one equals zero sometimes. TOM Your least successful rewrite? SCOTT (after a beat) One that I airballed? Years ago, I rewrote a movie that's about to come out with Bernie Mac, Mr.3000 [NOTE: Opened in theatres 9/04] I was just the wrong guy to rewrite that. I didn't do a great job with that. TOM What else? SCOTT THE LOOKOUT is an original. It's been at Dreamworks for seven years now. We almost made it with Sam Mendes, we almost just got it made with David Fincher. TOM Why isn't it getting made? SCOTT It's an adult drama. People just don't want to make those. TOM Mature? Smart movies, you mean? SCOTT They're very low concept. TOM No tentpole? Scott nods. SCOTT Right, right. TOM How do you feel about that trend in the business? SCOTT I feel, well, movies on the whole are becoming more conceptual and that's killing movies. TOM What does that mean? SCOTT They're more about an idea, than about character and smaller ideas. TOM They're about one sheets? SCOTT Right. Or about comic books. The audience they're consistently aiming for is a much younger audience, the whole PG-13 of it all. For FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX I wanted to do DELIVERANCE in the Gobi desert. About eight men who save themselves. They said if we're going to spend sixty million dollars we need a movie star and he has to save them all. I said that's a different movie. They can't be swearing, it's got to be PG-13, they can't go crazy, and they have to be attacked by a hundred Bedouins just as the plane is taking off at the end, you know all that sort of stuff. You can't have a main character go crazy. Tom looks at his notes again. TOM Any tips how to give rewrite notes? SCOTT What people don't ever ask...and it's the most important question ...is asking the writer what are they trying to do? You ask the writer to tell you the story and what they're trying to do in that story. What it's about for them. Ask them to describe the tone. Even ask them to compare it to other movies. All of this gives you handles in terms of your own reaction and gives you a way of talking about the movie back to them. If I'm trying to help you with your script and help you achieve the vision you have for your script, that's different than me trying to impart my vision on the material...and it will make you less defensive and makes the discussion no less easy but it makes it about me helping you accomplish your goal. TOM That's talking about the script from inside it. SCOTT Right. Depending on the level of the writer you're talking to, you and I are never going to have a nuts and bolts conversation about screenwriting, but if I'm giving notes to a newer writer, I may have a very fundamental conversation about screenwriting. You're only giving your subjective opinion, but it's in service to the writer's vision. TOM You like giving notes? Scott winces. SCOTT I'm enormously uncomfortable giving notes. TOM Because? SCOTT Because I tend to see things very specifically. I tend to actually be blunt. Constructive, positive, but blunt and I don't like to be put in that position because I feel like I'm hurting someone. Even though a surgeon may be cutting someone open to save them, I don't want to be a surgeon...I don't want to cut anyone open to save them. TOM Are you not becoming a producer in your career? SCOTT Well, that's the irony, isn't it? Tom LAUGHS. SCOTT (continuing) If you put it a different way, what I love to do is talk about writing. If there's a way to give notes in the context of having a real discussion about writing, then I'm really happy. TOM What's the most productive way to give notes to a writer? SCOTT (after a beat) Carefully...constructively... positively. TOM Exactly what I wanted you to say. Scott smiles. TOM (continuing) There's not enough of that in the world. (after a beat) TV rewriting versus feature rewriting? SCOTT I find that TV rewriting is a whole cloth, sweep all the dishes off the table, re-set the table kind of thing a lot of times. I find that if you have your own vision for a show it's very difficult to find other people to execute that vision, which is why the great shows are written and rewritten by one person every time out. My problem with television writing and rewriting is that you're going so fast. There's no time for discovery. That's why I admire David Milch and David Kelley, Aaron Sorkin and the like, because they're able to find nuance and discover things that, usually for me, only come with a lot of rewriting. They seem to have instinctively gotten in a groove where they can grab those things off the wall as they run down the hall. I can't do that. And so TV rewriting is very frustrating to me because I watch dailies and say if I only had five more minutes I could have made an easy fix. So, it's a frustrating form. TOM Do you believe that the Aaron Sorkins and David Kelleys don't rewrite like crazy? SCOTT Oh, I do believe they do rewrite like crazy, I do, but they're able to do it in a constricted period of time. To me, my hat is off to them. I remember flying to Vancouver to shoot an hour episode, I remember writing half the script on the way up, half in the hotel room that night, then handing it over to get prepped the next day. TOM It's exciting. It's wonderful. I don't think it's art. SCOTT No. It can be. TOM It can be. But the bulk of it... They both shrug. Tom smiles. TOM (continuing) Do you see any life lessons in the process of rewriting? SCOTT I actually do. In every aspect of our lives, we hit walls...not just in writing, and many people, unfortunately I would argue most people, when they hit a wall turn and walk the other way. They're in a relationship, they hit the wall and they get into a new relationship until they hit, interestingly enough, the same damn wall. Writing and rewriting are the same way, people will get into a rewrite and they'll hit a wall and they won't want to do the work and ask the hard questions to solve that problem so they let it go by. They write another script...which suffers from the same problem. And they may write a dozen scripts which all suffer from the same problem. Because they haven't learned the most invaluable lesson which is, that if you break through the wall, if you sit there and throw yourself at it, and it may take months, you may feel horrible, you may be utterly, completely disenfranchised by the process, but you end up getting through that wall as weak as you are in front of the wall, you're so much stronger on the other side. You've become a new person because you realize you've gotten through and you're reinspired by the material and it gives you new energy and it makes the whole script jump a level. TOM But I find I make the same writing mistakes over and over and that's what rewriting is for. SCOTT Yes. TOM I am who I am as a writer...in large part. I write the same flawed work every time. SCOTT But you work through it every time. TOM Right. That's what rewriting is all about. SCOTT Right. TOM Rewriting gets you beyond yourself. SCOTT Yes. What's sad is that people are oftentimes rewritten because they run out of gas...they got it almost up the hill, but they're so exhausted getting to where they've gotten, that either the people around them don't know how to reinspire them and give them the necessary confidence and Power Bars to get them up the hill, then someone like me comes in to do that last push which is the most enjoyable form of rewriting. TOM The big stuff's been done? Scott smiles. SCOTT Exactly. It's done. And each successive rewrite gets easier and you can feed yourself knowing you're getting closer. You're never done. If you tell yourself you're done, you're going to get defensive and miserable in the room. You're never done. Tom nods. TOM That's smart. SCOTT You can say you're closer each time you've done a rewrite. You can feel it getting closer. Sometimes you go off on an utterly different direction that is wrong. But you needed to go off in that direction. It was useful time spent because you end up taking a hundred steps forward from there. Sometimes you have to do this in order to see the right way. TOM My point to the readers is none of this is wrong. SCOTT That's right...or time wasted. You can throw away all of it, but something is happening internally. I may spend a year on something and do all the good writing in the last month. But they wouldn't have come in the last month if I hadn't done all of the good work eleven months prior. TOM Lots of students tell me they're afraid if they think about it too much or put too much in the outline, there'll be nothing else to do. It's not true. Scott shakes his head. SCOTT It's just not. I keep notebooks on all my scripts...ideas, everything. There's a pragmatic side to it and then there's the subconscious side to it. The pragmatic side is all about organizing. I'm going to organize the material. I'm going to organize my process. All of that is just making yourself available for inspiration. TOM Inspiration? Hard work? Same thing. Scott shakes his head again. SCOTT No, hard work is what you do between inspiration. Tom smiles. SCOTT (continuing) Inspiration is that moment that happens for thirty seconds a week where you're not even aware of what you're writing and it presents you with this big ball of dough and you put that ball of dough down and then inspiration fades and you roll out that ball of dough...and then the work comes. I think inspiration and hard work go hand in hand. TOM Writer's block? SCOTT A very horrible thing. It happens very rarely. I believe we get stuck all the time. But, writer's block is literally the absence of Idea...period. Utter creative impotence. TOM Have you been there? SCOTT No...luckily. But I have been stuck. Monumentally stuck. TOM What do you do? SCOTT Exactly what feels wrong. I back off. I stop trying to solve the problem. It feels utterly irresponsible, but it's actually the healthiest thing to do, I think, for me, I back off...and read. TOM And fill yourself back up again? Scott nods. SCOTT I read things that make me feel good or inspire me. Or read people I wish I wrote like. I don't read classics. TOM Do you read screenplays? SCOTT No, I don't read screenplays. TOM Do you ever read screenplays? SCOTT As little as possible. I can think of nothing worse than reading screenplays. TOM Because? SCOTT Because I find them so unsatisfying. I believe you cannot be a writer without being a reader. It is impossible. You can be a very shallow writer who copies other movies. TOM What about the writers who don't write? They just talk about writing...and don't. Or they only write when they're getting paid. Are they writers? SCOTT These are not writers. Writers have to write. Real writers have to write. There's a whole school now of geek writers, where you don't read, you just watch a lot of movies, and you write influenced by the movies, and there's passion there, but it's a cobbling of other movie ideas - Quentin Tarantino - he does it in an original way. They're only so deep. If you read novels, real books, read about what character is and go down deep, then you learn about motivation and you can ask the fundamental question about your character which is "what do they want?" You can write pages about what they want, because you know what they don't want. And what they're afraid of. Without reading I don't know how you arrive at any kind of understanding, I just don't know. TOM What writers do you like? SCOTT Right now. I love Pete Dexter. I read a lot of different people, it just depends. Tom LAUGHS. TOM When you get to heaven, if there's a heaven, what do you want God to say? Scott laughs an acknowledging laugh. SCOTT "You're a good writer." TOM "Here are the rewrite notes." SCOTT "Here's your second act." They both LAUGH. TOM Anything else you want to add to this before we call it a day? SCOTT The reason a book like this is important is because rewriting is the single most important aspect of writing. The idea for something is the easiest part of writing. An idea is just the excuse to do the hard work that follows. The writing of something is where all the work comes from. The rewriting is where you make all those discoveries. You write your first draft, it may take a long time, you're just getting through the obvious, getting through the topsoil. When you rewrite, that's when you make all the discoveries, that's when all the happy accidents happen. And that's what good writing is...happy accidents. And then you react to those happy accidents. You contort the narrative to allow this new notion you got from falling in a hole by accident and that only comes from rewriting. TOM Spending the time. Scott nods. SCOTT Spending the time. TOM The readers in this book will read two very similar views on rewriting. Which is really a good thing and interesting and a surprise. I didn't realize we were so on the same page. SCOTT You taught me how to write. It is written. They both LAUGH. SCOTT (continuing) Sorry. TOM It's true. We're both process people. SCOTT Yes. TOM That's real interesting. SCOTT And that's where the gold comes from. TOM And that's where the fun comes from. SCOTT Yes. The satisfaction. TOM And the love of doing it. Scott smiles and nods. TOM (continuing) This was great. SCOTT It was fun. TOM You were very generous with your head. Thanks. Tom and Scott man hug and Tom exits. FADE OUT. I e-mailed Scott that night and thanked him for the wonderful conversation. I told him he handled himself so well on so many levels that my father would have been totally proud. He e-mailed me back and said he read the e-mail over and over again.