It can, and should, be argued that you can make a bad movie out of a good script but you cannot make a good movie out of a bad script.
If the screenplay has such impact on the resulting film, why does the preponderance of credit go to the director of the picture while the writer gets mentioned as an afterthought, if at all? Outside of the various cinematheques scattered across the globe, where are the overdue honors for the work of A.I. Bezzerides
, Herman J. Mankiewicz
, Charles Brackett
, Ben Hecht
, Edmund North
, Charles Schnee
Add to that list a number of remarkable writers crafting some of the most celebrated films of the past decade -- Peter Morgan, Jim Taylor, Guillermo Arriaga and, perhaps the most successful screenwriter working today, David Koepp. On the occasion of the long-awaited DVD release of his first film, Apartment Zero, I had the pleasure to speak with the writer (and occasional director) about his meandering path to becoming one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood.
We'll get the worst question out-of-the-way immediately. Considering that there are a number of aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters that frequent these pages, I'd like your advice for someone starting out in the business. Would it be worthwhile for them to find their own Steven J. Cole -- someone earnest about filmmaking that is able to finance their first project?
Not necessarily. Private investors are hard to find and certainly don't come free of charge. Not that you shouldn't try to connect yourself with a good producer. I think that your time is better spent just working on what you're doing. If someone wants to be a screenwriter, that is good news for them. Screenwriting is the one thing that you don't need anyone's permission in order to do. You can just start. Start writing your script! There is no other secret formula, just write your script.
If you have a movie that you want to direct, it's slightly harder because you're going to have to go get millions of dollars from somebody and there are as many ways to do that as there are stars in the sky. It's always going to be a struggle. I have a movie that I'm trying very hard to make right now and it's been difficult. It's always difficult.
Is this the Supercollider project or something else?
Okay, I've got two movies. [laughs]
I suppose it's appropriate that we're talking today, the first day of the Sundance Film Festival. We're essentially taking the Wayback Machine to speak about your first film, Apartment Zero, which premiered in 1989 at what was then the United States Film Festival. It did rather well but, as I understand it, you didn't go to the festival that year.
No, I couldn't. I was at home working to pay off the debts of the film. I was on a couple of rewrite jobs that I was doing to finish off the [final sound] mix.
Was Seattle the first festival that you attended with the film?
It was and it was great. We won!
I was living in the neighborhood at that time and I remember the SIFF screenings as a great success. The film played extremely well to that audience. How did you first end up working with Martin Donovan? It seems like a strange pairing of a young screenwriter and a director from Argentina.
Yes, it was. I was working in my first post-college job, which actually started when I was still in school. I was interning for a guy who represented foreign filmmakers, trying to get them U.S. distribution. He later went on to work the other side, representing foreign distributors and trying to find films for them. Martin had a movie he had made in England for around $100,000 called State of Wonder and he was trying to find a U.S. distributor. I met him [through this job] and we hit it off. We both loved movies. He was looking for someone to write scripts with him and, since I had written some things, he asked me to help him out with Apartment Zero.
I believe that he already had a fairly firm foundation for the story. What was the working process for you both to create the script?
We sort of laid it out together. We approached it in fundamentally opposite manners. I like to outline; he does not. I'd say, "How can I write page one if I don't know what happens on page two?" He'd say, "How can I write page two if I haven't already written page one?"
I would sneakily try to force him to outline and he would write. I'd rewrite him and he'd rewrite me. It would go back and forth.
Is that the same process you used when you worked on Death Becomes Her?
But you haven't done anything together since then.
We have not done anything since then. It was a good process for a while. I think we were good for a couple of movies together but ultimately our styles and our tastes are quite different. It was great that our interests coincided for those movies but it wasn't going to last forever.
In Apartment Zero, the first celebrity image that we see is Montgomery Clift. There obviously are a number of allusions to the sexual tension that will follow between Jack and Adrian. How much of what we see of the screen is in the script? At that point, were you writing in the visual elements or were you focused more on the dialogue and the story structure?
Well, all of the above. The picture of Montgomery Clift was a directorial touch, although I do remember the script said his apartment had framed photos of movie stars throughout. The idea was that these photos were like his family. He was so wrapped up in that world that he considered those to be his loved ones. So, it was a little of both. You refer to it in the script or come up with the idea but, since I was writing the script with the director, you go in knowing his kind of approach.
Did Martin always have the notion that Colin Firth's character would run a movie theater?
As a guideline in the screenwriting process, were you seeking parallels between the history of Argentina and the relationships between the characters in the apartment building?
That sort of emerges as it goes. You know, you start wanting to do a movie about an apartment building and all these different people getting seduced by this newcomer. And then, because the newcomer was [spoiler] involved with the death squad, it becomes political and perhaps larger themes rise out of it. I don't think you can go in saying, "Here are our themes…"
I should hope not.
"…and here's what happens." I think good scripts tend to happen the other way around. "Here's what happens" or "here's what it's about," and then, as you go on, you realize the themes or they announce themselves without you doing anything. I think ours happened the latter way.
That's been your process ever since?
Whenever I'm lucky enough to actually have a theme, it emerges in the later draft.