Thursday, July 31, 2008

Roger Nygard on "Suckers"

What was going on with you before you started Suckers?

ROGER NYGARD: At that time I had made three movies. My first film was a one-man show, one-room comedy, written by and starring Steve Odenkirk. We made that film for about $350,000. Then my second film was a $2 million dollar action picture, for a company called Overseas Film Group. Their films are primarily foreign-sales driven.

I remember seeing that movie. There was a lot of action.

ROGER NYGARD: You've got to have five action set pieces, that's the rule for those sort of movies. That's what's expected from the foreign buyers to make their foreign sales. I know we had at least five; we might have had six. But five is the minimum requirement.

The third movie was Trekkies, my first documentary, about Star Trek fans.

In doing Suckers, I was coming off of those three films, which were all very different and driving my agents crazy, because they didn't know what I was. Was I the documentary guy, am I the action guy, am I the comedy guy? So Suckers was a new thing, a sort of grisly dramatic comedy, I guess, with some action.

I had been writing that script with my co-writer, Joe Yannetty, while shooting Trekkies, because you always have to be thinking three movies ahead and have several projects percolating.

Joe had written a one-man show about his experiences selling cars. I read portions of that and he told me some of the stories, and I said, "You've got to make a movie about this. These stories are incredible." So that's where it started.

Joe and I worked together writing the script, based on his experiences, which is a process for me as a screenwriting that I have works best. I almost always work with a writing partner, and the reason is that I grew up in Minnesota, pretty average background. Went to college. Moved to California to seek my fortune in the film business. I never got a job as a CIA agent, never went into the marines, never became a fireman or a cop, didn't go on the road and get arrested or sell cars. You can't write about life experiences that you haven't personally lived, unless you research them extensively or partner up with someone who has lived those experiences.

My writing style is that I tend to write with people who have had interesting life experiences, but don't necessarily have the desire or the fortitude or the persistence to bring it to the screen.

Most screenwriters hate it when someone comes up to them and says, "My life would make a great movie," but it sounds like, depending on the person, you might sit down and talk to them.

ROGER NYGARD: That's how I operate. I think everybody has one good screenplay in them, based on their own life. And that's often the first place to start and the best place to start for a screenwriter is your own life, because that's what you know -- as long as you're willing to rip open your soul. You have to bare yourself to the world in order to write something that other people will be interested in reading and perhaps making as a movie.

It's not easy. It's hard. You've got to write things that you wouldn't even tell your shrink. Those are the screenplays that really stand out.

So when I say that everybody has one good screenplay in them, it's if they're willing to bare their soul and write about those skeletons in the closet, those experiences.

How did you come up with the idea of setting the story on four consecutive Saturdays?

ROGER NYGARD: That was because that's how the car business runs. Every Saturday there's a sales meeting. It's an inspirational meeting, a motivational meeting. It's a time for everybody to gauge where they are against everyone else, because there's always that competitive aspect. So that's how we broke it down, because the industry that we were writing about breaks itself down monthly and weekly. Every month they start over, the cycle begins again. They zero out everybody's totals and start again on Monday at the beginning of every new month. The structure suggested itself to us because the arena we were writing about was based on a monthly structure.

How nervous were you about setting the whole first act in that first sales meeting?

ROGER NYGARD: You know, we broke a lot of structural rules with Suckers. And, in hindsight, there is a lot I would do differently, having learned what I've learned since then and having seen how that experiment worked, where it worked and where it failed.

Part of the excitement of filmmaking is taking chances sometimes. Sometimes you're going to fail spectacularly. And we took a big chance structuring the first act that way. But I don't think it was the biggest chance we took.

What was the biggest chance?

ROGER NYGARD: The biggest chance in the script was doing a genre shift from the second to the third act, which many people disconcerting. Audiences are not used to -- and don't like -- when you shift from one genre to another in a movie.

Quentin Tarantino did it also in From Dusk 'Til Dawn. It starts out as kind of a crime caper/road chase, and then shifts into a monster movie, which threw a lot of people. I think that film was less successful than it might have been also, because people just don't like genre shifts. They want to know what the genre is from the beginning of the movie, what's the level of reality of the story, and then you have to stick to it.

If you don't, then you're taking a chance or doing an art film.

Did you consider other possible climaxes and endings?

ROGER NYGARD: I wish we had considered more, but as soon as we unearthed that story, it felt right to us while we were writing the script. Again, looking back, yeah, I think we could have finished the movie just as engagingly and kept it in the car sales realm, without having to go into the crime and drug-trafficking realm.

But then you would have lost the opportunity to have many of the film's character all shoot each other simultaneously in a small room.

ROGER NYGARD: Yes, and we would have lost my favorite line of the movie: "You're so beyond fucked, you couldn't catch a bus back to fucked."

You kind of fall in love with some things, but in the editing room you spend time killing your babies, that's the term for it. Sometimes you have to cut out the things you're in love with for the good of the whole.

When you did your research at the car dealership, did they know what you were up to?

ROGER NYGARD: Oh, yeah, and they were excited to talk about what they do. I rarely find people unwilling to talk, whether I'm making documentaries or researching characters for a narrative screenplay. It's harder to get them to shut up, actually, then to get them started.

I went to several dealerships with my tape recorder and talked to people and asked them to tell me stories. People love to talk about themselves.

What was the biggest lesson you took away from Suckers?

ROGER NYGARD: The biggest one we already discussed, which is not to violate the rules so dramatically, which we did with the genre shift. That was my biggest lesson.

The corollary was to keep writing, always be writing. Like ABC from Glengarry Glen Ross-- ABC, Always Be Closing. ABW -- Always Be Writing.

The script I'm working on right now is something where I hatched the idea for it about three or four years ago, but I didn't know what to do with it. And it took three or four years of gestating within my brain before it started to form into a shape. It was an idea I told to one of my writing partners and he really sparked to it, and so it moved itself to the top of the pile.

That's why you need to have a lot of ideas and a lot of projects and a lot of things going, because I think your subconscious is working on these projects at different paces. The more you've got going, the more likely one of them is going to sprout.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dan Futterman on "Capote"

Where did the idea to write Capote come from?

DAN FUTTERMAN: I got interested in Truman Capote in sort of an oblique way, and it was almost incidental that it ended up being specifically about Truman Capote.

There was a book that my Mom, who's a shrink, gave me called
The Journalist and The Murderer, by Janet Malcolm. It's about a case in California where a doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald was eventually convicted of killing his wife and children. Joe McGinniss was writing a book about him and eventually, when the book came out -- it was called Fatal Vision -- Jeffrey MacDonald sued Joe McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.

Malcolm’s book is sort of a meditation on how could this happen. How could a convicted triple murderer sue the writer who's writing about his life? How could he convince himself that the writer was going to write something good about him? It dealt with the fact that the journalist is posing as a friend to get the subject to talk, and that the subject has hopes that he's going to be portrayed in a good light, and that the journalist is always playing off of that desire. The relationship is premised on a basic lie that's it's a natural relationship, and it's not, it's a transactional relationship.

That seemed interesting to me, and had there not been a TV movie made about that incident, I might have written about that.

Some years later I picked it up again and read it -- it's a pretty short book and I recommend it -- and just on the heals of reading that I read Gerald Clarke's biography of Capote, called
Capote, and there are two or three chapters that deal with the period in his life where he was writing In Cold Blood and his relationship with Perry Smith.

I wanted to write about that kind of relationship and deal with those kinds of questions. The fact that it was Truman Capote was an extremely lucky accident, because he's fascinating in so many ways and he's so verbal and also was a man who was struggling with some real demons, I think, and that made the work I was doing that much more interesting and deeper.

You had the distinct advantage, as a beginning writer, of being married to a working writer. How did she help you in this process?

DAN FUTTERMAN: Although it doesn't seem like there's a lot of plot in the movie -- it's about a guy writing a book about an event that already happened -- but it is quite plotty when you get down to it. And she was clear and strict with me, saying "If there are any scenes where people are just talking about something that you think is going to be interesting, cut it, because if it's not moving the plot forward it doesn't belong in the script." And that was important to learn. And it was something that I had never considered.

I did an outline, somewhere between twenty and twenty-five pages with a paragraph for each scene, with dialogue suggestions. And the script came out probably 80% tied to that outline.

Did you take any classes or read any books on screenwriting before you sat down and wrote the outline?

DAN FUTTERMAN: No, I didn't take any classes. I read the Robert McKee book (
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting) that I guess everybody reads, and I found that pretty helpful --- his clarity about story. I think that was an important lesson for me to learn over and over again, that story is primary. Clever dialogue is not what it's about. It's got to ride on the story, and then you can hang stuff off of that.

And then it was just a matter of trial and error. And the lucky fact of having a subject who has been quoted as having said a lot of funny things, of which I put as many as possible into the screenplay.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Eric Bogosian on "subUrbia"

What point were you at in your career before you started the play version of subUrbia?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: Talk Radio (the play and the film) as well as the solo show Sex, Drugs Rock & Roll had garnered much greater interest in my work. Most importantly, excellent young actors were attracted to my script.

Do you begin with story, character or theme?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I begin with character and theme. The theme dances around in my head, almost like an editing device as I put my characters in motion with a story. But before anything, I think of the people who will populate my stage.

In the case of subUrbia, I began with five student actors in workshop playing the characters. I had them simply hanging out and discussing a variety of topics. There was no plot to speak of in the first set of pages.

How did you create the characters?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: The characters are there within me. They are the archetypes I "need" to conceptualize my inner world. In the case of subUrbia the cast of characters derived almost directly from the cast of characters who, in my mind, represent my friends from my high school days.

In some cases, the characters are transpositions of myself. There are parts of myself in Jeff, Pony, Sooze and Nazeer.

How important is having a theme before you start to write?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I always begin with a theme. It usually morphs as I'm writing but in the long run, the theme must have importance for me in the present, as I'm writing. I need the theme to do my writing, but I don't mind if the audience doesn't see the theme or misunderstands what the theme is.

In the case of subUrbia I don't think many people "got" the theme as I originally conceived it. (And what is that? you might ask. My answer is: Too complicated to explain, that's why I write plays. If I wrote themes, I would be a scholar and write thesisses.)

When it came time to adapt it into a screenplay, were you writing to a specific, pre-determined budget?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I'm sure there was a set budget, but I didn't know what it was. Rick Linklater acted as producer with his company. All I knew was that we would hew closely to the play and that I could "open" up to other locales if I so wished. And I did.

In making the adaptation, were there any moments that you hated to lose?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: No. I look at movies very differently than stage. If a moment is a moment that works on film, I keep it. But film demands that the story continue to unfold. That being the case, I snipped away at some of the longer more static speeches in the play and I don't regret it.

How did you work with Linklater?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: Rick gave me my head, so to speak. He wanted the screenplay to be as close to what I wanted as it could be. We created a script that we liked, that met the needs for length. I did all the cutting of the original.

We ironed out some thematic/action aspects in the last moments, especially when Tim is telling off Jeff in the parking lot, throwing food at the store. It had taken the entire run of the play and another production of the play for me to understand what was really happening there.

Beyond that, we reached a conundrum at the very end, tried different endings, actually shot them and finally decided to stick with what we had.

What did you learn from working on that script that you still use today?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: It's good to have a sense of how the director is going to shoot the film, what sort of style. In this case, Rick used a lot of two-shots and it was constructive to know that in terms of scene rhythm.

Do you think there's really such a thing as an "independent" movie?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I don't know what "independent" means to other people. Having written and acted for film and television studios, I do feel that the corporate presence overloads the writing task at hand with "too many cooks."

My two features (subUrbia and Talk Radio, directed by Oliver Stone) and one TV series (High Incident with Steven Spielberg) were all "independent" of the studio in that the directors acted as producers. As such they were "independent" and as such, they gave me my independence.

Given our track record, I'm for more independence, especially for seasoned directors like Stone and Linklater. Once a director has established himself or herself, I think a studio should let him do his thing.

When that happens, and it does, (Gus Van Sant, Robert Altman, Tim Burton), the result is "independent" cinema.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bob Odenkirk and Michael Blieden on "Melvin Goes To Dinner"

What first attracted you to this project?

BOB ODENKIRK: I saw the play a couple times -- I think five, all told and I felt that if all I do is shoot this play in some form, then that would be worthy of the effort. It was so well played, so well written, and the cast was so perfect, that I felt I had to fall back on. It was just worth shooting. And I thought I had an idea of how to shoot it and keep it lively, which was multiple, handheld cameras.

I had some ideas on what I thought would help make it feel and work like a feature film. It's a very good performance piece for the stage, and one of the reasons it's so good is, it's very much alive every night that you do it. One night it could be a little more comic, another night it could be more dramatic. It all depends on the tone of performance and it depends on the audience and it depends on their interaction. That's what a great play does: it lives on stage every night, and it lives a little differently.

When you're making a movie, you're committing to one performance. Unlike a play, where your eyes can move around and the energy can shift in this interplay between audience and performance, you're committing. You're saying to everybody, 'Look at this person and look at this performance and this is the right performance.'

How many cameras did you end up using?

BOB ODENKIRK: We used five cameras, so everybody is on camera at all times. And we tried to layer it so that you can follow everyone's performance throughout the movie, even though we commit to singles angles at any one time. When a person's talking and telling a story, we cut from them to watch the people listening, because the way that anyone of those persons stories is affecting the other people is the depth of the piece.

When one person tells a story about infidelity, clearly there is an issue there with some of the other people, and you can read that I think subconsciously. And, if you watch the movie a second time, you can read it consciously. You can see people getting uncomfortable at certain topics, and now you know why.

Although the cast is relatively unknown, you did add some cameos by better known performers. What was your thinking behind that?

BOB ODENKIRK: I knew that we weren't going to use any names in the leads. And I thought just having a few name people would help the movie, and I do think it did help.

Now, some of the people, like Jack Black and Melora Walters, wouldn't let us put their name or their image on the poster, which is fine and understandable, and in fact I would want. The last thing I would want would be for it to be released as
'The Jack Black Movie.' People would hate me, Jack, and the asshole who made the poster.

I do think the cameos help. It helps people to consider the movie legitimate. The thing I'm most happy about is that those people were right for their parts, they were funny and good in their parts, and they don't overshadow the movie.

You like Jack Black, and you like Maura Tierney, and you like Melora Walters, they're all good in their roles. David Cross is great. But none of them overshadows what the movie's about, none of them dislocates the core of the movie.

When the movie's over, you don't go, 'Wow, that was about Jack Black's scene.' Instead, you totally go, 'That was about this couple who are lying and this friend who's in a bad relationship and this girl's story about ghosts,' and about the ninth thing you mention is that Jack Black's in it. And that's perfect. Perfect.

How did you get hooked up with Bob Odenkirk?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Bob had seen the play and said he was interested in making a movie out of it. So I said, 'Why don't I take a crack at the script, and if you like that, then we'll move forward.' 
And he said, 'That's sounds good. Let me give you a couple of general notes.' And his notes were, number one, why don't you try to focus the story on one character, and why don't you make it Melvin's character, since Melvin's kid of a device to get the other characters' stories out. He's the audience. So why don't you make it from Melvin's perspective. We need to see one character go through something during the night.

I worked on the script for a couple months and sent him a draft.

What was it like to write a screenplay for your play?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: When I sat down to write the screenplay, we'd been performing the play for so long and the characters were so vivid to me, it felt like I was writing the sequel, because I got to write more words for these same characters in this same world.

I write in a completely nonlinear way. I believe in 'write what you're excited about first.' Always work on what you're excited about first.

I started writing scenes that I felt exemplified each character. I wrote a little intro scene for each character -- except I never really wrote one for Sarah, so there isn't one in the movie.

I wrote the story in a linear way -- the first scene was 6:00 a.m., Alex getting on a plane to fly to LA, and Melvin waking up in his office, and each character chronologically. And then they get to the restaurant and then it was -- aside from the internal flashbacks -- it was basically the play. It was like two movies: a single-camera, thirty location film, and then a multi-camera restaurant movie.

Then, for about a full month, I almost exclusively worked in the scene navigator mode (in Final Draft), where I just cut and pasted scenes and I did a paper edit of the film. The script, when it was finally a shooting script, is pretty much the way the movie was edited.

After writing and performing a five-person play, how did you feel about the cameos in the film?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Maura Tierney accepted the part just based on the script. The first day -- she is so warm and you have so much affection for her instantly. Everyone just loved her. Some people can say 'Hi' to you and you like them instantly, and she has that quality.

After shooting with her for one day, I went home and thought, I'm in this great position. I can do whatever I want. I get to act with her. So I wrote three extra pages of dialogue, because she was so much fun.

So I went back in the next day when she was in make-up and said, (whisper) 'I wrote more stuff for us to do!' The whole walking scene on the roof of the ramp, about my mom and her nose job, I wrote the night before because I wanted to do more with her.

What about Jack Black?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Bob said he was going to ask Jack Black to do it, and I said, 'Let me re-write the scene then!' So I did a special version. The original scene was about a page, but for Jack Black it was about five pages. That was directly written for him.

How do you feel about the finished movie?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: The movie has given me the sense that I could retire, I could work in a bank from now on, and I'd be like, 'I made a movie once, an honest to god movie,' and I have such a feeling of accomplishment about that, there's a part of me that really let go and said 'You knows what, you've done something you never thought you would do.' There's times when I'm actually able to relax a little bit, and that makes it worth it.