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.

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