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Saturday 13 March 2010

Screenwriter SCOTT ROSENBERG Interview.

Scott Rosenberg wrote 'BEAUTIFUL GIRLS.' With that alone, I am happy to stop right there and declare that he is one of my favorite screenwriters. But, as it happens, he also penned 'CON AIR,' 'THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD,' 'GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS,' and many others - as well as creating one of the best TV shows of recent years, 'OCTOBER ROAD.'

I'd like to start by talking about 'Beautiful Girls,' because it's one of my favorite films. I wish there were more films like this. Did you know it was going to be something special when you wrote it?

“BEAUTIFUL GIRLS’ came about because I had been working for months on the script for “CON AIR”. In those days, the studio would make you write a detailed treatment before sending you off to script (it was a way for them to avoid paying a step). Between “THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD” and “CON AIR”, I was fully submerged in a kind of nihilistic porn: violence, anger, racial epithets, death. I was numb as a statue. And I found myself, back in my hometown outside of Boston, during one of the worst winters ever. I was waiting for Disney to approve “CON AIR”. I had just broken up with my girlfriend of seven years. The snow plows were driving by my window. Many driven by my buddies from high school. When it occurred to me: “there is more quote “action”, going on with my buddies here -with turning 30 and not being able to deal with the women in their lives - than in twenty Jerry Bruckheimer movies. I remember very clearly, saying to my kid brother: “I am going to go into my room and write a script called “BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” but it’s going to be all about guys.” Five days later I emerged with the script. It just poured out. I didn’t think it was special. It was a piece of catharsis. It was entirely written for myself. Which is probably why it resonated with so many people. And, inexplicably, still does to this day...

I think it's the kind of screenplay that everyone tries to write when they begin screenwriting, the script about a bunch of friends in a small town figuring their lives out. But rather than having the complexity and subtlety of 'Beautiful Girls,' they tend to be quite boring and soap operatic -- were you concerned about this when you were writing yours? How confident were you?

Nah. Because I don’t think it was such a common trope then as it is now. There was the gold standard, of course, Barry Levinson’s “DINER”. But I tried never to even think of that one. Because then I would have just been paralyzed. Because that film is nearly perfect. A few years ago, I was skiing in Colorado, and I was in a bar and some snow-boarders in their early 20s came up to me. They had heard I was the dude that wrote “BEAUTIFUL GIRLS”. And they wanted to tell me that their whole group of friends watch the film once every few months. I told them that is so cool. And that MY friends and me used to watch “DINER” once every few months. And the snow-boarders shrugged and asked me: “What’s ‘DINER’?” And I realized that “GIRLS” was for these kids, what “DINER” was for some of my friends. And that was perhaps the coolest thing of all...

The film feels like it's been made by a writer/director - you can really feel a singular voice coming through. What interests me, is that it's really hard to know what is your voice, and what came from Ted Demme. What was your working relationship like with the Director; and what things, for you, did and didn't work out how you wanted in the film?

The journey of that film was insane. Originally, James L. Brooks was going to direct it. Which was kind of like we’d hit the lottery? Huh? James L. Brooks? The living legend? Who never directed a film he didn’t write? How is this possible? And why? I worked with Jim for 5 months on the film. Meeting actors. Hearing them say the words. Refining the script. And then, Jim dropped out. It was rather devastating. I think he just felt, end of the day, that he was a Jewish in his 50s, who’d been rich for a long time, how much commonality did he really have with a bunch of blue collar mooks from Boston? But working with him had been like the screenwriter equivalent of going to Harvard Business School. It was amazing. After he dropped out, we flirted with some other names. And then the idea of Teddy came up. I wasn’t that familiar with his work (he had only done a few films; and worked at MTV), but upon meeting him, one thing was clear: he WAS one of the guys I grew up with. He just had this amazing one-of-the-lads quality about him. And his enthusiasm was infectious. And he loved the script.

Were there disagreements? Sure. There will always be. But most of those came during post. Teddy and I agreed whole heartedly on every piece of casting. On locations. On set design. If we argued it was over some things in the final edit. But nothing terrible. A perfect example of how we worked was the day Teddy came to me and said there should be a sing-a-long a la “THE DEERHUNTER”, in The Johnson Inn. Wouldn’t that be a great way to introduce Uma’s character and show the guys’ special bond. But what song? Teddy was thinking maybe “HAPPY TOGETHER” by The Turtles. I knew, immediately (and this was well before it became a karaoke favorite and Boston Red Sox anthem), that it had to be Neil Diamond. “Sweet Caroline”. Teddy wasn’t so sure. One night, we took the cast to a bar in Minnesota for some after-wrap cocktails. There was a piano player there. I surreptitiously gave him ten bucks and asked him to play “Sweet Caroline”. He did. The place went crazy. Everyone singing along. Including Matt Dillon and Noah Emmerich. But Teddy always said, it was when he saw a waitress, gliding by, holding a tray laden with cocktails, wailing to the song, that he “knew Scotty was right... And that it had to be Neil Diamond..." That was how it was with us. He made a wonderful film. I miss him...

Do you think you would have worked together again? Were you close friends?

Teddy and I were good friends. We had a complicated relationship. Sometimes we were as thick as thieves, and planning on doing our next thing together. Other times, we were at each other's throats. He was the one who first convinced me to do television. We did a pilot based on a novel I wrote, called "GOING TO CALIFORNIA". Sold it to the WB. We shot a pilot but it didn't get picked up. Years later, Showtime bought it. We recast and did 20 episodes. So, you see, Teddy and I were always looking for shit to do together. His passing was great tragedy, as he was really starting to happen; to really come into his own as a filmmaker.

It's amazing how you went from 'Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead' and 'Beautiful Girls' - to working on a giant blockbuster like 'Con Air.' How did you get involved in the project?

“DENVER” was the hot script that year. It was one of those “No One Wants To Make It But Everyone Has To Read It” things. And I got a ton of attention. Disney brought me in and handed me an “L.A. TIMES” article about the real Con Air -a Federal Marshall program that transports prisoners across the country. They wanted me to come up with an idea. But they “didn’t want ‘DIE HARD’ on a plane. Good luck.” So I just noodled on it for a while. Listened to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers records. And once I happened upon the notion of the guy who had never met his daughter - that his wife had been pregnant when got busted - I saw how I could make this thing work. That sightline was so clean. It allowed me to adorn the thing with the craziest motherfuckers; the most absurd dialogue and set-pieces. Because, when all is said and done, he was just another man trying to find his way back home...

There's a big myth for writers trying to get into the industry; who feel that to work on anything with a big producer or studio, means no creative control and constantly having to incorporate other people's ideas - has this been your experience?

The script is always going to be co-opted. Because with a budget that big, it’s the only thing they can constantly tinker with; it allows everyone to sleep at night, knowing that, somewhere, someone is working on the script. I think you have to do your best work, and hope much of it flies. But you also have to be realistic: “SPIDER-MAN” or “GONE IN 60 SECONDS” or “THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER” -these are not the sad, sweet personal stories about my ancestors coming over from the Old Country. So I can be mercenary. I have to care. I have to make it deeply meaningful for me, so I can do good work. But I also have to divest myself emotionally. Because chances are good you will be re-written. My motto has always been: "Don’t Fuck With My Small Movies. Do What You Need With The Big..."

With 'Con Air,' you were writing about characters who were murderers, rapists, pedophiles -- is that particularly challenging?

First things first: I have never understood why people thought Buscemi’s character was a pedophile. He was described as a mass murderer who killed a bunch off people up and down the Eastern Seaboard. And that the way he killed made “the Manson Family look like The Partridge Family.” There was never a single mention of children. Somehow, when he has the scene with the little girl, people just jumped to that conclusion; that he was pedophile. It was the strangest thing to me. I was simply ripping off “FRANKENSTEIN” -monster with little girl. Did anyone ever accuse Frankenstein’s monster of being a pedophile? Nope. I think Garland Greene deserves the same respect. Ha-ha.

As far as writing murderers, rapists, etc., I have always believed one has to find the humanity in even the most dreadful of characters. No one - not even Son Of Sam - is without a shred of decency; Ted Bundy had a mother who loved him at one point. If you can find an access point - a way to give make even the most unsympathetic of characters mildly sympathetic in places... Then you will have a fully dimensionalized villain. Or so it seems to me...

I noticed when watching 'Highway' that you also produced it. Did you hire the director yourself?

I did. Along with the execs at New Line. Todd Phillips was originally going to direct it. It was called “A LEONARD COHEN AFTERWORLD” -which is a terrible title, but is a part of the lyric from the Nirvana song “Pennyroyal Tea” (”give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally... “). This was before Todd was Todd. And he eventually bailed because this movie he had been trying to get set-up finally got a green-light. That was “ROAD TRIP”. Which was rather ironic. Because my film was a road trip picture, too. Albeit a much darker one. Involving drug dealers, mobsters, circus freaks, hookers and the weekend Kurt Cobain killed himself.

After Todd dropped out, and we were looking for his replacement, a short film made by an NYU student came across our desk. It was called “ATOMIC TABASCO”. We were rather knocked out by its balls, its bombast, its confidence. We met with the director, James Cox. And were rather knocked- out by his balls, bombast and confidence. There was something about his manic madness that I thought was perfect for this film. The tone I wanted the movie to have, was sort of the manner in which James Cox lived his life. So we hired him. And we made a pretty cool film. Jared Leto, Jake Gyllenhaal, Selma Blair, John C. McGinley. And, in a show-stopping scene, Jeremy Piven (who replaced Vince Vaughn at the eleventh hour). But the exec at New Line who had championed the film left just after we delivered it. And the head of the studio never liked it. So they re-cut it; replaced all of our dope songs with lesser versions. And sent it straight to DVD. I have actually never seen the new version. And never will. It’s too painful. But I learned a lot making that film. And had a good time doing it...

Are you interested in directing at some point?

I think I would like to very much. I am not sure if I would be any good at it. Have come close a number of times. And for various reasons, it didn’t happen. Having spent a lot of time on many sets, watching many directors, there are some days you say to yourself “God, I could do better than this moron!” and then other days, you think: “wow, this guy is talented. I could never do what he does!” So I go back and forth. The “year of your life” thing kind of freaks me out. Insofar as I could work on so many projects in a year as a writer. But as a director, you are basically eating, drinking, sleeping and fucking that one film for at least an entire year. But we’ll see...

I was re-watching 'Gone In Sixty Seconds' the other day, and during the big car chase at the end, I wondered-- how the hell do you write something like that? How do you make a chase scene or a fight scene exciting? Whenever I try to write them scenes, they read like instruction manuals.

Funny that you ask. I wish I had a copy of my first draft handy (I can find it for you eventually), because that is exactly what I wrote in the stage directions. I wrote something like “look, I ain’t lazy. But chase scenes are like sex scenes - the only thing more boring than reading them is writing them. So I’m not gonna do it. We’ll hire a director and he will make shit happen!” Or something like that. For the final chase - the big one - I actually scripted all of the beats... But not for any of the earlier ones... I, quite literally, wrote, “and now DIRECTOR’S CHASE SCENE #2 begins... “ It actually gained a bit of notoriety.
A lot of people thought it was ballsy of me. It wasn’t. I just had no desire to waste my time. But that movie turned out to be a huge disappointment to me. The original script was very, very cool. It got that amazing cast. And then we hired a director who just wanted to shoot car porn. Another film I have never seen the final cut of...

What is it about not seeing a final cut, would it be that painful? It reminds me of Woody Allen, when he says he's never watched any of his films again, I'm never sure I believe him. I bet he has 'Annie Hall' on DVD..

With some of these films, you sort of grok that they are going to be shit; that they are not going to be what you intended when you first got that tiny spark. Which is why, yeah, I don't buy the Woody Allen thing. 'Cause he has made so many amazing movies. But I have not. So things like "DISTURBING BEHAVIOR" and "KANGAROO JACK" and "GONE IN 60 SECONDS". Yeah. Easier to just not watch them. And remember what they once were. And what they might have been. (mind you, not a one was on its way to being "HANNAH AND HER SISTERS". But still... )

Small, character based dramas, or big action films, which do you prefer writing?

I love it all. I really do. At this moment, I am deciding on what I should write next. I have six ideas I am currently toying with. Three of them are small and entirely character- driven. One is a whacked-out sci-fi horror thing; the other two are hugely commercial, big ideas. So I really am all over the map. What I’m most interested in is that the next one is different in tone, scope and story than the one I wrote just before. That’s all.

Nick Hornby is another writer with a really distinct voice, did you consult with him at all when adapting 'High Fidelity' or did you take the book and go your own way with it?

I didn’t. I wish I had. I am such a fan. But I was working with the director, Mike Newell, who was attached to it at the time. I am sure he met with Nick. But I didn’t. That was a case where I was sent the book in galleys. I had no desire to take on another project (I was way overbooked at the time). But I read it anyhow - because I was a fan of Newell’s (who had directed “FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL”) among other things. And the book just spoke to me. I was, like, who is this Nick Hornby and why is he living in my brain? Because I am a huge music guy; and I have had lots of struggles with girls and commitment and all that stuff. So I took the job. And did several drafts I thought were pretty good. I moved it from London to Boston, of course.

But I don’t think Mike was ever going to really direct it. Because “FOUR WEDDINGS” had been such a huge success. I think he, too, wanted to do something different. Not another romantic comedy. So we both sort of left it at the same time. Then John Cusack and his gang came in. And Stephen Frears. The movie is excellent. But let’s be honest: nearly everything that’s great in the film came from the novel. The novel was just so damn good. I hope to meet Nick someday. We’ve had several near-crosses but it’s never happened. But I continue to read his novels. Always awaiting the next one with delight...

“October Road' was something really special. How did the opportunity arise to make the show?

My friend, Gary Fleder (he directed “THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD”) was in a meeting with the ABC president, Steve McPherson, when McPherson commented that “BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” was one of his favorite films; why doesn’t someone do a TV version of that? Gary called me and asked me what I thought.

I was coming off of a few years where I had sold lots of scripts, but none had gotten made... And if actors aren’t saying your words, then the process isn’t complete, I don’t care how much dough you’re making. So I said “sure”. I brought in Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, who I had worked with on a short-lived Showtime show I created called “GOING TO CALIFORNIA”, which ran for 20 episodes in 2001, before Showtime was cool. Josh and Andre had been working on “ALIAS” and they were game to create a show with me. We were sort of looking for a way in, an access point, and then Andre said: “why don’t we dramatize what happened to you, Scott, in the wake of ‘BEAUTIFUL GIRLS’?” Because “GIRLS” was based entirely on my buddies from home. And some of them really got their feelings hurt and felt exposed (we are all pals again now; in fact, I am on the train to Boston as I type this, for this is the weekend of our annual ski trip!). We all collectively thought that was a great idea. Changed it from a movie to a novel; added the whole “is he your son is he not your son” and went to town. That was a great experience. I loved that cast. I loved that world. We had a very small but very rabid fan base by the time we went off the air. People still freak out when they find out that was my show. They gush in ways they never gush about any of the other stuff I’ve done...

There's something very dramatic and compelling about someone coming home, and the effect that has on him and the people he originally left behind. We see it again and again in your work - in 'October Road', 'Beautiful Girls' - and even in 'Gone In Sixty Seconds' --- is it coincidental that you've revisited this theme or is it something that fascinates you?

I jut think it’s something that is so utterly universal and relatable. It’s not a clerical error that perhaps the most famous line of dialogue in the history of movies is” “there’s no place like home.” We all come from somewhere. And we are always trying to get pieces of it back; no matter how good or bad it had been. Youth is a state of grace. Even if you were impoverished or abused or infirmed. You were young. You were unformed. You were home. It’s funny because we played with a lot of those themes in “LIFE ON MARS”. I find myself writing these overlong tone poems about the exigencies of “home”. And, yes, all through my work “DENVER”, “GIRLS”, all the TV shows, “GONE”. Hell, even Cameron Poe in “CON AIR” just wanted to get the fuck home.

But I don’t think it’s very unique. It worked for Homer. Why shouldn’t it work for the rest of us?
I can never put my finger on what it is exactly, but when watching your films, I always think of Billy Wilder - is he a big influence on your writing?

Well, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I am sure there are a lot of film and TV critics that would beg to differ with you on that one. Wilder is my all-time favorite. An old girlfriend of mine and I used to have “Billy Wilder Night”, where once a week, we’d watch one of his films, so we were sure to see the entire canon. And it’s rather astonishing that the same guy made “DOUBLE INDEMNITY”, “THE APARTMENT”, “STALAG 13”, “SOME LIKE IT HOT”, “SUNSET BOULEVARD” “THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH”, “THE LOST WEEKEND”, “WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION” and “SABRINA”. I mean, really? Are you kidding me? The range of subject matter; all of it, no matter how hilarious, suffused with a kind of darkness, a skewed morality that was just so bold and compelling. And the dialogue! I mean, the guy was just off the charts. I devoured that Cameron Crowe interview book with Wilder. And it is my second piece of advice I give to neophyte writers (the first being: “just write!”): watch Billy Wilder movies. Watch them all. And try not to be intimidated but rather be inspired...

It disappoints me when perfect shows like 'October Road' get taken off the air. Would you have liked to have taken it a lot further?

Of course, I would have loved that. “LIFE ON MARS”, too. But television is a funny thing. There are so many variables. So many factors. In both cases, we hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of those characters, nor the places we wanted to take them. But the good thing about the creative process is that no character ever truly dies; parts of them are reborn into other characters. In the new show, “HAPPY TOWN”, you’ll see some traces of some O-ROADERs. As well as in the script I am currently writing. It’s like some weird form of Buddhism. The souls of a character is reincarnated long after he is no longer a corporeal being...

Despite the fact that 'October Road' seemed very much like your baby, there were a lot of different writers working on the show -- how do you work with writers on your TV projects?

We have a staff. A writers room. Storylines are generated out of the writers room. Approved by the network and studio. And then a writer goes to script.

But every script goes through my computer. I am in charge of “the top edit”. The “voice pass”, as it is sometimes called. So all of the scripts feel like they are of the same piece. Sometimes I have to rewrite 80% of a writer’s script. Sometimes it’s only 20%. But we have been blessed, in that we have managed to assemble some truly talented, truly splendid writers on all three shows. We really are just hoping for a hit, so we can keep these people coming to our
offices rather than to someone else’s..

What can you tell us about 'Happy Town'?

“Happy Town” came about during the writers strike. We were still working on “OCTOBER ROAD”, but we could read the tea leaves. The was walking the creaky steps of the gallows up to the waiting hangman’s noose. But we so loved the world. The small town aspects. And we thought: what if we did a version of “OCTOBER ROAD” where shit actually HAPPENS? Wouldn’t that be novel? We were also thinking that nobody does scary on TV anymore. And I mean scary but not “CSI” or “CRIMINAL MINDS” forensic porn scary. And not vampires and werewolves and zombie scary either. I mean, just scary. My partners, Josh and Andre, were degenerate “TWIN PEAKS” fans. I was not. But Stephen King’s novel, “’SALEM’S LOT” is, for my money, one of the most perfect horror tales ever written. So you can find much of the “HAPPY TOWN” DNA in those two works. Plus “OCTOBER ROAD”, of course.

It’s a small town spook show, centered on bucolic Haplin, Minnesota, a place that knew darkness years ago - when seven disparate people disappeared, over the course of seven years. Locals called it the work of “The Magic Man” -so named because he “had the ability to make people vanish that bordered on the mystical.. “ Well, by the end of the third episode, he returns. And he has returned at the worst possible time! It is a very cool, very unique piece of television. It stars Geoff Stults, who played Eddie on "OCTOBER ROAD" (as well as other O-ROAD alum Jay “Physical Phil” Paulson and Warren “Big Cat” Christie), and Amy Acker, Sam Neill, Lauren German, Robert Wisdom, Francis Conroy, M.C. Gainey, Steven Weber and Abe Benrubi. A truly wonderful cast. I hope you’ll watch...

Of course! Definitely. What advice can you give to upcoming screenwriters? What is the biggest mistake you see young writers making?

The biggest mistake I see young writers doing is thinking they are ready to be read after writing one or two scripts. Bullshit. You ain't. You are still learning your craft. Learning to crawl. And don't let that story you read in "VARIETY", about the college freshman who sold his first script to Warners for 3 million dollars. Sure, he might have. But God also made Michael Jordan and Eddie Van Halen and Alex Rodriguez. There are always gonna be Talent Freaks. You ain't one of the them. How do I know? Because they are rarer than rare. Keep writing. Always Be Writing. I wrote ten scripts before I got an agent. 14 before one was made. If I look back at those old scripts, sure there were some decent parts. But most of it was crap. How could it not be?

The other mistake made is to try and get a job in show biz while you are paying your dues. Jobs in show biz are for the folks back home. So Ma can say to the ladies in her book club: "Petey is working for Ryan Seacrest!" The problem with working for Ryan Seacrest? It will be a 16 hour day. And you will think about it when you are getting ready for bed. No. Get a job bagging groceries. Or driving a truck. A job that you don't give another brain cell to when you punch the clock at the end of the day. So you can go home and focus on what is truly important at this phase of your life: which is writing.

When a writer is convinced they have a great script, or two; what should they do?

When you think you have a great script - if it really is great - they will find you. The town is starving for great scripts. It sounds awful and pat and overly simplistic: but if you want to succeed as a screenwriter, write a dope script. I am not saying that shitty scripts get made. Of course they do. More times than not. And a good 65 % of working screenwriters should have their laptops revoked. But at some point, they wrote that one. That one that people noticed. A Zen approach is a good one. Don't do a mass mailing introducing yourself to every agent in town. Don't foist your script on the guy at the next table in the diner, who happens to be reading "THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER". Just know that they will find you. It sounds strange. It's not. L.A. is a city fueled by the frantic frenzy to find the next great script. The key is write it. And then watch them tumble...


  1. Excellent interview Kid! The guy is so inspiring. Very very cool.

  2. I'm in agreement with Tina. Great pick for a screenwriter to interview! What a neat guy! His thoughts on how everyone is just trying to get home, how characters are reincarnated in different scripts, his advice on writing and honing your craft...very great idea to interview him. Awesome read.

  3. Now THAT was a great interview! I especially love the advice for young screenwriters.

  4. I couldn't agree less...

    "Beautiful Girls" was so heavy with "I'm smart" dialogue. That Natalie Portman character was ridiculous and long before it came out, we were up to our balls in stories about guys who just won't grow up.

    Come on. He may like Billy Wilder, but he's a hack.

  5. That was a thorough and insightful interview. Well done! I've been a huge fan of Scott Rosenberg's ever since "Beautiful Girls" and he's been a consistent force in the screenwriting world ever since. Would you be able to tell me how to get a hold of him to write a fan letter?