– Sean McKittrick, producer of Donnie Darko, The Box, and Bad Words
What did you do after UCLA?
SM: I worked for a temp agency called Apple One. They specifically place you in entertainment related jobs. I became a full time temp at New Line Cinema and floated from desk to desk when assistants were out sick, taking vacations, etc. That actually led to my first job. When a position opened up, they were familiar with me and I hit it off with one of the executives. I ended up staying there for two years as her assistant.
When did you intern for Lucas Foster?
SM: I worked for Lucas when I was a Junior and Senior in College.
How did it go?
SM: The internship was an eye opener, you know, you’re in college, you don’t know anything. You’re working for free, doing the most menial tasks, making copies. You learn the copy machine really well. That was basically it. You’re copying scripts, sometimes your reading scripts because one of the assistants wants a second opinion or something. I remember to get the internship they gave me the first draft of The Truman Show, without a title page. And I had to read it and tell them if I thought it was good, and that was like the litmus test. And I didn’t know anything; I was like, “Oh this is so brilliant, you have to buy it!” They were like, “Yeah, yeah, we know. It sold for like a million two, a year ago.”
So then what was the break? Where did New Line take you and when did you first meet Rich?
SM: Actually an assistant for Lucas Foster, Sasha Alexander, who is now an actress, introduced me to Rich because Rich needed a producer for his graduate film. She was actually going to be one of the stars of the film but she was going to produce it as well. So she didn’t have the time because she was going to act in it. So she introduced me to Rich, and I read his script and it was just this short film that was completely insane. It was like a sci-fi farce of a 1950’s serial sci-fi film. Totally absurd. About a corporation that invents a teleportation machine and teleports a man. The thought behind it is that you can’t teleport a man’s soul, so they inadvertently resurrect God by trying to do this, and obviously it brings about destruction.
Did you guys make this movie?
SM: Oh yeah, we made it, it was 35 mm, it ended up being, you know 48 minutes with 70 special effects shots.
And this was while you were at UCLA and he was at USC?
SM: This was right when we both graduated. So instead of doing the standard Europe trips after school we went and played with all the tools that we had from SC and UCLA – we raided the school and took everything we could and we had all of Rich’s friends from SC working on the crew, Ryan Lewis was actually part of our crew. We were all doing everything.
And then, what happened when you finished it?
SM: We finished it and we just didn’t have the money to properly edit it and do the visual effects so I went off and took the job at New Line and Rich went off and took a job at the post house so he could use the machines at the post house. He was literally serving cappuccinos to J. Lo and Puff Daddy doing their video. And he always jokes about replacing tampons in the women’s bathroom. That was his job.
And then editing at night?
SM: We met our editor, Sam Bauer, there, because Rich was working with him and we started editing it at night. Rich and Sam would stay after work and edit every night.
Did you finally get it to a place where you liked it?
SM: Yeah, we got it to what we liked, and then we kind of just sat on it. It was just kind of our experiment and over the course, I believe it was ’98 – it was the holidays, late ’97, early ’98. Rich showed up with Donnie Darko. It was like 158 pages and he gave it to me. I had been at New Line for 8 months or so and I read the script and I was just blown away by it. It was really long but obviously he was a talent that doesn’t come around very often. So we spent maybe 3,4,5 months kind of just streamlining, getting the script perfect, and cutting like 20 pages out of it and focusing all of his ideas. . .
Did you send the short anywhere?
SM: Well, we didn’t send it anywhere. He still wouldn’t have gotten directing work out of it unless he was trying for commercials or music videos. He knew he needed a companion piece to become a director so he just decided to write his own script.
Did he know that you had already decided that you were going to produce?
SM: Yeah, I mean I think we both wanted to do it all.
So when you guys met? You just hit it off?
SM: We just hit it off.
So who was the first person who saw it after this 4 or 5 month – and did he have an agent?
SM: No, no agent. I had met a lot of people, basically worked for the number two or three at New Line, in Development. That was what I was doing for a year and a half; you know reading scripts, working the phones. All that stuff that assistants love to talk about so much. So when we got the script ready I sent it to 8 assistants that I had made friendships with over the years as an assistant at each agency. You know my favorite person at each agency and said you’ve got to read this. And literally within two weeks it had worked its way all the way up the ladder at CAA and they called and immediately were just like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” And I sent him over and he signed in the room that very day. That was Christmas of ’98 I think.
And he’s still with that same agent?
SM: We’re still with the same people.
Did you do any rewriting? How did you work to keep Rich as director attached?
SM: We never really did a rewrite. Rich sat in the room at CAA and said, “You know, I’d love for you guys to represent me, but here are two things, I’m directing the script no matter what,” and he’s 23 at the time.
With little to show for it besides an incredible script?
SM: He was like I am directing this and that’s that. “And two, Sean is producing it and that’s that.” They said okay fine, and they supported that. Then went the year long process of going out on a thousand meetings with every studio executive and every other producer that they wanted to team us up with. An experienced producer- that was a year long process and it was tough.
What was the break?
SM: Well the break was, Jason Schwartzman had read it and we didn’t know it because he was represented by a different agency. We had no idea that he wanted to do it for about a year. He had been asking his agents, “What’s going on with Donnie Darko, What’s going on with Donnie Darko?” And they were saying nothing because nobody had bought it. We wouldn’t sell it as a spec and we wouldn’t change into the teen horror film that so many companies wanted us to do. So his agents rightfully were telling him well nothing is going on with this. And we finally just heard through the grapevine that Schwartzman wanted to do it. So we immediately called his agent and said well listen, if he wants to do this and we attach him, it’s going to get made. He just came off of Rushmore. Obviously, he is very talented. When Jason came aboard then out of nowhere Nancy Juvonen and Drew Barrymore (Flower Films), they were obsessed with Jason – they wanted to know what Jason was doing or what Jason was planning on doing because they just thought he was great. So Sharon Sheinwold, Jason’s agent at UTA, sent the script over to Nancy, and Nancy read it and just flipped out for it. And accosted our agent at show west, when they were all out there for some other movie. And literally we were there the very next day; sitting in Drew’s trailer on the set of Charlie’s Angels talking with her about the script. And at that point we were in the 2 million dollar range for budget and literally we sat in the room with Drew and Nancy – and if you ever meet them they are just the nicest people in the world and they just loved the script. And literally Drew said I’d like to play the English Teacher – if you let our company come on and produce this with you? And we were like, uh, yeah! So immediately our budget went up to 4.5. In that room we had a start date because Drew had a one week window between Charlie’s Angels and Riding in Cars with Boys, which was July 24 through August 1. So we had that one week window, which was maybe three months away so we were immediately in pre production and we were deciding between two financiers. We went with the one we felt most comfortable with. That was that.
When did Jason leave the project?
SM: I don’t remember what month it was, but we were a few months out from shooting, and Jason had to leave because he had committed to another movie that was literally starting the week that we were going to start, and, or wait, it was wrapping a week after we were going to shoot. And we couldn’t make it work because we only had Drew for one week. And so he unfortunately had to pull out of it.
Was he upset?
SM: Yeah, I mean I’m pretty sure he was disappointed, and we were kind of terrified. We’re like, oh fuck; the guy who got this rolling is gone.
Was Drew worried?
SM: Everyone was worried at first, but it was Drew and Nancy who just said, “Guys, don’t worry about it, we’ll find someone to do it.” So literally over the course of the next two weeks we met with every really talented young actor. There were a lot of guys who were just really, really great. But literally the moment we met Jake, we met him in Drew’s office at Flower Films, Jake walked in and he was like fresh out of his first or second year at Columbia, really a smart intellectual guy. And Rich always said he knew it before he sat down that he was it. Even after talking to him, he is just such a smart guy, intellectual, and just fun guy to be around. And we just started talking about the script and it was really immediately, right after that we had to take a few more meetings because we had already scheduled them, just to be polite. But we knew it was him and that was that, that was the end of it.
So you had the shoot date, Drew was able to bring you up to 4.5? How were the next three months?
SM: They were absolutely crazy, just constant work – 20 hour days.
When did Rich get his DP, or how did that come about?
SM: We met with a few DP’s.
During that three months right away?
SM: Yeah, we thought that since our budget was so low, that we weren’t going to get an A-list DP, or at least we didn’t think so. And our line producer would give us just stacks of resumes of working DP’s that we might be able afford. We really couldn’t afford anyone, to be honest with you, but DP’s we might be able to afford. And we started going through them and we came across one – a music video DP who was this extremely talented guy, and Rich really hit it off with him. We met with him and the financiers just wouldn’t do it. He’d never shot a feature. We’d have a first time director with a first time feature DP and they were just like, no. So we thought, “we’re fucked, we’re screwed.” The guy we want and we think would be great for it, they won’t allow. It was disappointing. So we went back to the résumés and we get this guy’s résumé—Stephen Poster. And he’s got like, Strange Brew, which is a classic, to Big Top Peewee; but the one that really got us was Someone To Watch Over Me, which was, oh my god he shot a Ridley Scott Film. And we were like, “Would this guy even be interested in doing this?” And Stephen came and met with Richard at his place and he’s an older guy, certainly not OLD, but probably mid-50’s. And he sat down and said the first thing I want you to do is disregard our age difference. And the second thing I want you to do is know that I never, ever want to be a director. And they just totally hit it off. Stephen’s a brilliant guy and he’s one of the main reasons why the movie looks like it does. Right now he’s actually the President of the ASC. He just came off shooting Stuart Little Two. He’s just kind of like this living working legend within the cinematography community and he just did a brilliant job. He’s the nicest, sweetest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. He was just a Godsend. Sometimes things just completely work out and that was the biggest of them all.
Is there anything else about Darko we didn’t touch on that you would want to talk about, from a writing standpoint?
SM: Well, it was a little bit different, because he was a writer/director. But, when and if a script goes into production, the script is completely malleable. And one thing that Rich did as a writer, and director – he and Jake literally sat down for a week and went through every line of dialogue that Donnie said. And a lot of subtle changes were made. He did that with all the actors. So you’re script is going to change and get better. And we also, because of budget constraints, had to really condense the script. We shot about 108 page script. When it was green lit it was 128. So it was good for that kind of movie because it made us really focus the story. If not, I think there would have been a lot more confused people than there already were, after it came out.
So why don’t we go on to, tell me what’s happened since Darko – you started Darko Productions, with Richard.
SM: Yeah, well Rich has 6 or 7 scripts that he’s just sitting on. Most recently we’re doing a project called Knowing for Escape Artists and Columbia. We’re casting a lead right now, and once we get the lead we’re in pre production. It’s our first studio-backed film. It was based on a really good script, not a great script – and Rich just totally, page one rewrote it and made it his own. He took all of the good ideas out of that script and just put it through his head. So that’s what we’re doing now, he’s going to direct that.
Are you guys still looking for other material right now?
SM: Always. We have a couple scripts that he has not written and that I have not written that we’re just producing. And using our experience over the past two or three years helps when working with young writers.
And what would you say specifically you’re looking for, if there is anything specific?
SM: You know, I don’t think there is really anything specific. It’s just originality. There is a great question in here about marketability.
How much would you recommend a writer to go with his/her most commercial or sellable idea?
SM: I think that’s a fine line. When I’m looking at a script, I think marketability is the wrong word for it. I think originality is the word for it. Obviously, a more independent film would be more difficult to put together. But as long as it’s original and well written you’ll be able to find other ways to make it marketable. Because if it’s really well written and it’s a really original script, no matter how dark or how light, you’re going to be able to cast it, and that’s what they market. They’re going to market the cast. Whereas, one trap with a lot of first time writers, including myself when I wrote my first script, is to fall into trying to write a script that is based on one kind of running joke, or running premise. And it ends up just being the entire thing . . . the same joke . . . the same running idea. And it’s not good writing. If you want to be a working writer, I would suggest writing something original. And if it just happens to be something that a studio exec would happen to find marketable great. If not, it’s still going to prove that you’re a great writer. Never try and write something only because you think it will sell. That’s the trap.
What do you think makes producers keep reading? Or you keep reading?
SM: It would be something original. Originality is everything. That’s how Donnie Darko got made because it was so original, and mind you one of the most difficult films to get made was Donnie Darko.
How hard was that decision regarding the money and not just selling your script a long time ago?
SM: Well, that was tough. We could have certainly sold it off and made money, but we wouldn’t have careers. We could have let somebody else take it and do what they want with it. Turn it into something its not. And we could have walked away with a lot more money. We took the bare minimum to survive during Darko. We had control over the budget so we dictated what we were paid, and we were paid just enough to get by while we were shooting, I mean it was nothing. As far as the control goes, we kind of got lucky in a lot of ways. Since we had Flower Films, and they had a few movies under their belt, and the fact that we were at Pandora/Gaylord . . . We were their first green light and they hadn’t really set up an infrastructure on how to deal with production. We really were left alone to do our thing. There was really no intervention until editing, when they came in and just demanded it to be shorter. That’s where the problems came about, although its problems that come about with every movie, every director and independent film- it’s too long. But we were left completely alone. We were on schedule all the time and we surrounded ourselves with a tremendous crew, an A-list crew across the board. As long as you’re on schedule and not wasting money. We were just completely left alone, which was great, I don’t think they had time to bug us. They maybe visited the set once or twice.
Let’s talk about advice for writers going into meetings with agents, managers, producers.
SM: Do your homework, I would say. It is the number one thing I would say, with any of those; agents, managers, producers.
Take criticism well?
SM: Always take criticism well. That’s the number one thing that a writer has to be able to do. You have to realize this is the most collaborative business there is. Everybody has their opinion, right or wrong, and if you’re not allowed to listen to it you’re never ever going to make it.
And everybody needs to respect the fact that once you finish the script there’s people out there that are trying to sell it and make it happen.
SM: Yes, and getting in the business with agents, managers and producers – its subtlety different for each one. Good agents work for you. That’s what they do; they make 10% of what you make. And good ones revel in that. They just want to help you. There are a lot of really great agents out there, but certainly there are a lot of really bad agents as well- just as there are bad producer’s bad writers, and bad director’s and so on. It’s doing your homework, talking to people. If it’s an agent, what other clients do they have? Do you get along with them? Do you like them as a person, not that that’s completely necessary – it just depends on your style. But really do your homework on that. Managers are on a different frame; they kind of guide your careers a little bit more than agents do. Certainly I think there are more bad managers than there are good managers. I happen to know a lot of good managers, which is lucky. Rich doesn’t have a manager and we just don’t plan on having one, simply because we don’t need one. When you’re a writing, directing, producing team you don’t need a manager to take another 15%. Some writers really do benefit from a good manager that can help you continually adapt your script and make it better.
Explain for aspiring writers how difficult pitch meetings are? Why new time writers don’t go in and pitch a project.
SM: I’ll start with the back end of that question first. When you go in to pitch something and you’re pitching to an executive or whoever, you’re not going to be able to really pitch an idea and have then buy it for you to write if they don’t even know if you can read. If you don’t write something to show that you can write, how can they pay you to write something? Even if you have a great idea, you can go in and pitch something and they’ll buy the idea and hire a writer to do it, but you won’t be writing it. Writers need to write and that’s the bottom line. Even if it doesn’t get seen by people you need to keep writing. But in order to be effective and sell a pitch, to get them to pay for your writing, you have to have something to show people.
Would you agree with the saying that if you write something good you could drive down on the highway in LA and throw it out the window and somebody will recognize it? In the sense that for writers who are so attached to their project that they still believe that it’s something that needs to be told and it’s a story that has potential?
SM: I never subscribe to the theory by writers that I’ve written something so brilliant that nobody will recognize it, because “I don’t know people in this town.” I’m not the son of so and so or the daughter of so and so, I don’t know anybody – I don’t subscribe to that at all. I think that if you write something great it will find its way to the top, no matter what. It honestly will. If you write a great script it’s going to find its way into the right hands- unless you lock it in your room and don’t show it to people. There are a thousand people in this town that are hungry, from interns to assistants. I mean an intern, even when I was an assistant, if an intern walked up to me and said, “my god, this guy wrote this brilliant script and you’ve got to read it,” I would read it. And then I’d give it to my boss. And that boss would give it to that boss, and it would get up there if it’s good.
So it doesn’t matter if its agencies, production companies, just get it out there?
SM: Just get it out there. If it goes into a studio or production company first and they’re interested don’t go into anything without getting an attorney and having an attorney draw you up a deal. Because that’s the only way you can get screwed. As long as there’s interest you can find attorney’s out there, just the same way you can get your script out there. And they don’t work on hourly rates; entertainment attorneys take 5% of what you make, so they’re working for you, just like your agent or your manager is working for you. They don’t tell you what to do; they work for you. It always upsets me when people say, “oh I’ve written this brilliant script but nobody will give it a chance.” I just don’t think that’s true.
And how about living in Los Angeles or New York?
SM: Obviously the majority of everything film and television happens in LA. There’s no doubt about that. But as a writer, you can live anywhere. I have writer friends who are extremely successful . . .
But if you had a script from somebody in New Zealand and somebody said I can’t come meet, I’m living here – would that at all change things that somebody’s living in Venice . . .
SM: It depends on what they wanted to do . . .
But I mean if you wanted to make the movie?
SM: If I wanted to produce and make the movie? No, it wouldn’t have any effect on me. I think the only time they would run into a problem was if he wanted to go pitch a story of theirs to all the studios, you can’t really pitch over conference room tables out of a speaker phone. But as far as writer, you can live anywhere really. As long as what you write is good, you can live in Iceland and it won’t matter.
How have things changed since Darko? For you personally and in terms of what your vision is for future projects?
SM: Personally, it’s a lot easier to get people on the phone, that’s for sure. Nothing changed financially; we’re still struggling like we were before. It was an independent film; we didn’t make any money off of it. Certainly people as . . .
Did the bank make money? Who financed it?
SM: A company called Gaylord Entertainment. They’ll make money in the long run, certainly.
Are they happy, can you go back to them?
SM: I don’t know. Personally, probably not. They don’t make the kind of movies that we want to make. They made A Walk to Remember. That is not really our taste and I think both of us know that. They kind of inherited our film when they acquired Pandora, which was the French finance company that distributed movies like Shine.
But you and Rich are looking to go big next, I mean bigger?
SM: Certainly, I think when people talk about going to “bigger” films; I think that’s kind of the wrong way to look at it—
Twenty-five million and up?
SM: Yeah, I mean our next film will be twenty-five million or up. There’s no doubt about it. Studios can only make movies for a certain amount of money. And they need to spend money to make money. That’s how the studio system works. We have a film that we’re sitting on for another few years, because it’s going to cost $75-80 million to make and we know we couldn’t get that amount from somebody right now. But I think that a film should only cost as much as it should and if we were to spend $20 million on Donnie Darko it would have been really, really bad. It would have been unfair for us to try and get that because what your film is should dictate how much you should spend on it. And Donnie Darko was a film that all the actors worked for scale. All the crew worked for scale as well. And that’s how it should have been. When you have a movie like Men in Black II, that’s 120 plus, that movie should cost that much because they know how much they’re going to make, it’s already built in. There are films out there where I hear their budget and I’m like, “Well, where did it go because it certainly didn’t end up on the screen.” So if I were to go into a studio and ask for $50 million for a very small character piece that takes place in a house that would be very irresponsible of me. And you need to be very responsible with your money. Certain films should be made for $5 million and certain films should be made for 100. And certainly we would love to have all that money to play with but this is a business, and I don’t want to lose money for anyone.
But the goal is to keep your vision just make bigger movies, or spend more money?
SM: Well, we want to make movies that more people will want to see. Nobody saw Donnie Darko. Thank God for DVDs, now people can actually see it more. But we want to make bigger films in the sense that, “I want to make that film that comes out on 2500 screens.” That’s a step that you strive for but we have other films that are big ensemble pieces and it would be irresponsible for us to try and make a big ensemble for $40 million. You make it for 15, and that’s just how you do it. You have to understand everybody wants to make money, but that’s not the only thing for us.
That’s what I was trying to get at.
SM: If you’re doing that, I respect that too, but it’s just not really our thing.
But it’s for your fans?
SM: Yeah. There are certain filmmakers out there that make the big budget, really awful blockbusters that make an enormous amount of money, and more power to them. I respect them for that because most of them know what they’re doing. I don’t respect the guys that do big blockbusters and then claim they should be up for Oscars. Those are the ones that you’re not making art, you’re making popcorn films. It’s equally valid, just don’t try and cherry coat a popcorn film.
Do you think it’s easier to make a popcorn film than Darko, for instance?
SM: I think it’s easier to get made. It’s certainly not easier to make.
Right now would there be other scripts you guys could have passed down that would have been easier to go with?
So, its not “We made Darko, now we’re successful, now we’re going to make one big one that’s going to make tons of money?”
SM: No, absolutely not. You have to build a career. If we were to do that we would lose the very few fans that we already have. And plus, I wouldn’t put my name on something that I wouldn’t be proud of, just to buy a cool car, you know? It’s just not how we work, and I understand some people have to do that. But we’ve learned to live on Top Ramen, and we’re okay with it. I don’t think it’s the sell out factor for me, and you always get upset when someone does a really daring first film because they could get a guaranteed first film for such a small amount of money and then they go off and do the big studio comedy where literally they could phone it in; phone the direction, producing, writing from where they are. Just to up their quotes or whatever, it’s the wrong way to go.
How many producers did it actually take to get Darko made?
SM: The producers on Darko who did something know that they did something. The proliferation of producer credits is one of the most horrible things in this town. You look at the credit list of these films, and mind you I have this lithograph of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in my bedroom. And it says, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, and nothing else. And you look at other movies and there are 13 credited producers. And I guarantee you 10 of them did nothing. It’s just in their contracts, they’re either managers of one of the actors or writers or they’re the Executives at the studio, although most of the studios don’t do credits. There are attachments here and there.
But people know that.
SM: Sure, but that still doesn’t make it right. And it takes away from the very few producers that actually pour their heart and soul into the film.
Describe how much you and Nancy actually had to do. What producing an independent film means.
SM: It means everything. Your job is to make everything go smoothly. So you have to be on top of every single department. Whether its costume or just the script itself, everything goes through you. And your job is to make it possible and easy for the director to direct. And do their job. And stay on top of the director and let them know if you think they’re doing something wrong or whatever. It’s different for me because Rich and I are business partners and we do so much more collaborating than the standard director, producer relationship. For Darko, the independent film it was two years nonstop work. For one tiny little film that you’re getting paid nothing for. It was full time and beyond.
And tell me now what it’s like to be bouncing around back and forth between studios, what that whole world is like.
SM: It’s a difficult world, just because we’re kind of like the Darko guys. Ooh, these guys are dark and they’ll never do anything that we can sell. It’s so not the truth. We could go out there and just sell a bunch of Rich’s scripts but we’d lose control over them and we’re all about control, because we know how quickly a good movie can turn bad . . . And get sucked up in the system, with too many people adding their opinions. There are a lot of really untalented people out there. And it’s your job to find the talented people within the executive ranks, producer ranks, writer rinks. That’s your job. All the way down to the crew. If you hire a bad DP or a bad line producer who can’t handle the crew or the budget, that’s your fault. You need to be on top of everything. And that kind of functions into being a writer too. You have to realize these other people around you are just trying to help. You’ll know the people that aren’t trying to help, you’ll know right away. People that aren’t trying to help show their spots very quickly.
Also, as a writer, you have to write so that it is easy for all these other people to come in and do their job?
SM: If there’s something in the script and someone says I don’t understand this, then you need to look at that. If somebody doesn’t understand this, then an audience member is not going to understand this, so you need to address that and you need to be willing to be collaborative. And if you can’t do that, you are not going to work as a writer, mark my word. You will not work as a writer if you are a not a collaborative person.
Especially for writers who don’t have representation what are some other guidelines you could suggest? In terms of, don’t add music, or go attack the story.
SM: Just don’t regurgitate is the big one in terms of stylistically and format wise. As long as you’re writing in a script program the format is going to be good enough. I would suggest reading a lot of scripts, this helps. But do not every try to regurgitate another writer’s writing. People are going to respond to your writing style and you have to develop your own style. And I don’t adhere too much to these unwritten rules that I learned in school that are just like, “don’t add music, or parentheticals, or notes to the reader. I personally don’t like it when a writer adds in a ton of shots, “Cut to,” or close up, etc.—unless that’s a style ingrained in the actual story . . . But if its unnecessary, if you’re directing your script as opposed to writing, that’s bad. You shouldn’t be doing that. Let the director direct.
Would any of this be any different than big studio films?
SM: No, no. People work their rate as readers, whether their agent’s executives or anything, they’re not going to be too stuck up about the standard original format that you’ll learn about in the screenwriting books. In my opinion, a lot of those books just throw out. There are certainly good ones: William Goldman’s one is really good. I don’t subscribe to screenwriting books telling people how to write screenplays. As long as you know the format, and you can learn that by reading one script that you can go buy or get from a friend in town. You can even order them on line. Just as long as you know the format and the basic rules. Just develop your own style. It’s like if you’re a novelist and someone is telling you that you can’t start a sentence with a preposition, when every other great author in the world had proven that you can and should sometimes. I don’t subscribe to that. I think in order to be original you have to write original. Rich actually puts lots of different stuff in his scripts to make it more visual. Sometimes he’ll put little diagrams of a drawing that he can’t describe perfectly, just so they’ll get it right. If there’s blood written on the wall, he’ll do some format thing where he’ll show it, he’ll have it inside the script. I don’t subscribe to these rules, because those rules are made to be broken as long as you’re not just going against the standard format. And it would be hard to go against the format if you’re writing in a script program.
But Darko had a lot of structural issues.
SM: But that’s how it was written in the script. That’s exactly how it was.
But Rich went to film school and so that seeped out obviously, in more than one sense.
SM: Well Rich, obviously you’re going to learn from reading and writing other things, that’s exactly how you do it. I don’t think writers . . .
But would you say to the point where the three act structure is the key?
SM: I think if you’re telling a good story it naturally has a three act structure. I don’t think you should freak yourself out if you’re writing and say, “Oh my God by page 35 I have to have my character hit the first wall.” I think that just naturally comes out. If you’re telling a story you know how long it is. Your three act structure will come out of it naturally. And I think over outlining and being concerned with where you’re at in the story – it’s just going to hold you back. You can always go back and condense it to meet a more typical three act structure. Or if you’ve ran long, you can go back and read it and my god I’m really not getting into the story until page 50, well then condense those first 50 pages, and there will be your act one.
Do you or Rich use Outlines, Treatments?
SM: Rich certainly does not. He does not outline very much at all. He outlines in his head.
So when he sits down to write a script, I know you said he can write a script in three days?
SM: Yes, he just shuts himself off and writes and it makes me insanely jealous because I haven’t been able to do that. I’m trying to learn, but it’s tough. Literally, we would be over at his house watching the Laker game and 20 people are drinking and eating and having a great time watching the Laker game. And he’s writing a script with all this noise around him and he’ll write ten pages right there. You literally have to shake him to get him out of it. He just concentrates and just gets in the groove. Outlining works for certain people, I think, but I found that speaking from personal experience, that over outlining is probably one of the worst things that you can do. You end up spending more time outlining that you do writing. And it won’t feel natural when you’re reading it. I wrote a really horrible script because I over outlined it. And it was like I knew where I was going and the next page it was like, ‘get there real quick, get there real quick . . . it was a terrible script. I never showed it to anyone. Literally, you should know where you’re going, but you don’t need to necessarily write it down. I think writers who incessantly outline, over-write their own story.
How about advice for letting writers knows when to put a script down, say you’ve been working on it for six months, or a year, when do I start my next script?
SM: Oh, that’s a tough one. That’s a case to case one I think.
In general, a lot of writers I’ve dealt with have been working on a script for the two plus years that I’ve known them. Well, more from a producers mindset what I’m trying to get at is, and from what we’ve just been talking about with Rich, is that maybe that script is good, and there is some good stuff there, but you need to keep writing . . .
SM: Well, that’s where the collaboration comes in. Every writer should have a group of friends or professionals they trust. You value their opinion and you should be willing to show a script that maybe you are halfway done with it, and you’re stuck and you don’t know where to go with it. Sometimes it just takes an extra push. You can give it to a couple of your friends and get their opinion. And you’ve got to give it to people that are going to give you an honest opinion, that’s the biggest thing. And you’ve got to be willing to take that criticism. And sometimes that’s all it takes. Specifically I was writing a script and I kind of got stuck right in the middle of it and I gave it to Rich. And I kind of got stuck in my own foe pas, kind of a one joke thing. And that’s why I got stuck, writing a one line script.
What books and movies influenced you as a child?
SM: Stephen King was probably the biggest author that I read growing up. I was madly obsessed with all of his books. Stephen King’s On Writing, that is a book every writer should read. The moral of it is just sit down and write. It’s a great book for any writer to read, screen writer or not. Movies, God, I’m really influenced by film makers. Spielberg and Ridley Scott, any of their movies or Peter Weir, Fearless. Milos Forman with One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest and Coppola with The Godfathers. Those are the greats, the films I found myself becoming obsessed with . . .
How about more independent stuff?
SM: Christopher Nolan, Memento and Insomnia. That guy can do whatever he wants, brilliant guy. Spike Jonze is one of the next big guys. Sam Mendes—if you can get Tom Hanks in your second film you’re doing pretty well for yourself. Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne—these are the next generation guys. Obviously, Darren Aronovsky with Requiem for a Dream. On the other end, really independent movies, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Todd Solondz. All three of his films are brilliant.