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Patrick McGilligan continues his celebrated interviews of exceptional screenwriters with Backstory 5, focusing on the 1990s. The thirteen featured writers are not confined to the 1990s, but their engrossing, detailed, and richly personal stories create, in McGilligan's words, "a snapshot of a profession in motion." Emphasizing the craft of writing and the process of collaboration, this new volume looks at how Hollywood is changing to meet new economic and creative challenges.
|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Back Story 5
Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s
By Patrick McGilligan
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
INTERVIEW BY GAVIN SMITH
ALBERT BROOKS ME GENERATION EVERYMAN
In Albert Brooks's comedy The Muse (1999), a Hollywood screenwriter (played by Brooks) attempts to reignite his stalled career by employing the services of a muse (Sharon Stone). Descended from one of the nine Muses of Greek myth, she boasts an impressive track record of divinely inspired careers—at one point she and Brooks bump into Rob Reiner, who exclaims, "Thank you for The American President." Expensive, demanding, and capricious, the muse rapidly takes over the screenwriter's life, requiring lavish treatment and eventually moving in with Brooks and his wife (Andie MacDowell).
Co-written by Brooks and Monica Johnson, this satire of Hollywood is embellished with sharp, frequently hilarious observation of its ritual humiliations and shallow social and professional interactions, with notable contributions from Jeff Bridges as a self-absorbed Oscar-winning screenwriter friend, Steven Wright as Stan Spielberg ("I'm Steven's cousin"), and Martin Scorsese in a self-parodying cameo. But at its core is the spectacle of a rational, down-to-earth individual who, faced with a career crisis that threatens the life of comfortable domestic affluence he has built for himself, succumbs with surprisingly few misgivings to an absurd New Age fix and gets more than he bargained for.
At heart The Muse is less a broadside against the industry than another of Brooks's subtly offbeat cautionary comedies of modern anxiety. Once again, a Me Generation everyman occupies an ideal lifestyle or system, blissfully unaware of its underlying precariousness. Whether it be the callow filmmaker's perfect experiment in documentary in Real Life (1979); the impossible fantasy of "true love" in Modern Romance (1981); the way a life of complacent materialism is exchanged for an equally deluded freedom of the road in the anti-Reagan-zeitgeist Lost in America (1985), or ended altogether by the ultimate bummer of sudden death at the start of Defending Your Life (1991), the Brooks protagonist is oblivious until too late. In The Muse, as in Mother (1996) and Lost in America, the great central comic conceit is the adoption of an improbable radical solution: when your marriage fails, move back in with your mother to figure out why your relationships with women don't work; when you don't get the promotion you feel you deserve, quit, drop out of society, and go on the road to find yourself; if your writing career goes south, hire a muse and do whatever she instructs, even if you can't shake the feeling that you're being shortchanged.
Brooks's protagonists tend to be successful yet average creative types who write or work in advertising or filmmaking (one of the incidental joys of Modern Romance is its dead accurate depiction of a film editor's working life). His characterizations effectively refract the contradictions, compromises, and neuroses of the Baby Boomer generation with its overdeveloped sense of entitlement and unapologetic materialism: narcissistic and controlling yet insecure and resigned, reflexively self-analytical yet lacking emotional self-honesty. It's hard to think of another American filmmaker who has dedicated himself or herself so completely to scrutinizing the foibles of his generational peers without becoming moralistic or sentimental.
Starting with his early-1970s bits for TV, his two unique records, Comedy Minus One (1973) and A Star Is Bought (1976), and his six short films for Saturday Night Live in 1975-76, his comic persona is smugly self-confident yet oblivious to his own absurdity. A number of his performances for other directors (starting out for Scorsese in Taxi Driver but notably in James L. Brooks's Broadcast News and I'll Do Anything) feed on the same persona, combining humbling misfortune with an ensuing struggle to overcome pervasive anxiety and regain existential terra firma.
But perhaps because of his sparse output as a feature director—seven films in twenty-five years—even some of Brooks's critical champions have called him an underachiever. I know what they mean. Brooks seems constitutionally incapable of going over the top in his performances and films, and he's not interested in blowing the audience away. In his elusive sui generis brand of antisentimental, observational comedy, the comic possibilities of character and situation are always restrained by a defining sense of plausible reality and authentic, self-revealing emotional experience. This places him completely at odds with American comedy's currently prevailing aesthetic—a parodic, cartoonish absurdism, fed on high energy, outrageous excess, and mock sentimentality—whose prime exponents include Jim Carrey, the Farrelly brothers, Ben Stiller, Will Farrell, and post-Saturday Night Live Adam Sandler and Mike Myers.
* * *
Are you sticking your neck out with The Muse, a story about someone who faces rejection in Hollywood?
I guess since that's what I've always done it doesn't feel so much like sticking my neck out. I've never come from a safe place; I sort of began my whole comedy career sticking my neck out. So I don't know any better. Hopefully, I'm always going to be honest enough with what I do where I can leave my neck out. I just don't consciously think in terms of safe and unsafe.
You don't feel there's a pattern in your work of exploring specific fears?
I think I do. I think that's the nature of writing. I don't think it would be fun to do it otherwise. Unless you do that, it doesn't get exciting. I've never made a sequel. I've never gone to a place that was familiar to me. I had seen lots of different movies about this town, and those scenes, to me, don't ring true. The people I've seen in other movies, cast as studio people or agents, they're just not what I believe is really there. I wanted a chance to put my two cents in. Casting Mark Feuerstein as opposed to Martin Short as the studio executive makes a big difference. I try not to do these parts in a cliched way; I at least try to make them real enough that you don't even have to know about the business to know it's real.
Why is your work more rooted in realism than most current comedy?
Well, I didn't think about it like, "I'll do this and they'll do that." I once had an agent say to me, years ago—we were having some discussion over an argument about a studio project—and he said, "Gee, I don't know why you always take the hard road," and I said, "You think I see two roads?" You don't really analyze what you do, and if you stick around long enough, then maybe you'll start your own category, or you'll fit into a category.
When I started, one of the first things I ever did was The Dean Martin Summer Show. The producer, seeing one spot, gave me eight shows, and said to me, "Do you have material?" I said yes and I really didn't, and he said, "Okay, you'll start in four weeks." And I went home and figured out what kind of a comedian I would be, and I came back and showed him my stuff, and he said to me, "You know what? If you do this kind of material you're going to have trouble your whole life, because you're ten feet above the audience." I said, "I don't know what you're talking about—this is all I know how to do," and he took this long pause and said, "Okay, that was all I wanted to hear. Go do it." You just do what you know. Some people are right in the mainstream from the get-go. They don't ever have a problem with that, that's just who they are.
What inspired your film The Muse?
The idea of something or somebody that is going to sit on your shoulder and guide you through this stuff. It's so romantic and, obviously, it's such an important part of the history of creativity, this idea of a creative guardian angel. The movie certainly tells you that it's really in your head if you believe that it's true. I just always liked that idea that there was an outside party that could contribute to the success of a creative project. It's also the idea that Hollywood will embrace anybody and do it quickly. People rise up in this town very fast, and sometimes they're even criminals, let alone not who they say they are.
Do you think the character you play is a good screenwriter?
I think he's a good screenwriter going through the exact period that tons of screenwriters are. Ninety-nine percent of writers write for somebody. There're only a few people in life who ever get to write because they want to and people come to them. Most people write for hire. As those people get older, I think they all get a little scared when the executives become younger than their children; they get a little worried that they're not going to get those jobs anymore, so they start writing things that maybe they don't love or they're not close to. I think that's sort of what Steven Phillips [the character Brooks plays] is ...
The distance between the character and you is probably greater than it's been in any of your other films.
People always like to think everything's you. I used to answer this question a lot—"Lost in America, is it you?" and I said, "I don't own a motorhome, I've never lost all my money in Las Vegas, I've never worked for an ad agency, but sure, why not?" I'm not interesting enough on my own that you'd want to see a film about me. My whole interest comes alive after I create something and can get it on its feet. Why would you want to see me sit in a room all day trying to do that? That's what Albert Brooks does.
But there is a kind of unspoken contract between you and the audience: You create something imaginary in its circumstances and they'll believe it's you up there.
I understand what you're saying, but let's go back to somebody like Jack Benny, one of the greatest radio and early television comedians that ever lived. The reason why he was so brilliant was that he did nothing. He would have these long, forty-second takes, where he would just stare. But the audience knew him so well that they laughed at those silences. He was known as someone who was cheap, the most frugal, he never paid his employees; this is what people roared at. One of the biggest laughs in the history of radio is: Jack Benny's walking home late at night and a guy comes out of an alley and says, "Your money or your life." And Benny doesn't say anything. And the audience starts laughing and laughing, and finally the guy says, "Your money or your life!" and Benny goes, "I'm thinking it over!"
His whole life, Jack Benny faced this: "Are you really that cheap?" And Jack Benny was one of the most charitable men that ever lived. These older comedians all played their own name. So it got confusing. I'm the last one to look at these characters that I play as being me. I've always hated the word "neurotic"—life is not an easy road for anybody, no matter who you are; so all I'm really doing is saying, "Look what happens."
When I was a kid, ninety-nine percent of the stand-up comedians just did jokes that had nothing to do with them and you could call them "everyman jokes." I don't know where it happened, but as stand-up comedy changed over the years, Everyman changed to Individual Man, and that's when I started. When I played Albert Brooks in Real Life I learned how confusing that gets, because people didn't know me very well then. I was reading reviews like, "This Albert Brooks should never be allowed to make another film, and he doesn't know how to handle a family. How dare he be so rough with children!" And I'm going, "Holy shit, don't people get it?" So, unless you play something so bizarre and unrealistic, you're always going to get mixed up with your work, which is just the way it is.
I would not have made Modern Romance unless I had that kind of trouble in my life with breaking up. I didn't do it as much as that character, but I did it enough to be able to write and do that, so for comedic purposes I take behavior that I might do and square it. And then you have a performance, you have a movie. You have to be fearless about it, you can't go, "Oh gee, am I gonna come off 'too this' or 'too that'?" Don't make the movie then, don't do that subject if that's what you're afraid of; play a lovable teddy bear. If I think about my next film and think, "This could be very embarrassing," I would never do it. You have to commit yourself to the part. If you don't do that, you have no chance of ever doing it great. I really did feel when Real Life came out that people would automatically go, "Oh, is he brilliant, the way he played that character with his own name!" And I was really surprised when that didn't happen. I saved the review that said, "Why would Paramount give this idiot the money to do such an important experiment?"
Which of your characters is closest to you, or the least removed?
They all had distances, and they all had similarities. Maybe that's too much of a safe answer, but it's really true. I don't think I could play a character that I didn't have something in common with. Maybe when I made Modern Romance I was closer to that kind of feeling than other feelings—no, I don't even think that's true. When I did Defending Your Life I was very consumed with the idea of fear and not being afraid. I still think about that subject. I think I'm equally invested in every movie. So the movies reflect what's going on in you and preoccupying you.
Yes, but because the movies take so long to make, [often] by the time the movie comes out you've dealt with that issue already. That must be weird.
It is weird. It's working in a time machine. When I went through that behavior that the character went through in Modern Romance, I was probably seventeen. I wasn't able to make movies then. But the behavior was so strong and interesting and weird that I stuffed it away so I could write about it.
When I made that movie, the studio had seen it lots of times with an audience, and they seemed to be fine; they were treating me nicely. Then they went up to San Francisco and tested it, and they just hated what they got, they didn't like those scores. And they treated me as if I had just made another movie than the one I had been showing them. They kept saying to me, "Add a psychiatrist scene," and I said, "Why?" And they said, "Explain that behavior, they don't understand what's wrong with him—listen to these cards: 'He's got a beautiful girl, a Porsche, what's his problem?'" I said, "You know what, I'm not being facetious, I don't know his problem. I can't explain it, I didn't write the movie as a philosopher, I just wrote it as someone showing the behavior." Now today I could give you that answer. I know this many years later, why people act like that. But I didn't know that then. And they just thought I was being an asshole.
Do you find the dialogue in your recent films reflects a more therapy-oriented sensibility?
I can't disagree with that. But that's just getting smarter. It's not something you leave in, or leave out on purpose. I just knew that one day I needed to write Mother, just having conversations with my mother for my whole life. I just found it so interesting, and I had never seen that put on film in that fashion.
Mother-son relationships tend to be depicted as somehow unhealthy, as in The Manchurian Candidate or Psycho.
Or they're weird, they're like John Candy and Maureen O'Hara [in the 1991 Chris Columbus film Only the Lonely]. I wanted an experience where I would go, "Oh my god, that's my mother, that's my mother's house, that's my mother's kitchen," and I knew I wasn't the only one. That movie had to have been more intellectualized than, say, Real Life, just in order to make it. The point of that movie, for that son to be able to reach a point where he could let his mother off the hook, that did need to be figured out. That's why people go to shrinks. So I did it in an hour and a half, where normally it would take you fifteen years.
I've read that you've always had a fascination with technology and science. In a number of your films, your characters come up with a perfect system or plan to solve their problems.
In The Muse, it's, "How do I get this person into my life to make everything okay?" Maybe in some unconscious way, I'm trying to put order to disorder. I've never said it that way before, but to me, that's funny. How do you order something that is not supposed to be ordered; how do you try to regiment your life where it's not supposed to be? The people who get into the biggest trouble are the ones who set up their cards the most carefully—those are the cards that fall the fastest. So here's a comedy character saying, "If I do A, B, and C, I'll get D," but he always gets F. In Lost in America, sitting down with Julie [Hagerty], telling her what it's going to be like if we have fifty-four grand, and we do this and do that, it's like a little computer spewing out these answers.
Excerpted from Back Story 5 by Patrick McGilligan. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Me Generation Everyman Albert Brooks Gavin Smith 5
Breaking the Rules Jean-Claude Carrière Mikael Colville-Andersen 21
Feminist with A Funny Bone Nora Ephron Patrick McGilligan 34
Imagination Ronald Harwood Patrick McGilligan 44
Straight Outta Shermer John Hughes William Ham 60
Sincerity David Koepp Patrick McGilligan 71
A Writer Under the Influence Richard Lagravenese Tom Matthews 90
The Journey Barry Levinson Patrick McGilligan 113
Pride Of Authorship Eric Roth Patrick McGilligan 134
The Nonconformist John Sayles Nick Dawson 169
Adventures in Movies Tom Stoppard Vincent Lobrutto 189
Free Spirit Barbara Turner Patrick McGilligan 205
Questing Rudy Wurlitzer Lee Hill 221
About the Contributors 235
General Index 237
Index of Films, Plays, and Books 247
What People are Saying About This
"McGilligan has done a great service by compiling . . . interviews with screenwriters. . . . Their thoughts on the filmmaking process, and their candid stories about experiences in the trenches, make for good reading and valuable reference."Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy
"Illuminating . . . I've long found Pat's Backstory volumes a treasury of information about Hollywood's craft practices. Every conversation yields ideas about structure, style, and working methods."David Bordwell Blog
"Intelligent talk on writing, filmmaking and the movie industry."Expressmilwaukee.com