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Interview: Tom Perrotta, “The Leftovers”

Tom PerrottaTom Perrotta has written about school elections, suburban life, sex education and the rapture. His bestselling novels are unpredictable page-turners that will make you laugh, squirm and gasp, sometimes all at once. The New Jersey-native’s second novel, ELECTION, was adapted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor into a classic film starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.

In 2006, Tom, along with writer-director Todd Fields, wrote the screenplay adaptation of his own breakout novel LITTLE CHILDREN. The movie would go on to be one the year’s most acclaimed films, earning Writers Guild Award and Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Tom about THE LEFTOVERS, which is his first foray into television. The series, which is based on his post-rapture novel, was brought to HBO with LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof,

When you finished writing the book THE LEFTOVERS, was your original intention to turn it into a television series as opposed to a film like you’ve previously done with LITTLE CHILDREN.

I never considered adapting THE LEFTOVERS for film. The story seemed too complex and sprawling for a two-hour movie. What’s been great about doing it as a series is that we’ve been able to able to build on the book, rather than pare it down. A character like Rev. Matt Jamison (played by Christopher Eccleston) has a much bigger role in the show than he had in the novel, for example. We’re using the novel as a springboard for new stories, rather than simply translating the book into a different medium.

THE LEFTOVERS sees you writing with LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof, Kath Lingenfelter, Jacqueline Hoyt and Elizabeth Peterson, among others. Can you tell me a bit about your experience working in a writing room? What is the writing process for the show like? How do you feel when writers take the characters you created in places you may not have expected? Do you feel the show is darker and more disturbing than the book? Personally, I do and I think that’s a good thing. 

In general, I had a great time in the writers’ room. There were days when I had to bite my tongue, or work to wrap my mind around someone else’s idea, but mostly I loved the give and take of collaboration, that feeling that we were all working together to create the most exciting and thought-provoking stories we could come up with. I went in with the attitude that I was not going to play the role of the over-protective author—that wouldn’t have helped anyone. I found it thrilling when people were inspired by the book to come up with exciting original ideas that I could never have come up with on my own.  It’s a dark show, as many people have pointed out, but we laughed a lot while generating all those bleak narratives. It was the only way to get through the days.

What advice would you have for screenwriters adapting a book?

Treat the book with respect, but not with reverence.

Do you have any particular scenes from THE LEFTOVERS that you felt translated from the script to the screen in a surprising or different way than you could have anticipated? What was it about those scenes that moved you?

I love what happened with the Heroes Day celebration in the pilot. In some respects, it’s a very faithful rendering of the scene in the novel. Nora Durst’s speech, for example, is taken directly from the book. But once the Guilty Remnant arrives to disrupt the ceremony, what was a relatively low-key scene in the book turns into this operatic riot sequence, so beautifully directed by Pete Berg. It becomes cinematic, in the best scnse.

You co-wrote an original screenplay with FRASIER producer Rob Greenberg. Did you enjoy working on an original screenplay? Is writing original screenplays something you’d like to do again or do you prefer to first write novels?

Rob and I wrote a broad, mainstream comedy, the only time I’ve done that. It was a blast, and I could imagine trying again at some point. But I definitely had the feeling of working outside my comfort zone.

What movies, television shows, or books are high on your radar right now?

I’ve been loving MAD MEN for years, and am sad to see it coming to an end. I’m also a  big fan of THE AMERICANS, and am as excited as everyone else for the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE. BROAD CITY was amazing in its first season—I can’t wait for more. My movie of the moment is Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD. My summer reading is a re-reading project—I’m going back to some of my favorite Graham Greene novels, and finding them incredibly rich the second time around. Right now, I’m halfway through THE END OF THE AFFAIR, one of my all-time favorites, and it’s even better than I remembered.

Interview: Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias, “Love Is Strange”

Ira SachsLOVE IS STRANGE marks the highly-anticipated second collaboration between writer-director Ira Sachs and screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias. The film premiered to great reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.

Ira and Mauricio’s first collaboration, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards including Best Screenplay, Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Male Actor (Thure Lindhardt).

The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Ira and Mauricio before LOVE IS STRANGE screened at this week’s Nantucket Film Festival.

Your film, LOVE IS STRANGE, which you wrote and directed, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes the Nantucket Film Festival. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?

Mauricio: LOVE IS STRANGE tells the story of a couple who have been together for almost 40 years. Unexpectedly, they’re forced to live apart and rely on family and friends, and their presences will have subtle but profound consequences in these people’s lives. The film shows that love can be difficult sometimes, but it can also blossom with time.

Ira: The film is a multi-generational story.  It centers on a couple in the later part of their lives, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, but you also have Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows who are very much in the middle, and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who is discovering what love can be for the first time.  To me, it’s at its core a film about the seasons of life, and, as Joni Mitchell said it, “the painted ponies” going up and down.  Given Mauricio and my ages, I guess you could say it’s a “middle aged” film, written by two middle aged people, hoping that there is a long time ahead, but knowing it doesn’t last forever.

How did this story come to you? What was your writing process like for you both?

Mauricio: I remember when Ira told me the story of his old uncle, a sculptor who lived with his partner for many years, and was still very active late in his life. His last sculpture was of a young man, a backpacker who happened to pass through their lives once. This image stayed with me, and you will see that it’s very much in the picture. I also was inspired by my parents who have been together for more than 50 years. Ira and I created all the characters, scenes and situations together, then I went off on my own to write a first draft. We met again and again to rewrite the script together.

Ira: Mauricio and I have found a collaborative rhythm starting with KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, continuing with LOVE IS STRANGE, and now working this Summer on a new script, where we begin by spending a few months just talking about our lives, about other movies, about people we’ve known and stories we’ve witnessed or experienced. From those conversations, we loosely create an outline and a set of characters. Then, Mauricio actually does the heavy lifting of the first draft, which he does in about 6 weeks, taking our talks and notes and turning them into actual dialogue and scenes.  This is followed by a time of writing separately, back and forth, between us.  We trust each other a lot, and Mauricio also is very comfortable with the fact that at some point I need to fully own the material before I start directing it.

Any reason you decided to set the film in New York?

Mauricio: We both have been living in New York for a long time, and we both love this city. We wanted to talk about what we see around us. I can’t think of this film being anywhere else.

Ira: I grew up in Memphis and when I started making films, that was the place I know best, and where i found stories I wanted to tell. I always access memories and sounds, and visual experiences of a place in my work, because filmmaking comes the easiest to me when I have that intimate relationship.  I have now spent 25 years in New York, so it’s as much a part of me as Memphis was earlier.

Any horrible New York real estate stories of your own that you care to share?

Mauricio: So many of my friends had to move away because they couldn’t afford the city anymore. In our film, Ben and George are going through a similar situation, but they find a last minute solution to their real estate problem. Staying in the city is crucial for them, but it will take sacrifices from everyone involved.

Ira: Every life lived in New York, or any city for that matter, can be told as a “real estate story,” because real estate is another word for home, and home is always defined by one’s economy, and one’s place in a culture.  I am not a Marxist, per se, but I do look at character always through the lens of economics, and where one lives — or where one can’t live — is as good a way as any of describing a person in the world, and in a story.

Do you have any particular scene from LOVE IS STRANGE that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected? What was it about the scene that moved you?

Mauricio: There wasn’t any major changes from page to screen in LOVE IS STRANGE, but it’s wonderful to see how actors can bring another level to the material, and sometimes the audience has a different reaction from what you intended. For example; in the school scene in the beginning of the film, George is getting fired from his job. It’s a Catholic School, so when at the end of the scene the Priest says; “George, let’s pray.”, audiences have a big laugh; they think it’s the funniest thing.

Ira: I am struck by the fact that when people see the movie, they believe completely in the relationship between Ben and George, as if it’s a couple they’ve always known, and loved. I do believe the script helps in that, but it’s really a testament to the performances of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?

Mauricio: I’m looking forward to TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, the new Dardenne Brothers’ film with Marion Cotillard. It’s the first time the Belgian directors work with a big star. Also, VENUS IN FUR. I enjoyed the play very much, but its success relies on a great coup de theatre – it works beautifully on stage, so I’m curious to see how Polanski adapted it to the screen. On television, I’m hooked on GIRLS, VEEP and MAD MEN, so I’m eagerly waiting for the next seasons. And I can’t wait to read Ioannis Pappos’ Hotel Living, which is going to be released by HarperCollins early next year (he’s a friend, so I got an advance copy!). From what I heard it’s a great character piece, hilarious and heartbreaking – my kind of novel.

Ira: I am looking forward to that one too, Hotel Living – it’s the story of an extremely observant, though love-starved, gay man finding his way in the tough world of downtown New York, so I think I will relate - and I just finished a book called Lost and Found in Johannesburg, by the South African writer Mark Gevisser, which was both brilliant and inspiring. He looks at his own city through the lens of both memoir and cultural history in a way that I hope to do in my own work.  In movies, I’m waiting impatiently to see Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY and Linklater’s BOYHOOD, and WHIPLASH, and too many others to count. Though nearly impossible to get funded, it seems there are still many people out there making the kind of personal cinema I get excited about.

If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

Mauricio: There are so many characters in film / TV history I wish I could write for… I recently watched THE LAVANDER HILL MOB again at the Film Forum. I’m crazy about Henry Holland, the Alec Guinness character. There’s nothing like seeing the most ordinary life be turned around to become a sensational adventure on the big screen.

Ira: I like to make up my own fictional characters. They are the only ones I know well enough to make at all interesting.

Interview: Mark Heyman, “The Skeleton Twins”

Mark HeymanOne of the most talked about dramas on the current film festival circuit is THE SKELETON TWINS, which stars two Saturday Night Live alums, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.

THE SKELETON TWINS’ screenwriters Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson, who also director the film, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Mark Heyman, who was nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” at the 2011 Writers Guild Awards for BLACK SWAN, as he brings THE SKELETON TWINS to the Nantucket Film Festival.

Your film, THE SKELETON TWINS, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes opening the Nantucket Film Festival this week. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s about estranged twins who coincidentally cheat death on the same day, causing them to come back together and confront how their lives went so wrong. But eventually they realize that the key to fixing themselves lies in fixing their broken relationship. 

How did this story come to you? Have you ever had a near-death experience you can share?

The story came about through a lot of conversations between me and the director/co-writer, Craig Johnson, over countless cups of coffee in various New York coffee shops.  There are personal elements from both our lives integrated into the story. My only brush with death came from a scuba diving accident incidentally (scuba diving is a key thread in the film). I’d gone very deep, and came up too fast. I ended up getting the Bends, and needing to be taken to a decompression chamber. 

What is your writing process like on a film like THE SKELETON TWINS?

Craig and I note-carded every scene, and would divvy up who was going to write each one. Then we’d share what we’d done, give thoughts, and trade scenes. It was very collaborative, helped by the fact that Craig and I went to film school together and are very close friends. 

Do you have any particular scene from THE SKELETON TWINS that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected?

The famed lip-synching scene exceeded my expectations by a thousand percent.  It wasn’t so much different than I imagined; I just could never have imagined it turning out quite as amazing as it did. That’s what happens when you have people like Bill [Hader] and Kristen [Wiig]. 

What was it about the scene that moved you?

It just works on so many levels. It’s funny and entertaining, but it’s also poignant and real. The whole thing has an arc and payoff, which is a pretty amazing thing considering all they’re doing is mouthing the words to a cheesy 80′s song.   
What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?

I’m a TV junkie, so pretty much all the “must watch” TV shows are on my radar. GAME OF THRONES, MAD MEN, TRUE DETECTIVE. FARGO, etc. It’s an embarrassingly long list. Book wise, just finished The GoldFinch, which I enjoyed, and reading a lot of nonfiction.  

If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

Don’t know. That’s a hard one. If it’s a character I really love, then I wouldn’t really want to write for them, because I wouldn’t want to mess with something that’s working so well.

Interview: Anja Marquardt, “She’s Lost Control”

AMarquardt and BBloom by JoeyKuhn Writers Guild of America, East member Anja Marquardt turned to Kickstarter and Fractured Atlas to finance her debut feature film, SHE’S LOST CONTROL. 

The film has been getting great buzz thanks to high-profile screenings at New Directors/New Film at Lincoln Center, SXSW and the Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for Best First Feature Award and won the C.I.C.A.E. Award.

The WGAE Write On Blog caught up with Anja as she heads to the Nantucket Film Festival, where SHE’S LOST CONTROL will screen on June 27 and 28.

Your film, SHE’S LOST CONTROL, which you wrote and directed, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes the upcoming Nantucket Film Festival. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s exciting to have the film travel like that. My own perception of what the film is slightly changes from time to time. One version I’d say is: it’s about a woman who thinks she’s invincible and can handle the rabbit hole… until it all turns on her and she is forced to adjust.

How did this story come to you? What was your writing process like?

It came to me one day in the fall of 2010. I had been working on another script and realized it was too big (in scope) to be my first feature. So I went for something containable. In some ways SHE’S LOST CONTROL is really a behavioral character study. The first draft wrote itself, in a couple of weeks. It took another year or so to rewrite and rework the narrative structure to sort of mirror the protagonist’s emotional journey – the film’s pace and tension are like a spiral, if you want. It creeps up on you and then hits you.

Any reason you decided to set the film in New York?

It’s hard to imagine the film anywhere else! Seoul maybe, that’d be an interesting sequel. I wrote the film for New York and knew I could find locations there that feel urban yet avoid showing them in an all too familiar light. It was an interesting challenge.

Do you have any particular scene from SHE’S LOST CONTROL that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected? What was it about the scene that moved you?

There was a scene that was loosely scripted as a “dance scene”, a moment where Ronah manages to make Johnny step outside himself, and it’s fun. I was looking to create some lightness between the two main characters, a moment where the film becomes its own opposite. On set, we shot the rehearsal without talking much about blocking or the arch of the scene and Brooke and Marc just went with it. And director of photography, Zack Galler, and 1st AC, Matt Manning went with it as well. We were lucky. I remember staring at the monitor, with some people from the team, and all of us were just completely taken and surprised by it. Interestingly the scene is now more of a seduction scene where Ronah seduces Johnny, and the audience is seduced to believe that maybe this could all turn into a love story. I believe we shot one or two more takes, but most of what’s in the film now is from that first rehearsal.

What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?

I recently watched Steven Soderbergh’s K STREET, from 2003! Incredible. It feels so ahead of its time. It’d be interesting to take its shooting style and level of narrative sophistication and apply it to… say, an Amazon Studios show. One of the most interesting films I’ve seen this year so far is probably HISTORY OF FEAR by Benjamín Naishtat. I’m really curious about THE CONGRESS.

If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

For some reasons, Billy Kwan comes to mind, from THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. This might be tied to the casting of Linda Hunt, but I’ve always felt that this character would be interesting to explore further. A supposed outsider who comes back with a vengeance. In another life, I could see Billy as a contract killer, or part of the defense team for Edward Snowden.

Interview: Michael Weber & Scott Neustadter, “The Fault In Our Stars”

20th Century Fox Presents The New York Premiere of "The Fault in Our Stars" Sponsored by InStyle and Physicians FormulaAs a fan of movies, you may have been asked “Do you know the secret to THE CRYING GAME?,” “Who ya gonna call?,” or “How many times have you seen DIRTY DANCING?”

Right now, moviegoers are asking, “Did you cry your eyes out watching THE FAULT IN OUR STARS?” (Likely answer: Yes).

The WGAE Write On Blog caught up with Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, who co-wrote the film adaptation of John Green’s beloved YA novel.

In our interview, Michael and Scott discuss how they became a writing team, what their writing process is like and how they built a successful partnership even though they live and work on opposite coasts.

How did you two become a writing team?

Michael: We met in 1999 at Tribeca Productions. While still an undergrad at Syracuse University I went looking for a summer internship.  Scott had recently started working there after graduating from Penn.  The first conversation we ever had was about how much we loved RUSHMORE.  He hired me as an intern and we quickly became friends.  And our conversation about RUSHMORE pretty much set the tone for our relationship.  Upon graduation I returned to Tribeca, as an assistant for Robert De Niro.  By that point Scott was Director of Development.  We’d spend our lunch breaks together, talking about movies we’d seen, scripts we’d read and life in general.  Eventually we shared our own ideas.  And then one day we decided to try writing together.  First we outlined the idea – sometimes in person but usually over email and phone calls. When it came time to write we simply divided up scenes and then emailed them back and forth.  It’s the same process we use today, now living on opposite coasts.  Nothing ever happened with the first screenplay we wrote together but our friends liked it and their response gave us the confidence to keep writing.

What career lessons did you learn from working at Tribeca Productions and how have those experiences shaped your move into screenwriting?

Scott: Looking back now, those four years were invaluable for a whole boatload of reasons. First off, when I started working in development, I naively believed that only the best writers and the strongest material had any chance whatsoever of selling. I realized a week into the job – that’s totally false! Lots of okay writers manage to sell their okay scripts. Which meant we didn’t have to write the greatest script of all time. We just had to be okay. Which I thought we could do. Secondly, a lot of screenwriters have an antagonistic view towards the development process and development executives. But having worked on the other side, I know we’re all on the same team and we want the same things (most of the time, anyway). Not to mention, the fact that I gave notes for many years before receiving them, I can often read between the lines in ways that other writers who haven’t seen that side of the process cannot. So, yeah, I think we’ve benefited tremendously from having worked in that capacity.

When did writing become a full time career for both of you?

Michael: In New York we had our day jobs and writing together was a side project.  Then Scott moved to London and then LA.  We were always writing but we probably didn’t take it seriously until he was in LA.  Even then it was a few years before we got our first job, which was a movie pitch we sold to FOX.  We still kept our day jobs.  In fact we had them through production of (500) DAYS OF SUMMER – I was working part-time for De Niro and Scott was writing coverage for various producers and studios.  Our attitude was one of practicality:  just in case this all goes away let’s keep our safety nets in place.  I think we finally shed the other gigs around 2009.

What’s the writing process between you two like with Michael in New York and Scott in Los Angeles?

Michael: We never write a word until we’ve extensively outlined the entire movie. There’s no rigid format to the outline – merely a list of scenes with as much detail as we can get in there.  We’ll email and talk as we go over the outline again and again, filling in blanks and solving problems.  Usually Scott wants to start writing and I have to apply the brakes.  Eventually we get to a place where we’ve addressed as many issues as we can in the outline phase.  Then we divide up a small batch of scenes – enough to cover a day or two of writing.  As those batches are completed we will email them back and forth.  We’ve never written in the same room.  We know we’d get nothing accomplished that way!

What is your individual writing process? Do you need to be in a private room? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you edit as you go or knock out a first draft?

Scott: We both go to coffee shops and tea rooms but that might be where the similarities end. I am never not listening to music when I write. I like distractions, busyness, a lot going on around me while I’m working. Weber also manages to move forward if something isn’t working whereas I’ll get stuck on a scene or a line or a word. I’ll go back to the beginning and edit and tweak and I can’t move forward until I feel like everything up to that point is as good as we can make it. And then, once the first draft is completed, I’ll wind up going through it all again, realizing that what I thought was perfect was extremely flawed and start changing things all over again. At a certain point I literally have to close the document and take it off my desktop or I will start changing things. It’s a character flaw (one of many!)

The next project coming out from you two is an adaptation of John Green’s FAULT IN OUR STARS, a hit YA book, whose audience is very devoted to the text. What are the challenges to adapting a book where so many readers have such strong attachments to the entire book?

Michael: Our job is to produce a script that honors the spirit of the book but is also a fully realized story to anyone not familiar with the source material. The last thing we’d want is for the author or the fans of the book to be disappointed in the movie.  That said, there are always changes to be made.  In the case of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS we had to condense a few parts of the book, especially the ending.  And there were some moments that needed to be more cinematic.  So far the response has been great.  And John Green has publicly stated that our beginning and ending are better than his.  We came to the book the same as everyone else – we read it and immediately fell in love with it.  So John’s approval means a lot to us.

The characters in FAULT IN OUR STARS, SPECTAULAR NOW and your other screenplays are all young and have personal issues not normally seen in romantic comedies, such as cancer or alcoholism or what may be called abnormal social behaviors. What draws you to these kind of characters in love stories?

Michael: Their stories are an emotional journey that comes from a real place.  As we’re outlining and writing, the question Scott and I continually ask is, “What would really happen?”  It’s the tool we rely on more than anything else.  We never think, “What would be the funniest moment here?” or “How can we make this into a set piece or a trailer moment?”  I think this way of thinking comes from the movies we grew up on; Cameron Crowe and John Hughes are two of our heroes.  They told stories about young people that were honest and heartfelt and they never talked down to their audience.  And so now we gravitate towards material in that spirit.

Has there been a scene (or scenes) from one of your scripts that you watch on the big screen and been surprised by your personal reaction to it?

Scott: Definitely the best thing we’ve ever done in my opinion is the Reality/Expectations sequence from (500) DAYS. When Fox Searchlight optioned the script, they had almost no notes. No one said “can they end up together?” or “can you re-structure it in a more conventional way?” or anything like that. But Peter Rice, who ran the division at the time, said to us there was one thing he felt was missing which was some way to trick the audience into believing the couple might get back together at the end. Otherwise, what are we rooting for? Amazing note. And from that came the moment when they’re trapped on the train heading to an out-of-town wedding, the scene in which they “reconnect,” remembering the time when their relationship did in fact work, and ultimately reality/expectations wherein all hope is officially and irrevocably lost. I wrote that scene at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up and I knew, as I was writing it, this was going to be awesome. (A huge rarity, trust me.) I also had absolutely no idea how Marc was going to pull it off! When I saw that on screen for the first time, I completely lost my shit. And honestly it still gets me every time.

Having been labeled Hollywood’s go-to writing team for adaptations by the Wall Street Journal, how do you compare working on screen adaptations to writing original screenplays?

Michael: That’s nice praise but I can name dozens of writers whose adaptations we greatly admire.  For us we simply want to keep working on movies we’d go see. Hopefully a mix of originals and adaptations.  We enjoy writing both.  The only difference for us is that it seems as if it’s gotten a lot harder to get the originals made.

So what books, movies, television shows are high on your radar right now?

Michael: We could spend hours answering this question! We both love Mad Men and Game of Thrones. I recently devoured David Benioff’s City of Thieves, which Brian Koppleman recommended to me. I couldn’t put it down – Benioff is an incredible writer.  Is there anything he can’t do?  Scott is a huge fan of British TV; Luther and Orphan Black and many others.  My apartment is half library.  I try to read everything published by NYRB; one book after the next they knock it out of the park.  I also love Europa, Melville House and Graywolf.  The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah is a recent Graywolf novel that I loved.  It broke my heart a dozen different ways.

If you could write a scene for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

Scott: That’s a great question. I don’t know if there are specific characters we’d love to write for. There are certainly a ton of performers – Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Hackman, Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole. And there’s one persona – the late 60s/early 70s Woody Allen. Virgil Starkwell in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, Fielding Mellish in BANANAS, Miles Monroe in SLEEPER, Boris Gruschenko in LOVE AND DEATH, Alvy Singer from ANNIE HALL etc. Such a specific, unique voice that only he could write and only he could perform. But, man, it would be fun to try!

Michael: Neither of us know how to answer this question.  I wouldn’t dare to presume I could put new words in the mouths of Lloyd Dobler or Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly. I love these characters but I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them!

Interview: David Javerbaum, “The Maya Rudolph Show”

DJDavid Javerbaum’s work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, A Colbert Christmas and the Tony Awards has earned him two Writers Guild Awards, 13 Emmys, two Peabodys, a Grammy, the Thurber Prize and numerous other accolades. He was also a finalist on Teen Jeopardy and tweets for God.

WGAE Write On Blog was able to speak with the writer, lyricist and satirist while he’s working as the head writer of the highly-anticipated The Maya Rudolph Show, a comedy variety special airing on NBC, May 19th at 10pm.

As the head writer for The Maya Rudolph Show, what can viewers expect when they tune into this prime time variety special?

The driving force behind it is twofold: First, to bring back the variety show format in a guise somewhat like the ones used on programs like Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher and Donny & Marie, but with a modern sensibility. And second, to create a show that highlights not only Maya’s extraordinary talents as a performer and singer and comedian, but her immense likeability as a television star. We also have an incredible cast working alongside her, including Fred Armisen, Kristen Bell, Sean Hayes and Andy Samberg, and a great 11-piece band led by Raphael Siddiq.

You’ve written the music and lyrics for some very memorable moments on television, from Neil Patrick Harris’s Tony Awards opening “Broadway: It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore!” to the Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas special. What is it that you like about bringing musical theater into television and comedy specifically?

I have always been interested in writing musicals in general, and comedy lyrics in particular. I’ve kind of been on two parallel paths ever since I went to college at Harvard, where I was a writer for the Lampoon but also co-wrote two of the annual Hasty Pudding musicals. After graduation I spent two years getting a Masters in Musical Theater Composition from NYU. (Believe it or not, they give those.) I’ve always had these dual writing interests in both traditional television comedy and musicals, so naturally it’s great when a chance comes along to fuse the two in a single project. But it has to feel organic. I was at The Daily Show for 11 years and with a handful of exceptions I didn’t write any songs for it because it just wasn’t the appropriate aesthetic for the show, and that was fine.

Speaking of musical theater, The Last Testament: A Memoir by God, which you “helped” write and tweet, will now be joining the likes of The Book of Mormon and Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway in 2015. When you work on projects outside of television writing, what changes about your writing process and the way you craft jokes?

To some extent, it depends on the level of collaboration. At The Maya Rudolph Show, it was a real joy working with the other writers, Bashir Salahuddin & Diallo Riddle and Jeremy Beiler, as well as all the amazing performers and producers, collaborating with all of them was a real joy. When you’re writing a book, certainly, or writing a play, at least at first, it’s just you. The end result can be very satisfying, but it’s not as fun because it’s not as social.

Before you became head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Can you tell me a bit about your memories of working on the show and your thoughts on Dave retiring from late night television.

Dave is obviously a legend and one of the greatest influences, if not the greatest, on anyone working in comedy today. I wrote for The Onion in the mid-nineties when it was just starting out and that got me the job at Letterman. I was there for a year, from 1998 through 1999. It was my first job that paid any real money, and I worked with a number of great writers – including Carter Bays and Craig Thomas who created How I Met Your Mother and are among the nicest people in the world. But I didn’t find the culture there particularly efficient or writer-friendly or fun. We were at the office for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hour days, five nights a week, which would have been fine if it seemed like we were accomplishing something that was helping the show, but it felt very inefficient. The Daily Show culture felt very different, in all the right ways.

What makes for a good writing culture or writing room?

A common focus on the task at hand. A recognition that you are working for both something else – the show as a whole – and in some cases someone else, such as Jon Stewart. An understanding that that person ultimately is the final authority and is responsible for the overall vision, but that within that framework, you have leeway to pursue your own ideas. A feeling that the focus is on creating productive work. And above all, just a group of really funny, friendly, quirky people who play well with others.

Are you excited that Stephen Colbert is taking over The Late Show.

I’m thrilled for him and equally thrilled for America that Colbert is going to have the opportunity. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are two incredible and wonderful people and bosses and collaborators. The Jon Stewart you see on TV is the real Jon, and I’m so happy for Stephen that now he’s going to have a chance to show America the real Stephen. Anyone who thinks ‘Well, he can’t bring his character with him, so what’s he going to do?” is just grossly underestimating how brilliant and professional he is. I mean, people loved watching him for almost a decade when he was playing an asshole. Wait till they see how much fun it is hanging out with him when he’s his real self.

Whose writing on film, television, online, etc is currently grabbing your attention?

Portlandia is unbelievable. Not only is the writing great, but they are going after subjects that no one else is. That to me should be every conservative’s favorite comedy show because it goes after liberalism in such a great way. Sort of the tenets and preciousness and sanctimony of all that liberalism. The Daily Show and Colbert are hilarious, as always. And Saturday Night Live is still the king of sketch comedy. Lorne is the EP of The Maya Rudolph Show, and some of the SNL writers came towards the end and helped us hone the material, and working with them was a real treat and honor because they’re really immersed in the world of rapid-fire sketch comedy. It was good to see how they do it, how Lorne does it. Watching Lorne at the rewrite session after dress was like watching a virtuoso at work.

You do a lot of rapid fire work, where the jokes are on TV that very night, but other projects, from your books to now writing for Broadway, are projects that stretch out over a longer period of time. Is there a different style of writing you put into each of these different types of projects?

It does feel different. To be honest, the rapid fire is more fun as it tends to be collaborative. And for me personally, I find that instincts and knee-jerk reactions are always the best ones. As soon as I start thinking about them afterwards it gets worse and worse and worse. For the long term things, the usual problem is sustaining motivation and energy and it can be tricky, but I like to make the longer term things as collaborative as possible by bringing in the editor or producer and getting their reactions, pro or con, so I can react off something. Working in a vacuum, and I’m certainly not alone in this, can be very difficult.

If you could write a scene for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

I’m doing it as we speak. It’s called An Act of God, and it’ll be on Broadway next year.

Interview: Joe Mefford on Final Draft 9, April 2 Training Session

final-draft-9-box-writers-store_mediumOn Wednesday, April 2, the Writers Guild of America, East  will hold a training session for the recently released Final Draft 9 with Joe Mefford, Final Draft’s Vice President of Ecommerce. At the training, Joe will be demonstrating the all-new Final Draft 9 for Mac and Windows along with the Final Draft Writer for iPad and the Final Draft Reader for iPhone.

Members can RSVP to the April 2 training session here.

The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Final Draft’s Vice Presidnet of Ecommerce, Joe Mefford, about Final Draft Version 9 and what members can expect to learn at our upcoming training session.

Why would someone who already has, and is happy with, Final Draft want to upgrade to Final Draft Version 9? Can you tell us what’s been updated and what’s new in it?

There are three reasons why someone should upgrade to Final Draft 9.

First, we have a whole new suite of Navigator tools – ScriptNotes, Scene, and Character – that make it easy to outline and develop a script at anytime in the writing process.

Second, FD 9 has been upgraded to work natively with the latest versions of Windows and Mac OS.

Third, new production tools such as color coding pages and revision tools have been updated to make Final Draft easier to use on location.

Let’s say I’m new to screenwriting and don’t quite know all the lingo, would you recommend I use FDV9 and what would be the best way to learn how to put together a professional script?

A vast majority of our users are new to screenwriting and we always design Final Draft with the new screenwriter in mind. Having said that, a beginning screenwriter should seek out all the free and inexpensive resources to learn how to write and format a screenplay. These include the book The Screenwriter’s Bible, online classes, and many online blogs and resources.

What can people expect to walk away with learning if they attend the Final Draft Version 9 Training on April 2nd?

People should walk away with an understanding of how to really use the more advanced writing features in Final Draft 9 such as the Navigator tools and some of the newer outlining features.  We’ll also spend some time examining the iOs apps such as the Reader and the Writer.

Can you tell me a simple trick that can enhance users experiences on Final Draft that most people don’t seem to know about?

A simple trick that many people don’t use is the Split Panel option. We’ll examine this in the workshop.

Are there plans for Final Draft to incorporate cloud computing features, online collaboration, or the ability to sync with mobile device?

Yes. We are looking at ways to incorporate with Dropbox and other cloud solutions. We are also looking at allowing users to run Final Draft from the cloud. That is in the future.

If you could personally could write a scene for any fictional television or film character throughout history, who would it be?

I would like to write for the characters in the No Texting announcements and I would insist that anyone texting in a movie is immediately vaporized.

Interview: Beau Willimon, ‘House of Cards’

beau_headshot_(2) copyThe debut season of House of Cards (Netflix) was political drama at its best. Now, viewers are waiting to see what House of Cards’ writing staff concocts for Francis and Claire Underwood in the show’s highly anticipated second season, which goes live on February 14th. (Watch the season 2 trailer here).

House of Cards is nominated for “Drama Series,” “New Series,” and “Episodic Drama” at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards. Tickets for the February 1st Writers Guild Awards New York Ceremony are available here.

The WGAE Write On Blog interviewed House of Cards creator and writer Beau Willimon, who will also be a presenter at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards New York Ceremony. Here’s what he had to say:

Congratulations on House of Cards being nominated for multiple Writers Guild Awards. One of the awards you’re up for is “Episodic Drama” for the show’s first episode. Do you mind telling me a bit about your writing process?

The most important part is hiring a bunch of wildly talented writers!  I have a great staff – brilliant minds and tireless workers.  We spend 6 weeks breaking the season grid – all of the major story-lines and how they will progress over the course of 13 episodes.  Then we shift to breaking and writing individual episodes.  We’ll spend about 2 weeks breaking an episode, culminating in an outline.  If I’m not writing the episode myself, I’ll assign it to one of my writers.  They’ll have a couple weeks to write a first draft, then I’ll give notes.  They get an additional week for rewrites, then I take over and give every script my pass.  We repeat this process in a rolling fashion, beginning to break the next episode as soon as a writer heads off to write the previous one.

It takes us about 8 months total to write a season, so there’s some overlap with production.  Often we’ll make big changes to the grid along the way, or come up with a better idea for a script several weeks after it’s been written – so there is a constant ongoing revision process.  And that continues right up until the table read and even rehearsals.

I’m a strong believer in getting the actors’ and director’s input.  Listening to their thoughts and answering their questions usually makes a script better.  And I want them to feel as much ownership over the story as we do.  At its heart, making television is a deeply collaborative process – from the writer’s room to set and eventually the editing bay.  Ultimately I have to make the decisions, but the more I can involve everyone, the better chance we have of achieving sophistication and subtlety.

In addition to being a nominee, you’ll also be a presenter at the New York Ceremony. What do you think makes a good awards show presenter?

Excellent posture, clear enunciation and sparkling eyes.  The first two I was supposed to learn in elementary school, but I was more interested in beating Super Mario Bros. For the third I’m hoping there’s VFX in post.

What propelled you to make the move from working in politics to writing about politics?

I was always a writer – before, during and after I worked in politics.  It wasn’t as though I moved from one field to another. Political campaigns were never really a career for me. I worked for candidates I believed in, because I honestly wanted to see them get elected.  But it wasn’t my vocation.  It was sporadic – intense periods where I’d disappear from my everyday life for a few months and work around the clock until Election Day.  I was drawn to the pace and energy, the adrenalin, and the thought that – in my own small way – I could make a difference.

A lot of people think I’m cynical about politics because of Ides of March and House of Cards – but the opposite is true.  I’m very optimistic about what government can accomplish when it’s populated by the right people and working well.  I just temper that optimism with a good dose of realism – the fact that power can often corrupt and leadership often requires people to have a flexible moral spectrum in order to be effective.

What do you think the best piece of dialogue Francis Underwood has spoken on the show?

I’ve always been fond of “The nature of promises is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”  One of the more amusing lines is “I despise children.  There – I said it.”  And another one of my favorites is one that Francis didn’t come up with, but which he quotes, stealing from Oscar Wilde: “A wise man once said: ‘Everything in the world is about sex, except sex; sex is about power.”

Many politicians make cameos in movies and television shows. What show do you think Francis would make a cameo on?

I’d love to see him make a cameo on VEEP.  VEEP is such a well-written, well-acted, viciously funny and satirical sharp show.  And it would be a blast to see Frank go head to head with V.P. Meyer.

Whose writing – or what films/shows – grabbed your attention in 2013?

I loved The Top of the Lake.  The commune story-line especially grabbed me.  It’s so original.  Of course Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad never ceases to amaze.  What a glorious final season.  American Hustle was pure brilliance.  But what blew me away more than anything in 2013 was Vinterberg’s The Hunt.  The writing, acting and direction were so compact and gut-wrenching – not a single frame wasted.  It’s as close to a perfect movie as I’ve seen since Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

If you could write a scene for any fictional film or television character throughout history, who would it be?

I think it would have to be Falstaff.  500 years later we’re all still grasping to touch the wonderfully impossible high bars Shakespeare set in both comedy and drama.  And Falstaff is his greatest creation.  He a mixture of humor and heartbreak, largeness and smallness, the prosaic and poetic – everything that The Bard did so well.  Falstaff is an entire universe – the best and worst of humanity with all the complexity in between.

In terms of more modern characters, I’d have to say Al Swearengen from Milch’s Deadwood, Bubbles from Simon’s The Wire, and GJ from Campion & Lee’s Top of the Lake, because she’s such a compelling, delicious freaky enigma.

Interview: Gary Lennon, ‘Orange Is The New Black’

gary lennonA smart, dark comedy set in a women’s prison that features a magnificent ensemble cast? Count us among the millions of people who binge watched Orange is The New Black (Netflix) and absolutely loved it.

Orange is nominated for “Comedy Series,” “New Series,” and “Episodic Comedy” at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards. Tickets for the February 1st Writers Guild Awards New York Ceremony are available here.

The WGAE Write On Blog interviewed Gary Lennon, a supervising producer and writer for Orange. Here’s what he had to say:

Congratulations on Orange is The New Black being nominated for “Comedy Series” and “New Series” at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards. Can you talk a bit about the writing process for the show and how you personally like to work?

The writing process for the show was fun. We all sat around the writer’s room and told crazy stories, often personal ones and plenty of them wound up in the first season of the show. Jenji was wide open and receptive to bold and innovative stories. She assembled a group of writers who were outside the box, sort of from the island of broken toys and that led to plenty of strange personal storytelling and laughter and sometimes tears. Once a story area code was decided upon, then we all set around and broke the story together and then finally an episode was given to one writer to write, but ALL of the episodes were designed by the entire writing staff.

My favorite way of working on an episode is to talk about a theme and then riff on that theme and our characters and develop a story where our characters can live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. I know that I have had a good week in the writer’s room if I leave on Friday and know something new about one of my co-workers that I never knew before and it should be juicy.

What piece of dialogue/scene from the first season is your personal favorite?

My personal favorite scene in the first season of Orange is The New Black is the scene between Miss Claudette and Piper in Episode 4, where Piper defends herself for the first time to her new roommate, Miss Claudette.

It’s the ‘cut me some slack’ speech that Piper delivers to Claudette. I like that scene because it really shows Piper’s growth as a character, it moves the plot forward, reveals character and it was funny and emotional. I think it was one of the first turning points for Piper and earned her some well-deserved respect. I felt like it was her first big step in not being a tourist in prison anymore, but in fact, she was going native.

If you were to go out with any of the characters, who would it be and why? What do you imagine the topics of conversation would be?

If I were to go out to dinner with one of the characters from Orange, I’d want it to be Taystee.

Taystee would make me laugh and  would want to talk about sex, food and good times which are three of my favorite subjects and I feel like we would have some friends in common and then she would want to go dance all night long and maybe not sleep at all.

Without giving anything away, what can viewers expect from the upcoming second season?

I assume season 2 will be more laughs, more flashbacks and more surprises.

Whose writing – or what films/shows – grabbed your attention in 2013?

My favorite TV show and writers of 2013 are Vince Gilligan/Breaking Bad, Henry Bromell/Homeland, Glenn Mazara/Walking Dead  and Howard Korder and Terrance Winter/Boardwalk Empire…..ohhhh, and Julian Fellowes/Downton Abbey. I love me some Downton!

Fave 2013 Films – 12 Years A Slave/John Ridley, Her/Spike Jonze, Blue Jasmine/Woody Allen.

If you could write a scene for any fictional character throughout history, who would it be?

I’d want to write for Oliver Twist – I’d like to see the man he’d become. Or Terry Malloy from On The Waterfront.

Interview: Joe Weisberg & Joel Fields, ‘The Americans’

TheAmericans1The Americans (FX) is a Reagan-era drama that follows two undercover KGB officers, brilliantly portrayed by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as they infiltrate Washington, D.C. By day, the couple lives a fairly innocuous suburban life. At night, they will do anything – ANYTHING! – to gather intel for their homeland.

The Americans is nominated for “New Series” at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards. Tickets for the February 1st Writers Guild Awards New York Ceremony are available here.

The WGAE Write On Blog interviewed the show’s creator and executive producer Joe Weisberg and executive producer  Joel Fields. Here’s what they had to say:

Congratulations on The Americans being nominated for “New Series” at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards. Can you talk a bit about the writing process for the show and how you personally like to work?

We spend a lot of time taking walks and talking about character and theme before we break story… then we walk more as we talk about story. The colder it gets, the faster we walk and the more motivated we are. Fortunately we work on the East Coast… otherwise there might not be a show. We and our writing staff rely heavily on our network and the other producers we work with who are great creative partners for us and often provide perspective that helps us see the work in new ways. We try to have every script be both an expression of the individual writer’s passion and voice while at the same time having the entire staff weigh in and provide creative support and insight.

What piece of dialogue/scene from the first season is your personal favorite?

JOEL: Elizabeth beating the shit out of Claudia actually brought us to our feet in the editing room, chanting, “KGB! KGB! KGB!”… but the real moment that resonates from that sequence is the scene after, where Philip and Elizabeth walk out of the safe house and confront the cracks in their relationship, and the meaning of trust, love and betrayal.
JOE: Gregory leaving the safe house after refusing to be exfiltrated to Moscow, and then Philip and Elizabeth going to their separate cars, acknowledging each other’s decency in the middle of their painful separation.

What are the key things you need to remind yourself when you’re writing scenes with Elizabeth and Philip?

That’s easy: they are not self-aware or articulate. They feel strongly, but aren’t necessarily in touch with their feelings, so often they have to be expressed in unconscious, non-linear ways.

Season 2 of The Americans debuts on February 26th. What can you tell us?

In Season One, we struggled a lot as we figured out what the show was. This season we started in a very clear place and, for better or worse, we’ve followed that singular path all season. We hope you like it!

Whose writing – or what films/shows – grabbed your attention in 2013?

We’ve been so busy with the show that there is a lot waiting for us to watch after wrap! That said… Joel binged on Breaking Bad, we both loved Game of Thrones. We both watch and love Justified. Joel watched every episode of Masters of Sex and loves escaping into The Mindy Project. Joe has been watching Veep and an Israeli show called Srugim. Joe loved Saving Mr. Banks, which Joel can’t wait to see during hiatus. We both loved Captain Philips and Her. Billy Ray: would you like to write an episode? Spike Jonze?

If you could write a scene for any fictional film or television character throughout history, who would it be?

JOEL: HILL STREET BLUES… Joel gets to call Steven Bochco for advice from time to time, for which he is eternally grateful!