Interview With the Writer
by Jay Scott
Well, this week's batch of verbal nonsense will be a little different. I decided it would be fun to interview a friend of mine for my column. But what about porn you say? What about my witty, yet poignant rants on the industry you ask? Well, keep your pantaloons on, this is a really good interview.
Quick story before we start. Everyone likes getting gifts. I know I do, because I’m a total whore about it. Well a few Christmases ago (not the one I ruined, I’ll tell that story another time) I got what is likely the coolest gift you can buy another person. I received the entire Far Side Collection. TWO, count ‘em, TWO ginormous tomes of the greatest works to ever grace a newspaper. These had every single frame ever drawn by Gary Larson, and weighed, no kidding, like 25 pounds. Anyway, the bearer of said gift was none other than my friend, Herschel Weingrod. Now Hersch is a real writer. You have likely seen most, if not all of his films, and if you haven’t, well, you''re missing out on what comedy really is. His credits included “Brewster’s Millions,” ”Trading Places,” “Kindergarten Cop,” ”Twins” and “Space Jam,” to name just a few. He also produced “Falling Down.” These are just some of the films of his you all might have seen.
He also has a website, scriptmaven.com, where he offers story critique, structure advice and story help, as well as notes and other useful information for a modest fee. Unlike the 10 zillion other people doing this, my friend here has real credits and can speak of the craft and business of Hollywood for those who don’t know what they are up against. So I asked some questions and he was happy to answer.
A: Right now it's a tie between "Vertigo", "The Conversation", "Sweet Smell Of Success", and "Mr. Klein". I must be feeling dark, since it occurs to me that the common theme here is "no happy endings".
Q: How did you know you had sold your first script - was it a phone call, did it happen in the room or...?
A: The producer's secretary was a friend of my girlfriend. She phoned my girlfriend and told her that she heard the producer laughing out loud in his office while he was reading the script. It wasn't really that funny, but he wasn't really a producer, either.
Q: What was your day job at the time?
A: My day job was "unemployed".
A: Could I cash the check and still get unemployment and food stamps? I didn't actually consider myself to be a "writer" until several years later, when I could say that I made my living exclusively from writing.
Q: Can you tell me a little about going to film school in England?
A: The London Film School was more like a trade school than an academic institution. You were basically taught how to do everything and then it was up to you to find areas that you wanted to specialize in. My instructors included Mike Leigh, Clive Donner, Guy Hamilton, Charles Crichton - pretty interesting British directors, check out their credits. John Schlesinger would drop by as a guest speaker. Michael Mann and Franc Roddam were there a couple of years ahead of me. The students were literally from all over the world - Egypt, Israel, Malaysia, France, Australia, England, the U.S. I couldn't have accomplished what I have without the training I got there.
Q: How cool is it when you over hear people quoting lines you wrote?
A: It's cool when Kool Moe Dee is sitting across from you and doing it.
Q: Have a favorite line of yours?
A: "Karate man bruise on the inside". (from “Trading Places”)
Q: How about a favorite quote from a film you didn't write?
A: (From “Five Easy Pieces”)
BOBBY DUPEA: "Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules."
WAITRESS: "You want me to hold the chicken?"
BOBBY DUPEA: "I want you to hold it between your knees".
A: Timing is everything, and ours has sucked.
Q: Best film you saw this year?
Q: So, we have been friends along time, and everyone who knows you, knows you're a real guy, not a "Typical Hollywood Guy." You are way more down to Earth and easy to be around. But, enough of my ass kissing. So, you must have had a moment that upon reflection was very Hollywood, what was it?
A: It's a toss up between the producer who gave us a piece of his gross profits but then reneged when the movie actually came out and made money, and the producer who tried to get our credits shot without the card saying what it was we were actually being credited for.
Q: 3 reasons not to date actresses?
A: I can think of more than three, but...I still like actresses.
Q: Not sure of you know this, but the only time Schwarzenegger was funny was in the films you wrote, and the other times he tried. comedy it failed. Any thoughts on why?
A: I think that "Junior" didn't work because a pregnant Arnold offended the female audience and emasculated the males.
A: Studio films are now, for the most part, bloated over-produced "tent-poles" designed to be marketed and sold all over the world. This requires that they be generic and dumbed down. Everything is a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation of a bestselling book or play. Originality is discouraged - it's too risky and it hasn't been pre-sold. Their appeal is not designed for the heart or the mind - it's for the blood-pressure.
Q: can you tell me (ok, not me, cause I already know but everyone else) some of the films you did rewrite work on to punch em up without credit?
A: Uncredited (and pretty undistinguished) rewrites include "Turner And Hooch", "True Lies", "Wagons East", "Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot", "Tough Guys", "Big Momma's House”
Q: Ginger or Maryann?
Q: I know your a big fan of the Blues. Can you name one album everyone should own.
A: "Chicago - The Blues - Today"
Q: You have a website where people submit scripts to you and beg for (ok pay for) you to make notes and help them fix problems with story and structure. You also have real credits in the industry, your films have made zillions and you are considered to be successful screenwriter. What do you think about all those other people who have little to no credits, and just because they sold a spec script for Momma's Family, now they think they can tell the rest of the world how to be a great screenwriter?
A: I'm sure that there's good advice out there, but I confess to knowing almost nothing about screenplay advice literature, courses, and seminars. If they help make you a better writer, good. The only danger I see in them is a kind of orthodoxy of rules for structure. I don't believe in, nor am I aware of while writing, the "mid-second-act climax" or any other such rule. Whit Stillman said that trying to apply Robert McKee's lessons while actually writing a screenplay is like being given 5000 pieces of advice for swimming underwater just before you dive into a lake. The only way to really learn how to write screenplays is, unfortunately, to write them.
A: "The Catcher In The Rye".
Q: Same thing with a film, one everyone should see?
A: "8 1/2"
Q: Your website, (www.scriptmaven.com) looks fabulous, that must have cost a fortune?
A: A friend of mine designed it in exchange for answering a bunch of questions
Q: Who's your favorite writer?
Q: This site has a lot of talented writers and one hack. Since I'm the hack, got any advice for the rest of the class? Words of wisdom?
A: If the hack keeps writing, he'll learn his craft; you can't learn talent.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: The good writing only comes out after I've discarded the clichés, the easy solutions, all the facile stuff that comes immediately to mind. Then, if I'm lucky, I receive the grace of being able to write freely and almost unconsciously and, if I'm really lucky, when I wake up the next morning, it will still be there for the next scene.
A: This is very old-school Hollywood: Two writers are driving around Beverly Hills one day and one of them points to a gated mansion. "Hey, isn't that Otto Preminger's house?" asks one. The other writer says, "No, that's a house BY Otto Preminger.
(All 6 of use who got that joke found it very funny)
I just wanna wrap up by thanking my very good friend, Hersch, for playing along and doing this abstract interview. Next time I ask him a bunch of questions, I’ll hit him up about baseball, or we’ll chat about playing the ponies and/or music. All of which he knows a hell of a lot. Matter of fact, I don’t think I ever lost money at the track with him.
So kids, there you have it. A few minutes with a good friend of mine. I know it’s a not a typical interview, but I wanted to keep it simple, and hope everyone enjoyed it. Next week, I’ll try to get to what I was supposed to offer up this week.
And remember: "It’s not cool to be a jive turkey this close to Thanksgiving.”