"Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."
This was Herman Mankiewicz's telegrammed exhortation to his pal Ben Hecht in 1925. Contrary to Mank's wishes, it got around. By the mid-twentieth century, many of the world's greatest novelists and playwrights had taken a crack at the low art of screenwriting. Some succeeded, others drank themselves into oblivion. There were cautionary tales aplenty, but the writers just kept coming - all of them aware, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, that their brilliant work would be butchered by a studio.
Fundamentally, little has changed since then. The power still rests with studio executives, who treat screenwriters as disposable conduits for their incredible ideas - most of which turn potentially decent films into surefire stinkers. But whatever. It's their job and the studio's money. Any screenwriter who thinks they're above notes because they just wrote the next CHINATOWN a) didn't just write the next CHINATOWN (no studio in their right mind would buy CHINATOWN today), and b) is about to get fired and never hired again.
But the pay, provided one is willing to scarf down the studios' shit sandwiches, is still tremendous. So if you've got the writing/political skills to do the studio's bidding and somehow slap together a semi-filmable screenplay, you need to read WRITING MOVIES FOR
FUN AND PROFIT by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (veterans of THE STATE, RENO: 911!, VIVA VARIETY and other stuff you love) right this instant. It's the definitive, step-by-step guide to making piles of green stuff as a hired-gun in Hollywood. Starting with the obvious (move to Los Angeles, get an agent, write until your fingers are numb), and encompassing almost every eventuality (getting fired, getting rehired, becoming an alcoholic), this is honestly the only book you will never read if what you want to do is make a lot of money as a screenwriter. This is a distinction Garant and Lennon make early and often: this isn't a primer for burgeoning Hal Hartleys; it's a ruthlessly practical road map to generating over $1 billion worldwide for the studios.
But WRITING MOVIES FOR
FUN AND PROFIT is essential even if you aren't interested in spending the next decade writing HERBIE FULLY LOADED, THE PACIFIER and A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. If there's a more entertainingly concise, brutally honest breakdown of how the film industry works, I haven't read it. On a hopeful note, it's also proof that you can retain your wit after years of hardcore whoring. Garant and Lennon are still as sharp and funny as they were when I first saw them on THE STATE nearly twenty years ago (and they're currently working on cool-sounding projects that aren't designed to clear ten figures at the worldwide box office).
Last week, I met up with the boys for drinks prior to a "Screenwriter's Blues" double feature they were hosting at the New Beverly (there are lots of pitch-black comedies about the plight of the writer in the studio system; they chose the bleakest and the best - the Coen Brothers' BARTON FINK and Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD). Below is our almost unexpurgated conversation. A few asides and interruptions have been elided, but the juicy shit is in there. If you've read the book, and are dying to know why Billy Crystal is a "dick", that's in here. Why is there a duck in THE PACIFIER? It's in here. How did they become two of the richest screenwriters in Hollywood? In here.
This is a good fucking interview (mostly 'cuz I stay the hell out of the way). I hope you enjoy it.
Mr. Beaks: So this whole idea to share your studio-system wisdom, were you careful to wait until you'd truly made it before you let people in on the secret?
Lennon: Here's something that I think we should point out: even if you know all of the tricks and secrets to surviving the studio system, the odds of you getting one film made are about a million to one. And the odds of you getting two films made don't go to two-million-to-one; they go to fifty-million-to-one. It's one of those things that goes up like an exponential graph.
Garant: Even if you have all of the equipment and knowhow, it's almost impossible. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of luck.
Beaks: People treat it like poker: they believe it's more a game of skill than luck.
Lennon: Exactly. I will say to a certain extent - and this I do believe - that it is a numbers game. I really believe you need to write somewhere between four to eight to ten scripts for the studios for one that gets made. I would say, based on my math, that's about the ratio.
Garant: If you are unbelievably successful.
Lennon: And you literally write every day for a minimum of four to five hours. Then you might get one out of about eight.
Garant: Even the top twenty screenwriters [in Hollywood]... I don't think people realize how many scripts you write that go nowhere.
Lennon: I'd say one of eight, if you're at the top of your game. Which is weird, because there's no other profession where, if you're at the top of your game, less than twelve percent of your work is going forward.
Beaks: If you were to apply that to novelists...
Lennon: Oh, god! Tom Wolfe!?!? If they published one out of every eight Tom Wolfe novels, he'd be, like, 900 years old! Those things are long.
Garant: But you read about Stephen King, and how many years he submitted stuff to magazines that never got used. For decades...
Lennon: Well, he just writes voraciously.
Beaks: I just stumbled upon a cache of unproduced Michael O'Donoghue screenplays. I forgot there were so many. And of those scripts, only SCROOGED got made.
Lennon: I have several different discs labeled by years. LIke, "These are all the scripts we wrote this year."
Garant: And that's just the stuff we finished!
Lennon: That's not ideas. That's stuff somebody paid for, you did it, and it didn't go well.
Garant: That's not the punch-up work of projects, where you try to save a movie and it goes nowhere. That's not the page-one rewrites of stuff that studios have the rights to that go nowhere.
Lennon: We wrote a movie for Jennifer Aniston a long time ago.
Garant: (Laughing) And Jon Stewart! They were going to be [the leads].
Lennon: That was years ago. We've written some weird movies. We wrote a movie called THE REVEREND PIMP DADDY for Orlando Jones. You know, for that week he was really hot.
Beaks: He got a lot of scripts written for him that week.
Lennon: And that week, we knocked them out!
Beaks: Is that where all the pimp-speak in the book comes from?
Lennon: For "How to Pimp Your Script?" (Laughs) Yes.
Garant: We went around town with him. He called us his "ivory cufflinks".
Lennon: I remember that! That was pretty weird.
Garant: He would make that joke in the room every day, at every meeting. "Please meet my 'ivory cufflinks'."
Lennon: Quick thing about that, and this is another thing that's important for young writers: if you do break through a little bit, and you are assigned a very big agency, you need to be careful that you are not just a testing ground of scripts for their stars, that you basically don't become some farm team whose job is to feed scripts up to their bigger stars who are hot. This is absolutely something that will happen. If you are lucky enough to be signed by one of the top agencies, and you're an up-and-coming writer, they will have an agenda of people that you should be writing for - and it will surprise you sometimes who that is. In their morning meeting, they'll have some big discussion like, "We need to find a picture for 'fill-in-the-blank'."
Garant: "We've got the Olympic kid! We've got 'The Flying Tomato'!" That didn't literally happen to us, but it's very close to the things that have happened to us.
Beaks: How long did it take for you guys to stop being precious about what you write?
Lennon: That happened on THE STATE. That was the best lesson we ever had, and it was a painful lesson. It's really hard to not get your feelings hurt when somebody doesn't like something you wrote. But the practice wasn't just writing. I think Ben would pitch up to three sketches a day.
Garant: You'd pitch at three o'clock every day, and you'd pitch in a room of people that all are competing for airtime. When you pitch something, you're going directly against the other people's material.
Lennon: If your stuff makes the show, theirs does not.
Garant: And we voted on everything. We'd put all of these cards up on the wall and you'd vote. And whatever sketches got the most votes ended up on the show. There were some guys on THE STATE who would hold on to one sketch that they thought was going to be a great sketch.
Lennon: And they would keep working on it, finessing it.
Garant: And they'd say, "Well, what do people not like about it?" And then people would give notes, and they would change it, and pitch it again and again and again.
Lennon: We never did that. We threw it away and moved on. It's faster to start over and try something new.
Garant: And in the studio system, that happens with your Act II and III. You'll come in with something that you really worked your best to make perfect - because we don't give it to anybody until we think it's flawless and incredible and awesome. And then you turn it in, and they say, "Yeah, we like your setup of your characters..."
Lennon: "... but you know what? We just scouted a totally new location. It's all on a boat now." And you're like, "Wait, what? When did this happen? No one told us about this!"
Garant: "And what if instead of a buddy, what if it's a romantic interest? What if instead of two guys, it's a guy and a girl?" That means a totally different Act II and III and setup. Throwing out stuff is a lot of this job.
Lennon: And truly getting yourself to a zen place. It's sort of like people who train at wushu. They train strength, flexibility, and how many times can you get hit and it not affect you.
Garant: "Be like water."
Lennon: They get hit with bamboo sticks just to see how much they can [take]. Eventually, they don't care.
Garant: But part of the willingness to throw away material is... you have to work so hard to know you have the confidence that you can write something better. And after twenty years of writing comedy every day, you get a confidence so that you're not afraid to throw away ten pages because you know you can write another ten pages.
Lennon: Your stuff just can't be that precious to you. It can be in the indies or novels you're writing. But for studio movies, it's more about the act of being able to write every day for them and generate new stuff that they can try.
Garant: Make every draft perfect, and be willing to throw away stuff that's perfect. All the time. That's what we do.
Beaks: What initially brought you out to L.A. to do this?
Garant: It was an accident. We came out here to shoot Season Three of VIVA VARIETY so that we'd have better guest stars - which worked out. We got a lot of good stars.
Lennon: But we were dyed-in-the-wool guys who lived in the Village. We were going to die in Greenwich Village and never leave. That was our thing. We were Greenwich Village dudes. My Kim's Video membership was active. I was really happy. I'd finally got my first good New York apartment right across from the White Horse Tavern on Hudson. It had a fireplace.
In the book we say "Come to L.A. right away." Here's the other side of that: "Don't ever come to L.A." It's like a tar pit. You saw what happened to the Wooly Mammoths: your feet get in, then your snout gets stuck, and then you're stuck; you're never getting out of Los Angeles. Good timing that we're going over to watch BARTON FINK. It is literally the perfect parable for our careers.
Garant: L.A. is like an oil rig. It's not pretty. It's awful. The air is bad, the view is bad, the people are bad...
Lennon: I think it shortens your life, living here.
Garant: You're not here for the view or the people: you're here for oil. You're here for a job. I think that's very true. New York is a city to live in. But we came out here, and... a friend of a friend had rights to the book that ended up being the movie LET'S GO TO PRISON. They said, "A lot of writers have said you can't really make a movie of this book. I think you guys are dark and funny and weird - and cheap because you've never done a movie." They gave us the book, and we jumped at the opportunity before we ever thought about that we've never written a movie before.
Lennon: A good starting tip: if people say, "Can you make something work?" Say "Yes!" And then figure it out later. You'll figure it out at some point. Probably. Or you'll fuck it up horribly and get fired. But you'll get fired either way, so it doesn't matter.
Garant: But we pitched something that was crazy and ridiculous [for LET'S GO TO PRISON]. And for some reason - it must've been because we were cheap - they hired us anyway.
Lennon: It was no risk. It was Writers Guild minimum for every step. They owned us for a year for nothing.
Garant: So we wrote this script for LET'S GO TO PRISON, and...
Lennon: We waited so long. We wrote it in my apartment on Beechwood Drive. And we kept waiting and waiting and waiting, because we never got our act together.
Garant: We also never wrote an outline. We just wrote.
Lennon: That was crazy. "We'll just figure it out!"
Garant: We just moved forward. And I remember we got to the part where he gets arrested, and we were like, "He would freak out, right? This rich guy getting arrested." But it accidentally ended up being a good spec. It was NC-17. It was really funny. People passed it around because it was so filthy.
Lennon: It was written almost like a sketch movie. We made every scene in it as funny as one of our funniest sketches. And as a result, it became a script that people coveted and passed around. Obviously, no one was ever going to make it, but it was like, "You must read this script."
Garant: And people were like, "These guys obviously don't know how to write movies, but they're really funny." So we got called in to write punch-up work. I think REBOUND was one of the first.
Lennon: We got called in very early on a movie Steve Carr did with Martin Lawrence - which is why there's a chapter in our book called "Martin Lawrence Has a Few Thoughts or How to Take Notes From a Movie Star." That was really interesting. That was another big lesson we learned: studios frequently greenlight movies that they hate.
Garant: They hate everything they have.
Lennon: Basically, the movie is going forward based off of the pitch, which is "Here's a movie star attached, and here's the concept."
Garant: Sometimes they greenlight movies because they know the poster is going to be good. Like, "Okay. I got it. Basketball and Martin Lawrence."
Lennon: The marketing department has a very big say in that. Oftentimes, if you pitch a movie, they will vet it with the marketing department. I always use WICKED as an example. If you're going to write a giant, successful musical, keep in mind who goes to see musicals - and WICKED was a laser beam pointed at the demographic that goes to see musicals. So if you're going to write to have your movies made, more than the story you want to tell... Robert McKee always says "A story that needs to be told." That's fucking bullshit!
Garant: Indies, sure.
Lennon: Again, I hope everyone knows that we're not saying every movie.
Garant: This is a how-to book for working in the studio system.
Lennon: For what we do. For the financially rewarding part of the movie industry that does chip away at your soul sometimes.
Garant: It's also really fun. It's a great job. It's really fun to be able to figure out what six years of drafts haven't been able to crack. For six years, people have been trying to figure out a movie, then we look at and go, "Oh, my god. It's so obvious!" Like A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. People had tried to write that movie for six years. We didn't even look at the other drafts; we heard ideas people had tried, and we really thought this was the most obviously good idea we'd ever heard. Every kid, when they walk into a museum, wonders, at night, does stuff move. It was such a no-brainer of a concept. It's fun and rewarding if you can come in on something that the studio has spent years and millions of dollars trying to crack, and you're like, "Oh, well just do this, this and this." People look at you like, "Nobody has thought of that in six years!" It's fun.
Beaks: [The MUSEUM movies] seem like a great example of scripts that would initially be fun to write. You sit around trying to figure out what objects in the museum you can bring to life.
Lennon: For NIGHT 2, in the original draft, one of the main characters was supposed to be the head of George Washington Carver. Just his head. The basic premise for NIGHT 2: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN before it got finessed a lot by the final version of the movie, was that all of the things that were helping Ben Stiller's character were things that were no longer on display.
Garant: Stuff in the basement. Like Custer.
Lennon: And there was a George Washington Carver that broke at one point, but they saved the head. There was Amelia Earhart. There was a friendly nuclear atom who'd been taken off display; he was a little animated atom showing you the friendly power of nuclear energy.
Garant: It was very much like the Island of Misfit Toys. And everything went away except Amelia Earhart.
Beaks: You say you've learned how to throw away great material. But with some of this stuff, it sounds like you still want to go, "What's wrong with that? That's funny! That works!"
Garant: I think the Pi thing...
Lennon: That's interesting. In NIGHT 2, there was an explanation of the code for the tablet of Ahkmenrah. NIGHT 2 was originally called NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: RIDDLE OF THE PYRAMIDS, and the whole point of the movie would be finding out the combination of this tablet. There were these hieroglyphics: what would [the code] be to turn it on or off.
Garant: A numerical code.
Lennon: So we did some research, and we read Graham Hancock's called FINGERPRINTS OF THE GODS. It's a really cool book. It dealt with why the pyramids in Central America and Egypt were built approximately around the same time. How was that possible? I won't spoil the end of the book, but his theory behind it is the most insane theory you've heard. It's fucking amazing, and I think it's probably true. And we thought that the number Pi would've been a great answer - and significant to Egyptians, as it's involved in the building of the pyramids.
Garant: Because you can't build a pyramid without knowing Pi.
Lennon: And they did seem to know it.
Garant: It made sense. And this is still in the film, that Pi is the code. In our draft, and in an earlier cut of the film that we saw, when they ask Einstein "What do you think the number is?" Einstein says, "Oh, it's obvious. It's Pi."
Lennon: And he's like, "If you look at it, because it's a circle, if you take the pyramids they will create a circle. It's a mathematical formula."
Garant: (Doing Einstein's voice) "The Egyptians knew all about Pi! You can't build a pyramid without Pi! They discovered Pi. Try Pi!" And so they try Pi.
And then we're sitting in the Smithsonian for the premiere, right next to the head of the Smithsonian. And that part where he explains that the Egyptians knew about Pi...
Lennon: I think it didn't test well at the test screening. Maybe the movie was a little bit too long. But they cut it.
Garant: Einstein goes, "I think it's Pi." And they say, "How do you know it's pi?" And he says, "'Cuz that's the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it!"
Lennon: Einstein does the Cabbage Patch and sings "That's the Way (I Like It)." So we spent a pretty long time, and got into the works of Graham Hancock, FINGERPRINTS OF THE GODS, really started to think about Egypt, started to think about the pyramids, started thinking about architecture, started thinking about mathematics, started thinking about what would be a really satisfying thing for this movie... and it got cut.
Garant: Because it was a slight lull instead of a slight giggle.
Lennon: So that got replaced by Einstein singing the song "That's the Way (I Like It)". And that sums up a lot of our career.
Beaks: To be fair, you probably would've lost my nephew with the explanation.
Garant: But it was only seventeen seconds!
Beaks: Okay, he could've stuck that out.
Lennon: But I'll be honest: this book is not an apology for anything. I will tell you right now that the film TAXI, with Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah, is word-for-word everything we wrote. I take full credit for that.
Garant: That's not true for everything we wrote, but TAXI... we wrote every single word.
Lennon: Every single word. So I'm not trying to exonerate us. Because I thought in TAXI'S case, I was pretty sure we were right. I was so psyched! (Laughs) And then I saw it, and I thought, "What happened?"
Beaks: Not to get you guys throwing blame around, but a director who doesn't know how to direct comedy can destroy a funny screenplay. Was that a problem on TAXI?
Garant: No, it just became a weird misfire.
Lennon: The director, Tim Story, is a talented and funny guy. I honestly don't know what happened. On TAXI, no one came in and rewrote us. No one changed anything we did. That's us. And it was a fucking disaster!
Garant: Sometimes it just doesn't work out. (Laughs)
Beaks: There was a weird thing with Jimmy Fallon around that time. He'd been on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE forever, and people just turned against him.
Garant: People hated him in that movie. No matter how much you question whether that movie is good... people really attacked Jimmy Fallon. That baffled us.
Beaks: It was vicious.
Garant: I was like, "Okay, you don't like the movie. I get it. But he was pretty good in it!"
Lennon: For some reason, everyone that week was ready to hate Jimmy Fallon.
Garant: And say what you want, even if you hate that movie, he's not that bad in it.
Lennon: He's really funny in that movie.
Garant: And people just piled abuse on him.
Beaks: Which is weird for such a likable guy.
Lennon: He's the loveliest guy you'll ever meet.
Garant: And he's good in that movie!
Lennon: And Gisele Bundchen... can you put a YouTube link in this interview?
Lennon: Whether or not it's a great film, this scene is word-for-word the way we wrote it.
Garant: It's a good scene. And that's not in the French one. That's ours.
Beaks: So you provided that service.
Lennon: If nothing else. The other funny thing is, people will watch that clip and not even know which movie it's from.
Garant: Which is fine.
Lennon: A lot of HERBIE FULLY LOADED is us. Some of the good stuff. Some of the family scenes. Some of the stuff with her and her dad is us.
Garant: The demolition derby is totally us. All of the action scenes are us because they start all action scenes before they start principal photography.
Lennon: If you have scenes in your movie that are CGI...
Garant: ... like the dinosaur drinking water out of the fountain [in A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM]...
Lennon: ... they will usually be exactly the way you wrote them. Shot-for-shot.
Beaks: I'm glad you brought that up.This book, along with being a brutally honest guide for people who want to write studio movies, also gives a really valuable and practical view of how studio movies are made - like the function of the second unit. Very often, I'll read a review praising a director's handling of the action, and I'll think, "You know, he didn't actually direct that scene."
Lennon: Probably didn't do it. The only person I know who has no second unit is Christopher Nolan.
Garant: It's just too expensive to do the days without your principal cast.
Lennon: There are a few of the big-ticket guys who don't [have second units], but you have to get permission. It just makes the film so much more expensive.
Garant: That means when you're not shooting Christian Bale, nothing is happening. That means that during lunch, no one is shooting anything. That's expensive.
Lennon: On BALLS OF FURY, I was the second-unit director. I was Karl Wolfschtagg and the second-unit director. You have to do it. You can't have that many [shooting] days. That's the way it works when you're on a budget.
Beaks: You guys cross out "Fun and" in the title, but, the more I listen to you, this really does sound like a lot of fun.
Lennon: It's a blast. What we try to do is demystify it. McKee and those guys make it sound like some kind of abstract art.
Garant: That it's precious. That it's you and your muse.
Lennon: In our minds, we are John Singer Sargent. We are painting portraits of very rich ladies.
Garant: And we make them look great.
Lennon: Their boobs tend to look pretty good.
Garant: The stuff that is in McKee's book is a very small percentage of what happens if you're actually a screenwriter. Knowing how to act when you walk into the room with an executive is, in many ways, more important than your first draft. Your pitch is way more important than your first draft. And there's no real book that says that.
Lennon: That's the reason we keep saying "Take a class at [The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater] if you want to write." You have to learn how to perform.
Garant: We often get rewriting gigs, and they don't let us read the draft. They tell us the pitch.
Lennon: They don't want to ruin you with a bad draft.
Garant: Because the pitch is what got the studio excited, and your first draft usually kills that. So we looked around and realized that there's no real book that talks about how to pitch a rewrite. There's no real book that talks about what happens when your first movie is sold to a studio.
Lennon: Because no one who ever had that information wrote it down.
Garant: Because they're really busy.
Lennon: And, by the way, we are, too! I'm still not really sure why we wrote the book, other than we started it during the strike as a weird hobby.
Garant: And then it got fun. After we started writing it, we started having a good time and didn't stop.
Beaks: I really like what you wrote about description and action. I remember when I was college and taking screenwriting classes, they'd have you read classics like NETWORK and CHINATOWN. These scripts have very long descriptions, and you think that's the way you should do it. People get set so far back thinking that. They write some really labored prose trying to be Paddy Chayefsky.
Lennon: I'm curious how many scripts you see that are a transcription of the finished film. Are they actually what the script looks like?
Garant: You know they're not the first draft. The first draft is sparse, and then everyone gives notes. And then you get notes from the star. And then the director says, "We really have to describe this scene with him out in the rain walking through the door." The first draft probably says, "He walks in through the rain, and gets into the elevator without saying anything." The scripts that get published are the shooting draft - and by then the executives and directors and stars have added thirty pages to the damn thing. It's not the script that sold.
Lennon: Every time, even when they send out For Your Consideration scripts, I always look at it and say, "This is weird. This is verbatim every single thing I've seen happen on screen - which is impossible unless this is a transcription of the finished film. I mean, no actor improvised a little bit?
Beaks: People have been nominated for Academy Awards based on transcripts.
Lennon: It seems like that. How could it be that close? There's no way. But in fairness, what we don't know about the Academy Awards could fill a book. Did you get to the part of the book where we say, "When you start to think of Awards Season as 'Ski Season', you know that you're in the 'for-profit' part of the movie industry."
Garant: But the idea that, when you hand your script to somebody, they're going to read it like some tome they respect, that they're going to love every word is crazy.
Lennon: That they're going to read every word is crazy. They're going to skip half of the action. When you read a script, don't you skip half of the action?
Beaks: It depends who wrote it. If it's, like, Shane Black, I'll read the whole thing. But, yeah, for the most part you're right.
Garant: If you've never heard of the [screenwriter], which is how we all start, you're going to skip some stuff - especially if you've read forty scripts that day. You're going to read the first page. And if it's really boring to get through the description, your career in Hollywood is done before you started. So we try to be practical.
Beaks: I actually wrote coverage for a little bit.
Lennon: You can make or break a movie. Who did you write for?
Beaks: I wrote coverage for a manager and for a foreign sales agent.
Lennon: Quick question: of all of the scripts that you read, did any get made?
Beaks: Yes. CRASH. But that was well down the road to getting made by the time I covered it.
Lennon: A cousin of mine did coverage for a while, and of all of the ones he covered for three or five years, not one of them got made. Zero. He'd read hundreds, if not thousands of scripts, and literally not one got made.
Garant: If twenty people have to decide on food, they'll order pizza. And any script that gets made [by a studio] means twenty executives agreed on it. This means that it's going to be TRANSFORMERS and not THE KING'S SPEECH. The more that you think in that way, the more successful you'll be. We're busy, busy guys, and in our time off we write movies that we know will never get made. Well, now they're starting to. (Knocks on wood)
Lennon: His is a horror movie, and I have a little thing going.
Beaks: So you feel like it's finally time to make your movies?
Lennon: Of course.
Beaks: Because that was the whole point of this, right?
Garant: But I've been trying for years! Speaking for myself, people act like, "Oh, these guys in Hollywood! I can't believe what movies they do." It's as thought Hollywood comes to you and says, "What movie would you like to do? Do you want to do this art house thing, or do you want to do this thing where a bear learns to talk?" That's not what happens. They say to you, "Alright. You're a great writer. You're brilliant. We love everything you did. We've got this talking bear movie. What do you think?"
Lennon: You either do it or leave.
Garant: It's not like you can do a talking bear movie or THE KING'S SPEECH. I write manically. In the past years, in my time off, I wrote a film noir. Didn't sell. I wrote a movie based on the show HEE-HAW that's like a southern DAZED & CONFUSED set in the '70s. It's great: hard R, [Bob] Odenkirk was attached to direct it for a while, Danny DeVito currently has the rights to it. But it's been six years because it's not for everybody. I think the budget for it is $7 million. $7 million is a lot of money. So in between, we do the movie with the monkey that slaps Ben Stiller, and that subsidizes...
Lennon: It is funny that people are always like, "One day these guys are going to do their passion project." We've always been doing our passion projects.
Garant: We've been trying for years! And we've been doing it on [RENO: 911!], too. RENO was a big outlet for our passion.
Lennon: But we've always been writing other things. You just don't see them.
Beaks: It's an dedicated work ethic you guys have. That's something you emphasize in the book: you have to be butt-in-seat writing all the time.
Garant: You have to enjoy working manically.
Lennon: Everybody's like "twelve hours a day", but--
Garant: It's pages, not time.
Lennon: I think a really great writer can do eight pages a day, maybe ten, if you're really in the zone. But I'll be honest: after five or six hours, forget it. Your brain is mush. It's not that you don't go further after five or six hours; it's that you start to fiddle. You go back. The number one pitfall of finishing work is constantly going back and fiddling - which you'll do over and over again. You'll do it with two pages. If you have two pages, you'll fiddle page one over and over again for days, and then you'll never proceed.
Garant: Deadlines. Get to the end, and then rewrite: that's something that took us years to learn. Even if you're writing a spec, give yourself a deadline and get to the end.
Lennon: Don't polish every single ellipsis and nuance. Do that on the second pass. Otherwise, you'll never finish it. Get to the end.
Garant: Then go back and fix it. Just don't fix it while you're working on it. That's a different part of your brain, I think, and it kills momentum.
Beaks: There's also a lot of self-loathing involved in writing.
Garant: I don't think it's self-loathing. I think it's a realistic worldview. (Laughs) We joke a lot about how in Hollywood the writer is one step below the doormat. That's not self-loathing. That's true! Again, I'm not talking about Academy Award-winning movies; I'm talking about the studio system. And in the studio system, the easiest person to fire when a movie is going wrong is the writer. No matter what's happening on set, you're not going to fire Ben Stiller. You're going to fire the writer. And I don't think it's self-loathing because it's very fun; it beats digging ditches, and you get paid very well. If you accept that that's the job, then you'll probably - if you have a good attitude, a strong work ethic and a little talent - get hired on the same job.
Lennon: I find our book weirdly upbeat. We're not telling the dark side. If people think we're telling the dark side... oh, no. We left a fair amount of the dark side out. This is the relatively upbeat part that, if you can crack it, the world is yours.
Beaks: I loved the penultimate chapter of your book, which is about drinking. That's something a lot of writers struggle with, but it's also something that can help fire ideas.
Garant: I'll say this before I get serious: there is a certain point at the bottom of your third beer where you make a breakthrough. We do a lot of our work in bars. We usually come up with the basic structure--
Lennon: "Where's my honey!?!?"
(For the next few seconds, everyone does their W.P. Mayhew impression.)
Lennon: "Building that levy brick by brick."
Garant: But we do a lot of our work in bars because it fools us into thinking we're not working, that we're just cracking each other up. It feels social.
Lennon: Even though we really are working. Most of the time.
Garant: But we joke that Earnest Hemingway ended up "on top of the world!" (Laughs)
Lennon: I believe we have a footnote.
Beaks: Yes. That the "top of the world" is killing yourself in... I forget the name of the town in Idaho.
Lennon: Ketchum. We're from the same town. This will disappoint people. Here's a timeline of America: Earnest Hemingway was born about two blocks from where I was born. That's the slouch of America. America's been slouching for the past hundred years. The Wall of Fame at Oak Park and River Forest High School starts with Earnest Hemingway, and the last face up is me as Lieutenant Dangle. I think that's a pretty good metaphor for the timeline of America. It's two guys with mustaches: here's one who could catch a marlin and kill a bull, and then here's a guy who did "New Boot Goofin'".
Garant: I'll be honest: it took us a long time to get to this zen place. My first years in this business, I was angry a lot. The first time you get fired off a movie, you're furious. And the first time they give you a note that undercuts something you've been working on for months, that you know in your heart is perfect... and they give you a note that not only destroys it, but shows they don't even understand what you achieved? We were angry for a long time. We'd go drink and bitch. But now, years later, you realize what the job is. You also realize the less money they spend on something, the more creative control you have. That's why we started doing RENO.
Lennon: If something sucks, it's our fault. And I'd include the RENO movie in that. It was 100% R-rated and ours. I know on Rotten Tomatoes it's got something like thirty-four percent.
Garant: It's crazy. People hated it.
Beaks: I'm not on Rotten Tomatoes, but if I was, I would've gone "fresh" on that one.
Lennon: There are a disconcerting number of people who are approved Tomato Meter critics. It's weird. One of our only slightly negative reviews [for the book] was from a guy who... we talk about "naysayers" in the book, and how, after a while, the morbidly obese shut-ins will come out to get you. And this one guy, in the middle of a gushing review, said, "I don't know why they had to take on critics! We're just doing our job!" It was really sweet.
Garant: He loved how brutally honest we are about everything else except for that.
Lennon: "These guys tell it like it is... except for internet critics." (Laughs)
Beaks: I don't think I've ever reviewed any of your studio movies, and there's a reason for that: they're not for me.
Lennon: That's a really great point. People will come up to us... adult men...
Garant: ... hipsters...
Lennon: ... and they'll say, "Fuckin' PACIFIER? Suck my diz-ick!" And we'll be like, "Why did you watch that? That's a movie for eight-year-olds. They make friends with a duck."
Beaks: Actually, I got a group of friends together to watch THE PACIFIER hammered because we were so obsessed with the duck.
Lennon: We've talked about this, right?
Beaks: We sure have. [Scroll down a little in this interview for the full story.]
Lennon: Jackie Chan buys a duck.
Garant: It was like, "This is the tone of the film. This super-serious kung-fu mafia bodyguard gets stuck having to babysit a duck. That's exactly what the comedy of this is." And [the studio] said, "Eh, throw away everything except the duck."
Lennon: We agree. You're preaching to the choir. And we could get the producer of that film, Jonathan Glickman, on the phone, and he'd agree that the duck makes no sense. But he insisted that we keep it.
Garant: And he was right.
Lennon: Every time they cut to the duck, that movie tested better.
Garant: We sat in screenings where people loved the duck. And we argued with him so hard.
Lennon: And he'd say, "Do you see how stupid you are, trying to cut that duck? You assholes, the duck's the only thing we have working right now!" If you've never been to the test screening of a movie you wrote, I highly recommend it. It's like having surgery on part of your body with no anesthesia while you just watch.
Garant: It'll take away any pretense or ego or anything you have. Something that you've been fighting for, that you think is great, you'll test it at the Block and Orange and people will just stare in silence. Some joke that you've been defending for six months will just die because they don't know who Kierkegaard is. And you'll realize, "Okay, this is where I am."
Lennon: Or weird things will go over really big, and you won't know why. By that point, no one will know why anything is happening. You're just in the middle of a typhoon, where opinions are blowing in every direction. It's insane.
Beaks: I've witnessed that. Six years ago, Michael Bay invited me to a test screening of THE ISLAND. For some reason, he trusted my opinion and wanted me at the Block and Orange to see an early cut of the movie*. After it was over, I was stuck in that typhoon. It was completely disorienting. All of these DreamWorks execs were there, and Bay's asking what I thought of the movie.
Lennon: You liked it?
Beaks: I did. At least, I liked the action, which I guess [certain executives] were trying to cut down. I was like, "That's crazy. The action is the only thing that completely works." David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg [who were not trying to cut down the action in the film] are listening to me, and I realize that I am in way over my head. It was madness. I was taking mental notes for the book I'll write one day.
Lennon: That's why we wrote the book. We actually don't get too much into the chaos of when a movie is about to come out, but no studio executive is working on a movie. Maybe at an independent they are, but at a studio they're working on four. They've got some giant tentpole that's going to cost $185 million, then one or two romantic comedies that they're vaguely paying attention to, and some kind of thriller. They've got a lot of stuff going on, so it's interesting. You're frequently surprised. "The process can't really be like this!" But it totally is. They're going to do these notes, then they've got to leave for the Block and Orange to watch some romantic comedy that's testing worse than this.
Garant: It's fascinating because a lot of these people are really smart. They'll come in and watch a movie, and after the movie they'll say, "Okay, you can fix this movie if you do this, this and this." Then that person leaves, and the reality and the budget sets in: the movie is supposed to be done, and they don't have more budget. So these people have to scramble and decide, based on what that person just said, what they can afford to do - which is nothing.
Lennon: You can add a couple of off-camera ADR lines.
Garant: And then it's left to the people below the smart person who just took off to interpret what they meant and what they can pull off with the time and budget they have. That's when it's chaos. Because sometimes the people below the boss are not that smart; sometimes they're pure trouble. That's when people start shouting at each other, and the director starts digging in his heels, and you have no time or money to do any of this stuff.
Lennon: And that's every single movie. You do the detail work when you're on a ship in the middle of a typhoon. The heavy lifting is all done at a relatively calm pace, but when you're doing the smile part of the "Mona Lisa", that's when you've got fifty people screaming.
Garant: And unless the person involved is James Cameron, unless they've got an ironclad track record of making money, the chances of it being a disaster are ninety-nine percent. How could it possibly be anything but? There are so many chefs, and the chefs have a financial stake in it. Any time I walk away from a studio movie that's good, I wonder "How the fuck did that happen?" Like Pixar movies...
Lennon: I'm baffled by those motherfuckers.
Garant: When I walk away from a Pixar movie, I think, "God bless John Lasseter that he's actually got a studio going that is run by two or three smart guys and a bunch of smart guys under them."
(The publicist drops by our table and informs us that it's almost time to head over to the New Beverly. We then begin discussing how much money they're making off of the book, which leads to this observation from Mr. Lennon:)
Lennon: We gave all of our up-front money [for the book] to charity, and we're going to give any royalties we make to charity.
Garant: Because we're such assholes in the book about how much money we have. As we were getting into it, we were like, "Okay, this is really funny. It drives home the point. But unless we give this all to charity, we're the worst people in the world."
Lennon: It goes to the Metro D.C. USO. It's a big one because they operate around Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. We had a very significant couple of days there. We went to Walter Reed for two days as the RENO characters. It was very life-changing, the kind of thing you never really forget. The weird thing about that is when you get your arms and legs blown off, when you're nineteen, here's the thing you don't think about: you also lose your hearing a lot of the time. That's why we gave the money to the USO. Doing that tour was one of the most amazing things we've ever done. Truly life-changing.
Garant: And a lot of those guys have a chip on their shoulder because they didn't finish their stint. They were signed up for four years and only did one, and now they feel this obligation to finish what they signed up to do.
Lennon: So that's why we did that. Also because we were being such dicks with the title. And the cover.
Beaks: (Laughing) When I saw that cover, I was like, "That's gonna piss a lot of people off."
Lennon: No, no, no. We weren't going to not have some amazing boobs on that cover.
Garant: (Laughing) We were just trying to think, "What's the opposite take of any screenwriting book?"
Lennon: The girl that's standing to my immediate left, that's the girl who is beautifully, mostly nude in the RENO movie for a long time. The person who comes and tells us that the whale has [been beached], that's her.
Garant: That's our friend Irina Voronina. She was the St. Pauli Girl last year. Do a link to the TRON Playboy shoot. [Beaks note: Done!]
Beaks: Two quick questions for you guys before we get out of here. First, the L.A. Times just ran a piece on international box office, and how that's becoming more important to the studio than the domestic gross. This is evidently impacting what kinds of comedies get made. How do you feel about this?
Lennon: It's enormous. And I would argue that we are two people who are feeling the heat from that. There's a chapter in the book where we talk about that.
Garant: It's not just a movie star thing. Romantic comedies don't work if you don't speak English. It's got to be pure physical [comedy]. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS killed [overseas] because you don't need to speak English to understand every single thing that's going on.
Lennon: We worked on GULLIVER'S TRAVELS briefly. It was a flop here and way bigger overseas.
Garant: If you look at the stars who are big internationally, it's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. People say, "Jack Black, Brad Pitt and Jim Carrey are very big internationally." If you look at the movies they do, they're movies that have action. They're not guys sitting around a table talking; they're big action things. A lot of them aren't even set in America; they're set in Liliput or "spy world". They're not about day-to-day American life.
Lennon: It is fascinating.
Garant: FAST FIVE. It's a bunch of cars. The dialogue scenes in that movie are very few and far between. And THOR, you've got a guy hitting people with a hammer; you don't need to know the mythology of Marvel Comics.
Lennon: There's a great Morrissey song called "America Is Not the World." At a certain point, you realize, "Oh, right. We're not!" We also make a point [in the book] that we were never the headquarters of the movie industry anyway. It's India. Always was.
Garant: This is a little optimistic-sounding, but I think it's caused a cool thing, which is small comedies like BRIDESMAIDS and THE HANGOVER and BAD TEACHER. Little $30 million movies that you make just for America, are kind of in a boom. We were kind of in the doldrums for a while, when they were just doing $100 million Jim Carrey comedies. Those are kind of dead.
Lennon: The big international slapstick or action stuff will continue at very high budgets. The homegrown stuff for us will absolutely continue at massively lower budgets.
Garant: And I think it keeps a freshness to it. BRIDESMAIDS had, in terms of movies, unknowns. THE HANGOVER was, in terms of movies, unknowns. I think it brings new faces to comedy that $100 million movies can't. And now all the movie studios have micro-budget divisions, which is super encouraging.
Lennon: The movies that people on Ain't It Cool News will be loving for the next twenty or thirty years... if there's one of them that costs more than $10 million, I'll be surprised. The expensive stuff will be for the entire world. Keep in mind, when you're making movies for the entire world, what's your demographic? The entire world. That's a weird demographic.
Beaks: Right now, it seems to be the Johnny-Depp-loving world.
Lennon: Well, weirdly, I'm in that group because I love Johnny Depp.
Beaks: Who doesn't?
Garant: But his most successful movies aren't set in America. They're in Willy Wonka World or Pirate World.
Beaks: THE TOURIST underperformed in the U.S., but did very well overseas.
Garant: Not set in America!
Lennon: Here's the great thing about THE TOURIST, which was hated by almost everybody: [the director] Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's last movie, THE LIVES OF OTHERS... did you see it?
Beaks: Of course. Damn good movie.
Lennon: If you don't weep during that movie, you're not a human being. It's incredible.
Beaks: And then he goes and makes THE TOURIST!
Lennon: Hollywood, man. Welcome to the party! (Beaks laughs) We frequently say, "Welcome to the party, pal!" The only movie we love more than DIE HARD is BARTON FINK.
Beaks: I love the emphasis you put on DIE HARD in the book. It's the model. It's a perfect film.
Lennon: It's the greatest structure of all time.
Garant: I think the best piece of advice we give in the book is to just watch DIE HARD over and over again.
Beaks: Finally, I have to ask: would you care to elaborate as to why Billy Crystal is a dick?
Lennon: Yes, but let's preface this by acknowledging that we're all Friars. He's a good guy. It was just that he was not very nice to us during a pitch when he could've been. We were pitching ANALYZE THIS 2, and we were scared of De Niro.
Garant: We were young, and we were terrified to meet De Niro. But he was a sweetheart. He was so nice.
Lennon: But Billy Crystal wasn't nice.
Garant: He was not nice at all. Who knows why?
Lennon: It might've been that he was being funny, but he made fun of Ben's accent. He also made fun of Ben's tie, which was the only thing his dead grandfather left him. It was one of those weird moments where we were like, "Wow, this really just turned bad so fast."
Garant: And the pitch was pretty good. Everybody liked it, but he hated it. And during the pitch, he was vocal - which is rare.
Lennon: He was chiming in. It was weird.
Garant: He was like (Doing Billy Crystal), "Uh-huh? Really? Really? Is Billy Crystal going to be in this one? I hear he's difficult."
Beaks: So he was on.
Lennon: Yeah, he was on. By the way, this was at 8:45 in the morning on the Warner Bros. lot.
Garant: And this was ten years ago. We were young. We didn't get the gig.
Lennon: In fairness, we're all Friars. I'm sure he means well. He just didn't that day. The weird thing was to walk in the room and be like, "There's Robert De Niro. Fucking origins of THE GODFATHER."
Garant: And at that point, ANALYZE THIS was his first comedy. Up until then, he'd been scary guy.
Beaks: Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta...
Lennon: We were fucking scared! But he is one of the sweetest people you'll ever meet in your life! (Doing De Niro) "Oh, thank you so much. It was really nice to meet you." With De Niro, you're like, "Oh, my god! He's one of the greatest guys ever!" And Billy Crystal's like, "Oh, sorry, did I talk over your joke."
Garant: But Billy Crystal being a dick to you? Beats working at Arby's.
Lennon: Yes. Unless you get a discount at that Arby's.
WRITING MOVIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT is now available for purchase from the book seller of your choice (but here's an Amazon link). Even if you don't want to make a boatload of cash writing studio product, I highly recommend it.
If you're going to the San Diego Comic Con next week, you can see Lennon and Garant discuss their tome live and in person on Thursday, July 21 in Room 5AB at 7:00 PM. They'll probably have money cannons and hot chicks and shit, so you should totally go.