The percentages are brutal in the screenwriting trade: after the rush of finishing that first draft, there's the sobering knowledge that your personal triumph has very little chance of ever making it to the desk of someone with the power to simply consider buying it. If you're lucky enough to win that initial lottery, you are then subject to all manner of treachery: mercurial directors, meddling executives, pragmatic producers... all of whom probably have another writer in mind to get your original idea to conform to their personal vision. Months or years later, there may be a greenlight, and shreds of your work may make it through the rewrite gauntlet. Then comes credit arbitration, and, finally, the finished movie - and you are truly blessed if the damn thing is any good.
Mark Protosevich has been at this racket for two decades and he's seen it all. There was THE CELL, a serial killer yarn that was transformed into a wild phantasmagoria by the talented music video director Tarsem. There was POSEIDON, Wolfgang Petersen's remake of the Irwin Allen disaster flick for which Protosevich received sole credit despite the fact that a good portion of the WGA took a crack at his draft. And, of course, there was I AM LEGEND, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic horror novel that became a film geek obsession when Protosevich's screenplay leaked online in the late '90s. That version of the script was basically a go picture with Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but, as often happens, studio politics and other projects got in the way. By the time Will Smith and Francis Lawrence brought it to the big screen in 2007, other writers had reworked the screenplay that many of us loved in the first place.
So it's understandable that Protosevich seems generally upbeat about his experience on OLDBOY. Though his original draft is superior to what ended up on screen, the spirit of Spike Lee's film is very much in keeping with Protosevich's take on the material. Protosevich found himself facing fan skepticism when he took on this project, as Park Chan-wook's 2003 adaptation of Garon Tsuchiya's manga is considered by many to be one of the best films of the last decade, but that's what makes Protosevich an inspired hire: would you rather have a talented writer who loves the original movie and wants nothing more than to do it justice, or a studio whore whose sole mandate is to appease the executives?
You could make a lot of great films from Protosevich's original drafts (including his majestic, 100% Norse God-centric take on THOR), which is hopefully something Hollywood is figuring out. You go to Protosevich because you want a skillfully-written screenplay by someone with a passion for genre. Heavily rewriting him... that hasn't worked out all that well. Sticking with his original vision? There might be something to that.
When I chatted with Protosevich last month, I was curious to get his thoughts on the studio screenwriting process now that he's been nearly twenty years in the trenches. We also talked about why he risked the scorn of the geek community by taking OLDBOY, how the collaborative process is completely different director-to-director, and what he's got cooking with that Edgar Wright fella. If you're keen on becoming a professional screenwriter, pay attention.
Mr. Beaks: Thanks to I AM LEGEND, geeks and cinephiles were familiar with your name before a single screenplay of yours had been produced. What was it like during that late-'90s period?
Mark Protosevich: I sold THE CELL, but I AM LEGEND was really my first big writing assignment after that. I got that because of THE CELL. I remember going in to meet Lorenzo di Bonaventura when he was at Warner Bros, and he said, "I've got three things I want to talk to you about. The first one is I AM LEGEND." I immediately said, "We don't have to talk about the other two." That was one of those things where, similar to this, you feel like you're being given an opportunity, and you go, "I've got to do my best here. I've been given a property that means a lot to me. I've got to put my all into this." So I do that with I AM LEGEND, and that script went around town, found its way on the internet, and... it was weird. (Laughs) I remember renting a car once, and the guy going, "Oh man! I read your I AM LEGEND script online! I loved it!" Over the years, the movie almost got made five or six different times with different elements. It was going to be Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger at one point. And at another point it was going to be Will Smith and Michael Bay. But it was incredibly frustrating for me. It was probably the thing I was most associated with even though it hadn't gotten made. So then THE CELL got made and... what's there is what I wrote. It's just Tarsem brought this whole other layer to it that was certainly not what I envisioned. But that's my script. I love Tarsem and I think that film holds up in an interesting way. People seem to either love it or hate it; there doesn't seem to be a lot of in-between. (Laughs) I actually get both perspectives, and I probably come down somewhere in the middle. I think it's an interesting movie, but it was my first script.
Then I went through a period where I had stuff almost get made. I had three projects almost get made after THE CELL, and none of them came to fruition. Then I get a call from Jeff Robinov, who says, "Will you write the remake of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE?" At first I said no, but then another project didn't get made, and I said to myself, "This movie's going to get made. I'll do it." I learned that's not a good reason to take on a project. I love Wolfgang Petersen, but it was not a great creative experience. I learned a lot about what not to do in my career because of that movie. I mean, they were building sets before they had a script that they liked. I have sole credit on the movie, but not a single line of dialogue was written by me. I think there were six or seven other writers on that movie. I look at it, and there's no pride of ownership. I can look at THOR, and that was very different than what I originally envisioned, but I can still see elements in it where it feels like me. I could be kidding myself, but I like a lot of the Thor-Loki stuff, and that was a big focus of the version I wrote. And I AM LEGEND to a certain degree, I'm proud that, especially in the third act, it's not what I had done, but I do think what was done probably made it reach a bigger audience. There were some darker elements in my version, but I'm proud of that movie.
But there's a difference where you watch something and go, "Yeah! That's it!" When you write a script, you have the movie in your head and nothing's every going to be exactly like that unless you direct it yourself - and even then that might not happen. But with [OLDBOY], the version of the script that we put out to get an actor and a director is really close to what's there. Not a lot changed, and that feels good.
Beaks: As a cinephile and a genre fan, I wonder if you feel like a guardian when you take on these projects. With I AM LEGEND or OLDBOY, is there a sense of "I better take this project or someone who doesn't give a shit will"?
Protosevich: I actually had a conversation with Josh Olson about this once. He had been offered something that I think the reaction would've been "Oh no, they're going to remake that?" I understand that reaction. The track record is generally not so great. But he said, "If they're going to do it, I want to be the one who does it." If you do care about the original material, you want to be involved in the new version out of a place of respect, whereas I think that might not be the motivation for some people. I try not to read too much commentary online, but I remember a friend of mine sent me an article, and there was some comment about "Oh, typical Hollywood exploiting a foreign film just to make money." And that person's entitled to their opinion, but they're so off-base. I dare you to find someone who watched the original OLDBOY, and their reaction was, "Wow, we're gonna clean up on an English-language version of this story! It'll be the next TRANSFORMERS!" It's troubling, provocative, upsetting subject matter. Myself, the producers... we were doing this because we cared about it. It was coming from this place of creative challenge and passion. It's not an easy movie. It's not typical.
Beaks: Couldn't there have been a Hollywood version where "It's about the hammer fight and the things that are saleable, and we'll just work around this incest angle"?
Protosevich: To not include that?
Beaks: Or that there'll be a secondary twist where he didn't commit incest.
Protosevich: You know Brian De Palma's OBSESSION? There's a dream sequence in that movie where they have sex, but because it's a dream sequence they make it palatable. But in the original script, they really did it, and she knew what she was doing. Of course, when I hear that I go, "That's so much more interesting!" But really, when the whole Will Smith-Steven Spielberg aspect of [OLDBOY] was no longer happening and it was really just the producers and me, I was like, "If you guys are going forward, I want to be a part of this." They couldn't pay me what I usually get upfront, but I still wanted to do it. I was very passionate about it. I had written a thirty-page treatment on spec when this was all just being negotiated. This one was really an intense writing experience for me. There were days where I would need an hour decompression time afterwards because you're going to some dark places. I loved it, but it was intense, and my wife can testify to that; I probably was very moody during that time. But we realized, "We can do whatever we want. Let's go for it. We don't have a star, we don't have a director, let's write the version of the movie that we'd like to see."
Beaks: It seems that you did go for it. How was it once Spike came onboard?
Protosevich: The script that we shot is not all that different from the script that he read when he came onboard. There are minor things here and there, little dialogue issues that came up in rehearsal. His concern was, "I've got a script here that everybody's pretty positive about, so stylistically and performance-wise it's time for me to develop a relationship with the actors and to figure out how this is going to look." It wasn't so much about working on the script, but, from what I saw, it was about "How do we make this happen?"
Beaks: You've worked with Spielberg before.
Protosevich: We met a few times on this way back when, and then there was a period where we talked about JURASSIC PARK, but that didn't come to fruition.
Beaks: I'm always curious as to how different directors are in their approach to collaborating with screenwriters.
Protosevich: Everyone is so different. If I look at the directors I've worked with, even on stuff that didn't happen, it's just so different. There is no common thread there whatsoever. Some are very standoffish; it's like "You're here to do a job, I'm here to do a job, let's do our jobs." There are others who are like, "Now we're best friends!" And there are others where there is some duplicity involved. I've had that experience in the past: you go in for a meeting on a script you've written with the director, and you leave and find out the director has already brought in "his guy". But I'm also working on a project with Edgar Wright, and Edgar is just delightful.
Beaks: I don't know how much you can say about what you're doing with Edgar.
Protosevich: Zilch. (Laughs)
Beaks: I figured as much.
Protosevich: The one thing I'll say is that Edgar's movies have a certain tone, and this one might be a little unexpected because the main thing we're going for is scary. Smart and scary.
Beaks: Smart and not-winking scary?
Protosevich: Right. The real deal.
A straight-up, non-jokey horror film from Mark Protosevich and Edgar Wright is something I very much want to see. In the meantime, chack out OLDBOY, which hits theaters November 27th.