Monday, August 06, 2007

One-on-One with Scott Alexander

Scott Alexander is best known for the unusual biopics he has written with Larry Karaszewski. Alexander and Karaszewski wrote the highly–acclaimed Ed Wood, which was nominated for Best Screenplay by the Writers Guild. They followed this with The People Vs. Larry Flint, for which they won the Golden Globe Award, as well as the Writers Guild Paul Selvin Award.

Linnea: You recently appeared in Dreams on Spec, a documentary touching on the struggles and triumphs of emerging Hollywood screenwriters. What kind of advice would you offer to new writers? How difficult is it today to get your spec script turned into a film?

My advice to new writers has never changed: Write something unusual. Write something with a striking point-of-view that people will remember. Don't try to break in by jumping on the "hot trend"... that's not the way to get noticed. My partner and I had a middling family comedy career until we wrote ED WOOD, which was anything but commercial. But it was different, and memorable, and it got us noticed.

Most scripts don't get made, but the good ones get passed around. There's a huge community of assistants looking to impress their bosses with the next "find." That doesn't always mean a giant spec sale, but it can mean the writer gets invited in, and soon after that he gets a job! So write something you're passionate about.

Linnea: How did you and Larry Karaszewski end up re-working Matt Greenberg's adaptation of 1408 from Steven King's short story? What was that process like?

We came on 1408 as a 3-week rewrite, and stayed for almost 2 years! We had always wanted to work with the Weinsteins, and we thought the project was a fascinating challenge: Essentially one character in one room. Matt had done a good job of figuring out how to expand a tiny story into a feature structure, and we felt there was limitless potential.

So we met with Bob Weinstein, and he was incredibly encouraging and full of big dreams: He felt the movie could be a classic, if done right. We were a little surprised by these lofty goals, but we took it as a dare and signed up. He encouraged us to be as weird and inexplicable as we wanted, and he told us not to worry about genre expectations -- focus on character.

So we slowed down the script. Matt's draft was a very tight genre piece with scares right from the opening scene. We were encouraged to take our time, and play out a full thirty-minute first act, getting to know Cusack's character. Once we got in the room, we chopped down the flashbacks and really tried to explore the full situation, not being afraid to park in the room. To look for every milkable opportunity. This led to us adding fun additional sequences, such as the doppelganger across the street, or the mints on the pillow, or Mr. Olin inside the fridge. We also enjoyed lacing in numerous visual clues and motifs, which make the film very rewatchable. The film is designed to make you argue with your friends afterwards, dissecting it all.

Bob also encouraged us to drag out the return to California sequence, which was utter madness. It went from 2 pages to 11! Considering it's all a hallucination, this is pretty avant-garde. Though the test audiences went a little nutty there, so we cut it down to 5 or 6 minutes.

We also did more writing during post than we've ever done on any other movie... constantly exploring new approaches through pick-up shots, reshoots, ADR, editing-room reordering. It was utterly fascinating how things evolved. Like being back in film school.

Linnea: Several reviews are calling the psychological thriller 1408 one of the best Steven King films since The Shining. What was it like writing for this type of genre?

Writing this movie was a blast, particularly since nobody asked us to change our style. We like writing very specific characters shaded with lots of comedy. We are incapable of writing serious scenes without incorporating humor -- that's what life is like. And although Mikael Hafstrom initially appeared to be an intimidating Swedish man, he is actually quite playful, with a dark sense of humor. I can't remember one joke that he asked us to take out, because it broke the mood. And that shows a lot of confidence on his part -- many directors are afraid to mix tone.

Our producer, Lorenzo diBonaventura, was a hoot, reveling in the 2001-what-the-hell is-going-on-here of it all. He was gleeful: "I've made 156 movies, and this is the first one without rules! Go for it!" It made for a really fun team: We spent the time talking about Bergman and Polanski movies, then tried to make the flick as bizarre as possible. But -- it was always about Mike Enslin's journey, so that kept us grounded.

I've really pleased that the movie was received as one of the good Stephen King films, because we were all genuinely swinging for the fences. We wanted the movie to be scary and unsettling, but we never wanted to pander to the audience. Plus, because the movie was about an author talking to his recorder, we were able to incorporate a literacy into his dialogue that was quite satisfying to write.

Linnea: 1408 will be released on DVD with an added alternate ending that was said to be "too much of a downer" by the director Mikael Håfström. Without giving anything away, which ending do you prefer/think is more suitable for the movie?

Oh God! What a loaded question. It's hard to answer, considering my DAUGHTER was in one of the deleted endings! In a nutshell, it came down to whether Mike Enslin lived or died. Larry and I felt strongly that we should kill him, that that made for the purist resolution to the tale. Although he didn't die in the short story, or in Matt's draft, this struck us as the logical, most satisfying ending. Mikael completely backed us, and that was the ending of the shooting script. Mike living was a simple alternate that Bob had us put in for protection.

What happened in the test screenings, honestly, was that audiences loved John Cusack in the part. And after all the shit we put him through, they wanted to see him survive. The performance engenders so much empathy that people wanted to see him victorious. Not "heroic," or a "winner," in the hack sense, but they wanted him to earn something for his suffering. And it's certainly not a happy ending -- it has its own dislocation.

After these screening results, everybody on the team was baffled, because killing him was intellectually so superior. Why wasn't it playing better? I actually suggested a theory that we hadn't allowed the audience to grieve, which led to an elaborate reshoot involving a funeral. All of us working on the film were really pleased -- it tied all the story strands together, it had emotion, and it had a jump scare! (Plus, my daughter.) What else could you possibly want from an ending?

And -- the audience surprised us again. They STILL preferred him living! We were mystified, but gave in. It wasn't about us sacrificing our artistic integrity, because we were constantly open to exploring new roads with this project. In the last year, we had 1000s of philosophical arguments about possible conclusions, parsing every conceivable interpretation. But in the end, people identified with Mike, and they wanted him to have a small moment of pleasure with his former wife, and was that asking too much?

Linnea: You are an experienced writer, director and producer with a Golden Globe win and two nominations for your writing. What have been some of the other triumphs in your career?

Easily, the biggest triumph was the fact that ED WOOD got made, exactly as we had hoped and dreamed. It was a perfect experience. Tim Burton was delightful and in-sync with us, Johnny and Martin were fabulous, and being on the set everyday was a joy.

The fact that this incredibly special movie got produced, with Tim shooting our first draft, and a studio financing it, in black-and-white, is like some weird dream. Did it really happen? I sadly can't imagine ever pulling off a feat like that again, particularly in the current Hollywood environment. So I have to cherish the memories, and I'm immensely proud of the result.

The other obvious victory in my career is making LARRY FLYNT, which also turned out terrific. It didn't have the fever-dream quality of ED WOOD, but maybe at that point I was spoiled and didn't realize the incredibly lucky bubble I had created for myself. To look back on it now... to realize that our porn king pitch led to a totally enthusiastic studio, a sizable budget, and Milos Forman directing, is astonishing. Who knew the '90s were such an exciting time for American cinema?

Wow. Looking back, I guess 1994 was the best year of my life. My first child was born, ED WOOD got released, and I was writing LARRY FLYNT. Where's Doc Brown with his time machine? I want to go back!

Linnea: Are you currently working on any projects? Can you tell us anything about them?

Haven't I talked too much already? Go click on someone else's page!

Larry and I are always juggling a few things, but primarily, we're prepping a biopic set in the world of modern art. We've secretly worked on this spec script for four years, and we're currently arranging financing so that we can direct it. The tone is like our other biopics: Funny, strange, and sad. It should be really cool.

I shouldn't chat about other projects, because they'll probably become doomed if I do. Life in Hollywood is completely unpredictable. Every time I think my life is planned out, six months later prove me wrong. Every movie I thought was going dies, and surprise ones come to life instead. So if you want your life to be full of certainty, go sell insurance. Don't become a writer.

Linnea: Scott, thank you so much for answering some questions for us! Can't wait to see you in October!

I'm looking forward to Austin. But no drinking before sundown.

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