Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Company You Keep

Chris Matheson, Ed Solomon, and Ryan Rowe (my husband) have known each other for many years. They met when they were undergraduates at UCLA and all went on to become screenwriters. Ed wrote Men in Black, and worked on the upcoming Hardy Men for Ben Stiller. Chris wrote Evil Alien Conquerors, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (with Ed.) Ryan wrote the first Charlie’s Angels movie (with Ed) and worked with Chris on the story for Evil Alien Conquerors.

They’ve all worked steadily as writers, separately and together, throughout their careers.

When they were in their twenties, they took annual road trips in Chris’s dad’s dirty camper. This interview was done earlier this year, right before they left on another road trip for Vegas. They are all pushing fifty now, took my minivan and had to stop three times on the way to pee.

The reason I wanted to interview them was to explore how you meet your writing mentors and friends, and how influential they can be on your life and career.

So, how did you guys meet?

Ryan: I met Ed in 1979 as a freshman at UCLA… uh, I mean in some undetermined year. (laughter) And we became friends from doing stand-up comedy on campus. Then I met Chris through a play that I auditioned to be in, that Chris wrote.

Ed: Chris and I and Shane Black met in a playwriting class at UCLA in Jan 1981.

Ryan: So you guys are very old.

Ed: It was weird because, Chris was there in ‘81 and I was there in ‘91, it was a strange kind of time warp.

Ryan: People told me about you guys when I was there in ’95.

Chris: So you must have graduated in ’99.


How have you worked together?

Ed: Everyone in this triangle has worked together numerous times, although not all three of us together.

Have you influenced each others’ careers?

Chris: That’s a big answer. Very much so.

Ed: I would say the prime influence is not just on my career, but what was under the career, the whole comedic point of view. Not just an influence of the two of you, but the whole point of view was essentially created by my interactions with you guys. You two are like the fusion of the sense of humor that the three of us shared, and it created what ever it was that launched my career. And then within that career, to both larger and smaller degrees, it’s been influential.

Ryan: You guys taught me how to laugh, what was funny, thinking about what was funny, and just going places comedically that I hadn’t gone to yet until the three of us went there. Sometimes on trips we took together, or just hanging out…. It seems like the work we did together sprang from the time we spent together socially.

Chris: When I was in my early twenties I hadn’t met anyone yet who had the same comedic bent, and the validation that came out of that was really powerful, and it gave me a lot more confidence. It was, well, “Shit, these guys are unbelievably funny, and we’re all laughing together. I think it maybe is actually funny. Maybe it’s just not me.”

Ed: One thing I would also mention. The only time in my life where, and it was the smartest thing I ever did at that early stage in my life, and if I could, I would have done a lot of things differently, was… One thing was when we said, “Let’s rent a theater for twenty bucks a night, once a week, go there with no audience, and work out for the sake of working out.” Remember that? We did improv at the Gardner Stage on Sunset Blvd. How long did we do it for?

Ryan: We did it for a long time. After that we got a room at UCLA, then we got another stage, we did it for a few years. And none of us had any intention of being improv performers, or trying to get on SNL or whatever.

Chris: One of us should have….Ryan.

Ed: One thing you implied Ryan, is that you appeared without a sense of humor. When I met you, you were the funniest person I’d ever met.

Ryan: Well, nice of you to say. That’s how I feel about you guys. I never turned an eye on myself to think about it that way, because that’s dangerous.

Chris: I sort of… there might have been a little part of me that thought I might be actually funny. But until you meet somebody, and you go, ok, I know they’re really funny because they make me laugh. They’re hilarious. And they think I’m funny. And it’s a validation of that.

Ryan: Finding people around you that are like-minded, is big.

Ed: What drew us together was not this ravenous desire for a career in Show Business. What drew us together was a much purer thing, which was that we loved to laugh, and we made each other laugh. Ryan and I met in the comedy club in UCLA, so I guess there’s a vague, slight career lean there, but our friendship was more important. The fact that we’re all screenwriters now, that was never the intention. It was a much purer thing.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned in show business?

Ryan: Perseverance. The tenth time you’ve done something is maybe much more important than the first time you’ve done something. The tenth time you’ve tackled a scene, or the tenth screenplay you’ve written, or the tenth job you’ve gotten. It seems like it’s important to continue to try and get better. For me, that’s the most important thing, to keep trying to do better. There’s a Beckett quote I love, “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Unless it’s really not working, then quit. (laughter)

Chris: For better or worse, trust your instincts.

Ed: Never let two smart people go before you (guffaws.) I agree with both you guys. I guess for me then, there’s a profound difference between how you perceive yourself, and your own experience of your life, and how others perceive it. And that it applies on so many different levels. For example, there’s the act of creating something which is so wonderful…. (laughs) Pat, please erase that…

Ryan: No, keep going, I think you’re onto something…

Ed: What I mean is that what other people make of your work, and what you make of it, will be very different. You have no control over the results of your work and what other people think of it. And if you’re going at it for accolades, you’re going to have a less fulfilling time, than if you are just going at it for the experience of what you’re creating. However, you have to be careful of being too wrapped up in what you’re creating because then you lose sight of the fact that you’re communicating with other people. So please Pat, erase all that too. (laughter)

Ryan: I read something once, that it’s important to just continue to do the work. And the second part is difficult, but lands, “Without fear of failure or hope of success.” Just do it. Just do the work.

Ed: There was an interesting interview with Phillip Pullman who wrote The Golden Compass and a bunch of other novels. Someone asked him, “Do you write when you’re inspired? When do you write?” He said, “My job is to write good stuff whether I’m inspired or not. Just to do my job.”

If you could pick one movie to take to a desert island, what would it be?

Ed: Bananas?” “Manhattan?”

Chris: Manhattan Murder Mystery?” NoProbably a Lynch. “Blue Velvet” or “Eraserhead,” one of those two.

Ryan: I’ll be the sappy, doughy one. I’ll take, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Because ultimately, “It’s a wonderful life.”

Ed: “Freddy Got Fingered”

After the interview, they pile into the mini van and head out onto the road. They have a great time. They hike at Zion National Park, eat good food, play blackjack.

They lose money. But Ryan, the sappy, doughy one, still insists, “But we could have won!”

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why Do We Need Stories?

We don't eat them, we don't drink them, we don't need them to survive. Or do we?

Special thanks to Howard Suber (best film professor in the universe) for passing along this fantastic article on why human beings need to imagine.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Power of Music

Time and time again, when my motivation is gone, and I believe I’ll never be able to write another word, music comes to my rescue. Just hearing a song that could play as score under my story, all of a sudden inspires so many ideas I can’t write them down fast enough.

For a 1940’s prison escape movie I wrote, I listened to the soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain over and over again. A couple of the characters were from the south, and the haunting guitar helped me come up with images (a boy on a swing, a woman jumping on a bed throwing money up in the air,) that I never would have found on my own. One song on the CD, by the composer Gustavo Santaolalla, inspired the entire climax of the movie, in which the doomed men trying to escape are overcome. Every time I hear that track, I see the scene in my head.

For a project I’m finishing, which is set in the desert, I listened to Eddie Vedder’s score for Into The Wild. Again, his music inspired scenes, helped me add depth to the characters, and allowed me always to reconnect to the emotions in the story when my well ran dry.

I’m starting a project and looking for a new soundtrack. Something spooky, and Irish, and dark.

I hope I find it. I’ll need it to help me when I’m lost.

What do you listen to when you write?

The Wings (Brokeback Mountain)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In Praise of Movies About Real People

Going to the video store used to be a big treat for me. What would I find on the shelves? What had just been released? My heart literally used to race, and it would make my day—knowing I was going. Now, I find (yes, I still have a local dvd store that I patronize whenever I can) I just get depressed. Most of the shelves are filled with huge event movies. Spiderman this, or Bourne Identity that. What Marvel Comic can they trot out next?

I love big tubs of popcorn and summer movies as much as the next guy, but where are the little films about people I can recognize? Stories about actual human beings who live lives like mine? They are getting harder and harder to find. An exploration of the reasons behind this, could fill its own blog site. But that doesn’t mean we can’t sing the praises of independent films starring authentic human beings when we see them.

Here are few indie releases that have made my trips to the video store (or theater) worthwhile.

Mother and Child: Annette Bening, beautiful Annette Bening, who hasn’t felt compelled to mess with the structure of her face. A wonderful film that intersects the stories of three women and their complicated relationships as children and mothers. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Go see it.

Let the Right One In: I am a horror film freak. Those of you who know me, know that the quickest way to my heart is through scaring the hell out of it. This Swedish film is one of the best vampire movies ever made. And I think I’ve seen most of them. Small, terrifying, poignant. Yeah, ok, one of the characters is not an actual human being, but that’s what makes it great.

Lovely and Amazing: Nicole Holofcener is a wonderful filmmaker. She captures women, and in particular, Los Angeles, with perfect pitch. This is a lovely and amazing movie about a mother and her three daughters, all trying to find their places in the world. Starring Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer, there are several scenes that are unforgettable.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose: Let me start by confessing I have a huge crush on Daniel Day Lewis. I pretty much faint and fall over whenever I see his face. He’s fantastic in this film about a father and daughter who face the shattering of their isolated hippie existence, when he’s diagnosed with a heart condition. Not one ounce of corny-ness in it. Directed by Day Lewis’s wife, Rebecca Miller, this film is a stunner. Get ready to cry.

Mysterious Skin: A disturbing and deeply felt film by Greg Araki about kids living on the margins. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a gay hustler, is unbelievably good.

The Lookout: Again, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a high school athlete whose life is altered by a car accident. He now has no short term memory and is forced to take a job as a janitor at a bank. He’s targeted by criminals, and gets pulled deeper and deeper into a robbery. Riveting.

Limbo: Does anyone else miss John Sayles? I do. This film stars David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as a couple targeted for murder by drug dealers. They are trapped on a wild Alaskan island with her daughter and their survival is in doubt. The daughter finds the journal of a young girl left on the island years before and reads it every night. Independent filmmaking at its unresolvable, human best.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Yeah, Yeah—Just what we need, another screenwriting blog.

Here’s the thing. I love movies. And I can’t resist adding my voice to the thousands out there who are already blogging about what it’s like to be a writer. I’ve learned so much over the years, and am excited to share this information not just with my students, but with anyone who’s interested in film. As a teacher, I’ve also learned amazing things from the people who take my classes. And so, I’m sure that you all will inspire me, too.

I’m hoping to share my own writing struggles and joys right here, and hope you will do the same.

I promise to reveal the good, the bad and the ugly. The ups and downs. I also plan to interview some of my writer-producer-director friends, so you can get the benefit of their wisdom too.

Not that any of us is wise. As William Goldman famously said of the film industry, “No one knows anything.”

How cool is that!