POSTS Screenwriting

FilmCraft Screenwriting: Interview with Stephen Gaghan

Stephen Gaghan’s writing career started quite promisingly, publishing a short story in The Iowa Review before he was even 26. He also impressed the writing staff of The Simpsons with a spec episode entitled “Family Wheel of Jeopardy,” as well as producer and talent agent Bernie Brillstein with a collection of Saturday Night Live sketches he’d written. But a career in television writing in the 1990s— including stints at New York Undercover, The Practice, American Gothic, and NYPD Blue (where he shared an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series)—soon gave way to screenwriting. His first produced film credit was Rules of Engagement (2000), which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, but he received much acclaim for his next film, Traffic (2000), which was based on the 1989 British miniseries Traffik. Traffic went on to win four Academy Awards, including a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Gaghan. Around the same time as Traffic’s release, Gaghan revealed that he had himself been a longtime drug addict, finally getting clean in 1997. Subsequently, he made his feature directing debut with Abandon (2002) and was one of three credited writers on the historical drama The Alamo (2004). His next great triumph occurred in 2005 with the release of Syriana, a multi-character drama he wrote and directed that examined the danger of the world’s addiction to oil. The film earned Gaghan his second Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Original Screenplay, and George Clooney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. More recently, he’s one of the writers (uncredited) on the 2013 big-budget sci-fi film After Earth, which stars Will Smith and his son Jaden. “I’m in the adult-serious ghetto,” Gaghan says about his niche in Hollywood. “That’s my pigeonhole. I made it, I dug it out, I climbed in the hole—it’s dark and airless. But I dug it, you know? And no other hole exists.”

My father’s father wrote for a Philadelphia newspaper and aspired to be a playwright. We had in our house a couple of crazy unproduced plays that he had written. For the one creative writing class I took in my life, I didn’t do any writing—I decided that I would plagiarize his terrible play to not fail the class. That didn’t work out very well. Later, when I won the Oscar, there was a federal judge who contacted me to say, “I went to school with your grandfather, and he was a smart guy, got the classics prize in Greek, was voted most likely to succeed, that kind of thing.” My grandfather thought he was gonna take over the world, but he didn’t—I think he got drunk for 50 years, and then he was a nightclub columnist and reviewed plays. He was a charming guy—you know, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking newspaperman. He was married to my grandmother, who was a painter, and his father had been a concert pianist, so there was this thread of drunk, failed artists that went back on my dad’s side. The thing I wrote in Syriana where Jeffrey Wright’s dad carries a card in his wallet that says, “If you find me, call my son”? That’s based 100 percent on my grandfather, who carried that same card. I try to imagine what that was like for my dad—he’s working and suddenly gets a call: “There’s this guy here, can you come get him?” So when I was seven and told my mom, “I’m gonna be a writer,” she said, “Oh, that’s a terrible idea. You’ll live in misery and die teaching other people’s children badly.” My parents wanted the safer path for me, and I think they failed miserably achieving that.

I didn’t mention anything about writing again until I was about 20. It was a secret that I kept inside of me. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer—I didn’t even know what it meant to be a writer. I just loved books. But there was nothing on the surface that said I would be a writer. I didn’t work at it. I didn’t write. I didn’t even know how to type. But I just had this sense in a totally mystical, strange way—I would get in trouble, and there would be a voice in my head that would say, “Well, you’ll be able to write your way out of this one.” I don’t know where it came from.

And as I got into my teens, I started reading better books, beginning with the Beats and then the hippie writers, people like Wallace Stegner up in Northern California, and all the political New Journalism stuff, the Boys on the Bus dudes and Ken Kesey. I loved those guys, and I loved the lifestyle—take tons of drugs and you too can write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think I had the chronology of Kesey’s achievements a little cockeyed, but by then I loved the trio of great drunk Americans: Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Not so much for the writing yet— I just really liked the drinking and smoking and all that stuff.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I wrote spec screenplays. I was really poor, and I thought I was just gonna do this for a while to make a little money so I could write novels. I thought movies were a second-class art form. I condescended to it—I didn’t know enough to know it was really gonna be hard.

Things changed around the time I met Michael Tolkin. When I saw The Player (1992), when I was still living in New York, I had thought, “I wonder if I could do that.” A couple of years later I had become friends with an executive who was working with him on a project for HBO about Microsoft, and she put the two of us together. When he and I first met, we talked about Proust, and we both loved Tolstoy, and we had a lot of similar references. So we ended up spending the whole meeting talking about The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. And I was just so happy. I didn’t care what happened after that—it was just the greatest afternoon. I thought, “I love this guy. He’s so funny and so cool, and just an absolutely first-rate artist in all of his thinking.”

We teamed up on the HBO project, which was a satire about Bill Gates and Microsoft, a sort of Dr. Strangelove piece about technology, called 20 Billion. We’d break up the scenes, we’d write our scenes, we’d get back together, and his scenes were just so much better than mine that I couldn’t believe it. I’m lucky I could see how much better his were—I mean, that’s the first real break, realizing how not-good you actually are, and cutting through all the nonsense smoke that’s usually being blown at you in the zip codes around Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. But I knew—I knew he was great and I was terrible, so I started literally sitting behind him and watching him type when he would write his scenes. We’d keep reworking the story, and this went on for a long time. And then one day, I riffed out a subplot involving two characters who were sort of like the girl I was living with at the time and myself. I wrote the scenes, maybe 15 pages, in a few hours. I showed Michael the scenes, and I saw it in his face: “Hey, this is actually pretty good. That’s gonna be in the movie.” And he was happy for me, too. And when it was over, I was at the point where I felt like, “Wow, I’m writing scenes that should be shot.” Three years of my writing career had gone by—I used to think, “I’ll just dash off some Simpsons episode and make some money and come back to fiction”—and in that time, I had written volumes of terrible stuff. But watching Michael changed my approach to everything. I realized that this was a real art form and that I didn’t understand it. I had to prostrate myself before it and study it if I wanted to be good. I had some other friends around this time, too, who were doing very interesting scripts: Charlie Kaufman and Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson. We traded our stuff back and forth. I saw early drafts of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Rushmore (1998). I saw fully formed film artists who were my peers and I wanted to do what they were doing—get my own voice or vision of the world out into that world. I had no clue how this was going to happen, but suddenly I just really loved this fucking art form. It’s like haiku repeated 10,000 times in one document. The bar was set way higher than I thought.

My first produced credit was on Rules of Engagement. I did a major rewrite on it, and I was on the set. And I learned that a film is like this great circus that’s been brought together. They create a circus, and the circus travels around together, and then the circus disappears, and you’re left with a commemorative watch. And then it’s time to make a new circus. I loved that—I was not sentimental, and the process is not sentimental. It’s a business, and you fling your script into this machine. The machine is very powerful, and it can destroy the material very easily, and the fight never ends to get it out the way you see it. You can’t ever give up, even at the end—you just have to keep fighting. But the great thing about that machine is that it’s also an accelerator, and it puts your work out into the world with such volume that it is seen in little villages in countries that barely have electricity. And that’s a really awesome thing to be a part of.

When I started writing what would become Traffic, I wasn’t aware of the miniseries Traffik. I just wanted to write a story about the War on Drugs. I quit my television jobs because I wanted to do this movie really badly. I mean, on some level I’d been training all my life to write this movie. So I did all this research, and I read a bunch of books, and I met all these people. I conducted a bunch of interviews, and I found that tape-recorders make people in power very nervous. But thankfully I’m not a real journalist— I’m just a screenwriter. So if you don’t record them, and you just write stuff down subtly, they’ll talk so honestly about everything. And so I started developing this interview methodology that worked really well. When I met all these people, I’d get Stockholm Syndrome—even if my point of view is quite different, I tend to like almost everybody I talk to. And so I think it gets people to really talk to me in a way that they don’t always talk. But after all that research, I didn’t know where to start. I knew I wanted to have a drug czar, I wanted to have Colombia, I wanted to have Mexico, I wanted to have the consumer side—I knew I wanted to have all these things. But I couldn’t make it work because the hero basically had to time travel. He couldn’t be in enough places plausibly to get all the story I wanted. So I literally had a nervous breakdown. Nothing happened for six months—I couldn’t write. I was reading more, researching more, writing notes, but I didn’t know what I was doing—I’m not writing anything. A professor friend of mine said this great thing to me once: “At a certain point, research becomes a form of cowardice.”

Out of the blue Steven Soderbergh contacted me, because he was trying to do a War on Drugs film, too. So he came to lunch and gave me this miniseries from England. Traffik with a “K” it was called. I looked at that miniseries, and there was a very melodramatic quality to the stories. I thought it was really well done—the scenes are very well-written—but at its core, it was like the melodramatic TV stuff that I didn’t really like, that I was trying to get away from. But I realized my script had the same types of stories, and I saw the brilliance of the way Traffik had strung this all together, and the necessity for clarity when you are crosscutting like that on a bigger canvas. It’s funny: I had written a lot of TV very fast by that point, and TV was typically an A-B-C-D story, but for some reason I hadn’t seen that I could do that in film, too. It didn’t occur to me to do multiple narratives in the movies.

The process of figuring out how the stories wove together in Traffic was a learning process in understanding the value of a narrative spine that starts here and ends there. When I’m writing scenes, I fall down a well and time stops. I’m not thinking about the plot. If I’m lucky, it’s like some other thing happens, and voices start popping from nowhere and I’m just transcribing, really. It may not have anything to do with what I’m supposed to be writing, but it will have real energy and feel very vital, like it has to be in a movie. The scene is declaring itself, and it’s coming from some pure place of inspiration—it’s disconnected from anything. I can’t take credit for it—nobody can take credit for it. It’s just appeared, and it has to be in a movie, but the terrifying question is: What movie?

I was working with Will Smith on After Earth, and he broke this down brilliantly. He said, “Oh yeah, you can start with character—you start with character all you want. You’ll get lost for years. It’ll be great, but no one will know it’s a movie. Or you can start with structure, and that will be a device that you can present to a financing entity and say, ‘Here is your movie.’ But it’ll suck, and you’ll have to find the character. You can start with character and take forever—all that will make it into the movie once you finally submit and focus on structure. Or you can start with structure, and you’re still gonna spend all that time trying to find the character stuff later. Your choice.”

Every time I do a script, I go completely insane: “Why isn’t this working?” I get lost. The process for me is somehow stealing the time to be lost for a very long time and to not know what I’m doing at all. I need to have a complete crippling loss of confidence where I think, “Why am I doing this? This is too ambitious. This makes no sense.” And then I’m bumbling, bumbling, giving up completely—three, four, five times— coming back to it, changing it entirely, restructuring it, throwing it in a different way. And then I’ve got 50 pages that work, and I wonder what the movie’s about. Plus, there’s always this sense of, “I don’t want to do something that’s been done before.” I want the scenes to come from a magical place that I don’t understand. I don’t want it to be, “That scene worked great in Mission: Impossible (1996)—let’s do that scene.”

I just don’t want to work like that. It’s what I love best and fear most about the process. Screenwriters face the void. There’s nothing, and then there’s going to be something. It’s the something-from-nothing business. Like magic. But all too often, the stakes are very high and what feels familiar feels safe. And you have to fight the derivative urge, the urge to safety, at every step in the process.

With After Earth, they’re swinging for the fence—they created an entire world that is as full and as rich as the world of Star Wars (1977). But at its heart, it’s a father-son story, and that’s the story I’ve been writing my whole life. My dad died when I was 15. He was released from a lot of suffering, and there was something noble about it, and I learned a lot from him. A lot of the stories I’ve written have a father-son element. Some of them are father-daughter—often, I make it a girl because it’s just easier, but it’s the same stuff. The Clooney character in Syriana had a son who ultimately wasn’t in the movie that much, but it was a big deal. Matt Damon’s trying to figure out how to be a father and a husband in the middle of a tragedy. In my draft of The Alamo, they’re all terrible fathers. Havoc (2005) is about this daughter whose parents are absent and is trying to parent herself, but has no role models. I adapted Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink into a coming-of-age story about the son of a corporate raider. When you look at Traffic, what does it mean? Well, I guess it’s saying that love and patience and good parenting can help an individual with a pernicious and often deadly problem.

With Syriana, it’s that foreign policy driven by greed will end in disaster, but it’s also saying that with family, love, and forgiveness, you can make a go of it in an almost absolutely overwhelming and uncontrollable world. It’s the same story again and again and again. I don’t have any other story—that’s the story. My friend Adam Gopnik once read a bunch of my stuff and he said, “You have a story, Gaghan, and it’s the same one every time.” I was really offended, and he said, “You should be happy—most people don’t have one at all.”

I’ve been working on a project that took three years, and it sucked every day—except where I had like three hours where I just went, “Hey, wait, we have a movie.” It’s so preposterous to be lost for so long and yet to have faith you’re gonna have those three hours. Anybody working like this, they would quit. I’ve been screenwriting for quite a while, and I’ve had maybe a handful of really good moments. But one of those was when I saw the first cut of Traffic at this little screening room at Warner Bros. When the film ended, Soderbergh was in the back of the theater. I was in the very front, and I got up and I ran back toward him, and I can see in his face that he’s thinking, “Holy shit, he’s gonna attack me.” I hugged him—and he’s not a hugger—and I just said, “You’re gonna win the Oscar for Best Director. This is the happiest day of my life.” And it was—it was one of the happiest days of my life. And that sustains you for a really, really long time.”

Excerpt from FilmCraft: Screenwriting edited by Tim Grierson © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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