In preparation and excitement for our upcoming MAKING YOUR FEATURE FILM event, panelists Emily Hagins (MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE), Brandon Dickerson (SIRONIA), John Fiege (MISSISSIPPI CHICKEN), and Jeremiah Jones (RESTIVE) reflect on some of their experiences, joys and trials as filmmakers. Don’t forget to mark your calendars for much more insight and advice during Austin Film Festival’s next Conversation in Film! AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL …
In preparation and excitement for our upcoming MAKING YOUR FEATURE FILM event, panelists Emily Hagins (MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE), Brandon Dickerson (SIRONIA), John Fiege (MISSISSIPPI CHICKEN), and Jeremiah Jones (RESTIVE) reflect on some of their experiences, joys and trials as filmmakers. Don’t forget to mark your calendars for much more insight and advice during Austin Film Festival’s next Conversation in Film!
AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL (AFF): What do you consider a strong story?
HAGINS: I think a strong story is one that you feel passionate about as a writer, because you’re able to really bring all the details of the world your characters live in to life.
DICKERSON: I gravitate toward true stories I find will translate to screen in an authentic and honest way..
FIEGE: A strong story portrays the world from a distinctive perspective.
AFF: What were some of the biggest challenges with making your film?
HAGINS: One of the biggest challenges was keeping the narrative concise with a simple, character-driven story. There were a lot of character moments we could’ve expanded on, and themes we could’ve explored– but it would’ve deviated from what the big picture really was. Understanding what the movie would ultimately feel like in the early stages was definitely a necessary but difficult step for a movie like this.
FIEGE: Finding the story tends to be the hardest part of production. With documentary, even when you think you’ve found a great story, you’re never sure how it’s going to play out. Following strong documentary stories is, by definition, a risky endeavor; and one of the hardest parts of production is pouring everything you have into such an uncertain process.
DICKERSON: For SIRONIA, we were pulling crew from Austin+Dallas+Los Angeles as well as working with locals in Waco. Every one of those cities has its own vibe. Crew from each city has their own unique approach to production. It was a challenge to be at the helm of those different personalities within an abbreviated 20 day shoot with little prep time. A film crew needs to work as a passionate family with a unified vision and we had to create that connection on a train that had left the station. It all worked out in the end.
JONES: Finding money to make a film is always a big challenge. I have only made ultra low-budget films, so scheduling and moving efficiently to get what you need with not much time is another big challenge. When people come into a project and spend a lot of time and resources working, you need to make sure that you are on the same page and have the same expectations. The indie environment can be kind of all hands on deck, so just talk everything out.
AFF: Working on a low-budget, what type of compromises did you have to make along the way? Were there any that were particularly painful to you?
HAGINS: Luckily we had an amazing cast and crew that really went above and beyond when things were tough– like one day we shot 9 pages in a location with 100 extras, and everyone really worked hard to get everything done in the best way possible… I really don’t feel like we had to make compromises, because this story was designed for a budget we would be able to work with.
JONES: I try to hopefully make the most out of the current situation that we are facing. I don’t think it’s compromising, it’s problem solving. Make the most out of what you have in that moment and don’t let one moment bring the movie down. A lot of challenges can be happening all around the set but you only see what goes into the frame.
FIEGE: Art is a compromise between a vision and the representation of that vision. I have to constantly make difficult choices about how to spend extremely limited resources of time and money. Yet, it is these choices that result in a particular artistic representation of a story. I always wish I had more time and money, but I also believe that when I figure out how to tell a story in a stronger way, more time and money will become available somehow. As Robert Bresson wrote, “One does not create by adding, but by taking away.”
AFF: What was one of the most memorable parts of shooting?
JONES: If it is possible and the schedule allows, I like picking up the cast from the airport. An actor puts a lot of faith into you – they read the work, we talk on the phone about it, the details or business get worked out – but I always find myself still hoping that they get on the plane. Meeting them at the airport is when I have the realization of” Hey, they actually came. We have a chance – let’s get this thing done.”
FIEGE: Seeing the story appear before my eyes for the first time.
DICKERSON: The first day [of SIRONIA] was insane. I had fallen on my sword that we needed to shoot at an actual rodeo with real Mutton Bustin’ so it moved up our shoot two weeks and became the first day of filming. It turned out that the time the rodeo had generously given us to film the dialogue sequences was during a pre-concert so we had to shoot between songs. On top of this, the reality that you were finally doing what you wanted to do since you were eight years old felt like an astronaut taking off for the moon.
HAGINS: The day we shot 9 pages was definitely the most memorable for me. We were working with one of our lead actors for the first time, difficult lighting, 100 teenagers, stunts, and one of the most emotional scenes of the whole movie… I felt like a different person at the end of it, and very grateful for the people involved in the production.
Hear more from Emily, Jeremiah, John and Brandon on Saturday, March 2nd at 12PM at the George Washington Carver Museum. The conversation will continue with panelists offering tangible advice for aspiring filmmakers including creative ways to raise money, find marketing and distribution, and utilize acquired tricks of the trade. Click here to get your tickets.
Heidi Haaland recently interviewed AFF panelist Pen Densham for a series on Producers for BlueCat. She was generous enough to share her interview with all of us! The Producer: Pen Densham of Trilogy Entertainment Group Pen Densham is a man of many hyphenates. Along with Trilogy Entertainment Group partner and co-founder John Watson, he has created 15 films, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and …
Heidi Haaland recently interviewed AFF panelist Pen Densham for a series on Producers for BlueCat. She was generous enough to share her interview with all of us!
The Producer: Pen Densham of Trilogy Entertainment Group
Pen Densham is a man of many hyphenates. Along with Trilogy Entertainment Group partner and co-founder John Watson, he has created 15 films, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and more than 300 hours of television, notably The Twilight Zone reboot. He has also thought deeply about what it means to create in a business that often seems at odds with that impulse, and his conclusions can be found in Riding the Alligator: Strategies For A Career in Screenwriting (Michael Wiese, 2011), a candid manifesto/how-to manual that explores its subject with pragmatic humanity. Between post-production for the Todd Robinson-directed Phantom (starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny), and commitments at the upcoming Austin Film Festival, this producer-director-writer took time to share insights and encouragement about the satisfactions and challenges of the creative life.
HH: What script first made an impression on you?
PD: When I was very young my father was involved with South Hampton Television and I often saw scripts from various shows and although they weren’t dramatic scripts, I was fascinated by them. But the very first dramatic script I read was F.I.S.T. This came my way via Norman Jewison. I can still recall how overcome I felt reading it, and when he asked me to comment…well, I was like the country mouse. I had one suggestion, which made it into the film. But I never considered myself a writer until much later.
HH: As the son of filmmakers, was there ever a Plan B for you?
PD: I was encouraged along those lines, but at fifteen, I already had my entrepreneurial instinct. I actually pitched a series idea to South Hampton. My father was absolutely shocked and I did get in a bit of trouble for that.
HH: Marshall McLuhan, best known for “The media is the message,” was a mentor in Toronto. What did you take from this?
PD: First of all, it was a time of growth and excitement. There were arts grants available, because Canadians had decided to be defined by art, in order to differentiate themselves from their neighbor to the south. They weren’t a military power, so they used art to protect their boarders.
I was working as a production assistant- carrying cameras, writing presentations- at a company that was developing a film opposing a freeway that would cut Toronto in two. McLuhan was involved and I would watch as he and others gathered around the conference table for these very cerebral debates about public policy. I also observed him during a conference call to do with the naming a Canadian satellite: Anik. He spoke about the resonances of the word, how it felt, and the mood it created.
As a young guy, seeing highly intelligent people discussing how you create emotion with words had such an impact on me. I didn’t know it then, but realized later that it was like a door had opened in my head and that I was free to walk through and explore. McLuhan was just an awesome guy. And I’ve always been attracted to underdogs who push to get their point across.
HH: What turned your attention to narrative film?
PD: My very first project, If Wishes were Horses, came about because there was funding available for dramatic films, and everyone was doing documentaries. I had never written a script, had no knowledge of formatting, so I wrote it like a short story. Luckily I was mentored by people who went through it line by line and helped me, not only with the organization but also things like visual expression. They’d say, “You write that he’s angry; how can you show that?” And I’d say, “You mean, if he threw something?” And in it would go.
HH: Was this your directorial debut as well?
PD: And one of the most painful experiences in my life. I’d never directed anything. Never knew any actors. And on top of it all, I’d written for horses, not taking into account what they might or might not be willing to do. There were difficulties with the crew, too. I was certain it was disaster, the whole thing in pieces and patched together in the editing. And then it won 14 awards. I thought, No, no, you people don’t understand– It was a disaster! But Norman Jewison saw it and chose me to be his guest director, in Los Angeles.
HH: How would you describe him?
PD: Norman is overwhelmingly powerful and astonishing is his accomplishment and he has always made things he believed in. There is no one type of film he is identified with. No one style. He follows his intuitions as well as the causes that matter to him.
HH: Did Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier’s characters IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT influence the pairing of the English Christian and African Muslim characters in your re-imagining of ROBIN HOOD?
PD: Subconsciously, perhaps, but not consciously. That, for me, came out of having a son. My mother died when I was very young. And I grew up at a time when Catholics and Protestants would just shoot each other. Arabs and Jews, as well. I thought if I could put religious enemies together, it would be valuable. So it was a tone poem to my son about heroism. I didn’t go into it knowing what I was doing. And I was told it was a stupid idea by studios, so overcoming those objections made it worth the effort.
HH: In retrospect, those reactions seem very strange.
PD: When we were nearly done with the script, we discovered a competing project was out there and did debate finishing it. I’d already abandoned one story under similar circumstances and didn’t want to do that again, so we moved forward. And that was also part of the lesson: not giving up.
HH: I jumped ahead, but how did you branch into writing?
PD: John and I had optioned a book. At that point, we had only worked with Jewison and Sylvester Stallone, but we were heroes at MGM for helping flesh out ROCKY II and were given a chance to develop something of our own, so we hired a writer because we didn’t know what to do. That was incredibly revealing.
He turned in a 150 page draft, but it was written to his taste, not ours, and our agent was his best friend so the politics were not effective. Finally we decided we might as well write it ourselves, because we believed we could do at least as good a job and if we stayed true to our taste, then it would be even better. We told MGM that we would write the script for our supervising fee and that if they didn’t like it, we would find another writer.
By the time John and I arrived in Los Angeles, we had 10 years of experience. We were creative entrepreneurs, interested in people who got things done. We came here to study them. We noticed immediately that the producer lasts longest. The writer or the director can be replaced. We became writers to defend our own ideas.
HH: How does Trilogy choose projects? What is it about a script that makes you pause and think, This is my next movie?
PD: We are drawn to characters who act on their own behalf. We like novelty. I’m a romantic, so that is always present, but I also like a certain dark optimism. I want to make movies not talkies. The camera is an entrancing participant, so I design films to be visual, not just verbal.
We’re attracted to films with positive outcomes, not pyrrhic ones where everyone’s worse off. I find it hard to put my soul into that. I am moved by resolutions involving reconciliation, where people learn to treasure each other.
Sometimes as I read, I will think, This script doesn’t need me. Because it’s not calling out to the nooks and crannies in my creativity. There’s a kernel and a spiritual center in the stories I am drawn to and as long as I don’t give that up, projects can vary enormously.
Our current project, PHANTOM, is what I call a ‘life script,’ one that’s written out of passion, because it had to be written. It’s my observation that those projects are made more frequently and not the one written toward the market. Film making is a life bond and you want to work with people you can share that with. It’s too painful otherwise.
HH: The amount of writing you’ve done is remarkable. Was that a strategy, or did projects just keep winging their way to you?
PD: I have personally chosen to work this way because I’m always certain that I haven’t worked hard enough, I’m not getting enough out of myself, getting contacts, reaching out, inventing my own future. It’s been like that since I was a teenager. And that has been massively, painfully stressful.
When I was teaching at USC I once saw a student get up and run out of the room, right in the middle of a pitch. I went after him and spoke to him, because I really suffer from stress. I try not to cause it and I work collaboratively to alleviate it. As a producer, I want to be both an ally to the director- because I know that emotional state – and a sort of catcher’s mitt.
HH: Trilogy films are not cheap-to-make indies, but you also aren’t out there hawking lunch boxes. Is financing for the middle-ground as dire as we keep hearing?
PD: There’s an illusion that we chose what we want to get made. We develop an enormous rate of things that don’t get made at all. The ones where you are lucky enough to find a spark of financing that you can fan into a flame are in the minority.
Truthfully, this whole process is so uncertain. No one searches you out. People who succeed do so by pushing for what they believe in and when you make that effort, you expose yourself to the vulnerability and pain of rejection of your work. You may have something that doesn’t look like what other people are buying and if you worry about that you end up making bad clones.
The thing I say is, ignore everything that goes against your creative instincts. That approach may not reward you financially, so you have to use the process to develop your life.
HH: What habits are important for writers?
PD: The most potent thing is to discover who you are and find your tribe. Reach out and find other people who are struggling to create and achieve, and by being with those people you can swap information and discover you’re normal and celebrate the creative process. Networking, fundamentally.
HH: What you describe sounds much richer than networking.
PD: It’s not cold-hearted networking, but emotional networking. Wishes were Horses came out of that. A friend told me about the opportunity and that started everything. Try the impossible. You have to wind yourself up. But by not trying you are guaranteed 100% failure, and errors of omission are the hardest to live with.
We spend a lot of time at Trilogy thinking about the right opening line on a conversation. So, find a way to make the call and then make the call. Write the letter. This is all part of a desire that I’ve written about to feel valuable and not disposable. And being authentic and moral is a healthy strategy in this business, because you come in contact with all kinds of people. People respond to people with an optimistic attitude.
HH: What was the genesis of Riding the Alligator?
PD: My book was written because a former employee came to visit one day and said that in all the places he’d worked, he’d never met anyone who articulated the writing process as helpfully as I and he wanted me to write a book on creativity. I felt, Who am I, writing a book? but my partner John, who is on the faculty at USC, invited me to teach a pitching class to MFAs and I saw this as a chance test it.
I hadn’t written much prose, so I wrote one chapter and began with “Passion,” though I wasn’t sure how the students would react, if it would seem cliched, if I’d be laughed out of the room. I wrote from the heart, shared what I wanted to share and gave them copies of the chapter. And they responded well, and one or two of them really adopted me and gave me feedback. In essence, I gave my paper to the students for marking.
HH: It seems like another book is out there for you.
PD: And that is a matter of finding time. But this time out, I want to write more generally and explore creative entrepreneurism. Also the relationship between our personal vulnerability and the need to find systems to- and I don’t like this word- “evangelize.” To build the bridge backward to the people who don’t understand the value of what you’re doing.
There are so many models of accomplishment, yet Edison “ached” to give up on his work. It’s important that we tear down these heroic images because they’re destructive. People think that they have to be geniuses. Einstein didn’t think he was: “I just stayed with the problems longer.”
HH: Many people struggle to find writing time. Advice?
PD: If I’m trying to write an original idea it takes a lot of time, nights and weekends. My family is deprived. Part of my head is missing. But the worst thing that can happen is an inability to write because doubt fills the vacuum that is created when you don’t write: You begin to think, I have an idea, but I’m afraid I can’t do it, so I won’t.
HH: How do you get around that?
PD: Try to initiate a few things to circumvent the block. Write what impassions you. You have to rely on your brain because it will provide answers, but not always in a logical or orderly form. So whatever comes out of my brain, I write down. I jump out of the shower. I have Sticky notes everywhere. I have an environment that allows me to capture my thoughts.
Another thing, I just open the file, once a day. Even for just one line. Because generally that one line leads to another. Pull over to the side of the road if you have to- write it down. It’s not coherent or logical, but you must do it. At its best, it’s like a love affair when you can’t wait to see the person and I’ve had that experience with a script a couple of times. God, I want to write like that always, when it pours out of you like dictation from the gods.
PD: It has to be a spiritual process when you write. You’re writing to reassure yourself that your words are valuable. If you can emancipate your true voice, there is a deep resonant bell in your soul that is participating in your story process. All these things have an emotional logic. When the work is original and different, not repetitive and banal, you will fight for it because you understand it.
Material from the heart and from the instinct gets made because it brings the writer’s authentic emotional A game. Sometimes people will tell you what to write- what they think is right- but if you write what you think is right, you may be helping them find the very thing they are groping toward.
Follow Pen Densham on Facebook or his blog at Scriptshark.com.
Heidi Haaland can be reached at email@example.com
Harrison Glaser, AFF Conference Department Intern, takes time out from Festival planning pandemonium to interview 2012 AFF panelist, Ashley Miller (writer THOR, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, AGENT CODY BANKS, Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Andromeda) Harrison: You’ve been writing a lot of sequels and adaptations of works that are already beloved by many people. What sort of pressure do you feel from these types of …
Harrison Glaser, AFF Conference Department Intern, takes time out from Festival planning pandemonium to interview 2012 AFF panelist, Ashley Miller (writer THOR, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, AGENT CODY BANKS, Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Andromeda)
Harrison: You’ve been writing a lot of sequels and adaptations of works that are already beloved by many people. What sort of pressure do you feel from these types of projects and what steps do you take to ensure you’re being faithful to the source material and its fans?
Ashley: There’s always pressure to do your best work and tell the best story you know how to tell. Certainly, there are more eyes on you when you’re interpreting a story that’s already been told, and is already beloved. But you can make yourself crazy if you try to serve every individual detail of those stories that someone out there might love. You have to serve the essence and experience of the original work, and develop an eye for the things that make it what it is.
Step one for me is that I have to love the original material, myself. When we started Thor for example, the conversation with Marvel began with the fact that I’ve loved Thor since I was a kid. I have the complete Walt Simonson run of the book in my collection – I had a subscription. The damn things came in the mail. My parents would send them to me when I was at summer camp because I couldn’t bear to miss an issue. So the first fan I set out to please is me. It was much the same thing with X-Men. No one had to tell me who these characters were. It was very easy for me and Zack to imagine them in those circumstances and let them do their thing. X-Men was a little different in that we were also trying to be faithful to a previous interpretation – and on top of that, explore the emotional roots of that interpretation. If it were about “that time Professor X still had hair”, First Class would have been a failure.
We see Starship Troopers through a completely different lens. Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier have interpreted it once already. Zack and I both love that film for what it is. We’ll cheerfully defend it to its detractors, while recognizing the very significant differences between that film and the book that inspired it. Our hope is to translate the novel in a way that matches the tone, intent and many of the details that Heinlein brought to it. We want to capture that experience in a new way rather than remaking an existing film.
Fundamentally, we approach every adaptation with the same pitch: “Hey, you know that book you bought the rights to because it’s awesome and people love it and there’s a movie in there? Let’s do that.”
Harrison: Can you talk about how you write with a partner? How do you divvy up the script, so to speak? What’s your writing process? What happens if you have a disagreement?
Ashley: Zack and I have been working together now for fifteen years. We met on the Internet, during an ugly little flame war. For the first 3 years of our partnership we never met – we never even saw photos. It was all telephone and email because we were 2500 miles apart. This turned out to be great because it forced us to be organized and disciplined. We had enormous email trails that laid out what we wanted to do with stories and helped identify what worked and what didn’t. The process we developed was pretty simple: first, outline. Plan like the invasion of Normandy. Then we split the story by acts and write individually, before bringing it all together and beginning a series of rewrites and polishes that continue until we’re both happy.
We developed two rules that have served us well in the partnership and to some extent in collaborating with other writers, directors and executives. First, don’t be precious. The story is boss, and every choice serves it. We don’t write to save darlings. Second – and this one is not for the weak of heart – the first writer proposes, the second writer disposes. What that means is that whoever has the draft for a round of polishing is assumed to know what hell he’s doing. If Zack changes something and I think it’s a mistake I get to make the case for why he should reconsider, but I’m not allowed to just flop it back. Zack gets the last say in that case, and vice-versa. What’s great about the rule is that it forces us to examine our darlings and really articulate how they serve the script…or how they don’t, and why they have to go.
We never, ever write in the same room. Some partners stand over each other’s shoulders and pitch dialogue, etc. Not us. There would be blood. We can’t function that way. On the plus side, one of the reasons we came together was that we recognized a similarity of voice and that we had compatible sensibilities. Almost no one can tell our raw pages apart or correctly assign who did what. Over time, we tend to forget that too.
Harrison: There seems to be a fine line between ridiculous, inaccessible fantasy and fantasy that’s really effective and believable. What do you think is the difference between good fantasy and bad?
Ashley: Good fantasy is emotionally real, and exists in a world that has rules. You can imagine the version of it that exists without the fantastic elements, or what would happen if those elements went away. This is true even if you’re exploring the consequences of that fantastical element, because the consequences that truly matter are emotional. They’re about character. Wordsworth once defined poetry as powerful emotions recollected in tranquility — he could just as easily have been talking about the visceral experience of film. Fantasy or science fiction that hews to this will succeed as well as anything else.
Bad fantasy is often about itself. There is an expectation that the audience will see whatever you’re showing them and think how cool it is. It isn’t cool, because there is no context. The audience doesn’t know what it means – usually because it doesn’t mean anything at all. Or there is no attempt to impose dramatic discipline on the story. What I mean by that is there are no rules governing the action of the characters or the story elements. Rules are the most powerful tool a writer can have. Rules establish limits. The imposition of limits and subsequently overcoming them is the essence of drama. If anything can happen in a story, then nothing happens at all.
The other benefit of a rule is that it helps you flesh out a world and create details and grace notes that communicate to the audience that you are telling the truth. The Lord of The Rings is the best example of this. Tolkien created an incredibly detailed world with rules, and thought through the consequences of those rules. That makes the world immersive. It gave Peter Jackson the opportunity to come in and populate it with more richly realized versions of the characters for the screen, real people who could connect emotionally with the audience.
Harrison: How do you go about creating a world for your characters and story to inhabit? Do you develop the world before you start writing or does it come to you through the process?
Ashley: Zack and I generally work from the outside in, and then back out. What I mean by that is we imagine a world first. We talk at length about how that world works, and why it works, and the interesting things that fall out of it. We hypo test the shit out of it. Then we start imagining who lives in that world — not just individuals, but institutions and cultures. Our protagonist and antagonist generally emerge at this point, although we usually have a rough idea who they are from inception. We just try not to be married to our first idea. Sometimes we start with an idea for a character and then ask ourselves how their world had to work to get them where we found them. Specifics vary, but we’re always thinking about why things happen and why people do things.
When we start to write, little details will emerge in scenes we otherwise might not have thought about. That goes for the world as well as the characters. The most amazing thing that happens in this process is when we’re working on separate sections and unconsciously one of us will set something up that the other pays off…without knowing the other piece exists yet. That’s how we know we’ve done our homework and really prepared adequately to write.
Harrison: Your films often feature comedic scenes or lines that break up the tension. What’s your process of inserting these into the stories? How do you find the balance where the comedic elements help smooth out the story but don’t overpower it?
Ashley: We never, ever set out to write a comic set piece. When comedy occurs, it’s because it emerges naturally from the drama. The character tells the joke or does the funny thing because that’s who the character is. We’re allergic to winking at the audience, or letting comedy undercut emotion. It works best when it’s most human. Judd Apatow says to write comedy, you have to write drama first, then go back and find more of the funny stuff. We follow pretty much the same rule — there is no moment where we say, “insert hilarity here.” It’s there because it wants to be there.
As we gear up for the Festival & Conference, we’ll be posting interviews with our incoming panelists here, on our blog. The questions come from our newsletter recipients, interns, volunteers, and facebook fans – so feel free to send your interview questions for an incoming speaker to Conference Director Maya Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scroll through our blog first to make sure we haven’t already posted …
As we gear up for the Festival & Conference, we’ll be posting interviews with our incoming panelists here, on our blog. The questions come from our newsletter recipients, interns, volunteers, and facebook fans – so feel free to send your interview questions for an incoming speaker to Conference Director Maya Perez at email@example.com. Scroll through our blog first to make sure we haven’t already posted an interview with that guest then be sure to type their name in the subject line.
This week’s interview is with Etan Cohen and the questions come from Conference Department intern Harrison Glaser.
Etan Cohen is one of the most sought after comedic minds in the business. Named “Comedy Writer of the Year” at the 2009 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, Cohen has proven himself one of the most prolific writers in recent years. His screenwriting credits include TROPIC THUNDER, MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA, Beavis and Butthead, It’s Like, You Know, King of the Hill, IDIOCRACY, and MEN IN BLACK III.
Interviewer: You’ve written scripts targeted at young children, specifically episodes of Recess and MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA. How do you get yourself in the mindset to write something children would find funny?
Etan: I don’t think you can be in your head too much. You just have to write what’s funny to you and then get rid of the stuff that doesn’t fit in a family movie. Fortunately, me and my kids often find the same stuff funny.
Interviewer: It seems like most big budget sequels are written by a team of writers. How did you end up writing MEN IN BLACK III on your own without any connection to the other two films?
Etan: I wrote a comedic take on Sherlock Holmes for Sony (Sacha Baron Cohen as Sherlock, Will Ferrell as Watson) which hasn’t been made — yet! — but which I think showed them (along with TROPIC THUNDER) that I could handle mixing action and comedy.
Interviewer: Have there been any reactions to scenes or jokes you’ve written that surprised you, either because they fell flat or because they got a bigger laugh than you expected?
Etan: I think as a writer you can get too precious about words and forget about the power of physical comedy or just the presence of your stars. In TROPIC THUNDER, I was always amazed at how big the laugh was when the directer gets blown up. And on MEN IN BLACK III, when we were testing the movie, people just want Will Smith on the screen.
Interviewer: Do you normally write scripts that you would laugh at or do you target another type of audience?
Etan: Well… it’s hard to second-guess what other people will like. Easier to just write for yourself.
Thanks, Etan, and we’ll see you in October!