War for the Planet of The Apes: Interview with Writer Mark Bomback
JAKE: Today I’m really excited to be hosting my friend Mark Bomback as a special guest on this podcast.
As you probably know if you are a listener, Mark is the writer behind the latest two installments of the Planet of the Apes trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes. As well as a host of other hugely successful blockbusters including Insurgent, Total Recall, The Wolverine and Live Free or Die Hard. First, I just want to say thank you for joining us.
MARK: Thank you Jacob.
JAKE: The first thing I am curious about is a lot of our writers work in collaboration with other writers, or are thinking about doing those kinds of collaborations.
And you’ve had a couple of different kinds of collaborations on the Planet of the Apes Franchise with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and then with Matt Reeves the director on War. I am curious about what those processes were like for you. What is the difference between working with a partner, coming in to help out with a project like you did on Dawn or working on a script alone?
MARK: Well, you know the thing is, other than Planet of the Apes, I have actually never co-authored anything. And truthfully the only film of the two that I co-authored was the last one, War, which Matt and I truly wrote together from beginning to end.
So, how I came onto the Planet of the Apes actually when Rise was heading into production, Rick and Amanda, who were the creators of Rise of Planet of the Apes were getting a little bit—I don’t even know how best to put it– a little “written out.”
It was a really, really intense pre-production, they were doing a lot of cutting edge things. There were just a lot of moving parts, and Rick and Amanda were also producers on the film.
So they, along with the other producers, decided it would be great to get an extra set of eyes on this. And so I came on and did some pre-production, inter-production rewriting, and got to work with Rick and Amanda as producers.
So, I would sort of vet what I was doing with them, but we didn’t actually write together. And, in fact, I don’t even get credit on Rise because the work was really surgical and had more to do with sort of finessing things.
When Dawn came around, Matt Reeves wound up replacing Rupert Wyatt, who was the initial director of Dawn, and when Matt came in, he really had a lot of work to do. So, the studio asked if I would come on and help Matt sort of realize his vision.
So, although Rick and Amanda had written a script for Rupert Wyatt that was the starting point of Dawn, when I came in again it was really me working as a writer alone– actually that isn’t entirely true in that Matt and I were sort of collaborating– but, Matt was really the director and I was the one doing the writing– although as we sort of got deeper into production itself, because we had such a crazy timeframe on that movie, Matt and I really were almost functioning like co-writers as well.
So, when it came time to work on War, we both agreed “let’s just actually, now that we have the luxury of time a little bit, let’s write it together from beginning, from the very, very start.”
And so, it is really the only time I have ever truthfully co-written. And I wound up loving it. And since the screenplay work on War, I am back to writing by myself. And while I do enjoy having the freedom– certainly in terms of my schedule and having a little more say as to where things are going, and not having to vet everything through my partner– I really do miss having a partner.
Matt and I became super close friends as well as colleagues while working on it. And, I, to this day will vet things with Matt on other things I am working on, and vice versa.
I really came to appreciate what it meant to have a writing partner. You know, it doesn’t make the process go any faster. If anything, it actually, at least in my case, makes it take longer.
But what you wind up doing– again I can only speak for myself and Matt– is I think you generate fewer drafts, because you wind up talking through everything, sometimes ad nauseum, but to the point where you’ve vetted a lot of things within the scenes before moving on.
Whereas, when I work alone, I tend to want to get to the last page and then see what I’ve got and go back and go through again and again and again.
So, it is a very different way of working. And it was also less lonely.
Most of my days are spent alone in my office. Certainly today is a good example. I have been in my office since about nine in the morning, just writing. And while I love doing that– that is certainly why I chose being a screenwriter as a vocation– it is lonely. And there is something great about having someone to shoot the breeze with while you are working.
Also, I felt like Matt really helped me sort of dig deep and find the best ideas that were in my head, and vice versa. It was really fun to sort of dig into Matt’s head and say, “is this the best version of this or can we do any better?”
JAKE: I actually started out writing on a team as well. I worked with a writer named John Wierick on several projects. And it was interesting for me how different that was from writing alone. John and I were an interesting team because we had very different things that we were into.
I loved to, like, blow out that first draft, and John loved to go back in and work through those pages tweaking things, making everything perfect.
So we had a kind of interesting balance that we kind of developed over the years as a process of writing together. I am curious, like, what was your approach when working with Matt?
MARK: Everyone has their own version of how they work, but Matt and I, every morning– or morning Matt’s time, noon my time– our Skype would be up and we had a program called Screen Hero, which allows you to share a computer.
So we would use my Final Draft program, but Matt could literally type onto my computer across the country. Matt lives in LA, I live in New York. And so, we would truly write the script together.
In fact, we had a funny way of working. Everyone has their own crazy ways of working, but in this case, if I had a line of dialogue that I really wanted to sell Matt on, but I know I don’t act very well, rather than pitch him the line I would say, “what about this?” And then I would type the dialogue into the dialogue section. And then Matt would read it and he would say, ‘okay, yeah I get it but what about this?” And then he would change the word in it and remit it back.
So that is how we did it, but it was really on a word-by-word basis that we wrote the script together. Which in a weird way, I think, you could only do in cyberspace. If we sat in the same room, we would still need to hook up into one computer and have two keyboards, because you can’t sit and type on one keyboard.
So, we had two keyboards going at the same time in Final Draft, and would just write together. And if we got on a tear in terms of even something like stage directions, some person would just start writing the stage directions, and then the other person says, “Stop, stop I have an idea…” and then circle right back into the stage directions and add something or subtract something.
So that is how we worked. We literally never had a moment of a script page generated without both of us staring at the screen at the same time.
JAKE: And how did that affect the nature of the product that you ended up with or the theme of the product that you ended up with compared to most of the scripts that you’ve done where you’ve really had the freedom to sit in the room alone and dream out whatever came to you?
MARK: It is hard to say. I mean I do think it is one of the best, if not the best, scripts I have ever worked on. So, I am guessing part of that is simply a function of two people collaborating.
Oftentimes when I work on a script, at some point the director is with me in there again– not necessarily writing but collaborating.
And any script I’ve written that has turned out well has always been the result of, at some point, a really useful month or two spent with the director in pre-production or even ahead of pre-production, getting the script to really fire on all cylinders.
Most of that has to do with digging deep in terms of the themes of the story and how the characters’ journeys service those themes– things that are less plotty and more thematically oriented.
And I think because Matt and I work in such a unique way, in that we wind up constantly watching films while we work, we would sort of watch YouTube clips of certain movies we were referencing while we were Skyping.
So we could say, “Oh in the end of A Man Escaped there is this big silent break out sequence that I think would be a useful thing to look at for the end of War when the apes escaped the camp.” And we would have the script page open on one side of the screen and the video clip from YouTube open on the other side of the screen!
It isn’t the kind of thing you are going to do as much if you are working by yourself, because you are more inclined to just think, “Let me just get through this, my kids are inside screaming, dinner’s almost ready…” like you are going to find better excuses to just move faster.
When two people are working together, you tend to slow down and do deeper thinking. It doesn’t mean that at the end of the day the script is going to be any deeper or better or whatever, I just think you get there a little bit in a different rhythm, instead of just a couple of drafts that are just getting the story out before you see where else you can mine.
JAKE: We see a lot of blockbuster movies that are mostly focused on the pyrotechnics. And one of the things I think is really beautiful about your films is that you certainly don’t skimp on the pyrotechnics– I mean what you guys are doing with CGI is really amazing– but if we look at a movie like War for the Planet of The Apes, there is an external war happening but there is also a really powerful internal war happening there.
And I am curious for you at what point does a theme start to emerge for you? At what point did you realize you were telling a Moses story with War?
MARK: Very early. Anything I am working on, that is really the first question I ask myself: “What is the point of the story? What is this about?”
If I don’t have the answer to that, I almost am incapable of writing it.
I just did some production work– I do a lot of script doctoring, but in this case it wasn’t script doctoring so much as just trying to get the script to a place where the director’s ideas were in the film.
And on this new film by David Mackenzie, who is shooting this new movie right now Outlaw King, when I got it, when we first spoke, the very first question I asked him was, “I am not a thousand percent sure what this is about, and I need the answer to that question. And I think if we can answer that question together, we are going to solve a lot of problems going forward, so that I know what we are talking about.”
Movies are very expensive, especially the ones I work on, and they need the raison d’être. They can’t simply be commercials. So, for me, I always have to really justify– What is the point of the story? What are you going to get out of watching the story?
I never try to be didactic or teach a life lesson or anything. I just think the best stories are the ones that make you step back and say, “Oh I never really thought about that,” or, “I never thought about the character’s journey as it relates to this idea.”
The other question I am always really trying to answer is, “What is broken about this protagonist that you want to see fixed?” Or, “What is this protagonist’s problem that you think you want to see fixed but, actually they are going to fall prey to their worst impulses and have a tragedy at the end of the story?”
But both of those things go hand in hand with the theme.
I think the films I work on that don’t succeed that well sometimes are the ones where, deep down, I know that the protagonist’s arc, for lack of a better word, the journey that the protagonist goes on, doesn’t really have a very strong correlation to what the movie is about. And that is problematic for me.
So I just try to answer those questions actually right out at the gate before I figure out anything else.
JAKE: It’s funny, one of our teachers here is Jerry Perzigian. He was a show-runner on Married with Children, The Golden Girls and The Jeffersons— he wrote comedy his whole life. And one of the things that he said that I think is really beautiful was this: “First you write it true, and then you make it funny.”
MARK: Yeah that is a great. I always use the same little phrasing where I just say, “I need it to be emotionally true, and then I will believe anything.”
As long as I believe that what the characters are feeling in the scenes feels right, that it could feel earned, that you understand why they are doing it, then actually anything can happen! You are going to sort of long for it, because life is so unpredictable too.
But what to me always is the most annoying thing in any fiction– films, TV, novels, or anything– is when the storyteller is trying to sell you on someone’s emotions that you know deep down they don’t actually feel.
I find it to be very distancing. And so I am always trying to make sure the emotional truths are there. Everything else falls into place.
JAKE: One of the things that a lot of students struggle with when they are trying to write action movies, or any genre movie—thriller, horror, comedy—is that balance between trying to serve the demands of the genre, while staying true to what is personal in you.
MARK: The truth is I am a big movie fan. My favorite films are ones that are participating in a genre in a very purposeful way. That aren’t thinking they are above the genre.
I always use Mystic River or Marathon Man as examples. They aren’t trying to be highbrow. They just are highbrow, because they are so well executed on the genre front.
I am always looking to emulate things that I have had great responses to. So, if I am working on something in the action genre, I will think about the best responses I have had myself to certain action films and say, “okay what do I like about these sequences? What was exciting to me?”
Like Die Hard, remember that great moment in Die Hard where he ties the fire extinguisher hose around his waist and jumps out the window? There is something that is ingenious but also plausible but also justifying. I am always thinking about, “what can I do to create the experience that I have had while watching something else?”.
So that is where I come from. And it is really hard to sort of isolate how a particular set piece comes to being. I just tend to take a jog and sort of refuse to come back to my house until I have figured out something that seems cool.
And then again, truthfully, when I am writing screenplays for spectacle driven films, really what I am doing is writing the idea for the spectacle. If I was to write down, bit by bit, how the action sequences would have played out, the script should be 300 pages long. So really all I can do is have a concept and say, here is what the action scene is about in terms of who the characters are, where the story is.
To me the best, in fact, the only, sequences in an action film should be ones that advance the narrative, so that when the set piece is over, the story is in a different place from when the set piece began. And likewise, the characters are in a slightly different place than when the set piece began.
Otherwise they start to feel a little pornographic– that they are simply just the spectacle of action for the purposes of action.
JAKE: It is funny, in a way it is like building a musical. I worked for years on musicals, and what is interesting when you are writing a musical, often you will do the dramatic part first, and then the composer will take your best scene– and when they come back, it’s been transformed into a song.
And it has always seemed to me, I was never an action movie writer, but it has always seemed to me that, in a way, the best action movies do the same thing. The action is just a way of executing that dramatic arc or that dramatic journey for the character. But what these action sequences are really about is the emotional transaction happening between the characters.
MARK: The musical comparision is a totally apt one. If you are writing a genre movie, they all have their unique need. In a horror movie for example, the genre is asking you to have a scare every certain amount of minutes. You choose where the scares come, here is where the action comes. To me the scares that are the most successful are the ones that are advancing the narrative, and again really revealing layers of character within the set pieces.
For example, a movie like Get Out. People are responding so strongly to it, in part, because the scares weren’t simply for scares. The scares were to make you think about why you are reacting the way you are reacting.
And I think it is what separates really, really strong horror movies from exploitation, slasher horror movies.
I am a big, big, big fan of horror films, and I can appreciate a slasher film as much as the next person, but I think what gives horror movies a bad name sometimes is that they function in the same way that sex scenes function in a porno– that they are just there to give you the thrill and then move on. And the ones that succeed are the ones that are doing the opposite, that are actually telling the story.
JAKE: I think that is so hugely helpful, especially because it is easy to get seduced by the spectacle. A lot of people will see movies that really aren’t that good that make a lot of money, and sometimes there is a feeling like, “Oh I don’t have to write something so great, I just have to do a bunch of genre stuff.”
MARK: I fell prey to that same stupidity as well. In fact, I fell prey to it big time when I was starting out. So I understand the impulse. It is actually sort of arrogant. The creation of these set pieces ,even if it is in a junky movie, requires a lot of technical wizardry on the part of the people making the film.
The person who has been lazy is the writer who created it! But I used to have the same thought, “Oh the bar is really low. Let me just do the thing that they want.” And nothing that I ever wrote that way ever got produced. And I’m embarrassed by some of it now.
I think it is a long road to realize that there is no excuse for not taking what you are doing super seriously and trying to make the very best thing.
I always go to this place of, “I am only writing something that I myself would be super excited to see.”
But I also– going back to the thing you had mentioned earlier– when people are setting down to write something in a genre, and struggles of, “how do you service the genre but also service the things that are personal to you and you are passionate about?”
To me, the answer is really about tone. And I think as long as you hold on to the tone that is keeping you within the genre– or futz with the tone so as to see how far afield you can go with tone and still stay in the genre– you are going to be successful.
Again, Get Out is a really good example. There are times in Get Out when you are like, “am I in a comedy or in a horror movie?” But, I think that as long as you maintain a tone that feels like an action film or feels like a horror film or a comedy, then I actually think you have a lot of freedom to not stress out so much about, “It has been 10 pages and nothing has blown up, or no one has been killed or there hasn’t been a huge laugh yet.”
You can always go back in, in later drafts, and say, “see, it feels like we can benefit from a little more disaster here and here, how can we do that and still feel organic to the story?” But, I think writing to the action itself or writing to the scares is probably a mistake. I think you are going to have really flaccid dialogue right around it, and I don’t know how you construct the story that way.
Truthfully, if you’ve watched enough films, the rhythm of a genre story sort of presents itself as you are working on it.
JAKE: It is interesting that you are talking about pushing tone, because War really pushed, especially with the character of Bad Ape. There is so much comedy in there, but, it is a pretty serious film. You are really looking at that war between mercy and vengeance that exists in all of us.
You have a character who is the most morally centered character in the film who is losing his moral compass. You have the Woody Harrelson character, who ultimately goes on an extraordinarily dark journey in relation to his own son and his own life. And it was exciting to see the way that you pressed that comic tone up against that darkness–
MARK: Yeah we never had those in the other two Ape films; it was really hard to do. And actually the inspiration for Bad Ape came out of Yoda from Empire Strikes Back– that is certainly the darkest of those films– and suddenly Yoda is there. And there is something that is rescuing the movie there with Bad Ape.
When we settled on the idea of Bad Ape, we were just thrilled, because our big anxiety up to that point was how dark the movie was going to be beyond Bad Ape’s presence in the film. We knew we needed something to rescue us emotionally. And life– even in the bleakest times– is never just always bleak. Life always has moment of levity in it.
So we loved Bad Ape. But even in Bad Ape, we find a way to make you feel bad as you find out so many details of his backstory. So we don’t spare you any of those thoughts. But, again thank you for that compliment, because it was the thing we fought really hard for when we were first pitching it to the studios– a need for this character and the need to have levity here.
It is tricky because I will try to infuse humor in other things I write, and I am not particularly funny on the page. So I am always questioning myself, “is this the right tone?”
But I’ve found with experience, at least going forward and seeing what happens, the worst case scenario is you’ve made a mistake and then you just pull back.
JAKE: A lot of our screenwriters have to deal with notes at different phases of their careers. We have some writers who have been successful in the Hollywood system, and they are dealing with notes from big producers. Sometimes it is notes from your rich uncle whom you convinced to produce your independent film, notes from your director, notes from your star. How do you navigate, especially on movies this big, the needs of your producers, your directors, your stars, without losing track of your own idea?
MARK: Well, look, it is certainly a massive part of what it means to be a screenwriter, especially if you are working in the studio system.
Being a screenwriter means taking notes. If you didn’t want to take notes you should be a novelist.
So, I never regret the existence of notes, because it is again integral to how movies get made for better or worse– but oftentimes for better.
And I would say, what I always try to do, even if you were dealing with the rich uncle– which I thankfully haven’t had to deal with– but even then, you go to “what is the intention behind the note?” What is the person’s agenda?
Now, oftentimes for studio executives, it is fear.
It is the fear that their bosses aren’t going to understand what you are trying to do, or it is fear that the movie is going to be considered a failure, and they are going to be blamed for it.
These people’s jobs are shepherding movies through the system, and if the movie is bomb, that is the end of their job. So, the best studio executives I ever worked with are the ones that truthfully are trying to make a great movie. But even those– it is just what it is to be a studio executive. You have anxiety because you have people to answer to.
And so I try to sort of look at the note beneath the note: what are they really asking for here?
Because to me the least, useful notes are never the ones that are prescriptive– the ones that say, can you do this? Can you do that? That isn’t useful to me. If they were so astute about what needs to be in a screenplay, they would be writing screenplays. Because they usually pay more than what it means to be a studio executive.
What I am looking for is, what is the sincerity in the mix?
What is the thing that they are saying that actually is grounded in a desire to make the movie better?
And any note I get– like feel like I could teach a class on just how to take notes because I get so many notes all the time–every note I get, I always sincerely answer and say, “That is a really interesting note, I see what you are asking me to do.”
I just sort of let the person know that I am not ignoring the note; I am hearing the note. But what I will say is, “Let me explain too what I am trying to accomplish– and how can we dovetail what you are asking for with what I am trying to accomplish so that we both feel like we are getting the movie to a better place?”
I think whenever I am dealing with notes; I always have to keep on reminding the person who is giving the note, even the directors sometimes, even the actors sometimes, they we are all rowing in the same direction; we are all trying to make the movie as good as it can be.
And I think it helps if you give the person that assurance that, “I am not being defensive, I don’t think I am a genius, I am just trying not to mess up what is already working and I am trying to improve upon the areas that aren’t.”
Getting people to feel like you are working together on solving this is a very useful way to deal with notes.
And then I have learned the hard way not to dismiss any notes, because sometimes I get a note that seems so stupid and that I have no interest in servicing.
And then months later, I look back and realize that actually, while the person delivered the note in a not-useful way– they were bossy about it, they were obnoxious about it, I don’t think they are necessarily the brightest person in general, so therefore I am going to discount this one reaction– and then I look back and say, “Jesus, that person actually landed on a really good idea! I wish I had thought about it a little more carefully before dismissing it.”
And so I have really learned, no matter who the source is, to always think about, “where is the truth in this?”
If it was perfect, the person wouldn’t be able to give you a note unless it was insane. Then you would say, “that is a crazy note; I am not going to do it.”
But most of the time what you are working on isn’t perfect. And there is going to be something that is broken, that the person usually isn’t able to articulate.
But they can tell you the area where it isn’t working for them.
And again, I have found oftentimes, and this is not a new take since a lot of writers have said this before but it’s really true: you turn in a draft, and if the draft got better, the person who gave you the notes will automatically assume it is because of their notes.
They won’t usually go through and sort of figure out where you addressed this note and that note. They will usually say, “Jeez I guess my note worked.”
No one wants to be given a checklist, “Change this, this and this, okay now it is better.” They just want the movie to be better.
I feel like it is the most critical skill, that you can only build up to by experience, unfortunately. Because when you are starting out, every note just hurts like crazy, and seems like it is going to wreck you.
But when you get more films under your belt and more screenplays under your belt, you start to realize it is literally just the nature of screenwriting. At some point you are going to be receiving notes.
And it is a weird thing, because every time I turn in a draft I am positive this is the draft that is note proof!
And then I get three pages of notes.
And I will say, “I did so many types of drafts, I cannot think of what could be changed in this that could possibly make this any better, I have nailed this!”
And then I get back the notes and I say, “Oh my G-d!”
Usually it is that I thought something was working and it wasn’t. And then I go back and say, “Oh the romantic element here that I was positive everybody would be blown away by and choked up by isn’t landing for anybody yet.”
I think it is really important to triangulate. So if you get a note that is really going to be disruptive and that you feel like it is going to be a big note, find another person whose opinion you value who doesn’t have any skin in the game. I am not looking for praise, I am looking for someone to be really brutal. And then I will ask them to read. I won’t tell them what the note is. I will see if they come back with a note that is similar or the same.
And if they don’t I will say, “Here is a note I got, what do you think of this note?”
And usually even though I say it and pray that the person is like, “Oh my God that is the dumbest note; don’t do that note,” usually they will say, “Oh I see what they are saying, yeah that could be better.”
And then you know that is a legit note, and you really need to think about how to address it.
JAKE: I think it is interesting because it goes back to that idea we were talking about at the beginning of our conversation about theme. If you can find that agreement with the people you are working with about what you are building, it makes it so much easier to kind of sort out the wheat from the chaff with those notes and to help people understand why this note is really helpful or why that note isn’t really serving the intention.
MARK: I think you are dead right. To me, the notes process goes bad– which has gone bad a lot on me– when I come to the realization that we are making two different movies.
I was recently working on a project and I realized the people wanted to be a lot more like The Matrix than I ever thought it should or wanted to be. And so, in that case it was still helpful and then I started to step back and say, “what if it was a little bit more in the spirit and the tone of The Matrix?” And while I didn’t ultimately take it all the way there, it was helpful. But there was disconnect initially, and part of it was that I was like, “Why are they asking for notes that don’t fit what we’re building? Why are they trying to turn this into The Matrix?”
So oftentimes, it is really about miscommunication.
I always say to people, especially when I come onto a film and it is late in the process, I always say to the director or the producer, “Give me some comps.
What are some movies that are like what you want this to be?” And I usually say, “please don’t say movies within the last year or two, but what are some classic films, what are some stories that are important to you that you are hoping this will feel like, or that this will be compared to?” And in even getting those comps I will say, “Oh I get it, so you are trying to do like a Manchurian Candidate thing.” I am actually understanding where the influences are. And that helps me get to a place where we are making the same film.
JAKE: That is such a great piece of advice. Oftentimes, especially if you are dealing with less experienced executives, they try to speak “writer” to you. And sometimes they aren’t really clear on what they are building or they are chasing whatever made money a few months ago. Or, if they are fighting over your script or in a bidding war for your script, what they think you want to hear.
It is hard to ask those tough questions that help you know what this person really wants. Sometimes you don’t really find out what they want until you are three or four drafts in, and you are like, “Oh I get it, they want The Matrix. I wish they would have said that, as opposed to saying I want to win an Academy Award.”
MARK: Yeah. The other thing is, in the world of spec–I guess if you are a first time writer, if you are writing a spec script– that there is an impulse, as you were saying to talk screenwriter– to sort of talk about it like a Blacklist script or something.
And it isn’t. You are making a movie, right?
So, like any conversation that is just reducing the story to screenplay beats or to screenplay tropes, I find it not useful in the notes process.
I think it is always helpful to step back and be like, “what is the movie we are trying to tell?”
These scripts are just the architect’s blueprint for the house, you know? These are instruction manuals. So, we are making a house. We are making something! The script isn’t the end product.
And it is why I think it is so dangerous to get too sensitive about critiques of your script.
If you are really anxious to avoid input, you’ve picked the wrong medium to work in.
Oftentimes I will say to the person I am working with, “have you seen such and such movie?” And if they say “no,” I will say, “can you just do me one huge favor and watch that film, and now you will understand what I am trying to accomplish here in terms of blank, in terms of the villain’s agenda, in terms of whatever.”
It is helpful to have a shared set of references, and I think without those you are really sort of groping in the dark.
Novels aren’t written this way. They don’t need to have backing, other than the novelist and his/her editor; it isn’t the same.
With movies, you need touchstones. To all say, “okay we’ve all seen Braveheart, and what do we like about Braveheart?” What we are trying to do here is not to copy Braveheart or mimic Braveheart, but to generate that same sensation that we had when we saw Braveheart. What was it doing that got us to feel that way?”
JAKE: One of the things that you’ve talked about a little bit is having people who you trust who can help you with feedback about your script and with truth about what they are experiencing.
I was very lucky to have a mentor, who wasn’t always the nicest guy in the world, but certainly taught me a ton about screenwriting. And I wonder, like, who were some of your mentors? And what were some of the lessons that they taught you that helped you early in your career?
MARK: You know I wish I had had better mentors. I didn’t have, again it is why my learning curve was a slow one. I have really good friends, who are luckily talented, and we were sort of figuring stuff out together at the time. So, I would critique their stuff and they would critique mine, but they truthfully didn’t know that much more than I did at the time.
I would say the first person who really sort of changed how I approached writing in general was Tony Scott, who directed this film I wrote called Unstoppable, back I think in 2010, but we started working together in 2008, I think.
He isn’t a writer at all, but his approach to getting a screenplay into shooting shape was different than anyone’s I had ever worked with before. He just had such respect for the characters.
And it is funny because if you look back at his filmography, there is a temptation to sort of write some things off as being over the top or splashy or all the other things that you would consider a Tony Scott film.
But if you really look at them, they are incredibly character driven. He is just so determined to make things feel real. It is funny because the setups oftentimes are so implausible, but the characters themselves are quite plausible.
If you look at a movie like Man on Fire for example. Brian Helgeland is a fantastic writer. He wrote for Tony. He will tell you. I have heard him interviewed where he said the same thing with Tony.
Tony forces you to really dig deep and do a lot of research, which is something I had never really done very much of before.
He had a guy whose entire task was to find you the real world equivalent of each character that you were writing about. And you would spend three or four hours talking to people– even the most minor characters– to just get a sense of their daily lives.
And ever since then, that has been my gig– I mean obviously I can’t do it with Planet of the Apes– but in general, if there is any real world equivalent, I always try to find a person to sit and interview and talk through what the process is in their jobs. And you will always find really great nuggets from reality that you can never make up.
So, Tony was probably my biggest mentor, and there was also just an immense sense of satisfaction in pleasing him with your work, because I had such tremendous respect for him. He was the first huge director that I felt validated by. And I have tried to mentor younger writers myself, and it isn’t an easy thing to do. You don’t want to dissuade, and you don’t want to be overly critical and you want to be very aware of the fact that they themselves are on a journey to getting better.
But you also want to make sure that you are giving them constructive input that isn’t going to give them false sense of security. And so when I look back now on how Tony approached my work, I am definitely appreciative.
JAKE: There is a Neil Gaiman quote that I love– and it is funny because you were talking about novelists before and how different it is. But, he is talking about feedback and he says, “If anyone ever reads your story and tells you exactly what is wrong and exactly how to fix it, they are always wrong. But if somebody reads your story and tells you what the experience of your story is, they are always right.”
And that is something that we really strive for here at the Studio, we do a lot of professional mentorship as part of our Protrack program, and I hear you saying about how you do it as well. It isn’t about imposing your ideas on somebody else; it is about helping to mine for what the writer is actually going for, and helping them understand the gap between your experience and theirs.
MARK: Yeah. I am doing a bit of producing right now, so I have to give a writer notes. And I really try to be sensitive to that dynamic and say, “you know even though I could theoretically be working on the screenplay myself, if I felt I had the right to do it”, it isn’t my job to sit there and tell you what could make it better or worse. Because it isn’t going to work; it isn’t going to make the screenplay any better. It will definitely make it worse.
And so, as you were just saying, I just try to clarify for them where things are really working for me and where things are falling short. And I try to be a sounding board a lot. And I find that to be the most useful collaboration that I have.
Again, most of my notes, at a certain point when I am working on something, are coming from the director. And so I make sure the director knows there is no way she or he can offend me with their notes, I just want to make sure we have enough time to talk them through. And again, I am not looking for them to tell me, “make it this way or that way”, I am just looking for them to tell me where they aren’t feeling what they were hoping to feel.
JAKE: If there was one piece of advice that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out, what would that piece of advice be?
MARK: I am pretty happy with how the trajectory of my career has gone, so I hesitate to claim that some piece of advice would have made my life any better right now.
But I do think that– again I learned this the hard way and so maybe it would have been nice to have learned this in a slightly faster way–which is, don’t write for anyone but yourself.
At the end of the day, write the movie that you know you would be super excited to sit down and watch.
Don’t think because you read a Blacklist script and saw a certain style being executed in there that that is what people want, so therefore let me write it that way. Or, there is a certain movie that is in vogue right now and let me try to write my version of that.
Everybody I know, really almost without exception, is a pretty good storyteller in the right circumstances.
And so it is really finding the thing that you want to tell another person.
When I talk about pitching, if anyone asks me how to pitch, I am always like, “just pretend you have just walked out of a theatre and you’ve just run into a good friend and they ‘say what did you see?’ and you are going to tell them the movie you just saw.”
And I think the same energy goes into writing. You should never be– look I am unhappy most of my day when I am writing, it is a slog, nothing ever feels good enough, I am always certain that I will be exposed as the fraud that I am– that is the sort of nature of writing. But the one sensation that you should try to avoid feeling is that you are BS-ing and that you aren’t being honest with yourself.
I think you always need to be striving towards making something as good as it could be, and the definition of “good as it could be” should be the thing that you would be excited to see. Not what you think other people would be excited to see.
That is how I wasted a lot of formative writing years– trying to write in a way that I thought a screenplay should read, or how a movie would get bought faster or made faster.
The most exciting writing to me is the one where you read it and you are like, “this is the only person who could have written this. This just reads really singularly.”
And it isn’t a novel, it is an instruction manual, it is a screenplay that is going to be manipulated and broken down and eventually become the real thing which is a movie– but that there is such a voice to it.
You are just trying to make sure that when someone is reading it, they experience an enthusiasm that you had when you first came up with the idea.
JAKE: I think that is an incredible place to end this conversation. So, thank you so much Mark for coming on the podcast and giving us so much wonderful insight and I hope to see you soon.
*Edited for length and clarity