J.C. and I had the honor of attending the 13th Annual Nashville Screenwriters Conference this year, and as a result we had the chance to speak with several of the panelists and many of them graciously agreed to interviews. First up is J.C. chatting with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, best known as the writers of the films Cats & Dogs, Bad Santa, Bad News Bears, and I Love You Phillip Morris. The latter of which was also their feature directing debut. Their next directing gig, Crazy, Stupid, Love., penned by Dan Fogelman, will hit theaters within the next few weeks. We also have a recap of their panel from the conference (Writing a Screenplay They Can’t Put Down) coming within the next several weeks as well.
Q: First off, tell us a little about yourselves. Who are Glenn and John?
A: We are two schmoes who met in college and have been writing scripts and making movies ever since.
Q: When did you first become aware that films were actually made and that there was an entire machine and process behind what you were seeing on the screen?
Glenn: I was seven or eight. After seeing the old King Kong on TV, I saw a book with a picture of Willis O’Brien animating the puppet and became fascinated with visual effects.
John: Funnily enough, I went and saw the remake of King Kong with my brother and father when I was ten or eleven. I came out of the theater thinking that it was the greatest movie I had ever seen. My dad said that it was a big piece of junk. It was the first time it occurred to me that some movies were good and some movies bad. It also made me realize that movies were influenced and not just an act of God.
Q: What was it, specifically, that drew you to the writing aspect of filmmaking?
John: I went to film school to become a director and was in a bookstore and saw Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography. I read it and at the end of the book there is a section called “Notes on Filmmaking” and he mentions that if you wish to become a great filmmaker, you master the screenplay first. So, I dedicated myself to writing.
Glenn: I didn’t want to write, but since no one was going to give us money to make movies, we had to do it on our own and start writing them.
I didn’t want to write, but since no one was going to give us money to make movies, we had to do it on our own and start writing them.
Q: What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your approach or perspective on filmmaking?
Glenn: The Last Action Hero. We couldn’t get scripts really back then, unlike today. There was a big buzz that this screenplay had sold for a lot of money and I remember reading the opening scene and understanding why it sold for so much. The rest wad s**t, but hey. And shortly after that we got our hands on the shooting script of Apocalypse Now.
John: I can’t remember. I think you learn more by watching movies than reading screenplays.
Q: When you first started to learn the craft, did you read/study any how-to books on screenwriting, and if so, which ones did you find to be the most beneficial?
A: In our time, Syd Field was the one and only. We also read Linda Seger’s two books Making a Good Script Great and Creating Unforgettable Characters. They are good for getting started but have limited value. But you do have to learn the rules before you can start to break them. The danger of these books and classes, such as Robert McKee’s, is that studios and writers end up making the same movie over and over again, which is many of the reasons why Hollywood movies are predictable and boring. We do strongly feel Robert McKee’s effect on the industry has been deleterious.
Q: As a writer, how and where do you seek out inspiration? Alternatively, what really inspires you to write?
Glenn: I really believe you just have to live your life and watch movies. But because inspiration can come from anywhere, you got to get out there.
John: Watch more movies than TV shows.
We do strongly feel Robert McKee’s effect on the industry has been deleterious.
Q: What is your writing process like (i.e. schedule, outline, notecards, treatments, etc.)?
A: We write everything out on a dry-erase board and start writing and see where it takes us. We share a computer with two screens and two keyboards so we’re with each other [every] step of the way.
Q: What software do you use and why?
A: Final Draft because we’ve been using it for 20 years and [we’re] stuck with it. Unfortunately, it’s the industry standard.
Q: Once you’ve finished the first draft of a project, how many people, and who specifically, do you let read it?
A: We have a small group of coworkers and our business partner Charlie Gogolak. But we’re careful not to show scripts, basically, until we’re done because getting notes too early can dampen your enthusiasm.
Q: As the old adage goes: writing is rewriting. How do you approach and what is your process in regards to rewriting?
A: We are primarily rewriters. Our first drafts are invariably disasters. We rewrite extensively. We find out so much more after the first read.
Q: What was your first produced screenplay and how did the project come into existence?
A: Cats & Dogs. We came up with the idea when we were working at Nickelodeon on this show called The Angry Beavers. We had a pitch meeting with Warner Bros. and they bought it. And then they paid us to start writing.
Q: How long did it take you to write it; from the first word to the final draft?
A: Four months for the first draft to turn into the studio, and then we rewrote it for the studio and ended up being a two and a half year process.
We are primarily rewriters. Our first drafts are invariably disasters. We rewrite extensively. We find out so much more after the first read.
Q: What was the process like once it was sold (i.e. any rewrites during production)?
A: Rewrites for two and a half years.
Q: What was it like to sit in a darkened theater with an audience and watch your words come to life for the first time on the big screen?
A: Thrilling sensation when we first saw our names on the screen and then a diminishing sensation as our movie played. But we still get chills seeing our name up there all these years.
Q: What was life like for you immediately after the film was made?
A: Busy. We were working writers. We jumped into a three-picture deal but none of those scripts got made. But we’ve been working ever since. The only down-time we had was because we were procrastinating.
Q: What lessons did you learn from that first film that informed or altered your approach to writing your later features?
A: We learned everything: studio politics, about directing, trying not to direct on the page, not trying to be too precious about things, how to take notes. Most importantly, we made a lot of mistakes and tried to learn from them.
Q: Has watching actors act out and speak your written words changed your process in any way?
A: Yes. Actors oftentimes improve your dialogue. You have be open to any changes they may make because they’ll almost certainly make it better.
Q: I know you had many issues with I Love You Phillip Morris, so, if you can, sum up your feelings of Hollywood today and the process of getting a script made into a film. Do you feel that it’s a good process overall?
John: My feelings about I Love You Phillip Morris are entirely positive. We made it for the right reason, and are extremely proud of it. And it did well in Europe. We took chances and it paid off.
Glenn: It’s not a “Hollywood” movie. It illustrated the dire straits that independent movies were at that time. We couldn’t find studios to finance a movie with Jim Carrey in it, but in Europe we were able to get it financed quickly.
Q: You have Crazy, Stupid, Love. coming out very soon and it was written by Dan Fogelman. Is the process of making a film different when you aren’t shooting your own material?
A: We never thought we would be able to direct someone else’s script, but found it exhilarating working with another writer. It was intensely rewarding because you can speak each others’ language and get great results.
Q: Can you talk about the status of the following projects?
– Mail Order Groom: That was a rewrite we did. I think it’s contingent on Tina Fey’s schedule.
– The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Soderbergh’s doing a version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It’s not the draft we wrote, but I’m sure his is better.
It’s also an opportunity for other writers to dispel the lottery myth that somehow you’ll make a million off of the first screenplay you write. It’s a process and it takes a long, long time and you really have to commit to it.
Q: What were your thoughts of the Nashville Screenwriters Conference overall and do you think it is helpful for up-and-coming writers to attend these events?
A: Yes, it can be very helpful. You can benefit from the mistakes from other writers. It’s also an opportunity for other writers to dispel the lottery myth that somehow you’ll make a million off of the first screenplay you write. It’s a process and it takes a long, long time and you really have to commit to it. It doesn’t replace working hard. It was the case for Glenn and I. And probably the case for most of the writers in Hollywood today. Most importantly, sometimes you have to write ten bad screenplays to learn how to write one good one. So write!
Q: Finally, this is where I usually ask the interviewee for inspiring words for aspiring writers, but I think I’ll just give you the floor and let you speak your mind about what’s really in store for anyone crazy enough to venture into screenwriting with the thoughts of making it a career.
A: Be passionate and write a lot. Don’t insult your audience. Have fun. It’s okay to write badly. Make mistakes. Learn from them and grow. It’s a great job. Don’t be discouraged if you hate doing it because Kurt Vonnegut said his definition of a writer is someone who hates to write. If you hate what you’re doing, then you might be on to something.