Q: First off, tell us a little about yourself. Who is Jared Stern?
I’m a screenwriter from Long Island, NY. Much of where I grew up is currently underwater. I’m now living far above sea level in Los Angeles with my dog, my ladyfriend, and her cat.
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?
I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when I was maybe four years old. At the end, when the Ark is opened and all the scary things are flying out and faces are melting I got pretty scared. My father covered my eyes and said, “Don’t worry. As long as you don’t look, nothing bad’ll happen.” At the same time, Indy delivered the same message to Marion. I’m pretty sure I peeked.
Most kids left that movie and told their parents they wanted to be Indiana Jones. I walked out and said I wanted to be Steven Spielberg. Seriously, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, like a fireman or astronaut, there was a good period of time when I would answer “Steven Spielberg”.
Q: What was it, specifically, that drew you to the writing aspect of filmmaking?
Recognizing that I was a mediocre comedian. Or, as a Groundlings teacher (and now Oscar-winning screenwriter) told me: “You’re not an actor who can write; you’re a writer who can act.”
Q: What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your approach or perspective on filmmaking?
I’m pretty sure it was PULP FICTION. I remember being amazed at how entertained I was even though I’d already seen the movie a bunch of times. It made me focus on trying to inject as much personality into my writing as possible (without being annoying — a fine line).
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?
I went to Brown University where I studied Modern Culture and Media. This is the program that brought you Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon. I’m sure you noticed the influence of Derrida and Baudrillard in MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS. I’ve read Syd Field and Robert McKee and the Save the Cats. I found them all most beneficial whenever they got specific. When they dissected actual movies. I remember McKee breaking down the characters’ inner thoughts in each beat of a scene from CHINATOWN. That’s generally my how-to manual. Watching movies. For one project I watched WALL STREET, BIG, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, CAN’T BUY ME LOVE. Oddly, they’re all kinda the same story. It’s dangerous, because I hope for the end result to be original. But I often find I can learn a lot from other’s successes and failures in a similar arena.
Q: As a writer, how and where do you seek out inspiration? Alternatively, what really inspires you to write?
I try to seek inspiration in my own life. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve stopped trying to be clever and started looking to my real experiences and emotions and those of my friends and family. Even if I’m writing something completely fantastical or foreign to me (maybe especially then) I try to hook into some tangible slice italiapharmacia24 of life.
Seeing a great movie (old or new) always makes me want to write. That and mortgage bills.
Q: You said when you were working on Wreck-It Ralph, you used Big as an inspiration. What specifically did you draw from Big? Also, how much of your work ended up in the final product of that film?
I legally can’t talk about this film. Man, that feels weird to say.
Q: What is your writing process like (i.e. schedule, outline, notecards, treatments, etc.)?
I like to plan out what I’m writing each day in the moments when I’m half-awake but haven’t gotten out of bed yet. I visualize the scene. Or if I’m in the concept phase I visualize the pitch. Then when I actually sit at the computer I generally already have a starting point.
I tend to get on runs. It’s tough to get going and then finally I start and before I know it three hours have passed and I’ve actually written something and then I take a break. Then hit it again for another run.
When I’m writing a studio movie there are usually detailed pitches/treatments/outlines. When I write something on my own I tend to be a bit looser but I always have a general road map of the whole movie before I begin.
Q: What software do you use and why?
Final Draft. That was the standard when I started and it seems to work well. Except when you do a “Replace All” it misses anything that’s in dual dialogue. If you’re in touch with these people, please say something. When I write dual dialogue now I think, “Is this really necessary? Because you’re gonna be fucked on the Replace All.”
Q: Once you’ve finished the first draft of a project, how many people, and who specifically, do you let read it?
My girlfriend is an incredibly talented writer and I love her input. She tore apart my female characters so often that I’ve actually gotten better at writing them in the first place. I have other friends (including my agents and managers) who read as well. I try not to overwhelm people by asking too often and judge who’s best for what read. I have my joke people. I have my story people. And I have my mom to tell me it’s perfect.
Q: As the old adage goes: writing is rewriting. How do you approach, and what is your process, in regard to rewriting?
I think writing is similar to working out. When you go for a run once every six months, you can hardly breathe and you’re sore for a week. When you do it every day, you’re only slightly miserable.
I had the good fortune to work as an assistant when I was just out of school for an amazing writer. He’d been the showrunner for a major sitcom and was in an overall deal that paid him millions to develop new ideas. He could’ve coasted. This man wrote all day, every day. If he didn’t have a pilot to work on, he wrote a screenplay. Or a stage play. At the end of my year working for him, the pilot he wrote was shelved when the actor chose another script. But the feature my boss wrote sold for a million dollars and was produced. I didn’t think I’d ever have that discipline. And I probably still don’t. But luckily I’ve now got deadlines and I’m closer to his dedication than I would have thought possible.
Q: What was your first produced screenplay and how did the project come into existence?
The first actual film that featured some words I wrote was BOLT (I was credited with Additional Screenplay Material). I was originally hired at Walt Disney Animation Studios for a one-week punch-up. That movie never got made but I never left. I stayed for four-and-a-half years, during which time I was a sort of in-house writer. It was like the old studio system. I had an office and would work on different projects. One of those was BOLT. It was like getting paid to go to storytelling grad school. I worked with Musker & Clements (ALADDIN, THE LITTLE MERMAID) and sat in meetings with both Disney and Pixar’s Brain Trusts.
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?
Surreal. I felt like George Costanza, when he walks out on a high note. An animated John Travolta dog karate chopped a guard and I would’ve been fine retiring right there. “I got something in a movie!”
Q: What was life like for you immediately after the film was made?
I was asked to additional screenplay material lots of movies.
Q: What lessons did you learn from that first film that informed or altered your approach to writing your later features?
Disney forced me to think more visually. To not overwrite dialogue. I’d sit in story meetings and pitch an idea for something a character could say. By the time I was done an artist would hold up a sketch and say: “Like this?” He/she’d captured the character’s emotion perfectly. No words necessary.
Q: I talked to Dan Fogelman who seemed to have the same sort of set-up at Disney as you had where they just kept bring you back. What’s it like writing animation compared to live-action?
Dan’s a great guy. I look forward to new levels of jealousy with each script he writes.
Animation feature writing is much more collaborative than live-action. I would write a scene and it would be story-boarded by a story artist (aka genius) who would plus it in all sorts of ways. Often, an artist would come down the hall and show me the scene and I’d tweak the dialogue or have a new idea and back and forth we’d go. The board artist would then pitch the sequence to the whole story team (writer included) and we’d all throw out ideas (more like a television writing room). Then we’d record the temp dialogue ourselves, finding new stuff as we said the lines.
The not-so-secret secret about animation is that you get to watch these story reels with an audience of co-workers and see what’s working and what’s not. You can then go back to the page and rewrite. You get to make the movie three or four times over the course of several years before you actually animate the thing. This doesn’t mean the film’s definitely gonna end up great (we’ve seen plenty of animated films that fell short) but this process gives the creators more chances. On a live-action movie you might do a table read, rehearsals, improv, test screenings, edits, reshoots. But it’ll never compare to the animation process when it comes to fixing fuck-ups.
Q: Has watching actors act out and speak your written words changed your process in any way?
Absolutely. In my experience, actors care less about clever turns of phrase and more about the reality of the situation. This goes beyond dialogue. Actors want to know their character’s intention in every scene. Their goal. And how this scene affects it in some way. If you don’t know this stuff when you’re writing, it’s probably not a great or even necessary scene.
Q: You made the Black List in 2009 for The Watch. Did you notice that this had any impact on your career? And if so, how?
That script (which was rewritten by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg into the film that came out this summer) led to many opportunities and its inclusion on the Black List could have only helped. From the response I got, people in Hollywood were excited to read a big, PG-13 movie that wasn’t totally lame. A movie like GHOSTBUSTERS or BACK TO THE FUTURE (not that my script was in the same league as those two, or even the same sport). I love those kinds of movies and I hope to write one in the future.
Q: How did your relationship with Vince Vaughn start? He was in The Watch, that you wrote, and now you have re-written his latest project, Interns, did that stem from The Watch or something else?
I first met Vince Vaughn on The Internship. He taught me a ton about writing for actors and even got me to like country music.
Q: Sum up your feelings of Hollywood today and the process of getting a script made into a film. Do you feel that it is a good process overall?
So many factors go into whether and how a movie gets made. Will an actor play the part and does that actor have good foreign box office? Can we shoot in Lithuania in April and make it rated R? I’ve learned to understand these realities and keep them in mind but also appreciate that many of them are beyond my control.
There are people in Hollywood who love movies. They want to make great ones. They’re fun to work with. Luckily, I get to do it all the time. And they pay me for it.
Q: Will Mis-Guided ever be made?
I hope so. It was actually called Self-Guided (after I’d written the script the sitcom Miss Guided aired and I had to change the name). Since that show is long forgotten, maybe we can change it back now. The script is still set up at Disney with Mandeville (The Fighter, The Muppets) producing. It’s about a loser who goes back in time and becomes his own high school guidance counselor to stop himself from making the same mistakes he did. If anybody has a great idea for a comedic Looper duo of actors please email them to Disney and beg them to make it.
Q: How is Hawkwood coming? Last I saw was back in 2010 that you were set to write it and Brand was going to star, anything new on that project?
Nothing new to report here.
Q: Finally, this whole interview stemmed from the Nashville Screenwriters Conference, so what did you think of that con? And do you think you’ll be attending again?
That was my first time and it’s a great conference. I enjoyed speaking with aspiring screenwriters and hopefully passing along some information I wish I’d known ten years ago. But, selfishly, it was also great to interact with my fellow established writers and hear their stories. We spend most of our time in an office alone. I’m certain I learned as much from attending a conference where I was the “expert” as the people in the audience did.
Jared on IMDB