Produced Screenwriter Scott Alexander
Interview with Scott Alexander, co-writer of the films, "Problem Child", "Ed Wood," "The People vs. Larry Flynt," and the soon-to-be produced, "Man On The Moon. |
SSSD: Spec Screenplay Sales Directory
ALEXANDER: Scott Alexander
SSSD: How many scripts had you written together with your partner Larry Karaszewski before you sold one?
ALEXANDER: We sold our first script.
SSSD: What script was that and how did you sell it?
ALEXANDER: That script was called "Homewreckers." It was a script we wrote in our senior year at USC. It was really just sort of a challenge to ourselves. We cooked up a funny idea for a movie, and we were curious as to whether we could actually fill 120 pages just to get to the end of the script. In most writing classes at USC then, you would write the first thirty to forty pages, and we got through that much and then thought, "Hey, let's see if we can get to the end." None of our friends had ever written a whole script yet. This is 1985, which is the days before spec sales really existed. There wasn't this gold rush market place where everyone was trying to cash in by writing a million dollar script. We really were writing just for the fun of it. And after we finished it, we got access to a xerox machine when the night dean wasn't looking. We ran off about fifty copies because we were so proud of it and gave them to all our friends. A friend of a friend was working in the mailroom at ICM and asked if he could give it to a new, young agent he had just met who was looking for clients, and we said, "Sure." One thing led to another, and we signed with ICM. The script sold a week after we graduated. And then we were professional writers with an office at 20th Century Fox.
SSSD: Did anything ever happen with "Homewreckers?"
ALEXANDER: We got tortured for a year, and then we got fired. Then, a crappy writer got hired to rewrite us, and then he farmed the job out to one of his friends who sunk the project, and it never got made. It was sort of an introduction to the best and worst of Hollywood. It was really exciting, it was big money and an office on the lot. Our friends would come down to the lot everyday and have lunch with us...it was a giddy year! But it was sort of a wasted year. The movie didn't get made, and we really didn't end up pleasing the studio.
SSSD: After that, did ICM get you any writing assignments, or did you continue writing on spec?
ALEXANDER: We were unemployed for six months, and then we came up with the idea for "Problem Child." We went out with that on a pitch. We pitched it to five or six places and Universal bought it. "Problem Child" was our second script.
SSSD: When you've chosen stories for the spec scripts you've written, how important was it for you that the story be commercial?
ALEXANDER: Never. We've only written a few spec scripts. "Homewreckers" was a spec. "Ed Wood" was a spec. And "Jupiter Needs Parking," which is our version of a Preston Sturges movie. It's been optioned a few times but never got made. It's weird. "Homewreckers" was a pretty commercial script, in retrospect. We always knew it was a really solid comic idea, but "Ed Wood" is obviously not a typical spec script, and "Jupiter Needs Parking" is a very soft, small-town comedy. So we've never ever written to the marketplace.
SSSD: So you just write what pleases you?
ALEXANDER: Absolutely. We've been professional writers for twelve years, and we have never tried kissing up to what the marketplace is that week. We just try to please ourselves and to do good work.
SSSD: Regarding the Andy Kaufman biography that you're working on(currently titled: "Man On The Moon") ...at one point, you had a 210-page script. Why'd you write so many pages?
ALEXANDER: We wrote 210 pages because we're masochistic idiots, and we like to waste our own time! We always card out our scripts very extensively with index cards, and I don't know why, but on the biopics we just cannot seem to judge where two hours of material is. Part of it is that we research so heavily. On "Andy" we researched for about four or five months before we even started writing. As a result, we learned so much about this man that we know more about him than anyone alive, and we fell in love with all this material, all these interesting people and strange events. You want to take a whack at it and see how much you can include because there's so many goodies. So, very soon into the writing process we realized that the length was going to be out of control, but we've had a few scripts that came in insanely long. The Larry Flynt script started at 214 pages. But we set a record for ourselves with Andy.
SSSD: How do you ultimately decide what goes and what stays?
ALEXANDER: What's weird is, we always know the structure. We always know the first act, and the middle and end of the second act. That's a given. And we always keep it proportionate--the second act is twice as long as the first act, and the third act is roughly as long as the first act. We always try to keep that 1 to 2 to 1 proportion. It's just that everything kind of expands and plays along with it when you don't expect it. Then, it just becomes this really painful cutting down process. The problem is that the biopics take us so long to write because of all the research and the interviews that whoever has employed us is losing patience at that point. It took almost a year to see a first draft from us on Andy Kaufman.
SSSD: Were they pressuring you to get a script?
ALEXANDER: They were. But they were being great. The Jersey people, Devito--they've been so gracious, but Danny had sort of committed a slot in his career to play the co-starring part, and so he had every right to say, "Where the hell is the script?" We felt this pressure from Universal to just show them something. But the problem was that we thought the script was really bad because Andy's life is really formless and it was hard to give the movie shape. Andy did not really have strong goals--he lived his life very episodically. There was no overriding theme to his life, and we were struggling to come up with this theme. We always sort of knew it was going to be "boy who cried wolf" which comes back to haunt him in the third act when he gets ill. But it wasn't really enough to hold the movie together, and we were just cutting pages and pages and trying to find the shape of the movie and finally stumbled upon this really bizarre theme for a movie. In "Citizen Kane," the characters try to find out the secret of this man's life and get to its core. And in the end, you find out that it's "rosebud." Well, we stumbled onto this really bizarre structure--I don't think it's ever been done in a movie before. You're trying and trying to get to him [Andy] because he seems so full of contradictions. When you get to the end, you realize that there is nothing on the inside. There is no secret. There is no one at the center. And once we stumbled onto this, it became the guide to how to cut down the movie and make it work as a normal length movie. So, we turned it in at 154 pages, and since then, we've cut another 30 pages.
SSSD: A lot it, then, was just taking out dialogue?
ALEXANDER: No. We prefer to do "lifts," just to lift out whole sections because we tend to be really good re-writers in that we're really true to our intentions, but we're also lazy re-writers. We don't want to re-do everything. We really believe that we turn in solid first drafts. We will not show it to anybody until we've gone over it a million times. But once we show it, we feel like, "Alright, you've seen the best version of this movie." Any changes from this point on are just to humor various people involved, to get the script down to a shooting length or for production reasons. We really stand behind our first drafts. At that point, we're really trying not to mess up all the work we've done. So, lifts tend to be easier and so are combining scenes. We don't really like throwing stuff out and starting from scratch.
SSSD: In the initial writing of the script, did you work at all with Milos Forman (the director of "Man On The Moon")?
ALEXANDER: The movie has a lot of surprises in it. It's sort of a con man movie with a lot of surprises for the audience. They figure things out, but then they've been ripped off. There are lots of layers. Milos wanted to be surprised the first time he read the script. He didn't want to be in on any of the trickery. So, as a result, he basically didn't want to have any communication about this project until we had a first draft to show him.
SSSD: How faithful are you to the facts when writing about a real person?
ALEXANDER: We're really faithful. Obviously, you have to move stuff around, you have to have composite characters, you've got to compress the timeline, but it's really important to us that it be a movie the subject would like. Larry Flynt loved the movie about him. Ed Wood and Andy Kaufman died, but I think if they could see these movies, they'd be pleased because I believe the movies are really true to their intentions and to what they were about.
SSSD: When is it necessary to create new characters in situations?
ALEXANDER: We really don't create new characters. Any human being knows a million people, so it's a matter of picking and choosing who to emphasize and which characters to combine because they serve the same function. In "Larry Flynt," after three major trials, Larry had three different lawyers which would just confuse the audience, so we made it one lawyer. It seemed like a no-brainer kind of choice to make. In "Ed Wood," I don't think we combined any characters. Bela [Lugosi] might have had various friends, young acolytes at that time in his life who were all trying to help him out. But Ed was the most important one, so we sort of left the others out. We sometimes will omit people just so we can play up the characters who are in the story. In "Kaufman," I think every major person in his life is in the film. There were a number of girlfriends who came and went, and he had a lot of "buddies" from transcendental meditation--these nutty girls who would kind of float around him--and we took that down to around one or two to have fewer relationships in the movie; otherwise, you just can't keep track of characters.
SSSD: When you wrote "Ed Wood," did you get rights from the family?
ALEXANDER: Nothing. We were so naive or clueless about it that it didn't even cross our minds that you need to get the rights to the snippits of dialogue we were using from Ed Wood's movies. It was pretty foolish in retrospect. Pretty soon before it started shooting, it was a lot of work for the lawyers to track down the rights holders of these obscure movies. They made a deal with Ed's widow, Kathy, because his name was the title of the film which gave her a bit more rights than a family member would normally have. We didn't need Bela's rights because he's a public figure, and he's extraordinarily famous. When these biopics float around the world of show biz, you can make an argument that any people in the story, if they were any kind of a performer, they are a public figure. If they're dead, you certainly don't need rights. On the Andy Kaufman movie, it really is sort of a labor of love--all of Andy's family and friends wanted to see this movie get made. Some of his really close friends are executive producers of the movie, and a lot of the girlfriends, buddies, fellow performers and family members are talking to us because they want to help.
SSSD: Other than if you're writing a true story, how important is it to do research?
ALEXANDER: On the total fiction scripts, they all have a small amount of research in them just because Larry and I will obsess about some bits of esoterica in the script. Our first script "Homewreckers" is about a thief manipulating the legal system, so we became obsessive with a couple of key court cases that we sort of used as backstory to justify the plot. So we drove my uncle Marty crazy, who was a news lawyer at the time, because he could do the legal research for us. Research is really pretty unimportant. We just wrote a script for a movie that we're directing this summer. It takes place in Pittsburgh and the character has to take a three hour drive at one point, so then we're reading almanacs trying to figure out what landmark is three hours from Pittsburgh.
SSSD: What about "Problem Child," which you wrote, any research done there?
ALEXANDER: I remember reading a couple of books on hyperactive kids from broken homes but these were sort of serious educational manuals.
SSSD: What advice do you have for screenwriter trying to break into the business?
ALEXANDER: Write something unique. Hollywood is littered with first-time writers who cashed in on the hot trend of that week. You know, Diehard in a blank and sold a big spec and then they got fired one minute after the deal closed and they never worked again. The writers who keep a career are writers who try to break out from the pack and write stuff that no one else is writing.
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