Produced Writer Mike Werb
Mike Werb, a UCLA Film School graduate, is one of Hollywood's top screenwriters. He has written two huge blockbusters, as a solo screenwriter, the Jim Carrey comedy, "The Mask" and with writing partner Michael Colleary, the John Travolta, Nicolas Cage hit, "Face/Off." The following interview took place over the phone and could not be possible without Mike and his assistant Lisa Vijitchanton.|
SSSD: Spec Screenplay Sales Directory
WERB: Mike Werb
SSSD: How did you sell you first screenplay, and what was it about?
WERB: The very first screenplay was called "Picture Me Deadly," and it was about a little boy who inexplicably keeps trying to kill his mother. It never got made.
SSSD: What was your first pitch and how did you sell it?
WERB: The first pitch I ever sold was to Cannon Pictures. They had term deals with Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, and Charles Bronson. They were looking for ten young writers to do ten screenplays for those three guys. I went in for pitch, after pitch, after pitch, but I could not get a job. One day I saw a photograph in the L.A. Times that I found very disturbing. It was of a mother watching her son hang to death for some high crimes in South East Asia, and I showed the picture to the Cannon execs, and this time my pitch was about three minutes: "What if the family didn't wait for him to die? What if they came in to rescue him?" And that job got me into the Writers Guild. It was produced under the name "The Human Shield" starring Michael Dudikoff, although the film doesn't resemble anything I wrote.
SSSD: Did you do any of the rewriting?
WERB: I did a lot of rewriting. But they threw out my script because the Gulf War had just started, and they decided that it was a good idea to incorporate the Gulf War into this movie, and I refused to work on it any more. The movie is pretty bad.
SSSD: How did you get your first agent?
WERB: Through UCLA Film School. A lot of the agents were sniffing around UCLA. I won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award, so several agents requested my script.
SSSD: At that time, were you writing alone?
SSSD: Why did you decide to take on a partner?
WERB: Michael Colleary and I had met at UCLA. We graduated in 1987, and we spent a lot of time critiquing each other's work. In the summer of 1990 we decided to try to write something together, and that ended up being "Face/Off," which we were fortunate enough to sell twice.
SSSD: When you came up with the idea for "Face/Off", did you discuss it with your agent?
WERB: No, because we knew that if we discussed it with anybody we would be laughed out of the room.
SSSD: Did you make any changes prior to your agent submitting it?
WERB: [The agency] made some suggestions, and then we changed it a little. They thought that the ending had gotten too huge, so we toned it down and made it more personal.
SSSD: Why, then, did it take so long for "Face/Off" to hit the screen?
WERB: I don't think that they [the studio] ever understood the script, inexplicably to me, because it is such a Warner Brothers movie. Basically, Stallone was attached to "Demolition Man," and we were over there with our movie, and they saw the two movies as being too similar, so they made one, and ours got shelved. Fortunately, when the option lapsed, three former Silver Pictures executives were tracking the expiration date from their new companies -- New Line, Columbia and Paramount. The instant the option lapsed we had a lot of action.
SSSD: When did "Face/Off" go into production?
WERB: It went into production on Halloween 1996, and we wrapped on April Fool's Day 1997. We had three directors before John Woo, and we wrote over thirty drafts.
SSSD: You and your partner stayed with the project the entire time?
WERB: All the way; we were never off the project.
SSSD: So the finished product was very close to your original idea?
WERB: Very close. In fact, we even got our original ending. We had one test audience that had a little trouble with the ending that had been shot (without the little boy returning to the Archer home). So the studio, at rather a great expense, got John Travolta, Joan Allen, Dominique Swain and the kid to come back and shoot the scene with the orphan coming to live with the family. It is a rare thing that you hear a writer applauding the NRG people, but thank God for the research group. The next time we tested, the numbers went through the roof. There was spontaneous and thunderous applause at the end.
SSSD: How did you come up with the idea for "Face/Off"?
WERB: I wish that I could say that it was just an epiphany, but it was a confluence of events. We saw "White Heat" in an old movie house, and we were pretty inspired by a certain sequence in that. We were thinking of doing a story set in a prison of the future. A friend of a friend of mine had been in a hang-gliding accident and they had to remove his entire face, reconstruct all his bones and tissue, and then put it back on. We thought that if that can happen, then why not switch with someone? Also, we were sick of all the action films that depicted the bad guy as a giggling psycho bent on taking over the world. We thought, "Why can't there be a movie where the bad guy is every bit as interesting as the good guy?" From there, we spun off into, "What if they become each other," and from there we wondered how we could do that? There were a lot of options, voodoo among them, but we wanted to make it as real and sick and psychological as possible. Once we were there, we wondered what would make this guy mutilate himself like that? What is he so obsessed with? That's when the idea of the death of his son came in, and once we had that, it took only about five days to scene card the whole movie. Despite the thirty odd drafts, the structure of "Face/Off" remains what it was on those original cards.
SSSD: You have a lot of action sequences that take up a lot of screen time. How did you write those?
WERB: It was very detailed. My favorite action scene couldn't be shot because it was too expensive, and that was the real escape from the underwater prison. Nic was very upset when that got cut out. Unfortunately, it would have cost a million dollars a minute. We wrote the action out as we saw it, and when John Woo came on, we worked very closely with him and (later) with the storyboard artists to actualize John's vision.
SSSD: When you originally wrote the screenplay, then, you had all those action sequences written in?
WERB: A lot of that changed, actually. The movie was originally very futuristic, and it was significantly more of a roller-coaster ride. When it left Warners and went to Paramount, we had a very long discussion with the producers about what we really thought the movie was about and it became much more psychological. Of course, when it became more psychological, we raised the question of how much in the future does it really have to be, and we discovered that it is really five minutes in the future. Ironically, last week I was watching ABC News and I saw a promo, "The ?Face/Off' surgery: It will be possible!" Apparently within two or three months some medical clinic is going to be harvesting the faces of cadavers and putting them on the faces of people with horrible disfigurements. I thought, "Well, there's the sequel." John wanted to do a motorboat chase in the end, and we were all excited about writing that. Here's one example of the crazy rewriting process: the scene in which Nic Cage gets put into his vegetative state at beginning of the movie. Originally Nic was flash-frozen by liquid nitrogen, but (Paramount) didn't like that. Then, we had him climb up the air traffic control tower and he crashes through the tower window, ending up in a coma. John said, "No, come up with another (stunt). Then, we had him electrocuted by some high voltage wires. That didn't work. Finally, we came up with the turbine idea, and that's what ended up in the movie.
SSSD: So it was totally up to John, then?
WERB: The final decision? Absolutely. Another action scene, the carousel child murder, was originally written as a flashback in the middle of the film. But Michael and I talked about it and suggested that the movie start out with this scene and John totally supported that. He was a very collaborative person to work with.
SSSD: Whatever they asked you to do, you rewrote whatever they wanted?
WERB: No. It wasn't secretarial duty. If we objected to something, we would argue about it. There was an issue of whether the hero should sleep with his enemy's girlfriend, because the bad guy was sleeping with the good guy's wife. I had a huge objection to it. First of all, his wife was getting raped although she didn't know it, and second, he already had enough to explain to his wife at the end of this movie - he just wasn't that kind of guy, so we didn't do that. Luckily, John agreed with us.
SSSD: So most of those issues weren't huge objections?
WERB: The big issue was that they didn't want the little boy to come back at the end, and to their enormous credit, they are such wonderful people at Paramount that when we re-shot and re-tested the ending, the head of the studio said, "Your instincts were totally right." I had a great experience over there. The favorite review we got was from the Washington Post, which said, "Hats off to Paramount for green lighting the strangest studio film ever made." It is a strange movie, and I think that the more we changed it into a psychological piece, the more we were able to attract people like John Woo and those two brilliant actors. Without John Woo, Nic Cage, and John Travolta, it could easily have been bad.
SSSD: Can you tell us about "Hamlet," the spec script that you sold?
WERB: Pre "Babe" -- my pig that works for the DEA. It's a comedy that I wrote in a writers' group. I realized that after writing the biopic, "Machine Gun Kelly" for Columbia that I wanted to write something fun. I wanted to write something that I knew, and my grandfather was a pig farmer, and I have always fancied pigs. At the time, I even had a pet pig. I sold the script to Fox.
SSSD: Was this after you sold "Face/Off"?
SSSD: That must have made it quite a bit easier for you.
WERB: I don't think it did because they are such different pieces, and right around that time I started writing "The Mask" for New Line.
SSSD: And your agent sold "Hamlet"?
WERB: Correct. At that time, I was at Triad Artists, and they are now part of William Morris, where I currently am.
SSSD: Why do you think that "Hamlet" didn't get made?
WERB: That script didn't get made because Joe Roth [former Fox studio head] bought it and six weeks later moved to Disney. The script ended up being merged with someone else's script about a German Shepherd, and it became a big mess. They put every writer in town on it.
SSSD: Will you continue writing on spec?
WERB: Yes, definitely, if I have a minute.
SSSD: What advice do you have for writers trying to break into the business?
WERB: Get as much experience as you can. Try and take any writing job you can get. My first assignment was a rewrite for Empire Pictures, something called, "Robot Holocaust." They offered me $700 for the rewrite. I was working as a secretary in a law firm at the time. It's a lot better than filing and being yelled at. I thought that if I could rewrite it in seven days, then it would be cost efficient, and I did. But I would just say, "Keep writing, and don't get discouraged. Try to maintain your sanity, and if you can't maintain your sanity, tap into your insanity."
Get your script read and evaluated by the same folks who read for the agencies
and studios. Discover what's right and wrong with your script and how to improve it.