MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Great … Scott!

What seems rather commonplace, even organic today – a screenwriter taking the reins of his script – was once a rather radical proposition. We’ve all been privy to yarns about brilliant scripts transformed into pedestrian vehicles by filmmakers with indifferent credentials that simply didn’t “get it.”

The godfather of all writer-directors was Preston Sturges who – presumably talking just as fast as the characters of his madcap comedies – sold Paramount on letting him direct one of his zany tales back in 1940. His maiden effort, The Great McGinty, weaved the saga of a hapless chap turned into a political dynamo by corrupt powerbrokers into something timeless as well as bitingly satiric, funny and incredibly well observed. Above all it was a hit and Sturges turned it into a sweetheart deal that would spawn such classics as The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.

Sturges was even more eccentric than his cinematic creations. He worked at a snail’s pace to the studio’s dismay and often shut down at noon to handle chores at his chic restaurant The Player’s Club on Sunset. But the initial films were incredible box office successes. He had five great years, five years of diminishing returns and 20 years exiled to the kitchen.

His Paramount stablemate Billy Wilder would however emerge as the poster boy for all future writer-directors with a string of critical and commercial pictures that includedSunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, Sabrina and Oscars for writing, directing and picture for The Lost Weekend and The Apartment. Since The Godfather, Part II, Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, Robert Benton, James Brooks, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Anthony Minghella, Peter Jackson and Paul Haggishave joined the ranks of writers that have crossed over and garnered kudos as multi-hyphenates.

Putting aside lackluster transitions for the likes of Nunnally Johnson and Ernest Lehman or the erratic director careers of John Sayles and Paul Schrader, the siren call for scribes to become helmers is virtually impossible to ignore especially since the advent and influence of the auteur theory.

Scott Frank is, by the current yardstick, a late starter. His credit roll of Get Shorty, Malice, Little Man Tate, Out of Sight, The Interpreter and Minority Report by rights should have provided him with a directing assignment a decade ago.

“I’ve got a good marriage and good kids,” says Frank. “Basically I didn’t want to jeopardize either. Writers pretty much get to stay close to home but directing is all consuming and that allows you to forget what’s really important in your life. Keeping one’s priority in check and maintaining a sane perspective is probably the biggest challenge in this industry.”

Frank’s first hyphenated effort The Lookout (opening March 30) is a cat’s cradle of intrigue, humor and social consciousness. Set in a rural Kansas community (though filmed in Canada), it focuses on Chris (Joseph Gordon-Lewis), a local golden boy who sustains head trauma in a joy ride gone awry. Plagued by memory lapses, he’s reduced to gainful employment cleaning the bank after hours. A presumably chance encounter will thrust him into the title role in one of those perfect crimes anxious to go off the tracks at a moments notice.

The Lookout is a script that dates back about a dozen years. At one time Sam Mendeswas attached to direct; more recently David Fincher was going to make it but opted instead to do Zodiac.

The seemingly obvious template would suggest that Frank stepped in like some chorine in a Busby Berkeley musical. He says it evolved less dramatically.

“I just made myself the director. … I’d lived with the material a long time and the script that was developed with Fincher was relatively close to what was shot. But more to the point I need a different kind of challenge. I was ready and my family was ready for me to direct.”

DreamWorks, the company that held the rights, wasn’t quite so sure and put the project it had held and cultivated for a decade into turnaround. Fincher had envisioned the project as a vehicle for two male stars while Frank wanted something closer to the ground, grittier and more manageable.

Eventually The Lookout found a home at Spyglass, based at Disney and well established since its first production – The Sixth Sense – turned a relatively unheralded writer-director into a commercial franchise. Company execs were willing to take the ride with Frank as long as the film could be produced for less than $20 million.

“It’s always about the deal,” Frank observes with just the slightest hint of rancor. “I wasn’t really resistant about shooting in Canada but I was really skeptical about shooting digitally. We did a lot of tests because it was very important to me that it look like film. I didn’t want that artificial quality you find in Collateral or Miami Vice.”

Frank wasn’t a total novice behind the camera. He had done some second unit work on a couple of films including Minority Report. It also helped that he writes visually. Frank has a clear sense of the ambiance of a scene when he’s writing a script and though he feels it’s counterproductive to put in a lot of direction, he has a clear vision of the camera angles and cutting rhythms even if they rarely conform to other director’s visions.

While he stops short of describing The Lookout as an “easy” shoot, he concedes that the safety of the page can be daunting in the face of the uncertainty of a film set. You don’t have to fight weather or the logistics of a location when you’re writing a script.

“I liked the experience and that ranks just about on the bottom rung when it comes to doing it again,” he notes. “The film has to do respectably for starters and next time out there will still be all sorts of considerations about budget and cast. I’ve got a western script I’d like to and it’s almost impossible to convince anyone that genre is commercial.”

Whether his next direction assignment happens sooner or later, Frank remains a self-described “happy writer” and someone with a home life that keeps him centered and honest. He projects a degree of centeredness that’s refreshing; there’s a matter-of-factness about experiences both good and bad.

“Essentially I’m an extremely slow writer when it comes to my projects,” he says. “So I have to be grateful that I get a lot of re-writes. It gets me into a different space and it’s always interesting to see what people want.”

When he talks about writing assignments he’ll interject the phrase “I can’t do that” or “I don’t know how to do that.” It’s said without shadings; it’s simply a fact and sometimes his inability to do something a filmmaker wanted ultimately didn’t matter. In other instances it simply meant a parting of the ways and the hiring of someone else to finish the script. But he proffers it without bias toward the project or filmmaking.

The Lookout provided him with a new muscle to flex and its clear he doesn’t want what he’s developed to turn into flab.

March 29, 2007

– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon