A big year for on-screen dual citizenship

Times Staff Writer

LIKE the stages of grief, there are four steps to accepting one’s fate as a top screenwriter.

1. Excitement: You get your first movie made.

2. Validation: You get your movie made by a top director.

3. Frustration-cum-rage: You get a movie made badly and are cut out of the process.

4. Liberation: You opt to direct your own movie.

That’s how one of the town’s top literary agents dryly describes the writer’s typical evolution.


Consider Mike White, the droll, white-haired scribe behind “The Good Girl” and “School of Rock,” who says he used to be a “really bad backseat driver” on the sets of the movies he wrote. “You’re completely stressed in each situation trying to figure out how to manipulate everyone into doing what you want them to do.” But directing -- that’s a charm, says White. “You can actually say what you want.”

White just helmed his first film -- “Year of the Dog,” the tale of a woman (Molly Shannon) who really, no, really, loves animals. In fact, he joins a bumper crop of brand-name writers making directorial debuts in 2007. They include Oscar nominees Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”) and Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), John August (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), Oscar winner Alan Ball (“American Beauty), Zach Helm (“Stranger Than Fiction”), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies), Robin Swicord (“Little Women”) and perhaps the most singular screenwriter of his generation, Charlie Kaufman, an Oscar winner for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Almost since the beginning of Hollywood, writers have written themselves into becoming directors -- the long list includes Billy Wilder, Barry Levinson and Oliver Stone. What’s changed is the number of opportunities available in the form of billionaires and quasi-billionaires eager to take a chance on proven names who want to direct. Indeed, almost everyone listed above -- even those such as Frank and August, whose films earned billions for the studios -- was financed independently.

In the studio world, the concept has become king, but in the indie realm, the writer-director has become God. As Rich Klubeck, a packaging agent at United Talent Agency notes, “At least today, the writer-director-written movies are working in the marketplace.” Listing films such as “Crash” and “Sideways,” Klubeck says, “These movies are so much more emotionally satisfying than traditional studio movies.”

Joys of a work in progress

FOR the dazzlingly original Kaufman, the impulse to direct is less about the need to protect his material (which was more than ably served by directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry) than the desire to continue his own creative exploration. His scripts don’t leap from his brain fully formed but rather evolve, sometimes over years. “When I’m writing, I tend not to know where things are going,” he explains. “I like that process. It just seems like a natural progression to directing.”

Kaufman is in New York prepping his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York.” Last year, when he directed Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage in a set of radio plays, he noticed that directing allowed him to further his idiosyncratic development process. “I was able to change a line and change the play and add things and take away things. The product felt more finished by being able to do that. I’m imagining that will be part of the process here.”

Unlike many screenwriters, the brand-name writers do not appear to be an aggrieved lot. They’ve largely felt Hollywood’s warm glow -- and its financial embrace. Top studio screenwriters generally earn $2 million to $3 million for a script and $250,000 to $300,000 a week for polishing other people’s films.

But like almost everyone who works in the industry, even they have felt the chill of the new soullessness that comes with making industrial pop-culture products. Many writers discuss how marketing has superseded storytelling in the moviemaking equation. Studios routinely ask for less complexity, says Frank. “Think about how many people and names there are in ‘The Godfather.’ They’d never let you do that today: ‘It’s too confusing.’ ”

And studios, even art-house divisions, rarely allow writers to make their directorial debuts. As producer Mark Gill explains, “Studios are nervous that in a world where eye candy pops at the box office, writers aren’t the people who can deliver eye candy. My argument would be that the writers are the people who know about storytelling.”

“There’s no shortage of untalented people passing themselves off as directors,” adds writer-director Gilroy, pointing out that not every hot video director turns out to be a Scorsese. “Writers have a huge advantage when it comes to directing,” he says. “You’re probably coming in with a pretty tidy script. You can answer the actors’ questions and can change on the spot because you’re not precious about the material.”

Still it’s notoriously hard to gauge which writer will make a good director.

With credits such as “Jurassic Park” and “Spider-Man,” David Koepp might be the most commercially successful screenwriter working today, but none of the films he’s directed -- including “The Trigger Effect” and “Secret Window” -- was a hit with audiences or critics.

Another Oscar winner, “Traffic’s” Stephen Gaghan, bombed with his directorial debut, “Abandon,” before making “Syriana.” Conversely, Paul Haggis was just an obscure TV writer when “Crash” began.

“We see a lot of material from writers who want to direct,” says producer Bill Horberg, who earlier in his career produced writer Steve Zaillian’s directorial debut, “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Horberg is the president of Sidney Kimmell Entertainment, which has the funds to finance four to six films a year, all under $20 million. Still, getting Kimmell to back a film is harder than getting into Sundance; Horberg estimates the company receives 30 to 35 script submissions a week. The company is now funding “Synecdoche.”

Horberg explains how the company assesses writers. “The question is: Have they ever directed anything ever, theater, TV? It’s also the evaluation of what is their ability to attract talent.” That said, at the end of the day, Horberg says, “It’s a leap of faith every time.”

Real life seeps in

ODDLY enough, “Synecdoche, New York” began three years ago as a horror film for Sony with Jonze directing. “I was thinking about things that are really scary to me, not horror-movie scary,” says Kaufman, and the film evolved into a meditation “about getting ill and dying, about time moving too quickly as you get older, and not feeling that you’ve accomplished what you’ve hoped for. There are issues of enormous relationship nightmares that I was thinking about. Losing his family. Losing the respect of his wife.”

Kaufman adds that the film reverses the tropes of a work such as “Eternal Sunshine,” in which his hero literally climbs into his inner life. Here, “The outside world is a reflection of his inner state.” In fact, the hero, a dying theater director, attempts to stage a play -- a kind of living simulacrum of his life -- in a New York warehouse.

On paper, “Synecdoche” is positively epic compared with Kauffman’s earlier films, but he sounds undaunted: “It’s feeling feasible at this point. The basic idea of how we’re going to create an entire city in a warehouse -- we’ve solved that problem.”

Like Kaufman, August and White have made distinctly personal films, albeit on a much smaller scale. Both were inspired by miserable experiences on failed TV shows.

White says that when he moved into his new home he “inherited” a stray cat, to which he unexpectedly became attached. “I was doing a TV show for Fox [‘Cracking Up’], and I was losing my mind. It was Christmas, and I was going to catch up on scripts. The cat unexpectedly died in my arms on Christmas Day. The death of the cat spun me out,” he says. “I ended up writing the most depressing half-hour TV show ever. I had a breakdown during filming stemming from the cat dying.” The TV show got shut down. “It was an interesting premise for a movie -- something like that, when you least expect it, can change your outlook on life.”

White is one of the few screenwriters whose $5-million film was backed by a studio -- the executive producer of the failed TV show was Brad Grey, now head of Paramount Pictures. “It’s definitely the best gift I’ve ever gotten,” says White.

“The Nines,” August’s trippy tale of a character’s multiple worlds (as a spoiled actor, a furious TV show runner and a game designer), was triggered by his “nervous breakdown moment” he had working on the short-lived TV show “D.C.” “It was so all-consuming that I did just get lost in it, and it was hard to distinguish between being inside the show and being outside the show.”

August shot much of the privately financed Chinese box of a film in his house, and relished the break from big-tent filmmaking. He exorcised his screenwriting demons. “Most of what I do never makes it to the screen,” he says, voicing a common lament. “I feel all this responsibility to those characters and these stories. They’re half alive. They’re trapped in 12-point Courier.”

“The Nines,” he says, deals with “the responsibility of a creator to his creations. You can look at it from a religious point of view. If you create this whole universe, are you responsible for making sure it sticks around?”

Projects’ winding paths

WHILE Frank’s film “The Lookout” also deals with existential questions of identity -- his main character is a brain-damaged former high school star athlete -- he’s grafted his concerns onto an intricate crime thriller. Unlike White or Kaufman, neither he nor Gilroy has dabbled in the indie arena, and both of their new films could have conceivably been financed by a mini-major if only they hadn’t wanted to direct. Both films ended up with studio distribution.

Gilroy spent five years trying to get his movie, “Michael Clayton,” made, mostly hoping to get “a movie star to waive their fee for the part and convince someone seriously bankable that I could be a director. The difficulty is made greater by the capricious behavior of movie stars. You wait a long time to get a read, even if your scripts are known.”

Gilroy’s film, which has been getting buzz among the cognoscenti, concerns a fixer at a prestigious New York law firm who’s “evolved into the glamorous and degrading position of cleaning up large and small personal problems for clients. It’s four very bad days in his life.”

Ultimately, Boston developer turned movie financier Steve Samuels partly financed the $20-million-plus film. A week later, Gilroy got an interview with George Clooney, who’d passed on the film two years earlier. “I cravenly begged for a meeting. I never had met him,” Gilroy says. He walked out with a star.

Gilroy was introduced to Samuels and Clooney by his new agents at Creative Artists Agency. In the nonstudio world, agents have become the essential middlemen, the ones with the introductions to the billionaires. UTA set Kaufman up with Kimmel’s company. As one top writer’s agent notes, with private backers, writers can “get incredible creative rights and certain types of ownership they’d never get from a studio. For a lot of guys, creative freedom is more important.”

Whatever the reception of their films, most of the class of 2007 seems to have enjoyed controlling their stories. Some, like Gilroy, only want to direct in the future, while others, like August, plan on moving between directing and screenwriting. Some rejoice at returning to the solitude of the writer’s life. Others, not so much.

“I enjoyed the social aspect a lot,” says White. “When I was younger, I loved being alone and spending tons of time in reverie coming up with things. As I get older, it feels more like I’m being punished. I have to go back to the cave and everybody else is at the party. When directing, it’s a very unreal kind of relationship you have with people. You’re in charge. They’re all trying to please you. It becomes addictive. You see why people like that job, the ego stroking and the pleasure of remaking the world in your own way. It’s like coming down off a drug. I’m having a bit of withdrawal.”