Okay so a little background on this one. Last week I read this AMAZING screenplay, Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney’s endless journey to convince the author of Mary Poppins to allow him to make a movie out of her famous character. Banks is being developed at Disney with a dream cast rumored, led by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.
Anyway, while I was reading it, I was tweeting about how awesome it was. And some girl kept freaking out, responding to my tweets like I was announcing free money or something. She was talking about dancing on tables and just really excited. I was like, “Uhhhh, who is this freak?” I mean, I’m all for getting excited about me liking a script, but this was overboard. Eventually I figured out that person was Kelly Marcel, the WRITER of Saving Mr. Banks.
Naturally, then, I told her she had to give me an interview. I don’t know if she normally responds well to being told what to do but she agreed on one condition. That we talk about dogs and cake. Hey, you know those Brits. They can be a little [me making cuckoo noise]. I’d soon find out the complex inner workings of Miss Marcel, rooted by our shared passion for cupcakes. I explained to her that there was this place in Chicago that served this delectable cupcake called the “cookie monster” which had cookie dough baked into the cupcake. I’m pretty sure that if she wasn’t working on Banks rewrites at Disney, that she might have hopped on the plane right then. Anyway, that might help you understand a few parts of this interview. Enjoy!
SS: You had a totally rational stipulation for doing this interview. You said you’d only do it if I asked you about cake and dogs. So let’s start with cake. Do you prefer yellow cake with chocolate frosting or chocolate cake with…yellow… frosting?
KM: I just like cake; any kind of cake with any kind of frosting. It seems I have a cake-shaped hole in my life since hearing about the Cookie Monster cupcake you mentioned the other day.
SS: You’re from the UK. What’s the big difference between British dogs and American dogs?
KM: US dogs speak with funny accents, wear designer clothes and ride around in strollers. UK dogs are furless, aloof, survive mainly on a diet of bananas and can say the words “bugger” and “helicopter.”
SS: I should also point out that you didn’t want to do the interview because, quote, you’re “not interesting.” What’s not interesting about you?
KM: The only people who are interesting are the ones who have the banana helicopter dogs. Mine are both from Norway where dogs are rubbish. They just eat, sleep and shit and only know the word “ball.”
SS: Okay, now we actually get to talk screenwriting! Can you tell me how long you’ve been screenwriting?
KM: 10 looooonnnng yeeeeeeears.
SS: About how long would you say it was before you started to “get it?” And what script were you writing when that happened? Why do you think that was the script that signified your big break-through?
KM: I would say that the rewrite I did on Bronson was a significant moment for me. It forced me to overcome the paralyzing fear of beginning. I was writing on set during shooting and knowing that whatever went on the page was going to be filmed allowed a great freedom. It taught me to write with abandon and stop worrying so much - some people are going to like it, some people aren’t but at some point you have to start tapping the keys and just do it. I sound like a Nike spokesperson.
SS: In many ways, your screenwriting journey was harder than most. You not only found success, but you did so from another country! For all those screenwriters who complain that they can’t break into Hollywood because they live in Alabama or Kansas, tell us what the secret is to breaking into Hollywood from so far away.
KM: I came to Hollywood! I am very lucky to have a UK agent who also has a great deal to do with the US side of the business. Hi Lucinda! (She reads this blog.) She introduced me to Aaron Kaplan who is a producer over here (I say here because I am in LA at the moment) and he convinced me to come over and pitch Terra Nova and a show called Westbridge I had been tinkering with. TN needed an American sized budget and Westbridge was about the death penalty so they were never going to work in the UK. The wonderful thing about Hollywood is that people want you to succeed here. The tricky thing is getting through the door and for that I would say you have to have a Lucinda who can get you an Aaron who then got me a Phil and a David – who are my really good looking agents at WME (they read this too.)
SS: Okay, Saving Mr. Banks. After this script, I was in love with Pamela, Walt Disney, the script, and you. The biggest thing that stuck out to me about the script was the GREAT CHARACTERS. What’s your approach to writing characters? How do you make them come to life?
KM: You’re in love with me? I’ve been in love with you since the moment you top 25’d my script! Cookie Monster wedding cake?
I have to love my characters before I can write them - no matter how unlikeable they may appear to be. The first thing I do on any project I write is I put pictures of all the characters on the walls of my office (or wherever I am working.) In this case the film was based on real life events so pictures of Walt, PLT, the Shermans were easy to find. If it’s a fictional character like Ralph I’ll find a picture of someone I imagine he looks like. I will also surround myself with anything else that is useful so… pictures of the Disney lot, as it was, exteriors and interiors of PLT’s house. I want to inhabit the world I am creating from the inside rather than as an onlooker. For me that’s the best way to crawl into the people of the piece and feel like I am there with them. I hope that it can then become an encompassing experience for the reader too. Everything, for me, starts and ends with character; I am definitely not a plot driven writer.
SS: I discussed in my review of the script that the main character is pretty darn unlikable. You must have been aware that this might be a problem. Did this worry you? How did you approach it so that we would root for Pamela?
KM: I think if I had allowed myself to think that people would dislike Pamela I would never have taken on the task. I approached her with a great feeling of tenderness; I was moved when I read her story and I enjoyed how ornery she was. I always wanted her to be a character you loved to hate but whom, over time, you came to understand was damaged and could forgive even if it was just a little. Creativity comes from all sorts of places and I admired Pamela for being able to create a character so beloved out of so much pain. John Lee Hancock talks about how her life was shards of glass but that once you put those shards into a frame they become a thing of beauty. I guess that’s what we both hope the audience will see too.
SS: I usually hate flashbacks. But I loved these. How does one make flashbacks work and, in general, when do you advise writers use them and when do you advise users avoid them?
KM: I hate flashbacks too. I still question myself about whether I could have told the back-story differently. In this instance though, I like to think that they work because, despite their constantly informing the present, they actually feel like a film in their own right. At least I hope they do!
SS: You also have some great secondary characters here, such as Ralph, the driver. Do you always put a lot of stock into secondary characters? How do you approach them?
KM: Secondary characters are so much fun. They don’t have the enormous weight on their shoulders that your leads do so those are the characters with whom you can play a bit more. In the Ralph instance, he didn’t actually come along until I was way into the writing. It’s weird saying that because he feels like such an integral piece of the puzzle now. I was starting to feel that there was no one in the story that PLT wasn’t damaging in some way and I didn’t want to be untruthful – in reality she had a lot of friends who loved her. I wanted her to have at least one ally or someone who just wasn’t affected by her in the same way as everyone else.
Hang on! I’m blathering on about Ralph and that’s not even the question you asked me! I do put a lot of stock in secondary characters they’re the ones who let you see a different side to the situation or person in the situation and I approach them as deeply as I do every other character. However small, their story must also come full circle.
SS: I drop-dead LUVVVED that final Walt Disney monologue. You have to tell me what the secret is to writing a great monologue. It’s something that’s not talked about a lot in screenwriting circles, but it should be, as I rarely see it done well. Do you have a checklist or do you just roll with it?
KM: Oh maannn, that’s a hard one. I think doing a monologue - particularly where you are trying to convince someone of something - is a bit like being a lawyer putting together a closing speech. You have to be manipulative without it seeming like you are. I think they are hands down the hardest thing to write and they really only begin to come together in the re-writing-- way into the re-writing. I will be working on that monologue up until shooting and probably never think it’s right. It’ll be one of those situations like when you’ve had an argument and then days later you think “Shit! I should have said that!” ten years from now I’ll be like “I’ve got it!”
SS: Let’s switch over to TV for a second. You created Terra Nova, a HUGE TV show. I don’t know much about the TV world but I know getting a show that huge on the air is difficult. Can you tell me how you did it? I’m so curious.
KM: I wrote a 15 page and a 30 page bible that my UK agent (hi Lucinda!) was convinced she could sell in the States. I thought she was out of her mind. I didn’t realize she had the powerhouse that is Aaron Kaplan in her back pocket and the rest is history. It’s really about those two people and their connections and ability to get me into the networks with an idea. Aaron helped the show along by bringing in a much more established show runner – Craig Silverstein - to pitch with me. I was a nobody at the time, so without Craig I don’t believe anyone would have let me in the toilets let alone the meeting rooms!
SS: What’s the big difference between writing a movie and writing a show like Terra Nova? What are the unique challenges that you only get in the television world?
KM: With television you are writing to commercial break. It’s a four-act structure and every act needs to end with a cliffhanger that makes the audience want to come back and that is HARD to do. It’s entirely different to a film script, which has more of a slow burn and has less of the big jagged MOMENTS you need in television, network particularly. I am fascinated by watching Vince Gilligan do episode after episode on Breaking Bad and making it surprising, exciting and fresh every time. That’s writing as far as I am concerned; that’s where the really hard work is.
SS: Because I’m a selfish person and I need constant gratification, I have to ask you this. You’re a fan of Scriptshadow. You’ve been reading it for a long time. Was there anything you read on the site that really helped you as a screenwriter, in particular with Saving Mr. Banks? If not, could you lie and make something up?
KM: Yes. It really helped to know that someone out there could get their hands on any draft of any script at any time. It filled me absolute dread that one day it might be my script. Basically you terrified me into trying to be a better writer.
SS: What’s the hardest thing about writing for you? How do you combat it?
KM: Beginning. Always beginning. I will do anything…literally anything if I can get out of starting a script. Washing up suddenly becomes a joy. The blank page is my enemy and it’s normally not until there is absolutely nothing left to procrastinate about anymore that I click the dreaded green f.
SS: Finally, I figured I’d pitch you a project we could co-write together. Note that I incorporated your two favorite things. My idea is about a dog who gets jealous that his owner is getting married so he steals the $20,000 dollar wedding cake the day before the wedding. What do you think???
KM: Is it a Cookie Monster wedding cake?