Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Screenwriter Interview - E. Nicholas Mariani

Hip hip hooray!  About a month ago I reviewed a script that went straight to the top of my Top 25 list, Desperate Hours.  I since swindled the writer, E. Nicholas Mariani, to join me for lunch, trapping him in a situation where he had no choice but to say yes to an interview.  I was blown away by Nick's preparation and dedication to the craft.  He admits he has his weaknesses (where?? I don't see them!), but tries to overcome them with good old-fashioned hard work.  Here's our interview!  

SS:  Can you tell us a little about your screenwriting background? Before The Flight of Nez Perce got on the Black List, how many scripts had you written? How long had you been writing?

ENM: I started to really focus on screenwriting shortly after graduating from film school. Like many other people, I came to LA with dreams of being the next Steven Spielberg, but quickly discovered they weren’t just giving those jobs away. Writing was the one thing I could do in the midnight hours that didn’t require a crew or significant amounts of money. So, every night after work, I’d come home, sit down at my computer, and force myself to write until one or two in the morning.

My first real effort was a screenplay called THE LAST LONE INVENTOR, which chronicled Philo T. Farnsworth’s epic “David vs. Goliath” battle with David Sarnoff over the invention of television. It was based on a book that a friend of mine had optioned. We were about 110 pages into the script when it was suddenly announced that Steven Spielberg and Aaron Sorkin were doing a Broadway play based on the same story. As you can imagine, that promptly killed our project. So I put that script into a desk drawer – where it remains to this day – and decided to focus on another story I had always been passionate about: THE FLIGHT OF THE NEZ PERCE.

SS: Did you get your agent before that happened? How did you get your agent? Actually, how did you get your manager AND your agent?

ENM: After I finished THE FLIGHT OF THE NEZ PERCE, I gave it to a few industry friends to read. We were all working as assistants at the time and my assumption was they’d skim through it, have a good laugh, and then ridicule me for wasting six months of my life. As your guest reviewer rightly points out, it’s not exactly a “four quadrant summer tentpole” movie. But, much to my surprise, they liked it and started passing it around. One of my friends, Adam Yoelin – who is now an executive at Flynn Picture Co. – sent it to Britton Rizzio at Circle of Confusion. She read the script, asked me to lunch, and signed me before the check came. I was honestly thrilled. A few months later, an executive at Dreamworks sent the script to Charlie Ferraro and Jenny Maryasis at UTA. I ended up signing with them, as well. And the rest, I guess, is history.

SS: Desperate Hours sold to Johnny Depp’s company. How did that happen? Can you explain how the sale went down?

ENM: The process was actually pretty simple and straightforward. After I finished the script, my agents sent it out to a few places. Johnny Depp’s company really responded to the material and brought it to GK Films, where they have a producing deal. Graham King read the script and offered to buy it. The entire thing went down around Thanksgiving and made for a very nice holiday weekend.

SS: I tell a lot of writers to avoid period pieces because they’re such hard sells. You obviously haven’t been listening! For those other writers out there who love this genre, what’s your advice to them? How do you write a great period piece and how do you sell a period piece?

ENM: I’d offer three pieces of advice, for whatever it’s worth.

First, make sure that the story you’re telling has a modicum of cultural relevancy so that it resonates with audiences today. The best “period pieces” have always had more to say about the times in which they’re made than the times in which they depict. Take any John Ford western from the 1950s and compare it to the westerns of the 1970s, for example. Or consider for a moment why Arthur Miller wrote THE CRUCIBLE during the McCarthy hearings. The power of history has always been rooted in its ability to inform the present through events of the past.

Second, if your goal is to sell a piece of material (as opposed to finding representation or creating a calling card for yourself), then I would highly encourage writers to tell stories that are contained, modestly budgeted, and offer great roles for leading actors. There’s a reason why DESPERATE HOURS sold while THE FLIGHT OF THE NEZ PERCE remains on the market. Writers should bear this in mind before putting pen to paper.

And finally, at the end of the day, period pieces may be tough sells, but it’s also important that writers tell stories they’re passionate about. That’s the only way you can hope to distinguish yourself on the page. Personally, I can tell you that every good thing that’s happened in my life – both professionally and personally – has come as direct consequence of doing something I really believe in. The deck is already stacked against you as a writer. There’s no reason not to swing for the fences.

SS: One of the biggest problems I see with amateur period pieces is that the writer doesn’t seem to know that much more than I do about the subject matter. With you, it’s the opposite. Desperate Hours is so rich with backstory and history. How do you achieve that? What’s your secret?

There’s no secret, it’s just a matter of doing your homework. I read more than 10,000 pages of research material before starting THE FLIGHT OF THE NEZ PERCE. For DESPERATE HOURS, I read books on everything from the Rough Riders and the Spanish-American War to World War I and the Influenza pandemic. I also tracked down survivor testimony and even spoke to a few people who had lived through the crisis. I’m currently writing a movie for Alcon Entertainment that takes place in Romania during World War II. I knew very little about that country’s history when I started, so I got my hands on every book I could find and also read biographies on all the real life people who are depicted in the movie.

The research ends up being a lot of work, but I think it’s essential for the script to feel authentic. And, if I’m being completely honest, I have to say it’s also my favorite part of the process. I feel very fortunate to have a job where I get paid to educate myself. Very few people are that lucky.

SS: One of the things I loved about this script was the inherent conflict within all the relationships. They all dated back to many years ago and needed to be hashed out here and now, within the timeframe of this story. What’s your approach to your characters and your relationships? Do you hash all that out ahead of time or do you figure it out on the way?

ENM: I’m sure every writer’s process is different, but I’ve found that I really need three things to get started: the world, the theme, and “the way into” the story. Once I have those elements, the narrative starts to unfold and I’m usually able to figure out the rest as I go along. For example, it wasn’t until the second draft of DESPERATE HOURS that I had the idea of combining the town’s sheriff and the mayor into one character in order to underscore the town’s utter devastation. Similarly, Edward’s limp was just a character trait until I suddenly realized that I could use it to catalyze Tom’s turning point in a critical moment of the story. This type of approach probably results in a longer writing process, but it’s honestly how I get my best ideas.

SS: That leads to an obvious question – How long did it take you to write Desperate Hours, from conception of the idea to the final draft? How many drafts did it take you?

ENM: The process took about a year from start to finish and I ended up doing three separate drafts before turning it into my manager. That probably seems like a long time, but in my defense, I booked a couple jobs in between and, as I mentioned earlier, there was a considerable amount of research involved.

But if I’m being completely candid, I also have to admit that I was unaware when I began just how difficult it is to construct a truly effective “slow burn” thriller. Writing DESPERATE HOURS gave me a whole new level of appreciation for HIGH NOON. That film is so elegant and deceptively simple. Figuring out how to ratchet up the suspense scene by scene, while developing theme and characters in concert with a real time plot is, by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a writer.

SS: Since rewriting is the area where scripts get perfected, I’d love to know what your rewriting process is like.

ENM: For me, rewriting isn’t just where scripts get “perfected” (if that’s even possible), it’s where the real writing begins. Once I’ve finished the first draft, I print out a hard copy and go to a neighborhood restaurant with a red pen and just start to tear the thing apart. I write whole new scenes by hand, move things around, combine characters, etc. By the time I’m done, there’s usually more red ink on the paper than there is black.

I really love this part of the process because it’s invigorating. You begin to imagine the story and the characters in a whole new way. It’s almost as if you can put yourself in the audience’s position for the very first time. It’s here that you begin to come up with all those great little moments of connective tissue and “scenes between scenes” that really flesh out the arc of the story and propel the characters forward.

SS: Another thing I really loved about your script was that each act was distinct and unique. You had the first act, which had our hero coming back into society, the second, which centered around the mystery of the girl, and the third, which was the town invasion. Do you deliberately try to make each act unique or was that just a byproduct of this story? How do you approach structure in general?

ENM: That specific example was a byproduct of the story, but I do give quite a bit of thought to structure before I begin writing. I just ask myself the basic questions: What am I ultimately building towards? What’s the thematic arc of the story? And what’s the most effective way to take an audience on that journey?

For example, what I always found so gut wrenching about the Nez Perce story was the fact that 800 people, mostly women and children, began a journey and less than half of them survived. So the logical question then became, “How do you make an audience feel that kind of loss?” And what I ultimately concluded, for better or worse, is that the movie needed to be an ensemble – centered around Joseph – and that it needed to be populated by a large community of characters – each with their own personal stories – who would then be killed off in a very brutal fashion. I knew what I was building towards the entire time: the penultimate scene on the train where Joseph and Oyema glance at each other and the audience realizes they’re the only ones left.

SS: You caught some flak (from others, not me) about your script starting too slow. Why did you start it slow and how did you plan to keep the reader interested when you really weren’t getting into any story until the second act?

ENM: Well, I’d start by asking all those people who threw up flak to stop and consider how their favorite “period pieces” are structured. The Godfather begins with a twenty-minute wedding sequence whose sole purpose is to establish the world of the movie and introduce you to all the characters. Braveheart spends its first forty-five minutes building a love story only to have it end tragically and trigger the main plot. Road to Perdition spends its first thirty minutes setting up the world of Michael Sullivan and then uses the ACT I climax to incite the rest of the movie.

When it comes to period pieces, I think it’s critically important to establish the world and characters first before triggering the main plot. In my experience, when you try to do all three things at once, you end up creating something that’s muddled and contrived. Honestly, it’s one of the main reasons I think movies are really suffering today. Everyone feels like they need to hit the ground running. The problem is, when you hit the ground running, you don’t have enough time to really hit your stride.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, starting a movie like DESPERATE HOURS or THE FLIGHT OF THE NEZ PERCE with a “slow build” allows you to pull the audience in and make them really care about the characters. In my opinion, this is the most important thing you can do in the first act and it will always pay dividends later on when you start turning the screws and putting your characters through hell.

SS: You told me that your biggest weakness is your dialogue. Why do you think it’s a weakness and what do you do to combat that weakness?

ENM: Yeah, I do feel like dialogue is my biggest weakness and it looks like many of your readers agree with me! LOL.

What I’m really trying to work on right now, especially with my historical scripts, is cadence in the language and making each character voice sound unique, as opposed to different versions of myself. David Webb Peoples really sets the gold standard here, as far as I’m concerned. Whenever I want to feel bad about myself, I watch UNFORGIVEN. I am so envious of the dialogue in that movie and how it sounds so crisp and authentic. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that’s how people spoke in 1870s Wyoming.

As far as “combating my weakness” goes, I’m honestly not sure. Part of me hopes it’s a function of age and that I’ll improve as I get older. I suspect it’s like developing any other muscle. You just have to work hard and see if it gets stronger.

SS: I’ve been running into a lot of writers lately in their 5th or 6th year of writing who are frustrated that they haven’t made it yet. It looks like it took awhile for you to break through. What would you tell those writers? How did you yourself find the motivation to keep going?

ENM: I would just say keep trying and be yourself. I struggled for years, in part, because I was trying to imitate others instead of developing my own voice. Find the stories you’re passionate about and don’t try to be something you’re not. And, most importantly, if you love writing, then keep doing it – regardless of whether you “break through” or not. Paper is free. Ideas are free. There’s no excuse to quit. So keep typing and remember that Norman Maclean was in his 70s when A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT was finally published. I’m sure he would’ve loved for it to happen sooner, but he got the last laugh just the same.

By the way, do you know what I love most about A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT? The slow build. :)

SS: Last question: When are we going to see Desperate Hours made??

ENM: That’s a question for the studio, my friend. :)