Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Interview with Ben Ripley - writer of Source Code

As many of you know, I love Source Code. I just love it. I think it's one of best (if not the best) executed Sci-Fi scripts I've ever read. I often toy with the idea of placing it number 1 on my Favorites List, and why wouldn't I? It finished number 1 on the readers faves, getting nearly double the votes of the next highest script. People love this script.

Late last year, Ben Ripley got the news that every writer dreams of, that his spec script, a story he and he alone came up with, was getting a green light, with Jake Gyllenhaal attached to star and Duncan Jones to direct. After finally seeing Moon a couple of weeks ago, I can honestly say this is a dream match-up. If you can suffer through one of my early reviews on the site, I talked about this script roughly a year ago today. It's more a reaction than a review, but it gives you a sense of why I was so impressed with it. Well, a year later and I finally got to chat with the writer himself. Ben Ripley is repped by Bayard Maybank at Hohman Maybank Lieb, and managed by Michael Lasker at Mosaic.

Gyllenhaal will be starring in Source Code.

SS: Can you tell us how you got into writing, and bring us up to speed on your career before you sold Source Code?

BR: Like a lot of people, I had, from an early age, a love for movies and a curiosity to know how they were made. As I went through school, I noticed writing came somewhat easily to me, so a screenwriting career eventually made sense as a way to pursuing filmmaking while building on that strength. I was an English major in college and then received my formal training in the graduate screening program at USC film school. While film school is not a prerequisite for working in Hollywood, it does break down all the major components of the process and allow hands on practice of each discipline – editing, production, acting and writing. You also learn how to roll coaxial cable into perfect coils.

Even with an advanced degree, there is still no set path for getting into the industry. You have to fend for yourself and search for any way in you can find. I worked as an assistant at a production company and at a post production house, in addition to a few years outside of the industry as a grant writer for a non-profit foundation. There were plenty of opportunities to give up on screenwriting, to try something else, but I kept writing scripts, and those scripts eventually found their way into hands of a literary agency who offered to represent me. It still took four more years, and perhaps five or six additional scripts, before the first one sold to Fox. It was a horror film, it never got made, but it got me in and got me assignment work for the next several years. During that time I had three direct-to-DVD movies made. That kind of work is completely off the cultural radar, but it did teach me a lot about how to write for production.

SS: How did the sale for Source Code come about? How did the script becoming a go picture come about?

BR: Mark Gordon, the producer, became involved with the project while I was writing it on spec. At the time we went out with it, Topher Grace was attached to play the lead role, and I think an actor attachment always helps create buzz. Topher and Mark personally spoke with all the studios to lay the groundwork, and a few days after it went out we had more than one offer and interest just kept building. As a writer, it was one of those fairy tale moments – but also nerve wracking. In the end, Mark felt most comfortable with the script going to Universal. Incidentally, the Universal VP who brought the project into the studio was Scott Bernstein, with whom I had actually discussed the idea for Source Code a year before. So Scott was already familiar with the story and enthusiastic about it.

Source Code always had momentum. The studio went immediately to directors. There was zero development hell. What that taught me, at least in terms of spec scripts, is that the stronger you make it when it sells, the less creative interference will come afterwards. The script started to become a go movie after Billy Ray did a few weeks of targeted work bringing out a few more aspects of my script. Off that we got the attachments of Duncan Jones to direct and Jake Gyllenhaal to star. The final piece was Mark Gordon moving the project over to a new financing company called Vendome, which was passionate about making Source Code its first movie, with Summit distributing.

3) Why did you write Source Code? Did you write it because it was a great idea you had? Did you write it because you thought its specific elements gave it the best chance to sell? How did this script come to be?

BR: I wrote Source Code because I was discouraged with the work I was then getting. In the four years between the sale of my first spec and that of Source Code, I was mostly doing rewrites on other people’s horror scripts. I’d put a lot of effort into them, I’d get paid, and then the scripts would just sit there. I felt I had more to say creatively, and the great thing about being a writer in Hollywood, the source of our power, is the ability to generate new material.

Source Code was an immensely difficult script for me to write. All I had at the beginning was the impulse to tell a non-linear story with a structure like Groundhog Day, where you experienced the same event repeatedly. I asked myself if there was a science fiction conceit that would be the occasion for the narrative, and before long I had the setting on the train and the idea that source code would be used as a tool in a terrorism procedural.

From that point to the finished script was still many, many drafts and a lot of trial and error. Three people were instrumental in helping me shape it: Michael Lasker, my manager, and two guys at the Mark Gordon Company, Lawrence Inglee and Jordan Wynn. All of them believed in the potential of the film and were excited enough to roll up their sleeves and work with me to figure it out. They pushed me pretty hard to elevate the material, to think of it more as a character mystery than a conventional thriller, to subtract out much of the science and leave the mysteries intact. Without that kind of dynamic back and forth with collaborators who saw what it could be and kept at me until it was on the page, Source Code could not have been written. And by the way, as a writer, you want to partner with people who are as excited as you are – people who like movies, enjoy the creative process and see possibilities more than they see problems.

SS: What was the most important element (or elements) you focused on getting right in the script (character, theme, plot, etc.)? And how did you go about achieving it (them)?

BR: Everything was important. The narrative had to flow. The main character’s dilemma – moving from confusion to a slow awakening to just how awful his situation really was – had to be the reader’s experience as well. The technology had to feel mysterious. It had to end correctly. But the most important thing, I think, was ultimately the structure. I was in the third or fourth draft when I realized that this story only needed to have two settings – the train and the isolation chamber. And if you started the guy on the train, in some degree of confusion, and you slammed him back and forth between the two worlds, that was the movie. That binary structure was key: it simplified the noise, kept the narrative moving, gave the reader the identical experience as the main character’s and differentiated the script from the other stuff out there. Its very simplicity became its high concept. None of that was planned from the beginning – none of it was outlined. It all had to come during the process of discovery in the writing.

SS: Did you know Source Code was going to click with people? Were you sitting there going, “This one feels good,” as you were writing it? Or was it a total surprise?

BR: Six months before we went out with it, the Mark Gordon people knew it was going to sell. I was way too skittish to go around saying or believing that myself, but we all had a feeling the script could be something special. I should also point out that we didn’t stop with a draft that would sell. No one aspires anymore to just a development deal. We kept pushing to until I had a draft that would be made. There’s a difference, and with a spec script, you have the luxury of incubating it until it’s as strong as you think you can make it. Although I’ve written several scripts since Source Code that, to me, felt pretty strong, Source Code remains the most popular with people.

SS: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you outline? Do you write fast? How many drafts do you write? Etc.

BR: Being a parent, my hours are more regimented than they used to be. I don’t write during the evenings or on weekends – I’m busy living my life then. I’ve always found that time away from material is just as valuable as time spent on material – it helps you maintain freshness and perspective. With the ease of communication and the ubiquity of laptops and email, there’s often an assumption that we’re always working, always available. But this kind of over exposure can lead to belabored and insular decision-making. Writing is part of my life, but only part.

Once I have an idea that I think works, my first step is to take pages and pages of notes, whatever comes into my head. Research is important. You need to steep yourself in whatever subculture you’re writing about, enough so that you develop a confidence to invent within it. Next I try to come up with some compelling central characters. This is always the hardest part for me to get right, but it’s a critical one. If your characters aren’t distinct, comprehensible and somewhat relatable, you’ll never hear the end of it from your readers. And it’s really about the hard work of understanding who these characters are and what makes them interesting. I’m not much attracted to Everyman characters. I’m more intrigued with mysterious, unusual or even extraordinary characters. If you look at Stanley Kubrick’s films, most of his characters are compelling for who they are. They’re not ordinary people who depend on a movie situation to come alive in. The outline comes next, but I don’t get overly detailed with it. I like to leave some open spaces for discovery. Only when you get in there writing scenes, writing description and dialogue, will the best things about your script occur to you. That said, I absolutely know what my three acts and midpoint are, even if they sometimes shift around during the writing. The more I write, the fewer pages per day I turn out. I wish I wrote faster, but I tend to consider pretty carefully each moment. I take my time with the language until it feels right. I never gloss over stuff. After that, I always go back and find material to remove. You can always say things with greater efficiency, always trim and tighten action. You look at any good film and you realize just how economical and propulsive the scenes are, especially in the first act as they work to set up the world. You can never get too good at that skill.

SS: It sounds like the midpoint is important to you. Could you explain what it is?

BR: A midpoint is a plot turn that happens in the middle of a movie. The midpoint in Jaws is when Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss pile into the fishing boat and head out to the open ocean to hunt the shark. The midpoint of the original Star Wars is when the Millenium Falcon reaches the Death Star in order to rescue the princess. It’s the point to which the action of the first half of the story is ending and, as a result, sends the second half of the story in a new – or at least more focused – direction. A good midpoint turn will differentiate the action between the first and second half of the movie and keep things from seeming monotonous. The post-midpoint portion of the second act (pages 60-90) is often where you get much closer to the story’s real themes and you’re not as much focused on straightforward action.

SS: A lot of people write sci-fi, but I find it’s one of the easiest genres to screw up. Can you tell us what you think the key is to writing a good sci-fi script?

BR: Put character first. Don’t let the technology take over the story. Center your narrative on an emotional experience and let the science part of it be the ambience. None of the characters in your script should be aware that they’re in a science fiction film. It should be all utterly real to them.

SS: What is the biggest adjustment for a writer once they sell a script? What advice would you give a writer who just sold his first screenplay?

BR: The lifestyle of a full time writer is obviously different from a writer needing a day job to support him or herself. Once you make that first sale, a lot of producers and executives will want to meet you. You’re no longer creating in isolation – you’re part of the Hollywood community. You’re the flavor of the month. People will want to sit down with you and hear your ideas on new projects. Potential work will start coming your way. You need to be comfortable considering and developing multiple story ideas, with multiple partners, and try to push forward on them in order to book that next job. That means getting comfortable pitching in conference rooms, being proactive, coming up with new material and realizing that most of what you work on will not succeed. But that’s just the churn that everyone works in.

SS: What are some surprising things you’ve learned from your manager or agent about screenwriting that you would’ve never been privy to otherwise?

BR: I’ve learned tons from my representatives – way too much to relate here. At least once a year I make a point of sitting down with my agent over lunch. I ask questions and we assess my progress. The key is finding an agent who wants to invest their time in you, who believes in you and who’s interested in cultivating you for a 30 year career.

SS: It’s a question I ask a lot, but I think it’s a pertinent one. If you could go back in time and give the young wet-behind-the-ears Ben Ripley advice on the fastest way to finding success as a screenwriter, what would you tell him?

BR: I would tell him to keep faith, that it’s all going to be okay. I would tell him that the reason I’m a screenwriter today is that I believed in my talent and made the sustained sacrifices to become one. I eschewed other career paths. I worked day jobs to support myself. I wrote on weekends when maybe I would have had more fun at the beach. I started and finished scripts and then started new ones that were better. I kept at it. There are no shortcuts. The dues-paying process can be bewildering and lonely, but its job is to separate out the professionals from the merely curious, and when it’s over, you’re oddly thankful for having asked a lot of yourself.

SS: Whenever I ask professional writers, “How do you get an agent?” they always say, “Write a great script.” But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you only have a decent script, and your (Ben Ripley’s) life depended on getting an agent within the next month. What would you do? What would you do?

BR: I remember how that felt. I remember being so impatient for my difficult, outsiders life to stop and for my “real” life as a working writer to start. It’s easy for professional writers to be benignly nostalgic about their early days coming up, forgetting that those days often felt tedious, frustrating and unsustainable. But your life shouldn’t depend on getting an agent within the next month. If it does, there’s something wrong. You should never let your life get to the point where you look at screenwriting as a lottery ticket that’s going to save you. What saves you is your belief in yourself and your commitment to getting better at your craft, regardless of when that craft is rewarded. And a decent script probably won’t get you an agent. If you’re still at the point where you’re writing “decent” scripts – as opposed to great scripts – you’re not ready for an agent. But the magic of Hollywood is that the appetite for great scripts far exceeds the supply of great scripts. So when and if you finally write that great script, word will get out. People will ask you to read it, not the other way around. Stay optimistic. Stay focused. Write well and the agents – and the success - will come.

SS: Although getting writers to answer this question specifically is almost impossible, can you tell us what you’re working on next? And if you can’t tell us, can you tell us your dream sci-fi adaptation (whether it be book, video game, comic, whatever)?

BR: I haven’t settled on the next thing yet. I don’t have a dream sci-fi adaptation. I’d love to write a submarine movie. I love historical stuff. I’d love to find a dormant Hollywood genre and reinvent it, as Gladiator did with the sword and sandals genre.