TALKING TO WRITERS
Part two of my talk with screenwriter and director Oren Moverman.
I first heard of you and was introduced to your writing by my own mentor and former partner, actor-director-producer Sydney Pollack. Can you talk a little about how you came to meet Sydney, and the role he played in your life?
One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview, aside from the fact that we’re friends and I never say no to a friend, is that I wanted to revisit all these episodes. It so happens that I just locked my first film as a director and I wanted to walk down memory lane. I hope these stories aren’t too boring. They’re all the same story really. About a hungry guy who puts himself in a position to be lucky and is rewarded by good people who become his temporary mentors whether they want to or not. Sydney is at the top of that list.
I met Sydney at a Starbucks on First Avenue and 54th street in the late nineties. Those were the days when Starbucks was a relative novelty in NY, and at this particular location they would have a Jazz band playing on Saturday mornings. It closed down a couple of months after Sydney died.
I lived a few blocks away from this Starbucks and so did he, but in the other direction. He walked in, holding a bunch of pressed shirts he obviously just picked up at the dry cleaners and he was just looking around, taking in the music and the crowd.
I was there working on a screenplay about Nicholas Ray, the notorious director of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, IN A LONELY PLACE and many more, and my eye caught Sydney’s. I thought to myself, “that’s Sydney Pollack, the great director, he must have met Nick Ray at some point.” Being who I am, I walked up to him, told him my name and that I had a question, and he looked a bit alarmed. He was obviously in a contemplative mood and I was an interruption. Since the script I was writing was called INTERRUPTED I thought it was appropriate. His face relaxed when I asked him about Nick. Turns out he never met him, but he knew his son from acting school. We spoke about acting and I recognized that this man is the most natural teacher I’ve ever met. All I had to do was listen. I thanked him for talking with me. He thanked me for taking him back to people and places he hadn’t thought about in awhile.
You know, God invented the Internet for a purpose; I found Sydney’s email address online.
I wrote to him and reminded him of our encounter and I asked him if he wanted to read a screenplay I almost directed called A HIDING PLACE. To my shock, he replied within ten minutes and told me to send it along.
Two weeks later, he wrote to me that he loved it. He had questions, mostly about how I came up with certain scenes. A HIDING PLACE is about a man hired to kill an older writer who lost all his creative power. The mystery is, why bother? The man is dying. He means nothing to no one. Why is someone torturing him psychologically? Why kill him at all? What kind of monster did he use to be? Sydney said he wouldn’t know how to produce it; he already tried producing an independent with a writer/director named Ira Sachs and it didn’t work out. I made a mental note to look up whom this Sachs guy was. I never did. Sydney encouraged me to send him more scripts and wished me luck. Years later I found out, from David Rubin, or was it Geoff Steir, that Sydney acted out the first ten pages of my script in the Mirage office. I don’t know if that’s true, but it warms my heart to think it is.
We kept in touch. Mostly short emails. He invited me to the set of THE INTERPRETER. He was shooting it a block away from my house in the UN building. I came to set and one of the producers told me I had to leave because she thought I was lying about being invited by Sydney. She asked me if I was Sydney’s friend. It made me pause. I was honest, I said I couldn’t really say he was my friend, it wouldn’t be an truthful portrayal of our relationship, he was someone who was kind to me for some reason, I didn’t know why. “You must leave now,” she said, “he’s very busy”. Uncharacteristically, I left. But I caught a glimpse of Sydney sitting by himself with the monitor as a shot was being set up. Just for a moment, he looked like the loneliest guy in the world. I thought, “that’s the director right there all alone. It can’t be easy no matter who you are.”
I finally met Ira Sachs through a mutual friend, Jonathan Nossiter, and we wrote MARRIED LIFE together. Sydney emailed me his congratulations. He liked the script a lot.
Two years ago the writer/producer Alessandro Camon and I wrote a screenplay called THE MESSENGER and when the producer asked who should direct it, I suggested Sydney.
I sent him the script and I got a call from his office. He was interested. We spoke on the phone for over an hour and he asked him to remind him how we met. I did. He couldn’t believe it. In his mind we met because we were both working in film. He wanted to direct THE MESSENGER. We met with him. He gave us his notes, which was a thrill. He was modest and brilliant and funny and we couldn’t believe we were getting page-by-page notes from Sydney Pollack. We were giddy. It was one of those moments where you think; this is why I wanted to work in film.
We wrote a couple of drafts for him before we all realized that the movie could not be the love story Sydney was looking for. It was a movie about Casualty Notification Officers during the Iraq war. It was going to be a movie about men. He dropped out and Roger Michel came on board. Sydney thought Roger was a great idea.
The last time I saw Sydney was with Alessandro in the Mirage office. It was like lovers getting together to say goodbye in a very civilized way. We talked movies, and politics and airplanes, and gossiped for a bit and then it was over. He wished us luck.
He read another script of mine, THE SECOND WIFE, a 9th century love story based on an AB Yehoshua novel, a few weeks later and told me it was a page turner and that he doesn’t understand who I am and where I came from and what it is I do, but that I should just keep going. It was a huge compliment.
He was diagnosed shortly after.
As it turned out, I ended up directing THE MESSENGER.
Tell us about how your first produced screenplay Jesus' Son came about? You're one of three writers credited - did you collaborate on the screenplay, or was it a case of you coming in to rewrite an existing script? And you're also an Associate Producer on that film - were you involved with the production beyond your role as a writer?
Talking my way onto Louis Malle’s set I met a young man named Ayad Akhtar. He was working for Andre Gregory. He introduced me to his friend Elizabeth Cuthrell because she was an actress and I was writing A HIDING PLACE and looking for an actress. Elizabeth and I became friends and she invited me to join a company she was forming called Evenstar. She brought in another actor, a friend, David Urritia. She wanted to write and produce films. Denis Johnson was her favorite writer. I thought he was a basketball player. She had some money and we got the rights to JESUS’ SON, a collection of short stories. We talked about how to adapt it as an unusual voice-over driven film with a confused narrator and fragmented narrative, and we divided the stories up. We would write separately, the three of us, and then come together and blend the work into a screenplay. It was a long, organic process. Three people just putting their minds together. We were going to produce it together as well. We brought Alison McLean on board early and the money came together through some very capable people in Elizabeth’s world. Heading into production, I was being pulled away by the possibility of directing A HIDING PLACE and I told them I couldn’t function as a producer on the film. In truth, my role on that end was not equal to theirs, and they asked me what credit I would want. I said Associate Producer because I thought it meant something. Live and learn! I was involved in the editing to the extent that I was asked to get involved. Saw cuts, gave notes, voiced my opinion. Elizabeth would call me every day on her way to the editing room and she made me feel like my opinion mattered. It was a great lesson.
I'm curious about your somewhat unusual niche as a writer who has co-authored several screenplays with directors, most recently with Todd Haynes on "I'm Not There", and with Ira Sachs on "Married Life". Were they similar experiences in regards to process? Do you sit in a room together and write things out line for line? Or do you discuss an overall theme and structure and then divide up the writing of individual scenes before coming back together? Do you prefer the process of writing as a team and having a partner to challenge you or to bounce ideas off of, to writing by yourself?
I love working with writer/directors because I get to take on their vision. I leave mine behind. My job with Ira, Todd Haynes or Phil Kaufman, Bertha Bay Sa Pan, Steve Buscemi and other write/directors I worked with, is always to understand what they need in order to direct the movie, it’s never about me, and I like that sort of discipline, it really enriches my understanding of filmmaking. Most directors allow me to ask stupid questions and be very silly as the guy who has to catch up with their thinking, and so most collaborations for me are quite pleasurable. Writer/directors are like genres. They have their conventions and set of rules, whether they can articulate them or not, and my job is to understand the rules, work with them, change them if I can, but always serve at their pleasure. Always voice my opinion and articulate options before they make the final decision. It doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about the work, quite contrary, it just means that I acknowledge the film as ultimately their responsibility. If they don’t understand what’s on the page, they won’t be able to make it work on screen. I’m always the vice president for them, which is really fun if you’re into vice.
It’s rare that we sit in the same room for more than a few sessions. Most of the writing I’ve done with writer/directors involved lots of conversations and planning, but the actual work is done separately. But every director is different, so every process is different. Also, my point of entry into the process is different on each project, sometimes I come into a rewrite, and sometimes I’m there at the beginning. In every case I remind myself it is not about me and it makes things so much easier.
In my experience no two directors are alike in how they work and think about filmmaking and storytelling; can you share anything about what you've learned from your various collaborators?
I’ve learned so much from my collaborators; I wouldn’t even know where to start. The two most important things I’ve learned are how to listen and how to sit. Everything else is just work.
TOMORROW: The final part of my talk with writer-director Oren Moverman!!