Thursday, March 21, 2013

SVFF 2013: SCREENWRITERS LAB—Will McCormack's We Are Puppets

Photo courtesy of the Sun Valley Film Festival
When Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) Executive Director Teddy Grennan asked 2013 Spirit Award nominee Will McCormack if he had written anything new since Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)—a film he produced and co-wrote with Rashida Jones—McCormack told him he'd just finished a sad, dramatic comedy but it was kind of long, 110 pages, whereas another project, We Are Puppets, a strange pilot he'd written for cable, was only 36 minutes. Calculating a minute per page, McCormack admitted the script was weird and that if we hated it, it would soon be over.

"Quickly," he added, "I've been an actor for a long time too and every actor has bombed hundreds of auditions, which is a rite of passage. It's just part of being an actor. But as a writer when you go in and you bomb, it hurts, because an audition's only 5 minutes whereas a pitch for a movie or a TV show is, hopefully, 30-40 minutes. I can say this because I don't care anymore, but I went into HBO with my co-writer Rashida Jones and we started pitching this. I really loved the idea and was really involved with it but they were not into it. I was in a full broadcast news flop sweat—I don't even sweat when I exercise!—but I kept trying to convince them about why it was good and why I thought it would make good television."

When the script for the pilot reached its startling reveal, McCormack was expecting HBO to say, "Oh, my God, that's so good!" but instead it was more like, "Oooooh, that's so weird." So he went to Showtime the next day with the same exact pitch and they bought it in the room. They were even pitching episodes back to him. For him it was one of those funny moments in the business where one day you're a go and you sell your pilot and you're running around excited in the parking lot at Showtime, successful for 5 minutes. And then Showtime decided not to launch it.

So We Are Puppets became the script McCormack offered SVFF for their first-ever screenwriting lab. He thanked the actors in advance for helping him collaborate on the reading and assured us he would not be offended if we didn't like it, and/or that he would be happy to respond to any questions we might have about the script, and to share whatever he knew or didn't know about screenwriting since, sadly, it's all he thinks about. He said he'd be equally happy to talk about what it takes to get an independent film made, from the vantage of having written big movies for the studios, as well as "little movies." As a final caveat he disclaimed, "Because, inherently, screenplays and teleplays were meant to be seen, they're just like blueprints, we'll do our best to pace it up and make sure you can hear it so that, hopefully, you can visualize this very strange pilot called We Are Puppets."

McCormack and his fellow actors, several from SVFF work-in-progress An Unkindness of Ravens (2013)—namely Joshua Leonard, Russell Friedenberg and Calum Grant—as well as Haroula Rose and Daniel Ahearn from No Love Song, a short slotted into one of two programs of shorts at SVFF, joined five other actors to deliver a thoroughly spirited and engaging read after only one rehearsal earlier in the morning.

Photo courtesy of the Sun Valley Film Festival
Afterwards, McCormack fielded questions from his SVFF audience. As to why he elected to propose We Are Puppets as a cable series rather than a film, McCormack explained that the themes he found interesting seemed more readily explored over the course of a series and better suited for a series, whereas—by contrast—movies require a scriptwriter to tell a story in 100 pages, which can be really hard. Although Showtime decided not to make the series after buying the pilot, they were looking into getting it produced overseas in France; but, ultimately, McCormack decided not to go that way, satisfied with how he had grown as a writer in scripting the pilot.

A fan of puppets, particularly The Muppets, McCormack felt that a Sesame Street-type of puppet world would have been an interesting and fertile place for storytelling. He had also seen a 2008 documentary on BBC America called Brothers and Sisters In Love, which he found moving and heartbreaking. He researched genetic sexual attraction (GSA) and discovered that 60% of men and women who meet their siblings as adults fall in love. Not only is incest illegal in many places but there is an inordinate amount of shame associated with it. With an admirable lack of judgment—"Who am I to say it's wrong? Love is love, right?"—McCormack zeroed in on the narrative potential of GSA as a transgressive love story that would ask the question: "Would you? Or wouldn't you? And if you could, could you stop it?"

At the same time he had been reading a lot about free will, desire and destiny, which naturally raised interesting questions. He read Schopenhauer and Sam Harris's books on the delusion of free will. Even though these fascinations may not have been a prominent theme in the pilot of We Are Puppets, they were certainly an undercurrent. McCormack questioned whether the thoughts, feelings and desires that arise within us can be stopped? All these various threads "crashed" together to form We Are Puppets.

"It strikes me," I asked, "that a lot of the most brave screenwriting going on these days is going towards television—HBO is certainly championing good writing, Showtime as well. Do you have any thoughts on the difference between writing for movies and writing for television?"

"I do," he responded. "It used to be that television was for kids and movies were for adults. But now it's movies are for kids and television is for adults. I grew up on movies and am movie-obsessed. I grew up near a video store and I was there every day. In college, I worked in a movie theater. I've worked on movies. I've had every kind of job on a movie—production assistant, craft service—I just love films. When I started writing professionally, even more as a hobby, I wrote movies. It's also interesting that in television you get more respect as a writer than you do as a filmwriter. There's more money. The process is quicker. It's expedited.

"Celeste and Jesse Forever we sold to Fox Atomic. They were going to make it for $15,000,000. They went out of business. We got the script back and sold it to Overture. They were going to make it for $12,000,000 but then they went out of business. We got the script back. It was set up 15 different times and the budget kept falling and falling and falling and finally we made it and we made a movie that we're proud of. We made it for under a $1,000,000 in Los Angeles. I still haven't gotten paid. It's a hard, hard, hard road. I was the bear in the movie. Know what I'm saying? It's the biz! And it's the best I've ever been. But it was so hard.

"I get offers to write and—if I had children—I might take them because everyone needs to make money and it's a blessing to write for a living. People will say, 'We want you to do that, but we want you to do it in a big studio way.' I'm like, 'No, you don't. You don't want that.' The movie that we made is so weird and small that it wouldn't work on a $40,000,000 budget. The sad part about the movie business is that those movies that I loved, those tweeners that are $12,000,000 to $20,000,000 movies, are gone. The good news is that—because of technology and because cameras are better—you can make movies for cheaper, and you can get a hit, but no one makes any money. The longwinded version of that is that I think television is a place where you can really build characters and stories and take risks and chances in a way that you can't with movies and it's just getting more exciting. So, yes, television is a place where you don't have to censor or edit."

McCormack admitted that when he pitched We Are Puppets to Showtime, he was trying to be careful and suggested that when the two lead characters meet, they should just kiss and not have sex; but, Showtime said, "No, no, no, they should have sex." He was dumbstruck and asked them, "Are you serious?" They said, "100%." He thought, "All right. This is a good network. Thank you, guys." The bottom line McCormack ventured is that you can make a lot of money writing for television. "I'm not against it," McCormack qualified, "I don't. I'm picky about making a lot of money. I keep talking about it, but haven't. I'll probably just keep writing my puppet pilots that don't get made."

As to co-writing with Rashida Jones and getting in synch with someone else, McCormack laid out that Celeste and Jesse Forever was "a total two-hander." He and Rashida are best friends, after dating for three weeks in the '90s. "She made me cry," he quipped. He went on to say that he has been a writer his whole life, even though he had an enormous fear of being a legitimate writer and showing other people his writing. He recently found dozens of notebooks in his closet that were filled with writing about wanting to be a writer. The majority of time he spent writing was about wanting to write. He did this for most of his life. When he was little, people thought he was going to be a writer because he wrote a couple of stories in school that won grammar school awards. But he recalls being 8 years old and feeling under an enormous amount of pressure about his writing.

In college he started acting, which he gravitated towards during a difficult time in his life. It saved him. He wasn't terrible. He got parts in plays, got an agent, moved to New York where he performed in really good plays with good theater companies and had a little bit of success with acting, so he put the writing away. But he kept thinking about wanting to be a writer. His acting career was fine, but it wasn't great, and it started to feel feckless. He felt he was languishing as an actor and not connected to it in the way he started. He wanted to write and it just reached the point that he had to decide whether he was going to be a writer or just talk about it. So after he and Rashida broke up and became best friends as exes, they tried to write a pilot. At first he felt it was weird, and then decided it was not, and then it turned out to be weird. Then they wrote a movie.

He had taken a screenwriting class and written another movie before the one he wrote with Rashida; but, when they got together to write their movie, it was good because they held each others' hand. "Now I can't stop writing," he said, "and I write with people, I write without people, and I'm down for both. I'm a collaborator. I'm an actor so it's in my DNA. I ask, 'What do you think?' I'm good at that. If I'm good at anything, it's that I know how to collaborate. I'm not defensive. It's really about getting older and not caring whether people thought I was a good writer or not. It was a matter of wanting to tell a story."

But in terms of having a partner, McCormack suggested you have a good one and one you're not afraid to write badly with (though he qualified there's no such thing as "writing badly", even if one feels that way. For him, all writing is good writing. Even on the worst day of writing, if you've written it's a good day.) So he advised to find someone you can collaborate with and who you're not afraid to say anything in front of and for him that turned out to be Rashida, his good friend who was like a sister. He probably has more fun writing with someone, but gets more done alone.

Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter
Asked what he would have wanted audiences to come away with had Showtime actually produced We Are Puppets as a series, McCormack compared it to the movie Splash and what happens when you fall in love with a mermaid. Do you go be with a mermaid or do you stay on shore where it's safe? He wanted people to ask that question: what would you do? He wanted people to think about what desire means because he's not convinced that we are in control of what we do. He understands that's not a popular thing to say; but, there's so much in We Are Puppets that is happening with the stars, and moons, and the way we're raised. When you come into the world, you have no choice as to where you're born, what sex you are, how big your brain is, how you are raised, how tall you are, and then all of a sudden you're 25 and you decide to make your life a certain way; but, before then, so much is happening that has formed you. Those are the questions he wanted people to think about. Mainly, at first, he thought We Are Puppets was a kind of tragic love story where someone falls in love with someone who society says you shouldn't fall in love with. So what would you do and—not just what would you do—but, what can you do?

Was there an autobiographical element to We Are Puppets? "I have a sister," McCormack grinned sheepishly. "Celeste and Jesse Forever was a lot from my own life but anything that I ever write comes from a real place. Everything that I would want to write—even this pilot, which is very strange and in a dream world—everything has to come from some sort of reality or truth. For me it's the only way. It's the way I've always acted, and it's the way I have to write. I try to be simple and clear and honest about what I'm going through. I could never write Avatar. I wish I could; I'd be so rich! But I just can't. For me the saddest and funniest and most interesting things come directly out of real life. The hard part is shedding light on that and making it filmic in some way and dramatic and making it into a narrative and making it interesting and concise. Life itself is a funny thing if I can get out of my head and experience it."

As a final query, local filmmaker Stephen Heleker asked McCormack if—since he is starting to steer his writing towards television—he would ever consider being a showrunner? "It's a lot of work," McCormack answered, "but to be a showrunner on television, you have total control. You're limited if it's on network; but, if you're Mike White (Enlightened) or Howard Gordon or Alex Gansa (Homeland), you get to make a very expensive tiny little movie every week. That's enormous freedom but enormous reponsibility. It would be awesome. I know people who come over from film to work on television and in every capacity—whether you're a writer or director or actor—it's a lot of work that never ends.

"My sister is a great actress, Mary McCormack, and she had a TV show on USA called In Plain Sight where she played a marshal with a gun and she was amazing; but, she has three daughters and works 16-17 hour days. She sees her kids when they come to the set to visit. It's a grueling life. As with anything, if you want to be an actor or a writer or work in this business, you have to really want to do it because it's so enervating. There's so much failure and disappointment that you have to say, 'I have to do this. I really want to do this.' Because often it's just so much work. But it's a great thing to be a showrunner. Some people are happy being staff writers but most people who are working as staff writers are waiting for the opportunity to run their own show."

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