At first blush you may think that screenwriter Russell Gewirtz is the luckiest man alive… and you might be right! He’s certainly hit a homerun his first time out with Inside Man. Originally written as a spec script, the screenplay eventually sold to Brian Grazer and Imagine Entertainment and is now one of the year’s biggest hits, thanks to taut direction by Spike Lee and an all-star cast that includes Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen.
But Gewirtz will be the first to tell you that it takes more than luck to make it in Hollywood. It takes brains—and balls, too. MM caught up with the screenwriting world’s most promising newcomer to discuss his all-star supporting cast, what makes a classic crime-drama and why it pays to live a little first.
Jennifer Wood (MM): As a first-time screenwriter, you couldn’t ask for a much better set-up than Spike Lee as director, Brian Grazer as producer and a cast that includes Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. Did you ever imagine that you would be in this place when you began writing the script?
Russell Gewirtz (RG): Certainly not. I was expecting Spielberg, Cruise, Hanks and Streep. Joking. The cast is beyond belief.
MM: How did the idea for Inside Man come about?
RG: It developed over a very long period of time. Years, actually. It began with the idea of robbers dressing up their hostages to fool the police. And it grew from there.
MM: The crime-drama is such a tough genre of film. Maintaining a certain level of tension and excitement can be a really difficult task as a writer. Were there other films you looked to as success stories within this genre?
RG: I always looked to The Usual Suspects and Heat as the gold standards. The Usual Suspects was more of a guiding light for Inside Man, from a storytelling perspective. Anyone who wants to write or direct should own both on DVD and watch them until the discs melt.
MM: Where do you think most writers fail in their execution of a great crime-drama? How did you address these issues in your own script?
RG: Don’t try to make your script feel like other movies you’ve seen. Instead, think of a bad movie in the genre and use that as an example of what not to do. I definitely had one in mind, but I won’t mention its name.
MM: When did you begin writing the script and how long did it take you to complete?
RG: I began in Summer 2001 and finished in Summer 2002. Since I wasn’t a signed writer and had never written a screenplay, I was taking my time.
MM: So it was written as a spec script. As people became attached to the project—director, producers, actors—how did the script change, if at all? Did you have to go back and address particular characters as a result of particular casting?
RG: The actors and director needed very few changes. A lot of changes were made to address studio notes.
MM: You’re really living the dream of so many aspiring screenwriters—hitting the big time your first time out. What would you say has been the secret to your success?
RG: Brains, balls and luck. In no particular order. And you have to live a while before you can tell a story. I’m 40.
MM: What’s up next for you?
RG: We’re quite close to setting up my second spec script, Righteous Kill, with a major studio. I hope so, anyway. It’s another NY police drama, but a bit darker. Two detectives are hunting a vigilante serial killer. But one of the cops actually is the killer. (Don’t worry. We learn this on page two.)
Next is American Blood, a spec about an Arab-American who is drafted into the war on terror and has to deal with identity issues and terrorists. I need to polish it up a bit before it goes out.