How does a writer with a penchant for indie cinema and obscure foreign literature become Hollywood’s go-to guy for big-budget suspense, action and intrigue? Practice? Connections? “Luck,” says veteran screenwriter Daniel Pyne.
With several produced films to his credit, including Jonathan Demme’s recent update of The Manchurian Candidate, as well as John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights, Roger Donaldson’s White Sands, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday and Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears, Pyne has also written and produced for TV (“Miami Vice”) and even directed a feature for Paramount (Where’s Marlowe?). All this, he claims, “without having any mainstream instincts.” He also teaches the craft of screenwriting, both at UCLA in a formal capacity (he currently holds the Zakin/Hunter chair in screenwriting) and in the more relaxed environment of The Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe (www.scsfe.com), where he is currently on the faculty slate for 2005.
While he doesn’t seem to be in the habit of painting the writing life as all sunshine and lollipops, Pyne does have some encouraging words for those trying to break into the trade and a well-considered list of things to watch out for as well. This full-time writer may attribute his success to luck, but it’s clear he still works hard at being the best writer he can be, which is just what the big boys are looking for… as long as you can take notes.
Chris Diestler (MM): What are your feelings about teaching screenwriting, particularly at conferences?
Daniel Pyne (DP): I have mixed emotions. On a personal level, I’m not sure how good a teacher I am. I think what I’m good at is, I’m a working writer. I’ve been in that chair where that person who’s looking at me is sitting and worrying about how they’re ever going to make it. I know what they’re going through. And I’m also dealing every day with the business of Hollywood and moviemaking, not just some arcane theory of screenwriting, so I can give them honest answers, not just about what it takes, but what is real.
Aspiring screenwriters have a very idealistic view that they can sit in Mississippi and write this thing and send it out and Tom Cruise will make it. Which does happen, but not very often. Then there’s the flip side: A lot of people are bitter and cynical because they’ve sent their query letters and they haven’t gotten any interest at all, and they’ve been to a few conferences and they haven’t gotten anywhere and they’re frustrated. And then they go to the movie theater and they see how bad the movies are, and they look at their screenwriting manual and they can’t understand how these movies can be so bad when the manual’s telling them, “This is how you have to write.”
MM: Do you think the problem is a kind of Hollywood nepotism that prevails, or simply that there are “too many cooks?”
DP: Too many cooks. It’s the system. It’s a business. It’s run like a business, on a formula. Well, an attempt at a formula, but not even that organized. Even that would be good, because then you could argue against the formula. You could successfully say, “Well, look at all these films that broke the formula and were very successful and made tons of money and look at all these that followed the formula and failed. Unfortunately, it’s not even that organized. You have a ton of people and their job is to give notes, no matter what. No matter how good the script is, how good the film is, they’ve gotta give notes. And there’s never a point at which everybody sits and says “Gee, that’s good,” or “You know what? Jonathan Demme is directing this and he’s won an Oscar and he makes pretty good movies… maybe we should just let him make his movie.
MM: They never sit back and do that? Even at Jonathan Demme’s level?
DP: No. In fact, they’re more likely to go at somebody like that because they’re afraid he’s gotten too big and they need to chop him down.
Now, I’ve never worked with [The Village director, M. Night] Shyamalan. He seems to have his own formula that works, and maybe because he’s been so successful so many times in a row, they leave him alone. But I would doubt it.
MM: What about the Coen brothers?
DP: They just don’t know what do do with the Coen brothers, because their movies generally don’t make a lot of money, but [the studios] have to make them because there’d be trouble if they didn’t. David Lynch is the same way.
MM: You don’t think they have a certain built-in audience that guarantees a certain kind of return?
DP: Yes, but their movies generally cost more than that audience will support. But if you, as a studio, don’t support them, it makes you look bad. A large part of Hollywood is about appearance. The fear of looking bad tends to overwhelm everything else, which is why they give notes. It’s unbelievable how many people can give notes. In fact, I’ll go into meetings on other projects now and people will say, “Uh, I saw The Manchurian Candidate. Uhh, it’s really great,” and then they’ll give me notes—on The Manchurian Candidate, which is finished!
MM: Okay, but I’m under the impression they’re not even particularly lucid, critical comments, they’re just kind of bozo comments.
DP: It depends. They’re very smart, very well-educated people, generally. Which is what’s scary. They’re Harvard-educated, Ivy League schools, master’s degrees in literature. They really do know their stuff. But it doesn’t help you make a great film. Knowing all that stuff doesn’t matter.
MM: So you’re not a big fan of the notion that a screenplay can be plotted out as, Act One: 30 pages, Act Two: 60 pages, Act Three: 30 pages?
DP: I object to the formula. I know it probably works, but I object because I think telling a story should be more organic. My experience has been that you can take a script when it’s done and you can go backwards and find those moments, but I’m not sure you can construct a script from scratch thinking that way.
MM: So what do you see your role as, then, in the teaching arena?
DP: My role is to expose people to what I think goes on in Hollywood—the realities as opposed to the fantasies, the myths—and encourage writers to be as good as they can be. And whether that makes them successful commercially or not is really out of my hands, or anyone’s hands. You never know. Who could’ve predicted that Michael Moore’s documentary would make $100 million? Or The Blair Witch Project?
I think in movies, more than in television, there’s an element of magic. You put together material and a director and talent and a crew and something magic happens. Or it fails. But nobody knows what that magic is.
Chris Diestler has been involved as a volunteer with The Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe since 2001. He is a freelance press agent, writer/director/producer of independent films, art teacher and radio personality. He has enough “day jobs” to kill a horse.