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Stuart Beattie: Screenwriter Revivalist

Stuart Beattie: Screenwriter Revivalist

Sienna Miller should get an Oscar for the heels she wears in this film,” Stuart Beattie jokes of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’s sultry villainess, who he says “runs around doing the same [action] stuff as the guys, but in heels. She’s amazing.”

On the day he speaks to MovieMaker, Beattie is upbeat about G.I. Joe, sharing stories from the Prague set and expressing confidence in the prospects of the $170 million action bonanza, which has faced rumors of post-production turmoil thanks to some low test screening scores.

“It rocks,” he says assertively, without a hint of tongue-in-cheek posturing. “We’ve been watching it for months, tweaking it, fine-tuning it—it’s really good.”

Of course, few screenwriters would be positioned to make such claims about a film they didn’t direct, but Beattie is no ordinary scribe. The 37-year-old Australian vaulted to the top ranks of Hollywood scribblers in 2003, thanks to the one-two punch of first having Disney buy his screen story based on its Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride and then having his intended-indie hitman movie Collateral become a Tom Cruise vehicle.

Since then, Beattie has evolved into a Hollywood player with unusual clout, thanks to his involvement in the high-stakes business of franchise creation/revival. To wit: Paramount is looking to him to revive the exhausted Jack Ryan franchise. Warner Bros. wants him to make Tarzan a marketable name again. Universal hopes he’ll turn arcade game Spy Hunter into a James Bond-ish series. Then there’s Halo: Fall of Reach, his script based on the mega-selling video game, which may get produced. Right now, though, his focus is on G.I. Joe. ?

Ryan Stewart (MM): How did you gain access to the post-production of a movie like G.I. Joe? Is it due to your relationship with director Stephen Sommers?

Stuart Beattie (SB): I think it’s the relationship with Stephen and Bob Ducsay, who is a producer and editor. I was on the set every day and in Bob’s editing trailer, literally working right next to the Avid and watching cuts as they were happening. I was involved from the time we started getting footage in. That has continued. They’ll welcome ideas from anyone, as long as it’s the right idea.

MM: What directives did you get from the studio before the writing began?

SB: Well, the first thing was budget. They said, “Please don’t write more than we have money for!” Then, big picture stuff: Make sure there are great set pieces, make sure it’s true to the G.I. Joe mythology, make sure we have characters that actors can dive into. They didn’t really care what plot I came up with, all those machinations. They wanted to make sure it was a big, fun summer movie that popped—not a Bond or a Bournemovie. And, of course, Hasbro had a list of things. They asked me to make sure that with G.I. Joe it’s all about teamwork, that kind of stuff.

MM: They also wanted you to tone down G.I. Joe’s potentially jingoistic “Real American Hero” aspect, right?

SB: Before I came on, the decision had been made to make it an international team, which automatically turned down the fact of [the toy line’s] fully American team. I take the mythology very seriously, so I sat back and said, ‘If a team like this existed, what would be its ideal version?’ Ideally, you’d bring in operatives from around the world, each with their own strengths. So, yeah, that directive was there. I think it came out of the position the world was in when we invaded Iraq. American foreign policy wasn’t at its best.

MM: What do you think about Hasbro now starting to develop screenplays based on its board games?

SB: I can understand why they’d do it, since the same thing happened after Pirates of the Caribbean—they tried to get all the rides made [into movies]. But just as every book shouldn’t be a movie, not every toy and game should be a movie. It’s something you evaluate case by case. “Is this good film material?” Some are harder than others and it’s rarely going to be successful, just because it’s hard to make a good movie. I feel like I’ve done my toy movie, I want to do something different. Having done G.I. Joe, I wouldn’t want to do Monopoly or Ouija.

MM: But you do enjoy the challenge of reinvigorating older properties, right?

SB: I like building onto rich mythologies. I like preexisting worlds and preexisting characters. I like shaking them up, putting new spins on them and introducing them to a new generation. That allows me to take the things I cared about as a kid and reintroduce them to my children. It’s not something that I actually seek out, I’ve just happened into it.

MM: Is there a big difference in how you approach a preexisting character versus an original one?

SB: Well, when dealing with a preexisting character, you’ve got the baggage that comes with it—your own expectations and everyone else’s. With Tarzan, for instance, there’s a preexisting notion that he lives in a jungle, so you start there and work toward something new. It’s got to be engaging for audiences unfamiliar with it. Someone like [Cruise’s character] Vincent from Collateral on the other hand, that’s more free-form because it’s totally my creation. So with one you’re starting at zero and with the other you’re starting at 10.

MM: Tom Cruise supposedly helped get Collateral made. Does a screenwriter like yourself have much need to forge connections with actors to help shepherd projects?

SB: Not really. From what I’ve seen, the film gets made when the filmmaker comes on, not really the actor. To align myself that way doesn’t get the movie closer to being made. The actors tend to come on once we’ve got a filmmaker. They want to know who they’re going to be there with day after day. Do they respect this filmmaker? That’s what it typically comes down to. Actors don’t usually align themselves with a script, from what I’ve seen, unless it’s something near and dear to their hearts.

MM: What makes a great moviemaker, from a screenwriter’s perspective?

SB: The great moviemakers are the ones who adapt scripts faithfully or improve them by mining them for their great little beats. I’ve sought out these guys; I’ve identified them and told them I want to work with them. I’ve also turned down work in the hopes of something better coming along, such as the opportunity to work with one of those people. For the most part, as I’ve closed one door another has opened. I’ve been available to work with the Michael Manns and Baz Luhrmanns. You have to steer yourself toward those people if you can. You have to be ready when those calls come in. If you’re booked up, you can miss out. MM

Paramount Pictures will release G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra on August 7, 2009.

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