Where Kirsten Smith goes, success seems to follow.
She sold her first screenplay, 10 Things I Hate About You, as
a spec script to Disney, and the resulting movie launched the careers
of Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger. Reese Witherspoon has Smith and
her writing partner, Karen Lutz, to thank for the $15 million paycheck
she’ll receive for this summer’s Legally Blonde 2: Red, White
& Blonde, the sequel to their 2001 hit Legally Blonde. Though Smith and Lutz are not penning the sequel, Smith is keeping
plenty busy with several projects of her own, including Don’t
Ask, a story that she describes as “sort of a ‘Private Benjamin with a gay man.'” Here, Smith discusses the art of collaboration,
where she finds inspiration and why James Schamus is “the man.”
MM: How did you first meet your writing
partner, Karen Lutz?
KS: During college, I took an internship reading
scripts for a low-budget independent film company, CineTel Films.
After graduating, I was camping out at writer’s workshops and colonies,
with the dream of being a poet who makes a living as a screenwriter.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really know how to go about that, but when
I got back to LA from the MacDowell Colony in 1994, I got a call
from the woman who oversaw my internship at CineTel, Catalaine Knell.
She hired me to write coverage on a freelance basis.
After a few months of that, she decided she wanted
to hire me as the "director of development" for the company,
working with writers, doing script notes, meeting people and, of
course, reading even more scripts. One of the scripts I read was
by a woman in Denver who had sent me a query letter. I called her
and told her how much I loved her writing and asked to read more
of her scripts. That was Karen, who probably didn’t know I was sitting
in a tiny cubicle in a company with no money to spend on scripts.
Anyway, we agreed to keep in touch and after I’d quit
CineTel to try my hand at writing screenplays full-time, she happened
to visit LA. We met for margaritas and started writing our first
script together that night on cocktail napkins.
MM: Can you talk about your collaboration:
how you conceive ideas, how you work together, etc.
KS: Over the years, we’ve refined our process
so that the first step is to create a very detailed outline (say
10-15 pages) of the story (often this is in collaboration with the
producer or studio). Then we divide up scenes and go away and write
sections of the script separately of one another. Then we put the
whole thing together and begin rewriting collaboratively. We’re
in the same room—usually if the weather’s good, outside by her swimming
pool, with a nice cooler of beer handy.
We usually go through 10 sets of revisions before
handing in a “first draft.” Those 10 revisions are the hardest part
of the process, because we are rewriting each other. Also, Karen
usually has radical changes she wants to make around draft two,
while I tend to want to make them around draft four—so that gets
a little nutty. But usually, by draft nine, we are feeling celebratory.
Then we turn it into the producer and we start all over again.
MM: Much of the material you’ve worked with
has been an adaptation of some sort. Do you think it takes a certain
kind of person—or writer—to adapt material as opposed to writing
KS: I don’t know if it takes a certain kind
of person, but for us, the joys of writing lie in character and
dialogue. Plot work is the heavy lifting. That’s why we’ve looked
to adaptations, because someone else has done the heavy lifting
for us and we can concentrate on the fun part.
MM: What do you think are the keys for writing
a successful adaptation? What is your own process for adapting a
book like Legally Blonde or Honey West?
KS: Legally Blonde was a novel by Amanda
Brown, and she did a wonderful job of creating the structure of
the story. We made alterations, of course, but it made our job so
much easier knowing, before we even took the job, that the first
act was Elle in the sorority, the second act she was in law school
and the third act she was in trial.
With Honey West, we had a great character,
but we chose not to adapt any of the plots in the books. It took
us a year to turn in the first draft because we had to come up with
the damn plot! And not just any plot, it’s a DETECTIVE plot. It
was hideous! All I can say is, John Grishman, you’re a genius. Elmore
Leonard, I will worship you ’til the day I die.
MM: How do ideas usually come to you?
KS: Once you become a screenwriter or producer,
the world becomes a giant supermarket of movie ideas. It becomes
difficult not to see something as a movie idea. I think that’s
why it’s important for screenwriters to write in different forms—prose,
poetry, non-fiction, etc.—so your mind isn’t always focused on movies.
Otherwise, it becomes too difficult to step back and evaluate your
own work as a human and not just as a screenwriter.
MM: For the most part, have projects found
you, or have you sought them out?
KS: Out of nearly a dozen scripts we’ve written
from the ground up, half of them have been original ideas and the
other half have been writing assignments. With regard to assignments,
we’ve gravitated more toward book or article adaptations. The script
we’re writing now, Don’t Ask, is based on a true story and
it’s our sophomore effort in that approach.
Lately, I’m really into “fish out of water” stories—mostly
because they translate so well to comedy—and Don’t Ask falls
into that category. For the most part, I’m also drawn to female-driven
stories or movies with very active female characters, even if they’re
not the lead. I have no interest in the horror genre and very little
in the male-driven action genre.
MM: Honey West will mark your producing
debut. Is this something you will continue to do?
KS: I’d love to continue producing our own
projects and also projects by other writers. So many of my friends
are writers and I think it’s crucial that we all impart what we’ve
learned to each other.
MM: What were some of the best collaborations
you’ve had with producers so far?
KS: Probably the best collaboration we’ve had
so far was with Marc Platt on Legally Blonde. He really rolled
up his sleeves and helped us creatively problem-solve in a way that
no other producer had before.
MM: What were some of the worst collaborations?
KS: Our worst experience was with a producer
we had two projects with and he was the opposite of Marc: he’d give
broad, sweeping, story-shattering notes and then expect us to go
away and write a completely new scripts for him. His notes were
also always based on whatever the number one movie at the box office
had been that weekend. Another producer we’d work with would always
cite classic films and make us go watch them, as if sitting on the
couch and watching Some Like it Hot or Sweet Smell of
Success would somehow help us fix the third act of our script.
MM: Historically, the screenwriter has always
been the low “man” in the scheme of moviemaking. Do you think this
perception is changing as writers like you are gaining more control
over their work through producing more often?
KS: Perhaps, but there’s a long way to go.
It’s a huge step from having a producer title to being treated as the producer. We have yet to make that step, but all it takes
is writing more movies that get made, getting producer credits on
those movies and praying that they’re hits.
I think what is helping is that right now,
three studios are being run by screenwriters: James Schamus runs
Focus Films; Toby Emmerich runs New Line; and Walter Parkes runs
Dreamworks. To me, that’s extraordinarily hopeful. I would like
to see that fact be made more public. Perhaps MovieMaker should write an article about it!
MM: Perhaps we will! Who are some of the
writers you most admire and/or whose career footsteps would you’d
most like to follow in?
KS: I really love Richard Curtis’ work. I love
directors like Lukas Moodyson, Michael Winterbottom, Lynne Ramsay,
Julie Taymor and Mira Nair. Guys like Steve Kloves and Wes Anderson
and Charlie Kaufman are really inspiring. Preston Sturges is always
one I turn back to. Right now, though, James Schamus is the man.
He works beautifully in so many different genres and oh, he’s running