David Berenbaum
David Berenbaum

You can’t blame David Berenbaum for being happy. At only 32 years
of age, he’s living the dream of every young screenwriter in Hollywood
(and beyond): he’s making a name for himself as a writer-for-hire,
while still having the time-and talent-to get his own, personal
stories made. In the next several weeks alone, Berenbaum will see
two of his projects released into theaters across America. The
first, Elf, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Ferrell,
is from a spec script he wrote in 1996. The second, The Haunted
, is the product of his work with the Disney Writers
in Residence Program. Here, Berenbaum reveals the secrets of his
own success and discusses the process of making movies out of amusement
park rides.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Right now you’re
really living the dream of every young screenwriter, with two
films about to be
released. How did you get from dreamer to doer?

David Berenbaum (DB): You know, I was
just writing a whole bunch when I got out here. I went to NYU
and came out here [to
LA] and was just writing and writing and writing. People were responding
to my stuff, but the movies weren’t getting made. I would get little
nibbles here and there and you eventually just meet a lot people.
Eventually I met my manager, who really responded to Elf,
which he sent into the Disney Writers in Residence program. Based
on that sample, I got in there and started writing The Haunted
Then my manager got Elf to Will Ferrell and
that started the ball rolling on that project.

MM: How many scripts had you written before Elf?

DB: I was writing some TV and Elf was the
second script that I wrote.

MM: You said you were writing a lot and seeing some
interest. Were you getting any of your work optioned before everything
began to happen with your manager?

DB: Yeah, everything I wrote had been optioned.
I wrote a romantic comedy before Elf and that was optioned
and then Elf was optioned, but they could never get talent
attached or it wasn’t the right time so things just fell out of
option. Since Elf I’ve written a bunch of screenplays and
it’s just a waiting game-I just keep writing.

MM: When you first started, which
avenues were you exploring in trying to get your scripts made
into films? Were you only
sending them out to producers and agents, or did you explore
some of the other ways in which beginning screenwriters typically
get their work read-screenplay competitions, etc.

DB: No, I was always kind of going to
agents and somehow I never really had a problem getting to the
agents. Just
through people you meet who say ‘yeah, send me your script’ then
you send it to an assistant and they respond to it and pass it
up to their boss, etc. So I’d always just go the agent route, because
if you can get an agent behind you it really helps immeasurably.
They’ll give out the script and you start meeting more people who
want to know what you’re working on. It’s a snowball.

MM: What is your writing process-how
often and for how long do you generally write?

DB: I generally write all day. Mornings
are the worst for me because my brain is just kind of fried,
but I just
kind of stare at the computer until I break myself down and can
focus. So when I’m into a script, I’ll pretty much write every
day until it’s finished.

MM: People often ask directors the
question about how they go about choosing material, but rarely
ask writers what
it is they desire in the person who will helm their script. What
is it that you hope for-personally, technically or otherwise-in
a director who says he or she wants to make a film from your

DB: What I would hope for in a director
is that they share the same sensibility of the script that you
have written;
that they want to take what you have put on the page and translate
that to the screen. You should have a similar vision. If you have
a similar sensibility as the director, then that speaks volumes
and will really be translated on the screen. If you don’t have
the same kind of sensibility, it can make for an unpleasant time
because it’s a very collaborative medium and you have to be on
the same page.

MM: Were you able to spend much time on the sets of
Elf or The Haunted Mansion?

DB: Yeah, it’s been great! I’ve been
there a lot on The Haunted Mansion, and I went out to Vancouver with Elf.
Both productions really opened up to me and have been very supportive.
From what I hear, I know that screenwriters generally aren’t treated
very well, but I can’t say that because I’ve been treated well
on both projects.

MM: Has spending time on the set inspired you to want
to pursue other positions within the industry, like directing?

DB: Oh yeah, I’ve always wanted to direct. That’s
what I wanted to do at NYU and I started writing because that seemed
like the best avenue to take to becoming a director. I started
writing because I think the foundation of directing is simple storytelling.
If you can tell a story, that’s the essential first step.

MM: Are you looking to be a writer-director, where you
would write whatever you planned to direct?

DB: I would probably do something that
I had written-something
that had started with me and something that I had a passion about.
So that has always been the goal, but I’ve learned so much over
the past couple of years just watching these productions go. I’ve
made films on a smaller scale, a lot of short films. But being
involved with these big studio projects, I’ve learned the inner
workings of how movies get made.

MM: Do you tend to write within one specific genre,
or do your scripts really run the gamut as far as content and

Generally I’ve written comedies, so there will be some comedic
element in everything I do. I really like every type of movie-I
love old Frank Capra movies and Billy Wilder movies, Preston Sturges
and Woody Allen. I’ve written romantic comedies and, obviously,
two comedic family films. Generally, there will be some kind of
fantasy element to it and some sort of comedy element.

MM: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve
learned about the role of the writer in Hollywood?

DB: I really haven’t had too many terrible experiences.
For me, the toughest part of getting these movies made has been
the waiting.  Just the process of having a lot of interest and
then having that interest fall away; of having things come together
and then fall apart quickly, which is the basis of Hollywood.

MM: When did you finish writing Elf?

DB: I finished Elf in 1996. It was optioned
a few times and then fell out of option; there were actors interested
and then actors fell out.

MM: The typical, fun Hollywood story.

DB: Yeah, that’s just the way it goes. Getting a
movie made is like the stars have to align in the exact right order
and it’s just a miracle when a movie actually goes. So the waiting
on these things has really been the hardest part.

As far as the creative process goes, it’s been a pleasure. It’s
a lot-a lot-of work and a lot of rewriting and a lot of
tweaking, but I think that’s sort of par for the course. There
are a lot of people involved and not one person makes a movie,
so you just have to be incredibly collaborative in order to be
a writer.

MM: How do you compare the experiences of writing Elf,
which you sold as a spec script, and
The Haunted Mansion,
which was specifically for Disney? How different were those two

DB: Well, they’re two different beasts. Elf came
directly from me; it was an idea that I had, I wrote it and it
was all self-generated. With The Haunted Mansion, I got
into the program and it was discussed when I first got there in
pitch meetings that we could do a Haunted Mansion movie. Then the
process was doing a lot of research on the ride and the people
who built the ride, what their inspirations were, where they got
their ideas from and taking elements from the ride and making a
narrative out of it.

MM: Which, in itself, must be a very
difficult thing to do. You’re generating a narrative from a “thing” rather than an “idea.”

DB: Yeah, but it was kind of fun, actually.
It was a lot easier, I would say, than just going from a blank
slate because
you have things to lean on-a tone-and all these great visual elements.
I had pictures of Madame Leota all around my room and pictures
of the three hitchhiking ghosts. I had a real affection for the
ride, so it was fun.

MM: Do you feel more of a sense of “ownership” over
something like
Elf, where you can remember where the idea
originated and how the different elements came to be as opposed
The Haunted Mansion, where the ideas have already been
created in a sense?

DB: I love both of them. They’re different, but
I have an equal stake in both. They’re labors of love that you
try to get made in the best way they can be done.