Well so does almost every author, including writers of cookbooks, says KWC faculty member and super-agent Steve Fisher. And of those that do get optioned by a studio, a disappointingly small percentage make their way to the movie screen. Yet he makes his living by beating those odds. His client list includes Lee Child (the Jack Reacher franchise), Pulitzer Prize winners Phil Caputo (“Rumor of War”), Gregory Maguire (“Wicked”), and the estates of Arthur C. Clarke, Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander” series), and Truman Capote.
A good number of the Kauai Writers Conference authors have had books made into successful films: Scott Turow (“Presumed Innocent”); Sara Gruen (“Water for Elephants”); Kaui Hart Hemmings (“The Descendants”); and Alice Hoffman (“Practical Magic”). Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” and Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain” are both slated for upcoming release. Their differing experiences of the winding road from book to film will be the subject of much discussion at the conference.
And Jeff Arch wrote the Academy Award nominated screenplay for “Sleepless in Seattle.” His four-day master class on screenwriting should not be missed by attendees interested in either screen writing or adapting their work for film.
Here, to give an idea of his approach to writing for the movies, here is an interview with Jeff Arch:
Did you have any idea that “Sleepless in Seattle” would be such a major hit?
This is going to sound arrogant, or something like arrogant if not exactly that – but the night I got the idea, the story sort of all dropped down into place piece by piece. And then, the minute I thought of the title, I knew it. I remember thinking to myself, if I pull this off it’s going to be a monster. I just had this really strong sense that the right people were going to come along and steer it, and that also the wrong people were going to show up too, but the thing would be strong enough to shake them off. And that if any negative elements remained, they’d be like barnacles on a ship – a hassle, and something that needs to be dealt with, but nothing that can stop the momentum.
This all happened in the space of about an hour or two, on a freezing cold January night. I was living in Virginia at the time, and I was looking up through a skylight and the stars were just amazing that night. And I told myself, “for every star in the sky there’s a good idea.” And then, I am not kidding, it was like one at a time, these shooting stars would come right down through that skylight and land in another part of the story. I have never had a single experience as exciting as whatever was going on that night. “Exciting” can’t even begin to describe it. And then later on, for the entire time I was writing the movie, that same feeling was there – something was going on that was way bigger than I was. I know I’m making this sound like I had discovered the Theory of Relativity or something, and obviously this was a lot less world-shaking than that. But I’m not Einstein, and for me this was just as big. I felt so lucky to be the one that got that idea – I felt like anybody else that had been up that night might have gotten it instead if I hadn’t been there – but as it was, I had this sense that I was being trusted with something, and that I had better not mess it up. Where my head was at the time, I wanted to send a valentine out to the whole world.
Do you now feel confident about what works in a story?
I feel confident about what works or doesn’t work in a story. I’ve been writing all my life, and writing movies for something like 25 years now – if I had been building furniture all that time instead of writing, I’d know a hell of a lot about furniture building by now. Which means with stories it’s sort of the same.
But is every new idea and script still like starting over?
If I get an idea, there’s a definite advantage to knowing what works and what doesn’t work, in terms of can this idea go the distance – but it doesn’t make writing the damn thing any easier. It’s never easier. I keep promising myself whenever I’m writing something, that the next one will be easier, and it never is, and even though I hate that, that’s probably the way it ought to be. We’re supposed to grow. We’re supposed to challenge ourselves. Yet, as high and mighty as all of that may sound, I would still beg and plead and even steal from my neighbor sometimes, if whatever I’m writing at the time would only be easier. This is a hard job, and everybody had better know that. It’s a major trick of nature that a really well written script will appear effortless, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Ask anybody if it’s easy. If they say yes, they’re lying. It can’t be, and it shouldn’t be.
You’ve said that you didn’t always agree with how Nora Ephron directed Sleepless, but that you admired her authority, consistency and articulacy. What is the writer-director relationship like from your perspective?
Well there’s what it is, and there’s what it should be. In the case of Sleepless, Nora and her sister Delia were the writers of record during production, so their writer director relationship was sort of self-contained. But in other situations, where someone writes the script and someone else directs it, my answer would be that the relationship between the director and the writer shouldn’t be any different than the relationship between the director and the cinematographer, or the sound mixer, or the production designer – yet somehow, in way too many cases, it’s not like that at all. If the director has a problem with the lighting in a scene, he or she will say hold on a second, and talk to the cinematographer, and then leave it to the cinematographer and lighting crew to sort it out.
Yet somehow when it comes to writing, people will go to anyone except the writer. I don’t know why that is. Nobody knows the story like the writer does. Nobody else knows how everything is related to everything else, and that every element you fool around with is going to have an effect somewhere else in the story, and that you can’t change this without dealing with that. And since the writer is the one that got you there in the first place, why in the world would anyone consider not having that person on hand, or at least reachable, when there’s a problem?
But in movies they do it this way. And the only answer I’ve ever heard to that, is that well sometimes these writers, you know they have personalities. They can get weird, and they’re a pain in the ass to have to handle. And maybe some of them are – but all of them? And is someone trying to say that other people on a movie set don’t have personalities? I have to tell you, I’ve never heard of a movie losing a whole day of production because the director had to talk the writer out of his or her trailer because he or she was feeling bloated that day, or something came out in a tabloid about how they had a baby with ten different aliens. A movie set is a cauldron of personalities. There are egos like you wouldn’t believe, and to think that by keeping the writer out of the equation is going to mean that now you’ve got a smooth sailing ship, is insane.
Would it be different if you were directing?
In the case of the only movie I’ve directed so far, The Guide to Guys, I was also the writer, so if there were any changes to be made on the fly, I made them. And it never took very long because as the writer, I knew where everything was and how it related to everything else. But if I am ever directing someone else’s script, that person is going to be there, or be where I can get hold of them. I’m going to have other stuff to do, and just like lighting or sound or costumes, I’m going to go to the person whose department it is, communicate the situation, and let them do their job.
Romantic comedy is notoriously difficult to do well, and can be something of a derided genre. Which are your favourite romantic comedies?
Aw, man. Here’s the thing with lists, for every title on the list there’s going to be one that I forget, and that’s going to be somebody’s favourite – or, I’ll list one that I liked but they thought was garbage, and there goes all my credibility. So what I’ll do is name four of the most recent movies that come to mind, that I think were absolute state of the art, and which not only influenced me greatly, but I wished to hell that I wrote them. And those four would be Jerry Maguire, Dave, Wonder Boys and your very own Notting Hill. Now I’ve been in England three times in the last 12 months, and I have witnessed this sort of backlash or dismissal of Notting Hill, which I guess is coming from Londoners who felt that their city was mis-portrayed, or more specifically, for current or would-be residents of Notting Hill who would like to kill Richard Curtis for what he did to real estate values there.
But for anyone who’s willing to step back and have an open look, Notting Hill started with a wonderful premise, it had an airtight script – and I mean airtight – the casting was perfect, the directing was totally on the money, it had a great look, and the Elvis Costello song was dead on. I really felt for the characters and believed the story – and that’s often the hardest part of a romantic comedy, coming up with and maintaining a story you can actually believe – and what else… everything else, I guess. Everything has to work if you want to be at the top of the heap.
How do you approach writing romantic comedy?
I can give you four words to describe it: total panic, have faith. Because it’s true, there’s nothing harder than romantic comedy. Because in real life, two people either get together because they like each other, or they don’t get together because they don’t – and none of this generally takes a very long time. We usually do go by our first impressions with people, for better or worse – so if a guy approaches a girl and she’s not interested, it isn’t really going to help anything if he shows up at her office the next day in a gorilla suit.
Yet in romantic comedy this kind of thing happens all the time, whether it makes a whole lot of sense or not, or whether it reflects real life or not – and the audience is very accepting of this and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be – you don’t go into a romantic comedy to learn how bad things are in Rwanda, you go to escape for a while into a world where everybody has exciting jobs, money to spend, clean clothes and really cool places to live – and their only problem, gosh darn it, is that the girl they love is going to marry the wrong guy (meaning, not the hero), and everybody had better get in different cars right away and all race out to the airport so he can stop her. And as long as someone does this with integrity and not cheap shots, I’m along for the ride as much as anyone else. Because I want to be caught up in it too.
But for anyone to write the kind that lasts, they have to come up with something that’s not only real but sustainable – and that, to me, is the biggest problem. There are lots of setups out there, and they can all look great on the movie poster, but very few of those setups can keep going for the 90 or 100 minutes that you have people sitting there, and still be believable. A lot of them can pull off charm, and charm is a thoroughly necessary quality, just like flour is a thoroughly necessary quality if you’re baking a cake. But to be something that lasts forever, you need all the ingredients and not just some of them. And that is unbelievably difficult. When I see one that works, I celebrate it like crazy. And when I see one that doesn’t work, especially if it makes money anyway, I am a very hard person to be around.
I have to say something about one that I forgot, and that’s There’s Something About Mary. That movie not only took the entire idea of romantic comedy and just ripped it to shreds, but it did that while being a superior romantic comedy at the same time. Somehow it had it both ways. It was possibly the funniest one ever in terms of pure comedy, but also it was one of the sweetest and most genuine. So you can bet I am jealous of that one.
You’ve written both original work and adaptations – does the process of writing them differ?
No matter which one I’m writing, the other one looks more attractive. With an original, I find myself wishing someone had already done a lot of the work for me by establishing the premise, the characters, and the general forward motion of the story, and those are all great and helpful guidelines. When I’m doing an adaptation, I find myself wishing to God that I wasn’t being confined to all this stuff that somebody thought out ahead of time and could just make something up of my own instead. The fact is they’re all hard. If you’re doing your job right, they are all blood-draining, bone-crunching hard. And that’s why even though there are a lot of really popular ones, there are so few that are also really truly good.