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AMERICAN BEAUTY SCREENWRITER ALAN BALL CONDUCTS CASE STUDY AT THE IFP/WEST SCREENWRITERS CONFERENCE

  Alan Ball
Alan Ball
IFP/West presented its annual screenwriting conference at the Writers Guild in Los Angeles on March 18 -19. The keynote speaker, director David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings), presented a preview of his hilarious "Indie Scale" -- a numerical formula for evaluating the economic potential of an indie film -- which he went on to deliver a week later to an appreciative audience of independent filmmakers at the IFP Independent Spirit Awards.

Among the many panel topics that weekend were: "Low Budget on the Page," "Surviving Development," "Selling Your Script Without An Agent" and "Structure: Using It, Violating It."

The panels were composed predominantly of screenwriters, among them Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune, Bicentennial Man), Robin Swicord (Little Women, Matilda), Jon Favreau (Swingers) and Cauleen Smith (writer/director Drylongso). Joining the many writer panelists were producers, agents, studio execs and entertainment attorneys.

The conference offered case studies of two films. The evolution of Boys Don't Cry was recounted by the film's co-writer/director Kimberly Peirce and its producer, Caroline Kaplan. The American Beauty case study was presented by the film's screenwriter Alan Ball.

Excerpts from Alan Ball's talk follow. [Note: The following took place after Alan Ball had won the Golden Globe and the Writers Guild Award, but prior to his picking up the Oscar for American Beauty.]

ALAN:
I was a playwright in New York, and I wrote a play, and got a job offer to come out and write for Grace Under Fire. And I figured okay, what the hell. I had never written a TV spec script, I didn't even watch TV.

But I was kind of sick of living in New York and I figured well, I should try this and see what happens. And I came out and I spent a season at Grace Under Fire, which was the second season of the show. And, you know, in a lot of ways it was the perfect first job to have because nothing will ever be that bad.

It was just hell at the beginning, and I really got sort of a slap in the face about -- not in all TV shows, but in that show, particularly, how writers were just considered to be expendable and the script was kind of secondary to the persona of the star. And that was real new for me, because I had come out of the theater where writers have a certain amount of respect and control. And, you know, the flipside being that you can't make any money.

But my years in TV were invaluable to me because I have never taken a writing class. I studied acting in college. And I always had sort of an ear for dialog and sort of an instinct for character and in tone and mood, but writing for TV, producing an episode every week really seems to, I think, teach you the nuts and bolts of storytelling, which of course you kind of need to know.

And I left from Grace Under Fire; actually I was not invited back for the next season, and I was really upset for about 10 minutes. And then I was offered a job on Cybill, which was the second season of that show. And both of those shows are shows that were really good the first season because they were driven by Chuck Lorre, who was the creator and the head writer, and then both of those shows went through a metamorphosis where the stars took creative control of the show. And in both cases I feel like those women really do the shows as P.R. for their lives. And it was a really volatile working environment. I spent three seasons on Cybill and I think we had a total of three executive producers, and she just goes through executive producers. And there were always big upheavals and half the staff would get fired, and those of us who stayed would get big promotions. In that way it was great, you know, because I was able to work my way up through the hierarchy quickly.

My last season on Cybill, I had just switched agencies because I really wanted a features career, and I had done some screenplays. I had done an adaptation of my play, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, and I had done a rewrite for Warner Bros. And I really liked writing in that medium, but I felt like the agency where I was wasn't really that powerful in features and they kept saying, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, we want you to have a features career," but really they just, you know, wanted to have my TV commission.

So I switched agencies and I went to UTA. And my features agent, Andrew Cannava, who, bless his heart, said, "Well, you need to write a new spec script because everybody has read these scripts of yours that are floating around town, they know what they are. I don't think I can get them set up anywhere, and I need something to reintroduce you to the features community because, frankly, nobody knows who you are."

And he was right. And so I said, "Well, can we meet somewhere and I'll pitch you some ideas I have." And I pitched him two fairly standard romantic comedies that were pretty, you know -- if I couldn't pitch them in one sentence, I could pitch them in two. And then I pitched him American Beauty, which I had tried to write as a play years ago and I had sort of been toying around with these characters and their stories for years. And as you can imagine, the pitch was rambling, but I think I was really excited, you know.

"You think it's about this, but it's about something else, and you're feeling it -- oh, and underneath it is all about this whole sort of what's the nature of reality and there's this kind of metaphysical thing." I was totally expecting him to just sort of go catatonic and fall out of his chair.

And to my surprise he says, "That's the one I think you should write." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because it's obviously the one you feel the most passionate about." It's the best piece of advice I ever got.

And so I started writing in June of '97, and I finished at the end of February of '98. I had been living with these characters and their stories for so long that I didn't -- I don't like to write with an outline, or at least not a very concrete one because if I have to break the story into detail and write it out, then I sort of feel like I've written it, and I am so undisciplined that I never get around to writing the script.

For me part of the joy of writing is that sort of journey of discovery where surprises happen. And I finished it. It was 150 pages. I cut 25 out of it and I gave it to him. And he called me the next day and I was terrified because after four years of TV I was so used to saying, "Oh, okay. Here's my draft. Do whatever you want to do with it." But this was really personal and I had really invested myself in it the way I used to invest myself in the plays that I wrote, and I was terrified he was going to call and say, "Oh, my God, you're such a freak. I'll do us both a favor and just burn this."

And he said, "You know what, this is really good. With your permission what I'd like to do is just start talking it up." And he went around town to meetings and stuff and said, "This client of mine just gave me this screenplay that I think is really amazing."

And meanwhile, at the same time, he was putting together a very targeted list of producers he was going to give the screenplay to. Each of these producers had a specified territory. Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen had DreamWorks and someone else had Paramount. And it was studios and independents.

Well, first of all, I never expected the script to sell. I thought I'd get some meetings out of it. And I thought if it did sell, it would end up at, you know, October, Artisan, or someplace like that.

Most of the studios passed, and those independents were the kind of places that seemed interested. And I had told Andrew, "I am not interested in selling this script to the highest bidder. If this movie gets made, it needs to get made in a very specific way and I think it needs to have not huge stars and it needs to retain the tone." And my big fear was that, first of all, that I'd be hired and rewritten; second of all, that somebody would come in and say, "Oh, it's so awful, does he have to die at the end, can't he learn his lesson, can't he get some therapy?" Or "It's so disgusting that he's hot for the teenage girl, can't she be a college student or maybe a woman at work?" Those kinds of notes that we always get all the time.

And so what he did is, whenever anybody made an offer he set up a meeting between me and these producers, and I just assumed that that was what always happened. It wasn't until later that I found out it wasn't. But I had gone to about four meetings and I had pretty much settled on one place, and he called me and he said, "Well, you need to wait because Steven Spielberg is reading the script tonight." And I thought well, that's a joke. He'll hate it. That was just total narrow-mindedness on my part, and much to my surprise he really liked it, and I went in and met at DreamWorks the next day, and they convinced me that it was the place to do it, and we sold it to DreamWorks.

And from that point on, I had sort of this charmed experience that I like to think was karmic payback for my years in the gulag of Cybill and Brett Butler.

There were a couple of big A-list directors that were very interested in doing it, and frankly, if they had been able to work it out schedule-wise, they would have gotten it. And one of them, his casting choices for Lester and Carolyn were Kurt Russell and Helen Hunt, which I heard and then wanted to bang my head against the wall.

Another one really wanted Ricky to rig Jane's house with those little lipstick-sized surveillance cameras and have her under constant surveillance. And I thought, oh, my God, he totally missed the point. But luckily both of those guys fell out and they gave it to Sam Mendes.

And Sam comes out of the theater as do I, and we usually spoke the same language, and we were sort of on the same page. I could tell that he really, really understood the script, he really got the tone, he really knew what it was about. And he wasn't threatened by me being around because he's used to working with writers.

His first choices for the lead roles were Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, and they received offers and they both said yes. And then, you know, we got these amazing three kids and they all just sort of came together.

And Conrad Hall was going to do it, and Thomas Newman was going to do the score. And it had started out, DreamWorks had budgeted the movie at eight million. And then Kevin and Annette signed on -- and both of them did the movie for much less than their usual fee. The budget went up to twelve and then we had a 40-day shooting schedule, which was very unrealistic, and we ended up shooting for 50 days.

And so the final budget was fifteen million dollars. And, at the time, DreamWorks was acting like we were the most financially irresponsible production in the history of time. But at the same time, they were focusing all their energy on The Haunting and Gladiator which worked to our advantage because we sort of snuck in under the radar, and there was not a lot of studio interference.

And Sam is incredibly forceful, and he is one of the most brilliant men I've ever met, and he's also got that English accent so he's very intimidating. And I think, you know, sometimes DreamWorks' people would come up and say, "Well, what about this?" And he would just say, [English accent] "No! No! You can't do that. It doesn't make any sense!" And they'd go, "Oh..."

And then we wrapped the shoot and then several months later I went over to London to see his cut. In the original script there was a framing device of a big media trial at the beginning where Ricky and Jane are on trial because the videotape that you see has gotten its way into the hands of the police, actually the Colonel gave it to the police. And then "what is the movie now" unfolds and then at the end, interspersed between Lester's black-and-white memories of the moments of beauty in his life, you see the kids get convicted and go to jail.

Like I said, I was in a really angry state of mind when I was writing it because on Cybill we had what we called "a moment of shit" every week where somebody learns something -- and usually from Cybill -- and they hug and this sappy music comes on. You know, after three years of that, I would just cringe. And so when I got off on my own, it's like, "Yeah, the kids go to jail! Nothing means anything. Truth is irrelevant, ha!"

When I saw Sam's first cut all the stuff at the beginning had been cut and some of it had been left at the end, but not enough to make any sense. And I said, "What are you doing? You can't do that." And that was really the only time that we had words.

And then the next day he said, "I'd like to show you a cut where it's all been removed." And he did, and I realized well, you know, what, this movie turned out to be exactly what it's about. I thought it was one thing when I wrote it, and it was something entirely different. Beneath all the cynicism and the anger was this kind of lyrical heart, and I had to admit that -- especially seeing the performances of Wes Bentley and Thora Birch as Ricky and Jane, to send them to jail for a crime they didn't commit was really cynical and kind of just awful, kind of nihilistic. And I realized I didn't want this movie to be nihilistic. I didn't want it to be about nothing. You know. And also I knew I could fight it, but I'd be outvoted. But I am not rationalizing it. Maybe I am rationalizing, but if I am I am unaware of it.

And then from that point on, DreamWorks' marketing got hold of it and did such an amazing job, and it became what it became. And I just sort of look at the whole thing and feel incredibly, incredibly grateful that such creative and gifted people came together to collaborate.

And also I am very, very aware of the big element of luck that is the thing that you have no control over, and so I feel like it's been the most rewarding experience of my life in terms of my life as a writer.

So that's sort of the framework of what happened.

At this point, I'll just open up the floor to questions.

QUESTION:
Sam Mendes is an amazing talent. Where does he come from?

ALAN:
He's a major director in the theater. He's won several Olivier Awards, which are the British equivalent to the Tonys, and he had directed his version of Cabaret originally at his theater in London, which is a very small theater, but it had moved to New York and had a huge hit on Broadway. And I actually saw it. I can't remember if it was before or after I met him, but I really liked it and I felt first of all, this was a man who knew how to get really good performances out of actors, and I knew the movie would rest on the strength of its performances.

He really understood humor from dark situations. He really understood how to create tableaus and use music and lighting to set a mood, and he also had a sense of rhythm. It didn't just barrel from point A to point B, there were ups and downs and swell moments, and moments with degrees and then huge surprising moments, and a real vital energy to it. So I was very impressed with his work.

And I also felt like he directed Cabaret in a way that was very creative, very unique, very much his own particular style, and yet it was always in service of the script. And I thought well, if he can bring that to this movie, then I am a very lucky man.

And actually they had been offering him movies for years, but usually it had been costume dramas or British melodramas and that kind of thing. I think Steven Spielberg was a fan of his and was a fan of Cabaret, and I think they had met.

QUESTION:
What was in the 25 pages that you cut out, and what kind of a process did you use to cut it down to 125?

ALAN:
Because I started out as an actor so I play all these roles in my head when I'm writing and then I end up putting my own personal performance choices in as stage direction, and then I go back through and there will be a stage direction, "He sighs, and looks at his hand." I go through and cut all those out, because, you know, an actor is going to look at that and go "What?" And also on a page, it didn't make any sense because well, that could mean anything. So I'd just find ways to describe what was going on emotionally.

There was a big long sequence where Carolyn went to a radio station and recorded an ad and interacted with her secretary all before she goes to the sale house to try to sell it. There were a lot more scenes at the high school that were just basically repeating the same beats that are accomplished in that first scene, when Jane and Angela are at school.

A lot of it was just trimming descriptions and lines.

QUESTION:
I've seen a book, the Shooting Script to American Beauty. How is that different from the original script?

And also, what kind of improv and changes as the shooting took place happened?

ALAN:
Right. The book that's published as the shooting script is actually the script of the movie as it turned out because they called me and they said, "That's what we want to do," and I said okay. It's different in that the framing device with the trial has been excised.

We had a two-week rehearsal period. Kevin and Annette both come out of theater as well, so it felt like old home week to me. We were sitting around and reading through the script and, you know, everybody had questions. They'd always have some questions, "What am I really saying here?" Usually you'd come up with an answer. If you don't have an answer but sometimes you just go, "You're -- uh, well --" and then you'd make something up, and you realize you don't know so this part should probably change.

We did some improvisation, not a lot. The scene on the couch where she says, "Les, you're going to spill beer on the couch," grew out of that rehearsal period and out of some improv between Kevin and Annette.

A lot of it is stuff that Annette did because when Sam started out, he would throw out those very basic director questions, "Well, where were you right before this scene started?" And everybody would go, "Hmmm. Let's see." And Annette just without missing a beat would go, "Well, I was at the dry cleaners and not only did they ruin my blouse, but somebody nicked my car. And they've ruined more than one blouse, and I am considering taking legal action because, if you have nice things, you should be able to take care of them." And she just started channeling this woman. And we were all kind of going, "Whoa." I mean this is on Day One, okay. And she is nothing like that in real life. She is the absolute opposite and so my personal theory is that she was channeling her mother.

And then there was a scene where Jane and Angela gave Ricky a ride home and they were on a highway, and there was a car wreck, and Ricky filmed it, and then they ended up at home, and that would have taken three days to do. We would have had to close off the Interstate and we were running over and they came to me and said, "Can you cut this scene?" And I said, "No." Because there was a line in that scene that beats the heart and soul of this movie so you can't cut it. And they said, "Well, can we figure out a way to shoot it that will be a lot cheaper?" And that's when the decision was made for at the schoolyard for Jane to decide to walk home with him, and then they would just walk home. And that saved the scene, and we were also able to shoot all of that in one day and save a lot of money.

In the masturbation scene Sam told Kevin just to make up different euphemisms every time the camera started rolling so he would, you know, freak Annette out more.

I was on the set every day except two, and mostly I just sat over in the corner and stared at the monitor and laughed. Everything was going so great. I spent about the first month rushing up to Kevin and Annette going, "Oh, my God, you're so great. You're so great." And Kevin would just go, "Hmmm, okay, thanks." But then I calmed down.

Then I spent a lot of time watching the way Sam and Connie [Conrad Hall] were setting up the shots and watching the way Sam worked with the actors because that's why I wanted to be on the set, I have aspirations to direct myself, but I've never been involved in shooting a movie, and I didn't feel confident to try to do that because my only experience has been on stage and in television, and the format of television is very, very different. So I wanted to kind of soak up the experience as much as I could. And everybody was really gracious, you know.

They made me a promise at the very beginning, Dan and Bruce, because I said in our first meeting "I want to be a part of this and I want you to keep me informed of everything that's going on along the way," and they said, "We promise you." You know what, they kept that promise, and I'll always be indebted to them.

Although Sam later said, "You know, if we hadn't gotten along so well and if you, had been what I consider to be trouble, I would have barred you from the set." And I am sure he would have.

QUESTION:
Could you talk a little bit about that journey from finishing your script to Oscar Nomination -- how it's affected you? Does it seem kind of surrealistic to you?

ALAN:
Oh, it's totally surreal. It's completely surreal. The two days that I was not on the set I was pitching an idea for a pilot, one at NBC and one at ABC, because I had signed a three-year television development deal a week before American Beauty sold. And I had cashed all their checks so... As much as I thought, oh, now I am a movie writer -- oh, now I am supposed to do this, aren't I?

I went in to pitch, you know, the first idea that popped in my head, which is sort of for a period of seven years when I lived in New York, I lived in Brooklyn in a brownstone with three other guys and a dog. And it was a mixture of gay men and straight men, and it was just not an issue. And so I just went in and pitched that and then I added an ex-wife and a teenage daughter, you know, thinking well, maybe somebody will like this, but more than likely they're going to say, "We've got this really obscure insane comedian that we'd love for you to build a show around." But they didn't, and they liked it, and then the next thing I knew I was writing a pilot, and the next thing I knew we were shooting it [Oh Grow Up on ABC], and then the next thing I knew it on the schedule. So right after the movie wrapped, I went into that. And so Dan and Bruce would call me and say well, this is happening and this is happening, and I'd go, that's interesting, but I got to go to a run-through in five minutes.

But there was an article that appeared in the New York Times that sort of said "Oh, forget about the summer movies, this movie is the next big thing." And there was ain't-it-cool-news, which I had never been aware of, but there was a big thing about the movie on that. They started to show Sam's cut to critics and they kept calling and saying, "This is really big." Running a network TV show is -- it becomes your life. So I would sort of go, oh, that's really good, I have to go to casting now.

And actually when the show premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, I went to the network run-through on Friday, came back, did half the rewrite, left my instructions with the staff, got in the car, went to the airport, took the red eye, showed up in Toronto, did four hours of press junkets. That's when I knew that people were treating this as if it was something kind of out of the ordinary.

Went to the screening that night, went to this big party after the screening, went back to the hotel, crashed. The next day got on a plane and flew back here, and we started shooting that week's episode on Monday.

So it was weird because it was going on but at the same time I had this other thing that really was more than a full-time job. And so I wasn't really aware of it.

They would fax me the really good reviews because I said I didn't want to see the bad ones. And then I went to some screenings and then I went to a screening in Los Feliz at The Vista. And it was two or three weeks after it had opened wide, and that was really fun because I really got to see -- because I had only seen it with industry audiences, and that was really fun because I got to see what just a more regular audience thought of it. And they were really rowdy and, you know, really liked a lot of the darker -- really much more willing to laugh at a lot of the darker comedy, which I was pleased. Because sometimes the industry audiences are like, "Oh, this is very important" - at things that I always thought were hysterical, you know. So when the other audiences did too I was sort of vindicated.

And then my show got cancelled and it was kind of an awful experience because I had gotten really attached to the writing staff and the cast. I mean, it becomes your life and your family and then all of a sudden it gets cancelled. And the reason it was cancelled was because they wanted to run a game show three hours a week, which was kind of hard to take.

So I was really upset, and I went home, and my mom had fallen down the stairs and broken her collar bone and life just suddenly got really weird and bizarre, and I started smoking again. And then all of a sudden, the movie started getting all these nominations and I did too, and that sort of helped me.

QUESTION:
I guess you believe in the script now and you think it's okay?

ALAN:
Yeah. Sam said something very interesting, I had lunch with him yesterday, and he said something very interesting. He said, "When you came to London and you saw the cut, you know, your reaction really wasn't 'How dare you do that to my work,' it was 'Oh, my God, I did a bad job with that framing device, it wasn't good. I failed somehow." I'm my own worst critic and then, of course, all the accolades and especially all the award stuff and going to those shows is -- I am so cynical about it because for years I would sit at home drinking, screaming at the TV, and now I am there, and it's weird. It's very exciting, you know. It is so disconnected from the work. It's really seductive. I can see why so many celebrities go crazy.

QUESTION:
So it is fun?

ALAN:
It is fun. Yeah. Yeah. As long as there is liquor at the table.

QUESTION:
After having this great feature experience and after kind of book-ending it with your sitcom experience and most importantly being the head of your own show, how do you feel about on Monday, it's really a funny joke, but on Friday it isn't? -- but whereas the same joke still is alive and wonderful for a year in American Beauty.

ALAN:
Well, that's because you don't do six run-throughs of a scene before you shoot it. The actors rehearsed, but good film actors really hold back until they get in front of a camera to try to let something spontaneous happen.

Whereas, in a sitcom, you know, the joke can kill at table, it's still funny at the run-through the next day, and then on Wednesday, everybody's heard it. So that's just part of the nature of sitcom writing is you realize some really funny jokes are going to just fall out, because you have to keep the network people and the studio people laughing.

And what's amazing is that they don't realize this, but I would always just in the back of my mind, I'd go that's a really good joke, it just sort of laid there like a dead smelly thing in today's run-through, so let's rewrite it, but when we got in front of the audience on the second take, I would always say go back to my other joke just for the tag, and whichever one the audience responded to more is the one we would put in.

QUESTION:
It's such an interesting mixture of tone, in the writing process did you have to work with that a lot so that it felt natural to the story?

ALAN:
I think that mixture in tone is sort of the way I look at the world. I go through days where it's just incredibly hysterical, absurd things happen and then, you know, something ridiculous will make me cry for 30 seconds. And so I never thought, "I am going to set out and try to mix all these different tones." It just sort of happened, and it wasn't conscious.

I knew I wanted it to be funny because when I go see movies and there's not a single ounce of humor in them, I just want to put a bullet in my brain, you know. But I knew I wanted it to be about something and to have more depth then your standard sitcom episode, where because of the nature of it you have to get the punch lines, you have 22 minutes, you've got the network basically giving you the same two notes over and over and over again. "Make everybody nicer" and "Articulate the subtext." I think they are really just so diametrically opposed to really good dramatic writing.

So I wanted it to be about something to have some meaning and depth and about characters who were searching for meaning in their lives as opposed characters with expensive clothing who were just trading insults.

QUESTION:
Before you sent it out to your agent, did you show it to a lot of your friends and peers?

ALAN:
I showed it to two friends.

In my first draft, Lester sleeps with Angela, but I never intended it to be like he goes, "Oh, my God, I'm going to score with a teenage girl." It goes up to the same point it is in the movie and then once she reveals that she's a virgin, he hesitates, she says, "No, no. I want to do this." And then it becomes about they drop their masks and then it becomes about making love, but to capture that would have been so subtle and so elusive, because I don't think anybody would have seen beyond the actual sex.

And I struggled with that because I got that note from the studio and I thought, oh, they just want to make it "nicer." Then I realized, no, no, no. He becomes a father to her that he can't be with his own daughter, and then I was able to realize that it's a much better choice anyway.

But in my very first draft that happened, and both my friends said, "You might want to consider having him not sleep with her." And I was still in my bitter angry, "I've just enjoyed three years of Cybill Shepherd" state of mind. So I said, "No. No. He has to. You're a puritan. You're a stinking puritan. If you were European, this wouldn't matter." And I was wrong, it was a really wrong choice.

QUESTION:
The closing monologue, how was it written and when was it written? My sense of it was -- I loved the movie -- but there was kind of a smugness of him that I didn't understand following what we'd seen him just go through with her.

And I don't know if "smugness" is really the right word, but there was something transformative about him -- in that scene where he does not sleep -- and he looks at the photo of the family. And we kind of return to -- kind of an old sound for him, and I just want you to talk about that. Maybe I missed it.

ALAN:
Well, the closing monologue is in the first draft. At the time it was interspersed with scenes of the kids taking the rap and going to jail, and the Colonel like alone in his room crying and his wife discovering this bloody shirt, and Carolyn being with Buddy, but not being able to sleep and things like that.

His tone is the same tone that's at the beginning of the movie, because he's narrating from beyond. He's narrating from the point of being dead. I never found it smug.

I know it's kind of weird, but he is in the same place -- in the voiceovers, he's always in the same place because he's already experienced it. We as an audience haven't, but he has.

What he learned is, you know, you can't hold onto anything. You can't own anything ultimately. And life passes through you and --

QUESTION:
I think it's just the line: "shitty little life."

ALAN:
Oh, "A stupid little life"?

QUESTION:
Yeah. There's something about that that seems -- anyway, I loved the movie. I loved it. It's just there's something about that that's made me think. I didn't have the experience he wanted me to have, because the life that we ended up seeing was beautiful.

ALAN:
I think he's saying that when he says, "I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

QUESTION:
Yeah.

ALAN:
He's saying it with great kindness.

QUESTION:
Good.

ALAN:
He's saying it with amusement. I mean the subtext was that my life on some level was insignificant and these choices I made were ridiculous. I mean, I lusted after this teenage girl, and I became this pot smoking, you know, gym rat. That's stupid. But that experience was something that I would never trade for anything because I was alive.

QUESTION:
Did the title evolve or was that --

ALAN:
No. It was always there.

QUESTION:
You spoke earlier of replacing stage directions with some other way to get a point across. How do you do that?

ALAN:
It's, you know, "He pulls out the empty bag of pot, he's not happy about it." You just put something very generic, "He's not happy about it" so that an actor can then figure out whatever way they want to express that, or something that's a little more specific.

I feel like a lot of times the first draft of the script is not a shooting script. It's a presentation. It's a presentation for studio people. And a lot of studio people need to be spoon fed because they aren't creative. And so I write it for them. I tend to break a lot of rules apparently. I didn't realize that, but if I have a very specific line reading in mind, I'll boldface and italicize the words so it jumps off the page, and then before you get to the actors, you take all that out. But, you know, that person who is doing the coverage on the movie you got to give them a little extra.

I mean there are people who do coverage who are incredibly brilliant and who will move their way up the ranks; there are also people who, you know, are just dull and not creative, and they more than likely will move up through the ranks before the really creative person. So I tend to go a little overboard with that.

QUESTION:
You don't necessarily work in an outline, but I am wondering what -- do you have some sort of broad strokes in mind or maybe --

ALAN:
Yeah. I knew Lester died. I knew it would look like Jane and Ricky killed him, I knew I wanted you to start the movie thinking they killed him, I wanted halfway through the movie you to go, no, it's not them, oh, my God, it's the wife. And then to be surprised that it was the Colonel. But then as I wrote it, it became less about the plot and more about what each person was kind of experiencing because they all go through a sort of transformation or they come to a point where they can go through some sort of transformation.

The Colonel and Carolyn, of course, can't because they can't let go of the need to control their lives and try to be someone that they're not because they think that that will make them happy. And to me they're the two most tragic characters in the movie.

QUESTION:
The dancing bag, was that written?

ALAN:
Uh-huh. Yeah. That happened to me ten years ago. I was walking home from brunch and a plastic bag came out of nowhere and sort of circled me about -- literally about 25 times. And, you know, it was a weird unexpected profound moment and I always felt like I was in the presence of something; that always stuck with me. I hadn't planned to put it in the movie, but then Ricky said, "You want to see the most beautiful thing I ever filmed," and I thought well, shit, what is that going to be? And then I felt well, what is the most the beautiful thing I ever saw or the most beautiful moment I ever experienced and it was that so I put it in fully thinking that nobody would understand it, and that they would want to change it. Apparently it's become most people's favorite part.

QUESTION:
Is that the "American Beauty" that you're referring to or is it more sarcastic?

ALAN:
No. The first perception of it is the rose, American Beauty rose, that's a specific breed of rose. Then "American Beauty" refers to Angela. You know, she's the American beauty, she's blonde, cheerleader, blue eyes, sort of an archetype of an American dreamgirl. But really "American Beauty" is that plastic bag, okay.

QUESTION:
Would you talk about starting the movie with a guy that says "I'm dead." I remember Sunset Boulevard started that way. I was thinking, is this to ease the fact that the guy died so you don't feel so bad, since he's talking, he must be in heaven? What's your theory?

ALAN:
You know what, I am not aware of what the theory is. I don't think that way. It's more organic. That's just sort of what came out and it felt right.

I am one of those writers for whom the actual writing process itself teaches me what I think and believe as opposed to the other way around. So now I am being forced to articulate what that means.

I think there is some sort of life after death. He's narrating from beyond the grave. I knew it was important to know. A lot of the movie is about living with mortality and living with death and the notion -- not the notion, the fact that, you know, it's something we'll all face, but we live in a culture that really wants to hide it and cover it up and pretend it doesn't exist.

And so I guess it was important to know that he was going to die, but then you sort of forget it. Because he says it at the beginning and then when all the trial stuff was taken out, he just sort of says it once and then you're going on with the story. And you think "Oh, my God, I just saw that video, the kids are going to kill him." But then you get caught up in the story and you sort of forget it.

QUESTION:
Ordinarily you don't want the audience to know how a story is going to end. You go to great pains to conceal how it's going to end.

ALAN:
It wasn't a conscious choice. My process is really kind of weird and organic in a way that sometimes works and sometimes it's just a big mess. But I don't think about what things mean. I didn't think about what that red door meant, I just knew it had to be red. And then I hear Sam talk about it in interviews and explain what it is, and I am like, "Oh, yeah!"

QUESTION:
In the original draft at the beginning you have Lester flying around like Superman. Who's idea was it to take that out? And also, who or what inspired Ricky Fitts?

ALAN:
It was Sam's idea to take that out. Again, we shot all that. We shot all the trial footage and we shot the flying -- when Lester had the dream of flying before he wakes up when the alarm clock goes off, and Sam felt that it just sort of looked too -- well, it was a combination of being a little too clever and not really looking good. It looked kind of cheap, you know, because we didn't really have the money to afford the kind of effects that we really needed to make that work.

So that was mostly his choice, and I agreed with it. I fought more about the trial stuff, but when I saw flying stuff I figured, yeah, it looks kind of cheap.

And what inspired Ricky Fitts? Well, the moment I had with the plastic bag certainly inspired him. I grew up in a household that was not entirely dissimilar from Ricky Fitts' home. And the character of Carolyn -- when she starts slapping herself after she can't sell the house. I hadn't planned that. But all of a sudden I was typing it, and I was like -- she's so unhappy, she's so deeply, deeply unhappy.

I know a lot of people think she's very cartoonish. But I certainly have known women like that, and men like that, but I find her so sad. So very sad, because she just has bought the entire pack of lies and she's thinking it will make her happy.

QUESTION:
How much did the movie change from the script?

ALAN:
I think the notion of writing a script that is complete and then you just shoot it exactly as written, I don't think so much happens, it's such a collaborative process -- and I also think movies and any sort of collaborative venture, it takes on a life of its own at some point, and you have to be able to recognize that and step back, and I think you have to be willing to make changes along the way. And I think a lot of writing gets done in the editing room too.

When Sam was cutting the movie, he said, in trying to convince me to lose the trial sequence. "Look, it's like the movie is letting us know what it wants to be." And he was right.

QUESTION:
The scene where Annette Bening hugs the clothes at the end, I love that scene -- was that Annette or was that you?

ALAN:
That was Annette. That was her idea. During rehearsals she said, "I feel like, I don't know, I feel like I should have a moment when I open the closet and smell him on his clothes and just hug it and cry." And I went, "All right. That's good. I'll add it to the script, you know. Yeah. I think that's a great idea so I'll go write it."

QUESTION:
Did I misunderstand you? It sound like you sat down, wrote 150 pages, went back in took out 25 pages of "looks at his hand and sighs," handed it in, got it sold, and got awards? I mean, wasn't there any agonizing over --

ALAN:
Well, you've got to remember, I tried writing this as a play eight years ago. I've been living with these characters for eight years. And of course, when I cut 25 pages out of it, I went to Laguna and checked into a hotel and I was there for three days because it's hard -- you know.

QUESTION:
But didn't you agonize over well, let's see, would this scene work, would that scene work, or did it really kind of flow very easily for you?

ALAN:
Well, I -- it flowed very easily for me, and I am also a writer who if I am on page 30 and something new occurs to me that I know I have to go back to page 15 and put something in so it will make sense, I do it right then, you know, and then I keep going.

After the script sold, we made a decision for Lester to not sleep with Angela, we also cut this flashback to Vietnam that the Colonel had, where he had like a romantic sexual experience with another soldier in a tent, and they were ambushed, and the guy got killed in front of him and died in his arms, and he found out that the guy's name was Rick. Because it totally tips the scene in the garage. I just needed to write that scene so I knew what his back story was. If he felt like he had to deny who he was because God would punish him, it's irrational. And so those were big changes, taking those out. And then I worked with Sam on the script for awhile before it went out to actors. Sam would call me like every two weeks and go, "Why don't you come over and we'll just go through the script."

He actually had me read the script to him because he wanted to hear my inflections reading those characters for him. And I have since found out that that is something he always does.

And then we had the two-week rehearsal period and we continued to make changes and it took me eight months to write this script. It wasn't like I just sat down and it came out in one week. It was hard, but it was really exciting. But, yeah, it was kind of a really unbelievably easy ride in terms of what usually happens.

Just remember that I had to go into Cybill Shepherd and just sit there while she went, "I have a bad haircut, I think we should do this week's episode about my hair." You know, "and I think I should eat something and stuff it into my face. That's funny." So there was misery, it was just elsewhere.

QUESTION:
You say you wanted to direct -- a small indie film or a studio film?

ALAN:
I have a year and half of my TV deal, and, you know, I have continued to cash their checks so what I did is when I went home for Christmas I wrote a spec pilot for HBO, and they're trying to pan out a deal, and if they do, then I'll direct that. I am also writing a spec feature because basically everything that I've taken a meeting on, they're too high profile, they're too high budget, and there are too many people with ideas about what they want to make it. And nothing really struck me.

But there is one idea that an actor brought me who has some clout, and it's a really good idea. And he basically said, "All I have is a starting place, why don't you just go with this. If I can get the studio to bankroll it, would you be interested?" I said sure.

So that's what I am doing right now. I am going to direct a pilot, and the spec that I am writing I hope to direct.

QUESTION:
So you don't really mind going back and forth between TV and features and whatever?

ALAN:
Well, I kind of have to. You know what I do like about TV is the social aspect of it, of going into a room and being with other creative people and laughing and having fun. I don't like spending, you know, all day alone. I like it sometimes.

QUESTION:
How much of you is in Lester and these other characters?

ALAN:
There's a lot of me in Lester and a lot of me in Ricky. There was a lot of me in Lester hating his job, you know, having to run Cybill. There's a lot of Cybill in Carolyn. There's a lot of me in Ricky, there's a lot of my dad in the Colonel, and there's a lot of my mom in the Colonel's wife. There's a lot of girls I knew in high school and college in Jane, and there's a lot of various people in the industry in Buddy, King of Real Estate.

Two very dear friends of mine from earlier in my life, one of whom is no longer with us, are the gay couple. But I don't sit down and go, "Well, this is obviously Cybill." People would say, "Who is that character?" And I thought, you know, she has this mythology about herself in her life that is totally false and yet she pours every kind of energy into maintaining it, and in the process she's kind of deeply lost and really isolated and unhappy.

I identify very much with Lester. The rest of them are just bits and pieces of me. I mean there's a part of me in all of them because I think you have to identify with the character at some point when you're writing them, otherwise they're just going to become -- I mean you don't have to identify with them personally, but you have to identify with them as a human being and be able to see through their eyes otherwise they'll just become puppet-like, you know what I mean?

But the Colonel, a lot of people say, "Oh, he's so evil." And I so didn't see that, it was just that he was so shattered and so broken and so deeply, deeply, deeply alone.

QUESTION:
I would like to know what you liked best and what you liked least about your script.

ALAN:
There are a couple of lines I really liked. I really liked the scene where it shows you the plastic bag. There's that whole day after Lester starts buying pot where all their lives take off and change, and I really love the way that moves between Lester's story and Angela's story and Carolyn's story, and it's really funny and really sad and kind of goes back and forth between tones in a way.

What I like least, I wish I could rewrite the garage scene. There are a couple of lines that are sort of double entendre-ish between Lester and Colonel that now when I see it, I sort of feel like I wish I had been less -- I wish he was a little more open, but did he have to say, "Our marriage is just for show," "Please get out of those clothes," and things like that that the Colonel could misinterpret.

I've seen the movie so many times now that I am seeing all the weird little continuity glitches and things drive me crazy like the fact that she looks through the garage and sees him smoking pot, and then automatically she's opening the garage with the remote. What? Does she just carry it around with her?

For the most part I am pretty proud of it. I feel like it's probably the best work I've ever done.

QUESTION:
You said you started as an actor. How did that help you as a writer?

ALAN:
I think it makes it easier to write for actors. I think if you've spent some time on stage and you've spent some time saying dialog, and that's all I did in college and for many years after that I tried to make a go of it as an actor. And I started writing to give myself things to do because nobody was casting me.

I think if you know what it is to be an actor, you're quicker to recognize, man, that would be a hard line to say, you know. And if you're just sort of acting the role in your head as you write it, then it tends to have a flow to it. And I think you learn how to write for actors.

QUESTION:
I know a writer who has written like 20 fiction books, and he'll be in the middle of a cocktail conversation and he'll hear a good line, take out a notecard and write it down. Do you do that?

ALAN:
I don't write them down, but it's in my head. I mean I was at a U2 concert, and this girl was standing on a chair in front of me, and she goes, "Oh, my God, I love you, I want to have ten thousand of your babies!" And I just thought oh, my God. And then I remembered it and put it in Angela's line.

QUESTION:
Was it Sam's idea to cast Kevin Spacey?

ALAN:
Uh-huh.

QUESTION:
You must have been so pleased?

ALAN:
Yeah. I don't think of actors when I write because the characters seem real enough, but when Sam said, "Well, I think, you know, we should try to get Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening." And I said, "Yeah. That's good."

QUESTION:
Not only because he's a wonderful actor, but also because you have similar speech patterns.

ALAN:
I know. People have told me that. Actually the first day I drove onto the set, the security said, "Oh, Mr. Spacey, your trailer is right over there" and I said, "Well, I am not Kevin Spacey. I'm the writer." He said, "Oh, well, you need to park way over there."

People that know me have said, "It's like Kevin is doing you." I don't think that, I just think that, you know, there are similarities. But now I can't imagine anyone else playing him. He was born to play that.

QUESTION:
Does it make you want to do more one- camera stuff?

ALAN:
Yeah. I am going to stay away from four camera stuff for awhile.

First of all, the landscape right now is incredibly hostile to sitcoms. Everybody -- the --media has decided that they're dead. And also the networks, you know, they're just dying. I mean the fact that we got on the air is amazing. You really have very little chance of getting on the air unless you're actually producing it through the network and they have a huge portion of the back-end. There's so many weird politics.

I mean in our case, once they decided they wanted Who Wants to be a Millionaire? three hours a week, they only had room for one half-hour time slot, and that went to Sports Night -- which is the Disney Channel. Sports Night is a great show. I am not saying that we should have gotten it, but it's just -- that's -- the nature is so awful -- it's so hard to do it, and I am very, very fortunate I know because I spent four years in it and have a level of financial security, that I don't have to scramble to figure out, you know, where the next paycheck is going to come from. But I feel like HBO is really a place to go. That's the future of TV.

QUESTION:
Is that part about government-grown marijuana real?

ALAN:
You know what, somebody told me about that and I didn't know if it was actually true or not, but I just put it in the script, you know, because it sounded so great. And we were sitting at the table, we were sitting around the table during rehearsal, and somebody said, "Is that real? -- that whole thing about the marijuana?"-- and I was prepared to make up my story, you know, because I have no idea, but Wes Bentley just went, "Uh, yeah."

QUESTION:
I wanted to ask you about the roses, which I loved. Where in your creative process did that come about and was it always an identifying device or did that come gradually?

ALAN:
That was in the first draft, all the roses imagery. I am not sure where it came from. It and the title came at sort of the same time. And, again, I think it's a symbol. At the time I was writing, I didn't know what it was a symbol of except that I saw it and I saw the opening of the shirt and roses coming out.

The first draft, she wasn't on the ceiling, she was sort of floating in this swirl of roses and they were raining down and that would have cost so much to do that -- and, again, that was "Can we make it cheaper?" and it ended up being much better.

Because Sam's whole notion for the fantasy sequence was a very concrete visual style, there's not a lot of morphing weirdness we're used to from, you know, fantasy sequences, which I think is what makes them so striking.

But I guess the roses and the color red are symbolic of passion and being passionate and being alive. But at the time I just knew that that's what I saw. He's experiencing sort of a second blooming, which he foolishly thinks is about becoming an adolescent again but it's really just about rediscovering the passion for living that he had at that time in his life that he had forgotten, and that so many people forget, you know.

QUESTION:
When you were going to Laguna Beach to do your rewrite, did you closet yourself alone for three days and write until you dropped at the computer, or did you get up and go to the beach and run around and then come back and write?

ALAN:
I am sure you are all used to, you know, sitting at a computer and then all of a sudden, "Oh, isn't it time I should clean out the fridge?" So I got out of my house so I wouldn't be able to do any of that.

I would go to the beach and go swimming and stuff like that, but mostly I just forced myself to do it. I knew I had to do it. And I said, you know, I have to do this before I go home. I had a weekend to do it, so...

QUESTION:
Was that difficult?

ALAN:
Well, like I said, I had been living with the characters for eight years. There was a certain flow to the writing process that was really nice, a nice experience. But the first draft was structurally very sound. We made the decision for him not to sleep with Angela, we made the decision for the Colonel not to have that flashback to Vietnam, and in editing certain things were moved around. I think in the first draft the sequence at the high school takes place before Carolyn tries to sell the house. It just worked better.

QUESTION:
So you cut 25 pages before the producers read it?

ALAN:
I was just trying to get it down to 125, to make sure that every word was exactly perfect. You know that whole thing. And the minute you make copies, you immediately -- the first page you open to, you see a huge glaring typo.

QUESTION:
During the eight months where you were writing, could you describe some of what your work was like, I mean were you writing from "Fade in" to "Fade out" or would you dabble around at it?

ALAN:
Well, my daily work was running Cybill because the Executive Producer had left to run the Damon Wayans show, and so I was running a show, and then at night, you know, everybody would go, "Let's go to Mexicali and have margaritas," and I would say, "No. I am going to go home and go work on my screenplay."

And I was literally surviving on no sleep and -- but it was so much fun to actually go home and write something I gave a shit about. I mean I did my job seriously, and I never sloughed off, but, you know, you get a note like, "Well, I want Billy's boyfriend to fall in love with me, and I want to sing opera." And all you can do is go, "Okay." And then you go off to your room, and you're going well, I don't know how to make this work without it looking incredibly egotistical and narcissistic, but we got to try.

Ultimately you don't have that level of organic connection because you can't, because if you did you'd go crazy. It would be too painful. And plus, you know, they were characters that were set in the first season of the show. They weren't my characters, it wasn't my voice, I was a craftsman. I knew Cybill's voice, I knew Christine's voice and I knew what would make a good scene and everything.

But I thought, this is shit. This is really a stupid idea, but, you know, I had to do it. And so it was really liberating to go home even at 1 o'clock in the morning and go, "Yeah, she's in a bathtub full of roses," and sort of lose myself in it.

QUESTION:
Did you guys want an unknown for Angela?

ALAN:
I wanted unknowns for all of the kids. We saw every teenage actor in town. And a lot of them are quite good, but I felt like if the kids were unfamiliar faces, that you would really get to know them as a character; whereas if you have Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and any of those walking in, it would feel -- I mean we saw Christina Ricci and she was great for Jane, but I felt like I've seen her do that and the minute she comes on screen, you know who she is. And she's played that role before and I thought it would be more interesting if they were three faces that we didn't really know. And luckily Sam agreed.

QUESTION:
Is it because you're a dynamite writer that you had control or is it because you had Cybill or luck? How did you manage the position where you pretty much were in charge of your script?

ALAN:
I think the keyword is luck. I think the script spoke to the producers and the director and the people involved in a way that they wanted to retain me and my voice, they were interested in having me around. You know, but again, that's incredibly lucky.

QUESTION:
It also sounds like the answer is to write a great script.

ALAN:
Well, thank you, but I think there are probably a lot of instances where really great scripts, the writers have been hired and rewritten, and it becomes something not as good. I think it was a combination of the right people got the script and luck and the fact that DreamWorks was busy producing Gladiator.

QUESTION:
Are you still tempted to write parts for yourself as an actor?

ALAN:
No. I've given that up. Over the years it's become really clear to me that my strength as a writer far outweighed my strength as an actor. It was fun acting, I loved it.

QUESTION:
And what was your parents' response to the film?

ALAN:
My father is dead. My mother read it and she said, "That's the filthiest thing I've..." But now she's very, very happy. She's really... Oh, my God, getting nominated for awards has validated me with my family and I am very happy about that. For years I was the freak, you know.

QUESTION:
Did she recognize her relationship with your father in it?

ALAN:
If she did, she didn't say anything. I was nervous about her seeing it. I didn't see her with it, but I was nervous about the point where Ricky kisses her on the cheek and says, "I wish things had been better for you." That's something that I've always, always felt and it always makes me cry in the movie because of my own personal connection to it. And I think if I were to watch the movie with her, it would be incredibly uncomfortable.

QUESTION:
Did you ever think about winning an Oscar?

ALAN:
When I was a kid I thought, oh, I am going to be a big movie star someday, I am going to win an Oscar. And then I sort of developed this viewpoint of like this outsider who was totally cynical. And that's when I would watch the awards shows and just scream at the TV. "Shut up!" "Get off!" You know. And that's actually the way I watched the awards last year. So it should be surreal.

QUESTION:
I noticed on Lester's desk it says "Look Closer." I am guessing the advertising came from that.

ALAN:
But that was the set dresser, that wasn't in the script. The set dresser just put that in his cubicle. And Sam watching footage day-in and day-out during editing, he saw that; and there was that great shot where -- you know, there are two shots -- there's one of Lester reflected in the screen of the computer, and then there's a wide shot showing all the cubicles, and then there's that one that's sort of moving in very slowly, very fluid, and you see that "Look Closer."

He was very, very hands-on in putting together the trailer, and the poster. He fought for a poster that did not feature those packaged faces. His instincts are pretty dead on. I feel like I've been very lucky to work with him, and I'll jump at the chance to work with him again.

QUESTION:
You think when it comes out on DVD, they'll show the scenes that were cut from the trial?

ALAN:
No. He feels like the movie is the movie and he doesn't want to do anything to change that. But there is a track on the DVD with him and me, and he basically talks and I am just saying, "Oh, cool. You're so great. You're so great."

QUESTION:
If you hadn't had Sam and would have directed it yourself, what do you think might have happened as an end result of the film?

ALAN:
Well, I think it would have been much worse. Yeah. I think I -- well, I mean, I just wasn't ready. I can't even imagine that. It would be such a learning experience and I wouldn't want to do that to the script.

QUESTION:
When you do your first feature, where will you look for that second pair of eyes without Sam?

ALAN:
The cinema photographer and the producers. Yeah. I mean whoever the first A.D. is, you know. I am very glad -- and I am very aware having worked in TV for so many years that other people can have other ideas and a lot of the time, they're going to be better than mine, and it's just going to make it work better and that's what's really important.

Also, I feel like as a writer you have a very specific vision when you're writing a piece, but the main purpose of that vision is to get the piece on paper. And once it's there, it's going to become a collaborative thing, and other people are going to bring stuff to it that improves it. You know, if you want to retain total control, then you should write novels. And even then, you know, editors are going to mess with it.

But I know being a writer in this town is incredibly frustrating and you have to deal with a lot of pinheads and morons, but there are a lot of people out there who are smart and who are very good in this. If you're lucky enough to be working with good people, they're going to improve the work.

And something happens when it goes from the page to the screen, you know, like we were talking about earlier, like the trial stuff I thought worked on the page and it totally didn't work on screen. You have to be open, you have to be able to recognize when, as Sam said, the movie is letting you know what it wants to become, and you just get out of its way.


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