WRITERS ON WRITING: Interview with Screenwriters of ‘Minority Report’ Jon Cohen and Scott Frank

By James Vejvoda

Originally published in Script magazine May/June 2002

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Minority Report, Twentieth Century Fox’s science fiction thriller Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow, Samantha Morton, and Peter Stormare is based upon a story by one of the science fiction genre’s foremost authors, Philip K. Dick. Several films have been loosely based on Dick’s stories, most notably Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Impostor. During its time spent lingering in development hell, several screenwriters tried their hand at adapting Minority Report for the big screen. The final film, however, is credited only to two of them: Jon Cohen and Oscar®-nominee Scott Frank. Minority Report was shrouded in secrecy throughout its production history, with the Internet being the primary source of (sometimes accurate) rumors and information about the film. To the filmmakers’ credit, though, they kept the lid firmly sealed on what Minority Report is all about.

Minority Report is set in an unspecified near-future when “precogs”—scientifically engineered prophets—have revolutionized American law enforcement to the degree where many civil liberties have been abolished. The story focuses on the Precrime division of the Washington D.C. police department and its senior detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise), a man who harbors a painful past and a dark secret. Thanks to the precogs, Precrime stops murders from happening; the future killers are arrested and incarcerated without ever actually committing the crime. The power of the precogs is irrefutable, completely legal, and remarkably effective. Indeed, the murder rate in Washington D.C. has dropped to zero in the years since Precrime has been implemented. Is Precrime a perfect system of law enforcement and do its benefits justify the violation of Constitutional rights?

WRITERS ON WRITING: Interview with Screenwriters of 'Minority Report' Jon Cohen and Scott Frank | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Now Precrime is about to be taken to the national level. Before that happens, though, this seemingly perfect system is put to the test when the precogs identify John Anderton as a future killer. The hunter becomes the hunted, and Anderton goes on the run, forced to piece together how this could have happened to him and why he would kill a total stranger within a matter of hours. What Anderton uncovers puts the future of Precrime at stake.

I asked the film’s screenwriters, Jon Cohen and Scott Frank, about their experiences working on this high-profile project. Cohen was involved with the film long before Frank came on the scene. Minority Report “was my first Hollywood assignment,” Cohen reveals. “I’d had two minor spec [script] sales in the mid-‘90s—then a period where I wrote two or three more specs that did not sell but attracted attention. The last one, Old City, caught the interest of Jan De Bont [director of Speed and Twister]. He called me about this Philip Dick short story that was a mind-bender that nobody had been able to crack.” Cohen adds that De Bont “was not interested in pursuing the previous drafts written by the other teams of screenwriters [and] wanted me to start over with the story.”

His interest piqued, Cohen accepted De Bont’s offer: “I loved the gimmick: Precrime is an organization that can predict a murder before it happens. You get arrested before you commit the crime. The head cop is accused of murdering someone, and must go on the run to figure it all out.” Scott Frank became involved only after Jon Cohen had taken his crack at the material. “Steven Spielberg asked me to take a look at Jon Cohen’s script in January of 1999,” Frank begins. “He said that he and Tom Cruise planned to be shooting by that summer. I had no interest in science fiction, no time and three other obligations so naturally I said, ‘Sure. Send it over’—a classic case of my ego saying, ‘Hmm, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise. …’ How could I say no?”

Both screenwriters, however, were unfamiliar with the works of Philip K. Dick and only knew of him thanks to films such as Blade Runner and Total Recall. Cohen admits he had “only vaguely ever heard of [Dick]. I did not even truly understand that Blade Runner or Total Recall were based upon his work, which shows you how attuned I am to sci-fi.” While Cohen is clearly not a voracious reader of science fiction literature, he admits to loving “sci-fi films generally, particularly Outland, Blade Runner, etc. I was totally comfortable in this genre. I’m a novelist. I’ve written magical realism, fantastical Twilight Zone type of stuff. Sci-fi ain’t a big leap from there. Sci-fi is just another form of weird things happening to weird people but with more computer technology and laser beams.”

Likewise, Frank concedes that he “wasn’t much of a sci-fi fan. Beyond say, Dune, I hadn’t really read much of it.” But he says that although he “had never read a word of Dick’s before this, I was certainly aware of who he was and his importance in the genre.” Given how little each writer knew of the author and the source material, how did Cohen and Frank individually go about adapting Minority Report for the big screen? For Cohen, “[Dick’s story] was the only thing I read. I didn’t see the previous scripts until I was well into the process. Legally, of course, my work was a rewrite. But in fact, my draft was all Philip Dick and myself.”

Cohen claims that in his script he “kept the Dick story premise, the gimmick, and a few lead characters then completely changed everything. Dick wrote an impossible logic problem of a story. He was more interested in mental conceits than a propulsive visual story. I had to read it about a hundred times, and I still don’t get it all. My job was to find the fun, relatable stuff, and run with it.” The screenwriter cites Minority Report as “the first script [he had written] that jelled for me in terms of my craft. I figured out about sympathetic characters, secondary plot, visual writing, and keeping the action going. I especially like what I did with the female precog, exploring her dilemma.”

WRITERS ON WRITING: Interview with Screenwriters of 'Minority Report' Jon Cohen and Scott Frank | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

TOM CRUISE and SAMANTHA MORTON star in MINORITY REPORT. PHOTO BY: David James ©2001 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Dreamworks LLC. All Rights Reserved.

For Cohen, the most satisfying aspect of his experience working on Minority Report “was simply cracking the story, finding the essence that excited both me and the players in Hollywood. It was fun making up a sci-fi world, which I did in total naiveté. I know nothing about sci-fi, or the rules, or anything. I just made up gadgets as I needed them. That’s the great thing about fantasy writing—need to get the hero out of a tight spot? Hell, just invent a gadget! I loved doing the eye thing. I get a kick out of having them do something very strange and very secret to Tom Cruise’s eyes, and all that weird stuff. It’s fun to see the poster which picks up the eye aspects. We are all viscerally weirded out by eyeballs.”

How did he deal with the intellectual intricacies of the original text, what Cohen refers to as Philip Dick’s “mind games”? “I just made it into a cool ‘innocent man on the run’ movie,” he confesses, adding, “My general rule about rewriting is this: don’t. The only rewriting I’ve done are page-one jobs. I’m not a script doctor. I don’t know how to get inside another writer’s head—that’s just not my particular skill.” Cohen worked on “a number of drafts. When I finished the first draft and handed it in to [then director Jan De Bont] and Fox studios, the reaction was instant and delightful. They were totally turned on. Their eyes lit right up, which rarely happens. Actually, it never happens.”

Given that Minority Report was intended to be one of Twentieth Century Fox’s major releases, what kinds of changes did the studio ask Cohen to make? “They didn’t have a lot of expectations when they gave me the assignment—just hoped, as they always must, that I would hand in something vaguely interesting. But I got lucky. What can I say? The script went all the way to the top guy at Fox in a matter of days, and from there on in, they were definitely going to make this movie. It was just a matter of with which heavy-hitters.” He insisted that his “first draft remained essentially intact throughout the subsequent drafts. It was all about tightening and tinkering. I was on the project from April of ‘97 until December of ‘98 when Spielberg and Cruise attached themselves to it. In the beginning of ‘99 Spielberg brought on a writer he’d worked with before, Scott Frank. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Being rewritten is no fun, but thank god it was Scott.” That marked the end of Cohen’s involvement with Minority Report

 Scott Frank began his work on Minority Report by reading Dick’s original story “and then Jon Cohen’s script. At the time, we were going to be starting production in six months, so I didn’t think that I would be reinventing the wheel. I would simply ‘fix’ Jon’s script per [Steven Spielberg’s] notes, and that would be that. I had no real vision of my own—yet. But as the schedule for Mission: Impossible II started to, shall we say, elongate, I realized that I was going to have more—a lot more—time to work on the Minority Report script.”

Spielberg and Frank set about trying to determine what kind of film they wanted Minority Report to be. “He and I watched The French Connection together, knowing that we wanted to do that kind of movie in the year 2080 or whatever but beyond that, we weren’t sure what the film was going to be about,” Frank explained. “The short story, while interesting in terms of concept, had no real characters; and the plot was exactly the opposite of what the film should be. In the end of Dick’s story, the hero sacrifices himself for this completely fascist system of law enforcement. He’s set up by some guy in the army you don’t know or even care about for reasons that aren’t at all clear. Then it ends. Obviously, there were basic, conceptual elements we were working from—a system of law enforcement where you’re arrested for crimes you’re going to commit in the future, a man is accused of a future murder of someone he hasn’t even met, the three ‘precogs’ who predict the future and so on—but in terms of a real story, everything was in flux.”

WRITERS ON WRITING: Interview with Screenwriters of 'Minority Report' Jon Cohen and Scott Frank | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Screenwriter Jon Cohen

So what to do? “I looked to Steven to tell me what he thought the movie was about, and he said to write it for myself,” says Frank. “It was at this point that I turned to my wife and said, ‘You know, I don’t think I’d write it to begin with. So now what?’ The only way I can really write anything that’s any good is to be in love with it, to understand what the material is about for me. If I have no ideas in this regard (the vision thing), I’m sunk. I was sunk. So I said to myself, if I were to write science fiction, if I were to tell a story with these elements, what would it be? Okay, I’ll write 40 or so pages, show them to Steven, he’ll realize he’s got the wrong guy, and I’ll get back to work on the projects I’m supposed to be working on.”

Frank peppered his early pages with enough dark elements to guarantee his rapid departure from the project. “To begin with, I made my hero—as all should be—flawed,” Frank begins,—“[I] made him a drug addict who also happens to be head of this fascist crime unit. He believes in it because he lost his own son right out from under his nose once upon a time and now wants to punish the world. By day he busts people without a care for their civil rights—all of which have been temporarily suspended—and by night he jogs into the inner city and buys inhalers full of an image-enhancing drug that enables him to better talk to his dead child via holographic home movies. Drugs, dead kids, impotent cops. Strike one. I also created a mystery within a mystery in terms of who he’s supposed to kill and why. I did this for a director who’s never directed mysteries and told me once that he doesn’t much like them. Strike two. I jammed it full of characters, each with their own story to tell no matter how brief a period of time they spent on screen. In other words, lots and lots and lots of TALK. Strike three.”

“Forty or so pages in, I gave Steven the script and waited to be fired,” Frank recalls. “He called the next day; and I jumped in before he could say anything and said, ‘You don’t see the movie this way, right?’ To which he replied, ‘This is the only way I see the movie.’ That began two years of working, on and off, on Minority Report. … I worked for one year solid, in 1999, doing dozens of drafts. I left the project when Steven went off to make A.I., then came back in January of 2001, through production, which ended in July. When Steven came back on after A.I., he really got inside the movie in a way that helped finally focus the story. He was constantly asking the right hard questions all the way through production.”

For Frank, the hardest aspects of scripting Minority Report were his “own tendencies towards too much plot and too much talk and, well, too much everything. Most of the drafts right up until shooting were 160 pages. One was 180 pages. The trick was avoiding the trap of writing to support the concept instead of the characters.” So Frank “pretended for a long time that the story was happening now. The use of the gadgets would come later. Just tell the story. Give the characters real lives, desires, and so on. The science fiction part came later—a genre, by the way, which is normally cold and without much emotion, E.T. aside. By making this story about loss, I thought we would mitigate that somewhat. While the characters are new, there are many story moves that come from Jon [Cohen]. I would not have written the movie the way I did without his script.”

What Frank particularly liked about Jon Cohen’s script was “a lot of the structure. … I particularly loved the gadgets and the way people were tracked by their eyes. The whole eye thing for me became a way into the story, a theme I could develop further. In a world where we can see the future, we see what we want to see. In terms of John Anderton, the main character, this became crucial.”

Cohen admits that he “took getting replaced in stride. I’m not sure why.” Indeed, the most excruciating part of his involvement with this project is occurring only now. “Actually, this current final [Writers’ Guild] arbitration for writing credit that I’m enduring at this moment is the worst moment,” he says. “Scott and I wrote this screenplay, soup to nuts. That the other writers are challenging it, is so absurd and sad. They got rewritten, and that sucks but you shouldn’t get a writing credit as a salve for wounds, as some kind of reward for suffering. Hell, I got rewritten, too, them’s the breaks. If you have enough of your work in the final shooting script, you should get credit—and they don’t. I sure hope the process works.”

In Jon Cohen’s view, the final draft of Minority Report is “definitely the work of two writers. It is my sci-fi world of technology and gadgetry—and especially eye themes—I’m real big on eyeball stuff, since I’m a guy with exceedingly rotten vision. Much of my structure, many of my scenes, dialogue, and a major plot line involving the hero’s rescuing of a precog remain in the film. Scott reworked much of the plot, characters —just tons of big, deep stuff. It’s this weird amalgam. Mine and not mine.”

As previously mentioned, the production of Minority Report was a clandestine affair. (Both Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise are notorious for their ironclad control over the films they make.) So what was it like to be a screenwriter on such a hush-hush Hollywood production? Cohen jokes that Minority Report was “too secret to even talk about how secret it is.” Frank, on the other hand, tries “not to think about it. When Steven asked me to work on Saving Private Ryan a few years ago, I got the call at about 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. By seven, I had the stomach flu.”

Ultimately, what do the screenwriters want audiences to get from Minority Report? What is this story really about? For Cohen, “it’s about righting a wrong. The system stinks: fight it. Someone is suffering: help them. Also, don’t let anybody mess with your eyeballs.” Frank has the same hope for Minority Report that he has with “everything I write: that people will feel as if they’ve been told a good yarn. I enjoy telling stories, especially when other people like them or feel in some way inspired to tell their own. So much of it is effects based that I won’t really know if it works until it’s done. I watched much of the filming and loved what I saw.” Frank insists that “if [the final film] doesn’t work, it will be because of the script. Period. No one’s going to leave this movie grousing about the acting or the filmmaking.”

Given their respective grueling phases of working on Minority Report, what advice would these two successful screenwriters offer fellow writers about adapting a book into a screenplay? “Never adapt a good book,” Cohen insists. “Always take a book with about a page of good ideas, and totally change them to suit your purposes. Better to choose a short story. Better still to choose a pulp short story from the 1930s to the 1950s. They’re so goofy. I’ve written two well-received scripts— Adaptive Ultimate for Fox and Minority Report—both from pulp stories.” Frank suggests that the writer should “decide what the book is about for you. Don’t just try and turn the book into a movie. Make it your own, or you’ll just have a flat, ‘best-of ’ version of the book. You have your own voice. Tell your own story even if its source is someone else.”

Both Jon Cohen and Scott Frank have already capitalized on their work on Minority Report. Cohen is currently “chasing another pulp short story with a goofy plot, and will start pitching it around town soon. But now I get to open my pitch with these words: ‘Geez, I haven’t been so excited by a story like this … since Minority Report.’ I’m such a tease.” Frank “recently finished adapting the Lawrence Block novel A Walk Among the Tombstones for Universal and Jersey Films. We’re, as they say, ‘out to talent’ now. It’s very dark and I’m sure will end my career. I finished rewriting Flight of the Phoenix for Twentieth Century Fox. John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) is going to direct sometime, end of summer, fall. Four years ago, I wrote an original called The Lookout for DreamWorks. I’m working on that for a few weeks right now so that we can put that one together finally as well. As for my future, we’ll see.” For a screenwriter whose latest film is all about seeing into the future, that’s a fitting way to conclude an interview.

James Vejvoda is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Filmic Writing Program, where he received both the prestigious Jack Nicholson Award for Excellence in Screenwriting and the Abraham Polonsky Award. He has won The Writers Network Fiction and Screenplay Contest and was a quarter-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. He can be reached at jamvej@msn.com.

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