While researching and writing my current piece about the current Jake Gyllenhaal/Anne Hathaway film, Love & Other Drugs, for Script’s print publication, I had the great fortune to chat with the three writers involved in the script’s evolution: the award-winning writing/directing team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and screenwriter Charles Randolph. Our conversations were amazing, filled with humorous anecdotes, behind-the-scenes tidbits, and musings on philosophy’s role in screenwriting. Since only a small portion of these extensive conversations made it into the print article, I have compiled the highlights here for your enjoyment. – Aaron Ginsburg
TRAILERS & OTHER ESSENTIALS
AARON GINSBURG: When I saw the movie trailer for Love & Other Drugs, I noticed they’re really selling it as a typical romantic comedy. It was refreshing and surprising when the film turned out to be not that straightforward at all. Obviously those romantic comedy moments work really well and that’s why they’re in the marketing push, but there’s much more to this film than your average rom-com.
EDWARD ZWICK: You know, it’s a very hard thing. Because movies have got to be sold in sixty seconds, or more likely thirty seconds or sometimes even fifteen seconds, they’re necessarily reductionist. So, how do you sell something that’s complex? And the answer is: if that’s the way you have to sell it, then you don’t sell it in a complex way. And so many things get sort of reduced to a lowest common denominator and that has an effect over the kind of things [the studios] want to make. They want to make things that can be sold in that same way. So there’s a chilling effect in that regard.
MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ: Unfortunately, trailers aren’t the movie… or else they’d be two-hours long. And that’s something we contend with on every film. The trailer is the thing that makes you want to see the movie, it’s not the movie. Therefore, it has to be just facets of the movie. And there were plenty of internal discussions as to what the trailer [for Love & Other Drugs] should and should not convey. And finally, you take your best shot. That’s all.
AG: Did you guys experience frustrations with the studio trying to pigeonhole your movie into one genre? Because obviously once you see the film, it’s clear it isn’t something that can be easily reduced.
EZ: We did not experience that in the making of it. The studio was very supportive of the script and of the movie, but we have experienced in the selling of it their inability to reflect its complexity and, in fact, their determination not to. That their better chance is indeed to sell it some more genre friendly way and have people be pleasantly surprised and perhaps the word of mouth will describe its complexity.
MH: From a marketing standpoint, I think there were challenges. Because in this world we live in today, which is so busy and so loud, you punch through with one sentence usually… or one image. And what was the sentence or image that would convey what this film was? There was no way to do that. It certainly was a challenge from the standpoint of summing it up. I don’t necessarily think that should be translated to it was a challenge in selling this film. I think this film is quite salable. In other words, when people look at the materials they… feel the authenticity in it. They feel the reality of the characters. They feel that there’s a depth to this story… And that is selling the film right now. It’s not like the film is a tough sell. The film is a tough movie to categorize, that’s all.
COLLABORATION & OTHER CHALLENGES
AG: So you wear a lot of hats on your projects, and I’m curious how the screenwriter side of you works with the director side of you?
EZ: There does come a moment when the screenwriter finally has to be made subordinate to the director’s tasks, and that’s telling the story not just narratively economically, but also economically in terms of costs. I mean, there are any number of concerns that the screenwriter doesn’t have that the director has. And there are many moments when the director in me just says, “Well, yeah I understand what that writer’s intentions were, but we can’t do it this way, we’re going to do it a different way,” or, “I’m going to tell this story with my camera and something he (or I) was thinking of doing something with words can be taken care of in a much more visual way.” So, that is the inevitability with whoever is the screenwriter, whoever is the director. On the other hand, many things happen as the movie’s going along that ask to be written. “Gee, I want to go deeper there,” or, “We could use another scene that does this,” or, “this scene is too long and can be shortened.” Then you take off the director’s hat and put that writing hat back on and after a full day of work you sit home at night and churn out the pages and that’s a real drag, but it is inevitable.
AG: So, Marshall, are you on set the whole time in the event that there are script changes that need to be addressed?
MH: No, I wasn’t on set the whole time. Ed and I, over the years, realized that although we have a wonderful friendship and a great partnership, it can’t survive directing (he laughs). In other words, whoever’s the director, the other person basically just can’t really hang around very much. It’s very funny. People laugh at us. Because it works in both directions. Whichever one of us goes to the other one’s set, they sit there and make it for about three minutes before they have to go and tell the other one how they’re messing it up. It’s just something we laugh about now. So, in general, when I direct Ed leaves me alone, and when he directs I leave him alone. It doesn’t mean I’m not there in development and pre-production and post-production. It’s just literally on the set, it’s not a great idea for both of us to be there.
AG: So, do you feel that when you’re just on the writing side of it, you’re already second guessing what the director’s side would do in terms of what is producible or do you let that go?
EZ: I think so. I think the more movies I’ve made, the more I try to write in final cut. I’m not just trying to write arbitrarily. I think Marshall and I, because Marshall and I are both directors and always have been, we’re trying to imagine what the director’s challenges are and, by the way, the actor’s challenges too. To make a transition, to really make it have some shape, that there’s a beginning, middle, and end to a scene, that there’s an obstacle and an action, that things are playable, so as to have less of a challenge of interpretation once you’re actually putting something on its feet.
MH: It’s interesting, you’re evoking the directorial, but you’re also mixing the producerial and they’re two different functions. Ed and I both learned to write as directors. We were trained at the American Film Institute as directors and that’s really how we learned screenwriting. That’s how we approach screenwriting: as directors. What that means is that we are making a movie in our heads and then writing down what we see. It’s not just based on what the characters say. It’s based on a whole cinematic approach that includes the inner life of the characters. What their experience is. And then the words are the last things that come out – which is what happens in life. You have an experience inside, you have a set of feelings, and then you decide what’s okay to say and you say it. I think many screenwriters make the mistake of thinking that stories are about what people say. Stories are about what’s inside people’s heads. And what they say has a sometimes paradoxical relationship to what’s in their heads. That was something we learned as directors, and we approach writing as directors. Then there are also questions as producers, “Well, can we afford that? Should we use this location? Should we split this up into six scenes or should we put it into one?” Those are questions that we also ask ourselves, but that’s actually easy. Because, finally, when you know what the story’s about, it’s very easy to change the details of where people are or what their circumstance is. That sort of thing. What’s not easy is figuring out the real dynamics between two people and how that’s going to play out in a beginning, a middle and an end.
AG: Do you feel that more films would be successful if there were a writer always on set? You have the fortune of being a writer as well, but what about those times when the director isn’t also a writer?
EZ: I think it really depends on the nature of the writer. There are certain writers who are incapable of seeing the process by which a script becomes a movie, and all of the manipulations and even the manhandling of their material that takes place. Some writers, just characterlogically, can’t be present or don’t want to be when that’s happening. Others are completely open to seeing how so many things change: the room feels different, the actor doesn’t get how the line is supposed to work, the location wasn’t made available, or the scene has to be cut… So many things happen. John Logan is a fantastic writer, we worked on The Last Samurai, but John doesn’t want to be there on the set. He’s a very collaborative soul, but that’s just not his nature. There are other writers who have written for me who once they’ve written it, that’s how it should be, and that’s what they’re determined to stick to — almost as a playwright might in terms of the production of Broadway contract. They have a harder time.
AG: Filmmaking is an ultimately collaborative process that includes nearly everyone on the set, from the costumer to the DP to…
EZ: Yes. And finally, the editing of the movie is the final rewrite. You’re reshaping the story, you’re cutting. There’s line cutting, you’re moving things around, or whatever you’re doing, that’s also writing.
AG: Which hat are you wearing in the editing room? Both the writer and the director hats simultaneously?
EZ: I guess… I work with a very talented editor, Steven Rosenblum, we met in film school. He’s so smart as a storyteller and he challenges me every step of the way. I think, finally, I’ve come to believe that as a writer I’m thinking about directing and as a director I’m thinking about writing and the same is true in the editing process. It’s all about telling the story as best you can. I think those distinctions have increasingly blurred for me over the years.
AG: You both have collaborated on multiple films and several long-running television series. How would you describe your collaboration process as a writing team?
MH: The process of working in a room is something Ed and I have done for twenty-five years. First off all, we’re best friends. We’ve been best friends since film school, and there’s just a lot of trust there. And I think if you’re going to write with somebody you have to be able to trust the person. Because the best writing comes out of those moments that are undefended. And anybody who has sat in a room with five or six other people and tried to be creative knows what I’m talking about. It’s terrifying. The ideas that come into your head all seem stupid and useless. And sometimes you have to help the other person overcome their own embarrassment. Ed and I will often catch the other in a moment of hesitation and we’ll say, “You were just thinking something. What were you thinking?” And the person will say, “No, it’s stupid.” And we’ll go, “No, no, no, no, what was it?” Because inevitably, it’s going to be a good idea. The thing that embarrasses you is usually a good idea or has the germ of a good idea. There’s something wrong with it, but there’s also something great with it that the other person can help fix. So, it’s taking the judgement out that enables us to work really well as partners.
EZ: We have this thing that’s half of a conversation and half of a writing process. We, I think, created our collaboration as an extension of our friendship, so it sort of flows back and forth between conversation, and dialogue, and typing, and everything else. It’s very free form. One person is at the keyboard and the other person is lying someplace on a sofa with a pillow over their head saying, “No, no, no, that’s wrong.”
AG: I have a writing partner, as well, so that sounds…
EZ: Sounds familiar, does it?
AG: Yeah, that sounds like exactly our process.
EZ: Good. Good. Maybe it’s universal then. I’m sure Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond did the same thing.
AG: You just need to make sure you take turns who has the pillow over their head, that’s for sure.
EZ: (Laughing) Exactly.
“ROM-COMS” & OTHER PHILOSOPHIES
AG: The thing that I found interesting watching the film was its disparate tones: it’s a period film, set in the nineties, it has this historical backdrop of the invention of Viagra and how that little blue pill changed the pharmaceutical drug world. Then, in the middle of this film, there’s an exploration of the crippling effects of loving somebody with Parkinson’s Disease, and it’s also a romantic comedy. The story leaps from very funny scenes to very heartfelt scenes to simply heartbreaking scenes rapidly. There’s just a lot going on in the movie.
CHARLES RANDOLPH: Yeah, there is. This is very much by design. I mean, that was always the case. What’s interesting about a big commercial romantic comedy like Knocked Up, there’s actual stakes there between this couple. You may not buy that couple, but they actually have a real problem to address, and I really wanted to embrace that because most romantic comedies are some ridiculous notion of information that didn’t get transferred or was transferred at the wrong time and so there’s this sort of false sense of anger that keeps the couple apart until they sort of get over themselves. You know, a little bit of the old, “You dated my roommate before I met you, therefore I can’t date you anymore.”
AG: Almost like old-school farce.
CR: Yeah, so I wanted to really create stakes for [Love & Other Drugs]. All my stuff has sort of a political element. You can probably tell that by looking at my IMDB page. So, I feel like if you’re going to tell any story at all, at least have something to say about it. And I think there’s something important to be said about how we handle medications, but also about the changing phase of illness. What was really exciting about this film for me, in writing it, was the ability to portray a new type of illness, which is to say, a very serious, chronic illness that is debilitating, but not terminal in the immediate sense of the word because that is what illness is going to become for all of us. All these illnesses now we can manage. So, that was really interesting, this notion of instead of the girl coughing on page 6 and on page 110 she’s dead, let’s do a realistic portrayal of what it means just to deal with illness. That was important to me as a theme. Now I can give sort of the philosophical background why that was important to me if you want to, but it may not be interesting to your readers.
AG: No, I’d love to hear it.
CR: Well, [American philosopher] Ronald Dworkin, has a very interesting idea about the model of the good life, being that there are two different models of the good life. Dworkin talks about how there’s the traditional Impact Model- that we measure the good life by how we change the world: we do great things, we’re a great sports-star or we’re a great president, whatever, but, actually, for most of us, the Impact Model is not how we will define the good life. For most of us it’s the Challenge Model, which is just getting up everyday, doing our thing, and living the best life we can. And I felt like take a guy who’s success is tied to the Impact Model of happiness in his life [Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Love & Other Drugs] and evolve him into someone who is content with the Challenge Model, felt really interesting to me because that’s the model for happiness most of us will have, which is typically leading a good life. That is enough. Having a good relationship in your life is more than enough to have made your presence worthy on this planet.
AG: Let me guess: you were a philosophy professor?
CR: Yeah, I used to teach philosophy.
AG: What was your favorite philosopher or philosophical conceit to teach?
CR: Well, I taught a lot of aesthetic philosophy, so I taught a lot of twentieth century literary criticism philosophy language and that sort of thing. I’m a big fan of Foucault… I’m a big believer that he has something really profound to say about history’s sexuality and its relationship to transgression. That’s been a helpful thing for me in my work.
AG: I think philosophy is a wonderful exercise for the mind, the constant meditation of how one sees the world and how one thinks of what life is. Do you find that your background on philosophy affects your writing?
CR: Absolutely. Everything I do, I start with something, I want to say, that feels philosophically interesting. I’m finishing today, for a producer’s draft, a movie about Ronnie Biggs, which is very much borrowing on my understandings of criminology and the rebellion function within criminology. I don’t know if you remember Ronnie Biggs, one of the great train robbers who escaped to Brazil and the Brits kept trying to kidnap him through the sixties and seventies. So, everything always comes from that. In fact, my second film script, the first that actually got made, called The Life of David Gale, every character represented a different school of philosophy. You don’t really feel that in the film because, obviously, I don’t control the variables of how it’s filmed and that sort of thing. But certainly philosophy has been really helpful for me in terms of framing my understanding of the world and choosing the subjects I want to choose.
AG: Do you find yourself giving each character at some point in the stage their own philosophical touchstone and use that to help guide the story or guide the character…
CR: In that film, sort of self-consciously so. That film sort of mirrors the journey of Socrates. I’ve tried to draw on different traditions for different things simply because I just find it sort of helps me in getting the research done that I’ll find and I’ll take philosophical touchstones, but there can be something great in the sociological literature or in other fields that are just terrifically helpful for framing how you understand a character. In the case of Love & Other Drugs, it changed a little bit from the script Ed and Marshall finally adapted… where in my draft, my Jamie was a little bit more obsessed with greatness and ambition, and in their draft he was a little more obsessed with women. They sort of transferred that ambition onto kind of solely a womanizing quality to make him a little clearer and I had sort of a different agenda for him. So it’s, obviously, your aspirations for the piece it’s hard to get them through the process if you’re not actually controlling the filming.
AG: I work in television so—
CR: (laughing) Yeah, right, yeah.
AG: Are there any philosophic traditions that have really affected your writing?
CR: Jean Baudrillard has a really interesting fantasy theory. Baudrillard says that we have misplaced the function of story in how we think about objects of desire or objects of delight. You don’t want a Ferrari. What you want is to be in that Ferrari, sitting at a red light, and have a pretty girl, sitting next you, look over and say, “Oh, he’s in a Ferrarri.” All desire takes the form of story and that’s a really important idea for film writing because you will love any character, no matter how vile that character is, if you understand what that character wants and if there are obstacles to that want. I always tell people that a man riding through a desert isn’t a story. A man riding through a desert, hungry is a story. Because suddenly we go from being above him, wondering who he is, what he wants, to being with him – we’re within his eyes – we know what he wants, and the minute we know what he wants, the choices he makes, the things he encounters start to make sense and have meaning for us. So, this whole notion of every story should always start with what does this individual want and what is standing in their way? And to internalize that, in terms of the fantasies of how they see themselves, their own identity. Because what so many films do is they give characters problems and not conflicts. And they are very different things. A problem is you got to struggle with something. A conflict is you got to struggle with something within yourself. And there are terms, if you want something, you can’t get it, but you also know that maybe you shouldn’t get it. So, that dynamic and that understanding of how we envision desire, how we envision what we want in the world, has been really helpful for me. And that something I’ve picked up from Baudrillard.
PARKINSON’S & OTHER INSPIRATIONS
AG: The thing that took me off guard, not knowing much about the film when I went in, was the Parkinson’s Disease arc. I found that journey with Anne Hathaway’s character very moving and very sad, and it feels very, very personal. Do you know someone with disease or how did you approach portraying the disease in the film?
EZ: We’ve come to know many people with it now, of course, but I knew several people who’d been dealing with various degenerative conditions in the context of a relationship and beautifully, in each of those four circumstances that I knew, those couples had remained together and that many of them had happened at a prematurely young age. I also, and this is just coincidental, had come to know Michael J. Fox when I first came to Hollywood. My first job was on a TV show called Family and Michael was a young actor from Canada, and I got to know him. And he acted in something I’d written, actually. And over the years, we’d run into each other. But I’d read his books and I coincidentally ended up sitting next to his wife on a plane flight, and we just talked a bit and it was really as I was beginning to write this, and I asked if I could call Michael, and she said, “Yes, of course.”
CR: Michael J. Fox’s autobiography is really instructive on the rhythms of the medication and how, I don’t know if you know people who have Parkisnon’s, but you go on and then you go off. For example, the kind of jerking movements that we associate with people with Parkinson’s, the sudden spasm type movements. That’s actually a function of too much drugs in their system, that’s not the Parkinson’s. So [Michael J. Fox] became a really nice sort of a guide to some of the inner life of what these characters might be going through. Because he was diagnosed with a young onset at about twenty-seven or twenty-eight, I think. So, that was one way. And then once Annie and I started doing our research we met many people from the National Parkinson’s Association, and support groups, and neurologists, and we really found our way into what is a very rich and interesting culture.
AG: And you can see it in her face. The way Anne Hathaway has grabbed onto the character. It was really compelling.
EZ: Yeah, what was very interesting to her, and this affected our writing too, and this is why the script kept evolving because the more research you do, the deeper you go into a character.
CR: I wanted a neurological disorder because neurological disorders are fascinating in both the fact they are diseases where the problem is the symptomology and the actual pathology behind that is something that isn’t killing you, but what’s debilitating you and will ultimately kill you are the symptoms themselves. For example, most Parkinson’s patients, when they die in their fifties and sixties and seventies, it’s often they die of asphyxiation, because they just can’t breath at a certain point, or they die of other things that are symptomologically related to the disease. The disease is not killing you directly, it’s the symptoms that are killing you, and that just felt really sort of interesting because what that meant is it’s a disease (and I don’t mean this cynically at all) it’s a disease that’s incredibly cinematic because its effects are present on the body at all times. And that felt [like] “Oh, that’s interesting” because then we can see its progression. We can see its changes and that sort of thing on the character over time. It’s also one of these diseases that here again represents this thing I wanted to explore, which was chronic, but not terminal, and as neurological disorders go it is, I won’t say it’s kind, but it’s not one of the most severe like ALS. It is one that you can manage to live your life in. So, it can still pose interesting problems for the characters.
MH: A lot of that research had already been done by Charles. But there was also further research that we did in preproduction and in production.
CR: And Ed had a neurologist on set, from Pittsburgh, where we filmed, that worked with them directly and of course the actors talked to various people who had Parkinson’s.
MH: You know, in today’s world you have to be very careful about these things. There’s a constituency for people who are struggling with various issues in their lives and they want to be served well when they’re depicted in the media – and I don’t blame them. And so, there are groups and there are people who represent people with Parkinson’s who you could speak to, and who will provide you with information and also people to interview to make sure that you get it right. And also, as you saw [in the film], there was that section in Chicago where we had a lot of real people with Parkinson’s on camera talking about what it’s like to live with the disease. So, we had to get it right. You couldn’t look at those people and then look at Anne and say, “Well, she’s not like them.” It’s interesting, if you look at that section, one or two of the people speaking were Stage 1 like [Anne’s character] was, and they didn’t show the obvious symptoms yet. That was important as well to say there’s a continuum in this disease. By the way, my grandfather had Parkinson’s, so I’ve known about a lot of the issues for the last 30 years.
CR: In the film there’s a Parkinson’s conference and all of the people you see who attended that in the film have Parkinson’s – none of those people are actors. I mean, some of them are actors who have Parkinson’s, but they’re all Parkinson’s patients. They were very helpful as well and the doctors who got us those patients were very helpful.
AG: During that scene, there were some really authentic anecdotes about having Parkinson’s. Were those in the script or culled from the actual patients?
MH: A combination. Originally, if I’m remembering correctly and I could be wrong, I believe in Charles’ script that was one person – like a stand up comic with Parkinson’s talking about what it’s like to have Parkinson’s. And I think what we realized was that this would much better serve our story if it was a group of people. So some of the material Charles wrote for one person got spread out into several people, and then those people brought in their own anecdotes and material as well. So, once again (chuckles) this was a collaborative process across a lot of different lines.