Writers on Writing: Life As We Know It

Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson

Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson

by Ian Deitchman & Kristin Rusk Robinson

IAN DEITCHMAN: “So who do we leave the baby to when we both die in a plane crash?” It’s the question all new, neurotic, soon-to-be parents ask. And in the summer of 2001 it was one of many nervous questions I was asking my wife, who was pregnant with our first baby. Beth suggested, jokingly, that we leave the baby to our two single best friends, “Who knows us better?” I said, “Hey, that’s a great idea for a movie.” Beth looked at me, “I know! I pitched it to you a month ago.” “Oh yeah … ” The friends we were talking about were also mutual friends of Kristin’s. We discussed the concept and immediately realized it was the next thing we should write. It had what we’re always looking for in a project—a high concept that’s grounded in something emotional and real.

KRISTIN RUSK ROBINSON: It was always about tone. That was the most challenging part of writing Life As We Know It. At its heart, we knew it was a romantic comedy, specifically a romantic comedy in reverse. Our two main characters, Holly and Messer, get the baby, the house, the life—then they just need to fall in love. We were certain of the comedy we could mine by throwing these two strong personalities into new parenthood together. But we knew we needed to respect the emotional reality of what happens to them. Holly and Messer lose their best friends. That informs every choice they make.Life As We Know It poster

Writing Honestly

First and foremost, we strive to write honest scenes—both comically honest and dramatically honest. The writers that inspire us the most (James L. Brooks, Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder, and Anthony Minghella) operate comfortably in both of those worlds. Comedy and drama coexist effortlessly in their films because they’re always tied to the emotional underpinning of the scene. That was what we humbly aspired to do in Life As We Know It, and as a result, it became a very personal script for us; all the more personal because we were fortunate enough to stay with the project during its on-and-off development process over eight years.

The Stars Align

Barry Josephson was always the script’s greatest champion. He fought with pit-bull tenacity and eventually brought it in “turn around” to Paul Brooks and Brad Kessell at Gold Circle. Finally, we had found a home where we were all in sync creatively. After doing a couple of rewrites for Paul, Brad and Barry, the stars aligned when Katherine Heigl read our draft and signed on. Greg Berlanti and Josh Duhamel followed shortly thereafter. It was a long journey, but one that was well worth it—we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect combination of talent to take our script and turn it into a movie. From day one, Greg embraced the tone and ran with it, which is what we’d always hoped a director would do. And after eight years of living with Holly and Messer, we can’t think of anyone other than Katherine and Josh in those roles.

The Seasons

One of our earliest breakthroughs in the writing process was finding the structure. We talked for a long time about how Holly and Messer might look back at their situation 10 years down the road. The answer, “It was the toughest year of our lives.” We decided to use the seasons as markers—literally title cards denoting Summer, Fall and Winter—to track the stages of Holly and Messer’s evolution as a couple and as a family. We also bookended the story with Sophie’s 1st and 2nd birthdays in the Spring. We found the device gave the story breathing room and helped it feel like it took place in real time rather than movie time.

The Whisper Fight

If there is one scene that embodies the spirit of the movie for us, it was the scene we nicknamed “The Whisper Fight.” In this scene, which comes just before the mid-point of Act Two, Holly and Messer are at the end of their rope—neither is sure they can go on with this. We wanted their fight to play raw and real, but also darkly comic:

               INT. SOPHIE'S ROOM - NIGHT

               Messer sits in the rocker/glider with Sophie in his arms.
               He's trying to rock her to sleep. He sings a Tom Waits tune,
               MORE THAN RAIN, as a lullaby.

               Holly steps into the doorway and watches them. Messer doesn't
               notice her. Sophie is just about nodding off.

                                   HOLLY
                         What, exactly, are you singing to
                         her?

               Messer is startled, waking Sophie. She fusses.

                                   MESSER
                             (to Holly)
                         Do you mind?
                             (to Sophie)
                         Ssshh ... it's okay sweetie. Go to
                         sleep. Bedtime. It's okay ...

               Holly lowers her voice.

                                   HOLLY
                         Why are you singing such a
                         depressing song to her?

                                   MESSER
                         I like depressing songs.

                                   HOLLY
                         You're going to give her
                         nightmares. Sing something happier.

                                   MESSER
                         Fine.

               He turns back to Sophie and tries again. This time, it's
               THE WHITE STRIPES.

                                   MESSER (CONT'D)
                             (singing to Sophie)
                         "Dead leaves on the dirty ground,
                         when I know you're not around ... " 

                                   HOLLY
                         Messer ...

               Messer switches it up again. Now some RICHARD THOMPSON.

                                   MESSER
                         "This cruel country has driven me
                         down ...
                         My dreams have withered and died.
                         Oh, my dreams have withered ... and
                         died ... "

               Sophie's finally asleep. Messer gets up slowly, so as not to
               wake her. He gestures to Sophie - it worked!

                                   MESSER (CONT'D)
                             (whispering)
                         See, works like a charm.

                                   HOLLY
                         God, would it kill you to ...

                                   MESSER
                         Ssshhh!

                                   HOLLY
                         You shhh.
                             (then, whispering, too)
                         Would it kill you to brighten the
                         mood around here?

               Messer and Holly continue this conversation WHISPERING THE
               ENTIRE TIME. 

                                   MESSER
                         It might! Would it kill you to just
                         GO with the mood around here?

                                   HOLLY
                         Yes, because I don't think Peter
                         and Alison would like it very much.

                                   MESSER
                         Well, THEY are not here, are they?

                                   HOLLY
                         Don't say that.

                                   MESSER
                         Why not? It's true.

                                   HOLLY
                         It's depressing.

                                   MESSER
                         No, the thought of masturbating in
                         that little den is depressing. THIS
                         is beyond the fucking pale!

                                   HOLLY
                         You know, I'm really tired of all
                         your dark little comments.
                         You think your cynicism is some
                         kind of "brutal truth", but it's
                         just an emotional cop-out.

               Suddenly, the baby stirs. Messer and Holly both freeze until
               she settles. Messer moves slowly toward the crib. 

               They WHISPER EVEN MORE SOFTLY NOW.

                                   MESSER
                         This isn't something you can fix up
                         and make all nice.

                                   HOLLY
                         I know that.

                                   MESSER
                         You're just pissed that I brought a
                         girl home.

                                   HOLLY
                         Messer, I could give two shits
                         about how many girls you bring
                         home.
                             (referring to Sophie)
                         All I care about is her.

                                   MESSER
                         Oh, and I don't?!

               If it's possible, Holly WHISPERS EVEN MORE SOFTLY.

                                   HOLLY
                         Don't get angry at me.

                                   MESSER
                             (he can't hear her)
                         What?

                                   HOLLY
                             (WHISPERS louder)
                         What are you so angry about?!

                                   MESSER
                         Everything! How can you not be? I'm
                         angry at her asshole Grandfather.
                         I'm angry at our lawyer and that
                         judge. I'm angry at her for crying
                         so God damned much and I'm angry at
                         myself for feeling that way. And
                         I'm angry at Peter and Alison for
                         dying.

               Messer puts Sophie down in her crib. He turns to Holly. Gets
               right in her face.

                                   MESSER (CONT'D)
                         And most of all, I'm angry at you
                         for telling me to sing happy
                         fucking songs!

                                   HOLLY
                         Fuck you.

                                   MESSER
                         No ...

               Messer MOUTHS his response to Holly as if he's yelling,
               "FUUUUCCCKKKK YOOOOOUUUUUU!!!!"

               He walks out of the bedroom.

Rewriting and RewritingLife As We Know It

If we learned anything from our experience writing Life As We Know It, and we learned a lot, it was to not sweat the funny, the gag, the joke on the first pass. The goal is to find the heart and emotion of the scene first. For us, the best comedy comes from starting at an emotional place and building out organically from there. It’s about rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.

About Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson
Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson are screenwriting partners who met as undergrad Radio-TV-Film students at Northwestern University. Ian spent his first years in the entertainment industry working for James L. Brooks on various projects, including The Simpsons. Kristin got her start working as an assistant to director Randa Haines. Since 1999, Ian and Kristin have sold spec scripts, pitches, and worked on feature-film assignments for 20th Century Fox, MGM, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal, CBS Films, and New Line Cinema, among others. Most recently, Ian and Kristin’s original feature screenplay, Life As We Know It, was produced by Barry Josephson and Paul Brooks for Warner Bros. Life As We Know It, starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel and directed by Greg Berlanti, will be released in theaters on October 8, 2010. Currently, Ian and Kristin are rewriting a feature for CBS Films called I Didn’t Like Him Anyway, with Wendy Finerman producing. They have also recently sold and written an original feature comedy, Like Father, for Sony Pictures with Ashton Kutcher attached to star and produce. They also completed a rewrite of The Bender for New Line Cinema with director Frank Coraci attached. In 2009, Ian was elected as a member of the Board of Directors for the Writers Guild of America, West. Ian and Kristin live with their families in Los Angeles.

5 thoughts on “Writers on Writing: Life As We Know It

  1. jtfromnyc

    Great article guys. Elicited much respect for the process and hard work of these two pros. Speaks to what a great co-writing process they’ve developed. Especially like that they discussed getting to the emotional core of a scene FIRST.

    The scene as written actually got me a lil’ teared-up. The characters deep pain was in evidence as the foundation of the whole situation. Haven’t seen the movie but I will now.

    @v – things that are in the script don’t necessarily make it to the screen exactly as written… ESPECIALLY the songs the writers originally used in the early drafts. That is Screenwriting 101, my friend. Keep at it! : )

  2. EB

    Great writing. Smart choices made, casting=thumbs up, HILARIOUS, and very friendly to both genders. Looking forward to reading the script now that I’ve seen the film.

COMMENT