WRITERS ON WRITING: Love and Other Drugs

Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2011

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It’s an overcast afternoon and Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway are standing on the shoulder of a busy interstate in a crucial scene from 20th Century Fox’s Love & Other Drugs. As traffic speeds by them, they take each other in, silently. The moment is poignant, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and the audience, like the characters, can’t help but reflect on the innocent beginnings of this unassuming love story and wonder, “How did we end up here?”

Evolution of a Romance

It all started with a book. In 2005, Jamie Reidy published Hard Sell: Th e Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, a nonfiction exposé on the burgeoning pharmaceutical drug industry in the 1990s. Reidy’s firsthand account pulled back the curtain on the shockingly unethical relationship between pharmaceutical drug reps and physicians in our country. He playfully depicted a devious world where sexual favors and bribes were as commonplace as complimentary medical samples. What the book didn’t explore, however, was the complicated, emotionally graphic relationship between two unlikely souls falling helplessly in love. In fact, there wasn’t even a love story in the book at all.

Screenwriter Charles Randolph initially found Reidy’s book and sold it to producer Scott Stuber (former co-president of production at Universal Pictures). The world Reidy had so vibrantly described had caught Randolph’s interest, and he began developing and adapting the book for the big screen. As his script came into focus, he confesses, “I didn’t really use much of the book.” Reidy’s anecdotal tales quickly became “more of a background resource than story points. It’s not really an adaptation in that sense.”

Instead, the book gave Randolph the license to explore how our culture uses, or rather misuses, medicine and how everyone involved in the process shares culpability. “I felt that it was too easy to simply blame the pharmaceutical companies, although much of what they did and continue to do is egregious. I felt like doctors themselves, in their frustration with the system, had given up and started to allow patients to too often dictate what prescriptions they write for them. I felt that consumers and patients, particularly empowered by the Internet, felt far too free to play doctor themselves and decide what medications they should be taking.”

Not exactly what you’d call a love story. However, with this thematic arena in mind, Randolph felt like “a pharmaceuticals sales rep would seem like the perfect entity to tell a story about those problems. And once I had that character in mind, I wanted to take him on a journey of finding himself and becoming real and living a more grounded life. It seemed like a love relationship would be the easiest way to do that.”

But don’t, for a second, dismiss Randolph’s take as just another big studio rom-com. “I’m a big believer that romantic comedies have floundered because there are no real stakes.” With that fact in mind, Randolph chose to give one half of his love story, Anne Hathaway’s character Maggie Murdock, a serious and debilitating chronic illness: Parkinson’s disease. “[Jake’s character] is a man who sells drugs, but for the woman he loves, there’s no drug to make her problems go away. That felt like a very rich, interesting dynamic.”

WRITERS ON WRITING: Love and Other Drugs by Aaron Ginsburg | Script Magazine #screenwriting #adaptation #scriptchat

Anne Hathaway as Maggie Murdock and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jamie Randall star in Love & Other Drugs PRODUCTION PHOTOS: DAVID JAMES COURTESY : TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

New Partners

After Randolph finished his draft, he moved on to other projects. It would be several years before producer Scott Stuber eventually passed the script on to the award-winning team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. After initially reading Randolph’s work, Zwick recalls, “I found the writing very sympathetic … [but] I did feel there were things that I might want to do to the script that would, I hoped, only enhance what Charles’ intentions were.”

Herskovitz agreed, and the two enthusiastically took the reins. “We did our best to hold on to as much of Charles’ draft as possible … which is not the usual way we work, frankly,” Herskovitz admits. Having responded to the unexpected love story Randolph had created, Herskovitz felt that “it was our job then to make the love story work as well as it possibly could because there was some way in which it just wasn’t entirely paying off yet. And we felt that was our mandate: to somehow make the relationship pay off in a more emotional way, in a clearer way.”

After a few drafts, Zwick and Herskovitz even brought Randolph back into the process. “We showed him what we were doing and asked for his thoughts on it,” Zwick shares. “It really turns out to be, I hope, the best of his work and the best of ours.”

That Indescribable Feeling

Love & Other Drugs can’t easily be summed up. It’s one part period piece, set in the late-1990s, inspired by a nonfiction memoir about the era when the FDA relaxed the regulations on the hawking of pharmaceuticals on television, and the repercussions of the introduction of the revolutionary drug Viagra. It’s one part character piece exploring the comical and ruthless lives of pharmaceutical drug salesmen. It’s one part emotional examination into the crippling effects of Parkinson’s disease on a single life as well as on a budding relationship. Oh, and it’s also, somehow, a romantic comedy.

Director and co-writer Edward Zwick (left) on the set with co-writer Marshall Herskovitz

“There’s a wonderful tradition of, what I would call, movies that cannot be classified by genre,” Zwick points out. He’s talking about films like Shampoo, Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate, and even Jerry Maguire. “Jerry Maguire is a film that’s literally impossible to sum up in one sentence,” Herskovitz points out. “Or, if you do sum it up in one sentence, the person you’re talking to will glaze over and can’t imagine why he should go see a film like that. What’s wonderful about Jerry Maguire is in the telling—it’s in the four or five-sentence description of what that movie’s about.”

Of course, in our day and age, movies rarely get the luxury of the four or five-sentence treatment. Trailers for Love & Other Drugs have had to pick and choose which of the themes and tones to highlight. Zwick knows that “because movies have got to be sold in 60 seconds or, more likely, 30 seconds, or, sometimes, even 15 seconds, they’re necessarily reductionist.”

Herskovitz describes the fundamental dilemma of their film: “Yes, it’s a comedy; yes, there are dramatic elements; yes, there’s a disease; yes, it’s about Viagra … I mean, it’s about so many different things. How do you sum this [story] up in one sentence? You can’t.” As Zwick sees it, “I think the phrase ‘rom-com’ or some of the other phrases used now, have been invented by marketers and demographers to sell things and to try to pigeonhole them when, indeed, they needn’t.” But, Herskovitz shrugs off this notion, “It’s not like the film is a tough sell. The film is a tough movie to categorize, that’s all.”

And Herskovitz is right. The film is an emotionally complex ride full of both humor and sorrow. At moments, it’s erotic and vulnerable, silly and grave, and it ultimately feels like an authentic portrait of a relationship. Naturally, marketers would find selling such a product a challenge, but how did the writers balance all of the varying tones? “There’s no simple way to do that,” Herskovitz shares. “To be honest, I think it’s because we’ve been at this for so many years. In other words, the more you practice doing something, the more plates and bottles and chainsaws you can juggle in the air at the same time.”

Zwick adds, “The balancing of the tone was really trying to be truthful about each area. To be as authentic in talking about Parkinson’s disease as it is talking about pharmaceuticals, and as complex in talking about love as it is funny talking about love, and … that is closer to my experience of life than anything in a contained genre.”

About a Girl

Where Jake Gyllenhaal’s charismatic ladies’ man, Jamie Randall, was the extension of Jamie Reidy, the real-life former number one Pfizer sales rep, Hathaway’s Maggie Murdock was pure fiction. A product of the imagination of, at first, Charles Randolph, the character was then carefully nurtured by Zwick and Herskovitz. But Maggie wasn’t finished evolving, and when Academy Award®-nominee Anne Hathaway accepted the role, she brought with her a passion and a dedication to completely inhabit the life of this young woman diagnosed with Parkinson’s at an early age.

“Anne herself added something very powerful to the process that changed a lot of the structure of the relationship,” Herskovitz remembers. In Randolph’s original draft of the film and in the first version Zwick and Herskovitz did based on Randolph’s version, Maggie Murdock refused to sleep with Jamie Randall right off the bat because, as Herskovitz puts it, “she was afraid of getting emotionally involved. When Anne read the script, she said, ‘No, she wouldn’t do it that way. A girl like this, she would say, “Let’s just make this a booty call. Let’s just be friends with benefits. Let’s fuck right away, and I’m going to try to ignore the fact that there might be emotions here.”’ We looked at her and we went, ‘Oh my god, she’s right.’”

Zwick agrees, recalling that it was while discussing the character with Hathaway that she “really determined that she would use her sexuality as a compensation for what’s going on in her life and even as a kind of impediment to intimacy.” Hathaway had been researching her character’s illness and, as Zwick explains, “a lot of what the people told Anne” about being diagnosed with Parkinson’s “was that it was very much about the unwillingness to accept one’s diagnosis in the beginning, and that it’s a lot about denial. And at the same time, it’s also about the unwillingness to accept someone else’s love, which is what our story is about, as well.”

So with Hathaway’s input, Maggie transformed from someone who avoided sexual contact for fear of emotional repercussions to a character who, according Zwick, “was accustomed to being with people who would only have relationships based on that [sexual] level so as to not go deeper and so as not to have to internally confront what was going on.”

Herskovitz recalls, “That simple idea did huge violence to the structure that was already there. There were about 30 to 40 pages that had to be completely redone in order to change the trajectory of how these two people fall in love … where it’s sex first and love later. But we just knew she was right, so we went in and did it. And that came from her!”

Love & Other Drugs co-writer Charles Randolph PHOTO: ERIC CHARBONNEAU COURTESY : BE IMAGES.NET

Randolph witnessed the transformation of his character Maggie Murdock from afar, but still confessed, “I do love this notion of how ideas were generated in dialogue with the actors because I think that’s something that we screenwriters, who are not directors, could learn a lot from. When you actually have the person who’s going to play the character in the room, how that discussion goes forward.” Zwick agrees, pointing out that “if it’s a smart actor, he or she will have something very telling to say about [his or her character].” Herskovitz chimes in, “Well, it’s rare that that ends up making it better,” he chuckles, “but I think in this case that’s what happened.”

The Naked Truth

It is impossible to discuss Love & Other Drugs without considering the function that sexuality plays in the film. Zwick, as director, along with his talented leads, chose to center the depiction of this complicated, perpetually bittersweet romance in and around the bed. As a result, both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway found themselves faced with performing a multitude of scenes sans clothing: from sensual lovemaking to somber discussions of life and illness to moments of pure silliness. “In a world where Internet porn is two clicks away, what does it mean to have actors naked?” Randolph asks. “Is it powerful? Does it move people? Is it sexy? Or is it something else? Is it about vulnerability? Has nudity ceased to be titillating in films and now can be used for other things, more emotional things?”

Zwick and Herskovitz came of age as artists in the late ’60s and early ’70s, during, as Herskovitz puts it, “an amazing moment in American cinema … you had these masters literally re-creating what cinema was all about, and a lot of that had to do with sexuality and a more free way of depicting sexuality, and nudity.” Zwick agrees, pointing out that they chose to explore nudity in this film: “When a young couple falls in love, the bed becomes their world, and to describe a relationship of that sort with the covers pulled up would be so antithetical to what the truth is that the audience would immediately become guarded and suspicious of the authenticity of the story.” He goes on to explain that “In fact, the notion of people talking, not even having sex, but talking while nude gave a whole different feel to the intimacy of this story. That they were naked, not just physically, but emotionally, as well.”

WRITERS ON WRITING: Love and Other Drugs by Aaron Ginsburg | Script Magazine #screenwriting #adaptation #scriptchat

Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt as Bruce Winston

Herskovitz says, “There was something about this story that was so raw, and so emotional, and so real, and finally about sexuality and about the relationship of sexuality to emotion that it just seemed quite natural that if there was going to be nudity, it had to be done in a certain way. It was not about titillation, not about exploitation. It was about trying to ask what would people really do in that situation. What would they wear? How would they hold their bodies? And then, how can you replicate that without getting an X rating?”

As storytelling goes, Zwick has noticed that often in movies, “the love scene stops the story … our determination was to use those scenes intrinsically. They were telling the story. There were moments of exposition in there, there were moments of humor in there, there were moments of obstacles and problems, and [Gyllenhaal and Hathaway] had to act.”

“That’s an enormous bravery on the part of the actors,” Herskovitz adds, “and the final version looked totally natural, but revealed only as much as everyone felt comfortable revealing. That was something that Ed and Jake and Anne did together that was really quite wonderful.”

Back on the interstate, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are staring at one another, the weight of their complicated romance vividly palpable. How they got to this moment right here, right now, was a journey. A journey of discovery, of collaboration, of risks and vulnerability. Reflecting on what it was Zwick found himself drawn to with this particular story, he takes a deep breath: “It’s so ineffable. It’s a lot like talking about love or attraction. You just feel it and it’s very hard to describe.”

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