Is there a secret formula to turning metal into gold? Screenwriter Geoff Watson may have found the solution, or a way to turn paper into gold at least, with his new book geared for middle-graders. Due out in late October, Edison’s Gold follows the story of Thomas Edison’s great-great-great grandson and his quest to find the secret formula with his two best friends. This National Treasure meets Goonies adventure book is Watson’s first foray into the world of publishing. The idea came from a screenplay of the same name he wrote with his sister, Adele Griffin, an accomplished young adult author. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, book first and then screenplay? Not if you’re into doing things unconventionally, as Geoff Watson seems to have a passion for. Script sat down with him to discuss the book, the script and the process behind his writing.
SCRIPT: How did you get the idea for Edison’s Gold?
GEOFF WATSON: In 2006, my sister and I had written a romantic comedy called Quarter Life Crisis, which didn’t sell, but we took a ton of meetings on it. In one of the meetings, a production company said they were interested in doing a movie about a kids’ detective agency. I remember walking down Madison Avenue and thinking what if I wrote a movie like a National Treasure about the search for Thomas Edison’s formula to create gold? I was really excited about it. I wrote a treatment and showed it to my sister. She’s a big novelist. She writes young adult fiction. She’s older by eight years. We started working on the script, passing it back and forth from New York to L.A.
SCRIPT: How did the idea get picked up?
GEOFF WATSON: By the time we developed it, it didn’t resemble anything like what the company had said they wanted. They were really enthusiastic, but then they disappeared. They lost their funding. I took ownership of the idea. I didn’t want to lose the enthusiasm. My sister and I wrote the script, and my manager and agent took it out as a spec, with no attachments. At that time, this was the kiss of death. But things worked out. Arnold Kopelson bought it. Then, I started writing the book.
SCRIPT: What’s the difference between writing scripts and novels?
GEOFF WATSON: With the scripts, it’s so idea driven. You have to be able to sell that idea in 30 seconds. What’s fun about writing the novel, is that you can take a pretty good idea and really find that voice. Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors. It’s that man-boy thing he does. It’s all in his voice. It’s fun to find jokes that way. It’s fun to get more into a character. With screenwriting, you’re so focused on, “Is this something my agent can sell, is this something the studio will like?” With writing books, you can take a lot more risks on what’s cool to you. I like being in that space.
SCRIPT: What’s it like to co-write with your sister?
GEOFF WATSON: We have a very weird style. She lives in New York and I live in L.A. Back when I had a 9 to 5 job, we would find the time during the day to talk, and we’d figure out what we’re going to accomplish. She would have the script all day, then send it to me at night. I would make changes, and we would email it back and forth like that. It had its ups and downs. The down side was that we weren’t together. It wasn’t the most effective process. When you’re with someone and batting down ideas, it’s more efficient. You can find the good idea by talking. My sister, creatively, is so accountable. Every night, I knew that script was going to be there. When you’ve got someone who you can’t BS, it doesn’t matter if I’m starting it at 11, I’ve got to get my work done. She’s the biggest influence on me. I’ve never written anything that she hasn’t edited.
SCRIPT: How did you become a screenwriter?
GEOFF WATSON: I graduated in June of 2000 from Harvard with a BA in History. I didn’t want to go to law school or work on Wall Street. So, I moved out here. I worked at an Abercrombie & Fitch for a few weeks, then I met a guy who worked for Joel Silver’s production company. I was 22 at the time. I worked with Joel Silver. After that, I started at ICM as a floater in the mailroom. Then, I worked for Charles Shyer. He used to write with Nancy Meyers. The Parent Trap and Baby Boom. I worked out of his house for two and a half years, and that’s when I started writing full time. Charles is such a pro. He was a staff writer on Happy Days and wrote all those movies with Nancy. What I loved about working for him was that I got to see what it meant to be a writer and see the difference from my friends who had a written a script or two and a guy who had been doing it for 40 years. It was everything. It was his life. When he wasn’t writing, he was reading scripts and reading submissions and talking to his agent. That was my grad school.
SCRIPT: What’s your advice to aspiring screenwriters?
GEOFF WATSON: Creatively, use the fact that you have nothing to lose to your advantage. Obviously, don’t write crazy things that people won’t relate to. But when you’re aspiring, you can do what you want. The thing I find when I read aspiring screenwriter’s scripts is that the story is good, but it’s not different enough. The marketplace is so tough. You might as well be creative and really go for it. I wrote an animation script that everyone in my life was saying, “You can’t sell.” It was professionally such a creative decision. I didn’t end up selling it, but anytime anyone wants a sample, I have that and I’m really proud of it. It’s still the script that I give to people. I’ve gotten opportunities from it. I got in the room with people because of it. There is no substitute for passion.