Lisa McFadden is a screenwriter and essayist living in Los Angeles. Her short scripts have placed in the semis in the First Glance and Blue Cat competitions, and a 2nd Rounder at Austin Film Festival. She has published essays in Role Reboot as well as performed her essays in numerous storytelling shows. Lisa has volunteered as a staff journalist for the Dallas International Film Festival for several seasons as well as programmed short films for a variety of other film festivals. Twitter: @CrispyPhoenix
If I had to choose a writer to emulate, it would be Robert Schenkkan. With a relaxed and amiable presence, and an organized, professional approach to writing for the screen and the stage, he makes hard work look easy. This, as we know, is the mark of excellence. He has a Pulitzer, a Tony award, and multiple Emmy nominations as further proof. He has carved a comfortable space for himself in the entertainment business with his passion for telling truthful stories through historical events. I had the pleasure of meeting Robert to discuss his career. Not surprisingly, the interview was nothing short of a master class in the requisite skills necessary for success and sustainability in the finicky industry of making movies.
Robert’s latest screenwriting work is Hacksaw Ridge; a film based on the real-life events of U.S. Army medic, Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector, who saved the lives of over 50 soldiers in World War II without ever using a rifle. Doss received a Medal of Honor for his service, but shied away from the public spotlight, refusing interviews for years.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I asked Robert to elaborate on his process for developing a factual character when there is very little research material.
All I had really was this black and white documentary film and, more useful, transcriptions of the interviews the documentarian had done with Desmond directly, and then with Captain Glover and some other people. That’s really the most immediate stuff I had about Desmond Doss. Then I cast a wide net as I often do. I read the regiment history. I read books about the Okinawa campaign. I read books about medics; the training and practice of combat medics. That was it. That’s what I had and very little of it spoke to Desmond’s interior because he just didn’t talk like many men of that time. Like so many who suffered from PTSD from the result of a war, there was that layer on top of that. So that’s where you begin to imagine what this guy must have been like; what he must have experienced; and try to craft the narrative that is both accurate and also compelling. The trap would be to write Desmond as a secular saint. In which case we could stand around his pedestal and admire him, but we wouldn’t engage with him. We wouldn’t really feel him because he would seem so ‘other.’
It’s very important to me as a writer, particularly with this kind of material, that as idiosyncratic as Desmond certainly was, and as heroic as his actions proved to be, he’s a very human individual which means that same kind of principled action is available to all of us if we are willing to commit to that extent. I think it’s important that we leave that door open.
Sometimes we have to draw on our own personal experiences to understand the inner workings of the character. I asked him if he utilized any personal similarities for Desmond.
Only to the extent that I am somewhat obsessive about my passion, my craft, but I don’t put that on the same level as Desmond. So, it’s a very modest kind of connection. I’m a Southerner; North Carolina born. I feel like I understand certain things about Desmond intuitively. I grew up out in the country in the South, knowing what that’s like, having contact with the land, and having a kind of bond with that. I grew up having an understanding family, and church as a kid, and how all that worked. But again, I never experienced it in the way that Desmond did. But certainly as a kid I grew up in that comfortable family and church and school and neighborhood. All that circled in and around itself to give a very complete feeling of the world in place as a kid.
The process for getting Hacksaw Ridge made took 10 years. When it came back around for re-work, Robert was working on another project. For this reason, Hacksaw has a second credited screenwriter, Andrew Knight. I asked Robert about working with another writer that is not a partnership.
I’m so pleased that Andrew was the writer that came on in my absence. I think he’s done a fabulous job. I quite like him. You know it’s not always the case. We sat down and met with one another and started to talk. There were so many similarities that we just laughed. We both have the same attitude towards the business and towards work and the same response to this material. It killed me that I couldn’t take this all the way because of All the Way – shooting and creative executing this passion project of mine with Steven Spielberg and Bryan Cranston. It just wasn’t possible. Andrew was an inspired choice by Bill [Mechanic]. I’m very pleased with where he went with it. I’m very proud of the movie. I feel it’s very much my movie; very much my work. It was more like a relay race, and I handed the baton off, as it were.
Early on, Robert had a successful acting career appearing in movies and television. He continued his acting pursuits, albeit briefly, after receiving the Pulitzer for his play, The Kentucky Cycle. I asked him when it was that he decided to write full-time, and if he felt that his experience as an actor informed his writing.
Once I did the world premiere of The Kentucky Cycle, that was the moment I thought, ‘You know… I’m having so much more fun doing this than what I’ve been doing as an actor.’ I had a good career as an actor. I was supporting myself and a family and doing some interesting projects, but the writing was so much more satisfying. From that point forward, [writing] was my focus. I’m untrained as a writer. I never took a class. I never read a book. I always wrote, but it was as an actor inside new work. That first is how I began to look at how things are constructed and why things work or don’t work. So, I come at it very much from that performative position, and I do think it’s a good thing. I understand action, intention, directive – the building blocks of what an actor does. As a consequence, I’m able to talk to actors in a way that’s helpful as opposed to complicating [things].
It seems like a natural career progression for someone as accomplished as Robert in both acting and writing to then pursue directing. I asked if he thought directing is in his future.
[Directing is] nothing I ever pursued aggressively. I’m having such a good time with the people I’m working with and the stories I’m telling; the material that gets offered to me. I’m in a great place right now. I don’t want to question it because I don’t want it to go away! Whatever it is, I’m really happy right now doing what I’m doing, so I don’t feel a need to mix it up. I’m good.
With three other film projects in the pipeline including work for Amazon Studios and Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Robert Redford, I had to ask how he manages his workload, and if he has the opportunity to write his own projects.
I like to stay busy. In this business where projects stop on a dime, you never know when that’s going to happen. You’re kind of forced to book more or less continuously. Sometimes there’s overlap. Sometimes there’s not. Generally speaking, it’s never been a problem. Occasionally, things will overlap in a way that’s not ideal, but it always seems to work out. I pride myself in delivering on time, every time; although, I talk to so many writers who don’t deliver on time. I can’t imagine! I would just feel so badly. I don’t go out of my way to where I’m purposefully stacking projects so that I’m doing two things at once. More often than not, everything works out very well. I’m very disciplined about my writing. I get up early at 6:00 a.m. I go to the gym. I come back and have a light breakfast and coffee, and I’m at my desk by 7:30 a.m. I work until mid-day without interruption. I then have a light lunch and then a nap. The afternoon is either business, or if I’m really under deadline, I’m back at it again. I got to a point where the five days turned into six days turned into seven days. I thought, 'This isn’t very healthy.’ So, now I don’t do that anymore. I’m back at five days a week.
To answer your question, I do occasionally generate in terms of film work something original. More often than not, the film is me being hired to come and adapt something or work off existing material. The theater is always original stuff. That’s where I write whatever I choose to write.
In March of 2017, Robert’s new play, The Great Society, will be published. It is a follow-up to the Tony award-winning play, and Emmy-nominated HBO mini-series, All the Way, which starred Bryan Cranston. I asked about its production.
It’s had two productions. Its joint world premiere between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, and Seattle Repertory Theater actually commissioned that. [It’s had] two box office record-setting productions in both cities. [I’m] very excited. Now it’s about to be published, and we’re licensing the play. I’d love to get it into New York. New York is always challenging even though this is a second play. We’re hopeful that we will bring that into New York as well in 2017 / 2018. I also have two new plays that I’ve written. One will have a workshop at the Summit Theater Festival in Denver in January and another play that I just finished a week ago, written in kind of a white heat, a fury, in response to this election season. I’m not sure where that play will wind up; maybe here in Los Angeles at the Geffen or maybe somewhere else. It will have a life.
Since All the Way was a success on the television screen, I asked if he was thinking about shooting The Great Society, as well.
I’d love that, but it needs to have a life first as a play, and then we’ll see. Part of the problem is that as you move forward in the story, there have already been some major television and film projects that have touched on it. Selma, for example, already tells that story which is the first act of The Great Society. Does the world need another version of that? I don’t know. I think I tell it in a very compelling way, but in a different way than was done. It makes it harder to finance and produce [when] there is stuff already out there. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.
Writers often lament about the difficulty of writing. Given Robert’s rate of completion, I wanted to know if writing is ever hard for him, too.
The writing is a joy. I don’t care how difficult or dark the story is, or how invested in the story I am, or deeply personal the story might be, the writing is always joyful. It’s hard work. I don’t mean to… I have this funny kind of… inertia’s a bitch, you know? Getting started is the hardest part. I find every time I’m starting a new project, in the days leading up to the start, I get cranky and anxious. I’ll start complaining to my girlfriend [that] I don’t feel well; I don’t know what’s going on. She’ll say, 'You’re not writing,’ and I’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah, right.’ Then I actually have to kind of force myself to sit down. Then as soon as I get into it, the anxiety lifts and then I’m writing. I do this every time. It’s so funny. Once I’m in it, I’m in it. Then it’s just a question of keeping my head down and getting my five to seven pages a day and just write it. I wish I could say I suffer for my art. I’m so grateful for my art. I suffer for my business constantly because it’s a pain in the ass. Why should it have taken 10 years to get this [Hacksaw Ridge] movie made?
It can be hard to schedule an extracurricular life as a writer. I asked him if being consistently productive ever allowed for him to take time off from work as a whole as well as from a specific project.
I certainly build in getaway time for myself and vacations. Typically I’ll reach a stopping point with a script; a natural organic stopping point; it’s a complete first draft or a first act or something. I’ll set it aside, and if I have other projects I’m working on, that’s the moment to back into something else. When I return, it’s like I have a clean slate. I’m able to look at what I had been doing with a fresh eye in a way that I clearly would not have been able to do the moment I put it down. It’s actually a very organic way of working for me that enables me to be very productive but also enables me to move between projects in a very advantageous way. Things pop for me that I know I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
In the movie business, no writer is excused from getting notes. I asked Robert what it’s like to get notes from pros like Stevhen Spielberg and Robert Redford, and about his thoughts on the oft-dreaded process.
What’s interesting about [the notes process] with those two individuals, at least thus far in my experience – I’ve done two things with Steven – they are the most generous. They give me the most latitude, and they are the least prescriptive note givers on the planet. They’re very specific about what they want if there’s something they want, or a strong feeling about an element of the script. Beyond that, both men have been very like, ‘Just write it. You know what you’re doing,’ as opposed to pages and pages of minutiae. That would drive me crazy. I think that’s kind of interesting that those two people who’ve been making movies for decades now – making great films – they would be the least compulsive and the most generous.
Let’s talk about All the Way. I had notes from Bryan Cranston, from Anthony Mackie, and Frank Langella. They were great notes. They were great suggestions and, by and large, I implemented most of them. I find smart people, talented people that have been working at the height of their craft for a long time have considerable wisdom, and you’re foolish to not take advantage of that.
We complain as writers about notes and sometimes with justification. Also, there are a lot of really smart people in this business. You would be foolish not to pay attention. There are ways to give notes that I think are more inclined to generate the result you want than not. It’s my job to figure that out. We’re adults here so figure it out. This is a business with a lot of anxiety inherent and for everybody, but particularly for creative execs and for producers and studios. There are so many people and so much money at stake. The pressures are enormous. They have people that they answer to, and those people have people that they answer to. I try to be understanding about that and actually see that as part of the business side of my responsibility, which is to make their life easy. Let them know that we’re a team; no opposition here. We have the same goal, and we’re going to get it done. Whatever the problem is, we’re going to figure it out. Nobody needs to get too stressed about it because there is a solution.
It’s just the same way I see my job in the rehearsal room or on the stage, which is to be a good host, a gracious presence, you know? – to bring light into the room; not to bring anxiety or judgment. It should be fun. We’re so fortunate to do what we do, guys. We should enjoy it. Let’s have fun.
I couldn’t agree more.
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