Monday, August 23, 2010

Blue Sky Writing: Janet Scott Batchler...

The word starts here...

I've always been a reader, I love the word...

Every film starts with a great or bad screenplay. When I was going to college at USC, my friend and I would read the latest scripts since we were both interns in our spare time at production companies. When he passed me along the latest, hot script and told me that it was all the buzz, I stayed up late to read it. It helped that he said it was like "Raiders, Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia" all rolled into one. It was that day that I got introduced to Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler. I remember being in Oceanography class reading "Batman Forever" while the teacher droned on about something to do with... water. I remember hearing about the Nemo script that they had written which Spielberg was supposedly interested in. I've read so many screenplays since then. But my mind always goes back to that script I read on a night I should have been studying for a midterm. And my mind always goes back to how Hollywood didn't make it. That's why when I wrote my "Unfinished Business: The 5 Best Scripts Hollywood Never Made," I included "Smoke and Mirrors." It was that good.

So, I must say that it has been my pleasure since then to have had the chance to talk to one half of the writing duo, Janet Scott Batchler and interview her about a few things. I thought you might find it interesting to hear from the screenwriter, who also now teaches screenplay writing at my Alma Mater's film school, and writes her own blog. It's always nice and informative to know what people that you respect and admire think about. What makes people who they are is the experiences they have along the way. The little moments that make up a life are always interesting, and I like finding that out about people.

So with that, here's my interview with Janet Scott Batchler...


First off, I'd like to say thanks for letting me talk to you. I've been a fan of your work since I first read "Smoke and Mirrors" while going to college at USC. My best friend gave me copy talking about the "buzz" that this script had and then he pitched it to me. Part "Raiders of the Lost Ark" meets "Lawrence of Arabia with the romance of "Casablanca." I was sold and read it in one night. That's the script that put you on the map, but how did you get to writing screenplays in the first place? Was it what you always wanted to do?

I fell into writing screenplays almost inadvertently. Lee had started off studying to be a playwright, working in musical theatre, but he didn't want to move to New York. I suggested that if he wanted to write other kinds of drama, we were certainly in the right city for that, and rather naively I suggested that we could write together. Astonishingly, it worked out.

What was your first script?

We started off with a practice script, adapting an Agatha Christie novel just to get used to screenplay format and to writing together. We then wrote a few spec TV scripts.

In regards to "Smoke & Mirrors," how did you come up with the idea?

We decided we wanted to write what was in the '90s known as a "weekend read" -- that is, a script that was so compelling that everyone in town would read it over the same weekend in advance of a script auction. We went in search of ideas we thought would make good weekend reads, and ran several of them by our writers group. Lee had read a bit about Robert-Houdin, and we put his story on the list. It was by far the one that got the greatest response from our group, so we started to write.

I know you write as a team with your husband, how do you do that? Do you each take turns writing a specific number of pages? Or is it more organic than that? Do you write an outline, a scriptment or just start with an idea and see where it leads you.

We work together at the story stage, doing a lot of brainstorming and tossing ideas around. Once it comes to the actual writing, even at the outline stage, we've found we don't work that well in the same room. We have separate offices, so we take off to write separately, rewriting each other over and over. Sometimes, once we have a full outline, we'll post the outline on the wall and sign up for the sequences we most want to do the first draft of, but each of us ends up writing every scene many times over before we're done.

Is there any script that you regretted not doing or turning down the chance to write?

I don't spend a lot of time on regrets.

People's taste tends to give you an idea of where they're coming from or their perspective take on films. What was your favorite film?


I know that you wrote a script named "Nemo" that generated a great deal of coverage back in the 90's. With all the talk about Disney doing a new film based on "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," first as a prequel and now as a remake, how was your take on the famous captain different?

The most recent prequel to 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, the Disney version that you're talking about, was written by Bill Marsilii, who is a good friend of ours. Because we have written what could be competing projects, we have never read his script and never really talked to him about it, so I can't comment on how our takes might have been different. Our CAPTAIN NEMO was epic in scope and a bit dark in tone, tracing the journey of a young British boy living in India through his fantastic invention of the Nautilus and his disillusionment with the society that raised him, culminating with his turning his back on the world to become Captain Nemo when his Indian wife is killed. It's necessarily a tragedy, one we watch partially through the eyes of Nemo's best friend, a man trying tame his friend's need for revenge.

Having written one of the scripts for the Batman series, what do you think of "The Dark Knight?"

I liked THE DARK KNIGHT, especially Heath Ledger's Joker, whom I found absolutely compelling and a vivid portrayal of the idea that evil is a choice, and doesn't need a cause.

Is there any other superhero that you'd like to take a crack at?

We'd be happy to write for any superhero with a good story.

How different do you think it would be to deal with Christopher Nolan and the current executives versus Joel Schumacher and those who asked you to write the third film in that franchise?

I don't know Chris Nolan, so can't begin to answer the question. We had a lovely time working with Joel Schumacher, Tim Burton and the WB execs.

How has writing changed since you came on to the scene? What do you think of scripts that are sold today? It appears that everyone is looking for "brands," names that everyone knows. Not many studios seem to want to take the opportunity to do something original like "Smoke." The studios seem to want a sure thing, which isn't possible, but they apparently think is with all these remakes or adaptations of video games, old tv shows, ect.

I don't think writing has changed all that much, though the marketplace has certainly changed. Movies cost so much to make that people tend to want to go with the pre-sold idea, hoping it will at least give them a chance to recoup their costs. I actually don't have a problem with branded entertainment, if it's respectful to what made the property resonate with its audience in the first place, and if there's a story worth telling. But I do wish studios could run a little less on fear and take some chances on original material. As the marketplace shakes out and people figure out how movies will be distributed in the future, I expect this will start to happen again. Everything is cyclical.

Speaking of tv shows, have you ever thought of writing for television? I've noticed over the past decade or so, a great deal more film makers and stars working in television. Projects like "The Sopranos," "Mad Men" and the upcoming "Boardwalk Empire" almost have a film-like quality while being able to tell stories in a longer format that some directors, writers and actors have taken an interest in. I mean, I never thought I'd hear that Dustin Hoffman would be doing a series.

We actually started out in television for a brief time, and we've pitched a few pilots here and there over the years. We always have some pilot ideas on the back burner, and we'll pull them out and update them any time it seems they're a match with what networks and cable channels might be looking for.

Is it true that you wrote an unofficial Harry Potter guide book? Are you a fan of that series?

Yes, I am a huge fan of the HARRY POTTER books. I wrote a book called WHAT WILL HARRY DO? between the release of book 6 (HALF-BLOOD PRINCE) and book 7 (DEATHLY HALLOWS), looking at the set-ups/foreshadowing of the first six books and predicting how book 7 might turn out. (I'm particularly proud of predicting that Harry would appear to be dead, and that his friends would all think he was dead, just before the final confrontation with Voldemort.) I also appeared on an A&E special called "The Hidden Secrets of Harry Potter" that was released before the fifth movie (ORDER OF THE PHOENIX) came out; it also appears on the PHOENIX DVD extras. I have a book proposal for another book about HP, but haven't gone forward with it yet.

I know as well as a writer, you happen to also love reading. What is your favorite novel or series of books?

Obviously the HARRY POTTER books, which I have read probably half a dozen times through or more (obviously I've read the early books much more than that!). I am deeply in love with THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which I've probably read 20 or 30 times. I'm a big fan of Robert A. Heinlein's work, and have read everything he's written. Right now I'm reading THE HUNGER GAMES with my family, and breathlessly awaiting the release of MOCKINGJAY in a few weeks.

Now, I have to ask this out of my own curiosity. What projects are you working on now, if you can give us anything that's not too top secret?

We have been breaking a lot of stories recently, but haven't committed to anything I can talk about right now.

And finally, what advise would you give to those writers that are trying to break into the business? What points of advise would you give to them?

The best piece of advice I ever heard for anyone wanting to work in the biz came from Steve Martin, who told a friend asking for pointers, "Be so good they can't ignore you."

Thank you so much for your time and I really appreciate the opportunity you've given me to do this interview.

Thank you!


Anonymous said...

So, is Smoke and Mirrors never going to get made? That's sad.

Hugh Hogwarts said...

Maybe she should write her own novel like Harry Potter? If Smoke and Mirrors is as good as you say, maybe they can turn it into a book? Or maybe she has her own little wizard story to tell?

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

Really nice interview...from both sides.

Icarus Jones said...

What about Modesty Blaise?

Anonymous said...

If she wrote this script that Hollywood is all gaga over, why didn't Warner Bros. have the sense to hire her for one of the many Harry Potter films?

Ramona Flowers said...

Can we find a copy of this script somewhere? It sounds like it's quite a good read.

Anonymous said...

She sounds really nice and down to earth. A lot less like most people I've met in the business.

Puzzled said...

What does "breaking a lot of stories" mean exactly?

Janet said...

Honor --

Thanks for a nice interview.... There may be some news regarding SMOKE AND MIRRORS in the not too distant future, and I'll make sure I let you know when there's something to tell.... There was a link to the script over at ScriptShadow; don't know if it's still there.

@Icarus --
MODESTY BLAISE got caught up in the Disney/Miramax divorce. I think Disney owns our script now, but the underlying rights to the novels have lapsed.

@Puzzled --
Breaking stories basically means creating the entire story and solving all the problems before you start actually writing pages.

Thanks again, Honor.

--Janet Batchler