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Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer Talks Conan the Barbarian and Voltron Script

Since his inception almost eight decades ago, the character of Conan the Barbarian has inspired countless different stories spanning across all manner of media, so it’s not really a surprise that the new Lionsgate big screen re-boot of the “Conan” film series would involve more than one writer. While Sean Hood polished up the production draft and worked with director Marcus Nispel, Joshua Oppenheimer, along with his writing partner Thomas Dean Donnelly, crafted the original framework of the story, and retains screenplay credit. Recently, ShockYa had a chance to speak to the screenwriter one-on-one, about the enduring appeal of the character of Conan, the absolute necessity of thick skin when working as a Hollywood screenwriter, and the state of one of his next big projects, the script for “Voltron.” The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: As a screenwriter you have to be used to rewriting and also being rewritten, so you can’t take it personally. But what’s the protocol when you’re brought on board an existent project? Do you reach out to that other writer to try to get some information about the production?

Joshua Oppenheimer: That’s a really good question. I’d say if I know the person — and it’s a small community, so sometimes that happens — I’d absolutely reach out and let them know that I’m coming in, and [ask] where are your babies in the bathwater? Meaning, what scenes do you think are integral, because I don’t want to make the same mistakes, and if I found out that you did something one way for very strong reasons that are going to help me avoid the pitfalls if I don’t listen to you, that’s (great). But the truth is, most times there just isn’t time, you know? You have to hit the ground running, especially if it’s close to production like Sean (Hood) was doing on this. He had no time to talk to me, he had to write. But in an ideal world it would be nice, and I would think there would be a lot of benefits out of it. There are not a lot of reasons not to.

ShockYa: I talked to Sean as well, and found it very interesting that the class he teaches at USC focuses less explicitly on the creative process and more on the practical aspects of screenwriting. What professional experiences did you have that taught you the most about the business of writing?

JO: I would say, and I read some of this in the new book that Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant wrote about screenwriting, that the most important thing is not to consider yourself an artist, don’t get caught up in your perception of yourself. You’re a craftsman, and it’s just like the person that made this chair (pointing) — you want to have pride in the chair, but at the same time you’re making this chair for someone else. And ultimately the script itself isn’t its own art form, it’s simply a step in the creation of a film. So it’s totally work, and the minute that you start clinging too tightly to what you’ve done, you’re misunderstanding the collaborative process and forgetting your place in that process. It’s an invaluable place, and frankly I wish, more like TV, that in film there was a little more respect for what the writer does and the decisions they make, but ultimately don’t buy your own PR. That will not get you re-hired, if you’re difficult to work with. Be a joy to work with, be collaborative, and find answers that work both for you and the people that are paying your salary. To me, that’s understanding that sometimes you’ll get a note, and you’ll be too literal about what the problem in the note is. They’ll suggest something as a potential solution, but what you really need to do is get down to what the problem is, and not their potential solution, and understand where they’re coming from. If you can master that skill — of understanding that a producer or studio executive is trying to say to you beyond what they wrote — then you’re going to start hitting home runs, because then you’re going to understand their thought process and they’re going to be excited because you understood them.

ShockYa: Is that an innate gift, or much more of a learned skill?

JO: Oh, that’s a learned skill, that’s a learned skill — from too many times of getting the note, being too literal with the note, making that change and having them not be happy with the note.

ShockYa: The character of Conan has been around a long time. What’s your take on why he’s had that enduring resonance or popularity?

JO: Well, you’re right, and he’s gone through so many different iterations and been different in each one of them, from the Robert E. Howard one to the paperback series to “Sword of Conan” to the Milius film and then the videogames and TV shows. I think what’s always remained the same about him is his brutal honesty — the fact that this is a character who cuts through it all. With the word “barbarian” — certainly there’s that aspect to him, that he is brutal. But if you look at the other side, to who he is brutal against, I think that’s telling. It’s politicians, it’s people trying to pull the wool over other people’s eyes and defend their lies with shades of grey. Conan doesn’t go for it. I think that’s something that’s eternal — our frustration with being lied to, with not being able to reach out and grab the powers that be, or the powers that tell us the debt ceiling can’t be raised or whatever, and say, “Just do it, get it done, cut to the quick on it.” That’s Conan.

ShockYa: Did your script have the same elements of his origin story?

JO: I would say the essence of the story is the same, and the majority of all the characters were there. Obviously, Sean did a great job during production working on cuts, changes and shifts. And Marcus also wanted certain things changed; Marique (played by Rose McGowan) was a character that was a son in our version, and there’s a lot of stuff in regards to the mask, which wasn’t something we had in our film. I think Sean worked much closer with Marcus, and bringing his vision to bear. In the previous version, we were working with Brett Ratner, so he had a much different vision of the film, which I think was broader, and more four-quadrant-y, whereas with Marcus coming from the horror side it’s darker and more brutal. And we couldn’t stick around, we had another job.

ShockYa: That dovetails perfectly with another question I had, about “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.” David O. Russell, coming off “The Fighter,” had a lot of heat, and was attached to the film for a while before departing. Were you working on the film with him?

JO: No, we worked on it before he came on board, and as I understand it his vision was just too divergent from the source material, and so they went back to our draft. And now our draft is being rewritten by the new director that’s involved, Neil Burger.

ShockYa: What you’re saying makes total sense: that when a director comes on board a project, something sparks, whether it’s the concept or characters, but their vision can be quite different from that of the writer(s). Have you ever re-collaborated with a director once he came on board, tweaking a script that you had already finished?

JO: Sure, a couple times that’s happened. On “Sahara” that happened. With Breck Eisner we had written drafts earlier, then there were other writers, then we both went off the project, and then we both came back. And then on “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night,” when we did that with Kevin Munroe. That was a script that we’d written 10 years earlier and hadn’t touched. And then all of a sudden they’re like, “Hey, we’re making the movie!” And we said, “What? Wow.” So we worked with Kevin a bit and then he did subsequent drafts on his own.

ShockYa: This isn’t meant to be impertinent, but “A Sound of Thunder” was beset with production problems, in the form of catastrophic weather damage, and then it was delayed a long time before release. And then “Sahara” had all these stories about its ballooning budget, and then there was a lawsuit from (author) Clive Cussler. Those were fairly big studio movies early in your career. So at a certain point, did you feel snakebit?

JO: Yes, we’ve had shitty luck! (laughs) Yeah, Tom and I talk about that a lot, actually. We’ve had some bad luck in terms of things that are out of your control, but we’re not alone in that. That’s a part of the business, and so you have to just be happy that someone is spending the money and going out there and realizing something that you willed into existence. …That’s an honor, no matter how it turns out. And so at the end of the day you can’t worry about forces that are out of your control. Was I upset when “A Sound of Thunder” came out and grossed $1 million its opening weekend? That wasn’t fun, that wasn’t a good time. I saw the movie and it was a pale shadow of what we’d done, it was barely recognizable to us, you know? I can imagine that’s sort of like children to a certain extent. You raise them, and at a certain point you have to let them go off and be themselves, and you just hope that they become everything that you dreamed that they would, but you don’t have control. Now that I have children I really understand that. Once you set them off into the world, they’re going to become whatever they’re destined to become, good or bad.

ShockYa: Wrapping up, is there any news on the “Voltron” script?

JO: Yes, we’re in the process of starting up. Like everything in Hollywood, it’s been sort of a long delay in terms of getting all the rights settled. And we’ve just started the scripting process. We’re really excited, because like “Conan” it’s another property that we knew from when we were kids, Tom and I. And to be able to sort of come back to something from when you were 13 or 14 years old and just imagining it in your brain is the great part of this business: you get to stay a kid forever on some level. We’re working the folks at Relativity, and the folks at Red Atlas that we did “Uncharted” with, and we hope to have that knocked into shape over the course of the next few months.

Written by: Brent Simon

Conan the Barbarian

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Bobrossrules

    August 19, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Someone should shoot this guy before he gets his hands on any other licenses.

  2. GrantB

    August 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Hey, Shockya, you know what would make your site a little more professional?  If you put a date/time of publication on your articles.

    I’m looking at this story, and I’m like, “how recent is this info?”  And I don’t really know.  I have to look at the URL to see that it was published on Aug 18th.  That’s pretty lame.

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