Scribe John McLaughlin – one of the writers for the Oscar nominated and critically acclaimed Black Swan – is a fairly simple man at first glance. He doesn’t really flash any Hollywood bravado, despite an extensive and equally impressive resume within the industry. During a recent speaking event at Reeves Theatre on the University of Tampa campus, he was constantly chuckling when posed with deep, analytical questions from both students and moderator Professor John Capouya, regarding his past and upcoming works. He definitely takes his profession seriously, yet at times, he may not take himself too seriously. Which is one of the reasons why the packed house hung on his every word.
The event was set-up by UT Assistant Professor Tom Garrett, who was a film school classmate with John back in 1983. In fact, John’s first film (Death Collector) was directed by Garrett back in the late ’80s. Garrett has been able to wrangle notable guests to speak at the school in the last couple years and has been gracious to extend yours truly an invite. Usually these events draw a decent crowd and enough seats are available for all who drop in. This time around, it was standing room only. A credit to the creators of the pristine production that is Black Swan.
After the hour long Q&A, John McLaughlin was kind enough to give me a “bonus” exclusive before he hopped on a plane back to New York. Since he was just barraged with a variety of questions about his work and how he approaches a script. I decided to probe his perception on how the industry functions and what goes through his head when dealing with the Hollywood executives.
(At the end of the interview, a few highlighted points from the discussion prior with the UT students will be listed below).
John seems to be a easy going guy but one could tell that he has a bit of a rebel inside of him when dealing with the Hollywood writing process. His mannerisms and tone suggest he stays pretty even-keel. Yet one (well, me) wonders if he is bitter about how the writers get treated and have to deal with the possible lack of recognition in the industry…
“The bitterness doesn’t come from not being recognized. It comes from having a money machine at the head of an artistic process. So, the people who make movies sometimes, think , ‘Well if this writer is good, imagine if we had 10 good writers, then it would be 10 times as good.’ So that’s the frustrating thing most of all, when you’re not in control of your work. It’s not like playwriting where you can shut the whole thing down if it ends up you don’t want it.”
During our chat, John mentioned how Black Swan was a 10 year process. For which he took part in the middle portion of that said process. Including attending numerous ballets with director Darren Aronofsky.
“I’m in the middle, I’m Larry, I’m the stooge in the middle.”
As he spoke to the students, he joked around with the audience on how it amazes him that a movie ever gets completed, when factoring in the process they have to go through. I followed up on that point and asked if every Hollywood production is a result of a piece-meal execution?
“It’s a collaboration and there’s different levels of collaboration on every project.”
That said, does it drive him crazy as an artist, having to deal with the business aspect during the creative moments? Or has John learned to accept his role in the industry…
“Well, no. I haven’t learned. It’s very hard and I don’t know how people (writers) do it. And I’ve been in rooms – Like I used to work on Carnivale – You can be in a whole room full of writers and they can all be tearing out their hair (John is a little light in the hair dept. by the way), all because someone (execs.) up above has said to do something, and its not even on your part of the script. Which means they don’t get it at all and they want to make a change. And a lot of the times, they want changes but they don’t understand it bounces off everything that’s in the script.”
Sounds like an artistic nightmare…
“Yeah, yeah. It’s like you want to tell them to go screw themselves a lot of the time, and sometimes you do, and then you don’t get to work for them. You know what, a few years later they forget, and then they’ll hire you for something.”
In only being in John’s presence for just over an hour – and since my superpower in this world is reading people – the guy seems to have an approach where he can just let things roll off his back. He may not hold a fierce grudge, but after going through this repetitive process of writing for studios, one of his favorite things to do has been tainted just a bit…
“There are a lot of names of people that can’t be mentioned around me. You know, where I see movies and I get very irritated. I used to love movies, but now, I just get annoyed (laughing).”
Our discussion took place the day before the Oscar nominees were announced. Black Swan was a lock to earn nods in certain categories (Best Picture, Best Actress). Fresh off a nomination via the BAFTA (British Awards) for Best Original Screenplay, John and I yapped about the possibility of his screenplay being nominated this year and asked him if he has ever worked on a project that has garnered a Academy Award nod. And now having a better read on his sense of humor, he responded candidly with the following…
“No, mostly I write movies I make money on and they don’t like them.”
He followed up that witty remark by discussing how the Academy would only like to see one writer attached to a screenplay. They will shy away from awarding a script that has multiple writers attached to it. Not sure why, but John asserts this truth…
“But there is never one writer. Trust me.”
John literally had just a couple hours left before his flight back to New York, so my final question revolved around what he envisions as his perfect work. In other words, what does he want to write and see blossom into a masterpiece both artistically and commercially…
“It’s funny, I really like writing about different things and I love being up for jobs. Houdini I wanted to write for years and I did. I suppose the one thing that I haven’t written that I would like to write is a Buster Keaton movie. I love it.”
Like all good journalists, even though we say that we just have one more question, we always sneak in another. After hearing about the Houdini script, I was curious if he did that on his own time or did someone pay him to come up with an idea. With all his success, does he still have the drive to create his own work even though their may not be a pile of cash waiting at the end…
“I do it free, but my policy is, when I do it for free, I do it my way and you don’t get to tell me what to do.”
Fair enough. Here are some key points and highlights from the discussion, including a few details on John McLaughlin’s script for the anticipated bio-pic on Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho starring Anthony Hopkins.
Highlights from the Q&A:
-The reason why Darren Aronofsky chose to do a film revolving around ballet because his sister was heavily involved in the art.
-John McLaughlin suggested to title the flick Black Swan.
-Natalie was going to play both roles (Hers seen on screen and Mila Kunis’ role).
-In doing research for the Alfred Hitchcock project, he learned Hitchcock ate a strict diet of oranges while making Psycho .
-“The top isn’t always a bad thing to be over.” A quote from John when asked if Black Swan was too over-the-top.
-John personally wrote 6 outlines and 4 drafts for Black Swan.
-Penned the story for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell videogame.
-Hitchcock was furious about the success of Psycho. Hitchcock felt his previous works were much better and was confused why they were not lauded by pundits.
-Had an interesting story about Werner Herzog and Errol Morris digging up Ed Gein’s mother (who the Norman Bates’ character was based on) in Wisconsin. “Lesson is don’t hang out with Werner Herzog.”
-Always tries to stay to the intent the original author had when adapting a novel. He tends to stay more loyal to a work of fiction than he would with non-fiction.
-Talked about how he can’t predict what audiences will like, so he writes what he would respond to.
-Tactics in meeting with execs: The less you tell them in an outline, the more you can put in your first initial draft.
-One element he and Darren went back and forth with when crafting the Black Swan script was the dynamics of ballet fans. The rabid-stalker ones he would have liked to seen on display in the film.
-He wouldn’t recommend screenwriting unless you want to make a lot of money and not be happy. He believes most screenwriters aren’t happy with the process.
-Encouraged the students to finish whatever they start writing no matter how bad or how much hate they have toward the respective piece.
-Currently writing a project for Brian DePalma based on the Parker novels by Donald Westlake. Project is in development.
-Also developing a John Carpenter flick titled “Kill Yourself Rich.” A low budget horror flick (naturally). Stated Carpenter is an easy going guy, but don’t ever call him Johnny.
-If you have writer’s block, he gave the students a couple remedies to try…He will go see a movie that is absolutely terrible and his brain gets working and he can write angry. He also suggests trying to write first thing when you wake up, even before you go to the bathroom.
-On how he related to Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan…”We’re both paranoid.”
-Mentioned that Hollywood isn’t really an imaginative place, for he gets pigeon-holed and the execs make these links that never have any true logic at times.
-When asked about his best work, he again references the Houdini script (untitled), which focuses on the last 2 years of the legendary magician’s life. He and a producer are currently shopping around the script.
Interview by Joe Belcastro