by Adam Stovall
“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
—Someone, a long, long time ago.
There’s a common bit of wisdom among writers that everyone’s first attempt is bad. Be it a script, novel, whatever—chances are you will look back on it with no small amount of embarrassment. Of course, that’s if you’re in a position to look back at all, and there’s the rub. People like to believe in the idea of creative genius, that a spark happens and a story appears fully formed in the artist’s head, rendering them almost a vessel in the act of creation. This, simply, is not how it is done. It’s work—a lot of work. It’s taking that first step, falling, and then getting up and taking that second step, and then a third. And then… well, you get the idea.
David Twohy has been a professional screenwriter since 1988, when he was paid to do some touch-up work on Critters 2. The following year saw the release of Warlock, the first of his original screenplays to be produced. Since then his craft has taken him to almost every corner of the world, and anyone who has ever taken a cab to or from an airport knows there’s one question you can almost guarantee the driver will ask: ‘What do you do for a living?’ Once they hear that Twohy writes movies, it is almost certain that something along the lines of ‘Oh man, I’ve got a great idea for a movie! I should write it down and make a million dollars!’ will be their response. “But they’ll never do it,” says Twohy, “and they don’t understand that it’s not the idea, it’s the execution. It’s the hard work, the consistent hard work of writing, that separates the boys from the men, the girls from the women, the pros from the amateurs.”
When one considers that David Twohy has been writing movies for twenty-five years, it’s kind of incredible that his name has appeared on only three sequels. There’s the aforementioned first entry in his career, and then, sixteen years later, The Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel to Pitch Black, which he also wrote and directed. And now, nine years after Chronicles of Riddick, we have the third installment in the franchise, Riddick.
In 1993, Twohy co-wrote a film many consider to be a classic, The Fugitive. He parlayed his involvement in this film, as well as a few other high-profile projects, into the chance to write and direct a film called The Arrival. Shortly thereafter, Twohy was approached by a small production company, Radar Pictures, with a job prospect. They had a script which they felt had promise, but needed a lot of work before it would be ready to be filmed. “At the time, it was called Nightfall,” remembers Twohy. “It was written by the Wheat Brothers, and owed a lot to the Isaac Asimov story of the same name. Radar said that if I could make the script ready, I could direct it as well. I’d only directed the one film prior to that, and was eager to move in that direction, so I took them up on their offer and put all of my time and effort into getting it right.”
In this case, “getting it right” meant taking a tried-and-true premise and genre archetypes which would be familiar to even a casual audience, and finding fresh air to breathe into them. “Usually, these genres will grab very stock characters off the shelf and dump them into the script and be content with that. I wasn’t. I wanted the characters to evolve.” When Pitch Black begins, a spaceship is in the midst of a crash landing on a mysterious planet. The captain of said ship, Carolyn Fry (played by Radha Mitchell), wants to jettison the ship’s containers in order to save herself and her co-pilot, Greg Owens (played by Simon Burke). Problem is, the containers contain people, who would all surely die if jettisoned. “She’s willing to do that to save her own skin. She carries that guilt with her, and ultimately she pays the price for that with her own life, but only after saving some lives to atone for her previous shortcoming. So, suddenly a stock character has a lot of depth.” Similarly, Twohy presents the character of Johns (Cole Hauser) as the square-jawed man with a badge, a character we instinctively register as a true-blue hero. “And then, wait a second, he’s a morphine addict… he wants to kill a kid to save his own skin. Maybe he’s not the hero of the piece at all. So even in a genre project, it doesn’t mean you can’t have real, complex characters. It doesn’t mean you can’t have character arcs with that complexity.”
At the center of all of this, of course, is Riddick (Vin Diesel), the prisoner Johns is transporting. Where Twohy had imbued these other characters with details that helped them register as people and not simply grist for the mill, he wanted to go the other way with Riddick. “Sometimes there are characters you don’t want to over-explain, who don’t need a big backstory to be effective. You don’t want to demystify them. So I was very careful to protect his backstory and not get too deep into it. And also with Riddick, just because he tells you something about his back story, that doesn’t mean it’s true. He could just be fucking with you.” Twohy credits Radar Pictures with realizing there was value in taking some chances, though he admits that he was aided greatly by both the smaller scale of production and the company’s relative youth. “Had it been a studio movie, I would have gotten a lot of notes on the Riddick character,” Twohy laughs.
Pitch Black was a success, and Universal Pictures, which had stepped in to distribute the film, ordered up a big-budget sequel. The Chronicle of Riddick was a world-builder in every possible way, a picture of great scope, scale and cost. “There are a lot of pitfalls to having a big budget. One is that you shoot all options, because you have the time and personnel to do it. When you’re doing a low-budget movie, you’re performing triage on both your script and your shooting schedule, so that you’re going in and hopefully getting just what you need and making those editorial decisions while you’re scripting and while you’re shooting. If you have too many options in the editing room, you can get overwhelmed rather easily.” The film did not perform up to Universal’s expectations, however, and they made it clear they weren’t interested in commissioning a third installment.
Still, the character of Riddick refused to go quietly into the night. First of all, neither Twohy nor Diesel was content to let The Chronicles of Riddick be the final word on the character. Both men felt there was more story to tell, and both were inundated with requests and questions from fans about possible further adventures for Riddick. “That made us feel that if we delivered the right kind of movie, there was still an audience for it. So we started thinking about what that movie would look like.”
Their first inclination was to start right where Chronicles of Riddick had ended. “We’d pick up with this guy on the throne and heading to Underverse, which is the Necromongers’ Heaven and Hell. And he would have to stare into the maw of Underverse and find what lies for him there.” Twohy and Diesel quickly realized they weren’t going to have studio support in the early goings, and turned their focus on finding a smaller-scale story to tell. “We decided to do a survival story. The first third of the new Riddick is like Jeremiah Johnson, we even joked and called it Jeremiah Riddick. The first half-hour of Riddick, Vin Diesel doesn’t have a line of dialogue. We played it out on that level, and had a lot of fun doing it, I must say. This movie was shot very fast, forty-seven days, much faster than even Pitch Black which took me sixty days. Will it be viewed as a back-to-basics or return-to-form movie? We’ll see. We just wanted to get the character back in the saddle and let the audience know that we hadn’t forgotten about them and that we still love this character.”
Riddick begins with Riddick, bruised and bloodied, emerging from rubble on a mysterious planet. Not exactly a stranger to mysterious planets at this point, Riddick acclimates to his new surroundings while never giving up the search for a way off this world. Eventually, he finds a communication tower, and sends a distress beacon bearing his name and location. Soon, two ships of mercenaries arrive, and, well, when two ships of mercenaries show up looking for you, it’s pretty much never a good sign.
We all know that writing is a lonely endeavor. Early in a script’s development, many writers will give it to as many people as possible, and discuss the various elements of the script with people, in order to feel some sense of community. David Twohy cautions against this. “If you ask enough people their opinion on anything, you’re going to get so much response, and so much contradictory response, that it will amount to nothing anyway. There are just so many opinions out there.” To combat this, Twohy would hand the script to a couple of people and ask them to proofread it, then coyly start asking them what they thought about a particular character, certain story beats, maybe even the ending. However, Twohy insists that this is done not to find your ending, but to make sure your ending works as you intended. “It’s not a video game, it’s not an interactive experience where people get to pick and choose the ending. It’s me telling a story. I think there will always be a marketplace for that. But in movies, we’re telling morality tales. And to be able to tell a morality tale correctly, you must determine how it goes.” The opinions that matter, as Twohy sees it, are the opinions of people who are actually getting the movie made: the financier and the star. Which, as fortune would have it, were the same person in this instance.
Throughout the writing process, Twohy and Diesel would meet about every six months to discuss the intent and tone of the script. “Vin, over the course of three movies, has become co-guardian of the Riddick character. I still write it, so I’m still the author of it. I’ll go to him and say, ‘I think this is the right vibe, but I don’t have quite the right wording of Riddick here. What do you think? Do you want to riff on this? Do you want to help me find the quintessential line right here?’ So we talk on a character level, as opposed to a macro-level. Also, he’s not just an actor anymore, he’s a producer, and his company produced this movie. So there is a great relationship there, and one that he has earned.”
Twohy goes on to warn about the pressures facing screenwriters, especially young screenwriters, to show pages.” “Even by friendly producers, who are under great pressure themselves to show those unready pages to either actors or junior executives at the studio—whomever. And this is always, in my experience, always a mistake. Because you don’t want to be represented by that. I don’t want to be represented by my work-in-progress, I want to be represented by my final piece.”
For many young screenwriters, the idea of getting a script into development sounds great. After all, that means you’re on the field now, right? We focus on the success stories, and manage to forget the term “development hell” for a few hopeful minutes. It’s one of those subtle tricks of language, that a script being developed is a verb, an action that is working to make the script better, whereas a script in development is a noun, which has no inherent action. “There are times when the development process feels like you’re treading water. Possibly because the producers, unbeknownst to you, are treading water with their financing, and they’re just asking you to write more to keep you interested and keep you around. And if it’s not costing them any money, why wouldn’t they? They might have spent all their production money that’s been allocated for a given year, they’ve spent all their development money that’s been allocated for a given year, and they still want to keep the script somehow afloat, until perhaps the next calendar year.”
Twohy posits that if you’re uncomfortable with how you’re being treated, then you shouldn’t be afraid to walk away—because the studios certainly aren’t afraid to cut you loose. “On my first movie they ever made, Warlock, I was hired, fired, re-hired. On Fugitive, I was hired, fired, rehired, fired. I did one draft on Alien 3 for Fox, and here’s how I fired myself: a reporter called me up while I was busy writing Alien 3, and asked me ‘What’s this I hear about competing drafts of Alien 3?’ I said I’d never heard of such a thing. By (Writers) Guild law, a studio has to inform the screenwriter if another screenwriter is also working on the same project, and I hadn’t gotten any such call. So I said, ‘That’s not right, that doesn’t sound right to me, I have a good relationship with Fox.’ Then I heard it again, from someone else. So I called an executive at Fox and asked them. They were so disingenuous, the only thing they could say was, ‘No no, that’s not true at all. You’re writing Alien 3, these other writers are writing Alien 4.’ I asked how that was possible, if they didn’t know what I was writing in Alien 3. I told them to fuck off and threw the script back in their faces. It was very scandalous at the time, but I handled it in such a way that I can hold my head high fifteen years later.”
The trick, as you may have surmised already, is being confident in your vision and your ability. All the how-to-write-a-screenplay books will sell you a system wherein you outline, list story beats on note cards, and endlessly revise; which is all excellent advice when you’re starting out, because they’re not teaching you how to write a good screenplay, but merely a document that looks like a screenplay. In the beginning, outlines help you make sure you have a clear vision for the entire story. Once you’ve internalized the concept of storytelling structure, you’re able to play with it and break whatever rules are standing between you and your story. As Godard once said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end… but not necessarily in that order.”
Twohy admits that he used outlines somewhat extensively when he was starting out, but has become more of an instinctive writer over the years. “My exploratory work is all about possibilities: What if we do this? What if we do that? What if this character met up with this character, how would they feel about each other? I’ll throw those down on paper, and eventually I’ll have enough material to start writing. A loose sense of beginning, a loose sense of middle, and a loose sense of end, that’s all I need, and I’ll typically just keep that in my head as opposed to writing it down, because I don’t want to be so obedient to an outline that I lose the possibility of finding something better along the way. As I start turning the pile of ideas into a story, I see that there are scenes that I really want to read and get back to and hone. Those are the good scenes, the exciting scenes, the scenes the audience is going to like. As opposed to the scenes where I kinda gloss over, because they aren’t as exciting, usually because it’s repetitive, rehashing information the audience already knows. If that’s the case, cut it out, get rid of it, tighten up your script, and get to the next thing. Also, the more I write, the less I pay attention to three acts.
“I don’t know why we’re beholden to a three-act structure anyway. I think it can lend a familiarity to the film that sometimes the audience is hip to and will make them feel like ‘Haven’t I seen this before?’ A lot of playwrights wrote in two acts, Shakespeare wrote in five acts, I don’t know why we’re so dogmatic about three acts. When I was working on The Fugitive, I was talking to the studios about a three-act structure, because that’s what they were comfortable with. Privately, however, I was writing it as a four-act structure.” Thinking back on his 2009 film, A Perfect Getaway, which he wrote and directed, “I decided acts had no bearing on that movie, and I’m quite happy with how that movie turned out. The more I write, the less I talk about acts. I think about compelling characters and compelling moments. Again, like with development, everything has to be in service of making the script leaner and better. If you’re moving things around just to see how they look over there, you’re basically finger-painting.”
Oh, and Twohy has found that as he’s gotten better at recognizing those compelling characters and moments, his draft count has also decreased. In the case of Riddick, he wrote a draft for himself, a draft for Vin Diesel, and then a few pages were tweaked during production to cut some money out of the budget and knock some time off the schedule. Once they had their movie, they went out and sold the overseas markets, then came back to find a domestic distributor. “We were surprised to see Universal raise their hand and say, ‘How about we distribute your movie for you’,” Twohy remembers. “We said, ‘I thought you didn’t want to make another Riddick film’, to which they responded ‘Well yeah, but we’re not making it. You made it, and we’ll be happy to distribute it for you.’ Strange bedfellows in Hollywood.”
As someone else said a long, long time ago: All’s well that ends well.