Mark Bomback’s screenwriting education came from reading hundreds of screenplays. While working in an agency mailroom, he volunteered to read and provide coverage on submitted scripts, which taught him how to write, but also how not to write.
“I would read whatever scripts were submitted for possible purchase and give my recommendations as to what I thought was lacking or what I thought would make a great film. I self-educated that way and was eventually able to sell a script of my own.”
Bomback said he responded to screenplays that had a clear voice. Even if the actual pages were not great, if the voice stood out, he was more likely to provide good coverage on the notes.
I respond to screenplays with a clear voice
“The ones I really gravitated to, you could feel the writer in there. The ones I thought were the most problematic, were just mimicking whatever film they were trying to rip off. I learned good writing and bad writing independent of the concepts of the screenplay.”
Over time, he also noticed his own mistakes in these screenplays. “I learned how to steer away from tropes and clichés that new screenwriters, and even seasoned screenwriters, who had got lazy fall prey to.”
With 15 credits to his name, Bomback is the voice behind Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable, Total Recall, The Wolverine, The Art of Racing in the Rain, the recent Planet of the Apes prequels films, and the Apple TV+ new series, Defending Jacob.
Misconceptions About a Screenwriting Career
When Bomback was a screenwriting teacher, he would often remind novice writers that, “Your writing is not good when you’re starting. You have to believe that it’s good to go forward, but know that it’s not. It’s a weird balancing act you have to do in your mind.”
As far as misconceptions of the film industry, he said most people are unaware of the work it takes to write a good screenplay. “This is going to sound a little bit familiar, but it is a truism – most of the product is just a tremendous amount of work,” confessed Bomback. “It does require a ton of process because it’s a craft, not an art.”
The screenwriter said he often thinks back on a quote from Paul Schrader: “Screenwriting isn’t an art. It’s an invitation to invite other people to collaborate on a work of art.” He added, “It’s a blueprint for the house – it’s not the house. It’s a craft that requires practice to get better at it.”
He said young writers do have good story ideas, but that doesn’t mean they instinctively know how to write and present those ideas in the best manner. It takes time to create a “usable document” where collaborators will understand the writer’s point-of-view.
“I think there’s a misconception that screenwriting is somehow an easier way to write than writing a novel or play. I guess there’s more white space on the page and the finished product is shorter, but a tremendous amount of work goes into everything you write, whether it’s an action film or heavy drama. If it’s going to turn out decent, they require the same amount of effort.”
Bomback’s goal is also to make his document as close as possible to the experience a viewer gets when watching the movie or TV series. “I’ve been a professional screenwriter for 22 years, but only in the last five to ten years do I really feel like I really knew what I was doing. Even then, I still learn a lot every week. There’s a constant learning curve and constant effort to try and get better at the craft.”
“Another misconception people have is that once you break in, it gets a lot easier. You could argue that it gets slightly easier to procure work, but that goes away quickly if you’re not focused on doing great work,” he joked.
Fighting the Blank Page
“I always joke that I just open my mortgage statement, and I can get through writer’s block,” mused Bomback. “But, for me, I just have to be willing to write poorly that day. If I feel like I have work to do and I’m ‘not there’ or can’t conceive of what it is that I want to get down, I know the danger is to walk away from the computer or distract myself.”
The screenwriter does occasionally hit the wall, but his goal is five to eight pages per day. “Not to say I don’t [walk away] sometimes, but if I feel that locking-up coming on, I need to write the bad version of the scene. I know there’s going to be some tiny thing in there that I can salvage but I try to get something down on paper.”
One trick to the screenwriter’s trade is something he refers to as the “silent partner.” Bomback said, “The silent partner is the book that I’m adapting and by extension, the author who wrote it. I love that person who is assisting me, but that I can also just ignore them if the scene is speaking to me.”
“The book might have given me the idea, or created the circumstances, but I don’t need to vet the idea with them. Then if I lock up, I can see what they did in the book. Even if it’s not perfect or not cinematic, it will show me where I’m headed. That’s the gift of adaptations.”
“If I’m adapting a book, it’s because the producer or someone has optioned the book. Once or twice, I’ve found books myself. When reading the book, I’m reading it with the purpose of, ‘Can I do a good job on the TV or movie version of this?’”
The screenwriter says everyone who reads books essentially does a version of this, because, “You start to see the movie in your mind.” He added, “Everybody has that and I think it’s why people are disappointed because when they read a book and see the movie, they had a different movie in their mind and [the adaptation] is betraying that movie that they’ve already watched [internally].”
From his perspective, it’s all about how strongly the movie he sees in his mind will relate to audiences. What excites him is noticing elements of the story in the book and then discovering how to alter or change them so they fit the big screen. “I’m excited to tell the genesis of the story in the language that I like to speak, which is the language of the moving image.”
Logistically, when he’s reading a book he may adapt, he also carries a pen to scribble down scene ideas in the margins. “I don’t have every part filled in, but if I have a sense of what will give an audience satisfaction. I don’t pursue projects where I don’t feel like I’m able to make a substantial contribution. I’m not interested in transcribing.”
When someone says the novel writes itself [into a screenplay], he feels like it’s not going to be a good adaptation. “Novelists have different agendas. Neither The Art of Racing in the Rain or Defending Jacob were written to be adapted into another format. The authors wrote them as novels, so their only agenda was telling this story in a way that felt true to them and resonated with them.”
The Art of Racing in the Rain comes from author Garth Stein. Bomback saw it as a movie. Defending Jacob was written by author William Landay. Bomback saw it as a limited series (even though it was sent to him with the idea of turning it into a movie).
“I knew Defending Jacob as a film would be a lot of plot and not a ton of character because it wouldn’t be able to sustain both in the restriction of 120 pages. One of those two was going to have to be sacrificed. What I was excited about when reading the book was doing this tightrope walk of giving you a satisfying, intense mystery, and then using that genre in a way to explore what it means to be a person.”
Bomback cited Mystic River as the type of film that walked a similar tightrope.
Selling Defending Jacob
The 8-episode story behind Defending Jacob started with a 13-page treatment based on the novel. The story is a character-driven thriller about an assistant DA whose world is shattered when his son is charged with murder.
He sent the treatment to Director Mortem Tyldum (The Imitation Game, Passengers) and actor Chris Evans (Captain America) who agreed to do the project. With the team assembled, they sent the idea to Apple TV, who quickly greenlit the project.
Bomback wrote all 8 episodes and stopped some of his script doctor side work to focus completely on this project. “I was the Executive Producer and the Showrunner. I was on set every single day, so if I was going to be on set and disappear to work on something else, why am I even on set? I wanted to be present for it.”
“It’s a different experience from writing a screenplay. On the Planet Of The Ape movies, I was involved with production, but if I needed to go home, I could leave and no one would blink. It was sort of for my own entertainment and I was an extra set of eyes, but with this TV series, I felt needed on set and I didn’t want to distract myself with other film work.”
Logistics aside, the writing process for this story focused on Chris Evans’ character, Andy Barber. “When you’re writing the smartest character in the room, you’re focused on: what are this character’s flaws? What’s broken about this person? What’s going to be tested about this person’s flaws? Will this person give in to his worst impulses or will he rise above these character flaws to fix himself?”
Bomback sees this type of character as particularly relatable. “We have this idea of ourselves that we’re trying to present to the world, but deep down, we know who we are and we don’t want to be ousted as this fraud we know we are. That kind of character is playing a role he’s written for himself. He comes from dark circumstances but he’s written this life for himself that he thought was the secret to happiness – wife, kid, job, serves his community – and yet, he’s built this on lies. That is part of what drew me to it.”
Beyond the characters, Bomback also loves the plot of the story itself. “Had this situation not occurred in their lives, this fracture that happens in their relationships never would have surfaced. These were tiny stress fractures that, only because of the pressure of the story, started to crumble – the couple and their relationship with their child.”
His pitch for the series comes from his own worries as a father. “This is all I think about as my role as a parent. How good or bad a job I’m doing at any given moment. I have a mild obsession that we can’t really ever know anybody else, even with the people that we love. If I’m going to spend eight hours with a story, I really have to care what it’s about. I had the gift of this phenomenal thriller.”
Shifting Different Mindsets
If you look at Bomback’s career in hindsight, not only does he seize opportunities (like volunteering for coverage while working in the mailroom or taking on Live Free or Die Hard when no one wanted another Die Hard sequel), but he’s also good at shifting from idea/research phases to writing phases to rewriting phases to produce great work.
“It’s something you get better at. There are two types of rewriting I do, my own screenplays and others. Rewriting my own work is harder for me than script-doctoring work. In a way, I feel there’s less of an emotional toll. I don’t agonize over my emotional connection and I’m more objective to the material in front of me because I didn’t create it. My ego is not tied to it.”
“In some ways, it’s easier because I can see where the writer made a wrong turn because it’s where I might have made a wrong turn. I do try to be respectful and not fix things that I don’t believe are broken because I know how much work it takes to write a script. I try to get everybody’s voice heard and see what’s missing. Then you just come up with solutions.”
With his original work, he can sometimes be too critical of the drafts. “I tend to get more critical in a less helpful way. So I’ll go to friends of mine whose opinions I value and ask them what’s not working for a fresh perspective. When you turn in something, you do say to yourself, ‘There’s no way this could get any better!’ But, you hand it in and oftentimes the notes are nauseating and inevitably one of two things happen: either the notes are horrible and I say we’re not seeing the same movie and we should part ways, but most all the time, I do agree with what they’re prescribing – I have seen the notes underneath the notes and they’re right.”
Bomback concluded, “I thought something was done well, but at that point, I can almost rescue my own objectivity and solve it in a way so you’re happy and I’m happy. The most useful notes are just what’s not working. It takes time to get better at finding what people are not liking so you can improve what you thought was once bulletproof.”
This article has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.