By Brianne Hogan.
The plot of the new movie Pixels seems like a dream come true for nostalgic arcade gamers: when aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack Earth using huge pixelated versions of Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong. Based on a short film of the same title, the movie was picked up Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company back in 2010 to turn into a full-length feature. Sandler’s long-time collaborator, producing partner and friend, Tim Herlihy, was given the task of taking a three-minute film and turning it into a 105-minute film.
Creative Screenwriting talked to Herlihy, whose debut script Billy Madison launched both his college roommate Sandler’s and his own film career, about Pixels, his writing process, and what new writers need to learn in order to have a screenwriting career.
You graduated from NYU with degrees in business and law. How did you wind up writing comedy?
Well, Adam Sandler was my roommate. [laughs]
Enough said. Was screenwriting and film something you were always interested in?
I was interested in it as a fan in high school. Growing up, I was always a comedy person. I never imagined I would be doing it myself. When Adam started stand-up, we all, meaning his buddies and stuff, gave him material that we thought would be fun. So I wrote a bunch of stuff and Adam did it on stage and it got a bunch of laughs, and I was instantly hooked.
What was the initial draw to make Pixels into a full-length feature film?
I mean, it just felt like, to see that three-minutes part of a movie to see these things that we loved and what we imagined as existential threats. And I gotta say, cool pixel-effect of everything, dissolving and reconforming based on these glowing cubes, and it gave us a bunch of freedom to do different things.
What were some of the challenges of adapting a very short film into a feature?
You see something like that and you start writing in your head, ‘oh, these underdogs, blah blah,’ but you don’t want to do that. You want to do something that is satisfying and a great story, but at the same time its not the cookie cutter story you would imagine. So it was kinda two steps forward, one step back as you try to balance all of those things.
Based on the other comedy films you’ve written, they don’t seem as action-packed as this one. What were some key differences in writing an action comedy as opposed to a straight-up comedy?
There are always some elements of that in everything, with the other things that I’ve done. It’s difficult sometimes. Not just the action, but with these long period of little or no dialogue. It doesn’t come naturally to me as a writer because I am more a talky guy, and kinda getting that back and forth going and getting jokes from that. But to visually do it, it seems more concentrated, a little bit more work, frankly, to do things visually as a writer, to imagine something visually and get it accurately on the page so that it’s funny and exciting in order to give the opportunity for the director and the actors to jump off from there. It’s not hard, it’s not the impossible, but there’s a lot more work.
Do you feel writing comedy is more difficult than a drama?
Yeah, absolutely. I can’t really think of anything that you have to do in drama that you don’t have to do in comedy. But everything that you have do in a drama, it’s also needed in comedy. Some people think there needs to be a lower bar [with comedy], but not necessarily. I’ll read a script and sometimes I’ll realize it’s not a comedy and it just feels like it’s one of my movies without any laughs, or a comedy script with no laughs, and that’s essentially what they all feel like. You know, I’ll watch The King’s Speech or something, and I can imagine it as a comedy. It just feels like The King’s Speech is the comic version with all of the jokes pulled out.
What do you feel are the key components to writing a comedy film?
It’s coming up with a structure and characters that can kind of help you along. The comedy is already baked into the characters and the plot, so that there’s not so much pressure on the writing. Like, if you want to do a cop movie and you want it to be a funny. There’s the setup, the investigation of the murder or whatever it is, which isn’t inherently funny, and you’re going to start from a place where its all going to be dialogue based and its all going to be surface. But if you come from a place where not just the plot, but also the characters are funny, including the supporting characters. I think that’s something that we’ve done in a lot of our movies where we lavish attention on supporting characters, even in one or two scenes. If [that supporting character] is a funny person or can interact in a specifically funny way with our guys, or have a funny agenda, then that’s like having your cake and eating it, too. It’s awesome.
What’s your writing process like?
I like it mix it up. I’m definitely an index card guy. You just talk and talk and then you realize, “Hey, I should be writing this shit down.” [laughs] So when I get to that stage, I just start forming a one-page outline where I can break it down to thirty scenes or sequences. And then get the index cards up, and then start putting the jokes in the right spots and saying, “We actually need a new scene here.” And once you get the index cards up on the bulletin board, you kind of have a movie. Once I reach that stage, and even though I haven’t written anything yet, it feels more about editing at that point than anything. And hopefully I get the index cards filled with jokes and plot things and character things – even if I don’t use them all — then I start banging out scenes.
Coming from your background of business and law, are you a self-taught writer then?
I mean, pretty much, I guess. There’s writing in law, especially with editing and being very precise about language. I definitely learned how to use the least amount of words possible, something that’s been very useful to me. A lot of first-time writers turn out scripts that are 250 pages because they feel they want to get everything in there. Even with my thirtieth script, I’m still doing the same thing. But if you know how to get your plot across in an elegant yet simple way, that seems conversational but is not taking up a lot of real estate, then that’s definitely useful, and that’s something that being a lawyer taught me.
What was the process like for Pixels? How long did it take from draft to draft to final product?
I think I started writing in 2010, or 2009. I was kind of left to my own devices. I came up with a basic outline and ran it by those guys and they were happy. I spent about six months on [the script], and I handed it in and then everyone hated it. [laughs] And it was like, “Aw, that stinks.” So then I went out and had a meeting with Adam, and we came up with the notion of having Kevin James as the President and using that as the “in” for assembling these guys and how it would be funny to have your best friend from elementary school as the President of the United States. So I went back and had about six weeks to write that draft, and it was almost like a whole different movie. A lot of the set pieces were the same, like Pac-Man and Centipede, but other than that, all of the characters and process were different. It was sort of slapped together, but everyone liked that version better. So, Adam and I – we got distracted by other movies – and, so at one point, this was just sort of floating around. Then our producing partner, Jack Giarraputo, got Chris Columbus interested and Tim Galloway and they worked on it for a while. Then when were ready to do it, we got the script back, me and Adam and Chris and Tim all worked on it together to get the final shape.
So, are you a gamer?
[laughs] That’s sort of why they wanted me to do this because I was an obsessive gamer. Back when were doing Wedding Singer and Waterboy, I think Doom took up a lot of my time. But then I left it for a while. And then when the Xbox came out and I got caught up in the hype with it and then Halo came out, and that was like two years of my life. With that early Xbox era, I was totally into it hardcore [laughs]. But then I sort of drifted away from it for the last four or five years, but who knows? Maybe there will be a third heyday coming. But, yeah, Pac-Man, Centipede, all of those old arcade games, I’m 48 years old, so in 1982, I was 15 years old, so that was sort of the sweet spot for those games.
Any advice for new writers?
I give out this advice, and I feel kind of bad because I don’t always follow it myself, but I see people who are successful and it’s about having a thick skin and being very quick to write that second script if people don’t like the first. Or writing that third script. The stories I have heard from people who have made it, the common theme is: a tremendous work ethic and having the ability to be like, “You know what? People aren’t responding to this, so let’s try something completely new.” Working on that first script is a very emotional thing and you get it, and it’s a great feeling. And my first script was Billy Madison and I was lucky enough to have gotten it made, which is very unusual. But I think, honestly, finishing the script for Billy Madison was far more satisfying to me than getting it made. It was like finishing a marathon. It’s awesome. But if you do want a career, you can’t lavish in that feeling far too long, you have to bounce back.