By Christopher Wehner.
“I have so many demons and voices telling me what a fraud I am and how my meager talent will be uncovered. Scripts have to be pried from my cold, dead hands before I let anyone read them.” Scott Frank. It’s hard to imagine that the screenwriter of films such as Dead Again, Little Man Tate, Get Shorty, Marley & Me, Walk Among the Tombstones, Academy Award nominee for Out of Sight, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (with Jon Cohen), Flight of the Phoenix, and The Interpreter, would harbor such demons. If you asked him, Frank would tell you that his “inner critic” has always been there. It’s not a self-imposed kind of thing he says. “I try to not let it get the best of me. I do find that whenever I’m overconfident, I crash and burn in the most spectacular ways.” Scott Frank first worked with Steven Spielberg when he was brought in to do some rewriting on Saving Private Ryan. It was an experience that convinced him he wanted to work with the director again. In 1999, he got his chance. The opportunity presented itself in Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Minority Report.” “I didn’t read the material and say ‘boy I have to do this.’ Which is usually how I decide,” admits Frank. “I did it because it was Steven Spielberg.” Which would explain why he chose to take on a genre he wasn’t exactly suited for. As a result, his character approach to screenwriting would be put to the test. “It was the hardest script of my life,” confirms Frank. “But looking back, it was a great experience.” There are only a handful of screenwriters working today who have a distinct style and a unique voice, and Scott Frank is one of them. Wrapped in a shroud of constant self-doubt is a true cinematic dramatist in search of the perfect story. Though he is convinced he’ll never find it, it’s the chase that keeps him going. Scott Frank was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to sit down and talk with me about Minority Report, what it’s like working with Cruise and Spielberg, his inner critic, what the future holds for him, and much more.
I didn’t know you were a sci-fi fan. [Laughs] I’m not! I certainly enjoy watching science fiction movies, but I don’t seek them out, and I really don’t read science fiction. For me sci-fi is Blade Runner, Star Wars, and The Omega Man. I don’t have a vast sci-fi vocabulary, and it wasn’t in my wheelhouse to begin with. So to do science fiction was very difficult for me. To get inside the genre, I had to immerse myself in the world of science fiction. I did read a little, including Philip K. Dick. I do find sci-fi less about the characters and more about the universe of its concepts, and that’s not as interesting to me. Very rarely does sci-fi go beyond that. I know I’m leaving out all kinds of great films in my generalization. Science fiction tends to rely on the conceptual to produce the narrative thrust of the story. So it’s problematic. Right, and I wanted to approach it from the other end. As a matter of fact, in the short story the character of John Anderton embraces this new idea of people being arrested for crimes they are going to commit. And in the end he even sacrifices himself to save that system. But it was written in the ’50s I think. So I thought, “how do you get behind someone who embraces such a Fascistic system?” “Why would someone ever believe this is a good thing?” Well, first, the situation in the world would have to be pretty dire. The murder rate would have to be out of control. More people would have to be dying from murder than from natural causes, and there would have to be a panic situation that would force us to embrace such an extreme loss of civil liberties. Second, I thought there had to be a personal issue to make it really interesting. The main character had to be running from something or acting out some personal problem for it to really work. So, what if Anderton was a policeman before Precrime and experienced the loss of his own child right in front of him. He would have felt completely powerless to stop it. I thought that anger and guilt would lead to a denial for the character in terms of what he was doing, and that might give him some real motivation and make things interesting. You’ve taken that identity approach before with your characters. Yeah, I think all of my movies have been about someone trying to find a true identity. From Little Man Tate, Dead Again, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Minority Report. They’re all about people looking at themselves in a new light. Who they are versus who they thought they were. Anderton is a man who is blinded by his own grief.
How were the challenges of adapting Philip K. Dick different from those of Elmore Leonard? Very different. Because I begin with character and write from that perspective, and Elmore Leonard is all character. There is so much material you can draw from to create plot and new characters. Leonard creates such rich and delicious characters who help generate the narrative. Philip Dick’s stuff, at least for Minority Report, operates on a purely conceptual level and his characters in the short story were very flat. They had no arc. So for me they weren’t all that interesting. There wasn’t much to draw from in the short story in terms of character. How important was Jon Cohen’s script to the work you did? Very important, because what remains from his script to the final version are very crucial elements. First of all, and the least important, is his creation of hardware. He created some very interesting gadgets that I just loved. From the ship they used to the robotic spiders, I thought those were really wonderful inventions. Also, Jon’s idea of scanning the eyes for identification, and having John Anderton get his eyes changed because of it, was wonderful I thought. The storyline involving the female Precog Agetha in the second half of my script was also his idea. And this led to the whole idea of having Agetha help Anderton with his own problems and delusions, and not just solving the crime. I also ended up giving Agetha her own history and her own narrative as a result. All of this, which is crucial for the story, came from the ideas that Jon Cohen had. More importantly, he had a structure that was very good. There were basic stepping stones that I used in the final script. Even though I created a brand new story with brand new characters, I was greatly influenced by Jon’s script. I think you really injected a tired genre with some new life. Something that I hadn’t seen since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. Science fiction has become more about hardware than anything else. All the CGI and special effects crap they throw into a film in order to make up for a shitty script. Or maybe they just don’t care about the story to begin with. I don’t know. What I did was ignore the hardware. In my first draft of the script, when I say “someone picked up a phone” or got in a car, I say just that. I didn’t try to describe the phone or the car. I wrote the story as if it were happening right now. The only difference is there were these three prescient beings who were capable of predicting the future, and people were being arrested for crimes they haven’t yet committed. That was it. With the help of Jon Cohen’s draft, I created a system that evolved around those three beings. And then I went back and created a history as to how they (the Precogs) were discovered. I decided to make the discovery an accident. Like all great discoveries, the Precogs were not intended. A doctor was trying to treat children of drug addicts who were severely brain damaged. In the course of this research and treatment the doctor discovers that several of these kids were having nightmares that were coming true. I created a whole character history for them and then I injected that into the narrative.
Your script works on several different levels. It’s really a mystery within a mystery. Yeah, and Steven was game for that. He was willing to experiment with a very complex narrative. He even told me he had never done a mystery, so I think that appealed to him. His only caveat was that the audience has to understand the journey we’re taking them on—or if they’re confused, it’s supposed to be that way. Steven was very concerned we make sure the audience was getting enough answers along the way so they weren’t in the dark, while at the same time there was a mystery building. But the plot was so complex and the script was long, and the challenge was really finding a way to tell all the stories we wanted to tell. We even tried to cut it down, but every time we did Steven would say he missed this or that, so we ended up shooting a very long draft of the script. It’s very Hitchcockian. It’s also an ardently dark story—it reminds me of the old film noir. Your script Dead Again did as well. I’ve gone to that well before. I went to the Rebecca well for Dead Again. I love his films and he has taught me a lot about writing and building tension. Hitchcock always populated his films with interesting characters. I like that, and I like to do that in my own writing. It doesn’t matter the character. If you have someone speaking, at least give them a unique voice. Helps make things more interesting. Those are the kinds of stories I enjoy reading and watching. You don’t see a lot of those movies anymore. We don’t seem to be telling complex narratives like we used to and as a result the audiences miss something when we do. They’ll say, “I don’t understand what happened at the end.” Well, if we would just write better stories, people would start paying more attention. If we told better stories, people would stop answering their cell phones, or replenishing their M&Ms.
I think there are expectations of genre we as an audience have right now, and the writing that is being produced just feeds right into it. It’s turned into a vicious cycle. You’re absolutely right. I don’t see too many writers today who are trying to write complex characters and then from those characters create a complex plot. What they’re doing is starting with a concept, and then they’re creating attitudes, not characters. You have an idea to make a movie about car racing, not about a race car driver. So you’re working backwards, and you end up making up stuff to fill in the blanks as opposed to starting with an original and interesting character. What baffles me most is that audiences seem to like that—at least right now they do. Filmmaking is at a high level in terms of technology, and it can be exhilarating to see some of these movies from that standpoint. I go to see some of them myself for that same reason, so I don’t mean to devalue the accomplishments of those films. But what I am seeing is that we’re more obsessed with technology than content. We can make anything now on film. You can now do The Lord of the Rings! You couldn’t make that movie fifteen years ago. Was there ever a concern that Spielberg wouldn’t have the same vision for Minority Report as you did? I never know what the theme is until I stumble on to it halfway through the process. I know we had conversations from the very beginning, and as I started forming an outline we were talking about what the story might be, and in the end it ended up being much different from what we thought. The constants were that it was always going to be a mystery and a complex story. The irony of an age where homicide detectives were no longer needed and then Anderton having to become a detective again to save himself, was very appealing to both of us. One of the themes of Minority Report is the loss of privacy. We had a think tank where we invited all of these experts, architects, scientists from MIT, and even journalists. We invited people to talk about weapons, social and privacy issues, and all kinds of things about what the future might be fifty years from now. Where are we heading? Things like that. The issue of privacy really hit home to me during this time. What we’re losing more than anything, especially with the Internet, is the notion of privacy. We’re learning more and more about people. You can carry that into the world of advertising, security and law enforcement. Those entities where they really want to get inside people’s heads. Being able to know when someone is going to commit a murder before they even do, is the ultimate example. Also, in Jon Cohen’s script there was a very interesting thing he did that I touched on earlier—the idea of reading a person’s eyes to identify them. I thought that is the theme of this movie. In fact, at one point in his script, Anderton gets his eyes surgically removed from his head so that he can maneuver around without being tracked. It’s about being seen, and seeing what you want to see, and about being blind to certain things. This is a man who has a blind spot, and because of it he has embraced the system for all the wrong reasons. And it takes the system coming after him for him to really see what’s going on.
Once you knew what the story was going to be for you, how long did it take to find the spine and then begin constructing the script? It took months of meetings and talking about the story, and then it was months of outlining where we had to rethink the shape of the movie. During some of the early story meetings, Steven and I had talked about a style for the movie and we both liked the idea of doing a kind of The French Connection in the year 2050. Yet at the same time we’re marrying that film style with a science fiction narrative where the hero of the story has a very dark side. Steven and I actually ended up watching The French Connection together. It’s interesting that you would mention that, because I could see a little of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle in John Anderton. What I liked about Popeye Doyle was that he was flawed. In the films of the ’70s, often the heroes were flawed almost as much as the guys they were looking for. Whether or not I subconsciously did that, I don’t know. I can tell you that it’s the way I write. I like to write about those kinds of characters. The superhero kind of character for me is dull. There’s usually no conflict for them where they’re having to hold it together in terms of their inner needs.
Was there ever a time when the writing was fluid for you? It sounds like you were always struggling with it. No, it was always agony for me. I seem to take ten steps backward and a tiny baby step forward. I’m always throwing away much more than I am keeping. Since this movie was so outside of my wheelhouse, when I was finally able to make the material mine, that’s when it started to fall into place. But then I panicked because my ideas were gonna stink [laughs]. At one point when I was writing Minority Report, there was this horrible rainy season, and outside my window they were doing construction. There was pounding and the building was literally shaking every fifteen seconds, and that damn beeping sound trucks make when they back up, and there were guys yelling at each other. It was a mess. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my office sprung a leak. So it’s raining inside my office, there’s this pounding noise outside, and I was still able to write. That’s how I knew I had it— I could still write with all this shit happening around me. How involved was Spielberg in the development of the script? You had story meetings together. Early on, before he went on to do A.I., we worked for a year solid. Initially when I came on in January of 1999, Steven wanted to begin shooting that August. But Tom was in the middle of making Mission Impossible 2 in Australia, and that schedule kept getting pushed back for various reasons, so therefore our production kept getting postponed. We had more and more time to work on the script and what we ended up doing was reinventing the story. Steven was incredibly indulgent of my messy process. What was it like working with Spielberg? He’s a modern day John Ford—you’re working for God essentially. The greatest and hardest thing about Steven is he has access to everything and everyone. So I’m constantly getting information during the process. He’ll talk to whomever about this idea, or that technical thing, or whatever. When I was working on Saving Private Ryan, I had two large binders full of historical facts that he had accumulated about D-Day, and all this stuff he wanted in the movie. It’s wonderful because it gives you ideas for scenes and character, but at the same time it is very overwhelming in the sense that you have to be careful not to write to the research. He reads scripts with a tape recorder in hard, and he takes copious notes. I would then get the transcriptions. Steven has a tremendous instinct for what an audience is going to feel. Often times when we hit a problem he is the first to find the solution.
Did Tom Cruise ever have any reservations about playing John Anderton because of the character’s dark side? I had one meeting with him early on, and then he went off to Australia. During that meeting he was game to pretty much anything. Tom is a fearless actor, he’ll try anything, and so I felt he would actually like it. During the filming, I was on the set and he was very much a student of the page. He works very hard at making what’s there work. He did have ideas, but most of them were behavioral. He was very enthusiastic about the screenplay. In fact, I think his enthusiasm for the project kept it together a few times. Did you ever come close to dropping out of the project? I did really get depressed after a while. There was a point where I had written the first fifty pages and was convinced that Steven wasn’t going to like it, because it was so different from anything he had done before. Also, the schedule was taking forever. I couldn’t work on other obligations I had. At one point I decided I just didn’t like science fiction, but Steven kept telling me that I had to write this for myself. He kept encouraging me to find my own unique point of view for the story. My way out was, if I write it for myself and he doesn’t like it, then I don’t know how to write it. So here I am fifty, sixty pages into the script, and I just thought, “there’s no way he’s going to like it.” Talking about it in theory was one thing, actually seeing it on paper was another. But Steven ended up responding well to it and told me he couldn’t see the movie any other way than the way I wrote it. Now I was stuck, I had to do it [laughs]. But then we went round and round about the details. Walter Parkes, the president of DreamWorks, was also very involved in the process. We all had different ideas of what we wanted in the script, and most of them were really good ideas. We wanted to do everything. Every week Steven would fax me pieces of research or ideas he had and all of it was good. What I ended up with after a year was a 180-page screenplay. That was when Steven went off to do A.I. At this point we had everything we wanted in it, but it still wasn’t quite working. Then I went to finish some other projects I had, and about a year later I came back to finish it.
Were you on the set a lot? Yeah some. I did have a lot on my plate. I was working on A Walk Among the Tomb Stones, and had to finish that while Minority Report was shooting so I needed to step away from the set more than I wanted. I would go as often as I could. It was very difficult to leave once I was there. Normally I hate being on a set—it’s usually so boring. Writers who say they love being on the set are nuts. It’s not very interesting to me. It’s great when you’re there working, and can help problem-solve and things like that. But on a Steven Spielberg set it’s always interesting [laughs]. First of all, there’s so many interesting things happening in terms of the way the movie is being made. New cameras, experimental cameras, new ways of using cameras. Steven had a robotic arm brought to the set one day from an automated factory of some kind and they put the camera on the arm. Not to mention the people that visit his set. From the Secretary of the Navy, to Sting, Mike Myers, and Bill Clinton [laughs]. There was always someone showing up. Do you set goals for yourself? I do, both short term and long term goals. I think it’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re not obtaining your goals, so you also need to have those shortterm goals. I’m going to work on my book, or whatever it is. Instead of saying I’m going to finish something by December, I’ll say I’m going to write one page per day. What is your writing process like? I spend a lot of time writing about the script, thinking about the characters, getting ideas, lines of dialogue, before I actually write it. Anything that pops into my head I write it down and I start to organize that to shape the story. I spend months doing that. Sometimes before I write a scene I’ll spend an hour writing about the scene, and I sometimes realize I’m stuck on something. So what I’ll do is start with the dialogue and see where it goes, and then I fill in the action and different elements.
Does your inner critic become debilitating for you sometimes? I have to work on it because it’s not helping me any. I think I might be more adventurous if I wasn’t so hard on myself. I might actually be a better writer if I was less inhibited. My inner critic inhibits me a lot from trying new things because I immediately stifle whatever sort of idea or notion I have. I’m constantly worried it’s not a good one. The most satisfying thing is the process of writing. Being alone in my room, satisfaction is only found in problem solving. And my inner critic is constantly pointing out those problems for me to solve [laughs]. What I have to do is let go and just write. I’m truly reluctant to turn anything in. The hardest thing for me to do is turn in material. It’s hard to look at my own stuff. I rarely print anything out. If I print out my script to re-read it before I turn it in, I’ll never turn it in. It must be difficult for you to see your work on screen. It’s horrible. It’s very difficult. I’ll sit there and think, if I only had ten more minutes, I could have fixed that bit of dialogue or whatever. But there have been times when it’s wonderful. I’ve seen it from rough cut to final print and have been very happy. And it’s not because I don’t like what the director did. That’s a different feeling. I’m more annoyed when that happens, and I can’t say that’s happened all that often. The movie you have in your head is never going to be on screen, it’s impossible. The script will be interpreted differently by the director, the costume designers, the actors, everyone. But writers have to stand up for what they believe in. I have a very strong point of view about my own material. But I do know that there are certain things I can and can’t do, like when a producer or whoever wants to take the story in a different direction and I just know I can’t do that. If it’s not consistent with my voice, I have no problem arguing my point of view, and I’m willing to find a way to solve the problem. I enjoy it actually. I enjoy collaborating within a creative team. I find that if I work with equally intelligent and creative people, sometimes more intelligent and creative ones, it challenges me to write better work. When I worked with Steven Soderbergh on Out of Sight, those days pacing around my office, spitting out lines of dialogue and running down to the deli for lunch, were some of the happiest I’ve had as a writer. When I can work with someone and we’re challenging the material in the same direction, and not fighting each other over what it’s about, that’s when it’s fun. Writers often don’t ask tough questions about their own work. While my scripts are sometimes imperfect, at least I know I’m always going to ask myself the tough questions.
You’re one of the few screenwriters who can get involved in the editing process of their films, and you even did some second unit directing on Minority Report. I’ve been very fortunate. The second unit stuff was a blast. Working with Jersey Films on both Get Shorty and Out of Sight, they even included me in marketing meetings, everything. Soderbergh was very generous about showing his film. He would show me early cuts of Out of Sight. There were scenes we were thinking about losing, but weren’t sure. We’d go into the editing room and talk about it. Jodie Foster was the same way. Kenneth Branagh was the same way. I spent a lot of time with him in the editing room. Barry Sonnenfeld was also very good to me. All of the directors have shown me cuts of the movie very early on. As for my experience on Minority Report, Steven would show us cuts of what he was doing. He was always very excited about it. He was very generous. Whenever I needed to talk to him, he would always get back to me right away, no matter what he was doing. You say you are more inspired by fiction now. Why aren’t you inspired by movies anymore? Because they’re not good; they’re not written anymore. The writing is all about servicing the concept. It’s not about writing real characters. It’s about putting in a movie star and figuring out how to get them from point A to B. To be honest, I’m not sure where I fit in the whole mix of where film is heading. I don’t know if I write the kinds of movies people want to see anymore. I believe that some sort of new wave is going to eventually happen, and that we’ll get back to making more character-driven movies, and better ones. At least I hope we do. This interview first appeared in Creative Screenwriting, volume 9, #3