Scott Frank, The Lookout
Scott Frank is one of Hollywood’s most respected scriptwriters, and now one of its most promising directors. Frank’s first produced script was high school comedy thriller Plain Clothes (1988), but his breakthrough came in 1991 when his original scripts for both Dead Again and Little Man Tate came to the screen. Since then, he has shown great talent at adapting novels: he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Out of Sight (1998), having already turned another Elmore Leonard novel, Get Shorty (1995), into a big hit. Frank also co-wrote Malice (1993) and adapted James Lee Burke’s Heaven’s Prisoners for his brother-in-law Phil Joanou, while his more recent credits include Minority Report (2002), The Flight of the Phoenix (2004) and The Interpreter (2005).
Like much of his best work, Frank’s directorial debut The Lookout uses many of the components of the thriller genre but is much more driven by character than by plot. The hero of The Lookout is Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a high school sports star whose world implodes when he causes a traffic accident which kills two of his friends, and leaves him with severe brain damage. He ends up working at a small-town bank in the Kansas wastes, where he is noticed by Gary (Matthew Goode), someone from his old school who is planning to rob the bank Chris works in. The film’s dialogue — particularly from Chris’ blind roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels) — is deliciously sharp, and from the film’s memorable opening sequence, Frank shows himself to be a confident and assured director.
Filmmaker spoke to Scott Frank about his roots in the film industry, the challenges of screenwriting in Hollywood, and The Lookout’slong road from page to screen.
SCOTT FRANK DIRECTING JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT AND MATTHEW GOODE IN THE LOOKOUT. COURTESY MIRAMAX FILMS.
Filmmaker : I believe you got your start in the business working on documentaries.
Frank: Yeah, I worked for Alan Landsburg Productions right out of college for about six months. Alan’s wife, Linda Otto, was making a series of documentaries for Showtime, and I got hired on to do research, to find stuff that supported her point of view.
Filmmaker: How did that work affect you as a writer?
Frank: It didn’t really change me at all. I was miserable: I had no time to work, all I could think about was how much time I was wasting in this job, and I really wanted to write. I was working on a version of Little Man Tate, which badly needed a rewrite, and I was so upset that I couldn’t work on that. It was really frustrating to me. This was back in 1982, and it was only in 1991 that Little Man Tate got made. No one wanted to make it for the longest time. They all said, “We love this, but we hope someone else makes it.” I never expected it to get made. It languished for a long time, but it was a great calling card for me. By 1984, I had an agent, and by the start of 1985 I was moving onto the lot at Paramount, where I had my own office. They had a writer’s floor there, which was one of the last things Jeffrey Katzenberg did before he moved from Paramount to Disney. It was all these writers together, and we had a great time. I worked with Lindsay Doran, who’s now a great producer and was then an executive at Paramount. She essentially taught me how to write scripts: Plain Clothes was like my undergraduate degree, and Dead Again was graduate school. I probably had an office at Paramount for four years, longer than any other writer that was on the floor. But I was just working on those two projects. Plain Clothes was about a year or two to write, and Dead Again was two or three years to write. I’m very, very slow. I can rewrite other people’s scripts quickly, but my own stuff takes a long time.
Filmmaker: Is it difficult for you to see directors changing your scripts?
Frank: I have a thing about my personality that is both a good thing and a bad thing for me artistically. I have this desire to always be the good boy, so I’m a real people-pleaser. That’s great for my relationships with directors, producers and the studios, but not so great in terms of my own artistic satisfaction. There’s a shotgun marriage that happens frequently when you bring a director on. You’ve been working with the producers for a very long time, but when the director comes on you’re beginning again at this new relationship, which is frequently very difficult. Letting go of the material is less of a problem for me than starting up again. Screenwriters have to accept that they’ll never have their vision on film — that’s not our job. The collaborative nature of films means that nobody gets their vision on film, not even the director! Unless you have supreme power and are a certain kind of director who’s trying to control everything (of which there are maybe three), you really have no control. It’s about trying to compromise, and you’re always making compromises every day. Everyone is contributing, so it’s pretty much your vision, but it’s changing as it goes through other people’s interpretation of things. You hope that the story stays intact, that the narrative integrity remains the same — that’s what you really fight to protect more than anything. For me, in the 22 years that I’ve been doing this, the most satisfying part of it has never been the finished film, even though I admire the work of all the directors I’ve worked for. The actual writing of it — that’s where the juice is!
Filmmaker: Do you go on set a lot as a writer?
Frank: It just depends. On some of my films, I’ve been there every single day; some, I’ve only been there a couple of days. For one thing, it’s excruciatingly boring to be on set as a writer. You have nothing to do, you’re the only person sitting there without a job, and what you’re really doing down deep is policing the script, but pretending not to. As a writer you have a voice, but no say. It can be a humiliating experience to know that you can’t make anything happen, you can just suggest. Now having directed, I understand how it’s so annoying to have people making suggestions. Even when the script person comes up and says to you that you have a continuity issue, they’re right and they’re just doing their job — but you’re still mad at them! You’re under so much pressure, you don’t want any bad news.
Filmmaker: From what I’ve read, The Lookout is a project that developed slowly.
Frank: I pitched The Lookout to Steven Spielberg in the mid-90s, but I didn’t write it immediately because two things happened. First, I’d had three kids in a very short period of time and I needed to move, so I bought a house in Pasadena that I couldn’t afford. Secondly, Elmore Leonard had just finished Out of Sight. I swore I’d never adapt another one of his books, because Get Shorty came out so well for me and was such a good experience. But when I bought this house, I panicked and I took the job. I loved the book, but I took it for purely mercenary reasons, and it turned out to be the most satisfying experience I’ve had as a writer. It was truly gratifying.
Filmmaker: Were you always going to direct the film? I’ve read that Sam Mendes, Michael Mann and David Fincher were all interested in the project.
Frank: Michael was never attached; I talked to him about it, but I don’t think he was ever really interested. I think he admired it, but didn’t want to delve into it. Sam was attached right before American Beauty came out. We were working on it for quite some time, but he ultimately left the project to go and do The Road to Perdition. The movie languished for a period while I worked on other things, and then David Fincher came along. When I was working with David, we had several meetings with Leonardo DiCaprio, and we were really hoping that he would be in the movie. I can’t say he was fully committed, but he was seriously thinking about it. The movie was at DreamWorks at the time, and they balked at the budget because it was a bit high, so they weren’t showing David a lot of enthusiasm. By and large, the script I shot was very close to the one David and I developed. We had a great time, and I was really sad when he left to go do Zodiac. And that’s when I said, “I really want to do it, I don’t want to rewrite for another director.”
Filmmaker: Did you have to convince the moneymen to let you do it?
Frank: What’s funny is that Larry Marks, my producer, had said to me even before Sam came on board, “You should direct this movie.” And Walter Parkes, my other producer, had said, “If you want to direct this movie, and you tell me that you really want to do this, I’ll support you.” The issue was never my directing, but with DreamWorks it was that they didn’t want to make this kind of movie — that was the stumbling block.
Filmmaker: It feels like it’s consciously an old-fashioned movie, and not one that seems overly concerned about the box office.
Frank: Well, I love movies like Charley Varrick, but audiences don’t flock to them like they once did, and studios are nervous about them because they’re ‘small time’ and not necessarily very conceptual. But I love those movies because they’re all about character. There’s also a British film called Bellman and True that I really love, and that had a huge, huge, huge impact on me, because it was a character piece. In Bellman and True, there’s a very long set-up where you really get to know the characters and care about them. But it had a much more technical heist, and I knew I wasn’t going to do a very technical heist in The Lookout because I was less interested in the mechanics of how they cut through a wall than the repercussions of getting caught. Also I really admire Dog Day Afternoon because it’s ostensibly a bank robbery movie, but it really wasn’t.
Filmmaker: What have you gained from knowing director Phil Joanou? And did you watch him, and other directors you worked with, in order to learn how to direct yourself?
Frank: Phil and I have known each other over 20 years, and we’re very close. I would ask him all sorts of things. He’s a brother, and my best friend, and I called him frequently from Canada [The Lookout was shot in Manitoba] to get advice. He was really helpful to me. With other directors, I would watch and ask a lot of questions. I was sitting there with some other pretty great directors, like Barry Sonnenfeld, Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg, and it was really informative for me. All of them were very, very helpful.
Filmmaker: Are you now planning on being a writer-director, or will you go back to just writing? Will you only be able to direct again if the film succeeds financially?
Frank: The numbers mean nothing to me. I think if the movie were universally disliked and failed, that would be a problem, but people seem to like it enough so that there’s some sort of prophylactic between me and failure now. So even if the movie doesn’t do well financially, I think I’ll be able to do it again. I had three goals for this movie: one, I didn’t want to be embarrassed; two, I wanted to have a really different creative experience; and three, I wanted to be able to do it again should I like doing it. And I really loved doing it — when I finished shooting, I wanted to start again the next day! I think what made it so satisfying and fulfilling is that I wrote the script, and so I think I need to write something, and who knows how long that could take.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which one was it?
Frank: It’s easy to make me cry, I cried at The Omega Man when Charlton Heston died! The Best Years of Our Lives wrecks me every time I see it. I showed it to a bunch of the actors from The Lookout, and all of us were reduced to tears, just sniffling idiots. William Wyler is my hero.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Frank: Probably Mary Poppins. But I was just bored by it, it wasn’t an epiphany for me. That was much later. There were two movies, a one-two punch, that made me want to write. Harold and Maude, because I have never been as happy in a movie as I was in Harold and Maude. Hal Ashby is my other hero. I just got a great message from my daughter yesterday telling me she saw it and loved it. And the other movie was Dog Day Afternoon. I remember sitting in the movie theater watching it and seeing how the movie affected the audience. And then watching them go completely still when they find out why Al Pacino is robbing the bank was completely awesome. Hal Ashby is probably my favorite contemporary director, and my favorite three directors are Hal Ashby, Michael Powell and William Wyler.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Frank: I would make the western I wrote, Godless, with Steve McQueen.
Filmmaker: And finally, do you always try and get into the movie theater early enough to watch the previews?
Frank: Yes, I am obsessive about getting there early enough to watch the previews. And getting the right seat!