The Independent Screenwriter: Larry Gross

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“The independent screenwriter” — is the term a tautology or oxymoron? While the word “independent” is often applied to directors and sometimes producers, it’s rarely seen appended to the job title of screenwriter. Is that because so many independent directors write their own scripts? Because screenwriters-for-hire are inevitably drawn to the world of Hollywood? Or, perhaps, because the term means little when applied to the craft of screenwriting? After all, while a director is reliant on others to provide financing and labor, a writer can always sit down with pen, paper or word processor.

In this new, occasional column, we will explore these issues with screenwriters whose approach, no matter the project, is inarguably independent. We will explore both the art and business of screenwriting, particularly as it applies to projects that exist off the Hollywood axis.

Launching the column is this interview with Larry Gross, a keenly intelligent writer whose work has encompassed Hollywood films, independent titles and also film criticism. His credits include Walter Hill’s 48 Hours and Streets of Fire, Clint Eastwood’s True Crime, and also independent films like Chinese Box, Prozac Nation and We Don’t Live Here Anymore. The latter film, directed by John Curran, was also executive produced by Gross, and below he discusses the ways in which screenwriters can function as producers to get their projects made.

An aside: years ago, I had a lunch meeting with Larry to discuss a project. He sat down and plopped a copy of Thomas Mann’s Last Essays on the table. “I want to talk about your project,” he said, “but first we need to talk about Thomas Mann.” He then went on to connect Mann’s writing to the hotly-debated political issues of the day. When so many film development meetings are profoundly boring, this one was thrilling. And that, I submit, is the work of an independent screenwriter.

FILMMAKER: So, do you think there are differences in practice, philosophy or approach between a studio screenwriter and one working in the independent world? Is this even a valid question? And, regardless, how and why were you able to move from one to the other?

LARRY GROSS: The motives of a screenwriter foraying into the indie world are very much the same as the motives of a director foraying into the indie world. I got interested in writing for indie films when I had a viable career in studio films because my films weren’t getting made in the studio world, even though I was paid very satisfactory sums for [writing] them. And if they were to get made, they would go through so many hands and there would be so much intervention by the money that there would be very little chance of the work turning out the way I wanted it to. I was making a very, very heavy income as a studio writer, and I remember saying to my agents, “I’d take a third of my career income to see my films made more or less as I wrote them.” So my assumption became, if I risked my time and energy writing in the indie world, a higher percentage of them would get made because they would be cheaper to make. That was how I launched a couple of projects [based on] original scripts of mine. But of course, in the course of doing that, you become available as a person who can work with a director who needs a writer, and [those jobs] happened too. The career of a screenwriter ultimately lives and dies on the quality of the directors they work with, whether the director comes to their script or they come to the director’s project. The reason you would work for next to nothing on an indie film project is because you believe in a given director and you believe that that director is going to make a good film from your work. It’s the same thing you look for in the studio world in terms of working with filmmakers.

FILMMAKER: After that talk with your agents, did that wind up being the case — that a higher percentage of your scripts got made in a way that you wanted them to?

GROSS: Yes, relatively speaking. In absolute terms, it’s never easy to get any film financed or made anywhere at any budget. But, the chances of an original script going through the studio system from development to actual production is so statistically unlikely that it’s not funny. Getting original work made in the lower-budget world became much more possible than it had been in the studio world.

FILMMAKER: When this happens, when you go out and set up your script in the independent world, are you sort of effectively functioning as a producer as well?

GROSS: I don’t think anybody who’s developing their own screenplays independently is not functioning like a producer. And indeed, that turned out to be one of the relatively gratifying aspects of the process, because for the independent films I wrote that turned out the best, I picked or accepted the director. I would have a conviction that the director and I would see the material in much the same way, and we would work collaboratively together. In a number of instances, that proved to be true. I was literally a producer on those films, was involved in the editing, the casting. I was a writer, producer and a real partner of the director. I mean, there was also one painful experience where I made that hunch on a director, and the relationship blew up in my face, but that only happened once.

FILMMAKER: So it wasn’t a function of necessity that you started looking at the independent world —

GROSS: It was totally a function of desire at the time. It’s now, unfortunately you could say, become necessity. If tomorrow I got a bunch of well-paying gigs at the studios, I would snatch them up and occupy my time and energy with them as completely as I could. But I wouldn’t turn away from involvement with indie films because the same thing is still as true as it was 15 years ago, which is that working in a creatively satisfying way in the studio system is extremely difficult, and extremely unlikely. And the possibility of converting one’s heat in the studio world into having an easier time making independent films would still be implied. It’s ironic. I miss the level of commercial success that I enjoyed 15 years ago, and I also don’t miss it. You know what I mean? [Laughs] I mean, I absolutely miss it and I absolutely don’t miss it because the truth of the matter was that I was doing a lot of things I didn’t believe in and didn’t hold in very high esteem.

FILMMAKER: What are some of the challenges or differences between the development process in the independent world versus the studio world?

GROSS: For me, it’s a difference of quantity. In the independent world development process you’re working with a smaller number of participants. There’s no autonomous class of people called “development girls and boys” in the indie world. Generally, there’s just a producer, a director and a screenwriter, and that’s it. Or an actor, maybe. But, at the studio level development is an institutional, experiential world in and of itself itself where people live and die before a single frame of film is shot. There’s a whole technique and strategy for negotiating that world. In the indie world, development occurs under the rubric of, “We’re making this film in a different way.” Now, in some people’s case, that may be a delusion, a fantasy, but it’s still a very present reality, relatively speaking. You are developing in closer proximity to production. There’s not a huge institutional thing standing between you and production to be negotiated. There is, however, a great deal more discussion in the indie world of making the script fit the physical realities of budget. In the world of the studio, you have this fantasy that you have an unlimited amount of money to make the film that you’re going to make. If anything, the constraint operates the other way. You’ve got to make sure to write in the things that will be more expensive and more spectacular.

FILMMAKER: What about issues of commerciality, of audience?

GROSS: Everyone who makes a film, in my opinion, makes it under the vague, hallucinatory fantasy that it’s going to be commercial. Obviously, the studios have a theory of what defines “commercial.” They have a much more rigid, much more closed program about what’s included and what’s not included. But, everybody is sitting around doing the same thing, ultimately, which is trying to come up with a story they think will compel an audience. Everyone thinks they’ve got the mojo, the thing, the idea, the hook, the element. But the aesthetic problems of constructing a script are ultimately pretty much the same. It’s just that there’s a surrounding noise and rhetoric about making the movie commercial in the studio development process. It plays a different kind of role in that process than it does in the indie developmental process.

FILMMAKER: What is that replaced by in the indie world?

GROSS: It’s not replaced. What I’m saying is, it’s reduced. It’s reduced to the intuition of the producer and the director that there’s an audience [for a project].

FILMMAKER: You’ve worked quite a bit with European directors. Do you find they approach the development of their scripts in a different way? Or that, for them, the script is a looser document meant to be reworked all the way through production?

GROSS: Well, French directors develop much less, and make a much higher percentage of what they develop. But it’s interesting. My experience of directors from all walks of life is that during the time they’re working on the script, they’ve persuaded themselves that that’s what they’re going to shoot, that the script is sacrosanct and incredibly important and exactly what they want. Then, they permit themselves to have an experience that leads them in a completely different direction. But, I don’t find very often a philosophical attitude that problems can be left to be figured out while shooting — even though that is often what happens. The famous example of this apparent paradox is Terence Malick, who works very, very, very hard on his scripts. The scripts are invariably brilliantly written. Then he turns around and makes them completely different. But, he’s persuaded, it appears, every time that he’s going to shoot the script, and that’s when he gets everybody involved. He never announces, “This part doesn’t matter.” It’s just the opposite.

FILMMAKER: I just came from interviewing Sean Baker for our Fall issue. He described the process of sending a new project out in the form of a “scriptment.”

GROSS: Scriptment?

FILMMAKER: Scriptment. It’s a term I’ve actually heard quite a bit. It’s a cross between a script and a treatment.

GROSS: How so?

FILMMAKER: It’s usually shorter than the standard 90 – 120 page script, and it will include some written out scenes but then will leave sections to be improvised.

GROSS: I haven’t encountered that. But I applaud it in the sense that I’ve long believed that the institutionalization of the script format was a hindrance to making original films. At the end of the day a script is something with which a filmmaker makes a film, and the majority of mediocre, ordinary or conventional films are ones where somebody was married to the script, where they just shot the script. The greatest filmmaking, in my opinion, involves a kind of mysterious synthesis of what one would call the screenwriting process and the directing process, where one conceives of what the actors are going to say and do in relationship to one’s whole cinematic conception of what one is going to do as a filmmaker. This is the sense in which I refer to Hitchcock as the greatest of all screenwriters as well as being one of the greatest of all directors. That’s because he conceived of his scripts entirely in terms of how they were to be shot. He did no improvising because he did that before he started. That is to say, he intervened visually in the design of the movie at the very conception of the movie. But, that’s also what Godard does at a later stage. Godard understands the content of his scenes to be totally changed by his conception of how to shoot them. And he makes, in a different way than Hitchcock, but sort of like Hitchcock, the conception of how to shoot them into an incredible semantic unit of the content of the movie. Now you can’t write that into a script if you’re following regular script format.

Over the last 20 years there’s been a fascinating renaissance in what I would call neo-realism and documentary-style aesthetics. Wherever you are sustained by a kind of documentary element you have to essentially leave gaps in the fiction for the documentary effect to produce its effect. So, that would entail a different approach to screenwriting. Anyway, I think that conventional screenwriting ought to be modified by some type of process [that considers] the ideal form [of the film]. Movies should be written and directed at once. Whether that’s before you physically start shooting or during shooting, that’s not what matters. What matters is that somehow the conception of the direction of the movie and the conception of the movie as a story, as product, as a fiction are, in theory, married, rather than the film being a literary object, which is then interpreted visually.

FILMMAKER: In the independent world, I’ve often found that writing in post-production almost happens de facto with the editor in the editing room and not really with the original writer.

GROSS: Luckily, the directors I’ve had good relationships with, that’s been the process: the writing continues through the editing room.

FILMMAKER: When you’re either brought on to a project, or when you bring on directors to projects you’ve initiated, what process do you go through in terms of understanding their approach, their prior work and the ways that they might interact with a writer?

GROSS: Well, I mean, I don’t have a process. Everybody’s different. Generally speaking, you get gigs because you know and value [the director’s] work and they feel they know and understand your work. In the case of most of the independent films I’ve worked on that have turned out well, I’ve had long personal relationships with the people long in advance. In the case of Wayne Wang, every one of my friends except me had worked with him on studio development jobs. And then, we got involved in another project, where he was working as a producer developing projects in Asia for an indie company that Francis Coppola was trying to form. And while we were working on that other venture, this project of his came along. By that point, Wayne and I had already known each other for about 15 years.

FILMMAKER: In terms of your ability to connect with different independent and foreign directors, I think it’s important to note that you see a lot of films. You naturally know their work. There are screenwriters who never look at independent or foreign films, who just see whatever’s popular because that’s their gauge of what they should be writing. They wouldn’t be able to discuss the work of different independent and foreign directors.

GROSS: Well, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been connected in various ways to the film festival circuit. I’ve been a consultant at the Telluride Film Festival for the last 12 years. My wife is the Executive Director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, which puts out the New York Film Festival. I have a lot of friends who are critics and journalists, whose work I follow, and yeah, I keep up with who’s making new and interesting films. But I would do that even if I was censored and unable to be a writer. That’s how I live my life. I don’t know how you would possibly work in the indie world if you didn’t do some of that because, of course, the films themselves have a very, very short shelf life and don’t get a tremendous amount of attention in the mainstream press.

FILMMAKER: Do you come across specific directors during all this viewing and reading of criticism that you think you want to work with?

GROSS: There’s a gigantic, burgeoning, secondary literature on the internet about indie films and [filmmakers] — people like Joe Swanberg. And there are a tremendous number of talented indie filmmakers I would love to work with. But getting to them isn’t easy for the simple reason that by the time you’ve heard of them, they have their own partners, they have their own people they work with. They aren’t necessarily looking for new writers.

FILMMAKER: How would you approach someone like, say, Joe Swanberg, who generates so much of his own material, and construct an argument about why he should work with you?

GROSS: I can’t say to any filmmaker who’s getting his films made over and over again that he needs me. That would be presumptuous beyond words. There are a number of slightly more “structured” scripts of mine that I would love to see someone as talented as him either take apart and reassemble or get some kind of inspiration from. But, it’s very, very hard for me to imagine making a case to him in the sense that he’s not seeming to have too much difficulty getting the resources, casts and circumstances together to get films made. I wish I could write something that he, or, say, someone like Antonio Campos, would look at and say, “I can get something from this.” But, you know, it’s so fascinating what a script is to a director. For some, it’s a situation, a context, a character, or just a theme. For others, it’s dialogue and structure. And for others, they just want to shoot the script. It varies incredibly.

FILMMAKER: Again, I think this is a big difference between a screenwriter working in the independent and arthouse sphere, and one targeting the studio world. I think a lot of beginning screenwriters targeting the studio world worry about issues of control. “How do I know the director’s going to respect my script?” And you just said a moment ago, “I’d love one of these guys to find something in my script and pull it apart and do what they want.”

GROSS: If it was good. If what they did was good. In other words, I don’t want them to throw it out because they think it’s shit. I mean, Malick writes brilliantly and then gropes his way past what he’s written to make what I consider to be very interesting films. There’s an argument held by many people who’ve worked on his films that the movie he might’ve made if he just literally shot the script would’ve been even better. I don’t know that that’s true, but I don’t know that that’s not true. But I do know that every director who shoots your script changes and alters it to some degree. That is absolutely given. And every writer’s had the hilarious experience of having their script shot too literally. The director’s been too ordinary, too deferential, and has not brought anything to disrupt it. At the same time, there are cases of [directors] who don’t understand your script or who have some nervous preoccupation with asserting themselves for the sake of asserting themselves against it, and not for the purposes of a new conception of the material.

Working with Wayne Wang on Chinese Box was interesting because for something like ten years he had developed the script with a number of fine writers before me. I did most of my writing with him every day as the production evolved. I saw Joan Tewkesbury doing this on the set of Nashville when I was a 21-year-old journalist. And I did it in a different way with Walter Hill during the making of the first 48 Hours. We threw a lot of the script out because we were learning what Eddie Murphy could and couldn’t do in the movie. It was really remarkable, but it really was improvised. I don’t mean that the actors made up the structure of the story; they didn’t, but they created a lot of the dialogue, and then we revised their dialogue and reshaped their dialogue around what they could and could not do as actors. We built the relationship between Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte around their capabilities as performers. I’ve always thought that would be a great way to work with a lot of filmmakers, to essentially write the film as you went along making it. You’re still writing. You’re still creating scenes and keeping an eye on an overall structure, but you’re also being inspired or learning about the film from the actors.

Walter’s very emphatic about this. He reconceived of every film he ever made in the course of shooting it based on what the actors told him about what they could do and couldn’t do. He would discover certain things in the characters that the actors released the possibility of. I don’t know whether you’d call that improvisation because it’s not exactly. It’s always based on the script as a starting place, but it still involves a tremendous level of flexibility. That’s all. I think that there’s a certain freedom with the idea that you’re going to go on writing [as you make the film]. You are going to go on re-conceiving the material based on what you have shot. Somebody who obviously this happens with —- and some of his films work this way and some of them fail this way — is Wenders. A lot of Wenders’ films seem totally shaped by the making of them. You can see that there was a broad general framework, a broad general situation, but what he was making in terms of producing images and scenes was then shaping the further necessity of the film.

FILMMAKER: Is there anything else you want to add to this conversation?

GROSS: Have all these indie directors get in touch with me. I’m available.