Peter Hanson & Tales From The Script

tales_from_scriptPeter Hanson never thought he’d see his documentary Tales from the Script on the big screen. The entertaining survey of the world of screenwriters and screenwriting was created as a companion piece to his book of the same name, and, he figured, would get some nice play on DVD and, perhaps, on television or cable.

But when First Run Features picked it up, the indie enterprise was so high on their acquisition, they took it to film festivals, and opened it theatrically in New York and Los Angeles where it was well-received by such publications as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Village Voice.

It was a surprise payoff for a project that took a few years to complete and a 20-year career as a journalist.

“I was thrilled to see it with audiences of 500-600 people,” says Paulson, 40, by phone from his Beverly Hills home. “Even though it is a documentary, I had wanted to take people on a journey with laughs and provocative thoughts and interesting personal recollections, and it was neat to see people respond to it.

“It got big laughs at festivals and other screenings, with people responding to it like it was a comedy. I realized (while making Tales from the Script) that if this is just academic or simply inspirational, it would be deadly to sit through. Some of the interviews are acidly funny, and it’s funny to sit through the stories of the screenwriters telling what they’ve been through.”

Hanson certainly corralled an impressive list of screenwriters to participate in his dual projects. His lineup ranges from elder statesmen like William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Larry Cohen (Phone Booth) to such successful veterans as Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), Naomi Foner (Running on Empty), Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), from younger scribe stars like David Hayter (X-Men), Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Joe Forte (Firewall) to screenwriters who have toiled in the direct-to-DVD realm such as Michael January (Hostile Force).

People are more likely to have screenwriting careers along the lines of January’s than Goldman’s, Hanson notes.

Was it difficult to recruit such a large and wide-ranging list of screenwriters?

“Getting interviews wasn’t as hard as you thought they’d be,” says Hanson, whose previous doc was Every Pixel Tells a Story, about digital filmmaking. “I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, and using my skills certainly helped. I actually approached about 150 people and over 60 responded. The rest (of the solicitations) ended up lost at their agencies, I suspect.”

Having the screenwriters respond wasn’t difficult either because, Hanson says, “they wanted to get stuff off of their chest about the way they were treated by certain individuals or the industry. They didn’t understand why, if they are considered important in the process of filmmaking, they are treated in such a way.”

Some of the war stories from the Hollywood trenches that unfold in Tales from the Script are quite funny. For example, actress-screenwriter Guinevere Turner (American Pscyho) took an assignment from German filmmaker Uwe Boll of adapting the videogame Bloodrayne for the big screen. Behind deadline, Turner turned in a quick, incomplete first draft of a script, which Boll loved. He quickly began filming the $25 million movie which stars Michael Madsen, Meat Loaf, Michael Pare and Kristanna Loken. She’s told that Boll made some changes in her script, and when she finally sees the movie, she’s appalled by what’s on the screen with her name on it. “It’s like the worst movie ever made,” Turner notes in Tales from the Script.

According to Hanson, the one thing in common with all of the successful screenwriters showcased in his film—which also includes Steven E. DeSouza (48 Hours), Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)—is that “they understand how it’s a fluke they had a career” to begin with. Things, he says, could have fallen a different way for them, and, for just about all of the interview subjects, their lives could have gone in a different direction.

“They are aware of their luck, and want to share their mistakes going up the ladder so people won’t repeat them,” says Hanson about his subjects’ willingness to speak to him.

“I think my film and my book tell you what’s really going on.”

In the film, viewers will discover that often “overnight success” really means ten years of struggling or a perfect storm of coincidences. According to Hanson, there’s no set pattern for success.

“Take Diablo Cody, for example,” notes Hanson, referring to the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno and the creator of the cable show The United States of Tara. “She happened to be a really attractive 20-year-old stripper, so she had a random set of rules (for her success). How often do really attractive 20-year-old strippers become successful screenwriters?”

There certainly is no shortage of “How To” books about how to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter, some of them penned by such famous gurus as Syd Field and Robert McKee. But many screenwriters look down upon such efforts, claiming specific formulas don’t necessarily translate into sold scripts or successful movies.

“A lot of books say they can copy the success of those out there,” says Hanson. “In his interview, Larry Cohen took them to task, people like Robert McKee who wrote some of the books.” Hanson says that the structure that is often cited as the key to a successful script is important, but “a screenplay is perfectly malleable. You can’t learn everything from a book. Writing a script is a learning process.”

Hanson believes Syd Field’s seminal book Screenplay was an important work pointing out patterns of structure in successful Hollywood films, “but others corrupted it.”

Hanson’s interviews for the film and the book took anywhere from a half an hour to three hours. He says that while none of the participants presented a problem and were willing to share their secrets and advice, he’s aware that some screenwriters like William Goldman have been viewed as cantankerous by others.

“You have to understand that Goldman and (John) Carpenter were addressed so many times about the same things over the years, that they feel like they have answered them already,” says Hanson. “How many times have people asked Carpenter, ‘What was it like to make Halloween?’ They come in with a certain level of boredom because of this. The onus was on me to ask them something that’s never been asked before. And for that, I had to do research to get an interesting story out of them.”

Some reviewers have noted that Tales from the Script isn’t representative of as many minority subjects as it should have. But Hanson claims that his interview subjects were proportionate to the screenwriting community. “One tenths of screenwriters are women,” says Hanson. “There is a little better opportunity for women on TV because of the cliché that women are better showrunners of female-oriented shows.”

In addition to Turner and Foner, female screenwriters interviewed include Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging), Jane Anderson (How to Make an American Quilt) and Kris Turner (Something New), while African-American writers showcased include Antwone Fisher (Antwone Fisher) and James L. White (Ray).

Meanwhile, Hanson had an unusual experience involving the interview with Melville Shavelson, who was in his nineties when the filmmaker spoke to him.

The two-time Oscar nominee Shavelson worked with Bob Hope, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne in a career that spanned over six decades and included screenwriting credits on Beau James, The Seven Little Foys, Living It Up, Houseboat and The Five Pennies.

Shavelson, however, actually passed away the day after Hanson interviewed him in 2007. It seemed fitting to Hanson that Shavelson passed away after offering insight and advice on his craft to others.

“He added great scope to the film’s cast list, whether it be to someone breaking into the business, or to those looking back,” says Hanson.

Lots of advice is dispensed in Tales from the Script by people who know what they are talking about. But there are two things that stick out to Hanson that he thinks is important to relate to other aspiring screenwriters out there.

Paul Schrader said one of them: “If you think you would be happy doing something else, do it, because being a successful screenwriter is so hard to do. But if you don’t think you’ll be happy doing something else, try being a screenwriter, but be willing to spend ten years trying to make it.”

Oh, and there’s one other thing that remains urgently important to Hanson. It comes from Joe Forte, a friend of Hanson’s, whose script for the Harrison Ford thriller Firewall got homogenized by the system.

“A concept he put across for beginner screenwriters is that they take adversity too personally when a screenplay is turned down,” says Hanson, currently juggling book, screenwriting and documentary projects. “He said that you have to look at everything as an opportunity and turn everything negative into a positive.

“When it gets turned down, use it as a learning tool. If you are told they don’t like the motivation for the lead character and others say the same, you need to work on it. Or if you have a female lead for a big budget movie and someone says the movie will never be made because they are not making big budget movies with women, then you have to change your script.

“This is important for pursuing a career with so many negative setbacks.”