Mark Rosenthal [Interview]

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We have spoken with many folks from the world of film here at Trainwreck’d Society.  From Oscar winning screenwriters, to beloved indie writers and filmmakers, we have had many extremely talented folks who have been the masterminds behind some of your favorite films both in the big studio Hollywood world, and the independent film world.  And one job title in particular that has us the most intrigued is that of the screenwriter.  The screenwriter is the man who puts the wheels in place.  Whether he or she is simply a hired hand being paid to bring a millionaire’s dream idea onto the written page, or he/she has developed a story in the screenplay format that he/she has put their heart and soul into to see it make it on the big screen, the writers are some of the most fascinating creatures in the world of film.  Where many writer’s in the world of literature have existed for the simple fact that they fear the public, and simply want to put words to paper to set their mind at ease, this is not a duty of a screenwriter.  While they might very well be reclusive characters at times, the ultimate goal of any screenwriter is to create a story that is going to be manhandled, dismantled, and thrown up on a screen in a visual medium for the world to know.  I could only imagine the first time a screenwriter sees the blood, sweat, and coffee stains thrown up on the screen, either being horrified or delighted, or feeling as though they are simply watching something totally different from what they intended. And all they can do is dry their eyes on moderately sized paychecks, and continue to create and create again.

I do not mean to sound somber in these descriptions, but simply express my love and adoration for the great work that these people do.  And I am extremely honored to announce that we have yet another wonderful screenwriter in the house who has agreed to share a few words with us.  And this time we went all out!  The wonderful and talented Mark Rosenthal has agreed to do our longest interview to date, as I asked our dear friend, Trainwreck’d Society contributor and filmmaker/screenwriter Chris Eaves to throw some questions at this legend of the film world in his own right.  And Mark was a damn trooper and answered them all!  His tale is one of personal triumph that should act as a great source of inspiration to anybody out there looking to accomplish, well, just about anything, let alone becoming a part of the world of film.  This guy has worked on  a plethora of wonderful projects that have been beautiful and diverse.  So please enjoy our interview with the illustrious and brilliant screenwriter, Mark Rosenthal!

For over 30 years you have worked alongside fellow writer Lawrence Konner.  How did this partnership come to life?  And what do you think it is that makes you guys such a great team?

We actually met at the University of Vermont. I was a TA in the English department and Larry was grazing through a pre-med curriculum. We’d scurry across the campus in thin, very Flatlander leather jackets and meet in the UVM Student Union and talk about movies. Mostly to avoid course work. A good strategy for anyone in college who wants to go into the movie business: avoid coursework at all costs!

 

Simply, we tend to fill different ecological niches. I can spend an hour at the keyboard on the right adjective; he’s more a pace and move-it-along type. I’ve found that writing teams often separate this way: ground and canopy, fox and hedgehog. Plus he have the essential personality type of avoiding confrontation so we tend not to sulk over disappointments.

Do you and Lawrence have any type of system when working on a new project? Have there been any large disagreements and if so how were you able to over come them?

This has changed enormously as the kind of films being made have shrunk and TV beckons more. I’ve done a few scripts on my own recently, small stories with lower budgets, trying to find a way to write drama. The truth is jobs are harder to find and that takes precedent over everything.

You have expressed in the past, some of the difficulties you had during the making of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.  But, as you look back today with even more Superman projects coming out and coming to life, how do you feel about your contribution to the legacy?  Why do you think it is important, and how does it feel to be a part of it?

The comforting memory of what turned out to be a sinkhole of a film was getting to hang out with Chris Reeve — a warm, ebullient and passionate guy. We’d stroll through the West Side near his apartment and talk story, gossip, trade stories, watch how kind and unpretentious he was with the public. Really good guy. While there’s an undeniable ‘black comedy cool’ to the fact that we were part of an historic movie madhouse, with an epic cast of Dickensian characters, no writer loves to watch a script that gets a greenlight transmogrified. As Major Clipton says at the end of Bridge on the River Kwai, ‘Madness!’

Mark Rosenthal - All Hail MAD Magazine

“A shot with the ‘villain’ from Jewel of the Nile that MAD Magazine asked us for after Mort Drucker did a parody.” – Mark Rosenthal

You have previously described your childhood as growing up watching movies every Saturday afternoon with your fellow neighborhood kids. Can you tell us more of what that experience was like for you and some of the most memorable films you saw? 

If you lived in a ‘rowhouse’ neighborhood in Philly when I grew up there was always a kids’ matinee on Saturdays around 1:15. Movies in those days were pretty much for grown ups — meaning no Sci Fi, Horror, or Mayhem at night. So they dumped the expanding slate of Baby Boomer films on weekend afternoons. We hardly paid attention to the name of the film — just lined up dutifully and filed in. I was so ‘into’ movies as a little kid that when it was some new state-of-the-art effects film (quite crude by today’s standards) like The Mysterians or The Tingler I’d man-up and watch it with the kids, then have massive, paralyzing nightmares through the night. I still have them. The first house I ever bought was deep in the Vermont woods. Friends would ask me if I feared a criminal breaking in when I was alone out there. I could never tell them, ‘No, I’m not afraid of some psychopath with a gun. But I’m frozen with dread at night that Dracula is hiding in the bathroom when I get up to piss.’

How did your life guide you into screenwriting? Why movies over books or theater?

When I drove myself to L.A. I’d never seen a screenplay. Films course were pretty much ‘appreciation’ courses taught in English departments. Papers never talked about the process and hardly mentioned box office. The movies were as secret as the Masons. I was finishing a doctorate with a concentration in Chaucer. Then in 1976 my brother, who was working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was killed by terrorists in Istanbul. Waiting with my parents for his body to come back so we could bury him, unable to sleep, I made a vow to at least try to do what I dreamed of doing — I guess to acknowledge what Ian McEwen later called ‘this brief privilege of consciousness’. So I just drove myself to L.A. right after my doctoral defense in a private way to honor my brother. Lived in a garage for a while. Read scripts for Mark Rydell and the new studio Orion Pictures. After a 1000 scripts (he exaggerates, as always!) I thought I understood the form. Then I saw a tiny article in the back of the NY Times about a 15 year old girl named Phoolan Devi who was raped by a group of men and though a poor girl from a low caste instead of keeping quiet went back to avenge herself. And when the police came to arrest her she fled and was hidden by other poor villages. So I sat in a brand new shopping center called The Beverly Center and wrote a script in two weeks that became The Legend of Billie Jean.

Can you elaborate on your first venture into screenwriting with The Legend of Billie Jean. How do you feel about your involvement in the film today? How much, or any, has your opinion on those events changed?

Larry Konner gave our very first script to his agent, Bill Block, and it sold within days. I found out back in Philly in a hospital ICU where my father was having an emergency triple bypass. I was stunned. I think I flew back to L.A. without a plane. The phone was ringing as I entered my apartment — and it was the director saying he’d been put on the project and “I can’t direct things I haven’t written.” He fired us before we even had a chance to get studio notes. It was my baptism-by-fire of a writer’s life. We watched the script simplified and dumbed down, much of the character drama removed. A year later on a rainy night in Westwood we saw some women giving out passes to a test screening — it was for our movie. So we went to the MGM Lot and stood in line with lots of 12 year old girls to watch a rough cut. Took me a year to get over that. But film is a director’s world. Has to be that way. When the film opened poorly I actually sent (as opposed to literally?) a sarcastic note to the producers and one threatened to ‘rip my throat out’ but that’s another story.

 

 

"A drag queen review tribute to Billie jean." - Mark Rosenthal

“A drag queen review tribute to Billie jean.” – Mark Rosenthal

Since The Legend of Billie Jean, do you believe that screenwriting has changed?

Immensely. ‘Indies’ have replaced much of the dramatic studio projects and the competition for high-paying job is furious. Biggest change is that many projects are generated in-house so if there’s not relationship to them already, it’s hard to get in. All the cliches are true: more people trying to get a piece of a smaller pie. TV is more friendly to writers. Etc.

As I cannot number my own favorite films in order, generally, what have been some of your favorite films and could those movies still be made in Hollywood today?

I can only say that I can’t rise above seeing only the things that didn’t go right, the changes I never could palate, or the lost opportunities. So mostly I like other people’s films.

How do you pitch your ideas and what are your thoughts on this process?

The pitch is like stand up comedy with one person in the lounge. Not hard to bomb.

At what point do you decide your script is done?   

When there’s a paycheck! … The truth is, I think most writers can always re-write endlessly. We’re our own Scheherazades!

Would you please talk of your days at Orion and how you became initially a script reader? 

Long story that must be short. I had literally (correctly used here by the way) just finished my doctoral exams. I didn’t know how to get a Reader’s job but someone told me to look in Variety. I saw an announcement about Orion and called the Story Department. Now here’s the first act main beat: I was so stupid and callow I called at lunch time. Everyone was out. But on this particular day Sarah Altschul, the Story Editor, was working through lunch at her desk and grabbed the phone and said, ‘What?’ I fumbled out something about grad school and she just asked if I could be there in 30 minutes. Orion was on the Warner’s Lot and I didn’t know where that was. I didn’t know where to park. Or which gate. I parked somewhere in Burbank and ran sweating profusely into her office very, very late. Again, she should’ve kicked me out but instead gave me a test script to read. I went home and did what I’d been trained to do in Grad School. I wrote a literary essay about it. With Latin literary phrases. And again, when I brought it back, she should’ve kicked me out. Instead she ripped me and teased me but gave me another chance. In a couple months Orion asked me to be an in-house Reader. Then I started reading for Mark Rydell. It kept me alive in my tiny studio apartment till I sold me first screenplay. By the way, today that position would probably be filled by an intern working for free — and maybe I wouldn’t have stayed around long enough to write. Every free internship is a scandal, an exploitation, and should be illegal. The nonsense about ‘but you’re learning’ can be said about anything including the US Congress, studio executives and business affairs. Let’s not pay lawyers congressman or exec’s for their first few years and see how they like it.

 

With works such as the comedy The Beverly Hillbillies, science fiction such as Star Trek IV and Planet of the Apes, as well as the romantic adventure The Jewel of the Nile in your career, how have you managed not to be forced into a specific genre?

It goes back to that kid standing in line at a Philly theater for a matinee. I never asked ‘what genre was playing’ — I just loved them all. Most genres have the same structural challenges. The characters demand the same attention to detail. My feeling is a writer doesn’t look at project in terms of theme or tropes. A writer thinks in terms of ‘hard and easy’ (not that any writing is ever easy!) Plot and dialogue are hard. Comedy the hardest. But whether a character falls in love with an alien or a jet plane rockets forward but never leaves the ground, good writing is the common denominator — and not genre.

Outside of screenwriting and the entertainment industry, how do you spend your time?

Time? You mean, like, ‘free time’, ‘carefree time’ — hmm, I used to know what that was? Like everyone, the world seems to spin faster on its axis. I have college-aged kids which takes management (there is no ’empty nest’ — the nest merely widens and deepens). But my passions are bicycling (everyday!), reading literature (love iBooks), defeating Republicans, plus I’m involved in conservation — particularly with the Center for Great Apes in Wachula, Florida. It’s an amazing sanctuary where many ‘movie, TV, and commercials’ orangutans and chimpanzee’s are rescued from tragic circumstances by a real modern saint named Patti Ragan. Patti re-constitutes their family groups and lets them live in a forest preserve with grand walk-ways through the canopy. She even has some of the apes from my films. Michael Jackson’s Bubbles is there, too. The re-boot of Planets of the Apes has been wonderful because they use CG apes. Because if you see a chimp or orang in any film, TV show or commercial remember it means: first, the ape is pre-adolescent, some parent has been destroyed or hurt to take it, and it will be killed or dumped when it reaches puberty — often into a brutally horrid cage in the dark to live out it’s days immobile and in pain. (Your readers can go to their website to see video of the sanctuary and its apes!).

In your opinion which have your scripts have been your best and/or favorite?

Oh, far too many. Again, I don’t rate scripts from high art to low brow. That to me is a false calibration. Hard and easy. Most recently,  Looper was a great script within its genre, as was The Conjuring. A Serious Man,  and, of course, Social Network were masterful. But these kind of questions, to me, only make sense year by year, country by country, and even based on budget. Topic by topic. That’s why, to me, JC Chandor’s script for Margin Call was infinitely better than Wolf of Wall Street and comparing them a great lesson to a new writer.

Mark Rosenthal - Man + Ape

Bob Krist, senior photogrpaher for National Geographic asked me to do a Planet of the Apes shoot (tongue in cheek).

What has been your proudest moment?

Best moment — that’s easy. It occurred at Leavesden Studios when the very wonderful and gracious Alan Rickman and the director Mike Newell arranged for my kids to be extras in Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire. They actually made it into the final cut (for 3 whole seconds) in a Great Hall scene. That made up for years and years of grumpy producers and directors!

What has been your lowest moment?

Besides waking up and realizing I have to write — I can’t just chatter around a desk and ‘talk’ ideas like executives and actors and directors — I have to sit by myself, alone again, eating M&M’s, locked in solitary confinement with my mind, for life! You mean besides that? Oh, I could say the times I’ve been replaced on various projects but that comes with the job description. That’s when you just tough it out and run home and write ‘FADE IN’ on something new,something that surely this time won’t be botched in the birthing — the writer’s greatest and unique consolation. In some ways it’s when tiny and assorted bon mots you’re dying to see come to life from your script on the screen get cut out instead. In Mona Lisa Smile we had a bit where the Italian teacher (Dominic West) sings the old Italian pop hit Volare (‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’) to the girls at Wellesley — but the producer never heard of it (along with lots of other things like ‘Catcher In The Rye’!) and cut it out. Writers shoot the whole film instead their heads when they’re writing so it’s hard to drop the ‘scene’ just because it never got made!

In a long line of dream accomplishments for most people, do you still have a dream project you have yet completed?

Hundreds. A few scripts I’d still like to see get made. Many, many more I have on the ‘back burner’ hoping to get to. Writers are all creatively promiscuous.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Literally? (Sorry, the novelist Zoe Heller wrote an hysterical piece for The New York Review of Books about the misuse of ‘literally’ — so now I try to live dangerously and use it a lot.) Last night I saw Fault In Our Stars and was charmed by it and the performances (despite of it’s softening of how ugly cancer really is), and the kids in the theater were sobbing so hard, so long, so loud, so deeply, that I smiled because in our increasingly callous world it was wonderful to see a story affect an audience this way. These were not easy, Lifetime channel tears or dopey Disney Family tears –no, wracking, existentially transformative crying. Catharsis! In comes art — out comes, we must believe, better people! You have to smile. There’s still hope!

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

One Response to Mark Rosenthal [Interview]

  1. Moe says:

    Interesting!!! Mark is my second cousin and I did not know an of this!

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