How did you feel when the script finally got picked up?
Thank God, you know there’s so many of these moments that happened where I’m like, ‘Really, is this really happening now, I’ll believe it when I see. They want to pay me for it now; I’ll believe it when I see it. Wait Jake wants to do the movie; I’ll believe it when he’s on set. We’re going to make the movie; we’re really going to New York? You guys are in preproduction? You’re scouting locations? I’ll believe it when we’re rolling, and then I want to see if there’s film in the camera.’ The rug has been pulled out from underneath me so many times, I got to a point where, I just kind of eliminated expectations for this movie. Thank God, you know, because when it came along and when we were doing it, it was such an amazing experience and a surprise.
Did this movie have false starts?
Yeah, it had a few false starts along the way. You know it gets passed around with agents and production companies, and people who say they want to make it and then there’s no money. I don’t know how many times I’d go into these meetings and they go ‘Hey we love your script, congratulations “the black list”, that’s a big deal.’ Cool you want to make my movie? ‘No, we don’t make movies like this.’ That was almost everybody, you know? It’s crazy because the span of the ten years that I started writing this, and this movie has gotten made, the business has changed. We went through a recession, there was money nowhere for a while and then all of a sudden, there was money again to make some movies. At that same time there was this guy named Jean-Marc Vallée, who loved the script, and was really passionate about the script. Then we started talking and it was like — did I tell you about how we were trading songs back and forth? We would email these songs back and forth and it was cool because it was like, oh he’s interested in the same music. But what we were doing was creating a rhythm that became the base of the movie, you know; it was like this foot-thumping, and then it kept going and we kept trading this music, and all of a sudden it was like Jake Gyllenhaal wants to join the music. So he brings in these musicians and it’s like Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper step in and they all start playing together. In the beginning, it’s rock-and-roll, you know? It’s like dirty, it’s messy and a little bit of a racket,like what are they doing within some of these scenes? And then it’s like he guides them into his vision, his rhythm and gets everybody stomping with his foot. All of a sudden it’s like, whoa, how did he do that? He calls cut, and everybody looks at each other and goes ‘holy shit, did you see that?’ And then it’s just a whole lot of love, you know? It’s rock-and-roll.
What a great script, what was your inspiration behind this?
I did demolition work when I was a younger man. Sixteen until I was twenty years old I would work for my father tearing apart these burned down houses that they were going to rebuild after they were burned down. I was tearing down the walls, ripping down the roofs, crawling through insulation, that you’re breathing into your lungs. I slipped into this dark, dark place where I just thought like I’m never going to make it out of here. Then the other thing was I realized once you tear something down you can see how it’s put together. I wasn’t a writer at the time, but I think in a way we all have this artist brain, this creative brain; that brain grabbed a hold of that idea and set it in the back of my mind for something, maybe later I don’t know. That analogy about life, and I find my way out of that world and I go into Hollywood, and I have a little bit of success early on and I think this is easy, I’m going to be able to have this career. Then I didn’t work for like seven years and all of a sudden, I’m failing in my life, failing in my career, in my relationships; I’m broke. I’m working in a bar, hanging out after hours and drinking too much. I was in that same emotional place as I was in those burned out houses when I was eighteen, twenty years old, where there was this debris laying around me and I can feel it. I looked around my life, like how did this happen? When did this breakdown happen when I stopped caring again, you know? That’s where I was, in this apathy of not giving a shit.
How did you get out of it?
Davis, the character, this voice, it was this voice that just sort of found me and I followed him and it became this character. He was going through this loss and his loss was a woman, his wife and it’s like he invited me into that world and I followed him. I followed him into that hospital and down that hallway, to that vending machine. Through that vending machine and that simple little thing that says, write us for questions and complaints, he had an outlet to write these letters to someone or to anyone. I don’t know if he ever thought there was someone at the other end of them but it was really him venting all these feelings over the last dozen years of his life or so. In a way it was this cathartic exercise for me because the things that he was feeling, I was feeling; but the things that he was doing, were not okay for me to do. You know, the things that he was saying were not okay for me to say.
Did you write the letters early on as sort of a writing exercise?
No, they found their way into the story as it was unfolding. They were the things that came most fluently I would say, because they are the most honest things. There’s no veil over what he’s saying. He’s just sort of rambling, and it was fun because you just let that go and see what he says. Then you come across some things like whoa, that’s not appropriate. But that’s what he’s saying and I think it’s kind of honest, you know?
How about Chris’ character which is obviously very intense and comes with a lot of baggage?
Yeah, you know the vending machine introduced us to Naomi’s character and through her she introduced me to her son. I didn’t know she had a son until I really met her, it’s not like I set this up like there’s going to be a woman who’s going to have this son and he’s confused about his sexual orientation or whatever. It was just that I met him and I’m a big fan of complexity characters and he was this complex character. I wanted to let him be whoever he was going to be and because Davis was this very honest human being at this time in his life, it inspires Chris to be honest about things that maybe he’s not honest with himself about; certainly not with the people around him. Not with his mother, not with his friends and the environment that he lives in, so Davis was like a safe haven for him.
Was there any kind of wiggle room, in regards to the script, screenplay itself and the actual concept/dialogue?
Yeah, the way that Jean-Marc works, I don’t know if you know this but he doesn’t work with; first of all everything is hand-held the entire time. There’s not one light anywhere near-side, it’s all practical lighting. This is what the light is and that’s what you get. No marks for anybody to hit, there’s no storyboards, there’s no shot lists; so he goes in and creates this space for the actors. This is your playground, this is where the scene is going to take place, let’s see it, let’s rehearse, but in rehearsing, he’s shooting everything. He’s finding it too, he’s figuring out the pulse and the rhythm of this scene as the actors are figuring out themselves and it becomes this dance. One person moves there, and he moves the camera here, whatever feels right. So within that, they might be saying things that are in the script and then step away and then say “You know I feel like he wouldn’t say this,” or “this feels like too much right now.” And Jean will be like ‘get rid of it.’ There would be sometimes whole sections, and I feel really grateful for this because he was very precious about the script. More so sometimes then I would be, and very respectful of myself and the script. Sometimes he would come to me and just let me know that we were getting rid of a chunk of dialogue, and of course I would be like, ;’yeah you’re the boss and I trust you.’ Whatever is making the scene better, then do that thing. I think he wanted to keep me involved and it was out of respect I think for myself and for the script.
Why make Davis a stockbroker?
Look I didn’t know anything about that world; I don’t know anything about the money world of finance. But it was a way to juxtapose his world against this other world that he was going to stumble into; into Naomi’s world, and starting out with a guy who has everything, there’s a long way to fall. Then I think it becomes a good way to question what everything is. Is happiness measured by the Porsche that you have sitting in your garage, or the amount of zeros sitting in your bank account, or the size of your house and your flat screen TV? Because in the end, he’s throwing the flat screen TV out of the window and he’s trying to rip everything apart, so that he can see the bigger picture of how this is put together and maybe he can rebuild it from there. I know it’s a very obvious metaphor, I try to be obvious about it, but I also call it out,.We had his character even saying, “Everything is becoming a metaphor.” He was driving around looking at things going. “Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor.” I think that having an awareness of it is the way we were able to get away with that. But that’s what I was experiencing at the time, because I was experiencing the same apathy. I’m walking around my neighborhood, seeing things like, “That’s a metaphor for what I’m going through right now, that’s a metaphor over there.” I was seeing things everywhere. So I just sort of put that into his world and into his character.
That’s what made it so believable, The Wall Street bankers, and they have so much. You know here today, gone tomorrow; I plunge into the movie because of that. We have Wall Street and I’m surrounded by it 24/7, what goes on in that crazy mixed up world. To see this guy come apart, it was just, wow what can I say? That’s good writing.
Yeah, that’s Jake Gyllenhaal.
On a writing aspect of it, words are just words on a page, I feel like the writer puts the life into it and the actor interprets it. Whereas some would believe that the actor is the one who brings life to the words. What is your perspective on that?
Well obviously it starts with the script and the story and I think Jake would say the same thing. He would say that he’s not so much interested in character as he is in the story, and the story grabs his attention. I think that it’s a bit of both; it’s a confluence of ideas once you’re actually making the movie. But you have to start with the script; I try to put forth the best thing that I possibly can because I’m not going to get another chance at Jake Gyllenhaal reading my script. So you want to put something on the page that is going to intrigue him and pull him into this world. And ultimately I want to write for actors and directors. Every actor I have that’s going to read a script I want them to say, ‘I have to play that character,’ and every director. ‘I have to direct that movie.’ For me that’s what drives the process .Our language is words and I agree they’re symbols, but it’s the order you put them in that creates an emotion.
How has your writing style changed from your previous work?
I think the difference was I honestly feel like I found my voice with this script. I hadn’t experienced the writing process this way with anything else I had written. I’ve been very systematic about writing a screenplay; you break it down, you put your outline up there and you write in the scenes you are going to have in that outline and Act one, Act two, Act three. With this I had, like I said, I started with a voice and as he started telling me the story, I tried mapping that stuff out. I put up the stuff on the note cards on the wall, but the character was like, ‘No we’re not going to go to that, and we’re going to go over here.’ Sometimes I would be like, well that’s not going to lead me to there; and he would be like, ‘No, trust me.’ I would have to follow him, and sometime it would be a dead end and I would have to turn around. There were a few moments where he led me down these roads that were better. Does that answer your question?
You spoke about how personal this was on many levels, so what’s next for you?
You know, I’m developing some ideas, I’m a little superstitious about them because once they’re not fully formed, I end up talking about them and then I realize maybe I don’t have an idea. But I just want to do this again; I want to write about something. I want to put myself in a position where I can make movies like this with directors like Jean-Marc or eventually write a script that I can direct myself and cast an actor like Naomi Watts or Chris Cooper. And those movies have to be about something and there’s a lot of different ways you can go in Hollywood to make a paycheck, and there’s some trappings, and I want to try my best to stay out of those traps.
What were some of the things that got added to the production while they were filming that caught you off guard as a screenwriter?
That caught me off guard?
Yes that they added or ended up taking away?
Well I told you how Julia’s character really didn’t exist in the movie. I had written her into the first scene of the script where she’s in the car with him and we don’t see her face and the whole thing behind that is that, he forgot about her. Then he sees her in these pictures in the end. But the first day of shooting we’re using this actress, Heather Lind and Jean-Marc was like, ‘She’s fantastic we need to use her more.’ So I was off writing scenes where we can include her. Now we’re showing her face and it wasn’t supposed to be there, I think what it added to the story was care. You cared about her, you felt his loss and in the end you began to understand him a little bit more.
It added to a backstory.
Yeah, it paints the picture a little more thoroughly.
Behind the fact of Naomi Watt’s character and Jake’s character it’s not romantic, it’s an emotional connection. Was that always intended to be that way?
No, we explored the idea of being romantic and we jettisoned that idea because we love the relationship that they had without the physical, without the sexual. It felt different; it felt like we didn’t want to fall into that trope of the sexual relationship, so I think that it worked.