60th THESSALONIKI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL || 31/10-10/11/2019
Mike Werb Masterclass
Screenwriter-producer Mark Werb, big hit creator for TV and Hollywood, an invitee of the Greek Film Center (Hellenic Film Commission Direction) in the 60th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, gave a masterclass on Friday, November 8, 2019, at the theater ‘Pavlos Zannas’.
“We thank the Festival for receiving our guest, a distinguished screenwriter and producer”, said the Director of the Hellenic Film Commission, Ms. Venia Vergou, and introduced Mark Werb to the audience. “We are seven minutes late, and I apologize. Yet, if you want to become writers, you must get used to waiting”, Mark Werb noted amusingly, not wanting to sugarcoat the conditions of his work, “a difficult and amazing job”, as he said. “Writers are not at the center of attention. It is not a very glamorous or fun job; it is lonesome and not for sensitive people for sure. It is a job for people that have something to say and the drive to say it. Orwell said that writing is an exhaustive, terrible struggle, that one would never undertake if not driven by some demon. And Norman Mailer said that the process of writing is closer to childbirth; from my experience in Hollywood, I can say the same thing. When, finally, it is time to bring a child to this world, having waited for long, we bring forth a new life that, often, is not what we have been expecting. But we have to learn to love our baby, our film, and find someone to adopt it, to buy it. So, we lose our rights on our baby, someone else takes it and we get depressed. On the first page, on the first day I have a thousand ideas, that can blossom, that can exist in a world that has not yet come to be; we are like gods, creating a birth, and this is terrifying and exciting.”
Mark Werb emphasized in particular the forcefulness of an idea, and observed: “It is the immaterial conception that has to take place first, before blossoming and exploding into an idea through you, like something new. That could be an exciting idea for an eccentric hero, a murderer, or just a dialogue that inspires you. And this idea can come in unexpected moments, whether you are at home or seeking for a job.”
Wherever Mark Werb goes, even to professional meetings, he carries with him an ancient Greek coin featuring Alexander the Great, and that, as he said, connects him with Greece. He explained how he got hold of it: “When I was a boy, my father used to talk to me about the ancient Greek tragedians, about the magnificence of the ancient Greek civilization, about Euripides and he gave me this authentic coin with Alexander the Great on it. Alexander wanted to promote his legend, the idea that he descended from Hercules, and for this reason, on the coin he is wearing the Nemean Lion’s hide around his head. When my father talked to me about the gods, I could not understand what a demigod meant, Hercules being one, with Zeus as his father. There are a lot of films about Hercules, his Labors, how he killed his first wife and his children, how violent his life was. The coin was a moment of revelation for me, and that prompted me to create a series with Hercules as its hero, and I hope to find buyers in Greece.”
On a practical level, the American screenwriter gave advice on how to handle the original idea: “When you have an inspiration, don’t let it go. This is the first rule for a screenwriter. Do not ignore inspiration, write it down the moment it comes, always have a pen with you. Inspiration comes to me usually before I go to bed, although we screenwriters suffer from insomnia.”
The American screenwriter described the trajectory that led him to Hollywood, “not a very pretty story”, as he said, since at the beginning of his career he quit his studies in Stanford, started a punk band, fell into drugs and found himself penniless, since his parents stopped giving him money. But he was motivated enough to recover: “I took a loan, went back to my university studies, wrote a screenplay, and won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award. At the same time, I accepted all kind of work I came across, a text, anything. Do not underestimate errands, one learns from everything. Together with a classmate we went to Texas, we wrote a screenplay, we sold it and that was a step further. There is a way for everybody, to get into the industry. Then I joined a small company that was looking for action movies. They had turned down five writers before my turn, my pitch lasted thirty-five minutes, I talked about things that were important to me, but…I didn’t get the job! So, my advice is, do not talk too much, talk for ten to fifteen minutes, present a synopsis of your story. I then wrote a screenplay for a girl that got arrested for cocaine in Peru and was paid 32,000 dollars, and became one of the highest-paid screenwriters in the States.”
In 1989, Mike Werb wrote the screenplay for Food of the Gods II, a film he admits was not good. In the film, due to an experiment going wrong, huge rats are created in a lab, from which they escape and attack a camp with disastrous results. “The film didn’t go well”, said the American screenwriter, bursting out in laughter when he showed a brief excerpt of the film. “It was a low-budget film, it was my first job, it was a strange experience that made me mature”, he added.
The name of the characters he invents has a special significance for him and searching for a name can take a lot of time as he said. “"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", said Shakespeare, but does it sound as sweet? A name is very important, always have that in mind when writing. A name can be your first step towards becoming a writer. Terry Wilder gave the name… Pastrami to one of his heroes, and got away with it. I gave the names of my parents to the heroes of my first film – it was a film about rats, that’s why I gave the names of my parents, I had my reasons. The names were too Jewish for the studio and they asked me to change them, they asked me to change a name into ‘David’, as if that wasn’t Jewish! But I couldn’t bring myself to object.”
Next stop in his trajectory was The Mask (1994) with Jim Carrey, an “odd job”, as he said. “I wrote the screenplay in five-and-a-half weeks by adapting a novel about a very violent hero. The studio wanted to turn it into a comedy, an idea which I loved, since I grew up watching Looney Tunes. The budget was at 17,000,000 dollars, which must seem huge for Greece. I was told to adapt the film for the rising star Jim Carrey. I created a character that was based a lot on my high-school self, I wasn’t part of the naughty ones, or the nerds, I didn’t want to be popular, I was eating my food next to my locker. I grew up with a blind father, so I put into the film a blind relative for Jim Carrey. The studio did not want a disabled person, so that was cut out. I know that it looks like a silly comedy and in fact it is, but what makes it interesting is that it brings out the main character, a guy that doesn’t feel good in his skin, and something must be done, for him to realize who he is. Jim was great, and that was the film that turned him into Jim Carrey. My collaboration with Cameron Diaz was a turning point in my career; she is a great person, an amazing personality” he said.
Mike Werb thinks it’s a challenge for someone writing comedy “to balance the world’s madness with reality” and said that it was difficult to explain that during pitching “in order to make the juxtaposition of the two come forward.” One of the highlights of his career was Face/Off; he collaborated with a team of writers for the screenplay, his friend and main collaborator Michael Colleary among them. “In the action movies of the 80’s and the 90’s, the bad guy is boring, while the good guy is the interesting one. We said, why not have the bad guy be interesting, too, so why not have the bad guy be the good guy? We explained what we meant to our agent, and he kicked us out, he said “Write something safer”. We also interviewed a lot of plastic surgeons for the movie, and what we wrote about at the time, face transplant, is something that is actually happening for some years now”, he said.
In 2001, he wrote the screenplay for the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. “Our goal was to turn the main character into a real part. We had six weeks for the screenplay. We had to convince Paramount, an old-school studio, which turned down our plans because they thought they were expensive. We pitched Lara Croft as someone who could be Katherine Hepburn in her twenties, she would do everything to see the President or the Prime Minister, yet when she went out on a date, things didn’t go well. She was a powerful woman scaring men. I didn’t like the movie in the end, I didn’t even attend the premiere, I sent my mom and my grandma instead” he said.
His more recent work includes the TV series for children Unnatural History (2010), where he worked as screenwriter, director, and producer. “I am very proud of this work. I spent a lot of time in Asia, in the Galapagos islands for research. It was a tough undertaking, I had no private life whatsoever, imagine, I had dark hair, and in just eighteen months it turned grey.”
He thinks it is very useful for a young writer to work as a screenwriter assistant in a TV series. “You should try it in Greece to get into such a job, be part of the personnel, and then maybe you will be able to write an episode”, he said. Besides, he thinks it is very important to have a schedule. “Ideas are precious, but details are everything. Stop talking about your idea, get a piece of paper and start writing. This is where art introduces itself. You need a plan, a schedule. On the first week you begin with the idea, and you must not get stuck in this stage, or be hesitant. On week number two you must think about the characters, what is the main conflict. Next week, next step, etc. I use this schedule when I write screenplays. It can be that a stupid idea can lead to the better one. Some people want to work in seclusion, everybody works in a different way, I like team work, listening to what others have to say.”
He believes that the first twenty or thirty pages of a screenplay are the crucial ones. “You must attract the viewer’s attention from the beginning, get him hooked, and maintain his interest to the end. That’s why you have to constantly improve your screenplay, do not rely on the first draft, and never listen to your mom, she would probably think everything is wonderful.” He also mentioned the importance of logline, the condensation of the story into one paragraph, so that a screenwriter can convince a prospective buyer read the whole screenplay. “Whether you are a professional or not, there is a big chance for you out there”, the American screenwriter concluded.
Asked if it is impossible for a European screenwriter to work in an American studio, he answered: “Maybe this was true some years ago. Now the studios are looking everywhere. The business model is globalized, international. There is a list of agents and agencies where you can send your screenplays.”
To a question coming from a film school student how he gets over the lack of inspiration, he answered: “Something that helps me a lot when I write and feel tired is to stop the scene before its conclusion, so when I get up the next morning I know exactly where to begin from. I always have something hanging for that reason. Also, you have to write every day, whether it is half a page, or even a paragraph. So, that way, your mind will stay focused. If you lose a day, you risk losing a week, a month, months, and then you get completely lost.”
To this year’s Ambassador to the Festival’s Agora, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos’ question, on whether he has a rule applying to an unusual character in an unusual situation, Mark Werb answered: “This is a very interesting question. What I have to say is that all rules must be violated and broken.”