Monday, June 26, 2006

Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel at the Writers Guild Foundation

The final installment of this year's WGF's Spring Storytellers series featured Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, longtime writing partners with something like 18 produced scripts to their credit, among them SPLASH, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, NIGHT SHIFT, and FEVER PITCH.

A congenial pair, funny as you might imagine, with a wealth of experience, they made for another inspiring night at the WGF. My random notes:

As an introductory remark, Ganz made the point that he and Mandel are writers. Not aspiring directors or producers. Writing's what they've always and only wanted to do, and it's a fine occupation for an adult (YMMV with friends and loved ones!).

The other introductory point they made was a nod toward the collaborative nature of making movies, and that the success or failure of their films was not theirs alone but the product of many individuals.

While Mandel always wanted to write movies, both got their start in TV. The lessons of writing for TV and how those helped them in features turned into a common thread throughout the evening's discussion. Writing for shows, they learned "disposability" (to divorce yourself from the material), "fear" (how and how not to pitch), and the "fine line between flexibility and hackiness." A TV mentor told them, "Love nothing, boys," meaning to not ever get too precious about your own words.

These lessons have served them well, both in getting jobs and executing on them. They've never really had a disagreement. Their process is to throw out ideas not like "I GOT IT!", shouted while leaping across the table, but more like "What if..." or "This isn't it, but..." or "Is this anything...?"

They write about a script and a half a year these days, and admitted to have cut way back from their previous productivity. Check out that resume -- sheesh, they've earned it, in more ways than one.

They don't write on spec. Ideas are brought to them. They feed off the shared energy and enthusiasm of ideas that originate elsewhere: "cowardice," joked Mandel, is why they don't generate original scripts that have only themselves as champions.

They start each day by reading the paper and woolgathering for a bit, then review the previous day's pages, which have been typed by their assistant from their original longhand draft. Then come the new pages.

Character is king with Ganz and Mandel. They start every project by finding the character through whose eyes the story will be told.

It's the inability to "go deep" on character, they said, that was behind the failure of many hotshot 1980's Saturday Night Live writers to transition to movies. These folks were used to writing characters superficially, focusing on situation, as you might expect from sketch writers.

The leads in their movies are the writers themselves, even in a movie where that seems like a stretch, say, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN which is about sisters from Oregon playing baseball during WWII. But the trip to Chicago the girls take, to pursue their dream-- that's Ganz and Mandel, moving to Hollywood from New York to chase (and ultimately catch) their own dreams of being writers.

They're open to serendipity (again being flexible without being hacky), citing the example of a scene from PARENTHOOD that was jotted as notes on the way to the set one morning after Ron Howard identified a missing moment. The actors, Jason Robards and Tom Hulce, riffed off those notes and the scene was filmed, eventually to become a fan favorite of the film.

Arthur Miller had a similar scene in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, they grinned, but theirs "was funnier."

They used to outline but now don't. Personally, I wouldn't take this (or Milch's non-outlining either, to reference another recent WGF speaker) as a blank check to not outline yourself. These are masters who've no doubt internalized structure to the point that they probably don't need an explicit roadmap.

They've never sought arbitration on their numerous "funny for money" script doctor jobs.

And this business, it is a business. They came off as consummate, lifelong professionals for whom writing is a joy but also a job.

One aspect of their success, they surmised, was their ability to feel the audience, to shift between thinking about a script internally (as writer) and externally (as watcher).

Going back to their TV roots, Jack Klugman gave Ganz his first boot camp in writing full characters, when he roared "What do I want?!" after reading a script.

This is the chief failing of newer writers, they said, who look at a script and think, "I need to get my guy into that tank of eels," not "Why does my guy want to go into the tank of eels?"

Ganz's definitive "good character" is Jack Lemmon from THE APARTMENT, because he's complicated. Unlikable in many ways but never unsympathetic.

They pride themselves on being "the best-behaved writers in show business" and routinely are not only on set but in the editing room. Where, they were quick to say, they are the most merciless of anyone on the movie, cutting what doesn't play.

Free rewrites. They do them. Ganz acknowledged that this is a hot button issue, but given the situations they've been in and the people they've worked with -- people they trust, respect, and like -- they do free rewrites.

On taking notes. Garry Marshall advised them to listen to the solution, not the problem. Find what's behind the note -- a note which may in itself be a terrible idea -- and fix that.

Michael Keaton was almost fired off NIGHT SHIFT by the studio. "Too weird." Ron Howard went to bat for him.

They wrote Jon Lovitz' role in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN specifically for him, to capture that 1930's character-actor look and feel, and as a favor to Penny Marshall to get him out of living in her house.

Wrote BL's moisies for him. (WTF? That's what my scribble looks like to me but I have no idea what it means now. Anyone in my writing classes or groups can testify how appalling my handwriting is.)

Wait, I got it. They wrote Billy Crystal's roles mostly for him. Meaning, they had him explicitly in mind when creating those roles. No moisies.

CITY SLICKERS was written as a sort of comedic murder mystery. They knew they needed to end up with the three guys taking the cattle in on their own, so they had to figure out how to "bump off" the other characters to leave our heroes alone on the cattle drive.

Personal interjection from me. What is wrong with the people who ask questions at these things that they can't remember, even after it's repeated multiple times, to wait for the frakking mic to ask the damn question? You may think you're loud but a) you're not and 2) you're not loud enough to make it onto the recording, Einstein. Lordy.

Parting advice for writers: "Be interesting quickly." The moderator, Ed Solomon (MEN IN BLACK), no slouch in the comedic writing department his own self, followed up with an encouragement to make sure the audience (or reader) feels that they're in good hands from the very start.

Lots of good checks here for scripts in progress: are you interesting early? Is the audience with you, supported, or stranded and confused by page 10? Does the action arise from character? Or are you just maneuvering your guy into that tank of eels?

Gracious, articulate, talented guys. And I need to load up my Netflix queue now with their movies that I need to see again (SPLASH) or never saw (NIGHT SHIFT).


Chesher Cat said...

Thanks for the wrap-up, Kira. Felt like I was there.

Scribble94 said...

Good advice. And hilarious misreading of your own notes -- been there. Did they really attribute DEATH OF A SALESMAN to Eugene O'Neill, not Arthur Miller? Or was that another "moisies" moment?

Kira said...

Scribble: Hah, doh!

I'm pretty sure they said O'Neill, as that's what I wrote down -- my handwriting is bad, but it's not that bad -- but I could be mistaken.

But regardless, my not catching the error is tskworthy. And me a drama major. the Iceman/Salesman thing has tripped me up in the past, I'll admit.

I'll correct the post. Thanks!