Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant
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Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant lead double lives. In one, they’re part of the sketch-comedy troupe The State and the creators of Reno 911!, the hit series that ran for six seasons on Comedy Central. In the other, they’re the screenwriting duo behind self-described “schlocky” movies like Night At The Museum, The Pacifier, Taxi, Balls Of Fury, Let’s Go To Prison, and perhaps the most infamous, Herbie: Fully Loaded. (The average A.V. Club grade for one of their films is C-.) Critical drubbing aside, Lennon and Garant have found considerable success—$1,467,015,501 to put a number on it, as they do in the introduction to their new book, Writing Movies For
Fun And Profit: How We Made A Billion Dollars At the Box Office And You Can, Too! (All proceeds from it benefit the USO.) Considering the title and the cover image of a tuxedoed Lennon and Garant being tended by two scantily clad women, readers could be forgiven for thinking the book is jokey, but Writing Movies is an almost ruthlessly practical guide for working inside Hollywood. Many books cover the process of crafting a screenplay—for comparison, The A.V. Club picked up Syd Field’s Screenplay at a garage sale in Hollywood, appropriately enough—but Lennon and Garant’s may be the first to take a macro look at screenwriting. It covers everything from the strict formatting rules of screenplays to how to handle getting fired to taking notes. Just before the book’s release, The A.V. Club spoke with Lennon and Garant about getting into screenwriting, their awareness of their image, and the joy of being Hollywood’s court composers.
The A.V. Club: Most people will know you from Reno 911! and The State, but how did you make the transition into movie work?
Tom Lennon: There’s a logic to it, but it was very accidental. The logical way it happened is that without us knowing about it—you know how in Karate Kid, all the stuff he’s doing, the wax-on and all that stuff that was teaching him how to do karate? For us, The State was teaching you how to work in a studio system. It was accidentally teaching us. It was the “wax-on” version.
Robert Ben Garant: We pitched every day at 3 o’clock to 10 guys who were rooting against you, who you were in direct competition with to get your sketches on the air.
TL: So you had to be generating tons and tons and tons of material every single day. You had to be working on a sharp deadline.
RBG: You had to be willing, when they said they don’t want it, to throw it away and start over with something brand new. There were guys in The State who would take one script and rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it and fight for it for a whole season, and after a couple of seasons, you realized that doesn’t work. You have to just be willing to throw something away, no matter how good it is, and write a better joke. And that’s what it is working here: You have to be passionate, and yet throw yourself away. You have to work your ass off all the time, and you realize, as a writer, you can’t win the argument about whether your work is good.
TL: It’s way, way faster to write something else than to argue about it for a long time. Like at The State, Ken Marino sometimes throwing chairs across the room, which did happen on occasion.
AVC: How long did it take you to get a good handle on how this business works?
TL: I think we’re still in that process. But eight films in, we know a lot of the pitfalls. That’s why we wanted to write the book. By the way, I looked up Syd Field, who has, like, two credits. Mnemosyne and Men In Crisis, 1964. Three episodes of a TV series in 1964. When you combine all the credits of all the other screenplay-book writers, you get, like, one or one-and-a-half credits.
AVC: Yeah, a lot of these books seem to be written by non-writers. Field was an executive. In his book, he talks about looking at thousands of scripts.
TL: You can learn way more in one day of working for the studio. It’s just a different thing.
RBG: We came in as weird, New York, jaded sketch guys, and we’ve had successes and failures, and after doing it for a decade, you learn that there’s only about 70 people in this town, and you run into them over and over and over again. Be nice to them.
TL: Yeah, be really super-wonderful to be around, on top of writing really, really fast.
RBG: When we first started to write our first movie, You Are Going To Prison, we wanted it to be crazy and unique, brand new, our voice, not like anything that’d ever been before. It took us about a year to write our first script.
TL: And then we were like, “Oh, fuck it. You know what? The guy’s gotta win at the end.”
RBG: The guy’s gotta win at the end.
TL: Eventually we were like, “Oh wait a second! The reason this keeps not working is because we kept breaking all the rules.” I’m not arguing that the movie ever did work, because, God bless [director] Bob [Odenkirk], but the end was kinda weird.
RBG: You go into prison on page 10, and you get to turn the tide on Icepick by tricking him on page 45.
TL: So as much as we thought we were coming in and being like The Sex Pistols and like punk-rock dudes—
RBG: But their songs are still chorus, verse, chorus.
TL: Yeah, absolutely! Same with The Clash.
RBG: The Clash were like verse-verse-verse-chorus, and they were catchy. So no matter what you’re doing, no matter how unique your voice is, you have to learn that a studio movie has an exact formula that you stick to. You need to learn that, unless your lead character is written in a way that one of the 20 movie stars want to play him, your movie will not get made. You can write for yourself at home all day. This book is for writing movies that actually will sell in Hollywood.
TL: But beyond that, it won’t get made. Some screenwriting teachers have sold some screenplays. That’s part of step one. There’s still 95 percent of the process after the fact.
AVC: The book is practical almost to a fault because you acknowledge great rule-busting work, but you pretty sternly advise keeping to the rules. At what point do you think a person can start moving beyond that stuff?
TL: The structure rules? Never, if you’re gonna write studio movies. The structure rules are always true.
RBG: That said, James Cameron, you know, Titanic is super long. Avatar’s got its own weird shape to it. But that motherfucker started with Terminator, and on page five, a Terminator comes to earth to kill somebody. On page 10, the good guy tries to save Sarah Connor. That movie is a machine, and it’s totally structured, and it’s totally marketable. And it’s got a cool robot with the sex scene.
TL: Our general rule is look at the structure of Die Hard, and if you’re not doing that, you’re probably wrong. You don’t have to have Hans Gruber in it, but... Night At The Museum, basically we just pitched it like, “Oh, it basically has an identical structure to Die Hard.”
RBG: With magic instead of terrorists.
TL: Yeah, exactly, and a T-Rex instead of Alan Rickman. Although, a giant Alan Rickman would have also been cool.
AVC: The cover of the book—
TL: There’s a lot of cleavage, considering it’s a screenwriting book. That is a lot of boobs. Let’s face it, man.
AVC: Yeah, it is a lot of boobs, and people who are aware of your comic sensibilities might expect this to be a lot jokier than it is.
TL: Yeah, that was really the agenda, which is say all the stuff that isn’t in any other screenwriting book. Because honestly, no one really knows about it, I don’t think.
RBG: Nobody that’s written a book knows it.
TL: Anyone who was writing a real book about writing for the studios would have chapters about how to get fired. And how to get rehired. How to do rewrites.
RBG: And, like, formatting.
TL: A lot of formatting in screenplay books is wrong.
RBG: It’s wrong, yeah. Like, you come here out of film school and you know nothing. The assumption that, because you can craft through the script, you’re gonna work out here is crazy. Yeah, you need that, but that’s about 10 percent of it. And so we were trying to help people not be as bewildered. We learned this stuff while working here, and it’s easy stuff to know. Just nobody’s put it in a book yet.
AVC: That Syd Field book spent much more time on building characters and it’s much more about—
TL: Those books focus on the stuff that you can’t teach someone.
RBG: You can’t teach somebody how to be a good writer.
TL: We can teach you the hours that you’re supposed to write—which is every waking moment for the most part.
RBG: We can teach you the structure that your script has to be in if it’s going to be sold to a studio. But coming up with good characters? You can’t teach that. I would argue that if Syd Field could do it, why didn’t he? [Laughs.] It’s silly. You can teach people to paint, and you can teach people shading and form. You can’t teach someone to be a good painter. You can only teach them the rules.
AVC: The chapter that sticks out is the one about parking lots, which says that where studios allow you to park reveals what they think of you. It was a funny look into unsaid politics.
TL: There’s a lot to know that no one knows, and by the way, not a lot of it is good. We could give you the good news and the bad news. The fact is, if you’re going to work in the studio system, you absolutely will get fired off of everything you’re doing. But also, our book, I think, is pretty upbeat and optimistic. We’re not bitter studio hacks. We’re happy studio hacks.
RBG: Yeah, we love it.
TL: I’ve been comparing us a little bit to the court composer Salieri.
RBG: Who was happy as a clam until Mozart showed up.
TL: Until there was a Mozart for him to be compared with, he was having a great time, I think! It’s good to be the court composer. I mean, until Mozart’s around to make him go insane.
AVC: In this kind of business, people tend to discourage anybody else from trying to break in, but this book is encouraging.
TL: Well, thanks. I think there’s a couple things about it, because it’s something that so many people want to try their hand at, and it’s almost impossible to succeed. To get one movie made, I would argue, is almost impossible. So we have certainly tried to demystify as much as we can from the process.
RBG: You get treated like shit as a writer in Hollywood—you’re lower than the doormat. The writer’s the first guy to get fired. So a lot of writers have this chip on their shoulder that manifests itself in trying to mystify the process and talking about how “I sit at my typewriter every day and read.” I think it’s to make themselves feel better, and as a result, like it spooks the shit out of young writers. It’s not magic, and it’s not therapy. It’s a job.
TL: You should be cracking out about 10 pages a day.
RBG: You can’t learn about it sitting around thinking about it, and you don’t learn about it bitching on comment boards about how Hollywood sucks. Like, look at it, “Okay, that movie sucked and yet those writers keep getting hired over and over and over. Why?” Like there must be a reason! There must be a reason A) why they get hired over and over and B) why do their movies turn out sucky? People need to think about it, check their snobbery at the door, and look at it as a job. In our spare time, Tom is doing this movie that he has creative control over that’s a low-budget comedy, and I just wrote a horror movie that, knock on wood, seems to be pretty close. We did it for fun.
TL: You notice that the “fun” is crossed out on the book. We made a real point of crossing that out.
AVC: So many times in the book, you drive home the point that the movie is no longer yours once it’s sold. It’s the studio’s. But you have the chapter on Herbie: Fully Loaded where it sounds like you weren’t taking your own advice.
TL: That was a real hot mess for us. We were still figuring out the system. We could have stayed on that movie if we had not been such dicks. [Laughs.] We just simply would not give on a couple things. Which, by the way, you’re the writer—fucking give on those things!
RBG: If we had stayed through to the end, it probably would have been a much better film than the one that it turned out to be.
TL: We certainly had not learned a lot yet, including how to make people’s bad ideas work. What we did on that one was we just drew a line in the sand and were like, “We’re not gonna make this fucking car smile. A car can’t smile. That’s impossible. It’s made out of metal.”
RBG: We were so aware that the president of the studio loved our first draft.
TL: Loved our draft.
RBG: The person sitting between us and her—
TL: Was fucking us up.
RBG: And it made us so upset that we weren’t thinking rationally and trying to go through the proper channels to make that movie as good as it could be. Even today, I think that movie was gonna suck even if we hadn’t been around, but it would have been better.
TL: The other way to think about that would be, “It’s pretty bad, but I’ve seen way worse movies.” I feel like I’ve written way worse movies. It’s not even, like, funny bad. It’s not like The Room. It’s just like, “Eh.” It’s like averagely bad. [Laughs.]
AVC: You talk about Herbie: Fully Loaded and some of the other stuff you’ve done, and there’s a funny line in here where you say, “If you’re looking to write Oscar movies, you picked up the wrong book. We wrote the movie where the monkey slaps Ben Stiller.”
TL: Well, one of our big lessons about if you want to do this job—and again, people are gonna be like, “Well, this is only if you want to write giant, schlocky, huge, tent-pole studio movies.” Yes. We’re the first people to say that that’s what it’s for. Yes. This is not to write Atom Egoyan. This is not to write My Life As A Dog. We’re very aware of our image, and I think the first rule that I give if you’re going to screenwriter in Hollywood is suppress your ego. This is kind of a sausage factory. By which I don’t mean this is a sausage party, it’s a sausage factory. We’re making a sausage party. It’s a little bit of both, I guess.
RBG: But as a writer, it’s funny. People randomly choose somebody who they hate to attack and blame them for the movie being bad, whether it’s the director they hate or writer they hate. Every failure and success in Hollywood is a group effort. It’s a committee. It’s a bunch of people, and good movies and bad movies are the faults, sometimes, of the producer or the executive or the writer or the director.
TL: It’s almost impossible to make a good one. I would argue it’s almost impossible to make a bad movie! It’s almost impossible to make either one.
RBG: Yeah, that’s true. But we look back, and the stuff that I do and that we do together that I’m super proud of is equally hated as the stuff I do that I can’t stand. The stuff that we write that totally gets fucked up and turns out to be a horrible movie is hated. And Reno [911!]: Miami, I think is fucking great.
TL: The weirdest thing is I look at my Tomatometer of movies that we’ve done, and Herbie: Fully Loaded is only, like, a couple marginally off from the Reno 911! movie, which I still, to this day, think is one of the best things we’ve ever done.
RBG: I stand by it. People hate it. It’s like, “Ah, fuck it.” You make things as good as you can possibly make them. We never jump into anything unless we think it’s gonna be fucking great. And after 10 years you realize sometimes that works out—if it does, it’s a miracle. If it even gets made, it’s a miracle. So we’re here just plugging away. It’s a job. We’re not in a basement in Paris painting. We’re in Hollywood writing movies, contracting for the studios.
TL: Or sometimes we’re writing those movies from a very nice hotel in Paris. The other good thing about writing is you can do it from anywhere. And if you do it successfully, you can do it from any nice place.
AVC: But one of the things you tell people in the book is that you have to be based in L.A.
TL: Well, to get started, you really, really, really do. Honestly, Ben and I were both guys who lived in the Village in New York. Never thought we would leave, ever. I thought I’d die in Greenwich Village. Kind of like in Edgar Allan Poe. You know how he kind of wandered off one day, and they found him in the gutter? I’m not saying that won’t still happen. That’s still quite likely, because I get to New York a lot. [Laughs.] But we had no intention to ever leave New York. But the fact is, again, if you’re going to play the absolute busiest level—I’m not saying best—busiest level of screenwriting, you absolutely, positively have to be there, hands down, no question.
AVC: You mentioned staying busy and checking your ego—it seems like a certain part of what you’re doing is just a job.
RBG: I think when you’re saying “just a job.” That’s not accurate.
TL: It’s just an amazing job.
RBG: People have this disconnect. Because people know our faces because of The State and Reno, we’re screenwriters and people know who we are. It’s funny to me because stoners and people who love The State then say, “Yeah, but The Pacifier sucked.” And I just say, “The Pacifier is for children or for their parents. Why did you go fucking see it?” When people attacked our family movies, “Night At The Museum sucked!” “Yeah, well, about a billion dollars’ worth of people disagree with you.” And I, believe it or not, agree with the people who like Night At The Museum. It’s a good family movie. The reason we pitched Herbie: Fully Loaded wasn’t for the paycheck. We looked at the crappy billboard for I think it was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and we said, “Why don’t people do decent family movies?” As a kid, I loved Herbie, I loved Mary Poppins. Why isn’t anyone who’s funny or smart writing movies for families? And so that’s, oddly enough, how we started the thing that became disaster that was called Herbie: Fully Loaded.
TL: You gotta understand, at this point Lindsay [Lohan] had just gotten boobs. It was a different world, man. Everything was still ahead of us.