An Interview with Screenwriter Daniel M. Cohen
FROM THE ARCHIVE Interview Series
May 10th, 2014
by Christopher Wehner
Daniel M. Cohen’s Diamond Men (Lions Gate Films) came out in 2000. Since then he wrote Corporate Affairs and has doe some TV writing. This interview was originally published in Screenwriter's Monthly back in 2003.
What was the basis for Diamond Men? I needed a low-budget idea, something I could make for very little money. I was writing other scripts and getting options, which did- n’t amount to anything in the long haul. I had a little bit of money and knew a producer who might be interested in a low-budget script. I knew I could do this in Lancaster (PA) for next to nothing.
Beyond the need for a low-budget story, how did this story evolve? It’s fairly original. One day I was sitting around talking with my uncle, he plays one of the jewelers (George Coe), and I said to him it would be neat to do a movie about a young jewelry traveling salesmen replacing an older one. They’re trying to push the old guy out of the business. At first we were just laughing about it. My uncle kidding me, ask- ing how it would end, and I said he’d get off with a million dollars in diamonds. We both had a laugh and I went home and wrote the script.
The cast was wonderful. Robert Forester and Donnie Wahlberg. How did you get them involved? They loved the material, it certainly wasn’t for the money. It was- n’t anything mysterious. A good friend of mine knew a good cast- ing director, and Linda Berger had the most imagination with the script. We all thought of Robert Forester, and Donnie was a nice surprise. He had done some films, including a small part in The Sixth Sense, and was impressive. He’s very versatile. If you saw him in Boomtown you’d never know he was capable of being funny.
You took the buddy situational drama-action story, pop-ular with cop thrillers, and placed it in an unusual environment. Yeah, exactly. I like genre films, but I didn’t want to do the same thing and didn’t have the budget to even if I wanted.
What is your writing process? I wrote a bunch of scenes, numbered them, laid it out, and wrote the movie. I write one of two ways, either very quickly or very slowly, depending on how many notes I have. I don’t do a lot of rewriting while I write. I prefer to fix things later. I think, if I can get it down then I have something to work with. I’d rather have something down, even if it wasn’t really working, than not having written anything.
With smaller, low-budget indie films, the movies have to be so character-driven and usually start with character, but it sounds like you started with a situation or a premise. It happens almost simultaneously in your mind. It’s the characters and the story. When I sit down to write I have a really good idea of where I’m going. I found when I don’t, I was working with my first agent on a Sci-fi, and it was really all over the place. It took a very long time to get the script right, until I felt like the story was making sense. I like to know who the characters are and what’s going to happen. And then there are a million little things that can happen, and take you in new directions. That’s the fun part.
Eddie was a wonderful character. Both main characters were fleshed out well, but particularly well with Eddie. I thought there was a major aspect to him that was very much out of A Death of A Salesman. I took the dialogue straight from A Death of A Salesman, on pur- pose. That’s a hint to the audience that not only are we doing a buddy film, but we’re taking the “death of a salesman” and making it into a “life of a salesman.”
The marketing on this one, especially the DVD package, made me think I was getting a formulaic heist thriller, which of course it wasn’t. It was schrewed marketing on Lions Gate’s part. The movie isn’t at all what people will expect. It isn’t just a run of the mill movie. It’s also a movie that a lot of people know about. It played in theaters for over a year. Here’s the thing. In the long run, I wanted the movie to be touching and funny. I want the audience to be watch- ing the movie and find themselves vested in the characters. I don’t like movies where it’s about the character and you’re suppose to feel bad for the character, the ones that are way over the top. I’m not into that. The sadder elements of Eddie’s character are subtle, and actually it’s humorous most of the way through the movie.
There is a real sense of loneliness with Eddie’s character. His wife passed away. The heart attack. He’s on the verge of losing his job. There’s a hard edge to his character. Was the title meant as a metaphor? Well, that’s what they’re called in the industry. It’s very interesting though as people have said that to me before. I think what happens is the title takes on the resonance of the movie, not the other way around. In other words, the movie resonates back to the title. The movie gives the title more significance. If it’s a ter- rible movie the title won’t resonate. A lot of times a film has a clever title and it was a terrible film, the title then has no meaning, really. It’s the value of the film. For example, About Schmidt. You look at the title and it means nothing to you until you’ve seen the movie. You can then reflect on it. Having an intriguing title and a good story is the key.
Was there a dominant theme in the movie? What was it about for you personally? It’s about character transformation. There were several themes woven into the characters who change their destiny. As the story unfolds we’re witness to these revelations.
I thought the script had a great setup an even better payoff, and a nice twist at the end. How long did it take you to come up with that structure, and did you have it before you started writing? I had that before I sat down and wrote it. I had the beginning, mid- dle, and end. The hardest thing was making the character interac- tion natural. The interaction between Eddie, Bobby, and the girls was difficult to capture the way I wanted. The script was 106 pages and my first assembly 110 minutes and at that point I had thrown out six scenes. So really the movie that you see there is really about 94 pages, because I throw out so much material. It was always designed from the get go.
How much did you allow actors to ad lib? This was your directorial debut. I filmed a lot of footage. I was advised when I started, not to be too concerned about them repeating the words exactly as written in the script, but to make sure the sense of it was translated. Actors sometimes have their own way of saying things and doing things. In certain scenes it’s very evident what I’m looking for and that there isn’t much room for improvisation.
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