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An Interview with Doug Jung

Doug Jung graduated from New York University Film School Tisch School of Arts (NYU) in 1993. After graduation, Jung started writing for television dramas and doing odd jobs to pay the bills. He eventually was able to get work as a television writer for cable. During this time he wrote Confidence, his first feature film script. Jung is currently working on screenplays for Universal and Warner Brothers Pictures.

You started out writing for Television. Yeah, I wrote mostly hour-dramas working on shows you probably never heard of. One of them was a show called "Breaking Even." It was supposed to be on Bravo. I freelanced on basic cable shows and ended up writing Confidence while I was writing TV, partly out of frustration because in TV you can't do your own thing. I also wanted to play around with structure and other techniques. Everything was kitchen sink with TV. When Confidence went out and was making the rounds to producers, I was working on "Breaking News." It was nice that I wasn't sitting at home, staring at the phone waiting for something to happen. So working in TV was a plus.

When did you arrive in L.A.? I've been living in L.A. for about ten years now. I did all kinds of jobs - PA stuff, worked as an assistant for a long time. I did what a lot of writers have to do out here early on as I scratched out a living and did my writing on the side. I don't miss it.

You graduated from the Tisch School of Arts (NYU) in 1993 and then came out to LA. Yes, pretty much right after graduation I went to work on a movie for a director as an assistant. It was a low-budget Indie shot in Montreal. I got some firsthand experience on a movie set watching a bad movie being made [laughs]. No, it was kinda cool. It was a good experience.

At that time, was your focus to become a screenwriter? No, when I was in film school I wanted to make films like everyone else. But you can't just go make a film. With writing, other than the lack of time and paper, you can do that right away and almost anywhere. When I was at NYU, I had some great teachers and was encouraged to write, but at the time I wasn't sold on the idea.

When you wrote Confidence, did you have an agent at the time? I had an agent for TV, and it's funny - when you're working in TV, your agents don't really want to worry about you. So I had written Confidence, a feature length spec, and I said, "Look, I don't know what you can do with this, but here." I don't think he even read it, at least not for long time. I think it literally sat on his desk for a while. I ended up meeting fortuitously with these guys who ended up being the producers on Confidence, Scott Bernstein, Marc Butan and John Sacchi. One of them called over to my agency to a feature agent they knew and asked who represented me. Apparently, their friend had never heard of me and had to ask around. When he found out he called my TV agent and asked him, "Do you know some TV writer who wrote a feature?" And my agent pulled the script out from under his desk and said, "Oh yeah, here." [laughs] The feature agent read it and thought it was commercial enough to put out there to make the spec rounds.

In an interview actor Edward Burns said that the first time he read your script he couldn't put it down. That's quite a compliment. Yeah, well, Ed is a nice guy. Everyone was creatively on the same page and got along really well. This experience has probably ruined me. It was too good to be true. This is the genre I wanted to write in because they're usually fun reads. There's a lot of calculation going on, which is what I enjoy. You're actively involved as a viewer. You're trying to figure out what's going on and what's going to happen. To me, it seems a little less of a casual film experience.

You've said in past interviews that this being a familiar genre your biggest task was to give it a fresh angle. Did you accomplish that? I think in some way, yeah, it had a little bit of a different take on all those sort of well-worn dimensions. One of the things I tried to do - and I don't know if it came across in the movie - was invest a little more in the character traits of these people instead of having it be just strictly about the setup and payoff of the whole thing. But I'm not sure if we accomplished that.

The language of your characters was laden with terms I was not familiar with, like the "grift." How did you familiarize yourself with that vocabulary? I did a little research because I liked having the lexicon of the characters worked out ahead of time so they had their own language. There's actually a scene that was shot but never used, sort of a rapid-fire, coded conversation, and the impression you're left with is, "What the hell are they talking about?" I did some research on some of the old '30s and '40s con man stuff. The thing about con men is it's hard to translate because traditionally it's centered on the whole gentlemen's agreement and trust, and now it's hard to do that. The biggest types of cons now are computer or credit fraud and identity theft. And to do that was sort of boring, so it's really not about character.

Edward Burns' character - was he based on anyone specifically? No, not really. I originally thought of having him be someone who was self-reflective about the whole thing and then commented on it more.

He is a very superstitious con man. I tried to give him some of that, and I wanted to do it so the superstition would affect the plot. The problem with that character is, in a way, almost the most boring character. I thought Ed did a good job of sort of grounding a lot of the scenes. Because he's sharing the screen with so many weird people, I needed someone you can look at who isn't so out there.

The point of view of the story is pretty much through him at least for the most part. Yeah, but that's kind of an easy thing to get. For me, when I was writing, the biggest thing was justifying what he's saying or telling the audience so they aren't simply lies. I had to start looking at the story from the audience's point of view, which had to be justified.

In the early draft of the script, Jake's character seems to lie to the audience at least on one occasion when he falsely recalls an encounter with Garcia's character. Yeah, that was a huge sticking point with pretty much everybody. That's one of the first notes we got from the director (James Foley) and Ed Burns. They said that there were some instances in this story where we're telling an untruth. We can't violate that trust with the audience. So we took that scene and truncated it so he only tells half the story, and then you see it at the end. We essentially split the scene in two so we weren't out and out lying to the audience. What I tried to do - and I think it was in the script you read - there are a series of flashbacks, and you realize that he wasn't telling the truth, for example the scene where Jake and Lilly argue and it appears as though she left the group. The reason we can do that is because Lupus is in the room [who they're trying to fool]. It came down to this: if he's not in the room, why lie? So for me I realized Jake can only say and do those things (mislead the audience) when we're setting something up because Lupus is in the room. Lupus's point of view actually became more important than Jake's because of the story's setup.

You're taking some chances then because you have to be very careful of your structure and how you're revealing things to the audiences. I came up with the structure fairly early. I knew I wanted to play around with narrative techniques because I'd never done so before. I came up with the ending first and then worked backwards a little. I knew I wanted to include those scenes where they go into a tangent, but I dreaded it, like the scene where they talk about how they're going to pull this job off, which is such a common scene in these types of films. But there's a moment in there that really kind of saved it for me because I hated that scene. There's this moment where Jake's going through the con step-by-step, and we're seeing what he's thinking about, how it's going to go down. Then one of the characters (Gordo) comments on the job. He says something like, "Wait a minute, five million in a briefcase?" And then you see it change from a briefcase to a suitcase as Jake continues on. That was kind of interesting to me because Jake never actually mentioned a briefcase, so now it's like we as the audience are going into Jake's head and seeing things that haven't happened yet. But Gordo doesn't have the same access, so when he comments on it, it kind of breaks down that wall a little bit and sort of becomes a wink and a nod to the audience. It's a weird little moment that I was trying to play around with. In the strict paradigm of how you are supposed to write a screenplay, it's stepping out of that a little bit. Thankfully, James Foley (the director) didn't throw that out, he actually liked it. I think the techniques we used comment on how you can tell a story visually in different ways. That was an interesting thing we tried to get in once and a while, and I don't think many people caught it. Foley and I would talk about those moments and how they save certain scenes for us. If you catch it, you're saying, "How the hell did that guy know that he's carrying a briefcase in his thought process?" When he says it and you caught it, then it makes you stop and think. I've seen it before in Fight Club, which is bookended with the scenes of Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, you know, in that scene after he recants the whole story. In it Ed Norton says something he said in that first scene: "Oh, I get it, flashback humor." It's a really quick moment, but if you catch it they're commenting, "This is a movie. This is a technique we're employing." Some audiences get that, you know.

In your bookends you have Jake, and of course your opening dialogue, "So I'm dead," which I really loved. It's reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard. Yeah, I wanted a hook from the beginning. I never thought of Sunset Boulevard actually. I wanted, "So I'm dead," and the line, "I think it's because of this redhead," because right away I wanted the audience to think, "Oh, okay, so how did he get to this point?" It's Noirish in a sense, maybe even too much. I came up with that pretty early on. But no one is going to believe that the main character is dead. So I wasn't trying to fool anyone. You know, he's probably going to get up at the end of the movie. But in a way I wanted people to think that. I also wanted to create a little doubt. So then it was like, "Okay, how does he get out of it?" rather than be the big revealer, him getting out of it, because everyone expects him to get up, I had to come up with something more than that. There's no point in even trying to fool the audience that the main character dies because everyone will say they expected that! So I thought I could plant enough doubt where people may think he dies so I could distract them from what I was really doing. When I got to the end, I wanted a few other reveals before Jake's, to work up to that point. Those will be the ones the audience won't expect. So really the second part of Jake's opening comment. " because of this redhead," which was really a little more convoluted as far as establishing doubt, was kind of using the obvious to subvert people's expectations.

Clearly this story is rooted in film noir. You've mentioned that a couple of times. Yeah, I liked the characters and the dialogue.

Most scripts are put together in editing a little differently than the written words of the screenwriter call for. I really felt you had a different pace to your script than the film did. Yes, they cut back to the alley a lot more than I did.

I felt they cut things up, made quicker scenes, a faster pace. That's typical of the editing process when they put the movie together. One of the things as far as Jake - and Travis having the gun to his head in the alley - in the script there really wasn't that relationship between the two characters. In the movie you just got the sense of this tough guy. He's got a gun to his head. He's a real hardass. [laughs] He's making this guy tell the story. Whereas in the script I never envisioned it being the classic heavy-versus-the-good-guy thing, I wanted it to be through the course of the movie, more of a back and forth dialogue. In the script the Butch character, who later became Travis, was kind of amused by Jake, which also helped to explain why he's having him tell us what happened. They kind of joked about things, and at one point he even gives him a cigarette. I think in one draft I wrote the interaction is more quirky, and the scene plays differently.

Yeah, I agree. In the movie I wanted Travis to just get to it and ask about the money whereas in the script I was willing to suspend that a little longer and let the story unfold. It's a question of making it play. There's a moment - I don't know if in the script it's longer or not - where the Robert Forester character is so impressed and amused by the whole thing he kind of makes it clear he wants to find out how Jake did it, that sort of thing. So that sets the tone.

Were you at all involved in the editing process? No, and I don't really think that's a great place for a screenwriter. I've heard it before, but it's true; the story is really sometimes rewritten in the editing. And the editor, Stuart Levy, did a great job. We actually had some long conversations about narrative time and storytelling before he started. No matter what I wrote, the editor is really beholden to what was captured on film.

Right, and I agree; the editing of the film was solid, but there are some films where the editing can really change the tone and feel of the story. I was invited to go and see a few cuts now and then because I got along with them so well. And actually one of the big things in editing was figuring out when to introduce Andy Garcia's character. I remember Stuart being fairly convinced that we leave him out until the last half-hour of the movie. In the script he's introduced much earlier. Introducing this whole new threat in the third act is a tough thing.

Especially when that character is a name actor. That raised a red flag. You're immediately asking, "Why is he there?" Yeah, I have to say I wasn't crazy about getting anyone recognizable for that role, but Andy is a really smart guy, and he worked on his character a lot.

I wondered after watching the film how you could accomplish this story without his character, but he's triggering such an important narrative pull that it's almost impossible. That's interesting because I never even consider that. It's a good question. His character does play a pivotal role in the story. We actually had to go back a lot with Andy, who had some great ideas, but we really couldn't make some of the changes he wanted.

Dustin Hoffman's character is completely different than what you had original envisioned, and I think the change really works. I enjoyed his character. I read an interview where Ed Burns takes credit for the change. Whose idea was it to come up with Hoffman? Originally, his character was a large man and completely different. I don't know whose idea it was to get him. I think Ed's manager or someone had a connection with Hoffman. I was shocked that we got him to tell you the truth. It was funny; we had started pre-production, and I got a call asking me to meet with Dustin Hoffman. I was like, "Has anyone ever said 'no' to that?" [laughs] Hoffman was very cool. I went with Foley to meet him, and the first thing he says is he's not committing to anything until we "figure out some things." It really became, largely, a meeting about trust I think. He wanted to know he could trust us doing the right things with his character. It was really interesting. That guy has more energy than anyone I ever met. He was going on and on, throwing out all these ideas, and sometimes he's talking about things that don't seem relevant, but he's smart, and he's always reaching for something. Towards the end of the meeting he told us what he couldn't do, like some of the physical stuff. He pointed out some obvious things, like he's not going to be able to be menacing in front of Ed (who's much taller). He wanted me to find a way of implying that feeling. He was throwing out ideas, and some things that I thought were interesting. So I wrote this three or four page character sketch. I thought, "Why don't we give him ADD and other things," and it went from there and was refined.

Hoffman is known for being someone who likes to give a lot of input. His classic clash with William Goldman and Marathon Man is an example. Were you worried about that? No, I never really had any issues with him. Every meeting was several hours, which I found cool because he really wants to explain where he's coming from. He was willing to try anything. He kept saying, "Let's just have fun with this." He really wanted to let lose and have fun, and I think that was because it was really a small role for him. He's got specific views on things, but he always tries to explain his reasons. I never got the impression of vanity or anything. It's interesting to listen to him explain his point of view.

I'm sure you saw him in Midnight Cowboy as Rizzo. I thought he borrowed from Rizzo a little for this role. Yeah, maybe you're right. He did say one thing I thought was interesting. He talked about Straight Time (1978) and how he couldn't at first get a real grasp on the character, and he talked to this ex-con for research. The guy said to him - and I hope I recall this correctly - but the first thing the guy said to Hoffman was, "When I'm looking at someone for first time - I can't help it - I'm thinking, 'What do you have that I want,' and, 'what's nearby that I can hurt you with.'" Hoffman said once he heard that he was fine. So every time he needed to get into character that's what he thought about. He was always giving me things like that to work with.

That's some great stuff, some real insight into Hoffman as an actor. He would go on and on. He was a fountain of ideas. One of the things I learned while working with him was to really look at my character descriptions because he would really latch on to something. He'd say, "What is that?" I became more conscious of that with not only his character but the others as well. With him everything was subject to scrutiny. He would ask, "Why? What can I do with that?"

I could see where some writers would have trouble with that constant barrage. I thought I was lucky. Foley trusted me. He let me deal directly with Hoffman, and I loved that. We actually tried to find ways to capitalize on Hoffman's own characteristics. Working with Hoffman was invaluable.

You were on set a lot. Yeah, I think the fact that it was a smaller movie helped us all get along. Foley, at times, specifically requested I be there. Several times Hoffman wanted me there.

That's flattering. I would have thought of Hoffman as one of those actors who wouldn't want the writer near the set. [Laughs] It was really nice. I was actually invited to show up whenever I wanted. Most of the time I was there for a specific reason - to work. I would get calls asking me to rework stuff. It was a great experience. It was probably an atypical experience.

I think you bring up a good point. It was a smaller production. A hundred million dollars wasn't at stake, so the executives aren't breathing down the director's neck and so on. Lion's Gate was really great and trusted us. They really left us a lone.

I noticed there was some extensive tweaking of dialogue from your original script. Was that improvisational stuff on the part of the actors? I was actually reworking the dialogue the whole time I was on set. Foley likes directing a certain way that does allow for some of that, but he was always pretty faithful to the script. Garcia's character was completely redone, and he actually went over all the dialogue, asking a lot questions and proposing changes.

Sure, I mean the movie was faithful to the script, but there was a lot more language and attitude. The tone in some instances was sharpened. I had a lot of discussions with all of the actors as I did some tweaking. Guzman and Logue felt their characters were becoming a little too Keystone Cops. So we paired down some of their stuff. Pretty much all the actors had notes I received about certain things. Rachel Weisz actually was constantly giving away her lines because she felt she would be doing more watching and listening. Ed, who is a writer in his own right, was great as he asked a lot of good questions of the material. He was a big help. It's interesting in that you get to see how all of the actors look at the material differently and see different things. But in the end everyone was on the same page.

Any scenes left on the cutting room floor you miss? Yeah, there was one with Rachel Weisz's character, a two-page monologue with her and Ed's character that really explains where she comes from. It was a really good character scene. It informed the audience that she was capable of some awful things, which I thought was pivotal. It not only tells us something about her, but it also deepens her relationship with Ed's character. I loved the way she did it, the writing and the way it was filmed. But it was one of those scenes that we could not just cut down without making it confusing. It was all or nothing.

Well, my biggest complaint with editing is that today's movies are in too big of a hurry to get back to the action. Those character scenes are the ones they sacrifice. I do have to agree with you. I will say there were moments when you got to a sequence in the film, and some scenes bring everything to a grinding halt. You have to be conscious of that as well.

Final question - after watching the final product, was there a scene or character you wish you could have maybe tweaked a little more or done something different with as a writer? Shit, good question. I'd probably say one of things I would have done differently - and of course I'm one of those writers who seems to only see the mistakes - I think I would have liked to have gotten the audience more invested in the characters.

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