Interview with Screenwriter Mark Bomback
Screenwriter's Monthly April 2004
January 4th, 2015
by Fred Topel
[From the Archive. This interview originally appeared in Screenwriter's Monthly April 2004. Order back issues here.]
The subject of cloning and genetic engineering has become a hot political topic as people debate the morals and ethics of stem cell research and other techniques. But nobody is really discussing the big problems. What do we do about the creepy kids that will be created through cloning? Finally, a film attacks that dilemma.
Godsend stars Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as grieving parents who get the chance to have their son back thanks to a doctor doing secret fertility research (Robert De Niro). He clones their dead son into a new fetus that she can carry to term. Eight years later, the boy grows up to be the same as he was before, only now he’s having murderous visions, speaking in weird voices and generally disrespecting grown-ups.
It is Mark Bomback’s first produced script since 1998’s The Night Caller, though he hasn’t had any shortage of work. He worked on Constantine and is writing a draft of Die Hard 4, as well as plenty of paying, though less visible, rewrite and development work.
What was your inspiration for Godsend?
Well, in 1999, my wife was pregnant with our first child. I have two children now. And when we would go to the OBGYN’s office, and this was really the first time I’d ever had reason to go into an OBGYN’s office, I was just struck by the immense amount of technology that was involved in modern fertility. We wound up using some fertility drugs, not a lot. But nevertheless, there was just this wealth of options that were available to us that I know weren’t available to my parents. And it just occurred to me that there’s this immense role that science can play in reproduction these days. That was coupled with the reading I’d done on cloning. This was prior to cloning being a hot button topic. There was still some press about it, but it wasn’t the explosion that it became a year or two later. But I was nevertheless fascinated by the sense that this was something we were going to be able to do, and the dilemma that would occur when we had the power to do something that we maybe shouldn’t be doing. That probably coupled with the anxiety of having my first child, finding a way to exercise those ideas all fed their way into this idea that I had.
How did you handle all the exposition, from their home life to DNA?
It is tricky. For me at least, the way I handle exposition is I don’t stress too much about it in the first draft. I just try to get things out in the most conversational way possible, even if that conversation takes five pages and I know it only should take one. And then I think in subsequent drafts, I can go through and figure out is there a way that this information can get introduced within a scene, within the action of a scene and not necessarily through someone’s dialogue. And I find often that is the case, that there’s an opportunity for someone to either say something off the cuff in a scene that has nothing to do with that topic, or to simply show some element of someone’s character and not have to ever get into the details of why they are this way. An example is Greg’s character is a biology teacher. In early drafts, I went to a lot of lengths to get into how he got into teaching and why he does it, et cetera. And now it’s simply a part of the scene in which he and his wife, Jessie, played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos are discussing a job opportunity it has. Through the discussion of whether or not he should take the job, you learn that he’s actually a teacher rather than having to necessarily give you a whole background on him. I dread exposition in movies and I always like discovering stuff along the way. I’m not the kind of audience member who’s bothered too much when I don’t know every single detail of a person’s life. I feel like most people I meet in life, I don’t know that much about. But nevertheless there was a lot to get in there in a relatively short amount of time because the movie really starts, or at least the second part of the movie really starts once their child is cloned. So I knew the audience was going to expect that. They’d seen the trailer, they knew that this is a movie in which the couple’s child dies and is brought back to life. So I didn’t want to spin wheels longer than I had to. So there was a lot to do. I think again for me the key was just going through draft after draft after draft and saying, “Is this something we really need to know right now?”
How much science did you have to study?
Quite a bit. That’s something that also I found was getting widdled out draft upon draft. I think there’s a tendency when you do some research to just want to put it all into the script because you’ve done the work and you feel like you owe it to yourself to show off to the next person who’s reading it. However, I don't think people have much patience for a lot of details when it comes to the science. I’d sooner hit a few things correctly than hit 20 things. I did do a lot of research. I was fortunate enough, my father’s a pediatrician and I have a brother who’s an orthopedic surgeon. So anything medical, I could always give them a call and run it by them. And the internet is a great resource with tons of stuff on cloning, not only the details that are accurate, but actually there’s tons of stuff on sites run by these fringe groups that are way out there, that’s just an interesting perspective to also get a hold of. The research, I try to be as true to the science as I could while at the same time, it is science fiction and the emphasis is clearly on fiction.
How do you handle grieving parents without making them melodramatic?
That’s a great question. It’s funny, in my very first draft of the script, I showed them grieving none. I didn’t even want to deal with it and I felt that it wasn’t my place, or it wasn’t the place of this kind of movie to really try to accurately portray what it must be like to lose a child. In a sense, I felt like I didn’t want to exploit that situation, and there are clearly going to be people in the audience and I know people in my own life who have lost children, and it’s not something that should be handled in a melodramatic way or an exploitative way. Nevertheless, I found that when people would read it, there was a sense that you did need something there. You did want to see what the aftermath was like. And so I think our approach was really to try to find one or two moments after the fact that would encapsulate that feeling without too much dialogue and too much hysterics, because it would gear towards melodrama. And again, the worst kind, because it’s a terrible, terrible thing to lose a child. For instance, there’s a scene in the film that was written fairly late in the process in which Paul has to pack up Adam’s room, and he’s packing all the toys and stuff into a garbage bag. I got the idea for that scene when I was cleaning up my son’s room and just thinking, “God, there’s a whole life that’s created by a child in someone’s house, so that life in this case would have to be dealt with in some way, so his impulse would be to just pack it up as rapidly as possible.” I found for some reason, at least to me, that spoke to me and Greg didn’t play it particularly weepy or agonized. It’s simply a clean-up that has to be done and you can see it breaking his heart, and I think that tells you a lot about where his head is at.
How did DeNiro make the character his own?
He really did make the character his own. For one thing, I never actually had envisioned DeNiro in my head, mostly because I think that’s a crazy way to write, to get hung up on any particular actor, especially one that you would assume would be completely unavailable to do this kind of movie. So when he came to the part, he was really intent on finding out exactly what the realities of this guy’s life would be. So I actually wound up putting together a 100-200 page binder for him which, again, the internet is this invaluable resource. It had mini-bios that I’d been able to pull off of different fertility sites of different fertility doctors throughout the country. Just created a backstory for the character, most of which you’ll never get a sense of in the film, but I find that my interaction with him was that he felt a real comfort zone when he got to know where the character’s entire life was coming from up to the point where the movie begins. Yet, never wanted me or encouraged me to try to include that stuff, but just wanted to know that stuff. He also I think really played it in a reserved way for most of the film, and I think when you have a character like his, the worst version of it is the mad scientist, and he was really intent on not going there. So I found that whenever possible, we just tried to play the doctor as the best version of a doctor. Namely, someone who’s there whenever you need them and someone who’s concern is simply the welfare of your family and he does it great, because there’s something about him that is inherently deserving of your trust, yet there’s something about him that has the slight tinge of menace.
Does Paul remind you at all of the father in A.I.?
I’ll confess I saw A.I. only once and I’m not the hugest A.I. fan. Maybe there is a resemblance. My memory of A.I. and I might be totally wrong I don’t remember the father much.
Much smaller part, but also skeptical about the process of creating the fake child?
I guess. I feel like the character of Paul to me is the audience, but I guess the reason I don’t think of him as entirely skeptical, even though he purports to be skeptical at the beginning, and it’s the reason I made him a biology teacher, is that he has a certain amount of faith inside. He’s not someone who is particularly phobic about science, so I think that there’s some part of him that is intrigued by this. I think that most of him is not, but I think a part of him is. And I think that’s really what separates where the parents are coming from in Godsend from the parents’ situation in A.I. It’s really about wish fulfillment. It’s about having the worst possible thing happen to you and then someone saying, “You know what? This can completely be reversed.” And I think that’s really the dilemma. They can have another child, they can be presented with the robot from A.I. in another crazy version of the film. It’s not that. I think they want their child back. They want that particular child back. The idea of any other child is not of any interest to them.
How do you make your kid creepier than all the other creepy kids in movies?
That’s a tough one. I think what I tried to do was just give him enough of a life and enough of a sweetness, and I think Cameron, the boy they got to play Adam, when you meet him in person, he’s a particularly sweet kid. He’s just a nice kid. And I think the way to me the character was creepiest is by him being the most normal, everyday kid in the world. That in itself is creepy. I think that as the movie goes on, you see another side of him, but I think if you can really maintain a believability that this kid might be a kid you just walk past on the street, that to me is the creepiest notion at all.
Is it impossible to do a moral science fiction tale without some sort of chase/race against time/action plot?
There might be [a way] in a perfect world. I think the problem with approaching a movie in calling it a thriller is that the audience has some expectations. You can do all you want to try to undermine those, but at the end of the day, what you don’t want to do is have them feel they were given something [false]. I feel like I might be annoyed if there wasn’t some sense of urgency toward the end of the film. I think it wouldn’t be a thriller at a certain point if you really just decided to get invested in the drama of the situation. It’s a tough question.
Do you expect savvy audiences will figure out the doctor’s connection earlier on than you reveal it?
I hope not. Audiences are very savvy. I think that it’s possible. I really do hope not. We’ve done everything we could to try to avert their attention to other directions. You’ve got to hope for the best. My other hope is that even if you do start to figure out where the story is headed, that there are still surprises along the way in terms of the details of how it got there. You’re right, audiences are particularly savvy and especially in terms of thrillers now, we’re all expecting a twist. It’s a given. Therefore their minds are racing from the get go, what’s the twist going to be, how can I figure out the twist? Movies like The Omen and Rosemarry’s Baby and The Exorcist don’t have twists. They just take their ideas to the creepiest conclusion. It would be nice to say that you could do that but I think it’s a matter of audience expectations, and we’re making a movie that will hopefully be a movie for a lot of different types of moviegoers. I hope they don’t figure it out. I find that readers of the script usually don’t figure it out, so I’m hoping it’ll be the same for the movie.
What scenes got deleted from the shooting script?
Countless scenes. It’s hard to even enumerate. This is my first big film that’s been produced and it’s a huge education. Just the budget and the schedule, a million different factors weigh in when you actually start to make the film. Scenes that you thought would be crucial turn out to be not. There’s a few scenes that I miss, and then some of them I’m so relieved that they didn’t wind up in the film. I don’t even know which draft you read, so it would be hard to even point to the scenes. It’s a very collaborative medium and I think that a screenwriter’s job once you reach the production stage is really to give the director the movie that he wants. You should argue vehemently for things that you believe in in the script, but nevertheless, it becomes the director’s film at some point. And if scenes get jettisoned and there’s stuff about them that you feel is crucial but the scene’s not working for anyone but yourself, then you have to find a way to get the content of those scenes that you feel is crucial into other stuff and say, “By the way, I know we knocked this scene out. I do think there’s a moment here that’s really important. Can I rework this other scene to make sure that we hit that note?”
You’re working on Die Hard 4 now? Is it really going to be called Die Hardest?
It’s not going to be called Die Hardest, at least not to my knowledge. I think that they had an earlier- - it was in development at one point and it might have been called Die Hardest, but it was an entirely different plot. It was a whole different movie. It wouldn’t make sense to call this one Die Hardest. Maybe they will, I don't know. There are worst titles in the world. I’ll tell you this. On my script pages, it doesn’t say Die Hardest.
Will it have a different subtitle?
We just call it Die Hard 4.
What guidelines were you given?
I think the only big mandate was to make it feel like a Die Hard film. It’s a film that I grew up, especially Die Hard 1, I remember exactly what movie theater I saw it in. I remember exactly what it felt like to sit in a theater and watch it, so it’s a privilege to get to write a character that made an impact on you when you were 10-years-old.
What can you say about the story?
Unfortunately, nothing. Sorry.
Is it still a father/daughter story?
I can’t even discuss that. I wish I could. It would be fun to talk about it but it wouldn’t be fair to the people at Fox who are really working hard on it.
Is it true there are no terrorists?
What are your favorite aspects of McClane?
Well, for me, it’s a lot of fun. I don’t really write people who make wisecracks that often. The thing that I love and the tricky thing in writing it when I first did my first draft is this guy, like if you watch Die Hard 1 or Die Hard 2 or 3, he gets traumatized along the way in these awful ways that for any normal person would require weeks of therapy afterwards. Nevertheless, he bounces back within a minute to the next set piece. So I found that really disconcerting. How do you swing back from things? How do you make a wisecrack after you’ve just gone through something awful? I’m a normal person who would be completely debilitated by five minutes of any of those Die Hard plots. I wound up loving it. That’s the best part about writing Die Hard is something terrible can happen and within 30 seconds, someone can make a wisecrack about it. I just love the McClane character’s sense of humor. I really love the fact that he’s old school. I think about that character again from Die Hard 1 and he encapsulates a certain period of my life and thinking about superheroes or action heroes or however you might want to describe him. He’s a special kind of hero. He’s an everyman in the best sense of the word and I think that a lot of action movies since have picked up the wrong cues from Die Hard and will try to emulate the humor and the wisecracking but not realize that it’s the person who’s making the wisecrack that’s making those jokes work. He never thinks he’s too cool for school. That’s what’s great about McClane.
Is Zeus back?
Zeus is not back to my knowledge, but again I can’t really even talk about it. Maybe he’ll make an appearance, I don't know. Certainly not yet.
Again, I can’t.
What was the process of adapting Constantine?
That was an assignment. I was rewriting somebody else and I was subsequently rewritten. They sent me over a few of the books and the script that was presently in development. They told me what it is that they thought needed work and I sat down to try to give them what they wanted. I’m not a huge comic book reader. I read the comics of Constantine that I was given. It’s probably if I was a comic book reader the kind of thing I would read. I tried to stay true to the tone of the comics as much as I could. It’s hard because comics are serialized, and movies function quite different narratively than comics do. They really need to have their solid three-act structure, especially movies like that. Comics really don’t have those traditional three acts. In terms of adapting something like that, you really want to stay true to the tone of the comic and to the voice of the characters. I tried to do that as best I could. There’ve been so many changes between the comic and the film in making the transition that it’s hard to stay true to the source material. But nevertheless, I think there’s a reason they bought the underlying rights. There’s something there that is really appealing, so hopefully the transition, I haven’t seen the film, hopefully the transition from comic to film will be a successful one.
What were the problems they brought you in to fix?
I can’t really speak to what the subsequent writer was brought in for, other than to say there was probably a lot more work to be done. I was working with a director who was attached at the time who wasn’t attached to it afterwards, so I would imagine the subsequent writer was brought in to do work for the new director. I read a recent draft of it and there are enormous amounts of changes between what I was working on and what finally got shot. What I was brought in to do was amp up the horror aspects of it, the thriller aspects of it. They had read a script of mine called Fix and I think in Fix they liked the pacing of it and they liked the tension of it. I think they were looking for more tension. I had sold Fix to Warner Brothers and Constantine was developed at Warner Brothers.
Who was the first director?
A guy named Paul Hunter who directed Bulletproof Monk. He was who I was working with. Then I know after him came Tarsem Singh and after Tarsem they went to Francis Lawrence. It’s had its development, that’s for sure.
Did you get these big projects off of Godsend?
No, I wrote Godsend after Constantine. Constantine I got probable off of Fix and just good meetings. Die Hard, I wouldn’t actually say it had much to do with Godsend. I’ve done a lot of work for Bruce Willis and Arnold Rifkin’s company. Two other scripts I’ve written for them. And I’d done a lot of rewriting on a project called Me Again that Bruce was attached to. And I think they were happy with my work on that. It was just kind of an action-thriller-comedy and I think it was the first time I got to write jokes. So I think they just liked the balance of that. There were advocates at Fox and Fox was looking for a writer and Fox had liked stuff I’d written as well, and I got lucky. I can’t imagine I was the most obvious choice for a job like that, but hopefully they’re glad they hired me.
How did you get an agent?
When I first moved out here, which is about 10 years ago now, I had no connections at all. I’m from New York. I didn’t know a single person who worked in the movie industry at all. A friend of a friend of a friend knew the person who was hiring at the mailroom of a company called Savoy Pictures which now doesn’t exist. So I got this job, it was a really low paying, super-entry level job and I delivered everybody’s mail. One of the people who was working there named Stacey Attanasio who was a VP in production, I volunteered to read scripts and do coverage for her, which I recommend so highly to anyone who wants to be a screenwriter. I think it’s such a valuable way to not only see what’s out there, but to figure out what the pitfalls are of writing a script. So I did a ton of coverage for her and when the time came for me to leave, I asked Stacey if she would be kind enough to read a script of mine called Innocent Bystander which is not terrific, but nevertheless maybe showed an inkling of promise. So she read it, said, “I doubt you’re going to be able to sell this but I think you’ll probably be able to meet some agents with this, so let me send it to a few agents I know.” And she did, and one of the agents was a guy named Adam Shulman who’d just been made an agent at UTA. He read it and liked it, didn’t think he could sell it, but encouraged me to stay in touch. And I did, and I’m not the kind of person who’s good about asserting myself or being a pain in the butt to people, but I felt in this case that if I don’t, out of sight really is out of mind. If I didn’t stay on him and call once a month to check in and say, “Hey, I’m working on this, just wanted to say hello,” it could’ve just been another meeting in a series of meetings he had and he would’ve forgotten it. But I did stay on top and I really did call a lot. Sure enough, I got to the point where I had something that he could sell and I went from being not actually a client to being a client, and I’ve been with him ever since. For what it’s worth, I think that anybody who’s looking to find an agent could not be better served than by reading scripts and doing coverage, then using it as a way to try to find an agent. The route I took, I didn’t know about that route, but it turned out to be quite a good one. Because the other thing is writing coverage is a good way to showcase your writing. If you write good coverage, you’re demonstrating to whoever’s reading it that you actually know how to right. And if someone comes to value your opinion on a script, then it stands to reason that they'd be curious to see what kind of script you’d write.
What was the first script about?
Innocent Bystander was very John Dahl influenced. It was this kind of neo noir about a guy driving at night and there’s someone bleeding in his passenger seat who’s lit in such a way that you can’t see who it is that’s sitting next to him. Or obviously shot in such a way that you can’t see who’s sitting next to him. And the story unfolds in flashbacks as he’s driving somewhere, you don’t know where. Ultimately, it involves a story of infidelity and a decision on the part of a husband to murder his wife. Whoever is sitting in that front seat is the innocent bystander of the title and may or may not be so innocent.
What’s your daily writing schedule?
I have a pretty rigid daily writing schedule. I have two children and I’m up at 5:30 with them, so at about 8:30 or so, I have an office in my house and I get to work. I just try to treat it like a job. I take a break for lunch for about an hour, and by about five, 5:30, hopefully I’m done with the day. I try not to dally too much, try not to waste too much time on the internet or whatever it is that writers do to procrastinate. I heard the story, I don't know if it’s true or not, and I don’t know John Cheever, but apparently John Cheever would get dressed in a suit every morning and get in the elevator of his building and go down to the basement where he had a desk and get undressed, work the whole day, and then at the end of the day, put the suit back on, get back in the elevator and come back upstairs, just to feel like he was part of the working world. I empathize with that notion. I really do feel like if you’re your own boss, which is what you are when you’re a screenwriter, you have to treat it like a job. Especially in my case, my wife is a stay at home mom and I just have a supportive family, so I take it quite seriously and really try not to mess around.
But is it flexible?
Absolutely, that’s the greatest part of being a screenwriter, or probably being your own boss in general, is you make the rules. If in fact there is a day that I want to watch my son, or there’s a day that there’s something else that I’d like to be doing, I can say, “All right, I’m going to work tonight then.” Or if my family wants to take a certain amount of time to go on vacation, I don’t have to clear it with five people. I can just say okay, that’s when I’m going to do it and I’ll figure out a way to get my work done before and after it. It’s flexible to the extent that I make it flexible. My wife is really great about letting me be inflexible. My son is slowly learning that you’re not supposed to throw open the door to my office every five minutes. At a certain point, I think you just have to decide how many weeks of the year you consider yourself working. For me, I try to work about 48-50 weeks a year and take two weeks vacation like the rest of the country.
Do you aspire to direct?
I have a project that I’m trying to get off the ground that I’ve written that I want to direct. I don’t see myself as someone who writes at all as a vehicle towards becoming a director. I consider myself a screenwriter, but there’s a script that I’ve been again working on for a couple of years now that’s called Disturbing the Peace. It’s actually based on a novel by Richard Yates. It’s a long, long process. I actually went to Sundance’s Filmmakers’ Lab with it and just recently Phillip Seymour Hoffman attached himself to be in it. But it’s a really long road to get things off the ground. It’s not a big movie. But it has nothing to do with the kind of stuff that I usually write as a screenwriter.
Why is that the one you want to direct?
Because I just know there’s no other way it will ever get made, and I know exactly the movie I want to see. To be honest, when you’re a screenwriter, your control starts and ends with that first draft, or the draft that you hand in to the studio or the director. From that point on, you really are subject to the opinion of lots of other people. If you write your autobiography and expect it to develop in the studio system, you’re asking for a lot of trouble. This one in particular is just a pretty esoteric idea. It’s a story that I’m completely in love with and that I’d be crushed, it would be too difficult for me to have to share the decision making in terms of how it’s directed with the director. And the truth is he wouldn’t even share that decision making. It would be the director’s job, as it should be. So in this case I’m doing it really because I want to go see this movie. And I do feel that I’m the best director for this particular script.
What was your education?
I went to Wesleyan University undergrad and that was it. I studied film studies and English literature. I made a short there and that was it.
How did you learn screenwriting?
By reading scripts. That was really it. Just reading a ton of scripts and figuring out the format. Trial and error. My first couple attempts are absolutely awful. I think it just takes time to get used to the screenplay format and then I think the best thing, and I’m just starting to sometimes do this, is to feel comfortable enough with screenwriting itself to stop thinking about it as screenwriting and just think of it as plain old writing and do whatever you want to do within the confines of a screenplay.
What was Night Caller?
That was my first paid job. That was a straight to video/cable thriller I was hired to rewrite. They’d read Innocent Bystander and thought there was just enough promise there to hire me for this job. When I was writing it, it was called The Listener. It’s basically in the vein of Single White Female, a woman who works at an answering service becomes obsessed with a caller. It is what it is. I was 23 when I was hired to do it.
Then a lot of time writing scripts that never got made?
Yeah. I think like most screenwriters, you draw up a lot of blueprints for houses that don’t get built and you keep your fingers crossed that one day those scripts will find their way further down the pipeline. I’ve been hired for a lot of jobs and then written original stuff that I still hope one day will see the light of day.
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