by Bebek McGhee
In hard times it is always gratifying to hear success stories and to meet people who actually love their jobs. David and Janet Peoples, two of Hollywood's top screenwriters, answered questions together at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California where they were awarded the Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award for their distinguished careers as screenwriters. The Peoples' rare public appearance received a standing ovation from the sold out audience.
After a showing of clips of some of their many films including "Blade Runner,""The Unforgiven" and "Twelve Monkeys,"the Peoples were interviewed by moderator and screenwriter Robert Phelps.
Janet and David Webb Peoples started as activists and documentary filmmakers "in the seventies, when you could still make good movies," David waxed nostalgically. They worked on "Day After Trinity" in 1980. David became a film editor and Jan sold her first spec to someone who "liked my writing; he liked the storytelling." David wrote five screenplays before he ever sold one. For a mere mortal like myself, the length and breadth of the Peoples screenwriting careers is awesome.
"Mass entertainment is always into the 'set piece,' the scene everyone remembers. These scenes define who the character is and what the character's like. I'm always looking for these things," David mused. "We write character driven scripts." The Peoples were shocked by the unreality of killing in Hollywood movies. Then came Paul Schrader's "Taxi Driver." Finally a movie that didn't trivialize, that gave permission to be original. "Travis Bickel changed everything," declared David.
Phelps asked David what a film editor brings to his writing. "The film editor learns about the story, how to hold attention, what not to explain." He was working on a script of his of his called "My Dog's on Fire" for Tony Scott when a call came in from Tony's brother Ridley offering him work.
"Blade Runner" was David Peoples' big break, a high-paying Hollywood job with director Ridley Scott. The screenplay was a difficult rewrite "Ridley is a real taskmaster." he said. The original script by Hampton Fancher was "good" and owed a huge debt to the genius of Philip K. Dick, the 60's era sci-fi short story author and the original words of of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" upon which the movie "Blade Runner" is based.
"What have you learned about Hollywood you want to tell these people?" asked Phelps. There was a rustling sound in the auditorium as every aspiring screenwriter in the audience, myself included, moved to the edge of our seats to reverently await the Peoples' response. We were all hoping to catch their magic formula for success or at least a little of the magic dust.
"Nobody in L.A. will say no to you but do they mean yes?" Jan replied. She said that was a hard lesson she learned early and fast. She added it hurts when they rewrite your script and it's often to the director's ideas. And the director may or may not consult you.
David said that Clint Eastwood followed his screenplay of "The Unforgiven" faithfully, although he cut out a few parts of it. Eastwood only called him once to consult on the script while he was shooting! "Clint respects writers and their words on the page," explained David. In 1984 he sold "The Unforgiven" to Clint Eastwood who sat on the screenplay for ten years until he was the right age to play the main character.
"Terry Gilliam saved our butts on 'Twelve Monkeys.' That was a very difficult and complex story to tell. Terry is brilliant, a powerful storyteller and a disciplined moviemaker, " said David. Jan amazed the audience when she added, ""Twelve Monkeys' is one of the few of our movies we've seen. We're not interested in the final product."
Janet Peoples talked a little and David Peoples talked a lot. She comes from a tough background and likes to write comedies. He comes from normal, middle class and stable and likes bleak subjects. "I inject the light" said Jan," he injects the darkness." One imagines their marraige is not boring.
No one ever asked the exact sums these Berkeley-based Hollywood lions earn writing. But the Peoples both smiled cheshire cat smiles when they divulged that script doctoring is indeed very well-paying, especially when the movie is already in production (and presumably the director and executives are desperate.) They claim it not hard to do if the script is already OK. Tinker with it as little as possible, they advise.
David observed that there is a "caste system" developing in Hollywood of experienced writers. The trick to getting to be a well-paid screenwriter is gaining "credibility" and then you're a cash cow. But that's not the only important thing. Is it a good career move? Will it be creative and fun to do? "Otherwise you'll hate yourself in the morning," David warned.
Peoples confessed that at some point in the process he despises his screenplay and thinks its crap and then at other points he is awed by his own genius. "It's normal for the screenwriting process." he offered sanguinely. "You have to keep going and get past the bad part." Jan recommends phoning other screenwriters and asking "So, how's the script coming?" knowing full well that similar tales of agony will be forthcoming.
"The most important aspect of screenwriting is procrastination," David confessed. Jan admitted that "deadlines are good." Although they produce pages when the studios are breathing down their necks, alot of time is spent playing video card games and staring at a blank screen, tortured, just like the rest of us. Though they consider "deep thinking" an important part of the writing process, Jan said "you have to produce pages every day." When asked, they both expressed a heartfelt love of the process of writing, especially when the characters "come alive." "Don't be too hard on yourself. Don't judge yourself too harshly. Write hard and try to do the right thing. Do the best you can and hope for the best," David advised
They write separately and together. Janet and David Peoples claim that the collaboration is a totally unique voice in and of itself. "It's a distinct third voice when we work together," declared David. But they don't work on each other's original stuff, only adaptations and script doctoring. They really see what they are doing as a literary craft and try not to get involved in the filmmaking. "We're the writers." Jan exclaimed.
David avoids movie sets. Jan likes to go to pre production rehearsals and
answer the actors' questions about the characters' motivations. Sometimes
they prefer people don't make movies of their scripts because they know
they'll just ruin them, especially "To the White Sea" from a novel by James
Dickey. Though Jan advises going to as many movies as you can, she and David
have not gone to see a lot of the movies that do get made of their scripts!
"Concentrate on the story, telling the narrative." Jan recommended. As a woman, it was especially gratifying to hear this venerable screenwriter share the nuts and bolts of her trade. In listening to her, I was struck by something: how hard she has worked towards achievement in her profession. And how Jan Peoples did it all while being a wife and mother and raising her children. When she exclaimed "I love my job!" , I wanted to be Jan Peoples when I grow up.
David Peoples expressed a profound admiration for the work of William Goldman and his ability to make the reader envision the movie. "His method is magical,' The crisp flag flapping in the breeze!' He totally takes you there." The most important thing about writing screenplays is to "evoke" the feelings in the screenplay that will mirror the movie. "A good narration should be "counterpoint" and stand on it's own as a literary work," declared Jan. Counterpoint, a musical term, means the intertwining of seperate sounds to create a melody.
Jan and David emphatically stated that they rewrite only "character-driven scripts. We don't do good guy, bad guy movies. We think that kind of delineation is foolish. It 's ok for the "good guy" to commit an act of violence." Hollywood encourages violence," David observed. "Even in movies like 'Pretty Woman' which I like, the Richard Gere 'good guy' punches out the 'bad guy' who has insulted his woman. One fimmaker they singled out for praise was Alexander Payne. "We love him," enthused David over the director of "Election" and "About Schmidt." "When he got Nicholson for the role of Schmidt, Jack asked him 'who is this guy?' and Payne replied 'Jack, this is a very, very small man.'"
What is interesting to the Peoples about their characters is "the good man who does something bad unexpectedly and the bad man who does something good unexpectedly." You want surprises. "We love bringing our characters alive and throwing obstacle after obstacle at them!" laughed Jan. "But you must have a feeling for the story," she cautioned. "We like to be bold and interesting, but we try to make the dilema obvious not obscure. We want people to get involved."
"All the best characters have an agenda, even the minor characters have agendas," according to David.
"Although it is a map and a blueprint, a screenplay is most importantly a story," Jan reiterated. Outlines are brutal, but you have to have a plan insisted the pair. As David explained, "an A to B to C. Like taking a trip from LA to New York via New Orleans. You don't change that except in dire emergencies. You noodle the problems out in the beginning, but you don't have to know all the details. Let the script 'reveal itself.' If you outline too severely, you can stifle excitement."
"The fun part of screenwriting, and the part I live for, is when characters come alive for me," David Peoples concluded, with boyish delight. The man we could all envy was clearly and sincerely happy with his life's vocation.
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