An Evening in Biopia: MAN ON THE MOON's' Scott Alexander and Larry
April 15th, 2004
An Evening in Biopia: MAN ON THE MOON's' Scott Alexander and Larry Karszewski
(This interview took place at the Barnes & Noble on the Promenade. Photo's courtesy of Creative Screenwriting Magazine).
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are best known for their quirky biopics, such as ED WOOD and "THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (for which they won the 1997 Paul Selvin Award from the Writers Guild of America). "Now we're referred to as 'those crazy biopic guys,'" admits Scott, while waiting for Larry to surface at the book signing for their latest masterpiece, MAN ON THE MOON.
Though some critics consider their work some of the finest of the 90s, the road to biopia, as it were, was not paved with gold. According to this duo, "ED WOOD" began as a reaction to their experience working on one of the most widely criticized films of the previous decade, PROBLEM CHILD.
Envisioning an antidote to the saccharine baby-based films of the 80s like BABY BOOM and the remake of the French THREE MEN AND A BABY, they wrote a wicked adult comedy about the travails of having children. As it happens in Hollywood, when the picture was greenlit, Karaszewski and Alexander were fired, and a committee of no less than nine writers was brought in to transform the project into just the sort of dumbbell family comedy they had tried to avoid. "We knew it was a miserable piece of dreck," Karaszewski says. "Scott cried at the cast-and-crew screening."
"I was really embarrassed," Alexander admits. "It was our first time seeing our names up on a big Hollywood screen, and it was very demoralizing."
"And that's why we started writing the ED WOOD story," Karaszewski says. "Ed was really struggling to make good movies, but it just wouldn't happen for him. So, after the PROBELM CHILD experience, the idea of writing ED WOOD was more about saying, `Let's do something that means a lot to us.'"
After PROBLEM CHILD the two fought against being typecast as writers of boneheaded kiddie comedies.
One of the projects that never made it was a full feature based on the 60s cartoon The Jetsons. "The director was fired, the new director brought in his own writer and it just went downhill from there," says Scott.
Ironically, John Waters declined ED WOOD "because it would be bad for his career" before director Tim Burton took on the task. Anyone familiar with the bizarre work of Waters has to scratch his head on that one. For those interested in a good script study, Burton shot 98% of what was in the script which took them only six weeks to write.
And just what is the "routine" of these two? While Scott sits at the computer, Larry lies on a couch as they work at their office every day. "We both have families, so we pretty much arrive in the morning, and leave by dinner time." Usually, however, they don't start writing until late afternoon, after returning phone calls, etc. "Unless we need to be on the set or have a deadline, we don't vary much from our schedule."
While writing biopics requires a certain amount of journalistic skill, being criticized for straying from chronology infuriates' them, especially since they never try to cover their subject's entire life. As Hitchcock said: "Movies are life with the boring stuff cut out."
"Fun Fact Sheets" are another technique they use - which are simply random, often strange pieces of information collected during the course of preparation. Though they're not specifically connected to anything in particular, the snippets of information often turn out to be quite useful in the script. They can range from things someone said, to dates something happened, likes and dislikes, etc. For example, knowing that Andy Kaufman ate at health food restaurants was helpful in deciding where to place some of the scenes with his agent, Shapiro.
Though their latest homage to offbeat brilliance was something they'd thought of doing long ago, since they were unable to capture the essence of Andy Kaufman, the story was abandoned until Danny DeVito approached them. "A movie about Andy Kaufman!" DeVito excitedly divulged during their clandestine meeting.
"At first, we weren't exactly sure how to react," said Larry. Before they knew it, they'd agreed to write the screenplay without having any idea where to start. "We usually have some idea of where we're headed, an outline, something, before we begin a project," acknowledged Scott.
Usually, they outline their acts on index cards, having their three acts in place before they begin writing. This time, they had the benefit of Bob Zmuda's Comedy Central documentaries and numerous other films from which to begin.
Nonetheless, they found they were stumped. "We just couldn't figure out what the essence of Andy Kaufman was," said Larry. It wasn't actually until they met with his girlfriend Lynne Margulies (who wound up being a consultant on the film), that they answered that question: there WAS no real Andy Kaufman. And that's no surprise, given his penchant for practical joking.
"After we got that squared away, it all became very clear, because Lynne told us "You'll never know the real Andy - because there wasn't a real' Andy Kaufman.'" The first scene they wrote was the end - and their book of the shooting script is another great study since it's very close to the first draft of the script.
"The great thing about biopics," says Larry, "is they shut down notes!" Ah, notes. Those lovely pages of often impractical prose devised by development people in order to justify their paychecks, the bane of many a writer's existence. "Just remember that they're paying for it, and not all of them are idiots," says Scott. "Fight the ones that will harm something, and make them think you got everything," offers Larry.
Thanks to their success and involvement in many writers' events, Scott and Larry are well known on the screenwriting circuit in L.A. "We want to help make writers known to the public," says Scott. "The public doesn't generally know or care about who wrote a picture, and we figure that by getting out there, we can help change that." Here, here.
"We've been lucky enough to get to the point where we can basically come in with as weird as an idea as we want," Alexander says, chuckling, "and we can probably find some sucker to buy it." We should all be so lucky!
Watch for their next project directed by Danny DeVito called Foolproof or Screwed in Sept., followed by another not as yet titled biopic on the Marx Brothers.
(c) 2000, Susan S. Davis