Last month MUPPET MAN was voted to the top of the industry’s Most Wanted: The Black List.
Screenwriter Chris Weekes talks to Karel Segers about his work, inspiration and what makes an attention-grabbing screenplay.
They wouldn’t listen to him in Australia, so Chris Weekes moved to New York, where BITTER AND TWISTED, his debut as a writer/director had played to plaudits at the Tribeca Film Fest.
When he scored no less than two studio writing gigs, it was on to L.A.
What’s happening with Muppet Man now?
When I first finished Muppet Man, back in 2008, my plan was to send it to Bernie Brillstein who had been Jim Henson’s manager for many, many years, just to see what he thought. But in a strange twist of fate, Bernie actually died the day I finished writing it, so I was at a complete loss as to what to do.
Then I remembered someone I had met from Circle of Confusion, Kelly McCormick, who used to be Frank Oz’s (Miss Piggy) assistant. So I gave it to Kelly and she really loved it and told me she was going to make it her mission to help me get it made. She was my first ally and friend in Hollywood. It was only about a month later that I got a call saying that the Henson’s had read it and wanted to option it.
Once you started the process of Muppet Man and marketing it to the U.S., were you ever tempted to go back to Bitter and Twisted and change it based on what you’ve learnt?
There’s plenty I would change. I don’t think that will ever change. I was twenty when I wrote the draft we ended up filming and had to sit with those words for eight years as the film progressed from start to finish. I’ve learnt a lot since then.
There was actually a company at the Tribeca (film festival) that had asked me to turn Bitter and Twisted into a TV series and so, out of curiosity I wrote the pilot one weekend.
It was a worthwhile experience because I was able to exorcise a lot of those demons I stirred inside of me when I first started the project all those years ago. I took what worked in the film and what hadn’t and tried to distil those characters and ideas into the best they could be. Pretty soon though, I realised I was ready to put this story to bed.
So that was the same time I started writing Muppet Man.
Someone wrote (about Muppet Man) that it was a ‘personal antidote’ to the heavy drama of Bitter and Twisted. And they were probably right. It’s about as far removed from Bitter and Twisted as you can get.
Being in L.A., do you feel you’re now part of the ‘real’ club of filmmakers?
I don’t know if there’s a club. But I do know that if you want to write and make films in Hollywood, or anywhere for that matter, you need to be passionate about it because it’s not going to happen overnight.
You have to love the idea you’re working on, because you’ll be sitting with it for the next five years of your life.
If you’re passionate about what you’re doing and believe in it then someone’s going to be passionate about seeing you produce it.
You have to love the idea because you’ll be sitting with it for the next five years of your life.
What are your main influences?
I think everyone is looking back as much as they’re looking forward.
I grew up a child of Spielberg. At the moment the two projects I’m working on are Amblin inspired, like those fun 80’s family films we all remember and love. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
You told me you read a lot of scripts. What are the best you’ve been reading?
Up in the Air and Scott Pilgrim were great, as well as revisiting some old staple favourites: Back to the Future, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The Goonies, The Truman Show, Titanic. Titanic was actually the first printed script I ever got my hands on.
What springs to mind of last year’s released films?
A movie that took me by complete surprise was Zombieland. I just didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. I had absolutely no idea where it was going, mostly because it was so unique and original. It kept me right on the edge of my seat.
Actually, it amazed me when I read online that the movie was originally an hour longer and they culled it down to 78 minutes. The history of its origin I thought was very clever too. I read somewhere that they’d been trying to pitch it for a while with no luck and eventually tried to jump in front of Quentin Tarantino at some premiere and hand him the script to read. That’s how you show real passion for a story. Throw it at Tarantino.
A real disappointment was The Invention of Lying. I had been looking forward to it for so long and I’m a massive fan of Ricky Gervais.
I just thought some of the social commentary came into the film a little too hard and took away from the comedy. It left me underwhelmed unfortunately.
Is it true that there aren’t many great scripts going around and that even mediocre scripts will get picked up?
I think that’s maybe true. When you read something, you can tell whether the screenwriter is writing it because they love this story or because they’re trying to make money; and that energy definitely seeps into the page.
If you’re bored writing something, you’re going to make your audience even more bored reading (and watching) it.
Anything you’ve learned that you’d like to pass on to aspiring writers?
I don’t consider myself an authority on this, but I like to think that every 10 pages of your script should have one visceral, exciting sequence to wake the reader (and audience) up. Something to break that heavy plotting now and then with a little “wish fulfillment”, something fun that people have never seen before. If you can sprinkle 12 of those in a otherwise mediocre 120- page script, you’re going to tip it into being a good script and a fast read. And they’re the two most important things to aspire for with a screenplay.
Every 10 pages of your script should have one visceral, exciting sequence to wake the reader (and audience) up.
But the best advice I’ve ever heard and would want to pass on is just ‘don’t stop’. Get to the last page of your screenplay even if it’s turned into a 500-page opus. Once you have something fully finished, then you can go back and refine. You have a road map.
It’s more important to have pages you can work on than having something half-floating in your mind for 20 years.
Why do you think we tell stories?
I think the best movies can transport you to places you could otherwise never go.
It’s a form of escapism when you boil it down.
I write to make the world seem a bit more colourful.
Everyone’s looking for a reason to get up every day, Stories help us to understand who we are, and more importantly, where we’ve come from.
He is based in LA, where he is finishing a rewrite of the film ‘Waterproof’.
His script ‘Muppet Man’ topped the illustrious Hollywood ‘Black List’ of unproduced scripts and has been optioned by The Jim Henson Company.
With thanks to Cherie Lee for the interview transcription.