ABOUT SCHMIDT, written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, easily qualifies as one of the best screenplays of the year. Loosely based on Louis Begley's novel, the script is a serio-comic road trip through the mental and geographical landscape of Warren Schmidt, a disillusioned ex-insurance agent faced with the difficult goal of extracting meaning from life in his autumn years. Featuring the same satirical gusto of Payne and Taylor's previous films, CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT reaches for a more emotional pitch, nicely balancing uncomfortable humor with a piercing examination of an unexamined life. While the side characters may not be as richly developed as Schmidt, everybody is allowed a moment of empathy. These heartland folk are the true "silent majority" of Americans, doing their lifelong work without question, accepting the false dreams of Madison Avenue, and wondering why their heart still aches at the end of the day.
Payne and Taylor are satirists of the first-order, but they are, if albeit relentless, not condemning these confused souls. Critical does not mean cynical. In fact, the screenplay acknowledges Schmidt's undistinguished existence, yet ultimately confirms his life has greater meaning than he ever realized. In a year of increasingly stupid Studio Product (JACKASS: THE MOVIE comes to mind) it's heartening to know that Jack Nicholson recognized the script's quality and New Line committed to its production. The writing duo looks certain to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (They weren't until their win for SIDEWAYS).
In conversation, Jim Taylor is quietly funny, easy-going, and the fact that his clever, intelligent writing has secured him a place in Hollywood should give hope to any writer looking to achieve success with smart comedy in the film industry.
CD: How did you get your start in the business?
JT: I spent time in China in 1987, working for Cannon films, then I worked as a development person for a director named Devon Foster. He got a job directing for HBO and I became his assistant. That's what I wanted to do when I came back from China, and I had come out of that deeply in debt because of the time I worked for free. I didn't want to be on an executive track, I wanted to be a filmmaker. So I started temping in downtown LA and that's when I met Alexander and became his roommate. Since I was broke I moved out of my apartment into his, then we wrote short films and started writing CITIZEN RUTH. Then I went on "Wheel Of Fortune."
CD: That's a great way to finance your writing career.
JT: I paid off my debt, then went to NYU film school when I was 30. While I was there, Alexander and I did more rewrites on CITIZEN RUTH and it ended up getting made while I was in my third year.
CD: How did CITIZEN RUTH get bought and produced?
JT: It was Cary Woods, who had known Alexander when he graduated from UCLA. We'd been trying to get it made with another producer, and Alexander told Cary he had this "abortion comedy" and Cary said, "That sounds great!" So he just bulldozed and browbeat Harvey Weinstein into making it because it didn't cost much money, and Harvey didn't really want to make it but he finally said okay.
CD: CITIZEN RUTH was well-reviewed. Did it get you a lot of attention?
JT: Enough so that when the ELECTION material was submitted to us, which was great, we were able to get that job. It wasn't a battle.
CD: ELECTION is one of the best comedies of the 90's. I saw it about the same time as RUSHMORE and realized that 1999 was a very good year for film. How did ELECTION fare at the box-office?
JT: It made about 13-15 million. Our disappointment is that's what MTV predicted it would make, so it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. RUSHMORE, which I figured was pretty successful, had made about the same amount. That surprised me. Had ELECTION been handled a different way, it could have done much better. It got noticed after video rentals.
CD: Did you already have an agent at this time?
JT: Actually I got an agent based on a short film I had done at NYU. This William Morris agent was a judge for the festival and started calling me after she saw the film. I signed with her and she got fired two weeks later. Fortunately, she had set me up with somebody in LA, David Lubliner, who turned out to be great. So that was happenstance. I was lucky.
CD: Do you find agents were helpful to your screenwriting career?
JT: No. I love David and have a great relationship, and he does all kind of things for me, but if I wasn't able to make things happen for myself... I think if I wanted to direct TV it would matter more. It just gives you somebody on your team. CITIZEN RUTH was a spec script, but not the kind that was going to start a bidding war. ELECTION was owned by MTV films, we were hired to do it, and ABOUT SCHMIDT was the same deal. Whenever we give advice, we say, don't work for people; write on your own, but it seems as though we were always writing for other people (laughs). Actually, we are planning a spec script next, not so much to make money because the material we write isn't necessarily that, but to have control, where we lead the way from the beginning, as opposed to being in development.
CD: Obviously, you and Alexander must have similar sensibilities when it comes to approaching satire.
JT: Very. It's very easy to incorporate the other person's point of view and it's a joy to work together.
CD: How do you work together? Do you write in the same room, etc?
JT: We look at the same screen and write at the same time. We call the couch the "thinking area" which really means "I want to take a nap." Then after a half hour of keys clacking, the other one will get up and look, then we'll work together. Lots of times, we just sit and write word-for-word looking at the screen, one of us typing. Sometimes we hook up two machines.
CD: You can easily assimilate into one voice?
JT: Yeah, and it helps that Alexander is directing the movies we've written. He just helped me on this script I was doing, so we may share credit on that. Ultimately, he's the one who has to believe he can direct it and it works for him. In early drafts, we can discuss things equally, but as we get to the final draft, I feel I have to go with his opinion. I'll push for something I feel strongly about, but if he wants to go another way, that's how it goes.
CD: How long does it take you to write a draft of a script?
JT: We're getting faster. CITIZEN RUTH we wrote over a number of years because we were doing other things, then ELECTION took us about six months. We take a long time. This thing I just turned in took me a year, but we did stuff in between, rewrites. It takes six months, nine months, but we're hoping to do it in three months. The next thing we're working on is an adaptation that's fairly straight-forward, but Alexander is so busy it's difficult to meet. Also, we live in different cities, which is crazy. He bought a house in LA and I'm laying down roots in New York.
CD: So what is your process for breaking down a novel into screenplay form?
JT: It depends. We used a lot of the book for ELECTION, but on ABOUT SCHMIDT we didn't because we were using a lot from a script Alexander had already written with similar themes. Generally, we read the book a few times, talk about it, make notes, then put it away. Actually, this next thing we're adapting we're using more of the book. It's an unpublished novel called SIDEWAYS, about two guys who go wine-tasting near Santa Barbara the week before one is getting married and he wants to fool around.
CD: Do you show a draft to people when you're finished?
JT: We might show it to people, and obviously if we're working for people we have to turn it to them for feedback. We work so hard on a first draft that our subsequent drafts aren't radically rewritten.
CD: Do you work with a page count in mind, like 105 or 120?
JT: No, it's so interesting how movie stories end up being organic. It's weird that somehow it's never 80 or 150, but around 120.
CD: There's a lot of mythology about plot points, hitting the beat, etc. Do you ever consciously write this way?
JT: Basically never. Unless we look and say, oh, there it is, somebody would call that scene the "inciting incident." If all that stuff is true, then it is natural and you don't have to force it in. We never try to write from that perspective. It becomes creatively stifling.
CD: Do you write every day?
JT: I wish. Everyday is chaos. I have to discipline myself to get untangled early enough in the day. I'm working towards that.
CD: Are you a day or night writer?
JT: I have this illusion that I'm a better night writer, but I think it's because I don't get my shit together until later in the day. This whole thing writers say about working from ten to four, or something, is essential. You just go insane if you don't do that. What happens with me is that every minute becomes about both working or not working: "Oh shit, I should be working now, but I'm not." It's endless torture. That's the big thing about working with another writer is that at least you have an obligation to somebody other than yourself.
CD: Did you enjoy writing the character of Warren Schmidt?
JT: Oh yeah, a lot. It started with Alexander because he wrote this script about somebody retiring from an insurance job, but I gradually warmed up to the whole thing. I just went to Seattle with my dad to a press screening, and he liked it a lot. For him, our other movies have been a little too...
JT (Laughs) Yeah. But we borrowed his first name for the character. It's a movie that's sarcastic but has a more compassionate side about being a retired guy. The balance is not so much towards cynicism.
CD: That's why I loved the script. There are satirical elements, you're looking from a far view, but not that far. I was genuinely moved by the last scene and think it's an earned moment.
JT: Thanks. It depends on the audience because sometimes they're laughing in places where it makes me uncomfortable, but it's fun, I hadn't sat down to watch it lately, so I enjoyed watching it the other night. I get more detached from it than Alexander, so I get the pleasure of going away and coming back to it.
CD: How did Jack Nicholson become involved? It's a perfect part for him.
JT: The book had been set up with his producing buddy, Harry Gittes, so he was in it from the beginning. We showed him the script and he ended up liking it.
CD: Did he have any input in terms of the character?
JT: Not that I remember, but he had some input editorially. He's my hero, he's been amazing. He's a filmmaker, and his comments were so respectful. He came on and said "I need to know what kind of movie you want to make." He wasn't trying to impose his version of the script. The more I'm around him, the more impressed I am with him as an artist.
CD: Were you on the set a lot?
JT: On all the movies we've done, I've been around, this one not so much because I was writing a script. I directed second-unit on the other two films, but I'm not really useful unless we're doing rewrites. I've been on sets a lot and I'd rather do something else unless I can really be involved.
CD: So you're happy with the finished film?
JT: Yeah, very much. It's a tightrope because there's not much story, it's paced the way most movies aren't paced these days. I always wonder if people are going to stick with it. I don't think the usual Friday Night At The Movie crowd will have the patience for it, but for people who like film and don't mind working, it turned out well.
CD: Does watching Alexander direct help you with your own directing?
JT: Yeah, but I think the only way you can really learn directing is by doing it. You learn by doing. I've made short films, but I'm eager to direct and succeed in some ways and fuck up in others. Scott Rudin came to me, and he said, come write a script and I'll help you get it made. So I said, okay. You hear stories about him, but he's incredibly smart and when he tells you his opinion about a script, it makes sense. A lot of times you get notes and have no idea where they're coming from. So we'll see where it goes.