Collateral Beauty: A Holiday Fable
Allan Loeb on the secret to writing a good twist, walking while you write, and the biggest lesson he’s learned from being a writer in Hollywood.
As far as Hollywood screenwriters go, it’s safe to say that few people have an IMDb filmography as diverse as Allan Loeb. From comedies (Just Go With It) to dramas (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) to musicals (Rock of Ages), Loeb has written for pretty much every genre, and for directors ranging from Adam Sandler to Oliver Stone.
In his latest movie, Collateral Beauty, Loeb returns to the dramatic realm – with a mystic twist. The film explores the life of ad exec Howard Inlet (Will Smith), who retreats from the world after suffering a devastating personal tragedy. To deal with loss, he writes letters daily to ‘Death,’ ‘Love’ and ‘Time’, and is soon visited by visible manifestations of all three, played by Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, and Keira Knightley.
Creative Screenwriting chatted with the prolific screenwriter about the secrets behind writing a good twist, how writing for multiple genres has improved his storytelling, and the biggest lesson he’s learned from being a writer in Hollywood.
Collateral Beauty has such a clever and unique story. What inspired you to write it?
It’s something that I’ve meditated on for a couple of years, the idea of someone who’s been through a terrible loss, and was angry and twice destroyed and wrote letters to the Universe.
I didn’t know why or how or what that meant for years, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. Until finally I said, “I’m going to write that one. The one about The Guy Who Writes Letters.” Which is really what I called it for five years of my life.
Then I opened it up and turned down a lot of work to write it on spec, and developed it on my own. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a tiny, weird, dark but hopefully uplifting movie that someone wanted to make.
There’s a very strong theme weaved throughout the film, involving ‘love,’ ‘time’ and ‘death.’ Was that always there, or did you find the theme through multiple drafts?
Love, time and death being the three abstractions Howard wrote to and were personified in the film, those three things have always been my personal philosophy of life. I’ve thought forever that love, time and death are sort of like the godfathers of our existence. Any other emotion or concept that we believe in is usually a daughter to love, time and death, if you really think about it. Love, time and death are the big troika for me, and I was always, always going to go in that direction.
The movie also has a few twists. Were those something you had in mind while planning the script?
Yes, those were always in my mind as I developed it.
I personally believe that twists, when they are done well, can work in any genre. You don’t have to write a Sixth Sense or Unusual Suspects to have a twist. You can have them in drama or horror, etc.
A twist is a storytelling tool, and if it’s done in a cool way, people are never angry about it. They’re never mad and are like, “Oh my god! I never saw that coming!”
It’s a tight rope. You don’t want to reveal too much, but you want the twist to make sense. And you want them to watch the movie a second time, so then they’ll look for those cues. You want to see that the twist holds up in the narrative, but you don’t want everyone in front of it.
Are there any tips or techniques that you would recommend to a writer about creating a good twist?
You have to have radar about giving a moment early that doesn’t reveal it too much, but does stand out. So when the twist does reveal itself, it makes sense.
With Collateral Beauty, when we brought in the filmmaker, the producers and the stars, it became a collaborative experience. We started asking, “Are we forecasting this too early?” Then we started testing it.
Then the script becomes your best friend because they’ve read it and you ask, “Did you see that coming?” You have to test it out. When we tested the movie, luckily people didn’t see the twists coming.
Was there a specific reason why you wanted to set the film during the holiday season in New York City?
New York, to me, is a great tableau for storytelling. I am a New York City fan and I live here for most of the time during the year. If I can write a story set in New York, I’ll do it.
I also like to think that, during the holidays, New York is America’s favorite little town. It’s a big city, but it’s so romantic and magical during the holidays, so, yeah, I’m just a New York guy.
In terms of Christmas, I think there’s a sub-genre known as holiday fables. And when they’re done right, they can be wonderful. It’s a Wonderful, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol. Even movies that aren’t fables but are set during the holidays, like The Family Stone, they’re in their own genre.
And I felt that this movie fit into that genre in a really clean way, and so it was my crack at a holiday fable.
Speaking of genres. Usually writers have a niche they like to stick to, but you have experience with writing for a number of genres. How has that helped your writing?
I just think it’s nice to do if you can do it. I would think that anyone writing in the same genre would suffer from some kind of fatigue. If I wrote 31 romantic comedies in my career, I think I would be hard-pressed to find a unique way for a couple to meet or kiss.
Writing in different genres stretches you. For me, as a writer, it gives me the variety in life to make it interesting, particularly the day-to-day of writing. I just finished writing a sex thriller script. Obviously a sex thriller could not be any more different than the dramas I have coming out!
You’re a writer with many projects on the go. In addition to Collateral Beauty, you also have The Space Between Us and The Only Living Boy in New York coming up. What’s your writing process like when you have multiple projects going at the same time?
The Only Living Boy in New York was written twelve years ago, and just got made, which is crazy – but it’s Hollywood. Otherwise I’m rewriting it a bit on set, as you usually do, to help shape it to the actors. And I wrote The Space Between Us a few years ago, so when that happens, I do have to pop in and do some work on it during production.
But for the most part, the DNA of those two movies was already written. So Collateral Beauty was my sole focus two years ago as we ramped up to production.
But as to my process, for me there’s no right or wrong way. I don’t like to sit. So I walk. I am walking right now as we’re talking. I do a lot of walking, and I think as I walk about a certain character, an ending, or whatever it is. The intent of the day is to crack the code – whatever that code is – during the six or eight mile walk. And then I jot it into my phone – if I’m not hit by a car on my way home – and so when I’m at my computer, I’m just downloading the information. The creating happens in the movement, the walking, for me.
You said you were mulling Collateral Beauty over for a few years. But how long did the actual script take to write?
It was a situation where I had to put away everything and write it. So that part of the process probably took about four to five months. It had been in my head for years, so it came out somewhat quickly because I had been meditating on it and jotting ideas down.
But when I was writing it, I didn’t really know what it would be. And my agents didn’t know what it was because I told them that I was working on a script, but I couldn’t pitch it to them because it was kind of unpitchable.
But when I gave it to them they were extremely positive about it, so everything happened quickly after that.
You’ve been writing scripts in Hollywood for a number of years. What’s the biggest thing you wish you knew back when you started that you know now?
The truth is, and I mean it’s so hokey and New Age-y but true, that it’s about the process of you having to write this particular story. Just get it down and don’t think of anything else. Don’t think about the marketplace, and questions such as “Will it get sold?” “Am I going to get paid?” “Is it going to be loved? Is it going to be hated?” All of that is noise.
When you are birthing that script before you show it to the world, it must come from your own passion and your own desire to tell the story. You can’t let the outside world, especially the Hollywood eco-system, seep in there and affect your choices. I have to remind myself of this every day.
What does ‘collateral beauty’ mean to you?
It’s a term that I had read before. I didn’t make it up. I read it in a short story about twelve years ago, and I don’t remember the name of this short story, but it stuck with me. I liked the term, and that’s why I put it in the monologue of the movie, and subsequently became the title of the movie.
The idea that struck me about the term was that we can all understand that after something bad happens, then negative aftershock occurs. But the complexity of the world means there are a lot of good aftershocks after bad events, and to me, that’s a very hopeful concept.
To me that is what collateral beauty means: the good that comes from the bad. Or the light that can – not always does – but can come from darkness.
Featured image: Will Smith as Howard in Collateral Beauty. Photo by Barry Wetcher – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC U.S., Can
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