Marc Guggenheim on Sea of Monsters
The writer/producer talks about writing Percy Jackson, franchise movies, tuning forks and taking a bath
by Christopher McKittrick
While interviewing Marc Guggenheim, I pointed out to him that I thought it was unfair to label him a screenwriter. What I mean by that is Guggenheim has written for television, comic books and video games, and has had success in each medium. He has particularly been successful in television, writing episodes of The Practice, Law & Order, Jack & Bobby, CSI: Miami, In Justice, Brothers & Sister, FlashForward, No Ordinary Family, and serving in a producer role for nearly all of them. Furthermore, he co-created the legal comedy-drama Eli Stone and developed, writes, and executive produces the popular action series Arrow, an adaptation of DC Comics’ Green Arrow character. Considering his success in movies and comics, including writing the adventures of some of comics’ most popular heroes, calling Guggenheim a “screenwriter” only tells part of his story as a writer.
Guggenheim’s first credited work in film was as co-writer of 2011’s Green Lantern, a distinction he shared with three other writers, including frequent collaborators Greg Berlanti and Michael Green. While Green Lantern did not fare as well at the box office as many hoped, Guggenheim has remained in demand as a screenwriter. Whether his characters are leaping tall buildings in a single bound or arguing passionately before the court, his narratives often feature protagonists facing difficult odds with a combination of heroism and humor. His experience with television courtroom dramas undoubtedly led to Warner Bros. choosing him to pen the script for a new big screen version of Perry Mason, and his career-long work with superheroes likely informed his work on the improbable historical action-adventure movie Leonardo Da Vinci and the Soldiers of Fortune. Though both of these projects remain in development, he has since had a second screenplay produced as a film, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.
Like much of his previous work, Guggenheim joins the Percy Jackson franchise in media res. It is a sequel to the 2010 film Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, and both movies were adapted from the popular Percy Jackson and The Olympians adventure novel series about a young boy in the modern world who is thrust among the gods of Greek mythology when he discovers that he is the son of Poseidon. Creative Screenwriting spoke to Guggenheim about how he approaches adaptation, and what he means when he talks about “taking a bath” in his source material and using a “tuning fork” for inspiration.
CHRISTOPHER MCKITTRICK: How did you make the transition from being primarily a television writer to a screenwriter?
MARC GUGGENHEIM: What opened up the opportunity was working on Green Lantern, which I co-wrote with Greg Berlanti and Michael Green, who I had done some work with in television. From that opportunity I found more doors were opening on the film side of things. It coincided with a time when I was starting to question where network television was going and whether or not there was still an audience for my voice in network television. I just thought it was prudent to diversify a bit, so I started making more of an intentional push towards writing movies as well as television.
MCKITTRICK: How did you get involved with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters?
GUGGENHEIM: I got a phone call from my agent who said that they were looking for someone to come on board and do a rewrite of an existing draft. I don’t know how they got my name specifically [Laughs], but I was familiar with the first movie and the book series. I very quickly read the draft they wanted a rewrite on and I had some thoughts, and then I very quickly read the novel and had some more thoughts. It all happened relatively fast because they were on an extremely tight schedule and everything happened in a matter of weeks. I came in and met first with the studio and the producer Karen Rosenfelt, and then with Karen and the director Thor Freudenthal. I pitched them a broad stroke solution to the problems that I saw in that draft and just dove in.
MCKITTRICK: How did the first Percy Jackson movie and the Sea of Monsters novel factor in your writing process?
GUGGENHEIM: It was a big tonal influence. When I do this kind of screenwriting work I like to immerse myself in the source material. The visual I always have in my head is that I’m dipping myself, or I’m taking a bath in the source material, and then I walk out of that bath and I go to write, and hopefully enough is dripping off me that you feel the tone and the sensibility of the source material. But it’s also my way of not being beholden to the source material because I’m actually a very big believer that when you’re adapting from one medium into another, you have to give yourself the freedom to change what’s not working. They’re different mediums and they’re different art forms, so they have pros and cons and strengths and weaknesses. If you are too faithful to the source material you do so at your peril, because you are essentially getting the worst of both worlds. You’re not taking full advantage of the pros of the new medium, and you are being weighed down too much by the cons of the old medium.
MCKITTRICK: Since Logan Lerman was established as Percy Jackson in the first film, did his portrayal in the previous film influence your writing?
GUGGENHEIM: Not particularly. One of things I brought to the script was I felt that in the original draft Logan’s character Percy didn’t have a character arc. He doesn’t truly have one in the novel so it’s understandable, but I feel the best sequels still have character arcs for their protagonists. I tried to give him a very simple character arc of insecurity and self-doubt to confidence. But I didn’t want to be too beholden to the first film, because there were several years that passed between the first film and this one—I think more so than your average sequel. I think we all approached the project from the standpoint that we weren’t going to ignore the first film, but we wanted to make it as new audience-friendly as possible. I know it’s self-serving, but I think we were successful.
MCKITTRICK: Since you didn’t write Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief, was there anything that you specifically tried to do differently in this sequel?
GUGGENHEIM: I don’t think consciously. My goal was to approach this as its own animal and part of that entails making it new, audience-friendly and standing independent of the first film, but also at the same time providing things like a character arc for Percy, things that you would expect from a first movie. There wasn’t anything from the first film I was consciously avoiding or trying to stay away from. I think the first film is very entertaining, but this is, and needed to be, its own animal.
One nod to the first film is when Luke reappears he makes reference to the fact that Percy drowns him in the first movie. There’s also a reference to the fact that he saves the world and a reference to the Lightning Thief, which was the title of the first film. But those are really the only three references, and they’re all pretty small. I think it’s the kind of thing that if you’re familiar with the first film you’ll say, “Oh, that’s from the first movie,” and if you never saw the first film the lines just sort of slip past you as backstory.
MCKITTRICK: In addition to films you’ve written television series, comic books and video games, and in the case of superheroes you’ve written stories across all these mediums. How does your approach to writing change depending on the medium?
GUGGENHEIM: With a screenplay I tend to think in larger arcs. When I sit down to write a screenplay I start with the big tent pole moments of the movie, and I think in terms of what the main character arc is and what the main theme is. I think it’s a very disciplined form of writing. With my comic book work I’ve been a little bit more free-form and part of that is the fact that oftentimes when you’re writing a monthly comic you don’t have a story necessarily with a beginning, middle and end, you have a story arc in the service of an ongoing, never-ending story of the nature of a monthly series.
Another way of putting it is how Stan Lee has talked about the illusion of change when you’re writing a monthly comic, where you have to maintain the status quo. Even if it appears that you’re changing stuff, it’s really an illusion. But lately I’ve been thinking that I would love to bring some of that feature-writing sensibility to my comic book work. I would love to get a comic book gig where I really could blow the doors off the narrative and off the concept the way you sometimes have permission to do in movies. You never know if you’re going to do another movie, so there’s a tendency—and it’s the right tendency—to leave nothing on the table or the field, like, “Here’s every idea that we have thus far, and let’s not worry about not being able to come up with new ideas in the event that we’re able to do another movie.” I’d love to take that devil-may-care approach to my comic book work.
MCKITTRICK: What are some of the challenges of working within established franchises?
GUGGENHEIM: When you write in a franchise you’re basically playing in someone else’s sandbox. Like anything else, that has pros and cons to it. One of the pros is that the characters are already alive and vivid. At the same time, it can be somewhat limiting in the sense that you come into the franchise with these certain parameters in place, and you deviate from those parameters at your peril. One of the reasons why I like to write spec features on occasion is it is a completely unexpurgated, uncensored version of my voice. When you’re writing a franchise you’re adapting your voice to fit the franchise. You don’t want to be subservient to the franchise, but you have to write within certain parameters otherwise it becomes this different animal.
MCKITTRICK: Are there any films or scripts you find especially inspirational for your writing, either for Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters or your writing overall?
GUGGENHEIM: I keep a variety of screenplays on my computer that I use that I call “tuning forks” when I’m facing writer’s block or the blank page. These are certain screenplays that I will always go back to and they’ll inspire me. Among them are a few Aaron Sorkin screenplays and teleplays. Michael Clayton by Tony Gilroy is one of my favorite movies, but it’s particularly one of my favorite scripts. As a screenplay it’s just a beautiful piece of writing. There’s a friend of mine, Michael Green, whose writing I find incredibly inspirational. I’ll also have a variety of other scripts that just happen to be the flavor of the month. For example, recently I have been really enjoying Matthew Carnahan’s draft of World War Z. I thought his prose was really beautiful.
I’m a bit of a sucker for writers who actually bring some craft to their stage directions. For whatever reason, I find that as equally inspirational as good dialogue. I’m a very big believer in using stage directions to direct on the page. I don’t mean “direct on the page” in terms of “go to a close-up, go to a wide shot, go to a two shot,” I mean direct on a page in terms of making me as the reader feel what I’m supposed to feel as an audience member. I wouldn’t even say that’s an important technique because I think it’s an important obligation on the part of the screenwriter. Sometimes what I’ll do is, I’ll actually change my stage direction style to fit the nature of the feature that I’m writing, because I’m using every word, every line of stage direction, to contribute to the overall tone of the movie I’m trying to establish. If you read Percy Jackson, which is a fun adventure, my stage direction on that is different from Perry Mason, where I was going for something with a more Noir-ish feel. I tried to have the stage direction imbue that in the script. It’s just one of those things I give thought to when I’m writing.
MCKITTRICK: Considering all your work in adaptation and television episodes, do you have any ambition to write more original screenplays?
GUGGENHEIM: I actually sold a spec a year ago for which I’m now working on the studio draft. As I said before, I like to write specs on occasion because I like to do something that is wholly original and wholly my voice, and I think it cleans the pipes in a different way. I’ve done original stuff or stuff that is a potential franchise, like I wrote Leonardo Da Vinci and the Soldiers of Fortune for Warner Bros. That’s a weird mix between being a potential franchise because it’s a historical figure reinvented as an action hero, so it’s a strange hybrid of an original, but also a franchise.
At some point I might try pitching an original, but for me the joy of doing an original really comes from the writing. With respect to the other feature work I do, my litmus test is always, “Does this speak to the fourteen-year-old boy in me?” The kid who didn’t even know to have aspirations to be a screenwriter, would he think this was cool and fun? So much of the work I get to do is wish fulfillment. For example, I love sequels as their own sort of sub-genre. That’s why doing Percy was so appealing to me originally. I guess that my sensibilities lead me toward that franchise path, but just like I like writing in a large variety of mediums; I also like writing a variety of different types of projects.
MCKITTRICK: Fans of established characters—particularly of comic book superheroes—are often critical about the way the characters are portrayed on screen. Does any of that affect you while you’re writing?
GUGGENHEIM: No, not really, because I think it is very dangerous and a very slippery slope. If anything, when writing, it’s also dangerous to have the voices of the executives in your head. I think you do the script a disservice if you’re writing with all these other voices in your head. At the end of the day, writers are hired for their voices. If you are compromising your voice, you’re basically short-changing the people who hired you. They didn’t hire me for my internalized voice of the Internet, they hired me for my voice as a writer, which is not to say I disrespect fan reaction, the truth is I care a great deal about the fan reaction. But to quote Stan Lee again, he always said, “Give the fans not what they want, but what they need.” That’s a way of saying you should obviously respect your audience, but if they’re driving the truck you’re going to make them more unhappy.
To take Percy Jackson as a perfect example, that franchise has a very passionate fan base. We definitely took some liberties with the novel to adapt the movie. In fact, when I did the rewrite my main issue with the original draft was that it was too faithful to the novel. That’s not to say the novel isn’t good, but what works in a novel does not always work in a feature. In order to make a successful adaptation of a book you have to give yourself the freedom to change what doesn’t work. A specific example is Grover, who is one of the main supporting characters in both the book and the feature film series. In the novel, Grover is essentially gone for at least half the book, and he interacts with Percy through a telepathy that the two of them share. But for the most part, Grover is off the table. That might be fine for the book, but if I have affection for this character, I don’t want to wait half the movie to see him. I felt like that required a little bit of a structural change, but I have no idea what the fan reaction is going to be.
I take the fans on faith. I happen to think if you ultimately deliver the right movie and it’s a good product, that’s what they care about more than anything you might have changed in order to get there. Maybe that’s naive or idealistic, but I really think it’s important to trust that the fans will trust you. I’ve seen movies that were based on source material that were far too faithful to the source material and they suffered as a result. I believe the fans appreciate quality over fidelity.
MCKITTRICK: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about the movie business since beginning your career?
GUGGENHEIM: The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that relationships are important and collaboration is really important. One of the things I pride myself on is that I have good relationships with all the people I’ve worked with, even with people who have reputations of being difficult. If you’re cynical, you might think that getting along with people is important to get gigs, continue to work, and have a long career, and that’s very true. But I found that it’s actually what makes the work far more enjoyable. Even if they’re difficult personalities or they’re giving you a lot of notes, if you have respect for them and they have respect for you and you’re getting along with each other, it just makes the whole process so much easier. It makes all the ups and downs of the business so much easier. Whether it’s features, television, or pretty much anything else, any form of writing isn’t as solitary as actually typing it, because you’re always working with other people. If I have a good relationship, I’m enjoying the process so much more, and it makes me happy to “come to work” every day. If I’m enjoying my relationship with the people that I’m working with, I enjoy the whole process so much more.