Matt Manfredi & Phil Hay on R.I.P.D.
Screenwriters Matt Manfredi & Phil Hay describe how they keep comedy in the action
by Andrew Bloomenthal
After languishing in development for nearly a decade, Universal’s R.I.P.D. finally took flight when screenwriting duo Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay successfully adapted the same-named Dark Horse Entertainment graphic novel, by Peter Lenkov. The tale centers on a pair of deceased cops who still clock in the hours at the otherworldly Rest In Peace Department. Their mission: to patrol our Earthly plane in search of “Deados”—monstrously-malevolent undead creatures intent on escaping final judgment by disguising themselves as ordinary people. But when the Deados hatch a campaign to annihilate all of humanity, veteran R.I.P.D. Sheriff Roy Pulsifer (Jeff Bridges) must work overtime to thwart a global Apocalypse, all while showing the ropes to his reluctant new partner, freshly-slain Boston Police Officer Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds).
Bringing this property to life posed inherent challenges. For one, R.I.P.D. is a relatively-obscure entity, lacking the built-in brand recognition of Batman, X-Men and other comic book franchises. Says producer Ori Marmur: “It’s tricky when you don’t have that pre-market awareness. Our hope is to differentiate ourselves with a great cast, look and attitude.” From a narrative standpoint, that meant chiefly focusing on the mismatched-buddy element of the story, a-la 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon and other ’80s cop comedies—maybe with a touch of Ghostbusters supernatural flair shaken in for good measure.
“Comic adaptations will always have people in jeopardy, and they’ll always have larger-than-life superhero types who save the day. That’s a common denominator,” explains Marmur. “But for us, the bigger question was how the two characters communicate, because they’re cops from different time periods, both fighting on the side of good.”
This storytelling must-have was precisely why the producers ultimately tapped Manfredi and Hay—who demonstrated previous success scribing Clash of the Titans, Æon Flux and Crazy/Beautiful, to do the adaptation. And although various treatments and several full script adaptations were already floating around Dark Horse Entertainment’s production offices, they were effectively jettisoned, and Manfredi and Hay were charged with starting from scratch, using Lenkov’s graphic novels as source material.
Creative Screenwriting Magazine sat with Manfredi and Hay, to discuss their tag-team approach to writing, their experience collaborating with directors, and how writing character-driven films is not so different from penning big-budget action flicks.
ANDREW BLOOMENTHAL: As a screenwriting team, how do you work together logistically? Do you sit together in a room and have a jam session while one person writes? Or do you separate and each take on a scene and then reconvene? Does it vary project to project?
MATT MANFREDI: We outline, and we outline pretty meticulously together. Once we have that finalized, we split up scenes, and I’ll take one and Phil will take the other, and we’ll go off and write a group of scenes and then we’ll come back and swap. So we end up with a Frankensteined draft, and then we’ll sit in a room together and edit, edit, edit, while one of us types.
BLOOMENTHAL: And is there a telepathic communication regarding voices of characters? If one person is creating dialogue for someone the other one has already written dialogue for, is it like handing off the baton so that there’s textural and tonal consistency?
PHIL HAY: It’s shockingly similar. There have been a couple of times when we accidentally both assigned ourselves the same scenes, and when we share them, they’re almost identical. Obviously there are differences in dialogue, but our rhythm, and our taste and our style has become so crazily unified by this point that it is really sort of a psychic connection, because we taught each other to write screenplays over these last many years.
MANFREDI: Also, we only write a few scenes together before we show them to each other, so if one person has taken on a scene with one character, maybe the next day I’ll write the next scene with that same character, so you have an idea what the voice is like as it continues to evolve.
HAY: We never get too far out without making sure we’re checking in and keeping everything coherent.
BLOOMENTHAL: Are there a lot of late night back-and-forth emails, if you have a brainstorm of an idea?
HAY: Only if it can’t wait until morning. We try and respect each other’s space. But the closer we get to turning something in, the more time we spend together, combing through every line of the script.
BLOOMENTHAL: Crazy/Beautiful was a beautiful film that was a smaller, slice-of-life character study. Do you find it easier to write something like that, versus a big-action film? Or do they each have different challenges?
MANFREDI: After having done a few movies, when we start out, we know what’s possible for the budget, so I think we’d approach that differently, with some more experience behind us. For example, if we knew it was going to be a $10 million dollar movie, we would be aware of that, so that’s one challenge. But we approach most movies like a character piece anyway. Crazy/Beautiful wasn’t an incredibly plotty, movie; it’s all character-driven for the most part. So I think we approach all movies through the characters anyway, whether they’re big-action films or not.
HAY: Going off of what Matt said, in some way we always approach each film from the same place, but they’re all different as well. And what was so nice about writing Crazy/Beautiful and the way people responded to it, is that they sensed the personal connections in the movie. It’s definitely a different thing to make a movie on a much smaller scale. We did an independent film called Bug that Matt wrote and we directed together, that was also done on a very small scale, and it’s interesting to think about how the structure is a different animal in a movie like that, but then there are a lot of things that are exactly the same, in terms of the sine wave of how things move. It might be less radical, but it’s still a wave and there are still these connections and builds and transitions that are important.
BLOOMENTHAL: You were saying how you’ve become more cognizant of budgetary considerations. To what degree does the costs of a potential scene, as well as the logistical challenges of filming it, factor into the daily rhythm of your writing? With the existence of CGI and special effects, do you feel like there’s anything you can envision, that cannot be practically realized?
MANFREDI: The first example I can think of was our experience on Æon Flux where the budget was originally $90 million, and it was going to be in Brasilia, and all of the sudden, the budget was $50 million, and it was going to be set in Berlin. It changed for various reasons, so we had these set pieces that were no longer viable and had to be changed, but they still had to be within the scope and tone of the movie. You’re still working with very big budgets, but it was interesting to see what could and couldn’t be done. We’re definitely generally more aware of budgets.
HAY: You also have to modulate the movie as a whole. Like Matt said, if the movie was going to be a certain budget but now is going to be a lesser budget, you need to make sure the rhythm of the big set pieces works the same as before—even if you have to reduce them in proportion to each other, but still organized with the same peaks and valleys. And the other thing that’s been interesting, is that in on our last few movies, we’ve worked very closely with the line producers to help clarify budgetary things as the movie gets made, and one thing we’ve learned is that as the film gets closer toward production, you have to be extremely specific about everything, because the production designer and the line producer will take everything you write absolutely literally, because they have to be prepared to shoot whatever’s on your page.
For example, in Clash of the Titans there was a scene where we casually mentioned that a conversation was happening on the balcony of this palace, and the assumption was made that you would have to see a fully-realized CG city in the background behind them, which was a massive expense. So when they came to us, and asked, “What can we do about this?”, the director stepped in and said, “I’ll just shoot it from the other side, so we’re shooting into the palace.” This worked out, because it’s not important what we see in terms of background, what’s important is that these characters are on the balcony, away from other people, so they can talk in private. Therefore shooting into the palace, instead of away from it, suddenly saves $500,000 from the budget. So it’s interesting how you learn to be extremely specific.
BLOOMENTHAL: And can you develop a sense of what the fiscal translation will be like, taking a scene from the page and into production?
MANFREDI: Sometimes. Like on Clash, there was this one example of how many passes of discrete attacks the Kraken could do. [Interviewer’s note: for the un-initiated, Krakens are giant, sharp-toothed, tentacled sea creatures from Greek mythology.] When we talked to the producers, they would say, “Okay, we have room for two beats of action here, that can be contained here and it can be set here.” And that’s where you can get into specifics and know the box. But that usually comes closer to production, as opposed to when we’re writing freely, where the script is kind of your wish list, in a way.
BLOOMENTHAL: There were multiple treatments and completed versions of the screenplay for R.I.P.D. that weren’t quite right that were ultimately jettisoned before you two were brought in. Did the producers give you the former materials to look at? Or did they want you to look at the source material and go in completely unbiased, in order to take a stab at it from scratch?
HAY: We came in with David Dobkin, who at one time was once going to direct the movie, but is now an executive producer. The three of us came up with a very specific way in, based on the source material, so we were expected to look at the source material and come in fresh. And the whole way through, the writer of the comic, Peter Lenkov, has been extremely supportive of what we’ve done and has been a real backer of all of our ideas. We were aware that Peter had written a version of the script that for obvious reasons, was very close to the source material, but that was the only specific thing we knew about. Essentially, we were asked to take this great comic book and turn it into a movie.
BLOOMENTHAL: And were you given any notes on can’t-live-without elements, where you were ordered to retain a certain character or plot point from the graphic novel? Conversely, were there any additions you thought might be too digressive?
MANFREDI: There were no real restrictions. When we sat there and beated out the story with David Dobkin, no one was really precious about the source material. Peter Lenkov gave us his blessing and so did [producer] Mike Richardson at Dark Horse Entertainment, but there was such great stuff in the comic that leapt out as must-haves. But there’s other stuff about the plot where it’s maybe a different iteration or a different take on things, where maybe it’s not as doable for the movie that we envisioned with David. We were given a lot of trust in terms of deciding the best adaptation of the material that everyone loves.
BLOOMENTHAL: You were also holed up in a room with the director, Robert Schwentke, during part of the writing process. What was that like? Did he have authority over the proceedings? Or was the dynamic democratic?
MANFREDI: For sure, the director is always the boss, and it’s our job to figure out how to combine what we’re doing and channel it into that person and their vision. If you’re fortunate, as we were on this film, you have someone like Robert who absolutely locked onto the same specific stuff we did. And there were definitely some things he wanted to change about the script that we had written before he got there, but it was a very lively and good collaboration where all of the stuff that was important to us, was important to him. He was adding and pushing on stuff and asking us to expand or subtract other things, but from a very early time, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do, and fortunately, it was very contiguous with what we thought was important. Above all, the sense of humor and the relationship between Nick and Roy, the lead characters, is the core of the whole movie for us, and Robert always understood that in very specific terms. In terms of the dialogue that was there, it wasn’t just a cavalier sense of, “Oh, let’s get together and whip up a whole different thing.” Robert had a very coherent take that allowed us to jump in with him, from the day he was hired on the movie, all the way through production and post production. We were there by his side to be a resource for him.
BLOOMENTHAL: I recently interviewed Nicolas Winding Refn, the writer/director of Drive, about his new movie Only God Forgives, which deals with martial arts and included fight scenes. I asked him if he articulates each jab, block and kick, in the script, and he said he only writes action with that level of specificity if the financiers want to that action fleshed out on the page. Otherwise, he inserts a placeholder, “Fight scene here,” then works out the action on set, with his stunt team and the actors. How specific do you get with actual combat, action and chase scenes?
HAY: We don’t go punch by punch unless there’s a comedic reason for doing that, because with a lot of the action we do, there are comedic beats embedded within the action. The goal is to make the read as exciting as possible while conveying the momentum and being clear about what’s happening. As R.I.P.D. got closer to production, there were times when Robert would say, “You need to write that the car flips twice, hits this building and then careens into a light pole.” So that became a production issue, because at that point, the script is truly like an instruction manual—along with storyboards and diagrams.
MANFREDI: When you’re writing the script before production, you want to give the feel of it, and the tone and the style, and hopefully the excitement of what that action sequence will be, by hitting the most important beats. Because on the page, you’re trying to create a vision of what that experience is going to feel like in the movie, and then you get more and more specific, depending on your director. Some directors don’t need that level of detail—or want it. Others really push you. I’ve worked with a couple who want to see everything in the script and be able to see all the action line for line. That’s how they get into the feel of their storyboarding, and the coordination of their stunts. But just as a script, you don’t want to over-burden the reader with detail and create an unwieldy scene that doesn’t actually express the speed and flow of the action that’s going to be in the movie.
HAY: Yeah, you can get so bogged down with the description of it, that it creates the opposite effect. Instead of creating something exciting, you’re creating something to slog through.
MANFREDI: But you don’t want to under-do it either. You can’t just say “And then a great fight scene breaks out—to be choreographed later”.
BLOOMENTHAL: Was there any scene that was particularly difficult to film?
HAY: Well the big finale comes to mind—the portion of the finale that’s a car chase, and we went back and forth and did many iterations about how much the guys were talking to each other during the car chase, and whether a specific, very important bit of personal information was going to be revealed during the car chase, before it, or right after it. And our theory—especially with this movie, but I think in general, is that we always want our guys to be talking during the action—if it’s appropriate, and in this movie, it definitely was. It’s all about how they react to the action and the fact that their relationship and their bickering and their interplay never stops for a minute—even though the world is ending. They’re still concerned with their personal shit with each other. So for that scene we did many different versions, where we pared a lot of their dialogue back, and then we realized that we wanted more restored, and that was the constant thing throughout production and even through some additional photography, where we added some beats back in of them doing their thing.
BLOOMENTHAL: And do you feel like you hit the sweet spot and worked it out?
HAY: I feel like it, but that’s for others to judge. But it’s so important to us to keep the character stuff alive during action, because you can’t ever expect action to work for action’s sake. As a viewer, that’s not how I respond to movies. Something may be a great spectacle, but a great spectacle with great characters in it is going to engage you on multiple levels.
BLOOMENTHAL: Something that wasn’t in the graphic novel, that was invented from scratch, were the “Deados,” which are a main plot driver. Did you guys bat around different names for these creatures?
MANFREDI: I don’t think we did. I think it was our internal name for it, and then it just kind of stuck.
HAY: “Deados” is also our nod towards the “Deadites” from Evil Dead, connoting something lingering out there. But just tonally, “Deados” kind of worked for us. There’s something about it that I can’t explain.
BLOOMENTHAL: It provokes a smile?
MANFREDI: It tells you what the tone of the movie is.
BLOOMENTHAL: Part “B” to the Deados question: how descriptive were you about the physicality of each one of these characters, and how much of that was left up to the special effects guys and the costume people?
MANFREDI: In our first pass at the screenplay, we described them one way, but then when Robert came on, he immediately started in with the creature designers, and he had a very specific take. He wanted them to look like this; he didn’t want them to look like that. So our description evolved in conversation with him as he was batting ideas around with creature designers, but we always had ideas about what they should look like, and certainly a little bit of that is reflected in their final look, but it was a pretty collaborative thing.
HAY: Early on, we knew what each of their personalities were going to be, and how they were going to vary from one another, but like Matt said, their visuals started to take shape once Robert came on board, and of course that infected their personalities. And early on, we knew they would do this thing called “popping,” where if you expose their souls, they pop, like a popcorn kernel. Boom! Exploding with badness. And whenever they pop, you see their true soul.
MANFREDI: It’s like a reflection of their rotted soul.
HAY: A snitch might have a lot of mouths. A thief would have all kinds of fingers. And as Jeff [Bridges] says it in the movie: it’s a metaphor. When they pop, it’s a metaphor for who they are.—So we had all of those concepts in line, and then Robert made them very specific.
BLOOMENTHAL: Speaking of the Jeff Bridges character, how specific were you in describing his nuances? Did he bring his own southern drawl to the mix? Was he described as an old southern Sheriff?
MANFREDI: He was described as an “Old West lawman,” and we wrote this character very specifically—his voice, the way he talks. He’s half Old West, half modern, with a whole veneer of words and concepts that he just made up, like a wholesome new language he’s created. We wrote this character extremely specifically, and when Jeff came in, it just became impossible to imagine that character as anybody else. And Jeff wanted to do exactly what we had written. The way he works is very language-oriented and very specific to what’s on the page. It was really amazing for us to see that level of refinement, word by word, as he approached it in looking at this character. He just embodied that guy, from moment one, as though we had written it for him from the very beginning. But we never thought we’d be so lucky as to get Jeff Bridges.
BLOOMENTHAL: Are you a fan of the comic book genre? Were you excited when the call came to do this?
HAY: We love comic books, and this opportunity rang some of the bells of other movies we liked. There’s something about this movie that’s very early-to-mid ’80s in tone. A lot of superhero movies are extremely serious and portentous and everything is extremely dire and big, and in our movie we wanted to make a more comic Ghostbusters-like tone to it, where the characters are serious about their predicament, but we don’t shy away from the comedic craziness and whimsy of their situations.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the movie’s release.]