“My love letter to Los Angeles” – Andrew Kevin Walker on Nerdland
Andrew Kevin Walker on moving from Se7en to comedy, tips for writing animated screenplays, and the importance of a one-page outline.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay for 1995’s Se7en remains one of the most highly-regarded screenplays of the 1990s and helped relaunch the career of director David Fincher after the disappointment of Alien 3. The film’s shocking ending is one of the most memorable in movie history, and Walker followed Se7en with 8MM (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and The Wolfman (2010).
Additionally, he has been an in-demand screenwriter since Se7en, and his list of unproduced screenplays – including early versions of Batman v. Superman and X-Men, as well as remakes of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, and the American version of The Girl Who Played with Fire – are nearly as impressive as the movies he has had produced, including his first animated film, Nerdland, which Walker created with famed animation studio Titmouse.
With Nerdland, Walker tells a story familiar to most aspiring screenwriters and actors – being lost in the shuffle of Los Angeles while trying to make your name in Hollywood. Actor John (voiced by Paul Rudd) and screenwriter Elliot (voiced by Patton Oswalt) live together in a cheap apartment and dream about becoming famous and winning the hearts of two girls who work at the mall who barely know they exist.
As John approaches his thirtieth birthday, he convinces Elliot to join him in doing anything – and he means anything – to become famous. Though humorous, Nerdland explores the seedy side of Hollywood and the depths people are willing to sink to in order to become famous.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Walker after the screening of Nerdland at the Tribeca Film Festival about writing a comedic screenplay, how Nerdland serves as a “bicoastal bookend” with Se7en, and whether his writing process has changed since his first interview with Creative Screenwriting over a decade ago.
You’re not a screenwriter typically known for comedy or animation, so how did Nerdland come about?
I had the idea for it a long time ago and there were different versions of it. There was a time that David Fincher was attached to direct it, which would’ve obviously been amazing. It’s really difficult to get any movie made – I feel like it’s getting a little more difficult nowadays – and at a certain point I took the feature-length spec script Nerdland and in partnership with my friend and producing partner Gavin Polone, who had been my agent and then my manager from my very early days, I rewrote it as a TV series and we went around with an animation company called Wild Brain to try to set it up as a TV show. No one was interested.
Then a few years ago I further fractionated the script into five-minute segments just to do it as animated shorts because I think we were talking to Crackle at the time. I realized that nobody was going to make any money on animated shorts because it was just for fun, but I wanted a piece of the t-shirts or bumper stickers – some sort of ancillary participation just in case it became a huge phenomenon. But they said no. I regrouped and rewrote the feature-length script and tightened it up a little.
I have been a huge fan of Metalocalypse, Superjail!, and a lot of the cartoons that are on Adult Swim, especially the stuff done by Titmouse. I would watch Metalocalypse and the little bird logo would come up at the end and chirp and I’d think, “Who are these lunatics?”
We set up a meeting with Titmouse and gave them the script. I was expecting Chris and Shannon Prynoski, who created and run Titmouse, to just say, “No, this is a stupid idea.” But they said yes, and we went from there.
I was super excited that Chris was interested in overseeing the making of it as a feature. Once he said yes he also said yes to directing it, which was great because I’m a huge fan of his.
Did you always conceived of Nerdland as an animated film?
No, it was conceived as live-action. Some of the changes had to do with tightening it up, which it needed anyway. It changed in that I went back through it to rewrite it to make sure things were big enough for animation. In animation, you can have fifteen thousand helicopters fly over the Grand Canyon. The big, big stuff that animation does, and even the small stuff, I think is kind of specific.
You definitely can write all kinds of emotion between the characters for animation, but you also have to remember that unless you’re doing a giant 3D animated thing it might not capture every little nuance. There’s some character or facial nuances that might not be able to be pulled off in animation, while meanwhile it would be easier to write a giant pterodactyl flying over the White House.
I was just making sure that the expression of certain things was tilted toward animation, but we didn’t really exaggerate it on the page or worry too much about it on the page. Throughout the process Chris, being the great director that he is, put in all these moments that weren’t there on the page. Certain surreal elements and subtle touches, like the fantasy rock and roll janitor, were all from Chris. If I provided a few of the bricks, he provided all the mortar and everything that made it into a building.
Most of the screenplays you have had produced are very dark in tone, but Nerdland balances this sort of vulgar seediness with humor. What were the challenges with writing the humor?
I love comedy and I would love to write other kinds of comedy. The darkness to me in Nerdland is somewhat subtle.
I know what you mean about vulgarity of it, and some of that you wouldn’t have necessarily found on the page because it came from the process. The standard joke I’d make was that it was really hard to get the men and women at Titmouse to animate underpants in a scene that weren’t soiled.
As far as darkness goes, I think the darkness in Nerdland comes out of the natural extension of the question of, “What will I do for fame? Will I do anything for fame?’ and therefore cross over into infamy. What can we get away with having the characters in Nerdland do and still hopefully have people care about them?
The stuff that I watch and love is often comedic, and anything you’re writing, no matter how dark, is going to have some humor that comes into it. Sometimes you put it down on the page and you realize later that you have to remove it because it’s not appropriate, but I feel like there’s humor in Se7en and other things I have written that really helps balance the darker material. This is almost like lighter material that is balanced by darkness in the same way.
Nerdland reflects the cult of celebrity that has always existed in Los Angeles and show business. Has that changed since you first emerged in the industry in the mid 1990s?
One thing I would joke about is that this would be the favorite script of every kind of entry-level assistant and person in the mail room because we all kind of go through the same footsteps when you arrive in L.A. You live in the same apartment with a roommate or roommates and you park in your tandem parking space that is always underneath the building between concrete pillars. It’s a really recognizable pattern that I think still exists when you come to Los Angeles and you’re trying to get your foot in the door. You’re probably going to have the door slammed on your foot a few times.
I don’t know if it’s changed that much except that the tools for screenwriting are always there for anybody whether it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago, or now, but the tools for filmmaking are more readily in hand nowadays. If anything has changed as far as trying to get into the entertainment industry, it’s a little easier to go out and make a movie and try to get attention that way. That’s changing because you can shoot a pretty amazing movie on your phone.
The thing that I think hasn’t changed that much yet, as far as affordable and professional-quality tools in the hands of amateurs, is sound. It’s always going to be the thing that you can tell if it’s super-inexpensive or not. It’s really hard to shoot a movie on your iPhone and still get really good sound or pay to get good sound put into the movie. The definition of making a movie has also changed completely, because now it means a Vine or YouTube, and the attention can be laser-hot but also, as that expression implies, cool off very quickly depending on what the follow-up is.
Elliot is a screenwriter, but we actually see him do very little writing. How does his writing process compare to yours?
Elliot is obviously me to a certain extent, and the John character is my friend Jon Silberg, whom I lived in that kind of duplex together. Elliot’s process is almost the process I recommend to a point of cliché to any writer, which is that procrastination is a big part of the process.
I don’t work like Elliot in that I never write on a laptop. I always write on a desktop. It’s maybe just what I’m used to, but I also think it saves me from getting horrible carpal tunnel, which every other screenwriter in the world will probably have soon. But there’s as much time spent working on a script away from the keyboard as there is at the keyboard if you’re immersed in it.
Elliot’s obviously not exactly a workaholic, but he was clever enough to figure out that Rip Van Winkle is public domain, so he knows he can do a horrible horror movie version of that.
Elliot (Patton Oswalt) and John (Paul Rudd) in a film clip from Nerdland
Actually, I think I would like to see a Rip Van Winkle serial killer movie.
I think it’s a valid idea. Anything that you’re writing where you’re trying to have a poster, music, or movie getting made within a movie, you want it to seem real. It’s hard to do, because if you’re writing a really good idea for a movie within a movie, you’re basically giving that idea away. But I could see myself sitting down and trying to figure out a “Rip Van Winkle wakes up to modern day society” movie.
You can tell when there are posters in movies that are fake, and yet my favorite one of all time is probably the poster for the movie Sack Lunch that was in Seinfeld. That’s my favorite expression of a super-dopey movie that looks like it probably would be a real movie. The poster is just genius. Rip Van Winkle though, I would be first in line to see that.
Well, you wrote Sleepy Hollow, so you might as well do another Washington Irving screenplay.
Like I said, it’s all based on my stupid life in maybe some slightly – or hopefully largely – exaggerated way.
Speaking of your writing process, when we interviewed you back in 2004 you said you always begin writing your screenplays with a one-page outline. Do you still do that?
I still do. I still need a road map to know the beginning, middle, and end. I’m still a big proponent and believer in three-act structure, and I did the same thing with Nerdland.
I’m working on Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers for Universal now, and I did the same thing with that. The way you break down the pieces is always different depending on what the source material is – whether it’s based on a book or a movie or if it’s an original – but the part of the process that I always try to jump over, which is maybe out of laziness, is the moving of the 3 x 5 cards around the table to move scenes around. But I think that really is a vitally important part of screenwriting because the ability to move Piece A down below Piece D and go “Oh, now I see the structure of it!” and find the outline that way. It’s once I’ve done that I move to put it on one page.
The one-page thing is all about being able to divide your page into three columns and give a very brief – one or two line description – of each scene. Anybody reading it is probably not going to be able to understand it the way that you understand it, but if you start going to the bottom of that column and onto the second column as you’re listing the scenes and you think you’re still in the first act, well, your first act is already too long.
But it’s also to keep at bay my neuroses, which are fueled by getting paid by someone to write something. I just want to see that I’m going to be finished writing it and not keeping people waiting too long.
The thing that I always say, and it’s true, is that I’ve never asked for a job and then gotten the job and then said, “Okay, now let’s go and figure it out.’ I always have to have the meetings, and go through the outlines, go through pitching and figuring it out. If we’re all on the same page, then I would like to do the project.
You also said “I feel like it takes about three months to write a script. Not that’s fast or slow or anything to shoot for, that’s just kind of where I fall.” Is that still accurate?
Yes. Still, the process takes months and months if it’s an original idea or if it’s a book or movie you’re adapting, and then I go through and do an outline for the book or the original movie to figure out what that means for what I’m creating.
The process of researching and outlining and figuring it out can take a long time, but once I sit down with that outline and start writing, it’s three months. That’s what The Killers took. That’s what The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, which I did for Fincher, took. That’s what The Girl Who Played with Fire took. It’s pretty much how it goes.
It has something to do with three act structure. I feel like for me that sometimes I finish the first act in two weeks and I think, “Oh man, I’ll finish this script in two months!” Then it always levels out. I end up right at the midpoint in the middle of those three months, the end of the second act at the end of the second month, and then I have a whole month to write the third act. I think that’s going to be easy, but the third act always has like a giant chase scene, or a car chase, and those action beats are exceedingly time-consuming. So yeah, almost always three months.
You mentioned that Se7en was heavily influenced by your time living in New York City. Did living in Los Angeles influence the screenplay for Nerdland?
The thing that I’ll probably say over and over again about Nerdland in relation to Se7en is just that I’ve said many times that Se7en was my love letter to New York City, and certainly Nerdland is my love letter to Los Angeles. It’s a nice bicoastal bookend across 20 years.
I don’t know if Nerdland will be any better received initially than Se7en was, but I’m really proud of it because it was a really wonderful experience working for Titmouse. I know that the process of working with them was different from probably other animation studios, but to watch stuff go from the actors recording, to storyboards, to animatics, to the beautiful designs and the final vision of it, was really fulfilling.
Much more value was derived from this movie than Gavin Polone and I paid for ourselves – Titmouse put in their sweat equity, as did Patton, Paul, and the partners at Titmouse – it was an incredibly satisfying process to make a movie that we really wanted to make. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s a movie that anyone other than us wants to see. But I enjoyed it.
You’ve written several unproduced superhero screenplays…
I have so many unproduced screenplays of every stripe. It’s ridiculous.
…Including one for Batman vs. Superman. You were really ahead of the curve on that front. Although you haven’t had one of your superhero screenplays produced, as a writer what do you think is so appealing about these characters?
I was incredibly proud to work on Batman vs. Superman so long ago, the first or second draft of X-Men forever ago, and Silver Surfer, which is my favorite. I think that there are really, really great versions of those movies, and of superhero movies in general, and really awful versions.
But I’ve also seen genre stuff that I think has been incredibly creative, amazing, and entertaining, like The Lego Movie or Guardians of the Galaxy. I just love when a movie can have a gigantic budget and still be creative and not necessarily insulting to the intelligence.
Going back to a project you mentioned earlier, The Killers originated as a very short story by Ernest Hemingway. There have been two previous film versions, the 1946 version with Burt Lancaster and the 1964 version with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, which both used the short story as a jumping off point. Is your version similar?
Yes, for my version I took both of those movies and the short story and repeatedly consumed them, outlined them, worked on my own version of it, but I really wanted the Hemingway short story to be the “true north” of it. It’s really, really rich, interesting material because I love film noir, which has really been the inspiration for a lot of the recent scripts I’ve written.
It was a huge part of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, which I did for Fincher because the original movie was essentially a detective story about a guy solving his own murder. The Killers is just beautiful because if it’s done right, the only hero of the piece is dead in the first fifteen minutes.
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our interview with Andrew on The One Page Outline of Se7en?