Working with Spielberg and Coppola
Epic's James V. Hart on Great Directors and Adaptations.
By Daniel H. Mintz.
Epic is an apt title for a film written by James V. Hart. Throughout his 20 year plus screenwriting career, he’s penned some of Hollywood’s most imaginative films (Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Contact). Helmed by the legendary likes of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Zemeckis, his scripts frequently feature elements of fantasy, and are often inspired by literary classics. Yet while his inspirations may stem from the world of literature, his sights have always been set on a career in movies. After graduating from Southern Methodist University with a master’s degree in film, he jumped into New York City’s burgeoning independent film scene, serving as a producer on such films as Summer Run, and The Ransom. All the while he was working on scripts, including one that would eventually become Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was only in 1991, when his script about the life of a middle-aged Peter Pan wound up in the hands of Steven Spielberg, that he broke into the mainstream. Hook was an international hit, and James’s scripts and skills been among the most sought-after ever since. James is now turning his focus to a thriving television landscape, working alongside his son, screenwriter Jake Hart, on several different projects. He also leads screenwriting workshops all over the world, imparting his knowledge to other aspiring writers. I spoke with James about writing adaptations, working with legendary directors, and the future of film.
How do you begin a screenplay? Do you have an outlining process? Do you jump right into it?
The last thing I do is write the screenplay. The whole process I go through, I have a chart, that I do all over Europe and the workshops. It’s called the Hart chart, or the bridge of tension. The chart comes from answering a series of questions that are necessary. I call them the golden questions. I got them from Coppola when I was working on Dracula and I started using them in my own work. I have to answer all of these questions, which leads me to a character-driven narrative structure. As opposed to plot-driven. I don’t start writing the screenplay until I’ve answered all the questions. There’s a series of sign posts that I’ve come up with that I believe all good storytelling rests on or represents. Not unlike Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. In fact Chris and I worked together this summer in Italy, where we tested both of our theories. I charted The Wrestler using his signposts and my sign posts. My goal is to make it a mechanical process. You’ve captured all the lightning in the bottle. You’ve done all this sort of pre-production before you write the script. And then once you sit down to write the script, you’re adapting the information, detail, spontaneity, everything that you’ve done in answering the questions about the characters and the signposts. You’re adapting that to the screenplay format. So for me, I want it to be a mechanical process at that point. You need to change your tires, change your tires. You need a new coat of paint. You need to change your gas. It is a process that I don’t want to be mysterious or mystical. Or inaccessible to people who want to be screenwriters.
Do you have another type of process for revisions as well or how does that work for you?
Well writing is rewriting. So you’re always rewriting. Everyday I go back to where I started the day before and read the script. Sometimes I’ll go back to page 1 and read the whole script and tweak as I go. When it comes to getting a series of rewrite notes, where you’re working for a studio or for a producer, and you’re getting your story notes, the first thing I do is try to write the prose. The embodiment of those notes. To try to tell the story incorporating the notes. Then I’ll go through the existing script and footnote where these changes are gonna take place. I don’t just start rewriting the script. You need to be able to show where some revisions are gonna impact the rest of the screenplay, which is often not the case when you’re dealing with people who aren’t writers who are giving you notes. They don’t really understand the impact of a note on the third act. Or the middle of the second act. Or a character. It can undo your entire structure. So I’m very careful about planning the rewrite before I just start revising.
You’ve written a couple of films that have been based on classic characters. But you’ve really added your own spin to them, and in a way reinvented them. If a writer is given the opportunity to do an adaptation or reinterpretation, what sort of advice would you have for them?
Adaptations are kinda how I made my career. You feel an obligation to be somewhat devoted and reverent of the author’s original intent. You’ve also got to craft, structurally, and emotionally, a journey that is gonna get the audience. The Dracula that Bram Stoker wrote had never really been dramatized on screen. All the vampires that came from the Hammer films and from Bela Lugosi had little to do with Bram Stoker’s novel. They had to do with a play that Hamilton Dean wrote back at the turn of the century. So when I read the novel I went, “Wait a minute. I’ve never seen this Dracula. This is not a guy in a tuxedo wanting to suck your blood.” This guy was a knight sworn to defend the cross of Christ. Sworn to uphold the Church. I’d not seen that vampire. That gave me license to create a Dracula that you had empathy for. That you could feel for. The great loss in his life of losing his wife. Did I reinvent the character? Certainly the romance with Mina was not in Stoker. But the character of Dracula, I feel very strongly, is very much what it’s like inside the book. I’m not sure what I reinvented. I think I more accurately reported what the movies had missed. Over 100 movies had missed that over the years. The other thing too is when you’re gonna reinvent a character, just remember whose toes you’re stepping on. I’m thinking of Tuck Everlasting. Where they need the lead girl, and the one in the novel is 10 years old. Ask Natalie Babbitt. She said, “Please don’t turn my book into a romance. I said, “Do you want a 10 year old girl running around the woods with a 17 year old boy?” And she went, “Oh, yeah. I see what you mean.” Plus, the voice that she’d given to the main character was not a 10 year old girl. It was a woman talking about being 10 years old. Sometimes what’s in the book can’t really play on the screen. And the hardest thing to get an author to understand is sometimes the changes are necessary. I try to find the truth in what part of the character speaks to me. An adaptation has to be a new original. But it has to be reverent and respectful of the origins. That’s the toughest part.
You’ve worked with quite a few legendary directors throughout your career. How have those experiences differed?
Francis Coppola was my single most complete experience as a screenwriter. Francis is a writer first. That’s how he started. He won an Academy Award for being a screenwriter. He wrote his short films. He wrote his early independent films. He understood the language of storytelling and structure and character from a writer’s point of a view. He’d say, “To be a great director, you first have to be a good writer.” So my experience with Francis was very different than say, Spielberg, who was also a writer, but during Hook, was under such pressure and really went to a stable of writers. Like paintbrushes on a canvas. Francis stuck with me and we worked together. I knew if I got in trouble, Francis could fix it. It was a great collaboration. I learned a lot from Spielberg. An enormous amount from Spielberg. Working with Brian Henson on Muppet Treasure Island was wonderful as well. This was a guy that grew up with the Muppets. It was like working with an archaeologist. A historian who knew every aspect of the Muppets. Not just as characters, but as real living people. Working with Brian was incredible. I would say, “Ok, let’s have Kermit do this.” He would say, “No Kermit can’t play that part” or “That’s not a line that Kermit would say”. It’s almost like you were dealing with movie stars. Every director I’ve worked with closely has been about story and character. As opposed to big action sequences or you know, ignoring the story for some kind of action or plot device that made it cool. The directors I talk about were all learning experiences. Some rely on multiple writers. Some directors like to have one writer. What I learned from all of this was, the job of the screenwriter, even if it’s your own original material, is to enable the director to achieve their vision. His or her vision of the material. Hopefully you dovetail and you find common ground and you end up getting what you want.
What’s changed about writing a screenplay now versus writing one back in the 90s?
The marketplace. The studios are driven by commerce. They’re like empires. When I started in the 70s, probably just the greatest decade to get started in the business, it was about ideas and characters. Directors had control. The movie wasn’t in the control of the studio, the way the movie is in the control of the studio now. It’s harder to get original, unique material developed and produced than it was back then. Although there are some great films being made today. Gravity is a really strong example of a film that came out of a system that’s been turning out failure after failure that are blockbusters. Here Gravity shows up, and it’s about two people in a space shuttle we don’t even fly anymore. And a space program that doesn’t exist. Yet the audiences are flocking to it. That’s very encouraging. But back in the day when I started, development money was easy. You didn’t have to have made 10 films to get hired. They went on an idea or they took a risk on you. There was a lot more risk taking than there is now. Development costs weren’t so high. I mean when I started, a hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money for a top screenwriter. You could get paid up to a million dollars in the 90s. The money was still kinda free wheeling. Now they’re much more careful about development. Fewer and fewer films are getting made. The exciting thing is, television has really exploded all over the world as a great place for the writers to be. Television has to deliver content. Every cycle they have to deliver content, which requires writers. Whereas you might have a movie project that takes you 15 years, like I did on Epic. I started Epic back in 1999. It was out this last year, and it grossed over $250 million dollars. And it wasn’t enough. There’s no sequel. I’m encouraging all my workshops, and all the teaching I do, and everyone, to look at television as what it was like to be around in the 70s. And the 80s. Ideas are being supported. Money is being spent. Writers are being hired. Look at what’s on TV that you’re watching. It’s content you’re done seeing if you’re not gonna see in the movies. Bigger audiences now are flocking to all sorts of programming. I’m a Homeland freak. I’m a Californication freak. I’m a Game of Thrones freak. I’m a Vikings freak. I can name 10 shows that I watch religiously and carve out time for. I can’t tell you 10 movies that I’ve seen in the last year that I would be that devoted to.
You mentioned Epic before. Are there any unique considerations for writing an animated film versus writing one for live action?
Anything you think up now can be done, so I try not to think that way. There is a question they always ask. Why is it animated as opposed to live action? And that’s a tough one. You can do talking animals, which I don’t particularly subscribe to. I just write story and characters. Epic was about story and character. We created a great world. Bill Joyce (author of The Leafmen, the film’s inspiration), his imagination, It was a great time. With Chris Wedge (director of Epic, Ice Age and Robots) too. Anything we created, the blue sky could do. But it didn’t change the fact that you still gotta tell a good story. You still gotta have great characters. That you care about. And you care about what happens to them. You have empathy for them. You worry about them. You cheer for them. You’re sad for them. I don’t sit down to write an animated film.
Of all the films you’ve written, do you have a favorite? Dracula?
It’s hard to say what my favorite film is. Dracula was my favorite experience. All the films are like your kids. Sometimes they’re a stepchild and you give them up to foster parents. Hook, and Dracula, and Contact, and August Rush. I’m very proud of August Rush. I still love that movie. But I think Dracula was the most complete experience I had as a screenwriter. I’m not sure I’ll ever have that again. It was an amazing time to work with Francis. It was right on the heels of Hook. So I had back to back, two of the most legendary directors of all time to learn from. And I wasn’t 20 years old. I mean I was close to their age. It was a real privilege to have that happen at the time in my career it happened. When everybody thought that career was over.
If you could meet a younger version of yourself, and you could impart some knowledge about screenwriting to him, what would it be?
Well I am working with a younger version of myself. His name is Jake Hart. And he’s the kid who at age 6 asked the question, “What if Peter Pan grew up”. We’ve been collaborating together for a few years. My daughter is also a screenwriter out here. She just had her first film produced. What I say to them all the time is, “Never give up.” You sitting around talking about what you’re gonna write, is gonna give other people a chance to go write it, while you’re sitting around talking about it. You don’t have as long as you think. This is a business full of rejection. Full of copycats, Write. Write. Don’t talk about it. Do it. Because 20 people have the same idea every 30 minutes. Be fearless.
Don’t try to copy what everybody else is doing. Find some truth in whatever attracts you to an idea. Understand why you’re attracted to that idea. And write the shit out of it.
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