Iron Writer

Austin Screenwriter Tim McCanlies

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Tim McCanlies is not a recluse -- you just have to know where to look. The Iron Giant screenwriter's High Lonesome Ranch sits on a remote 250 acres in southeastern Bastrop County. The winding red dirt road leading to his spread is miles past the only tourist attractions in the area, namely the Central Texas Museum of Automotive History and the Noah's Land wildlife park.

McCanlies, 46, lives in a place much like the West Texas town he created for his directorial film debut last year, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81. More than likely, he is the only screenwriter in the 3-N-1 Volunteer Fire Department, which serves the communities of Pine Valley, Rosanky, and String Prairie. Dressed in overalls and playing a computer game, he tells me that the neighbors "don't really understand what I do." I doubt many of them play Quake, either. McCanlies doesn't look the part of a hardened Hollywood veteran and is more comfortable talking about his guns, Harley-Davidson, and herd of mixed-breed cattle than his life in the industry. When he received the Best Director and Best Picture honors for Dancer at the third annual Lone Star Film and Television awards last month, his wife Suzanne took charge to rent a tuxedo and get him a haircut at Highland Mall before heading to Fort Worth to collect the honors.

If, in Hollywood, "you're only as good as your last film," McCanlies will continue to ride the success of Dancer with his latest studio film, The Iron Giant. He wrote the screenplay for the recently released Warner Bros. animated movie, based on the children's book by the late British poet laureate (and, perhaps more famously, husband to Sylvia Plath) Ted Hughes. Variety has praised the motion picture as "a visually appealing, well-crafted film," adding that, "The Iron Giant is an unalloyed success that works on several levels."

Set in October 1957, The Iron Giant is the story of nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes, a boy with a vivid imagination who befriends a gigantic robot fallen from the sky. The metallic monster lands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of sleepy Rockwell, Maine, a place John Cheever might have invented. The film's director, Brad Bird (see sidebar), and McCanlies gave Hughes' story an American tang, tapping into comic Cold War paranoia. The robot, after all, may well be Russian. The pair decided to jettison the book's climactic battle between the giant and a space bat the size of Australia and also agreed that the film was not a musical. This after the studio talked early in production with rock musician Pete Townshend (who receives an executive producer credit on the picture) about developing the story using his 1989 Iron Man album and a 1993 London stageversion, also based on Hughes' work. Under Bird's determined leadership, The Iron Giant was completed in less than two years, unlike other meticulous animated features, which can take up to four or five years to reach theatres.

When McCanlies wrapped his writing duties on The Iron Giant in the summer of 1997, he headed to Fort Davis in the Big Bend region to direct his first feature film. Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, which he also wrote, is the tale of four teenage friends who are trying to keep their promise to forever leave a tiny Texas town. It was made for $2.3 million and bought by TriStar a week into production. The film premiered at SXSW 1998 and was applauded by most critics, including Emanuel Levy of Variety, who made comparisons to Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) and called the picture an "impressive directorial feature debut."

McCanlies' writing ability was evident at an early age. "I always amazed or horrified my teachers throughout school. I was always writing really wild, 'out there' kind of stuff. I just always felt like I wanted to be a writer; and I loved movies," McCanlies recalls. He is the only one in his family with any artistic inclinations. "This aberrant gene cropped up. My father was military, so I was in a new school every year. ... I pretty much kept to myself and read constantly. I read a lot of science fiction mostly, for whatever reason."

Growing up, McCanlies wrote, performed, and directed community theatre, summer stock, and repertory theatre. After attending the University of Texas at Austin and graduating with a theatre degree from Texas A&M, McCanlies worked his way through Southern Methodist University's graduate cinema program as a Dallas cop. An early screenplay, Louisiana Run, was even based on his law enforcement experience. While at SMU, McCanlies made several short films that screened in national film festivals. "Nicole et Claude" tied for first place in competition for the University of Southern California's Student Film Awards and was sold for cable television programming. When the police department discovered his talents, they took him off the beat to make training films.

Determined to write movies, McCanlies headed to Los Angeles in 1979. What did his parents think? "They thought I was just nuts. I don't think they still really quite get it." The memory makes McCanlies chuckle. McCanlies arrived to find that Hollywood was another world. "I didn't know anyone who'd been west of the Rockies, much less anyone in the film business," he recalls. But fortunately, Hollywood was looking for fresh blood. "The next generation of Spielbergs and Lucases were just making a name for themselves, so it seemed like a young time in Hollywood. The studios were looking for young, cheap talent they could pay scale. In a way, I kind of learned a lot on their dime."

He arrived in Los Angeles with enough money to last a year, "which I thought was plenty of time. I was amazingly naive," McCanlies remembers. "I'd written six or seven scripts and spent four or five years out there before I 'broke in.' No one would read your scripts because they were afraid of lawsuits. [Litigation over story ideas is routine in Hollywood.] It was really a Catch-22. You had to write well to get noticed, but then no one would read your script when you did. I snuck onto studio lots and put scripts on directors' desks late at night."

The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant

Despite the frustrations, there was no turning back. "I wasn't going to do this for five years and then go to law school. That was total commitment or total short-sightedness." McCanlies realized he still had a lot to learn about his chosen craft. "When I got to Los Angeles I just wrote my ass off and took all the classes that I could. Gary Shusett [brother of Alien screenwriter Ronald Shusett] ran the film school where Syd Field was teaching screenwriting. It was called the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, a kind of 'golden age' place on Hollywood Boulevard above a clothing store. To get there you went up this escalator that didn't work, but then people like John Milius would teach a class. Robert De Niro came in and talked about acting. There was nothing else like it."

The persistence paid off. Shusettread a script entitled Harlem that McCanlies adapted from his own novel of the same name, a direct-to-paperback that is still in print after 15 years. Shusett optioned the screenplay for no money. "He got a company called Interscope interested, and they optioned it from him. He got paid, and I didn't," McCanlies recalls with a laugh. Nevertheless, it was enough to get noticed.

To earn a living, McCanlies became a computer operator at Telecredit. But when the company discovered their new hire was also fixing their program, he was swiftly promoted to writing their credit card authorization software. "I was installing the network at a bank in Montreal, Canada, when I got a call from three top agents at CAA (Creative Artists Agency). They said, 'We just read your script [for Harlem], and we'd really like to talk to you.' I literally got on the next plane and showed up at their offices. I was sitting in the room thinking, 'Please, please ask me to be a client.' They started telling me all these wonderful things about CAA and why it was such a great place. A half-hour into their sales pitch I finally said, 'If you're trying to talk me into signing with you, where do I sign?' I would've killed to sign with any agent."

McCanlies was working quickly. After signing with CAA he was "getting meetings all over town," and that led to a two-year writing and directing deal at Disney. "Disney loved to sign up young writers and keep their salaries low. The idea was to take really young, talented writers and just lock them in for a long time at those low rates. For a starry-eyed young guy like me, I thought, 'Wow, this sounds pretty cool, an office on the lot, yada, yada, yada.'"But some neophytes at Disney didn't last long. "There was a writer down the hall from me whose deal ended, and they kind of unceremoniously threw him off the lot. I remember this party we had for him. He was kind of pale, going, 'I don't know if I'm ever going to work again.' I said, 'Chris, you'll do fine.' His name was Chris Carter. He's done okay with this little X-Files thing he came up with."

The Disney job was a baptism by fire. "There were a lot of Disney burnouts, older guys, especially the TV guys. I showed up and was so happy to be there. I was like, 'I love writing, I love being here.' They made such fun of me. They would come by my 'cell' and yell, 'So, kid, you still like writing?' 'Do you hate writing yet?'" McCanlies wrote three things at Disney, including one that "almost got made half a dozen times" and another that actually made it to production, called North Shore. "Randal Kleiser [the film's producer] and this spectacularly untalented director he went to USC with showed up at Disney and said, 'Okay, we want to do a surfing movie.' It was an assignment. Chris Carter probably should have gotten it. He was editor of Surfer magazine for years. Chris was very gracious about it."

Meanwhile, McCanlies kept writing for himself. He wrote Dancer during the "dark depths of my Disney days when they were asking me to write Ernest Goes to Camp movies." Eventually, McCanlies left Disney for Columbia, where he worked on three or four projects, including a production rewrite on 1991's Hard Promises, starring Sissy Spacek. Then he migrated to Warner Bros., where he has written four or five scripts, two of them rewrites, like 1996's Jack Lemmon-James Garner vehicle, My Fellow Americans. He also wrote a spec script, Secondhand Lions, that was optioned by the studio and came very close to being made -- which has made a lot of money for its writer. "It's been under option for big bucks the last five years, and despite all that, I now own it again. It's like a kid you send out to make money and tell him to send his check home." Not all his script experiences were positive. Working with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment was memorable for all the wrong reasons. "I worked on Little Giants ... but probably shouldn't have. That was a situation where basically Spielberg greenlit the movie. The studio was millions of dollars into it and didn't have a script. It was a mess from Day One. I had three weeks to turn in a script, and the director and I were still having these discussions about plot." After that, McCanlies wrote Dennis the Menace II, which became 1998's Dennis the Menace Strikes Back, "a wonderful script, unfortunately, not a great movie. It went straight to video. Then there's Iron Giant."

Although he keeps a house in California, McCanlies tries to spend most of his time in Texas. Just a stone's throw from the house, he writes in a trailer filled with books, compact disks, computers, and gun parts.The coffee table in his office is littered with scripts and magazines, many related to agriculture and cattle raising. His wife Suzanne, an amateur photographer, also has a darkroom out there.McCanlies knows his way around the inside of a computer, and the master bedroom contains several machines, all networked, running the new Linux operating system and anything else that catches his fancy. Downloading Linux off the Internet took a couple of days. So far out in the country, remaining connected is a problem. "We're one step above a party line out here," Suzanne explains. "Tim's blown several modems during storms."

The recent popularity of screenwriting amuses McCanlies. "People write screenplays for the same reasons they buy a lottery ticket. They think it's quick riches. I believe being a screenwriter is like becoming a doctor through home study. You've got to do it all on your own, and there is so much to learn. You've got to have that kind of professional, long-term, stick-to-it attitude or you're not going to make it. If you ask people, 'So, you want to be a painter or a musician?' They say, 'Oh, that's too hard. I don't want to have to study that hard. I'll be a writer.' I find that attitude so insulting. I've put in my years, and I'm getting to the point where I know a couple of things now. If you aspire to terrific things, of course it's going to take years and years of education."

The rise of independent filmmaking and commercial success stories like The Blair Witch Project have created a boom in "how to" publishing and seminars. The thought of it makes McCanlies sigh. "Every other weekend there's some person teaching a 'How to Write a Screenplay' seminar in Austin or Dallas. Have you noticed none of these people have ever sold anything? That's the first thing I look at. Look at all the 'How to Write a Screenplay' books on the rack. None of these people have ever written films. They have no credits. I don't know if they've even made a sale. It's not William Goldman [Misery, All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid] or Robert Towne [Mission: Impossible, Chinatown] writing those books. They're too busy getting million-dollar paydays."

McCanlies concedes the death of the literary tradition in Hollywood. "In the 1930s, Forties, and Fifties, screenwriters were people who'd grown up reading books. Now the people writing movies have grown up seeing movies. That's a big problem. That's why we're seeing copies of copies." Not only that, but beginning writers often lack "the ability to look at your work with the same critical perception as you would anyone else's. There are a lot of wannabe writers who look at a Spielberg movie or a friend's script and go, 'Oh, it's weak here.' But then their own script, which has all those faults and more, they think is the best thing since sliced bread. It's as simple as being able to look at your work and realize if it's working or not. So many people are not able to do that. You have to learn to step back. Learn where your strengths are as a writer. I know I have a certain skill set that certain kinds of things are better suited for me to write."

With his produced work as evidence, McCanlies admits, "I'm clearly character-driven. To me, plot-driven movies are dull because you know where it's going. The characters become contrivances because no real person would make the decisions that the plot demands." For example, "in a horror movie at some point it's the time for everybody to split up because they have to get killed one by one. No intelligent person would make those decisions, but these characters have to because of the demands of the plot. In a character-driven movie you don't know where it's going because this character is making up the plot as he goes along." McCanlies agrees with the oft-repeated axiom that the most interesting films are the ones with the fewest writers. "To me, a movie is about a singular point of view."

McCanlies took a summer seminar in the early 1970s from the late legendary screenwriting professor Frank Daniel. "Daniel said, 'Only hacks know the rules, and that's how they write. Tolstoy doesn't follow the rules.' There's a lot of truth to that. Ultimately, the people who read and adhere to John Truby's 'Story Structure' are doomed to failure, because by nature they're formulaic. The great movies are not. The great movies are like a movie you've never seen before that just comes out of nowhere. You don't know where it's going, and it's got wonderful characters that drive the plot."

"I once asked Frank Daniel, 'How many scripts does it take before you get any good?' He thought for a minute and said, 'seven.' Just off the top of his head. That's actually a pretty good number. William Goldman says he doesn't know if you really get any better as a screenwriter. I think you do. You certainly learn more craft. You don't necessarily get more passion or talent, but you certainly learn your craft better."

What kind of films will follow for McCanlies? "I never see myself doing Jim Cameron, but I'd like to do more challenging films, films where shots linger on faces, where you get to live in someone's skin. Fortunately, my tastes and abilities coincide in that arena." He recently adapted Hank the Cowdog for Nickelodeon and is in the process of setting up his sophomore directing effort, The Night We Liberated Paris, a dark comedy about an American bomb disposal unit in France at the end of World War II. But sooner or later, McCanlies will be back in his trailer at the keyboard because, as he says, "It all starts with a script."

Cary L. Roberts is a screenwriter and partner with Tim McCanlies in an Austin-based production company. He recently completed Cruel and Unusual: The Terrible, True Story of Willie Francis for Bottletree Entertainment in Los Angeles.

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