Longtime screenwriter and first-time director Scott Frank on 'The Lookout'
"I wake up. I turn off the alarm. I take a shower. With soap." Chris Pratt is journaling his daily activities. He makes the coffee when his blind roommate, Lewis, isn't around. He locks his keys in the car, but a spare is safely tucked away in his shoe. He goes to class. He writes. He's working on sequencing. Chris is broken but not ruined. He's truth incarnate, a young boy trapped in a man's body.
Scott Frank's The Lookout isn't a film about brain injuries. It's not even about memory loss or tugging on bootstraps. Essentially an expertly crafted heist movie, The Lookout is a tale of human endurance and forgiveness. A master of character portrayal, writer and first-time director Frank has molded the life of Chris around the model American teenager: A championship high school hockey player's dreams are crushed in one night on a dark farm road outside of Kansas City, Kan. It's a beautiful scene of fireflies and blackness, innocence and invincibility. And then there's silence.
Frank (Dead Again, Little Man Tate, Get Shorty) is no stranger to American cinema. For the last two decades, his screenplays have been touched by the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Jodie Foster, Sydney Pollack, and Stevens Soderbergh and Spielberg. Nominated for an Academy Award in 1999 for his adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight, Frank is comfortable in Hollywood. But behind the camera was unfamiliar territory. If The Lookout is any indication, Frank's next 20 years might have him trade pen for lens.
Bolstered by stirring performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt who has had star written all over his chiseled jaw ever since he grew out of his 3rd Rock From the Sun adolescence as Chris Pratt and Jeff Daniels as Lewis, The Lookout dives past the surface into an escalatory examination of the psyche. After his accident after relearning how to tie his shoes, hold a mop, count money Chris finds work as a night janitor at the local farm bank, which is where the bad guys come in. You know the ones: out to make a buck, not worried about trampling the roses, firm believers in The Lookout's mantra, "Whoever has the money has the power." But Chris isn't about to be someone else's victim.
As South by Southwest 07's opening-night film, The Lookout made its world premiere here, away from the glamour of Hollywood and the snow of a Kansas City, Kan., via Winnipeg, Manitoba, winter. We spoke to Frank the afternoon before his screening about the art of filmmaking, the acceptance of a screenwriter, and his directorial debut.
Austin Chronicle: Where did the premise for the movie come from, and how long have you been working on it?
Scott Frank: I've been working on this film for about 10 years. The initial impetus was two things really. I'd been reading about these little farm banks in rural parts of America that for a couple of weeks would have a lot of money in them. ... And then a friend of a friend had gotten into a horrible accident. ... There was a collision at an intersection that they were waiting to cross the street at, and they were actually pinned against a pole. Serious head trauma and coma for a period of time and then woke up an entirely different person. I've always been fascinated with identity in my movies. Little Man Tate is about a kid who's a man in a little boy's body, and Dead Again is about people really searching for their identities only to find out that they experience life as this completely different gender in a past life. Get Shorty is about a loan shark who really wants to be a movie producer, and Out of Sight is about a bank robber who wished he could've led a different life so he could have a romantic relationship with a federal marshal. They all have been about that. Those two notions just gradually began to come together in my head as one, and I started to think about it as a movie and what it could be.
AC: How did the director's shoes fit you?
SF: I wanted to do this because I really wanted to try something different. I didn't want to do it because I felt my work had been messed up. I've worked for some great directors and have been very well served over the years. I think the impetus for me was really to learn something new and to feel alive through the learning process. So stepping into the director's shoes was very scary on one hand, because it was a completely new thing, but on the other hand, it was exactly what I was asking for.
AC: I read that you live for writing. I wonder how it feels as a screenwriter to have your work distorted, even if it's sometimes changed for the better.
SF: By the very nature, it's distorted. You have to accept as a screenwriter that what you have in your head will never be on the screen. You hope that you respect what's onscreen, and you hope you still see yourself in the work. But at the same time, the process is so collaborative that by its very nature, it's very hard to see yourself. To affect your voice as a writer on the screen is a little like trying to pick a lock with a wet noodle. It's very difficult. Even as a director, the biggest lesson is you're making compromises all the time. I think a lot of writers want to direct because they think they can control everything, but once a movie starts getting made, you're just hanging on for dear life. ... I think control in life in general is illusory. You don't have any. We're all out of control.
AC: Why have 10 years passed since you started writing The Lookout?
SF: Well, I didn't write it originally to direct myself. Originally, Sam Mendes was going to direct it, right before American Beauty came out. We spent some time working on the script, and then Sam went off to do Road to Perdition instead. And then some time lapsed, and David Fincher came on to direct it. David Fincher and I spent a good amount of time developing it before he then went on to go make Zodiac. ... He left, and movie languished for a little while at DreamWorks, and I really didn't want to go through the process with another director. I was really feeling like I had nothing on my plate to write, and I was experiencing all of those feelings I described before. I really wanted to direct, so I declared myself the director.
AC: One of the things that I thought was really interesting was that both Chris Pratt and Lewis had been their own victims. What does being a victim mean to you?
SF: I think that we as a society don't take responsibility for our own actions, and I felt like both Chris and Lewis took responsibility for their own actions. Chris in the end caused a lot of heartbreak, and he was just hoping he would be forgiven. He didn't blame it on anyone else; he blamed it all on himself. Lewis fully accepted the fact that he caused his own blindness, and I think that too often in our country, and in the world actually, we're all victims. We don't take any responsibility for own actions.
AC: How do you feel about critics mentioning Memento in reference to your movie?
SF: It drives me crazy, because the movie was written several years before Memento. It's frustrating, but there's nothing I can do about it. Also the movie's very different in terms of tone, in terms of what it's about, and the memory thing is only a small part of it. And it's only a small part of his pathology in terms of his accident, too; sequencing is actually a bigger issue for him, and emotional disinhibition is the other issue that he has. And that stuff is more prevalent than his memory issues for me.
AC: So many of your characters have such little dialogue, but that makes the part.
SF: If they're onscreen, I believe they should resonate. Even if they're giving someone directions, you want the character to have some sort of presence for the brief time they're onscreen. Every second is precious real estate.