In for the Long Haul
Austin Film Festival hosts talk by screenwriter Scott Frank
"John Gregory Dunne has this great quote, 'Just wanting to be a screenwriter is like just wanting to be a co-pilot.'"
So says screenwriter-turned-director Scott Frank, the pen behind some of Hollywood's most durably entertaining movies. Oscar-nominated for his adaptation of Elmore Leonard's cool and kicky novel Out of Sight, Scott's screenplays also include Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, Marvel Studios' The Wolverine, and yes, even the tearjerking canine hit Marley & Me. Most recently, he wrote and directed Liam Neeson in the grim and gritty A Walk Among the Tombstones. Clearly, the guy's got talent to burn – he's also one of the industry's go-to script doctors – but how'd he get his foot in Hollywood's notoriously treacherous door?
"My big break came with a script I wrote in college, Little Man Tate," Franks explains. "It was a good college script but not a great script – it needed a lot of work. Eventually, I showed it to an agent who gave me some very good notes on it; I gave it back to him; he ended up representing me; and in very short order, I had an office on the Paramount lot. I was 24 years old.
"The other key thing for me was meeting producer Lindsay Doran. She taught me how to write, and so that time at Paramount became my real finishing school. I was really lucky."
Screenwriting is a fickle business (just ask your waiter/bartender/aspiring actress friend), but Frank's facility for adapting great reads into memorable movies is remarkable. After all, it's no easy thing to cut and chop Elmore Leonard or Lawrence Block's hard-bitten and darkly comic prose into a functional screenplay while striving to stay as true as possible to the source material's tone and tension.
"It depends on what you're going to keep," says Frank. "With Elmore Leonard, it was very tricky because there were gobs of good stuff that you just loved to read and thought would be great in the movie. Sometimes it was more literary than it was cinematic, you know? [With an adaptation] you're not so much trying to preserve the novel as you are trying to figure out what the movie story should be. You can't have everything from the book, so you're really trying to figure out what the book is about to you, as the adapter, and then how to refashion the book into a usually simpler and slightly smaller movie story."
With 2007's terminally underappreciated heist movie The Lookout, Frank stood up from his writing desk and sat down in the director's chair (while continuing to write). Was that the plan all along – to parlay his scenarist skills into time behind the camera?
"I always thought I would direct very early on in my career," says Frank. "I had started out [screenwriting] in my 20s and I just assumed that in my 30s I'd be directing. But I have a family, and in my 30s I had three kids pretty quick. I liked being home, I liked being married, and I saw how difficult it was to balance family and work for a lot of my directing friends."
So what then was the impetus to finally make the leap? "At a certain point I started to get bored with screenwriting," admits Frank. "It just wasn't enough for me. I needed another creative experience. Boredom pushed me into directing."
The Austin Film Festival hosts Scott Frank for a conversation titled Sustaining a Writing Career With Scott Frank on Sunday, March 1, 2pm at the Holiday Inn Town Lake. Go to www.austinfilmfestival.com for advance tickets.