Saturday, January 4, 2014

Storywriter for Godzilla 2014 Talks Creative Process

Dave Callaham (Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival) 
Max Borenstein is credited as the screenwriter for Godzilla 2014, but Dave Callaham is credited for the story. Read Dave Callaham's creative process and his approach to Godzilla in an interview by We edited out all the non-Godzilla stuff for your convenience.

FV: So what’s next for Dave Callaham?

DC: Before The Expendables was released, I pitched my take on a new Godzilla movie that Warner Brothers and Legendary are working on and was hired to write a first draft. I recently delivered that to the studio.


FV: Going back to the writing process. What’s your philosophy or mentality as a writer?

DC: I want to elevate. My philosophy as a writer is to always make something better than it ought to be. This is obvious. I’m sure every writer says that. But I really want to, if it’s an action movie I want to make it, like Heat is a good example, again, I want it to be an action movie with characters you actually care about, and stakes and themes. I always want the story to have themes even if it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard. Godzilla is a pretty cut and dry, giant monster smashes stuff. But the reason I got excited about it is because I saw themes and relationships to the modern world that I could tell in this story that was important. I always strive to elevate. And you see a movie like The Dark Knight and it tells you, or Inception, another Chris Nolan movie, it tells you, you can make giant movies that work on many different levels, that are intellectual, that are important, that are valuable and they work on a commercial level. And they’re exciting and they’re fun and they’re popcorn. People don’t do it too much, and I don’t think they try hard enough to do it. But I’d like to try. I do try. And you know, you learn that sometimes you try and things get changed. But if you don’t try then no one will.

FV: Do you use outlines, do you write a treatment first…

DC: It’s different every time for me. I have done the note card process to a point where every single scene was written out and it was exactly as I put it in the script. And I’ve done the lighter version of that where I have note cards of all the big scenes. So I know how things are gonna progress, but the connective tissue’s not in there. Now what I do, is I do note cards but I do them on Final Draft. I used to actually physically put up the note cards. I do an outline or a treatment on paper that’s bullet-pointed, just main points and how things go from act breaks. I turn that into Final Draft note cards, and then I turn that into the script.

I don’t note card, outline, or plot out act 3. I plot through act 2 and I know how the movie’s going to end and I know what the break is going to be, and I know generally, there’s going to be a big fight, they’re going to end up in Dallas… whatever. But I just found that my writing process always involved the script changing from what I thought it was going to be. It’s always the same idea at the end of the day, but it’s like I took a different road to get there than I thought I would because the characters sometimes become people you don’t expect them to, or sometimes you kill characters, or they never even exist.

FV: Is that because of the conditioning of the story, of the script, to get to where you need to be, or is that just allowing your imagination…like I want to kill this character today.

DC: I try to do it in service of the script. A lot of times I’ll say “oh wouldn’t it be cool to have a character who has this big emotional moment and this big arc.” Because it would be fun for me to write that character. But sometimes I’ll take a step back when I’m getting real close to writing and say “that character doesn’t inform the story in any way. That’s a character I should just save for a different story.” Or halfway through a script I’ll realize, there’s a hole here for how they’re going to get from point A to point B or how they’re going to get to destinations. Because sometimes characters get created that you don’t plan on creating. You know, I mean an outline will never be the detail that you need it to be to get it to script form. You’re going to end up inventing stuff as you go along. Not just characters, but plotlines, or MacGuffins, or whatever. It always changes. And I just got to the point where it didn’t seem logical to me to plan out act 3, because it’s never going to be what I plan out. So, I know what act 3 is going to be, very loose sense. But I write the rest of it, and then I just go.

FV: Do you approach your story first or create your characters first?

DC: Depends on what it is. Story, almost always. I don’t write the kinds of material where it’s so small that character can legitimately inform the whole thing. That would work for something like Rainman, but I don’t write like that. I write action stuff. So there’s always gotta be a hook or something. Even with Horsemen, which is very character driven and has good character work. It was a bigger idea, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

FV: So if you’ve got act 1 and act 2 pretty well laid out, how long does it take you to write that first draft? How long do you want to spend?

DC: Horsemen and Godzilla, the first and last things I’ve done, are pretty similar. I think they both took 3 months for a first draft. And they were both 2 ½ months to write the first 2 acts, and I wrote the last act in a week on both of them. Because it’s a runaway train at that point, and there’s no more questions. Act 2 is the hardest, because I know where I need to get them, how am I gonna get them there? By act 3, if you can’t just roll with act 3 you’ve messed up somewhere. Act 3 should write itself.

I get really emotional writing act 3. It’s coming out of me at that point. A lot of times I have to struggle to force myself to write the first two acts. First act’s easy, second act is hard. Third act, I’m just dying to do it. I’ve spent all this time leading you to a place, now it’s time to show you.

FV: Ho much time do you spend rewriting?

DC: Depends. Like on Godzilla I was under a pretty strict time crunch. So I wrote it, it was very, very long. I sent it to a couple friends and I did a week of super intensive rewriting. If you’re writing on spec you’ve got the luxury of time so it just depends on how long it takes to get it right. Usually once or twice. I don’t like to rewrite.

FV: Do you just know when it’s right?

DC: It’s not that you know it’s right, it’s that you’ve lost track of it because you’ve been working on it for so long. So usually for me it’s not actually a matter of “when it’s right I send it out,” it’s “when I have nothing left to give,” I send it out. And maybe someone will give me a note that reopens my eyes to something I haven’t seen. But I got a spec that I started writing 3 years ago. I wrote a full draft, rewrote it, put it away for a while, rewrote it again, put it away for a while, and wrote 60 brand new pages at the beginning of it to try to fix it. And it’s been sitting like that for a year. It’s still not ready to show to anybody. It’s never been exposed to producers or buyers or anybody.

FV: How do you approach the blank page? Where do you go to find inspiration?

DC: I watch recent movies that I like. I read a lot of comic books because to me it has the right combination of text and story-telling and visuals. If I’m writing a small character piece I could read fiction and be fine. But on Godzilla I wanted to always be thinking in giant, sweeping science fiction terms. So I was watching a lot of those types of movies. You know, I could be watching Star Trek and it would help me with Godzilla just because it put me in the right mindset of “the universe is yours to play with.” I watch a lot of Discovery channel stuff, History Channel and that always helps.

On Godzilla as an example and Doom I did this too. I watched a lot of nature documentaries because I felt like I’m writing about an animal; it’s just a giant animal. But if I can get some cool set pieces out of behavior that I see animals doing in the wild in the show, then I can maybe translate that into something. Just whatever’s appropriate. And then I read a lot. I’ll be reading fiction for the sake of constant creativity, but I also I feel like on everything I write there’s research I could be doing.

On the script that became The Expendables I read all about mercenaries. I read biographies of mercenaries and I read about first hand accounts of armed conflicts and things like that.  On Godzilla I read about the history of Godzilla, Godzilla’s history through film. But I also read a 600 page manual that is handed out to municipal areas, cities, counties, states, about disaster preparedness and how to react when a disaster does hit and how to make sure that you rebound from it. Because I was trying to tell the story from a perspective of Godzilla being treated as a disaster. So anything that I find appropriate I’ll read. Even if I don’t get a specific idea out of it creativity-wise, it gets me in the right mindset. I don’t want to be doing anything while I’m writing a script other than living in the world of the script. So if I’m not writing it and I turn around, I’m trying to spend time with my wife and have fun, but if I’m reading, I’m reading something that’s gonna help me in the right mindset, and if I’m watching something hopefully it’s gonna help me do that too.

Music by the way is also really inspiring to me. I don’t like writing to things with lyrics. When I first started writing I listened to classical music. Now what I do is I listen to scores of movies that are the right tone for what I’m doing. I listen to Clint Mansell almost religiously when I’m writing emotional scenes. I listen to The Fountain score. And when I’m writing intense, emotional action sequences, I listen to the 28 Weeks Later soundtrack. You know that? It’s got that crazy piece that just builds and builds and builds, and it’s pounding, but it’s not metal.  If I’m not in the mood and I play that really loud and close my eyes for 5 minutes and just listen to the piece I’ll get in the mood. It’s very helpful.


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