Cheers! Let’s Break The Ice – is coffee your “go to”?
Caffeine is the writers drink. I’m not a great sleeper so this is what gets me going before I get writing. I read once that some of the common denominators for writers are long walks and coffee. So, for good productive writers, take long walks and drink coffee.
Did you always want to become a screenplay writer?
Screenwriting for me is a challenge. It’s about trying to crack something that is difficult to crack, it’s about trying to figure something out – whether that’s the story itself or the characters. It’s like a puzzle and it drives me nuts but I love it. It was a step that I took because you didn’t have to be rich to be a screenwriter. You just needed a pen and paper or a laptop.
Anyone who is successful has gone through some challenges in life. Setbacks, failures, rejection etc. How did you deal with those challenges and get to where you are?
Growing up in the military – in a Mormon, Southern community and a Republican home in the 80’s/90’s, there was absolutely no tolerance to be gay. I had an awareness of who I was and the crushes that I had – the girls were all my best friends and the boys caught my heart. I also had words for that because if you were living in such a conservative community, you were probably hearing some pretty rough language around being an LGBT person. So because I had words for it, there was no confusion about who I was. There was also no confusion about what I would face if anyone found out. At the time, it was still a crime. Many also thought it was a mental illness and wanted to put you into conversion therapy which includes; electroshock therapy. But you also knew that beyond the law and medicine, you were probably going to be considered an outlaw with your community and your church. You also don’t want to lose your family and the people you love so it puts you in a closet that’s very dark. At that time, you weren’t particularity aware that there were people out there like you. So you are just looking for a way out. Unfortunately, the way out for a lot of young people is to take their own lives. I’ve dedicated so much of my work to make sure there are other avenues besides that. One of the ways you can help is to let those kids know out there that they are not alone and that LGBT people have been around forever. And that some of them are fighting to make sure your lives are made better. That message to me is so helpful.
As a writer, what makes a great screenplay?
Do your very best to do something that’s very “you” and be true to that. Make sure you are doing something that you really care about, that you have done your research on and then do your best to make it the best it can be. Whether or not it “hits” is sadly not up to you – you are rolling the dice as a creative person on stage and screen. You have to ask yourself “how is the world going to react when it comes out and what is happening in the world at that time”. With some of my projects, they had to be done well and a lot of work was put in BUT they also came out right when the world was looking for it. Milk has survived because people love the movie but I know that it “hit” when it did because it came out right at the time when Proposition 8 passed in the USA which took marriage equality away from everyone in the most populous state. It came at the right time and got people talking- it just worked. When I talk to young screenwriters, I tell them to “trust their gut” but to trust their gut in two years from now because that’s when the project is going to hit ( if everything goes flawlessly). It’s impossible to predict the future, so at the end of the day, you need to write what you love and write what you know. Be specific, write with authenticity and write with passion and the rest is luck.
Let’s talk a little about Milk. What was the processing in developing the script and how did you get it into the right hands?
Milk was very unique at the time. I didn’t have a studio, network, producers, financiers, nothing. Just me and the real people who had worked with Harvey Milk and my passion to tell a story that I had wanted to see told for a very long time. I didn’t know I would be the one to tell it, I hoped other people would. But a bunch of other projects kept failing and so eventually I just took it on. So it was me, the people who knew Milk and a credit card. It was a lot of buying people dinners and drinks and convincing them to participate and believe in me without pay. I was lucky as at the time I was writing on a big HBO show, I had an agent and some access to cast- I knew some people. I was able to get the script to Gus Van Sant – we had a friend in common and had been at a dinner years ago and I knew he had interest in the project. When word leaked that I had a director on the project, I got a congratulatory call from Dan Jinks – a producer on American Beauty. He and Bruce Cohen stepped in to produce. At that time, getting any sort of LGBT story told was incredibly difficult- studios and networks were not interested. So we had to make it undeniable and make it clear to studios and networks that this could be profitable and could attract an audience. So we took it to the one place we knew had figured out how to make money off of an LGBT themed film – the makers of Brokeback Mountain – Focus Features. So by the time we took it to them, we had the director and producers on board. As well as Sean Penn, James Franco and Emile Hirsch – they bit and the rest is history.
What was it like working with Clint Eastwood as a director?
He is just a cool guy… he’s Clint Eastwood. By the time J. Edgar was shooting, I had began to check out of film-making a little bit. I was on my road to the Supreme Court with a whole bunch of people in the Marriage Equality case and that was taking up most of my time. I ended up taking about half a decade off from film-making in order to fulfill a promise I made up on that Oscar stage – to get marriage equality to all 50 states. As we were approaching Supreme Court- we needed to get these Amicus Briefs signed by those who support the idea of marriage equality. The real challenge was to get people who were unexpected – a bridge to a different group of people. Clint is famously Conservative and Republican – those are the people who everyone thought were against marriage equality. I called Clint and asked him if he would sign on to our Amicus Brief in favour of marriage equality and give us a quote. Without a thought, he agreed, and gave us a quote. It cut through all the drama and got a lot of coverage. All of a sudden, a lot of tough conservative guys, looked at Clint and what he was doing and questioned their own thoughts and opinions about Marriage Equality. A lot of good came from J.Edgar.
How much room should a writer leave for an actor or director to interpret a script?
A screenplay is going to leave room anyway because of how it’s written. I am always directing the camera on my screenplays and that breaks the rules for some people but the directors I have worked with, have all appreciated it. It doesn’t mean they take every suggestion but many times they do. Film is only about a century old, it’s a really new language- the rules are really new. I encourage people to break the rules because we are all discovering. Actors and directors are going to bring their own work to it regardless – it’s a collaborate art, so it’s going to happen. Do your best on your own before you share it. Make sure it’s good quality and you understand what each moment needs to do. Make sure your characters are well built and then when you get to set with actors and directors, be ready for a workshop experience. Conversations with actors often make it better but there are also times when you need to stand your ground.
What made you decide to write a Memoir at this time in your life and why the title “Mama’s Boy”?
I was approached to do a memoir after the Oscars and after the win on the Supreme Court for Marriage Equality. Both times I didn’t know what it would be about and if I had something that others would be interested in. And then, some things happened in my life – some great loss. When you lose people who were really close to you, you tend to start to see those relationships for what they are and how foundational they were. That intersected with where the world seemed to be headed to. Long story short, my family is mostly very conservative. By 18 years old, I was living in California which is a Blue Progressive State, studying the arts- in the theater – so my family and I were worlds apart. Looking through today’s lens as to should this relationship exist and should this family stay together, people would say “no”, there’s no bridging that divide. The truth is, my mom and I were incredibly close, all the way to the end. We figured it out. It was very tough but we always figured out how to find the bridges and the connections and continued to communicate. Sometimes it was heartbreaking, funny, absurd, but that’s the kind of work you have to do to find the higher plain in politics. That’s what the book is about. How do we, as people, in relationships, families and communities find the bridges. There are things you have to do to remind yourself that life is so much bigger and better then just the headlines coming off the news programs. So Mama’s Boy (and I am a mama’s boy) is about two people who a lot of people thought should have been divided. I’m hoping, that like a pebble in a pond, the story of our family and our relationship, might resonate with others and bring a few more people, families and communities together.
Any advice for writers who are searching for their authentic voice and trying to get their writing out there?
I’m always telling young writers, to write what you know and love. Dig into who you are, dig into what makes you different, and start embracing those differences. It’s those unique qualities in who you are and what you are attracted to that give you that voice. That unique voice supersedes all of the rules about what is marketable. Carve out your own little niche that you love.
What do you with you’d known then that you know now?
I wish I knew how powerful I was in my 20’s. I think everyone says that when they get to my age though. Understanding that your perspective is valuable and that when people call you naive, maybe they just don’t know where things are headed. Maybe your guts tuned in. I think those were some years that that I didn’t use as wisely as I could have or as bravely as I could have. That’s a really long way of saying “trust your gut”. Your guts very wise. The generation ahead of you might tell you that your gut is wrong, but they may not be right. Don’t listen to them too closely.
If you could Break The Ice with anyone, past or present, who would it be and why?
If I could have a drink with anyone, it would be my mom. It’s not just because I miss her but unfortunately I lost her before I had my son. My mom was paralyzed. She raised three boys on your own (that’s in the book as well) and I just don’t know how she did it. I have every limb working and in great health and it’s a struggle. It’s a lovely struggle but it’s a lot of work. And I just don’t know how my mom raised three boys without the use of her legs. I’m so curious and I have so much gratitude and so many questions that I would love to ask. I would also love her advice on a few things- she would be my number one.
Number two is all about what’s in front of me right now and right now I’m working on a Bayard Rustin movie He is another great hero of mine. If I could sit with him and interview him for this project we are doing, that would be incredibly helpful and inspirational. I also think he has a message of collaboration and an understanding of intersectionality that we could really use right now in the world. As much as I am chatting to people that knew him and reading his words, nothing compares to that one on one conversation. So my mom and Bayard are my choices – that would be an awesome evening- we would have plenty of drinks. We’d ask him to sing, he was a great musician as well. That would be a great little Break The Ice trio- can we do that?
Videography: Cors Media
Photography: Jack Lewis Williams
Talent: Dustin Lance Black
Host: Kendal Olivia Barrett