Q&A with Writer-Director Mark Fergus
Mark Fergus came to Two Lights Studio to speak and answer questions, at a free event on Thursday November 12 at 7:30 PM. Mark has been honored with many awards and nominations for his screenwriting, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for CHILDREN OF MEN, and he was a writer on IRON MAN. He is currently working on the screenplays for COWBOYS AND ALIENS (again working with Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau) – and is involved in development of the intensely anticipated live-action re-make of Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA. Mark appears as himself in the documentary TALES FROM THE SCRIPT, which is often described as a “must-see movie for screenwriters,” but is not yet widely available on DVD, and won’t come in book form until 2010.
As a director, Mark premiered his first film at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival – FIRST SNOW (which he also co-wrote) starring Guy Pearce. He is currently prepping to direct his second feature, psychological thriller THE BOTTOMLAND, again co-written with his writing partner Hawk Ostby, which will go into production in the Spring of 2010. Mark has taken a number of workshops with me, including workshopping scenes from FIRST SNOW in the Actor-Director Lab, and he cast in FIRST SNOW two Lab actors - Julie Gawkowski and John Burton, Jr.
Mark is a sweetheart of a guy, warm, down-to-earth, with a sly humor and off-beat sensibility, open and unpretentious, and really, really intelligent. I believe that his candor and openness are part of the DNA of his talent. He talked a lot about LISTENING – here are a few notes from the many enlightening and helpful things he said. I’ve broken them down to a few categories: for WRITERS, for DIRECTORS, and for ACTORS – plus his remarks – useful for everyone – on WHAT THE SCRIPT IS ABOUT, and his BAR STOOL THEORY. I am indebted to Craig Ouellette for sharing his notes with me. (thanks, Craigo!)
He talked about his unusual co-writing process with Hawk Otsby. They live on opposite coasts, and never work in the same room. Mark writes the outline (which Hawk hates to do), then Hawk writes the first draft (which Mark hates to do), which he sends to Mark. Then Mark can do anything he wants to the draft, sends it to Hawk, then Hawk can do whatever he wants – back and forth, until it coalesces. They never argue – Mark says, “Arguing intellectualizes things.” He advises writers: “Read a script without the pen the first time so that you can really see what they did. LISTEN before you respond.”
Mark says deadlines are a gift.
Studio Notes, no matter how bad they are, are also a gift. He recommends, when you get bad notes, ask yourself, What prompted them to give me such a sucky note? The wose the notes, the bigger the opportunity to find something new. Read their notes without judgment; see patterns; it’s a decoding process. Don’t dismiss anyone as not intelligent – every response has a valuable nugget behind it – it might be hidden – the person just might not have been able to express it. Everything is fair game and you can always ignore BS notes, but before you do, see what you can get out of them. When you consider people’s notes, it makes them want to work with you.
In the beginning of his career, he and Hawk wrote 10 specs. All sucked. He was just copying other films. He had to find his voice. After the 10 specs that no one wanted, they finally decided to go out and shoot their own movie. That was “First Snow.” They wrote what they cared about and finally got an agent the next week. Writing to sell and not writing to write is what they’d been doing. Still, nothing is wasted. All those scripts and ideas can come back and be used at some point. Your own voice is the only way in. Tap your own magic. Write about that.
WHAT THE FILM IS ABOUT
“Children of Men” – What the film is about: What happens when the person who hurts you the most ask you for more. (“Casablanca” has the same premise.)
The superhero dilemma (“Iron man”) is “Put a mask on and be yourself and do right, vs. keep mask off and do wrong.”
Laughter is a good choice for dark material. Any situation can be funny.
“Always end up going back to 4 or 5 themes that resonate with you,” as writers, filmmakers. Your issues. Trust this, go inside you. For instance, Mark finds that a theme that resonates with him is Self Sacrifice - doing something that doesn’t benefit you.
While working on the “Iron Man” script he realized the central theme has to be boiled down its very simplest – the best way to know you have structure is when you reach a point and can’t keep going. “Get it to an atom that can’t be split.” What he realized finally was that “Iron Man” was about a man who finds his heart. When you get to The Hallmark Card version, then you know you understand your story.
Which brings us to -
Mark’s BAR STOOL THEORY. “If you can’t tell ‘em at a bar, “here’s my story”, if you can’t do that, you don’t have a good story structure.”
The flip side of the BAR STOOL THEORY, is that your best resource as a writer, director, actor, is to get people to tell you their stories. If you get people drunk, they will tell you their deepest, darkest secrets. People are honest with strangers. “Give a man a mask and he’ll be truthful.”
Listen to the story thru the actors. BEFORE you say a damn thing. It might be different. Let them be free. Put the writer’s hat away and let actors give you the characters.
Sometimes in drafts he’ll overwrite, capitalize, underline, so that people who read lots of scripts won’t miss it. Then, for the actor draft, they don’t need that and you can trim everything down.
Often the actors don’t need all the dialogue that’s been written. On some “First Snow” scenes he ended up cutting 2/3 of the dialogue.
Have a rehearsal plan even if you can’t do it all. Have many ideas, simple enough that you can try them in 5 minutes. Take chances. Professional actors come PREPARED. BE READY. A quick talk and let it go.
Casting is often done last minute. When a new actor arrives on set, you need to spend time to catch them up to the other actors. Find in-between moments to do rehearsal with actors on set.
Mark chose a scene from “First Snow,” to screen for us, and talked about how the actors’ ideas and choices influenced his direction.
Each actor is different. Try different choices and techniques; some work and some don’t so ADJUST.
Get up close, not behind monitor. Get in close. “There is plenty of time to watch dailies on screen, so watch live faces in person.”
“Fearlessness is more possible than confidence.” “If a director is not committed to the scene, why should the actors be?” You have to believe in the scene to get actors to take a risk. Guy Pearce, for instance, was so committed to his belief in the reality of “Memento” that he’s not even aware that some viewers find that film mysterious.
Actors need to know you’re protecting them, and their well being, so be out there with them, don’t be a control freak. Don’t get confused between having the confidence to ask for what you want – which is good – but it’s different from being a control freak. Everyone is out on a limb together. So you’re less scared if you realize this. It’s not like a normal job. Filmmaking is so consuming, you better love it.
ACTORS – when AUDITIONING
Look for different facets of scene, as many ways as you can to play it – 5 or 6 different ways to play it, not just the obvious, but also unusual ways. It doesn’t have to be “right.” Don’t try to “nail” it. Nobody knows how it works so they are all scared – everyone is scared and unsure. Be truthful. Dive in, have fun, try stuff. Make a committed truthful choice.
One of the people attending said afterwards, “Everything that Mark said was something I needed to hear!” Thank you, Mark!!!