When Michael Green first started out as a screenwriter, he read every script he could get his hands on. When he finished a screenplay, he’d toss it into one of two piles. There was a pile for scripts he thought were better than what he himself was writing and another for scripts he believed were worse. “I thought I could start to tell where I ranked as a writer,” he recalls. “But back then, the ‘better than me’ stack was a lot higher than the ‘worse than me’ stack.”
Twenty years later, there’s a third stack — his own produced screenplays — and it’s getting taller all the time. In fact, Green, 44, may well be in the middle of the best year any Hollywood screenwriter has had in decades, with credits on four of 2017’s biggest features — Logan, Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049 (with footage premiering at Comic-Con) and Murder on the Orient Express — not to mention a part in creating Starz’s new hit show American Gods. You have to go all the way back to 1960 — when Billy Wilder had The Apartment, Ninotchka and the original Ocean’s 11 come out — to find a comparable streak. And yet, unlike such showboaters as Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black, Green has managed to churn out all these pages while keeping a remarkably low profile.
Indeed, there is virtually no chance any of the customers in this West Village cafe on a rainy July morning, even if they’ve seen his movies, know Green’s name. Dressed in jeans and an Oxford shirt, the bald guy forking into an egg white omelet looks more like a run-of-the-mill suburban dad than a red-hot player in New York meeting with director Kenneth Branagh (in fact, he is a suburban dad; he lives in L.A. with wife Amber, a former copy editor at the Los Angeles Times, and their two young children).
Green grew up just north of the city, in Westchester County’s Mamaroneck, where he spent his childhood studying the Talmud at a Jewish religious school that his Israel-born mother insisted he attend (his father, a real estate developer, was more agnostic about his son’s religious education). A lot of his school friends weren’t allowed to consume pop culture, but Green’s parents were more lenient. At 11, he discovered the joys of Spider-Man, kung fu movies and Knight Rider. In high school, he secretly installed cable in his bedroom so he could gorge on stand-up comedy shows and TV series like Northern Exposure and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.
His life veered even further toward the secular when in 1991 he enrolled at Stanford University, where he wrote a column about his dating life for the campus paper. At that point, writing screenplays wasn’t high on his to-do list, but he did script a romantic comedy stage play and contributed to the homecoming musical. “I didn’t go to college thinking that I would be a writer,” he says. “It took me a while to figure out what writing meant.” After graduating, Green came back to New York and hustled his way into a junior development job at HBO, where he spent his workday reading other writers’ scripts. That’s when he started making piles and realized he had a flair for dialogue. He signed with an agent, WME’s Ari Greenburg, and a year later, in 1998, Green was meeting with the creator of a new comedy being launched at HBO: Sex and the City.
“I didn’t even know what the show was about,” he recalls. But when creator Darren Star told him it was a dating show, Green sent a few of his Stanford columns over to Star’s apartment.
And just like that, he had his first TV credit — a season one episode about how everyone isn’t getting laid. “It changed my life,” Green recalls between bites of his omelet. “Darren had an idea that he wanted to give someone their first job, and HBO said, ‘Hey, if you like this new kid you want to take a shot on, why don’t you just give him a script?’ He’s like, ‘No, I want to make him a staff writer.’ I have taken on that; on every show I work on, I try to give someone their first job.”
The Sex and the City gig led to more jobs. He spent a season on Smallville, three seasons on Greg Berlanti’s Everwood and had a brief stint on Berlanti’s short-lived Jack & Bobby. (Berlanti says he had wanted to hire Green as far back as Dawson’s Creek and was impressed with Green’s versatility and his ability to find “levity in the darkest hours” of long writing days.) By 2007, he was even developing his own show for NBC, Kings, a David and Goliath retelling that, despite good reviews, fizzled after 13 episodes. Around that same time, though, Berlanti was producing a big-screen feature and brought Green in for an early draft, along with Marc Guggenheim (now the showrunner on Arrow). Boom: Green had his first film credit. Unfortunately, the film was Green Lantern, one of the biggest bombs in superhero history, grossing just $116 million on a $200 million budget.
Still, Green’s original draft got noticed — before it was completely rewritten by others — and his timing was excellent. “It was around the 2008 [economic] crash, and movie studios were starting to realize that there are these things called television writers who, unlike feature writers, have discipline,” he says. “There used to be a big divide [between TV and film writers]. But the studios realized that if you gave TV writers a chance, they would hit their deadlines, give you great work and say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Green Lantern marked another important change in Green’s life. “I started working on that with Greg and Marc, I had a girlfriend and a dog,” he says with a laugh, “and when it came out I had a wife, two kids and a dog.” But collaborators who know him best think marriage made Green a better writer. Says his American Gods partner Fuller, “The biggest evolution would be him as a family man. Family is prioritized in a fashion that is hard not to respect. Achieving that balance between showrunning and having a family is a very tricky thing to do that most don’t do well, but Michael seems to have grown into it as he’s grown as a writer and showrunner and storyteller.” Berlanti echoes, “Probably the thing I’ve witnessed the most, the thing that’s always the most inspiring, is that he was always great about building a life for himself, while most of us were focused on just building a career — and that, I think, informs his work.”
He began to think more ambitiously, writing a script for an action movie based on the story of Moses (those years of religious training finally paying off). The film never got made, but his script did perform one miracle: It got noticed by Steven Spielberg, who hired Green to take over Robopocalypse after Drew Goddard left to make The Martian. Working with his hero was intimidating at first. “I saw E.T. five times. You go to his office and there’s the original Rosebud right behind you and you can’t speak.” He quickly realized he had to put the fanboy aside. “There’s a strange point in meetings with people who are as legendary as Spielberg where you have to get over the fact that their name is Steven Spielberg. As a writer, you’re hired for your opinions, and your opinion can’t be “no” — no one wants a dick — but you’re hired to talk to them like they’re a person, so that you can get to your common goal. You have to find a way to build and bring ideas and bring your enthusiasms, and often just help them translate something that’s in their head that they haven’t seen yet. He doesn’t want a movie that’s just dictated.”
Green spent six months meeting nearly daily with the director in what turned out to be the master class of a lifetime. To him, the fact that the film never got made is all but incidental. “I came out of that with a new skill set,” says Green. “I now knew how to write a movie.” And that’s when Green’s career really took off, particularly a fruitful relationship with 20th Century Fox. Steve Asbell, the executive vp for production, connected him to James Mangold, who sought out Green (with Scott Frank) to write Logan, Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the X-Men series (it grossed $616 million). Asbell also introduced him to Ridley Scott, who brought him on to Blade Runner and then Alien: Covenant. And the studio hired him for its all-star remake of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (opening Nov. 10). Green said yes to them all — he even took a temp gig writing patter for the 2015 Oscars — juggling jobs like bowling pins. “If anyone knew what I was doing on the side while doing what they believed was the only thing I should be doing, they would have come after me with baseball bats,” he jokes.
Working with Scott and original screenwriter Hampton Fancher to translate their “beautiful, lyrical, epic poem tone piece” of a treatment into a screenplay was another formative experience for Green. “If he can’t see something, visually see it, he can’t engage it,” he recalls about working with Scott. “Once he does see it, something amazing happens that I’ve never seen before: He starts sketching the scene on a notepad and those go to his art department for the scenery and storyboard artists.” (Well except for a couple that Green cops to having kept as souvenirs).
Of all the movies he has coming out this year, Green has the most personally riding on Murder on the Orient Express. It’s the one screenplay he was most intimately involved in — he’s the sole writer — and it’s his first foray into a genre outside the action-superhero arena. (Sources say Green got about $1.25 million for the script; his weekly rate for rewrites is said to be $200,000.) Branagh, who not only directs but plays Hercule Poirot, says the pair forged a close relationship, riding on the real Orient Express together from Paris to Verona while location scouting for the film. “We were walking down corridors, looking at angles and how bullets could have worked,” says Branagh. “It was fantastic.”
Here at this café in the West Village with rain pouring down on this July morning, Green is happy to linger and enjoy the last few moments of a long holiday weekend. Bryan Fuller is flying in this afternoon and the two are headed upstate to start working on season two of American Gods. “I was looking through photos on my phone the other day,” he says. “I was looking at last summer. And in the span of just a few months, I went to New York, Toronto, London, Budapest, back to London, to Budapest again, Toronto, New York and back to L.A. I just turned to my wife and I said, ‘Was I an asshole?’ She said sweetly, ‘We stayed out of your way.’ “
A version of this story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.