Writer Roundtable: Chris Rock, Gillian Flynn on Their "Perfect Movies," 'Gone Girl' Backlash and Unhappy Endings
To kick off THR's annual awards-season series, 'Chef's' Jon Favreau, 'The Theory of Everything's' Anthony McCarten, 'The Imitation Game's' Graham Moore and 'Interstellar's' Jonathan Nolan open up about everything from their role models to the trick to writing "perfect movies." Says Flynn: "I'm all about the unhappy ending. I will not give you what you want"
This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The year's THR roundtable series kicked off with an unusually prepared group of writers. Jon Favreau, 48, who wrote, directed and starred in the food-truck dramedy Chef, once hosted Dinner for Five, a weekly IFC roundtable show with a format very similar to THR's series; Chris Rock, 49, whose raucous comedy Top Five is garnering the best reviews of his film career, used to grill fellow talents on his HBO talk show; and Gillian Flynn, 43, who adapted her own novel Gone Girl, was a magazine journalist before she became a best-selling author and screenwriter.
They joined blockbuster-maker Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan (Interstellar), 38, and fresh scribes Anthony McCarten (Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything), 53, and Graham Moore (The Imitation Game, the story of British code-breaker Alan Turing), 33, for a lively discussion of "perfect" movies, stinging criticism and what it feels like to get a congratulatory call from Jerry Seinfeld.
A lot of your films have autobiographical elements. How do you decide what part of you to put in your writing and what to hold back?
JON FAVREAU I've never written anything that's not autobiographical. But it gets hidden. I remember with Swingers, it was like, "Oh, that's your life." Well, it kind of wasn't, but you accept that because it kind of was, in a weird way. Chef the movie, for me, was kind of like the food truck that the chef was opening up to feel reinvigorated creatively.
CHRIS ROCK The line is basically, "Don't put in anything that will get you sued." (Laughs.) Yeah, I'm a comic, I play a successful comic who has had some bad movies. I can relate to all of that, but I still have the balls to say it's not me.
GILLIAN FLYNN When I was trying to find out who these characters were, I gave Nick, the main guy, a lot of my biography: from Missouri, went to New York with kind of a chip on his shoulder about being from Missouri and got a magazine job. People are always like, "Are you Nick or are you Amy?" I'm more Nick, actually. They assume because I'm a woman I'm more close with Amy, but thank God that's not the case.
ROCK Thank God.
FLYNN (To Rock) Come sit by me. (Laughs.)
FAVREAU It's like a good lie. The more you keep the truth in it, the more believable it is. Writing sometimes is coming up with a good alibi, a good story that is plausible.
Jonah, you make movies with your older brother, Christopher Nolan, directing, and your sister-in-law, Emma Thomas, producing. How does that dynamic impact the filmmaking process?
JONATHAN NOLAN There's no politics. No bullshit. You just create. Famously in Hollywood, your friends stab you in the chest. If you can trust the people you collaborate with the most, then hopefully you can reach for that higher level with the material.
What happens when you get rewritten by your brother?
NOLAN It's a conversation. (Laughs.) I grew up with him watching movies, thinking about movies and always understanding movies. I think of film as a director's medium, with no disrespect to the writing aspect of it, but it's f—ing light in a box.
GRAHAM MOORE Was that hard for you, Gillian? With the book, you're completely in charge of it. And then you give it to a director and …
FLYNN I mean, I gave it to this guy named Fincher. … I don't know if you've heard of him.
NOLAN Yeah, what's he done?
FLYNN I did breathe a big sigh of relief when it was David who came aboard to do it. He's who I wanted from the beginning.
FAVREAU What's the biggest difference between writing a novel and [a script]?
FLYNN I realize how decadent writing a novel is. You really own this world, you can do whatever you want to it. You can go inside people's minds. Gone Girl has a lot of internal monologues, so it was a big struggle to figure out how to have them show you who they were instead of like, "Here's about me." The entire time I was adapting the screenplay I had a giant sticky note above my computer that said, "IT IS A MOVIE!" to remind myself to not try to take everything from the book that I liked and jam it all in.
That must be a similar challenge when you're adapting a person's life. How do you choose what to put in, what not to put in?
ANTHONY MCCARTEN It's a bit like stars in the sky. There's vast distances between the stars, so if you think of these highlights, these points of someone's life, you've got to chart your path to the next star, and this is where the invention comes in. I call it emotional ventriloquism. I have to somehow write dialogue for a genius when you're something far less than that, so you end up with 95 percent invented dialogue — 50 percent of the scenes didn't quite happen in the way that you're representing them. But you're hoping you're getting an emotional authenticity out of it.
Chris, who is your sounding board? Whom can you ask, "Is this funny?"
ROCK Louis C.K. For the last 20 years, Louis likes to go, "What would really happen?" And that's what I try to take into any writing. What would really happen?
FAVREAU That's Neil Simon, too. That's the big, "What is this really like?" And I don't think people ask that enough.
NOLAN That has limited use when you're doing a Batman movie. (Laughs.)
FAVREAU (To Rock) I haven't seen your film yet, but we did a table read of it together and I knew something was coming out. There was a point of view that had been acquired over decades of being in the business where even just an offhanded comment has a lot of spin to it. I would rather watch something that's authentic than see something that's geared towards me in a very homogenous way.
ROCK I love a movie that I don't get three or four things.
MCCARTEN That's like when I came upon Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and you start reading it and you're going, "I'm at page 10 and I'm still getting this." And then, "OK, page 15, lost me." (Laughs.)
NOLAN Yeah, that's where I dropped out, too. I have three copies of it.
MCCARTEN The most unread book in the history of publishing.
FAVREAU Just for the shelf.
MOORE But it looks so great sitting there.
FLYNN Pristine because you never get past 20.
MOORE People talk about such-and-such being a perfect movie, but you don't really want to make a perfect movie. You want to make a movie that's imperfect in new and interesting ways.
NOLAN You want to piss off at least a few people.
Do you guys have that perfect movie? What's the one script that you really wish you had written?
NOLAN Back to the Future is a perfect movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark, another perfect movie. The great moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison [Ford had] dysentery, or whatever the crazy story was, so they had to cut out the whole sword fight and he just shoots the guy — the screenwriter was probably sitting there thinking, "f—ing A." But it makes for a perfect moment.
FAVREAU The Bad News Bears is a really well-told story where the good guy seems not to be likable and requires clever storytelling and great performance. It seems like there's a lot of conflict, but really there's a lot of togetherness, and it's one of those where a lot of people remember that they won in the end, but they really didn't.
NOLAN Wait, they didn't?
FLYNN I love unhappy endings, I'm all about the unhappy ending. I will not give you what you want.
FAVREAU But you'll still be happy.
FLYNN It's not the most satisfying, it's the most correct and true. I remember being 5 years old, seeing that movie in theaters and first they lose, and you think, "What's happening now? They lost." And then the team comes over and apologizes, and you expect the Bad News Bears to gracefully accept their apology, and instead the kid's like, "Take your trophy and stick it up your ass!" And I was like, "This movie is great!"
FAVREAU Rocky also. The same era. You could not get that done now, unless it's independent.
MOORE Do you think you could make a movie where he'd lose at the end like that?
FAVREAU You'd be fighting upstream a lot. It wouldn't test well.
ROCK It would never test well. The beauty of Rocky is, Rocky's like life. You think you're watching a boxing movie, and at the very end you realize, "Oh shit, I've been watching a love story the whole time." And life is like that. We write and we do all this stuff, but your happiness is going to be found in your relationships. If you talk about school right now, you went to school every day and you learned for six hours a day, but if I ask you about school, you'll remember who you were f—ing, who didn't want to f— you, that's all you remember. And that's what the beauty of Rocky is. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he just got punched in the face a thousand times by this big guy, but it's all about this girl.
MOORE Your work is tricking the audience into thinking they're watching one kind of movie and then actually, through the process, there's something else.
So what is Gone Girl really about?
FLYNN Well, on the surface, it's a mystery of "Did this guy or did he not kill his wife?" But to me, what was interesting was that idea of the game of emotional con artist that we are [playing] when we meet people, and we're telling each other very specific stories to get you to like me. I like the idea of what happens two years, three years, four years down the road, when you don't have that energy to keep up the mask anymore.
ROCK You're never meeting somebody, you're meeting their representative.
Chris and Jon, do you write differently when you're writing for yourself? Do you care about likability?
ROCK Boy, I hate the word "likability." Especially when you're doing comedy because you always like funny people. You know what I mean?
FAVREAU Louie DePalma [from Taxi].
ROCK Louie DePalma is exactly what comes to mind. If the person's funny, you will like them no matter what. If they're unfunny, f— them. That's just the rules of comedy. It doesn't apply to Batman, but …
NOLAN F— that guy.
ROCK I hate to say I don't give it that much thought, but I just kind of assume people are going to like me. (Laughs.)
MOORE You're not wrong.
ROCK A lot of likability is just casting. It's just, "I like you!" (To Favreau) I just like you more than other people, and some people can just get away with shit. I did a movie that wasn't that good awhile back that I directed, and I remember Alexander Payne talked to me and goes, "I watch you do stand-up, you can get away with anything. And I watch your movies and you're so safe. What are you doing?" And I took that note into this movie.
MOORE Were you consciously in this film like, "F—it, I'm going to do whatever I want? No rules. I don't have to be safe."
FAVREAU And it's the one people like the most, right?
ROCK It's the one people like the most, yeah.
MCCARTEN I'm going electric, I'm plugging in!
Chris, you said you made some bad movies. Did you know they were bad when you made them?
ROCK Not at the time. Here's the weird thing: You don't know how bad you've done until you do something good and you see the difference in the reaction. Because people tell you everything's great! People tell you your movie's great, your stand-up's great, and then you give them something good and you see the same people and their reaction, and you go, "Oh shit, you were lying about that other thing!"
FAVREAU But are you grateful for the lying? Because I've become more grateful for the emotional [support].
ROCK (To Favreau) You know what? The movie I did before this one [I Think I Love My Wife] died a miserable death, and you, Jonah Hill, a couple of people were so supportive. Without the support, I don't think I would have made another movie.
NOLAN Honesty in those moments is overrated. There's a big difference between being honest and being an asshole.
FAVREAU You learn a lot from being a parent, actually, because a lot of it's just surrounding them with enough support that they're going to have the strength to get through the challenges that they're going to face.
ROCK (To Favreau) I think you called me, even.
FAVREAU I did! And I saw you and we spoke.
ROCK I don't know if I would have ever directed another movie.
MCCARTEN Without his phone call?
ROCK I swear. I'm not saying that because you're here.
What do you do for inspiration if you have writer's block?
NOLAN Well, I used to ask that question, "What's writer's block?" I don't really get that. Then I realized one day, "Oh, that's every day."
FAVREAU Eat more fiber.
ROCK I always have two books I'm working on [reading].
FLYNN That wakes up your brain.
ROCK Yeah, that wakes up your brain. I should always have two books. I should always have a stack of magazines.
NOLAN When I'm writing, I try to avoid fiction in particular. I tend not to read a lot, because you're worried you'll pick up someone's voice just by watching a great movie. Or read a great book and spend the next day writing like Hemingway.
ROCK I don't have that problem. (Laughs.) (To Flynn) I read your book when I was making this movie.
FLYNN Oh, really? That's pretty awesome. All right.
Who are your movie role models?
ROCK Woody Allen. That's an easy one. It's almost cliche to even say. He's the best.
NOLAN One of my heroes is Ernest Lehman, who wrote North by Northwest and The Sound of Music. If you can write North by Northwest and The Sound of Music, hats off. That's versatility to me.
MCCARTEN When I was growing up in the '80s and working in the theater, David Mamet exploded with a whole new reworking of what dialogue should sound like. It was punchy and raw and repetitive, bursting with dynamic. I remember that switching on a lot of lights for me.
MOORE It's so exciting when you have a writer like David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin, someone who has a voice that you can hear.
MCCARTEN Dialogue is our domain. It's the one area where the viewer doesn't go, "Wow, that's beautifully directed."
NOLAN It can be galling, too. I remember watching The Dark Knight for the first time, and Heath Ledger's incredible in it and there's stuff that I worked on really hard. But his two best lines in the film are "Yeah" and "Hi," neither of which were scripted.
What's the best piece of advice someone has given you about filmmaking?
MOORE I had a moment, right before we shot our movie, I talked to my friend Fred who has made a bunch of movies. "As a writer on set, what's my job?" And he was like, "Well, there's one simple thing you have to remember: You're the writer on set, shut the f— up!"
ROCK [Filmmaker] Reggie Hudlin said, "Eat with the crew." Just eat with the crew. You'll get more out of your crew if you just eat with your crew every day.
Gillian, Chris and Jon all have films that include pointed critiques of the media and especially critics. Where did that originate?
ROCK You got to write what you know. There's nothing like the Friday your movie comes out. We all had a prom or whatever, but you couldn't bomb at your prom. (Everyone laughs.)
MOORE I beg to differ, actually. (Laughs.)
ROCK Imagine reading about your prom the next day.
For someone who has had as much success as you, the critics still hurt?
ROCK A little bit, yeah. You didn't do this to not be liked. You didn't do this to not get attention. When I tell or when Don Rickles tells a joke that's mean, there's always an aside to it. "No, no, I'm serious, you're a beautiful woman." The critics never do that. They just rip your thing to shreds.
And Gillian, as a former magazine writer, you had a media background.
FLYNN Yeah, I have been on both sides now. I don't feel this monolithic opinion weighing down on me because I know it's just some person sitting at their laptop with a tuna salad sandwich and writing their opinion.
People have taken Gone Girl to task for promoting a negative message about women. What do you think of that?
FLYNN I had one single dark 24 hours, where I was like, "Did I destroy feminism? Dang it, I did not mean to do that! Am I a misogynist?" There was a weekend when all those think pieces came out and then I very quickly bounced back because I thought, "That's absolutely ludicrous." Just because you have a bad woman in your movie doesn't mean she's indicative of all women or suddenly we're going to go back 20 years, and that goes back to some idea that women had to be protected from evil or were seen as evil, and that's fairly ridiculous. I think we're tough enough to handle it.
MOORE I'm sure you must have had moments of having other filmmakers you like or other writers come up to you and shake your hand …
ROCK The best feedback — oh my God, meaningful to me — probably Eddie Murphy.
FAVREAU On Swingers, I got a call from [Jerry] Seinfeld. I was Eric the Clown on one episode [of Seinfeld], and all of a sudden people have your number, and that's when you had answering machines. (In Seinfeld voice) "Jon, loved it. Loved Swingers. That's all I got to say."
MOORE Did you save the message?
FAVREAU Not long, it just disintegrated from playing it over and over again. That's when you realize you have to make those calls to people because of how much it means to you. If I like something and it's not hitting, that's the most important call I'll make. "You got it, keep going, this isn't your fault. It's a bad weekend. You're opening up against a Nolan film."
Chris Rock Top Five
About the Roundtable Series
THR's signature discussions with the top awards contenders begin with this issue and continue throughout the season. Watch the full videos on THR.com or THR.com/iPad, or tune in to the A&E network in December to watch the Actor and Actress Roundtables.