EXCLUSIVE: It is only after Eric Roth invites you to sit on his front porch and discuss screenwriting and the thorny process of making great movies that you find yourself saying, wait, you wrote that one too? He’ll tell you you’re sitting in a chair where Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer winners held court — as if sitting with arguably the greatest and most successful living screenwriter isn’t intimidating enough — and there will be the occasional interruption as neighbors or passersby stop by this covered birdhouse looking repository at the edge of his lawn where Roth places books he’s read and admired, to help others revel in his lifelong love of words. They all want to talk about what they read and Roth is in no hurry to send them on their way.
You wonder why a writer, so unparalleled at distilling a massively successful book like Killers of the Flower Moon into the blueprint for a great movie creatively controlled by a director and not him, would stay in that lane. When so many of his peers have exited for the on ramp to directing, which gives them all the control. You cannot argue with the results: Roth has been nominated six times for Best Adapted Screenplay — Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, A Star Is Born and Dune — and another nom would put him past Billy Wilder, one of his heroes. A Best Picture nom would put him one past John Huston, another hero. After I did The Film That Lit My Fuse with Roth and he discussed how ingesting LSD helped his appreciation of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the umpteenth time he’d seen it, I knew he would spill the tea on a lot of all our favorite movies. Here, he took me on a tour of a life where the struggle to take a book to screen leaves him content despite the occasional frustration. And why an ex-fighter’s daily sparring sessions with Hollywood’s greatest director minds is reward enough for him to stay on that road for life.
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DEADLINE: Oscar nominations are underway. If you share a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination with Martin Scorsese for Killers of the Flower Moon, you break a record held by Billy Wilder. And if Killers is a Best Picture nominee, that puts you one better than John Huston and a record in that category. Heady stuff. What does it mean to you?
ROTH: If I’m being honest, I would trade everything I’ve done to have written Sunset Boulevard, and The Treasure of The Sierra Madre.
DEADLINE: What did those scripts have that any of yours do not?
ROTH: Were they perfect scripts? I don’t know. But they were turned into the most incredible movies, just beyond great. Those are the ones that inspire writers like me to do what we do.
DEADLINE: It’s the Oscar season midpoint. When Killers opened in theaters, none of you got to promote because of the strikes. It is certainly nice to see Lily Gladstone out there now as the film gets widely seen in Apple TV+, a great backstory to go with her breakout performance. Not too many screenwriters write a movie that gets a green light, and then hangs in when the director and star want to take a different path, and you start over.
ROTH: That process was what, seven or eight years?
DEADLINE: Have there been some reactions you’ve heard out there that made you feel, it was worth all that struggle?
ROTH: I think I mostly feel that we got to the right movie, that we had something to say, and we didn’t have headlines about it. We honored the people this was really about, telling the story through Lily’s character Mollie. This was the right movie, and Marty did something that equaled his vision and his maestro status. I’m left feeling I’m part of what will be a great legacy. I saw Scott Frank out there and he said, Eric, you’ve just have had the greatest career, which was nice to hear, from him. I’ve come away feeling the movie says something that will hopefully last.
DEADLINE: Now, you could have gone the route Scott did, where he directs a lot of his scripts.
ROTH: I’m certainly not a director. There are very few pure screenwriters left at all, it kind of feels like a dying breed.
DEADLINE: Why have you stayed in this lane so long?
ROTH: Not that I always got to choose, and I’ve made mistakes God knows, in some of the things I’ve chosen. But I guess I have just followed the material, the themes and ideas, and then tried to always enhance it. I always wanted to make it the best, like if I’m writing a disaster movie, can it be the best disaster movie? Also, I’ve gotten to work with all these incredible directors, like Marty., There have been some good, some bad marriages, but I’ve always tried to make the material better for them, and also to help them realize their vision. That goes with the number of actors and actresses putting the words on the page for them.
DEADLINE: You were a boxer as a kid. Were you any good?
ROTH: Golden Gloves. I was getting my ass kicked every day, leaving high school. We lived in Bedford Stuyvesant, pretty tough place, and the kids were not nice. And I said, I got to do something about this. My dad had one piece of advice for me. He said, whoever’s the worst bully, you hit him as hard as you can, and he will stop.
DEADLINE: Did it work?
ROTH: Yes, and no. He came after me again, but this time he brought three friends. That was a problem.
But I was tall, kind of lanky, only weighed 125 or something, and all these short guys wanted to knock me out, these headhunters. I was able to stay away and win on points. I think I knocked one guy out. I did okay. I never minded getting hit.
When I was in high school out here, I remember there was a whole wave of antisemitism in the Valley. Kids were writing swastikas on a synagogue, and somebody told me a certain guy had done it. Big kid, too. I got into him in the gym and I remember when we rolled out into the playground and ripped each other’s clothing half off and all that. And you walked home like gladiators, feeling like such big tough guys.
DEADLINE: Did you gain his respect, maybe turn him around?
ROTH: The sad part was he and his brother both died in Vietnam. I have no clue, but I always felt terrible about that.
DEADLINE: They say you learn everything about yourself when you get punched in the face during a fight. I think I understand how you’ve carried this boxing thing into screenwriting. Your job description promises you will take punches, because you are replaceable and not in control.
ROTH: No. The director is.
DEADLINE: But you are getting in the ring with these great heavyweight filmmakers, and you mix it up and see where it comes out. How do you think being a scrapper has helped you in this game?
ROTH: In boxing, and life, the biggest lesson I learned from all those years was the need for collaboration. If you’re a writer, even if you get your back up and you think someone’s not listening, try to figure out a way to be heard and get your two cents in. Early on, I was working with Stuart Rosenberg, who had been my mentor at AFI.
DEADLINE: Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Village.
ROTH: Nice man and pretty good filmmaker. We were doing The Onion Field, and I kept writing one scene in the script that I loved, and he wanted to cut it and we argued for two, three weeks. Finally he said, I’m going to tell you what. Leave it in the script, but I’m not going to shoot it. End of conversation, when you know who’s the boss. Now, the cop-turned author Joe Wambaugh didn’t like what we were doing and Harold Becker ended up directing the movie and we were both out. But I learned you better figure out another way to be heard, unless you want to go direct. You can’t name on one hand working well-known screenwriters anymore. They’re all writer directors.
DEADLINE: Again, why not you?
ROTH: I had some opportunities to direct, and I directed shorts in college and was pretty good. Not great. But honestly, I had a lot of kids. I really didn’t want to devote two years of my life away from home, missing those moments with my kids growing up. Beyond the sentimental, I never felt I had the math for directing. You have to be able to visualize what it’s going to look like. It’s fine when it’s in your head, fanciful on the page. Also, I’m not that patient a person, so I’m not sure I would’ve had the patience for actors. I love actors, and God knows I’ve tried to get enough of them to come out of their trailer, but my impatience is not a great trait.
DEADLINE: How does that play out when you are given deadlines, notes not only from the director but everyone else?
ROTH: I’m good with a deadline, knowing that I’m going to fudge an extra two weeks. The only thing I don’t like is when producers in particular, and those who are not producers but agents or somebody who decides to become a producer, they say, ‘when are we going to see those pages?’ Well, guess what? You’re not seeing them before the director’s going to see ’em.
DEADLINE: You don’t want to take notes?
ROTH: Not from them. Since when are you one of my producers? The key for me is you try to alleviate anxiety. And when someone’s giving you, how are you doing? How’s it coming along? It’s immediate anxiety. I’m a professional. I know what I’m doing. You’ll get your script. Hopefully you’ll like it as much as I do. I don’t mind if it’s a director who’s saying, how are we doing? They check in occasionally, that’s fine. But when you get a producer, and it’s literally every week, I tell ’em right away, you can’t do that because it just induces anxiety.
If I said to you, the script will be in February, it might be March 1st, but you’ll have the script. Once, I was very, very late. For whatever creative reasons I was having issues. I could see the producers were very angry, but I said to myself, they’re going to go through stages of grief. They’re going to be angry, they’ll get to acceptance, and then they’re going to forget about it and when they get the script, which they’ll either like or won’t. I’m not sure that’s the best advice for people who want to get paid and have a good reputation. At one point, I had a reputation, not for unproduceable, but for slow, long scripts, which can be dangerous. Now, they let me write fairly long ones because my prose is my stock in trade.
DEADLINE: Since you are not writing a novel where you flesh out the whole world, or painting the whole picture as director, do you find yourself writing outside of the dialogue to help an actor or director interprets what you’ve set down, knowing they will put their own signature on that?
ROTH: Yes. Some directors resent it because you’re giving them a little too much in the way of tone and stage direction. Not many, but some say, I can figure this one out. It’s much easier if the writer is a writer, because there’s a shorthand, and they know what will be fixed. if they’re not a writer? I’ll give an example. He is a nice man, and we had our issues kind of, and yet we worked well together for as long as we did. Robert Redford is not a writer, so he always wanted you to show him what you’ve got and then you can make his mind up. Others like Michael Mann, a writer himself, think they’ve got the gist of the scene and they’ll be like, let’s move on.
DEADLINE: I remember covering The Horse Whisperer book rights auction. $3 million was big money back then, and the film didn’t live up to its blockbuster expectations…
ROTH: I know they spent a lot of money for it. Joe Roth. I was flattered, they asked me to do it right after I had won the Oscar for Forrest Gump. I remember sitting with Bob in a meeting and him not saying it, but basically making me feel like, what have you done for me lately? Like, okay, congratulations, but let’s move on. We saw that picture differently. He was always worried about breaking the mold of the book, and I wasn’t as hidebound with that. And eventually I thought, you know what? He’s going to look in that mirror and see me there and not want me there. And that’s what happened. That was one of the times I got my feelings hurt. I’ve been taken off other movies, that’s not the only time I’ve been rewritten. But the reason was that weekend I was to go to give a talk at the Austin Film Festival. I got some big time writer award, and two hours before, Redford said, I think we’ll make a change.
DEADLINE: Hard for the Oscar winner to puff his chest in Texas…
ROTH: Exactly. So I have this in the back of my head. Some big shot. I’ll give you another example of that. So I won’t tell you the name, but I was feeling like I had a watermelon for a head with all the nice stuff about Killers of the Flower Moon. I had been waiting until after the strike, and then I had some writing to do to turn in a piece of material to a particular director. That weekend was so nice for Killers, and that Sunday night, I got an email from the director who had read the script and wasn’t as keen about some things I was. So, it was back to earth. He came over the next day, and said, I’m sure you’re feeling like you’re on the top of Mount Olympus, but I’m going to bring you off it a little bit. But that’s fine. It’s part of the game.
DEADLINE: Killers of the Flower Moon lands in the win column. When The Horse Whisperer doesn’t meet the expectations of a pricey bestseller, who wears the loss most: director, star or the writer?
ROTH: Not the writer, unless you have three or four of those. Then you’re in trouble. I think it’s on the director.
DEADLINE: What’s the closest you’ve come to thinking, I’m in trouble?
ROTH: That’s a great question. Maybe it’s my arrogance. I’ve always felt that the material and the script I’ve written was equal to the task. Maybe it wasn’t going to be as commercial as I thought it would be. I did a little movie called Lucky You, that was a failure. I wanted just to have a small little love story, set in the world of gambling. And I thought…I’m not going to besmirch the director because I absolutely liked Curtis Hanson, who’s gone now and who had Alzheimer’s. And I thought he was going to add something that I had missed and wasn’t giving in the screenplay. He had some idea about Las Vegas. He wanted to convey something about gambling, something about love. And none of that quite came out. I don’t know if it was from his illness or what. I felt like maybe I didn’t give him all I could have given in some sense. If I had it to do again, I would’ve said, so what is it you want from this?
I copied, up to a certain extent, the very end of a movie called The Only Game in Town, which was Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor. I think she was supposed to be by any other name a prostitute. Those two hooked up, and George Stevens was the director. It’s very glamorous and he’s always kind of very superstitious, like a craps player. And anyway, the end of it was a beautiful scene where he looks completely down and out, and he’s sitting on the curb in Vegas, and there’s a little ripple of water running down the street, and she comes and sits beside him, and you figure this is the end of this story. But he takes a hundred dollars bill out of his pocket and makes into a little boat, sails it down the little river, then another one, and then another one. It’s pretty great. There’s something about that I love; there are certain scenes that in movies seem so much bigger. Like that scene in The Right Stuff, at the end when they’re trying to go get Sam Shepard after he flies so high and the plane crashes. He walks out of the fog. Chuck Yeager. And the guy says, is that a man? The other says, goddam right it is.’ I love that kind of heroism. Or James Dean in Giant, when they discover oil. I like big scenes like that.
DEADLINE: What are scenes like that you look back when you watch the movie and you go, man, I had a good day at the typewriter?
ROTH: It’s a small thing, but I like in Killers of the Flower Moon how Marty wanted to use the fire at [William Hale’s] his ranch. I think that was very apocryphal for what the movie was about. I’d have to think of each movie. There is always a moment I’d try to do something either heroic or romantic. Jimmy Woods always called me a sappy dog heart.
Some of the more sentimental things, it’s like when, as far as Gump’s on that little lawnmower, and here comes a woman coming back, or Benjamin Button, I think he’s going in one door and she’s coming out another or something like that. And that was very romantic to me. in Star Born I, I was leaving in my car and my wife Ann was walking away, and I called her name and she stopped and said, what? And I said, I just want to see you again. I told that to Bradley Cooper, and he put it in A Star Born.
It’s life. This is not from life, but there’s a book I was reading called Wellness. I still need to read the rest of it, but it’s about a couple young people in their twenties who are at used going to school or working, living across from each other in Chicago in a little alley shitty apartments. But they could see each other through the windows. And they get little glimpses of their lives. Each fantasizes what and who those people are. And so they run into each other in a bar, and the young man sees her across the room and he walks over at her and he says the following two words. He reaches his hand out and says, ‘come with.’ That’s all he says to her. I think that’s spectacular. I’m going to steal that fucker. I’m going to call the author and say, can I use this? Anyhow, in the book, they cut away to 30 years later from that come with, and what happens to their lives.
DEADLINE: The geography of that reminds me of Here, a graphic novel you scripted which brought back the Forrest Gump gang, about things happening in the same room of a house.
ROTH: Yeah. There’s a line from the song, where I have Tom Hanks telling Robin Wright, I can’t take my eyes off of you. There’s some sentimental things that we’re still working on, and I think we need to infuse a little more lightness and joy in it, which will happen. And otherwise, we’ve had great test screenings. We’ll see. That’s next year.
DEADLINE: Reuniting with the Forrest Gump stars and director Robert Zemeckis sounds fun. Gump veered radically from the book, and Here sounds just as difficult to adapt, the constant being this room we see through long spans of time. Why that one?
ROTH: I’d called Bob, and I told him I think I want to do a sequel to Contact. Bob said, well, that’s going to be really difficult. The rights are controlled by Carl Sagan’s wife. Not that she’s not good to work with, but she’s still difficult and they want do it as a TV series. But he said, you know what? I was thinking of you. I have this book called Here, and I think you’re just the right writer for it, so let’s do it together. So I looked at it and I said, let’s go. What’s the worst that can happen? I know it’s camera locked off in one living room. It’s very profound in its own way about life and death. Hanks is great in it and Robin Wright is stupendous. There are still some things to fix but we’ve had three test screenings and they’ve gone great. But there’s these things these audience are telling us…
DEADLINE: Feels like the challenge is to not make it feel like a gimmick, a conceit.
ROTH: I promise, you never pay attention to it after the first scene, you won’t think about it again. We’ve had three audiences of 300 or 400 each, 1200 people, and maybe one or two have mentioned that. There’s no coverage, just the cameras locked in on that room. He’s done some things with this building. Ramped up the stage and ceilings and this that. Most interesting is we had to deepfake Tom Hanks. So he comes on the screen, with Robin Wright and they’re both 22 years old. It is flawless. Tom Hanks from Big, it looks like Robin Wright from Princess Pride and the audience just gasps. They just take it as movie magic.
DEADLINE: That’s AI, then?
ROTH: Well, I guess it is. What they do is digitalize everything from that particular age of Tom’s life. Stills, videos, movies. He then acts whatever age he is, 65 and it’s being simultaneously done as if he’s 22. I could write a love story with Tom Hanks and Robin Wright at 22, and you’d believe it. Maybe you’d think it’s a gimmick, but you’d forget about that. Bob Zemeckis is a genius. He just, beyond his imagination, what he can conceive of. This doesn’t have the kind of slight imperfections they had in The Irishman or anything like the ones that all led up to this. If you look at Forrest Gump now, the special effects look clunky, but it doesn’t matter, it’s part of the charm of the movie.
DEADLINE: Zemeckis stopped making live action films for awhile and spent years making these performance capture animated films. Sounds like Here will be a chance for him to make a mark with this other new technology. AI was a nasty word during the strikes. With the right safeguards, is it the next great tool for filmmakers like Zemeckis?
ROTH: Well, it was great for this movie, let’s put it that way. If you want a 50-year-old actor to play a 23-year-old student, they can do it, perfectly. Someone who knows special effects might say otherwise, but to me, the performance is exactly what they would be doing at the particular age. With all the wisdom and all the lessons they’ve learned, except they look like they did. For Tom, that is the 22-year old in Splash or Big. He would make his voice a little higher and a little more energetic in his performance. It is extraordinary, really.
DEADLINE: You work hand in hand with directors like Zemeckis, and Scorsese on Killers of the Flower Moon. Do you prefer to present a director with your fully fleshed out vision of a script, or work with them right along and not be alone staring at a blank page?
ROTH: Usually I’m first and I’ll go it alone, and then they’ll come in. And it’s not that we’re not communicating all the time, but it was that way to a certain extent. I had scripts written before Marty came on, and then we did a lot of changing. Marty got more and more involved in the writing, and I loved it. Usually, it’s my vision first but this one and the one with Zemeckis was 50/50. I’d write a bunch of scenes and then he’d edit them, add some stuff and then send ’em back, and we’d go back and forth. That was really as close a collaboration as I’ve ever had. I delivered a script of The Insider to Michael Mann and then he said, let’s think about this. And then he did some writing, and I did more writing. Ali would be the other one. We were in a really big hurry. We could start in September when Will Smith was available. This was May or June, and so Michael wrote the third act, and I wrote the first act, and then we’d switch and I’d write the second, and he’d rewrite the first.
Others are usually like Dune. Denis [Villenueve] took my version, and then he ran it through his typewriter. And then another writer came in because I was kind of done by then and I had to go back to Killers.
DEADLINE: You were okay with that?
ROTH: I am usually okay with it. I don’t want to start trouble, but there a few times it pissed me off.
DEADLINE: Steven Spielberg’s Munich?
ROTH: Munich. I wasn’t happy that he replaced me. But I don’t want to say much…I mean, I love Tony Kushner, the guy he brought in. He’s brilliant. He wrote as great a play as ever has been written, Angels in America. We could debate things he did in Munich or different things I did. I understood why Steven did it, even though I wasn’t happy.
DEADLINE: Well, let me ask you this then, if it isn’t too personal…
ROTH: You can ask me anything personal. I might not answer it.
DEADLINE: Was there something in Munich that either was either changed or eliminated that in particular you most missed when you saw the film?
ROTH: lt wasn’t that. I think Tony was brought in for another reason. I don’t think it had to do with what was right or wrong about what was written. I think that Tony is a well-known intellectual Jewish man that I think Steven felt he wanted that as…I don’t know what the word is, but someone who could feel all the vagaries of that world. I mean, they took all my Wikipedia down and just put ‘Jew.’ I was getting threatened. People were saying they were going to come cut my throat.
DEADLINE: When was this?
ROTH: During the writing of it and the filming. And then I think he wanted Tony also to give a philosophical idea of, as a really known Jewish man and a wonderful writer, to field questions and things. I was going to do a Munich thing a few weeks ago; Steven had actually asked me through USC. And I said, I think it’s a bad time. I don’t want someone coming and machine gunning me while I’m standing on the stage. It’s the same thing, there are no easy answers. Maybe some political solutions. But when I was writing it, and I’m saying, well, they kill these guys, and six other guys are going to take their place. And that’s what happened, in Munich. And then the next day, terrorists would bomb a school bus with children in Israel, and I’d go, ‘fuck ’em all.’ So you get conflicted. And then at the end of the day, the movie, I think, doesn’t take a particular stance about who’s right or who’s wrong. Or saying, these are the conditions, and we’re hoping there’ll be two states and that kind of thing.
But I hadn’t really written much of [Avner’s] mother. The guy I had focused on was his father, who had been in the Mossad and had been in jail in Syria, and was an important part of this guy’s life. And the real guy would call his father every time after he killed somebody, and they would talk about soccer or something. But his father knew he was checking in, about that. Most of that was gone. I asked Steven and he said, I didn’t even know this. He just never really said anything. Years later, he told me the guy who played the father wasn’t cutting it to his degree of expertise and he felt it wasn’t good for the movie. So maybe it’s right. But the movie’s a really good movie, so I would never knock it. It’s an important film.
DEADLINE: I recall the controversy. I broke the story of that film, after holding it three years waiting for Spielberg to finally commit, and believing if I wrote it earlier the attention might have killed the project. When Eric Bana was cast, I was asked to hold that too, because he was doing international press for Troy and it was a security concern. I managed to break them both anyway, and I could never get away today holding that long. I wanted Spielberg to find the courage to make that movie, which I think is one of his very best.
ROTH: It’s not about the courage with Steven; he just has to make up his own creative way, and can see the movie.
DEADLINE: There was lots of acrimony in the followups to the story he would make Munich, with many accusing the subject of making it all up.
ROTH: I don’t think he made it up. I’m not sure, altogether. I’ve had some Mossad guys say, ‘it’s a good story’ or something like that, but I got to know Avner fairly well.
DEADLINE: And what else would you expect a Mossad guy to say?
ROTH: I’ve been through that with The Good Shepherd, where I met every CIA person known to man, people who killed people and everything else. And it’s just a different world with a lot of gray, and not a lot of yes and no. I met the guy who was head of Mossad, through Bob De Niro, and when I asked him what he thought of [Munich], he sort of winked and said, ‘it’s a good story.’ So you can take that whatever way you want. That might be him saying, it’s all true. I don’t know. I don’t know. After I did The Good Shepherd, I do read things differently. Anything the Israeli government’s announcing or Gaza is announcing, I take it with a grain of salt. A lot is disinformation.
DEADLINE: Final word on writing for these great filmmakers, with the full understanding you’ll never have the final say?
ROTH: Because of the class of the directors I’ve worked with, I will always feel proud of giving them the kernel of an idea which they then expand with their imagination. Then I can jump in and benefit from their imagination. Like with Bob, on Forrest Gump. I think I had overwritten it at one point. I had had Forrest seeing angel wings always on Jenny, and Lieutenant Dan would have a black cloud over his head. Bob said, it’s too much, man. And then the other thing that Bob did, which I thought was really smart, was…I had Jenny kill her father with a wheat thresher.
DEADLINE: There was strong suggestion in that scene where he was drunk and calling her name, and she hides in the wheat field, that there was abuse. He was a child molester?
ROTH: Yeah. And Bob just felt, I don’t think we should show that, because she’ll never recover in the audience’s eyes. Even though she was entitled to do that, she was still a murderer and will never overcome that. So we took that out. I always thought that was smart of Bob. And then all the things, I mean, he’s just in such an inventive man.
Another person who would be generous enough to take my imagination and use it, even though he may not have seen it the same way, is David Fincher, on Benjamin Button. I love David more than life itself.
DEADLINE: You hear he’s a guy who favors a ton of takes, which must wear on his actors.
ROTH: He’s a perfectionist, yeah. He makes a precise watch.
DEADLINE: Does that drive a writer crazy?
ROTH: Doesn’t bother me. I’m not the one having to do the takes. Of course, I did witness him work on Benjamin Button. I don’t know if he was quite that way, and when produced Mank, he certainly was that way. That’s the way he works and they respect him for it because it’s always great. He has made as good movies as anybody in the last 20 years or more. On Benjamin Button, he let me do things that I never thought he would, that he left in. Both my parents died when I was writing that script, and there was always a hummingbird outside my window. I loved that hummingbird, and I always felt it meant something. When my mom died, another hummingbird showed up, and I figured, oh my God, my mother’s become a hummingbird. And I wrote a scene which was completely ludicrous; the scene itself had to do with a true story about a tugboat that got torpedoed by a submarine, and they ended up making the submarine blow itself up. And Brad Pitt is now pulled out of the water onto a destroyer, and he’s looking at where some of his men died. All of a sudden, I had hummingbird come up out of the sea, and he says, what the hell is a hummingbird doing here in the middle of the ocean? David left that, for me. So that’s the kind of thing you go, okay, I’ll take that.
By coincidence, in one of the early moments of the Bob Zemeckis movie Here, there’s a hummingbird, and another at the end. So who knows about me and hummingbirds, if you believe in magical thinking,
DEADLINE: Where does Marty Scorsese fit in there?
ROTH: Marty will try anything. If you say, Marty, I’d like to write the movie backwards, I think he’d say, okay lets try it.
DEADLINE: What about when you got that phone call from him, when you’ve worked for a year adapting Killers of the Flower Moon…
ROTH: Just a year? I wish. He decided to do the script after a year of me writing it and then doing rewrites. It was three or four years when Leonardo DiCaprio decided, I don’t see myself playing that lawman. Marty went off to do The Irishman, so there was more time in between.
DEADLINE: What are you thinking when that happens?
ROTH: I was a little stunned. Marty called me. I came to New York to work with him, I’m in a hotel and he says, are you sitting down? I said, it’s two in the morning. I’m lying down. He said, Leonardo has a big idea. I said to myself, oh, Christ. Another fucking actor’s got a giant idea. But it’s okay. I’m used to it. And on the way over, I figured out what Leonardo wanted to do, and it wasn’t wrong. He wanted to play the husband. He felt uncomfortable playing the great white hope. He’s really smart about story structure and knowing what works for him.
DEADLINE: I know it caused a lot of grief with Paramount, but this movie would’ve been ridiculed for being yet another white savior tale…
ROTH: I was aware of it while I was writing it, so I wasn’t stupid. We did a couple of things [in the early version]. One was, we didn’t ever make him the one who solved the mystery, in quotes. It wasn’t a mystery. Marty and I both agreed, we’re going to tell the audience exactly what’s going on, so they will be a step ahead of the FBI. There was great stuff, down to J Edgar Hoover, who was only 28 years old, and the Tom White character, just an interesting man. He had been a Texas Ranger, a stand up guy. I did a lot of research, trying to find this guy’s flaw and I couldn’t find one. He wasn’t an alcoholic, he was a decent guy.
DEADLINE: In the book David Grann wrote that when he caught bad guys, he was respectful to them unlike a lot of lawmen back then. Something his dad taught him.
ROTH: He came from a family of lawmen that, his brothers were all Texas Rangers. His father executed a guy. I think we made the right choice. I wrote eight drafts on him, with Leonardo arriving and meeting the girl and we kept shrinking the Tom White role that Jesse Plemons played, which was fine. But when it was a full blown thing, the end of the movie, J Edgar Hoover’s giving a press conference outside the trial, feeling good about himself, about this is a big deal for FBI. Tom White’s standing off to the side and someone comes over and says, well, at least you got justice, right? He says, we call that justice? This was like convicting a man, for kicking a dog. He killed people, and so it was a false justice. It was always wrong. But the culpability, the feeling that we are all culpable and somehow complicit in what happened, is what Marty made. I mean, there’s no question about it. I think that message is soul crushing.
DEADLINE: What happens after Marty tells you all that hard work was being scrapped?
ROTH: I started again the next day. I wanted it explained to me, and we debated it, me, Marty and Leo. We’d had a four-hour read through a couple days before that. The first two hours were swimming, and then the thing started to bog a little. I could tell. And I was curious. Something was bothering Leo, and then that’s what it was. It was smart. But that’s the beauty of this. Nobody says, well, Eric, you fucked up. It was just that that was the first incarnation, and then we changed it. I worked my ass off to get it there.
Marty and I were watching the movie not that long ago, and we were both watching it just to see a few things. I said, geez, I’m exhausted watching all the writing that we did. He was like, oh my God, I see all those seeds we planted from the earlier versions of the script. Marty was staying at the Waldorf Astoria, and he travels with his family and had a two bedroom suite. Pretty big. I mention this because he put three by five cards of the whole movie all over the suite, in order. And it took over the whole suite. There was so many scenes, many little scenes we [didn’t use.] I had a whole thing with gunfighters and this and that. Anyway, we embraced and tried everything and eventually, it was his vision. And God bless him. I love him. We’re about to maybe start another movie.
DEADLINE: Which one?
ROTH: I’ll let you know when it becomes official. It’s a hell of a subject, man.
DEADLINE: I look at Marty, and Francis Coppola and Ridley Scott. These great directors in their 80s and if anything they are more excited about their next projects because they are aware of the ticking clock of time.
ROTH: I feel that way, too.
DEADLINE: Are you the type of man who looks at the calendar and says, all right, I got four great ones left in me, that I can do in the next ten years?
ROTH: I don’t look at them as great ones. I just say, I want to make sure everything I write sees the light of day. I have no control over that, but from the moment I started writing, I always felt like, I want to write the best version of this. Even when I wrote an airport movie, like Airport 79. It’s not our favorite movie, but I said, I’m going to write the best of these disaster nonsense movies. I’m not sure it was, but I remember feeling that way.
DEADLINE: What about great scripts you wrote that didn’t get made, because as a writer you are reliant on filmmakers and financiers to see them through?
ROTH: I have a pretty good batting average. The ones I wish had had gotten made…I have one I’m working to sell right now, but I only finished it a year ago. It’s called Shoot Out the Lights. A love story like The Way We Were, about a musician and a doctor, like my wife. I had a big space movie I wrote for Jeff Robinov at Warner Brothers that didn’t happen because it wasn’t a brand but it’s great. I wrote a movie about Davy Crockett that you could never make now; I wrote it before we became very aware of what we should have been aware of.
DEADLINE: Which is?
ROTH: He killed a lot of indigenous people, Native Americans, so I could understand that one. Once, Brad Pitt came to me and said, you want to do the Hatfields? I said, great idea. I love the story of that feud. I wrote the script. I told Brad, you got to jump man, because someone’s going to end up doing this. He didn’t jump quick enough. And Kevin Costner did it on television. It’s still a great script, maybe they can still do it.
I don’t write television often, but I’ve written a pilot Netflix wants to do, the John F Kennedy story as The Crown. It starts with his grandfather leaving Ireland, a boy at 17. A great immigrant story.
DEADLINE: And a stage version of High Noon?
ROTH: Yeah. We had two actors and they’ve both fallen out. I’m so upset. The last one, I literally wanted to go through the Zoom and kill a motherfucker. That’s how I felt.
ROTH: First of all, he gave me notes, which were fair enough. I said, we will be linked at the hip. I will do anything you want, but I’m not turning this into a development situation. We’ve got a theater, we’ve got money, we’ve got backers. A great director named Michael Arden who won the Tony last year [for Parade]. I said, we’re making this not fooling around. Either commit or don’t, and he seemed to commit. And then he changed his mind like a week later, and I went crazy. I really wanted to strangle him. Part of that, I think has to do with this age thing. I want these things to get done. So we’re waiting.
DEADLINE: How did all those years with Scorsese writing Killers of the Flower Moon influence how you reinterpreted what is considered the prototypical Western, High Noon?
ROTH: Marty and I originally wrote a classic Western. I don’t think Killers now is a classic Western, more a cautionary tale. High Noon had the same ingredients, but more from a John Ford point of view. Now, the other script I wanted to see made more than anything else is Comanche, which Michael Mann and I wrote. It is great. Michael has not been able to get the money it would cost to make.
DEADLINE: It took him a long time to get Ferrari done…
ROTH: He almost had the money with Dreamworks, and then they sort of did a bait and switch and they gave him Collateral. But anyway, this has been a rough one. So many people want to do it. It’s a beautiful Western. It’s a true story of The Searchers. John Ford made a great iconic movie, but that one was not true. Historically, they didn’t rescue the girl when she was like Natalie Wood, 11 or whatever it was. They didn’t bring her back until she’s 41 years old. And by that time, she did not want to come. She knew nothing about her past life. She was one of the wives of the chief and gave birth to the man who ends up being the last chief of the Comanches, Quana Parker. Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker. We made it a four-hander, the mother and son Quana, and then a gun runner, a role Russell Crowe wanted to play, and Pat Garrett. Four amazing guys who were part of this whole tale. Pretty amazing.
DEADLINE: Your decision to stay forever in screenwriter mode makes you something of a bystander in this. How are you when a script you wrote and know is great languishes?
ROTH: It’s disappointing. Some heavyweight directors wanted to do it. I love Michael, but he would never give it up. I said, Michael, I want this made. And he said, well, I’m not going to let Ridley Scott do it. I can do it.
DEADLINE: He did develop but moved to producer on the Howard Hughes film The Aviator, and Marty Scorsese directed it. Great movie.
ROTH: He won’t on this one. Till our dying day. I just gave him trouble about it the other day.
DEADLINE: He too has his bucket list. You adapt these sprawling books into sophisticated movies that play well in movie theaters. But you look where this is going, and people want to watch from their couches, while digital content on TikTok that gets young eyeballs doesn’t challenge short attention spans. What excites you and what scares you about the future of this art form, when people will pay so much attention to the running time of a great film like Killers of the Flower Moon?
ROTH: I feel slightly culpable, being one of the instruments to get House of Cards made. If I’d known the results…I don’t know. Ah, somebody else would’ve done something that had the same kind of influence. But I thought, this is a nice TV show, kind of fun, and I wanted to sell it to HBO just to get the water cooler conversation. And David Fincher said, you’re just being a Luddite; I’m telling you the eyeballs are over there [Netflix]. Fincher was right. And I’m not sure it’s a good thing. I watch things on smaller screens, but I love the [theatrical] experience. But that’s from a boy who was eight years old who sat in the Brooklyn Paramount and got the shit scared out of him, watching Invaders From Mars, and these giant movies that made me well up with motion and made me feel 20 feet taller.
I think there will always be something interesting that you never thought of, that will capture your fancy and make people laugh and cry and all that. Few and far between, probably. But I still have hold out hope that I’ll be remembered for a few things.
One is when, this is just personal, but when we went around, Bob and I and Tom, we checked out the theaters the night that Forrest Gump opened. And we ended up at, I guess it was the Bruin. We walked into the forecourt and the box office there. It was completely dark. Everything was dark. We figured, disaster. We looked at the ticket booth and it said all the shows were sold out till midnight. And we walked into the theater and the kids from UCLA were sitting all over the floor, all over the theater, just having the time of their lives. And I said, oh my gosh. I had a moment of that and it made me feel more vital, as I sat with my grandchildren watching A Star Born, and they were all crying like babies by the end of the movie. So, I feel like somehow I made a mark in an arena where it’s a communal experience and the images are 40 feet tall. Francis Coppola said, great movies never die.
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