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How One Writer Turned a Love for Writing Into an Oscar- and Emmy-Award Winning Career: Exclusive Excerpt from ‘Traffic’ Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan

How One Writer Turned a Love for Writing Into an Oscar- and Emmy-Award Winning Career: Exclusive Excerpt from 'Traffic' Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan

The following is an excerpt from “Film Craft: Screenwriting,”edited by Tim Grierson. The book is now available from Focal Press.  The excerpt below was made available by the book’s publisher.

Stephen Gaghan’s writing career started quite promisingly,
publishing a short story in The Iowa Review before he was even 26. He also impressed the
writing staff of “The Simpsons” with a spec episode entitled “Family Wheel of
Jeopardy,” as well as producer and talent agent Bernie Brillstein
with a collection of “Saturday Night Live” sketches he’d written. But a career in
television writing in the 1990s— including stints at “New York Undercover,” “The Practice,” “American Gothic,” and “NYPD Blue” (where he shared an Emmy for Outstanding Writing
for a Drama Series)—soon gave way to screenwriting. His first produced
film credit was “Rules of Engagement” (2000), which starred Samuel L. Jackson
and Tommy Lee Jones, but he received much acclaim for his next film, “Traffic” (2000),
which was based on the 1989 British miniseries Traffik. Traffic went on to win four Academy Awards, including
a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Gaghan. Around the same time as
Traffic’s release, Gaghan revealed that he had himself been a longtime
drug addict, finally getting clean in 1997. Subsequently, he made his
feature directing debut with Abandon (2002) and was one of three credited writers on the
historical drama The Alamo (2004). His next great triumph occurred in 2005 with
the release of Syriana, a multi-character drama he wrote and directed that
examined the danger of the world’s addiction to oil. The film earned
Gaghan his second Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Original
Screenplay, and George Clooney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
More recently, he’s one of the writers (uncredited) on the 2013 big-budget
sci-fi film After
Earth, which stars Will Smith and his son Jaden. “I’m in
the adult-serious ghetto,” Gaghan says about his niche in Hollywood.
“That’s my pigeonhole. I made it, I dug it out, I climbed in the
hole—it’s dark and airless. But I dug it, you know? And no other
hole exists.”
— “Film Craft: Screenwriting” editor Tim Grierson

My father’s father wrote for a Philadelphia newspaper
and aspired to be a playwright. We had in our house a couple of crazy
unproduced plays that he had written. For the one creative writing class
I took in my life, I didn’t do any writing—I decided that I would
plagiarize his terrible play to not fail the class. That didn’t work
out very well. Later, when I won the Oscar, there was a federal judge
who contacted me to say, “I went to school with your grandfather,
and he was a smart guy, got the classics prize in Greek, was voted most
likely to succeed, that kind of thing.” My grandfather thought
he was gonna take over the world, but he didn’t—I think he got drunk
for 50 years, and then he was a nightclub columnist and reviewed plays.
He was a charming guy—you know, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking newspaperman.
He was married to my grandmother, who was a painter, and his father
had been a concert pianist, so there was this thread of drunk, failed
artists that went back on my dad’s side. The thing I wrote in Syriana where
Jeffrey Wright’s dad carries a card in his wallet that says, “If
you find me, call my son”? That’s based 100 percent on my grandfather,
who carried that same card. I try to imagine what that was like for
my dad—he’s working and suddenly gets a call: “There’s this
guy here, can you come get him?” So when I was seven and told my mom,
“I’m gonna be a writer,” she said, “Oh, that’s a terrible
idea. You’ll live in misery and die teaching other people’s children
badly.” My parents wanted the safer path for me, and I think they
failed miserably achieving that.

I didn’t mention anything about writing again until
I was about 20. It was a secret that I kept inside of me. I didn’t
know anyone who was a writer—I didn’t even know what it meant to
be a writer. I just loved books. But there was nothing on the surface
that said I would be a writer. I didn’t work at it. I didn’t write.
I didn’t even know how to type. But I just had this sense in a totally
mystical, strange way—I would get in trouble, and there would
be a voice in my head that would say, “Well, you’ll be able to write
your way out of this one.” I don’t know where it came from.

And as I got into my teens, I started reading better
books, beginning with the Beats and then the hippie writers, people
like Wallace Stegner up in Northern California, and all the political
New Journalism stuff, the Boys on the Bus dudes and Ken Kesey. I loved
those guys, and I loved the lifestyle—take tons of drugs and you too
can write One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think I had the chronology of
Kesey’s achievements a little cockeyed, but by then I loved the trio
of great drunk Americans: Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Not so
much for the writing yet— I just really liked the drinking and smoking
and all that stuff.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I wrote spec screenplays.
I was really poor, and I thought I was just gonna do this for a while
to make a little money so I could write novels. I thought movies were
a second-class art form.  I condescended to it—I didn’t know enough
to know it was really gonna be hard.

Things changed around the time I met Michael Tolkin.
When I saw “The
Player” (1992), when I was still living in New York, I had thought,
“I wonder if I could do that.” A couple of years later I had become
friends with an executive who was working with him on a project for
HBO about Microsoft, and she put the two of us together. When he and
I first met, we talked about Proust, and we both loved Tolstoy, and
we had a lot of similar references. So we ended up spending the whole
meeting talking about “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And I was just so happy. I didn’t care
what happened after that—it was just the greatest afternoon. I thought,
“I love this guy. He’s so funny and so cool, and just an absolutely
first-rate artist in all of his thinking.”

We teamed up on the HBO project, which was a satire
about Bill Gates and Microsoft, a sort of “Dr. Strangelove” piece about technology, called 20 Billion. We’d break up the scenes, we’d write our scenes,
we’d get back together, and his scenes were just so much better than
mine that I couldn’t believe it. I’m lucky I could see how much
better his were—I mean, that’s the first real break, realizing how
not-good you actually are, and cutting through all the nonsense smoke
that’s usually being blown at you in the zip codes around Beverly
and La Cienega boulevards. But I knew—I knew he was great and I was
terrible, so I started literally sitting behind him and watching him
type when he would write his scenes. We’d keep reworking the story,
and this went on for a long time. And then one day, I riffed out a subplot
involving two characters who were sort of like the girl I was living
with at the time and myself. I wrote the scenes, maybe 15 pages, in
a few hours. I showed Michael the scenes, and I saw it in his face:
“Hey, this is actually pretty good. That’s gonna be in the movie.”
And he was happy for me, too. And when it was over, I was at the point
where I felt like, “Wow, I’m writing scenes that should be shot.”
Three years of my writing career had gone by—I used to think, “I’ll
just dash off some Simpsons episode and make some money and come back
to fiction”—and in that time, I had written volumes of terrible
stuff. But watching Michael changed my approach to everything. I realized
that this was a real art form and that I didn’t understand it. I had
to prostrate myself before it and study it if I wanted to be good. I
had some other friends around this time, too, who were doing very interesting
scripts: Charlie Kaufman and Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson. We traded
our stuff back and forth. I saw early drafts of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Rushmore (1998). I saw fully formed film artists who were my
peers and I wanted to do what they were doing—get my own voice or
vision of the world out into that world. I had no clue how this was
going to happen, but suddenly I just really loved this fucking art form.
It’s like haiku repeated 10,000 times in one document. The bar was
set way higher than I thought.

My first produced credit was on “Rules of Engagement.” I did a major rewrite on it, and I was
on the set. And I learned that a film is like this great circus that’s
been brought together. They create a circus, and the circus travels
around together, and then the circus disappears, and you’re left with
a commemorative watch. And then it’s time to make a new circus. I
loved that—I was not sentimental, and the process is not sentimental.
It’s a business, and you fling your script into this machine. The
machine is very powerful, and it can destroy the material very easily,
and the fight never ends to get it out the way you see it. You can’t
ever give up, even at the end—you just have to keep fighting. But
the great thing about that machine is that it’s also an accelerator,
and it puts your work out into the world with such volume that it is
seen in little villages in countries that barely have electricity. And
that’s a really awesome thing to be a part of.

When I started writing what would become “Traffic,” I wasn’t aware of the miniseries “Traffik.” I just wanted to write a story about the War on Drugs.
I quit my television jobs because I wanted to do this movie really badly.
I mean, on some level I’d been training all my life to write this
movie. So I did all this research, and I read a bunch of books, and
I met all these people. I conducted a bunch of interviews, and I found
that tape-recorders make people in power very nervous. But thankfully
I’m not a real journalist— I’m just a screenwriter. So if you
don’t record them, and you just write stuff down subtly, they’ll
talk so honestly about everything. And so I started developing this
interview methodology that worked really well. When I met all these
people, I’d get Stockholm Syndrome—even if my point of view is quite
different, I tend to like almost everybody I talk to. And so I think
it gets people to really talk to me in a way that they don’t always
talk. But after all that research, I didn’t know where to start. I
knew I wanted to have a drug czar, I wanted to have Colombia, I wanted
to have Mexico, I wanted to have the consumer side—I knew I wanted
to have all these things. But I couldn’t make it work because the
hero basically had to time travel. He couldn’t be in enough places
plausibly to get all the story I wanted. So I literally had a nervous
breakdown. Nothing happened for six months—I couldn’t write. I was
reading more, researching more, writing notes, but I didn’t know what
I was doing—I’m not writing anything. A professor friend of mine
said this great thing to me once: “At a certain point, research becomes
a form of cowardice.”

Out of the blue Steven Soderbergh contacted me, because
he was trying to do a War on Drugs film, too. So he came to lunch and
gave me this miniseries from England. “Traffik” with a “K” it was called. I looked at that miniseries,
and there was a very melodramatic quality to the stories. I thought
it was really well done—the scenes are very well-written—but at
its core, it was like the melodramatic TV stuff that I didn’t really
like, that I was trying to get away from. But I realized my script had
the same types of stories, and I saw the brilliance of the way “Traffik” had
strung this all together, and the necessity for clarity when you are
crosscutting like that on a bigger canvas. It’s funny: I had written
a lot of TV very fast by that point, and TV was typically an A-B-C-D
story, but for some reason I hadn’t seen that I could do that in film,
too. It didn’t occur to me to do multiple narratives in the movies.

The process of figuring out how the stories wove together
in “Traffic”
was a learning process in understanding the value of a narrative spine
that starts here and ends there. When I’m writing scenes, I fall down
a well and time stops. I’m not thinking about the plot. If I’m lucky,
it’s like some other thing happens, and voices start popping from
nowhere and I’m just transcribing, really. It may not have anything
to do with what I’m supposed to be writing, but it will have real
energy and feel very vital, like it has to be in a movie. The scene
is declaring itself, and it’s coming from some pure place of inspiration—it’s
disconnected from anything. I can’t take credit for it—nobody can
take credit for it. It’s just appeared, and it has to be in a movie,
but the terrifying question is: What movie?

I was working with Will Smith on “After Earth,” and he broke this down brilliantly. He said, “Oh
yeah, you can start with character—you start with character all you
want. You’ll get lost for years. It’ll be great, but no one will
know it’s a movie. Or you can start with structure, and that will
be a device that you can present to a financing entity and say, ‘Here
is your movie.’ But it’ll suck, and you’ll have to find the character.
You can start with character and take forever—all that will make it
into the movie once you finally submit and focus on structure. Or you
can start with structure, and you’re still gonna spend all that time
trying to find the character stuff later. Your choice.”

Every time I do a script, I go completely insane:
“Why isn’t this working?” I get lost. The process for me
is somehow stealing the time to be lost for a very long time and to
not know what I’m doing at all. I need to have a complete crippling
loss of confidence where I think, “Why am I doing this? This is too
ambitious. This makes no sense.” And then I’m bumbling, bumbling,
giving up completely—three, four, five times— coming back to
it, changing it entirely, restructuring it, throwing it in a different
way. And then I’ve got 50 pages that work, and I wonder what the movie’s
about. Plus, there’s always this sense of, “I don’t want to do
something that’s been done before.” I want the scenes to come from
a magical place that I don’t understand. I don’t want it to be,
“That scene worked great in ‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)—let’s do that scene.”

I just don’t want to work like that. It’s what
I love best and fear most about the process. Screenwriters face the
void. There’s nothing, and then there’s going to be something. It’s
the something-from-nothing business. Like magic. But all too often,
the stakes are very high and what feels familiar feels safe. And you
have to fight the derivative urge, the urge to safety, at every step
in the process.

With “After Earth,” they’re swinging for the fence—they created
an entire world that is as full and as rich as the world of “Star Wars” (1977). But at its heart, it’s a father-son story,
and that’s the story I’ve been writing my whole life. My dad died
when I was 15. He was released from a lot of suffering, and there was
something noble about it, and I learned a lot from him. A lot of the
stories I’ve written have a father-son element. Some of them are father-daughter—often,
I make it a girl because it’s just easier, but it’s the same stuff.
The Clooney character in “Syriana” had a son who ultimately wasn’t in the movie that
much, but it was a big deal. Matt Damon’s trying to figure out how
to be a father and a husband in the middle of a tragedy. In my draft
of “The Alamo,”
they’re all terrible fathers. “Havoc” (2005) is about this daughter whose parents are absent
and is trying to parent herself, but has no role models. I adapted Malcolm
Gladwell’s book “Blink” into a coming-of-age story about the son of a corporate
raider. When you look at “Traffic,” what does it mean? Well, I guess it’s saying that
love and patience and good parenting can help an individual with a pernicious
and often deadly problem.

With “Syriana,” it’s that foreign policy driven by greed will end
in disaster, but it’s also saying that with family, love, and forgiveness,
you can make a go of it in an almost absolutely overwhelming and uncontrollable
world. It’s the same story again and again and again. I don’t have
any other story—that’s the story. My friend Adam Gopnik once read
a bunch of my stuff and he said, “You have a story, Gaghan, and it’s
the same one every time.” I was really offended, and he said, “You
should be happy—most people don’t have one at all.”

I’ve been working on a project that took three years,
and it sucked every day—except where I had like three hours where
I just went, “Hey, wait, we have a movie.” It’s so preposterous
to be lost for so long and yet to have faith you’re gonna have those
three hours. Anybody working like this, they would quit. I’ve been
screenwriting for quite a while, and I’ve had maybe a handful of really
good moments. But one of those was when I saw the first cut of Traffic at
this little screening room at Warner Bros. When the film ended, Soderbergh
was in the back of the theater. I was in the very front, and I got up
and I ran back toward him, and I can see in his face that he’s thinking,
“Holy shit, he’s gonna attack me.” I hugged him—and he’s not
a hugger—and I just said, “You’re gonna win the Oscar for Best
Director. This is the happiest day of my life.” And it was—it was
one of the happiest days of my life. And that sustains you for a really,
really long time.”

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