When Denis Villeneuve developed “Dune” he turned to Eric Roth to adapt Frank Herbert’s sprawling 1965 saga. Roth had already scored five Oscar nominations for adapting books for the screen, including one win for Robert Zemeckis’ Best Picture-winner “Forrest Gump.” Roth’s other Oscar adaptations include collaborations with directors David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Michael Mann (“The Insider”), Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born”), and Steven Spielberg (“Munich”).
Roth was not a sci-fi aficionado who adored the Herbert novel, but he saw what Villeneuve could do with it. In a wide-ranging Zoom conversation, Roth and I talked about the agony of being rewritten and his misreading of the power of Netflix when Fincher made his groundbreaking series “House of Cards.”
We also discussed his joyous collaboration with another septuagenarian, Martin Scorsese, turning David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” into a $200-million western starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. During its long gestation, Roth wrangled with DiCaprio over script changes when he backed out of playing the film’s FBI hero, which caused Paramount to bring in AppleTV+ to co-finance. Now, DiCaprio and “The Power of the Dog” Oscar nominee Jesse Plemons carry equal weight in the movie.
Roth is now writing a Cher biopic for Universal (“I’m behind”), a Netflix romance starring Chris Hemsworth (“he plays a rock ‘n’ roll guy, very sweet”) and recently announced he would reteam with Zemeckis and Tom Hanks on an adaptation of the graphic novel “Here.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Anne Thompson: You are tied with Billy Wilder for writing the most Best Picture nominees. Are all of your Oscar nominations for Adapted Screenplay?
Eric Roth: Yes. I have seven because of the producer [credit] on [Fincher’s] “Mank.”
On “Dune,” what does a co-writer credit mean?
This one’s tricky, an odd one, because I’ve been on those where I’ve been rewritten. Tony Kushner rewrote me on “Munich” and I wasn’t happy, I could tell you. We could debate whether he did great work or not, but he is a lovely man. He also wrote one of the greatest plays ever written [“Angels in America”]. It’s more important than anything I’ve ever done.
I’ll never forget when I did “The Horse Whisperer” with [Robert] Redford, I literally lived with him for two, three months in Montana in the same house. I kept thinking, “He’s gonna look in that mirror and not want to see me at some point.” And guess what? He brought somebody else in. We could debate what that work was like.
So I do a lot of work with 20 different directors, from Kurosawa through Spielberg, and Marty. But I’m an independent writer. I come in and do what I think is best, and if I’m not happy with the circumstance I leave. On this one, I had done some rewriting on “Arrival” for Denis. That’s when I met him over the phone. He was starting to shoot “Blade Runner 2049;” he was in Budapest. I did some work to bolster some things. Then he asked, “Would you be interested in doing ‘Dune?'” And I said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure this is my bailiwick.”
I would not have predicted “Dune” to be your universe.
I had read the book. I liked other science-fiction books at least equally: “Childhood’s End,” “The Foundation.” But “Dune” was a little populist for me, it was prodigious. I knew it had defined a lot of people, certainly 14-, 15-year-old boys, which I was close to at that point. But I was never a fanboy.
Maybe that’s a good thing. You could come in from the outside and say: “Is this a movie?”
That’s right. That gave me an objective view of it. I grew up in that era, which “Dune” was part and parcel of — psychedelics and all the things that I lived through. I was a hippie, I have a lot of kids, grandkids. And so I said, “What the hell, I’ll try it. What have I got to lose?” I like Denis. He’s done some really good movies, very smart, a visualist. I said, “I’ll give it a whirl, but I might be a bit out there for you people.” I took some risks: some paid off, some maybe should have paid off and didn’t.
Because I’m adventurous, I started the movie with what would seem to be Genesis — “and God created”— and you think you’re seeing the formation of the Earth. And it’s “Dune,” with wild animals, things you’ve never seen. Denis said, “This is magnificent, but now we can’t afford the rest of the movie.” I don’t know if that was his way of saying, “I don’t want to do it!”
Define the challenges of bringing the book down to some reasonable scale. And when did your co-writer Jon Spaihts come into it?
I have done some long books, so that doesn’t bother me. We knew we were going to do two. The question was whether we were going to do them simultaneously or not, which could save money. But there’s the risk that if the first one doesn’t work you’re stuck with the second one. I had to make the estate happy and that was a little tricky.
I wrote a 50-page treatment of what we thought the first movie might look, sound, and smell like. They wanted to make sure we weren’t in some way violating what the “Dune” world was and taking some oddball approach. Then I had to write a second treatment for the second movie, another 60 pages. We then had in place the basis of what could be the screenplay for the book. I started breaking it down. Every time I do an adaptation I underline the book or piece of material, and I realized that the whole book was cinematic.
There were three tasks. One, for those who love the book, I wanted to make sure that they continued feeling that it represented what they loved about it and what it meant to them. Two was for the people who read it and couldn’t remember it, or it didn’t mean that much to them. Three was for people who had no clue, which is a whole generation.
What became your focus in the story?
I was taken with the notion of someone who’s going to end up being a prophet. I had some understanding of this through knowing a lot of pretty famous rock people. They all have this feeling that, “I’m just a musician, but everybody thinks I have this responsibility to give them some answer to life.” So I thought, “This 17-year-old boy [Paul Atreides] is embodying some of that.”
And when I asked Denis, “What is the most important thing in this book?,” right away he said, “The female nature of it.” So we went right to the Bene Jezeret women soothsayers and how they ran the society spiritually. There’s an essential female quality within it, the moon and the dunes. I gave him a long draft, which is not unlike me.
How many pages?
I’m gonna say 160, but I’ve done way longer.
What was your longest draft?
I’ll never forget when I handed a “Benjamin Button” draft to David Fincher and he was like, “I can’t even hold this, it’s so heavy.” I read a lot of prose. I’m a frustrated novelist. So if you cut the prose out you’ll be fine with the page count. I’ve learned to come way down. I just turned in a script, 109 pages, which you really need to do now. So I wrote my big full version and Denis said, “I need to trim this and do what a director does. And I hope to do some writing on it.” I said, “God bless. Go ahead.” He did some editing, and I went off to “Killers of the Flower Moon.” I was busy with Marty and loving every moment of that.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is David Grann’s non-fiction investigation of a series of murders that plagued the Osage people during the 1920s after oil was discovered on their land. You’re dealing with history.
Well, I’ve done that before in “Munich” and when Michael Mann and I did “Ali;” I’ve done that kind of bio. But this was a unique story that I knew nothing about. It showed my ignorance. I thought, “It’s unbelievable, it could be a Western.” Marty’s never done a Western. It’s the first time you’ll see a street scene where there’s 90 percent Native American indigenous people, and 1 or 2 percent Caucasians.
He showed me early on a clunky, dated movie called “The FBI Story,” with Jimmy Stewart: three cases from the FBI files, and this was one of them. They had an oil well in the middle of the street. I felt it might have a feeling of this, and so I utilize a lot of Western tropes for it. Marty lets you go far afield. He doesn’t mind exploring whatever way creatively you want to do things and so I had a lot of E-ticket rides. I don’t know what are left.
Was this the longest script then?
Marty doesn’t mind things being long; he encourages that. But it’s more than him figuring it out; he’s telling you what he wants. And he steers you, says “I love this and this, but can we try this?” And I was happy. I came up with an incredible way to do the end credits, which you’ve never seen. He wrote me a text the other day: “I’m going to shoot our end credits in a couple days.” I was so happy that he’s doing that.
Did you visit the Oklahoma set?
I’ve got a lot of underlying conditions. With Covid I would have had to go into quarantine for 10 days. Marty needed to focus on what he was doing, it was a huge task. We talked all the time and still do. It was one of the my great experiences, so I hope the movie’s good.
When is “Killers of the Flower Moon” actually coming out?
When you’d assume: next November. I’ve heard he’s well on his way to getting the editing done. [There is no official release date.]
So you went back to “Dune”?
[Co-screenwriter] Jon Spaihts was a person I didn’t know from Adam. He and Denis got along great. And he knows the book, chapter and verse. Then they asked me back because certain things weren’t quite working, so I did some work before they were shooting. Denis showed me the movie and I had a bunch of notes of what was working and not working. They agreed with some, disagreed with others. They brought me back to do some writing for reshoots, and they brought Jon back. So it had an oddball symmetry to it. It was seamless, a weird way for three different people, who I’ve never seen, to work in a collaboration. Everybody’s strength came to the forefront. And Denis, with his wonderful style and vision, brought it all together into the movie he wanted to make.
It was shocking that he missed a directing nomination, but if you have five directors and 10 movies you’re going to end up with somebody being left out.
That was ridiculous. They really should [have included him]. I’m on the Board of Governors. Maybe every director of the 10 top movies should be nominated. That should be a rule, because how do you separate the director from the movie? [“Dune” received] nine crafts awards. All those people were brilliant in what they did, but they needed direction. He had to pick out what colors things were. Which sound are you going to use here? That sound effect or that? Or what is the sandworm sound? Like, should we put that sound above the dialogue? He makes those decisions. Look, he’s the maestro. Maybe [Best Director came down to] him or Spielberg? I don’t know.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix
How did you get back into doing television?
Oddly, Michael Mann, Al Pacino, and I wanted to make “House of Cards” as a movie, because it’s just “Richard III.” We love the idea of Al Pacino, where he’s talking to you, talking to camera saying, “Watch me go in this room and fuck these people.” That’s what that movie is.
So [WME chief] Ari Emanuel, at that time, was trying to sign me, and I was happy with my [CAA] agent David O’Connor. I said, “I’m just too old for this, Ari. I’m not going anywhere.”
“So what if I send you a great piece of material?” And he sent me “House of Cards,” the video [of the original British series]. I said, “Yeah, I’ve loved this for a while.” I told him that Michael Mann was a fan. I said, “Let me see if David [Fincher] is interested in doing this, because it could be right up his alley. David said yes and we hired Beau Willimon. It was my job to sit on the writing and we wanted to make it the best possible script for David. God forbid, he won’t be happy.
I wasn’t prepared for the success of it to scavenge the thing I love: the movies. When they started binging that show, [it] was the end of people going to the movies, in a way. I wanted to sell it to HBO, to have the water cooler conversation once a week. At that point, I said, “I don’t think there’s enough eyeballs for what you think’s going to happen.” David said, “You’re just wrong. You’re a Luddite.” And I was wrong. Millions of eyeballs watched it, and told their friends and they all binged it. He just started something. It wasn’t the be-all and end-all, but it was how things shrunk that way.
You’re worried about the future of movies?
I’m not going to talk about the artistic, interesting intellectual movies or literary ones, because they’ll show in one theater for a while and that’ll be the end of it. But the mainstream love stories and stuff; I don’t know what their place will be. There’ll be enough that come and go I guess. And of course, the Marvel and the “Spider Man,” and all the things that are wonderful rides like “Dune.” There’s nothing wrong with the big, giant things that fans still love to see. I just miss watching things on a 40-foot screen with an audience.
Do you have strong feelings about what the Oscars should be?
I have so much confusion. They’re trying to somehow make it meaningful in some way. And I don’t mean meaningful in the woke way. [Producer] Will Packer, we’ll see what he does with presenters. It should be fun and glorious. I don’t think young people care anymore, which is a shame. How do you bring them back in? The problem to me is that you can see every celebrity you want on Instagram every day of the week. It used to be we all get a big thrill of watching Warren Beatty walk around because you only get to see him once a year, right?
How do they pull the rest of the country into the conversation when they aren’t going to the movies anymore? It’s no longer a national pastime.
I’m 77 years old, almost. So this is coming to an end, kid. I’m not very fancy. I still go to the racetrack.
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