Interview with screenwriter Russell Gewirtz
Russell Gewirtz’s path to Hollywood will surely invoke the ire of aspiring screenwriters everywhere. He never went to film school – in fact, he has a degree in computer science and even passed the bar – and he never toiled in obscurity for years on end. Instead, he wrote a script, a little thing called “Inside Man,” and watched it attract an A-list cast featuring two, two-time Oscar winners. Bullz-Eye caught up with Gewirtz and talked about his new requirements for who gets cast in his movies, and how even a bad movie (in his mind, if not the mind of the interviewer) can be a source of divine inspiration.
Russell Gewirtz: So what can I tell ya?
RG: (Laughs) Not too shabby. I can only go down from here.
BE: Were you on-set while they were shooting “Inside Man”?
RG: I was. I was on-set the whole time, other than a couple weeks in the middle, where I had a previously scheduled vacation. So I was there for the first four weeks and the last two weeks.
BE: So what was that like, watching all these A-listers?
RG: Unbelievable. On the one hand, I felt like I belonged there, because it was my story and I wanted to be there to shepherd it and help and whatever. And the other half of me felt like I had won a contest on a radio station. I was mostly observing. I wasn’t in the room rehearsing with Denzel and Clive and Jodie or anything like that. I’d sit there at the monitors, and watch Denzel perform lines that I had written, and that is just an amazing experience.
BE: Did you have any particular actors visualized in your head as you were writing the script?
RG: Yeah, I was hoping for Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, but, you know, we did our best. No, I’m kidding. I never really did (visualize actors) when I wrote it. I was writing this thing five years ago while I was being kind of a vagabond, vacationing in really nice places like Miami and Brazil and the south of France. Writing this story, not knowing if I was going to be a screenwriter or not…I had never studied it, I had never read a book about it or anything. I hoped that I was not wasting my time. I was pouring everything I had into it. But I never envisioned whether this was going to be a $50 million movie or a $500,000 movie. I wanted it to be able to be either one. And don’t read this the wrong way, but there were moments where I imagined myself playing the role of the bank robber. Not because I could have done a better job, but because I could have afforded my fee. So no, I didn’t envision Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster.
BE: Now is this the first screenplay you’ve ever written?
RG: It is.
BE: Well, let me speak on behalf of every other aspiring screenwriter out there when I say that…you make me sick.
RG: (Laughs) Thank you very much! I was hoping you would be honest! Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that. I looked up a couple of screenplays online, I saw what they looked like…I mean, frankly, I don’t exactly fit the format. If I was taking a test in a screenwriting class, there’d be errors all over the place with transitions and times and locations. My script doesn’t exactly look like most other ones that you see. But at the end of the day, if you have a great story to tell, that’s what really counts. This was a story that I had in my head for literally years. I’d refine it and, you know, bounced it around in my head for probably five years.
BE: That was my next question, how long it took from conception to the movie being released. Five years?
RG: Yeah, yeah. I mean, not so bad in comparison to others, but like they say, the cliché, an overnight success that took five years.
BE: I saw that your next project was called “Labyrinth,” and thought, “Dear God, they’re remaking the Jim Henson movie.” But it’s not that at all, is it?
RG: No, it’s actually a French film. It goes under the name “Labyrinth” or “Dédales,” which is the French way of saying Dedaleus, the Greek character. And it’s a really clever, psychological drama about a serial killer. And it doesn’t exactly have the excitement that it would need to be an American film, so we found ways to raise the stakes, which is another one of those Hollywood buzz words that generally ends up meaning you’re ruining the movie. But in this case, I don’t believe so. It’s a very smart film, somewhere in the area of “Seven” and “The Sixth Sense.” And Hilary Swank’s attached.
BE: Another A-list actress.
RG: Yeah, it occurred to me that Denzel’s got two Oscars, Jodie’s got two Oscars, and Hilary’s got two Oscars. So I may make that my bar, you know, don’t call me unless you’ve got two Oscars. (Pause as we both crack up laughing) I’m joking! You know, one Oscar’s nice, but come back when you’ve got two. (Laughs)
BE: The first credit that’s listed for you on IMDb was “Blind Justice.” Was it strange writing for a show that you just knew wasn’t going to get picked up?
RG: Ha ha ha ha! You know, it was another one of those things where…for me, it was a learning experience. I had nothing to judge it against. My agent at CAA also represents Steven Bochco. So he set up a meeting, I didn’t know exactly why I was going to meet him. But he’s a really great guy. We got along really well, and he said he’d love for us to work on something, and (“Blind Justice”) is what he had going at the time. So they offered it to me, and sure, why not? I mean, Steven Bochco is one of the top TV producers of the last 25 years. Who can say no? We won’t get into it, but it was a quirky…it was a risk. I wasn’t making any long-term plans. But the experience was great. I spent a week in a room with the writers working on an outline, and then went back and did the work and was really happy with it. All in all, it was a very, very positive experience, just in terms of my growth as a writer, and learning my way around Hollywood. In fact, they had me write a second (episode). I wrote, I think, episode five and then episode nine. And you know, it’s weird, episode nine, I watched it, and not a single word I wrote is in the episode. Not one word. But that’s the way TV is; you write the scripts and then they take it and they have to work it into all the other episodes. The overall success of the show wasn’t something that I had any real stake in.
BE: Was there a particular movie or TV show that made you want to be a screenwriter?
RG: There are two types of movies that motivated me to be a screenwriter. Movies like “Seven,” and “The Usual Suspects,” and “Fight Club,” which I think are all brilliant, stuff that really blows you away. And then there’s the stuff that sucks, which to me is just as much of a motivational factor. I’ll actually go ahead and name the movie. About eight years ago, I saw “Con Air.” And I just thought, “Well, this movie’s terrible.” And I went home with my girlfriend and said, “You know, I could write a better movie in ten minutes.” And I was only half joking, but I came up with a plot – and it wasn’t “Inside Man” – but I sort of came up with a movie idea. And it never really went anywhere, but my point is that a bad movie can motivate you just as much.
BE: I have to admit, as ridiculous as it is, I love “Con Air.”
RG: (Laughs) You know, I love “The Rock.” I thought “The Rock” was a really good, fun action movie. And “Con Air” was the Bruckheimer film that came out the following year, and I think I was in the majority on that one.
BE: It was silly beyond belief, but I still love it.
RG: I love that line when they’re in the plane with the back open, and the old Corvette is on a cable, and it’s being dragged by the plane. And (Nicolas Cage) says, “On any other day, that might seem strange.” That was a good line.
BE: What was your day job before you broke into the movie business?
RG: Ah! I had failed at a few things. I went to Tufts University, got a degree in computer science, and never got a job off of that. I went to Benjamin Cardozo School of Law here in Manhattan, passed the bar, and pretty much never got a job as a lawyer, which turned out to be a good thing. I went to work with my dad, who had some old clothing stores that were a dying business on its way out. I spent five or six years in that, never really made much money. Then I got lucky with a couple of things. I put a real estate deal together based around one of the stores we had, it had some value in the lease. We now own the building. So I had a little bit of a nest egg, which I was lucky enough to put in the stock market back in 2000, when any moron could make money in the stock market. So for a while I had a nice little nest egg, and I had no real career, so I just decided to travel around, stupidly thinking I could build up the money into more. And in the next two years, I wrote “Inside Man,” and by the time I sold it, my portfolio was down to about zero. (Laughs) So there was no real day job at the time. Whenever I meet someone who’s under the age of 30, and isn’t quite sure what they’re going to do with their lives, I tell them not to worry.
BE: Well, you kind of answered my next question, which was that there’s not much…there’s actually no info about you on the web, so for our readers who may not be familiar with you, tell us a little something about yourself. But you just did that, didn’t you? Did you grow up in Manhattan?
RG: I grew up in Long Island. Let’s put it this way: I’m a Jewish kid from Long Island who got a computer science degree, and a law degree, and went into the retail clothing business, and then became a screenwriter. So if my life is about anything, it’s about breaking down boundaries.
BE: Do you have anything else in the pipe?
RG: Yeah, I have a bunch. My second screenplay is called “Righteous Kill.” I still own it, nobody’s bought it. I turned down a couple of so-so offers on it, because I don’t want to see it done wrong. For a while, we had Edward Norton attached to it; he’s still sort of loosely attached to it, but it would depend on scheduling and all that. It’s like “Inside Man,” but a little bit darker. I hope that one of these days, we’ll find the right director, and we’ll get that made. I’m writing a TV pilot for NBC right now. And we’re talking about a sequel to “Inside Man,” so…
RG: Yeah, but that’s all I can say about that right now.
BE: Last question: “Snakes on a Plane”: greatest title in the world, or dumbest title in the world?
RG: (Laughs) You know, I won’t know until I see the movie. Which I may never do, because that’s the dumbest title.
BE: I already have tickets for (opening night).
RG: (Laughs) Let me ask you something: is “Snakes on a Plane” supposed to be a dumb movie, or is it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and really clever, and that’s why everyone is talking about it?
BE: I interviewed (“Snakes on a Plane” director) David Ellis on Monday, and when people start talking about the movie being dumb, I think it bothers him. He’s taking this very seriously. This is a straight-up action movie about snakes on a plane.
RG: Right. Well, I guess we’ll have to hold it up against “Flightplan,” as a comparison.
BE: It’s gotta be better than “Flightplan.”
RG: You know, I gotta tell you, I don’t think “Inside Man” is the greatest title I’ve ever heard, either. It was just all I could come up with.
BE: I don’t know, I thought it fit the movie pretty well.
RG: I guess so. I actually called it “The Inside Man,” and then Universal changed it to “Inside Man.” So they’re the experts.
BE: If we can call them that.
RG: Well, I’m not going to argue. We’ll never know which title would have played better.