Open Secret

Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord is suddenly being showered with praise. People in the know have seen it coming for a long time.


For a screenwriter highly respected around Hollywood, Robin Swicord had little to show in terms of screen credits. She had co-written Shag, an unsuccessful teen indie released back in 1989, period. Then came Little Women, and the virtues industry insiders knew Swicord for--an elegant sense of story structure, particularly--were suddenly plain to all. Now the substantial work Swicord has been producing all along is everywhere. She's the writer-executive producer of The Perez Family, and the co-writer, with her husband, screenwriter Nicholas (Reversal of Fortune) Kazan, on Matilda, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's dark children's story set to be directed by Danny DeVito. And her ambitious script The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is close to changing its status as one of the most admired unproduced screenplays in town.

VIRGINIA CAMPBELL: You had an impressive team on Little Women, including studio executive Amy Pascal, Batman Returns producer Denise Di Novi and My Brilliant Career director Gillian Arm-strong. Was this a dream team?

ROBIN SWICORD: Amy is like an artist who's working as an executive. She doesn't have the gift of technique, but she has the vision. The project started with Amy and me 14 years ago.

Q: How did Denise Di Novi come on?

A: We'd heard from Columbia TriStar chair-man Mark Canton that they wanted a really big star in the role of Jo, and their first choice--and ours--was Winona Ryder. The producer had to be someone Winona felt safe around, and Denise, who had a deal at Columbia, had worked with her on Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. And I felt comfortable with Denise. She has a lovely quality, like a psychiatric nurse--she's unflappable.

Q: Considering who she's worked with, Di Novi probably is the equivalent of a psychiatric nurse by now.

A: [Loughs] It's a great trait for a producer.

Q: Isn't she known for being civilized, unlike the stereotypical producer?

A: I don't know if there's a stereotypical producer anymore. Wasn't it Movieline that did that story 'Ten Women We Can Do Without"? I really hated that. It's very easy to dismiss people when they have the traits that get movies made. In some cases women are held to a different standard. I know that when my husband is screwed over in business and gets on the phone and loses his temper at somebody, no one goes around saying, "PMS, what a bitch."

Q: Let's get back to Little Women. Had you seen Gillian Armstrong's film Fires Within? That's the kind of disaster that makes you wonder.

A: It did scare me. When we met we talked about it. Somebody should do a PhD dissertation on the anatomy of what goes wrong on a picture. What she needs is a strong producer. On Little Women we went in eyes open.

Q: Your first produced script, Shag, failed at the box office, but I hear it rents like crazy.

A: I think it was killed by [Hemdale's] John Daly. They ran an ad that had the star Robert Rusler topless with his jeans unbuttoned with the words "Shag is Hot"--because Daly's British and "shag" means "fuck" in Britain. And it's a family movie!

Q: This town is full of John Daly stories.

A: Once Nick and I were in a theater in Westwood and I was talking about how angry I was that Daly was trying to cheat me out of money, and Nick was talking about how angry he was about a film Daly was supposed to finance, and this guy leaned forward and said, "Are you talking about John Daly? He just pulled the plug on my film and left the crew stranded in Europe without tickets home."

Q: A screenwriter friend of mine once said that the most important quality for a screenwriter to have is masochism.

A: You have to have a high tolerance for pain. You always see in reviews, "The director did this," and they're quoting lines from your script. It's insane to me that I.M. Pei can design a building and it's an I.M. Pei building, not the contractor's, but a writer creates a movie on the page [and it's the director's movie]. I think there's a connection between the way screenwriters and women are treated. Because women are the authors of the mystery of life, they've been abused. Screenwriters are the seat of the magical tiling that happens, so there's a desire to get rid of you.

Q: Is that why you're moving into producing and directing what you write?

A: Little Women and The Perez Family are the first I've been able to co-produce. And that's because of a well-received script of mine called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which hasn't been produced.

Q: Will it get made?

A: Yeah, The problem is finding a director. [Steven] Spielberg had a strong attraction to it, but he kept putting other projects in front of it. We had a start date, and he called me and said, "I've decided to do a movie about Peter Pan."

Q: Won't the success of Forrest Gump, which is superficially similar in that it's about a different sort of guy traveling through time, help get Benjamin Button made?

A: I don't know. Zemeckis was a director we'd gone to. Benjamin begins and ends with a feather. When I saw Gump I was unhappy--there was some kind of leakage, maybe unconscious.

Q: You and Nick got paid £2,000,000 for Matilda, how do they justify that?

A: It has the potential to be a huge hit. There aren't many films that entertain a child and an adult equally. Mostly an adult goes to The Lion King because that's what the kid wants to see. That's why Nick and I took the risk of writing the spec script for free.

Q: What movie have you burned out your VCR with?

A: Anything by Alfred Hitchcock. With Hitchcock you never have to make the leap by yourself--you always know he's taking you there. That's what a writer has to do. You may be writing from an instinctual level, but it happens for the audience because you put the pieces there.


Virginia Campbell is one of the executive editors of Movieline.