Jeff Daniels: 'Writing is Hard. Writing Well is Very, Very Hard'


To some degree it seems like your performance is influenced by that frustration. Richard shouts at one point that he needs "something to do with my hands."

Having written 14 plays now, there is that battle. Stephen King calls it "chain yourself to the chair." Writing is hard. Writing well is very, very hard. And with Richard, he's not even considered a good writer. His first book is a failure, and now he's supposed to write a second one, so there's that whole self-esteem thing. There's just that battle within yourself to be better than you were. Whether you're an actor, a writer, a playwright, a songwriter: This next one has to at least move you forward. Don't start repeating yourself, because that's the beginning of the end. I think Richard, in his own way, is trying to move forward -- with the Ryan Reynolds character, stuck in life, stuck in the past, stuck, stuck, stuck. That's the battle of all creative artists -- moving forward. It's tough to do.

He also seems to throw a lot of obstacles in his own way, though, whether it's Captain Excellent, or moving all the furniture outside--

You know that writers spend a lot of time not writing.

Oh, totally.

"What do I have to do today where I don't have to write?" Yeah, he's not helping himself. But then it becomes bigger than just not being able to write a book.

What's your writing method? Typewriter, word processor, longhand?

Word processor. I've gotten better at it, smarter at it. Gary Ross told me this -- and at first I couldn't do it. But I would ask these guys, "How do you do it?" And he goes, "I make an outline or treatments for seven months, and then I write for two. I sit down to write when I absolutely have to. Passionate, ready to go, can't wait. The gate opens [claps], the horse goes. That's when you write." And I couldn't do that at first. I was terrible at outlines. So I said, "Well, let me just start writing." And I would meander all over the place. I'd write 700 pages to get the first 100. It's a waste of time. Horton Foote said this about... Dividing the Estate? Some play. Whatever it was, he said, "I wrote it in 10 days." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah, but I thought about it for a year." And it's that year -- those months leading up.

I've done it with the last four or five plays. It's the beauty of laptops in a certain way: "Oh, here's a line that leads to nothing. It's a line of dialogue half a page long; I have no idea where it is, but I think it's in that play." Boom -- dump it. It could be a character. The weeks go on, and you just start collecting these kinds of scrapbook things. You don't have the demands of a deadline, or having to perform in front of the keyboard -- yet. Once you have the elements in place, then I carve out the month of January and say, "That's when I write it." And I turn it in Feb. 1 at 10 in the morning. I hold myself to that: "No -- do it. Do it." And I've got all the notes; you're not staring at a blank page. There's all this churning. So I've got it to where I can write a first draft in two weeks, a second draft in one week and a third draft in one. Then I turn it in. The last three or four plays have been in really good shape. I've found my system.

How long did it take?

I've written 14 plays, so... I've done this for the last six. And I've really refined it to where I've literally written it in weeks but thought about it for months. The play I just turned in, actually I have notes on it from 2003.

What's it like working with two directors, especially when they're married?

It really helped that they'd written it. It also helped that it's an indie, and you only get two or three takes. "Gotta move the camera -- sorry!" I completely get that, and having directed two indies of my own, we just don't have the time. What we don't have the time for is for an actor to explore. With Michele and Kieran, I could go to ether one of them. Michele soon became that person who really worked with Emma; Kieran and I have known each other since we we
re in Gettysburg together. I would just go him and say, "What are you looking for out of Richard? You wrote him; you've been with him for years. I just signed on. What do you want? We've got two takes to do it." I just became the vessel.

They were so smart and so specific in what they wanted. They still allowed me the freedom to interpret that. It was like Scott Frank on The Lookout, or Matthew Warchus on [God of] Carnage: Their idea or their choice is, more often than not, one I never even would have thought of. And it's a really good one. Do that one.

Pages: 1 2