John Logan on Skyfall, Rango, and the Secret of Successful Screenwriting

john_logan_getty300.jpgRyan Gosling and Jessica Chastain have each had a well-documented great year, each no fewer than three well-received films -- and all their corresponding buzz -- arriving in theaters in 2011. Investigate slightly below the radar, however, and you'll find screenwriter John Logan faring just as well -- if not better.

The busy scribe has his name on a trifecta of acclaimed work this year, once again positioning the two-time Oscar nominee (for Gladiator and The Aviator) in the awards race for both original (Rango) and adapted (Hugo, Coriolanus) screenplay prizes. The fall whirlwind complements his work on Skyfall, the new James Bond film on which Logan has been working for the last year. Heady times! Logan recently talked them over with Movieline.

Congrats on the success this year! Considering how busy you are and how much ground we have to cover, let's get right to the movie everyone wants to talk about. Can you enlighten us on the creative experience of writing Bats?

[Laughs] You know, let me tell you something, my friend: Every Halloween I get a nice residual check from Bats! So, not to scoff at our winged friends!

Who's scoffing? You wrote dialogue for Lou Diamond Phillips!

Hello! You know?

The thing is that you were a very successful playwright before you ever ventured into screenwriting. How much of those early scripts still amounted to 'paying dues,' if at all?

Not a lot, if only because I spent 10 years as a starving playwright in Chicago. That's where I learned how to do my job, and that's how I learned what a dramatist does as opposed to a poet or a prose writer or a journalist. So it was the 10 years in Chicago -- shelving books, eating tuna fish -- that I considered paying my dues, because that was the education that figured into what it meant to be a dramatist. Movies were a different form, obviously -- a different internal engine, a different political landscape. But by the time I wrote Any Given Sunday or Bats, I sort of knew what my job was in terms of what a writer of dialogue does.

So obviously it was a long haul to get where you are, and it's very different. But is that still a route you'd encourage young writers today to explore as well?

Oh my God, absolutely. Young screenwriters are always very frustrated when they talk to me. They say, "How do we get to be a screenwriter?" I say, "You know what you do? I'll tell you the secret, it's easy: Read Hamlet. You know? Then read it again, and read it again, and read it until you understand it. Read King Lear, and then read Othello. Then go back and read Aristotle and Sophocles and Euripedes and Chekhov and Kushner. Know where you stand in the continuum of your art form." The history of screenwriting -- of what we do -- is more than 100 years old. It's thousands of years old, going back to Sophocles and Euripedes. I believe the only -- the only -- separation for being a dramatist is reading drama.

Which gets us to Coriolanus. I spoke with Ralph Fiennes about this a while back, and he told me about his long-standing relationship with the play. Did you have one as well?

I did. I mean, the reason that I'm a writer today is because of Shakespeare and falling in love with Shakespeare when I was 8. That was through the movies, actually -- through Olivier's Hamlet. That was the first thing that got me to fall in love with Shakespeare and movies and everything in one big preadolescent rush. So when I started doing movies, I always wanted to do a Shakespeare adaptation. And to me, the play I always wanted to do was Coriolanus. To me, there was always something very modern and very cinematic about that particular play. So when I heard that Ralph Fiennes shared the same mad vision, I was very happy, because I couldn't imagine there was someone other than me who wanted to do that play.

So how did you two connect to make this happen?

It was through the good grace of Brian Siberell, my agent at CAA -- my one and only agent for 15 years, since the beginning of my career. He knew that I was besotted with Shakespeare and Coriolanus, and Ralph went in to have a general meeting there, and he was talking about wanting to do it. So Brian said, "Before you go any further, you need to sit down with John Logan." So we met, and Ralph started talking about his vision for the movie -- pitching very enthusiastically his modern take on it. And I said, "That's exactly right." So we just resolved to do it. There was no deal -- obviously no money, no studio. We said, "Let's do this thing!"

Clearly it's been condensed and adapted from Shakespeare's original, yet it still hews very closely to the spirit of the language -- how language shapes character. How far did you think you could go while writing? Did you ever find a line you couldn't cross? And if so, how?

That's a very good question. Yes. The response is sort of complicated in that Coriolanus is Shakespeare's second longest play -- second only to Hamlet. So we knew just looking at it that we would need to be muscular in the adaptation. But I knew just looking at it that this play's been around for 400 years, and it'll be around for another 400 years. I can't fuck it up. Nothing I can do is going to put an arrow through the heart of Coriolanus. It's a great Shakespeare play. It will always be done.

The thing that made me think it could be a movie was that character. Beyond the superficial similarities to our world -- a superpower in crisis, urban strife -- this guy makes it modern for me. It has nothing to do with all that. It has to do with Coriolanus's character because he's so opaque. He's so complex. And I think that one thing movies do really well is close-ups of interesting, complex people. And they hold! That's Peter O'Toole from Lawrence of Arabia, or Jack Nicholson from Chinatown. Or Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus. Think there is something very cinematic about that kind of very troubled, hard to reach central character. You're trying to reach past his eyes and get into his soul. So it seemed very natural when we were adapting the play that we would try to focus on that particular story. And I tried tons of stuff that didn't work, but finally came to a story that seemed to have the right grit to it.

What didn't work?

Well, my God: We had like 12 different endings, for one. It took a long time to settle on the ending we had. Originally the film began and ended with the image of a white horse -- sort of man as beast, nature teaches beasts to know their own... There's a lot of animal imagery in the play. And you see this white horse riding around a paddock, and we ended with that same image. But it seemed very removed for the drama -- it seemed like a very attenuated thematic idea as opposed to something organic. And at one point, there's this great speech in the play where they talk about Coriolanus's son chasing a butterfly and ripping it to pieces. I started with that image for a while, and that wasn't appropriate either. And so the beginning and the ending had to boil down to what now exists.

So I think everyone knew Rango was a good film, but it's become this phenomenon that just carries on to this day. Were even you, as someone who was so intimately involved with it, surprised it made the splash it did?

Yes. Very much so. Jim Byrkit and Gore Verbinski, who did the story with me, and all the story artists and everyone involved, we knew we were doing something very idiosyncratic. We reveled in the fact that it wasn't like every other animated movie in the world; we thought it was fantastic. The Western tropes, the iconography, the literary references, the theatricality, the central character... They were all fascinating and very entertaining. It was deeply gratifying to know other people felt the same way.

What about Hugo, which initially hit the zeitgeist as this kind of 3-D family film but has been received as this kind of magic-realist/film-preservation message? What do you make of its reception to date?

I never looked at it as a 3-D family film. I never consider an audience that way when I'm working. To me, it was a compelling story about an orphan making a home for himself. It's also vital to remember that Hugo is based on a brilliant book by Brian Selznick -- a very, very popular and successful book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. He created it, and we were all very, very fortunate to get a chance to explore it in our own form. But personally speaking I'm uniquely gratified by Hugo, because at the time it was a very hard job, and I personally find it the most moving of any move I've written. It touches me the most deeply. There's a majesty of The Aviator that is unmatchable in my work. There's moments of Gladiator or Rango or Coriolanus or any of my movies that are inspiring or exciting. But to me, there's something very moving and touching about Hugo, and I'm glad other people feel the same way.

What is it specifically that touches you?

I love the fact that it finally shows that it can be a just world -- with a little grit and determination, we can make a future for ourselves. The really significant point to Hugo, to me, is not that he falls into a happy ending. He starts out from a place of desolation and real damage. I mean, here's a boy: he's 12 years old, he's lost his parents, and he's living this rat like existence behind the walls of a train station. He has no friends or any idea what his purpose is in life. But by the end of the movie, he's found home. He's found happiness -- because he's worked for it. He was brave, he was bold, he was inquisitive, he was daring. I find that a really worthwhile story to tell.

And so next I guess you're on Skyfall. Is there anything you can elaborate on about that screenplay and your role with it?

I've been writing it for a year! That's my role in it. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade wrote a fantastic script. They worked very closely with Sam Mendes and Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson and wrote a really brilliant script. And Sam, who I've known forever, invited me to come on and work on it. And so I've even working on it since then. I was on the set four days ago. It's one of the best experiences I've ever had on a movie; it's a thrilling collection of artists working on it, and I think the movie is going to be fantastic.

Why? What's thrilling about this story and this episode in the James Bond canon?

Well, I can't tell you anything about the story, obviously. As much as I would love to! We can talk about that this time next year. But to me, it's really about a number of things: Sam is a great director and a great colleague from the theater. He knows how to work with writers and with actors. It's an unbelievable cast that's doing it. To sit around a table with Judi Dench and Albert Finney and Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem and Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear... For a theater guy like me, it's a little head-spinning. To sit with Judi Dench? And rehearse scenes? For me, that's as good as it gets.

You know, I was watching a James Bond marathon on Thanksgiving, which mixed films like Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger with the likes of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. And while the latter are good, they're not especially fun the way the older movies were. Is Skyfall any different, at least the way you approached it?

What I find really exciting about Skyfall is that we're going to come out on the 50th anniversary of Dr. No. So for 50 years and for 23 movies, this franchise has been going strong, and it's been reinterpreted by various artists over the years, and yet it has a very specific spirit to it. Once again, it's a little like Coriolanus: It has an inner muscularity that can take a lot. So I would like to think that I'm bringing a little of myself to it -- my personal vision as a writer -- in collaboration with Sam and the designers and producers. So far I couldn't be more delighted with the process and what it looks like.

What's your favorite James Bond movie?

I think Goldfinger, although I have a very sentimental attachment to Diamonds Are Forever because it was the first one I saw in a theater as a kid. But Octopussy is very underrated. From Russia With Love is top-notch espionage. I think both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are thrilling and modern and exciting movies. So I'm just a fan of the franchise.

[Top photo: Getty Images]

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