These are the names of the writing pair best known for their Academy Award nominated adaptation of the Clive Owen-starring, Alfonso Cuaron-helmed “Children of Men”. The duo have since gone on to continue building their blockbuster status with the Robert Downey Jr. return “Iron Man”, and are now tackling the upcoming “Tomb Raider” reboot, the thriller “Maximum Ride” for Universal and even the $100 million dollar plus budgeted films “Black Monday” for Paramount, “Akira” for Warner Brothers, and “World After” for 20th Century Fox.
But somewhere between superhero actioners, post-apocalytpic thrillers, and controversial live-action adaptations, the pair found a few minutes to sit down with The Tracking Board contributor Chris Davison for a quick, fun and iPhone endorsing interview.
Q: In traditional dramatic writing they say to always leave room for the actor. In a VFX-heavy film do you write to leave room for the VFX artists?
Ostby: You write the story as you imagine it and you don’t put any technical limitations. Of course, if we’re doing a small movie that we’re going to make for nothing you don’t put in a building blowing up; you scale it down and push the camera in closer. You make the scene as exciting as you can and you trust that other artists will come in and make that vision come true.
Fergus: Most of the time they just say not to think about how to make aliens that no one’s ever seen before, ones that can outdo Ridley Scott’s aliens or the Giger aliens, and we just write a couple of details about what would make a great alien and we make sure that the sequences are very meticulously mapped out. When they get to it, for budgetary or logistics reasons they might totally change it around. As long as dramatically it’s the same intent, it’s what the sequence was about, we can kind of imagine whatever the hell we want and then Jon and his team have to go and break it down. We can say “the most awesome aliens you’ve ever seen” and then someone else has to go figure out what that means.
Ostby: That’s one of the cool things about writing. You don’t have to in essence figure out how these cool things are going to come to life. You make them come alive on the page and then it’s the job of the director and the staff to make it real. It’s a bit of a luxury, we can just say “the building blows up” and then ultimately it’s a design thing.
Fergus: HP Lovecraft has this story, I remember Stephen King made a joke about it, he said “what I saw when I opened the door, if I described it to you would drive you mad with horror”. I don’t know what that means but that’s some pretty damn scary thing and we take a cue from that. It’s someone else’s job to figure out how to bring that to life and those guys are awesome because all they do is try to do things that eyeballs have never seen before. It’s amazing since everyone’s immersed in film history, they all know what’s already been done and they always say based on the resources, the money and the time, “let’s try to come up with something awesome”.
It’s really cool for us to invite them to do something totally awesome and so we go for it. On IRON MAN we were writing as we were still shooting a lot of it because it was still coming together on-the-fly and they’d tell us the next day “we can’t do this”. We were in production already and so they’d tell us “we can’t have 50 choppers over the cliff, we’ve got to have one” and so on. We got immediate responses to our dreamy, dreamy ideas and they’d tell us what was possible or not.
A lot of times if we know there’s another movie coming out at the same time that changes our guidance. With IRON MAN we were doing this whole thing with a bus and then TRANSFORMERS had this sequence where he’s going down the freeway and just rips through the bus and we say to ourselves “okay, we just stumbled on a really cool visual but they just nailed it and we’re never going to up the stakes on that so can we move the focus over here instead of over there?”
Q: When writing a VFX scene, do you describe what you want the viewer to see or is it more how you want the viewer to feel?
Ostby: I think what we say for that is “there it is, the alien ship, massive and magnificent, more frightening than anything you could imagine”. Ultimately, it is a design thing since somebody’s going to have to make a mock-up of 15 ships and then bring it to Jon and he’ll look at it and say “I like that, I don’t like that, that’s too reminiscent of another film” and so on.
Fergus: You hit on it, really, it’s just the emotional necessity of what you feel when you see the aliens. Perhaps one detail of what they might be but we’re not going to get into a million details because we don’t know what the design is yet. You just say what you need for the story and what has to be there and then the emotion of how you feel when those VFX come in, how you want them to move the story forward and how you want people to feel.
It’s the same as with actors, the less, less, less you can put in the better. Just tell the essentials and let the professionals do their jobs. Actors don’t want to be told “move over here three steps, laconically, and say this line profoundly”. Good actors go through and cross all that crap out anyway, they want to find the character and be in the moment. This kind of writing takes a while to develop, at first you write everything and then you read the masters and it’s like haiku, white space on every page, beautiful simplicity and that’s hard, it’s much easier to write a lot and just throw everything in. It’s really hard to write just what’s necessary, it takes a lot of years to get to the place where you trust in that and to get everybody else exactly what they need and then they can own it and they can really bring their game to it. Trust your collaborators, they’re really great people, no need to over-explain everything. Actors will cut lines, they’ll improv, and Jon leaves lots of room for inspiration with the actors and the VFX guys, it’s one of his real gifts to hire great people and let them have the freedom to bring their own stuff to it. Everybody’s got great ideas.
Q: When writing a script are you in the same room? Do you trade ideas by email, phone, text, IM, etc?
Ostby: We’ve never actually worked in the same room. I live in Vermont so it’s a great distance, but we’ve always worked separately, even when we lived a block away from each other in New York. We talk a lot on the phone, we send things back-and-forth over email but really we’re two brains with a common sensibility.
Fergus: COWBOYS & ALIENS was a little different since we got the job offer while we were still on the IRON MAN set. We were together for that shoot and so we got to brainstorm ideas. We brainstormed the outline in places like Lone Pine and got approved and then we had to go and pitch to Spielberg and Howard and Grazer and all those guys and we got to do a lot of that together, which was unusual. Once we get writing a script I’ll do an outline and then Hawk will do a first draft then I’ll take it and do a second draft and hand it back and he’ll do a third. We bounce it back and forth and really let the other guy do their thing without interference. It’s really hands off and trusting the other guy.
It’s great since when you’re not in each other’s face you’re not editing each other beforehand. He tries things that I would totally try to talk him out of and then I’m like “oh, yeah, awesome” but if we were together too much, in each other’s face too much, it wouldn’t work as well — I like to jump around, to Page 40, to the end, back to the beginning, whereas Hawk likes to push through a story chronologically. I think we would really annoy each other if we were trying to do our thing at the same time.
We email each other chunks of the script as PDFs, then Hawk will go and make the hard decisions on where to break a scene. I find that too overwhelming, with nothing but possibilities I actually shut down but he’ll go in and make choices to get through a sequence then he’ll give me a big block of pages and say “hey, what do you think?” Geographical distance for us is incidental, we wouldn’t work any differently if he lived in Santa Monica.
Q: How have evolving technologies changed your creative process?
Fergus: We wrote CHILDREN OF MEN on a word processor. We were trying to fix our margins and get things to line up, we’d pull one thing out and the whole script would fall apart and then someone was like “when are you guys going to get Final Draft, you idiots?” We were a part of the Cinestory competition and we won it and one of the prizes was Final Draft so we finally got it and that’s what we’ve been using since.
Ostby: Final Draft is so comfortable now, it’s like an extension of yourself. A lot of people complained about earlier versions and the quirks in the software but it’s been pretty comfortable for a while now, the last version they put out was very good.
Fergus: When you’re this close to production everybody has to be able to break it down and use all the tools. If you’re not in one of the software packages that everyone’s using you’re just slowing the production down.
Ostby: It’s funny, I remember typing a script when I was graduating in New York, physically typing a script on a typewriter and, man, you just realized that in the old days when they typed a page they knew what was going to go on that page.
Fergus: Yeah, they had to really think it through because you’re committing to it and to the carbon copy, it was all going to be for real. I remember I did my first script for the Nissan Focus competition back in the 80s and I did that script on a typewriter, one page at a time with the whiteout function. In terms of thought process you’d have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in your head before you made a choice. Today, you think “I can change it later” so you just dive in. It’s a different process entirely. Your brain works differently when you have endless options versus if you commit to something it’s going to be a hell of a mess to undo it. We rewrite every scene probably 50 times and you couldn’t do that back then, it would have taken years but now you can write 20 revisions in a week.
Ostby: One of the things you hear is that in the days of the typewriter the scripts were better.
Fergus: I can see that, a commitment to the words you were putting down when it’s difficult to have second, third and fourth chances. Using a typewriter makes you think more and probably (script) notes wouldn’t be as copiously given like the way they are now if they couldn’t be turned over in hours or days. It was different if you received a ton of notes and had to retype the whole script.
Q: One final, random question. iPhone, BlackBerry or Droid?
Fergus: iPhone as well.
Ostby: It just works really well. I have several favorite apps and certainly the fact that I have email on my phone, which I didn’t have before, frees me up a lot. I’m not as bound to my desk, I can be moving around doing things so that’s been a huge thing for me. Coming into a strange town, the GPS is huge, I use that a lot. I think the integration of this phone with the other stuff we use, the iPad, the computer, it’s very seamless for the most part and that’s really valuable.
I used to be a huge PC fan way back but I was up until 2AM getting down into the root kit of some software and on the Mac I have to say that I’ve never had to type C: and had to look under the hood and that’s really valuable. Same thing with my car, I’ve never had to open it up and figure out how to fix the distributor, it just works and that’s really good.
Fergus: I just got the iPhone and I’m still using my IRON MAN computer, which is many, many generations old. Downey signed it when we were at Comic Con last time so it’s kind of a good luck charm. My phone is way stronger than my PC now with just about everything I use. When I get into a new technology I always ask Hawk since he’s many years ahead of me. I’m the last guy to get stuff, like with Final Draft, I waited until the last possible minute then I joined the program and got with the modern age but I resisted for a while. I mean I still play CDs and cassettes.
Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions!