The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump is the subject of a short film about his craft. Enjoy the clip and read a bonus interview with Elbert Wyche.
Among other things, the Academy Originals episode (a manageable five minutes long) reveals how Roth still writes scripts on an arcane MS DOS programme and is wont to change his descriptions of the weather when he gets bogged down in a story.
Roth’s credits include The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, The Insider and Munich – each of which earned an Academy Award nomination – as well as Ali and The Horse Whisperer. He also wrote Africa, which Angelina Jolie will direct.
Now read Elbert Wyche’s bonus interview (Wyche did not conduct the on-camera interview.)
When did you get approached to do the Academy Originals Creative Spark episode and is it something you were excited to do?
I was approached a little less than a year ago. I was excited because I’ve been active in the Academy among the writers branch. I’m on the executive committee, so I like to do anything that furthers the Academy’s great work. I think it’s great stuff that they do and I’m glad they’re keeping a lot of these traditions alive. It’s a great service because there are a lot of incredibly talented people in this business and it’s nice that they’ll be kept in a vault that way.
You spoke briefly in the video about your day-to-day process. What’s your process like creatively from idea to first draft?
I think it stays the same on everything. I’m most interested in what the theme is, whether it’s something that’s given to me or if it’s an original that I’m trying to create. I find what the overall intent of the film is. Then I become very involved with the characters in all aspects, psychologically and physically. In other words I try to have them inhabit a real space, have a voice. I always seem to know the beginning scene and the end scene. I rarely have a clue about the middle because I don’t do a lot of outlining. I just let it take me. I do research beforehand so I get a sense of the material. However, I have a lot of research that I do during the writing if it’s someone real. If it’s imagined, I still do a lot of research. They say god is in the details, so I make the details in the characters.
Of the scripts you’ve written, what are some of your favourites?
I have such attachment to them all so it’s really hard to separate them. Forrest Gump is obviously special to me because it put me into a different kind of world. Of the more serious writing The Insider, I think, is a really spectacular piece of work. Benjamin Button was very emotional for me because my parents died during the writing of that. I put some of that sentiment about them into the movie. I’m very passionate about each new piece. I think, ‘This is going to be the best one I’ve ever written.’
Of the movies you’ve written, which one best represented your vision on screen?
This may sound a little arrogant, but I’ve had a good enough relationship with almost all of the directors that I’ve worked with that I think they’ve all been pretty accurate. If they’re good I feel good that I had some direct contribution and if they’re bad I feel bad because of that same contribution. I can’t complain that directors have changed the vision particularly. I think we become pretty collaborative. Sometimes there are great surprises in [how they envision the movie], so the movie becomes different in that sense.
How did the script for Africa come about?
I had actually written it in the early 90’s. It’s about Richard Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist. In the early 90s a producer came to me and said he would be interested in writing a script about this man’s life. When I met with Leakey, it was hard to say no. I wrote it and nothing really came of it. It was at Sony – at that point [the studio] was called Columbia – and it just sort of sat. Then many years later David Ellison wanted to do a love story set in Africa and my agent referred him to my script. David loved it and he asked me to do a few changes to the script, but first they had to get it out of turnaround at Sony, which is a complicated business process.
[Studio chief] Amy Pascal was very generous and she wasn’t trying to stand in the way of getting the movie made. It was probably never going to be made otherwise. I did some rewriting, which I knew it needed to have to bring it up to date; it’s a story set in the late 80s. I’m quite close with Brad and Angelina. I didn’t know if Brad would want to play it but I thought Angelina – I was writing Cleopatra at the time for her – would be interested. She read it and told me she would love to direct it. She and David worked out arrangements and that was all within the last week. Some things never die.
In the Academy video you touch on screenwriters and discipline. Can you expound on that?
I go to work every morning, same place and same time. I have a workday. I think you need to find the schedule that works for you. There’s a discipline required to do it and get it finished within some reasonable time. I think everybody’s style is different but it’s still a job. It might be joyful and it might be painful if you can’t get everything figured out. For me discipline is writing every day. I don’t care if you’re a waiter or you have another job to pay the bills. If you really want to write – and this is my advice to aspiring screenwriters – you need to write every day.