It's Wednesday, and you know what that means -- time for The Write Stuff! This week Cinematical spoke with screenwriter Captain Mauzner. Mauzner has an interesting perspective on screenwriting because he's written two major films based on true events and actual people. He co-wrote 2003's Wonderland -- the story of the infamous "Wonderland Murders," which starred Val Kilmer as legendary porn star John Holmes. And he wrote last year's Factory Girl, the tale of Edie Sedgwick (played by Sienna Miller), Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce), and a Dylanesque "Musician" played by Hayden Christensen. We spoke about Mauzner's scripts, process, and the trickiness of writing scripts based on fact.
Cinematical: Are you working on anything right now?
Captain Mauzner: I am working on something right now, yeah. I'm adapting a book. It's a small book, it's called The Food Chain, by Geoff Nicholson. A friend of mine runs a small company and I'm adapting it with the hopes of directing it. It's kind of about food, sex, and cannibalism. Revenge, food, sex, and cannibalism.
Cinematical: Well, alright!
CM: It's a little dark comedy. It's fun. And what was nice about it was -- I've written so many things and a lot of them are true life stories, and they all seem to be about kind of deplorable human beings. And I think that my comfort zone is really kind of in the dark side -- the drug addicts, the deviants. And I think that as I've kind of gotten older and left that world myself, I guess you could say I've become less and less interested in it. You see these movies like Wonderland and Factory Girl and you could say "oh, they're like an argument against doing drugs." But I know for myself, there's always a glamorizing element to it. And as much as you want to say this is the downfall of these people, which it is -- and obviously there's nothing glamorous about the drug lifestyle, or the party lifestyle because it does lead to bad things. But just the act of writing about it or making these the main characters or trying to explain these people, I feel like that somewhat glamorizes it, or at least in my mind it was very glamorous. I had a very romantic notion, at like 14-years-old I discovered Bukowski and I was kind of off to the races. So I think that as I get older I'm ready to move on to maybe something light and happy. My family's always like "Why can't you write something that we can take Grandma to?"
Cinematical: So do you find when you're writing about drugs and debauchery, that you're not looking to condemn it and point a finger, you're just looking to present it and let the audience decide?
CM: Absolutely. I'm not looking to condemn it at all. I'm not looking to be moral about it. I believe in experimentation. I believe in doing kind of what you want and not having anybody else tell you what to do. I think that my fascination with it is always the "why." Why do people do this? I think that's kind of the fun of being able to do those kind of things is that you can live kind of vicariously through these people, and try to figure out the "why" without being judgmental.
Cinematical: Is it coincidence that the two major produced projects you've had have been biographies?
CM: I think that I've just come to know my strengths and weaknesses. I'm not as good at sitting around and thinking up something out of the blue, and I'm aware of that. There are some people who are just amazing at that. You know, somebody sat down and said "OK, there's an alien and he lands on this planet and makes friends with an 8 year-old boy and all he wants to do is phone home." And that's genius, I have so much respect for somebody that can just pull that out of the thin air. Personally, my brain doesn't work like that. I'm a voracious reader and consumer of information, and so I come across things and I'm like "Well, that's really cool." And I think my talent, arguably, lies in being able to spot a cool story, whether it's a true story or a short story or a fiction. And that's kind of what I gravitate toward, because I feel like that's my strength.
Cinematical: What are the different ways you go about writing for a real person and a fictional character?
CM: With both projects (Wonderland and Factory Girl) I wasn't able to talk to the main characters, because they weren't alive. Wonderland was a little bit more recent so I was able to talk to people with much fresher memories, but obviously when you're writing a real person, someone somewhat contemporary, it all starts with the research. Definitely if you can get them, that's the best. In some of the films, we had real characters portrayed and we were able to talk to them and listen to their speech patterns, their cadence, their stories, and that's invaluable. If you can't, it's obvious we live in some sort of film/video age, so if you go digging -- in the projects I've worked on I've been fortunate to find video or audio recordings of those people. And then people who know them or who knew them. That's where it gets tricky because everybody sees history through their own lenses. And you have to understand peoples' biases and prejudices and be able to weed them out. Everybody's got an agenda when they're telling the story. Either they want to be remembered in a certain way, they want to have themselves positioned in the incident in a certain way, or they -- you know what I mean? And in both of these instances that I've dealt with, you're dealing with people who have done a lot of drugs. So their memories and their emotions have been really affected by that so you have to kind of get through that as well.
Cinematical: And you've got to think that maybe they're wanting to cover up for some of the things they've done in their past, too.
CM: Absolutely. I mean, in Wonderland it was a criminal act. So people were obviously trying to wash the blood off their hands. And then in Factory Girl, what was done to Edie on an emotional level, people were trying to wash their hands of. So yeah, definitely. They want to make themselves less culpable.
Cinematical: How committed do you feel to writing a 100% true story? Is that of interest to you, or are you just trying to make the most entertaining film possible?
CM: I think it's part of the process of learning. It's been this ten year rollercoaster ride where everything was just learning. When Wonderland came about, I wrote it with James Cox who directed it, and our whole thing was just "This happened." We were sticklers. I think we changed three little details. We wanted it exactly true and that was very important. When Factory Girl came along I started with the same kind of "this happened" thing, but learned some of the lessons from Wonderland, namely "you are telling a story." So I tried to do it to the spirit not the letter. That's the expression, right?
Cinematical: Sounds right to me.
CM: So I changed things, but I really tried to keep it as true to the story as possible. Then the actors came in. I've been very fortunate with both Wonderland and Factory Girl where I've been part of the process from start to finish, which included on-set writing when the actors were there, and sitting in on rehearsals and writing for them, so I watched how everything changed and I was able to be a part of that. So when the actors came in on Factory Girl, they kind of caught the changes I made from the truth, and they really just liked to bring it back. But within bringing it back, keeping to the spirit of telling a story.
CM: The actors are very smart, they're not stupid, they understood we needed to tell a story, but they didn't want to get panned for telling a story that was not true. So there's that fight. And I felt like it forced me to be on the side against the truth, because I was always trying to fight for the story. Of course they were always fighting for the truth, and we found this happy medium which I think worked pretty well. Then I wrote a script about JT LeRoy, the literary hoax (Mauzner says this project is likely dead). And coming from Factory Girl, when I approached JT, I said "I just want to tell a story, the truth is not that important to me." That story happened to lend itself to that point of view because it was all about what was true and what wasn't. So that gave me a lot of liberty to do that. To answer your question, I would say whatever you're making is not a documentary. It's a fiction film. Telling a good story is what's important. If you want to get the real story, get a documentary, internet, books, magazines -- those are true stories, and these movies are inspired by true stories.
Cinematical: The character of Edie Sedgwick -- most reviews that I read called her the Paris Hilton of her day -- famous only for being famous. Do you agree, or would you say she was a little deeper person than that?
CM: There's no question that she was famous for being famous. In terms of who she was, I think that there was an enormous reservoir of humanity inside of her and she was incredibly full of life and joie de vive and she had this unbelievably weird point of view and the ability to captivate people. I don't know if Paris Hilton has that. When I look at Edie Sedgwick and Paris Hilton, I just don't see the comparison in terms of their personas. Edie's persona was huge -- she was like this great big speeding train and if you got onto that train, then your life was really exciting for it. I don't know if it's the same with Paris Hilton. I don't know if you get on the Paris Hilton Express and everything's roses.
Cinematical: I would imagine not, no. Was that a story that you found and loved or were you approached to write her story?
CM: Holly Wiersma, producer of Wonderland, wanted to do it, and approached me about it. I had never heard of Edie. What initially fascinated about me about it, when I started reading about it, I started to see Andy Warhol as this very human, manipulative, bitchy, queeny human being. And in the three Warhol portrayals, you only see him as kind of this aloof genius. And the idea of portraying Andy Warhol in a more true light, in a less than flattering light -- that was exciting to me because I thought that was the real Andy, the Andy that had never been seen, and that was what initially drew me to it, because I wasn't sure what to make of Edie Sedgwick. And then I was sitting watching Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I started to have this idea of Edie Sedgwick as the dark side of Audrey Hepburn. That kind of thought clicking into place locked a voice into my head, and the idea of taking Audrey Hepburn and turning that inside out was very exciting to me.
Cinematical: What was your take on Bob Dylan's negative reaction to Factory Girl? Did it affect you in any way?
CM: It didn't. And it was totally overblown and not true. He never threatened to sue, that was just not true. Bob Dylan didn't really have much to say. His lawyer wrote one letter to our production and it wasn't like "we're going to sue" at all. And to be perfectly honest, before the movie went into production, I spent months and months with a lawyer here in LA, sitting there going through the script making sure that it wasn't stepping on the shoes of Bob Dylan, and it wasn't recognizably Bob Dylan, and that it was a composite character that was certainly based in part on Bob Dylan but based on other people as well. I had to go through and sanitize the script, I spent hours arguing little points. The Bob Dylan thing was overblown and wasn't true.
Cinematical: How do rights for biographies work? If I want to write The Tony Danza Story, who do I have to go to?
CM: You want to write The Tony Danza Story?
Cinematical: I think that's something that might capture the public's imagination, yes.
CM: I think I want to write that with you.
CM: If it's a public figure then you have a little bit of leeway. If you can back things up, if you have multiple sources, you're allowed to tell the truth. Once you start making things up, then you're going to get into trouble. But if you're telling a true story, and you have sources to back up what you're saying, you can get away with it. We purchased peoples' rights for both the movies --
Cinematical: And where do you go for something like that? How does that process work, purchasing rights to someone's life?
CM: It's really not that difficult. For Wonderland, Sharon Holmes, John's wife (played in the film by Lisa Kudrow), and Dawn Schiller, John's girlfriend (Kate Bosworth) -- we met them over the course of research. We had a lawyer draw up a paper, kind of a standard life rights agreement. They were paid some money, and in return we got the right to use their stories. Based on what they told us, the script got changed. That's a very interesting part of it. In both cases, for me, the script was written, and then after we had a draft and some people excited we started tracking down the real people. And once the real people got involved, they read the script and they said "this isn't what happened." And the script started to change based on the truth that came in. Now, having done this before, if I was going to start a true story, I'd love to have the people involved at the beginning because it's a little less work. It took money, and when me and James started writing Wonderland, we were like 23 years old, so we didn't have any money to go out and buy peoples' rights. We just kind of used a lot of public information and went from there.
Cinematical: Since you do all this research, are you treated like an expert on set, or do they totally disregard your opinion?
CM: An expert? No, there's nothing like that. I've been so fortunate to work with such incredible actors, and they become experts on the people they're playing. Completely. And it's really fascinating to watch and I learned a lot about subjugating my own ego, because really it's the actors' show. The screenplay in some ways is a blueprint. As a screenwriter, you're trying to keep track. The actors come in and sit in rehearsals and you watch things come out and you're just fascinated with the way they say a line or the way they take a scene which is just never what you thought. Sitting there and watching them work was really helpful in learning how to write, it made me such a better writer. You can take that and you can be really insecure and say "What the f*** are these people doing? They're changing my lines! What do they know?" I was kind of like -- these people are at the top of their craft. I'm going to shut up and listen. Learn from them. Why are they rejecting my lines? Why are they rejecting what's going on? What are they spitting out?" And then for the next thing, I can craft it so it's something the actors wouldn't spit out. With writers I think that sometimes they turn the script in and then see the movie and can't understand why it's changed. With the projects I've been on, I've understood the changes every step of the way.
Cinematical: What is your writing process on these films? You're writing an adaptation now -- is there a completely different process between writing a biography and a fiction film?
CM: Over the years, I've developed a very specific way of writing a script. I was introduced to this method by another writing friend of mine, and I have a very kind of systematic approach to it where there's a specific amount of beats, certain things that need to happen at certain points of the script, and I map out the story specifically. Whether you're writing a biography or adapting a book or a science fiction movie or a cartoon, it's a story. And telling a story is always going to be kind of the same.
Cinematical: Is the writer's strike affecting you at all, at this point?
CM: Not per se. Not me. It probably will, because I have these projects that I've been working on so I've been kind of oblivious and taking myself out of the game. But I'm sure in a few months when I come up for air and go looking for a new job, there's not going to be anything there. We'll see.
Cinematical: Alright. I'll wrap this up, but I've gotta ask with Halloween coming up -- favorite horror movie?
CM: Oh man, I never watch horror movies. I guess it would probably be Rosemary's Baby. Probably the scariest movie that I've seen.
Cinematical: A fine choice. And lastly, can you offer one major piece of advice for aspiring screenwriters?
CM: What I've learned, and it sounds so pithy and trite, is that writing is re-writing. And when you finish your first draft, you're not even close to being done. Both the scripts I've had that have been completed, from the first draft to the final draft, I'd say there's maybe 15-20% of what was originally in there. It just keeps getting re-written. The re-writing is where you find all the magic. And don't hold onto things. If you really love it, and it doesn't work -- cut it out and put it in another script! You can't get too attached to anything. You've got to do what serves the story best.
You can read the previous interview in the screenwriter series, a discussion with Adam F. Goldberg, here. And be sure to hit me up with any questions for future columns in the comments and on my personal site.