John Orloff got his break writing two episodes of the Emmy-winning HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. His latest script is another true-life tale -- Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart, just out on DVD. Heart focuses on Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie), a reporter whose husband Daniel, an American journalist, was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan. The script just earned Orloff an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay. The awards will be held on February 23rd.
Cinematical: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
John Orloff: I still don't know whether I want to be a writer! I went to UCLA Film School, and I had a great writing teacher who thought I had a particular skill in that department. So I kept taking that teacher for the whole time I was at UCLA, kept on writing. At the end of it I was 22, it was the late 80s, and people weren't really hiring young writers, so I started to work in advertising. Spent about ten years miserably working in commercials, until I met a woman -- who is now my wife -- who was working in the business as a development exec at HBO. And she was bringing home all these screenplays, and they were horrible! Just awful! And these people had agents, and they were working. So I pitched my wife a non-fiction movie that I had been thinking about writing for ten years, with the incredibly commercial idea of a sixteenth century English melodrama. It was actually about the Shakespeare authorship issue -- who wrote the plays? I wrote the script and had the misfortune of writing it two months before Shakespeare in Love came out. But I sent out this script, trying to get an agent, and did finally get "hip-pocketed" by an agency.
Cinematical: And that script eventually got you your big break with Tom Hanks -- pretty decent guy to start out with, no?
JO: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, yes! The most important thing that happened out of the Shakespeare script was that Tom's company was among the readers. They liked it, and I met with Tom about another project, but every time I sat down with him I would ask if he had hired writers on Band of Brothers. I'm a huge World War II buff, and I think I eventually just wore him down. He finally asked me to write a script, and I wrote one episode. He was very happy with it and asked me to write another. So, that was my first paying gig.
Cinematical: I assume from looking at your filmography that you're a big history buff?
JO: I didn't major in history, but I took a lot of classes. Well-written history, good history is basically stories. If you can find the story in the history, it's just as captivating as fiction, maybe more because it happened. A project I worked on after Band, seven or eight years ago, was the rise to power of Julius Caesar. This was before the HBO series Rome and before Gladiator, and epics were totally out. I pitched the story to Tom Hanks and Michael Mann on the same day, and they both loved it. I ended up writing that, but it never got made. History stuff isn't everything I do, though. I adapted the Ray Bradbury book, The Martian Chronicles, which hasn't been made either. Right now I'm adapting a Bourne Identity kind of piece, and a series of kids' books. I'm adapting The Guardians of Gh'hoole -- these wonderfully creative, exciting, interesting young adult books that are sort of one part King Arthur, one part Harry Potter, a little Star Wars.
Cinematical: What are the steps that led you to A Mighty Heart?
JO: Brad Pitt's company had bought the book for Warner Brothers, and they were talking to a lot of writers trying to figure out who was going to adapt it. I read the book, loved it, figured out what I thought was a great way to tell the story, they liked what I had to say when I came into the room, and here we are. The book was not really a whodunit, and the movie has a bit more of that. I looked at it as a procedural of sorts. So it was actually confusing to me reading the book and trying to figure out what exactly happened. In terms of orchestrating it as a writer, who did what and how they figured everything out -- that's not in the book. So I had to first figure all that out, by interviewing several other people besides Mariane. Then I opened things up, and followed the procedure, because I found it fascinating. I wasn't interested in the "woman in jeopardy" story, I was interested in examining the front lines of this new world we find ourselves in. This was before the Iraq war, but I would argue even with the Iraq war, the real front lines are on the streets of Pakistan. And they're not on battlefields, they're in the cities. They're in Karachi and Islamabad and Mecca and all these cities. That's where this is going to be figured out and won or lost. And it's going to be won or lost with the help of non-radical Muslims. So, from my perspective, I thought this was an incredible opportunity to explore what's going on in our world right now. On top of that, you have this incredible emotional journey. On top of that, you can have a conversation about journalism -- its risks and rewards and necessity. Three really interesting thematic, structural, emotional things were going on in this story.
Cinematical: Since your major projects have been about not only real people, but living people, do you feel a lot of pressure to get the details exactly right, or are you more concerned with hitting the general emotional beats and making the story relatable to a mass audience?
JO: It's a mixture of both. That's the neverending question and issue when you're adapting non-fiction material where the people are still alive. I've now done that twice, with Band and A Mighty Heart. It's a real tightrope, because you're not making a documentary, you're making a drama. And real life is not always laid out in three acts. I find that the projects I say yes to are the ones I know will be compelling and interesting without having to make shit up. I am of the opinion that if it's interesting enough to film, then it should be interesting enough to not have to make shit up on. I'm not that interested in "inspired by a true event." So the question then becomes how to make this compelling and true event interesting as a piece of cinema. I spend months doing that, and there's no right answer. It's about aligning the events in the right order, finding a way to distill some of the events...I try to never distill characters. I don't make pastiche characters. Audiences are pretty sophisticated, you don't need to make that kind of stuff up. There's an unending quest to balance drama and reality.
Cinematical: When you're writing something as heavy as A Mighty Heart, is it hard to get in that head space every day?
JO: Yeah, it's terribly hard. I had done it before with Band of Brothers, when I wrote the concentration camp stuff, and it's really dark, really hard. It puts you in a grumpy mood. When I had to write the last thirty pages of Mighty Heart, it was weeks before I could come to it. I got past the beginning of the third act and I just froze, and it was really because I just didn't want to write it. I didn't want to make real in my script what I knew was going to happen. I fall in love with my characters, all of them. And I don't want bad things to happen to them. It was very hard to write the last bit of that film. Really, really hard.
Cinematical: What do you consider a perfect screenplay?
JO: For me, the big question is: what is the best version of the movie supposed to be, and does that film accomplish it? Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, to me, is a perfect film. Is it a serious film? No. But it wanted to be the 1930s serial movie, and it is awesome. It is exactly what it wanted to be, and it is the greatest version of that genre. For me, the greatest script I ever read is Dalton Trumbo's script for Spartacus. It reads like a novel, and it is so much better than the movie. It's unbelievably textured, and nuanced, and sexy. I adore Stanley Kubrick, but this script is so much better than that movie. It's endless, I mean it's 200 pages, I think. But it's better than a book. Most scripts aren't written that fully, and technically, and beautifully. I'm a 'less is more' kind of writer. I don't write like Dalton Trumbo, maybe that's why I'm so enamored with his writing. 2001 is an amazing script. That's probably the greatest non-verbal movie there is that's not a silent film. Dr. Strangelove -- I almost weep at how great that script is. I guess I'm on a big Kubrick kick right now! Jaws is a great script.
Cinematical: What are some pieces of advice you'd like to share with the up-and-coming writers who read the site?
JO: I don't know how to tell people how to write, I barely know how I do it myself. But here's one thing I would tell your readers: don't ever spec something because you think someone will like it and buy it. Only spec something because you think it's going to be great and you are the only person in the world who can write the best version of it. So many writers I know get desperate and think "What the studios really want is a movie where this happens!" So they end up writing something that's sort of pro forma, and it feels that way, and they never sell it. But if you write something out of passion and belief, even if it's just an action movie, I believe that passion comes through and you'll write a great script. All of my writer friends thought I was crazy writing a sixteenth century Elizabethan melodrama. But it totally launched my career and it actually almost got made three years ago.
Another piece of advice I'd offer, especially to writers starting out, is to form a writers' group. I think they can be really helpful. I had one in L.A. for 15 years, and we had lunch every single week. It was part just for discipline -- every week you'd have to say how many pages you wrote that week. And as we started to get work, it became a conversation about the business, we'd give each other advice. We read each other's scripts, but that became the least important part of the group. Find people you really trust and really like, because you're showing them your vulnerabilities. And again, write from passion -- that's the biggest piece of advice I have.
A Mighty Heart is on DVD now.