I caught up with Academy Award winning (Shakespeare In Love, co-written with Tom Stoppard) screenwriter Marc Norman at a Writers Guild of America party at Morton's celebrating the screenwriter nominees. Jet-lagged from a triumphant bow at the pre-Oscar Berlin International Festival, Norman was well-lubricated with theories on Y2K and other random arguments...
EBNER: As we approach the millennium, do you think that the screen storytelling is a lost or dying art?
NORMAN: Y2K? How can you be a heartbeat away from LA when the world is poised to go absolutely cuckoo simply because of a calendar change? There's probably gonna be blood in the streets out of the fact that it's a new year. And they say that story and myth doesn't have an effect on people...
EBNER: Did you write your millennium screenplay yet?
NORMAN: No, I actually researched my millennium screenplay about six years ago. What I found was, in 1999, people absolutely went batshit for no reason at all. They assumed that the world was coming to an end. In France and Germany there were riots, there were sacrifices -- people just went absolutely batshit for no reason whatsoever. It was just that the calendar changed and there was a sense that we were getting close to something apocalyptic in the Bible. How can you say that the story and myth doesn't happen? We're so hard-wired for story and myth that we can't do without it.
EBNER: I'll concede that with the films nominated this year, it's ironic to deliver a premise that storytelling might be dead.
NORMAN: Yeah. How can you have five good movies nominated, or ten good movies nominated and say that there's no good storytelling any more? That's bullshit. Who's saying this? Where is this coming from?
Ebner. Oh, writers who feel...who lament the fact that they can't get a movie up like they were made in the Seventies maybe..
NORMAN: That's right. They have to make movies like they're made in the Nineties.
EBNER: Then we've got runaway boats, directors who are shooters not storytellers...
NORMAN: There's always been runaway boats. They had runaway boats in the Thirties.
EBNER: Well, you're certainly not complaining.
NORMAN: No, I'm not worried. It's the worry that comes from being an old fart -- just seeing it happen so many times. Seeing the cycle so many times. I mean, the day I came in the business they were saying the business was over. This was 1960. They were saying that television was our death. You know, we might as well fold up our tents and go away. What's amazing is the older I get the more, the more stories there are to be told.
EBNER: How do you suggest the writers do that? A personal story artfully conceived. Is it all about spec scripts again?
NORMAN: I don't know. Now you're talking about the gestalt. Now you're talking about "How do you fit somebody's individual idea into the World Idea?" I think it's mostly luck. My experience is mostly luck. My success is proof of the luck principle.
EBNER: Can you give me a couple of examples?
NORMAN: Well, there's the movie about Shakespeare that nobody wanted, and all of a sudden everybody wants it. What can it be besides I happened to cross an imaginary line in history with what I wanted to do and what everybody else wanted to see? I couldn't have predicted it. I didn't know. I did what the hell I wanted, and it happened to work. I wrote lots of spec scripts that crossed the imaginary line in history and people couldn't have been less interested. I was interested. What can you do besides follow your own nose, follow your own passion? Write what you want to write about and hope that, uh, somebody else is interested. There's all the possible stories -- It's Irving Berlin, it's Cole Porter it's Noel Coward. I always hear it coming back to me from different people. Somebody is asking them 'What's the secret of success in show business?' The secret is do exactly what you want to do, and if people don't like it, get out of show business. What else is there?
EBNER: When you look over your shoulder, do you see some sort of revolution creeping up behind you?
NORMAN: No, I see evolution. I see, you know... You have a Tarantino, and then you have a couple of years of traditional stuff, and then another guy comes in does something else.
NORMAN: He finds a fresh way to tell a story. I respect him, you know? You go a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back. I think we're always finding ways to reinvent movie narrative, but I don't think we ever find a way to reinvent the need for it. I think the need remains the same. People like to go in dark places and see huge rituals take place before their eyes. I thought it was cool when I was a kid. I think kids still think it's cool.
EBNER: Play artists advocate for a second. What about movies being made to appease shareholders amounting to huge Variety advertisements? Movies shot by second unit action directors, the Armageddons... What happens if the luck does charm a writer, and happens it gets into the hands of those whose primary concern is protecting money?
NORMAN: The one thing I've always seen in the business is that anybody who gets in any position of power couldn't make it rational. Never wants to make it rational. Everyone wants to preserve it as an irrational business. One, it's a license to steal. Financially and economically and accounting-wise. Secondly, we want to keep being irrational in terms of what gets made. What gets made always seems to be an irrational rather than a rational choice no matter how the studios try and rationalize it. And I think that's refreshing in some ways. Because if it is absurd and it is irrational and it is a crapshoot in terms of what gets made, then something good can get made. Something unexpected can get made. You can have a Full Monty, you can have a --a-a-a... What was the one Newline made? Burt Reynolds was in it...
EBNER: Boogie Nights...
NORMAN: Yeah. As long as you've got an irrational business you can have a movie like Boogie Nights which makes no sense. I mean, who would invest in Boogie Nights? 'It's got Burt Reynolds in it! Oh, WOW... We're gonna make a fortune on this, right?!' I like the fact that that we're working in an irrational business because it allows things like that to happen. You know bullets through the sphincter. You know, they kind of clear out things. And they come from nowhere and they keep it fresh. I'd rather not fuck with the system and keep it so that can happen than try and somehow alter the system and risk losing that.