Interview: Robert Ben Garant And Thomas Lennon Talk The Dark Reality Of Hollywood Screenwriting

Interview: Robert Ben Garant And Thomas Lennon Talk The Dark Reality Of Hollywood Screenwriting
You guys started out in The State together; what was it that made you two want to become writing partners, as opposed to teaming up with any of the other State members?
Thomas Lennon: You know, it was sort of accidental. We didn’t write together that much on The State. Ultimately, I think, it comes down to the compulsive nature of how both of us write. We both write luminously; we write tons and tons of stuff. And that was also true on The State.

Now that there are millions of critics on the Internet, people say, 'Movies are terrible these days.' Most movies were always terrible. - Robert Ben Garant

Robert Ben Garant: Yeah, I don’t think anybody from The State could argue with this, because that’s a matter of opinion, but I know that the two of us wrote more material on The State than anybody else. And when it came to… The State got a movie deal, and eventually, because it wasn’t as gratifying as doing three-minute sketches that you got to be in and that you produced during the next week, it’s really boring to sit around with eleven people and hash out a movie script. It’s impossible and boring. As we got a movie deal, everybody else stopped showing up except me, Tom, and Mike Jann.

Thomas Lennon: Yeah, and then we sort of accidentally wrote a movie that ended up being called Let’s Go To Prison, but the spec script we wrote was completely insane. No one wanted to make that, but everyone thought it was really funny. That got us established as people who could write a movie, even though, at the time, we had no idea what we’re doing. We hadn’t really followed any structure rules yet or implemented them.

Robert Ben Garant: And we wrote that movie not having any idea of how a movie actually gets made; we wrote a movie that was 100 pages and was just funny. As a result, nobody wanted to make it. [Laughs.] But that got us into all these doors, where people said, “Wow, you guys are really, really funny—how about this other project we have going? You want to try and write that?” That’s a really important lesson about your first script; keep writing it, and have a really tall stack of specs, but that’s really almost more for practice to get into the studio system.

Thomas Lennon: Though, it certainly doesn’t hurt for the first thing you write, even if you know it’s going to get made, to be a little bit shocking. Something that people talk about.

Robert Ben Garant: Yeah, something that stands out, because the people who read your scripts in Hollywood are so bored. On the weekend, they take home fifty scripts….

Thomas Lennon: Oh, and most scripts are so bad! [Laughs.]

Robert Ben Garant: You’re writing a screenplay, and the screenplay isn’t going to be read by somebody who’s dying to read your screenplay; it’s going to be read by a tired, bored guy who’s read forty fucking terrible scripts before yours and has to pick yours up, read it, and love it. That’s the studio system; the sooner you get into the mindset that, “Screenwriters aren’t precious artists carving angels out of Marzipan”….


Thomas Lennon: Screenwriters are contractors making bathrooms.

Robert Ben Garant: We’re writing scripts for people to pick up and go, “I’m going to make this movie so we can make money,” and that’s the business.

Going back to the point about your spec script that was too insane to ever get made, there’s a really interesting chapter in the book about your original Herbie: Fully Loaded script that never got made, and was ultimately refashioned into that not-so-good flick with Lindsay Lohan….
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, that was a real lesson. We learned a ton, but the short version was, “If you don’t make the car smile…”

Robert Ben Garant: “…you’re fired.” [Laughs.]

thomas-lennon-ben-garant-herbie-fully-loadedThomas Lennon: Seriously, yeah. We were still young at that time, and we were still figuring the system out, but it was the one thing that we couldn’t budge on. Like, “There’s no fucking way that they’re going to make this fucking car smile!” After a day of arguing about it, we just found out that we had been fired. [Laughs.] We got a call, like, “You guys know that you’re no longer affiliated with the project, right? Because you would not make the fucking car smile.”

Robert Ben Garant: “And we found two guys who will make the car smile.” [Laughs.]

Which brings me to another point. One of the main things I took from this book is that you can’t always blame the screenwriters for shitty scripts. It’s easy for critics and movie lovers to insult screenwriters when a movie sucks, but, as your book details, often what’s seen on screen isn’t what the screenwriter ever intended.
Robert Ben Garant: More so than even critics or people in the regular world, if you work here in the studio system and go see a movie that’s actually good, it’s a fucking miracle. When I walk out of a movie that’s actually good, I write emails to anybody I know who was involved with it.

It’s a huge committee/clusterfuck; the more money you spend on a movie, that’s more people who are going to have an opinion on it. The movie star gets a draft, and then the director wants to do something different from what the movie star wants to do. It’s a miracle anything turns out to be good. If a movie has three decent scenes and a decent character, I think, OK, at least they got that guy right.

And the other thing is, and I think we say this in the book, now that there are millions of critics on the Internet, people bitch and say, “Oh, movies are terrible these days!” Most movies were always terrible. [Laughs.]

Thomas Lennon: You just remember the good ones.

Robert Ben Garant: You remember the good ones, yeah. Like, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind was brilliant!”; they came out with over a hundred movies that year, though, and you remember Jaws and Close Encounters, but there were a lot of terrible films that came out. They make more movies now than they used to be, but….

Thomas Lennon: I’m not even sure if that’s true; I think it’s less….

Robert Ben Garant: Yeah, I think you’re right. It might be even less.

In that sense, the book should be very interesting for people who don’t necessarily want to write screenplays, but, rather, just love movies in general and love to get on their soapboxes and diss shitty movies.
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, although sometimes they’re right. [Laughs.] To us, the best movie about screenwriting is Barton Fink. If you want to really get the sense of what it’s like to be a studio screenwriter, watch Barton Fink.

Robert Ben Garant: [Reciting dialogue from the movie] “We don’t need you, Barton, to give us that Barton Fink feeling—we have a hundred guys on this lot who can give us that Barton Fink feeling.”

Thomas Lennon: Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like. We quote that movie every day.

Robert Ben Garant: In that movie, one character says, “Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a road map?” And in reality, it’s just like that. “Lindsay Lohan. Herbie. What do you need, a road map?” Or, “Keanu Reeves. The Matrix. What do you need, a road map?" [Laughs.]

Considering how difficult of a grind it is, would you immediately encourage aspiring screenwriters to even stick with the dream? The book begins with a step-by-step outline of what it takes to get to do such things as hire a good agent, and it all seems so daunting.
thomas-lennon-ben-garant-speedosThomas Lennon: If you have the stomach for it, it’s the greatest job in the world. It’s an amazing job that we both really, really love; that said, you really need to do a couple of things. One, you need to write compulsively every day, and, two, you truly need to stretch your ego to a place where you can watch your ego get ripped to shreds in front of you without even crying about it or kicking up dust.

Robert Ben Garant: And still being invested in making it good, but you’re just ready to move on….

Thomas Lennon: Or, throw away Act Two and write something better.

Robert Ben Garant: I would compare it to an Olympic sport. Like, Lance Armstrong in cycling; if you’re a big cycling fan, that’s very different than, “Are you willing to get on your bike and ride thirty miles a day?” Even if you never make it big, will you still write thirty pages a day? And if the answer is, “Yes,” then come here to L.A. and give it a shot. Unless you love biking thirty miles a day, even in the pouring rain while you hate your life, don’t try to be in the Tour De France. That being said, Lance Armstrong and the two of us have the best fucking jobs.

Thomas Lennon: And, for us, there’s no drug testing, which is fantastic.

Tags: thomas-lennon, robert-ben-garant, books, the-state, lindsay-lohan
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