Once again I'm in the position of interviewing a screenwriter the week after his movie hit number one at the box office. For Josh Klausner, this is becoming something of a habit. Not only did his Shrek Forever After top the charts this weekend, but it was just over a month ago that his previous film, Date Night, reigned. Despite being a very busy man at the moment, Josh was nice enough to submit to an email interview.
IMDB gives a hint at your career path, but I was hoping you could fill in the blanks. You got your start as an assistant to the Farrelly Brothers on one of my favorite comedies, Dumb & Dumber. Any notable anecdotes from your time working with them?
Well, when I started working on it, Dumb and Dumber was supposed to be a small movie starring Jake Johansson, and then a week later Jim Carrey came on board and everything changed. Maybe because it was my first real job in the movie industry (and maybe because as their assistant there wasn’t a great deal of responsibility on my shoulders), it’s the most fun I’ve ever had working on a movie. It felt so epic… because it was a road movie we travelled to so many different climates and terrains over the course of shooting, and also had these extended holiday breaks in the middle (one for Jim Carrey to have Gall Bladder surgery, if I remember correctly) It was interesting too because, as it was the first Farrelly Brothers movie, it was very hard for us working on the film to gauge what the tone was going to turn out like and if it was going to work – it wasn’t like any of the comedies any of us had seen before.
Looking at your credits, I get the impression that they’re good to people who have proven themselves with them because you got to direct second unit on four of their subsequent pictures. Did it take much persuasion for them to give you that job?
I’m incredibly grateful to the Farrellys. They took a huge chance on me when they were making Kingpin by having me direct 2nd Unit. I had loved being their assistant, but knew the longer I stayed in that position, the more it would come to define me. So when they called about me working on their next movie Kingpin, I naively told them that I wanted to be their 2nd Unit Director. Pete Farrelly was stunned at first, I think, but then his take on it was, “Sure, why not? We can always fire you if you fuck up.” I worked hard not to fuck up on that job… the 2nd Unit on Kingpin was crazy. Everything from all these bowling ball rigs and special effects to car jumps to Amish Barn raisings with helicopter shots. I’m not unique – the Farrellys have been great to just about everyone who’s worked with them – they’re very good about letting people move up if they have the ability and initiative. They even went so far as to write and produce a movie for their original AD JB Rodgers to direct.
During all this time were you still working on specs, trying to break in as a writer?
I was writing, but at the time I thought that the way I was going to “break in” was as a small indie writer/director… not as someone selling big Hollywood scripts to studios. I thought my path would be through small movies in the independent world. Ironically, it’s ended up being quite the opposite.
How did working for the Farrellys put you in a better position to launch your writing and directing career?
In so many ways. In working for the Farrellys, I was essentially paid to go to film school. It gave me the firsthand experience of seeing how the page ends up translating to screen. I saw the way that they interacted not only with the actors but also with the financiers who were making their movie. As their 2nd Unit Director also I got to work closely with their editor. Often, there would be two different comic takes from one scene that the Farrellys wanted but didn’t cut together, so we’d figure out cutaways or insert I could shoot to connect the two. Moreover, during those years working as their 2nd Unit Director certainly allowed me to stay in film and make a decent living so that I had more time to write. It’s all about time in the end, isn’t it?
In 1999, your professional writing and directorial debut, The 4th Floor, was released. Can you talk a little bit about how that came together?
My 2nd Unit work on Kingpin actually got me some interest from agents, which was all the more reinforced by the fact that they discovered I was a writer. I ended up signing with Joanne Wiles, who is still my agent, right around the time I has written the script for The 4th Floor. We luckily were able to get William Hurt and Juliette Lewis interested as soon as we sent it to them, which led to the film getting financed rather quickly.
As a first time director, did you have many clashes with the production companies on the film, Millennium Films and Top Floor Productions?
To be honest, the whole experience of making The 4th Floor ranks up there as among my darkest days. The company behind the film was Nu Image, which has a very specific and financially successful model for making movies involving foreign presales with internationally known stars. Most of their movies are action adventures along the lines of Cyborg Cop 3 (which I haven’t seen, so it might be great).
At the time, Brad Weston, who I really liked, was starting up what was supposed to be their new boutique division called Millennium Films. The 4th Floor was supposed to be the 2nd film under his guidance, but the head of Nu Image got nervous about Brad’s first film being too “artsy,” (a great movie called Guinevere) and took Brad off of my film and put his Nu Image action B movie producers on it as we started shooting.
I had originally written a very atmospheric, slow moving story that was along the lines of Roman Polanski’s THE TENANT about living in apartment buildings with unknown others and getting into an altercation with a mysterious neighbor, where our protagonist slowly realizes she’s battling against someone who’s not playing with a full deck and that her life is in danger. It was all about how, when it comes to our home space, we become instinctual animals again, peeing in the corners and doing whatever it takes to protect our sanctuaries. Well, this wasn’t what those producers were interested in. The only thing they understood about my script was that Juliette Lewis and William Hurt had agreed to do it. They wanted action, terror, gore and nudity. There were producers’ girlfriends demanding scenes be added so they could have parts, producers’ assistants writing scenes behind my back that they tried to force me to shoot.
Being a first time director on an isolated film shoot (we shot this story, set in New York, in a paper mill town in Canada called St. Johns that you had to take a propeller plane to get to), I bent much more than I should have, agreeing to film an extended “chase” scene at the end that didn’t make much sense. But then it all finally came to a head and I reached my breaking point when they threatened to fire me if I didn’t film some cheesy “creepy possessed talking puppet” scene that some assistant had written. I told them they could do what they wanted, but I couldn’t shoot it, and walked off to tell Juliette Lewis that I was being fired. Juliette came to my aid and told them she wasn’t working on the film if it wasn’t with me – I was the reason she had signed up for it – and Nu Image backed off for the final few days of shooting. That didn’t stop them from doing reshoots without even telling me and recutting the movie.
All that being said, there’s a lot in the first hour of the film in terms of tone and look that I like and feels like what I was going for. And I was able to make a movie on someone else’s dime as a first time director, which is incredibly fortunate. I also certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am today without that whole experience. It taught me a lot about the stories I want to tell.
I read an interview with Austin Pendleton where he talks about how after the table read for The 4th Floor he suggested you drop a lot of little jokes and bits of humor from the script, and praises you for being so immediately receptive. Is his memory accurate, and if so, why was your instinct to listen to him so immediate?
Yes… I would say that was pretty accurate. Whether he knew it or not, we were always after the same thing... his character needed to feel charming and endearing when we meet him, then surprise us with what he turns out to be later on. Because Austin organically has that likability, we could tone down the comedy a lot and still get across what we needed for the character. Also, it was important that Austin owned the part and believed in it himself… if he felt silly, it wasn’t going to work. I’m a real believer in film as a collaborative art form, and that it’s more exciting for me to see how an actor adapts what I’ve written down in ways I could have never imagined as opposed to them simply hitting the marks and inflections I had in my head.
Is directing still something you’d like to pursue?
Definitely… but as is probably obvious from my previous answer, The 4th Floor was a good lesson that I don’t want to direct at all costs. It has to be the right material at the right time with the right people, who respond to not just the actors involved but also to the story. My script (Saint) Peter is something that I hope to direct, though it might take a little while… it’s an adult comedy about faith with a 10 year old protagonist whose brother everyone thinks might be the 2nd coming of Christ. Not exactly hitting those comfortable 4 quadrant buttons the financiers are looking for these days…
What were you doing between The 4th Floor and Shrek the Third?
Man, that’s a good question. All I can say is The 4th Floor was a real trial by fire learning experience for me, and was one of those situations where I had done that thing that I thought would change my life and answer all my problems – make my own movie – and it hadn’t. I kept writing, some things came close, but really I was just trying to find my voice as a writer. And you just keep the faith and do what you can to make ends meet financially until the next film job.
You are one of five writers credited with “additional screenplay material” on Shrek the Third, and the last one listed, so I assume that means you were the last rewriter on the script? What did you contribute to the final product?
I feel a little strange whenever someone refers to me in reviews or announcements as the writer of Shrek the Third. I came in really, really late on that project and had so very little to do with it. I had been hired to write the 4th Shrek, now called Shrek Forever After, while Shrek the Third was finishing up, so they asked me to come over and work on Shrek the Third as well for a little bit. The storyline and scenes for Shrek the Third had already been well established before I started, so I mostly punched up some of the dialogue where I could and helped with the emotional scenes.
How did the story for Shrek Forever After come about? Was the “It’s a Wonderful Life” riff always in place, or did the producers ask you for a pitch for the new Shrek movie?
No. Originally everyone thought it was going to be a story about taking the kids to meet Shrek’s Dad. We always knew we wanted Rumpelstiltskin to be our villain – the fairy tale “deal” thing just felt right, especially with Shrek and Fiona now having kids. We started going down that avenue, and everything just felt a bit stale, to be honest…. One more adventure with “the whole gang.” Which leads perfectly to your next question…
If the latter, was it hard finding a new premise for Shrek? It feels like the previous three films covered a lot of ground in the character’s development.
It was really hard coming up with a storyline. We went down a lot of roads before landing on this one. It just seemed to speak to so many things going on in Shrek’s life, as well as give us the opportunity to see the characters we love in a new way.
What do you do to avoid the frustration that can come with writing a character who’s already had so much ground covered?
Well, Shrek’s always evolving and changing – unlike James Bond who essentially stays the same but just goes out on different missions. Because of that, the issues facing him at this stage of his life are different from the issues in any of the other movies.
When writing a story like this, where do you start? Do you figure out the character’s journey and work outward, or did you try to find a new adventure to send him on and see what challenges arose from it?
I would say it was primarily the character’s inner journey that propelled us. Like I said before, we were really focused on where Shrek is now as a character. He’s gone from a feared and reviled hermit to a hero surrounded with family and friends. In this chapter, we wanted his perception of himself to mirror the way the audience has come to feel about him after 3 movies. If he’s no longer a “scary” Ogre to the world at large and a domesticated family man surrounded by friends, what happened to his identity? It’s a much different problem than he faced in the first movie, where he felt judged and ostracized by the world at large. That being said, we also had a feeling we wanted Rumpelstiltskin to be the villain, so by combining these two elements, the adventure seemed to evolve somewhat organically.
That's not all. Check out Part II for a look at Date Night's genesis.