Danny Strong on How to Write Smart Scripts
Danny Strong is best known for the five years he played Jonathan Levenson on the landmark television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for which he was named "One of the top ten scene stealer's on television" by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also widely recognized for his four seasons as Doyle on "Gilmore Girls" and for his starring role opposite Amanda Bynes in the teen comedy "Sydney White." His script Recount, an HBO original film about the 2000 election debacle in Florida, was voted number one on the 2007 Black List, an annual list of the years top screenplays as determined by Hollywood development executives. Danny was named by Variety magazine as one of their "Top Ten Screenwriters to Watch" for 2007.
Question: How politically informed are you?
Danny Strong: I’m not a junkie, but I’m pretty well informed, you know. I mean, I read a few articles everyday. I go to the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post. I figure two different sides. And I like to go to the Washington Post, just different, you know, but just a few articles everyday. I don’t know what bills are about to be passed and where the votes are at that point on that particular afternoon. But I also really enjoy political films. And I like to read non-fiction books on these events. You know, when I had seen “Stuff Happens”, I had read a number of books that clearly the playwright had use, the Woodward books, Richard Clark’s book, Suskind’s book. And so seeing how he had turned these books that I had read into a riveting piece of drama, was I think part of my mindset in wanting to do something like that. And that’s what I ended up doing on “Recount.” I ended up turning the leading books on the recount into a piece of drama.
Question: Is there a bias against smart scripts in Hollywood?
Danny Strong: I don’t think there is, because people went insane over the script in Hollywood. They loved it. I think smart scripts are hard to write, but they’re also, it’s hard to have a script with intelligent ideas that function as a movie, that is actually entertaining. And people were very excited about this script in Hollywood, because it was entertaining. And it’s got to do that first, because that’s what movies are. If you want an intellectual discourse on a subject matter, read a book on it. But movies are characters seeking goals, and when a smart script comes around people, like I said, to this script, everyone wanted to meet with me and talk with me about it. We had so many amazing, amazing directors that wanted to do it, which is very rare for an HBO movie of this budget. We had people fighting over it that direct 60, 70 to 200 million dollar studio movies, and the budget for our film was 14 million dollars. It ended up being 15 million, which is amazing what Jay Roach did with that budget. I mean, just the fact that we had Jay Roach as the director, who is one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. He’s one of the most successful. Actors love him, and a dirty little secret about making a movie is you have to get some movie stars in it. That’s one of the keys to getting any movie made.
Topic: Describe your research process.
Danny Strong: So I get home. Why don’t we just start that. I drive home. I get home. I go online. I actually hit pay dirt pretty quickly because John Dean of Watergate fame had become obsessed with the recount. So he had written a story for Salon.com reviewing every book that he had read on the recount. There was this story in which there were 20 books with a little synopsis of every book. I mean, it couldn’t have been more helpful to me. And there were two books in particular that talked about the ground wars, how the lawyers fought the ground wars. And I immediately thought, okay, well if there’s a movie, that’s the movie, the lawyers fighting the ground wars. So I ordered the two books, Jeffrey Toobin’s “Too Close to Call”, “The Accidental President” by David Kaplan. Read those two books. Found out there were two more books that covered the same terrain, “Deadlock” by the staff of the Washington Post, although David von Drehle was the one who really wrote it, and “Down and Dirty” by Jake Tapper, although Jake’s book covered less of the immediate characters of the film than the other three books did. His book kind of expands to other things. But so in those four books, the goal was to find some characters. Who are the characters that we can follow that can take us through the roller coaster of the recount? And it was very, very obvious to me after the first two, after just reading Jeffrey Toobin’s book and David Kaplan’s book, because they arrived first, that Ron Klain and James Baker would be those two characters. They were both on the ground from day one in Florida, and they were there all the way ‘til the end, ‘til day 36, that they would just be the perfect characters to follow through this. Then the challenge was there should have been a 1000 characters in this movie, because that’s how many people made, maybe not a 1000, but at least 300 realistically that were such a huge part of the recount in so many cities, not just all over Florida, but in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, and then they had people in Nashville, Tennessee. They had people writing briefs for them all over the country, so how do you pare this down into a few people, because that’s what a movie has to be, because it’s a movie. There just isn’t a choice. Now there’s a few more questions. Well, is it responsible to pare it down to all this people? Is this going to be a responsible portrayal of such an important historical event that has integrity? In the case of this script, I felt like it would, that these were some truly main characters that were the de facto, in Ron Klain’s case, the de facto head of the legal team. In James Baker’s case the anointed head of the legal team. And then I thought, okay, well, there’s chaos all over the State of Florida. There’s Palm Beach County, Broward Country, Miami-Dade, Volusia. Then you’ve got all of that madness that was going on in Tallahassee. So how can you cover it all in a two-hour period? And that’s when I came up with the idea of we’ll have a few fronts. We’ll have a storyline that takes place in Katherine Harris’ office, because so much of what was happening and so much of what represents the whole of the event, in my opinion, is what was occurring in Katherine Harris’ office. Then the exact same thing of what represents the whole is what was happening in Palm Beach County, where the people were actually counting or attempting to count the votes. So in some ways these characters became representative characters of the whole. Ron Klain and his team around him, they represent the entire 50 to a 100 lawyers that were involved in the Gore campaign. Now, people ask, well, why not use composite characters? We didn’t need to use composite characters. These are real people doing real things, and this is actually what they did. The fact that we can’t show what everyone did I think is not going to be unfair or unreasonable or lack integrity, because what these guys did was that important, and does represent what everyone else did. So that was kind of the beginning of the process, was finding who are we going to follow? What’s going to be that storyline? And how are we going to be able to take the audience through all of the main events of the recount, the four Supreme Decisions, the getting the votes counted, the advisory opinion in Bush v. Gore. That was the challenge.
Question: How will you approach your Brown vs. the Board of Education project?
Danny Strong: Kind of the same. Lots of research. And then I’m actually in the process of interviewing the surviving lawyers right now. I’ve interviewed Jack Greenberg and Bob Carter, who were two of the key lawyers in the NAACP legal defense and educational fund. And that was the group of lawyers that was Thurgood Marshall’s team. And Bob Carter and Jack Greenberg were the actual two lawyers in Topeka, Kansas for that trial. I’m going to interview Thurgood Marshall’s widow and son, and a few of the other lawyers that are still alive. They’re in their late 80s, early 90s. And there’s way less people I can interview for this than I did on “Recount.” I did about 40 interviews for “Recount.” But this is not nearly, nearly as complicated or sensitive. I mean, “Recount”, so much of it is still in dispute, although I think the facts are out there. They’re just being misinterpreted to this day. And you’ve got two sides in this highly contentious political climate, where Brown v. Board, there’s some real clear good guys and bad guys. There’s black hats and there’s white hats, where in “Recount” there’s lots of grey hats with various shades of grey, and a few black hats, but not really any white hats.
Recorded on: 06/27/2008
Danny Strong talks about politics as subject matter and how he wrote and sold a smart script in Hollywood.