Sunday, January 14, 2007

Part 1 of my Q&A with Adam McDaniel, author of IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY.

In my fourth round of screenwriters’ Q & A I spoke to Adam McDaniel, whose IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY was my choice for the best script of 2006!

McDaniel’s been a hard man to reach these last few days, serving as a juror in downtown Los Angeles. I finally managed to talk to him by phone on Saturday morning. This is the first part of our interview, slightly edited for length.

TUC: How’s the trial going?

McDaniel: Oh God! (laughs) I’m not allowed to talk about it, but it’s been an interesting experience because I’ve got to see more of downtown Los Angeles in the past week than I’ve ever seen in my life.

TUC: Why did you choose to write a spec script for an animated film as opposed to live action?

McDaniel: Good question! Maybe it’s my way of trying to make things so much more difficult in my life, knowing that an animated spec is so much harder to sell! (laughs) No, seriously, I wrote “Thaddeus” as a cartoon because that’s what my imagination dictated. The idea of a cartoon excited and inspired me. I love the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, which still look stunning after what—sixty years? They’re fucking amazing. So I thought writing about a movie serial done in and around that time period would have a lot of possibilities. Animation, good animation, has a way of seeming fresh and timeless no matter what the decade.

TUC: Was writing a cartoon a new experience for you?

McDaniel: I’d never done it before, if that’s what you mean. It poses a lot of challenges, because animated films are usually much shorter than live action features. The Incredibles is the only cartoon I can think of that runs about a full two hours. Animated films also have a lot more action, and scenes move by faster, or are shorter in each of their running time.

The big part of it was the visual style. You can do a lot with animation that simply wouldn’t pass off in live action. I’m not just talking about character movements and scene layouts, I’m talking about the way in which audiences absorb what they see. I’m sounding weird now, I know, but cartoons simply have a unique magic that no other kind of art, film or otherwise, can really capture. You might see cartoonish sequences in some live action films—the Home Alone and Spy Kids movies are good examples. But it’s just not the same experience. Even films that try to combine those worlds, like Roger Rabbit or Space Jam, it’s not quite there. Animation stands on its own, and always will.

TUC: I wasn’t sure if the “real world” sequences in the script were intended to be live action or not.

McDaniel: No, it’s all a cartoon—not just the animated serial sequences with Dublin and Judson—

TUC: (I laugh as McDaniel pronounces “Dublin” as DOO-blin.) DOO-blin? I thought it was DUB-lin!

McDaniel: No, no, it’s… (laughing) I use the Irish enunciation, DOO-blin. “Dublin McGinn.” It sounds better, I think.

But it’s all meant to be animated. If you can have a movie within a movie, why not a cartoon within a cartoon? Funny thing is, some people in the industry who’ve read it think it would also work as a live action movie. I’m not so sure. With animated films, I think we’re even more likely to suspend our disbelief at certain things because the characters and settings are already divorced from reality to a large degree. So in a way, shooting it live action would render it more artificial, emotionally.

TUC: Who’s read it? Anything happening?

McDaniel: Yes and no. A talent scout at a major agency really, really loved the script and sent it to a few places, but there’s been no real movement on it for a while. It’s a sensitive issue, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth, but suffice to say he read it, loved it, and is helping me with it as best he can. He was very enthusiastic, but like you yourself said, animation’s a really, really tough sell. I’m just thankful he liked it. Same goes for you!

TUC: I didn’t like it.
I loved it.

McDaniel: Wow, thanks man. That means the world to me. Everyone’s been so positive and supportive. Pity no one’s bought it yet.

The first reaction I got was from a friend who worked in the development department at Revolution Studios. I’d worked there once and passed the script along to him after just finishing it. This was back in the summer of 2003. He told me how much he loved it, but the powers that be at the studio weren’t interested. They’d just done another animated movie that was a disastrous experience, and…Oh! Our conversation actually took place just a few days before Gigli came out, so you could imagine what was…(laughs)…what was going on behind all those closed doors. Even my old boss there never bothered getting back to me about it. But that’s okay, I’m not resentful. Even if they did go on to greenlight classics like
White Chicks.

TUC: Big question: Would you want Thaddeus Thackeray in CGI or hand drawn animation?

McDaniel: Oh God—hand drawn, hand drawn, hand drawn! At least that would be my dream. I enjoy a lot of CGI films, but again, there’s something about traditional animation that holds a very, very strong place in my heart. But it all comes down to story. I’ve always believed that you can have a great cartoon film even if the animation is sub par, provided that the script is great. But you can’t make a great film out of a sub par script, no matter how impressive or expensive the animation is.

TUC: What are some of your favorite animated films?

McDaniel: A lot of classic Disney. As a kid my favorite was always The Jungle Book, and now I have a lot of fondness for Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Fantasia. Some of the more recent Disney films are really great, like The Lion King and The Emperor’s New Groove—that one I think was really underrated. Pixar’s stuff is amazing, not just in terms of their animation but the quality of their storytelling. But I think my favorite animated films made during my lifetime are The Iron Giant and especially Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH. In fact, I think Thaddeus Thackeray was inspired more by The Iron Giant than even Raiders of the Lost Ark.

TUC: Yeah, I can see that. They’re set in similar time periods, and kind of share the same tone.

McDaniel: Yes! That’s what I keep telling people. The Indiana Jones stuff is just the framework for the story. I love Raiders, it’s my absolute favorite film of all time, but the real core was not the Indy spoof. It’s the relationships of the characters, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (That film) isn’t so much a Western as it is a character piece. In Thaddeus, we find out that Judson’s older brother was killed in World War II, and Judson’s still grieving at the beginning of the movie, so there’s more to (the script) than action and jokes.

TUC: Were any of the characters inspired by real people?

McDaniel: No, but there were definitely things inspired by events in my life. There’s a scene halfway through the script, when Judson’s crying because he realizes that he had forgotten his brother’s birthday the day before. That happened to me the first year after my sister died, and I felt godawful. So in that way, Judson’s like a younger version of me, only I wasn’t so short and scrawny.

Now Thaddeus Thackeray has a little bit of history to him, even though he’s not based on anyone in particular. I named him after a professor I had at Vassar, Thaddeus Gesek, who taught set design for theater. He was one of the best teachers I ever had. He was a friend and mentor—a very funny, witty, mildly eccentric and extremely brilliant mind. He could literally carve things out of milk cartons and make them into high art. Anyway, I wrote the script in May and June of 2003. It took four weeks…

TUC: That’s it?

McDaniel: Yeah, and that includes the time I spent on the opening ten pages, which I lost after my computer crashed and I had to rewrite them all over again from scratch. So when I was done, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I saved it on my computer, closed it, and then went online to check out my email. And the very first email I get is from a fellow Vassar alum, telling me that Gesek had died less than two days before.

TUC: Oh my God.

McDaniel: Yeah, I was absolutely devastated. He had cancer, and was fighting it for years, but he was one of those guys who just had so much energy and fun about him, it’s hard to think of him gone. But here’s another thing—and I didn’t realize it until reading Gesek’s obituary a few weeks later. Doing the math, I realized that he and Thaddeus Thackeray were born approximately the same year, making Thaddeus Gesek the same age as Thaddeus Thackeray during the events of the film.

TUC: Wow.

McDaniel: Purely coincidence, but I got a real kick out of it. I didn’t base Thackeray on Gesek per se, but I like to think they shared an adventurous spirit. Maybe they still do.

TUC: How’d you develop the script?

McDaniel: I wrote it in four weeks, after brainstorming the story for a month or two. But it was unlike anything else I’d written, in that I wrote it—like that great line in Raiders, “I dunno, I’m making it up as I go”? That’s precisely what happened on Thaddeus; I made the story up as I went, with only a vague idea as to what the actual adventure would be. But all the scenes with Thaddeus and Kenny back home—in Easton, Pennsylvania, a real place—I’d thought out in a lot of detail.

I originally intended to focus most of the script on Judson’s “movie world” adventures with Dublin, and all the stuff with Thaddeus and Kenny was supposed to be just secondary, taking place between each of the movie serial episodes. But when I finally started writing it, I realized halfway into the first page that—and I swear I’m not kidding—that Thaddeus was my favorite character, and he deserved a lot more screen time. So instead of breaking up the two storylines like 80/20, I made it roughly 50/50.

TUC: Did you do any rewrites?

McDaniel: Oh yeah, but it’s funny because the first draft was pretty much ninety to ninety-five percent of what it is now. The biggest changes came after getting notes from the agency.

TUC: What’d they say?

McDaniel: They wanted more scenes with Thaddeus! I couldn’t believe it. Here was a script that I thought was already too long for an animated movie, that I thought was going to need some serious cutting, and now I was getting asked to put more scenes in! I was only too happy to oblige, and gave Thaddeus two new big scenes. From there, I went back and tweaked the whole script—cutting some dialog, condensing scenes, and trying to make it all move faster. If only all my writing could be that easy. I usually write, rewrite, and rewrite several times over to the point where I burn myself out. But the process on Thaddeus really just sort of came to me, and working with the guy at the agency was a really positive experience. The only objections I had concerned keeping the story in the 1940’s—

TUC: They wanted to make it contemporary?

McDaniel: Yeah, a present day story, which I didn’t like. I didn’t think it would work, with all the things going on in the world. They didn’t hound me on it, though--
only sort of mildly, politely suggested the idea. And then we dropped it.

The other reservation I had concerned their wanting to delete of one of my favorite lines of dialogue.

TUC: Which one?

McDaniel: When Judson excitedly calls Dublin an “action hero,” Dublin gets nervous and says—and of course this is a movie in-joke—“I prefer ‘adventurer,’ kid. ‘Action hero’ has a certain stigma to it.”

TUC: (laughs) That was funny! Why’d they want to get rid of it?

McDaniel: They didn’t like my drawing a parallel to a movie that flopped, as if it would doom the script’s chances! (laughs) Good thing I decided to change the name of Judson’s girlfriend to Jessica. She was originally named Gigli.


To check out the second part of my interview with Adam McDaniel, click here.

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