Andrew Pagana & Justin Thomas Interview
The Man in the Rearview Mirror
Grand Prize (2004)
How did the two of you meet?
In 1998 we met in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as interns at the U.S. Olympic Committee. While having a conversation with another intern regarding Star Wars, during which we both felt he was talking nonsense, we found that we had a common interest in film that went well beyond a galaxy far, far away. Over the course of the next three months, scores of cups of coffee and far too many conversations about “The Simpsons,” we decided to give writing as a team a whirl.
Six years and thousands of dollars in phone bills later, we’re BlueCat Screenplay Competition winners.
What writers influence you? What filmmakers?
JUSTIN: For non-screenwriters I would say that Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Dickens, Poe, Mike Royko and Bill Watterson have had the greatest impact as storytellers while Richard Ford, James Ellroy and Roger Ebert have all made me actually think about the English language and what it can do.
Screenwriting-wise I dig Wilder and Diamond, Mamet for his dialogue, Darabont for SHAWSHANK and Lawrence Kasdan for RAIDERS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and GRAND CANYON. Each of those films written by Kasdan gave me something that I hope I will never forget.
EVERY film influences me: the good and the bad. I try, and sometimes fail, to take something from every film I see but having Andy to talk to helps me better understand them. To be specific I have to divide the films into Pre-Andy and Post-Andy, meaning that he’s forced me to open up to films of the past and not simply what’s at the theatre right now. Pre-Andy would include STAR WARS, the Indiana Jones films, BACK TO THE FUTURE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, STAND BY ME and THE FUGITIVE. Post-Andy the list grows to include THE APARTMENT, CITIZEN KANE, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA , and everything directed by Hitchcock, but particularly NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The list keeps going, of course, but that’s where it starts.
ANDY: As far as writers that have influenced me, Robert Bolt’s screenplays for David Lean are probably the most influential. Not that I try to emulate or copy him, but rather look at how he tackles problems and approaches and constructs his screenplays. There’s still no hint of clichés and some of them are over forty years old. Sturges, along with Wilder and Diamond, also have had a major impact on how I think about writing.
I am not nearly as well read as Justin, but as far as non-film writers go, Dickens and C.S. Lewis are high on the list, but the single most important work of fiction to me is Antione de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. It’s as complicated as it is simple, and the reliant mix of illustrations and words still fascinates me.
When talking about films as an influence, early on, it was the Muppets (Especially the Muppet Movie, which IS about filmmaking), Laurel and Hardy and the film comedians of the thirties and forties. Growing up, it was Spielberg (ET), Lucas (Star Wars) Hitchcock (North By Northwest), Disney (Mary Poppins) and Stanley Kramer (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World). These are films I watched countless times. The Indiana Jones Trilogy itself opened my eyes to how movies are made, what a director does and the wonderful possibility of film as a career.
For the past 10 or so years, it has been the films of Lean, Chaplin, Curtiz, Welles, and without a doubt the master, John Ford, that has filled my movie and TV screen. I watch Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ before starting any film project.
And without a doubt, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is probably the biggest influence in my entire approach to cinema. The writing, design, pacing, editing, character and story development, use of wide shots and close-ups… it’s a perfect film in all respects and that is far from being an accident. These guys knew what they were doing, thought hard about what they wanted, and worked even harder to get it right.
How did you start THE MAN IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR?
It really was pretty uneventful. We were standing in a garage taking a break during a writing session for another project when one of us tossed out something he felt, at the time, was a throwaway idea. After a short conversation, we decided to give it a go.
Describe your process of writing the screenplay.
We felt that we had the plot down cold from the start so we decided that the characters really had to be developed. We took our three principles, stuck them in a car and wrote about sixty pages worth of interaction without the plot to allow them to start living and breathing. It was through those first sixty pages that they said who they were, how they saw themselves and how they saw the others in the car.
Once we had that we introduced them to the suspected kidnapping. We knew the lead would not only have to bring up the subject but he would ultimately have to fight for his belief. We knew beyond a doubt how his mother-in-law would react to it, and we were pretty sure his wife would fall somewhere in between.
From there we simply worked through questions and answers. We would say, “how are they going to deal with this situation,” and the characters would answer. Getting to the answer provided the suspense. We would come to one answer and ask the next question, knowing that we had to up the stakes each time.
The writing was fast and furious, and the first draft only took six weeks or so to complete. We then spent months going back over it to ensure that everything not only rang true but also served to drive the story forward.
Who wrote what?
In talking the story and characters out over the phone, in writing and rewriting, in debating and persuading, in disagreeing and finally agreeing (or at least relenting) in how bout this-ing and no what about that-ing, we are both all over that script. There was no division of labor like you write the mom, I’ll write Greg, or you take the dialogue, I’ll handle the action scenes.’ Naturally we each bring our own thing to it but our point of view and voices seemed to mesh so well on this project that you can’t tell us apart in the script. We’re a collective mind like the Borg. Well, like if Bert & Ernie were part of the Borg.
How did you resolve your “creative differences”?
We were so open to ideas when we discussed the story, that we accepted anything that was thrown out. By the time we sat down to write we already knew so much about the characters and the story that there were few disagreements.
On this screenplay there were only two instances where we had any disagreement at all. In both instances, one felt more strongly than the other. We tended to give in on it and see where it took us. If we weren’t happy, we went back and tackled it the other way.
We actually still have one small disagreement about a very minor detail that neither one of us is sure which is the correct way to do it. Luckily, we both believe that given the opportunity to shoot the film we’d be able to try it both ways – when we see it we’ll know which one is right.
How did the idea of shooting the entire movie in the car evolve and how difficult did it become to adhere to that conceit?
Funny enough, the idea didn’t evolve it was “as is” from conception. When the idea for the film came it came all as one big package… staying in the car was almost an unspoken given, as if it were the only way to tell the story and because of that it wasn’t difficult to adhere to the concept at all. In fact, we never actually tried to adhere to it or to force the story into the car, but we both knew that it would be told from inside the car because otherwise it would weaken the story and destroy the suspense. Additionally, the same thing happened with the concept of real time. Because of the characters we created and the setting we put them in it was almost necessary to tell it the way we did.
What reasons did you choose to set the story in 1958?
This is not only an interesting question, but probably one of the most important when talking about the script. The first thing that pops into thought is, Why would you set the film today?
Is it because of budgetary reasons? If so, that is not our concern. If it is because studio-execs don’t think a period movie makes money, then we can point to a million examples of why that’s not true. And although we want the largest audience possible, that again, is not yet our concern.
Our concern is to tell the story the best way possible. And truth is, the script did begin in modern day. But it was also the only major change we had from conception. However, it was also the absolutely FIRST thing we changed and the reasons are ‘a plenty’.
One, we couldn’t set it earlier than the late 1950’s because Eisenhower had just begun building the highway system that is so important to the story. So that left us anytime in the past 40 plus years to tell the story. Well, we immediately had to eliminate the past 10 years due to the appearance of cell phones. Cell phones destroy it as a modern day story. Here’s why:
Simply put, the characters could make a cell call and end the problem. For them to be in modern day without one, have a dead battery or lousy service would’ve not only been contrived, but it would’ve been contrived for the sake of modern day only, not to serve the story. And again, since we had no affinity for any particular year, we threw out the past 10 years.
So we had narrowed it down from the late 50’s to early 90’s. And it was important that Greg and his family were pretty isolated…we wanted as few people on the road as possible. Obviously, the farther back in time we went the more deserted it would be. The less travelers on the road, the smaller towns, etc. We wanted it to be hard to make a simple call or to find a cop without it being a forced conflict.
And although the 50’s isn’t as innocent a feel as the 40’s or 30’s, it is often thought of as a more innocent time. And there is something fun about evil or suspicion of evil invading it. And since the fifties came after WWII, the mood of the country had shifted (as evident in the films of that era) and we loved that mix of the distrust of the peace.
In addition, we could play with the attitudes of a Midwestern cop in the 50’s differently than a cop from today, who has much more responsibility to procedure. And it was important that the attitudes towards the police were not necessarily a good one.
Finally, although budget is not our concern, visuals are. And the visuals of the cars of the fifties and forties was much more appealing and distinctive to us than any other era. Not only did we like the look of the fifties, but we envision the film being shot in the bright Technicolor film of the day (as opposed to the desaturated look of most of today’s films), which keeps with the films theme of a happy colorful world being invaded by a possible evil.
The screenplay has a style of the movies of 1950’s. How conscious were you of that?
This is a tough question to answer because we never actually discussed this. However because we were both always on the same page in terms of the other elements of the script (who the characters were, how the film should be told and shot) we both drew upon not only the films of the ‘50’s, but also the films of the master directors of the time. But it’s important to note that when we set out, we didn’t watch ‘50s films in an attempt to copy them — nor did we watch a lot of suspense films and try to copy them either. A good film is a good film and we can get just as much out of a silent film from the early 1900s as we can from an animated film released last year. But because we know a lot of films from the 1950s and have experienced the era only through movies, it was natural that we both consciously and subconsciously pull from these films to create the style.
But 1959 itself is in a way a character in the film. As we mentioned in the last answer, it was important to set the film at this time and was far from arbitrary. So we tried to make the most of it as we could. And of course, the characters are very old fashioned which also pulled us in that direction. But it was never something that we said “we have to do it this way” it just served the screenplay best.
What was your goal when you starting writing A MAN IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR?
We had several goals when we started and the importance of each one seemed to change from moment to moment. We wanted to prove that if you know what you’re doing you can make a movie that takes place not only in real time but in one location. To write not only a good script, which was probably the most important goal, but to write a good suspense script because we believe it’s a dead genre. To get an agent. To break into the business. To give us freedom to write more scripts. To get Andy the opportunity to direct film. The goal still would be for Andy to direct the movie based on the way we feel it should be shot.
What experiences have prepared you to make this movie?
Without forwarding the resume, we have been writing, shooting, editing and studying movies every day for the past twenty or so years of our lives. Not only do we have a drive and a passion but we know this script better than anyone. After film school, Andy has worked in the film and television industry doing everything from production assistant to storyboarding while putting all of his free time and money to producing, directing and editing an endless reel of short films and commercials.
As screenwriters and filmmakers, what are you pretty good at? What do you need to work on?
First and foremost we have great communication between us. Somehow, someway, we’re able to get our points across and while we might not agree 100% of the time we at least know where the other is coming from. We are good at generating ideas; once we hit on something we are passionate about we can usually flesh it out.
We’re good at editing ourselves, we’re not afraid of letting go of things we really like if it doesn’t serve the story. We’re sound at building structure, developing pacing and creating suspense.
Our biggest problem is procrastination. We have also developed a shot-gun mentality, meaning that there are times when we’re all over the place and tend to lose our focus.
What are you planning to do next?
We’re hip-deep in a film we’re writing with two of our favorite actors in mind: Peter O’Toole and Kevin Spacey. As soon as we’re finished with that we’re going to write something we plan to shoot ourselves.
What’s with Bert and Ernie?
The fun and the horseplay, the paper clip, bottle caps and rubber duckies. They were part of an extraordinary story about how an experiment took off and became part of the very fabric of our culture.