It’s no big secret that writing for KSK allows us a huge amount of freedom when writing about about the NFL and the characters that inhabit our strange little world. If we want to make Rex Ryan the id of sports fandom, Joe Flacco the blandest human on the planet, Jon Gruden an expert in foreign affairs and Blaine Gabbert a comic book hero, we can do so. Our readers judge us on jokes and storytelling, not accuracy. So when the chance to interview the screenwriters of DRAFT DAY came my way, I couldn’t help but want to meet the guys behind the movie and see what it was like to write in a fictional NFL universe that still had to keep its toes in reality.
This is writers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph’s first feature script to be produced, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t been creating and honing their skills for a long time. The duo met in grad school at NYU and from there Scott went off to write screenplays, selling scripts to Warner Bros, Paramount, New Line and Sony. His byline has also appeared in The New Yorker, GQ and McSweeney’s. Rajiv started writing stage plays and in 2010 was a Pultizer finalist for his play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” which starred Robin Williams during its Broadway run. He also wrote on “Nurse Jackie” for a couple of seasons and if that wasn’t enough, he spent three years in the Peace Corps in West Africa.
I had an opportunity to sit down with the duo while they were in LA shortly after they held their DRAFT DAY press day conference with director Ivan Reitman. During the press conference they discussed the production, Ivan Reitman being in a fantasy football league with one of the Seahawks former owners, John Nordstrom (oh, rich people things) and how Reitman kept hearing Kevin Costner’s voice in his head before he cast him for the role of Browns General Manager, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner for his part later in day wanted to know if this was before or after Reitman’s bong rips.)
After a few pleasantries and me giving them instructions on what to do if any more earthquakes hit while they were in town, we got to the interview.
Sarah: So you touched on this during the press conference, but what is your favorite sports movie? What did you watch while you were writing this?
Scott: That’s a great question.
Rajiv: We didn’t watch sports movies when we were writing this.
Sarah: You didn’t want it to influence you?
Scott: (To Rajiv) Did we ever use any, no not really.
Rajiv: No. We were watching other sorts of movies. Well, THE HUSTLER I guess.
Scott: The HUSTLER, the Paul Newman movie, that is my favorite movie of all time. I guess that can be considered a bit of sports movie.
Sarah: It is.
Scott: We love SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER. I mean honestly, not just because he’s the star of our movie, but I would say BULL DURHAM is definitely up there.
Rajiv: My favorite sports movie, that [BULL DURHAM] would be my favorite sports movie, but I don’t think we really thought about that when we were writing it. It was a different sensibility coming in, like THE HUSTLER, or even a movie like, you know THE PAPER with Michael Keaton? That’s a movie that takes place in one day. We studied that in terms of its pacing. But sports? You have to give props to Kevin for his pedigree there, so BULL DURHAM and MAJOR LEAGUE because I’m from Cleveland.
Sarah: How long did it take you to write the script? Where you writing it during football season?
Scott: No, it was born out the Sundance Institute. They had called Rajiv and asked if he had script and they had a deadline in two weeks so the first draft of this we wrote in two weeks. It was highly imperfect, but I think the core of what we were trying to do was there. But that sort of forced us to write it in two weeks and then we took months to revise it from that period on.
Rajiv: We spent about a year and a half though just talking about it, outlining it, making notes. Scott and I met in graduate school and he went on to write screenplays and I went on to write plays and we would finds ways to get together and hangout just because we’re friends and that usually was to watch football, and then when we started to brainstorm the movie, yeah. We’d be watching football and say, “Hey, Vontae Mack is just like Ray Lewis or such and such is like this guy. Or we should have a scene where this happens.” Just kind of spitball.
Sarah: Was it a fun way to watch football for you then?
Scott: Particularly all the talking heads and seeing the way they would breakdown players prior to the draft. It was all stuff we ended up using as we were writing. We were thinking the same things around the same time as the draft the year before, so it was great timing.
Sarah: So you guys went over this a little bit during the press conference, but this script was originally about the Bills. Was there a purposeful reason for that? That it was too close for you Rajiv to write about the Browns, or too close for you Scott to write about the Dolphins?
Scott: I sort of asked Rajiv. I thought we should write about the Browns.
Sarah: No offense, not like the Dolphins were much better off at that time. Don’t let him give you a hard time about that, Rajiv.
Rajiv: But the thing about Miami though, and no offense to Miami fans, but it’s like one thing to talk about the Miami Heat, and how their fans show up a half-hour late for every game because they’ve got better things to do.
Scott: How dare you!
Rajiv: You’re not even from Miami! But people in Buffalo in Cleveland, I’m a Clevelander, I can say this, sports rule the town. They live and die by that. So we knew we wanted some kind of blue collar, industrial town that kind of lives and dies by its sports teams. And Cleveland obviously was the number one team that came up and because I’m such a die-hard Browns fan, and I had once tried to write a story about the Browns, a short story, and I tried to write a movie about the Indians once, and I just felt so trapped by my love for the team and my knowledge for the city. It’s sometimes easier for me to write about things I don’t know so well. So I said let’s do the Bills, my brother lives in Buffalo, I like that city, I like the Bills, they’re like a sister city to Cleveland. In hindsight, if I had tried to write a movie about the Browns it would have never been made in Cleveland. I had to come through it in a roundabout way and the stars aligned in a beautiful way.
Sarah: Well, it is really hard to write about what you’re close to sometimes, and with sports fanaticism as you talked about– when you live and die by it, as you were writing it, did you reach that, ‘Oh, I can’t go on with this. I have to sacrifice this realism as fan to the story.’ Was that really hard? I think I would have a really hard time with that.
Scott: Yeah, I think the trick and the hardest part of writing the script was making those two things kind of converge. Using the passion you feel for the reality for the NFL and realizing we were creating this fictional world. So we had to make this fictional plot we had created work to real world fans if that makes any sense.
Sarah: Obviously it’s hard to make a movie like this and service hardcore fans and still make a broad movie that’s going to appeal to everyone. When did you start to think, okay I can’t write this movie as a hardcore fan, I have to write this as something broader that my cousin who doesn’t follow sports can watch.
Rajiv: It was always on our minds to think that way. We worried so much about it, and we knew this had to be a movie that non-football fans would like, and it’s balancing that because you don’t want to dumb it down so real fans don’t like it. So that was the balance we were always striving to achieve, with Ivan (Reitman), the actors and we entered it this way together. I think that the way we got through that was by making the human story the most important thing. Not just with Sonny Weaver and Ali, played by Jennifer Garner, but it’s about a man who just lost his father and just learned he’s about to be a father. I think that at its core is the element of the movie that makes it something anyone can understand or relate to.
Sarah: Well actually, I was going to bring up that dynamic. Football is a big family business. There are so many coaching legacies, ownership legacies, GM legacies and player legacies, did you purposely know you want to include him continuing that legacy because football is a family business? Rajiv, I know you have touched on this in one of your plays before.
Scott: The father and son dynamic is something we’ve always been drawn too and continue to be kind of drawn to and the NFL is rife with all that, the family dynasties we all talk about.
Rajiv: Here is a guy on draft day, who is dealing with everyone, his own staff, other GMs, other owners, blah blah blah, but something we thought was interesting was that in the course of all this, everyone is always mentioning, “I am sorry about your father. Sorry about your dad.” Because everyone knew his dad and respected his dad. But then not everyone, some people didn’t think his dad was all that great. Sam Elliot says to him, “Don’t over think this like your dad” which is a cruel thing to say to someone who just lost his dad you know, but it’s also kind of the way we see these sports figures. As a Browns fan, I was a huge fan in the ’80s, and Marty Schottenheimer was the coach there, who we love, we love Marty, but we see he’s a deeply faulty coach. Like a guy who was never going to win a Super Bowl as a head coach. He’s great at getting teams to the edge, but there is something about him that everyone kind of agrees is flawed and we sort of modeled his dad off that.
Scott: But also with Marty Schottenheimer there is something, that as a fan I find myself latching onto, you know he has a son Brian Schottenheimer — is he a head coach yet?
Rajiv: No, he’s an offensive coordinator.
Scott: But you do become interested in the personal side of a guy like Brian and can he step out from his dad’s shadow and I think we were definitely playing — either consciously or unconsciously — we were playing around with that because it’s definitely super interesting.
Sarah: Well sure, fans are always interested in hearing about the pedigree of a coach, like a Kiffin, a Phillips or someone like that, they are fascinated by it. So who was your inspiration, if Marty Schottenheimer was the inspiration for the GM’s dad, who was Coach Penn, Denis Leary’s character, based on?
Scott: He’s an amalgam of a few people, but I’d like to say we tried to access our inner Jon Gruden for that role.
Sarah: Really? You thought that was more Gruden?
Rajiv: Gruden with a splash of Jerry Glanville.
Sarah: Okay, I can see that.
Rajiv: You think of Glanville? See I love Glanville. But he can also be a handful.
Sarah: He’s definitely a big personality, a big fill the room personality, and I think Denis Leary did a great job of filling that large space. Was Ivan’s direction to be that, to be that jerk? That was that what you wanted, someone who would be that conflicted?
Rajiv: We hoped it would be. They forked over a ton of money to bring this guy into town so they must think he’s a hot commodity and yet Costner and him have these philosophical differences on how to build a team and so that was a conflict that we really needed to make pop.
Scott: It’s funny, I know the concentric circles don’t really overlap, Jon Gruden and Jerry Glanville, but those were definitely the two guys we were thinking about for that role. And Costner always saw him as a Barry Switzer-type.
Rajiv: Yeah, a good old boy.
Scott: And Denis always saw him as a a Bill Belichick…
Rajiv: Because he knows Belichick:
Scott: Because he knows Belichick personally so there was something there, and he eventually became who Denis used.
Sarah: So this script went through the process for a long time. Paramount had it, they were ready, and then they delayed because of scheduling difficulties with the director and talent, and then the next thing you know a year has gone by and it’s in turnaround, did you feel like you were going through your own long, drawn out draft day waiting yourselves?
Scott: It keeps getting told to us that this happened exceptionally quick and sometimes it felt like that. And there were definitely dark days when Paramount told us they weren’t going to do it. That was a real low point. We were really out in the wilderness. We had no home. And then Paramount did this great thing and they didn’t tie it up and they allowed Ivan to try to find a partner to go and make the film with. But I don’t know, that was, one to three months or something where we thought we were just dead in the water, that we had written this script that some people liked and that was going to be the end of it.
Sarah: But then you’re on the Black List* and your draft stock goes way up.
Rajiv: It definitely had the feeling from day one of an underdog script that kept on. We’d have a break and then we’d have a setback, we’d have a break, and then we’d have a setback. Luckily it got made and we’re sitting here. We still have to kind of pinch ourselves how the whole thing came together.
Sarah: You said in the press conference you were on set a lot. Where you there for the cameos of Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar?
Rajiv: Unfortunately I was not there for Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar.
Scott: Luckily we were there, me and the producer Ali Bell, I think I talked to Bernie for an hour and Bernie is Rajiv’s childhood idol so we got Bernie to call Rajiv.
Sarah: Ah, nice.
Rajiv: Yeah, I had a different project that I was working on at the time and I was down in Dallas and my phone rang and I answered it, and he’s like, “Rajiv?” “Yeah?” “It’s your favorite quarterback.” And I was like, “Bearnieeee??!?” And he talked to me for awhile.
Scott: It was insane. I can only imagine what it would be like if Dan Marino had called me. But these things, when you make a movie are so surreal. It’s our first movie so I have no touchstones to check any against any reality. You arrive on set one day and someone says, “Oh, Jim Brown is in his trailer. Do you want to go meet him?” Oh sure, I’ll go meet Jim Brown. It became an everyday sort of thing.
(PR person gives last question warning.)
Sarah: So who do you want your teams to draft?
Rajiv: Real good question. I’m really high on Johnny Manziel right now. I just think he has gumption, he’s a winner and I just think he’s the type of spark that Cleveland could use.
Sarah: Did you watch his pro day at all this week?
Rajiv: I heard about it. Heard it was insane.
Scott: Did you see it?
Sarah: I did, I thought he looked pretty good. As my one friend says, “I just want him to walk around with a cape on.” And who do you want for the Dolphins?
Scott: I think the offensive line needs to get stronger.
Rajiv: Why, did you lose some guys in the offseason?
(And then we laughed and laughed until it was revealed all this time they had been interviewed by a Steeler fan and in bed with the enemy.)
Scott: Are you predisposed to hate this movie then?
Sarah: Oh, no. My best friend is a Browns fan and we watch every game together. I think of them as our little brother and you just feel bad for them. You keep hoping the best, that this is going to be their year.
Scott: Thanks for Mike Wallace then, the gift that keeps on giving.
(Laughter and a PR person ending the interview.)
So there you have it, the two smart gentleman and football fans behind DRAFT DAY. Wish I could have had more time with them and I wish our time hadn’t overlapped with the Terry Crews and Arian Foster press conference, because I would have loved to hear more of Crews on what he doesn’t like in a sports movie, the magic of the ball, the magic of the field. Because as someone who played the game and has been hit a thousand times, he knew, “It ain’t that magical.”
DRAFT DAY is in theaters April 11.
*The Black List started as an underground list that development execs, agents, assistants and such would pass around Hollywood at the end of each year ranking what they thought were the best unproduced scripts. Much like the UTA job list, you always knew someone who had a copy, but not how to get on it. The list grew, someone stopped typing it as an actual list to be forwarded via email and it became a whole mishegas of voting, people lobbying to get on the list and a website.