Review: Tom Lennon and Ben Garant tell all about ‘Writing Movies For Fun And Profit’

I am of decidedly mixed mind about the film work of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant.

Let’s start with the obvious:  these are very funny guys.  I find it a little disconcerting to realize that “The State” is almost 20 years old at this point, but when I signed up for Netflix Instant and watched several episodes again, I was struck by how conventionally funny the show is, how classically constructed most of the sketches were, and how even the most absurd moments were clever and not just thrown away.  Even at that point, Garant and Lennon were thinking like writers, so when they moved into feature work, it wasn’t much of a surprise.  Their Comedy Central show “Reno 911” is a great example of their sensibilities at work, character comedy with plenty of room for improvisation, and the show was often ridiculously funny.  As both performers and writers, they were consistently impressive.

So why don’t I like the movies they write?

I made a comment in my “Night At The Museum 2” review that I half-expected that the guys would one day publish a book in which they revealed that their big-budget screenwriter career was actually a practical joke involving them writing the worst movies possible for Hollywood while using the money they earned to make genuinely funny smaller projects.  While Writing Movies For Fun And Profit is not that confession, it is one of the more bracingly honest looks at what it’s like to write for major Hollywood studios right now, and I think the book manages to defend their filmography without excusing what doesn’t work, something I wouldn’t have thought possible.  And since their films have cumulatively made a billion dollars, something the cover touts proudly, I would say whatever they’re doing works on at least one level, and should be paid special attention.

I’ve worked for studios myself, writing films for Revolution and Sony and 20th Century Fox over the years, and I’ve collected plenty of nightmarish development stories over the years.  I’ve had experiences both good and bad, and I’ve worked with people I still like as well as people I hope to never see again.  I’ve been put in the position of turning in drafts I didn’t like in order to please people I didn’t agree with, and I’ve been fired so that directors could bring in their own people to do terrible things to scripts.  The thing I haven’t done yet is seen one of those studio films make it all the way to the screen, and that can be frustrating.  It would probably have helped me if I wasn’t a loudmouth who has always been honest about my opinion, even when it wasn’t terribly political.  I’ve burned bridges while I’ve been standing on them, and I’ve paid the price for that.

The first thing that is apparent from reading this book is that Lennon and Garant are indeed very political, and that is one of the things that has helped distinguish them in their time as studio screenwriters.  This book is more about how to navigate the system and how to deal with many of the frustrations that I’ve run up against than it is about the technical art of screenwriting.  And I think that’s a very precise description of what is a very schizophrenic craft:  technical art.  Ultimately, when you’re writing a screenplay, half of you is dreaming about the movie it could be, and the other half had better be focused on the real-world demands of making that film, including budget and studio politics.  Garant and Lennon seem to have made peace with that in a way I never have, and as a result, they have become highly in-demand, both as writers and as re-writers.

There is a bluntness to the book that I found refreshing.  They call themselves sellouts on the first page of the contents, right at the top of the page, and they break things down to several distinct sections.  Part One, “Selling The Movie,” deals with much of the business end of things, including how to join the Writer’s Guild, how to pitch a film, how to deal with studio notes, and dealing with being fired.  They cover ideas like turnaround and how to handle it when your film dies during development.  They also outline one of their first big studio experiences in excruciating detail, so if you ever wanted to know why “Herbie: Fully Loaded” is terrible, they’re happy to tell you.

The second half of the book, “Writing A Screenplay,” is more out the craft itself, and it is depressing, although surgically accurate.  If you ever want to understand why all films made in the studio system feel largely the same, this is one of the most intelligent, clearly-explained books I’ve ever encountered about the subject, a Snark Generation version of Adventures In The Screen Trade.  I’m actually a little surprised how honest the book is, because there is real disdain in almost every line of the book.  These guys know that they are capable of better than “Night At The Museum 2,” and they also know that the system is designed to make movies like “Night At The Museum 2.”  Wrestling those two opposite ideas into a functional whole is exactly what the modern studio screenwriter has to do, and every page of this book is a fascinating examination of just how hard it is to reconcile.

Throughout the book, the guys include “Free Movie Ideas” that would look perfectly at home alongside things like “The Zookeeper” and “The Change-Up” at the multiplex, and while you could read those ideas as very cynical jokes, I think they’re also very revealing.  This is what gets purchased.  This is what gets greenlit.  You can protest all you want, but if you’re working in the studio system, this is reality.  Fear rules the day, and people only greenlight things that look like other things.  The only way to get around that is either to earn enough clout that you can push something personal through, or work outside the system in the world of indie financing, which is a totally different kind of nightmare.

They also include two full treatments, one for the proposed “Reno 911” sequel, and one for a “Gremlins” ripoff called “Instant Monsters.”  These are good examples of just how much work goes into a project before you ever go to screenplay, and it’s obvious these guys do their hardest work up front.  The “Reno” sequel reads like it could have been fun, but the “Instant Monsters” project seems to be so close to “Gremlins” and “Small Soldiers” that it’s surprising they’d include it.  It’s also surprising no studio has made the movie.  After all, we live in the age of Little CGI Things Wreaking Havoc, a genre that seems to be picking up speed with each passing year.

Out of the entire book, the only piece of it that feels like a mistake is when Garant and Lennon unload on critics.  The easiest, laziest way to respond to criticism is by dismissing the critic outright.  Here’s a passage from the book:

“When you get a movie made, you’ll notice something: there are suddenly a lot of morbidly obese shut-ins with internet connections who have come out to hate you!

There’s only one thing to keep in mind:  every critic, whether he works for a newspaper, a TV station, or — like 90 percent of internet critics — isn’t a professional writer in ANY way (he just started a website in his mom’s basement)…


That’s a shame.  Especially from writers who offered the advice on dealing with studio notes, “Nobody likes a crybaby.”  In the book, they talk about how much money they’ve made, and they play it like a joke, but it seems like the critical reactions they’ve gotten to their work must have really hurt them on some level.  And while there must have been people who enjoyed the “Night At The Museum” movies or “The Pacifier,” I can honestly say that my dislike of those movies has nothing to do with whether or not I’m a produced screenwriter.  Kevin Smith and his cronies pulled the same trick after the “Red State” premiere, and it’s sort of pathetic to cry victim when you’re supposedly doing what you love.  If you’re happy with the work, why does the criticism matter?  And if it doesn’t matter, why spend so much energy and venom trying to burn down the very notion of criticism?

I’ll be honest… I get more emotional and intellectual value from Pauline Kael’s piece on “Last Tango In Paris” than I did from the entire running time of “Let’s Go To Prison.”  Does that make Lennon and Garant worthless?  No.  Of course not.  It just means that a film they wrote wasn’t very good, for any number of reasons.  I have to guess that part of the reason writers frequently lash out like this at critics is because reviewers frequently pile all the faults of a film onto the screenplay, whether they know what was on the page or not.  That can drive writers berserk, especially when they know that the problems being described weren’t part of the script in the first place.

I recommend that anyone who wants to work as a screenwriter should pick this up.  It is genuinely educational.  If you want to know the difference between an agent and a manager or if you want to see a breakdown of your value in the system based on where you park at each studio or if you want to understand the various deal points in the standard WGAw agreement, this is indispensable.  And I honestly hope that what we’ve seen from these guys so far is just act one of a career.  I think they’re capable of comic greatness, and I would love to see them unleashed.  I don’t want to believe that the remake of “Taxi” is going to be how they’re remembered, and after reading the book, it’s safe to say that they don’t want that either.

If you’re in Los Angeles and you’d like to see the guys introduce a double-feature Wednesday night at the New Beverly, they’re showing “Barton Fink” and “Sunset Boulevard.”  That’s a brutal double-feature that says a lot about how they view the business that has made them so fabulously wealthy.  It is a strange double-edged sword these two swing, and this book is an absolutely riveting look at their careers and the philosophy that has served them well so far.