Storytelling comes in all shapes and sizes, from all different kinds of writers. Some tell small, simple stories; others work on a larger scale. But all, in some way, build worlds. We might be taken to a small, rural town or another world that features pirates and killer crocs. Ahead of Pan‘s release, I spoke to screenwriter Jason Fuchs about how he started, writing, the screenplays that got him to where he’s at today, and what it means to build worlds that are transporting.
A lot of screenwriters have a tough time getting that initial push, so I wanted to ask if it was something you naturally fell into? What’s the A-Z on how you got started in screenwriting?
Well, I started acting at age 7, and acted all throughout childhood and high school. And I knew really wanted to do more than that. I didn’t know I wanted to be a screenwriter. But I wanted to get more involved in the process, but had no sense of what that path might look like. My writing career really began in a bizarre way. Between junior and senior year of high school, I was starting to look at colleges and thought, “Oh gosh, I need to do an internship somewhere.” So, I got an internship at a place called the Global Information System (GIS) based in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. And I’ve always been very interested in foreign affairs and politics. And I ended up working with them that summer and went to Virginia, and when I left Virginia, they hired me to be an intelligence analyst. And from there, they promoted me to be their UN correspondent, and I ended up becoming a UN correspondent for GIS. At this time, I’m a freshman in college. So I eventually quit that and ended up writing a script that was eventually given to Fox Animation, and would be used as a writing sample, and that writing sample prompted them to call me up to see whether or not I’d be interested in coming on and writing Ice Age 4 (Ice Age: Continental Drift), which was a life-changing moment. It changed everything.
That’s a hell of a unique story.
[Laughs] It’s very, very unusual. It was one of those extraordinary, wonderful experiences.
And Ice Age transitions well when we’re thinking about genre as a screenwriter, and with Pan in mind, do you find yourself gravitating towards a specific genre every time you write?
I love all kinds of stuff. But the challenge of having success in only one particular genre is that you then get offered exclusively in that genre. It’s somewhat challenging because you want to do grown-up stuff and you want to do all kinds of stuff. And I really wanted to do Pan; I wanted to do Pan for a really long time. I pitched it to pretty much every studio except for Warner Bros. and everyone passed. They all had competing Peter Pan projects, so I was in a situation where no one was knocking down my door to get me to write, but I had opportunities I hadn’t had before, but they were exclusively in the sort of family, animated-oriented realm. And so I took a bit of a risk and was passing on things and was really looking for something that I felt would shift the perspective of what I can do as a writer. And then I got hired to write a script called Break My Heart 1,000 Times, a supernatural thriller. But writing a script like that was darker and based on a book for me, and my perspective helped people perceive what I could do as a writer.
Behind Pan, Ice Age 4, what’s the process look like? On a day-to-day basis, when you sit down, what does your environment look like?
First of all, to do this, you have to be totally Type A and work-obsessed and driven. I tend to work very late, and sometimes you have to hand in your pages because you have to shoot the next day, and you’re just hanging on for dear life trying to get your pages in in time for the cameras to roll. And usually with a rewrite or a draft, I’ll wake up around 11:30 or 12, I’ll read what I wrote the night before, I’ll try to make sense of it, hopefully there’s something salvageable, and then I’ll keep writing to 5:30 or 6 in the morning. And I was working on a script ’til, like, 7 last night and then woke up bright and early to get to the junket today. It’s constant. I cannot remember the last time I took a day off from writing.
You are more intense than me, but I think it is important for everybody, even people who don’t consider themselves writers, to write every day. I think it’s a healthy thing to do, small, big or in-between.
Yeah, and I genuinely feel compelled to write. It’s not like I wake up and say, “You gotta write every day.” I think if you have to do that, then maybe you aren’t writing the right thing. I’ve been lucky that the projects I’ve been working on, I’ve been genuinely excited about. And the other thing I’d say that helps me is, hard work is huge, but so is temperament. I think temperament is a huge, huge part of it. Particularly working as screenwriter in this industry, there’s a tremendous amount of stress and a tremendous amount of crazy people. And that sort of goes with working with talented, artistic folks, but if you can not let things get to you, and if you can be punched in the face and come back for more, I think you will be able to go a lot further than a lot of people. And not being a dick is also nice.
It’s true! It’s such a collaborative process that I think if you are a genuine and respectful guy, I think that helps. You know, I was involved from beginning to end [with Pan], and part of that is because Joe Wright is extremely inclusive, extraordinary collaborative and creative, but I think Joe also sensed that I was someone who was going to take notes on certain ideas, and we have to have everyone involved to make the best movie possible. You just have to go through these processes reminding yourself how lucky you are to be writing for a living.
This is not a real job.
How was that collaborative process?
It was really an extraordinary process. And Joe, Joe is just so smart and taps into the core of the characters in the story. And the visuals are all great, loved the action, the set pieces, but Joe stayed to the core, which was this young, lost orphan who was trying to find his mom.
Shifting more from Pan to you, what’s your inspiration? From other films and other screenplays, are there any other films you watch every day or screenplays you read regularly?
Oh, there’s so much. I grew up with the tent pole, world-building films of the ’80s like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Spielberg and his films are a huge influence. And I think Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ script for Back to the Future is maybe the most perfect screenplay ever written.
I could read that script over and over and learn from it and be green with envy. I always remember my sort of “Holy fuck” moment in a movie theater was with Jurassic Park. Because as much as I’ve fallen in love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones and all that stuff, those were on home video — I was born in ’86, so they weren’t in theaters. My first moment where I was in a movie theater and really had my mind blown was Jurassic. I remember being really scared and, for some reason, I was very sensitive to noises as a kid — I don’t know what was wrong with me — so I was quite terrified of hearing it. I remember walking up to the theater and hearing another screening of Jurassic Park next door and thinking, “Oh God, this could be bad.” I remember being really scared and excited. I was going to tough it out and be brave. And I remember that first shot of the dinosaur. That classic sequence where they pan up and you see that Brontosaurus for the first time… I will never forget that moment. That was a really special, meaningful event. Not just in my current memory of films, but in my life! I want to hope and strive to create movies that have moments like that.
I like transportive films. I like world-building films. And I love that filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas made films that were transportive and world-building, but had a very relatable grounded emotional character and story at the core of it. And that is what I tried to do with this film [Pan].
I couldn’t agree more. Last question… I understand you are attached to writing Wonder Woman that’s supposed to come out down the road.
Well, when you work with DC, it’s a little like working for the CIA. At any moment, the Warner Bros. assassins could come out. But yeah, I’m sure you’ve read the reports about what my involvement might be with all that. But I can speak to you about the DC Comics books as a fan. I love the DC Universe since my dad introduced me to comic books. Those were a part of my life at a very, very young age. Richard Donner’s Superman was a huge, huge moment for me as a kid. Seeing Batman for the first time was a thing I had to sneak into, so don’t tell Mom. And I know I’m speaking exclusively as a fan, I love the fact that Warner Bros. is building out that expanded universe. I’m genuinely excited. And you’ve seen the Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad trailers. They look stunning. I’m a huge fan of Man of Steel and its forthcoming movies. I’m stoked.
It’s exciting to see it all come together.
I am a fan of all this stuff first. I love this stuff. These are characters that have meant so much to me for so long.