A Conversation with Jeff Stockwell

By John Rosenberg

For this issue I caught up with the talented and charming screenwriter Jeff Stockwell at home in Malibu. Jeff Stockwell's produced feature credits include Bridge to Terabithia, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Wilder Days, a tele-film nominated for the WGA award for Best Original Longform TV. He has written numerous independent and studio projects, now in various stages of development—from moribund to maybe-almost-in-production. They include Artemis Fowl for Miramax, Books of Magic for Warner Bros., The BFG for Paramount, Kiki's Delivery Service and A Wrinkle in Time for Disney and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane for New Line.  He is currently at work on A Child's Book of True Crime for Second & 10th Productions and Our Wild Life for Mandalay Pictures. Stockwell is also an instructor for Film Independent's Screenwriters Lab.

First, let's start with an easy question: crunchy or smooth peanut butter?

Crunchy. I’ve always been crunchy. Even before I had teeth.

Most parents don't start off imagining their child as a screenwriter. How did you get into this profession? Did you have any mentors or favorite influences?

My parents did an excellent job of not over-burdening me with any career choice expectations  (even as they made it clear that I’d better not ask them for a dime after college.) So… I studied creative writing (poetry!)  both undergrad and in a graduate school fellowship. Poems, alas, don’t pay the rent and, as I’d always been inspired (and often misguided) by movies, I started writing scripts. Scripts and poems, it turns out, have a lot in common: both thrive on how successfully image conveys emotion, and on language that carries more than one meaning.

As far as becoming a working screenwriter, my mentors – at least in an indirect way – were the folks who first helped me get my foot in the door in Hollywood by hiring me as a “reader” to evaluate other people’s scripts: John Veitch, John Carls, Karen Moy, Ted Dodd. Through them, I had great Industry “day jobs” analyzing hundreds of projects, even as I carved out time to work on my own.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys was originally from a book. What were some of the challenges that you encountered in adapting it?

Dangerous Lives is the project that got me going as a writer-for-hire. Before that, I’d done several spec scripts   – selling one that got the attention of DLAB’s director and producers. So, it was my first book adaptation and, as a result, the first time I had to work out my relationship to someone else’s underlying work and my responsibility to their vision. As a guy who grew up devouring comics in an East Coast coastal town Catholic neighborhood in the 1970s – all the setting of Chris Fuhrman’s book – I didn’t have to travel extremely far to get the lay of the book’s land  (That’s not always the case: for instance, I’ve recently been adapting a biography of Dame Daphne Sheldrick – a pioneering elephant conservationist from Kenya.). 

But there were challenges. Chris’s beautifully-observed book is almost more a collection of short stories featuring the same characters, than a novel driven by an over-arching plot, so it was important to reweave story threads that would steadily escalate over the course of the film – the boys’ antagonism with their teacher and their plot for revenge on her, as well as lead Francis’s problematic first love. The other challenge – and it’s one that arises with many great novels – is that so much of what makes the book sing is going on inside the characters’ heads. You, as a reader, are won over with how they think, how they process the world – wonderful to catch in a sentence, but difficult to catch on film!  Our solution ( I say “our” because it arose through discussions with the director and producers)  was to create a parallel “comic book” story where many of the boys’ inner issues and desires could be worked out visually, through their superhero doppelgangers. Though the kids loved drawing and comics in the underlying book, no such parallel story existed.

Do you have a preference between adaptations and original screenplays? What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing spec scripts?

I’m going to assume, for the purposes of an answer here, that by “adaptation” you mean work-for-hire  (because you can do an “adaptation” as a spec script – you’d be surprised how easy it is to option someone’s book on your own and adapt it – not to mention all the great public domain stuff that’s there to speculate on.)

So..  no preference – I greatly enjoy both spec writing and for-hire and wouldn’t want to exclusively do one or the other – though it would be great to move more steadily back and forth between the two. The reality of many a screenwriting career is that you do lots of specs up front, as you try to get a personal project underway or to get people to pay attention to your writing chops – and then, once you actually have chances to get paid before you write, you head into a life of going from studio project to project, and tend to slip away from carving the time out of your overloaded life to write original specs. The bad news is that you feel can feel lured away from adding your own unique and incredible stories to humanity’s store  -- the very impulse that gets most of us going as writers in the first place. The good news is that you go after adaptations or existing projects for hire that resonate with what you love – even if you’re not the originator of the idea, you deeply invest yourself in expanding on it (or editing it down!) as you rework it for the screen.

Money-up-front issues aside (and as long as you accept that, no matter how brilliant they are, very few specs ever actually sell), there are wonderful advantages to writing specs. It’s really fun. You are not slaloming through the wide range of other peoples’ notes that generally accompany any work-for-hire. It’s all about you! Specs can also end up being great ambassadors:  they might not sell, but they get read and appreciated…and remind the creative execs that they have a similar project that you might be right for.

And then, of course, you own your spec. So you can always borrow money from relatives and go shoot it – a key first step towards becoming a celebrated writer/director/cultural phenom.

Your films often have kids as the protagonists. What draws you to this genre? Is there another genre that you'd like to try that you haven't yet?

The sense that I’m focused on one genre, is really more about the way the market works than about the way my mind does. Screenwriters are defined by what gets made. “Altar Boys” features adolescent protagonists and, though it’s R-rated, it led to lots of other “coming of age” or kid-centric adaptation work. But I’ve been hired for and written a wide range of things. Once one of my projects about elephant rescuers, adulterous school teachers, or the spiritual awakening of porcelain rabbits gets made, I’m guessing the “pigeonhole” will shift to one of those genres.

Still, yes, I am drawn to kids as protagonists --  I still have an active, imaginative and not-completely-resolved relationship with my own childhood – and I’ve been blessed to be immersed in that world all over again through being a parent. I also love that “family” films are often the ones with stories least constricted by genre – no, you can’t swear (much) or show  some nipple – but otherwise, the sky’s the limit!

Can you describe your writing process a bit? Do you have a preferred time and place to write?

There’s my ideal writing process, and my actual one. 

My ideal process – which sometimes unfurls for months at a time – is: kid off to school; dogs asleep; phones all shut down; internet connection nixed, desk surface cleared of everything, and me at the keyboard from 8:30 AM until 1 (In the “keep your day job” part of my life, this session ran from 8:30 PM until midnight.). After lunch, the afternoon is for more research, messing around a bit with revisions, and the parade of work-related (or not!) phone calls and meetings.   In this ideal process, I am in a nook in my house that’s reserved only for the sacrament of writing, like an altar.

My actual process is: I’m wildly overextended, with someone badgering me for the fifth set of revisions on one thing, even as the deadline for a first draft of another project looms  (“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” - Douglas Adams). I’m writing all morning while fending off calls, writing all afternoon in between must-do errands and we’ve-changed-our-minds-and-would-like-to-try-this meetings;  writing late into the night and then, over-wired, unable to get to sleep.  I’ll write anywhere –  laptop balanced on my knees in the john, scribbling on a legal pad braced on my steering wheel in the midst of traffic.

Or… I’m wildly under-extended. Nothing to do but scour the internet for evidence that other people are actually getting jobs, and stare at that blank page where the next spec is supposed to be.

How does it feel to see your script turned into a film? Are there times when you felt it was improved upon or times when they screwed it up?

Being screenwriter is kind of like being an architect – who, outside of other architects, really cares what the thing looks like on paper? We want to walk around in the building!

It’s so beyond-your-expectations-of-difficult difficult to get something into production and up on the screen that, of course, it feels absolutely wonderful to see your work lighting up a room, no matter how much it matches what you originally envisioned. Yes, there are scenes that transcend what you wrote (that’s the power of pictures and all the other people who put them together) and there are the exciting revelations of actors bringing their own mojo to a role. And, yes, there’s stuff – sometimes entire productions – that doesn’t glow the way you’d dreamed it would. But still… it’s a building!  It’s not all just a plan, a bunch of paper, anymore. You can inhabit it! It’ll protect you from (most of ) the rain!

What advice do you have for writers who are starting out?

Thanks for asking. I’m full of (generally unsolicited) advice:
You have to write and not just talk/think about writing. Any day that goes by without your writing through part of it, is a lost day. Nothing, other than keeping a roof over your head and keeping the people you love in your life, should get in its way.

And, screenwriters, after mastering all the above ego-maniacal drive, you have to learn to collaborate, to listen to the good suggestions, artfully dodge the bad ones, and enable your colleagues to cradle your baby and recognize it as their own. 

Starting out, be sure to write about something you’re actually profoundly connected to – it’s your best chance of finding a voice that will stand out from the giant-ass pack of folks who are flooding the world with scripts (And, if it doesn’t launch as a screenplay, you have a fantastic rough-draft/outline for your novel.).

But…even though it’s a chunk of your soul, don’t hover over your first spec script (or second or third….). Get it done, tighten it up, make it great, get it out there -- and keep on moving.