If you’re a comedy geek, the names Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant are almost certainly familiar to you. These are two of the founding members of MTV’s The State, two of the biggest cast members on Comedy Central’s Reno 911, and the guys who wrote a slew of high-grossing (if not critically-adored) comedies like Herbie: Fully Loaded and the Night at The Museum movies. The guys have had a lot of success in Hollywood over the years, so it makes perfect sense that they might have a few interesting things to say about their experience– not to mention some advice for aspiring screenwriters. As such, the two have written a book– Writing Movies For
Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can, Too!– and today they sat down with Collider to talk about it. Read on for the interview, after the jump.
Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant are both most-known for their work on Comedy Central’s dearly-departed Reno 911 (as well as the movie the show spawned, Reno 911: Miami), but they’ve made their fortune writing movies you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time complaining about in comments sections, message boards, and ill-advised Tweets: these guys wrote Herbie: Fully Loaded, Night at The Museum 2, and The Pacifier. Sure, these movies aren’t the ones you prominently feature amongst your ever-growing movie collection, but they earned…let’s see…$1.467 billion at the box office. Say what you will about the films themselves, but they’re profitable as all hell.
Over the years, Garant and Lennon have wrangled together no small amount of experience, stories, and wisdom working in Hollywood, and next week they’re releasing a book containing said stories, wisdom, and experience: Writing Movies For
Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can, Too!. The book itself is outstanding (stay tuned after the interview below for my mini-review), and when the chance to speak to Lennon and Garant about their first book arose, I jumped on it: I’ve been a fan of these guys for some time, and their book contained a slew of great ideas and valuable information. I had a bajillion questions (but, unfortunately, just 20-some-odd minutes to speak with them).
And so, I sat down with Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon earlier today to discuss the book, the advice found within its pages, and what we can look forward to from the pair going forward. Before we get into the interview proper, here’s a few highlights:
- Lennon on why the book’s so brutally honest: “(No one else) is qualified to write a book like this.”
- Lennon and Garant agree that fans of The State were particularly hard on Herbie: Fully Loaded, precisely because the two were involved with The State. Makes sense.
- Advice for aspiring screenwriters: “Creating work (for yourself) is your job”; waiting around for someone to “discover” your awesome script is a waste of time.
- The guys agreed that The Hangover is as popular as it was because “every man, woman, and child” in the world could relate to its premise.
- Lennon: “The risk of anything ever turning into a sloppy blow job is a risk we’re willing to take”.
Here’s the full interview:
I got your book a couple weeks ago and read it in two sittings. I thought it was awesome, I loved it. I was actually in the middle of working on two scripts myself when it showed up, and it answered a shit-ton of questions I had. So, first of all, thank you for that.
THOMAS LENNON: Oh, thank you man. That’s great!
It’s easily the most brutally honest books about screenwriting or working in Hollywood that I’ve ever read. Why do you think more people aren’t this frank and honest about the industry?
LENNON: Honestly, I don’t think anyone is qualified to write a book like this. If you look at all the other screenwriting books on the market, they’re written by people who teach screenwriting, not by screenwriters.
BEN GARANT: They’re people who have never worked consistently with a studio, but we have. We’ve had eight films made. That means we’ve written 20-25 scripts; I don’t even know. So we’re in a unique position, which is that none of our knowledge on the studio system is hypothetical or esoteric. It’s factual. It’s what we’ve learned and big mistakes that we’ve made and we’re still here. [We're] guys that have had hits and then flops and then hits and then flops and still after a decade consistently get work. We’ve done a lot of things, written a lot of things, and we just wanted to include that in a book. Most books are all theory; they are not actually about working as a screenwriter.
LENNON: By the way, we make an important distinction that I hope is clear to your readers, too: we’re not teaching you how to make art house films, we’re not teaching you how to win awards with your writing, we’re teaching you how to write big studio movies, and that’s a very different thing.
There’s no bullshit in the book; you guys lay it out up front that if you want to write something that Wong Kar-Wai is going to direct, this isn’t the book for you. You kill two birds with one stone there, because you side-step the issue that some might have, which is that one shouldn’t take advice from two guys who have written a couple of movies that weren’t critically raved about, things like Herbie: Fully Loaded or the Night at The Museum movies. You can’t argue with that level of success, though, and I really appreciated that level of honesty in the book.
LENNON: Herbie: Fully Loaded we have a whole chapter on because we learned so much during that movie. We have a lot of fans because of Reno and The State, we’re two of the only screenwriters that younger people have a face to attach to it, so people really, really hate Herby: Fully Loaded. I think even more so, because we came from The State. So, we talk about that, we really try and share what… Nobody in Hollywood ever sets out to make a bad movie ever but about 99% of the time, that’s what happens.
GARANT: Yeah, and it works.
LENNON: Yup, and it works; it’s the system that we have here. We want to let people see what we did wrong and right. But even though we give a warts and all version of the way things work here, it’s also a very upbeat and optimistic book.
GARANT: We love our jobs.
LENNON: Writing studio movies is the best job in the world…its awesome.
It’s realistic and it carries with it a certain amount of cynicism about the industry, I think, but it is also a very funny read. You’re right, it is upbeat; you’re not telling readers that they’re going to get beaten about the head and shoulders for wanting to do this, but you’re not sugar-coating it. At the risk of this turning into a sloppy blowjob of an interview, I found the book to be inspirational.
LENNON: By the way, the risk of anything ever turning into a sloppy blow job is a risk we’re willing to take.
GARANT: I think its really optimistic, but part of it is that we’ve been here for a while and like the discouragement you get at first. If somebody had explained the process to us, we would’ve had a much funner first few years.
LENNON: If someone would’ve explained to us that you will get fired off of every movie you ever write, it would’ve been awesome. Because you’re more than likely going to get hired back again by that same movie.
GARANT: And if they bought your movie and still fired you, that same studio will certainly hire you again.
GARANT: Or that if somebody in film school had explained that your first spec is not probably going to ever get made, but it’s really your writing sample, it would’ve been really helpful. Our first script that we wrote was You Are Going To Prison, and the art draft was unmakeable. Like it was NC-17 filthy. No studio would’ve ever spent a dime on it cause it was a money-losing proposition.
LENNON: And executives would tell us that. They’d hold the script up and say. “This movie will never be made AND it made me laugh so hard it made me want to meet you guys. So come on in and here’s five projects that we have the rights to; do any of these pique your interest?” If somebody had explained that to us, I think people would write a very different spec. Don’t write your 200 page pirate romance about the inquisition. Write a spec that’s going to really stand out an make people laugh and show what a really good writer you are. Don’t write something that is your passion project because all it will do is get the passion stomped out of you.
Good advice. Lets say you’ve written your spec, you’ve created something you can put online like a visual aid (which is what you recommend in the book), and you’re trying to get a script sold or land an agent; what are the signs that you’ve got a good agent versus a shitty one? What can people look out for when they are first starting out?
LENNON: This is a tough one because even if it’s a shitty one, you’d probably need it. This is a bummer, but the fact is you just need representation. You’re first agent is kind of shitty and you know that.
GARANT: And probably they will be…Probably your first agent is going to be some guy who also handles dog acts.
How many agents did you guys go through before you landed the one you’re with now?
GARANT: Well, we started with The State and so The State had an agent.
LENNON: The State was signed by William Morris when we were like 21 years old, really young…yeah, about 21, we signed with William Morris.
GARANT: And then when The State broke up, nobody knew who any of the eleven individual members of us were at all.
LENNON: We weren’t really a thing to them because we were young.
GARANT: So the people who didn’t go out and make their own work were fucked because they had an agent who didn’t know who they were…you really have to go out and make your own work.
LENNON: The real thing is– and I hope people take this from the book– creating work is your job. Waiting for opportunities in the entertainment industry is an impossibility; they are not coming. You have to make your own. We were always out on this take. We were shooting stuff before we had a TV show. We would do live shows every couple months. We’d always be doing, doing, doing because the second you wait for someone else’s opinion or somebody’s money or anything…One, it’s not coming. Two, they’re probably going to fuck it up. So, it’s tricky because the ball is always in your court.
GARANT: I would say, even though it sounds cheesy…”I want to write a movie; I can’t just write a movie.” NO! But you can write a short thing for the internet or you can write something that gets performed on a small stage. Even though that sounds corny, you’re gonna learn a lot by seeing your work performed by actors, you’re going to learn how to write better by watching your dialogue, and you’re going to learn what you do right and what you do badly by watching an audience react to your writing. It sounds corny but we did live stuff for six years together before we even had a basic cable show. The good thing about being a writer is that you don’t need anything except for a laptop. You can really do your own work and if you’re not manically compelled to write all the time before you do it professionally, it’s probably not a business for you anyway.
If you’re writing a script and you’re writing for an R-rating, is that going to be prohibitive to the script’s chances of being sold, or not so much?
LENNON: We talk about this in the book. Before any movie of yours gets made, it will be vetted by the studio’s marketing department. So, you do have to answer the question: Who is your movie for? Now, if your movie has an R rating and you want it to be…again we’re talking about giant hit movies…For “The Hangover,” that movie had a premise that was so relatable that every man, woman, and child who could see an R-rated movie went and saw it.
GARANT: “Hangover– I’ve had one of those.”
LENNON: Yeah…[laughs]. We’ve said that once they’ve rated your movie R, you have approximately eliminated over half of the movie-going audience from legally seeing you movie. Here’s an idiotic thing that we did that we could teach you: Um, don’t make a movie that’s called Reno 911: Miami that’s rated R when your fan base is 14 years old. So the weekend that the Reno 911 movie came out, we donated a couple million bucks to a movie called Ghost Rider.
GARANT: And kids would come up to us on the street and say we say, [with a Hispanic accent] “Ay, I loved your new movie. We bought tickets to Ghost Rider and snuck in to see your movie instead.” We were like, “Yeah, alright, great.”
Were they all Hispanic or was that just the voice you went with for that particular example?
LENNON: No, they were Hispanic.
LENNON: We live in Los Angeles, so, if they were little children, yeah.
I noticed you got the entire script treatment for the Reno 911 sequel to that movie in there…
LENNON: We thought it would be fun to show what a script for an improvised movie looks like. Which is a new format that’s going around. A lot of this is seen in TV shows now. When you get an improvised movie script, which– if it’s super low budget– people are using those, that’s what the script will look like.
GARANT: We thought it’d be fun to show what those are like.
I thought the treatment/script was really funny. In fact, I’m kind of surprised that– on the basis of that– there were complications in actually getting it made because, it was so strong. Like, funnier than the first one.
LENNON: I think we made a big mistake making it a hard R because we alienated a lot of our audience.
GARANT: Another thing you learn is that something being really, really good is almost irrelevant. They did the math and the first one didn’t make enough money.
LENNON: We talk about this in the book: you’re writing your movie, that’s great, you’re considering an R rating, that’s great but think about the movie audiences for it. Keep in mind, if its a real hit, how’s it going to do in Europe, in Asia, and how’s it gonna do around the world? Germany is a big market, England is a big market. The studios will definitely ask this question before they even meet you. You should ask yourself this question too.
New line of questioning: Why do you think so many romantic comedies suck? In general, I think it’s a genre that, for every one good one, there are fifteen that are just terrible. What’s the reason?
LENNON: I’m actually in a lot of these movies. [Laughs] I’m in three movies standing next to Kate Hudson going like, “I think he likes you.” [laughs] I think the reason for what you’re saying is…it’s a numbers game. They don’t tend to be expensive or have tons of effects. They have a sizable demographic and then occasionally one breaks through. So, its like the studio buying lottery tickets, saying, “I bet you one of these hits.” Romantic comedies aren’t really what we do, but being funny is hard enough, and I can picture people sitting around a table of executives saying, “Well, this script has to be a little bit…eh, more sweet” or “the last 30 minutes should be a beautiful wedding.”…
GARANT: Didn’t Mathew McConaghey call you Bruce? [Laughs]
LENNON: He called me a lot of different nicknames. While we were filming How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, I’m pretty sure he never learned my name. I stood next to the guy for, like, three or four months. He used to go to me like, “Hey T-dog. Hey Shooter, Hey Pitbull.” Every time he wanted to address me, he was like, “Hey Jimbo.” [Laughs]
LENNON: If you’re a studio writer, the funny better be on the page. But it’ll be taken up a notch by really funny people. Your script needs to be funny…
GARANT: Worst case scenario, the script has to be absolutely hilarious. When good, funny people come on, they riff and change it. We’ve seen scenes that we wrote word for word that really killed, and we get very excited… and we’ve seen scenes where they riff and it’s not as good as our script. Then we think, “Why didn’t they just do what we wrote?”
LENNON: But then, some guys will come in and riff, and it will be much funnier than what you wrote in the first place. The goal when you’re writing a comedy is that it’s so good that it attracts really funny people. And then, ideally, really funny people come in and do their own thing and its better than your script.
We then talked a bit about Lennon and Garant’s upcoming projects. Lennon’s about to appear in Boondoggle with Rob Riggle, a comedy (which sounds suspiciously like The Hangover) wherein the pair play businessmen who travel to “a South America-style island, take a bunch of drugs, end up in a prison camp, and have to get themselves out”. Garant, meanwhile, is focusing on a script (which he co-wrote with Lennon) that’s about to go into production called The Machine. When asked to describe that one, Garant told me that it features Vin Diesel as a “Terminator-like robot” built by the government in the 80′s. After the government decides “that it’s just too dangerous, they mothball it, and then it gets pulled out in the modern day”. One can’t help but picture The Iron Giant after hearing this description.
Let’s end this thing with a completely-unbelievable-but-I-swear-to-God-it’s-true anecdote: recently, a lady-friend of mine came into town for about a week. For the past few years, this lady-friend and I have discussed our mutual interest in trying our collective hand at screenwriting, but because she lives out of town– across the country, actually– we’ve never found the time to make good on all that talk. Once she was here in Austin, though, the topic came up again, and soon enough, we found ourselves hammering out the pages to what we hope will be a fairly entertaining rom-com (it’s an anti-rom-com, rom-com, because that’s much cooler than the real thing).
Anyway, while we were writing, we realized that there was a helluva lot about screenwriting we didn’t know. I used to be a standup comic– headlined the Improv a few times, performed during SXSW here in Austin, and so on (nothing major, in other words)– and she’s an actress (stage stuff, mainly in New York), but beyond the handful of useful connections we’ve both accumulated over the years, neither of us knows the first thing about writing and selling a movie script. Just while we were in the middle of discussing this ignorance, a knock hammered upon my door.
I answered it, and a FedEx guy shoved a box into my hands that turned out to contain Writing Movies For
Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can, Too!, by Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant. I knew I was interviewing the Reno 911 guys later in the month, but the book itself was pretty much a complete surprise. Immediately, I cracked the book open, started reading, and within the next few hours, my lady-friend and I had a slew of our questions answered. Over the next two days, I plowed through the book (which contains 34 chapters and three different “screen treatments”, including one for the never-produced Reno 911 sequel), finding it a shockingly good read: it’s not that these guys aren’t good writers, but when it comes to books containing advice on the screenwriting process (and “The Industry”), it’s hard to find one that one might call “entertaining” or “hilarious”.
Writing Movies For
Fun and Profit turned out to be an excellent read, one I’d wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in writing their own script (and, considering the number of film geeks out there that are reading this right now: why not give it a shot? We spend so much time criticizing the work of those that actually make movies in Hollywood, maybe we oughtta spend a little time finding out what it’s like to write one ourselves, eh?). It’s also worth checking out for those of you that count yourselves fans of Reno 911: the unproduced “script” for the film’s sequel is one of the book’s highlights (it’s funnier than the first film).
Thanks to Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant, and Greg Longstreet for setting up the interview. Writing Movies For
Fun and Profit hits bookstores next week, so keep your eyes peeled for that, screenwriters-in-training: I guarantee you won’t be disappointed if you pick up a copy.