Coming from a show business family, acclaimed screenwriter John Orloff has always known that he wanted to be a storyteller. After initially thinking the path he would take to that would be as a director, he realized that he was a better writer and has been on that path ever since.
Orloff has spent much of his screenwriting career on historical projects based in non-fiction work, such as the Michael Winterbottom film A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie, and HBO’s World War II mini-series Band of Brothers. Now, he is getting to live his dream of writing science fiction and fantasy, as the animated feature Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, directed by Zack Snyder, opens in theaters on September 24th.
Check out what he had to say about how he got involved with writing Legend of the Guardians, what it was like working with Zack Snyder and how thrilling it is to hear his words spoken by such talented actors:
Question: How did you get involved with writing Legend of the Guardians?
Orloff: It’s funny because when I was growing up, I was really into science fiction and fantasy as a kid. And, when I first became a screenwriter, I ended up really just doing historical drama and non-fiction based stuff, like Band of Brothers and stuff that didn’t get made, but was also non-fiction. Then, I wrote a movie called A Mighty Heart for Warner Bros., that eventually went into turn-around and ended up getting made at Paramount, but the executive who had hired me on that asked me to come into her office to talk about other projects.
She said, “What else are you interested in?,” and I said, “Well, I tell this to everybody and they always ignore it, but I really love science fiction and fantasy. Everybody just wants to pigeonhole me, but I love fantasy.” So, she said, “Oh, great!” I didn’t hear anything about it for a couple of months, but then she gave me a ring and said, “I just read these books and I want you to take a read.” By the time I was done with the first book, I just knew I wanted to be a part of it, so that’s how I got involved.
Was there something specific that did it for you?
Orloff: It was a combination of the story and the world, especially when you start talking about fantasy. Most fantasy is incredibly derivative of Tolkien, so when you read a lot of fantasy, it’s really just elves and gnomes, and it all goes back to Tolkien. So, to read a fantasy book that was incredibly original and the world was incredibly unique was really exciting for me. I felt like, if this film were to get made, it would be unlike any film ever made, and that was before Happy Feet had even come out. That’s how long it takes to get these movies made. That was one element. And then, the more I read the books, the more I became really in love with Soren and Ezylryb, and all of these characters. It was a combination of the world and the characters.
When you’re dealing with so many books in a series, how do you go about deciding where to start and what to include in the film?
Orloff: First, you have to decide what books to make into the movie. The first book was actually really not a complete story. It has a beginning and end, but they don’t get to Ga’Hoole in the first book. They’re just at St. Aggie’s, the prison camp place, and the end of that book is them escaping it. Well, that’s not really a movie, especially one called The Guardians of Ga’Hoole. So, the more I read, the more I realized the first three books were the first full story of the series, with a beginning, middle and end.
And then, it became a whole new challenge because the first three books were about 900 to 1,000 pages and I had to figure out a way to distill that into 100 pages. That’s where it starts to get quite tricky because you’re trying to keep the emotional essence and the essence of the characters, but in a very stream-lined way. You have to omit characters and events, and occasionally combine things. For example, in the books, the St. Aggie’s Academy is run by a different set of owls than the Pure Ones, who were a whole different set of bad guys. One of the first things I said to the studio and everybody was that I thought St. Aggie’s should be the concentration camp run by the Pure Ones, and that we should combine the St. Aggie’s Academy and the Pure Ones into one unit. That took what Kathy Lasky had and stream-lined it while keeping it the same.
How did having Zack Snyder involved as the director change how you approached the writing, and how closely did you work with him?
Orloff: The first draft, I wrote before Zack came onto the movie. And then, once he read the script, I did a whole bunch of work with Zack to change the script and to mold it into a much more visually dynamic piece. It was a great, incredible process of tossing ideas back and forth and revising, and figuring out what would be more interesting and more cool, and what would do the exact same plot point or story point, but in a much more unique, visual way than what I might have had before Zack came on board.
Once the voice actors were hired, were there changes made to suit them?
Orloff: Yes, but I was not part of that process. There was another writer because I had to move on to another movie. The other writer was an Australian writer, and the movie was pretty much made in Australia, so those changes were done by the Australian writer in Australia. I wasn’t part of that process.
As a writer, what’s it like to have the experience of seeing such talented people say your words, and was that experience any different with animated creatures saying your words?
Orloff: Obviously, it’s amazing to have people like Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren, David Wenham, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and on and on, saying your words. Everybody who says anything in the movie is an amazing actor or actress. That’s a pretty exciting and thrilling experience. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about my personal reaction of live-action versus animation, but it is odd. It is different because you don’t see their faces, and I know quite a few people that have seen the movie, who had no idea who these voices were until the end credits. I guess there’s no difference.
It’s just a thrill to see something you work on for so long, so hard, be realized in such an amazing way, as I think this piece was realized by Zack. I was amazed. Even before Zack came on board, we all had the idea that these would not be cartoon owls. We were going to try to make this look pretty realistic because Animal Logic was involved before Zack and, by that point, Happy Feet had come out. The first time I saw Happy Feet, I went, “Oh, yeah, we really can do this.” And then, when Zack came on board, I just knew that it would take a really interesting movie that we were working on and just elevate it into this unbelievably visual dynamic that we’ve never seen before. Zack did that. What’s really exciting for me is that it’s a movie unlike any movie ever made, and you don’t get to do that very often, and that’s all Zack. That’s Zack pushing boundaries, and bringing his eye and his sensibility to this material.
Now that you’ve written a fantasy film, with Legend of the Guardians, are you hoping to do that more?
Orloff: One of the things I’m so excited about with Guardians is that I hope it will give me an opportunity, as a writer, to write different and more speculative fictional pieces than just A Mighty Heart, which had a very documentary feeling, or Band of Brothers, which also had a documentary feeling.
How did you initially become interested in being a screenwriter? Did you just always want to be a storyteller and that was the best outlet for you to do that?
Orloff: Yeah. I grew up in a show biz family and, if you wanted to talk at the dinner table, you’d better be prepared to talk about film. At first, I wanted to be a director, as most people that want to be in film do, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t necessarily that good at it. I made some TV commercials and some music videos, but there were just people that were a lot better than me. So, I actually thought I wouldn’t be a filmmaker and I ended up working in advertising throughout my 20’s.
My now wife was working at HBO, at the time, and she would bring home these scripts. HBO makes a lot of non-fiction based films, and she would bring home these non-fiction scripts as writing samples and I would read them and say, “This person has an agent?” She’d say, “Oh, yeah, we’re probably going to hire them,” and I’d say, “You’re going to pay this guy money? This guy who wrote this crappy script?” So, I said, “I’ve got a story to pitch you,” and I pitched her my Shakespeare script, which I had not written. She said, “Oh, my god, you have to write that.” I was 28 at the time, or something like that, and it seemed like a lot of chutzpah to write a movie about Shakespeare not writing the plays, and I’m American. My wife just said, “See what happens.” So, I wrote it and it took me awhile, but it got me an agent and it got me into Tom Hanks’ office, who eventually ended up hiring me for Band of Brothers, and it turns out I’m a screenwriter.
Now that you’ve worked so closely with some great directors, like Zack Snyder and Roland Emmerich, do you have any renewed interest in possibly directing yourself?
Orloff: No. If anything, it’s convinced me that I’m not a director. Both Zack and Roland, and other directors that I’ve worked with, are just amazing. Yeah, I could be a director, but I don’t think that I have the ability to play on that level. I didn’t see Zack every day, but I watched Roland every day, making Anonymous, and he just did things that were so beyond me and sometimes even my comprehension, of how he was seeing the scene, and yet it was just amazing. I just realized, “Wow, this is why he’s very successful at this, and I don’t think I could do it.” But, I love to tell stories and I love to work with directors and I think I write really visually, which I think directors like, and I love making movies, so I found something that I’m good at and I’m really happy doing.