Dean Devlin began his career as an actor, and a successful one at that, but eventually moved into screenwriting -- and has had even far greater success. Along with his partner, director Roland Emmerich, the two have made some of the biggest blockbusters in recent years. As I've noted previously, the Email Interviews are generally standard questions which differ because of the answers, but here I veered off a bit and asked a few movie-specific questions, as well.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Screenwriter Dean Devlin has co-written the epics, Independence Day and Godzilla, both of which he produced, as well as the films Stargate and Universal Soldier.
He is executive producer of the TV series, Leverage, for which he’s also written and directed. Devlin was also executive producer of the three The Librarian TV movies. And he produced the feature films The Patriot, Cellular, and Stargate.
[Subsequent to the interview, two new movies based on his characters for Universal Soldier have been produced. And two sequels based on Independence Day have been announced – ID Forever, Parts One and Two – though production and further details are still a ways off. He also was executive producer of the acclaimed documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?]
>>> Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
DD: I'm the son of a screenwriter and film producer, so my interest dates back to early childhood, enviously watching my father work. But I think it was the Syd Field books that really got me going.
>>> When you write, how do you generally work? Is there a specific time you prefer to write?
DD: When I write, especially when in partnership with Roland Emmerich (my business partner and the director of the films we've done together), we usually go for total immersion. We usually will leave town and spend every waking hours writing intensely until the script is finished. It's an intense period but the scripts get finished faster that way.
We find that if the script gets written quickly, we're more open to the idea of re-writes. When it takes a long time to get something written, there is a tendency to become married to what's on the page.
>>> Do you have any specific kind of music playing or prefer silence? Are you a good procrastinator?
DD: We're big believers in "mood" music. When we wrote "Stargate" we had "Carmina Burana" and the soundtrack to "Dracula" a blasting the entire time.
As for being a procrastinator...I'll get back to you on that later. No, seriously, when I'm writing at home, I notice that my house becomes spotless. I'll take any excuse, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, ANYTHING to keep me away from that computer. That's the other advantage to writing in partnership. When you've got a partner sitting there, it's much harder to procrastinate.
>>> What sort of characters interest you? What sort of stories?
DD: Humor is one of the most important aspects to characters that we write. Just like the audience, we want to be entertained by our characters. And while you don't always have to go for the laugh, a certain amount of humor seems to add humanity to the characters. We usually will base every character on someone we know and try to capture the humor of that person.
There does seem to be a reoccurring theme to most of our central characters, however. They usually are people who believe in something, even though everyone around them disagrees.
Roland and I have talked about this and why this seems to reoccur in our work. I think that when you start out in Hollywood, everyone thinks you're never going to make it and that you're nuts for trying. Perhaps it was that very experience that both Roland and I went through that has us injecting that character trait into our leads.
>>> How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story? Do you have any specific tricks to help, or just tough it out?
DD: So far, every script I've ever written, I've always hit a roadblock as I near the end of the second act. I've talked with other writers who have had similar experiences.
It's really tough because you're more than halfway finished and suddenly everything you've written feels like it doesn't work.
During this time I usually do two things. First, I never finish writing a scene or a line of dialogue at the end of a writing session. I always try to stop before I've finished so that the next morning I already know what I'm going to write. It's a good way to hit the ground running and avoid that awful..."what comes next" pause that can start a writing session.
The second thing I do is go back to the mid point and try to structure my way into the third by taking a completely other tact. This will either prove to me that my original idea was stronger or show me a better way. If in fact it is a stronger way to handle the second act, then blasting forward with this renewed energy will get me over the hump. If it's not, then I recover my confidence with the work done and can move forward. But, as I say, this is ALWAYS the hardest part for me.
>>> What were the hardest things about "Independence Day" to write?
DD: The hardest thing about writing "Independence Day" was to keep the tone consistent, keep the humor going in the face of all that destruction, and never take ourselves too seriously while committing to the drama of our story. You see, we were trying to embrace the style of the old Irwin Allen disaster movies of the '70's. We loved those movies growing up and wanted to tap into that style of story telling. Those movies had this great ability to jump from comedy to melodrama without missing a beat. We wanted to emulate that style, use the inherent kitschiness without becoming a farce or parody and develop that great kind of thumb nail sketching style of establishing many characters interwoven within this world wide disaster.
So we rented "Poseidon Adventure" and "Towering Inferno" and watched both several times. We decided to try and write our film exactly how it may have been written back in the '70's. We decided to do it straight -- Irwin Allen-style.
That balance was hard to maintain, but it also gave us focus and made the writing process really fun.
>>> What was it like destroying the world?
DD: It was one of the most guilty pleasures I've ever enjoyed. On one hand it was thrilling, in the same way it's thrilling to light fireworks. The explosions and destruction of hundreds of buildings was spectacular and amazing to watch. On the other hand, these were nightmarish images that one would hope to never see, even an approximation. I think it is that dichotomy that makes it feel like such a rollercoaster ride. It's thrilling and chilling at the same time.
We had wanted to make our villains insurmountable. So we decided to take symbols on continuity in our lives, images that we've seen our entire lives and expect to see for our entire lives, such as the Empire State Building and the White House and have our villains destroy them. If they could get the White House, the symbol of the free world, then they could do ANYTHING!
>>> What is your best experience as a writer?
DD: I had been an actor for over twelve years before I became a professional writer. Roland hired me to write his first American film. When we went in to have our first meeting with the Executives on the movie, before we began an assistant asked me if I'd like some coffee. I told her that I had acted for 12 years, had been a lead on the New York stage, had been a lead on two network television series and had been the lead of a feature film, but that was the first time anyone had ever asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. I decided right then, I liked writing better.
>>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you? If so, what things did you learn?
DD: Gary Rosen was the first professional writer who took me seriously when I decided I wanted to write for a living. He would go over my writing and help me. He showed me how to write economically and tell my stories with the least amount of description. He also taught me a great deal about dialogue and character development. Without his help in the beginning, I don't think I would have been able to make the transition.
>>> Why do you write?
DD: It's cheaper than renting cameras and equipment. With a blank piece of paper I can make any movie I like, and I don't have to wait for some executive to give me a "green light." I think there is nothing like disappearing into your own imagination.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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