As I've mentioned, the Email Interview began life years back on the Writers Guild of America website. I came up with a set of generic questions about writing with I would send out and let the recipients do all the work. On occasion though, I'd include a question or two more specifically directed to the writer doing the interview. In this case, I was a bit friendly with Phil Robinson and had heard him tell some of his stories often. So, I threw in a bunch of them extra here.
Phil Alden Robinson
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
After beginning his career making industrial and educational films, Phil Alden Robinson decided to try his hand at network television and sold material to the show "Trapper John, M.D." Unfortunately, a series of strikes created several roadbumps, and his hoped-for career was forced to take a detour. As a result of one of these diversions, however, a screenplay he had written received notice from the movie studios.
Eventually, Robinson made a most auspicious screenwriting debut into feature films in 1984. That year, he had two major movies released -- the award-winning "All of Me," and "Rhinestone," a script he dearly loves in its original draft and of which he was an outspoken critic of the process which caused its resultant changes. Three years later, he wrote the 1940s period comedy, "In the Mood," which also marked his directing debut.
It was his next movie, however, which brought Phil Robinson to major attention, "Field of Dreams." The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Robinson himself received a Best Screenplay Adaptation nomination. The movie, which he directed, won the coveted Christopher Award and Robinson was named "Screenwriter of the Year" by the National Association of Theatre Owners.
Most recently, he co-wrote and directed the comedy-thriller "Sneakers." Robinson has also returned to his very early newscaster roots (on WGY radio and WRGB-TV) with a series of documentary reports on Bosnia and Somalia for the ABC news program, "Nightline."
In 1990, he was named "Screenwriter of the Year" by the National Association of Theatre Owners.
[Subsequent to this interview, Phil Robinson wrote and directed the TV film, “Freedom Song.” He directed the feature “The Sum of All Fears” and recently completed directing “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.”]
>> Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
PAR>> "The Benchley Roundup", a collection of humorous columns by Robert Benchley. I got it when I was about 12, and it thrilled me to see how funny and inventive one could be with just words.
>> When you write, how do you generally work?
PAR>> I'm sort of a slob about this, in that I tend to fool myself into thinking I'll concentrate better if I get all the odds and ends of life done first. But when the ideas are flowing freely (read: when the deadline is looming) I will get up early and write until my head drops from lack of sleep. And I must confess I rather like it when that happens. Makes me feel like a real writer.
>> Do you have any specific kind of music playing or prefer silence? Are you a good procrastinator?
PAR>> I do play music when I write, usually jazz (no lyrics). But lately I've discovered that Mahler is fantastic to write to. And yes, I am a world-class procrastinator.
>> What sort of characters interest you? What sort of stories?
PAR>> I have the same criterion for characters as for stories: I want to be surprised.
>> What was it specifically that made you want to adapt W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe" into "Field of Dreams."
PAR>> I loved how the book kept turning unexpected corners without blowing its emotional credibility. It walked a terrifically thin tightrope without falling to its death. And the moment when the young Archie Graham transformed into the aged Doctor struck me when I first read it as a stunningly visual moment. Unfortunately, I didn't come remotely close to capturing that on film, but the story moment is so strong that the lack of an exciting visual means of showing it didn't hurt us too much.
>> Would you care to repeat one more time the story about how the movie's title came about?
PAR>> The studio asked everyone who worked there to come up with something other than "Shoeless Joe" (a title I still love). Someone even suggested "Dad's Second Chance." I thought "Great, let's give away the surprise ending in the title." Finally, when they decided on FOD, I called Bill Kinsella to tell him the studio wasn't going to let me call the film "Shoeless Joe." Before I could get to what
the new title would be, he said "That's okay. I never wanted to call the book 'Shoeless Joe," that was the publisher's idea. My title was 'Dream Field'." That's when I stopped fighting.
>> 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?
PAR>> Whenever I hit a roadblock, it's always because my thinking has gotten vague and unspecific. So I sit back and start asking myself really basic questions, such as "Who are these people and what do they really want?" "What's stopping them?" "What's the best way for them to overcome this problem?" The more basic the question, the better. And then I don't think of how I would write this (i.e., what's the scene look like, what sort of repartee could result, how do I weave other things into it) ... I just think of how I would explain it simply and clearly to someone. As soon as I feel I have logical and concise answers to the questions I've posed, then I start to think again of the screenwriting issues.
>> What is your best or most memorable experience as a writer?
PAR>> Hands down, writing the courtroom scene in "All of Me." The early drafts of the scene were pretty straightforward, and the director, Carl Reiner, told me it was too easy -- make it harder. I thought about that and decided the reason it was too easy is that we're seeing things we've already seen, i.e., Steve trying to behave professionally, and Lily blurting things out of his mouth that embarrass him. So I made a list of all the different variations we've used, and when I wrote down the one in which Lily was asleep so Steve had total control of his body, I sat up straight (a lightbulb actually did light up over my head, just like in the cartoons -- I have no idea how that happened) and realized we didn't have a scene in which Steve falls asleep so Lily's character has total control of the body. This meant she would have to imitate a man, which meant Steve as an actor would have to imitate a woman imitating a man. I was deliriously happy, pacing the room, spouting dialogue out loud in stupid voices, scribbling lines so fast I couldn't read them later. The whole experience lasted maybe ten minutes, and I'd do anything to have another one like it.
>> You've spoken glowingly in the past about the experience of working on "All of Me"? Do you recall what came through so strong from that?
PAR>> Absolutely. The respect and friendship and decency with which I was treated by the director and the stars. They looked at the writer as a partner in their process, and made me feel (despite my complete inexperience) that I belonged at the table with them. I will always adore them all for that.
>> Conversely, any comments you'd care to make about the process getting "Rhinestone" made?
PAR>> See last answer. Reverse it.
>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you? If so, what things did you learn?
PAR>> I've not met him, but William Styron once said "Writing is like walking from Spain to Vladivostok on your knees." I like that.
>> Why do you write?
PAR>> I swear to God it's because I can't sing.
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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