A bunch of years ago Jon Wertheim, my ol’ SI colleague, told me about a friend who happened to be a screenwriter. “You’d love this guy!” he raved. “He has an interesting take on the business.” Unfortunately, I have yet to meet Geoff Rodkey, whose credits include such films as Daddy Day Care, RV and The Shaggy Dog, and who has also worked on Beavis & Butt-head and Politically Incorrect. I’m thrilled, however, to have him here on the Quaz.
I don’t have a whole lot of Hollywood experience (a couple of meetings here and there; a book option back in 2004), but I do know finding an honest, up-front take on the business can be harder than watching a week of Mets baseball. Geoff, however, is brutally clear. He’s a man who has his name attached to a film he never even watched, and a man whose best work has yet to be made. He’s experienced the ups and downs of the movie business, and doesn’t hold back. He’s also never seen The Cable Guy, which is pretty friggin’ messed up.
I’m thrilled to invite Geoff Rodkey to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So, Geoff, you’ve written scripts for some pretty successful films, including Daddy Day Care (which grossed more than $100 million in the U.S.) and The Shaggy Dog. Factually, screenwriting is a profession, oh, hundreds of thousands of Americans dream of breaking into. What’s your background, and how did you break in? And did you actually have a singular break that took you from point a to point b?
GEOFF RODKEY: I got into screenwriting more by accident than design. I always wanted to write—in high school, I wrote humor pieces (mostly satire, although at the time, I didn’t know what that word meant) for the school paper. When an issue came out, I could gauge how good a piece was by how many people came up to me in the hallway to tell me they’d liked it. That feedback was addictive, and it’s probably the biggest reason I’m still writing. To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever had as satisfying a creative experience as I did with some of the things I wrote when I was 16.
But it didn’t make me want to be a screenwriter—it made me want to be P.J. O’Rourke. Which, it turns out, isn’t a viable career path—if you think screenwriting is tough to break into, try counting all the political satirists in America. You only need one hand, and you’ll have fingers left over.
In college, I studied political science and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. To the extent that any one thing was a singular break, it was getting on the Lampoon, because it suddenly made writing comedy seem like a plausible career. After college, I went to L.A. to try to write sitcoms—which in retrospect was a dumb idea, because I didn’t particularly like sitcoms, but coming from the Lampoon, it seemed like an obvious first step. After a year of being mostly (and predictably) unemployed, I was miserable, so I left L.A. for Washington.
I spent a year in D.C., doing public policy research for a small economic think tank. Then I got a call from a college friend who was at Saturday Night Live and knew Al Franken, who was leaving SNL to write a book of political satire and needed a research assistant—which was probably the only job in America for which my resume made perfect sense. Al hired me, we hit it off, and when the book was finished, he put me on salary to write jokes for him. As someone who wanted to be a political satirist, it was a dream job—and also left me enough free time to write on the side. I wrote a bunch of short magazine pieces, and managed to get a couple of them published, but I realized the odds of my making a living at that were astronomically long, because there’s next to no market for that kind of writing.
So I went back to a story idea I’d been sitting on for years—it started in college as a novel about an English teacher in fundamentalist small-town Indiana, and it somehow mutated over time into a screenplay about a high school football coach in Texas. It was a weird, slightly dark satire about America’s obsession with sports—in the script, the team loses the big game, and the townspeople react by lynching the coach under the goal posts.
I wrote six or seven drafts, then sent it to a handful of people in film who I knew from my year in L.A.. One of them gave it to an agent, who took me on as a client and eventually sold it for a lot more money than I’d ever been paid for my political writing.
So I followed the money, and for the next 13 years I wrote nothing but screenplays and the occasional TV pilot.
J.P.: I hate when my books get slammed. I mean, I really, really hate it. It’s personal to me—something I’ve slaved over. So how do you take it when Roger Ebert calls Daddy Day Care “a woeful miscalculation” or the Chicago Sun-Times says of Daddy Day Camp, “Stale jokes, poor acting; And another waste of talent and time for Cuba Gooding Jr.”?
G.R.: The full sentence of that Roger Ebert quote is worth savoring: “Daddy Day Care is a woeful miscalculation, a film so wrong-headed audiences will be more appalled than amused.”
That was his opening sentence. And his TV show review was, if possible, even worse—he did it with Richard Roeper, and Roeper was so angry at the movie that he started raising his voice, and it built to this crescendo that ended with Roeper literally yelling, “One of the worst movies of the year!” and Ebert yelling back, “Absolutely!”
Didn’t bother me a bit.
No. It was painful. And kind of a cosmic joke—because, again, what got me hooked on writing was the positive feedback from an audience. And by the time the movie came out, it had been six years since anything I’d written had reached an audience (I sold my first screenplay in 1997, Daddy Day Care came out in 2003, and in between I’d written more than a dozen unproduced screenplays), so I was starved for feedback.
And to have it come in the form of a bucket of puke dumped over my head by Roger Ebert felt pretty lousy. Particularly because I come from a small town in Illinois, and when I was growing up, Siskel and Ebert were the only film critics anyone had ever heard of, and a lot of people, myself included, made their decisions about a movie’s quality based on what those guys said on their TV show.
And it was complicated by the fact that I don’t necessarily disagree with some of what he wrote. There were things he hated, like the anti-intellectualism of the way Anjelica Huston’s rival day care center was portrayed, that were not in the original script but wound up in the film for reasons as prosaic as casting.
To me, it’s funny and wrong and sick to teach SAT prep to 3-year-olds. But while it’s very easy to write “a room full of stone-faced, motionless three-year-olds” into a script, you can’t actually shoot that, because you can’t get a room full of 3-year-old extras to sit still and look stone-faced. So to get the shot, the producers had to cast a room full of 7-year-olds, and then it wasn’t funny, and not even particularly wrong, and I can see as how Roger Ebert would take umbrage.
Leaving aside things like that—which probably sound like insane nit-picking to anyone who’s not me, or maybe Roger Ebert—it’s not like Daddy Day Care was trying to win any Oscars. It’s not going to make anybody’s list of cultural treasures of the American cinema. So on some level, of course he hated it.
It’s much harder for me to get worked up over Daddy Day Camp reviews, because I wasn’t really involved in that movie beyond writing the first draft. My name’s on the credits, but when I read the shooting script for the Writer’s Guild arbitration, I think I found maybe three lines left of my original dialogue. To this day, I’ve never actually seen the film.
J.P.: Clearly, you’ve made your mark writing movies for kids. How, as an adult, do you succeed in understanding the wants of a child moviegoer? Do you have to place yourself in a certain mindset? Or do you just slam your head repeatedly against a wall, drink 20 glasses of cherry Kool Aid, then sit and write?
G.R.: I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to understand the wants of a child moviegoer. The closest I’ve gotten is to come up with something I think is funny, and then ask myself if a kid would think it was funny, too.
I was the last of something like nine writers on the Shaggy Dog remake, and one of the contributions I’m proudest of is that I put a monkey in the third act. But it’s not in there because I was thinking, “Hey, kids love monkeys!” I was thinking, “God, I love monkeys. I wonder if I could put a monkey in there.”
And I never set out to write movies for kids. I wrote a lot of scripts for an adult audience, but they never got made. Then my career stalled out, and I found myself stuck at home with a newborn while my wife went back to work. And I was kind of miserable, and misery can be funny if it’s happening to someone else, so I thought, “Maybe I can sell a script about this.” And that’s where Daddy Day Care came from.
But even then, I didn’t intend for it to be a kid’s movie—I was trying to write a movie for adults that kids would enjoy, too. A lot of the humor in the original script reflected that—there’s a sequence in the movie where Jeff Garlin’s character, out of sheer desperation, pulls out a guitar to entertain the kids. In the original script, he played them Black Sabbath songs—which I really liked because, among other things, Iron Man has a very sing-songy, nursery-rhyme quality to it.
That got thrown out in a hurry by the studio—I remember a script meeting where I kept lobbying to keep Black Sabbath, to the point where the studio president yelled “THERE’S NO IRONY IN CHILDREN’S MOVIES!” at me. Pretty early on, rather than argue, they just replaced me with other writers. So what’s in the movie is partly my sensibility, and partly shots of Jeff Garlin getting kicked in the nuts. Which was what the studio wanted.
And honestly? If they’d shot my original script, Roger Ebert might have liked it better (or at least been less offended by it), but it never would have made $100 million domestically.
So I think the studio was right, and I was wrong.
But I still wish they’d kept that Black Sabbath joke.
J.P.: In agreeing to this interview, you hinted at some animosity—if that’s the right word—toward your profession. Just as there are people who dream of writing for Sports Illustrated, and who don’t believe me when I complain, there are people who dream of writing movies and won’t believe there are drawbacks to the profession. Well, I believe you. What are the drawbacks?
G.R.: Animosity’s the wrong word—it’s more frustration with the bitter reality of the film business. But it’s been the same bitter reality for as long as the film business has existed, so the fact that I’m bitter is my problem, not Hollywood’s.
The two big frustrations—and I think this is true for almost any screenwriter—are both creative: Your best work rarely reaches an audience, and what does reach an audience may not actually be yours, even if your name is on it. The first thing is true because screenplays aren’t the finished product—they’re a blueprint for a movie. And since movies are incredibly expensive to make and market, studios are highly conservative about what they produce. No matter how good a script is, they won’t make the movie unless it fits some relatively narrow marketing parameters.
In practice, that tends to mean that your best work—the original, the unusual, whatever it is that makes it unique—might be the writing sample that gets you hired to write, say, a sequel, or a remake, or an adaptation of a board game, or whatever the studio thinks they can market without too much risk … but will otherwise only exist as the blueprint to a building that never gets built. That’s demoralizing.
The second thing—that what seems to be your work may not actually be yours—is more complicated (and boring) to explain, and involves not just the way studios make movies (in which almost every movie has multiple writers) but the Writer’s Guild arbitration process (in which most of the writers on a film never receive screen credit).
I touched on this earlier talking about Daddy Day Care, but I’ve had other, much more substantive and painful experiences of being rewritten on other projects, and I can say that as lousy as it feels to be praised for something you didn’t write, it feels even worse to be criticized for something you not only didn’t write but actively argued against.
J.P.: You wrote several episodes of Beavis & Butt-head, which seems as far away from Daddy Day Care—humor-wise—as something could be. How’d that happen? And what was it like writing for such a show? At the time, did you know it would have such cultural resonance?
G.R.: I had very little to do with Beavis and Butt-head–I co-wrote (with my writing partner at the time, Stewart Burns) three five-page scripts, of which only two were produced (Cow Tipping and Health Club.) That’s two scripts out of probably a couple hundred. But I feel lucky to have been able to contribute to it, even in a small way—I’m a huge Mike Judge fan, and Beavis and Butt-head were more like the kids in my junior high locker room than any characters I’ve ever seen on TV, before or since.
The show was already a phenomenon when we sold the scripts. Stewart and I were living in L.A., and the show’s offices were in New York, so our only direct contact with anyone at the show was via phone calls with the story editor. We got the job by cold-calling him—we got his number from a friend, who’d gotten it third-hand from somebody, and when our friend passed it on, he made us promise not to reveal how we knew who to call to pitch our ideas. I’m pretty sure we mailed in our scripts. That’s how long ago it was—nobody had email.
And while the audiences and the tone were worlds apart, I’m not sure the humor was that far from Daddy Day Care. For one thing, people get kicked in the nuts in both of them.
J.P.: In 1995 you wrote a 96-page book, NEWTisms: The Wit and Wisdom of Newt Gingrich. Now that Newt might actually be running for president, can you share with us your favorite fact/story/bit of information about the man? And would you vote for him were he running against a soda can?
G.R.: It wasn’t written so much as researched—it was a quickie book that got put together in about ten days over the Christmas holidays in late 1994, right after the Republicans took over Congress. I was living in D.C. and had been sending magazine pieces to a literary agent in the hope that she could find a home for them—she couldn’t, but a book editor happened to ask her if she knew anyone who could compile a book of Newt Gingrich quotes at incredibly short notice, and she suggested me.
I don’t have any favorite facts about Newt other than the well-known ones—like how his first wife was his high school math teacher, who he eventually cheated on, then served with divorce papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery; or how he was actively cheating on his second wife while orchestrating Bill Clinton’s impeachment for essentially the same thing.
I wouldn’t vote for him for dogcatcher, but I don’t think there’s any danger of him ever becoming president—American voters tend to go for candidates they want to hang out with, and who wants to hang out with Newt Gingrich?
J.P.: I stumbled upon this in the September 16, 1997 Hollywood Reporter: “In a pre-emptive strike, Universal Pictures has paid Geoff Rodkey an estimated $250,000 against $550,000 for his first spec script, “Dave the Ox.” Al Ruddy and Andre Morgan will produce. The football comedy is described as “Apocalypse Now” meets “Hoosiers.” Uh … what?
G.R.: That was the script I mentioned earlier—the first one I sold. The plot’s a little convoluted, but it really is like Apocalypse Now meets Hoosiers. And even after 25 screenplays, it’s probably still the best plot I’ve ever written. But it’s also a sports satire in which the team loses the big game—so in marketing terms, that means people who like satires (all six of them) won’t go because it’s a sports movie, and people who like sports movies won’t go because the team loses in the end. So its natural audience is nobody. Looking back, I think selling it at all was a enormous stroke of luck. It helped that 1997 was the tail end of the spec boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s—I think if I’d tried to sell the same script even a year later, it never would have sold.
What’s a shame from a creative standpoint is that, after I’d worked in film for a while, and seen all the scripts I wrote because I thought they’d make really interesting movies die on the vine of the studio development system, I learned to instinctively avoid any movie idea with a built-in marketing problem … the result of which was that my scripts started becoming movies, but at the price of becoming a lot less interesting.
J.P.: I’m fascinated: What’s the writing process like? I mean, do you get an idea and just sit and write away? Does it take weeks? Months? Years? Dod you lock yourself in a room, head to a coffee shop? What?
G.R.: Film is collaborative, and a lot of scripts start as conversations with producers—either you bring them an idea, or they bring you one. You talk about it, make some notes, talk some more, come up with a three-act outline. Back when studios bought pitches, you might turn it into a pitch (basically a 15-minute standup routine, performed on an office couch while holding a bottled water). Now it’s more likely to be written on spec, in which case you write a draft, get the producer’s notes, write another draft, give it to a screenwriter friend, get their notes, write another draft, get more notes …
A few drafts after that, you give it to your agent. Then they try to sell it. Then they fail, and you start all over again with a new idea.
I’ve written a script in as little as six weeks from the initial idea to the draft my agent tried to sell. I don’t recommend that—you pick it up years later, and it reads like something that was written in six weeks.
I’ve also written scripts that took two or three years—usually in fits and starts, where you write a draft and then work on something else for a while before you go back to the next draft—and some that I wrote, put away for years, then pulled out again and re-wrote.
I used to work at home until I had kids. Then I worked in coffee shops—every script I’ve ever had made into a movie was written at the now-defunct Cosi on 13th Street and 6th Avenue. When I got sick of working out of a backpack, I rented an office—at which point my productivity plummeted due to the constant availability of a land line, broadband Internet, and a couch to nap on. So I eventually started going back to coffee shops to write, using my office for printing and phone calls. Then I realized it was stupid to pay rent when I wasn’t even writing there, so I gave up the office.
Now I work at a communal writers’ space, where I pay by the month for 24/7 access to a desk in a room full of carrels. It’s been fantastic—I’ve never been more productive, mostly because I don’t know the wi-fi password.
J.P.: In 1996-97 you were nominated for an Emmy for your work on Politically Incorrect. Man, did I love that show. I enjoy Bill Maher now, but there was something about seeing, oh, Gene Simmons and Betty White arguing politics that did it for me. That was pretty shocking TV for the time. What do you remember about the experience? And was Maher as difficult to work with as I’m imagining?
G.R.: I only worked on Politically Incorrect for a little over two weeks—eight shows during the political conventions, and one on election night in 1996. It was while I was working for Al, and he and Arianna Huffington were doing both live segments from the convention floor and a nightly routine on the show called “Strange Bedfellows,” in which they dressed in pajamas, sat on a bed on stage, and had scripted arguments about politics.
Like a lot of things I did with Al, it was hugely fun—and hectic, because everything was done live, so we’d spend three hours on the convention floor doing short pieces (mostly interviews with various politicians) that aired during commercial breaks on Comedy Central, then we’d climb into a van and drive to the studio where the show was shooting, rehearsing the Strange Bedfellows segments in the back of the van as we drove.
Arianna was great to work with, too—and for about a year after that, I did occasional ghostwriting for her as well as Al. This was back when she was a Republican, so I got to work both sides of the fence.
But even though I was technically writing for Politically Incorrect, it was only for Al and Arianna—I can’t remember even meeting Bill Maher. And it may be the least amount of work anyone’s ever done to get an Emmy nomination. But I have nothing but fond memories of it.
J.P.: You’ve had more success than 99 percent of screenwriters out there. But I’ll take a stab and say you haven’t written your Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Were you to never write another movie, are you comfortable with your resume? And is there a story out there you’ve been itching to tell?
G.R.: I’ve written my Taxi Driver—I just can’t get anyone to make it. It’s called Founding Fathers—it’s the story of the Revolutionary War, if all the founding fathers got involved for incredibly selfish reasons. It was my attempt to do an American version of a Monty Python movie, and it’s easily the best script I’ve ever written.
The problem is that it’s an historical comedy, which are ridiculously hard to get made, and an ensemble piece, which makes it even harder. Every few years, a producer—or occasionally an actor or director—will read it and go, “This is fantastic! What are you doing with it?” And I’ll say, “Nothing. It’s yours!” And they’ll say, “We’re going to make this!” Then six months later, they’ll come back and say, “Nobody wants to make an historical comedy!” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I probably should have told you that six months ago.” And then it’ll go back in the drawer for a couple more years.
So what it is, basically, is a writing sample. Which is depressing.
What’s even more depressing is that over the past couple of years, two historical comedies actually have gotten made—Year One and Your Highness—but I’m pretty sure they both lost money. So the odds are even longer now. To continue the Scorsese analogy, if Dave the Ox had gotten made, I think it could have been my Mean Streets. Despite how weird and off-center the script was, it came very close—there was a director attached, and the studio was actually scouting locations in Texas at one point—but it fell apart over casting and never came back together. If that movie had ever existed, I think I would have had a very different career trajectory—because even though it probably wouldn’t have made much money, it would have stood out for its sheer unusualness. And maybe five years later, I wouldn’t have found myself so desperate to get something going that I resorted to writing a script about a guy who opens a day care center in his home.
To get back to your question—am I comfortable with my resume? God, no. Who would be?
But I’ve gradually come to accept the fact that the film business does not exist to satisfy the creative egos of screenwriters, so unless I want to try to direct—which I don’t, for a whole raft of reasons—I need to seek creative satisfaction elsewhere.
So over the past year, I wrote a book—the first in what I’ve planned as a trilogy of middle-grade adventure novels—and a few weeks ago, I sold the series to Penguin. The first one should be out in the summer or fall of 2012, and I’ll be writing the others over the next year or two.
I’m way beyond thrilled about this—I had more fun writing the first book than anything I’ve done in over a decade, and I’m really looking forward to having something reach an audience without getting rewritten by someone else. The books might not sell, and reviewers might hate them, but at least they’ll be mine.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GEOFF RODKEY:
• How fake is the world of Hollywood?: Not necessarily fake—the people who seem shallow and vapid really ARE shallow and vapid. And there are plenty of smart, talented, thoughtful people working in the business. Plus everyone’s very pleasant and friendly, especially the shallow and vapid ones. But there’s a lot of insincerity. After Daddy Day Care came out, I had a meeting with a producer who was doing development for Todd Phillips—you know, raunchy R-rated Hangover Todd Phillips. This guy was maybe 25, single, and looked like he’d just gotten back from an after-hours club. He started the meeting by telling me he “loved” Daddy Day Care. I said, “No, you didn’t.” He insisted he did. We went back and forth for a few minutes until I finally got him to admit that, in fact, he did not actually love Daddy Day Care. It was awkward, and he never spoke to me again after that, and I probably shouldn’t have been such a jerk about it. But, come on—if I were that guy, and somebody forced me to watch Daddy Day Care? It would have been excruciating.
• Best movie you’ve done? Worst?: I don’t know. The worst is probably the one I never watched, but I can’t be sure. I will say the one I’m least conflicted about is The Shaggy Dog—because I was the last writer, not the first writer, so I had no emotional investment in it. And when I started work, pre-production had just been shut down, and the studio wasn’t sure they were going to make the movie. They ended up making it—so while the movie might not have been great, at least there was a movie. If I’d screwed up, they would have killed it. Plus there’s a monkey in the third act. And I put that monkey there!
• What’s it like seeing your movies for the first time as completed works?: Disorienting. Because when you write a script, you have a movie playing in your head. And even the best version of what ends up on screen will be a different movie than the one in your head. And it’s not really “your movie.” Especially if you’ve been rewritten, but even if you haven’t—many, many people contribute to the final product, and sometimes you find yourself thinking things like, “Why’d the costume designer put him in that?”
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: So far, that hasn’t happened to me (knock on wood). But when I was an unemployed writer in L.A. in 1994, I did live through the Northridge earthquake – and I remember standing in the doorway of my bedroom as the building shook violently back and forth, wondering if it was going to collapse on top of me. And I remember thinking, “Death might be preferable to this.” I’m not kidding. Being an unemployed writer in L.A. was that bad.
• You live in New York, not Los Angeles. Isn’t that a bad idea, career-wise?: Terrible, terrible idea. It has unquestionably hurt my career to live 3,000 miles away from both the film and TV businesses. On the other hand, I don’t have to live in L.A. So it’s a net positive.
• Five favorite films of all time?: Tough question. But off the top of my head: The Princess Bride, Apocalypse Now, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Star Wars, Strange Brew.
• I love The Cable Guy. Love it, love it, love it. Think it’s genius. Save for my neighbor, Orli, nobody ever agrees. What’d you think?: I’ve never seen The Cable Guy. Kind of embarrassed to admit that. I will Netflix it and get back to you.
• Celine Dion: Live! or swallowing a spoonful of my dog’s shit?: Celine. Not even close. I would rather sit through two hours of ANY kind of music than swallow a spoonful of animal feces. That’s a no-brainer, right? I mean, wouldn’t anybody? Maybe I just don’t know your dog like you do.
• Can you put a stop to all the superhero films? Please?: When superhero films stop making money, studios will stop making them. It’s nothing personal.
• Sarah Palin offers you $5 million to film her propaganda flick, “Sarah: American Legend!” You know, by doing so, she’ll be our next prez. Do you take the money?: Of course not. That’s even easier than the Celine Dion question. I think you should put more thought into your dilemmas. Otherwise, this has been great. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about myself ad nauseam.