Marti Noxon has spent the last couple years making a name for herself in television on such renowned efforts as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Gray’s Anatomy and Mad Men. That’s an impressive career already, but like a number of high profile screenwriters, her time in the television factory was partly a stepping stone to a theatrical career. In 2011, she’s got both I Am Number Four and Fright Night coming out, and in our interview she mentions at least one other upcoming film.
Though it’s been this way for a while now, few scripts go through the system without a number of writers being called in to tweak the material. Few original-material films are green-lit, and so often titles move from writer to writer, hoping to reach a release date. For Noxon, she’s done her time in that system, and was the last writer on I Am Number Four, but also was the sole writer on Fright Night. For Four, she’s credited alongside Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, and when doing the junket, all parties mentioned during the interview process that they had met only moments prior – and Noxon implies there was at least a writer in the middle. Such is high-profile screenwriting, where writers are sometimes hired while a film is in the middle of shooting. As we sat down, I set down by iPhone to conduct the interview, and she had one as well. As they show up constantly in the film, it was a moment.
This year you have this film and also have Fright Night coming out a little later, I was curious from your perspective with Fright Night there are things you have to include but then there’s some elements you obviously don’t want to, and here with this sort of adaptation – where you’re working from a book – you definitely have to have a number of key scenes. How is it different adapting a book from a remake?
Marti Noxon: The bulk of the adaptation really fell to Millar and Gough. They did the first drafts; by the time I came in most of the adaptation they had already weeded out what to include and not to include. But we continued the whole time trying to figure out… the book is filled with back-story, and there’s whole magical elements that asked ourselves “do we include that, do we not include that?” so it’s an ongoing process of reading and re-reading, and exposing it to new people and seeing how much you need in order to get the audience oriented to a different world, and how much is too much and confounding.
So from your position coming in you’re the closer?
So in some ways, you were adapting the screenplay?
Adapting the adapted screenplay, exactly!
You’re credited on Fright Night, you’re credited on this, have you been involved with coming in and working on film projects for a while now?
Not really. The last year, because of Fright Night… I’ve written on a lot of movies, but I was always the Hail Mary pass, “Okay Marti’s cheap, and maybe she can save this project” so those are all scripts that went away and never really had the chance, but because of Fright Night my relationship with DreamWorks was really good after that, and when they were looking for someone to come in down and dirty and do what was supposed to be a few weeks (but ended up being quite a few weeks) they came to me, so it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve done a rewrite that had this sort of urgency.
So you were on Fright Night first, but this is coming out first.
I finished Fright Night; we were getting ready to shoot that when they needed the rewrite on I Am Number Four.
So then, having done this, were you nervous with Fright Night that someone would come in later and work on your stuff?
In that case I was so… it was such an exceptionally rare situation where the director really liked the script, the studio really liked the script and there was never really any question of someone else coming in. They never made me fear that (laughs).
So with Fright Night your Buffy credentials helped get you the job.
Have you always wanted to transition into film?
For me it was always a dream to see my name on a movie, because that’s where the fascination with storytelling really started. I watched TV, but the things I remember the most blowing me away as a kid were movies. That much more immersive experience and the scale of them, so I always hoped that it would happen, and interestingly it only happened after I thought it wouldn’t. I guess that’s not totally true, because I didn’t give up hope – I switched agencies in part because I wasn’t getting any real opportunities where I was so I moved to William Morris/Endeavor about two years ago as a concerted effort to get into the movie business.
You have been involved with Buffy and Mad Men – we’re in this really interesting time where television… I mean people used to say that television was the inferior art-form, but what’s going on with Mad Men, what’s going with HBO; it strikes me from a writer’s perspective you almost have more freedom and you can imbue a lot more material with personality now on TV. It seems you have fingers in both pots. Where do you see yourself wanting to work?
It’s interesting, because if you want to write less commercial, more character-driven stuff the home for that is on television, because you have niche broadcasters – who if they’re lucky get five million viewers. Like Walking Dead gets around five, and it’s a huge hit, and Mad Men got two to three typically. So you’re able to write in a much more specialized voice, something for a very specific kind of audience. The movie writing I’ve been doing is trying to hit the broadest audience, the horrible phrase “four quadrants” (for record: The four quads are, men under 25, men over 25, women under 25, women over 25). You’re trying to write these broadly appealing films. But I really enjoy both. In my dreams, if I could just keep writing movies I would love that as long as I could find an outlet for some of the smaller ideas because there’s the indie film market, and that’s really the only place where they’re doing…
The one percent.
Exactly. I would like to work solely in film, but I do think that to go deeper into some character stuff I’ll probably keep working in TV.
Well, good dialogue is good dialogue. When you’re working on a film script – and you’ve been working on a couple now – as someone who’s spent a lot of time in television do you find yourself thinking “I need this to be larger, I need this to be more cinematic?” versus the television stuff? Do you censor yourself or do you alter your process?
The process is definitely different because you’re thinking about a journey that – even though there might be sequel potential – has a beginning, middle and end, so I think you’re trying to do a lot more with the characters in a shorter period of time. They go through bigger changes more quickly. So you have to be mindful of pace. In a television show – and it depends whether you’re doing network or cable – you can really string things out, and in a movie you have to figure out how to tell a lot about the character while having a lot happen all at once. So you’re constantly thinking about scope. A lot of the stuff I’ve done lately also includes a lot of set-piece writing, which is really interesting. What you can do in a movie is so much greater that what you can do in eight days with a limited budget, so that’s just a delight to write for film because you can add everything and the kitchen sink and eventually they make you cut something out but (laughs)
How do you go about set piece writing? It seems like the chicken or the egg scenario there.
It has to move story forward, you always know you’ve written a bad set piece when it can go anywhere in the movie, where you can “let’s just do that part over here.” Then you know it’s not working. It’s probably the hardest part of writing for me, because everyone seen everything so many times, there’s so many hoary old clichés, you have to really allow yourself the time to think and think and think until you suddenly see something a different way. “I haven’t seen that… lately!”
Is that more encouraged by the producers, the set piece writing, “we need to have something in the third act” or is it more like “we have a location” It sounds like from the ending that is set in a football stadium was (Producer) Michael Bay’s idea, where you’re building to this moment that’s been pre-ordained by your producer?
It can be, and with something like Fright Night there were a couple of set piece moments we knew we at least wanted to reference if not do it the same way. Initially the sequence in the bar that has all the mirrors (in Fright Night) we were pretty faithful to the original and then it morphed from there, it was a little less so, but we knew we wanted to do that and (Producer Michael) De Luca had a couple moments from the original film he really wanted to recapture, but just re-imagine, so yeah there was a lot of writing to specifics.
With a remake and adapting a book, how do you find yourself putting yourself into the text, in terms of voice?
The parts of I Am Number Four that I feel are most “me?” (Laughs) There are a few places where I’m like “yeah, that’s me.” I really liked what (DreamWorks executive) Mr. (Steven) Spielberg wanted us to do with the Mogodorian, the main Mogodorian character (the bad guys, led by Kevin Durand). I really liked that he had this idea that he had this real appetite, this enjoyment, so there are ways. You think “If I was a guy looking at men on this planet right now, particularly men tracking aliens, I would probably be pretty amused by the fact that they would be in to all this kid’s stuff.” Stuff like that. So you do have a point of view about it that you get a character to parrot back to you.
Did you get to look at the book at all for I Am Number Four?
I did, I read parts of it when I was writing, but I was also the last writer on when they were trying to hit a deadline, so I never got to read the whole book.
How is deadline writing different than working on a show?
Not that different.
Pages a day?
Yeah, you can’t really stop and breathe, and the good thing about is you can’t fall too far into your critical voice, there’s just no time. If self-criticism is an enemy, this is one thing that obliterates it. So that’s good.
How disciplined are you as a writer then? Graham Greene was one of those guys who wrote on a schedule, get up, write for three hours, eat lunch, write for three hours.
That’s not me.
Do you write until four in the morning? Do you have your sweet spot time?
I do now – a really good time for me is really early. I do sometimes get up at four or five, because once the business of the day gets started so much can interfere, especially because I have two small children, so that quiet time from four to eight or nine before people start making phone calls is a good one. I used to stay up all night. I can’t do it anymore. I’m sure it’s the children, but if I try and write at eleven… I’ll fall asleep, and wake up in front of my computer with my clothes on, my teeth unbrushed and they’ll be some sentence that starts to devolve into nonsense like “Banana patch in the monkey head.” And you have to figure out the next day what the heck you meant.
I’ve found that the problem with being an adult is that if you’re up til four in the morning you’re generally not sober, but there’s something about three or four in the morning, that silence, that I think is very unavailable.
Because it’s also digital silence, nobody’s texting.
You can be away from the world, which I think is very necessary.
The other thing I’ll do is go away for a couple of days; I’ll go to a hotel and sequester myself. When I have a big chunk that I have to get into, that works.
I also think the thing about writing is that you can often find yourself in that groove and you’re at your desk and you’re into it, but sometimes when I’m writing I need to leave the room (Noxon nods and uh-hums emphatically) and the act of writing on a different couch or location can definitely create interesting juices.
There’s a whole theory, they’ve looked at the habits of creative people and found that many change locations once every two to three hours. It’s a part of the process. Changing what you’re looking at, just the space and the movement. Sometimes I get into a groove and the hours pass and I go “whoa, where am I?” but most of the time I have to move three or four times a day. I can’t just sit there at the desk.
I love Black Swan, partly because I felt like it understood the schizophrenia that comes with the creative process. With this project, talking about Kevin Durand and comic books, that moment of birth – as it were – that you’ve created this voice that is not you; how is it for you when you find a voice?
I have a different experience most of the time in that I feel like when things are really working I kind of disappear. I leave the room. And I feel that things are being visited upon me, I don’t feel like I’m authoring, I feel like I’m taking dictation. And that’s the most wonderful state to be in because things that can happen can completely surprise you. You’re engaged in your subconscious in a way that’s really deep. And that’s the gift when that happens, and it’s a good feeling too because I don’t feel too attached to the outcome in a weird way because I feel like that just happened to me in a weird way. And sometimes it means it’s good, and sometimes it means it’s an experience, but it’s no guarantee that you wrote something good, it just means that you had that awesome feeling.
Then there’s that thing when you read it later where you say to yourself “wait I did that?”
“Wait that sucks! That wasn’t visited upon me by some benevolent muse – that was me sucking!”
Or that moment of “wait how did I get there?” It’s always fun when you have certain plot goals and the character takes you someplace else. What’s your writing process like, are you big on rewriting? Do you rewrite as you go?
I tend to now write one quick draft.
The vomit pass.
Yeah, where I don’t do a lot of reviewing, but I usually outline too, so I’ve done a lot of revising in the outlining process, and then after that first draft I do a ton of rewriting.
Do you focus more on sections then, or are you going through the whole draft?
I usually write the whole screenplay and then sometimes a scene will be exactly the way it was in the first draft, that’s always amazing when something goes right from your brain right to the screen, and there’s a couple scenes in Fright Night that are exactly like that, they’re untouched. But for the most part you go back into acts, and I generally break things down into acts.
Are you very sentient of structure?
Interestingly, I don’t think I was able to write a feature that was working until I got less anal about structure because in TV it is so critical, because you have a commercial break, so your page count has to be a certain thing.
So you had to beat out of you?
Well yeah, and I was just trying to impose an idea of television on to features, and features – and it was what we were talking about earlier – you’re characters choices are what makes the movie happen, and the structure should be dictated by what your character wants and what’s standing in their way, and all that kind of stuff, not by “and now by act two this should happen.” There were some arbitrary rules that I was following. Finally when I was like “I’m going think this through, what would I do if I was this character” and that led to a slightly more elegant, simplified structure.
You’ve been in television for a while. I really like James L. Brooks, but sometimes when you watch his movies, you get the sense that he was writing for television for a very long time, because he still has the same sort of patter. Are you trying to avoid that voice, like with the structure stuff?
Interesting. I made a very conscious effort after leaving network to de-television my voice. It had gotten a little too arch, and a little too stylized, and it wasn’t sounding grounded to me. My own dialogue was getting a little too worked. So I wrote a feature where my main rule was not to try to entertain but to try to tell the story.
How’d that work out for you?
It worked out great; Topher Grace and Susan Sarandon are supposed to star in it.
Yeah, it’s a small drama.
Did it turn out entertaining in the end?
I think it did, but I think it turned out entertaining because I think it was truthful, but I wasn’t trying to write jokes, I wasn’t trying to be clever, and that really helped break some bad habits that I got into.
Writing for Chud.com, a lot of the people who read the website would like to be in the industry, how did you get your start?
I did the Hollywood apprenticeship – I was an assistant to writers and directors. I got my first really good job because I was a waitress where a director came in all the time. And one day he asked me what I really wanted to be when I grew up and I told him, and so he offered me a job as an assistant. I got Schwab’d.
You got Lana Turner’d. What sort of advice would you offer a would-be writer?
Two things: If you really, really want to do it, working in some arena close to it is the best education – beyond school itself – and secondly I would be wary of anyone selling you on the theory that there’s one good way to write. It’s a bad old cliché, but if you have a truth to tell, and you’re embarrassing yourself as you tell it, if it feels so revealing that you feel like people are going to laugh at you if you tell it, then you’re probably on the right track.
Everyone writes scripts their own way, but with television did that give you a better sense of what people want? Writing to be read?
Over the years I’ve gravitated to a less prose-centric style. It really lives in the action of the characters, and florid description of the characters only goes so far, but I’m not beneath cracking the occasional joke in the description, knowing that you’re trying to affect the reader in a certain way. I’ve definitely gotten leaner and meaner, they’re mostly dialogue and no more than three lines of action in a row. That’s what Laeta Kalogridis taught me.
Do you believe it?
I follow it, I’m religious about it now so you break it up after three lines, no matter what.
There are no rules, except that one.
She told me, and she’s really successful, so I follow that. (laughs)
And with that we wrapped up. Noxon seemed pleased with the interview, as was I, so I hope you guys enjoy it. I Am Number Four opens Friday.