The day Josh Friedman called me for our interview I was in the lobby of MTV. I don’t normally hang out in MTV’s lobby, but it’s located in the same building as the New York Paramount offices, and I was there to see a movie in their screening room (the atrocious The Last Kiss, if you must know). I had to take the call in the lobby because security wouldn’t let me upstairs to the quiet screening room area until the Paramount PR person arrived.
The lobby of MTV is loud, especially at 5:30 when everyone is leaving. I do my phone interviews with the speakerphone on my cell, which means poor Josh Friedman had to talk into what must have been a cacophony of noise. It didn’t phase him.
What also didn’t phase him: adapting James Ellroy’s dense novel The Black Dahlia into a screenplay. Twice – once with David Fincher and once with Brian De Palma. What also doesn’t phase him is the nasty talk on the internet about his upcoming TV pilot, The Sarah Connor Chronicles (he doesn’t like it, but it doesn’t phase him). What does phase him, it seems, is updating his blog, which is very well known in Hollywood circles, and which you can read right here. Coincidentally the three things I just mentioned were all things Josh and I talked about on the phone. With all that noise in the background.
Q: When you’re approaching The Black Dahlia, which is a sprawling, detail-oriented book, you’re going to have to cut stuff out. How do you choose what stays and what goes?
Friedman: My approach to this material is that I start as greedy as possible and keep as much as I can. The history of the project is that I developed it with David Fincher for a number of years. When I was with him our approach was that we wanted to make a three and half hour movie, so I had a 170-page script for a number of years. I never cut anything out – I just managed the material.
But when Brian came on and David left the orders to me were, ‘You’re going to have to cut 50 pages out.’ At that point I already had a screenplay and I was more cutting the screenplay than cutting the book. There were some obvious subplots that had to go. I’m happier making big, modular decisions than cutting every scene down, and when you’re taking out that many pages you’re making some pretty big decisions.
Stuff like taking out the Mexico sequence was something I was loathe to do, and I tried to keep it as long as possible but we had to lose it – also for budget and practical reasons. Ultimately you’re trying to keep the spirit of the book and the characters.
Q: I know James Ellroy has a very hands-off approach when it comes to adaptations of his books. What was your experience with him like when you finally met him?
Friedman: My experience with him has been great except that it has very little to do with the movie. I didn’t meet him until it was almost done. The only way I met him is that I ran into him at a restaurant in Beverly Hills and he happened to know somebody at my table. He came over and introduced himself and I said, ‘Oh, I’m Josh Friedman and I’ve been working on Black Dahlia all these years,’ and he pulled up a chair and we talked for an hour.
Since then we’ve become friends, but we spend very little time talking about the screenplay itself. We talk about the movie and the story and the book but I’ve never turned to him and said, ‘I have this problem or that problem, do you have any ideas?’ He’s very respectful of my process and he’s very secure of what his book is and who he is, and it’s a joy for me.
Q: Your blog is sort of a big part of who you are these days. What effect has your blog had on your career?
Friedman: What effect has yours had on you?
Q: It’s had a big effect because I was just a regular guy before I started writing for it, and now I’m talking on the phone with James Ellroy and Josh Friedman.
Friedman: My blog has been a blessing and a curse. I really enjoy and I started it as an experiment to see if I could write more – ironically I felt I wasn’t writing enough. It was an outlet for a voice I didn’t get to use very often, more my own. It’s been interesting. I’ve gotten more notoriety for my blog than for anything I’ve written as a screenwriter… which I’m not sure I’m happy with, but that’s democracy.
Q: Has it had an impact on your career? Do people come to you because of the blog? How does that work?
Friedman: People are nicer to me in meetings because they think they’ll end up in the blog. I think people are disappointed sometimes when they’re not. I think it has in little ways effected my career. No one thought I was funny before and now people think I’m funny and I’ve had a couple of offers to write things that have more of a comedic side to them. My agent will actually pitch it to people: ‘Have you read his blog? It’s funny!’ Mostly I’ll have meetings with people and they’ll want to talk about the blog for a few minutes and they ask me if they have to sign a waiver or something.
Q: Screenwriters have long been the lowest rung on the creative ladder – they get treated terribly. Do you think the internet giving screenwriters the ability to reach right out to fans like this will change that?
Friedman: Maybe. I hope so. I think it’s interesting… some of the most well-known screenwriters, certainly of the younger generation, have figured out how to brand themselves. You think of Kevin Smith – he’s certainly a director but I think of him as a writer first, he has the spirit of a writer – or John August. There are people who have figured out a way to have a public profile, and I think it helps. I don’t think we’ll ever be Brian De Palma or Steven Spielberg in terms of features. I think in TV that’s always possible. But I hope so – I think it’s a nice place. Writers need to be more in the forefront than they are.
Q: Speaking of TV, you’re doing the Terminator series. How is this going to work – are there going to be Terminators in the show?
Friedman: I’m going to be as cryptic as I can. I would like to be able to explore as many different avenues of Terminator mythology as possible. I read the talk backs, and people are pissed. They don’t want you to mess with it. The internet has a love/hate thing with the properties they love – they want more and they want it done well, but they hate it if Cameron’s not involved. All I ask is that people withhold judgment until they see it. I think it’s pretty fucking cool.
I think to do a show that is a completely Terminator-less environment would probably not be, in the long run, a wise move or the most interesting thing.
Q: Is this going to be a serialized show, like Lost or 24? Or will it be an adventure of the week show?
Friedman: I like shows that have a long arc to them. I always go back to The X-Files, which I think did a good job of balancing close-ended stories with mythology stories. The show will certainly not be a close-ended, procedural adventure of the week show. I would say it’s going to be a hybrid. It’ll be somewhere in between – it’s not going to be a Terminator of the week show, but it’s also not going to be soap opera.