James V. Hart is a renowned Hollywood screenwriter with writing/producing credits that include Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Muppet Treasure Island, Contact, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, August Rush, Crossbones and most recently Epic. His work as a screenwriter has allowed his stories to be directed by a number of ‘Hollywood’s’ greatest including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Zemeckis.
James is also the creator of the HartChart; an online story mapping tool that is now widely available following its introduction at the Austin Film Festival in 2015. Check it out www.hartchart.com
It is fair to say that the Norwich Film Festival were delighted to have the opportunity to interview such a dynamic and legendary screenwriter.
James, firstly, thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions. I would like to start with one of the most beloved family movies of all time which is now celebrating its 25th year, Hook.
NFF: Hook is a film which has brought countless joy to lots of children, families and adults over the last 25 years. What sparked the idea for you to write Hook? Secondly, what was it about the story of Peter Pan that captured your imagination?
J.V.H: The Disney Peter Pan was the first movie I went to as a child with my babysitter. I was ‘Hooked’ so to speak. I did not know about the JM Barrie book at age 6 but that would change. I was always Peter Pan fighting Capt. Hook.
When I was 11 and trying to be a jock in Texas, my amazing mother dragged me to the Jerome Robbins musical in Ft. Worth at our very high-end regional theatre. I did not want to go. It was magic. I was so into the experience that when Capt. Hook sneaks into the tree-hideout to poison Pan’s medicine, I yelled from the audience “Wake up, Peter! Hook’s going to poison you medicine!” Embarrassing for an 11 year old.
Years later with 2 kids and a continued fascination for Peter Pan, the industry was trying to do a new live action Peter Pan; Michael Jackson, Spielberg, Coppola, Mel Ferrer, John Hughes, Lasse Halstrom, all kinds of talent were attempting to do a new Peter Pan. But all were the same story; the Darlings go back to Neverland with Peter and another adventure. Disney even did an animated short “Back to Neverland” with the voice of Robin Williams. But it was my children who inspired the story of Hook.
When Jake (son) was 3 he drew one of those Picasso Jackson Pollack scribble drawings and announced it was the Crocodile eating Capt. Hook. But then he added “but the Croc didn’t eat Captain Hook, he got away.” That was the first time I considered Hook being alive to threaten Pan again. Then when Jake was 6 and Julia was 3 we often played a game at the dinner table “What If?”, taking a popular fairy tale or story and standing it on its ear. “What if Cinderellas glass slipper did not fit or was broken before she could try it on?” What if the Ring did not fit Frodo’s finger?” “What if Prince Charming had bad breath and Sleeping Beauty refused to kiss him?” We had fun coming up with alternate story lines. Then one night Jake asked “What if Peter Pan grew up?” Shazam. Bells, whistles, lightbulbs, epiphanies, that was it. The key to telling the story.
A grown Peter Pan who has kids a life etc. has forgotten his past and winds up as an adult back in Neverland facing Capt. Hook. He has to learn to fly again and he has to learn to believe in faeries again. We cobbled together a story that night which became the basis for my first screenplay THE RETURN OF CAPT. HOOK! 3 years later, Jake and Julia stood on the set of Hook’s ship and Neverland and say the answer to Jake’s question come to life.
Dustin Hoffman & Robin Williams Hook
NFF: Looking back over the writing process of Hook, is there any particular scenes you cherish? And if so, why?
J.V.H: The Death of Rufio. Rufio was the only character I created in Hook that has been enduring and Dante Basco to this day has kept that character alive. The death scene was cut from the shooting script in spite my belief and conviction it was a key scene to the narrative.
The Lost Boys were fighting pirates with tomatoes, marbles, eggs and mirrors. There was no danger or risk for Peter if that is warfare in Neverland. Unless one could actually die in Neverland there was no real danger to Peter.
One day while I was in my office working on Dracula (also shot on the Sony lot), Keith Campbell, (Robin’s wonderful stunt double and combat choreographer) knocked on my door and let me know Rufio’s death was back on the schedule. I was thrilled. The line Rufio says to Peter “I wish I had a dad just like you.” is a line spoken to my father by one of my high-school mates who suffered abuse and looked to my Dad for guidance. Malia Sctoch-Marmo, my wonderful co-author, got that moment perfectly and Dante Basco delivered and amazing performance.
That and Tootles finding his lost marbles. Tootles was cut out several times as well. His role is pared way down from my original draft, but, as Robin said, Tootles is the soul of the story. The original lost boy who had lost his happy thoughts but still believed is essential as a barometer for Peter’s journey. The wonderful actor, Arthur Malet [sp] performed Tootles perfectly. We lost him in 2013. I am still reeling at the loss of my dear friend and mate, Bob Hoskins, and our beloved Robin.
NFF: Growing up, what films inspired you to become a screenwriter?
J.V.H: Robin Hood [my all time fave with Errol Flynn] Lawrence of Arabia, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Them. Forbidden Planet. Spartacus. and authors Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Robert Louis Stevenson and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
NFF: How did you get started in the business?
J.V.H: I started making 8mm movies in Jr. High. I went to SMU in Dallas that had a fledgling film dept. headed by G. William Jones. He introduced me to L.M. Kit Carson, legendary indie film pioneer and journalist who singled me out, put his arm around me and said this is what you are supposed to do.
In 1970, having graduated, my fellow filmmaker and I drove to New Mexico to meet Dennis Hopper, then to San Francisco where we sat in Coppola’s Zoetrope offices for a week to see if he had watched our student film. He avoided us and ducked out the back but called out “Keep making movies.” We took him seriously. We raised 150K from Texas investors and shot Summer Run all over Europe; two buddies from North Carolina hitchhiking and falling in love with those European girls. Won lots of awards and introduced me to my wife of 42 years. I started writing in 1975 out of desperation to create projects.
NFF: Thinking about your process; how do you start writing your screenplays? Do you jump straight into it or do you have a particular set of steps you like to follow?
J.V.H: My app www.hartchart.com is now available which brings together all the methods and disciplines I have embraced over the years that work for me.
The last thing I do is write the screenplay. Prep. for writing for film and TV is essential. Just like prepping for production. You don’t just start shooting and just hope you figure it out as you go along. I learned from Coppola the value of prep., research, outlines, story maps and the magic questions you must answer before you can even think about writing the screenplay.
I have loaded the app up with these tools to help writers get their scripts market ready by creating character driven narratives rather than plot driven.
NFF: What is the one thing you hate or dread when working on a new screenplay? Lots of writers discuss how much fun it is to map things out, and to start building the relationship with the characters etc…. But, what do you feel are the least exciting parts of the writing process?
J.V.H: Notes. That’s it. Notes. They are necessary, they are frustrating and maddening, but a given in this collaborative process.
NFF: As mentioned in the introduction you have worked with some incredibly talented directors. As a writer, what have you learnt from them and has that changed the way you write?
J.V.H: From Coppla, preparation, preparation, preparation and listen to your audience. Also, know what you want before you walk on the set or into a meeting. if you do not, and know why and how, you will be picked apart. The big thing from Coppola is You cannot be a great director until you are first a good writer. You can be successful without being a writer, but not great. A command of the basic story telling skills is essential. From: Spielberg, a good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from. have a brilliant editor and composer that you completely trust and confide in and rely on as part of the process. Get a really comfortable pair of sneakers and then buy two more pair of the same and live in them.
NFF: Breaking into the film industry can be a tricky business, but for new script writers wanting to get noticed what advice could you impart to help them on their way?
J.V.H: Blacklist, Inkwell [?] International Screenwriter’s Association, ScreenCraft, The Austin Film Festival [celebrates writers] eQuinoxeEurope, Sundance Labs: my daughter’s first produced film “The Keeping Room” was discovered on the Black List [Franklin Leonard’s brilliant forum for writers], Writer’s Guild East and Writer’s Guild West seminars and networking events. Scriptfest, etc. These are all organizations that were not around when I was trying to break into the biz. Also, make short films. It is good currently to display your chops and are paid attention to.
NFF: Looking back over the last 30 years what changes have you seen in the way screenplays are written? Do you think Big Studio’s look at Screenplays in the same way?
J.V.H: The Indy film is harder and harder to get proper distribution and reach the audience. Mass online distribution and delivery seems to be no longer the future, but the here and now. We have more buyers for TV etc.… which is grand, but also more writers and creators. The studios seem to be in one kind of business; blockbuster super hero fare and raunchy high concept comedy. Not much in between.
I am currently writing feature and TV scripts financed by Russian, China, Italy, German, Canadian and Australian sources. The only studio deal I have is a project I wrote that Andy Serkis is attached to act and direct which is at a dead standstill.
NFF: Your work around adapting and creating your own spin on well-known literary figures such as Peter Pan & Dracula have been incredibly successful. Do you find adaptions easier to write or more difficult to write? And any advice to those writers out their trying to put their own stance on a well-known character?
J.V.H: Adaptations are a bitch or bastard depending on how PI you wish to be. Write an original. The biggest competition writers have doing adaptations is the movie inside the reader’s head. Adapting a popular book or GN already has an audience waiting for you to screw up.
NFF: Finally, if you could write one sentence to sum up what you look for in a good script – what would it be?
J.V.H: Characters who stand up for their own beliefs and moral codes when everything is against them.
Interview by Craig Higgins (Co-Director Norwich Film Festival)