Having a script scooped up and bought is never as simple or as final as it may seem. Aaron Guzikowski wrote Prisoners years and years ago but only now has it finally been created after many start ups then drop offs.
Now it stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in their respective roles. Hugh Jackman’s daughter and her friend go missing with his character becoming incessant in their rescue whilst Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective searching for the same thing. The less you know about the twists and turns of the plot, probably the better, but there are plenty of reviews gushing over how suspenseful and intense the movie is. Aaron Guzikowski was a normal guy with a normal job until he decided that his path should be as a writer and, thankfully, his efforts have far been in vain, hitting huge Hollywood success with Prisoners, penning Mark Wahlberg vehicle from last year, Contraband and now in production on his TV show The Red Road. Below the man tells us about his film, how to write in Hollywood, his inspirations and what’s coming up next.
Prisoners has been around Hollywood for ages with loads of rumours, it almost got made once before back in 2010. Was it stressful or frustrating having it passed around but never produced?
Oh yeah. It’s interesting because at the very least it helped me start a career. It was a good calling card. It was frustrating at the time, of course, I very much wanted it to be produced. The script, once I sold it, had gotten me to quit my day job and got things going for me, career wise. It was very frustrating though. It went through previous incarnations and, like you said, it almost got made in 2010 so when that didn’t happen it was frustrating, but I also realised it was a dark script and the fact it sold at all surprised me.
Everything since then I’ve counted as a gift in terms of all that. At the end of the day, the incarnation that we ended up with, with Denis Villeneuve directing and the cast that we got and so on and so forth, benefited from the fact that it took so long to get all the pieces put together. Since I think the pieces that we ended up with are very strong, it had a brilliant outcome even though it was such a long, drawn out process and definitely difficult to wait for it. I tried to focus on other things and tried not to think about it too much. There was definitely a time where I was like ‘This is never going to get made and that’s not too shocking because of Hollywood’ so, yeah, I just consider it a lucky thing that it did get made.
I was going to bring up the talent that you’ve gotten on board now because I feel like this film has snuck up on audiences because it went quite quiet but now everyone knows about it. What’s it like seeing it made with top talent such as Denis Villenueve directing, Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo?
Weren’t Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale previously attached as well?
Yeah they were originally, way, way back when. Mark Wahlberg was one of the first people that read the script and he really responded to it. There was a time where it was going to be Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale and Brian Singer was going to direct and for many reasons, that just didn’t work out. I got to make a movie with Mark shortly after that called Contraband which was a lot of fun to work on but oddly enough I actually wrote that after Prisoners but it got produced fairly quickly and got released a year and a half ago.
The story seems like a familiar one that we’ve seen before but you are getting incredibly glowing reviews. Did you try and do things differently or do the same things of the genre but do them “properly”?
It’s being described as an incredibly intense film and with a running time of 2 and a half hours, that’s impressive. How do you keep things tense?
It’s constant, everything is a revelation. Once you get inside the characters’ heads and you really start to get into their motivations and who they are, there needs to be enough mystery I think. Every scene should ask a new question. I think that constantly keeps the audience engaged. It is slightly on the longer side but, because of that, you never lose the thread and it keeps you locked into these constant questionings. Why are these people doing what they’re doing? What’s right? What’s wrong? It’s just constantly keeping those questions alive, asking new ones, when you answer them, it’s an answer that begs more questions and being as economical as possible with the story as you write it. Although it’s on the longer side, we tried to cut out as much filler as possible. A lot does happen but I think it’s very of the moment and important to the story. It’s just a very complicated story.
You said you’ve been working on it for two years. How many drafts did it go through?
Oh… wow… Quite a few, quite a few. It’s kind of hard to put a number on it. [laughs] I would say at least 10 to 15 drafts probably. Originally it focused more on the character that’s played by Hugh Jackman. It was seen mainly through his eyes, but as it progressed, the detective character played by Jake Gyllenhaal becomes a larger and larger presence in the story and it became more of a two-hander. That was the biggest evolution in terms of all that. The ending was always the same, the story more or less didn’t change too much but it was more how to tell it where most of the work took place.
I’m going to ask you a pretty vague question now: how do you go about your writing differently and how do you make it work? Do you have a routine?
In terms of routine I usually wake up really early in the morning, I think I do all of my best writing early in the morning, before anyone has talked to me and anyone is up. That’s usually the best time for me anyway. I think also trying to write things that I personally would want to see. Things I would find entertaining in my own mind, it’s all very selfish in its own way. I constantly keep that in mind. That informs what I write. I think that if there is a way I do it that’s the kind of question I would ask myself, ‘Is this something I would like to see on screen? Is this something I’m excited about?’ If you’re passionate about it and it does get you excited and you go ‘Oh wow, I really want to write this scene because I’d love to see it!’ That’s the key to writing good stuff.
Your advice to aspiring writers is to write something they’d like to see themselves then?
Yeah, exactly. They have to write someone they themselves would enjoy to see. That’s where I think the passion comes in. Instead of saying ‘I’m going to write an exciting story!’ but what I think makes everyone’s writing different and interesting is their perspective on what’s interesting and coming at it from that angle.
Now that you’re an established writer and it’s your full time job, is that a liberating feeling or a scary feeling because you have to keep producing something?
Sure. It’s both, of course. You’re always nervous. ‘What am I gonna do next? What if I wake up tomorrow and I don’t have any ideas?’ but again that’s a part of the fun. Fear is a great way to make great art. If you have all the time in the world and no pressure that’s not usually how things get done. That fear and that idea if you don’t do something you’re gonna be poor and end up back on the streets [laughing] that’s a good thing I think for making art to be constantly under the gun.
As you said, you wrote last year’s Contraband, adapting that, how did that come about and what was the experience like?
I had met Mark Wahlberg through writing Prisoners and he read it and really responded to it – he’s actually an executive producer on the film. When that didn’t come together, he wanted to remake this Icelandic film called Reykjavík-Rotterdam which was almost like a comedic thriller and it had a really good throughline through it. Then I adapted it, reset it in the States and made it into more of a hard-edged crime thriller, like a movie like The Getaway or something like that. I tried to make an exciting action movie with really compelling characters and unique situations and stuff like that. It was a great deal of fun. In terms of production, I wrote the screenplay and it immediately went into production and it all happened very fast, especially by Hollywood’s standards.
Was that a solitary draft?
No, no, I think for any screenplay on any film it’s an inevitable there’ll be more drafts. Hopefully I think that once the movie goes into shooting you have a finalised script with some small exceptions. I think that’s the real goal to get something in front of the camera that’s a solid piece of work. I think until then you’re always trying to make it better and better and that’s what you’ve got to do.
Was adapting a new challenge?
Somewhat so, yeah. I usually like to write original stuff and start from scratch but it was also kind of liberating in a way because you know how certain aspects of the plot work and you can delve more deeply into the characters, trying to figure out that side of things and the world it takes place in. You think of that more, it frees you a bit. It’s definitely nice to adapt, especially if you feel passionately about the material and you want to get inside the world and see it in a different way or create different places to go in that world. It’s an interesting process and one I enjoyed more than I thought I would. Mostly I tend to like to start with a blank page but sometimes it’s nice to have a skeleton to build off. Like I said, you can delve into certain aspects more deeply because you don’t have to worry about the machinery of the plot.
How difficult was it getting your writing seen in the industry?
It’s tough. I didn’t have any connections at all. I was living in New York city working a regular job. I didn’t really have any way into Hollywood. I had gone to art school and I had made some short films, stuff like that. I’ve been writing on and off throughout my life and at some point, not all that long ago, I just decided I was going to do writing exclusively. Around that time I entered screenwriting competition in 2005 with the first spec script I wrote. I entered that and I was a semi-finalist or something like that, and that was encouraging. Then I wrote another screenplay after that and wrote some letters to random managers in Los Angeles. A guy named Adam Colbrenna, who is my manager today, responded to it which is kind of rare! Most of them end up in the trash or deleted if they’re emails but for some reason he responded to it. Then I went back and forth to his and the thing I started writing after he took notice of me was Prisoners so it worked out well. It was great he took a chance on me. That’s what it comes down to in a lot of ways. You’ve got to find someone who is willing to take a risk on an unknown quantity.
I know that this is a little off-topic again but I know your favourite movie is The Shining so I’m guessing you’re a horror fan. Do you have any plans to write a horror film?
I would love to, yeah! Actually the first script I wrote that got me my manager interested in my writing was a horror movie. I love elevated horror movies like The Shining or The Exorcist or The Omen, those old-school, high-end horror movies. So yeah it’s definitely a goal of mine to write a great horror movie one of these days. I think that’d be a hugely exciting thing for me.
Who are your writing inspirations?
It’s tough to say. Probably more novelists, I loved Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Richard Mattheson is another huge one, Stephen King I’ve always loved, guys like that. Herman Melville! [laughs] Moby Dick is probably my favourite piece of writing of all time. Just to name a few.
Then on the other side, who are your film inspirations or favourite films?
Favourite films, I’ve always loved Jaws. Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws is one of the most perfect movies ever made. It’s a thriller, the great characters, it is such a good adventure. It’s just so beautifully made that I could watch that movie over and over again. It’s just like one of those things. I love all of Kubrick‘s films, they’re hugely inspiring to watch and I can watch those over and over again. In terms of guys working today I love David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky I think is a genius, James Gray I quite like, who actually just directed an episode of the TV show that I created and I’m working on now. I love movies in general. There are just so many. My whole life I’ve just been watching tonnes and tonnes of movies, probably too many. [laughs]
Is the TV programme you’re working on The Red Road?
That’s correct, yes.
Is there much you can tell us about that?
I’ll just say that it’s the same genre as Prisoners. A thriller-drama with some kind of horror type overtones and it takes place in a small town in New Jersey near the Ramapo Mountains. It’s a place that actually exists, it’s like 26 miles outside of New York city where this tribe of Indians live, up in the mountains. They live close to this small town. Our main character is a police officer who works in this small town and has to police both of these communities. Something happens to his wife that he has to cover up and he gets involved in this very tense situation with people there. It goes on from there. It’s kind of Twin Peaks-esque in a lot of ways, David Lynch is also one of my huge inspirations but it’s also a thriller and the idea is to make every episode as tense, exciting and scary as possible. I quite like television, I think it’s an exciting medium, especially for writers right now. It’s a good time for it.
Your other project I believe you are working on is an Untitled Space War Project.
Right, right, right, well who knows with that one. That’s something I wrote for Warners Bros. that I quite liked but we’ll see. That was before they decided to make more Star Wars movies, it was kind of in that vein so [laughing] it may not get made now because of the behemoth that is Star Wars but I do love Star Wars. You know, sometimes that happens. You end up writing things for studios and it’s a great experience and what not but a lot of these things, for a lot of reasons, they don’t always make it in front of the camera but who knows? I’m still holding out hope for that one. It could be quite exciting.
Is there anything else you’ve got lined up for the future?
No, I’m pretty consumed with the TV show right now. I’m considering a few things in terms of my next feature. I very much want to do a movie about the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the ship that sunk at the end of World War II. Also Moby Dick is one I’m trying to push forward. Those are the ones that are kind of percolating right now. Who knows? We’ll see. I’m in production on this TV series that will be premiering in February and that’s taking up pretty much 100% of my life right now. [laughs]
Prisoners is released today in the UK and is currently garnering a lot of positive attention for its thrilling ride. Go see it and take a friend. Or multiple friends. Take everyone.
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