Because We Love Making Movies: Screenwriter Eric Roth

Eren Celeboglu
May 22, 2021
Because We Love Making Movies (InstagramFacebook)

Today, I sit down with legendary screenwriter Eric Roth.

We talk about his life and his craft and why we should all be more generous of spirit. Truth be told, Eric has been involved in creating so many iconic films that it would have been impossible to try… so I asked him about the films of his that meant the most to me, and he held court and digressed in the loveliest of ways. I hope you have as much fun listening as I did recording this interview. Enjoy! 

Eric’s credits include: The Nickel Ride, The Drowning Pool, The Onion Field, Forrest Gump (for which he won an Oscar), The Postman (for which he won a Razzie), The Horse Whisperer, and then one of my favorite films ever, The Insider, followed by Ali, Munich, The Good Shepherd, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He’s also worked in Television, and seen not one but two sea changes, first with HBO, and then with Netflix and House of Cards. And much more recently he wrote A Star Is Born, Dune, and the new Western being Directed by Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon. He was also a producer on the Oscar nominated Mank, directed by David Fincher, from a script by Fincher’s father.

Listen to the podcast:

Because We Love Making Movies
Apple Podcasts

Spotify

Behind the Lens: Eric Roth on Life as a Top Screenwriter

Working With Everyone From Scorsese To Spielberg To Fincher, And How He Became A Producer On ‘Mank’

Pete Hammond
April 16, 2021
Deadline

If you are in the mood for a master class in what it takes to be a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, look no further than this week’s episode of my Deadline video series Behind the Lens, where I go deep into the making of Mank with one of its producers, Eric Roth. This happens to be Roth’s first feature film producing credit, and he still laughs at the thought of it because in his heart he isn’t really a member of that tribe. The man is a writer through and through; while Mank has brought him his sixth Oscar nomination, it’s his first in the Best Picture category.

Roth is one of the most prolific writers in movies, having previously been Oscar nominated for scripts on Munich, The Insider, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, A Star Is Born and Forrest Gump, for which he actually won the Academy Award. He talks about all of them, what it takes to make a successful movie, the many directors he has worked with, as well as actors, and so much more. Scorsese, Spielberg, Fincher, Mann, Zemeckis — the list is just so very long.

We actually start our interview talking about one big name he worked with that made him very proud, and that was Akira Kurosawa. Not bad. He also has high praise for his Mank director David Fincher, and tells how the director brought him into the project as a producer, but to also carefully parse the screenplay without rewriting it. In other words, he and Fincher went over it line by line and Roth was probably the best kind of sounding board you could ever hope for. Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher died in 2003 but gets sole credit. In that regard we also talk about how a film about a film about a screenwriter could gather a leading 10 nominations yet not get one for its writing (!) It baffles him, but that is what happened. Mank details the creation of the certified 1941 classic Citizen Kane as well as how writer Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles managed to jointly create an all-timer, sharing the film’s only Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Roth’s other credits include scripts for The Good Shepherd, Ali, The Postman, The Horse Whisperer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon for Martin Scorsese, whom he praises mightily, and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, among others. When I produce a preview card for one of his earliest credits, The Nickel Ride, which I saw at a sneak in 1974, he went right down memory lane and tells the story of his first job on a big film, rewriting The Drowning Pool for Paul Newman who greeted him on the set by saying, “Here comes our savior.” Indeed.

Watch the full conversation

Producer Eric Roth on ‘Mank’, David Fincher, and the Relationship Between Writers and Directors

The Oscar-winning screenwriter discusses his work on David Fincher’s Netflix movie and shares some candid thoughts about a writer’s role in the craft of filmmaking.

Adam Chitwood
April 15, 2021
Collider

Eric Roth knows a thing or two about screenwriters. And more specifically, the relationship between a screenwriter and a director. He’s been a working writer in Hollywood for decades, and has collaborated with directors as varied and accomplished as Steven SpielbergRobert ZemeckisMichael MannMartin Scorsese, and Bradley Cooper. He’s been nominated for six Oscars, and has won once (for Forrest Gump). He’s had massive hits and disappointing bombs. Plenty of ups and downs. And at 76 years of age, you can hear in his voice that he still has the enthusiasm and love for the craft of moviemaking of an up-and-coming screenwriter bowled over by the magic of Hollywood.

Which is why, when David Fincher got the chance to make the film Mank at Netflix, one of his first calls was to Roth, with whom he had worked on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and House of Cards. The story of Mank traverses well-worn territory – it chronicles the writing of the original screenplay for Citizen Kane by alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman). The film doesn’t delve into the credits debate that ensued after Mank finished the screenplay, but instead it’s a story about a talented writer who’s been slumming it in Hollywood as a script doctor and finally decides he’s going to shoot his shot with a controversial, thinly veiled story inspired by his real-life acquaintance William Randolph Hearst (played in the film by Charles Dance).

What made Mank extra tricky to pull off was the fact that the script was written by Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. David and Jack had worked together to develop the screenplay throughout the 90s, but failed to find a studio willing to finance the film – at least the way Fincher wanted to make it (in black-and-white with a 1930s Old Hollywood feel). When Roth got the call from Fincher, he was asked not to rewrite the screenplay as is normally his task, but to instead come onboard the film as a producer and work with Fincher to make surgical changes here and there to get the script in tip-top shape as they headed into production.

It’s a somewhat extraordinary situation, as Roth was tasked with honoring what Jack Fincher had put together while also making small alterations here and there. And, of course, consulting with David to bring his decades of experience as a working screenwriter to the table, which would then inform what the movie has to say about Hollywood and the writer-director relationship.

So I jumped at the chance to speak with Roth about his involvement in Mank recently for an exclusive interview. While the discussion was pegged to Mank, it really went many different places as Roth elegantly and intelligently dove into the complicated relationship between a writer and a director, and why he believes a script can only take you so far and it’s up to the director to decide the direction it will take as it becomes a film. He talked about his relationship with Fincher, his specific role in bringing Mank to the screen, and why he feels it’s a true work of art.

We also talked about the craft of screenwriting in general and why Roth doesn’t feel like it’s an artform in and of itself, and he spoke enthusiastically about collaborating with Scorsese on Killers of the Flower Moon and Denis Villeneuve on Dune. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with a true Hollywood legend, and you’ll very quickly see that his passion for movies and moviemaking is infectious.

Read the full interview

‘Mank’ writer-producer Eric Roth on working with Fincher, ’Dune’, Scorsese’s next project

Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth served twin roles on Mank — punching up Jack Fincher’s screenplay and as producer. Mark Salisbury talks to him about his 50-year career, including upcoming films for Denis Villeneuve and Martin Scorsese

Mark Salisbury (Twitter)
April 14, 2021
Screen Daily

Back in the early 1990s, when David Fincher was still best known for his Madonna videos and had yet to direct a feature, he challenged his father Jack, who had recently retired as a Life magazine journalist, to write a screenplay. He even suggested a subject matter: Herman J Mankiewicz, who penned Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, but whose authorship had been controversially overlooked, not least by Welles, until an extended essay in 1971 by the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael reclaimed it.

Fincher tried in vain to set Mank up for the best part of a decade, but his desire to shoot in black and white proved a sticking point with financiers. Until, that was, Netflix, for whom Fincher had produced House Of Cards and Mindhunters, asked what he wanted to do next. Did he, they wondered, have a passion project he had always wanted to direct? Fincher took down his father’s script from the shelf, and Netflix agreed.

Jack died in 2003 so Fincher called on Eric Roth, with whom he had collaborated on The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and House Of Cards, to help him finesse the script. “David and I are very close,” says Roth, “and I’ve lent my eye, a point of view, on a few of his other movies. He has a group of us, including Bob Towne, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Jonze, that looks at all of his movies at some point in a cut and you’re allowed to tell him whatever you feel about it. So I’ve been involved in a number of those. He came to me a couple of years ago and asked if I would like to get involved with this.”

Read the full profile

‘Mank’ producer Eric Roth on his 1st time as a Best Picture nominee and his BIG upcoming 2021 films

Eric Roth with co-producer Douglas Urbanski and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on the set of Mank (Gisele Schmidt-Oldman / Netflix)

Riley Chow
April 6, 2021
Gold Derby

“It’s going to be a short entrance and probably exit, not that I didn’t enjoy it,” laughs Eric Roth in his exclusive interview with Gold Derby about his foray into film producing with “Mank” for Netflix. Roth is such an industry veteran that he won the Writers Guild of America’s lifetime achievement award back in 2012. With screenplay credits going back five decades, including his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1994’s “Forrest Gump” and 2018’s “A Star is Born” earning him his fifth Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, “Mank” represents 76-year-old Roth’s debut as a film producer. He now has his first Oscar in the Best Picture category for his first time in contention.

Read the full article

Interview on Mount Olympus

Eric Roth with co-producer Douglas Urbanski and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on the set of Mank (Gisele Schmidt-Oldman / Netflix)

Producer and Black List founder Franklin Leonard asks Eric Roth about his career as a celebrated screenwriter and his experience producing David Fincher’s Mank.

Franklin Leonard
March 26, 2021
Netflix Queue

Gary Larson has a Far Side cartoon that will stick with me for the rest of my days. In the single panel, aptly captioned “God at His computer,” a white-maned Creator sits at his desktop. On the screen, we see a piano hanging above a dopey-looking man. God’s right index finger hovers over a key labeled “SMITE,” and we can all assume what happens from there.

That cartoon dropped into my psyche at roughly the same moment I internalized the notion that every movie I’d ever seen was — first — the product of a writer doing much the same thing. I regard writers like gods. That’s part of the reason why I founded the Black List and started our annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays. Writers sit, often alone, and will entire worlds into existence.

What a joy, then, to take a virtual seat on Mount Olympus with Eric Roth, one of the greatest screenwriters of our time, to discuss his role as a producer on Mank. Directed by David Fincher and written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, Mank tells the story of how Herman Mankiewicz came to write the first draft of what would evolve into Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. It was many years before Fincher found the opportunity to make the film, but when the moment came, he turned to his trusted collaborator Roth to produce.

“David said to me, ‘I’m not asking you to rewrite anything. Let’s leave it as it is for Jack, and let’s make the best of it,’” Roth recalls. “He said, ‘I want you for two reasons: You know what it feels like to be a screenwriter, and you know the inside-Hollywood thing.’”It’s an astute assessment, if highly abridged. Having won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Forrest Gump in 1995, Roth became the go-to writer for A-list directors like Robert Redford, Michael Mann, and Steven Spielberg, and he authored scripts including The Horse Whisperer, The Insider, Ali, Munich, and 2018’s A Star Is Born.

He first partnered with Fincher as the screenwriter on 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which they both earned Academy Award nominations. That project also marked the start of a lasting friendship that is evident in their latest collaboration. With Mank, the pair worked together to deliver the soul of Jack Fincher’s script to the screen.

I spoke with Eric Roth about that experience and the craft we both revere.

Read the full profile

The Hollywood Reporter: Producers Roundtable

Tatiana Siegel
January 22, 2021
The Hollywood Reporter

Andy Samberg, Dede Gardner, Charles D. King, Ashley Levinson, Marc Platt and Eric Roth on the Streaming Rise Amid COVID and Their Awards Contenders. They also discuss adapting to a year of seismic changes in the film industry: “We started rethinking everything.”

Shepherding a film from a nebulous idea to a locked print is fraught with interruptions and surprises. As such, no profession in Hollywood requires greater dexterity than that of a producer. And unlike any other time in cinematic history, 2020 was a year of overnight transformation amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving producers with no choice but to adapt fast.

Two producers from this year’s roundtable — Judas and the Black Messiah‘s Charles D. King and The Trial of the Chicago 7‘s Marc Platt — saw their theater-bound films take a detour to a streaming platform (HBO Max and Netflix, respectively). Although Eric Roth, who produced David Fincher‘s Mank, was always poised for a streamer release via Netflix for that film, he also experienced the great sweep to HBO Max with the upcoming tentpole Dune, which he wrote. Ashley Levinson, whose Pieces of a Woman and Malcolm & Marie are both in the awards season conversation, oversaw the writing and production of the latter during the COVID-19 lockdown. Minari‘s Dede Gardner, the only female producer with two best picture Oscar wins (for 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight), and Palm SpringsAndy Samberg were the lone two of the group lucky enough to see their films premiere in a packed, mask-less theater (both films made their debuts at Sundance in January 2020).

On Jan. 8, at The Hollywood Reporter‘s invitation, Gardner, King, Levinson, Platt, Roth and Samberg converged via Zoom to discuss the great cinematic reset, this year’s awards season controversies and what they’d fix about Hollywood.

Read the full roundtable

Making of ‘Mank’: How David Fincher Pulled Off a Modern Movie Invoking Old Hollywood

The director had to employ digital advances to achieve a vintage aesthetic in telling the tale of ‘Citizen Kane’ screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz: “If we had done it 30  years ago, it might’ve been truly a bloodletting.”

Rebecca Keegan
January 11, 2021
The Hollywood Reporter

Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz never sought credit for conceiving one of the all-time great ideas in the history of cinema — the notion that the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz should be shot in black and white and the Oz scenes in color. In fact, for much of his career in Hollywood from the late 1920s to the early ’50s, Mankiewicz seemed to view his scripts with about as much a sense of ownership as a good zinger he had landed at a cocktail party.

But what fascinated David Fincher was that when it came time to assign credit on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, which Mankiewicz wrote with Orson Welles in 1940 (or without, depending on your perspective), the journeyman screenwriter suddenly and inexplicably began to care. Precisely why that happened is the subject of Fincher’s 11th feature film, Mank.

“I wasn’t interested in a posthumous guild arbitration,” Fincher says of Mank, which takes up the Citizen Kane authorship question reinvigorated by a 1971 Pauline Kael essay in The New Yorker. “What was of interest to me was, here’s a guy who had seemingly nothing but contempt for what he did for a living. And, on almost his way out the door, having burned most of the bridges that he could … something changed.”

Shot in black and white and in the style of a 1930s movie, Mank toggles between Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) writing the first draft of Citizen Kane from a remote house in the desert and flashback sequences of his life in Hollywood in the ’30s, including his friendship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who inspired Citizen Kane, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

A filmmaker known for his compulsive attention to detail, Fincher had even more reason than usual to treat every decision with care on Mank, as he was working from a screenplay written by his father, journalist Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. Jack had taken up the subject in retirement in 1990, just as David was on the eve of directing his first feature, Alien 3, and the two would try throughout the 1990s to get the film made, with potential financiers put off by their insistence on shooting in black and white.

Read the full profile

David Fincher’s Impossible Eye

David Fincher by Jack Davison

With ‘Mank,’ America’s most famously exacting director tackles the movie he’s been waiting his entire career to make.

Jonah Weiner
November 19, 2020
The New York Times

Six years ago, after I contacted David Fincher and told him I wanted to write an article about how he makes movies, he invited me to his office to present my case in person and, while I was there, watch him get some work done. On an April afternoon, I arrived at the Hollywood Art Deco building that has long served as Fincher’s base of operations, where he was about to look at footage from his 10th feature film, Gone Girl,” then in postproduction. We headed upstairs and found the editor Kirk Baxter assembling a scene. Fincher watched it once through, then asked Baxter to replay a five-second stretch. It was a seemingly simple tracking shot, the camera traveling alongside Ben Affleck as he entered a living room in violent disarray: overturned ottoman, shattered glass. The camera moved at the same speed as Affleck, gliding with unvarying smoothness, which is exactly how Fincher likes his shots to behave. Except that three seconds in, something was off. “There’s a bump,” he said.

Jack Fincher photographed by David Fincher in 1976, when he was 14.
“That’s why it’s out of focus”.

No living director surpasses Fincher’s reputation for exactitude. Any account of his methods invariably mentions how many takes he likes to shoot, which can annoy him, not because this is inaccurate but because it abets a vision of him as a dictatorially fussy artiste. Fincher, who is 58, argues that this caricature misses the point: If you want to build worlds as engrossing as those he seeks to construct, then you need actors to push their performances into zones of fecund uncertainty, to shed all traces of what he calls “presentation.” And then you need them to give you options, all while hitting the exact same marks (which goes for the camera operators too) to ensure there will be no continuity errors when you cut the scene together. Getting all these stars to align before, say, Take No. 9 is possible but unlikely. “I get, He’s a perfectionist,” Fincher volunteered. “No. There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable.”

Read the full profile