Screenwriter Mike Werb has some impressive film credits on resume — at least from a male perspective. He shares responsibility for the bullet-spraying, complete disregard for public safety Face/Off. He should be praised for writing an Angelina Jolie shower scene in Tomb Raider. He helped solidify Jim Carrey’s rise to stardom in The Mask. His latest work is a script for the upcoming Tekken video game adaptation (before the WGA strike of course).
Originally conceived as a sci-fi prison movie, that story eventually evolved into Face/Off. Even though some themes and elements survived in the final story, was it hard to see the original story develop into something almost entirely different?
It’s true the original spec we sold to Warner Bros. was much heavier sci-fi — but I still have the scene cards from our very first dirty draft — and the actual structure remained fairly intact. The initial development notes tended to focus on sci-fi and action elements. We spent a lot of time (way too much) defending plot points like Castor having sex with (really raping) Joan Allen’s character Eve. They didn’t want it. We had to have it because if the bad guy doesn’t fool the wife for a period of time, the emotional core of the film is broken. The hero hits bottom (locked in a prison where no one knows his true identity) at the exact moment the villain hits his zenith (boning the naïve wife and taking over the family).
When the script resold to Paramount, the equivocation ended. Our first meetings with the new producers (David Permut, Steve Reuther, and Michael Douglas) were all about deepening that core. Douglas was particularly interested in why we wrote this particular story and we spent a long time discussing thematics with him. With his crucial encouragement, we rewrote it as a psychological thriller. Once Woo came aboard, the same shocking thing occurred. All he wanted to do was talk about the characters. This was a new experience for us. No one wanted to discuss action beats — or cutting out important plot elements. It was all about the emotional landscape of the world and these characters.
This was really inspiring — and incredibly educational. Michael Douglas wanted great actors to star in the film; as an actor he understood the appeal it might have beyond action stars. As he explained to us — unless they’re playing good/evil twins or in a Jekyll/Hyde situation, actors never get a chance to play both the protagonist and antagonist.
He’s a really, really intelligent guy. At least Michael Colleary (my writing partner) and I were smart enough to realize he was right. So to finally answer your question: no. We didn’t mind seeing the script morph. Because it was maturing, it was getting better, and they weren’t hiring someone else to do it.
Special effects appear in almost every film nowadays. In 1994 when you wrote the screenplay to The Mask, how conscious were you of special effects and how integral they would be, given the story?
Well, I love summer popcorn films and those generally involve VFX in some form or another. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the film that made me want to get into the business. But while writing The Mask, I was less concerned with writing an “effects” film than making sure this (simple) story stood on its own. As opposed to Face/Off which took untold drafts and six years from original idea to production, I wrote my first draft of The Mask in less than six weeks. And less than two months later it was green-lit. Of course, that film is based on the great Dark Horse comix — so it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch (although, if you are familiar, there are huge differences in the leap from book to screen).
My intention was to write a screenplay that would work first as a story — and then fold the effects as seamlessly as possible into that story, not the other way around. As I said, it’s a simple story: a lonely, oppressed, but good-hearted bank teller has to become someone else in order to learn who he really is.
Of course, I was aware that certain things could not be done practically — like having an actor place a prop against his face and turn into a tornado — but that didn’t affect the writing in any way. There were a lot of VFX scenes that had to be cut for budget. I’m just happy that Milo the Dog wasn’t cut — because that character was not in the comic — and the dog really helped the climax. The director (Chuck Russell) told me the folks at ILM were fighting over who got to animate the dog. That’s about the highest compliment a writer can get.
FX supervisors and stunt coordinators are very important to action movies now. Looking at special effects and action sequences, how much collaboration takes place between the writer, director, and stunt people with regard to the balance required between the efforts and logistics to making a kick ass scene?
It completely depends on the director. Most don’t want the writers around — and what’s shot is sometimes quite different than what’s on the page. With Face/Off it was very collaborative. Michael Colleary and I worked intimately with Mr. Woo – and sometimes the storyboard artist – on most of the action sequences. But to give credit where it’s due: Woo is the master — and he was an endless fountain of exciting, new ideas. For example, the scene where the speedboat flies through the exploding police vessel was totally Woo’s idea. And that’s one of the most iconic action beats in the film. We also spent a lot of time working with our production designer, Neil Spisak – especially on the prison stuff.
But for newbie writers reading this: you still have to write a kick-ass, never-seen-that-before scene, all blocked out in thrilling detail on the page. Because that’s what will help sell your material. And that’s how you’ll get an opportunity for some director to completely change it.
How much of what you write shows up in the finished action scenes?
Sometimes the action scene is shot exactly — or almost exactly — as written. Often it changes depending on the director’s vision, on-set inspiration, stunt department concerns, budgetary issues etc.
Take the opening action sequence at the airport. We wrote ten different versions before Mr. Woo was satisfied. We were left to our own devices on how to put Castor Troy in a coma. The tenth version was approved — and that’s what you see in the film. We set the location at a private airport. We had Castor meeting up with his brother Pollux at their hired private jet. And we wrote the basics of the FBI assault. And Castor’s murder of FBI agent Winters (the “flight attendant” plant). And Sean Archer piloting the helicopter. And disabling the jet by landing on it. And the crash into the hanger, the capture of Pollux, Agent Loomis’s ear getting blown off, the intimate confrontation between the hero and bad guy — and the jet turbine beat which sends Castor flying into a coma. That stuff was in the script. We wrote the dialogue and the spine of the sequence. But again, the meat on the bones was pure Woo, including, but not limited to: the famous flapping of Castor’s trench coat, the game of chicken, the engine being shot out, the cat & mouse inside the wrecked hanger, the signature duel guns beat etc. Oh, and Nic Cage ad-libbed the singing bit which Travolta apes at the climax.
What's more important, body count or bullet count?
Well, Face/Off certainly had more of both than we expected. Colleary and I actually had a gripe with the fact that the hero throws acid and shoots prison guards while trying to escape when (with the exception of the warden) they are just people doing their jobs. The original scripted escape had far less random violence. Without going into too much detail, it involved the hero peeling off Castor’s fingerprints (this was never shot) — and he uses Sean Archer’s FBI security clearance to get out.
Then, instead of simply jumping off the oil rig platform — he commandeers a supply chopper and flies off (while being chased) toward the mainland. This is set-up in the opening action scene where we’ve made it clear to the audience that while Castor Troy cannot fly a plane, Sean Archer can certainly fly a helicopter. But this sequence — while beautifully storyboarded and blocked out by Woo — was very expensive and was cut for budget. I remember Nic Cage was not happy when this was excised because it was his favorite action beat. As it stands, the escape still works — but barely. It’s a plot hole. There’s no explanation of how Archer gets to shore (unless you look REALLY, REALLY closely and see that Zodiac boat motor by in the background and make the assumption that he somehow hitched a ride!). Not to sound defensive, but it was handled logically at the script level.
Hmmm. Once again I haven’t answered the question. Bodies or bullets? I guess it just depends on the scene.
What makes a good action movie?
I think the most important thing — and one of the reasons we wrote Face/Off — is having a fascinating antagonist. We kept watching all these Die Hard clones and wondered “why can’t the bad guy be as interesting as the good guy?” Which eventually led to “why can’t the bad guy BE the good guy?” I still believe an action film is only as great as its bad guy. And of course, it always helps to have some awesome twist in the middle of the movie. For us, it was the moment where Archer’s in prison and the warden tells him he has a visitor. He thinks Tito (Bob Wisdom) — his best friend and fellow agent has come to spring him. Instead, Castor Troy struts in wearing Archer’s own face.
Apparently, that twist worked. Because several producers stopped reading — and started calling our agents before they even knew how the story ended. We were kind of in shock — we mostly expected to be laughed at for writing something so ludicrous. But, as time and technology would have it, the plot isn’t that ludicrous one decade later. Face transplant surgery is actually happening.
What are your feelings on how the action genre has changed since Face/Off was first released in 1997?
Special effects are a lot better, that’s for sure. Although what’s cool about Face/Off is the lack of visual effects. Almost everything was done practically, which makes it an interesting relic. I loved the look of the 300 and liked the film as well (although I still think Stephen Pressfield’s novel about the same subject “Gates of Fire” told a more interesting story). I guess we’re entering the era of the video game as cinema.
Looking at your film plate, you are said to be attached to the movie adaptation to the video game Tekken. How did you become involved with it?
The producer, Steven Paul — who had the Namco rights — approached us. Unfortunately, it ended up in a development morass. A director came on, rewrote our script, then left the project and then someone else rewrote him. At this stage I don’t know how much of our work remains.
Are there any challenges with adapting a video game to the big screen given the recent box-office failures of a few adaptations (most notably by *cough*Uwe Boll*cough – and yes this writer has seen those movies)?
I haven’t seen Bloodrayne or House of the Dead, so I can’t really comment about that director. With Tekken, it was a challenge selecting from the 60 or so characters — to find our way into a unified, cinematic story. Our original draft was a coming of age story that focused on Jin Kazama — a young man with special abilities — and someone with no idea he is the scion of the vast Mishima Corporation. Sort of the Godfather meets Star Wars. We wove the fight sequences (using several locations familiar to gamers) into the plot. But now I think it’s much closer to the game. A championship fight taking place on an island – with all the players having certain agendas. I guess kind of like Enter the Dragon or Mortal Kombat. I hope it turns out well … but I’m not up to speed on it.
Are you approaching Tekken as you did Tomb Raider in regard to balancing the following of the already established video game mythology to creating a whole new adventure?
We had a similar problem with Tomb Raider. Our vision was quite different then what the director (who basically rewrote everything) had in mind. Angelina’s a fantastic Lara Croft, but the storyline as filmed did not serve her – or the franchise – well, in my opinion. I still weep over how needlessly dull that movie is. Not to say our draft (which we were given one month to write) didn’t need work. But it was more entertaining than what was filmed.
Any recent favorite films?
I love every film Chris Nolan has directed. Batman Begins was mind-blowing. Beautiful, thrilling, emotional on every level. I just saw the teaser for Dark Knight, and believe me, Tan, I am counting the days till that one opens. I also quite liked 3:10 to Yuma (with some quibbles). I also loved Casino Royale. Martin Campbell has brought that franchise back for the second time. I just saw a digital 3D print of John Wayne’s Hondo at the Academy. Wow. I hope that gets an art-house re-release. The technology alone was astounding. And I’m looking forward to Beowulf and the Golden Compass.
Oh, and how could I forget? The LOTR TRILOGY (director's extended cuts). Those 12 hours — if I may count them as one single film — constitute my all-time favorite piece of cinema. What Peter Jackson did should rank among the greatest pieces of visual art of all time — in the Pantheon along with the best of Michelangelo, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ansel Adams.
What are some tips that you could offer any aspiring screenwriters?
Mine your insanity — then make sure to put it down on the page in a coherent form. Picasso was a classic portrait artist before he famously began to break form. Avoid clichés. Always look for a unique way in, through, and out of even the simplest of scenes. Get to know your characters, allow them to speak in their own voices, don’t get down on your process and don’t get down on the process. It’s hard work, get used to it. Even if you’re holding down two jobs — write something every day. Even if you only have 15 minutes. Don’t say “I’ll get to it tomorrow” because tomorrow becomes next week and next month and next year and then your friends will get really sick of you talking about the script you still haven’t finished.
Form a writing group — not necessarily with friends, but with people whose work or critical opinion you trust. Set a schedule. Meet often, treat it like a college course. So at the next gathering, you can swap outlines, pages etc. and get feedback. Not everyone’s a Charlie Kauffman (certainly not me!). Input and rewriting are crucial. I teach in the MFA program at UCLA’s film school and one of the biggest mistakes young writers make is sending a script out (to agents, producers, etc.) before it’s genuinely polished. If you’re fortunate enough to have a professional read your material — don’t blow that opportunity. It may not come again.
And get someone to proofread. It’s amazing how many scripts are riddled with typos and grammatical errors. Let the reader concentrate on your story and characters — don’t take them out of the world you’ve created because you typed “hear” instead of “here.” Be your own best friend and harshest critic. Keep a thick hide — rejection will come at you hard and often — but that doesn’t mean you have to give up. Especially if you have something to say. And thanks, Tan, for giving me the opportunity to say something. At least I hope I have …
You have, and I’d like to thank Mike for finding time to answer a few questions with his busy schedule.
2 Replies to “An Interview with Face/Off Screenwriter Mike Werb”
great questions that you asked. i like the advice he gave for inspiring screenwriters. how did you get an interview with him?
I wrote somethinhg about Face/Off and he emailed me about how he liked what I wrote…