Jason Fuchs on Writing ‘Pan,’ ‘Ice Age 4,’ and Maybe ‘Wonder Woman’

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Jason Fuchs looks familiar. It’s either his youthful optimism or the fact that you’ve seen him repeatedly over the last two decades on episodes of Cosby, Law & Order, The Sopranos, and opposite Elijah Wood in Flipper.

While truly enjoying his acting career, Fuchs has found a new spotlight in screenwriting. After selling a handful of scripts and being brought on to chisel out Ice Age 4, his new project is one of lifelong obsession. In October, Fuchs’ passion project will hit the big screen with the guidance of his pen and the masterful direction of Joe Wright.

What led you into the film business and screenwriting as a career?

I actually had sort of a weird past that lead to screenwriting: I started acting when I was around seven, and when you’re a child-actor, you see a lot of parents dragging their kids to auditions. The kids look like they want to kill themselves. I remember watching movies when I was young and telling my parents I wanted to be “in the box.” They probably thought I had a learning disability rather than that I wanted to be in show business – situations not mutually exclusive.

My first writing opportunity came as I was preparing to go to college. I was filling out applications and realized I needed to complete an internship to make me look smart, since colleges obsess over internships. I ended up doing an internship at Global Information System (GIS), an independent government intelligence service. Essentially, they give second opinions for governments. I interned in Virginia for a summer, and they hired me as their UN correspondent during my freshman year of college. Through this experience, I met a lovely, Iranian opposition leader. For whatever reason, we really hit it off. I interviewed him and everything he said was great but sounded wonky, since English was his second language. He was trying to explain how Iran will not back up its opposition. He added, “Iran is like marble, not a cake.”

I told him, “That’s good, but we need to tweak it because people are just going to hear ‘marble cake’.”

“What is this marble cake you speak of?” he asked.   After discussing it briefly, he said, “Just write what you want to write.” He basically told me to fake the interview and write both questions and answers. I got completely carried away and made the interview sound like something out of an Aaron Sorkin film, complete with big, overblown statements about liberty and heart. It hadn’t occurred to me that people might read it and respond positively. He was invited to address a group on his ideas. He thought that was great, but I feared disaster since the readers were expecting deep literary discourse – not marble cake.

He hired me to write the speeches and I went to see him deliver one in New York. He killed it – a natural performer. Unfortunately, I had not anticipated a Q & A. He was asked the same question I had asked, whether or not the country could survive ethnic division. I tried to catch his eye to stop him, but once again he delivered the line, “Iran is like marble, not a cake.”

The entire audience began to mutter, “What? Marble cake?” At that point, I decided I would write in an arena with less potential for fucking up. I wrote my first screenplay about that experience, so that’s what got me going. I learned by doing; the more I did the more I learned. I was already represented as an actor so I found my first literary agent down the hall from my acting agent. I wrote a short film in which I also acted. Later I wrote a feature comedy that changed my life. It got me my current agent and it went into Fox as a sample. That got me the contract to write Ice Age 4, which was an incredible opportunity.

Do you generally write alone or with a partner?

I always write by myself when I have a choice. With Ice Age 4, I came in on a franchise, so a lot of the groundwork had been done by Michael Berg, a really talented writer who worked on the first and third films along with some un-credited stuff on the second film.  Michael Berg is – in many ways – the real author of the Ice Age films. The idea on Ice Age 4 was to bring in someone new to team up with Michael, that was really my only shot at co-writing. I loved the experience, but in general I’m somewhat anti-social and difficult because I really like being in my own element and writing by myself.

Besides writing independently, what are some of your other writing rituals?

My writing rituals vary depending on where I am in the process. If I’m in first draft mode and I’m deep diving, I tend to wake up later in the day – around eleven a.m. – and ease into the day. I may start off by rereading work from the night before or go over my outline. Then I work, work, work, with the bulk of the process occurring after dark; I will write until about five or six in the morning. I really enjoy writing late at night.

However, if I’m on deadline and there are pages due, all of that goes out the window. In retrospect, that’s really what I learned while working on Ice Age. Pre-Ice Age I only wrote at night; I was never productive during the daytime. With Ice Age, there was a bizarre setup because animation writing is the closest screenwriting will ever get to day work. You wake up, you go to the studio, you’re there from nine until six, and then you come home. That was my life for two years, so I had to adjust to being there ready to work each morning. That broke me of some habits, and I learned I could deliver pages at five in the morning with a nuclear war going on around me. That gave me a lot of confidence because early on, I thought I could only write within the constraints of X, Y, and Z factors. With Ice Age, the stakes were so high I had to write when I had to write because they needed pages for the story department or to be animated. I performed outside my comfort level.

What was it like writing such a classic adaptation as Pan?

Pan has been the great joy of my creative life. I’ve wanted to do a version of Pan since I was nine years old. There’s that Disneyland ride where you’re in the pirate ship and you fly over London. I was on that ride with my dad and, for about twenty minutes, we actually got stuck on the part where you’re floating above miniature London. I remember asking my dad all these questions: “How did Peter Pan get to Neverland? How could he fly? Why didn’t he and Hook like one another?” The idea for the adaptation was born because I was infatuated with the origin story for Peter Pan and the dynamics of these characters. I’ve thought about these stories over and over for the last twenty years.

After I finished writing Ice Age, the idea came into my mind to write an epic, world-building, action/adventure Peter Pan origin story set in Neverland that would be like the worlds of Harry Potter or Stars Wars – other stories I grew up watching and falling in love with. I took it out as a pitch in late 2012 but nobody bought it. There was zero interest. Later I found out that everyone was working on a Peter Pan pitch, so basically every studio already had something in development. In my mind the difference was that all of the current projects were inorganic because every studio was looking for an opportunity to cash in. Mine was always passion-driven.

The only studio I hadn’t pitched to was Warner Brothers, because I had always heard it was difficult to get into without having a relationship with a producer or something along those lines. I essentially accepted that Pan was not going to happen but I continued to pitch it. If you went on a date with me between 2012 and 2013, you probably heard the pitch. Right before the summer of 2013, I had an opportunity to meet with Sarah Schechter, an executive at Warner Brothers. She asked what my dream project would be. I told her about my Peter Pan prequel, assuming she would never do it, and reluctantly admitting that everyone else had already passed. After the pitch, she said, “We might do that” and told me to meet with Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern, Arrow). I had never met Greg despite being a big fan, but I met with him and he agreed to do the project. Suddenly I had sold my pitch, with Greg producing and Warner Brothers on board.

We were well aware of the competitive field, so the mandate was to write quickly and make it great. During the summer of 2013, I spent ten weeks writing, definitively the most fun I ever had writing a first draft. I handed it in during the fall and the studio responded well. Within two months, Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) had read the script and was on board to direct. After an extended time of nothing happening, things came together so quickly it was mind-blowing. Joe was the dream director and shortly afterward, Hugh Jackman agreed to play Blackbeard.

Did you write these characters for certain actors or were these just well known characters that have always lived within your mind?

It’s usually a combination. Some characters are completely in your head while others have components of certain actors within them. For Pan, these characters existed in J. M. Barrie’s universe. Some characters, like Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) came from that universe but didn’t have speaking lines so there are levels of invention there. Blackbeard is mentioned but not actually in the story of Peter Pan, so much thought went into creating his character. For Blackbeard I always saw Hugh and wrote the part with him in mind. For Hook, Garrett Hedlund (Tron, Unbroken) was always my first choice.

As an actor/writer, can we expect to see you in the film?

It’s hard enough to write a great screenplay; I don’t know how actor-writers create characters for themselves. Even in the spec I wrote – Last First Time – I wasn’t writing a vehicle for myself. I had an idea that the role was well suited to me. With Pan, I would have loved to be in the film but there wasn’t anything that hit the mark for me.

For this film, it was more about the story. My agent didn’t even know about it. I didn’t know if anyone was going to support me. I didn’t know if I would be able to sell the idea. I just knew what I wanted to write. It’s almost a fairytale within itself that a modern writer can tell a story he wants to tell and it can make its way through the vagueness of the process to the finish line and worldwide release. I hope audiences respond to the purity that exists within the finished product.

Joe Wright is a visionary who is also an artist whom someone might not associate with large budget, mainstream films. Because of that, Joe has made something that elevates this far beyond what audiences might expect from a studio fairytale film.

Joe brought craftsmanship, artisanship and collaboration that are genuinely beautiful. This is the first movie he made that his son can see at an early age, and it’s meant for families to watch together – to teach children how to face their fears. I’m very excited for people to see it, especially those who are fans of Peter Pan, because this is a not the average prequel as much as it is an addition to the Peter Pan mythology, meant to retell aspects of the original narrative, giving audiences their first real chance to understand why things are the way they are when we first meet these characters in J.M. Barrie’s Neverland.

In your opinion, what makes a good story?

That’s a really good question. For me, a good story comes from character and heart. It needs to be character-driven and heart-felt for me to invest two hours in the film. You can have the greatest action sequence or be visual stunning, but the thing that excites me – whether it’s a screenplay, novel, play or musical – is always character. I get excited about characters I’ve never seen, characters I can relate with, or characters with a real arc as opposed to those who stay on the same plane. I also like hopeful stories. I’m not a particularly dark guy. I can enjoy films that are dark or gritty but I like films that still have a glimmer of hope in the end.

When I was a kid, the movies that excited me and opened my imagination were Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future. These movies had great action and exotic sets, but what I took away was the iconic characters with great heart. I wanted Pan to be big and epic with opportunities for the visuals. But in the end, it’s a script about Peter trying to find his mom. The focus is to tell a grounded universal story regardless of everything happening around it. I think Spielberg does that better than anyone else. He’s so good at telling intimate, universally relatable stories set against extraordinary canvases. I love making movies like that and Pan is certainly an effort to do so.

What’s the most difficult step in the writing process for you?

Every single step. It’s all so hard. With every script the part that is hardest changes. On one script the third act will be really tough and on the next script the third act will be the best thing ever written, but you can’t figure out the opening sequence. With the next script, there’s something in Act II you’re stuck on. It’s constantly shifting. I’m always up until six in the morning pulling my hair out. I’m sure there are people who find screenwriting easy but I’m just not one of them.

What advice do you have for young writers?

Write. Write. Write. Write. Write.

I think I have some talent, but within my limited success, working hard is equally if not more important than being talented. Working hard and having the right temperament are key. Newcomers do not always understand the amount of work that is required and nothing is a substitute for writing. That, along with the right attitude, can make a great screenwriter. You’re going to get punched in the face repeatedly and need the fortitude to ask for more – not unlike dating Chris Brown.

You also have to be someone others want to work with. You should be mindful of how privileged you are to be paid to make up stories.  When you get notes you disagree with or you’re getting pummeled in a story meeting, remain the calmest guy in the room, open to other opinions, and you will go much further in the business than those who become quickly frustrated or angry. Write and keep writing. Work harder than the next guy and be a good person – it pays off.

Are there any details you can leak about your involvement with the upcoming Wonder Woman movie?

I wish. All I can really say is that D.C. operates very similarly to the Marvel cinematic universe, where if you speak, you die. I’ve read all of the reporting related to that movie and my potential involvement and it all sounds very exciting. I love the D.C. comic book universe, which was introduced to me by my dad. Wonder Woman was my favorite D.C. comic so if I’m lucky enough to be involved with that venture, it will be a tremendous privilege. I will also say that the Batman V Superman movie does look amazing and I think Zack Snyder (300, Man of Steel) is doing something really special within that universe. I’m extremely excited to see that begin to take shape.

 

This article was originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

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