Scott Frank’s character-driven crime drama The Lookout isn’t your typical screenwriter-want-to-be-director story we’ve heard so much in recent years. After all, Frank only decided to take the reins himself after the project motored along for nearly a decade with different directors coming and going before being dropped by its studio, giving him the chance to make the film independently. One can only imagine how the movie might have turned out differently, but as it is, it’s quite an impressive debut.
The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick, “3rd Rock from the Sun”) as Chris Pratt, an aspiring high school hockey star whose life is changed by a tragic accident, leaving him with a rare brain defect that makes it difficult for him to perform normal everyday functions and the grief of killing his friends. While working as a janitor at the bank and hanging with his cynical blind roommate (played by Jeff Daniels), Chris meets Gary Spargo (Matchpoint‘s Matthew Goode), a shady character who pulls Chris into his circle with the help of the naïve Luvlee Lemons (Wedding Crashers‘ Isla Fisher), though Chris soon learns that their motives are far from benevolent or sympathetic.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the long-time screenwriter about the origins and evolution of The Lookout in its ten-year journey to finally getting to screens this Friday.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve been developing this script for a long time, so why was this the one you wanted to direct?
Scott Frank: Yeah, about ten years. This was going to be made by other directors for a long time. There were many other directors who wanted to do it. It finally fell apart for the last time a couple years ago and I really just didn’t want to rewrite it for another director. I felt that I had been really comfortable as a screenwriter. I worked for really good directors with whom I had great relationships and was quite happy with those relationships, but I just suddenly felt bored. I was really bored with my self, and I just said, “You know what? I’d really love to have a different creative experience.”
CS: Did you go back to an earlier version of your script when you decided to direct it?
Frank: No, I had just developed a script with David Fincher right before he went off to go do “Zodiac” and I loved the script that he developed, so that’s the one I began moving forward with.
CS: But you probably realized that without David Fincher, you’d have to make the same movie for a lot lower budget.
Frank: Yes, so I had to really simplify it and I had to cut out some things. By and large, it’s the same story, it really is pretty close. I really liked what the script got to during that process with him. He really helped me enormously and Sam Mendes really helped me enormously when he was involved.
CS: How many directors were going to make this movie over the years?
Frank: Those two for the most part. Others kind of flirted with it but those were the two.
CS: Your producers, Walter Parkes and Laurence Marks, are very much DreamWorks type guys, but they were both involved before they were at DreamWorks?
Frank: Yes, Walter’s been very involved from the beginning as was Larry, and it was a DreamWorks project. It began life as an Amblin project, then it was at DreamWorks forever, through Sam Mendes and Fincher, and then when DreamWorks put it in turnaround, Spyglass saved the day and financed the whole thing.
CS: Did it always start as a bank robbery movie or was it more about the Chris Pratt character and his condition?
Frank: Character, character, character. I really thought about him first. The bank stuff there were two separate movies for a while, and I really didn’t want to make a movie just about him because it becomes a TV movie, and I didn’t want to make a movie just about a bank robbery because it becomes a heist movie. The heist to me is the least interesting thing to me about this story. I don’t care about that stuff. Even as a filmmaker, they’re just through the wall. It’s not Michael Mann showing you details of the sexy equipment they just hammer through the wall and cut through the vault and they’re in.
CS: But you do have a fun shoot-out.
Frank: Yes, but I wanted something really simple to that end and I didn’t have time to do it. But I was really into the characters and their relationships, that was the stuff I really loved.
CS: I know it’s been a long time since you first came up with the original script but when you wrote it, did you take the advice given by Jeff Daniels’ character and start at the end of the story?
Frank: I think I always am aware of what my ending is, just because at some point I have to be. At some point, I hope that the ending presents itself. Movies are about set-ups and pay-offs and the ending should be some sort of pay-off, so I’m hoping as I write that I know what the ending is, and if I don’t know completely, I have an idea of what kind of ending it’s going to be.
CS: This condition that Chris has after his accident, is that something you researched and found it to be common? I know that many people are making comparisons to “Memento” because of the similarities to Guy Pearce’s condition in the movie.
Frank: Yes, it is very common, and I had written this before “Memento” sadly, and when “Memento” came out, I remember going “Oh F*ck!” I had all these little post-its around his apartment and I changed it to the Diamond labels, because he had all these things reminding him, but it’s not only because of memory, it’s because of sequencing to do things in order. To turn off the shower, to use soap in the shower, and when you put on your shoes, make sure to put on your socks. What I really was more interested in than memory was sequencing. That to me was the really interesting aspect of this and how that gets in the way of your life if you don’t remember the order to do things. “Well, I’m here now, but why am I here?” Because there’s an order that’s been broken. I feel like that was the most interesting part. And also the emotionless disinhibition when you just break down and cry or get very angry or the disinhibition socially when you say things like “I want to f*ck you” or “I want to see you naked.” All that stuff, that really interested me more than the memory stuff, and how that would get in the way in the latter part of the movie when he’s really stressed.
CS: This condition seems like such a foreign thing to anyone who’s used to doing a daily routine. Is this a condition which can be cured eventually?
Frank: I think you can get better, but by and large, I think you’re never cured. Some things may minimize, some things may come back, but to a large degree, these are battles that they fight for the rest of their life.
CS: One can’t get an operation or brain surgery to fix it?
Frank: Not so far as I know.
CS: Why did you end up setting the movie in Kansas City? Had you spent some time there?
Frank: Yeah, I spent time there, but mostly what I loved was that there was an urban environment right next to a rural environment and they’re very close together. He can live downtown but work two hours away in the middle of nowhere and I really liked that. I really didn’t know why, but I just loved where it was. I loved that the mob was no longer there, that it was sort of a dying mob city and more of a “sons and sons of” place now. I just thought it was kind of interesting. I ended up doing a lot of research there. I went to the FBI. I went to the Center of Independent Living. I met counselors there and people with head injuries and families of people with head injuries. I spent time with all of them. For some reason, it had always been one of those locations in my head that I always wanted to write towards.
CS: How was it filming there?
Frank: Well, we filmed in Winnipeg, in Manitoba, because we couldn’t afford to shoot in Kansas City so we had to go up to where they shot “Capote.” I watched “Capote” and I thought “Man, that looks like Kansas” and I followed in their footsteps.
CS: There was another recent movie that was shot there, though
“The Ice Harvest”?
Frank: That was Chicago. My same cinematographer also shot that, Michael Alarcavilo, and it was because of “Ice Harvest” that I went after him for this. It was supposed to be Wichita, but they shot all of that outside Chicago.
CS: What about the casting? I’m sure when Fincher was involved, he would have gotten some huge name stars in those roles. How did you end up with Joseph?
Frank: It took a year. I just took my time and I really said I’m going to really find the best actor for the role. That was my only requirement is that I wanted to find the very best actor for the role and somebody who will really excite me every day on the set, and that’s Joe.
CS: Had he already shot “Brick” or “Mysterious Skin” at the time?
Frank: He’d done both, but I’d only seen “Mysterious Skin” which is a very different character, but he does play damaged and you see this other more charming part of him coming through from time to time. At least I did. I really thought that performance blew me away.
CS: You also have two Brits playing Americans, Matthew Goode and Isla Fisher. How did you find them?
Frank: They just came out of auditions. Matthew Goode came in and read for me. I expected that he was going to be nowhere close to give him the role, but he came in and went from last place in my mind to first place in the span of two minutes by virtue of his performance in the room. He came in, shaved his head, he looked different, he had a very intense quality about him. He just knocked it out of the park.
CS: I’ve met Matthew a few times and he’s probably more like Gary than he is some of the other characters he’s played.
Frank: Absolutely, but I didn’t know that. He and Joe had great chemistry together and as far as Isla Fisher, I met with her and she really understood the part. She was really smart about making her not what you expect of her. She really turned her into a little kid, which I really liked, this sort of innocent who’s not quite sure what’s up until it’s too late. And I loved that, I really loved that.
CS: Did they both have the accents worked out before they came in to read?
Frank: I had no problem with their accents and sometimes, even Isla’s Australian accent would sneak through and she’d be aware of it and ask if I wanted her to change it, and I would say no because it sort of contributed to the whole childlike thing that I was going for. I just really liked it.
CS: Before you wound up directing this, did you have any vision of who you’d want to play the main role that Joseph played?
Frank: There were so many actors to meet that I could see any of them. I was really just looking and I met all of them, but I think that he clearly was I knew he was right because I had met so many other people.
CS: As far as being a first-time director, did you have to do any convincing to get some of the actors on board or even to show up at auditions?
Frank: Jeff, I had to talk to and we had a great lunch and we talked about a scene I was going to write that wasn’t in the movie between him and Isla that he loved. And he said, “If you write that scene, I’ll do the movie.” So I wrote that scene and I sent it to him, and he said, “Great, I’m in.”
CS: I was surprised by how small a role Carla Gugino had, because after her first scene, I expected her to show up later in the movie.
Frank: It’s very little. She’s an old friend and she did me a favor. There was a second scene that they have later in the movie that I cut, because the movie didn’t need it anymore. It was a great scene, she was great in it, but the movie already had said the same thing. Next time I don’t think I would get someone so recognizable.
CS: We already talked about the comparisons people are making to “Memento,” but the trailer really does play up the similarities.
Frank: I’ve been screaming and yelling at the marketing people that they got to stop that trailer, because the trailer’s sells the wrong movie. You see the movie and it’s not that movie, it’s a very different sort of movie. They’re selling it as this movie [points to my “Smokin’ Aces” T-Shirt], which it’s not at all. It’s a character piece with suspense, and I think they’re trying to sell it on the sizzle, of which there’s maybe two minutes.
CS: What else are you working on? Did making this movie get you started on wanting to direct more of your scripts?
Frank: I really do want to direct my next movie if they let me. I have a script I’m writing at Universal called “44” which is essentially my mid-life crisis movie set in the world of automotive design. I have a Western that I’ve written that I’m trying to get made. We’ll see what happens. And I’m adapting a Jonathan Tropper novel called “After Hailey.” Any of these three or all of these I’d like to direct.
CS: I’ve interviewed a few screenwriters who’ve directed their first movie in recent months. How much resistance do you get when you have a script and you tell them someone you want to direct it?
Frank: Very little, because you know, I had a twenty year run as a screenwriter. I had some really good luck and I have very good relationships in a lot of these places, so I think everybody was hoping that I’d make the next jump. That helped. I had a lot of people for many years saying, “When are you going to do it?”
CS: You’ve worked with so many great directors, so do you still have them coming to you asking to do rewrites while you’re trying to develop your next movie?
Frank: Yes, frequently, and sometimes I do it and sometimes I don’t, depends upon my schedule usually. I’d work for any of those directors again, I really would. I love Spielberg, but most of the time I can’t do it because of my own schedule.
The Lookout opens on Friday, March 30.