Here at the Writers’ Program we love movies. Thrillers, romantic comedies, anime, classics, indies—you name it, we’re there. Between UCLA Extension Sneak Preview, the LA Film Festival, and AFI Fest, not to mention whatever is showing at our local theaters, we hardly have time to get caught up on Dancing with the Stars. Yet we make time for our movies, because, in addition to entertaining us and offering a brief escape from real life, they can also inspire, educate, and open minds.
It’s this latter type of film to which Stanley Weiser, Writers’ Program instructor and Oliver Stone protégé, has dedicated his career. After penning Wall Street, he chose to write about civil rights with Freedom Song and organized crime with Witness to the Mob. Most recently, Stanley took on George W. Bush in W. He’ll be sharing his experience and wisdom with students this winter in his class Writing Movies that Matter: Intermediate Workshop.
Stanley was kind enough to chat with us recently about his career and what motivates him as a writer.
Writers’ Program: What inspired you to write Wall Street, and how did you get into the mindset of Gordon Gekko?
Stanley Weiser: I was hired by Oliver Stone to write Wall Street. We agreed that we wanted to tell a story dealing with the insider trading scandals of the late 1980’s. The zeitgeist of greed at that time was that acquiring wealth was not sufficient; it had to be flaunted as a status symbol. Cheating was rampant and barely policed, yet the crimes ultimately detected were more on an individual level than the massive corporate corruption of our times now. So the story was to be a Pilgrims Progress of a young stockbroker who is seduced by a powerful investment banker, corrupted, and then ultimately redeemed.
In getting into the mindset of Gordon Gekko I spent several weeks on Wall Street interviewing investment bankers, read a lot about the financial power brokers of that era, and also drew upon several Hollywood figureheads who shared similar obsessive and ruthless characteristics with the man who would become Gordon Gekko. Oliver Stone’s own nasty and charming repartee also was added into the mix. So, Gekko was imagined, but he was an amalgam of different personalities that I had studied.
WP: What responsibilities do screenwriters have when writing a film of social or political consequence?
SW: I think screenwriters who are writing films of social or political consequence must go all out in trying to get as close to reflecting the truth as possible. Of course, there is no absolute truth. But there is an approximation or poetic truth that we must aim for in writing these stories. If the script is to be fictional, as in Wall Street, it is essential to do as much research as humanly possible. I knew nothing about “Wall Street” prior to writing the script. So I had to undertake the assignment as if I were going to study for a PhD on the subject.
WP: How do you balance accuracy and honesty with telling a great story?
SW: In writing true stories or biographies (Murder In Mississippi, W. and Rudy: the Rudy Giuliani Story) a writer must spend even more time researching. It is important to read anything and everything on the subject or events being depicted. Of course, writing a screenplay cannot be a stenographical transcription of these events or you would wind up with an encyclopedia. One must move time lines and events around but without conflating or inventing out of whole cloth. There is a gray area of not going over the line, i.e. inventing things that never took place or cannot be corroborated. It is like pornography; you can’t describe it, but you know what it is. So if you put your own spin on the subject and can’t keep yourself out of the equation, you will wind up writing a movie that is less reflective of the truth than it should be. At the same time, you must be able to empathize with and get into the mindset of your character or subject. And of course, discover the journey and, more importantly, the theme of the story you are embarking to tell. In doing that a writer learns to discard what is not relevant to that journey and theme–keeping to the mere 120 or so pages you have of screen time–which forces you to sear the story down to what you perceive as its essence. In short, the goal is to approximate the truth.
WP: Tell us about W. In the description for your upcoming course you state that “movies that matter HAVE to be written.” When did you decide that W. was something you had to write, and how did you get started?
SW: Oliver Stone and I discussed it. How could a man who failed at just about everything he did in life become President of the United States and change the course of world history? That was the urgent question we wanted to explore. And without going into great detail, my approach was to triangulate father, God and Iraq. W. found God and was able to rehabilitate his image as a prodigal son and ennoble himself, at the expense of lives and untold damage. But being that Fahrenheit 911, which was a great film, had already been made, we wanted to try and look at it from Bush’s perspective, to walk in his shoes, to show the pain that people are not necessarily aware of that existed in his life, and consequently how he led himself down a path where he really believed that he was doing the right thing, but due to hubris was blinded by the truth.
WP: What are your favorite movies that matter, and why?
SW: Several of my favorite films that matter are on the list of those to be screened during the course that I am teaching: On the Waterfront, Schindler’s List, The Conversation, Network.
But the ones that inspired me to go to film school and become a screenwriter, and that mattered the most when I was younger, are mainly foreign classics like 8 1/2, Persona, Blow-Up, The 400 Blows, Bicycle Thief. They spoke to the chaos of life and existential dread that I had experienced but had never seen depicted in American films. These were very personal and passionately made films.
A key point to note is that what is important to one person is not necessarily important to someone else. Movies, like life experience, are for the most part entirely subjective. So the idea of coming up with favorite films or a list of such will differ from one person to the next and it should be that way. Otherwise everybody would be writing the same kind of screenplays.
WP: What are you working on now and what is your fantasy project?
SW: At present I am incubating several different stories but have not settled down to write the one that grabs me by the balls and won’t let go. And of course, alas, has a possibility of actually being made.
WP: What can students expect from your upcoming course?
SW: That I will make every effort to inspire my students to write what comes from their hearts and not take the easy way out. And that as a long time screenwriter and Buddhist, I have learned that it is ultimately more rewarding to give than to receive. So my goal is to give them something that can’t just be taught in a screenwriting book or workshop.
Katy Flaherty is the Assistant to the Director of the Writers’ Program.