An Interview with Michael Ray Brown
   by Michael Neff

As a production executive, story analyst, writer and director, Michael Ray Brown has recommended and/or developed the screenplays for numerous successful films, including THE LAST EMPEROR, CITY SLICKERS, FREE WILLY, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, APOLLO 13, BRAVEHEART, and CONTACT, among many others. He has served in the story departments of Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, MGM/UA, and Walt Disney/Touchstone Pictures. He also was the story editor for Metromedia Producers Corporation, where he developed the hit TV series SMALL WONDER and the miniseries SARA DANE. His short film, THE ORCHARD HERITAGE, was an Academy Award student film finalist and voted Best Animated Film at the Athens International Film Festival. Over the past three years Michael has written more than 30 hours of prime-time television. A staff writer on four series, he recently scripted the made-for-TV movies ESCAPE FROM DEATH ROW, CRUEL DECEPTION, and ANGEL OF DEATH for New Dominion Pictures. He is also a script consultant.

Neff: Michael, hi. Let's start off talking about your story analyst days at the studios. Can you place it in context for us?

Brown: Producers and studio executives usually don't read scripts themselves. Submissions are sent to the story department and assigned to a reader for what's known as "coverage." It's that one reader who will decide whether the script gets a shot. Readers, especially career professionals at the studios, like to think of themselves as the "unsung heroes" of the movie industry. Probably nobody else thinks of them that way, but it helps to have that attitude when you're reading the third "Die Hard in a fill-in-the-blank" script you've read that week, it's 1:30 in the morning, and the creative exec wants coverage on his desk by 9 because they may want to place a preemptive bid. Story analysts work long hours, reading until their vision blurs, in hopes of finding a gem. They also think of themselves as a shield, protecting the world from bad scripts. In the Metropolis of the studio system, they are the Supermen. That is, the best of them think this way. If you want to be a hero, you'll do noble things. You'll stick your neck out.

Unfortunately, some readers are less conscientious. Some are just punching a clock. One colleague of mine in the MGM Story Department defined his job as "giving the executives a reason to say 'No.'" He confided to me that he never recommends anything, for fear of losing his job. Readers are seldom fired for rejecting a script, but waste an hour of an executive's time by having him read a clunker, and you're dead meat. Others think of the job as a stepping stone. The reader who had the office next to mine at Warner Bros. didn't read much. He had "interns" read for him. He put his name on their coverage and spent most of his day hanging around the offices of executives and producers on the lot. He quickly progressed to Vice President at another studio. After he left Warner's, I heard they found more than 100 unread scripts in his office. That's the kind of reader you don't want for your script.

Neff: Do you think the experience has made you a better writer?

Brown: It's made me a more savvy writer.

Neff: You've worn so many hats in Hollywood, as producer, writer, director, story analyst, been involved with so many quality films. So tell me, what accounts for so many really bad films getting made?

Brown: There are many reasons. The cost of making and distributing a movie has skyrocketed, so studios try to play it safe with mass-market blockbusters that are big on flash and small on story. Sometimes, in the process of developing a movie, the studio loses sight of what attracted them to the material in the first place. They bring in new writers to punch up some aspect, transform a character to be more likable, or alter the plot to be more topical. There was a time when cocaine trafficking seemed to appear in about every other script, even sweet little buddy comedies.

Occasionally a studio will buy a giraffe and try to turn it into a hippopotamus. On my recommendation MGM purchased the novel, The Day After Tomorrow, a sprawling international thriller. The characters were unabashedly cartoonish, but that's what made the book so much fun. One of the villains is known as both "The Tall Man" and "The Short Man," the latter because at one point in the novel he had his own legs amputated for the purpose of disguise. The project went through numerous drafts with several different writers, each one taking it farther from its source as the studio attempted to make it more "real." This was the studio with the James Bond franchise, and they were worried about the plot being too farfetched. Eventually, they went back to the novelist's first adaptation, but that was before the current regime. It seems doubtful the movie will ever be made.

Neff: You've experienced some "development hell" types of stories first hand. Can you tell us one?

Brown: As a writer, most of my experience is in television, where everything tends to happen quicker. So all my torments in "development hell" have been comparatively short-lived. I wrote a TV movie entitled A Haunting in Georgia, an allegedly true story about a family plagued by ghosts. The producer decided to begin shooting without a script, using some research she had assembled. When she finally got around to reading my script, she decided to rewrite it herself. She radically altered the structure that had been approved, tossed out my narration and wrote her own. It was her first credit as a producer, and it was clear she wanted the writer's credit, too. The studio hated each draft she wrote, so she blamed me, saying I'd written it, and sent the script back to me to "fix" it. It was frustrating trying to undo the damage, only to find the script nearly unrecognizable the next time I saw it. I ended up doing 32 drafts, 29 of which I wasn't paid for. And to add injury to insult, I ended up with my reputation tarnished.

Neff: Michael, at the studios you were involved in several important films. What was your experience with Braveheart?

Brown: I'd been at Warner's for two years, and I hadn't had a vacation in three years, when I decided to drop out of the business and go on a six-month bicycle tour around Europe. In Edinburgh, I saw a statue of William Wallace, and became fascinated with his story. I considered writing a script about him, but figured it had little chance of ever being made. I'd already written a period thriller set in Scotland and, while it got me some meetings, Hollywood seemed skittish about producing an historical epic set in Britain.

Many years later, the script for Braveheart crossed my desk at MGM. Had it been poorly written, I still might have suggested they develop it. Wallace is a classic underdog hero, and his struggle for freedom is highly dramatic. Fortunately, the script was quite well-written, and I gave it a "consider." Alan Ladd, Jr., who was running MGM at the time, had the wisdom and courage to buy it. Shortly thereafter, Laddie's tenure came to an end. At this point Mel Gibson was not yet attached. Braveheart was one of two projects Laddie was allowed to take with him when he set up shop as an independent producer at Paramount.

Neff: As regards Apollo 13, you remarked in a conversation with me that the story had been dismissed by one studio executive as "three guys sitting in a tin can"?

Brown: The script had been making the rounds under the title 13 or Lost Moon. I'd always been fascinated with space, as were most boys of my generation. As a kid, I'd religiously followed every mission. I signed up for weekly press releases from NASA. I had a plastic model of the Apollo, and I'd bore guests at our home by staging moon-landings on the living room floor. So I was predisposed to like 13, but the story was more compelling than I thought it would be. The odds that the crew wouldn't make it back were almost hopeless. The script, by William Broyles, Jr., and Al Reinert, showed the triumph of human ingenuity over technology. It's one of the few scripts I recommended.

About a week after writing the coverage, I still hadn't heard anything, so I dropped by the office of one of MGM's creative executives. He was a young guy who I felt would respond to the material, and I had a good relationship with him. I pitched him the story for 13, focusing on the human element, and concluded, "This was NASA's finest hour." The executive's response was dismissive. "Three guys sitting in a tin can for two hours? Who's gonna sit still for that?" The story editor even joked about the script at our next meeting, but they stopped laughing when we learned Tom Hanks was attached.

Neff: How did Hanks get "attached"? Did someone in the studio make that move because they believed in the film?

Brown: The picture was made at another studio, Universal, and I don't know how Hanks became involved.

Neff: What about your stint at Warner Bros.?

Brown: The atmosphere was relatively congenial. The Warner's story department had weekly meetings, informing the readers what the response was to their coverage, what projects were being developed, which were going into turnaround, etc. Producers and executives came by, encouraging readers to talk with them personally about material. It was a wonderfully creative environment. I believe that an informed story department is more serviceable to a studio than an ignorant one.

Neff: You were also involved with one of my favorite films, The Last Emperor.

Brown: I read The Last Emperor when it was a Warner Bros. project, with Marlon Brando attached to play the role Peter O'Toole eventually played. As I recall, there were some structural problems, and the narrative hadn't quite found its focus at that time. It was a complex story with unusual characters, set in a time and place unfamiliar to most Americans. I have a feeling Warner's was worried about how they could market it. Columbia picked it up in turnaround. I saw this happen numerous times. At MGM one of the executives joked we were turning into a development house for the other studios.

Neff: How does that process work? I mean, how did Columbia come to a knowledge of it and then go about picking it up?

Brown: When a project goes into turnaround, the producer is free to shop it around. If another studio decides to pick it up, it reimburses the first studio its development cost. On a script that's been through several drafts with different writers, for instance, and adapted from a novel whose rights the studio had to purchase, those development costs can be substantial. Just because a project goes into turnaround doesn't mean it's a bad script. Sometimes an element comes in that renders the project too expensive, according to the studio's marketing department. That's what happened with The Prince of Tides at MGM. Many successful films have come from projects that were once in turnaround. Forrest Gump and Splash are just two examples.

Neff: Any times of crisis you can recall?

Brown: We had a situation on Red Corner. MGM had planned to shoot the exteriors in Taiwan, as I recall, but that location was scrubbed. A guerilla camera crew spent a week in Beijing, capturing clandestine footage for background plates, but the picture ended up being shot entirely in Southern California. You'd never know that the most exciting sequence in the movie, when Richard Gere escapes to the American Embassy across the rooftops of Beijing, was filmed in Playa del Rey, near Los Angeles International Airport. All this put the film about $5-million over budget. The producer, David Ladd, asked me to suggest ways to trim the production cost without sacrificing the story or the picture's dramatic impact.

When I was at MGM, the studio solicited creative input from the readers throughout the development process. This was rare. Most studios assign the task of writing development notes to creative executives, but at MGM the readers took part in story conferences and, on some projects, even met with the writers and producers. I managed to telescope some scenes in Red Corner, merge a couple of characters, and find alternate locations. The production came in under budget, and director Jon Avnet got his bonus.

Neff: You are now, according to Creative Screenwriting magazine, one of the top ranked script consultants in Hollywood. Can you tell our readers what separates a great script consultant from a poor or mediocre one?

Brown: Whenever I've received notes on a script I've written, the ones I found most valuable were those offering detailed suggestions on what might be changed, as well as alternate scenarios to explore. I believe that a consultant should be a collaborator, not just a critic. I like to brainstorm with writers, and stimulate them to produce their best work. It doesn't help if someone else is trying to impose their vision on yours, so it's vital that the consultant understand where you're coming from and what you're trying to achieve.

Sometimes it's apparent that the writer hasn't yet figured out what story he or she wants to tell. In such cases, I'll get on the phone with the writer and ask questions in an effort to nail down the theme. Once I know the writer's intention and the story's dramatic spine, I can set about suggesting revisions. Some consultants organize their notes into categories, such as characterization, structure, production values, etc. They analyze whether your screenplay fits certain criteria, but my notes focus on specific problems and how to solve them. Some consultants try to shoehorn every script into a paradigm, but my approach is more flexible. My guiding rule is that the story must hold my interest.

Neff: Please tell us the major elements a screenplay needs to survive coverage.

Brown: The short answer is that it has to be an intriguing story well-told. Ask any studio executive what they're looking for, and invariably they'll tell you "a good story." The reader needs to believe that he could go to the mat. The story has to be so well constructed that they can defend their decision to recommend it, even if the executive decides to pass. We've all read log lines that sound terrific, only to find that the script isn't very well developed. To me, it often boils down to whether there is sufficient jeopardy. Someone once defined a story as how a character copes with danger. It doesn't have to be physical jeopardy. A character can be in emotional jeopardy. Love stories are built around emotional jeopardy, for example. Unless there is something at stake, the audience isn't going to care about what happens next.

Neff: Does the process differ at a production company as compared to an agency, as compared to a studio?

Brown: When you submit a script to an independent producer, there's a chance it'll actually be read by that producer. However, many producers have their assistants read for them. If a producer doesn't have a studio deal, it's unlikely your script will be bought outright. Instead, the producer may offer you an option deal. Whether it's wise to grant a producer an option depends on how committed you feel they are to your script, and the likelihood they'll be able to set it up.

Agencies also have story departments. Unless your script gets submitted to a major studio, though, it will be read by a non-union analyst. Some of these readers are quite good, but it's hard to make a living as a free-lancer. Non-union story analysts earn as little as $35 per script, so they tend to be less experienced. My agent sent me some coverage that a reader for an independent producer had done on one of my screenplays, and you'd swear it was for a different script.

Neff: Hasn't a recent work of yours been optioned to Howard Kazanjian? And what does the future hold for Michael Ray Brown?

Brown: The Scriptwriter's Network has a competition they call the Producers Outreach Program. If your script garners three recommendations, a pitch letter goes out to 50 or more producers who have expressed interest in the Program. One of my scripts, an action-comedy for kids titled Trunk Rats, made it through Producers Outreach. Several producers responded, expressing interest, but I went with Howard Kazanjian because of his reputation as the producer of such movies as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and because he struck me as a straight-shooter. And that period Scottish thriller I wrote many years ago (before Braveheart) may finally get made. It's been optioned. Money has been found. Talent is interested. The deal is complex, but it's coming together. For a writer, waiting is the hardest part.

Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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