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Grand Rapids-born writer John McNamara talks 'Trumbo,'

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Grand Rapids-born writer John McNamara talks 'Trumbo,'

Post by sir on Tue 8 Dec - 15:35

Grand Rapids-born writer John McNamara talks 'Trumbo,' TV work and his Hollywood career

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — This is an article in which a writer writes about a writer who wrote about a writer writing.

I'll clarify: I interviewed John McNamara, the former Grand Rapidian who has enjoyed a 30-year career in Los Angeles as a TV writer and showrunner. And now, he's a screenwriter as well, having penned the biographical film "Trumbo," in which Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo, the iconic Hollywood scribe behind "Spartacus," "Papillon," "Exodus" and several other influential films.

Trumbo's story is worth telling not just for his flamboyance of character, but for his allegiance with the Communist Party and subsequent transformation into a First Amendment champion after he was blacklisted in the 1940s and '50s. The film – ostensibly a drama, but a comedy at heart – dramatizes his prison stint for contempt of Congress, his then-uncredited penning of Oscar-winning scripts for "The Brave One" and "Roman Holiday" and the myriad personal problems he fought through during his time of professional struggle.

Cranston is supported by a strong supporting cast including Helen Mirren as right-wing muckraker Hedda Hopper, Michael Stuhlbarg as Hollywood star Edward G. Robinson, Diane Lane as Trumbo's wife Cleo, Louis C.K. as his friend Arlen Hird and John Goodman as B-movie producer Frank King.

It was rich material for McNamara to work with, and he adapted Bruce Cook's biography of Trumbo, turning out his first produced screenplay, and breaking new creative ground for the 1980 East Grand Rapids High School graduate. His resume dates back to the mid-1980s, but takes off in the 1990s with producer and writer credits on "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and the underappreciated "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." Credits on "The Fugitive," "Eyes," "Vengeance Unlimited" and "Spy Game" followed.

Now is a lucrative period for the writer. In addition to "Trumbo" being in theaters, the NBC series he created, "Aquarius," set in the 1960s and starring David Duchovny as a cop tracking Charles Manson, has been picked up for a second season set to air in late spring/early summer 2016. Another series he's writing and executive producing, "The Magicians," will debut on Syfy Jan. 8.

So when asked if he can relate somewhat to Dalton Trumbo's career in the entertainment business, McNamara laughs.

"My wife thinks 'Trumbo' is some kind of idealized autobiography," he quipped.

McNamara called from Los Angeles to talk about the highly entertaining and long in development "Trumbo," his career in television and other current projects.

MLive: So, you've been in the movie and TV business for three decades now.

McNamara: I had my first teleplay produced in 1984. It was an after school special (titled "Revenge of the Nerd"), and I've been working semi-steadily ever since. As a college student, I studied playwriting at NYU, and had an off-Broadway play produced in 1982. I moved to L.A. in '84, after the first teleplay was produced. I published two children's novels, which kept me afloat until 1986, when I started working for Disney writing TV movies.

And it's been smooth sailing ever since, right?

If you look at it from a distance, it's an easy glide. Look too close, and there's a little more rough weather.

I imagine your career is like most freelance writers in the business – feast or famine.

Yeah, it can be. Depends whether or not you stay with a show, and how long it stays on the air, or if you maintain an association with a studio or network. Feast and famine – I've had both. Feast is better. Famine is more suspenseful and more interesting. (Laughs)

So "Trumbo" is your first screenplay – or at least the first actually to be made into a movie?

I've written a couple. It's my first to be produced.

So why this screenplay, now?

I never really had that much interest in movies. I really liked TV; I've been happy working in TV as a writer and producer. You have more control of your work as a showrunner. I met several blacklisted writers while I was at NYU, including Arthur Laurents, who wrote "The Way We Were," which was very autobiographical. He had been blacklisted. I was 20 years old, and he was patient with me and my annoying, naïve questions.
Most life-changingly, I met Ian McLellan Hunter (who took official credit for Trumbo's "Roman Holiday" screenplay). ... It was Ian who turned me on to the Bruce Cook bio, which I bought and did nothing with until 2008. My friend, Kevin Brown, happened to know Bruce Cook had just died. I kind of very briefly sketched Trumbo's story's life on the blacklist and I thought, How is that a movie? The hero is a communist, it's all about politics, it's set in Hollywood and has no sex, no violence, no space opera, no magic. It's a period piece. How is that a movie? But Kevin said, "It's a David and Goliath story, it's true, and has a happy ending." And I said, "Oh fudge, we're going to make a movie."

Kevin actually optioned to produce the book. I wrote the screenplay — for free – and we spent a lot of years looking for producers. When (producer) Michael London and (director) Jay Roach came on, they were game changers. Eventually, later, Bryan Cranston came on board.

Did Cranston change anything about the character or the script?

Bryan embraced (everything).

Well, the character is very complicated, kind of a lovable hypocrite.

I prefer the word "contrarian." (Laughs) He's quite at home with his own contradictions.

Feast and famine – I’ve had both. Feast is better. Famine is more suspenseful and more interesting. - John McNamara

He's portrayed as someone who offers no apology about who he is. And he's so colorful. I love the line where Louis CK's character says to Trumbo, "Do you have to say everything like it's chiseled into rock?"

Bryan wanted more of that. He loved that. If you're an actor, that's the most fun thing to play. ... If you see the real Trumbo footage at the end of the movie, Bryan is actually reigning it in a bit. He really is. For whatever reason, Trumbo was a magnificently theatrical person, very at home with his theatricality.

Did you have any concerns about making this movie, considering the controversial subject?

We felt genuine, legitimate trepidation at times. Prior to getting the financing, there were moments when Jay, Michael, Bryan and I thought, Maybe there's a good reason this story hasn't been told. It struck me as very unusual. I'm still mystified why this movie wasn't made in the 1970s by Sidney Lumet, you know? There were several very good blacklist movies in the '70s, but there are two things about them that aren't true of this movie. One, they were fictional. Two, in none of those movies are any of the heroes actual Communists.

I do think maybe the reason I got past my own trepidations and doubts was, the movie had a ready-made three-act structure to it. It had a very good kind-of cauldron of constant conflict, both internal within Trumbo and within his family, and external, with his own business. But it's also about him versus the United States of America, and winning. He's possibly the most gracious winner in American politics. The end of the movie has one of the great speeches in American letters – which I did not write, I only typed. (laughs)

It has to be odd depicting John Wayne as an antagonist.

All the stuff with John Wayne in the movie is true, although he and Trumbo never had that face-to-face fight in the lobby. Wayne had an identical fight with Carl Foreman, who wrote "The Guns of Navarone." Wayne really was that kind of patriotic, vociferous person, although compared to Hedda Hopper, he was a centrist. Hopper's politics and her actions during the blacklist era are a matter of public record. None of that was exaggerated or fictionalized.

The script features the line, "It's a vague, scary, expensive war," in reference to the Cold War, descriptors one could apply to the current war on terror.

It's hard to take credit for any commentaries because I started writing it when (George W.) Bush was president, in 2008. I may have had some thought in the back of my mind. It probably was a subconscious frustration with the war on terror. Which sounds a little elliptical. But the idea is, Should it be causing all this domestic fear? ... Congress (ended up being) the comedic gift that keeps on giving. The movie came out the week of the Benghazi hearings, and people are telling me, "You've made some kind of ultimate criticism of Congress!" Not intentionally, but it was a happy after-effect.

Every movie that's based on a true story inevitably is criticized for any creative liberties taken. My feeling is, as soon as you cast actors and set up lights and all that, you're making historical fiction. Did you get any criticism for that?

Jay Roach had very similar feelings about this early on. We were going back and forth on issues that were dramatized or real. And he reminded me that you're entering the fictional realm the minute you decided to make a movie.

Life doesn't call for that kind of narrative drive, conflict, time place and action that a two-hour movie requires. Even TV. I've always loved the word "playwright" – it means to shape, or wrought. You're making choices about what to dramatize. You're thinking, This event is totally fine happening exactly as it happens, but these three beats to get me to the next beat that really happened (requires me) to turn these five characters into one composite character. Louis CK's character is based on five different men, all frienemies of Trumbo, friends who were highly critical of his lifestyle, how he took on a blacklist, and his workaholism.

Some people like to fact-check. I did a footnoted screenplay – it has every single source, and delineates what is fiction and what is fact. It's not a piece of reporting. It's an essay. There are plenty of places to read the real story. But if you want to watch a really entertaining movie, know this is not history, this is a movie about history.

I see "Trumbo" being described as a biography and a drama, but I've been calling it a comedy. It has that heightened sensibility. I laughed a lot. And Jay Roach is known for his comedies.

You can definitely split that hair a lot of different ways. Ultimately, it's just a really really good story that's totally reflects Trumbo's writing and personality. For all of his dark patches in his personality and life, he had this bizarrely optimistic view of life and people. You can look at things the way Greeks did – two classifications, tragedy or comedy. It ends with Trumbo being happy.

Any plans to write another screenplay?

Not off the top of my head. I'm pretty happy. I have a lot of work in TV. We'll see. I wouldn't be against the idea, if something grabbed me like "Trumbo" grabbed me. It could not have been a bigger surprise to me, that I was going to spend eight years trying to get this movie made. I have no idea, and right now I have no ideas. (Laughs)

So "Aquarius" just got picked up for a second season, right?

We're shooting it right now. It'll debut in May or June.

Was it hard to get "Aquarius" off the ground, being a period piece?

"Aquarius" and "Trumbo" were conceived in the same year, 2008. Both took a long time to get shot. I really like "Aquarius," I love Duchovny, loved the crew, the producers are great. It's a very fun show to make for all of us. I actually sold the idea to another network as a pitch, and they paid me to write the scripts, but they put it in turnaround, which means they gave it back, and asked me to find someone to pay (the network) back. And I did, then it languished for a good five years. Maybe astrology controls more of our lives than we care to admit. "Trumbo" was a vague idea, but it needed a star. We got Bryan in Sept. 2013, and four weeks later, Duchovny committed to "Aquarius." Both projects were five years old, and kind of dead. But based on the commitment of those two actors, we secured financing for both.

Tell me about "The Magicians."

It's based on a trilogy of fantasy novels by Lev Grossman. They're really good books, and I say that as a fan as much as anything else. The shorthand version is, it's set in a magical school, not unlike Hogwarts, but it's a college. The students are dealing with sex, drugs and death. In a way, it's kind of like "Harry Potter" for the audience that's now 30. That's the way to use some of the same tropes and iconography of fantasy to deal with mortality and morality. It's dark. It's darker than dark. Dark as "Aquarius."

Are you enjoying the freedom of working on cable TV in terms of content?

Well, NBC's been pretty great. They almost never say no. if they do, it's a civilized debate, that ends in a good place. But Syfy, they're cable, and they definitely have more room to maneuver with the FCC. I don't want to sound like a (expletive), but I kind of don't pay attention when people tell me to not do something. I just nod my head. (Laughs) They'll say, "You can't show that on 'Aquarius'," and I go, "Ah, let's see what happens." And when it airs, you realize, look, the world didn't end. It really helps to have creative partners who see what you see and see what you're trying to do. NBC wanted something really different, and they could afford to take some risks. So long as they don't end up in front of the Supreme Court, they don't care.


Thank you Maria!
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Re: Grand Rapids-born writer John McNamara talks 'Trumbo,'

Post by jade1013 on Tue 8 Dec - 15:42

Credit to original photographer, poster, scanner, site & anyone I may have missed in between

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