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Merrick again… ...bringing you Elston Gunn’s recent conversation with Josh Friedman, who talks about scripting for Spielberg on WAR OF THE WORLDS, DePalma on THE BLACK DAHLIA, and THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES – the TERMINATOR-themed TV undertaking for which Friedman is producing as well is writing. He mentions the harsh Talkbacks the project has been receiving here on AICN. Here’s Elston…

In between co-penning last year's WAR OF THE WORLDS and finishing his script duties for the much anticipated adaptation of James Ellroy's THE BLACK DAHLIA, screenwriter Josh Friedman ignited an internet wildfire with a single post on his blog, "I Find Your Lack Of Faith Disturbing," regarding the possible title change of a movie about a plane full of snakes. Friedman's screenwriting blog covers a wide range of topics including writing action and sci-fi pictures (though many of his posts have me wondering why he isn't writing the next big comedy), quirky Hollywood meetings and, every once in a while, personal struggles. Earlier this year, his readers discovered that more important and inspiring than having giant directors like Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma commit his words to the big screen was his recent bout and victory over cancer. THE BLACK DAHLIA opened this year's Venice Film Festival and stars Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirshner. Friedman, who spent eight years working on the screenplay, took some time to answer a few questions for AICN. [ELSTON GUNN]: How did the opportunity to adapt BLACK DAHLIA present itself to you? [Josh Friedman]: My agent called me and said David Fincher wanted to talk to me about this book, BLACK DAHLIA. I'd heard of it but hadn't read it. I read it over a weekend and went in and met with Fincher. He and I had met a few times before; I'd worked with Mark Romanek and the two of them were friends. Fifteen minutes into the meeting it occurred to me that Fincher had decided to hire me without me even opening my mouth. Easiest job I ever got. [EG]: How much of Fincher's involvement is in the final shooting draft? [JF]: Fincher and I worked for six years on the script. It was much longer when he was involved. 175 pages. He wanted to do a three and a half hour movie. Eventually he and the producers had a parting of ways. Much of what we did still exists in some form. But it's changed a lot, certainly. The Fincher version was an idealized version, a kitchen sink adaptation which included just about everything. [EG]: Did you read the book multiple times before you started writing the first draft? How did you approach it? [JF]: I read the book multiple times, made some notes and then dived in. Again, at the time we were trying to do the ULTIMATE Dahlia adaptation with very few compromises. [EG]: I read a quote recently from a screenwriter who said that when they adapt a book they can usually cut a hundred pages right away. Was it clear to you what would be omitted from the get-go? [JF]: A few things were clear. Some of it was even too dark for David and myself. Later, when Brian got involved we decided to cut fifty pages out of the script. Well, a lot of other things needed to go. But at that point we were cutting from the script, not the book. [EG]: As far as particulars for the script were you interested in the actual murder case or did you strictly stick to the novel? [JF]: I stuck to the novel. [EG]: How did you juggle the murder storyline with the love triangle subplot? Were you focused on trying not to short shrift one for the other? [JF]: I've always felt the love triangle was at least equal to if not more important than the mystery. In the long version of the script, the time covered by the movie is years. You can't have a mystery take place over years without enough good character stuff to get you there. In the trimmed down version, the mystery gets played more and there's fewer character detours. Still, you've got to remember that Ellroy doesn't kill the Dahlia until page seventy of the novel. That's not an accident. [EG]: Did Ellroy involve himself any with the adapting? [JF]: He wasn't involved at all. I didn't meet him until about six years into the process. [EG]: How did you determine when to use Ellroy's dialogue and when to impart your own? [JF]: I tried to use Ellroy's dialogue where possible. Much of it comes out in the voice-over. I ended up stripping out some of the most stylized stuff, which, despite how much I love it, pushes the piece heavily into noir and away from any sort of historical realism. [EG]: Did you give yourself a gauge or personal litmus test to put your script against, whether it was, say, LA CONFIDENTIAL or even CHINATOWN? Were you conscious of comparing this project to period L.A. crime stories and noir films, or avoiding cliches of the genre in general? [JF]: I never went back and watched CHINATOWN or L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. My writing goal was not to write a noir. My goal was to write a historical romance wrapped around this great mystery. Brian is/was much more interested in the film as a noir. He directed it like a noir. [EG]: As far as the tone of the script, what movies did you look to for inspiration? [JF]: I didn't look to other movies for inspiration. I kept my head buried in the book. [EG]: Did you listen to music from the era, or do you listen to any music at all while you write? [JF]: I always listen to music when I write. But for the life of me I couldn't tell you what it was. Remember, I worked on this script for eight years. I can tell you it wasn't "period" music, or anything that we might consider "appropriate" for the material. [EG]: Were you on set at all during filming, making last minute adjustments or tweaks? [JF]: I didn't go to Bulgaria. But I did some work from L.A. by email. Not a perfect situation, but better than nothing. [EG]: What was the De Palma experience like? What advice, criticisms or suggestions, if any, did he give you for the screenplay? [JF]: The De Palma experience was a fascinating one. Much of what we did in the early stages was figure out how to get the script from 175 pages to 120. He's a very instinctive guy, I call him an "emotional" filmmaker. If something works for him on a gut level, well, that's all he needs. I'm much more of a worrier and a noodler. Of course, he's Brian De Palma and I'm just the SNAKES ON A PLANE guy. [EG]: So, how does it feel that your blog is credited as the impetus for the online frenzy over SNAKES? Were you surprised? [JF]: It's a pretty surreal experience. I only wrote about SNAKES one time. I've received more publicity for that one blog entry than my entire screenwriting career. That's either really cool or really pathetic. [EG]: Speaking of your blog, you recently accounted your fight and triumph over cancer. The way you described it, everything including surgery happened rather rapidly. You had no symptoms, it was a chance discovery and, thankfully, caught early. Congratulations. I guess the all-too-common question is how does it change your approach to life and work now? How doesn't it? Are you any more selective about what you're going write? [JF]: Even before the cancer I was always pretty selective about what I wrote. I've taken very few jobs for paychecks. That's probably more out of laziness than anything else. I also think I'm not a particularly good screenwriter when I don't love the material. Everyone assumes that since the cancer I've become even more selective so I can spend more time with my family or skydiving or whatever sort of seize-the-day activity one would imagine. But it doesn't really work that way. I actually came out of it eager to work. Certainly you don't want to do crap you don't like. But my wife and kid don't really need me around them all the time. They're busy. So, I might as well write. Besides, I can't get life insurance now. I need the dough. [EG]: How do you like adapting versus writing an original spec? [JF]: Spec work is more daunting, obviously. Blank page, no cash, only you and your bullshit outline. But it is your own and you live and die by it. There's always going to be something exhilirating about that. Adapting is great because it's much easier to get to the computer that day knowing there's a little helper friend sitting next to you called "source material." In the case like DAHLIA, I was constantly rifling through the book looking for great lines of dialogue, voice-over, etc. At the end of the day you do need to write a screenplay, however. And then you're on your own. [EG]: What did you learn from WAR OF THE WORLDS that you applied to THE BLACK DAHLIA? [JF]: Two very different adaptations. And remember, DAHLIA was actually written many years before WAR OF THE WORLDS. With WOTW it was about finding modern parallels to the novel both in terms of incident and theme. The movie is an abstracted expression of HG Wells. DAHLIA really tries to tell the book's story. [EG]: And the best lesson you learned from Spielberg? [JF]: Be bold. [EG]: What can you tell us about THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES? [JF]: SARAH CONNOR is moving forward as we speak. David Nutter's directing the pilot and right now we're planning on shooting in January. He's twelve for twelve getting pilots picked up to series. I'm oh for six, so something's gonna give. I know the TalkBacks have been pretty harsh regarding the idea of a TERMINATOR TV show. I probably would be, too, if I didn't know how fucking cool it's gonna be. [EG]: What else are you working on? [JF]: I just signed up to adapt Christian Gossett's THE RED STAR. It's a pretty fantastic graphic novel. I'm developing it with Timour Bekmambetov (NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH movies) for Universal. He's a sweet guy, kind of a serious visionary. It's gonna be fun. THE BLACK DAHLIA opens wide in the U.S. on September 15. Elston Gunn

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