Photo: Tony Rivetti, Jr.
J. Michael Straczynsk
“Like an athlete, you can’t just exercise and practice on the day of the meet. You’ve got to be there every single day doing it, and every day I am behind this keyboard from the time I get up.”
The Phenom
Written by Shira Gotshalk

It all sounds a bit like a fairy tale. J. Michael Straczynski’s first feature screenplay, Changeling, is the proverbial golden egg -- directed by Clint Eastwood, produced by Ron Howard, starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. And that’s not even the best part: It was shot from his first draft. Only one word was changed between his agent’s desk and the set. Oh, and he wrote it in 11 days.

This fantasy chain of events would suggest a fairy godmother waiting somewhere in the wings if Straczynski hadn’t already paid his dues with nearly 20 years in the TV trenches, most notably on Babylon 5, and another 14 as a journalist. Combine that with another decade of award-winning writing for DC Comics and you come up with a very driven, wildly adaptable scribe.

His varied interests were honed by his early life on the move, moving more than 20 times in his first 17 years, from New Jersey to Texas and Illinois to California. “Oddly enough, that triggered my interest in writing because every six months it was a different school, different teacher, different kids, but the books in the library were always the same,” Straczynski remembers. “So I’d be in Newark, New Jersey, reading a Ray Bradbury novel on page 19, and we’d pack up the stuff and move to L.A. and go to the library, and there would be that same book, same cover, and pick up page 20 and keep reading. Words became my continuity, stories became my continuity.”

Straczynski recently talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his process (and you thought you were disciplined…), being the new kid on the lot after all this time, and how he sometimes wonders if he’s woken up with someone else’s life.

You’ve made your name as a sci-fi guy. Is this movie a return to your journalistic roots?

Yeah, it is based on a true story. I have always been kind of a mutt, genre-wise. I got known most for Babylon 5, but before that I did Murder, She Wrote, Jack and the Fat Man, Walker, Texas Ranger and a lot of police procedural shows. In some ways, Changeling is both a return to the journalistic roots of sitting down and ferreting out this story which was not reported anywhere as far as contemporary books were concerned and drawing on that background in mainstream crime drama. I tend to keep moving. It is harder to hit a moving target, and I find that working in different genres -- everything from historical stuff to murder mystery to mainstream drama -- helps keep me from being creatively stifled. My agent would prefer me to stay in one area because you probably could get more money that way, but I like keeping fresh, doing different kinds of things, and challenging myself.

Is a story based on real events easier or harder than, let’s say, 91 episodes of Babylon 5?

Photo: © 2008 Universal Studios
Angelina Jolie in Changeling.
Well, the latter is a heart attack waiting to happen. No one has ever done that before, and there is a reason for that. There is a challenge that is very different. In terms of Changeling, my real mandate there was to get it right because what [Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie] had done was so extraordinary and deserved such recognition that I didn’t want to screw it up and get the facts wrong. So instead of treating it like a regular movie, I treated it like an article for cinema. When Universal wanted to put “a true story” onto the movie, they asked me to annotate the script, so I had to go through, line by line, scene by scene, and say this came from this transcript, this came from this testimony, this came from this article, and like 95 percent of it is drawn directly from what was said. That is the real challenge, giving all of that work in a dramatic form. Writing 91 of 110 episodes from Babylon 5 just requires no sleep for five years.

How collaborative was the work with Clint Eastwood after you turned in your final draft?

Clint was given the first draft that I wrote after a year of researching 6,000 pages of documentation. I wrote the first draft in 11 days.

Eleven days?

Well, it is pro-rated over time. One year to think about it and 11 days to write it -- it kind of breaks down as a much more reasonable schedule. I tend not to sit down and write until I have written it in my head so that I have every scene, every line, in my head so that there is this white heat when you run to the keyboard, and you have to get it all out and that process took 11 days. I have a really good typist.

It went to my agent who gave it to Ron Howard, who bought it almost immediately. When he couldn’t direct it because of Frost/Nixon, he gave it to Clint. Clint read the first draft, liked it, and that is what they shot. That is the remarkable thing about it; there were no final drafts, there were no other drafts. Clint shot the first draft, as written. They changed one word, which he then latter omitted.

“Remarkable” seems an understatement…

Yeah, there was one scene where they referenced Scrabble, and I made a glitch in my research. Scrabble was invented earlier but it wasn’t actually on the market until two years later. So we changed “Scrabble” to “crossword puzzle.” But that was the only change made in the script between what I wrote and what they shot. Obviously, when it was edited, some things were left out here or there, but they shot the first draft as written word-for-word.

How did you find the story?

I used to be a reporter for many years and a guy I knew from quite some time ago at city hall had twigged me to the story a number of years ago, but there wasn’t time to follow up on it. I did a little bit of research on it, enough to sort of play around with, but I didn’t have everything I needed to really make this work as a screenplay. A number of years passed and after finishing up working on Jeremiah for Showtime, I thought, I’m going to take some time away from television having been employed almost non-stop for 20 years and write this story. So I went off and spent a year researching this thing until I finally got all of the material in hand.

And that is the difference in this and a lot of other true stories you see on film. Very often there is a book that they give to writers that is adapted, so there is none of that in this case. The only sources were primary sources in the archive offices in city hall, in the county courthouse, the criminal courthouse. I went through letters and correspondence and painstakingly stitched this story together. I mean, sometimes I would be down at the archives of city hall for a day going through page after page of documents from roughly that period of time trying to find even one page that referenced her and to pull into the puzzle.

How surprised were you that your first feature film was immediately picked up by Clint Eastwood?

It was all just astonishing. I had avoided features for many years because at the development level, it is kind of a crapshoot whether it ever gets made or not. Scripts have spent years in development hell, whereas television is immediate. They order 22, you write 22, you shoot 22. So when you hear that Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are going to produce your movie and Clint is going to direct it and Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich are going to star in it, and oh, they are shooting the first draft, you shoot yourself in the head because it won’t get any better than that.

Except that it seems like it is…

Yeah, It has been quite interesting. After Changeling sold, there were all these offers being made. I went from being a non-entity in film to being an A-list writer all of a sudden. I went to these meetings with these different studio executives and what was cool about it is most of them didn’t really know anything at all about me. Some didn’t know I had worked in television, or comics, or anything else. I could have been 20 years old, I could have been 90 years old. They didn’t care. All they cared about and responded to was the words on the page.

And I think as for writers coming into the field, I think there is a certain measure of confidence you could take from that. That I didn’t have any friends working in the film business that I could turn to and say, “Here make this for me.” It really does come down to the quality of the storytelling and that fairy tale -- the fantasy of what Hollywood is supposed to be -- still exists from to time. That a guy could write his first screenplay and get it out there all of a sudden and not just get it made, but have it transform his entire life in a very fairy tale, showbiz kind of way.

You have a double major in psychology and sociology. How has that factored into your writing?

Well, it never hurts to have a better understanding of the world. I did not want to get a degree in writing because everyone I knew who had a degree or Master’s degree in writing was slinging burgers, you know. It seemed like a very narrow approach. I thought, I need to know more about the world and people and how they tick and to be able to get inside people’s heads. I am a qualified counselor and able to draw on those skills to get someone to open up and say things they wouldn’t normally say. And when I had to write the scenes in Changeling set in the mental hospital, when she has her interview with the doctor who keeps twisting her words around making her look nuts, that again comes from a background of psych to know how to play that kind of scene.

What about your process as a writer? Are you a disciplined writer?

I write 10 hours a day, every day, except for Christmas, New Year’s Day and my birthday. I have roughly since I was 17 years old. Someone said once that I am a very disciplined writer, but actually, when you have a compulsion, discipline isn’t necessary. I am just a compulsive writer; if I am not writing, I get nervous.

During my first marriage, when we took our first vacation in, like, 10 years (and it’s been 20 years since that vacation), my wife said, “Now, we are just going to go to England and you are not going to write. You are going to leave your stuff behind, and we are going to have a good time.” And within two days of being there, I was vibrating so badly from withdrawal that I went to a pharmacist and bought a spiral bound, pocket-sized notebook and a pen and was in the bathroom at night working on my next novel. You know, she would come knocking on the door, “What are you doing in there?” “Nothing!” And by the time I got back, I had outlined my next novel.

Like an athlete, you can’t just exercise and practice on the day of the meet. You’ve got to be there every single day doing it, and every day I am behind this keyboard from the time I get up. I’m a night writer; I write original stuff from about eight in the evening until about four in the morning and then I crash and then get up about noon-ish, depending on the break, and spend the first few hours finding my face and then re-writing the previous days work and trimming it down and editing it down to the bare minimum. So by the time eight o’clock rolls around, my brain is sufficiently awake that I can plunge into new stuff and do the whole thing again. I do that seven days a week.

There are a number of writers I know who actually don’t like writing, they write when they have to, if they have a deadline or an assignment. If they can get away for a day and go to the racetrack or go to the gym or whatever else, they are happy to do so. I like writing. I can only do one thing in life well. Everything else I suck at, but I enjoy this process. I like doing it and if I am not doing it, I get nuts.

Wow! That is definitely impressive.

Psychotic, some would say.