Written by Dylan Callaghan
Stephen Belber was a playwright and journalist when Richard Linklater changed his writing life by making the 2001 film version of his play Tape with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Eight years later, the Julliard-schooled playwright has become a full-fledged screenwriter, honing his craft with several more scripts and a gig on TV’s ultimate procedural franchise Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Now Belber’s enjoying another first with his directorial debut Management, an off-kilter romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn about a chance meeting between two characters at a roadside Arizona motel. He recalls his sudden submersion into the screenwriting craft as a remarkably smooth one. “It was kind of perfect timing because I’d just had a child and needed to make more money,” he explains. “But really it was a pretty cool segue thanks to Richard. We both agreed in our first conversation that we should just keep the play as it was, so it was fairly seamless. I didn’t feel at all like I was selling out or having to adhere to a form that I wasn’t comfortable with.”
Belber spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about scripting Management, the importance of writing both dysfunction and dimension into his characters, and why the script you’re not pushing often winds up being the first to the screen.
What was singular or unique about this project for you?
I think what makes this different than a lot of romantic comedies is that these people are so blatantly weird and ill-equipped when it comes to the game of human connection. They’re just so unfamiliar with functioning in a normal way.
In a way they’re different than the average moviegoer but hopefully [the audience] keys into them because they are so undeniably human. The ways they reach out are so dysfunctional that hopefully it makes them more interesting to watch.
Is it their dysfunction that makes them more interesting to watch, or is it deeper than that?
Photo: © 2009 Samuel Goldwyn Films
Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn in Management.
My hope is that it’s something deeper than that. I wanted to stay away from anything generic. I wanted, in the case of Steve Zahn’s character, for example, for him to be a fully dysfunctional, fully dimensional character. I didn’t want him to be phoned in, but to be as memorable as possible. I didn’t just want him to be the funny guy who sits in his room smoking pot in a way that we’ve seen before. It’s not just another case of arrested adolescence, there’s a whole backstory to explain where he is.
Did you have these actors in mind when writing it?
No. I came upon the Steve Zahn idea fairly quickly once it was finished and I started to look around for actors who could marry this notion of weird awkwardness with great soulfulness, dramatic chops and heart. I’d known Steve’s work from back when he was on stage at Lincoln Center in New York. I knew he had this ability to play beyond the goofy sidekick role he’s become known for.
When Jennifer’s name came up it was a no-brainer for me when I reminded myself of some of the great indie work she’s already done. Upon meeting her, I realized she wanted to stretch her acting muscles in a way that perfectly fit this role and that she could bring herself into the role in a way that was very moving to me.
In what ways did the script change -- either in it’s tone when read or through rewrites -- that surprised you during rehearsal and filming?
Early on with Jennifer, we worked on developing the female role, which was a little underwritten at first. Her questions were really astute as to that character’s backstory and how I could make it better. We subsequently did a read-through of those rewrites. She helped me track what this character went through.
I think some of the script [initially] read on the page as more broad or antic and silly, but once we were shooting, I was getting such great performances from these two actors that the drama poked its head out more and steered the movie more in that direction.
So the natural dramatic gravitas started showing?
Yeah, and they were so connected to each other. Plus, even having someone like Fred Ward play the father versus someone who doesn’t have that gravitas -- maybe they’re a great actor but more strictly comedic -- you get a sense of what this father has afflicted his son with. I’m proud of casting Fred. I think Steve acted accordingly, and it became a bit of a father-son story as well in a very profound way maybe more than it read on the page.
I knew it was in the script, but I didn’t know it would be so moving to me. I wanted to honor that and not sell it down the river by then having a sort of crazy, funny scene.
What advice would you give to the unproduced screenwriter out there right now?
I’m very hesitant to give any advice because I feel like I’m the one who needs it. But I would say that Management was completely a side project for me. It was something I thought and wrote about apart from trying to write a spec script or trying to get a studio job or trying to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It really was a pet project on the side that I would scribble notes about. I think that because of that, it’s the one that got made. I just had fun, wrote from the heart and wrote these characters that I felt I knew.
It was a great lesson to me. Not that you should just write from the heart and never do research, but that if you create characters that are imbued with a sense of being, good actors will gravitate toward them and that will help get it made.