Laeta Kalogridis
“What determines how successful you are in this business is how well you handle despair, not how you handle success.”
Island Secrets
It took 16 years after the sale of her first script for Shutter Island’s Laeta Kalogridis to earn her first produced writing credit. The keys to her survival? Humility and hard work.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

Like anyone who has survived over a decade and a half in the screenwriting trade, Laeta Kalogridis is both humble and really good.

The sole scribe for Martin Scorsese’s new film Shutter Island, based on Mystic River novelist Dennis Lehane's same-titled gothic thriller, isn’t phony, Hollywood humble, that insipid brand of affected humility borne of equal parts insecurity, desperation, and self-obsession. She’s the unobtrusively profound kind of humble that comes from having truly worked hard and tasted both victory and defeat.

Kalogridis is very heavy in the victory column at the moment. She’s in the midst of what any writer would consider a shameless, unfettered fantasy. She ended last year having worked with regular collaborator James Cameron as a writer-executive producer on Avatar. Now, as several follow-up projects with Cameron impend on the event horizon, she is also enjoying the release of a script she wrote with no interference directed by a singular living legend of cinema in Scorsese.

Kalogridis, however, doesn’t come to this party without battle scars. She experienced similar good fortune 16 years ago when, before she’d even left UCLA, she sold her first script, an epic about Joan of Arc. After an incredibly fortuitous maiden foray into the biz, she was brought down to earth soundly by never seeing that script or any other feature of hers produced until the Razzies nommed Alexander in ‘04, for which she was only one of several writers, including Oliver Stone. Still, through it all, she’s managed to live successfully as a screenwriter.

She spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the heart of Shutter Island’s story, the deal she struck with Mike Medavoy and Brad Fischer to get rights to the book and the room to adapt it without development interference, and the priceless screenwriting/life lessons she’s absorbed from James Cameron and other industry sages during her time in the biz.

Tell me how you got tapped by Mike Medavoy and Brad Fischer to adapt this novel after they snatched up its option?

Brad Fischer and I had worked on a movie called Pathfinder. He called and asked me if I’d read this book. I’d read a couple of [Lehane’s] detective novels, and I really like them, but I’d never read the one-offs like Mystic River and Shutter Island.

I read it and absolutely flipped for it. I called him back and said, “This is such an amazing book. What’s happening with it?” He said nothing and that it was under an option that was about to expire at Sony.

Photo: © 2010 Paramount Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island.

I asked if he thought we could do some kind of creative deal because I had such a conviction that the book would not survive the normal development process where there are so many points of view. It seemed like a singular story that would be very difficult to adapt in many ways because it’s very interior.

So it was crucial to you to be attached as the sole writer?

Actually, I hadn’t thought about it as being the sole writer. It was crucial to me to write something without a whole lot of development voices chiming in, just me and Brad. We’d worked together, and he’s an extremely good editor, and he’s also extremely good at leaving me alone. He’s very talented.

Sounds like a dream, a great editor that leaves you alone.

Well, the price you pay for that is that is that we did a deal where I got, in essence, no upfront money.

So you were so convinced of the potential for this story, if done right, that you were willing to forgo upfront compensation?

Yes. As bizarre as this sounds now, it wasn’t even that I was that convinced of its potential. I just loved it and wanted to do it. I’m talking about it like a child now. I just wanted it to have as good a shot as possible. I felt that Medavoy and Phoenix and Brad were a great partnership, with such a great track record and relationships with everyone. These were the people who could get the script in the best possible hands, and Mike was willing to pick up the option for me.

Our deal was that Phoenix would pick up the option, which I really couldn’t afford at the time. In exchange, I had, I think 18 months to write it. If we were all happy with it at the end of that time, we’d go out and have a fixed price so we could go to market and say, “Here’s our script, here’s our director, here’s our cast” and completely bypass the development process with the exception of writing for the director and cast. I don’t consider that part of development. I consider that part of production.

What’s different about this story compared to the other Lehane novels in terms of the heart and spirit of the tale?

A big part of what makes it different is that it deals with different themes. There’s a specific nexus of that particular time in American history – post-World War II, post-Holocaust, and the beginning of the Cold War, so there’s this almost institutional paranoia that’s taking root. It was something my grandfather had told me that sparked this. He said after the war, they had seen the Holocaust and what we did in Japan and they all felt like the world was ending, that we were on the edge of destroying humanity. So in this book Teddy [played by Leonardo DiCaprio] embodies this sense of horror and fear mixed with pride for what we’ve done. He’s an ex-soldier.

But he’s haunted by the concentration camp liberations?

Yes. He was at the liberation of Dachau. The juxtaposition of his life as a marshal in the States versus his life as a soldier overseas is part and parcel of the fundamental dichotomy of the book – all of this horror and all of this ‘50s prosperity and beauty. And there’s this undertone of fear – what are the Russians doing? Will there be a nuclear Armageddon?

So is it a kind of Joseph Conrad-style journey into a jungle of haunting and fear for the future?

Exactly. It’s very much like that.

Tell me specifically how you initially broke this novel?

The novel has a very cinematic structure. For me the difficult part was choosing what to leave out and what to combine. There are some very disparate story elements. It was a choice in the screenplay to try and make the viewer feel that it isn’t that these elements don’t sit together. It’s that you are being pulled in lots of different directions, and you have to decide which is the most important thing to be following.

Part of what drew me to this book is that it was such a beautiful story and such a great cinematic structure that it was a question of figuring out how to preserve the spirit of that even as you were having to lose or reorder many of the things in it. You couldn’t preserve the word of the book but you could preserve the spirit and that was my focus.

So you had to do some streamlining?

Some streamlining, some cutting, some combining of characters and collapsing of time and a little bit of rearranging of locations for practical reasons.

So all told, from your first getting the book to completing your first draft, how long did this take?

I did a really extensive outline first that Brad and I went over together. It was about 40 or 50 pages. That took about two weeks [but] because I was working at the same time I was writing on other projects, I would say it took about a year.

Have you always been a big outliner? Especially since this is a thriller, how much important was the outline to keep things taut and well paced?

Of course, since I’d not really worked in thrillers before, it necessitated I do an outline where I could track where the reversals were and where each moment could go. That said, I started this extensive outlining process when I was working for Jim Cameron on the very first thing we did together, which was Battle Angel [set for a 2011 release]. This script process is part of how Jim works. I found once I’d done it, it was hugely helpful. It’s almost like doing an abbreviated first draft.

After selling your first script early, you suffered droughts and climbed back to great heights. Do you think selling that first script so early was ultimately a good thing or a bad thing for you?

It was a very good thing for a number of reasons, not the least of which was, it allowed me to start working as a professional writer, which is a very different experience than wanting to work as a professional writer.

Now I realize how stupid that question is.

No, it’s not at all stupid! I’m being perfectly serious. I think that once you’ve started the process, whatever ups and downs occur, you’re still remarkably lucky and blessed to be able to continue working. For the last 16 years, I’ve been able to support myself solely as a screenwriter. I feel so lucky. Whatever ups and downs my career has had pales in comparison.

That said, when Joan of Arc sold, as you know, it was not and still has not been made into a film. I think that a person can have too much success too quickly, and it can alter your expectations of what’s normal.

You’re human and to have that big success early, your expectations can go sky high.

You know, weirdly, that wasn’t my experience, but I think it wasn’t my experience in part because, well, because of Howard Suber at UCLA. He used to be the head of the producing program and now he’s professor emeritus. Howard [taught me that] what determines how successful you are in this business is how well you handle despair[TK] not how you handle success. Everybody can handle success. It’s easy. I’ve been fortunate, depending on how you look at it, that enough things have been difficult that I can recognize how unbelievably good my life and work are for me.

I pretty much went right from being a student into the heart of it. It was good because I learned a lot really fast and because of the way my career shook out, I’ve never taken myself too seriously.

And from this 16-year plus journey, what sage advice do you have about surviving this business as a writer?

Ha! That’s easy. LIVE WITHIN YOUR MEANS and you can capitalize those words. We still live in the same house we bought after I sold my first script. That was great advice I got from Dan Pyne, who was my independent study professor on the script that I first sold. He told me to not change my spending habits and live within your means. That’s the practical advice.

Then I would say on a creative level, if you want to follow your heart creatively, be prepared for success and disappointment. Don’t assume that it will be all one or the other, but for God’s sake, don’t assume it’ll all be success. I’ve taken a number of creative leaps, and some of them worked, and some of them didn’t, but I don’t regret any of them because you can’t possibly get to the ones that work without the ones that don’t. To me that’s a very artistically fulfilling way to live.