Written by Dylan Callaghan
There can be virtue in mooching off one’s parents and screenwriter-playwright Bert V. Royal is the proof. Before he became a writer, the author of the smart, new high school comedy Easy A, starring Emma Stone (Superbad, Zombieland), was pulling double duty as a casting director and nightclub doorman in Manhattan when his tank ran empty.
“I was burned out, exhausted,” he explains. “I called my dad and asked if I could take a few months off.” When his dad asked why he needed the time he, in a spur-of-the-moment whopper, blurted that he, “wanted to write something. I was kind of jerking his chain. I really just wanted him to support me for a few months.”
In keeping with this false pretext, he spent the next two and half months, “on my ass watching daytime television.” Then, with his free ride drawing to a close, his father asked to see what Royal had written.
But here’s where Royal found the virtue in a few paid months off work: unlike a less talented mooch, he actually sat down and wrote a stage play that was quickly mounted in New York. It was the first bit of writing he’d ever finished. His career as a professional writer was born – on a freeloader’s fib.
Easy A came about just as smoothly and is Royal’s first produced script. It boasts a sparkling cast, including Amanda Bynes, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kudrow, and Malcolm McDowell. It continues in the tradition of high school classics from The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink through Clueless and Mean Girls and plays with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter while spinning its own morality tale focused on the cruel folly of gossip and social dishonesty.
Royal spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his debut, how he wrote the initial draft in less than a week and why the fact that he never went to high school has fired his fascination with that perilously angst-laden social crucible.
This film is a nice addition to the tradition of American comedies examining survival in the social jungle of high school. Were you aiming for that?
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Emma Stone in Easy A.
Absolutely. I’m sort of fascinated by teenagers, so that was my jumping off point. I didn’t go to high school.
Were you homeschooled?
I was homeschooled. Just for the high school years. So maybe a part of it is trying to live the high school experience I never got. I think that’s why I’m so fascinated by teen angst. I had a pretty fine upbringing, but I love the idea that with kids everything is so at a 10 all the time.
I grew up watching John Hughes’ movies. I loved Clueless and Mean Girls. I like a good teen movie. They’re few and far between though.
Sometimes when you are really fond of certain films and genres it can be perilous as a screenwriter because you’re too in love with other films. Obviously it’s just a launching point, but did you have any trouble with that?
It was definitely a launching point more than anything. The most influential movie for Easy A was probably Can’t Buy Me Love, which I haven’t seen in years, but I loved growing up. There are a lot of tonal similarities and the idea of something relatively innocent that spins completely out of control. That was definitely an inspiration.
Sort of like Clueless, which is based on Jane Austen’s Emma, this script uses Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but more as a plot device than a narrative basis. Where did that idea come from?
I thought it might be kind of an adaptation, but by page six, I had gone so far afield of that idea that I knew it wasn’t going to be an adaptation.
What’s the moral of this story?
I wanted to say something about judgmental people. I’ve known so many in my life and I’ve been judgmental as well. I wanted to make a comment about people’s private lives staying private. The rumor mill can really mess up people’s lives. I left college because of rumors.
Rumors about your personal life?
Yes. It involved me and my circle of friends. Something got said and spread around and all of my friends turned on me at once. I walked into school and it was literally like that scene at the end of Dangerous Liaisons, when she walks into the opera.
Oh my god, that’s not a scene you wanna be the Glenn Close character in.
It was awful.
How quickly did you write this script?
I wrote this script in five or six days.
Once I got on a roll, I wrote this very, very quickly.
Although, I did take a little break for about two weeks. I had a different ending in mind – a much darker ending – so I got to about a 110 pages in five or six days and then came back after two weeks and wrote the last nine or 10 pages.
How much time were you spending each day during that five or six-day period?
I didn’t chain myself to the desk. I’m very loose about that. I sit down when I can make the script better. You know, my father says that I write best when I’m depressed, and I think he might be right. Having written this after the writers strike, that’s probably the most panicked I’ve ever been. I was just sitting in bed with a bottle of wine watching Law & Order: SVU – that was my dark place. So when I was able to finally pry myself up, for whatever reason I was really able to get into the script.
How’d you feel about the script when you read through it after taking a few weeks away?
It’s so much fun to come back to it. You get to laugh at your own stuff that you forgot you put there.
Did you make a lot of changes on the first 110 pages on that read through after the two weeks off?
Not a ton. I like to get through that first draft, and then I’m a big fan of getting notes from people. I like to get it done and get it out there. I have this counsel of people, my agent, my friends and family, that’s very large. Once I pass it around to them, I make another pass on it.
And you had no particular outline going into this either, right?
No. I sat down at page one, and I had no idea where I was going. I was along for the ride. It worked for me in this case. Sometimes I feel like you can overthink a script to death. It should flow organically.
And then it sold right away?
When Screen Gems said, “We want to make this movie,” I’d heard that before, so I didn’t really believe it, but nine months later they were shooting. Everyone has just been amazing. There’s never been a roadblock with this movie. It just happened.