Photo: Rafy
Jeffrey Nachmanoff
“I do believe, and maybe I am naïve this way, that writing is one of the last places in Hollywood where it is something of a meritocracy. Truly good writing finds its way to the top.”
Choosing Sides in a World of Gray
Written by Shira Gotshalk

Jeffrey Nachmanoff is a steady kind of guy. After earning a Masters in filmmaking from USC, he wrote or rewrote about two scripts a year over the next 10 years until he hit the jackpot with The Day After Tomorrow. Along the way, his identity as a writer came into question. “I probably wrote 15 or 20 scripts, not many from-scratch original scripts, but a lot of page one rewrites,” he says, referring to a situation when a studio doesn't like a script and asks a writer start over but salvage the idea. “I feel like a lot of the work is in rewriting that one idea over and over and over again. At that point, I am a rewriter.”

Take Traitor, a terrorist political thriller based on an idea by Steve Martin, and Nachmanoff's debut as a writer-director hyphenate. Nachmanoff reckons he wrote at least two dozen drafts of his script before shooting began. Not only has his perseverance paid off with a big studio film starring Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce, he's learned the delicate balance between when stubbornness is imperative to the soul of the work and when it's just being stubborn. “I try and write with less ego, to protect the script and to protect the idea. I am getting two different instincts, but I think it is learning to distinguish between the two that is something you get with experience. I am sure there were times when I was starting out as a writer when I probably got too stubborn about little things that didn't matter very much, because I liked them, instead of realizing that I really needed to make sure to convince the producers or the studio that there was some bigger note that really had to be protected.”

Nachmanoff recently talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the challenges of knowing when to stand your ground, morphing genres, and being a Harvard man.

Photo: © 2008 Overture Films
Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels in Traitor.
Do you think espionage thrillers are continuing as always -- during the Cold War or any other time of near-war -- or are we in this unique time where the public has unprecedented access to technology and information and we have a new enemy? Does it change the genre for you as a writer?

Yes and no. In a way, the genre has to change because the world has become much more gray, and I think it is more difficult to make black-and-white movies in which you've got clear-cut heroes and clear-cut villains. We are in a time of disillusionment, both with our government and with our heroes. Barring truly escapist entertainment, I think people just won't swallow the pure black-and-white version of the story.

I think people are beginning to become more politically interested in movies that deal with things that are fully flushed out. For example, in Traitor it was really important to me that the characters who were Islamic radicals not be seen as cardboard cut-outs; not necessarily to see their acts as being more or less heinous than they are, but to see the individuals who are perpetuating these acts as humans was a really important theme, both because it is important to understand your enemy to fight your enemy, but also in narrative terms. As a writer and as a filmmaker, I think it just makes for better storytelling.

It certainly enriches the story…

Yeah, and if you look at some of the mainstream entertainment that is doing well right now, like Iron Man, they are really pushing the limits of the black and white more than they were even three or four years ago. So to answer your über question about the genre changing, I think all genres are shifting, all genres always shift to respond to people's moods, the country's mood, and where audiences want to go. By the same token, it is not completely new because this has happened in the past; the taste for movies has shifted over the years in both directions.

So it shifts with the culture?

I think it does; it is an interactive feedback loop. In the '90s, there was a lot of jingoistic rah-rah filmmaking that was successful because the country felt very confident and bullish and we had just won the Cold War. Espionage was a little less interesting in some ways because without the Russians there, there wasn't really a good set-up for espionage.

And you're into a phase now where people are very aware of the new enemy -- that is, an enemy that people feel is real, are concerned about, that people don't understand. And one of the things I said when I took the project on as a writer was, I wasn't interested in doing it if I couldn't be honest politically. I wasn't going to make a simplistic movie that just used the current events to sell popcorn. I mean, obviously I want to make an entertaining movie that does sell tickets, but in doing so, I think you can have your cake and eat it too. You can do that but also try and find out a little bit about the reality, about what makes people tick, and what makes the quote unquote enemy do what it does. I think you can use that to make a more exciting thriller.

Which was your goal with The Day After Tomorrow, to have an environmental angle?

Absolutely. I was in a rare position as a writer of a big blockbuster film to, first of all, to be the only writer, but also I was put out in front because nobody was very knowledgeable about global warming at the time. It was two years before An Inconvenient Truth had come out. Most of the media reports about the movie treated it as a Hollywood joke about global warming. The population did not embrace the idea that global warming was serious on the whole. We were able to make a movie that was largely popcorn entertainment but planted, I think, some seeds that bad things could really happen, and then lo and behold, seven years later Katrina happens.

Someone called me to say, “They are showing footage from your movie on TV.” They were literally showing footage -- it was kind of pathetic -- “Because we didn't have anything on Katrina but it might look something like this,” with footage from Day After Tomorrow of a city flooding. It was terrible but at the same time, it goes to show you that Hollywood can sometimes, by being wild and unrealistic, actually get much closer to the truth of something than you'd like to think.

You went to Harvard and USC. In any other walk of life, that would be a huge bonus for you. Do you think that that helps you in Hollywood, or is it a hindrance? “Oh, here comes the Harvard guy...”

I don't know. I think it would be peevish to say that it is a hindrance, but it doesn't really help you. I don't think that anyone cares where you got your fancypants degrees. There are a lot of snobby Harvard people running around in Hollywood. What is the old joke? When you meet someone from Harvard, how long does it take for them to bring up Harvard in the conversation?

I do believe, and maybe I am naïve this way, that writing is one of the last places in Hollywood where it is something of a meritocracy. Truly good writing finds its way to the top. I talk to friends and family members who say, “Oh we have a kid who wants to get into screenwriting,” and I'll talk to him on the phone, and for what it's worth I say, I think if you write a great script, it will find its way in. Even if you don't have an agent, even if you are not connected. Will it take longer? Yes. There aren't that many talented writers, there aren't that many great scripts floating around, and I think eventually people will discover it and discover you.

And also I believe if you are a talented writer, you will write more than one good script. The writers I admire, I won't list all of them, but would Steven Zallian not be Steven Zallian if one of his scripts hadn't gotten made? You know the guy has written dozens of tremendous scripts. There are a bunch of people you can think of like that. They just keep doing it over and over. I think that is valued in Hollywood, and it is not something that you can cheat one way or the other. Most of the other positions with connections you can cheat a little bit. You can cheat directing, you can even cheat acting if you are the right friend of the right person, but you can't do it with writing. Nobody can write a script for you.