Written by Shira Gotshalk
Growing up as the fifth of 11 kids in Tucson, Arizona, prepared author-turned-scripter Mark Poirier to probe the messy depths of family dysfunction, as he does in Smart People. “What comes into play with my writing, especially my screenplays, is what I call with my therapist, the 'culture of teasing' in which I was raised,” he explains. “If you were good at teasing, you were at the top of the pecking line. If you weren't, you were at the bottom. So it was a fight to remain the best teaser, and I was really good at it.”
Although his teasing prowess admittedly turned his siblings against him, he laughs, it greatly aided the creation of snide comments between brothers and sisters that effectively cut each other to the core, making the audience laugh and cringe at the same time. “In Smart People, James calls Vanessa 'the perfect little housewife' and says things like, Why does physical affection bother you so much? I know this is gross, but I learned that way of communicating -- if that's what you want to call it -- from being one of 11 kids in this culture of teasing,” says Poirier.
First-time screenwriter Poirier connected with first-time feature director Noam Murro and worked in tandem throughout the filmmaking process. “I had known Noam for about three years before we finally got to Pittsburgh and started shooting. I was very familiar with his commercial reel -- which I think is brilliant -- and had used it to teach a class called 'The Short Short Story' at Bennington College in Vermont. I used his reel as examples of how you can tell a fully realized story in a really short amount of time,” he remembers. Poirier was on the set almost every day cutting and rewriting scenes. “I am so lucky. I learned so much,” he says, giving one example, “Seeing what was cut, I know how to end scenes better.”
They have plans to work together again with two projects in the pipeline. In a conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, Poirier talks about why he can't judge his characters (even the unlikable ones), how the strike solidified his identity as a screenwriter, and how Larry McMurtry fits into his story.
Photo: © 2008 Miramax Films
Ellen Page in Smart People.
You are an acclaimed novelist [Modern Ranch Living, Goats] and short story writer [Unsung Heroes of American Industry, Naked Pueblo]. When did you start writing?
I actually didn't start writing fiction until graduate school at Stanford. I was in this teaching program where you could get certified to teach high school in California. I was taking graduate courses in English and in education and I just got kind of sick of the education classes and thought, what the hell, I'll sign up for a creative writing class. I really, really liked it, and my professors were very encouraging.
How did you end up in Hollywoodland?
Very strangely. I lived with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana out in Texas after my third phase of graduate school at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and I was out there finishing my first two books and working in Larry's bookstore. He's turned Archer City into a book town. I was just reading and writing tons, and they were working on screenplay stuff and encouraging me to do the same. I just never really… fell for it, you know? I always thought it was really interesting, but I guess I was concentrating too hard on my fiction to jump into screenwriting. But I did actually find them “Brokeback Mountain.”
So a few years went by and there was this thing called the Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship through Paramount Pictures, and I found myself without a job. So I applied to it, and you could send in any form of writing, so I sent in my novel, Goats, and I got it! They hooked me up with Don Roos, who served as my mentor for a year, while I was writing Smart People. I was hooked up with Dede Gardner as my executive mentor. So with the help of those two people, I wrote Smart People.
That's quite a group of supporters for your first time out of the gate.
Isn't it crazy how lucky I was? That was the first script that I wrote. It had been living in my head as a novel for a few years, so I was already very familiar with the characters and the general shape of the story. Obviously, I had to make a lot of adjustments, but the first draft actually wasn't that hard for me.
What advice did Larry give you about Hollywood?
A lot, actually. Mainly, just to make sure I keep one paw in fiction writing and try not to get caught up in “Hollywood success” because it can be kind of arbitrary, unfortunately, whereas you have more control over the fiction you write. So that's what I've been trying to do. During the strike, I wrote a ton of fiction, but since it ended, I've barely written any fiction. It's all been going back to the screenwriting projects I had started and playing catch-up.
Smart People has a lot going on: over-educated people hiding in ivory towers, a dead spouse/mother, half-full glasses, romance, the misunderstood possibility of incest… What was the constant for you when you were writing the script?
It was the way that [Dennis Quaid's character] Lawrence hides from his depression, and the way that [Ellen Page's character] Vanessa hides from her depression. They do it in very similar ways; they do it by achieving. Lawrence tries to become head of the department. Why? It's just another thing to do, another way for him to hide from the pain that he feels. Vanessa -- straight As and a member of every committee, and also basically running a household at age 17 -- it's a way for her to hide. They both distract themselves with achievement.
You don't seem to judge your characters, even when they're not always likable…
I actually think they're all likable [laughs]. I think if I did judge them, you could see it, and it would ruin the character. But I relate to the unlikable characters, like Lawrence and Vanessa. I've certainly done that; I thought going away to college was going to solve all of my problems, the way Vanessa thinks that. I can't really judge them because that would be judging myself.
Your prose writing is noted for its lush, yet stark, detail. One of my favorites is from your short story, “Thunderbird”: She sometimes smells like concentrated urine and someone said they saw her mother in line for government cheese downtown. Do you have to modify your writing style for a script?
I do modify it, definitely. I feel like when I'm writing a script, I'm using a different part of my brain. It's a part of my brain I feel like I used more when I was in a chemistry or physics class; a sort of logic puzzle -- this has to happen here, this needs to come out in the character in this scene. Whereas when I'm writing fiction, I don't have to think that way and can add a detail about smelling like concentrated urine without taking up a line in the screenplay.
My first drafts of screenplays are closer to my fiction than later drafts. You end up having to cut 15 pages, and those details go. When I adapted my novel, Goats, I did it very closely with the director, and he sort of insisted on leaving certain little details like the ones you mentioned. And I think it's smart because you have to remember that scripts in themselves have to be a good read. Great movies can be made from scripts that aren't a good read, but I think that your script is going to be read and enjoyed if it is -- and it's more likely to be made if it's more than just a good blueprint for a movie.
Because you had already achieved literary success, did you feel less pressure to “make it” with this script?
I think so. You know, it's weird -- I don't get stressed out about meeting actors or celebrities or producers, because for me, screenwriting is just very fun. I get to sit down at my computer and make up a story and puzzle it out so it works in the screenplay format and as a film. Yeah, it's great to get paid to do that, obviously, but I was totally happy teaching at Bennington College, I was totally happy having a short story published every once in a while in journal that four people read. I feel that the screenplay stuff is all so interesting and new that I don't really feel the stress yet.
I think the first time I kind of felt it was during the strike; the strike was good, in a sense, for me in that it made me feel like I was part of a community of screenwriters. I was so busy up to the strike and then November 4th, just having to stop -- it felt like in college when you finish finals week and you go home you're just like, what do I do now? This doesn't make any sense; I should be studying for something! By stopping, it really forced me to see myself as a screenwriter, because I felt so empty. Screenwriting was more than a fun pastime; it was important and part of my identity.