Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth on Writing For Actors
Behind the scenes with screenwriter Carl Ellsworth
Carl Ellsworth is an American screenwriter best known for his movies, which include Red Eye, Disturbia and The Last House On The Left. Domenique Fragale spoke to Carl on behalf of Spotlight to tell us more about the role of the screenwriter and how performers influence his writing process.
My favourite movies are all about asking ourselves: if we were in that position, what would we do? It’s about putting the everyday person in extraordinary circumstances.
What made you want to become a screenwriter?
The pivotal and affirming moment was when my dad took me to see the first Die Hard movie in 1988. I can still remember how I felt when I sat there at our local theatre, in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, because I’d never seen a movie affect people in such a powerful way before. The packed audience was going crazy – rooting for this ordinary guy to prevail, to rescue his wife and beat the bad guys. It was a mind blowing, life changing moment where I was like, ‘Man, I knew I liked movies’ but I also knew I had to be a part of them in someway. My favourite movies are all about asking ourselves: if we were in that position, what would we do? It’s about putting the everyday person in extraordinary circumstances. That solidified it.
How did you achieve your dreams of writing for the big screen?
I took a zigzag path of getting where I wanted to go. I went to college, studied cinema and photography and three weeks prior to graduating I took one screen writing class, moved out to LA three weeks after and became a “Gopher” (a production assistant) on the Susan Somers Talk Show. It was clear I didn’t want to be doing production assisting for the rest of my life, but it gave me a greater understanding of the industry and what life was like behind the scenes.
I was told that whatever you wanted, you had to make it known, so after work I’d go straight home and write scripts. I’d constantly be writing at any opportunity I could and people began to see what I was passionate about. My first contacts were mainly those in television. So, I started off writing spec scripts so I could prove I could capture the voice of the shows. My favourites were those shows that were almost mini-movies, like The X-Files.
It is also completely true about who you know in this business. That’s the other half of the battle - getting your stuff read or seen. I had my ups and downs of course, as does everyone, but that’s the business – there’s always going to be your ecstatic times at one moment then hitting rock bottom the next. I finally worked my way up from writing for shows I knew would never see the light of day, and I knew all I wanted to do was write for movies, so I finally [did, with co-writer Dan Foos]. It got me a couple of TV meetings but nothing set in stone, and I was getting desperate, so I brought it to my agent and just asked them to send it out. It was one of those things where my phone hadn’t rung in three years and suddenly my agent was telling me that Steven Spielberg was reading Red Eye. At the end of the day DreamWorks had picked it up and it was a dream come true, because I approached it in a ‘glass if half empty’ attitude and expecting to be shown the door.
As an actor I find it difficult to watch things sometimes when I’m sitting there and saying ‘I would have done this differently’ or guessing the ending, do you find yourself doing that too?
I do and I also like to look at shows that inspire me and see how they work. Broadchurch really impresses me, as well as Breaking Bad (which I know everyone loved as well). If you really look at that production, it was so satisfying from beginning to end. I think it was one of the best-written shows of history. As a writing exercise, I would pause it and ask myself, ‘What happens next? How are the writers going to get this character out of this situation?’ and I could never guess. I look for that when I’m looking to binge-watch a new show.
You’ve written films like The Last House On The Left, Red Eye, Disturbia, as well as TV episodes - including Buffy The Vampire Slayer - what made you go into these kinds of dark themes?
It was never intentional, I guess I was just drawn to horrific situations and never expecting what was going to jump from around the corner – a great way to live! I suppose I was just always sympathetic to those situations. With Red Eye, director Wes Craven wanted to branch out with a more Hitchcockian ‘thriller’, instead of something too dark and that’s what we did and achieved. As a dark genre screenwriter, I think people think that’s always my state, but I don’t go to the movies wanting to leave unstable – I go because I want to get something out of it; I need a little bit of hope. Exactly why I suggested having our lead protagonist in The Last House On The Left remake survive, so that the story line isn’t just about revenge, it’s about survival and making it more relatable to the audience – making them ask themselves, ‘How would the every day person get out of this situation?’ I want to evoke emotions.
When I’m writing scenes together, I always take a step back and imagine myself as the audience and ask myself ‘What do I want them to be thinking? Is it suspense? Fear? Hope?’ and try and find small details within that. I think about how far I could take them to get the effect that I wanted.
Keep working with the writer wherever possible – we should all be looking for ways to improve the work, whether it be the first process of writing or the day of shooting.
When you write, do you have particular actors in mind for the characters? Or is it just a certain air?
Absolutely. When I first imagined Red Eye, I had a George Clooney in my head but when they cast Cillian Murphy it was a brilliant choice. In the case of Disturbia, when I worked with Shia LaBeouf, he was a great actor and wasn’t afraid to ask questions, so it became a team effort. The more we spoke the more I found myself adjusting the dialogue to fit his natural voice. The same happened with David Morse. I had ideas planned, but when David came up and asked if he could perform it with a different approach it was refreshing – whether we’re writers or actors, everyone has to be willing to collaborate on the art form. We have to be open; everyone wants to make the best product we possibly can so the best thing we can do is elevate the material, instead of being selfish and stuck in our ways.
How do you feel when your writing’s taken out of your hands?
Terrified, but energised at the same time for the unknown. There’s a saying that goes ‘the first step to screwing up a screenplay is going to shoot it,’ but that’s how things go – it’s your baby, of course, but you just have to trust the people around you and let go. I’m in situations where things are so close to happening then fall through but that’s this industry, nothing’s ever in concrete.
What is your writing process like?
The situation usually dictates the characters. With Red Eye, for example, I wanted a strong, real female protagonist that meets someone completely different from her. I wanted to make the audience question how they would be under the same situation of having their mundane, 9-to-5 job be completely switched on its head, to the point where something about that mundane job you do may actually be needed to kill someone. I then like to look at the ordinary person’s superpower and in Rachel McAdams’ case, it was her power as a hotel manager to be able to make a phone call to change someone’s room. As I touched on before, the overall finished product is a team effort and it’s vital for us in the art world to be open to conversations.
Even working with someone of such high esteem as Wes Craven, I still had qualms about ideas he had in the beginning, but when you really listen to feedback and see the finished package, he was right all along and it added to the piece of making the characters even more three dimensional and personal.
Another time I remember working with Shia; his character gives a monologue to his love interest in Disturbia and we must have written over a hundred variations of this speech. In the end, pretty much every cast and crew-member was involved in some way to create magic. Sometimes it takes for someone not in your position to see aspects you hadn’t thought of before to elevate and bring something new out. We all think we know best, and it can be difficult to let someone impact your initial judgement, but it’s a greater show of someone’s love for something to let their ego go, say they were perhaps wrong and listen to something which could benefit all in the long run.
As someone who isn’t an actor but works and spends a lot of time thinking about them, what advice would you give performers?
Keep working with the writer wherever possible – we should all be looking for ways to improve the work, whether it be the first process of writing or the day of shooting. Make friends with us because we want to be included and not just sitting over at the craft service table eating snacks! A vital piece I’d like to stress is to not panic in a situation where you’re reading something and it somehow just doesn’t seem to sound right coming out of your mouth. A lot of actors are guilty of thinking that once the script’s published, that’s it. But anything’s able to be altered right before “action” is called. Also watch TV shows, films, read books, scripts – do all you can to keep your hands and mind creative!
Carl shall next be working (hopefully) on an upcoming Gremlins project with Warner Bros. and producers Chris Columbus and Steven Spielberg.