Screenwriters Marti Noxon, Miles Milar and Alfred Gough talk about collaborating on I Am Number 4
The writing process in Hollywood is a fluid one, and most big budget movies cycle through a number of writers, or often keep their writers writing even as the camera roles. Few scripts not written by Quentin Tarantino or the Coens are locked before production, and even the editing process on something like P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood can change what was originally intended in the shooting script. For these three, the process was such that they didn't meet each other until the film was finally locked.
Marti, with Buffy and now I Am Number Four, did you have a horrible high school experience?
MARTI NOXON: I went to an alternative school with a hundred and twenty five kids, K through 12 so I did not have a traditional high school experience at all. I don't know where it comes from, I think I'm still in high school in my mind, perpetually.
You're acting out what you wanted for high school?
NOXON: Exactly. It's a fantasy. I went to UC Santa Cruz because I thought that anybody could be a cheerleader there because I was there one day during cheerleader camp. I saw two hundred cheerleaders and thought, "oh my god, I will definitely make the squad!" I wanted to revise my whole high school experience into something traditional. And then when I got there, of course, I found out they didn't even have sports. What I missed is what I try to write. With Buffy and Smallville, what are the challenges or does it make it easier to create a new series like this?
ALFRED GOUGH: When they set this book up - when Michael Bay set it up at DreamWorks - we read it, and said, "wow, I hope they call us about this, because it's definitely something for us." It was in our wheelhouse. It was a first draft of a novel. James Frye was very open about wanting to make sure that the novel and the movie were in sync and were very similar. There were certainly things from Smallville that were familiar - for instance, Sarah in the book was like a cheerleader. And then she was dating Mark and we're like, "this is like Lana and Whitney" and you say "why do you like this girl, because she's dating the guy that you don't like." So we suggested "maybe she broke up with the guy already" so that you like her, because you realize that this is not the guy for her. They broke up, the guy hasn't let it go, and then when John comes to town, that's where the friction and the love triangles start. And I think it certainly works better and it certainly feels more credible, because as you said, it's just like that whole cheerleader-like thing or it's just like (makes farting sound). For us it was in the book, so everything we could pull from that we did. But it was interesting having exactly… it's like an alien in a small town and there's a mythology. But for us here it was Running on Empty that was a better template for this movie than Smallville or Buffy, those kinds of things. It was about a kid who had real pressure on him. In the television series, you know, we're a hundred episodes, and Clark's battling Crypto, but they're not going anywhere. There's more pressure here. So that made it more interesting and compelling. And why it's a movie too.
What was the writing process that the three of you went through in adapting the book and turning it into a screenplay?
NOXON: I never met these guys until yesterday.
MILAR: We're the beginning of the process and it's sort of the fastest movie that I've sort of been involved in that's got the main script. First I read about it in the trades. And then about a week later we got a call, we came in, read the book, then did a big sort of-
GOUGH: A big treatment.
MILAR: Yeah because we all- the book was really a raw first draft, and James was very open to changing it, and so really that first draft of the script and the second draft of the book both changed and evolved and helped each other. So that the first draft of the book is very different from the movie and what's published. We spent six months intensely writing different drafts of the script.
GOUGH: It was at the time of the holidays, it was like July Fourth they set it up. We got the book and then had our pitch, by Labor Day we were writing a first draft and turned it in by Halloween and then a second draft by Thanksgiving and a third draft by Christmas. And-
MILAR: And then we basically got green lit, director, production meeting, and then you sort of handed the baton on. And it's a team sport and so-
NOXON: And there was a draft in between too, there was another writer, so that, I never actually read these guys' draft. I obviously read parts of the book and read the draft that was in between. And then at that point I worked on it for probably ten weeks. And we never got a chance to talk. Yeah it's crazy.
What did they want you to work on specifically?
NOXON: I think for whatever reasons, at that point it had gotten a little dry, and particularly the Sarah-John stuff was not feeling fun enough, it wasn't juicy enough. And I read it and I was like, "if I were a teenage girl, I don't think I would like this girl for one thing and I don't think that I would be sucked away" so that was part of it. And then it had gotten a little dense in terms of exposition and lore. There's a lot of stuff in the book that you'll see isn't in the movie, just because it needs to be swift and if there's a real strength in the movie, it's that it's just fun and it's fast. So there was a lot of weeding through and making it as simple and easy to understand without getting slowed down.
GOUGH: Yeah it, it's hard with lore and mythology.
NOXON: it's boring.
GOUGH: It's things you can do in a book and you can spend a chapter doing where on screen the movie should come with…
An instruction manual?
GOUGH: An instruction manual. Which you don't want. So it was definitely trying. Any time you have one of these things with mythologies, it's always a question of "how are you going to get just enough and then move on?"
When it came to the action sequences, how much was on the page and how much was from the director?
MILAR: You know what? We always joke about this, because obviously we've done a lot of action movies. I'd say ninety percent of the time it's on the page. And it's always a frustration for action writers that they don't get credit for that type of stuff, though directors bring a lot to the table and D. J. is a fantastic guy. We met him, we've known him for a long time, but it has to be on the page. And directors obviously bring a lot to that, but typically I think people watch action movies just think the DP and the directors sit there and figure out the amazing stuff. It's usually the writers who come up with it because that's the foundation for these action sequences. And then things spiral up from that. Everyone contributes and stunt guys contribute, but it's everything in the movie, it all starts on the page.
GOUGH: In the first draft of the book, it was a Halloween hayride. Um, and then-
NOXON: it still really is-
GOUGH: -It really is, even though it's not actually Halloween. It's the school carnival and the haunted hayride. And then there they had a version of that Warsaw house.
MILAR: Well, in the first version of the book there were two houses.
GOUGH: There were two houses.
MILAR: They went between them. And then there was also no opening with the number-
GOUGH: That's the other thing was that the book opened- the first draft opened with him in Florida and everything was sort of going swimmingly but he had like done something heroic and sort of used his super powers. So they had to leave. And so it was. Then they said later that the other three had died before him, and and part of it - because you didn't see the Mogadorians for so long, you know what I mean - was like, "how do you set up the villain and then how do you set up that there's real stakes here?" So that was the other thing was creating the death of Number Three in Africa.
MILAR: A lot of these ideas we talked to James about and then sort of collaborated with him and figured out how to do that, so and sort of making a Chief Mogadorian as well.
GOUGH: Yeah because the other thing it was like they were the Mogadorians and in the book where it's just sort of this sort of faceless bunch. But cinematically they need a leader, and the leader has got the red belt arrows across, you just need one guy to be the leader. Otherwise it felt a little like Dark City with a bunch of like shapes just sort of moving through.
MILAR: Then the final battle, putting that in the high school.
GOUGH: Action scenes, like musical numbers, all need a concept. Obviously the haunted hayride had it. The Warsaw House had it, but the ending it just felt like, they're in the woods and then they're in the house and then they're back in the woods. So how do you contain it? And then Michael Bay said "we've got to end on the football field and then we've got to blow it up." (Laughs). All right, dude, awesome.
As a team, do you write with each other or with new technology in separate areas?
GOUGH: It's a question that always comes up with writing teams. We write together in the same room and we always have for sixteen years. I write on legal pads, and Miles writes on the computer. But we always sort of sit together in the same room and work together.
Who came up with the movie language and articulated it (for the Aliens)?
GOUGH: You know, what some very, uh, I'm sure some language expert they hired, because when you write that in the script, you write, "In Mogadorian" in parentheses. And then if you want to do it, you just italicize it. So that it's supposed to not be in English.
MILAR: And that's most of it.
NOXON: There was a third party language dude.
Like the Klingon language creator
MILAR: Like in Avatar actually.
How about working with the producers, are you conscious as you're writing that it appeals to a male and female appetite?
NOXON: The great thing about this story is that it has elements that will appeal to both. Certainly while we were working on the final drafts we were trying to find that balance between the action elements and the teen story, the high school story that would feel grounded and kind of real enough. And of course the romance, which the dudes when they see that are like "cheesy" and the girls love it. So you try not to over-cheese and just enough cheese. But you're thinking about it all the time. This movie was very much aimed at a young adult audience.
Were the pop culture references yours or in the book already, like to X Box and others?
GOUGH: Bernie Kosar was in the book and I will say, knowing, Zero about sports, I had no idea who Bernie Kosar was.
MILAR: Me too, other than it's a funny name.
GOUGH: I thought it was a funny name and I'm like "who's this?" James is from Ohio. So he knew.
NOXON: But we popped in a bunch of stuff. The Red Bull and the-
GOUGH: Xbox definitely, yeah.
NOXON: Just again to make it feel like a world that the kids actually lived in.
So the setting in the book is the same as the movie?
GOUGH: The setting in the book was exactly it, it started, they started in Florida and then they moved to Paradise, Ohio.
Does it explain in the book why they have to be killed in order?
GOUGH: It does, it does, there is some sort of, can I explain it to you now, is that what you're asking?
MILAR: That's why it's not in the movie.
GOUGH: Would you like to take this question? There was a, on Lorian when they were, and in this book there's this whole-
MILAR: It's a flashback-
GOUGH: There's a flashback where you see like the Mogadorians attacking Lorian and, you know, the sort of genocide
MILAR: A little bit above the budget of the movie.
GOUGH: Yes. Exactly. Um, they basically had these nine kids and they put some sort of Loric Charm on them, so that they basically had to be killed in order - the idea was that it would slow the Mogadorians down if they couldn't do it. That was the theory.
MILAR: It was a complication for them.
What do the three of you take away from a collaborative experience like this when you've finished?
NOXON: I think what was great about this experience was that these guys did really good work and we write in a similar vein, so knowing that they were the first guys on and then I was coming in, I was like "we all have a similar voice." And it didn't feel like we were in conflict at all. In terms of what the finished product was. It didn't feel like one of us had come and just reinvented the whole thing. Sometimes it can be awful, because you've started something and somebody else comes along and makes it something totally else. But in this case I feel like we all feel pretty good about the end result.
MILAR: Also for us it was our first book adaption so it was really exciting and really fun and it's a lot easier to write - to adapt a book than it is to write an original screenplay. So that was certainly new, you know, it was something I'd always wanted to do and this is the perfect book to do it. And also we got the chance to meet Steven Spielberg.
GOUGH: That was like meeting the Wizard.
MILAR: Quite fantastic.
GOUGH: But you're right and I think the three of us know exactly where we're coming from, from Buffy and us doing Smallville and even D. J. with Disturbia, everybody was in the same sort of tonal wheelhouse, so I think that's why the end product actually feels really good and everybody brings something different to it. It's always kind of fun to watch it at that point because you can watch it as a viewer and things can surprise you, which I like. Sometimes with a movie - once you write it - you're saying to yourself "and here comes this part that I fucking hate." It was nice, and obviously Spielberg wrote the book on all of this stuff. So it was a great collaboration.
So what was it like getting behind the curtain - as you've been describing it - with the Wizard?
MILAR: With Mr. Spielberg?
GOUGH: Oh this is it. You know what he's unbelievably great with Story. Present, committed, reads everything, sees everything. The weird part is when you're sitting in a meeting with Spielberg referencing Spielberg, obviously.
MILAR: But it's also he's very down to earth, he's very easy to talk to, and puts you at ease right away. I'm feeling like, "oh my gosh this is, sort of, you know, I mean, of course, I'm blown away." But I'm also just meeting with another collaborator who's way more brilliant than I am. I got up and I turned around and I'm looking at Rosebud, the original sled from Citizen Kane and he goes, "what?" And I said "no way." And he just said "way." And I said "so it's not like the real world at all, you know."He will tell you the most amazing stories, it's like a dream come true if you're a geek for his movies, which we all were.
READ MORE ABOUT I AM NUMBER 4