Chatting with screenwriter Michael Konyves over coffee, he admits to us that the last time he tried Googling his own name, the only pictures that appeared were of Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. For a writer looking to establish themselves among the entertainment industry’s elite, that’s a big step in the right direction. A Montreal native, Konyves recently succeeded in adapting Mordecai Richler’s international bestselling novel Barney’s Version for the big screen. The film, starring Oscar-winners Hoffman and Giamatti, marks Konyves highest-profile project to date.
Konyves talks to Bitchin’ Lifestyle about Barney’s Version, the realities of what it takes to make it as a screenwriter and the pros and cons of movie-making on both sides of the border.
Angelique Picanco: I was researching Barney’s Version and on Wikipedia it says that the movie’s been in production for 12 years. Is that true?
Michael Konyves: Yes, but it’s been in ‘development’ not in ‘production’.
AP: What does that even mean?
MK: It means that the producer, Robert Lantos, bought the rights to the book when it came out. He loved the book and he’s been trying to adapt it for 12 years and trying to get a workable draft.
MK: It’s [Barney’s Version] pretty dense. You don’t read it and go ‘Oh, I know how to make this into a movie.’ It’s written in the first person, it’s a memoir, and there are a million and one characters in it. There are all these different tangents to the storyline, and he has Alzheimer’s while he’s writing it – he’s losing his memory. So for these 12 years, Robert was trying to get a draft that worked.
AP: So how do you fit in to all this?
MK: I read it when it came out and then a couple of years ago I picked it up again for some reason and I read it again. I said to myself ‘this is a great book, I wonder who has the rights.’ I found out through a friend that Robert Lantos had the rights and I managed to get a meeting with him through another producer that I knew. I didn’t know that he had been working on it for 12 years; this is one of Robert’s passion projects. Basically I went home, took a month, and wrote a 25 page screenplay of what I thought the whole movie could be. And after that I got the job. He wasn’t looking for guys like me. I’m nobody. There are a bunch of big writers out there.
Justin Fragapane: Do you think being from Montreal helped you at all?
MK: Being from Montreal? No. Being from here, you know the city – that helps of course. I think culturally, that’s something that helped. I’m Jewish. The guys in the movie, that’s my parent’s generation so I know how they talk. In terms of details, it helped write the story. I guess if it was a story set in Texas, it’d be better if I came from Texas. But ultimately, I think it was a coincidence.
AP: What’s the most difficult part about writing a screen play based on a book?
MK: The hardest thing for me was finding the movie. You have a story, but it’s not a movie. I think the hardest thing for most people is to decide what you’re going to let go of, what you’re going to get rid of and what are you going to come up with that going to be original. I personally think that if adaptations don’t work it’s because writers weren’t willing to make new stuff up to capture the story. In a book you have every detail and you have every character’s thoughts. In a screenplay you can’t have everyone talking about how they’re feeling, so I need to figure out a scene or a way just to get it ‘seen’.
JF: I almost feel like the worst adaptations are the ones that try to stay too close to the original book. Would you say you had to find a balance between your own stuff and staying true to the material?
MK: Yes, absolutely. There’s a core to what every story is about. The book is always going to have so much more than what you’re going to have in a movie. It doesn’t matter if the author is James Joyce, just because it’s brilliant doesn’t mean that it makes for a great movie. You have to have the balls to be like ‘alright, it’s not that I think I’m better, I’m just doing something very different.’
AP: Do you have any favorites?
MK: I really liked ‘There Will Be Blood’ that was a movie inspired by a book. So he [Paul Thomas Anderson] took the beginning part of the book and then went in another direction and wrote a different story. He took the characters and the framework, the setting and how it started, and then kind of wanted to do his own interpretation of it.
JF: It’s cool that so much care went into it creating Barney’s Version. AP mentioned 12 years. Usually that has something to do with rights and legalities, not because someone’s trying to make it the best it can be.
MK: Oh yeah, with Robert, he didn’t want to put something out until the script was good. This is by far the biggest thing that I’ve done that’s been made into a movie.
JF: Do you have other stuff in the works?
MK: I have other scripts that I have written and sold but they haven’t been made yet for various reasons, but that happens along the way.
JF: Does that bother you though; like, you sell something and you’d like to see it made but…
MK: Yes it does, but that’s just the way it is. Writing the script is one thing and it being good is another. Writing it, it being good, and selling it is an entirely different thing. And then actually getting it made is a WHOLE other thing. It’s not that they’re [the scripts] not good – it’s just timing, the market, whoever owns the rights, getting the actors attached to it, getting the money at the same time as the actor and the director. The more you do it [script writing] the more you realize ‘what a stupid choice of job to get into.’ [Laughs] It’s ridiculously hard to get anything made.
AP: So what if I’m an aspiring screenwriter? I think the most difficult part for someone looking to break into the business is that they don’t know where to start. What’s the process?
MK: I didn’t go to film school. But film school can be beneficial. I started working in production when I finished university because I decided I wanted to work in film.
JF: What did you study?
MK: English Literature, whatever. I went into English so I didn’t have to take tests. I was like ‘what can I go into where I don’t have to study.’
AP: I should have done that!
MK: [Laughs] it’s not like I was a good writer either! I was an average ‘C’ student. Anyways, I started working on sets as a production assistant and whatever jobs I could get, and then I worked for a director for a while and I started to think about writing. I started writing late in life compared to most writers.
AP: How does the industry differ in Canada as opposed to L.A?
MK: There is an industry in Canada, a great industry, but L.A.’s the center of the business. You almost can’t compare how movies get made in Canada to how they get made in L.A, especially in terms of how you break into them. In the beginning, if you just write. Then actually getting it read? There is no ‘one way’ – it’s a process of asking everyone you know and everyone they know. When I wrote my first script, I spent some time in LA and I would drive around with the scripts in my car, ready to hand it over to anyone I met. Then you gotta get an agent because producers won’t usually read unsolicited material.
AP: So it’s all about networking?
MK: A lot of networking. That’s just the way it is. And you have to write something that’s original so you can try to sell it – or at least for people to read as an example – to be up for jobs. But ideally, you want someone to buy it. For that, you have to be smart. You have to know what the market wants, you have to know who you’re going to, and how much the movie would cost to make. Are you writing 2012? If you are, then you’re not going to go to small local Montreal producers. If it’s a 250 million dollar movie, then that’s the movie you try to sell in L.A. You need a studio.
JF: Being from Montreal, would you say the best thing to do to succeed is to get the hell out of here and Canada?
MK: No, Not at all. There is a really good industry here. It’s very supportive – the government helps us make movies and we have good programs. You can make short films; depending how old you are the government helps with that. Use the system – we pay for it and it’s there to support the arts. I don’t know all of the programs – I think one of them is TeleFilm. You can apply with an outline of the script with the idea, and if they approve it, they give you money so you actually have time to write the script. The nice thing is, because the movies are smaller and the government supports us, the movies are generally more interesting – they’re not 2012. Quebec has its own industry that’s amazing – the French put out great movies.
AP: Should people write a screenplay about what they think people will like or what they themselves want to write about?
MK: One thing to keep in mind when writing is this: when it comes to a Saturday night or Wednesday night what would you go watch? It took me a long time to learn that. You know, like as opposed to being really ‘arty’ and ‘what you’re all about.’ If you really want to go see 2012 even if you like Wes Anderson movies, then you should write something like 2012 if that’s what you usually enjoy the most.
JF: Then the idea is to write to entertain then?
MK: Not really. What do you like? What interests you? Write about that. There are going to be other people like you willing to spend their money on it. That’s part of it, you are writing for an audience. You don’t write a movie so you can watch it by yourself. It’s like music. You don’t make it so you can listen to it by yourself.
AP: So you’re advice is to write for yourself and like-minded people who will appreciate it?
MK: Yeah. So whatever stuff gets you excited – doesn’t matter what type of movie it is – if you’re excited about it, there will be other people excited about it.
JF: Do you have to worry about market saturation at that point though? Like say three post-apocalyptic movies came out within the last year, should you shy away from writing another?
MK: You can’t control that. It takes a long time to write a script – well, it takes me a long time to write a script. The hardest thing for me is committing to the idea. I’ll research, write, send it out, and get notes. If it actually gets made, it’s gonna be a while that you’re living with the script, and then it’s going to be part of your resume for the rest of your life so you’d better really like your idea. If you love horror movies, then you should write a badass horror movie. And then every time you talk to someone you better be able to say “This thing is f*cken awesome!” not just because you want to sell it, but because it is awesome. By the time you actually do sell and get it made the market has completely shifted anyways. Right now we’re in a real popcorn movie phase. Money is being put into the big franchises, but that’ll change.
AP: I think at a certain point people eventually get tired of the ‘fluffy’ movies, don’t you?
MK: There’s always a huge audience for that, but even that audience will get tired of it if it’s crap. You can’t put out things like the Incredible Hulk anymore, Dark Knight set the bar for good superhero movies. But then again there will always be movies like Transformers where people just run to it and we don’t know why.
AP: Okay, enough about bad movies. Right now you’re on set?
MK: Yes, I’m on the Barney’s Version set. Writers are not usually on set. I’m there because I have a good relationship with the director and producer so I’m allowed. TV writers are usually on set. Right now, I watch a scene, I take notes, we discuss the scene, and sometimes I write new lines. There isn’t a lot of re-writing on set for Barney’s version. Some movies are really bad because you shot them before they were ready. With Barney’s Version, we were ready.
AP: Do the actors sometimes throw in their own lines?
MK: Yes, and that’s okay. And they want to know if it works, or maybe they have a problem with one line and want to discuss it. Sometimes it’s just the rhythm of the speech so I help them with that. Sometimes, when you hear people do the actual lines, it’s different – it may sound worse and you have to re-write it and sometimes it sounds better – and that’s when they [the actors] make it good. That’s the difference between good actors and bad actors.
JF: You say this is one of the biggest things you’ve done. Was it amazing to have Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti working with your script?
MK: It’s unbelievable. Paul Giamatti – he’s unbelievable. He’s in every scene of the movie, and he’s so ridiculously good. The actors just make scenes better than they are. The entire cast is really great. It makes me look much better [laughs]. I would suggest aspiring writers to get together with a bunch of actors and read their own work from beginning to end. You can hear the movie and you’ll end up changing things by just hearing them out loud. It’ll save you months of notes and re-writes. But when you have someone read your work, just make sure they’re people who are honest and will tell you the truth.
JF: Do you ever think you’ll get into directing one day?
MK: Sure. As a writer, you see the whole movie in your head. But you have to be prepared to finish one job and do another because as a director you’re working on a movie for two years in every aspect of it.
AP: So you’ve been writing for a while now, do you still get writer’s block?
MK: Absolutely! I don’t write easily. I don’t get up every day saying ‘I’m going to write and I HAVE to write.’ I’m much happier when I’m not writing [laughs]. I wake up in the morning and it’s a lot of procrastination and then bursts of great productivity. But yes, I still get it. Writing is a lot of hard work; it takes a lot of dedication. When I wrote my first script, The Key Man, I sold it to Summit. I didn’t know anything about the business and I didn’t treat it like a job, I wrote whenever I wanted to. Now, I set my alarm and treat it like a real job. It’s not romantic. I don’t stay up all night drinking scotch, sleep all day or have all these artists at my house.
AP: So the best thing someone can do get better at their craft?
MK: Watch a lot of movies, read a lot of good and bad scripts before you see a movie, learn how they flow. Read a lot of books. You want to learn good story telling. Screenwriting is being able to tell a really good story.
AP: How do you define success?
MK: Paying the rent! Paying the rent, doing something you love, enjoying life, and always asking yourself, “okay, what’s next?”
Here’s your first look at Barney’s Version starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre, Scott Speedman, and Bruce Greenwood.
– Angelique Picanco & Justin Fragapange