What Writers Do

December 4th, 2006

Josh Friedman may not dress for success, but studio executives don’t care what he wears—sneakers, no socks, oversize shorts, a polo shirt, and an ever-present rubber band wrapped around his right wrist—as long as he keeps turning in smart screenplays.

Last summer, War of the Worlds, which Friedman cowrote, grossed $589 million worldwide and earned the author a place on Steven Spielberg’s speed dial. Opening in September is Friedman’s thriller The Black Dahlia, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank, and Scarlett Johansson.

Based on a book by L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy about the real-life 1947 murder of Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia is “a very dark, sordid tale,” Friedman concedes. “The characters do horrible things to one another, but sometimes for good reasons.”

“Noir has always had an aspect of flawed characters who are still trying to do right,” he says.

Friedman describes The Black Dahlia’s shades of gray while sitting in his sun-dappled backyard in Los Angeles’s posh Hancock Park neighborhood, where he lives with wife, Christine, and two-year-old son, Huckleberry, in Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s childhood home. “I tease them that I still have Jake’s childhood door with Wacky Pack stickers on it, so if I really need to, I’ll sell ’em on eBay.”

That’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Friedman tested his mettle as a Hollywood story­teller shortly after arriving at the University of Southern California in 1990 to study film. His first student script landed him an agent, and in 1994, a few months after leaving school (a few credits shy of an MFA), Friedman sold Dead Drop, which eventually became the Keanu Reeves movie Chain Reaction. Reworked by nine other writers before being released in 1996, the final film contained just one line of dialogue from Friedman’s original script: “I’m your friend, Eddie.”

Still, the sale put the writer on the map.

“It’s a very surreal experience to literally go from sharing a house with two other guys to a situation where every time the phone would ring, somebody had given you another $50,000,” Friedman notes.

His adaptation of the book Ghost Soldiers, about Bataan Death March survivors, attracted Spielberg and Tom Cruise, who wanted to do a World War II movie together. Although that film was never produced, Spielberg asked Friedman to write a post-9/11 take on War of the Worlds. When Spider-Man screenwriter David Koepp rewrote the script, Friedman had to fight for his coauthor credit, turning in a twenty-page, single-spaced argument citing his contributions to the movie. “Everything’s a negotiation,” he says. “You can’t take it personally.”

Last year he began recounting his misadventures in the funny, fractious world of big-time movie making at http://hucks blog.blogspot.com. “Screenwriting is a very well-paying job, but in terms of creativity, you’re being rewritten and having your work changed by actors and directors and studio notes,” he says. “I started blogging because I found I wasn’t writing enough. I felt this need to have a voice that I controlled.”

Then, last November, Friedman ate a bad burrito. Literally. He went to the hospital for food poisoning only to learn he had cancer—a tumor from his kidney. A month later, he underwent successful surgery to remove it. Initially Friedman kept quiet about the scare. Then one day a friend said to him very matter of factly, “ ‘Your blog’s kind of a lie now. It’s very confessional in many ways, but you’re going to withhold this huge thing?’ That kind of stuck with me,” Friedman recalls, “and I decided I should write about it. This is what writers do. You filter your experiences, and people are either interested in your point of view or they’re not.”

Next up for Friedman is a Fox network TV series based on The Terminator. “Not the most original idea, but a big one, so we’re doing it,” he says. He’s also waiting to see what happens with Orphan’s Dawn, an epic sci-fi story he sold to Fox last year. “Everybody at the studios thought my script must be based on a comic book or something because this whole mythology had been invented and it felt very real,” Friedman says. “That is both a compliment to me personally but also a heavy critique of the way people think about screenwriters generally, that we don’t have original ideas. We do.”

Hugh Hart writes about the entertainment industry in Hollywood.

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September / October 2006