A screenwriter, playwright, and teacher...Erin Cressida Wilson's work ethic puts us all to shame. Although Wilson no longer teaches, her creative output remains enormously impressive. On top of that, she's a damn good writer. Secretary is one of the best films of this century, a truly romantic and darkly funny story. She finds honesty in what may seem like absurdity. Her erotic thriller, Chloe, is another fine example of that balance she strikes.
Her latest project is Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, which stars Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Ansel Elgort, and plenty more familiar faces. This adaptation of Chad Kultgen's novel, which Wilson co-wrote with Reitman, is about how cellphones and the Internet dominate our relationships.
Ms. Wilson was kind enough to make the time to discuss that collaboration and more. Here's what she had to say:
Is writing with a partner wildly different than by yourself?
It is. It's really, really fun and much less lonely. In terms of the experience itself, it pulled me out of my isolation. It's addicting. I'll have to get a writing partner after this. I loved it.
I was just listening the the commentary track for Secretary, and you and director Steven Shainberg seemed to have a very open collaboration. If you disagreed with a certain decision, you'd mention it.
I've never listened to the commentary. What exactly did I say?
When Mr. Grey coincidentally shows up at the laundromat when Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is there, you said how that wasn't scripted, and how you weren't sure whether it would work.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Did you have that kind of open dialogue with Jason Reitman?
That's interesting. It's a different kind of collaboration. I don't know how to describe it. The conversations are more shorthand with Jason, I would say. It's not about talking for hours, and hours, and hours on end. With Jason, it's about going with your gut and playing. With Steven, it was about intense conversations that went on for days, weeks, and months.
And neither form of working is superior?
It's just a different way of working. They're both incredibly exciting to me. What I find exciting is that I just love working with directors, adapting my style to work with theirs. I find that as exciting as writing. In these cases, I'm making a film, not making a script that will be put on a shelf.
When you're adapting a book, is it about evoking the author's voice or bringing your own voice to the story?
It really depends on the author, the book, the director, and the project. I've adapted awful books and incredible books. It's actually harder adapting incredible books, because you have to break the incredibleness and create a new incredible. With a broken story, it's already broken, so I just need to fix it. With Secretary, it was neither broken, nor incredible. I mean, it was incredible, because it was a short story with a one act. I got to turn it into three acts.
I watch a lot of films and think, "Well, that's a short story. All they did was blow more air into it." What you actually have to do is create three acts, which means you have to take a lot of liberties. If something might betray the original writer, then I think you should stay away from them. If you get too close to the writer, you can't really adapt them.
Looking at Secretary, you have a protagonist in a bubble, so there's not a lot of characters coming in and out of the story. With Men, Women & Children, it's a large ensemble. What's more difficult to structure?
For me, I'm very much about intimacy and one-on-one -- that's so easy for me. If I was to choose my preference, it'd be to write intimate stories. Like, party scenes are the hardest things to write. I find them very difficult, because I don't like parties [Laughs]. I do like to sit with one person, though. I know that world of one person or three people. When it starts becoming more than that, I think, "Oof. I don't know."
What else do you find challenging to write?
Writing football [Laughs]. Football challenged me, because, of course, that's more than three people. What else challenges me? You know, I wouldn't really want to write an action movie with a male protagonist. I might want to write one with a woman, maybe.
Have you ever seriously considered writing an action movie with a woman?
You know, Tony Scott was going to do his own remake of his own film, The Hunger. That's not an action film, but it has action in it. In this case, it was going to have more action in it. That was pretty fun, because we were blowing it up. Working with him was the closest I got to writing action. He was an A+ action director.
You know, as a Tony Scott fan, I'm ashamed to admit I had no idea he was going to remake The Hunger.
I think this is the first time I've ever told somebody from the press. I worked on it for a couple of years.
How was that experience?
It was amazing. He was amazing. He was insanely positive, full of energy, generous, and very, very specific and well-organized.
I really miss seeing his voice in a theater. Nobody makes movies like he did.
Oh yeah. Me, too. That one film on the train...
Yeah, Unstoppable. I watched it with my son when he was about eight. We watched it together and I thought, "Shit. This is such clean, pure fun, and not overly clean fun. My 8-year-old can watch this, and there's no problem. I'm so at the edge of my seat at the same time." That's pretty neat. I miss that voice a lot. I think we all do.
Absolutely. Is it hard finding directors like Tony Scott to work with, directors with their own voice?
Well, Tony was unique because he had that macho quality to him, but he was also really sensitive and female loving. He had a side to him that really wanted to work with erotic filmmaking, as you can see in The Hunger. That combination of an action macho guy with real romantic and eroticism? That's pretty hard to find. [Pauses] Wong Kar-wai? I'm trying to think of another filmmaker who can find that Incredible romance and excitement and sexuality. I find him pretty cool. I actually met him once. It was incredibly exciting.
I read that you teach writing. Have you ever showed any of his films?
I don't officially teach anymore, because the institution became so tiresome and anti-creative. No, I never showed films. I don't show films. I also don't read out loud in class. All we do is talk together and write like crazy. I just get them on their writing feet as quickly as possible. I want classes to be intense. I think watching films in a class is incredibly tedious. I think they can do that outside of class. Now I mentor at Sundance, which is incredibly fun.
That's great. I know it may be difficult to recall one lesson, but looking back on your teaching days, what was one key piece of advice you shared with your students?
I had this student once at the graduate program at Brown. I was teaching this student in screenwriting, and he came in with his pitch to me. I thought it was very boring. I asked him, "Do you like this?" He said, "Not really." I asked, "Then why are you writing it?" He said, "Because it's a film." I said, "Well, yeah?" Then he said, "Well, it's a film, not a piece of theater." I said, "So what? Does it have to be a piece of shit to be a film?" He's, like, "Yeah..." I thought, "What are you talking about?" [Laughs] I said, "Go back and write exactly what I've discussed with you, no matter how boring or embarrassing or trite you might think it is."
If they think something they write is too commercial, they should not be embarrassed. They should be happy, because they're going to make money. Some people are embarrassed because their minds are too esoteric, and they shouldn't be embarrassed either. They should just do it.
[Men, Women And Children](movie:1103142) is currently in limited release.