With films like THE CELL (2000), POSEIDON (2006), I AM LEGEND (2007), THOR (2011) and the OLDBOY remake (2013) to his name, Mark Protosevich is one of the busiest and most sought-after screenwriters in the business. I spoke to Mark about his early, formative filmgoing experiences, getting his start in the film business and working on those five screenplays. In part one, we spoke about his early years, THE CELL and I AM LEGEND.
What were some of your formative cinematic experiences?
Well, most of the first movies I saw, I saw on television. I grew up in Chicago and the local TV station WGN had a program on Sunday afternoons called 'Family Classics'. That’s where I discovered one of my favourite films of all time, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938). I loved all the Errol Flynn films – CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE SEA HAWK (1940). ‘Family Classics’ also showed films like TREASURE ISLAND (1934) with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, the Clark Cable/Charles Laughton version of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), and a lot of the Ray Harryhausen movies, my favourite being MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961). Seeing these films for the first time, albeit on TV, were terrific experiences. On Saturday nights, WGN had a program called ‘Creature Features,’ which is where I first saw all the classic Universal horror movies, and I became obsessed with them. My whole life revolved around Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. There was a company called Aurora that made plastic models of all these characters and I used to build and paint them and keep them in my bedroom. I had my mother sew me a cape and I would wander around the neighborhood pretending I was a vampire. The Universal films were hugely influential for me, but when I was a little older I was exposed to the Hammer films, and there was a quality to them that was perhaps more attractive - in a very different way. They were more adult and there was a greater sense of the monsters posing a real threat. They were also more modern than the Universal horror films, which felt like products of a different bygone era. I’ll never forget watching the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing DRACULA (1958) with my mother and both of us being terrified, thrilled, and delighted. I now have a beautiful, huge French poster for that film and it hangs in my living room.
But in terms of actual cinema-going experience as a child? It was the usual Disney fare. CINDERELLA (1950), THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1963), THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), MARY POPPINS (1964)… I think I even remember seeing SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)and even as a kid realizing, ''This is horrible.''
One experience I very strongly remember was at nine years old being taken to see THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) by my parents. My older sister had seen it and had raved about it and once she assured my parents there was no nudity or sex in it (the violence was fine), they decided to take me. It was my first 'adult' movie experience in a theater and I was absolutely thrilled. It was quite exhilarating – especially the car chase.
Which film do you see as your most important moviegoing experience?
When I was twelve or thirteen I had perhaps the most profound and influential moviegoing experience of my life. I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) for the first time in a theater. This was 1973/1974, a re-release, but I had never heard of the movie and it hadn’t appeared on TV yet, at least not to my knowledge. There were theatres in my neighborhood that on Saturday and Sunday afternoons would show triple feature horror movies. It was essentially cheap babysitting, as parents would give their kids money for a ticket and candy and just dump them in the theatre. The place was full of kids, and normally it was nuts - kids talking, running down the aisles and so on, because most of the movies shown were things like GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971). But when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started, the whole place went silent. Every kid watching it was mesmerised and terrified. I would usually go with a friend, but I was there by myself this particular time, and I remember at a certain point in the film being so frightened that I looked over at this other kid who was by himself and I could see he was in the same state I was in. So I got up and I sat next to him because it was more comforting to be 'with' someone than being alone. We didn’t say a word to each other, but it helped. I remember coming out of the theater after that bleak ending and realizing I'd never seen anything like it before. I was shaken, but also thrilled because – in retrospect – it showed the powerful effect a film can have on an audience. All I can say is that I’ll never forget it.
What fuelled your ambition to become a screenwriter?
When I was very young I thought that I would be an actor. From the ages of twelve to fifteen I really enjoyed performing, but as I got older, I hated auditioning and it was unpleasant for me to think that it - auditioning - was something I'd have to do for the rest of my life. I was also drawing a lot at that time, so I was also thinking of going into illustration, which was my primary focus when I was in high school. I thought I would write and draw comic books as a career but I got to a point where my drawing skills peaked at only a certain level and would most likely stay that way. I realised that I didn't really have what it takes to be a comic book artist, but I'd always written stories though. I remember writing my first vampire tale in the fifth grade. My high school offered a film class and it was mostly film history, but you could also make your own Super 8 film as your final project. I made a stop-motion animated film about humans enslaved by robots. One human tries to escape and a robot tracks him down and in the end, they both die. I spent weeks building an elaborate spaceship model and a moon colony model on the ping-pong table in the basement. On a personal and creative level, everything just came together for me while making that little Super 8 movie. At that point I knew that I wanted to have a career in film and for me, writing the story and script was the most satisfying part of the process. Also, I was getting exposed to some wonderful films at that time, like TAXI DRIVER (1976) and CHINATOWN (1974). When I was first in college it was the German New Wave and Fassbinder, Herzog and Wim Wenders, whose films I love ‘til this day. I went to Columbia College in Chicago and they had one of the best film programs in the country at the time. In the first few weeks of my first class, I shot a very short piece using 100ft of 16mm black and white film. I cut it with a block splicer, tape, a viewer and a couple of reels. I fell in love with the whole process. Also, it was a very nurturing school. The instructors and my fellow students were all supportive, excited, and passionate. My four years there changed my life.
What led to your first script that got sold, THE CELL?
I wrote a few feature-length scripts in college. The first was a post-apocalyptic story where society was divided into groups depending on what kind of music they liked! There was a punk gang, a heavy metal gang, a funk gang, etc. Very ROAD WARRIOR (1981)-influenced. It wasn't very good but it was fun to write. Another was a post-Civil War western, and the third was a horror film about a small town whose inhabitants were undergoing a strange evolutionary change. The concepts were all intriguing, I thought, but in retrospect, the scripts themselves needed so much more work. The most common mistake a young screenwriter makes is thinking that their first draft is the last draft they need to write. I certainly know better now! After I graduated, I was asked to teach the introductory film production course at Columbia College and I worked as much as I could as a freelance writer in Chicago, even doing a little bit of film criticism. I also made some short films at that time, one of which won the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. I was always writing, and just before I moved to L.A. I had written a script about a father who investigates his daughter’s disappearance in Mexico. It was sort of a spiritual cousin to BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) and ROLLING THUNDER (1977). It was called 'Phoenix Rising', and it garnered some interest from an agent and a producer, but nothing came of it. The goal of moving to L.A. was to establish myself as a screenwriter, but it took six years before I sold my first script, which was THE CELL. In those six years I was writing at least a script a year. I wrote a gritty thriller, a science fiction piece, and a children's movie, amongst others, all the time while working various jobs in the movie industry. I would get 'nibbles' of interest in my work as a writer, but nothing ever panned out. So I would try and try again.
What were some of those jobs?
When I moved out to L.A. I didn't have much money at all and I needed to work. My first real industry job was as a receptionist at Mercury/Douglas, a production company in which Michael Phillips and Michael Douglas were the partners. They had a story analyst, or 'reader', there, and I felt like THAT was a job I could do. Writing a synopsis of a screenplay’s story and then providing a critical analysis of it? Yeah, I could do that. I told Michael Phillips that if their reader got backed up, I could pick up the slack. I started filling in, writing 'coverage', whenever I had spare time, and I got good at it. That led to my second job - as Scott Rudin's reader. This was when Scott was just starting out as a producer. I worked for him for a year, reading countless books, plays, and screenplays. My desk was always piled high with material. In terms of learning what makes a good screenplay, I probably learned far more that year than I did in four years of film school, just by reading the screenplays that were submitted to Scott for consideration. This was the time when I was first exposed to work by writers like Steve Zaillian, Eric Roth, Paul Attanasio and Scott Frank. To me, their material was clearly so much better than that of other writers and they really inspired me. I still think Steve Zaillian’s original script for AWAKENINGS (1990) and Eric Roth’s original script for THE POSTMAN (1997) are two of the best screenplays I’ve ever read. After that I became a studio reader for Columbia Pictures – I was even in the story analysts union – and worked a lot for Amy Pascal, at the time one of many Vice Presidents at the studio. She was a very supportive mentor and was influential in my being promoted to the position of Creative Executive. I was quite good at writing story notes on projects, which is karmic because I’m the one who now gets studio notes! I then worked as Director of Development at Orion Pictures, around the time they were releasing DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). It was great to be there and I worked with some really wonderful people, but unfortunately, Orion was financially troubled and the studio fell apart. My last executive job was at MGM, as Vice President of Development. I was good at story, I was good in a room with writers, and I felt I could really help develop scripts. All these were great assets for an executive, but still, what I really wanted to be was a screenwriter. So I placed all my bets on the script for THE CELL. If it sold, I’d commit to being a writer. If it didn’t, I’d devote myself 100% to being an executive or producer. When I showed the script of THE CELL to the man who became my agent, he said,''We're going to sell this, but it's not only a good concept, it’s a really good piece of writing.'' After the script did indeed sell and it become my writing sample, I was offered the opportunity to write I AM LEGEND (2007), and blessedly I’ve been employed as a screenwriter ever since.
What kept up your motivation for writing during those six years?
I showed the scripts I wrote to various people in the industry and occasionally I'd get some interest from a producer or agent but nothing happened. What was more important though, was that I got a lot of encouragement. Honest, heartfelt encouragement from people I trusted. So I just kept writing. What often separates having a screenwriting career from not having a screenwriting career is perseverance. I’ve known many people who write one script and think their career will be made by that one piece, and when it doesn't happen, they get disillusioned and start complaining that the industry is conspiring against them. It's always someone else's fault. When I got rejected, I just thought, ''THAT script didn't work, so I'll write another one.'' I did that again and again. It’s the same for every successful writer I know – when you get knocked down, you stand up and start over again.
What inspired you to write THE CELL?
At the time I was incredibly fascinated by serial killers. I was doing a lot of research about actual serial killers and I found that many of them were victims of extreme abuse when they were children. I was intrigued by the question of whether it was possible to develop compassion for someone who has done terrible, dreadful things, but has suffered their own kind of torture. Or should we not have compassion for a killer because in the end we all have to be held accountable for our actions? So while I was thinking about serial killers, I was also thinking about the science fiction concept of being able to see someone else’s dreams. It’s a provocative, visually rich idea. I am and always have been an armchair psychologist when it comes to the topic of dreams. I find them fascinating and insightful. The idea of seeing other people's dreams had popped up in 'Star Trek' and the film DREAMSCAPE (1984), as well as in sci-fi literature, and I suppose I was always curious to see what would happen if I delved into that area too. I had also been having some freaky dreams about drowning, which is one of my great fears, even though oddly enough I swim every day. Writing THE CELL was the perfect way to blend together these different areas of interest.
How was your collaboration with the director, Tarsem Singh?
When I was writing the script, somewhere in my mind I was thinking that the dream scenes were going to look like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 (1987) or something like that, but when Tarsem came on board, it became something else entirely, because he was coming from such a richly visual world. THE CELL was one of two times (the other was OLDBOY) where I was on set every day during the production, doing the day-to-day rewrites and watching the filming. THE CELL is very much my script but the visual world of it is very much Tarsem's creation. Nobody, certainly me, could have anticipated where he would take the images. To this day I meet people who absolutely love the film and I meet people who actively hate it. I understand both reactions and now, years after its release, I’m delighted that it provokes such a strong response. Personally I think it was ahead of its time and deserves a second look by its detractors. At the time of its release, Tarsem was criticised as being concerned about the visuals and not so much about character and story, which might have been true. But I think it's an interesting movie. It's very unique, and you can't say that about too many films. The thing that was frustrating for me was that when people read the original script, they'd tell me it was a real page-turner. In retrospect, I wish the film had more classic suspense. It could have been an edge-of-the-seat thriller, but it's something different than that. I still appreciate it though, and I think Tarsem is a very interesting filmmaker. I am curious to see what he does in the future. I particularly liked THE FALL (2006).
I AM LEGEND (2007) had a long road to production. How long did you work on the project?
I was involved with the film off and on for almost ten years and was hired on four separate contracts by Warner Brothers. My agent put me out there as a new writer, with THE CELL as my writing sample, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura at Warner Bros. especially liked it. We had a meeting and he told me, ''I love THE CELL. I want to talk to you about three projects. The first one is I AM LEGEND.'' I said, ''We don't have to talk about the other two.'' And to this day, I don’t remember what they were! I was a huge fan of Richard Matheson. I loved the book 'I Am Legend' (1954) and going back to early great film experiences, I saw THE OMEGA MAN (1971) at a drive-in with my older sister, her boyfriend, and my other sister. I was ten at the time and it made a huge impression on me. So in this meeting with Lorenzo, I thought ''I have to write this.'' I worked up a take on the material, was hired to write the script, and the response to the first draft was incredibly positive and absolutely solidified my position in Hollywood. To this day – within the industry – it’s the script for which I’m best known. I specifically remember my agent reading it and telling me, ''You're going to have a career.'' At one point he told me that every year there’s one script that every person in the industry reads, and that year it was my first draft of I AM LEGEND. Within weeks of my turning the script into the studio, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on to star and Ridley Scott signed on to direct.
Why didn't the Ridley Scott version happen?
I have strong memories of meeting Ridley’s production designer, Arthur Max, and looking at all his wonderful drawings in the art department. It was incredibly exciting. And then it all fell apart, primarily over cost. Warners had just released BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997) and THE POSTMAN and they did not do as well as expected, so they were reluctant to spend the kind of money Ridley wanted to spend. About a year later they wanted to do a more down and dirty production with Rob Bowman directing, who had done the X-FILES movie (1998), and with Arnold starring. I was hired to do those drafts, but once again the film never happened and the project languished for a while. A few years later I got a call telling me that Will Smith was interested in doing it and I had a great meeting with him at his house. I did a draft for Will, and I loved working with him – he’s a genuinely great person. Michael Bay was supposed to direct, but then 28 DAYS LATER (2002) came out and everyone felt it was too soon to do something so similar. If you looked at the draft I revised with Will Smith, I think it's about 70% of what you see in the actual film I AM LEGEND.
How did the project get resurrected and eventually made? How different were your unused ideas?
The project languished again for awhile, but Will's interest never waned. When Akiva Goldsman got a production deal at Warners, he brought in Francis Lawrence to direct, and with Will and his producing partner James Lassiter, they put the whole thing together. At first, Akiva had some radical ideas about changing the script. I had set the story in Los Angeles and he wanted to move it to New York City, but the location wasn’t the issue. He proposed a scenario in which the deadly outbreak was limited to Manhattan Island, which was then quarantined and cordoned off, turning it into a de facto prison for the Infected. The rest of the country – the rest of the world – was fine. Neville chooses to remain on the island to do his research because his infected wife and child are there. The inherent threat was that if the 'zombies' escaped the island, the outbreak would spread. I was offered the opportunity to write that version of the story, but I had real problems with it, the most significant being that it eliminated the core 'last man on earth' concept from Matheson’s book. When I raised these issues, I was told Akiva had decided to write the script himself and I was no longer involved with the film. The funny thing is, when the film went into production, I thought that was the version they were going to shoot! Imagine my surprise when I was sent the final shooting script and saw that it was essentially the draft that I had worked on with Will Smith years earlier. Unbeknownst to me, Warner Bros. had rejected the alternate take and decided to use my Will Smith draft as their foundation. The shooting script was now set in New York and Akiva had greatly revised the third act. In my version of the screenplay, the woman who shows up is a tough, cold, and drug-addicted victim of sexual and physical abuse, but she’s a survivor, hell-bent on protecting her younger brother. In their initial meeting, the creatures take her brother and she assumes he is dead. She finds refuge with Neville and a hesitant relationship builds between them, but that is shattered when the leader of the creatures proves to them that the boy is still alive, held captive in the abandoned hospital that the creatures call home. Neville realizes it’s a trap, but the woman goes after her brother anyway. Neville’s then faced with a test of his humanity… Go after them or survive. Alone. Of course he rescues them and destroys the leader, but what he finds in the hospital is that the creatures are breeding, that they are forming 'families', and that forces him to re-evaluate them. Are they monsters? Or just another life form? Anyhow, all that was scrapped to introduce a more hopeful, spiritual element to the story. And from what I was told, Warner Bros. never would have gone forward with my darker version, and perhaps it would not have been as popular a film as it was if it weren’t for the more positive quality to the third act. Although I have to admit, I hate the final minutes of the movie – when they find the group of survivors in Vermont. The other thing that I have to say is that people always give me shit for killing the dog. I didn’t kill the dog. Akiva did. In my version, Neville can’t bring himself to do it and lets the dog go, giving him the chance to survive in his new form. Then, at the very end of the original script, Neville’s dog confronts Neville, the girl, and the boy. The dog is now the leader of a pack of mutated dogs and the pack wants to kill them, but Neville’s dog, asserting his authority, lets them go. I wanted to suggest with this moment, and the discovery that the creatures are breeding and that they care for their children, that there is something hopeful, something sensitive and aware occurring in these new life forms, and that the future may not be so bleak after all.
Was the version of the film that got made considerably more stripped down than the Ridley Scott version?
Well, Ridley worked on a few different versions. There was my original draft, then he worked on a draft with John Logan, that was quite different, and when that draft was set aside, I was brought back and we developed yet another version. It’s impossible to list all the differences, but for example, in the first draft, the creature could speak, and one of them had previously known Neville, which brought an added dimension to their relationship. The creatures had their own society with its own rituals. It definitely had much larger, deeper thematic qualities, and in a lot of ways was a “siege” film like ZULU (1964) or ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976). There were so many different versions of the script over the years, it’s impossible to document all the variations.
Can you talk about the I AM LEGEND sequel that you wrote?
During the shooting of I AM LEGEND, I went to New York and met with Will Smith, Francis Lawrence, James Lassiter, and Akiva Goldsman. They told me of Warner Bros.’ desire for a sequel – perhaps even a trilogy of films – and everyone wanted me to be a part of it. I came up with an idea and awhile later started writing the script. Bear in mind, this was when the Neville character lived at the end of I AM LEGEND. This original ending is included on the DVD and it’s what I was working off of when I wrote the sequel. In the sequel script, Neville, the woman, and the boy have spent months searching for other survivors but have found none. They’re angry and frustrated and about to lose hope when they come upon an organized group of human survivors – mostly former police and military - using Attica prison as a 'fortress' to protect them from the Infected. I don’t watch the television show 'The Walking Dead' (2010 -), but I know that a similar prison-based idea was used and it makes perfect sense to me. Anyone with half a brain would realize that a prison compound is tailor-made to act as a secure safe haven. Anyhow, during the course of the story, Neville comes to realize that despite the other survivors’ desire to create an all-American 'hometown', there is a dark underbelly to their world. There is no true individual freedom and many of the citizens in leadership roles subjugate dissenters and enjoy torturing captured Infected. Needless to say, there was some political subtext. At one point in the story, Neville is betrayed by the group and left for dead in Manhattan, but the leader of the Infected from the first film saves him. Neville learns that the Infected have established a primitive society, but their children are sick and dying and the leader wants him to save them. The key thematic element was that Neville begins to see his former enemies as 'human'. Ultimately, Neville develops an understanding with the leader and together, they help the worthy survivors at Attica defeat both their oppressors and a brutal, barbaric, subhuman faction of Infected that threatens them all. My intention was to set up a scenario so that in the third film, we would address the ideas that pop up in the later chapters of Richard Matheson’s original novel – that the Infected are transitioning to become the next level evolutionary human life form on the planet and that Neville is an anachronism. I was very excited about the potential of the whole thing when I turned in the script for the sequel – or hopefully what would be seen as part two of a trilogy – to the producers. I waited for a response. And waited. And waited. Until I got a phone call from Akiva saying, ''We re-shot the ending. Neville dies at the end.'' It was that abrupt. My heart sank and I felt sick. All the work I had spent months doing on the sequel script was for nothing. This kind of thing happens all the time in the movie business, but this incident really frustrated me. To this day, I think the trilogy could have been great.
Read Part Two.
I spoke to Mark by telephone on 18th December 2013 and would like to thank him for his time.