Shawn Ku & Michael Armbruster delve deep into a parent's worst nightmare and emerge with a story of hope in the heartbreaking, emotional drama Beautiful Boy.
Written by Shira Gotshalk
It might be a sad story wrapped in a tragedy, but ultimately, Beautiful Boy is about hope. Written by Shawn Ku & Michael Armbruster and starring Maria Bello and Michael Sheen as a married couple in a fractured relationship, the film focuses on the resulting shockwaves after their son commits a mass shooting at his university, before taking his own life. Looking for explanation, they question how and why things went so wrong. For Ku, who also directs, and Armbruster, this is the emotional journey back to hope.
“It’s like their son Sammy’s short story at the end where he writes that, for sure, things would be different moving forward. [He] didn’t know if they’d be better or worse, but certainly they’d be different,” explains Armbruster. ”It was a bad situation and people weren’t talking to each other or listening to each other at the beginning and, at the end, having gone through the depths of this situation, they’re emerging as more attentive, more loving people, more understanding people, more sympathetic people. I mean, that’s the hope.”
Both writers have also taken unique journeys to the silver screen. Precursors to Ku’s first feature film include a chemistry degree from Harvard, performing on Broadway, choreographing a musical film for MTV, and an award-winning short, Pretty Dead Girl. Armbruster also has an Ivy League past, earning an MBA from Harvard before moving west to make his name in chocolate, as a marketing suit for Nestle. The benefit of their winding path to Hollywood is clear to Armbruster: “Because we’re doing this as kind of a second or third career, we know what we want to do – and not do something because that’s where a paycheck lies. It feels like there’s a lot more free will.”
Ku and Armbruster recently talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about creating a crescendo, vomit drafts, dance competitions, and so much more.
How did you start writing together and how did the script come into being?
Photo: © 2011 Anchor Bay Films
Michael Sheen and Maria Bello in Beautiful Boy.
Shawn Ku: We were workout partners and would bounce off ideas on the scripts we were individually working on, and I grew to realize that Mike was a good person, he gave great notes, you know? And those people are quite rare, when you find someone who really gives notes and understands what you’re trying to accomplish and isn’t imposing their own agenda on your writing and really wants to help you shape your story the way you want it shaped. Those people are rare and hard to find, so when we realized we had that sort of connection…
Michael Armbruster: And then mutual trust. It started with that, and then we started brainstorming ideas. There are still the growing pains, but pretty quickly we fell into a rhythm that seemed to work, and we understood what the other was saying when they weren’t even saying the full sentence.
Shawn Ku: This is our second script together, and I remember saying for the first one, “I have an idea about this thing, do you want to write it?” And it was a world that Mike didn’t really know, and I took him to see that world, and he was like, “Alright, I totally get it, let’s do it.”
Michael Armbruster: This is great [laughs].
Shawn Ku: So we…
What was that world?
Shawn Ku: Little girl dance competitions.
Michael Armbruster: The next question is, how does Shawn know that world so well [laughs]?
Shawn Ku: Well, my nieces were competitive dancers, and so I lived in that world quite a lot.
Did you actually write Beautiful Boy together or did you pass the script back and forth?
Michael Armbruster: Both. We conceived of the idea together, just in hashing it out in conversation, and then we finally sat down at the computer together. I mean, not like he did this row and I did the next, but there’s a whiteboard going on and pacing and somebody at the computer. And we did a very detailed outline of what was going on and trying to track their characters in the key plot points and all that stuff in the scenes.
Shawn Ku: Right.
Michael Armbruster: And then we started divvying up sequences, and one would write a sequence and then the other person would simultaneously be writing the next sequence.
Shawn Ku: Yeah. We actually wrote the script pretty fast, and we leapfrogged through it that way. I like to call that a vomit draft, we sort of vomit out that draft, because I don’t necessarily know what he’s writing for the 10 pages after I’m writing, or vice versa. And then come together and read it, or rewrite it together and then read it.
How much of your script was changed after the actors signed on?
Shawn Ku: We only did one rewrite after hiring them, and it was mostly because we were getting a lot of misconception that it was more of the female’s movie and the male was a supporting character, and we always wanted it to be very, very even. It was hard because he’s more of a silent character, and he holds a lot of stuff in. That was a mistake we didn’t want anybody to make. So we definitely wrote up that role to give him more so it felt like, “Oh, yes, I see that this is a 50/50 film.”
Michael Armbruster: Yeah, the balance. She had her friend who was a neighbor, and we wanted someone for Michael Sheen to be able to go to, because his boss doesn’t turn out to be that sort of confidante. So we added that scene with Meat Loaf, where he has this random interaction with a stranger, in a way, but he’s really revealing himself and his demons, his fear that his rage is what caused the son to do all the stuff.
Shawn Ku: And of course we did a lot of rewriting on the big, pivotal scene. We made some huge breakthroughs and maybe that helps, because we’re picturing who these people are now, you know? They’re not these nebulous, faceless characters, suddenly now they’re Maria and Michael. And I remember coming through some huge breakthroughs in that scene and like writing some really juicy stuff and being really excited to share that with the actors.
How did you approach the climactic scene in the hotel room, the one you’re building to the whole movie?
Shawn Ku: We knew that that was our climax, so to speak. We knew that a huge journey was going to happen in this one argument because they had been so tight-lipped for most of the film; this was where things were going to be said and accusations were going to be made and screaming would happen, and it would take them to this place where we knew at the end of the second act, they would split apart.
So with that idea in mind, we went through a lot of rewriting and as Mike said, it was up on its feet a lot for us. You know, like, “Today you’re Kate and I’m Bill and let’s play the scene out.” When do you say the theme you’ve been working toward and just sort of drop it there? Is he dropping a bomb here? And like any fight, sometimes you say things that you don’t necessarily mean but you’re feeling and then you wish you could take them back, but it’s too late and now you’re off and running.
Michael Armbruster: And the thing is, there’s so much setup that goes into the ultimate delivering of that scene. That’s the scene where they say, “You know who’s responsible? You’re responsible for this and never loved my son.” But I don’t think it would work if they weren’t going through other things earlier and trying to hold all of that stuff in. There was so much setup and groundwork before that.
There are a lot of quiet, wordless scenes. Were they written that way or ad-libbed during filming?
Shawn Ku: Yeah, we wanted the movie to have, I don’t know if it’s a poeticism, but a quietness to it. That very first scene of the two of them and he’s eating dinner and she’s in the other room talking is iconic for us on what that relationship was. Two people, they might be having a conversation about nothing and that’s representative of their relationship. It was an interesting process for us to be writing dialogue that was kind of about nothing. Like mundane conversation.
And I remember we talked about that very specifically, like this is just going to be about carrots, this scene. And they’re just talking about carrots, but there’s all of this stuff not being said. And even in writing the script, trying to decide how much of that we say in just the action, even though it’s not in the dialogue. Like how much are we tipping our hat to what’s not being said in the action lines of the script too?
Michael Armbruster: Yeah, and we thought even when they learn of the tragedy and how that unfolds, we just didn’t want to write, for the most part, the scenes where people say exactly what’s going on. There’s the scene where Kate is listening to her earbuds, and all we hear is the music, and she’s gardening, and you just see this woman running, like sprinting up to her to tell her something urgent. That was all written in the script, but we thought that was a more powerful way to convey the impending tragedy and seriousness of it all than to… I mean what could we say, really, more powerful than that?