Brian Helgeland draws on his fisherman’s up-before-dawn, seven-days-a-week work ethic to script 42, the story of legendary Brooklyn Dodger and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(April 12, 2013)
Brian Helgeland is a fisherman’s son, and that’s how he writes – up before dawn, seven days a week, 10 to 12 hour days. He has zero leniency for writer’s block which is just part of the gig, he says, something to be worked through, not avoided.
Legendary Brooklyn Dodger and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson, the subject of the writer-director’s new film, 42, would feel right at home with such discipline. Helgeland researched 42 exhaustively so he could tell the tale of the man who broke baseball’s color line in 1947 from a more personal view than had ever been told before. The film brings full human dimension to the Hall of Famer’s life by narrowing its focus on Robinson’s marriage and his relationship with Branch Rickey, the visionary Dodger general manager who brought Robinson to the majors.
Raised in Rhode Island, Helgeland briefly followed in father’s footsteps after high school by working as a scallop fisherman but a storm at sea forced him to rethink his career goals. He majored in literature at the University of Massachusetts then drove across the country to try to break into Hollywood. He succeeded by writing horror features like Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and 976-EVIL. Then in 1997, he won an Oscar for L.A. Confidential, which set him on a path of lengthy credits that include A Knight’s Tale, Mystic River and Green Zone.
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his rigorous, outline-obsessed writing style, how baseball is a great metaphor for the United States, and why, as much as people talk about networking in this town, he never got a job through anything but his writing.
Was this script a challenge in the sense that the story of Jackie Robinson is so iconic and well-known, or was that kind of an advantage because you were able to play against that and tell a lesser-known version of his story?
Photo: © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures
Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman in 42.
Yeah, everyone has this image of him as a very brave man who integrated baseball and went through a lot of adversity, and rightly so, but what I concentrated on was his relationship with his wife and with the other players and with Branch Rickey, so you see a lot of the interpersonal stuff going on. It was a way to get to a drama that people might be a little less familiar with.
So you were able to get at the major, known drama by seeing it from a lesser-known vantage point?
Yeah, because what people know about him [are] all these sweeping ideas, but baseball is still a game that’s played out over six months. Every single day just about, there’s a game, there’s a grind to it… There’s stuff going on in his life as well, or just the clubhouse stuff – being able to get inside the Dodger clubhouse and see how his story is affecting them.
A big choice early on was to try to dramatize all that stuff through the clubhouse and through his relationship with other players on his team and other players that they played against, and show the change in that world as a way to illustrate his impact on the greater world.
Have you always been a baseball fan?
It’s the one sport I didn’t play when I was a kid. Instead of five tools I had two tools… No, I played basketball almost exclusively and ultimate Frisbee so…
I never thought of this as a baseball movie. I mean if I had thought of it as a baseball movie I probably wouldn’t have done it.
Did you find that the scaffolding of the game gave you things? You were talking about the stretch and grind of the season. Did working with that world help you narratively and give you a different appreciation for the sort of magic or philosophy of the game itself?
Yeah, baseball is a great metaphor for the United States and all those ideas of a team coming together and people from different walks of life and different parts of the country – four kids from the South and four kids from the North and all getting together and forming a team and a common purpose and keeping their individuality. That’s what a lot of baseball is, individual… You field the ball by yourself, you bat by yourself, but at the same time it’s a team sport and it’s been proven over and over again that you need a team to win.
So it’s a great metaphor for the country and what [it] strives to be. Obviously, with Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, it’s a metaphor for the integration of the country. So that’s what I was interested in. That’s why people like baseball movies, too, because it’s Americana in a way. Not always, but a lot of the time.
And the season is so long and filled with setbacks and humiliations, even for the great teams, you just try to tilt the scale ever so much by the end in your favor over the long term. It seems metaphorically apt for the Civil Rights struggle.
Yeah, it’s won by degrees, not in a fell swoop. [Robinson] stepping on the field doesn’t end segregation, which a lot of people like to think. It’s the day-to-day grind of it all and the next season and the next season and the next season.
What’s your writing routine? Where do you do it and how do you do it?
I write at home. I only briefly had an office away from home that I ended up never using, years ago. But I write at home. I write early – I don’t ever write at night unless I have to because of some deadline or something needs to be done for the morning or something like that, but I try to get up around five in the morning.
Some mornings I go for a walk right away when I get up and other mornings I just go to work.
Does that sort of depend on how you wake up? Like if you’ve got something really churning in the noggin you go straight to it or the walking?
No, it’s just kind of an instinct, like I need to walk or I don’t need to walk. To me there’s nothing better than sitting down to start, and it’s still dark out. I know that I’m where I’m supposed to be. And then I just write until I can’t really think anymore, probably about four o’clock in the afternoon or something like that. If I’m writing a script I try to have nothing to go to, have nothing to do, and just stay there until it’s done being written.
So when you’re on a script you go pretty much every day?
Yeah, seven days a week and don’t leave the house.
What’s the average time it takes to finish a script?
Well, just the script itself probably 50 days or something like that, but I outline much more than I write so the outlining is probably three months. Two or three months of outlining and researching and whatever is involved with not actually writing the script. I spend a lot of time outlining.
So you have a pretty tight map of an outline before you start writing?
Yeah, I’m not sitting down to any mystery, really. When I sit down to write the script I know all the scenes. I might have chunks of dialogue already written. Maybe not, but I’m never sitting there wondering what happens next.
Are your outlines just kind of plot points with descriptions?
Yeah, they’re fairly detailed descriptions. I’m doing a script right now and the outline is about 55 pages long, single-spaced, which is too long. I’ve actually been spending a week trying to shorten my outline because I know if I sit down and write that it’ll be 150 pages or something. It’ll just be way too long. So I’ll actually rewrite my outline until I think it’s right.
So all your sort of discovery and surprises as far as plot and character happens in the outlining process for you?
Yeah. I just have it early instead of late. I’ve written enough that I know my best scripts are all the ones I outline the best and then my weakest scripts are the ones where I just thought I didn’t need to outline as much.
Have you outlined from the beginning of your career?
Yeah, but the balance has shifted to more outlining and less script.
If you could describe what makes those less outlined scripts weaker, are they just less articulated or less vivid or…?
Well, they’re less structured.
Yeah, weaker everything. Whether it’s three hours long or it’s 90 minutes, of all forms of writing, a movie has the most limited amount of time to tell the story. So you have to just get right into it and the story has to move and… And I don’t even mean just like everything needs to be a thriller, if it’s a love story it still has to move and go from one thing to the next. Once a story is just moving along laterally it’s dull and… Because of the limited amount of time you have to tell a story and [the fact that] most of your characters have to be introduced early on, it’s the structure that makes or breaks it.
There are plenty of successful, good writers that say the opposite and that they don’t outline that much, but I’ve found that they’re really writing a script that’s half an outline and they’re rewriting it much more… I rewrite hardly at all, I just make adjustments sometimes. But if you start with less of an outline you find yourself trying to find it in your rewrites.
On a different note, how much of being a successful screenwriter is networking, schmoozing, and relationships?
I don’t know anybody [laughs]. Everyone I knew has kind of retired or I still know them from years ago. I couldn’t tell you who the executives at any studio are.
Well, now you’re Brian Helgeland.
No, I know, but I’m just saying I don’t have any… I don’t know anyone.
Except… Clint Eastwood and Curtis Hanson…
Well, yeah, but I know them from working with them, you know?
But when you were a young Turk breaking in, you broke in with horror films. How much did you have to be Charlie Hustle in terms of meeting people or did the writing always lead you?
The writing always led me. I wrote stuff that people thought, “Oh, we don’t want him, he’s a horror movie writer,” so that door was closed anyways. If I wrote stuff that people read on whatever level and responded to it, then that’s how I networked, I guess, through the writing. But I never got a job from going to a premiere and talking to someone’s assistant for five minutes… never. It was always the work that either opened things up or closed them down.
Given your long writing days, what do you do when you hit a wall? Do you have patches of fatigue or block? If so, what’s your magic cure?
You know what? I strongly think that there is no such thing as writer’s block. I don’t mean that I’m always ready with an idea or flowing along perfectly, but I just think the state of writer’s block is part of writing.
It’s like, if I have a great day writing I know the next day I’m going to have a miserable one because I’m going to pay for the good day. Or the block, just staring… sitting all day staring at the wall thinking I’m an idiot is why the next day I was able to get through whatever it was and write. If you try to avoid writer’s block, you’re avoiding the price you have to pay to write, you know, if you’re only going to sit down and write when it’s easy.
When you’re inspired.
You’re not going to have too many easy days because the hard days buy you the easy days.