How a Script Doctor Found His Own Voice

After “Out of Sight,” he was inundated by rewrite offers. Frank adheres to an informal code of discretion when it comes to this sort of work, but when I pressed him he said, “Ninety per cent of what I get called in on is character work.” In “Saving Private Ryan,” he helped round out such soldiers as the Scripture-quoting sniper, giving them active connections with people back home. In “The Ring,” he developed the relationship between the protagonist, played by Naomi Watts, and her son. In “Gravity,” his assignment was to give Sandra Bullock’s character, an astronaut, “a life outside of space.” In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” he created the father character, played by John Lithgow, who forms a bond with a chimpanzee named Caesar and is cured of his Alzheimer’s disease before regressing to an impaired mental state.

All the while, Frank deferred his own projects. This was a high-class problem, by any definition, but Craig Mazin, who has also done rewrites, explained the psychological effect: “There is something so vulnerable and frightening about doing your own thing, because it’s your fault if it doesn’t work. And then there’s this other kind of work, where you’re paid an extraordinary amount of money, you’re the hero before you walk in the door, you’re not even held that accountable, because you have a limited amount of time, and all you can do is make it better.” Sometimes, an executive would tell Frank, “We have a script coming in a month from now, and we need you to rewrite it.”

Frank stresses that these gigs allowed him to work with many directors he admired. He did a rewrite several years ago on a “Scarface” remake for Luca Guadagnino, which has since been abandoned. And his work on some films, such as “Minority Report,” which was directed by Steven Spielberg, was so extensive that he received an official screenwriting credit. Nevertheless, it could sometimes seem as though Frank’s many friends in the industry were taking advantage of his biddable nature. “Why are you saying yes to this?” Jennifer would ask after he’d accepted yet another assignment.

A prominent film producer told me, “For a long time, Scott Frank was the name people would bring up as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the rewrite system. This was someone who could be the next William Goldman, but he kept doing these weekly rewrites instead of his own original work.” When I asked Frank about that critique, he readily accepted it. “My career is probably best defined more as a failure of nerve than anything else,” he told me. “I used to book myself up three years in advance, out of fear.” Such anxiety can be a great motivator, but it can also amount to a life of safe choices.

By the time Frank reached his fifties, he was feeling a rising unease. There was no one eureka moment when he decided, like Flitcraft, to change his life. But, as Frank surveyed his career, he thought back to those childhood excursions in the Cessna with his father. For a good part of the past thirty years, he realized, he had just been “picking places to land.”

One day last year, I visited the South of France, where Frank was directing a new limited series, “Monsieur Spade.” It was early October, but it still felt like summer. At a remote farmhouse an hour north of Montpellier, I found Frank, in a baseball hat and sunglasses, preparing to shoot a scene with Clive Owen. The series is not an adaptation, but something like it: several years ago, Frank was informed that the rights to the Sam Spade character were available. Apart from “The Maltese Falcon,” Spade appears in only a few Hammett stories, but Frank saw an opportunity to build a new tale around the famous detective. As it happened, he had been trying to obtain the rights to a different Dashiell Hammett property, “Red Harvest,” which is one of Frank’s favorite novels. (He likes to tell young writers that “Red Harvest” can teach them more about the velocity and economy of screenwriting than any manual.) So initially he demurred on the character rights. But then he had a thought: “I went, Wait, I know what this is about. It’s about middle age.” What if Spade was no longer a detective but an expat—in France? “He’s living a quiet life. Tranquil,” Frank told himself, warming to the idea. “And it’s about to get very untranquil.” He approached Tom Fontana, a veteran TV writer who created the HBO drama “Oz,” about collaborating. Fontana told me, “Scott said, ‘Sam Spade, twenty years after “The Maltese Falcon,” living in the South of France.’ I said, ‘I’m in.’ ”

“Interesting. I don’t remember that part of the book I listened to at 2x speed while doing other things.”

Cartoon by Asher Perlman

As French crew members adjusted lights around a storage shed where the scene would be shot, Frank conferred with Owen, who was dressed in suspenders and a high-waisted suit; the look was reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart, the quintessential Sam Spade (though Owen is about twice Bogart’s height). Owen, a lifelong Hammett fan himself, expressed amusement to me that when the opportunity arose to play Spade it was in a series that would deconstruct the very macho iconography that made the character famous, and portray him as a man out of his element. The first scene Frank wrote finds Spade with his pants around his ankles, prone on an examination table, being given a prostate exam by a droll French physician who says that it’s time to quit smoking. Chuckling over the humiliations Frank had visited upon his hero, Owen drawled, in his malty baritone, “I don’t get the hat, I don’t carry a gun, I don’t smoke. I’ve got one word for this job—I’ve been duped!” He picked up a folding chair marked “clive owen,” relocated it to a spot in the shade, and sat down to study his script.

In the course of the past several years, Frank had experienced the kind of reinvention that his characters often undergo. Several changes transpired in close succession. After he and Jennifer moved to New York, he did “a ton” of therapy. He began taking Zoloft for anxiety, a move that he had resisted for a long time, because he felt that fear might be integral to his creative process. He wrote a novel, “Shaker,” about a dissolute hit man whose plan to execute someone in L.A. is upended by an earthquake. The book, which Knopf published in 2015, didn’t find a big audience, but writing it was cathartic. “Part of the exercise was getting all these other voices out of my head—all these people I liked collaborating with,” Frank said. “I wanted to just write for myself.” Perhaps most consequentially, he decided to stop doing rewrite jobs. “My identity for so long was defined by a lack of self-confidence in my own ideas,” he told me. “Pleasing others seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to organize my art around. Until it wasn’t.”

It may have helped that Frank, like Spade, had woken up one day in a world that had changed. The movie business had become unrecognizable, with the studios essentially giving up on freestanding R-rated thrillers and dramas. Frank was forced to admit that most of the films he had built his reputation on would probably not get made today. Many talented screenwriters have opted to hold their noses and squander their gifts writing for superhero franchises. Frank wrote the X-Men movies “The Wolverine” and “Logan.” But he was angry at himself for taking those jobs, and if you read the script for “Logan” you can tell. On page 2, he prefaces an action sequence with a warning to the reader: “If you’re on the make for a hyper choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckathon, this ain’t your movie. In this flick, people will get hurt or killed when shit falls on them. . . . Should anyone in our story have the misfortune to fall off a roof or out a window, they won’t bounce. They will die.”

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