Tony Gilroy on Screenwriting
American screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films, Michael Clayton) talks about his outlining, writing and editing process, and why “the quality of your writing is absolutely capped by your understanding of human behaviour.”
Also: Don’t miss the Q&A with journalist Mark Salisbury after the lecture.
Of Cheating Wives, Kniving Friends, and Harmontown
Elephant in the room. My wife of one year, lady friend of six, left me. Ouch, but wait, there’s more. She left with my friend of eight years. Double ouch… there’s more? Their affair started two months after our marriage and we all lived in the same house. Holy fuck, you serious, brah? Yeah, that happened. So, how am I, you ask? Well, I was a complete and utter emotional wreck. I had to wash down a Xanax with three Coronas and two bowls of weed just to sleep the first night. I said the worst things I’d ever said to the two last people I thought I’d say them to, tore up treasured memories, abused substances, and then… I bought trip to LA and a ticket to Harmontown.
Molly and I began dating in 2007. Six years later, two of which were spent in separate cities, we got hitched. In hindsight, I can see all the mistakes we made. We always had roommates, we never fought, we lied to save the other’s feelings. We made all the rookie mistakes, but hell, we were each other’s first serious relationship. RED FLAG, I know, but I’m an eternal optimist. With degrees in hand, well paying jobs, and loose plans to move to LA, we were about to cross the threshold from childhood into adulthood, but the most unlikely guardian stood at that door.
My friend of eight years, much of which he spent in the military. He just got back from a rough deployment and moved to Springfield to reconnect with his family and friends, though his strategy of guilt tripping them into hanging with him backfired. I was the only real friend left, so naturally, he latched on to me. But there’s something you gotta know about Leo. He has what you might call a contagious personality. He has strong opinions and a fuck the world attitude, but latches on to people in a very personal way. And hell, I’ll say it, Leo is a lot of fun when he’s not being a total dick. And having been through some rough times, he has a lot of real-world practical shit figured out. There’s a lot to learn from him, but the most important lesson is that friendships need boundaries.
When Leo first nudged his way into our lives, I was still in college. I enrolled in a web series development class under the guidance of my screenwriting professor and mentor. It was a year-long course that started with the writing and on through the production. I had my hands in many areas, so between that and my job, there was little time left for Molly and I. Molly has never had many friends. She doesn’t have a group of girls she hangs out with, and tends to fill her time with video games. So in my absence, she was alone.
Much of my time was spent either on set, or on my computer in the room. But fear not, Leo filled the void. He and Molly grew close. Uncomfortably close. Inappropriately close. Leo crossed boundaries and pushed barriers no friend should push. I should have done something then, but isn’t that what we all say. It was an awkward place for me. Do I tell Leo to fuck off and hurt Molly since he’s her only real friend in Springfield? And do I hurt the friend who needed connection after war? I came out of my room to find her with their legs crossed on the couch. I just about blew up, and probably should have, but coulda, shoulda, woulda, I didn’t.
Shortly after, Leo apologized, realizing what he’d done. Molly said she had no feeling for him other than friendship and told him that. All was well! Negative.
I’ve been vocal about my dream to become a filmmaker since I was old enough to vocalize it. Molly and I had talked many times about this and a move to LA so I could pursue my dreams, and in my foolishness, I agreed to the worst idea on the planet. An idea spawned by, guess who.
I’m not a great planner, and have never moved across country. Leo suggested that we all move in together to save money for our move. RED FLAG. Wow, what a selfless gesture of him. I honestly don’t know if this was some kind of a plot or… there’s no sense in debating it. What I do know is that he absolutely, 100% had feelings for her, and that she absolutely, 100% had feelings for him. Deep down I knew it then, but they were two of the closest people to me, so I was a bit jaded. Good friend, and fiance. What could go wrong. Fucking everything.
Just after Molly and I got married, with Leo as a groomsmen, we moved into Springfield house and began our downfall. We had crossed the threshold that would ultimately lead to the destruction of an eight year friendship and six year romantic relationship.
This is the part where I can’t figure out what to say. There were so many elements, so many unspoken things that it’s hard to even figure out the highlights. I can say that Molly and Leo texted relentlessly. Even to the point where, they wouldn’t admit it, but they were texting with me in the room. The best I can say is that I tend to avoid confrontation, and I don’t like hurting feelings. Leo is a shit-give. I let him berate me in from of my wife for a long time. He’s also the type who constantly strokes his own ego dick. I swear every other sentence out of his mouth is follows this template “I’m so good at [insert skill]”. I can see now that he’s quite a damaged guy. The ego dick stroking is a patch job he applies to his insecurities and loneliness. And Molly is a fixer. From my perspective, the last year was an assault of everything I was. Molly had many conversations with me about how I don’t connect to people well, and about how I think too much, and how my dreams are too big. From Leo’s end, I received unsolicited advice on how to do everything different from the way I was doing it. Some of the advice was great, like shaving with a safety razor, but most of the advice did little more than make me seem inferior in front of my wife. The boundaries they crossed in the way you treat a person and respect a relationship would blow your mind. I have stories, oh do I have stories that would make your blood boil. Like the time I organized a vacation to Florida since Leo had never had a real vacation, and found him holding Molly’s hair back in a bathroom while she puked from drinking too much. Talk about obliterating fucking boundaries.
Anyway, after a year of being told that everything I was at my core was wrong, something happened. Molly revealed that she was unhappy in the relationship. SHOCKER. I kicked into overdrive. I literally fixed everything the two of them had berated me for being. I was 100% present when I was with her. I was more affectionate. Hell, I even started the noFap challenge, assuming that perhaps my casual porn surfing and dick stroking made me a bad person and was ruining our relationship. I found ways to separate my work from my home life. I engaged her emotionally and intellectually. I actually found myself re-falling in love with her. But she was distant. Distant to the point that when I touched her, I could sense the utter disgust. This disgusts was amplified by Leo’s comments such as “you two are being gross.” After two months of living in a hellish limbo, tortured by the guilt of believing I had destroyed this relationship, assuming that I was the worst person in the world for driving away who I considered to be the most loving and selfless woman I’d met, it snapped.
Through several talks, Molly had essentially broken up with me, but wanted me to pull the trigger. I finally did. I confronted her about Leo, I told her that I needed a decision. I repeated over and over that I was committed to her and wanted to make it work. She went back and forth several times. My head spun out of control. She never admitted to me that she was in love with Leo, but I knew. And then, I found out for sure.
I knew her Facebook password. I dove in, and what I found completely shattered every bit of self-worth I had. They had been engaged in, at the very least, an emotional relationship for at least 8 months. I found messages about how she wanted to fall asleep on his chest, and how he wanted to hold her. It was like coming out of the Matrix. Every genuine moment I’d had with Molly and Leo seemed like a lie. If they were talking like this for almost a year, how was I anything more than a fly in the ointment. You have to understand, I spent every waking moment that I wasn’t at work with these two people. To realize that the two people you care about the most think of you as a nuisance preventing them from being happy is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt. I spent a year being told that I was driving us apart, and that I was broken, and that I was doing wrong, or Leo’s favorite, that I was “second best.” I flew off the cuff.
I told Leo I wished he had died in Iraq. I tore up the first drawing Molly had ever made for me, an awesome pencil drawing of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I downed sleeping pills, xanax, beer, weed, anything to numb the pain and shut my brain off. My life was destroyed. I packed my stuff and went to my mom’s place. Anyone who talked to me in that time will tell you how decimated I was. But like Neo, though the transition was hard, it opened me up to a beautiful truth. I wasn’t broken, I had just been in a broken place.
Out of the woodwork, friends I had lost connection with reached out to me. And family I had isolated myself from help me find the Matt who’d been missing for years. I felt connection I hadn’t felt in a long time. Human connection I’d forgotten even existed. The kind of connection you only make in times of personal crisis. And in a moment of clarity, I did two of the most important things could have done. I booked a trip to LA and a ticket to Harmontown.
My mentor, her friend and I had been developing a TV series to pitch to some connection in LA. Even during my time of crisis, I somehow managed, with the support and encouragement of my mentor, to continue developing it. She helped me in ways others couldn’t. The writing became an outlet. I could channel my strife into storytelling. We worked on this with the intention that she’d pitch it when she was in LA for the Creative Arts Emmy’s. In a moment of unexplainable clarity, I told her “I’m going with you.” I wanted to go to that pitch. No, I had to go. It was a threshold I had to cross. Which brings me to Harmontown.
Over the two month period where I became everything I thought Molly wanted me to be, I was severely depressed. I build websites for a living, and it was nearly impossible to work. Music didn’t help. As a fan of Community, I discovered Dan Harmon’s podcast, Harmontown. Somehow, the strange mix deeply intense personal revelations peppered with butthole jokes and mama fucking raps was the only thing that could shut my brain off. I’d tried Radiolab and the Nerdist Podcast, but I think the fact that Harmontown has a live audience made me feel like I was sharing an experience, even if it was in my cubicle at work. I tried to get a ticket to the Creative Arts Emmy’s, but was too late. Then, I thought “hey, I wonder if Harmonton records on the weekend I’ll be in LA”. Yup, it did. I bought the ticket and I was officially prepared to cross my threshold, and cross it I did, though not without a fight.
I was a mess when I departed on my three hour drive to the Kansas City Airport. I had to talk on the phone, pop diet pills, and chug coffee just to stay awake. I missed my flight, nearly had to pay $900 for a new ticket, and almost lost hope. But before I knew it, I was walking off the plane into LAX.
The trip was everything I needed. The good, the bad, the expensive. The pitch went great, I got my appetite back, I slept, I let the ocean carry my thoughts away. I figured out who I was and where I was in my journey. I connected with my mentors in ways I never had. And on the last night, I went to Harmontown. This was a big step. Strangely, the episode I attended was a bit deeper than usual. This particular one, more than any other I had listened to, really resonated with me. They talked art, and crying and I had some great laughs, but it wasn’t over.
I went alone, knew nobody, was in the midst of emotional turmoil. I had to get out of my comfort zone. I made myself talk to someone before I left, and learned that the group usually went to a bar called The Drawing Room afterward. Why not? I’m my own man. Fuck it. I went, and though it was a bit awkward at first, I made myself a promise. I wasn’t aloud to leave until the bar closed. Surely I’d talk to someone in the next 4 hours. And I did.
I met some really cool people. Some heard my plight, some told me their’s. I drank, I smoked, I talked, I laughed, I fucking loved it. When it was over, I had a few numbers, some great advice on moving to LA and confidence I had not had in years.
I’m back now, in a sort of Limbo. The high of vacation doesn’t last forever, but I know where I am in my story. I’ve left the ordinary world and have entered the world of adventure. I will meet allies and enemies, I’ll have successes and failures. But I’m on a path. And it’s a path I forge for myself.
But there was one last thing I had to do, and that’s where the podcast “This Feels Terrible” comes in. Listening to Harmontown led me to “This Feels Terrible” the relationship podcast hosted by Erin McGathy, comedian, Dan Harmon’s girlfriend and frequent on Harmontown. Misery loves company, and hearing the plights of other relationship failures made me feel quite a bit better about my own. I figured, why not write a blog post, process this shit, and send it to “This Feels Terrible”. So here I am, processing this shit, and “It Feels Good.” Enjoy my plight.
Check out “This Feels Terrible” and “Harmontown” on feralaudio.com.