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Master Class

If You’re Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Andrew Kevin Walker On Screenwriting

The legendary screenwriting veteran behind Se7en has a new film coming out, and a lot to say about not letting the industry eat you alive.

If You’re Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Andrew Kevin Walker On Screenwriting

Nerdland, 2016

Never underestimate the power of a mistake. Andrew Kevin Walker’s entire career may have hinged on one.

Andrew Kevin Walker

It all started with the then-fledgling writer’s Caravaggio-dark screenplay for Se7en, which he wrote as an employee of the Times Square Tower Records in the early '90s. Without any real connections in the business, Walker cold-called David Koepp, the Jurassic Park and Spider-Man screenwriter best known at the time for the Rob Lowe thriller, Bad Influence, and convinced him to read Se7en. (Walker literally found Koepp’s number by calling Information, and used it to get him on the phone. It was a different time.) Koepp ended up recommending the screenplay to his agent, who took Walker on as a client. The movie sold, and remained in development limbo for a couple years before director David Fincher got involved. Here’s where the mistake comes in.

By that point, the script had been through myriad drafts, including a compromised rewrite that did away with the ending—one of the most notorious endings in cinema history. It was this creatively neutered version that was supposed to make its way to Fincher. By some enormously lucky stroke of clerical error, though, the director received a version with the original ending preserved, and he wanted to make that film. When the producer on the project realized there had been a mistake and FedEx'd the "fixed" screenplay, Fincher remained interested in making the original version, or nothing. With some help from New Line studio head Michael DeLuca and the eventual stars of the film, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, Se7en retained its intended ending and went on to great critical and financial success, and a hallowed spot in the pantheon of serial killer movies.

It would prove to be the last time, though, that a mistake within the development process would break in Walker’s favor.

Over the course of 20-plus years as a professional screenwriter, Walker has seen the vast majority of his work either devolve into nearly unrecognizable mutations, or never see the light of day at all. Although Walker’s done uncredited rewrites on many of Fincher’s films—including several that got caught in the pipeline—the last movie to bear his name in theaters was 2010’s underperforming The Wolfman, starring Benecio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins (which Walker counts among his family of mutants.) Things are looking up now, though. Several of the prolific writer's projects are on the verge of going into production, including the long-gestating Psycho Killer. Even more promising, a film he wrote just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Nerdland is a wild satire of Hollywood, directed by Chris Prynoski of Titmouse, the animation studio behind Adult Swim shows like Metalocalypse and Superjail. The script, which follows two disgruntled Hollywood hangers-on, was written to be live action, but Walker changed his mind after falling in a Titmouse k-hole, more or less, and pitched it to the studio. Eventually, Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt signed on to voice the leads, and the project has become Walker’s first film to make it to celluloid in six years.

It’s impossible to accrue as much heartache working in the movie business as this writer has without walking away the wiser. While Nerdland awaits a release date following its premiere, Walker talked to Co.Create about neuroses, collaborating with David Fincher, and when to not go see the finished film you wrote.

Be Open To Compromise, At Least In The Beginning

"It's rare that someone has a vision for a screenplay and therefore for the movie that would result from it, and seeks to fulfill that vision, and then if down the line others don’t share that vision and want to change it into some completely different thing, he’s willing to say no harm no foul, and not twist it into something that doesn’t necessarily work. The hard thing is sometimes you have to decide, 'Do I want to be the one who sticks around to rewrite this according to someone else’s vision, even if I don’t see eye to eye with that person, or do I wanna step aside and let them go fulfill it?'" Walker says.

"It’s a really difficult choice because if I look back at Se7en, it’s a perfect example. If I hadn’t stayed there as little newbie Andy Walker and dutifully done a massive rewrite for [initial producer] Jeremiah Chechik, and turned it into a completely different story with a completely different ending—if I hadn’t stuck around and been the one who did that and basically, in my opinion, derailed a lot of the things that made it good to begin with, then I wouldn’t have been around for when Fincher walked in the room and got it back on track."

Se7en, 1995Photo: courtesy of New Line Cinema

Be a Great Listener In General

"[David] Fincher has always made me part of the process," Walker says. "I think he’s a genius with story. I’ve read a scene that was written for him and not understood the core of the scene, and so I’ve said ‘Well, what’s the intention?’ and he’ll walk me through it and explain the throughline to it and I’ll ask whether that's what he told the other writer, and he’ll say yeah. It's all about listening. Fincher gives a roadmap to excellence and if you follow it, the intention lies in that scene—and if you don’t, then you’ve lost an opportunity to collaborate that’s incredibly rich. He’s very specific about what he wants, you just have to make sure you’re listening carefully."

Sleepy Hollow, 1999Photo: courtesy of Paramount Pictures

If They Butcher Your Vision, Don’t Watch It

"There's a lot of stuff I don’t have credit on that has a lot of me in it, and that’s fine. There’s also a lot of stuff that I do have credit on where there’s a lot less of me in it, like even Sleepy Hollow," Walker says. "You have to have a really thick skin and be willing for a certain amount of kismet. When you’re a screenwriter, you’re sort of at the behest of your director, and you’re just hoping it’s a good marriage. The thing it comes down to whether it’s a spec script you wrote, or something you adapted, or something you’re rewriting—hopefully you poured enough of your heart and your blood and your sweat into it that it will be difficult to change things if anyone starts recreating it into an entirely different story or intent from what you set out to portray.

"For the movies that I feel like went off the rails the most from what I intended and hoped they’d be, one of the ways to protect your sanity is to not go see the movie to find out what resulted. I’ve never seen 8MM. [Ed note: Over the interview it emerged that Walker has also not seen The Wolfman.] I admire the actors and I’m sure there are amazing things about it, but it just went far afield from what I had hoped. It's easier this way."

The Game, 1997Photo: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

If You’re Having Fun, You’re Doing Something Wrong

"Personally, a lot of my writing is driven by neuroses and worry. My motto is 'Your disappointment destroys me,'" Walker says. "I’m so afraid to hand in scripts and have people go, 'God, you really fucked this up.' But if you’re a good writer, you feel like that’s what you’re doing every moment you’re sitting there writing. Another cliché that I love is, 'If you’re having fun writing, you’re doing something wrong.' Which is just to say, writing is rewriting. It’s just a matter of what’s a project I feel like I’m bringing a lot to? You have to be prepared to not be taking your original script out on the spec market but to be going around and trying to find a director yourself and go the independent route if you're passionate about it."

Fight Club, 1999Photo: courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Adapt To Being Adaptable

"The one thing I learned very early on is that the adaptation looks very easy from a squinty distance. 'Oh, look at all this material!' But when you start to extract stuff from a novel and you have to start putting it on the page as merely action and dialogue, it’s gossamer. The story kind of blows away in the wind and the flaws become apparent," Walker says. "The first time I was adapting a book was one of my losing-sleep moments. But you really have to adapt yourself to ‘now I’m adapting this book’ or ‘now I’m fleshing out this original idea’, or ‘now I’m remaking this movie that no matter how bad the movie, for some it might be a classic movie, what am I bringing to the story that’s reinventing in a way that makes it worth remaking.'"

"One of the biggest things I learned was to try to be careful in choosing material that wasn’t always about a serial killer so I wouldn’t just become a serial killer guy. I’ve written an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I also did a rewrite on an Evel Kneivel project for McG that was at Universal. I wrote Silver Surfer. I wrote an original, Red, White, Black and Blue, for Paramount, which was a total '70s cop thing. I wrote a spec called Old Man Johnson that I eventually turned into a novella and put it online as a Kindle Single. To prance around from genre to genre has been incredibly valuable because it helps keep me from being The Serial Killer guy. I definitely love television, and I know there will probably come a time soon when I try to do something for television. But I just love movies so I keep trying to get them made."

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