SCREENWRITER PROFILE: ELI RICHBOURG

RIP Eli Richbourg - March 2013

You will be greatly misssed by everyone you touched.

Eli Richbourg Head shotEli Richbourg is a WGA writer and has been given the task of rewriting scripts for many of Joel Schumacher’s films, including the recent Nicole Kidman, Nicholas Cage film Trespass. Most recently, Eli sold his pitch for a new installment of the Rambo franchise to producer Avi Lerner at Millenium/ Nu Image. Other Executive Producer and Associate Producer Credits include: The Number 23, The Phantom of the Opera, Phone Booth, Bad Company, Tigerland. In this informative interview, Eli explains his background, how he got his start and his approach to the art and business of screenwriting.

Fresh Voices:So you graduated with your English and Art degrees?

Eli Richbourg: I went to Yale and studied Art History and English.  I realized quickly that I didn’t want to stay in school or go work in a museum. I knew I wanted to do something with art. My dad’s a painter, and I grew up doing art. My dad’s also a huge cinephile, so he took me to highly inappropriate movies from a very early age.

FV: Do you remember the first movie you saw?

ER:Night of the Living Dead which I saw when I was 7 or 8 with my dad. Highly appropriate parenting right! But I also saw films like Kurosawa and Fellini, and still to this day one of my favorite films of all time is Seven Samurai. It impressed me with the filmmaking and visual storytelling.

FV: Do these films influence your writing?

ER: Absolutely. Kurosawa is one of those filmmakers that’s still a big influence.

FV:So you came out to LA?

ER: Yeah, I got a job working as a PA in the art department on Batman Forever. It was a very low grade form of nepotism. Basically my dad knew somebody from art school in the '60s who knew Barbara Ling the production designer. I remember my first conversation with Barbara. I called her, and she said “If you move to LA, we’ll give you a job.”  I had no money. I had nothing. I literally just flew to LA, bought the crapiest car imaginable, but I finally got through to Barbara and got my first job. 

I ended up working on Batman for a year and a half. The most creative jobs inspired me; the people who were creating the world.   The director making hundreds of important decisions a minute, and the writer who was laying out what this world is going to be, and what’s going to happen in it. 

FV: So that was where you began your relationship with Joel Schumacher?

ER: Yes. Obviously I met Joel on set, but after the movie I began work as Joel’s assistant. My first film as Joel’s assistant was A Time to Kill.  Many talented people were involved, from Joel obviously to Academy Award winner Akiva Goldsman who adapted John Grisham’s book. 

One of Joel’s great qualities is that he’ll take a chance on someone without a track record if he believes in them. He hired Matthew McConaughey who at that point had only done a bit part in Riding in Cars with Boys and of course Dazed and Confused. But Joel convinced everyone to hire the guy for his first lead role. That was when Joel let me go out and direct 2nd unit crew which was an amazing experience.  So Joel really took a chance on Matthew and myself.

FV: So how did that relationship with Joel turn into you writing?

ER: I just wrote. No one asked me to. The next movie that we did I got to sit in on story meetings, and Joel was having me read scripts obviously, so you start reading enough scripts you start having opinions and you start thinking, “I can do this, and I can do it better.” It’s arrogance, but it’s absolutely necessary if you’re going to break into this business. Otherwise, you just shy away and think you can’t do it.

It reminds me of a story Joel is fond of sharing of his experience working with Woody Allen when he was a costume designer on Sleeper.  Joel said he finally confessed to Woody Allen after they became friends that he wanted to direct, but thought it would never happen. It seemed like the impossible dream. Woody Allen says “Look, there are a handful of geniuses in the world touched by the Gods, and the rest of them, if they can do it, you can do it. And you can do it better.”

FV: So how did you become more of a creative partner with Joel?

ER: I did two things: I shot two short films with the best cast in the world that will never see the light of day. They’re terrible.  But we were working on Batman & Robin and there were these amazing sets that we saw very little of because the Batman world was a very dark world. And I was inspired to make use of them. So I got permission -- I don’t think you can even do this today -- but I got to go on the lot and shoot on the weekends with a buddy of mine who was in USC film school. We had a 16mm camera that we took from the school, and I got some friends together and we shot these movies. I got an hour with George Clooney for one of them, and I got an hour with Matthew McConaughey for the other. So we shot these whole things around these kind of Frankenstein spoofs. There’s no better way to learn than by falling on your face.

And then [Schumacher's] next movie was 8mm, which Andy Kevin Walker (Se7en) wrote.  But Andy had other commitments, and there were still some changes that Joel wanted in the script, so I did them. We wound up shooting those scenes, and it was the first time I got paid on a movie. I got a consulting fee, which is sort of like a nod of acknowledgment, and I went through the whole process of working on the script with Joel.

There were a few others. There was another adaptation, a book adaptation, that Joel handed me. An author who will remain nameless had written an adaptation of his own novel, and it was almost a 200 page screenplay that he turned in. More like a second novel. And Joel handed it to me and asked, “Do you have any suggestions for cuts?” So I did work on that as well. We didn’t wind up making the movie, but it was an educational experience. 8mm was a turning point for me because I also directed 2nd unit. This was where again I have to acknowledge Joel for taking a flyer. I was the youngest person on my crew by about 20 years and I got to direct.       

FV: Did you show him the shorts?

ER: Of course. And it was on the basis of those things that I asked for the 2nd unit gig. Because really I always saw myself -- and I still see myself -- as a director. I think the director has to be a writer. I’ve seen too many cases of directors handicapped by having to wait for the writer, having differences of opinion with the writer; not being able to contribute something in a way. And I think every writer should be a director.

FV: At what point did you sit down and write a feature length script?

ER: I wrote a bad script. I don’t even know if I finished it. It was one of those things, a necessary part of the process. Just accepting that your first script’s going to be crap.

FV: And probably the second and third too.

ER: Probably, yeah.  You have to be your own most severe critic. That’s the hardest part of the process. Writing is rewriting. All of those clichés are true! You tend to fall in love with something because you made it, and I think a necessary part of the process if falling out of love with it. But I did a lot of rewriting.

So my friend Jeremy Garelick -- who wrote The Break-up with Jay Lavender and rewrote The Hangover -- he and I rewrote Bad Company, which is maybe not a movie to boast about. But it was a fun process, and it was a movie we made because of a looming actor’s strike, so we had a deadline.  I’ve done a lot of action writing and the key to action writing is action storytelling. We’ve probably all had that experience of sitting in a movie theater and being slammed with noise. And [without storytelling] that’s all it is.     

Action has to be driven by story and character. There’s still a narrative to it. It’s not just suddenly things blow up. They’re scenes with action, and you have the midpoint to the action scene and you need a twist so it ends up in a place where you didn’t expect it to go. And ultimately you have to advance the story and serve the purpose of changing the characters. All those things.

So we had this challenge: We had two weeks.  Jeremy and I locked ourselves in the production office. Literally, we didn’t leave. We slept maybe four hours a night. I would sleep for two hours under the desk and he would kick me awake and he would go to sleep. And we were face to face, like dueling computers, like we were playing Battleship or something, typing away. In two weeks we had a script, for better or for worse. We handed it in a day before the production meeting. We had people coming in, the production designer, saying, “Hey, so can you guys give us some idea of what’s happening? What happens in this scene? What do I need? Are there sets I should know about?”

FV: That’s got to be a pretty stressful way to work.

ER: Yeah, and it’s exciting. It’s a great lesson. I mean it teaches you that you can do it.

There’s this divide between writer and production, writer and director. There were some things where you’d have micro scenes, or scenes split up on a page into 1/8 of a page moments. Sometimes that works, but frequently scenes can be consolidated. And that’s something to think about.  On Veronica Guerin we shot 90 locations in 40 days. So that means every time you move a company move, it cuts your day in half, more or less. Every time you have to uproot the crew, or half the crew, it costs you. You’re taking time away from your actors. You’re taking time away from the director. It better really count. When you’re writing I think that’s something to keep in mind. One of the key things that we did was to try to consolidate, make sense of scenes and make sure that we were streamlined.

In the meantime I also wrote a movie that seven years on, finally looks like it’s going to happen. A little movie I wrote while we were doing Veronica Guerin that got a lot of attention. Mark Johnson, who produced Rain Man, picked it up, and I’ve been trying to direct it ever since.

FV: So at what point did you start trying to find representation?

ER: I actually had a friend, Allen Fischer, who’s with Principato-Young, who was formerly an assistant at CAA. We were friends when we were assistants. He came to me because he knew what I was doing.  

It was a while ago. Almost six, seven years ago? I had written three or four scripts with or for Joel by then. I’d been directing, and [Allen's] been representing me ever since. 

FV: How would you describe your relationship with Allen?

ER: Quite friendly, because we started out as friends. He’s also a great guy. I’m happy to be with somebody who I trust implicitly; who I know has got my back. But Allen is also a no-bullshit guy, and it doesn’t serve you to have somebody blowing smoke. Allen will tell me if he doesn’t like something I’ve written.  I’m also represented by Evan Cavic at Principato, who reads everything. Neither one of them are easy with a compliment. It’s an important attribute.

FV: Do you have a specific philosophy that you try to keep in the back of your mind as you’re writing?

ER: Well I think that no matter what it is, you have to own it. So in terms of rewriting I did a lot of work -- for better or for worse -- on other people’s scripts. And it has to become yours, you have to own it. You don’t get a chance to stand in front of an audience and say you didn’t have enough time, didn’t have enough money, “I really had bigger dreams and aspirations.” You have to make it work to the best of your ability, and you have to accept the disappointments. It’s not a perfect process, so just do your best.

Every story -- no matter the genre -- are human stories. And they have to be rooted in humanity. You should figure out what the core idea is, what moves you about your story. All those clichés: Write what you know and close to your heart.

In many ways also, I feel like I’m an observer. I try to really know my subject. So that whole thing about “write what you know” can also be “get to know what you’re writing about.” And I do extensive, exhaustive research. I wrote a movie about the military, I read probably 15 or 20 books about it. I visited military bases and found people and talked to them about their experiences, hung out with them.

I wrote a movie for the now defunct ESPN Films about a school in the inner city of New Orleans. This was a post-Katrina true story about football. I know nothing about football and I know nothing about what it is to live in the inner city of New Orleans. I went to New Orleans and I stayed in the 9th Ward. It was quite useful for me to have conversations and to spend time down there. Some of the best dialogue came from these times chatting with the kids. I can apply those voices and the rhythm of the speech, and all of those things you just learn. My philosophy is to be a journalist.  You don’t have to ask the right questions. You just have to listen.

This is something I got out of making the film Veronica Guerin. Veronica Guerin is a story about a journalist who is a hero in Ireland, beloved by millions. And it’s a tragic story, a woman who’s a martyr as a journalist. The weight of this obligation felt overwhelming: Here’s this women who really did something substantial with her life, and we owed it to her memory to be as true to her and her frailties and her flaws as well as to her noble character, and to make it feel real. And I think that movie was a real success in that regard.

FV: What was the best advice you were given when you started writing? And what’s the best advice you would give an aspiring writer?

ER: James Thurber, who writes for the New Yorker, said that his wife reads his first drafts, and she said once reading a manuscript “This is terrible. It’s like a 12-year-old wrote it.” And he said “You’re right, but I have to let the 12-year-old write the first draft so that the adult can come in and edit it.” And that’s the best advice that I’ve ever heard, if you can translate that into words of advice: Just do it. Write it. It’s going to be crap, fine. But it doesn’t have to come out of your head and onto the page brilliantly. But it does have to be on the page before you can rewrite and fix it.

I just read Four Wedding and a Funeral the other day. It’s a marvelous, tightly written script. There were 17, 18 drafts of that script. If you read the preface to the published book, it’s a wonderful lesson in what it is to be a screenwriter. What happens is you write a draft and you’re like “I wrote the end! Ta da! Here, aren’t I amazing? Read my script and tell me I’m amazing.” And most of the time it’s probably crap. There’s a good idea in there, and it’s up to you to make it better by rewriting.

FV: Does it matter to you who you’re sharing your ideas with? Does it have to be a film expert?

ER: I share a lot of film ideas with my girlfriend, my fiancée now, who’s French and didn’t probably even understand a lot of what we were talking about. Sometimes just a sounding board is the most useful tool as a writer.

In [the book] Save the Cat, Blake Snyder advises you to take your pitch to random people. Whoever you meet, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a movie. What do you think about a movie about a cat who puts on wings and flys.” And they say that’s terrible, so try again.  You have to be on guard against your own bad ideas. Put your ego aside and listen.

FV: What do you love most about being a writer?

ER: The script exists in this crystalline sphere of perfection. It’s just you; the only time in the process where you’ll be alone with your ideas, and where things can be just as you dreamed them. Before the wonderful, terrible process of bringing a script to screen, where you suddenly have to change something because somebody has a different idea and has more power than you have, or because you have to make a million and one compromises.  That’s the biggest challenge as well: The compromise.

FV: So the biggest challenge derives from film being the most collaborative art form?

ER: Well dance is pretty collaborative, but rarely do you have to collaborate with hundreds of people. As a screenwriter you’re giving a blueprint, and a team of other professionals are building a building.

FV: You’re writing several projects at any given time. How do you approach that process?

ER: I’m a terrible multi-tasker. If I can’t just block out time and focus on the one script, I have a really tough time; and also because I’m jumping from worlds. When I was writing three scripts [at the same time] I’ve never felt more schizophrenic in my life. I did a draft of the Irish film and then I stopped. And then I did a draft of the other, and then I stopped. And then I did a draft of the next. Wound up that I had a very short period of time to do each one, but I found it helped.

FV: Typical day, how many hours do you spend writing?

ER: I don’t know, because I spend a lot of time staring.

FV: So that leads to the next question: How do you approach the blank page?

ER: Write an ugly page and you can make it better later. So don’t sweat it if it’s not coming. Don’t force it. I remember this radio piece about a musician who was practicing a new piece for the band and wasn’t getting it. Went to sleep and woke up the next day and it was perfect. And sometimes that happens. You struggle with an idea, then you don’t think about it and suddenly it hits you. Those moments are magic.

FV: Do you outline?

ER: You have to have an idea beforehand. You can feel free to throw it away as you go, but I’m a believer in the preparation. I like to go by page, not just by act structure. I like to know what I need to get into the first couple pages, what I need to have by page 11, that first turning point, what I need to have before I break into two. The midpoint is a great thing that for me came from Blake Snyder. The Blake Snyderism is that there’s a midpoint where a success is turned into a failure or a failure is turned into a success; it’s the turning point of the film. I’ll do a random scribbling of notes and ideas, in a document that has no structure to it, and then I try to take those ideas and I put it into an outline form. And usually I get lazy and start writing anyway.

FV: Where do you go for inspiration? Do you read a lot of produced scripts?

ER: Read unproduced material. It’s stuff that has sold. It's interesting to know what people are buying. And it’s also constructive to receive new ideas. I read a whole series of Tarantino scripts and then set about writing a Tarantino movie. There are downsides to that as well, because no one can write a Tarantino movie but Tarantino. And a lot of people have tried.

FV: Every film school graduate since Pulp Fiction.

ER: Absolutely. But I think that your inspiration has to come from everywhere. If you’re a writer, you have to live. And one of the problems with Hollywood, and another reason to escape, is that it’s this very insular system. Movies cannibalize other movies. We’re doomed to repeat the same beat, movie to movie. And because we’re all in this because we love movies, it’s hard not to take inspiration from other movies. There’s a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. But I take inspiration from art history, from the news, from radio, from conversations with friends, from something I overheard on the street.

FV: How do you find being a writer not living in LA?

ER: It’s wonderful quality of life, but it’s difficult for work. The recently gave a pitch over the phone and they’re like “ok, well we’ll see it when it’s done.”  That’s not the result you’re looking for from a pitch meeting.

When I was in LA, I pitched the same script eight or nine different times in a day.  The last script that I wrote I sold over dinner. We were in Louisiana shooting a movie. It was with the head of the company. We sat down and “here, I have an idea.”

FV: How does your manager handle that with you? Does he prefer you to be in LA?

ER: Yeah, definitely. It makes a lot of things easier.  There are sacrifices for sure. “This is a people business,” to quote Mamet. I think that I don’t know the full scope of the sacrifice, but it’s worth it for me. And like I said, to be a writer you’ve got to live. And I think you’ve got to be willing to take risks in life too. Get out there and see, and listen.

FV: So how did you end up writing the new installment of the Rambo franchise?

ER: I had just finished rewriting Trespass for Avi Lerner, who runs Millenium/ Nu Image Films and who owns the rights to Rambo. We were talking over dinner about Rambo, and I said, “I think there’s this tremendous opportunity to carry on the franchise” which I think anyone who owns franchise material likes to hear. And I suggested, I don’t know whether I should spoil it, but calling the movie New Blood and bringing in a new Rambo.  

FV: With Stallone still involved?

ER: Stallone would direct and be involved. This was an idea I had some time ago and I was going to pitch to Stallone, but never did. But the idea stuck with me, and I mentioned this to Avi over dinner and he said, “Fine, I’ll pay you to write that. I’m going to hold you to that.”

FV: So that was just a one draft thing.

ER: Yeah, just a one draft deal. I wanted to give him the idea, see what it looks like. We’ll see where it goes.

FV: You sold that as a pitch, but you’ve made your living rewriting other people, and in all likelihood this script will be given to another writer to go and rewrite.

ER: Oh yeah. Stallone probably.

FV:  What’s your philosophy on that? Going from rewriting to being rewritten? Do you just have to be open to the universe and know it’s going to happen?

ER: Yeah, it’s a job. You have to put your heart into it, and then detach yourself from it. That’s the tough part. Even if it’s Rambo you have to put all the care and love and attention you’d put into something that’s your dream project. It’s your job, but in Hollywood, you have to let it go.

Film directors have to do that.  Actors have to do that. I mean the actor has no control. The actor goes out and lays their soul bare in front of a hundred and fifty people on set and then just hopes that they did it for the right reasons. That the script will serve them, that the director will serve them, that the editor will serve them. But we send these movies out into the world and the director does his or her best. You just hope that people are going to go to see it and like it.

FV: Do you have any vices when you write? Do you smoke, do you drink coffee?

ER: Well, I drink coffee because that’s how you pay rent at the café table where I do most of my work.