Q & A with Screenwriter Craig Titley

Craig Titley

Screenwriter Craig Titley

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to screenwriter Craig Titley about the writing of 20th Century Fox’s contemporary adventure fantasy “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief”, opening wide Feb. 12.

“Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is based on the first book in a series of popular novels by Rick Riordan about a boy who discovers that the Greek gods and monsters are alive and well and walking among us.

In the film, which takes place in the 21st century, the gods of Mount Olympus and assorted monsters have walked out of the pages of high school student Percy Jackson’s Greek mythology texts and into his life. They’re not happy because Zeus’ powerful lightning bolt has been stolen and Percy’s the prime suspect.

Even more troubling is the sudden disappearance of Percy’s mother. As Percy adapts to his newly discovered status as a demi-god — his father’s Poseidon — he finds himself caught between the battling titans of Mount Olympus. He and his friends embark on a cross-country adventure to catch the true lightning thief, save Percy’s mom, and unravel a mystery more powerful than the gods themselves.

Directed by Chris Columbus (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, “Home Alone”), it stars Logan Lerman as Percy, Uma Thurman, Sean Bean, Rosario Dawson, Pierce Brosnan, Kevin McKidd, Catherine Keener, Steve Coogan, Joe Pantoliano and Melina Kanakaredes.

Craig Titley began his film career as a production assistant on feature films and TV movies. After a brief stint as an executive for Nickelodeon’s feature film division, he went on to adapt material for family films, including the screen stories for “Scooby-Doo”, based on the Hanna-Barbera animated TV series, and Cheaper by the Dozen”, based on a novel, starring Steve Martin. Both films grossed over $100 million domestically and spawned successful sequels.

After working for a decade in the family film genre, Titley spent three years writing screenplays while pursuing a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. His love of mythology and movies intersected when he was chosen as one of the writers for George Lucas’s animated television series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”. His next project is a big budget adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” for New Line Cinema with Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) producing.

Born in Mattoon, Illinois, Titley studied at Eastern Illinois University, earning degrees in both English and Business. He also has an MFA in Motion Picture Producing from the University of Southern California’s Peter Stark Program.

Screenwriter Craig Titley (center) on set.

Screenwriter Craig Titley (center) on set.

Q: Is this a good time to be a screenwriter?
A: I’m having a great time. I think it’s getting a little trickier. It’s now all about the underlying rights thing. You can’t go out and pitch original ideas as much as you used to, but I’ve always pretty much been a gun for hire doing assignments and adaptations so business is booming from where I’m sitting. I do a lot of adaptations and things like that so, knock on wood, I can’t complain.
Q: So it was easier in the past for writers to pitch original ideas?
A: Yeah. It used to be an original idea town. I think that’s getting a little difficult although, sort of ironically, I was just looking at the biggest grossing films of the year and half of them are original writer generated ideas (like) “Up” and “The Hangover” and “District 9” and things like that. It’s like the powers that be have determined that they need underlying graphic novels or games, but certainly I don’t think audiences have said that that’s what they want. They want good movies, as always.
Q: But since you do a lot of adaptations, this is a good period for you.
A: Yeah. I like the adaptations where there’s a lot of room to wiggle and to be creative and to bring in new elements as opposed to something where you’ve got to treat the source material as sacred. Sort of the good thing about the graphic novel-board game boom, whatever you want to call it, is that there’s a lot of room to be completely original within the constraints of the source material.
Q: You have two adaptations going, as we speak. “Percy Jackson” is coming out in early February and then you’re trying to get “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” made.
A: We were in this little competition game with the Disney project (“Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and since they pulled the plug on theirs (in mid-November Disney’s new studio head Rich Ross scrapped the project) we’re sort of back in the game again on ours. I’ll be hitting the ground running on that in the New Year. It’s a pet project of mine because I loved the novel and I loved the 1954 Disney film. That was a book where there was a lot of wiggle room because as (Jules) Verne wrote it it was very much like a travelogue without a real story driving it. So I sort of had to put on my Verne hat and say, “What would Verne do if he were in Hollywood and had to adapt his own book, which is sort of plotless?” and come up with a plot that feels very Vernian. To me that was a lot of fun and that’s where you get to be very creative in the world of adaptations.
Q: When do you think we might get to see “20,000 Leagues”?
A: (laughing) Who knows? First we have to attach a director and then we have to convince a studio to make a $200 million water movie. It could be many, many years.
Q: Well, let’s talk about “Percy Jackson”, which is imminent. Clearly, you’ve put your PhD in Mythology to good use.
A: I didn’t have to crack open dictionaries as much on this one. That’s certainly true. I think that’s why Chris Columbus approached me. I had a longstanding relationship with him and his company and they knew I’d been working on my PhD in Mythological Studies and when “Percy Jackson” landed on his desk they thought of sending it to me because of that reason and, also, they knew my writing. I could not have been more excited because I literally was fresh from wrapping up my three years of classroom work in the PhD.
Q: Where did you study?
A: A place called Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. It’s a depth psychology school primarily, but they inherited (mythologist) Joseph Campbell’s personal library (of about 3,000 books) many years ago and built a mythological studies program around that. (Depth psychology centers on the work of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, who were concerned with what is “below the surface” of conscious awareness.) It’s mythological studies from the Joseph Campbell perspective so it’s very much comparative religions, the study of narrative and storytelling and the hero journey and why we tell the same stories over and over again for centuries. I did it more as a hobby because I love Joseph Campbell and I love all the great mythologies and religions of the world and realized that it probably couldn’t hurt me as a writer. Certainly, I think it’s improved my writing immensely. I think I’m twice as a good as I was before I started the program.
Q: Why is that?
A: I think just being immersed in the new way of looking at story from a depth psychology perspective and studying narratology and the way stories have been built from the dawn of time and the building blocks that have always existed. And, then, bringing mythological motifs and archetypes and references into material. It’s just like having a bunch of new instruments to play at the same time as I’m playing the old ones.
Q: Tell me about writing “Percy Jackson”. When did you get started?
A: I came on board the summer before the (Writers Guild) Strike. It was literally one of those projects where we turned in the first draft at like 11:59 the night before the Strike and then had to sit that out. It was September ’07 and we picked it up again in ’08 and started filming the beginning of ’09.
Q: And you said that Chris Columbus approached you to write it.
A: It was a joy. He’s a great guy to work with. I’m sort of spoiled because I don’t feel like I could ever now work without a director who knows what he’s doing and the exact movie he wants to make. So it certainly was an easier process that way. Plus the fact that he’s a great writer himself. So it’s like if you get stuck there’s none of that banging your head against the wall. It’s like sending an e-mail to Chris and he immediately unsticks you. It was quite a pleasure and probably the most painless script I’ve ever written because of that. There was definitely a captain on the ship who knew how to steer.
Q: How do you work? What’s the writing process like for you?
A: I use Final Draft. I do my best writing in the morning. I have this rule that I heard some writer mention when I was younger — it’s five pages or five hours, whichever comes first. I’ll usually work out in the morning and start writing around nine and I go for about five hours. Maybe once a year I hit the five page mark instead of the five hour mark first. But that’s sort of my process. And then after I finish it’s career maintenance, as I call it — returning phone calls and reading assignments that have been sent my way, things like that. It took me a while (to adopt this process).

All the younger writers ignore (sitting down to write) till the last possible moment. I did the same thing (but then changed to) treat it like a job. The clock starts at nine or whenever you choose. Sit at the desk and treat it like a job. The first half of my writing career it was put it off as long as possible and start writing like at eight at night and random hours and wait for inspiration. All these older writers were correct in their wisdom. You’re actually more creative and you write better when you treat it like a job.
Q: Of course, in the Golden Age of Hollywood writers used to work just that way sitting in their offices at the studios and writing all day long.
A: Exactly. And look at the great stuff they were pumping out? They were writing six or seven scripts a year, at least.
Q: When you’re writing how do you work? Do you rewrite yourself over and over every time you start or do you just continue on from where you left off?
A: I definitely rewrite as I go. I do a lot of outlining beforehand. I’m sort of a lousy pitcher so I usually write like a 10 page synopsis of the whole movie, which I give to executives or producers in lieu of having to pitch. That always gives me a good starting off place and then they can make notes on that, as well. So usually I have a very detailed outline-treatment, a mutant creature of the two, and start from there.

I’m never one of the guys who can just skip to the end and then go back and rewrite. It’s like two steps forward and one step back. I start the day by looking at the pages I wrote previously and start tweaking and fixing them and then I move forward. That’s pretty much the process. I think I’m my own worst critic and I’m harder on me than the producers and directors and studios even. I have to feel like I did it to the best of my ability and then I hand it over and take the notes and start over.
Q: A lot of screenwriters use index cards on bulletin boards to outline their scripts. Do you do anything like that?
A: I usually do that if I get really, really stuck. If I’m going to get stuck it’s usually around page 60 or 70. Then I will sometimes bring out the note cards and play around with that. But I don’t start that way. I just start with outlining on legal pads and an outline-treatment document. Once I get that to the point where I can see the whole movie in my head, then I start writing and correct as needed.
Q: How important is story structure to you?
A: Extremely important. The old saying “story is character and character is structure and structure is story” is sort of this endless loop where they’re all interdependent on each other and all, at the end of the day, are kind of the same. Whenever you get stuck, instead of trying to piece together some complicated plot puzzle go back to the character and try to get inside their head. Where is the character going? Then usually the plot follows. At least that’s sort of my method.
Q: When you’re writing action scenes how specific do you get? Do you tell the director what you’re envisioning or do you leave it to him?
A: I for the most part get very, very specific. I grew up with those Ray Harryhausen effects movies like “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) and the “Sinbad” movies and just love and hold those very dear to my heart. But as you get older and rewatch them it’s not quite as great as you remember. Sometimes the memories in your head of a movie you saw when you were a kid are so much grander than the actual movie was.

I always felt “Percy Jackson” was kind of an homage to those Harryhausen films. I tried to write that awesome scene that I remembered in my head that wasn’t fully executed at the time because of the constraints of budgets and effects and everything. So I kind of wrote to the memory. I had a lot of fun doing that with set pieces with all these great classical Greek monsters. They were pretty detailed action sequences.
Q: Now some directors probably wouldn’t like that, but Chris Columbus was okay with it?
A: Yeah. I turned in the pages and he would sort of pepper it to his own liking and tweak some things and change it around a bit. They’re not monotonously detailed (scenes) like “he takes two steps to the left and raises the sword six inches.” Not crazy stuff like that, but just in the broad strokes of the beats.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced in adapting “Percy Jackson”?
A: I think when Fox bought these books they had no idea that they were going to be as successful as they were. So originally there was a little more of being, you know, footloose and fancy free with the source material. But as we got further along there started to be stories about these groups of crazy kids who worshipped these books and they were becoming bigger and bigger best-sellers. And then it was like we had to change a lot of it because these books unlike the “Harry Potter” books skewed very, very young. They were sort of super-super kid friendly and a little goofy at times. We didn’t want to make a goofy kiddie movie.

We wanted to make a movie more in tone like the later “Harry Potter” movies that were older (in their appeal) to like 17 year old kids and that had some romance and a little more hardcore action. So the fine line of being true and faithful in spirit to the source material but then knowing that you had to take certain liberties (was challenging). As the books became bigger and bigger and their following became more vocal, that became a bit of a challenge. I think we pulled it off. I think we made a movie that stands on its own, that’s respectful of the source material and that kind of is its own thing and I think the fans of the book will not complain. I think they’re going to like what we did.
Q: How many drafts of the screenplay did you write?
A: I think I did two official drafts, but as I said I sort of rewrite as I go, so there were many, many interim drafts. Two official, but maybe six in my files.
Q: You’re the sole screenwriter on “Percy Jackson” and that’s increasingly rare these days.
A: There were a few other hands in the mix. There had been an adaptation before I came along like two years ago when the book was just a manuscript and hadn’t even been published. That sort of got thrown out and we started from scratch. And then Chris did a little polishing of his own when it got closer to production. He’s a competent writer with an amazing track record. But I guess it is kind of rare.
Q: Obviously, you and Chris worked together very well. Have you ever wound up working with a director where you felt your screenplay was being butchered or changed the wrong way?
A: There have been films where I had written the script and then I had moved on and then when I saw the movie I was like, “Wow. What the heck was he thinking? What were they doing?” But I can’t imagine having to work closely with a director that you’re not in synch with. That just sounds like the most miserable way to make a living. So I’m quite lucky that Chris and I were so in synch. In a way, he sort of discovered me. My very first spec script went out many moons ago — I don’t want to date myself — and made it into the hands of his production company and they read it and liked it and he read it. I wrote a movie for them and then they gave me an office and a two picture deal. So I’ve been in their world for a long time and kind of knew Chris’s taste.

One of my first jobs fresh out of (USC) film school was as sort of the office boy for Joe Dante and his company. Joe had directed “Gremlins”, which Chris had written, so I had access to every single draft of “Gremlins”. Plus, he had other of Chris’s scripts in their big script library. So actually Chris — although he doesn’t realize it — was one of the writers that taught me how to write. He was one of the writers where I read his script and really studied his style and tried to get inside his head by reading all his drafts. I think I got so inside his head studying his early scripts that when we actually had to work together we were completely in synch. We were kind of just like exciting each other with ideas — like, “Hey, what about this?” and you’d get excited. There weren’t very many times when we didn’t agree on things or have any conflict.
Q: Coming back to “20,000 Leagues”, is there a director lined up to do it yet?
A: There have been a few names bandied about and a few people who suggested their interest. But, again, in this little race we had with Disney we had directors circling it and then it looked like Disney was going to make it so the directors sort of cooled off it. No one wants to be the second “20,000 Leagues” or the competing one. So when the Disney thing fell apart, some of these directors are re-circling. I think the first order of business in January will be to try to attach a director because we have the script in turnaround. It was sold to New Line before New Line got, shall we say, downsized. So I think (the plan now is to) attach a director and shop it around to the studios.