Q & A with Screenwriter Stuart Beattie

“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” Screenwriter Stuart Beattie

“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” Screenwriter Stuart Beattie

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to screenwriter Stuart Beattie about the action adventure “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”, directed by Stephen Sommers (“The Mummy”, “The Mummy Returns”), opening Aug. 7 from Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment in association with Hasbro.

Written by Stuart Beattie and David Elliot & Paul Lovett, its story is by Michael B. Gordon and Stuart Beattie & Stephen Sommers. “G.I. Joe” was produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Brian Goldner and Bob Ducsay. Its executive producers are Stephen Sommers, David Womark, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum and Erik Howsam.

Starring are Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Byung Hun Lee, Sienna Miller, Rachel Nichols, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce, Saïd Taghmaoui, Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans and Dennis Quaid.

The Story: A high-octane action-packed adventure that brings to life the world’s most patriotic action figure mythology and catapults it into the near future. Director Stephen Sommers’ international cast of rising stars and industry veterans tell a tale of heroism versus terrorism — a story about the ultimate in good vs. the worst of evil.

From the central mountains of Asia to Egypt’s deserts, through the crowded streets of Paris to beneath the North Pole’s ice cap, the elite team of operatives known as G.I. Joe journeys on a non-stop adventure using the latest in next-generation spy technology and military equipment to keep the duplicitous arms dealer Destro and the growing threat of the mysterious Cobra organization from plunging the world into chaos.

Stuart Beattie was nominated for a British Academy BAFTA in 2005 for his original screenplay for Michael Mann’s “Collateral”, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. He shared story credit on “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and shared credit for the characters for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”. Among his other credits are the screenplays for “30 Days of Night”, “Derailed”, and “Australia”.

Born and raised in Australia, Beattie moved to the U.S. to pursue a writing career. In 1994, he won the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award presented through the UCLA Extension program. Three years later, he made his film writing debut with the Australian film “Joey”, which won the Australia’s People’s Choice Award for favorite film. He also wrote the independent feature “Kick” starring Paul Mercurio, Radha Mitchell and Martin Henderson.

When Beattie and I spoke recently he was calling from Australia where he was preparing to direct his screenplay “Tomorrow, When the War Began”, based on the novel by John Marsden. The drama marks Beattie’s directorial debut.

Q: You are credited for writing “G.I. Joe” along with David Elliot & Paul Lovett. Did they come in after you or before you?
A: They worked before me, but they worked on an entirely different movie. Paramount had been trying to make a “G.I. Joe” movie for many years so they’d hired a bunch of different writers over the years and they each did their own new draft, their own new story and so did I. I didn’t work with them at all. They didn’t work on the movie at all, but they got credit because they wrote before and there’s some crazy Writers Guild rules. That’s the way it goes. When I came on (the studio) said, “Don’t read any of the previous drafts. There’s nothing in them that we want to use. Just create an original story. Start from scratch and write a ‘G.I. Joe’ story.” So I did.
Q: I’ve heard that in mid-September of 2007 when you were asked to do this, you only had six weeks to work on it before the Writers Guild strike.
A: Yeah. That’s right. By mid-September we kind of knew we were going to be pushed into a strike so we were all winding down. And I got this call one night from Lorenzo di Bonaventura, for whom I’d written a film a few years back (the 2005 thriller “Derailed”). He said, “We’re making ‘G.I. Joe’ and would you like to write it?” I said, “Well, I would, but you know I’m on strike in six weeks.” He said, “That’s plenty of time. Don’t worry about it.” I said, “You’re crazy. I love that. Let’s do it.”

I kind of dove right in. I was very familiar with the material already. That really helped. For the first three weeks of that six week period I really didn’t write very much at all. I just was concentrating on structure because to me structure’s the most important thing. I said to them right off the bat, “Look, I’m not going to be able to craft you this brilliant action screenplay in six weeks, but what I can try to do is create the very strong bone of a good screenplay. And then let’s just hope that the strike ends before we start shooting and then I’ll just polish the scenes as we go later on. But if I don’t get the structure right now no amount of great scene polishing is going to add up to much because the inherent bone of the material is not going to be solid and the story’s not going to make sense or no one’s going to care about the characters.”

Really, that six week period was all about finding a strong structure so I could layer a good and simple story that will allow room for characters to breathe and finding twists and turns, but nothing that was going to over complicate things and end up with scenes where I had to explain what was going on.
Q: You mentioned that you were familiar with the material. Why was that?
A: Back in 2000 a different set of producers came to me with it and that’s where I initially fell in love with “G.I. Joe”. Because I’m Australian, I didn’t really grow up with “G.I. Joe”. I knew of it, but I’d never really played with the action figures. I knew who some of the basic characters were, but once I got the (story) bible given to me back in 2000 I just fell in love with (that) world and read everything on it and loved it and all the comics. I thought it was fantastic.

What happened eventually was that the project just kind of faded away. I don’t know why. I never wrote anything for it. I just was given the materials and soon after I was told, “Well, actually, it’s all gone to pieces and we’re not doing it any more.” Normally, at that point I would get rid of the materials, but I loved them so much I’d hung on to them so they were literally on my shelf when I got that call from Lorenzo. So I pulled the books off the shelf and just kind of dove right into it.
Q: When Lorenzo called was Stephen Sommers already on board to direct?
A: That’s right. Once they had decided to really push to make the film, they decided to go with a filmmaker because they’d tried (developing) so many screenplays over the years and they hadn’t worked for them. So they called up Stephen and they said, “We love your movies and if you’re interested in doing this movie we’ll do it with you.” Stephen looked into it and fell in love with it and said, “Yeah, let’s go.” They said, “Alright. We want to be shooting by February so you don’t have enough time to write this yourself. Let’s hire a writer.”

Stephen had never directed a film before that he hadn’t written so he didn’t really know any writers to bring in. So Lorenzo said, “Well, I know this guy. Let me call him.” And that’s how I came on. I met with Stephen and within about five minutes I could tell that he was my kind of guy. He had this great passion for the film, great energy and great ideas and no ego. So we kind of clicked and just started working together. We worked pretty intensely and pretty closely for the next year and a half and it was a wonderful experience.
Q: With only three weeks remaining before the strike after you’d finished creating the film’s structure you must have been working around the clock.
A: Well, yeah. Everyone was getting kind of nervous about three weeks in without any screenplay pages. I was actually writing around the clock. I wasn’t sleeping much. I barely saw my family for three weeks even though I was in the same house with them in Los Angeles. I was working Saturdays and Sundays, all hours. I just wrote and wrote. I was effectively going on strike at the end of it so I just promised my family, “I’ll be around when we hit Nov. 1.”

I just put in all the hours that I could and got it done, basically, and then handed it in. And that was it and I went on strike. I really didn’t think that they would actually green light it because it was so fast, but they did and they were off. Pre-production went throughout the rest of the strike and the strike actually ended on the day before principal photography began. It was Feb. 13 that we started shooting. The strike ended Feb. 12. It allowed me to get down to the set on Day One and just start polishing, polishing, polishing. I started polishing scenes about an hour before they were being shot and I just kept working and working until I got a little bit more ahead. I think I ended up about 48 hours ahead by the end of the shoot.
“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” — Opening August 7

“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” — Opening August 7

Q: In different circumstances, how long would you have had to write the same screenplay?
A: Oh, it’s 12 weeks usually for a first draft and then eight weeks for a second draft and all through pre-production, which is three or four months. On a movie like this, it should have been six months. They only had about four months. So you get like about a year usually. (Laughing) I had really three weeks.
Q: Now you weren’t able to do anything in pre-production, but under normal circumstances a screenwriter must be quite a bit involved then.
A: Oh, my God, yeah. That’s the biggest period. That’s when you want to fix things and when you want to change things because it’s just on paper at that stage. That’s usually the greatest time and then once you get on set it’s more (difficult) because the script is locked up. You may be changing a line here or there or you’re changing a scene because the location fell through or you can’t get an actor to be at a certain place at a certain time. So that’s usually what you end up doing. It’s more mechanical. But on this movie it was fully creative every day.

We were shooting so fast. I remember things like Dennis Quaid is so good. We shot so fast that we still had two days left with him and were wondering, “What are we going to do for two days with Dennis Quaid?” And we said, “Let’s write some more scenes.” So we just wrote more scenes for it. I would just write stuff because we had the time, we had the actors and everyone was just so gung-ho and into it and having a great time. It was just a wonderful thing.
Q: Where were you shooting?
A: We shot most of it in Downey (just south of Los Angeles). We built the pit down there. We built the bad guys’ headquarters down there. We did some shooting in Downtown L.A. And then we did about two months in Prague at the studios over there. So it was about a three or four month shoot and we came in two days early and under budget with no prep.
Q: How do you work when you’re writing?
A: Normally, I work at home. I have a PC. I try and keep banker’s hours so I do 9 to 6, Monday to Friday. So this was kind of (unusual). We were shooting Monday to Friday. I’d wake up and go down to the set with my laptop and I would work in the editor’s trailer. Bob Ducsay, who’s also a producer, had a trailer there and I would just set up next to the editing table, which was wonderful for me because I could get to see all the assemblies as they were being made and I could see what was working and what was not and I could change stuff on the spot. I’d just hang out in the trailer or on the set and dart back and forth and create pages and show them to Bob and show them to Stephen and get them approved, change them, distribute them — all that kind of stuff for four months.
Q: What’s the movie about?
A: There are a lot of answers to that question. I could say, “Well, it’s about good guys and bad guys and a weapon of mass destruction that everyone wants to get their hands on.” That’s the basic plot. But really what it’s about is a guy who fell in love with a beautiful girl and broke her heart and couldn’t face her and she disappeared for four years. And all of a sudden he runs back into her one day and she’s no longer the person he knew. And the movie is really about what happened to that girl, what happened to the love of my life, what happened to the girl that I proposed to?

Really, to me that’s what the movie is about. It doesn’t sound very “G.I. Joe”, but — (laughs). I believe that you’ve got to have heart, you’ve got to have soul. You’ve got to have something that people can connect to even if they’re not a fan of “G.I.Joe”, even if they don’t like guns or vehicles or ninjas. (So you need) something in there that everyone can relate to and in this case it’s lost love.
Q: You have characters called Nanomites that both the good guys and bad guys are trying to get their hands on. Tell us a little about them.
A: I chose Nanomites because they’re so “G.I. Joe”. That’s the simplest answer. When I came on someone had these ideas about what the bad guy plot would be — “Let’s steal all the suit case nukes that all the presidents have in the world and we’ll control all the world’s nuclear weapons.” I said, “Okay, but that just feels a little too generic for a “G.I. Joe” movie. That feels like a plot that could exist in any kind of action movie.” What I was specifically looking for was a plot that could only exist in the world of “G.I. Joe” — a story that is unique to the world of "“G.I. Joe”.

If you know “G.I. Joe” and you know the comics, you know these things called Nanomites, which are these tiny little robots that eat metal. They consume entire cities. They really are a weapon of mass destruction. They’re very, very deadly and very dangerous. So I hit upon that and said, “Let’s have the movie be about who has these Nanomites and what they’re going to do with them.” It really came from knowing the material and wanting to create a story that was specific to the material.
Beattie (Left) on set with Producer Bob Ducsay (Right)

Beattie (Left) on set with Producer Bob Ducsay (Right)

Q: Is it helpful or does it make it more difficult when there’s a wealth of material from years of comics for you to go through?
A: It’s both really. It’s kind of terrifying in a sense that there is so much material. If I hadn’t been as familiar with it as I was there’s no way I would have been able to do the job. But because I spent many years immersed in the world I’d had a real chance to learn the world and learn all that stuff so that wasn’t as terrifying to me. And then, of course, the good side is that there is all this great material. It’s an embarrassment of riches and everything you select is really great — a fun thing, a fun character, a fun vehicle or a fun plot device.

I love having parameters as long as I have had time to understand what the parameters are. It guides you. It’s like playing a video game where there’s really only one way to go. I like that. I hate wandering around aimlessly in a field. I like knowing there’s one way to go and here it is and here’s an arrow pointing me that way.
Q: I understand you also were writing new lines for the film well into post-production.
A: Oh, yeah. I only stopped writing it like a month ago. Because I had so much fun working on it, I just told them, “Anything you need written at all, call me. I’m here. I can get it done.” So every piece of background chatter from Apache helicopter pilots to someone on a P.A. system to someone on a monitor — every single piece of dialogue you hear they called me for. I was working all through editing and post-production. It was great. They had me write it there and I would help them come up with ideas for post-production beyond just dialogue and things like that.
Q: Many of the things you’ve written for “G.I. Joe” like cars raining down on the streets of Paris are easy to write as lines but to film them poses big challenges. Were there things you wrote that Stephen Sommers wished he didn’t have to film?
A: (Laughing) No. I think Stephen loved filming everything. He really was like a kid in a toy store. I’d never worked with him before, but everyone who had just said he was the most excited they’d ever seen him. And even he said that he just felt reinvigorated in a way that he hadn’t felt in years and loved being there every day. I think he got a kick out of shooting all that stuff, conceptualizing it, seeing it through and getting it on camera.

We had incredible stunt crews. We had amazing stunt drivers. We had a terrific second unit. And the actors were all into it and throwing themselves into these roles. There was a great kind of meeting of minds. We were always having so much fun that it was a joy. It was one of the most stress free sets I’ve been on (and considering) the craziness and the lack of preparation that was forced upon us it was amazing.
Q: Looking back at production, does anything come to mind that went wrong and needed fixing?
A: There were lots of things that went wrong, but you know you find ways around them. You find different ways to do things. Sometimes the impossibility of something forces you to be creative in a way you hadn’t thought of before and what you end up with is something better than what you were going to get. So if you go into it knowing that you don’t freak out when everything goes wrong, you know there’s the possibility that something better might come of it.
Q: So just finally — you’re in Sydney right now. What are you doing there?
A: I’m actually directing a feature for the first time. It’s called “Tomorrow, When the War Began” based on a very famous set of novels called the “Tomorrow” series by John Marsden. We’re making a movie of the first book — an independent Australian film and we’re crewing up and casting and scouting and gearing up for a Sept. 28 shoot. My first feature as a director.