Chris Weitz is a name you may not have heard of, but it’s more than likely you’ve watched one of the profusion of films he’s helped bring to the silver screen. Most recently a screenwriter for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Disney’s live-action reimagining of Cinderella, Weitz has also served as the director for various big-budget blockbusters such as The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass. Moreover, he has also co-written and co-directed the critical darling, About a Boy. Weitz is well-known in the cinema world for possessing a distinctive perspective on Hollywood, and was able to discuss with me how the film industry is continuing to evolve, as well as some of the vital lessons he’s learned throughout his career.
For many filmmakers, the passion to create cinema is one that seems to be instilled at birth. Some directors seem to speak of emerging from the womb gripping a Sony DCR, intriguingly this wasn’t the case for Weitz who states: “I wasn’t one of those kids who made movies in their backyard. I’m not sure I realised that movie-making might be the thing for me until I was on the set of my first movie. In retrospect, there were a few primal scenes that later cohered into a sort of vocation, but I didn’t recognize them at the time. I think that, like many many people, I was deeply affected by watching Star Wars as a kid. That was a powerful, nearly visceral, experience, which got in my brain before I could entirely distinguish fiction and lived experience. But equally, I think that most of my adult life has been about how to do something with my love for books, which is why I studied English and why I ended up adapting so many other authors”.
I was intrigued to know more of Weitz’s opportunity to work on Rogue One, Disney’s first anthology film in the Star Wars universe, and how that came to fruition. “Well the whole experience was an extended pinch-me moment, I suppose. I had been avidly hoping that I would get a chance to write a Star Wars movie and when they told me in the room, there was no information before I was called in to “audition”, that the job was to tell the story of the opening crawl, it was perfection. Of course, after that comes a lot of pressure and pragmatic stuff like writing for a budget and schedule, and a fair amount of seeing how a sausage gets made, which definitely affects your view of sausages”.
With Weitz studying English at Trinity College in Cambridge, I was ardent to know of Weitz’s thoughts on film school and his own perspective on that type of cinema education. “Well I think that there’s a lot to be learned at film school, especially if it serves as a place where you have an excuse to watch loads of movies and think about them and get your hands on film equipment,” Weitz says. “That being said, I never went to film school or studied film in any formal way before I was actually on a film set as a director, when I was basically educated by my DP and First AD. In theory, you could launch yourself into a career with nothing under your belt but a copy of Final Draft and a working knowledge of Final Cut. But knocking around with people who also want to make movies; speaking to smart people who know a lot about film — that’s all good. As for myself, the first steps were simply looking at the way scripts were formatted — this was before you had purpose-built software to put them together — and having a crack at it with my brother, who had been writing plays from a young age. We learned by doing. I remember being vaguely aware that there was something called a three-act structure, but I could never get through any of the screenwriting guidebooks. I think that whatever they have to offer can probably be fit on an index card and that the quality of any script comes after all of that has been digested. I start to feel queasy when somebody talks about ‘the inciting incident’ or ‘character arcs’”.
“Steve Jobs insist[ed] that the insides of Apple computers should be beautifully designed and assembled, even though the owner never saw beneath”
If one were to read a few pages of Weitz’s screenplays, you can easily see that he’s something of an idiosyncratic writer. I quoted to him of a line from The Golden Compass screenplay and he revealed some of his creative process of writing a script: “I’d like it to be possible to read a script of mine for enjoyment’s sake; of course, the sad fact is that most readers will just skip to the next line of dialogue. I think that it comes down to a sense of workmanship. There’s a story about Steve Jobs insisting that the insides of Apple computers should be beautifully designed and assembled, even though the owner never saw beneath the case. I think the logic is that it is difficult to construct a beautifully functioning whole if the smaller pieces are of indifferent quality or slapdash. But then sometimes I think I overwrite things, and life might be much simpler if my screen directions were spare and functional. On the balance, I think that the prose bits — if that’s a proper way of viewing the “action” as opposed to the dialogue — give a notion of tone and aesthetic to the director, even though it’s her right to ignore or amend that. All I can say on this score to emerging screenwriters is that it certainly has never hurt me and they ought to do what they feel is right for them within the obvious constraints of the reader’s patience”.
Weitz has served as both director, producer and screenwriter on a number of films throughout his career, and I asked him if there was a specific role he enjoys more than the others. “Producing is basically all of the worst bits of moviemaking put together and the real satisfaction to it is when you are able to help somebody else get their film off the ground” Weitz affirms. “Directing is the best job in the world when it is going well; but it is hell on one’s psyche and family life. So, I will have to say screenwriting is the thing”.
After reading an article Weitz wrote ten years ago entitled “Lights! Camera! Fiction”, which remains a engaging read, I asked him about where he believes the screenwriter stands today in film-making and if he stands by his statements. “I’ve just gone back to read what I wrote and I’m not sure I understand it” Weitz remarks candidly. “Honestly, I’m torn as to the position of the screenwriter… Here in the States, my Guild is just about to ask us to fire our agencies if they don’t change their policies with regard to conflict of interest, it’s a long story. Of course, I sympathize, and I think the Guild is essentially correct, but at times I don’t really think of myself as a screenwriter at all. I’m just a guy who for some reason people think can help get films made. I like noodling around with characters and narratives, and I figured out how to fit them into script form. And I’ll support the Guild because I believe in organized labour. But otherwise, I’m completely atomized and don’t really think of myself as part of a trade at all. It’s a very strange thing to do, to build narrative frameworks for consensual hallucinations that are monetized by giant corporations, and I’m often surprised that the job actually exists, year to year. But, ironically, it may be one of the jobs most protected against AI and automation”.
Directors like Christopher McQuarrie and James Mangold have often spoken that the rise of Twitter and other social media has had a reductive impact on film-making and with Weitz’s almost 50k followers on twitter, I asked if he agreed with their sentiments. “Yes, I think that the quasi-sacred experience of seeing a film on opening day and essentially not knowing what you’re going to see is basically f***ed forever” Weitz avers. “Everything is parsed and attacked and defended and fan-theoried half to death. And it certainly gives you pause when you’re thinking of doing something that fans get up in arms about”.
Weitz continues to reveal insightful and percipient statements throughout the interview, and is generous with his answers. For his closing remarks, I ask him what he’s learnt from his career that he believes should be imparted onto the next generation of filmmakers. “I think it’s important to realize that everyone in the film industry is looking to be shown what to do next. There really is a place for genuine enthusiasm and confidence, born of real love of what movies can do, carried out with conviction.