07.24.13 | Erin Hallagan
Austin Film Festival (AFF): How did you come into screenwriting? What has been one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in this trade?
Tim McCanlies: I’ve always loved books and movies, and always wanted to be a writer; I read voraciously, watched films incessantly, and tried to write fiction from an early age. I made films in high school, went to film school, and finally went out to LA many years ago, in the early 80’s. After a number of years of struggling, I finally got a few spec scripts optioned; these scripts attracted the attention of the folks at Disney, and that’s where my real education began. There, I learned the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in the screenwriting trade: I’d written a first draft of an original idea, by all accounts a “terrific first draft”, and everyone loved it, EVERYONE, to the point in which I was getting notes from a dozen junior executives and the three major studio head execs. I was swimming in “notes”, many if not most confusing and even contradictory. After several drafts, the script had become a Frankenstein’s monster of patchwork ideas/notes/themes, reflecting everyone’s “input”. In a post-mortem “what happened?” meeting, I told my execs that I’d did everything they’d asked, taken every note… and this was the first time I’d ever seen a studio exec “crack”… he said “We don’t know what we’re doing! If we did, we’d be writers! You’re not supposed to take our notes literally, slavish follow our directions… YOU are the writer. You have to be smarter than us.” So, from that moment on, I took his advice, and never let the studio become the writer, I never abdicated the authority or the responsibility for my writing to be GOOD. It helped me stay sane in this crazy business for many years.
AFF: You’re the proof that it is not necessary to live in LA to work in the film industry. What have been some of the benefits and challenges of working for Hollywood in Texas?
McCanlies: BENEFITS: I live in the real world, where The Business is not the most important thing in the world, and I think that gives me some much-needed perspective on many, many things in life. It’s cheaper here in Texas… but most importantly, Texas is where I’m from, where I belong. Also, the time difference, being two hours later, helps me keep my morning to myself, for writing, before the phone starts ringing.
DRAWBACKS: There are many projects that, over the years, I’m sure I’ve not gotten because I wasn’t around, close at hand. Sometimes they need a guy NOW, especially on big production emergency re-writes, and so I never really worked much in that side of the business. I’m sure there’s many contacts I didn’t make, connections I missed, because I didn’t (and still don’t) live out there.
I did live out in LA for the first five years of my writing career, and I would still recommend it to any young writer, starting out, whose life and commitments allow him or her to do so. You can “get up to speed” far more quickly out there… much of this depends on what kind of writing you want to do. The film side of the business isn’t nearly as active as it was during much of my time out there; the television side of the business is very exciting now, it’s something I never really explored and wish I had. But to make one’s way in Television, even these days, you’d have to live out there, get on a staff, learn that side of the business.
AFF: You were at the inaugural Austin Film Festival and Conference in 1993 and since then you’ve been to the Festival and Conference eight times. From your perspective has the festival changed over the past twenty years?
McCanlies: It’s certainly grown far larger, more well-attended, and more influential every year. But I like to think that the core remains the same, year after year: to show young writers that they CAN indeed succeed, and help them find the tools and courage they need to do so.
AFF: In your opinion, what makes this Festival and Conference so valuable for aspiring and for working screenwriters?
McCanlies: This festival is still uniquely about the writer; while there have since been other attempts at writers’ festivals, this festival remains the primary festival for aspiring writers to learn their craft. On top of that, the script contest is one of the best opportunities for a new writer’s main problem: to get his script read. And now, the “On Story” television episodes on PBS are a terrific resource for everyone.
AFF: What has been your most memorable moment at the Conference?
McCanlies: There’s been so many: getting to meet so many writers who are heroes of mine is always a high light. One highlight I fondly remember: before/after a panel on animation, swapping stories about Brad Bird with Andrew Stanton.
AFF: How did you come up with the story for SECONDHAND LIONS? What were some of the significant changes that happened from conception through creation and why?
McCanlies: I had an idea to explore “What happens to a guy like Indiana Jones when he’s ‘Old, Pissed, and Fixin’ to Die?'” (an early title). And early on, a theme emerged: I’d seen documentaries on how 99% of prison inmates had no real father, no man in their life, to adult male role model, and so I wondered, “What is it that men teach boys? What are those lessons?” And so, that became what the film “was about”. And once I knew that, I knew what I need to know to write it. And strangely, perhaps because the writer also became the director, not a lot of changes happened to the script. Changes that were made were mostly for timing, as my first cut was far too long; so some sub-plots went away (but they’re all on the DVD). Translating that script to the screen was a huge learning experience for me.
AFF: As a film that speaks to viewers of all ages and backgrounds, what do you hope that audiences take away from watching SECONDHAND LIONS?
McCanlies: Well, I suppose it’s the lessons that the Uncles teach the boy: what’s truly important, that courage and honor are everything, worth doing for their own sake.