Screenwriter duo hits it big with this summer's two Bruckheimer films
Everyone knows that screenwriters get no respect in Hollywood. But that goes double -- or maybe triple -- for the screenwriters who work on Jerry Bruckheimer movies. Whenever you read a batch of reviews about the latest Bruckheimer picture, as you will later this week when "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" hits the theaters, you can pretty much be certain that if the screenwriters are mentioned at all, it is with derision and scorn, as if they were completely in cahoots with the legendary action producer's efforts to dumb down another big-screen extravaganza.
But as it turns out, the view from the screenwriters' perspective is altogether different. Over the years, I've bumped into a number of writers who've worked on Bruckheimer projects, almost all of whom have spoken well of the experience, saying that the 64-year-old producer is a true old pro, a shrewd judge of storytelling and surprisingly collaborative, at least in the sense that as long as you buy into his overriding cinematic philosophy -- movies as mass-production vehicles -- he always wants to hear what everyone in the room has to say before he makes a decision.
Perhaps that's why so many talented writers gravitate into the Bruckheimer orbit, the latest recruits being Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, who share writing credits on both of the producer's big movies this summer, "Prince of Persia" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," due out in mid-July. As it turns out, Miro and Bernard have quite a back story. Born on the same day in 1972, the 38-year-old writers have been best friends since they first met in the second grade in suburban Detroit.
"I think we were great friends because we always shared a real sense of imagination," Miro explained when I had breakfast with the pair on Friday. "Whatever game we would play, we could play forever. It wasn't just limited to writing. When we were kids we had a tradition of reenacting Nebraska versus Oklahoma football games, since the wishbone offense was an object of endless fascination for us." (Still big sports fans, they spent Friday night watching their beloved Detroit Tigers make a rare appearance at Dodger Stadium.)
After going to college -- Miro went to Stanford and Bernard went to Michigan - -they ended up in Los Angeles, where they landed jobs working as assistants for Michael Mann. They credit it as a hugely influential experience, since if you worked for Mann, you not only saw a world-class filmmaker at work but got to read every great script in town. Writing at night and early in the morning before work, they penned "Motor City," a film noir script set in 1950s Detroit. It sold to George Clooney's Section 8 production company. It was never made, but it became an important calling card for the duo.
While they wrote a couple of films that did get made, including the DreamWorks thriller "The Uninvited," the project that put them on the map was an unproduced adaptation of a Dean King novel called "Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival," an adventure yarn set in the early 19th century Sahara desert. It not only got the attention of Bruckheimer but earned the duo a gig writing an early draft of Steven Spielberg's "Tintin." Bruckheimer was already deep at work on "Prince of Persia," having commissioned scripts from Jordan Mechner, who had created the video game, as well as Boaz Yakim, who had directed Bruckheimer's "Remember the Titans."
"Jerry felt the first act was solid, but it needed a lot of work," recalls Bernard. "What Jerry and everyone said to us was, 'Make it as big as you want,' which really fuels your imagination. It was a great challenge for us, since we'd been writing little period films that had never been made, and now we got to work on a huge adventure story that actually had a chance of being up on screen."
So what's it like laboring on the Bruckheimer assembly line? It's definitely a group process, with Bruckheimer relying heavily on his top production executives, notably Mike Stenson and Chad Oman. But one opinion takes precedent over all the others. "Jerry has a very understated style -- he's calm, meticulous and intensely practical," says Miro. "His real power is that he'll hear all the voices in the room, but Jerry is always the last guy to talk and that carries the day. Sometimes he'll only say two words, but they're the ones that count."
"Jerry is very centered," adds Bernard. "In the three years we've worked with him, I've never heard him raise his voice. There's no ego or sense of ownership involved. He just wants the best product he can get."
"He really doesn't like being the center of the things -- he just sits back and runs the show," Miro explains. "Jerry always says that it takes five smart guys to do a big summer movie." He laughs. "I don't know if we were always among the five. Maybe intermittently. But when we were in London in pre-production on 'Persia,' Jerry would be reviewing all of the sets and costumes and casting decisions and instead of sending us out of the room, he'd ask us what we thought of things. There are probably a lot of producers who wouldn't even want the writers there, but with Jerry, it was -- let's see what they have to say."
The writers joked that Bruckheimer had such a low-key decision-making style that while he must have often known a lot of their harebrained ideas wouldn't possibly work, but he wouldn't say anything at the time, allowing the duo, as Miro put it, "to figure it out when we were at a preview in Long Beach in front of 400 people and we'd finally realize that Jerry was right all along."
Writing summer movies for the maestro of crowd-pleasing pictures, the duo have quickly learned that while writers come and go, there is only one auteur on a Jerry Bruckheimer picture. (There are so many writers seeking screenplay and screen story credit on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" that the credits are still in arbitration.) Miro and Bernard have also discovered that when it comes to writing summer movies, you have to think big, and then bigger, and then even bigger.
"You do sometimes feel like you're locked into an arms race," says Bernard. "The pressure is always on to top everyone else. When you're shooting 'Prince of Persia' and then 'The Dark Knight' comes out, well, it can either inspire you or really put the fear into you, since you find yourself thinking -- how are we going to do something bigger than that?"
If there is an art to crafting a summer film, at least from the writer's point of view, it involves balancing the desire to produce adrenaline-surging action sequences with the need for coherent character development and storytelling. "When you're on the set, as we were, you're in this room on your own, getting all these notes from everyone -- the producer, the director, the actors -- and you have to be open to change, while also being able to hold to your own point of view," says Bernard. "So you have to firm, but flexible."
He laughs. "I'm sure there must be a Chinese proverb that would explain it perfectly." As Miro puts it: "You're balancing a lot of other opinions with your own. It's not like writing an original script in your apartment that's all yours alone, but it's definitely pretty fulfilling. It just has a different kind of joy to it."
Miro and Bernard exchange a knowing glance, which I guess is the kind of glance you exchange when you know that no matter what the critics will think, millions upon millions of people will see your films this summer. Finally Bernard concludes: "I guess you could call it the joy of a victorious compromise."
CORRECTION: Probably because I've got too much baseball on the brain, in my first pass at this post I referred to the Jerry Bruckheimer production executive Mike Stenson as Mike Stanton, who was a great left-handed reliever for the New York Yankees, but as far as I know, has no experience at all in helping to put together blockbuster summer movies. My apologies for the error.
Photo: Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard at the premiere of "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" in Los Angeles. Credit: Nina Prommer / European Pressphoto Agency