He started off in the entertainment industry in marketing and later became an executive for the Walt Disney Company, but today Craig Mazin is better known as the screenwriter of various comedies. His credits include “Scary Movie 3” and “Scary Movie 4,” and he helped to co-write “The Hangover Part II” which is the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. But while those movies had him collaborating with other writers, his latest project “Identity Thief,” the hit comedy starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, marks the first screenplay he has written all by himself.
Mazin appeared at the movie’s press conference which was held at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and he talked about working with the actors and director Seth Gordon, how tough it is for a screenwriter to succeed in Hollywood today, and the challenge of writing a sequel to an incredibly popular movie.
Question: Was “Identity Thief” originally meant to be a much darker movie, and did you end up making it much lighter and funnier when you wrote it?
Craig Mazin: Boy that sounds so great that I kind of want to go with that. But no, I think everybody always wanted to make a comedy. There was sort of an interim draft that was perhaps a little darker, perhaps a little more lyrical; it’s quite beautiful in places to be honest with you and it’s really interesting work. It’s just that people, the studio and the actors and the producers and even I wanted to make a comedy. I love comedies. I like comedies where people really laugh all the way through. But from the start we were all really committed to the idea that the movie be about something, that it be human and have a relevance to the human condition. And so if you found it funny and charming, I think that’s wonderful; that was the idea but also touching to. But I don’t think it ever spent time truly dark.
Question: Can you tell us more about the research you did in writing “Identity Thief?” Did you meet with people familiar with this kind of crime?
Craig Mazin: I started as a blank slate. Not only have I never had my identity stolen, thank God, I didn’t really know what it was. My misconception was that identity theft was really just when someone uses your credit card and there’s a charge that shows up, and it’s not that at all. It’s so much worse. So I started reading quite a few books about it, and some of them were written by people who have been hired to protect people against identity theft. But I also spent some time with a detective at the Beverly Hills Police Department who is in charge of their entire identity crime division, which frankly in Beverly Hills is an enormous part of their daily work. It’s not exactly the murder capital of the world, but they do have a lot of identity theft. So he was really helpful, and frankly the more I talked to him the worse it all sounded. It’s a terrible thing to have happen to you, it’s really hard to get undone, it’s very challenging for law enforcement, and all that from a dramatic point of view was great and I used it all.
Question: How do you feel things are these days for screenwriters and what advice would you give those who want to break into the movie business?
Craig Mazin: Well, you know it’s hard out there for a pimp (laughs). It’s gotten harder. When I started screenwriting in the mid-90s they were making a lot of movies, and frankly that’s the thing that ties everything together. The Writers Guild and the studios will go back and forth on their issues, but the thing that drives the true nature of the business and our careers is, how many movies are they making? More movies? More jobs. Fewer movies? Fewer jobs. And they just have reduced the amount of movies they make by an enormous amount. It’s a very significant drop in percentage. So what happens is there are fewer, fewer people that work, and in a weird way economically it seems like the people at the high-end, your A-list people, they work a lot. A lot of the newer people who are cheap work a lot, and then that middle-class of screen writers is getting decimated and it’s rough.
What would I say the people who are starting out? Um… Good luck, we’re all counting on you. Go ahead and push me into retirement, I’m cool with it. But it’s hard work and you need to be able to not only have some talent, and hopefully a lot of talent, but you need to have beyond thick skin. Everybody thinks that the hardest part of being a screenwriter is the studio tells you this and producers tell you this and director tells you this. No, the hardest part is the audience because when they don’t like something, man they don’t care! They are rough! So you just have to have really thick skin and be emotionally healthy, and unfortunately emotionally healthy and screenwriting don’t go hand-in-hand. So good luck.
Question: How closely did you work with Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy on the script for this movie?
Craig Mazin: I worked with them pretty closely. In fact Jason and I really worked the story out together over the course of three or four weeks. We just laid out how we thought it would go. I drew out a little schematic of how the second act should go and I brought it to him at Dodger Stadium because he has really good seats, and somewhere around the fifth inning we talked about the second act and from there we kind of laid out the story. So he was already very much a part of it.
Then before I sat down to work on the outline because I’m the big outliner, I sat down with Melissa and we just talked about her character; everything from why she was the way she was to what was her hair was going to be like. Everything. I just wanted to know the full aspect of it.
We all read the script together, we read it out loud, Seth (Gordon, the director) was involved and I went back and worked with Seth and I rewrote and then I came back and we did it again. So by the time they were shooting, everybody was on board with everything. There’s always moments in a film where they find improvisational bits and things, but it was so collaborative from the start that I knew even if there was improvisation, it was going to be in the dramatic boundaries of what we all agreed on.
Question: There’s been a long history of road movies like “Midnight Run,” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” When writing a script like this, at what point do you take inspiration from those films, or do you try to separate yourself from them as much as possible?
Craig Mazin: I didn’t really do either. I certainly don’t try and separate myself because I don’t want to force any creative decisions. I’m not gonna do a scene in a road trip movie where my character is yelling at Edie McClurg because I just don’t want to be a copycat. On the other hand road trip movies have certain things in their DNA that go back to “The Odyssey” frankly which was a road/boat trip story. They are entirely about people leaving their normal world behind and being forced to endure a miserable journey together and to come out at the other end not only unscathed but better. There always will be commonalities because frankly we like our stories to follow certain patterns. It’s what you do inside those patterns, and ultimately also the theme of it all. This movie has a really nice theme and it is about identity. It’s about being okay with who you are even if you think it’s not enough, and that’s what makes it unique for me. So I wasn’t running away from or running towards them, but I have to say that I do love those movies. They are amazing.
Question: How can you take a character that is so unlikeable and give that person a sense of humanity to where you actually find yourself liking them?
Craig Mazin: Sometimes you can’t, given what you have; either it’s the circumstance of what they’ve done which is just too horrible, or the circumstance of who’s playing them. Actors have different levels of instinctive sympathy. There are actors that I want to be my hero, there are actors that I want to be my protector, and there actors that I want to be like. Then there are actors who I want to take home and hug and take care of, and Melissa’s one of those. So the nice thing was I knew what I was going to have to fight is everyone’s instinct to just love her anyway. I had to try to make her unlikable because she is so inherently likable, but in doing so also then know that in my back pocket was that moment where I could say “understand that what this person is doing is deeply human, and this is a hurt and miserable person.” I want you to feel bad for them, but I also wanted the audience to feel guilty about what they wanted because I think what we want is for her to be set free. We guiltily wanted to get away with it, and I want to play with that too. But in this case, the challenge in a weird way was convincing people to take her seriously as a bad person because she’s awesome.
Question: How different was the final film from the original script, and how much improvisation ended up happening?
Craig Mazin: This one’s pretty close I have to say, not to take anything away from them (the cast). One of the reasons why is because we didn’t have a particularly luxurious schedule or a particularly luxurious budget, so Seth kind of had to stick to the plan to a certain extent. That said, he was really good about finding those moments where we all knew we could have fun and get some alternates and some different things. The movie is the movie we all intended to make.
Question: A lot of violence is inflicted on Melissa’s character throughout the film. Was it in your script that she would take a lot of physical punches?
Craig Mazin: Yeah, for sure. I had written a far more physical fight than that, like really physical. Instead of throwing the Panini maker at her I had him throwing a boat oar, but throwing a boat oar is actually hard and it’s unwieldy and then they have to make a fake one so the Panini maker works well. I definitely wanted it to be really physical and partly because I wanted to really tell the audience that we are not doing what literally every other Hollywood movie does when you put a man and woman together which is make it about romance and it’s all soft and gooey and we’re just all expecting it to go there. Far from it. In this movie it’s really important that he (Jason Bateman’s character) has a wife and children at home. That’s who he’s aspiring to be better for, and that’s who he has to realize that he’s already good enough for.
Question: You were one of the writers on “Scary Movie 4” and “The Hangover Part II.” Is it harder to write a sequel because you don’t want to repeat yourself? Is the process of writing one different for you?
Craig Mazin: It’s the worst! It’s very hard to write sequels, and interestingly you get even less credit for them. There is something about the first story that’s the freshest and the most interesting story; you’re meeting people for the first time, your falling in love with them for the first time, and they are resolved in some way. Movies begin, they proceed and then they end, and then you’re gonna do it again and there’s always tremendous pressure. You can see people struggling with it all the time.
I’ve written a lot of sequels. The “Scary Movie” ones are spoofs, so in a way it’s like a new movie every time because you’re just spoofing a different movie. It’s its own very miserable task because you don’t have things like character and emotion, you are just living and dying on jokes which is hard.
For “The Hangover” movies, Todd (Phillips) and I found a really cool thing with these guys and particularly with this third one which is pretty fresh and very audacious, and I think it’s going to be pretty spectacular.
It was really nice on this movie at least to not only to create characters and to find their voices freshly, but also I do a lot of work with other people and this was just me in the sense of I could just personally express myself without negotiation. I love my collaborators but this was a nice change of pace for me.