The Secret of His, uh, Success
It was all going so well. Chatting up a pretty lawyer at a Towson Christmas party last year, Mark Friedman, A&S '91 (BA, MA), '99 (MA), answered her questions about his work with pride. He was writing several screenplays on contract; nothing produced yet, but soon — very soon. True, Friedman had been giving that answer to people for nearly a decade, while working steadily on scripts that, for one reason or another, never made it from the page to the cineplex. But it still sounded impressive to him.
Not so to the lawyer. "So when do you decide it's time to give up?" she asked.
Friedman deflected the question — and the woman — with a self-deprecating quip, but inside he was shocked. "What do you mean?" he thought. "This is a successful writer in the movie business!"
In fact, to those in the business, success in screenwriting is like success in hatmaking: Fundamentally, what matters is how many you sell, not what people do with them after they've bought them. And by that definition — despite what an outsider might think — Friedman is very successful. Working from his modern brick rowhouse near Baltimore's Canton waterfront, he has completed, for pay, a total of 21 screenplays that have not been filmed — a common fate for screenplays, even good ones. Rob Cowan is a producer of such films as De-Lovely and The Shipping News. "People are big fans of Mark's around town," he says by phone from Los Angeles. "He's done very well without having something made."
And this year — knock on wood — one of Friedman's scripts will finally see the light of the projector. Home of the Brave, a drama about National Guard troops returning from Iraq, is set for release on December 15. Cowan and Irwin Winkler are the producers, and Winkler, who produced the Rocky films and Goodfellas, among others, also directs. The film stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Christina Ricci, and rapper 50 Cent.
"It's exciting for my family," says Friedman, 36. "This movie business is very confounding to people who work in meritocracies. 'Why does it take so long? What are you doing?'"
Though Friedman makes light of his shelf full of unproduced
scripts, his friends marvel at his persistence. "He'll have
six different things that he's juggling, and he'll call me
up and say, 'They took this away from me; this isn't
happening; they don't want me to do that,'" says Linda
DeLibero, associate director of the Johns Hopkins
Film and Media
Studies Program. "Most people would crumble if that
kept happening. I know he has been disappointed when
certain things he has invested in didn't come through, but
it's something he doesn't dwell on."
|"I'll be lucky if I get five movies made in my career, and I might write 50," Friedman says. "It's just the nature of it."||
"He has never stopped moving with intent," says Sunil
Nayar, a friend since 10th grade who is now a writer and
co-executive producer for CSI: Miami. "I don't think
I could have done the same thing year after year. It takes
a certain kind of tenacity, and obviously a passion for
writing, because if you don't have a passion for writing,
you give up a long time ago."
Friedman is too modest to admit to such a passion. He says that what keeps him going is his ability to see screenwriting as an end in itself. "I'll be lucky if I get five movies made in my career, and I might write 50," he says. "It's just the nature of it. So you break free the connection that you normally make between finishing a screenplay and seeing the movie. Because there's no connection." He admits it can be disheartening when a project stalls, "but you have to be able to just keep going. And frankly, they pay you really well for your disappointment."
An easygoing fellow with a Giamattiesque hairline and huge brown eyes, Friedman sits in a black leather Eames chair in his cool, sunlit living room on a stove-hot summer day. Beside him is a wall of nonfiction books (fiction is upstairs), all arranged by subject area in a massive blond bookcase. Friedman says he thrives on the research that writing requires. "That's what's great about these kinds of jobs," he says. "If you ask me about Iraq, I know all about it. In a year, I probably won't remember any of it. It's like a sponge. You wring it out and then you go on to the next topic."
Friedman has graduated from Johns Hopkins twice. After the first time he left — with bachelor's and master's degrees in history in 1991 — he spent five years in Los Angeles trying to break into the movie business. First came an abortive stint at the University of Southern California's film school. He left after a year when he realized he could become a screenwriter without the expensive credential. Then came work as a reader for the Fox network and a part-time instructor for Princeton Review, a service that prepares students for college entrance tests. After three years of struggle, Friedman applied to law school "as a fallback," he says. Finally, on the day he learned he had been accepted by the University of Virginia, Friedman was hired by Columbia Pictures to adapt a children's book, The Eyes of Kid Midas, for the screen. "So I deferred [law school admission] for two years because I was sure I was going to be fine," Friedman says. "And then two years later, I hadn't gotten another job."
Friedman had an idea for a novel, though, so before law school he moved in with his parents for six months to write Columbus Slaughters Braves, a story of brotherly love and jealousy. When he finished the manuscript in 1997, he thought he was through with writing. "That was the last thing I was going to write, ever," Friedman says with a laugh. "I was going to be a lawyer." Then, he enrolled at UVA and quickly realized that he didn't want to be the kind of high-powered lawyer he'd have to become in order to pay off his law-school loans. Meanwhile, friends in Hollywood helped him find an agent for his book. With no clear career path in mind, Friedman dropped out of law school and applied to Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars for a master's degree in fiction. Just before he returned to Baltimore in the fall of 1998, the film rights for his manuscript sold, with Friedman as the screenwriter. He spent that fall studying by day and writing the screenplay by night. Later on, the novel was published by Houghton Mifflin. Needless to say, the film of the novel has never been made.
One filmwriting assignment led to another, sealing Friedman's fate to remain a writer. After completing his second master's degree in 1999, he not only wrote scripts but taught screenwriting to undergraduates at Hopkins. "He's a tremendous teacher," says Mark Winter, a former student whom Friedman helped find work in film production. "When a student comes up with a story idea, he comes up with nine, 10 different scenarios. He can give you the commercial idea, he can give you an indie idea. I think you automatically work hard for Mark."
DeLibero says Friedman's strength as a teacher is his honesty. "He's just a natural; he's incredibly funny," she says. "If your stuff stinks, he's going to be tough on you, and if he thinks you're good, he'll do what he can to help you out."
Friedman quit teaching in 2005 to devote more time to his burgeoning screenwriting business. Working on commissioned scripts, he maintains a rigorous, almost hermetic schedule. Unless he's traveling, he writes seven days a week — a morning session that begins at 8, lunch at 1:30, midday exercise or a movie, then writing again from 4:30 to 9 or 10, while film-industry people in L.A. are also at their desks. He can go days without seeing another human being. "It's never like I'm here six weeks on end, with this big scraggly beard," he says, grasping the space in front of his chest where such a beard would be. "But I'm totally content." Some wonder how he can stand to work in such solitude, but Friedman says it fits him. "There are plenty of people whose jobs I couldn't do," he says. "I couldn't sell stuff because I'd always start out by saying, 'I know you don't want to buy this, but . . .' So I just can't do that kind of work. This is good for me."
This summer, Friedman was juggling five writing projects: one for ESPN about Mississippi State basketball; one for Sony about the 2004 tsunami; one for HBO about crystal meth; one for Disney about an inner-city high school debate team; and one for Fox to be directed by an old friend from film school. "Hopefully in the future, I won't have to work this hard," he says. "But in every career there are times when you have to work really hard, and I just happen to be in that time."
What makes Friedman's scripts so valuable, say those in the business, are his ear for language and his eye for detail. "He writes good characters that speak in real tones, and he finds a way to add humor as well, even with tough subject matter," says Cowan. "He wrote a really terrific war sequence at the beginning of [Home of the Brave] and really nailed it right out of the box — what happens in a war event like that. He immersed himself in research."
"The one thing he's certainly not is flowery," adds Nayar.
"He deals with subject matters that have the possibility to
be melodramatic, but in no way are they melodramatic. Mark
has a really, really good ear, and the sense to avoid
sentimentality. His writing is touchingly
Friedman on set in Morocco, with (left to right) Rob
Cowan, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Chad Michael Murray, Brian
Presley, and Irwin Winkler.
Photo courtesy Bahadir Taniover ©2006 Home of the Brave Productions, Inc.
Of course, says Friedman, the collaborative nature of filmmaking means that some of the best and worst lines in the finished movie may not have been written by him, though he'll get the credit or the blame. On the Home of the Brave set in Morocco, for example, Friedman heard Samuel L. Jackson say a line that wasn't in the script. "I was just curious," Friedman recalls. "I asked the director, 'Did you come up with that line, or did Sam?' And the director goes, 'I don't know, but it's your line now.'"
To balance the rigors of his writing life, Friedman frequently travels overseas, where in some ways, he becomes an entirely different man. "You have to test your limits and face your fears, or you're really going to be a freak if you don't leave your house," he explains. "Here, I'm very risk-averse, but when I go on these trips, for some reason, I'm fearless." That's why a thoroughly hung-over Friedman could be found in Africa one morning at 6 a.m. sputtering over Victoria Falls in a hang-gliding contraption powered by a lawn-mower motor. Or why a tour guide in a Cambodian temple had to call "Don't move!" and talk him away from a land mine he'd nearly stumbled upon. When a snake slithered past him on a mountain in Johannesburg, the guide said, "Don't worry — if he'd bitten you, you'd still have had an hour."
The writer's latest personal risk is an imminent move to Sonoma in Northern California, a town where he knows no one. "I felt a little bit stagnant in Baltimore, and I want to try living not in the city, because I've never done that," he says. "This may be a colossal mistake, but I have to try." He chose the town having taken a liking to it during a drive up the coast. "What's hard about it is, if you could work anywhere, where would you go?" he asks. "It's sort of an infinite question."
If Home of the Brave is a hit, Friedman's life could change dramatically, but his experience has taught him not to count on that. "I'm excited to see it come out, but on another level, it doesn't really faze me. I have to work today," he says. "Just because you sold insurance yesterday doesn't mean you stop selling insurance. You just have to keep doing it."
Whether or not the film is a hit, Friedman hopes it is an artistic success. "Those are two different things, right? The movie could be a huge hit and be terrible, or it could be great and a bomb," he says. "From my experience, for a movie to be made is a miracle. So many things have to happen. And for it to be good? That's like a double, triple miracle."
Margaret Guroff, A&S '89 (MA), is an editor at AARP The Magazine in Washington, D.C., and a lecturer in the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs in nonfiction writing.
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