In the film Transcendence, the character played by Johnny Depp has his mind uploaded onto a machine. But what goes on in the mind and heart of the writer? Courtesy of the WGA West’s Behind the Screen 2014, I talked to writer Jack Paglen about writing the script.
How was it to have Johnny Depp to star in a film you wrote?
It was awesome. Johnny Depp is the coolest guy I’ve ever met in my life. Hanging out with him is like hanging out with the coolest guy in the world. He’s so cool that his coolness presses you back against the wall that you think, “Oh my God, I’m hanging out with the coolest guy ever.”
And did his coolness ever make you feel that you aren’t measuring up?
No, that’s what’s so cool is that he’s totally down to earth, and he’ll just talk to you.
With projects with a genre aspect, how do you focus on the human element?
The idea is pretty conceptual. It’s about a guy who uploads his mind onto a computer. I spent a lot of time to try to think of how I could relate to the story. I ultimately settled on a love story between a husband and wife. The wife is trying to save her husband’s life. The husband is dying from radiation poisoning, and she does everything she can to save him. And she takes this drastic step of uploading his consciousness onto this machine, and she has to live with the consequences. So it took me a long time to think about how to make it relatable as I could.
Are consequences a big theme in your life?
I don’t think I do bad things. The law of cause and effect affects us all-the positive and negative. That’s what life is. Life is like these giant waves of the ocean coming and you trying to figure out how to float with it.
When you write a story do you have a sense of the magnitude of the story you’re telling?
Yes, when I write “Fade in: The World Blows up” I think you have a sense of whether it’s a big budget movie depending on how you want to escalate the conflict. If you want to escalate the conflict on a personal level, it generally lends itself to the smaller budget. If you want to escalate the conflict on the grander, external level, that usually plays out in the big budget scheme.
As a writer, do you let the personal conflict inform the outer conflicts?
Hopefully the ideal case scenario is that you can figure out a story where the characters are at war with themselves, at war with the other characters, and at war with the world in some way. All happening simultaneously. That’s my favorite kind of story when people are tested at all three levels.
And when you’re mapping that out with all these conflicts, how do you not lose your mind?
I often have to remind myself that even though that there’s a billion of things you need to do, you can’t do them all in one day. You can only do what you can do today.
Are you talking about you as a writer or your characters?
I’m talking as me as a writer.
But you’re still holding all these conflicts in your mind.
I do everything-index cards, treatments, free writing, journal writing compulsively. I have to do everything. Just to accumulate a critical mass of material. It takes a very long time to have the story and characters start talking to me. At first I write many, many documents. At first I write what I call “The Storm” which is just a brainstorm of all the ideas I have: a lot of questions (what does the protagonist want, who is he or her, what’s the movie about, what’s the tone, what’s the music sound like). And the more I accumulate in terms of the screenplay, the more that document takes the shape of a project. I’m writing about the project every day. And then I write character biographies, synopses, treatments, outlines ad infinitum.
It sounds like very much like Uta Hagen as far as writing?
I was trained as an actor as well. I feel that the writing is “Goal-Tactics-Conflict.” Ultimately playing the Magic Gift and asking yourself if you were the character, what would you be doing. There’s a lot of correspondence between the craft of acting and the craft of writing.
When do you psychologically leave a project?
I really don’t know if I ever leave a project. These things become a part of you.
And does the box office or critical success affect your self-being?
I care. I want it to win its little league tournament.