Eric Roth
Photo by Art Streiber

Eric Roth: “Screenwriting is a bastardized form of art”

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Short Profile

Name: Eric R. Roth
DOB: 22 March 1945
Place of birth: New York City, New York, United States
Occupation: Screenwriter

DUNE, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Roth, will be released in 2019.

Mr. Roth, what have you learned about yourself through working on films?

That’s a big huge question! I guess I’ve realized that I’m more at peace than I think I am, there’s more of a Zen quality about things for me in some ways — whether you can find that in my writing, I don’t know. But in terms of what I’ve become… I have a lot of children; I have a lot of grandchildren. I’m aware of the nature of time, of people growing up. When I turned 60 I started a bucket list of things that I’ve not seen or experienced or had a chance to do. So over the past dozen years, I’ve been trying to gobble up as much as I can.

Like what?

One of the things was that I went on a trip to Antarctica on an expedition ship with about 80 people. On the way there and the way back you are in tremendously dangerously high seas, so you couldn’t read, you couldn’t watch a movie, you couldn’t do anything. You just basically were sort of caverned and it was interesting what you found out about yourself just being there. And then the trip was magnificent because you feel like you’re on the moon! It was a seminal experience to me.

“I’m interested in what would resonate to you about a film, and what would resonate to me.”

Do those kinds of experiences influence your writing?

Well, I think things should affect you. I look for things that are unexpected, things that are surprising or unique. Screenwriting is such a bastardized form of art — whether it’s even an art can be debated — It’s a craft, screenwriting, if you’re good at it. What you’re doing is actually making a blueprint, you’re trying to supply the director, who is the boss, a blueprint that is hopefully unique, surprising, emotional, and I guess in some ways, passionate.

So what determines if something is surprising or emotional enough to write a movie about? 

I’m interested in what the theme of the piece is. In other words, I have to understand what it means to me. I’m interested in what would resonate to you about it, and what would resonate to me. And what makes this worth doing, spending this year and a half writing it. I don’t draw on the things that are transitory. I would rather draw on the things that last, even if it seems trivial. I think that’s what any good writer wants to do, you want to express something that’s unique in a unique way that people will somehow become part of.

How do you know if something will last or not?

Well, you don't! That’s a form of arrogance! I think that if you can somehow tell some kind of truth or at least get to some sense of truth… Then it will last. Because then you’ve reached some kind of primal understanding of something that will transport you over time. But I don’t sit here and say, “Is this going to be great and last?” I don’t think so. I just try to make it something that has a sense of something that matters, you know, that makes it of value.

What was the thing that lasted in a film like Forrest Gump?

Forrest Gump is an odd movie. It’s one of the more ironic movies ever made. People take it a little too literally! So I think that great sense of irony, there’s an intentional simplicity to it, there’s a lot of nice humor. Loneliness is also part of that movie, and loss. My main things that somehow tick inside of me are the loss of time — which there’s nothing we can do about but try to make the most of every day — and loneliness, which is also probably in respect to the loss of time.

You once said that loneliness is feeling the burden of trying to express things that are inexpressible. Has that expression come easier to you with time?

No. I think some of the really great writers are able to get there, to where they can express what seems inexpressible. But I would say they even feel a burden about how they can express this so that it feels understood. In those cases, you’re trying to express something that is temporal; it’s not something you can hold in your hand. It’s a feeling that something is passing, a fleeting glimpse of something. You can describe it but I don’t know if you can accurately completely figure out what the feeling of it was.

A scene from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), for which Eric Roth wrote the screenplay.

Do you think it’s important to sometimes feel lonely? 

I don’t think one has a choice in it. (Laughs) I think it’s our human condition, don’t you? John Updike said that one of the reasons that artists wake up in the middle of the night is that they have this constant war within themselves about loneliness.

But I guess that internal war is necessary for the kind of films that you make.

That’s a bit of a chicken or the egg there. I would say that the loneliness is what makes me want to write and express it and have someone understand it. I don’t think it’s about choice. I just think it is what it is. I might sit down to write something and not think it’s going to be about loneliness or somehow loneliness will seep into it… But that’s my condition, that’s just what comes out. But that being said, it is still a joy for me to write these things. I get to be like a writer, you know?

You don’t consider yourself a writer?

I mean since I haven’t written a novel, I guess I just put whatever I think is my novelistic ability, my ability to write prose and my descriptions, my language, I put all of that in my screenplays. I think it’s way out of favor now to write the length of scripts that I write but the directors appreciate them because they contain all sorts of possibilities… What it will feel like and sound like. Screenplays used to feel like they were from the planet Mars. They were exactly what they are, you know, this bastardization.

You once said that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was one of the films that changed how screenplays were written.

Right, and I don’t want to emphasize that as being the best script that ever was written even though I think it’s a wonderful script — but it did begin a way of writing that you could add a literary quality to what you did. Screenplays were not normally like that. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t wonderful pieces of artwork; Billy Wilder films, Butch Cassidy, Chinatown, anything by The Coen brothers, I mean, those films are within themselves uniquely them. The writing is as much literature as anything else. I try to be literary in the traditional sense of more dramatic writers. With Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button, for example, there is a whimsical quality that I put in that has a literary sort of role… I think exposition is the worst kind of writing.

“Write what you see and feel and hear. You take from your experience.”

Even though it seems like a necessary evil for a screenplay.

You need it, but you have to do it in sort of a subtextual way, that’s the best way to do it. I’m very proud of the writing I did on Benjamin Button, for example. First of all, it was very emotional to me because both of my parents died in a period of time while I was writing it — so it meant something to me personally. Fincher gave me the permission, in a nice way, to just write some sort of short stories in the main story so that it had its own kind of unique quality to it that I think you won’t find in most screenplays.Most of the things I write, and this is without any arrogance, I enjoy a lot of the things in them. And if something catches my fancy, I’ll include it.

What kind of things?

This sounds very corny but at this very moment, I’m looking at this tree that is right outside my window and every day there’s a hummingbird that comes and feeds off the tree. I just always felt he was a little bit of my muse! I just used him for no particular reason in Benjamin Button, there’s a scene where Brad Pitt is standing on the deck of a ship and out of the ocean comes a hummingbird. And he says, “I’ve never seen a hummingbird that far out to sea.” (Laughs) That was my own little sort of thing for myself. So, it’s just all about life experience. They say you write what you know… I think you don’t necessarily need to write what you know but I’d say, probably, write what you see and feel and hear. You take from your experience.