susannah grant

IFH 692: How I Wrote Erin Brockovich with Susannah Grant


In the male-dominated world of Hollywood, Susannah Grant has emerged as a powerful force, breaking barriers and reshaping the landscape of screenwriting. With her unique storytelling abilities and uncompromising vision, Grant has become a trailblazer, paving the way for women in the film industry.

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Alex Ferrari 1:39
Well guys, today on the show, we have Academy Award nominee, Susannah Grant, and Susannah wrote the Oscar winning film, Erin Brockovich, as well as 28 days with Sandra Bullock in her shoes with Cameron Diaz catch and release with Jennifer Garner, Charlotte's Web, the soloist with Robert Downey and Jamie Foxx, and so, so, so much more. Suzanne and I have a deep sit down conversation about her process, her journey as a screenwriter and advice that she gives to up and coming screenwriters trying to break into the business today. So without any further ado, let's dive in. I'd like to welcome to the show Susannah Grant. How you doin Susannah?

Susannah Grant 2:26
I'm great Alex, how are you?

Alex Ferrari 2:27
I'm doing very good. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I've been a fan of your work from 20 days to in her shoes. I love romantic comedies. Of course, Erin Brockovich. Even Pocahontas, too, when I was doing well in the 90s

Susannah Grant 2:43
I had some troubles

Alex Ferrari 2:46
I'm sure you do. I'm sure you do. But even the you were coming in on Pocahontas. You were coming in at that wave of the 90s. Yeah, eight late 80s early and and The Little Mermaid Lion King Aladdin, it was just like each does printing money.

Susannah Grant 3:02
But yeah, they weren't they they were doing really beautiful work and bringing back the movie musical, which was fantastic. And so I was really happy to be a part of it. And, you know, it's not how it's not how we would make a story about Native Americans today, which we've? Yeah, there have been some advances. There has been I learned a ton. I learned a ton. I have not gone back into animation, because animation is not covered by the guild. So oh, it isn't? I don't know. It's not it's actually covered by a different union, oddly, which has to do with the history of animation, but no writing for writing for so. You know, I look at Linda Woolverton who wrote these huge Disney movies and the amount of money she has not received for her work that she would have been a union project. Anyway. That's another story. But I have not worked in animation since largely because of that, but but it's a really rigorous place to start, because the tradition of animation is is that the story artists tell the story, storyboard artists, that was how it was done early in the day at Disney and Howard Ashman and Alan Menken brought in writers and that was the beginning of this sort of renaissance that they that they brought in. So we were writers, I had two partners on that Carl binder and Philip was ethnic and but there were also story artists who considered themselves writers. So you would, there was a lot of tension in it, which was, you know, good and bad, but there was it was incredibly rigorous. You know, there's no scene in that movie that was written any fewer than 3035 times it was just over and over and over for your first gig. It's really good. It's a it's like a boot camp, you know,

Alex Ferrari 5:00
How does I mean seriously because I was gonna ask you about Pocahontas. But since we started there, why don't we just keep going? The because I have friends who are animators I've been inside the Disney Studios, I see how they work. And he told me all about the process and the directors and how they work with the storyboard artists. But it must be frustrating as a writer to have storyboard art basically storyboard artists dictating story as a right, and it must have been just been this really interesting thing to deal with as a young writer as well.

Susannah Grant 5:33
Yeah, well, and I haven't been there in the sort of post Pixar Universe. And, you know, I don't know how they're doing it now. And at the time, you know, the animation tradition is very profound and sacred to people. So you don't want to dishonor that I was, I was still in film school, you know, when I got that job. So to get the job. You know, I my first year of film school, I won the nickel Fellowship, which is a fellowship that the academy gives, and that just gives your work, more visibility. And then you start meeting folks. And I did and I had, I was in school, I was still in school, I had a second year of film school. So I would get offered jobs that just smelled like really bad jobs that would go nowhere. And I had the luxury of being able to say no, because I was in film, I was in school, you know. So it had to be appealing enough to pull me away from getting my masters, which I want to get. And then eventually, you know, after I said no to a few things from Disney Animation, I learned quickly, that saying no, doesn't mean they'll never ask you again. It just means they'll offer you something better. So eventually, they came to me, they came to me with some ideas. Like we don't even know what this is. It's just a word. You know, whales, just whale. And I thought now I know, that meant that movies never ever getting me. By the way. All the things they pitched me before this. There were about five of them. None of them have gotten made. So I actually had a wonderful teacher in film school named Jerry Cass and I would sort of floated by him and he'd go, Nope, don't do it. Don't do it. And then they called one day instead, this one has a release date. And I thought all right, Jack out of school early for something

Alex Ferrari 7:30
The whole polka. Yeah, the whole the whole Pocahontas thing. I think it works. Yeah, I think we haven't released it. It's gonna go.

Susannah Grant 7:36
Yeah, yeah. So you know, I was new, and I was green. And I was humbled. And I had two other writers who are great pals and great writers. And, you know, anytime it gets rough, for God's sake, you're doing a Disney animated movie. And you're, you know, I was, I was never unaware of how fortunate I was. So even on the difficult days, I was happy to be there.

Alex Ferrari 8:01
Yeah, it's it's a magical place. I've been in and many times at Disney animation. And it is, it's a beautiful, wonderful, and I've heard stories I remember tangled, was in development for 10 years, really everything on it. I saw them I saw the art was a completely different from what we saw, a year before release, stripped it all start again. And they did that with every single movie since not why they are not precious.

Susannah Grant 8:33
And the great thing is when you're working on one of them, you know, when we were working on Pocahontas, Lion King was in its finishing stages. So we had the advantage of being adjacent to that work, which was tremendous. And then hunchback was behind us. So we were aware of that as well. And so you ended up part of this continuum

Alex Ferrari 8:58
Was a magical time. It wasn't that that those that five to 10 year window of Disney animation was pretty remarkable. It's hard for people to understand, because it was pretty much dead in the water. Yeah, it was. It's a little mermaid showed up and then we're like, oh, okay,

Susannah Grant 9:14
Until Alan Menken and Howard Ashman came in said, we can

Alex Ferrari 9:18
Katzenberg and Katzenberg came in and started doing some stuff and there was a

Susannah Grant 9:23
Professional meeting was a meeting with Jeffrey I think it was at 7:30 in the morning on Mother's Day, Sunday.

Alex Ferrari 9:30
Of course, of course,

Susannah Grant 9:31
There was some rigor to that,

Alex Ferrari 9:35
To say the least. So your first writing gig was out of school was straight into Disney Studios working with it. So after you're done with that whole process, you then started working on television, you went into party five,

Susannah Grant 9:47
I really hadn't had a plan to work in television, you know, I've been my sort of House of Worship growing up as it was was a movie movie theater.

Alex Ferrari 10:01
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Susannah Grant 10:10
So that felt like the sort of form of American storytelling I was dying to be a part of, and contribute to when that was a conversation I wanted to be a part of. But I got this pilot shown to me that was made by Chris Kaiser and Amy Lippmann called Party of Five. And it was beautiful. And it felt like my sensibility and they were the best people in the world. And I didn't you know, Ben, so I went and did that for a bit.

Alex Ferrari 10:41
You did that for a few years. So let me ask you, what were some of the biggest lessons working in that writers room and, and really kind of, because it's one thing is being a feature writer, and another one's being a TV writer, it's it's a grind, it's a daily grind, with television, as opposed to feature screenwriting, which is, take your time, you can

Susannah Grant 11:03
Also have daily grind. It is, it is no I was opposed to the lonelier daily grind.

Alex Ferrari 11:09
Right! But a lot of times, if you're doing a spec or something you could do you could be on that spec for five years. This is like there's a deadline, and you gotta go, you gotta go. Yeah, what you learn.

Susannah Grant 11:19
It's funny, when I look back at it, I really think of the lessons I learned less being about craft. And being more about how do you how do you choose to live this writer's life, that was a remarkably wonderful group of people were kind to each other and supportive of each other and funny, and you could you could share your ATSC with them. And they would only love you more, you know, and this is exactly the kind of environment you want for a beautiful collaborative workplace. And it's sort of set in my head that as a bar, and I've really actually been quite fortunate in that I've had very few professional collaborations that have not felt like that. I mean, I've had them, you know, and you sort of work through them as quickly as possible. But but that was the biggest lesson there that for me, not for everyone, there are people who thrive in chaos and conflict, and their best work comes out of it. For me, that is the environment that brings out my best work. So that was one lesson. And the other was, you just keep working on it till it's good enough, you know, you just keep working on it until it's good enough. And I would put the scenes up on my wall that because you sort of outline it together. And I would have a bar for myself, I wouldn't put a red checkmark on it saying it was done. Until I had surprised myself in the scene and turned it into something that I hadn't anticipated, or found something within it that I hadn't anticipated would be there from the outline, you know, so it just I, I found a, I guess a bar that made the work feel alive and interesting, as opposed to flat and dead, you know, the scene where x happens? Well, if it's the scene where x happens, how can you make that alive? How can you surprise yourself? How can you surprise your viewer? How can you find an element of it that you didn't know was going to be there going in, you know, which is the most exciting stuff to watch where humanity sort of peaks out unexpectedly?

Alex Ferrari 13:38
So you mentioned that, you know, you've obviously had some not so harmonious color or collaborations? I think in the business in general, we all have that we all have to deal with that at one point or another. Do you have any advice on how to walk that path a bit and depending on collaborators and who you're working with? Because we're talking about there's a difference between a pas collaborating with a director and a writer collaborating with a director or an executive producer on the show, things like that? How do you deal with that higher level when you're with collaborators?

Susannah Grant 14:09
Boy, it really all depends on who that collaborator is and what their particular approach to work in a work environment is. I've had ones where I've worked with a director where it felt like I had to say it's delicately ego was a big, big presence in the room at the meet Oh, no. And, and then just by sort of sitting there, it felt like there were three people in the room at the beginning me the director and the ego but if you just sit there Oh, calmly and say and just don't Don't, don't dance with it. You know, don't don't dance with it. Don't engage it. Don't fight it. Just it it if if the creative vision matches gradually, sometimes that will just ease its way out of the room, you know, but sometimes it won't. Sometimes it's just like, sometimes you are working with a chaos monster. And you will never see eye to eye. You know, there were a couple projects where I look back on it. And I realized I was holding on to my job so hard that I lost grip of the, of the film, you know, and sometimes you're there. There's one movie I look back on, and I think, oh, I should have walked. Not for me. But maybe maybe if I had walked, the director is isn't original to like, I would never walk off an original. But maybe if I had walked, I mean, the director is always going to win, right? Maybe five walks, they would have found something that wasn't what I wanted it to be. But was better than what it ended up being which was sort of a mishmash, you know, I'm trying mishmash between that directors idea of what it should be in mind. You know?

Alex Ferrari 15:59
And when something like that happens, how blamed Are you as a writer to for the

Susannah Grant 16:06
Good and bad of the good and bad of the sort of director worship is that? Not so much. I mean, it was a good spec, it was a good, it was a good original script. And it wouldn't have gone into production if it hadn't been and but it's just one of those things. If you guys, you don't share a vision, sometimes it won't come out the way you want it to.

Alex Ferrari 16:34
And a lot of times I've noticed is that ego when the ego is the third, I love that term, by the way, the third egos the third person in the room. It's because of either fear or insecurity. And once they feel that, like, oh, this person is not going to hurt me that we're on the same page. It does kind of recess a little bit.

Susannah Grant 16:50
Yeah, I had the really wonderful good fortune of working with Curtis Hampton. He was just wonderful, wonderful man and wonderful filmmaker. And he had a I think I learned a lot from him. Because he would point out something in the script that didn't quite work. Right. Makes sense. And I would say yeah, it does. Yeah, it does that fight, hold on. And then he'd say, lean in really kindly and say, no, no, no, Susannah, this is a good thing. This means we get to go find a better thing together. It's great. And he would see every problem. And he would always say no, no, no, this is a good thing. And you make a home movie with someone who thinks that way. And it starts to inform your own thinking, and you start to see problems as good things and, and I think that does feel less threatening sometimes to partners. If if you walk in saying, I know that things can always get better. Let's keep making it better till we run out of time. You know, and

Alex Ferrari 17:50
That's, that's kind of the TV mentality as well as the TV writer because, yeah, not as much the screen not as much the features writers at from my experience, and from what I've who I've talked to, it's not as much as it should be. But it's well, sometimes,

Susannah Grant 18:04
I mean, feature writers are so rarely given the opportunity to have that to in their work. So and, and often have the experience of it not getting better or not getting closer to what they had wanted it to be at the outset. But further from it. So, you know, working with Curtis was it was a blessing because that's not the norm. I think that's credibly lovely and generous.

Alex Ferrari 18:31
He was wonderful. He's a wonderful, wonderful filmmaker. Now. You know, you did write a little film called Aaron Brock something or other. little while ago. How did that project Erin Brockovich come to, to life because you are credited the only writer and that's what I'm assuming this is an original, or were you hired?

Susannah Grant 18:50
Was an original Yeah, it was, but it was. I had I had just written ever after. And it was very much I love and I'm not the only writer on that the director came in and he did some rewriting with his partner. So they're pretty credited writers on that. But, but I just done that and it was I love it, but it was very sort of precious and delicate. I mean, it's she's MIDI two, which is good, but I just wanted to I just had in my head that the next thing I wanted to write was I had this phrase kick ass brought in my head. And I don't know why I was like, I don't know, I just some kick ass bra. And I went to have a general meeting in Jersey pictures. And Gail Lyon was there and told me this story and they had met Aaron, through a chiropractor, because you know, that car accident that starts the movie actually walked Aaron's back out, and she then would go to a chiropractor Well, Michael Shamburger, who was like the President or something of Jersey at the time, his his wife went to the same chiropractor. So that's how they heard Aaron's course,

Alex Ferrari 20:03
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Susannah Grant 20:12
Oh, hey, gay had optioned it. And I was, you know, I don't know that. I mean, maybe Pocahontas had come out. But it certainly there was nothing that would suggest that I was the right person for the film, except for that I knew that I was. And and they I think they said at the time, well, actually, we're out. We're out to Cali, Cory. All right. All right. So in two weeks, I called up and said, hey, just wondering if you'd heard from Cali? And they'd say, yes, yes. Now we're out to scout Frank. And I'd sit for two weeks, and then I call back. And it was, I think my polite persistence wore them down. I just kept calling and saying did did that other superstar writer pass yet? And eventually enough of them pass? And I had checked in often enough that they said, All right, well, we'll let you meet her. And then Aaron and I got on like a house on fire. So so

Alex Ferrari 21:09
It just took off from there. There's no There's the dialogue in that movie is so beautiful. I love I still remember that scene of like, numbers. I'll tell you some numbers. That whole I was just sitting there in awe because I was like, that's such a wonderful comeback to a guy, obviously hitting on her in this. Yeah, it was so so beautiful. And Julia Roberts was a

Susannah Grant 21:36
Performances her and senior just wonderful and directed it perfectly. And, you know, that's one of those. Yeah, I had two films in production at the same time. And one of them I was on the set many of the days. And the other one I was also pregnant, so I wasn't there that much, honestly. And, and and then Erin Brockovich was shooting at the same time, and I was never on that set. And Erin Brockovich looks exactly like the movie I had in my head. And the one where I'm on the set every day looks nothing like the movie that I had in my head. So, you know, does being on the set? Make a difference? I don't know. You know, I don't know. That's can sometimes but if it's not the right, team, so why don't you

Alex Ferrari 22:29
It was Steven got what you were doing? And that you guys were both mind meld it apparently, that got that vision which

Susannah Grant 22:35
He saw what I saw. And I don't know how much of it was suggested on the page. And how much of it just was the luck of you know, two people who who happen to see something the same way though, though, didn't really talk about it that much, you know,

Alex Ferrari 22:53
Right. So what was it like working with Steven, because that was a heck of a year for him. If I remember correctly, he also has a traffic track. He also did another little movie called traffic the same year it was like, well, that's unheard of what he was what was going on in his career at the time. And he's a legendary filmmaker, and he's these fantastical.

Susannah Grant 23:11
I didn't work that closely with him. So

Alex Ferrari 23:13
Really, it was just not at all really. That's fascinating. To me, you met with him obviously a bit. Yeah, I did. Yeah. You met with him. But he just read the script is like, I'm good. Let's go.

Susannah Grant 23:25
Yeah, basically. I mean, nothing's Nothing says simple. But yeah.

Alex Ferrari 23:31
Fair enough. Fair enough. So then the Oscars come around. And you get a nomination? I did. And what is what's that, like? At that point in your career? Only? Like, what, five, six years in? At this point?

Susannah Grant 23:47
I don't know. It was I don't know, I guess I guess. Interesting at that at the premiere. Um, I saw Amy Pascal, who was always has always been extraordinarily lovely and great. Man, we've had a nice, done a lot of nice work together. But I saw her this was early on and I knew her and after the premiere was filing out of it, and she pulled me over and she said this never happens. I thought well, maybe it does. And maybe it will again like she was just telling me this is remarkable. Appreciate it. You know, it's it's it's wonderful. It's it's great and strange and and you think this is you know, something I've dreamed about and then also doesn't matter at all, you know? Yeah.

Alex Ferrari 24:41
Were you that clear. Were you that clear headed at that time in your life? Because I know as we as we all get older, we look back and like you know, but when you're younger coming up like the Oscar the Oscar the Oscar, you know,

Susannah Grant 24:52
Yeah, it is probably about my family of origin but those were not our values like growing up they just They just weren't not better, not worse. They were just all there. So, um, I did you know, I brought my brother and sister to it and I thought they thought it was a kick, you know, so it's fun. It was a fun ride. It was, it was. So it isn't like, I don't want to denigrate the academy at all. It's it's a lovely thing they do. And it's, it's nice. And it's also incredibly surreal. We were sitting at the ceremony, my husband and I and and he said, Boy, if you dropped down from outerspace into this theater, you would think that this is our God.

Alex Ferrari 25:42
What an amazing what an amazing observation. He's so

Susannah Grant 25:51
Lovely, and and the, the academy is great, and the, you know, to have the fellowship of, you know, all these remarkable people who've told the stories that ordered your brain growing up and into adulthood is just incredible luxury, and to be part of that community.

Alex Ferrari 26:12
And to be fair, and to be fair to your husband, he's not wrong. He's not wrong at all in Hollywood, that is, other than the dollar. The Oscars are quite close second. So you go through the ceremony, you go through all of this, you know, all the hoopla then because I've had many Oscar winners and Oscar nominees on the show before and I love asking what happened after how did the town treat you afterwards? When you got you know, all this? Because the spotlights on you and it's just a window, and there's a window of time, where you're the it? Girl, the guy? What was that? Like? What was that kind of journey for you?

Susannah Grant 26:53
Honestly, it just I'm a bit of a hustler, and I don't ever like honestly any don't like thinking about awards? I don't have any. I mean, I'm, I'm thrilled to have received some awards in my time, but I don't have any of them any place I can see them. Because it just don't. I don't know that that would do anything good for my head. So what I am aware of is that it up your price. Like it's great. Your agent asked for more money. And I think writers should get more money, always. So if you can do that, if you can bump up your price.

Alex Ferrari 27:37
Great, then just keep rockin and rollin.

Susannah Grant 27:41
Because I'm being more diminishing of it. I guess what I mean is it probably did stuff but I'm so afraid of resting on laurels. And it never ever, ever makes the writing easier. In fact, I think it might make it harder if you pay attention to it. So you know, it doesn't make any difference. If you were out, you know, at the Vanity Fair party till to the night before your sit down your computer. It's not going to be one iota easier. Not one iota. So in terms of my work, no difference.

Alex Ferrari 28:20
Yeah, it, it almost. The work itself, it almost seems because again, speaking to so many who have done gone through what you've gone through, it seems almost like a burden in a certain way. Because now

Susannah Grant 28:34
So it wasn't a burden. You know, Cameron Crowe's burden.

Alex Ferrari 28:37
Yeah, it was exactly but but the the the, the the burden of like, if you get it if it gets in your head of like, oh my God, what's next? All I have to do this or I have to do it does kind of tweak with you a little bit. But one thing that I've really fascinated by talking to so many, you know, accomplished screenwriters like yourself, and filmmakers, they're still in neuroses in their work they still don't think in many ways that they're like It's still tough. I still don't think I'm good enough. I still think someone's gonna walk into the room at any second and go what are you doing here? You're not supposed to be near security get her out. Is that kind of the vibe Do you still feel them anyways?

Susannah Grant 29:19
Well the second part not anymore you know the second guy I mean, I've been doing this a long time friends and we all we all security's not taking you know, but absolutely it's still challenging and you're still facing a wall every day but that's a the fun of it. does is it doesn't feel like fun, but it is what makes it interesting. And be I don't think the work is for me is much good without that. I think if I was sort of like what I was saying earlier about what I discovered about writing scenes in party five if I feel like I can do something and yeah, just whip this one off, it's not going to be good.

Alex Ferrari 30:03
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Susannah Grant 30:12
You won't and I always have to feel as if there's something I'm trying to figure out. And I like a little bit of, of panic associated with my, with my work. I'm very early on I knew herb Sargent, was Alvin Sergeant's brother. And I was talking to him very, very early on in my career, and he said, Oh, yeah, every time Alvin takes a job, he calls me up and says, I can't do it. I gotta give the money back. Now, I think Alvin Sargent has written some of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. And he was a lovely man. And I thought, okay, Alvin Sargent, tying himself in knots and saying he has to give the money back. Maybe that is not a glitch in the system in my system, maybe that doesn't mean I don't belong here. If Alvin Sargent has proceeded with that, and done the work he's done, maybe it is, in fact, an integral part of good work. So that was an early gift.

Alex Ferrari 31:20
You when you're writing, do you have the experience of sometimes being in that flow, where when you're done writing, you look at it and go, I don't know who just wrote that. But that's fantastic.

Susannah Grant 31:30
I don't look at my work, right, when I write it that carefully, what I tend to do is look at it the next morning, look at the prior day's work. And usually I go over the prior few days work before I start writing, and it is kind of exciting, you look at something and you don't really recognize it, that's pretty great.

Alex Ferrari 31:50
It does. It's kind of like we all strive for is to have that, that flow moment that you just are there and it just kind of goes, Do you what is your schedule? Like when you write? Do you actually have a time? Do you like, you know, like, Eric Roth has like this time, and since I understand

Susannah Grant 32:07
I've got a pretty set day, you know, I've spent so it's, I'm actually just getting back into it now, because I'm finishing post on a movie I directed, but it is I have a ridiculously early wake up. But actually, many writers I know have this wake, I get up at 430 and make a cup of coffee, I work for? Well, it used to be when my kids were at home, I would work for three hours. And then that was long enough to get into some sort of groove, so that I could, you know, go do the breakfast thing, get folks off to school, okay, and come back and still feel as if I was invested in the work and anything less than that, it would be hard to get back into it. So I needed about three hours to feel like, Oh, I gotta get back to work, you know. And then I usually write till about midday ish, you know, 12 one, something like that. And then And then, you know, business stuff, emails fucking around in the afternoon.

Alex Ferrari 33:12
Fair enough. So, let me let me ask you a very simple question. What? What is it about writing that you love? What keeps you because this is you know, it's though!

Susannah Grant 33:23
Very early on in life. Like, as a kid, I got this idea that this whole life thing was a massive rip off that you only got to live one of them. Like there's, there are infinite numbers of this was before the notion of multiverses entered our consciousness and who knows maybe that Chase has everything but but I thought it's just a rip off. I only get to be me. And I don't get to be that cowboy. And I don't get to be that. You know, that sanitation worker. And I don't get to be that like, how is that seems so unfair. It just seemed like someone had presented a massive, massive buffet and said you can have one shrink. And that's it, you know, and so I'm just imagining other existences started really really early and for a while I thought for a little while I thought I might be an I might go at it by acting and I did that for a little bit after school but it just dispositional II The life didn't work for me and and and I got I got bored doing it then I do a show two nights in a row and by the third night I think I just did this why am I doing it? I didn't have the right mentality of every night.

Alex Ferrari 34:50
Life on Broadway is not for you is basically

Susannah Grant 34:52
No like anything more than a two night run and I was out

Alex Ferrari 34:56
Very short career.

Susannah Grant 34:58
But then I was I was cuz you know, fairly lost in life and didn't know what I was going to do, because I didn't I also thought I might be a journalist, which is also another way to sort of gather up experience. And then that I that didn't seem like the thing either. And then I just like I moved to San Francisco, which is what you do when you have no idea what you're doing, because no one else there knew what they were doing either. And, and I was really lonely. So I tried writing a script, and I thought, oh, oh, this I could do this. I could do for a long time. Like, just keep creating a world over and over. Imagination. Yeah.

Alex Ferrari 35:41
That's beautiful. That's really beautiful. It seems like you had a thirst for life. And this is the way you kind of suck them bone marrow, the marrow out of the boat of life in many ways.

Susannah Grant 35:52
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I do think it's important to say they were fairly torturous years finding that, you know, and I talked to a lot of young people who sort of you know, just just are hungry, understandably hungry, to figure out how to get to a place and you really have to go through some gnarly stuff to find out who you really want to be. And, and maybe they always want to say, Listen to yourself, maybe this will be what you want to be, but maybe something else will come out of the blue and be open to it, keep your ears open, because if I had just had, like, my nose to the grindstone with acting, would have had a very unhappy life, you know. So, so, you know, the uncertainty and the fear and the, the panic and sleepless nights and all that I think they're important to pay attention to, and they can lead you someplace good. You know, if you listen,

Alex Ferrari 36:53
If you listen, that's the very key point there. Now you got a chance to, to direct the film, your first film, which is catch and release, which I love. By the way, I saw that it's a fun little kids. Wonderful, little wonderful little film. What was your biggest lesson? Directly? Because I know you direct it a bit on television, but it's a bit different. Yeah, a bit different.

Susannah Grant 37:16
Well, really, it's my lesson from that film was less about directing, although there are a bunch of of those and more about being clear on the movie you're making, and Amy Pascal that was a Sony Movie, and she and I have talked about it since then. But that movie should have been a $5 million, Sundance movie, but she gave me I think it was $30 million to make the movie. And, and I kept thinking, I don't feel like a $30 million movie, but she's writing the checks, I'm not going to argue. Um, and then as we got close to shooting it, it became clear. And I guess we just hadn't spoken to each other clearly enough beforehand that she she had expectations of a kind of romantic comedy that I didn't think were inherent in the script. And so all during production, we were trying to sort of pull it into something that would hold on to what I loved and deliver on what, what she felt she had bought. And like I said, we've she and I have talked about it. Plenty since then it has a lot of lovely little moments in it. But I think we spent too much money on it, you know. And so it has an ending that that is sort of a classic romantic comedy ending, which wasn't where we started just trying to deliver on a sort of studio product that that it probably shouldn't have tried to be so that's that's the lesson there is just be really clear upfront with what movie you're making with the people who are giving you the money. Because eventually, they're going to want what they bought.

Alex Ferrari 39:00

Susannah Grant 39:02
You driving to the set every day like rewriting the ending way too much. But, but I had some great, great partners on that I had, I was working with the cinematographer named John Latham, I've worked with many times since then. And he made a bunch of movies and every now and then I would just sidle over and say so and just ask him a question. He always had a great answer. So when you're reading a script, when you're shooting a film, do you cow How can you tell which scenes are not going to make it in the final cut? And he said to me, Well, if it says, flashback and so since then, I've thought I put a very high bar on any flashback I use because somebody would make 20 movies before me said he shot a bunch of flashbacks that didn't make any cuts. Why is that? You know, just a lot of wisdom like that.

Alex Ferrari 39:59
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. Night shoots yet nice shoots, rainy night shoots, try to get those out of the script. Reproduction.

Susannah Grant 40:16
Funny, you should say that I have pictures of us at night in, like drowned rats because we were in Vancouver, we're constantly but but I really love all the performances in that, oh, everyone does a beautiful job. And I think I learned also that I don't think I don't think I had fun doing it for about the first half of the shoot, I think I was so intent on being ready and prepared and professional and, you know, successful at the job that I that I forgot to have fun for a bit. And actually having fun for me is a really important part of that job. It makes you relaxed, it makes other people relaxed. It is a fun job. It's an incredibly fun job. So it should be fun. And, and, you know, relaxing, there's always a feeling I have at the beginning of any scene of oh, God, I hope it works. You know, before you shoot the first thought of it, and and the play when it doesn't quite and the play of finding, finding that, again, that unexpected thing within it and is really enjoyable, really enjoyable. Really fun.

Alex Ferrari 41:40
So as directors, you know, there's always that one day on set that you feel the entire world's coming crashing down around you. Now that's should be every day if you're doing your job, right. But there's that one day that you're just like, I don't know, if we're gonna make it today. I don't know if I'm going to make my day. I don't know if I'm going to get this shot. You know, what was that day for you? And how did you overcome it?

Susannah Grant 41:59
On catch and release? Yeah. You know, I I'm gonna preface this by saying that one of my app I've heard it's very good in terms of longevity. But one of my qualities is that I do not remember bad stuff that well. Oh, God, I know, I can remember there was a scene we were shooting. That was supposed to be the last scene at you know, I like I said, I just kept trying to deliver an ending that would fit with the movie and and we ended up reshooting it because I knew it wasn't that good. And the actors knew it wasn't that good. It wasn't what it should be. And none of us were saying it out loud. We were just trying to deliver on it. And it was this like, this big. It just it was it was it's that when you're the only thing that's uncomfortable is when you're doing something you're trying to tell yourself it's working and it doesn't. So I stopped I stopped doing that, then. Yeah, that was that was bad day.

Alex Ferrari 43:04
Sure. Yeah. When you go through when you're going through that, though, it does take a certain level of confidence within yourself. In the skill set, you have to either say stop, this is not working. We need to just stop it from here. But this was your first big this is my first thing.

Susannah Grant 43:17
I didn't know what to do that I would do that hurt beat now. Absolutely. Absolutely. Like we're wasting film or wasting time. Let's just stop and figure out if this is worth our while. Yeah.

Alex Ferrari 43:28
And on the set with the with an amazing cast that you have aware anytime you've directed Have you had to deal with opposing opinions of what the story should be. And having to fight, whether it be crew members, whether it be studios, whether it be actors, how do you overcome that as a director?

Susannah Grant 43:49
Sometimes you do and sometimes you don't, right,

Alex Ferrari 43:51
You win some you lose some.

Susannah Grant 43:54
And you know, look, you have to accept that it's a collaborative art form, right? And you're hiring people not just for their face and body, but for their inner life. And and like I said with with the one I was those two films before, you never really know until you get into the sandbox with someone if they if you have the same idea of what you're building, you know. So and sometimes it turns into something else that is different than what you had in mind but is, but is really remarkable too. You know, there was one performance and I won't name it but the first couple of days I was thinking this is this feels really different than what I had in mind, but she seems really committed to it. It ended up being a fantastic performance. She won awards for it, it was it was so you know you have to leave yourself open to the idea that your partner has a great idea and it might be it might challenge your idea and sometimes Sometimes it makes it better. And you just have to be alert to when it's not doing that, you know,

Alex Ferrari 45:08
I think one of the themes of this conversation is listen to yourself, listen to the gut, listen to your instincts for both both those sides, whether it's something like I think this is gonna go awry and gonna crash into a wall, or I feel like there's something here. I don't know what it is. Let me just step back a little bit. And let's see what happens.

Susannah Grant 45:27
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's all you have, right? Everything came from your gut, it's just an eye, I think that the conscious mind, when it comes to creativity is probably the least important element, you know, I try to write the reason I write when I write at that hour is that I think I'm still kind of asleep, you know, there's part of your sleeping brain that's still engaged, and I, I get my coffee all set the night before. So I don't have to do much, I can go pretty quickly from sleep to work. Because I think your unconscious and your subconscious are more alive at that time. After before you've you know, made lists and phone calls and cooked eggs, and whatever else you're doing is boring.

Alex Ferrari 46:18
That's a very interesting thing, though, because you're right, you're kind of like in that in between sleep and awake stage, your brain hasn't really turned on yet. So it's the noise of the crap that we have to deal with the voices in our head and all that is a little bit quieter. So you can kind of just tap into whatever that ether is to get the ideas in the in the flow, correct.

Susannah Grant 46:41
Yeah. And you also can convince yourself at 4:30 in the morning that you're the only person awake on the planet. You know, this feels like, it's just you in the moon and yeah, great.

Alex Ferrari 46:55
Fantastic. Now, you also you also, you also worked on a little film called Charlotte's Web, which is such a beautiful film. I mean, it's such a beautiful story. How did you approach adapting? Literally one of the biggest classic children's classic books ever? How do you all wrote that

Susannah Grant 47:16
Was interesting, because in the beginning, I spent a lot of time in Maine on the actual lake or eBay row. So I'm very reverential of his work and network in particular. And I thought, okay, straight up, faithful, loyal. And I got about halfway through the script, and I read it and it was just dead, it was just flat, and dead and lifeless. And I thought, Okay. So I infused it with, just with just more life, and I thought, the book will exist, as long as humans exist, this book will never go out of print. Everyone will read it love it. This has to a different medium, it has to have different dimension to it. So I did that. And then I remember what happened, it could have been that I went off to make catch and release at some point, I ended up having to leave and Carrie Kirkpatrick came in, who's a wonderful writer and a very funny writer, and he, he sort of he brought a whole other, you know, element to it as well. So. So that's, that's the thing, you just can't feel like you are just typing the book. It won't have the life it. It needs is the same thing when you're writing a story about a real person, you know, you have to I, the first time I did it was with Erin Brockovich. And I knew her and I really liked her and really admired her. And I would start writing and I would think, well, I'm not, I'm not sure what she would do here. Maybe I should ask Erin. I'm not sure what she should do. And then I thought, God, I feel like I'm writing with handcuffs on. So I decided in my head there to Aaron's, there's the Aaron, whom I really enjoy and admire. And then there's the Aaron I'm writing and they're totally different. And I'm just going to trust that I know her well enough. And I am not. I'm interested in just representing her truthfully. But that's but it's but this one's mine. And and I ended up with a much more faithful representation of her then I would have had I not given myself that license.

Alex Ferrari 49:55
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. Yeah, that is a mistake. I think a lot of people who adapt do is they, whether it's a real life person or a real life story, or a book, because, um, I remember watching the Godfather behind the scenes and watching what Francis did with the book. And he just, I mean, what he pulled out what he wanted. Yeah, yeah, he was he was constructing a blueprint. And it was wonderful to see his process. It was,

Susannah Grant 50:28
Yeah, but you really have to be Master and Commander, when you're writing something you have to be it has to be your world. You're in charge, nobody over you. It's your and obviously, then it goes into production. And then you're making a film and then other voices. But when you are writing that script, you have to feel it's you're in charge. And you're the ultimate authority on it.

Alex Ferrari 50:52
Now, if you had a chance to go back and talk to that young film student free Pocahontas, what advice would you give her?

Susannah Grant 51:00
Yeah, well, none, because it worked out really well. Obviously, if I had known more than maybe I wouldn't have. I don't know, you know, I used to worry, I used to worry a lot about. I mean, I would, you know, I would turn in a script on Friday, and I would be apoplectic until Monday. And so I think I don't I don't do that anymore. Obviously, I want people to like my work, always. But I don't turn myself into, you know, knots over it. And I may try to tell myself, ease up a little bit. I don't know, maybe that level of anxiety is what pushed me to make my work better than it would have been otherwise. So I yeah, I wouldn't I wouldn't say anything different. Fair enough. I mean, you can't you I have no quibble with how my life is going these days. And if every miserable step along the way is what I needed to get here. I take them all, you know,

Alex Ferrari 52:06
Isn't that a great life lesson because a lot of people want to avoid all the bad stuff and like, but the bad stuff, what makes you grow it the bad stuff is what makes you gets you to that, but it also gives you character to be a better writer.

Susannah Grant 52:17
Yeah. And then when that's what you share, that's what people respond to, you know, the whole point of these stories is for people to feel seen, you know, people are people that just to make the world a little less lonely, you know, people watch something and say, oh, yeah, I feel that too. Maybe I'm not the only one who feels that maybe I'm not the only one going through this and you're not going to you're not going to do that without living part into the in the different difficulties of life, you know?

Alex Ferrari 52:47
Without question I'm going to ask you a few questions asked all of my guests okay, what advice would you give a filmmaker or screenwriter starting in the business today?

Susannah Grant 53:01
I struggle with this one a bit because the OnRamps are are different now than they were when I was starting you can make your own films so cheaply now. And so I would I would tell people to do that as much as possible but the quality of your work remains the same the B hard on yourself I don't mean punishing of yourself on a personal level but be demanding of your work set your bar high. I do this thing at the end of every script when I think it's ready. I read it as if I were an actor, and I had a lot of options and and I try to figure out if I have a lot of options am I going to do this one before all those other great options and and that is a that's a way I hold my work to what I think is a higher standard so I would find those ways you can you can push yourself to make your work as good as it can be because Nothing's worse than putting work out there that isn't ready that you could have made better and then you're just disappointed in yourself and you're not getting yourself where you want to be be big. Do your best work do your best work rough and very school Marmee but that's what my advice

Alex Ferrari 54:24
Now what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Susannah Grant 54:30
Oh golly. Oh golly. I wish I paid attention to these before we spoke. I'm gonna have to come back to that one

Alex Ferrari 54:41
Will hold it will hold it will hold it. All right. What is what did you learn from your biggest failure?

Susannah Grant 54:50
That I can survive failure

Alex Ferrari 54:53
That's a good lesson to learn.

Susannah Grant 54:54
There are worse things than failure. And honestly, it can be rough if you are achieved When oriented and and failure reverse, it can be painful, but that failure is not death failure is often something you can learn a lot from.

Alex Ferrari 55:09
It is the process is part of the process, you have to feel if you win all the time you learn nothing.

Susannah Grant 55:14
And there are great there are there is gold and failure. It's painful. And it's the other thing is that our work is public. So, so failures public and so you feel embarrassed, and you know, whatever. But there is real gold in failure, looking at something and say, Okay, well then next time, I won't do that.

Alex Ferrari 55:36
And what are three screenplays that every screenwriter should read?

Susannah Grant 55:41
Okay, well, first of all, every screenwriting logistical problem is solved somewhere within the script of Tootsie. So that's what it learned Tootsie, when you hit a wall think what did they do in Tootsie? And you'll find some way that one of those, I think it was six writers figured out a logistical challenge. So Tootsie is a good one. Witness because it's spectacular. And it shows you how little dialogue you actually need to make a moment moment meaningful. Gosh, it's hard. It's hard not to say Godfather Part Two, right?

Alex Ferrari 56:27
One and two, you could put on put together? That's good. Yes. If you put one or two are considered the same for me. Yeah, you can't. Well, I mean, that's, I mean, all

Susannah Grant 56:37
There are ones that I just adore. You know, All the President's Men. Every scene forces you into the next scene. There's no point you can't drop into All the President's Men and not stay till the end. It is the most propulsive movie and to look at that and think, how did they do that? Fantastic. And then there's gravy. I'm giving you more than three, please. Before it's running on empty by Naomi Foner. Yeah, just just the most beautiful movie and it's a great opening, you meet River Phoenix, and he's playing Little League baseball. And this is a guy who is not attached to anything because his family for those people that his his family is on the run. And he can't really play baseball because he's never been part of it. But he's playing anyway. And someone says to him, I'm not going to quote it accurately. But one of the first lines he says someone says to him, why do you even play and he says baseball is my life. And it's the most wonderful first line for a character because in that moment with this guy who has not been allowed to put down roots anywhere, in that moment, baseball is his life. And it's it's it's shallow. And he's it's such a great first character introduction. So that's another one too. I could go on all day, but we will

Alex Ferrari 57:57
I'm in Chinatown network. I may Shawshank. I mean, you can just keep going.

Susannah Grant 58:02
Yeah, work is the movie that got me into movies. I should have said that one is about Nashville, Nashville.

Alex Ferrari 58:08
Altman. I mean, I mean, the play. I love the player. I just love watching the player. They don't do those pitches. They don't yeah, of course. They don't do those pitch sessions anymore. Like they do the player do they? Think they do, but they don't buy pitches as much as they used to.

Susannah Grant 58:24
No, they don't. They don't want depends on who you are. I mean, sure. They'd probably not like that anymore. No, yeah,

Alex Ferrari 58:31
Those those. Let me ask you the days of like the 90s, the Shane Black days and Joe Osterhaus days where they were just dropping. Two mil, three mil, four mil five mil on spec scripts. Those days are pretty much

Susannah Grant 58:44
They are gone, I think, spec script and still do really well.

Alex Ferrari 58:48
I still got yeah, there's still there's a million, but they're rare before it was just like water.

Susannah Grant 58:54
I feel like I had this theory. In the first couple of decades of doing this that that was what I call called the pile of stupid money. And it moved. And when I first started the pile of stupid money was all in specs in film specs, right interest, and it was just like, I don't know where the money was coming from, but it was massive amounts for and then the pile of stupid money moved into TV overall deals and then just the crazy overall. I mean, I'm sure they for a while there the it was.

Alex Ferrari 59:30
Yeah, actors had actors, actors, actors had network deals like overall look, they

Susannah Grant 59:35
I don't know, I think I think those piles of stupid money might be disappearing in the corporate conglomeration of our business. I mean, they look a little harder at their spreadsheets.

Alex Ferrari 59:47
I was when I had somebody who worked who was the president of Richard Donner's company back in the 80s. Can you imagine? We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. And he's like I was there 10 years and I Googled What was it like working with Dick on some of these projects, and he's like, this is how it would go. He would read the script. He got Lethal Weapon. He read it. He said, I want to make this movie. He'd call up the president of Warner's he goes, I got a script. I want to make it and the president of Warner's goes full and no discussion of money. Whatever Riddick wanted to got. It's like never like, oh, you only can make it for 30. And but he was very responsible. He wasn't hitmaker and

Susannah Grant 1:00:36
He knew he had delivered consistently.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:38
Right. And he's Richard Donner, for God's sakes. So it was like, illegals. Yeah, that's when filmmakers run ran the studios. Yeah. Yeah. They don't know as much

Susannah Grant 1:00:48
You read the Mike Nichols biography and be done regard to the discussion of the catering table. It's a very detailed and beautiful biography. But I would think, man, you could not like I can't imagine getting that catering budget this was it that extravagant Oh, he had the most spectacular catering. Really? Lobster and sushi every day? Yeah, absolutely. Steak. I think that's the best.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:22
And then last question three of your favorite films.

Susannah Grant 1:01:26
Oh, well, I said them. Rocky, right up there. I adore Rocky. There's a bad scene in Rocky there isn't a bad scene in ordinary people. That movie is just perfect and brilliant. I'm going for I'm going for the unexpected ones. Like, I love all that. I love all the movies. Everyone loves. But, but my little secret treasures I think Truly, Madly Deeply is an incredible love that film of a film.

Alex Ferrari 1:02:01
God bless his heart. Yeah, he was yeah, he was an owl. Yeah. He was in that movie, wasn't it? Yeah, of course. Yeah. Yeah. Such a great film.

Susannah Grant 1:02:10
You know, I mentioned running on empty and witness and ah, the way we were. Is this just so beautifully written? There's a screenplay. There's an unconventional screenplay. The first time Yeah. I don't know how long it is. Maybe it's the first 20 minutes or flashback. Great. Maybe it's more.

Alex Ferrari 1:02:39
I mean, if you want to talk about you know, and I'm gonna I'm gonna pat you on the back here for a second. I mean, the introduction to Erin in Erin Brockovich. It's, it's, I mean, I've had people who are teachers of screenwriting, who teach that scene as a beautiful or almost perfect introduction to a character because you learn so much about her in a short period of time. It is condensed, it is wonderful. It is comedic you feel felt you connect with because if that scene doesn't work, you're done.

Susannah Grant 1:03:18
Yeah, yeah. They're done. Julia Roberts, guess what? That seems? Well, there's

Alex Ferrari 1:03:22

Susannah Grant 1:03:24
Yeah, exactly. But then there's also I like when movies do are. That's Thank you for saying that. But there's also in Silkwood. One of the first things, you know, one of the hardest, they one of the gnarly things to do is name all your characters, right. Like everybody knows who everyone is, you know, without saying Hey, Bill, and early on in Silkwood. They pull up to the the Kerr McGee entrance, and they're all carpooling. And they lean out the window and say their name so they can get into work. It's fantastic. It's just you set it up. It's done. It's perfect. Yes, yes. And then here's a really good one. Okay, Dog Day Afternoon doll. So, Frank Pierson came to AFI when I was there. And he taught me show that movie and he talked about it. And he talked about the very beginning. And you know, he comes in, and he takes the gun out of the flower box, and it gets all messed up. And it's very early on. And he was talking about that scene. And he said, the important thing to do was tell the audience, you can laugh in this movie. And I had to tell them right up front, and it does that it says it because if you hadn't had that, if you got well into what happens in that bank, and then expect people to laugh, they wouldn't have done it. So that's a good that's a good little lesson there too. Yeah, cuz that's an slightly intense film. Yeah. Yeah, but you feel free to laugh when when you can, because he said right up front. Go ahead. Yes, is that

Alex Ferrari 1:05:07
I can keep talking to you for hours. I appreciate you coming on the show so much. Thank you so much for being on the show for the amazing work you've done throughout your career and continuing to be an inspiration to so many screenwriters out there, my dear. So thank you!

Susannah Grant 1:05:18
Thank you Alex. It's very nice to talk to you. You have a great day.

Alex Ferrari 1:05:21
I want to thank Susanna so much for coming on the show, and dropping her knowledge bombs on all of us. Thank you so much, Susanna. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, head over to the show notes at bulletproof screenwriting.tv forward slash 300. And I want to take a small moment to thank everybody who's been listening for these last 300 episodes. It is a milestone and I really, really appreciate all the support. We plan to continue to bring you amazing conversations, we actually have a few in the pipeline. So get ready for a few more really, really awesome conversations coming up soon. But I just want to say humbly and wholeheartedly thank you so much for allowing me to continue to do this kind of work and bring these amazing conversations to the screenwriting audience and filmmaking audience. Thank you again so much, guys. As always, keep on writing no matter what. I'll talk to you soon.



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