One-On-One with "Pan" Screenwriter Jason Fuchs
Jason Fuchs has enjoyed a long career in the film and television industry on the acting side of things, dating back to 1998 when he appeared on an episode of Cosby, and then through many other speaking roles in movies and television series, including acting alongside Elijah Wood in 1996's Flipper.
But what is even more interesting is his journey as a screenwriter. The story of where his writing roots began and how he managed to become one of Hollywood's most sought out young screenwriters is both engaging and inspiring, as any good story should be. We spoke with Jason on the eve of the upcoming release (October 9th, 2015) of his live-action feature debut, Pan.
ScreenCraft: Jason, you're now the screenwriter of one of this year's most anticipated films in Pan. Where did you get your start?
Jason Fuchs: I had a weird and fortuitous path to screenwriting, considering that I was already in the business. I started acting when I was really young. I knew I wanted to be in the industry in other ways. I knew that I wanted to do more than just act. I don’t know that I knew it was screenwriting, but I just knew that I wanted to be involved. I loved movies. I loved television.
So it’s kind of in the back of my mind all of those years I was acting, and then in high school I was looking at college, as everyone does, and everyone that I knew was doing these cool internships to make themselves look really smart. So I thought, “Well, I should be one of those to look smart,” and I ended up interning at this really wonderful place called Global Information Systems and they gave me an opportunity to come work there for the summer.
After that internship they ended up hiring me to be an intelligence analyst for them. And off that when I got back to New York he hired me to be their U.N. correspondent, which was very surreal. So at that point I'm a freshmen at college at Columbia in New York. I'm still acting while I'm moonlighting at the U.N. covering and focusing on the Middle East.
At that point, around 2004, we were a year or so post Iraq Occupation. So we're just figuring out that there's no WMDs, so a lot of my early stuff was meeting with guys on the weapons inspection team, and learning that process. I was having a blast. I was writing for a living in addition to the acting.
Through that I ended up meeting this lovely Iranian Opposition Leader, whom I just got along with swimmingly. We did an interview together. I really just liked the guy but he was not a phenomenal English speaker. Because of that, everything he said came out slightly wonky. I [became a speech writer for him], which was basically my first time writing dialogue. I got completely carried away. I turned it into something out of an Aaron Sorkin film. These big overblown statements of liberty. I was out of my mind. As a result he got a very positive response and was invited to speak in person. He thought this was great and I thought, no, this is a disaster because they're expecting this and they're getting [something very different]. He said, "Don't worry, write the speech." So I ended up writing this series of speeches and I went and saw him deliver it and he killed it. He was a natural performer. What I had not anticipated, because I'm an idiot, was the Q/A portion of the evening. At that point I decided that I needed to be writing with less dier consequences with less chance of f***ing up, so I moved on from there and wrote a script about that experience called Pacifica that was sort of Three Days of the Condor in high school in tone.
ScreenCraft: And how did that first screenplay go?
Jason Fuchs: It wasn't a particularly great script. It was just me learning how to write a screenplay. I bought myself Final Draft. With that you got the Syd Field explanation of the three act structure, which is something I guess I wasn't consciously aware of and after reading it I thought, "Oh yeah, I guess movies are a three act structure." And I was then off and running.
ScreenCraft: So what was next?
Jason Fuchs: I then wanted to write something that I could act in, a short film called Pitch. It was a blast. A good buddy of mine, Robin Lord Taylor, who has since gone on to much deserved fame playing the Penguin on Gotham, played my best friend. We played these two idiot NYU Film grads, trying to pitch their first big studio movie. Ironically to Warner Brothers (the studio behind Pan). And it was just a wonderful experience.
That eventually made it into the Cannes Film Festival, which was a confidence booster where I went, "Well, if I can do comedy for twenty minutes, maybe I can do a feature." And off that I wrote a feature script called The Last First Time, which was a big moment for me because it was the best thing I had written. A more polished feature screenplay. It was about a kid, seventeen or eighteen years old, trying to lose his virginity before a meteor hits the world and destroys it in forty-eight hours. I wrote that to act in and we got pretty close with Jonathan Lynn, director of My Cousin Vinny, asking to direct it. I was going to star, however, that fell apart. We were going to shoot in Iowa, which at the time had these crazy film incentives, stuff that made no sense, where they said if you spend a dollar in Iowa you'll get one thousand back. You sort of looked and thought, "Well, that's too good to be true." And it was. Everyone in the Iowa film production office got arrested. It was a huge scandal at the time. Then the movie fell apart.
ScreenCraft: But that wasn't the end of that script?
Jason Fuchs: So I was understandably bummed. That script however was ultimately what my agent sent to Fox Animation, who read that as a sample. They called up and set a meeting about a super-secret project. They wouldn't tell me what it was. And the day before that meeting they said that they wanted to hop on the phone with me. I spoke to them and they said, “So we're going to do a fourth Ice Age film. You can't say anything. It's top secret. It's a big deal. We're wondering if you'd be interested in coming aboard to write it."
And I said, "Yeah, of course." I had not seen the films, but I said I had, and they asked, "Do you like them?" I replied, "No, I LOVE them." When they asked what I loved about them, the only thing I could think was that most people on talk shows and what not say it's the comedy, because it's accessible to adults but appropriate for children. So I said that, and that was the thing they were most proud of. So I said, "Terrific!" And I powered through all three Ice Age movies that evening.
I went in the next day and pitched what my take on an Ice Age film might be, and that lead to the next two years of my life at Blue Sky Studios in Connecticut, where I co-wrote the film with an amazing and talented writer named Michael Berg, who had co-written the first and third film. Michael and producer Lori Forte were basically the authors of that franchise, generated it, and were there from the beginning. And it was an amazing experience.
Suddenly I went from writing and hoping something might get picked up or optioned to working on a fairly large scale film that from the day I signed on had a release date already on the books. That changed everything for me.
The Last First Time was the key thing. The short film was great, but that spec got me my agent at WME, and then got me Ice Age: Continental Drift.
ScreenCraft: So tell us about how Pan came about? It was a Black List script, right?
Jason Fuchs: The Pan script made it to the Black List in 2013. I never wrote it on spec because I was so emotionally attached to this project where I thought, "Oh man, if I write this thing and it dies like 99% of everything does, I'm going to be too bummed about it. I'll put my heart and soul into it... I'm not going to write this." I was going to pitch it and if someone was interested they'll hire me and I'll write it, but I was too invested in it to write it on spec.
I pitched Pan everywhere when I finished Ice Age: Continental Drift. First off, I thought that after Ice Age: Continental Drift it would be easier to get a job. I certainly had more options than before, sure. I finished Ice Age: Continental Drift in 2012, and I'm living in my agent's guest bedroom in Los Angeles because you don't make a ton of money writing an animated film. The movie makes a billion dollars and you make "twelve cents." So my big passion thing coming off of Ice Age: Continental Drift was Pan.
ScreenCraft: So how does a passion project become a major studio film?
Jason Fuchs: I had this story in me for the better part of twenty years. So I go pitch this and everyone passed. Every studio at the time had competing Peter Pan projects. So I was devastated. I was totally crushed. I loved this thing so much. I wanted to see it through. And no one wanted to do it. So I sort of put it back on the shelf for the next year. I was lucky enough to work on other projects, one of which looks like we'll be making in February, so that's great. But a year went by where Pan just stuck with me so I'm hoping there's some way it will eventually find its way to some kind of life.
So right before the summer of 2013 I had a general meeting with an executive at Warner Brothers named Sarah Schechter, and she said in that meeting, "If you could write anything next, what would it be?"
And I said, "Anything?"
And she said, "Yeah."
I then told her that I've got this Peter Pan prequel that I don't think you're going to do it because no one else seems to want to, but it means a lot to me and this is what it is.
I pitched it and she said, "Oh, we'll do that."
So they bought it. Suddenly we had a studio and a producer and I wrote it quickly in the summer of 2013. Very aware that there were all of these competing Peter Pan projects. So every day I'd wake up with the fear that I read on Deadline that one of these other movies crossed the finish line and all my work had been for naught. But it didn't happen. We're very lucky. We delivered it at the end of that summer.
ScreenCraft: So what was the process like after handing it in and waiting to see if it'll be greenlit?
Jason Fuchs: There's that time where you hand it into the studio, hoping they like it, and they said it was great. They gave me their notes and said that they were going to get it to the president of the studio, which doesn't always happen. Then you wait for that call. You're waiting with bated breath. We then got the text message saying that he likes it and that we can move forward to get a director.
So each point in this process you're sort of pinching yourself wondering if you can keep this momentum going and actually pull this thing across the finish line and make a movie. And in this case we were lucky enough to do that.
Director Joe Wright at the time was looking for something like Pan to direct. Joe has made so many amazing films but none of them that his sons could see. He and his wife had wanted a movie that they and their kids could watch and fall in love with. And I think that really spoke to Joe. So he read the script and came in. When he came in I thought that he wasn't really going to want to do it because he's the sort of dream choice for something like this. He's done so many incredible films. It just didn't add up to me that we could get Joe.
I remember sitting with my folks. We happened to be in New York at the time having dinner at a restaurant. I got the call. He was onboard. And at that point you're like, "Oh my God. Joe Wright is going to direct this film? We're actually going to make?! Who's going to be in it?"
About a month and a half after that, Hugh Jackman signed on and it was suddenly all very real. Once Hugh says yes, you know that we're making this thing. And then things accelerated very quickly.
A script that I pitched at the beginning of summer 2013, was suddenly beginning principal photography in the last week of April, 2014. It was a very unusual experience and certainly in terms of speed, not one that I imagine will be replicated that many times in my career.
ScreenCraft: Was there any source material to work from for this story?
Jason Fuchs: Nothing other than the Barrie book, no. I read that book at a really young age. I loved that book. I got stuck on the Peter Pan ride when I was nine years old with my dad at Disney World. We got stuck on that part of the ride when you're suspended in the pirate ship above the miniature London and I was fascinated by the why of it all. Why is Peter Peter Pan, why is he in Neverland, how did he learn how to fly, etc.?
It was something that over the years I would, in my own private hours, imagine various pieces of, and so it really organically grew in my imagination as the years went on.
But the original source material is that Barrie text. I love that book. I'm a fan of Peter Pan before I am the writer of this movie, so everything I did in the script and everything we did for this movie in production, we would always attempt to ground it in the text of Barrie's book. And what we are inventing we're hopefully building a template and building on things from the DNA that was in that original text. As opposed to inventing for the sake of inventing or for the sake of something being cool.
So even when you look at our villain in the film, Blackbeard, which a lot of people might look at and go, "Where did that come from and how is Blackbeard in Neverland?" Well, if you read the Barrie book, on Page 53, there's a quote where it talks about Captain Hook training on a boat under the command of Blackbeard. So I read that and thought, "Oh, that's our bad guy." Blackbeard is part of this mythology. And even down to small things where I think only hardcore fans of the Barrie book might notice like the floating lagoons of Neverland. There's a passage early in the book where Barrie writes about Neverland being a place where the lagoons floated over the flamingos as opposed to vice versa. I read that and remember thinking that was something I'd like to see in the movie one day in big, beautiful 3D.
It really was an attempt to create an original story that put the characters we know and love into a different light and a different context but that was always grounded in the world and characters that Barrie had created so brilliantly one hundred and some odd years ago.
The other goal was also not just to make a prequel just for the sake of making a prequel. It's not enough to say, "Let's do a story that happens before the story." This is telling a story that didn't just happen to happen before the original text, but that lets you have a different understanding as to who these characters were and what their dynamics are. And what the world around them is. And so my hope is that you finish Pan and you go back and read the original Barrie book, watch the Disney cartoon, watch Spielberg's Hook — which I watched four times in the theater — and you look at all of these characters in a slightly different light. That you've learned something about them.
ScreenCraft: So is there a sequel to Pan in the works that takes place before the events we know of in Peter Pan?
Jason Fuchs: I'm still reeling from the fact that we actually made this thing. At the risk of hubris, it's hard to imagine anything beyond this. But I would say this — creatively, I love these characters so much and I feel that there's so much to them that I didn't want to do short service to anyone and jam pack all of their origins into one film.
So I feel that Pan is an origin story to Peter and an introduction to an earlier Hook. An introduction to Tiger Lily. And an introduction to Tinkerbell. But if you see the film, the movie doesn't end with James Hook as the villain we all know and love. It doesn't end with the Tinkerbell and Peter relationship. And that's by design and truly out of respect for how much I think there is to those characters and how much space and oxygen they deserve.
So I think that with all of that said, there's a tremendous amount of narrative real estate between where our film ends and where Barrie's story begins. And as a fan of the book I have a tremendous excitement at what could occupy those spaces and what those possibilities are and where Hook goes from there and how that relationship turns and all of those things creatively excite me to no end.
So we'll see how people react to this film and my hope is that at some point those are questions I get to imagine the exciting answers to. But I would not be so presumptuous to answer. But I'd feel like the luckiest guy in the world if I have the chance to.
ScreenCraft: I can't let you go without asking about your reported attachment to the upcoming Wonder Woman movie. Can you tell us anything?
Jason Fuchs: The thing with working with DC is that there's the element of secrecy involved. It's a little bit like working for GIS back in the day during my intelligence service time. I can’t' really speak to that too much. I can say that I've certainly read the same reports regarding what my involvement might or might not be in that universe.
I could only speak to it as a fan. I love the DC comics. I grew up with the DC comics. They're a huge part of my life. My dad is a big comic book fan. He's got a huge collection of the DC comics that he shared with me at a very young age. So as a fan I'm so excited that the characters I loved are finally getting a chance to co-exist in a big, exciting expanded universe that Warner Brothers is creating. The Batman v. Superman trailer is extraordinary. Suicide Squad looks genre bending and cool. So I'm very, very excited, from a fan's perspective, as far as where they go to next and I think it's going to be really cool to see characters that mean so much to me finally realized on the big screen in that way.
ScreenCraft: Your next project is Break My Heart 1,000 Times?
Jason Fuchs: I'm psyched. We got Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar-nominee from True Grit, playing our lead girl. We have Scott Speer, who is about to direct Bella Thorne and Patrick Schwarzenegger in a film called Midnight Sun. He's going to follow up that film with our movie.
Our movie starts in February up in Winnipeg. It's based on a YA book by Daniel Waters. A really brilliant book. The story of a girl who lives in this world where an event has happened. We don't know what. But because so many people were killed in this event, something has been torn between our world and the next and a barrier has been permeated and as a result goes through a part of her everyday life.
She's lost her father and begins to suspect that these ghosts are trying to warn her of something. And she needs to figure out how to save all of us. And I'm very, very excited about that. I think Hailee is going to be an incredible Veronica. I'm also excited because I'm Executive Producing now. And it's my first time as a producer on one of my films.
ScreenCraft: Any advice for up-and-coming screenwriters?
Jason Fuchs: Break My Heart 1,000 Times is a great example for screenwriters as far as where you just have to keep going.
That was a process where I signed on, I wrote a script, directors were onboard, I was eager to collaborate with them, etc. The directors fired me immediately. Didn't even get to meet with them. And I was bummed.
Ultimately, the directors themselves were fired and years later I came back on and we threw out everything they had written and I jumped back in and started from where I left off, and now we're actually making the movie and I'm included in an even more significant way where I get to produce it. You have to really have thick skin, be tenacious, and never give up. It is a long process but if you have the right temperament, and ability to hold on through thick and thin, some pretty cool things could happen.
Jason Fuchs made his feature screenwriting debut in 2012 with Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age: Continental Drift. The film grossed $881 million worldwide, becoming one of the most successful animated films of all time. As a result, at age 26, Fuchs became the youngest screenwriter in film history to pen a film that grossed over $226 million, the worldwide box office mark set in 1997 by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with their screenplay for Good Will Hunting. In 2015 Jason was chosen as one of Forbes Magazine’s 2015 30 Under 30: Hollywood. Next up, Jason will write and executive produce supernatural thriller Break My Heart 1,000 Times starring Hailee Steinfeld for Gold Circle and LionsGate, which he will write and executive produce.