Creative Screenwriting - Vol. 9, No. 2

Swimming in
The Salton Sea

Den Shewman speaks with
Tony Gayton

Creative Screenwriting
Mar/Apr 2002 - Vol. 9, No. 2

"More than anything, I guess I'm a survivor," said Tony Gayton with a laugh. Since he graduated from USC's film school, Gayton has lived the all-too-common life of many screenwriters: some good years, some bad years, not enough checks. None of his scripts had ever made it to the screen ("My career was development," he jokes), and it was only when he decided to reject the Hollywood system and write for himself that his career shifted into high gear. The Salton Sea, has a unique feel and flavour and is one of two Tony Gayton-scripted films hittin screens this spring (the other being Murder by Numbers). Both films are from Castle Rock Entertainment, where he's finishing his third script, Airtight (previously titled Con Game) written with older brother Joe, who penned 1983's Uncommon Valor. After that he'll launch into his fourth Castle Rock project, an untitled suspense thriller about a man implicated in a twenty-year-old murder. Suddenly, Tony Gayton is an overnight success, and it only took ten years.

Gayton laughs a lot, which probably helped him survive the whirlwind tour of his early years as an Air Force brat. His interest in film wasn't piqued until he took a film class at the University of Florida, which introduced him to his favourite filmmaker; Luis Bunuel. (Gayton calls Bunuel's Exterminating Angel "one of the highest concept ideas of all time.") Soon he was off to USC film school, following in his brother's footsteps. He even worked as a production assistant under John Milius while Milius was producing Uncommon Valor. Gayton signed his first option in 1984 with Peter Bart- then an executive at MGM, Variety not yet a gleam in his eye- collecting his first check. But, as many writers have found, breaking into Hollywood is not the same as making it in Hollywood, and Gayton's writing career was a series of stops and starts. Some were his own doing, as when he took a year off to write and direct the 1987 music documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out. Others were blessings in disguise, such as when he took a year off from writing to teach (among other things) physical education at a high school in Compton, CA- thereby fulfilling an earlier dream of becoming a football coach.

Tweakers from <I>The Salton Sea</I>Now Gayton has a Castle Rock doubleheader waiting in the wings. Whether it's addict/snitch Danny Parker snaking his way through the world of "tweakers" (meth- amphetamine addicts), dealers, and crooked cops in The Salton Sea, or a couple of modern-day Leopold and Loebs attempting to outwit a police profiler in Murder by Numbers, Gayton is attracted to characters who walk the dark side. Creative Screenwriting sat down with this admitted fan of flawed heroes and seventies films to discuss how his rejection of studio expectations kick-started a new phase of his screenwriting career.

There's a real power that comes through in the writing and attitude of The Salton Sea. In fact, your style is so powerful, I had the feeling the script was written in rebellion against the Hollywood system. There's a real feeling of "Screw it, I'm gonna write what I want, how I want."

[In my screenwriting career] I'd had good years and bad years. Quit a few times in disgust. Never got a movie made. Quit, became a substitute teacher in Compton for a year. Went back to writing, sold scripts, got some assignments, still nothing made. I was disgusted all over again, and just like you said, I said, "Screw it." I got into the trap that a lot of writers get into, which was trying to write what I thought other people wanted. When you're working in the business - and I was working- you're trying to get assignments and pitchers, and you have to do that in a way. Finally, I had this idea for The Salton Sea, and I said, "I'm going to write this as dark and brutal as I want to." I didn't think in a million years anybody like Castle Rock would but it.

How did The Salton Sea come about?

It's a character we've all seen before: the informant. That's a really interesting character. It's a dangerous life: you're hooked on drugs, the cops have you over a barrel, they're making you rat out guys that you're with every day. I realized that I needed more, and at some point, Danny's agenda came to me.

I have a friend I went to film school with. Before I met him, he was shooting a film out in the desert with his wife, his friend, and his friend's wife. These guys came by and said, "Could you give me a ride into town?" My Friend said, "Sure, we'll be done in about an hour" and the guys left. A half-hour later they came back with guns and started killing everyone. Shot my friend's wife, his friend, killed everyone but him. He's sitting there with his wife dying in his arms, but these guys are coming and he had to run. The guys got picked up that day and eventually got convicted. That triggered part of the story. In the moment, you did the right thing. But later you have a million questions to ask yourself. There was survival guilt on my friend's part. You see this guy, you know it's with him for the rest of his life.

Danny is a bit of a coward, like anybody would be. He wants to do the right thing, but he's not Schwarzenegger; he's more like Hamlet. He's gotten into this world, and it consumed him in spite of himself. He thinks he can fit in, not get caught up in the drugs, but he does. What triggers his actions is when he hears that a dealer he ratted out has sent someone after him. Danny knows he has to get of his ass and start doing something. He's pretty sure that these are the guys, but he just can't act. He's not ready to do it yet.

What kind of research did you do?

I read a lot. I did a lot of research on the Internet. I come from Florida, on the drug dealing side of it; I have good friends who are in federal prison [laughs]. I had moved away a long time before they started getting into this. I'd hear, "By the way, so-and-so's under federal indictment." The real research came more on the day-to-day stuff about meth users. I read tons of articles. The director and the actors went to meetings and went on a few drug busts; I'd already written the script by then. One of the first cops who read the script said, "This is really accurate."

It's interesting that Castle Rock, a company that distributes through AOL/Time Warner's Warner Brothers, has produced a film that, while not glorifying drug use, isn't really vilifying drug use, either.

I didn't get any flack from that. I know that they were concerned about the drugs, and everyone smoking, and anti-nicotine advocate Rob Reiner's over there [laughs]. But I think the bottom line was to make the movie real. The other issue was, originally in the script Danny tells Jimmy, "I'm not a tweaker. I don't use drugs." That was my one cop-out. I thought [the drug use] might stop me from selling this. I had Danny say this, even though in my gut I knew it was wrong. Later we changed it, so that eh was using drugs all the way through. In our research, one of the first things we found is that there's no way a guy could survive that long without using in front of other people. Now it's even more of a sacrifice on Danny's part. He wasn't a drug user before. He probably went into it thinking, "I can use a little to get by. I can fake it." Val was pretty insistent that Danny did use, which was absolutely right.

You were on the set during shooting, and Val Kilmer was asking you questions all the time. Did you have all the answers, or were his questions pushing you deeper into the story?

Some of it went, "Hmmm, I never thought about that before" and I had to come up with answers for him. I think that's good, to have to justify things. Some of it was there and I just explained to him why. You have to strike a balance. This movie is very character-driven and also very plot-driven. An actor can get lost in the honesty of one scene. Sometimes you have to step back and say, "Remember, this came before, and this has to happen after, that's why you act this way." Danny has an agenda. He's constantly setting people up, and you have to step back. That was one of the big things, because every five to ten pages of script there's another turn around.

Your career was in development with over ten years of writing and not one script making it to the screen. A lot of people would say, "If I'm making a hundred thousand dollars a year, that's not such a bad life." What kinds of highs and lows did you have over the last ten years?

[Groans] Oh it was like this [makes a roller coaster motion with his hand]. I'd make a really great check or two, work my ass off, do my best, then nothing would happen. I'd have dry spells where it was really scary. My wife's an electrical engineer, so we are about as opposite as you can get. She work's forty hours a week, gets a steady paycheck, and she ahs put up with a lot [laughs].

Sometimes it might be a year before I got something. I'd see the money I had just slowly disappear. I'd get part-time jobs. It was a scary, crappy way to make a living. And when I was writing, it felt like work. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do; I was doing what someone else wanted me to do.

The last job that I would want would be a salesman. And I really started to feel like a salesman. I'd go in to pitch ideas, and I'd know these ideas were good, and my takes on rewrites were good, but I wasn't anybody. I almost knew I didn't have a chance when I walked in the door. I did a good job, but I know they weren't looking for me. That happened a lot. It really wears you down. In the end, it was a good thing, because I got so disgusted that I sat down and wrote The Salton Sea.

In your pitches and scripts previous to The Salton Sea, did you run into situations where executives asked you to simplify your twists because they feared the audience would get lost?

I've always prided myself on my stories going in directions you didn't think they were going. But you can't put too many twists in a pitch. If I had pitched The Salton Sea, I would have lost. I'm not saying anything bad about studio executives; I would have lost anybody. I don't think you could pitch that. Especially set in the meth world [laughs]. In a pitch, you have to give them the character, and they want to know where the story's going. The way I like to pitch is, tell the first act in detail, then you say, "You see where this is going?" Then you just bullet point in the second and third act. Rightfully so, you have to be careful about getting to complex in a pitch. These guys are hearing stories all day long. You want to hook them on the character, and the arena the movie's set in. You can hint that there will be twists and turns. But it can get real confusing really fast.

So The Salton Sea is your first film with Castle Rock, and then you do Murder by Numbers - also with Castle Rock.

Yeah, they signed me to a blind deal. Rob Reiner pitched me an idea. Which turned into Murder by Numbers. Rob had originally thought about doing the Leopold and Loeb story, the true story of tow college kids in the '20s who were going to do the perfect murder [kill a twelve year old boy, whom they knew], and I said, "Let's update it." We didn't want to make excuses for the kids; we didn't want to break them down. My first instinct was, "Let's just do it about the tow kids," but that would have been an indie movie and they'd just done one with The Salton Sea [laughs]. I'd had some stuff in an early draft about things that happened in their childhood - some hints that one of them was abused - and to his credit, Martin Schafer [Castle Rock's chairman and CEO] said, "That's a cop out. A lot of kids go through this stuff and don't turn out like this." And he's right. I think people can accept that there are evil kids out there. There are a lot of explanations for them, one of which is going to see movies about violence [laughs].

You have had a couple good things to say about Castle Rock - how does Castle Rock work differently than other studios?

I've never gotten a written note from them. Never gotten anything on paper. I sit in a meeting, they give some overall notes - can you tone this down a little here maybe, can you do this to a character to make him a little more likable? - then I go off and write. Then, especially on The Salton Sea, they turned it over to us. Trusted the writers and directors to do it. Which is really refreshing. And weird.

Your father was in the Air Force, and you moved around a lot as a kid - three nations and seven cities before age seven - meaning you had to fit into a number of different societies. The Salton Sea and Murder by Numbers both deal with shifting identities and people who want to carve their own niche in the world. Do you intentionally play with questions of identity?

It's a common theme for me. A lot of my characters are people who don't know who they are, who are doing something they're not sure they want to do, are not sure what they want to be, and they're trying to figure it out.

Have you figured it out?

No. Some days I wonder if I'm a writer. It's such a weird process for me. I couldn't tell you how I do it. There's no rhyme or reason. Some days it's torture, and some days it goes great. Its not like I was eight years old and said "I'm going to be a writer." I never set out to be that, and I am that now. I still wonder if this is what I'm supposed to be. People they ask me, "Why didn't you quit, completely?" and I tell them, "I'm not qualified to be anything else, I got a degree in film, for God's sakes!" [Laughs].

[Provided to Planet Kilmer by Hannah James]