Inspired by writers like Woody Allen and Donald Barthelme, Larry Doyle began his writing career with humor pieces for the New Yorker and then moved into television, where he wrote for “Beavis and Butthead” and “The Simpsons.” He also started scripting film, among them “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” and “Duplex.” Doyle estimates that for every four or five screenplays he writes, one might make it to the screen, and so the rejection of one of those scripts — the story of a nerdball high school senior who blurts out his love for the school’s alpha cheerleader during his valedictory speech, and the aftermath of his outburst — wasn’t that unusual. What was was his decision to turn the script into a novel, 2007’s “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” a crossover publishing hit (attracting high school readers and post-grads alike) that immediately drew Hollywood’s attention, as well as that of director Chris Columbus. In a recent interview, the very funny Mr. Doyle spoke about the classic teen comedy’s circuitous route to the screen, the perils of movie marketing, and why some of us never really leave high school.
“I Love You Beth Cooper” started out as an idea you had for a movie that you wrote up into 100 pages of a script treatment that was rejected for being “execution dependent,” and “not castable.” Then an agent convinced you to turn it into a book and it was almost immediately snapped up as a film as well — why do you think the story had to take that journey to the screen?
Well, they like shiny things. Movie people are all about — and these are all executives and studios — they’re all about not having to have an opinion. And so they tend to not judge things on the material, they judge by other things they can ascribe to it that might be commercial or not commercial. And a book — even an unpublished book — is a property, whereas a movie script, as far as they’re concerned, is nothing.
It’s not even an idea?
Well, if the idea is something that can attract talent, that might get a studio interested. You used to have the big idea that could attract the big actor, but now you have to have the actor saying he’ll be a part of the big idea before it will sell. In other words, you have to do the studio’s job for them. I think that a lot of executives feel that their biggest job is to say no, to look for a reason to say no — it’s like, the only way they’ll make movies is if they’re forced to. They operate primarily from fear. They won’t do an idea because they’re afraid of it and the only things they will do are out of the fear of what will happen if another CEO does it.
After the book came out, it got some very generous reviews, including an “A” in Entertainment Weekly. After that, I got calls from 15 different producers and studios interested in the book. [Fox Atomic had bought it before it was published.] I thought that was almost a perfect example of Hollywood, which is: If you can reduce something to a single letter, they get it. It wasn’t too much information: A.
The book seemed positioned to straddle both young adult and contemporary fiction — do you think the audiences for the book and the movie will differ at all? The marketing for the movie obviously plays the cards it has.
The book has a pretty broad audience; the movie, I think, is being targeted to a younger one. I think adults will enjoy it, but that’s not what Fox is doing. It’s probably a good date movie.
You told a story about Danny DeVito making it known that he didn’t want you on the set of “Duplex,” and said his attitude about writers is the prevailing one — that “once the script is written, it would ideal if the writer could just turn into a large pizza and a six pack.”
Yeah — that didn’t happen on this one. This was, by far, my most pleasant experience. Of the three movies I’ve now done, this was ten times better than either of the other two. You’re still the writer, though, no longer the authority on anything. It’s no longer your vision. You can contribute to it and make suggestions and make arguments when you need to, but you’re not necessarily going to get your way. I think the movie turned out really well, but I definitely wasn’t the final authority.
I loved this quote from you: “I wrote a screenplay that later became associated with a film called ‘Duplex.’ ” That says it all. How close is the screenplay you wrote for “Beth Cooper” to the completed movie?
From the screenplay, it’s pretty darn close. I can’t say that [Columbus] undermined the movie in any way — the problem, of course, in making a movie as opposed to making a book is things come out the way they come out. All of these issues of how an actor is going to say a line or the pacing of a scene — and even in a perfect world, you can do thousands of takes and maybe still not get that thing you want, especially after the first 50 or 60 takes. You can ask Danny DeVito about that. So you end up with the movie that you have. And does it match exactly what I thought of in my head? No, but I don’t know that it could.
It is a sort of classic coming-of-age high school story, and the success of the book is largely in the telling. Do you think the movie achieves the same thing? Or did you agree that it’s an “execution-dependent” story?
What the studios mean by execution-dependent — it doesn’t mean there’s going to be a good movie one way or another. They mean they’re going to make their money back even it’s shitty. Technically, all movies are execution-dependent. What they mean is, if the only way this movie is going to make money is for it to be good, we don’t want to be in that business.
I was thinking more along the lines of a disagreement my friend and I had after seeing Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” — the lights came up and he said something along the lines of, “Well, big deal, I could have written that. Any of my friends could have written that.” And I don’t think that’s a valid reaction. First of all: But you didn’t. And second: Of course the story is a classic narrative, but it’s all in the execution. It’s the way you sing the song.
Yeah, I would also say that the feeling that you could have written the movie is probably one of the successes of the movie that you don’t realize. What he means by that really is that it captured some aspect of his life. I thought “Adventureland” was a great movie — very poorly marketed.