Best of the Best: You Don’t Know Jack


Originally posted on December 13, 2014 our interview with Philly native and Emmy Award winner, Adam Mazer, was part of a week-long look at people who have interesting or unusual professions. Adam is a screenwriter who won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special for ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ (The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian) in 2010. You can check out the rest of the week’s interesting interviews in our archives.

The Road Less Traveled: You Don’t Know Jack
(All photos courtesy of Adam Mazer)

imageWHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?
“I’m a screenwriter, movies mostly and some television as well.”

HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A WRITER?
“As far back as elementary school, like 4th, 5th, 6th grade, writing some pieces for the class to perform. We did a couple of those in assemblies for the whole school and they went over really well. It took me to that feeling of “Wow, I actually wrote this stuff”, people clapping and I thought that was cool. Then during my teenage years, and the more I got into my love of movies themselves, I just thought this could really be a career, to write. So I knew, even in high school, that I was eventually going to go to college and move to L.A. right after that. I was fortunate to know that early on, that it was what I wanted to do.”

HOW DID YOU PREPARE FOR YOUR WRITING CAREER?
“I went to Syracuse (University), the film and tv program there, Newhouse School of Communications. It’s a pretty well known communications school around the country. They had a pretty good film (program), not like USC or NYU or that caliber necessarily, but it was definitely a good one. I took a bunch of production classes and writing classes. I came out of there with what I thought was a good base and moved to L.A. about a month after I graduated.”

WAS IT DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO MOVE YOUR LIFE ACROSS THE COUNTRY?
“Yeah but it was exciting! To move across the country and not have any family. I only knew two people out there at the time. I knew it would be a big transition and kind of unknown. I just embraced it though and thought “wow, this is California, Hollywood and the movie business. Let’s just go for it!” It took some time, but I never hesitated about it.”

WHAT KIND OF OBSTACLES HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED OR STILL ENCOUNTER?
“It’s the kind of business where people are kind of infatuated with movies, tv, how things get made, all the glamour, but it’s a business like any other. It’s become more corporate over the years in many ways, so I think the great challenge over time is, and very few people are fortunate to have it, longevity and to be able to roll with the changes. Twenty years ago there were probably 12 studios making 25 movies each in a year, something like that. Now there’s 7 studios and they make maybe 10 movies each. Obviously, there’s more movies being made by independent financing coming in, still plenty of movies being made, but the big movie studios are all owned by corporations now, and it’s all about the bottom line. Some of the obstacles are just the sheer number of people trying to do what I do, or become successful at it like I am. Nothing’s ever easy. You pour your heart and soul into a script, something that you love and it can take years to get made, or it never gets made for various reasons. You just have to have thick skin about that and not take things too personally and just realize it may not be this one, the next one or whatever. Just keep going and roll with the punches, where the trends go. As an example, more dramatic writers like myself tend to look at tv more as a place, the quality of television is so much better. Starting back with the Sopranos, Madmen, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead; all these shows. So a lot of movie writers are like “well, the movie theater has sort of shrunk, but tv is expanding”. It’s about going with the different currents. Not try to reinvent yourself, but be able to maneuver through and stay fresh. I’m a story teller by nature and whether it winds up being a movie or a tv show, a miniseries, whatever it ends up being, at the end of the day you’re telling a story”

HOW MANY SCRIPTS WOULD YOU SAY YOU HAVE TO WRITE BEFORE HAVING ONE SOLD OR PRODUCED?
“There’s not really a formula for that per se. Every once in a while, there’s that rare occasion that some young kid right out of college sells his first script. That’s like a lightning strike or a lottery win. I moved there in ’89, I wrote maybe 6-8 different scripts, it took me 6 years to sell my first one in ’95. And then I sold others, got hired to write things, supported myself as a writer without having to work any other jobs. I was making good money and all that Now people kind of know who you are. That’s the first hurdle. Then actually getting a film made, took me almost 10 years until one of my films were made. Breach, it was called, came out in 2007. It was an FBI agent movie, a true story of a spy for the Russians who’s an FBI agent. Chris Cooper’s in it, Laura Linney, Ryan Phillipe. It takes time. It was all about perseverance, never giving up. Others have done it a lot quicker. One of my best friends is a writer named Craig Borden, who I went to college with who wrote Dallas Buyers Club, winning last years Oscar. He wrote the first draft of that twenty years ago. That was the journey that this movie took to get, finally, to screen.

THAT HAS TO BE SO FRUSTRATING!
“It can be incredibly frustrating. A lot of people give up, a lot will say it’s not worth it, but again you have to have the ability to kind of do anything to survive, to see things through. It is that kind of a business. I guess what I’m trying to say is that probably from afar it looks so cool, fun (and believe me I wouldn’t trade it for anything), that having your job be a storyteller as a career is amazing. But it is as frustrating and difficult and challenging and competitive as anything out there. So, it’s not as glamorous as it seems.”

imageI CAN PRETTY MUCH GUESS THE ANSWER TO THIS, BUT WHAT’S BEEN YOUR PROUDEST PROFESSIONAL MOMENT SO FAR?
(Adam won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special for ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ in 2010)
“Clearly, the proudest moment was the whole You Don’t Know Jack experience, for a lot of reasons.
I met a guy when I was living in Venice Beach in the early 90’s. He had come out from NY and was kind of an actor. He hadn’t ever really written anything before but we got to be close friends and ended up writing together. Actually the first thing that I sold was written with my partner at the time.
The thing about You Don’t Know Jack, which again just from the whole experience of working with Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Barry Levinson directing the film, all these incredible people I always admired from afar, to be working so close with them, to have them speaking my words and of course the success of the movie and the Emmy’s. Of course, it was tremendous. But it was also the fact that it was really the first thing I’d done as a solo writer. I’d written things on my own years ago. But after that partnership had dissolved, it was like the first thing I had done being on my own. And then to have all the success come from that was the greatest.”

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THAT SCRIPT?
“There was a producer that got to write (Jack) Kevorkian’s life story. He sought me out. He was a fan of my movie Breach and knew I wasn’t working with my partner anymore. He went to my agent and asked if I would be interested in it. I had followed Kevorkian’s story, thought he was an interesting character and I personally believed in what he was trying to do. I didn’t go out and find the project, it found me. We sold it to HBO. Then when I first met Jack Kevorkian in Michigan and started to interview him, I realized there was so much about this man that people didn’t know. He was “Dr. Death” for all those years and just a creepy old man. But then if you get to know him, you’d know that while he was an eccentric, quirky, complicated guy, a little odd at times, he also (as portrayed in the movie), had his weekly poker game. Just (ordinary) things about him that people wouldn’t have thought. The whole You Don’t Know Jack idea became more clear to me the more I got to know that he was such a character to dig into.
Since then there are either stories that I’ll find and go after and try to get the rights to or people bring it to me. Or an original idea. There’s not just one way of getting a story.”

WHEN YOU FOUND OUT YOU WERE NOMINATED FOR THE EMMY, AND THEN OF COURSE, WHEN THEY CALLED YOUR NAME, HOW DID YOU REACT?
“It was incredible. The nominations came out in, I think, July, L.A. time around 5:30 or 6 in the morning. So it was really early there. We set the alarm, my wife and I woke up, we were waiting as they were announcing it. Immediately, calls were coming, it was a thrill in itself. It sounds cliché to say it’s just great to be nominated, you never really think you’re gonna win. There was another film that came out that year on HBO called Temple Grandin that Clare Danes starred in that was winning a bunch of awards. We were up against that movie for a bunch of things and they were kind of on a roll with some of the other categories they were winning. We knew Al Pacino was gonna win, he was just fantastic. Thought he was a shoe in, a slam dunk. So when they read my category and the five nominees, I never thought I was gonna win and I probably thought we had less of a chance then ever because the writers of that movie were winning other categories. Then to hear my name was just so surreal and a memory I’ll have forever. Then just embracing my wife and some other people around me, going up on stage- it was a crazy thing. It still doesn’t seem real sometimes.”

imageOF COURSE YOU HAD A HUGE CHEERING SECTION HERE AS A PHILLY BOY AND GEORGE WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE!
“Yeah, I know there was a genuine feeling about that by people I knew growing up that I still have there. All my Philly friends and family, my Syracuse friends. To be able to share that with people, it meant so much to me. It wasn’t something that just I was able to do, but to have some people be a part of it is what was so wonderful about it.”

IT REALLY IS INSPIRING, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE SCHOOL OR AREA YOU COME FROM HAS A “NOT SO STELLAR” REPUTATION, TO HEAR OF THE SUCCESS STORIES. YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE BUT CERTAINLY IN THE RANKS. IT MAKES PEOPLE FROM THERE STAND A LITTLE TALLER.
“I totally get that. That’s a whole Philly thing too. We’re always sort of the underdogs and that working class mentality that’s engrained in all of us. That’s never left me even after 25 years in California. I think that certain people from the area feel like “we won!” I feel like there’s some connection to that that made the whole thing so gratifying.”

LASTLY, WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW THAT WE SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR IN THE FUTURE?
“I have quite a few things going on right now that seem to be getting closer to happening. I’m doing a movie about Hank Aaron and his breaking of the home run record in the ’70’s. Kind of based around the year leading up to home run chase. It’s not like him as a young man, it’s him as an aging ball player about to turn 40, the weight of the world on him, the death threats if he broke Babe Ruth’s record. As a big baseball fan, I got to meet Hank Aaron a couple times. I interviewed him as I was writing the script. So we’re putting that movie together.”
“There’s an eight part mini series I’m working on about John DeLorean (of the DeLorean car fame). It’ll take the audience through the hey day of Detroit, when the car industry was in its peak, in the 60’s. Then through the 70’s when GM was the biggest car company in the world. The guy was this young hotshot, rising through the ranks. He decides to start his own car company which is of kind of unheard of, living this glamour is life. He gets in so much trouble with the car, ultimately. He ended up getting arrested for some cocaine deal which he was trying to use to raise money to help save the company cause it was failing. He ended up not getting convicted but it ruined his reputation. He was just his iconic figure in America that people are curious about.”
“The other thing I’m working on, would be the first thing I’m going to direct. I’ve been working with the Grateful Dead actually. I’ve always been a big Grateful Dead fan. 2015 is their 50th anniversary so they have a lot of things going on to celebrate the anniversary. I wrote a movie, it’s not a biopic about the Grateful Dead members; it’s not like the Jerry Garcia move or anything like that. It’s a completely fictional story set in present day. The soundtrack to the movie will be all Grateful Dead songs and the characters from the songs. The actors won’t be singing songs, you’ll hear them in the soundtrack. I’m using all those songs and threading the story and it gets drenched in the Grateful Dead mythology and all the themes that people have taken from that band all these years. It’s to be a very modern, present day story. The goal of this movie is to make all dead heads take a journey down memory lane and that they’ll appreciate it. Plus it’s a way to introduce their music to a young audience who aren’t as familiar. They know the name, have a T-shirt but this will really introduce the music in a unique way. It’s very exciting for me and could be as thrilling as anything I’ve ever done if I can pull it off. That’s on the front burner. Hopefully, those will be some of the things people will be seeing from me sooner than later.”

To read more about and to continue to follow Adam Mazer, go to his IMDB page:
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0563240/

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