Screenwriter Profile -- Robert Lawton
Writer/Director/Actor Robert Lawton
Screenwriter Robert Lawton talks with Hollywood Script Notes about his journey to Hollywood; the films and filmmakers who have influenced him; and his hot new Sylvester Stallone biopic "Becoming Rocky."
About Robert Lawton: Born in Manhattan, raised in Scarsdale, Lawton studied film production at NYU before landing on Wall Street. After a decade there he wrote, directed & starred in the low-budget indie feature “Sex & Sushi”, which launched his career as a filmmaker.
Favorite filmmakers & early influences?
I’ll watch anything the Coen brothers have anything to do with, same with James L. Brooks, even stuff he didn't write or direct, like Edge Of Seventeen. Scorsese to some degree but not everything. I've seen Raging Bull, Goodfellas, King of Comedy, & Taxi Driver at least 15 times each, but I thought The Departed was kinda overrated. Some others I like are Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin & Green Room), Derek Cianfrance, and I also love Kelly Reichardt, her movie Wendy and Lucy just gutted me. I’m no “film snob” either; I’d rather watch Armageddon than 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Step Brothers over Citizen Kane any day.
What's your process like when working on new projects?
I’m always writing notes into my phone, whether it’s a line of dialogue that occurs to me, a cool scene, or the bones of a story, but I find that if I’m deliberately looking for an idea, they’re often elusive (or weak). When I’m just living my life and come across something that sparks my interest? Those tend to hold up best, or at least engage me the most. Plus sometimes it takes awhile for an idea to capture my attention. I have tons of pages in my phone with titles like: Dialogue, Big Ideas, Small Ideas, Character Names, etc. & once I sit down to actually begin writing, I go through them all to see if anything fits into my current project.
Does the subject matter of a script need to be personal to you? Is it "write what you know" or "write what you're passionate about?"
For me to get excited about something it has to be an idea powerful enough to win the constant battle between me and my numerous distractions, so when I'm passionate about or engaged by a story or project, it doesn't feel like work to me. I remember first learning how to edit footage I’d shot back at NYU and when I’d check to see what time it was, 6 hours had gone by in what felt like 5 minutes. That’s the best, when it doesn’t feel like “work”.
What's your writing approach; do you outline, do beat sheets?
I'm absolutely not a believer in “Save The Cat” or any formulaic methods. In fact, they piss me off. Some of my favorite scripts & movies break all those conventional “by the numbers” approaches. In FARGO, the lead protagonist Marge Gunderson, doesn't even show up until 33 minutes into the movie! She's absent for the entire "first act". In Rocky, the so-called "inciting incident" doesn't happen until almost an hour in, and in Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom begins and ends the movie as exactly the same guy. Zero "character arc". Does that make him any less riveting, or any of these movies less thrilling? Of course not.
Biopics are very popular -- and often successful. Why did you choose the Sylvester Stallone origin story for your new screenplay "Becoming Rocky"?
A few years ago after getting rejected for a project I was up for, I thought about the quote “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Bald. Can dance a little.” which was supposedly said by the head of RKO casting after watching Fred Astaire’s first screen test. For whatever reason, that came up in my mind again & I started thinking: There must've been other famous people who'd been rejected early in their careers, so I started researching. Eventually that turned into the non-fiction book REJECTED! True Tales of (nearly) Overlooked Greatness. While conducting research for the book, I came across the Stallone story, which just floored me. Here was a guy from Hell’s Kitchen who was homeless before writing Rocky, and when he was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for the script on the condition that he NOT star in it? Although he was flat-broke, and had just sold his beloved dog Butkus, he STILL turned them all down! To me, that was stunning.
Anyway, though I’d come across many incredible true stories while researching REJECTED!, the Stallone story really stayed with me. But, it still took awhile before I thought about writing it as a biopic. So last summer I was kicking around ideas for my next project & it was like; “Duh!” In fact, I was amazed no one else had done it before, not even Stallone himself, despite the tons of biopics making the rounds, in development, and already produced. So once I realized this would be my next project, and I better hurry up before someone else did it? I became obsessed, blasted through the research and finished the first draft in about a month.
Did you sense some parallels between Sylvester Stallone's struggle as a filmmaker and your own?
Man, I don't know anyone, certainly not me, who could’ve done what he did. Stallone had $106 in the bank, and had just sold his beloved dog because he couldn't afford to feed him, when he was offered $25,000 to sell the Rocky script, IF he'd just walk away and let a "star" play Rocky. When he turned them down, because he was determined to play the part himself? They offered him $50k, then $100k, all the way up, allegedly to $365k, but he refused to sell out. I don’t know anyone, least of all me, who would have the courage to do that. And he wasn’t just playing poker either, trying to drive the price up! He truly didn’t care if they offered him a million (in 1975 dollars, by the way) because he was absolutely determined to play the part himself. Naturally; Hollywood saw a guy who took a principled stance, so they threw more & more money at him, and when that didn't work, they finally caved. But Sly wasn’t playing hard to get. He wasn’t playing at all. It’s amazing what you can do if you stick to your principles. "Be bold & mighty forces will come to your aid."
Lawton with his beloved dog.
(Photo by Billy Wirth)
Some have said that your screenplay for Becoming Rocky is a "feel-good story about a feel-good movie." Do you agree -- and how do you use that to your advantage as a writer?
I agree a million percent, and though I'm reluctant to try to gauge what audiences want at any given time, speaking for myself with what's going on in the world in general, and our country in particular, I have no appetite to watch dark, heavy dramas or violent thrillers these days. The kind of film & TV I'm gravitating toward lately are more hopeful stories of triumph over adversity, comedies, stuff like that. Maybe Stallone himself said it best back in 1976 about writing Rocky: "I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism who believes in the American dream... Where are all the heroes?''
Is Stallone aware of the project? What efforts have been made to reach out to him?
All I'm able to say about it currently is: An agent at one of the big three got ahold of the script, reached out to Stallone directly, informed him about the project and sent a hard copy over to his house for him to read. Since then, a legendary producer became involved and is getting it set up at one of the major studios. That's about all I can say at the moment, but I expect there will be some fairly significant announcements coming.
BECOMING ROCKY - Written by Robert Lawton -- The unbelievable yet true story of million-to-one underdog Sylvester Stallone's journey from homeless in NYC, to writing & starring in the legendary film "Rocky".
How do you find your voice in a script? Do you write stories around the plot or around characters?
If I’m writing a spec about a story I want to tell or theme I want to explore, it always starts with the character. "Voice" is just something that’s uniquely mine. I write movies as a fan, so I’m always trying to put cool or interesting stuff in there that I want to see & I've found that whatever I'm writing, whether it's a contemporary noir, an action thriller, or a period drama, there's always plenty of levity. I can't really write any other way, or at least I have little interest in doing so.
Playing it safe doesn't seem to be your style... What advice do you have other artists and storytellers who want to follow their dreams-- but might be afraid to break the rules?
When I first worked on Wall St., I started as a "cold-caller" making $250 a week working for this moron making 50 times that, and I remember thinking: “I can’t believe I’m taking orders from this imbecile, so I’m gonna make sure I’m never in this position again.” But when I made Sex & Sushi, I had no idea what I was doing, so I hired this real pro-DP, and on the first day of shooting, he took 3 hours to set up a simple shot. Because I didn't know any better, I figured this was just how things were done, so I went along with it. After a few days, I decided to fire the guy because I realized: If this movie’s gonna get screwed up, I want it to get screwed up because I trusted my instincts & was wrong, rather than I didn't trust my instincts, held my tongue & now here we are. After that? I just shot the film myself (HSN ED: under the pseudonym “Walter Broont”, an anagram of “Robert Lawton”) and we all had a blast making this little movie in a real punk-rock sorta way, not taking it too seriously. Point being: "To thine own self be true." Y'know? I've gotta follow my gut, and if I fail? At least I trusted myself.
What's next on the creative horizon?
I wrote a contemporary noir that got some attention recently and I received a few offers to sell it outright as a spec, but I’m pretty determined to direct it myself, so I think that’s probably next on my list. Just shoot it down and dirty, low-budget, and have fun. Another thing on my to-do list is to write a novel. I know people don't read much long-form fiction anymore (myself included) & books have mostly become IP for movies & TV, but I like the sort of romantic idea of writing a novel, and the freedom that comes with it, so I’d like to nail that down too.