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A Chat with Megamind Screenwriters

The DreamWorks studio lot is an oasis of lush gardens and water fountains, with tree-lined paths that connect colorful, Spanish-style stucco buildings. Peeking out of one office window is a cardboard cutout of the villain everyone’s talking about—the distinct blue head of Megamind.

It’s the perfect setting to meet up with Megamind screenwriters and Emerson alumni Brent Simons ’97 and Alan Schoolcraft ’95. The Office of Communications and Marketing visited them to find out what it feels like to have the #1 film at the box office, and to discuss how Emerson prepared them for the arduous road to Hollywood.

Humbled by their recent success, the screenwriting duo bantered and joked back and forth during the interview. Watching them play off each other, it’s easy to imagine them writing screenplays and enjoying the process.

Q: When you were writing Megamind, did you know you had something good…that this might be a “hit” movie?

ALAN: We were very proud of the movie, but you never know what’s going to happen at the box office.

BRENT: We were pretty lucky. It’s not one of those screenwriter horror stories where you write something and then Hollywood ruins it. It was very close to the original script. It took a few years, but we were very proud of how it turned out. The rest is just gravy…on top of more gravy.

ALAN: We wrote the script back in 2003, and it went out but didn’t sell at that time. It didn’t sell until 2007, when Ben Stiller’s company saw it and decided they wanted to make it into an animated movie.

BRENT: It was like a calling card for us, so it got us meetings. It got us other jobs, and that’s all you can ask for with a writing spec. But we’d always have meetings about the script, which at the time was called Mastermind, where they’d be like, “We love Mastermind; we tried to buy it.” But for one reason or another, it didn’t happen. There were a lot of stops and starts for a few years.

It was kind of funny because we’d been at DreamWorks for other projects, and we just randomly got a call like three years after we wrote it. I was having my fifth-year wedding anniversary and Alan got a call congratulating him on the sale of the script. We thought it was a joke. So we called our agents and it turns out that they didn’t want to get our hopes up because it almost happened at so many points.

Q: Was it always going to be animated when you wrote it?

ALAN: Well, when we initially wrote it, no. We were thinking live action. But the thing is, we actually pictured Will Ferrell when we wrote it.

Q: When the characters started to get sketched out for animation, were they kind of like what you had envisioned?

BRENT: In the description, we always said he (Mastermind at that time) was a guy with a big, blue head and that came from several archetypes of villains. We wanted him to look different, like an outsider.

Q: You’re both Emerson grads. Did you meet in Boston and work together there while you were at school, or did you meet here?

BRENT: I was a transfer. I replaced Alan’s roommate and he didn’t know about it. So he came back from summer and found some strange dude in his room. And the first thing he said to me was, “Where the hell is Ivan?”

ALAN [laughs]: I just assumed they had a duel and he had won.

BRENT: We just kind of bonded over Monty Python and the Coen brothers. He was graduating, and I was coming in to my second year. And then he went to do the LA program, so it was really only one semester that we lived together. I did the LA program later, and it was funny because when I moved out here I thought, “Great! My friend Alan’s out here.” But, then he got his dream job working for the Coen brothers and immediately moved to New York City.

ALAN: We passed each other in the air.

BRENT: Yeah, it’s like Hemingway. We kept passing each other… [laughs] and so I got all his crappy furniture. I’m pretty sure I have scoliosis from the furniture he gave me, which will be a lawsuit.

ALAN: When we started to write together, we wrote together over the phone. We’d send scenes back and forth to each other, and then at night we’d spend hours reading it through. We wrote the entire film over the phone.

BRENT: Keep in mind we were like poor, starving people at this time.

Q: So while Alan was in New York and working for the Coen brothers, what were you doing in LA?

BRENT: So he had this awesome job working for his heroes right out of school, and I was like Swimming with Sharks—working for horrible agents and getting abused horribly. I walked Ben Stein’s dog once and I would do just odd jobs here and there. And I would do comedy around town, stand-up and sketch comedy.

Q: How do you write together? Does one person have the idea and the other edits and adds to it?

BRENT: We do everything. We mix it up every time. We try to keep it from being routine. Sometimes when deadlines are intense, we literally sit right next to each other. Other times, we split off and write scenes and put it together.

ALAN: Normally one of us comes up with a concept, and then we kind of beat out what a story would be. Then, we do a short treatment and start doing the writing.

BRENT: We have a notebook where we keep ideas for movies. We had written this one idea of “What would Lex Luthor do with his life if he killed Superman?” We had it in this notebook for two years, and then we kind of came back to it and we started laughing. I remember that night we came up with the scene where Metro Man dies and his skeleton falls off. That night, we really kind of sketched out the movie.

It boggles our minds why it didn’t hit us before…so keep those “idea notebooks.”

Q: Before the movie sold and you were both here in LA trying to get it picked up, were there moments when you were ready to give up?

BRENT: It was so great to move out here with a group of friends from school because I was working odd jobs. I had this group of friends who I had a comedy sketch group with—members of ECW (Emerson Comedy Workshop) and Swolen Monkeys—and we would perform. So it was encouraging because, while no one was picking up the script, we were still putting something good out there. And a lot of fellow Emersonians were doing the same thing. Even to this day, we all pull together; we go to barbeques. The night of the movie premiere, we went out with 30 fellow Emersonians.

When I see other people moving out here, I realize how lucky we are not to come out here “cold” but to have a support system.

Q: What’s next for you guys?

BRENT: We’re doing a project with Warner Brothers—another animated movie with Ellen DeGeneres (Dog Show). And we’re working on a TV show, which we can’t say too much about right now, and several other things.

Q: Any advice to give Emerson students?

BRENT: I remember when I was at Emerson, it wasn’t about what the school would do for you; it was about getting involved, like doing the comedy troupe and putting my stuff out there and getting used to having it be judged—good or bad. It really gives you the confidence when you come out here…that you’ve produced before.

ALAN: You have to learn to take criticism. You can’t just blow off somebody else’s opinions as “they just don’t get it.” You need to examine it down to its basics. It means there’s something in the story that’s not working for other people. And that’s a hump that lots of young writers have to get over. It’s really about interpreting people’s notes—there’s often something to it.

Q: Is there a faculty member or someone at Emerson who you remember as having an influence on you?

BRENT: Michael Bent, who teaches comedy writing, might be one of my favorite teachers.

Q: Did the LA program and semester out here help prepare you?

ALAN: Oh, yeah. If you’d never been to LA, it acclimated you to the city. Because when you start going to interviews, if you don’t know the highways…well, when I first interviewed with Jersey Films, I was an hour and a half late. It didn’t turn out very well. I didn’t understand what rush hour was in LA.

BRENT: It was a way to wade in, instead of plunging in.

Q: Anything you miss about the East Coast and Boston?

ALAN: I miss a lot of things about the East Coast.

ALAN AND BRENT [in unison]: The seasons.

ALAN: I’m not really a “beach guy.” I miss the colors.

BRENT: Boston I definitely miss. I love Boston.

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Many thanks to Alan and Brent for taking time for this interview, and best of luck to them on their upcoming projects.

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