In this interview, screenwriter Michael Zam offers screenwriting tips for beginners and veterans, and discusses his success with the Emmy award-winning FX series Feud: Bette and Joan, starring Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Stanley Tucci and more.
Michael Zam, is an award-winner screenwriter, and popular film instructor at New York University. He also teaches theater studies in London. Zam and his writing partner, Jaffe Cohen, wrote and sold a screenplay that became Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-part Emmy award-winning dramatic television series on FX about the talented actresses Bette Davis and John Crawford. The sirens were sworn enemies of the silver screen, and victims of a manipulative and sexist Hollywood studio system, rampant ageism, and their own cattiness. I asked Zam about his success and path to fame.
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Can you talk about your experience writing for FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan?
It started with a screenplay that I wrote with my writing partner, Jaffe Cohen, in 2006 called Best Actress. It ended up on the Black List (list of producers/agents/managers who mention the best unproduced scripts they had read that year), and that got us a lot of attention. It landed at Plan B Entertainment, Inc., Brad Pitt’s company. Ryan Murphy was planning to do it as a film. Then, when he exploded in television with series Glee, Nip/Tuck, and American Horror Story, he expanded the concept, and turn it into a TV series, based on the complex relationship between actresses Bette Davis (played by Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange). Our screenplay served as the foundation for the series, and we did some writing for the show. We shared an Emmy with Ryan for the pilot script.
Who was your inspiration for writing the screenplay?
We were inspired by the movie The Queen with Helen Mirren. She had just won the Oscar for that role. We didn’t want the screenplay to be campy or overly reverent, we wanted it to be fun, juicy and emotionally real. With Joan and Bette, each admired the other in areas, where they felt they weren’t good enough. For Joan, Bette was the great actress and Joan wanted her respect, but Bette looked down on her. And, for all her talents, Bette grew up in a puritanical family, and didn’t lose her virginity till she was 24. Joan, was free about her sexuality and more confident about her beauty, and Bette envied that.
What was most important for you to have in the screenplay when you first wrote it, and what kind of research did you do beforehand?
We were amazed how much of the story we had known from both of us being around people who knew movies. To prepare we read every Joan and Bette biography, watched all their movies, plus What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? over and over, plus read an article called Inside Oscar’s 50th, where Bette’s peers who had shared her dressing room dished about her wild wit. For instance, according to the LA Times, Bette Davis famously said when she heard of Joan Crawford’s death from a heart attack in 1977, “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
Can you share how you interacted with Ryan Murphy for the television show?
After our screenplay was turned into a TV show, Ryan and the show runner outlined the series. We exchanged emails with Ryan about the characters and backgrounds and offered suggestions for opening the story up. We also specifically wrote episode 7 for the show, which was the show down episode between the two Feuders. In the episode, and in real life, they have a big confrontation when they return to Hollywood after filming Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte in New Orleans, an attempt to recreate the magic of their pairing in the hit movie, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? When Joan discovers that Bette has the ear of the director and producer, Robert Aldrich, and that her big scenes are being cut, she goes nuts. Joan called in “sick” and refused to work. Eventually, the studio fired Joan and she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. It’s a juicy story.
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People usually do projects they can relate to. How did you relate to this one?
Me and my writing partner were both gay guys, we were over 40, and both had lulls in our careers as writers, like Bette and Joan at the time of Feud. Unlike them, we were friends, but needed to find a way to work together that suited us. We’d tried working together before on projects that hadn’t gotten off the ground.
Are there any craft tips you can share based on your experiences with Feud?
I learned a lot about how to break up the 110-page format of a screenplay into a limited series. I also learned how to expand a story, without slowing it down too much, using words, visuals and every tool at your command.
What is the birth of a screenwriter? Did you always write?
I always wrote, even as a little kid. I’ve always loved movies and tried to write sketches based on the television shows I loved: Saturday Night Live and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Dick Van Dyke Show was on repeats when I was a kid and they always looked like they were having such a good time.
What advice can you give to screenwriters?
Don’t be afraid of writing. You have to realize you can only tell a story from your perspective, and you have to trust that. The key to being a good screenwriter is to write the action of the script and always use the most specific, active verb or visual you can use. For example, writing she walks doesn’t say as much as she saunters, skips or runs. A great simile helps. For example, if someone is walking into an expensive house, that is like the Emerald City for them. It’s more fun to write that way because it reveals something about the character. Every word in your screenplay counts and is a chance to reveal character. Make your characters flawed but human. If you get stuck, go back and ask specific questions that identify the primal need—whether its survival, acceptance, love or security—they are trying to fix that they can’t. The stakes for what they want have to be high enough so the audience can relate to the character. Finally, you have to want to do the work.
How can a budding screenwriter begin to build confidence?
All screenwriters should be actively watching movies and asking basic questions, such as what does the character want, why do they want it now and why do I care? They should also be reading scripts and not just movie scripts.
What is your favorite part of being a screenwriter?
Having written (it’s true). I love finding the key that unlocks the character and makes the story work. It is usually some want they don’t know they have. Some early hurt. For example, for Joan Crawford, the few times she felt loved from her stepfather, was inappropriate. Bette was hurt that her father wasn’t around and her family had a Puritan ethic, where she had to always appear useful.
You wrote a musical, “The Kid” which ran in an off-Broadway production in 2010 and received five Drama Desk Award nominations in 2011. Was that writing process different than writing the screenplay that became Feud?
Musicals are actually structurally closer to screenplays, which are visual and action-driven than to plays. As in a screenplay, there needs to be a dramatic question that is woven through the story. In musicals, you need a character with a strong want and the character must reach the point where he can no longer just say what he or she needs to say. He or she needs to sing it.
Do you have any hobbies you can share, that might surprise people?
I love to swim and so does Jaffe and we find that it is a way to get the endorphins into your body to get back to writing. Plus, water is very womb-like so it loosens up the imagination.
If you could give a word to describe your publishing journey what would it be and why?
Consistency. For many years when I wasn’t doing as well professionally as I am now, I had to remember that I like to write and consistently do it. I’d also read a lot and go to the movies with people who wanted to talk about the movies. This is also my hobby in a lot of ways. Every day I remember I’m lucky to be doing what I love.
What is your next project?
We have five projects going on. One we are excited about is a screenplay about Vivian Leigh and Lawrence Olivier. The other are really thrilling television projects, that haven’t yet been announced. I’m also writing several projects myself, including a new musical.
It’s been a great year.
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