Screenwriter / Producer Interview: Leslie Dixon (“Limitless”) Part 1

by John Robert Marlow on August 28, 2011

Leslie Dixon, screenwriter / producer of Limitless and other films

Leslie Dixon is screenwriter and producer of Limitless, based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn. (Click here for Alan Glynn interview.) Her other credits include: The Heartbreak Kid (STO)*; Hairspray (MUS / MOV); Freaky Friday (NOV / MOV); The Thomas Crown Affair (MOV); Mrs. Doubtfire (NOV); Outrageous Fortune and other films. Limitless earned over $150M at the box office. (Watch the Limitless trailer here.)

I interviewed Leslie for the book, Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood. And while much of her adaptation-specific advice appears there, it just wasn’t possible or appropriate to include (in that format) the wisdom she was kind enough to share on other topics. And so you find it here…

JRM: How did you come to be a screenwriter?

Leslie Dixon: I was just a narcissistic little fantasizing nobody that actually had the temerity to think that I could move to Los Angeles, totally on my own, and break into the entertainment business.

It was very difficult for me to leave San Francisco, because I was living with this really great guitar player. Not a rocker. This guy could finger pick ragtime. And any song off the top of his head with a moving bass line, and get it rolling.

But I did want to make a living and I did want to be involved with the movie business, which I loved. But I loved film probably more than I loved bluegrass, so I worked up the guts to leave. It was hard for any San Franciscan to leave and go to L.A. period, much less try to break into a notoriously tough business.

“I was just a narcissistic little fantasizing nobody that actually had the temerity to think that I could move to Los Angeles, totally on my own, and break into the entertainment business.”


***

JRM: Did you know how tough it would be at the time?

Leslie Dixon: No. And if I had, I wouldn’t have tried. I had been on my own since I was 18, and couldn’t afford to go to college. And there was so little information. You have to realize this was pre-internet.

You couldn’t enter your script in a screenwriting contest. You couldn’t even learn how to write a script properly. There was nobody anywhere around me, and nothing I could even get from a bookstore that conveyed correct screenplay form.

So no one was going to teach me how to do it. But I felt that if I could get to Los Angeles, I could do things there, like get a library card from AFI and check out scripts and read them. That was the primitive nature of information gathering in those days.

I got a crappy job that paid me to read scripts, which is how I started reading screenplays, and very quickly got an idea of what was and wasn’t being bought, and of how you arrange the words on the page. That was the start of it.


***

JRM: How did you first get paid to write?

Leslie Dixon: I wrote a spec with a partner. I did the typing and he looked for an agent. He found a small, hungry agent, and the woman actually sold the thing to Columbia pictures for the vast sum of $30,000.00—split two ways, of course.


***

JRM: You’ve been involved with a number of adaptations, from novels, short stories, plays, other films—is that a result of people coming to you because of your previous adaptation work, is it because you prefer adaptations, or a bit of both?

Leslie Dixon: These days I absolutely do prefer adaptations, and wish I could do nothing but deep, rich, interesting novels where people have figured out and done half the work already. But in fact, it’s mostly been a crapshoot as to how I’ve come to be involved with each project. With one exception-and that’s Limitless.


***

JRM: Tell me about that.

Leslie Dixon: My first two scripts were original screenplays, but I was beginning my career. That’s where you try to develop a voice, and you don’t want people to be confused about what that is.

Limitless, though, was very much a deliberate attempt on my part to get my hands on a piece of material that was fun and visceral. I’ve always wanted to and felt I could write in that genre, and no one was going to offer me anything like that. They were going to offer me comedies, because Thomas Crown Affair to the contrary, that’s what I’m known for.

If I was going to write in the thriller genre, I was going to have to create the drama myself. So I got hold of the rights to The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, a novel that I greatly admired, and loosely adapted it into a script of the same name.

Then I hung onto it through various near misses with directors and actors, until it finally came together in the way that it was meant to.


***

JRM: And how did that happen—how did you find the book itself?

Leslie Dixon: I was feeling really burned out on reading bad scripts and manuscripts that I was reading for work reasons. I wanted to read something for pleasure. So I walked into Green Apple Books, a used bookstore in San Francisco, and said, “I want something that’s really fun to read, but not trash.” And the sales clerk said, “Oh I know exactly what you want.”

And there it was on the staff recommendation table. I probably paid $5.99 for it in hardcover, and somewhere around the halfway point, I just knew it was a movie.

I felt this unbelievable gut surge that I could kick this thing’s ass. I knew that I had to get that book and it would become a movie. I just knew it. I can’t explain.

The Dark Fields novel by Alan Glynn (adapted as Limitless)

“I knew that I had to get that book and it would become a movie. I just knew it… It was a novel I greatly admired, and I loosely adapted it into a script.”

I’ve only had that feeling a couple of times, about completely different pieces of material. I had it about Hairspray, too. I don’t get that very often. Usually you’re stumbling and feeling your way through things. But with this, I was certain.


***

JRM: And if you hadn’t felt burned out at work, and hadn’t walked into that store on that day, you likely never would have seen it, there would have been no gut surge, and therefore no movie—or certainly not this movie.

Leslie Dixon: It’s not all that improbable. Writers love to read. As I am entirely burned out at the moment, I hope to repeat this experience.


***

JRM: So once you had the book in your hands, how did you go about tracking down the rights?

Leslie Dixon: My agent was able to tell me that. CAA knows everything, they’re like Big Brother. It turned out that Harvey Weinstein at Miramax had optioned the rights. And that was really daunting because I knew that the company had become very unfocused and a little bit dysfunctional because it was starting to implode.

This was at the old Miramax, when it was owned by Disney and they were starting to not let them have much money anymore. So I could see that that incarnation of the Weinsteins’ company was coming to an end.

And I had a feeling that maybe I could get the project out of there before the company imploded completely. Because once that happens, every project they’ve got goes into some bin at Disney while people sift through it trying to decide what they want to do.

Years could have passed that way, so I had a real urgency to try to get it out of there before the company stopped. The drumbeats were on the street that Miramax, as it used to be, was going to be shuttered.

“I then became involved in sneaking the rights away from Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, before the company imploded completely.”

The sad part is, Limitless is a perfect Harvey Weinstein movie. I have this weird feeling that I probably would have gotten along with him great. I would have called him a cocksucker and he would have called me a whore, and we would have made a really good movie.

But alas, that incarnation of Miramax just wasn’t going to continue long enough for us to find out. So I had to get it out of there. And so I then became involved in sneaking the rights away from Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, which certainly could qualify as one of the labors of Hercules.

I was devious about it, but not dishonest. And in all fairness, they weren’t doing anything with it, and the company really was about to disappear. So the project was just lying around, and I basically said I’ll write this script for Writers Guild minimum, but if you don’t start production in a short period of time, I get the rights.

They were a little bit arrogant in those days, and not getting back to people quickly about material. I knew this, and turned the script in during the Cannes Film Festival when everyone was away, praying heavily that it would slip through the cracks and no one would read it. And no one did. So the rights came to me, and I produced it myself.

There were a few angry phone calls mixed in with that, but I did also make off with the rights to the novel, and there were periods where I carried it myself with my money as it was going from place to place.

It almost got made at Universal, but in redoing their deal with Relativity, Relativity was able to perk that project out of there, which made Universal sad.

So it went over and became a Relativity project. They were a financing entity at the time, and this became one of their debut projects as a movie studio.


***

JRM: I assume you had a hand in this as well?

Leslie Dixon: I had no part in the decision to hand it to Relativity. But I did discover that the option Universal had was assignable.

Before Universal, it had been at Mandeville, and there was an offer to make it at Paramount at one point, but I didn’t believe it would be the same movie. I’m not sure the edginess would have survived intact.

I was frankly nervous about making it at a major studio, because anyone looking at the logline and not actually reading the script would just say, “Oh this is a drug movie, this is going to be like Requiem for a Dream.”

“I was frankly nervous about making it at a major studio, because anyone looking at the logline and not actually reading the script would just say, “Oh this is a drug movie,” and studios are very squeamish about those.”

NZT: the drug that changes Eddie's life (Limitless)

It was always my intention to make an enjoyable film ride, and studios are very squeamish about films where the protagonist takes drugs for the entire thing and suffers no lasting consequences of any sort.


***

JRM: Well I thought it was brilliant.

Leslie Dixon: Well, it was always, always, always my intention to have him get away with it. I just seemed like that was true to the nature of the drug.

Whenever I wrote something that wasn’t true to the nature of the drug, it didn’t work and I’d have to redo it. And to be true to that nature, he’s going to win. Because that drug is invincible.

I definitely never wanted to end this movie with him sitting around in a 12-step program saying, “It’s because I had some issues with my father.” That is the last thing anybody would want to see, and I was really afraid that with a major studio, some ending of that sort would be proposed or forced. A moralistic comeuppance, that’s the phrase I’m looking for. And I always wanted this to be gleefully amoral.

Eddie ready to party (Limitless)

“I always wanted this to be gleefully amoral.”


***

JRM: I love that phrase. One thing I’m often disappointed with in Hollywood: they’ll take you to the edge of the cliff with some new technology or what-have-you, and they’ll let you look over the edge-and then they’ll pull you back. I think they should jump off, and take you with them.

Leslie Dixon: Yeah, exactly. And you know, on a lesser level, look at a picture like The Social Network—which, had it not had such a powerful director, could easily have been forced down people’s throats with an ending like Marc Zuckerberg suddenly going, “I really haven’t been connecting with people in a deep way. I have to work on my interpersonal skills” and, you know, having a revelation that starting this social network needs to make him more humane and more connected to others. Can you imagine what a vile ending that would have been?

That’s the kind of ending that a studio could propose. Not every studio, I should add. There are some very hip people at some of the majors, but it depends on who’s in charge that week.

To get back to the whole adaptations-versus-originals thing, I would say that I, personally, prefer adaptations, for various reasons. You’re starting with something that you’ve already experienced in a version that you like. So then it definitely falls into my category of “Would I buy a ticket to this?” Which is the best jumping off point for writing something.

But that said, the studios don’t always option things that you want to see on film, and they don’t necessarily have a big stack of fantastic projects waiting to be adapted. I mean some of the things they buy are fantastic, like Silence of the Lambs, and some of them are hoary-and I mean that with an h and not a w. And you wouldn’t want to see that movie. So for every 100 novels that are written, there’s maybe only one that has a movie screaming to get out.

“Would I buy a ticket to this? That’s the best jumping off point for writing something. Because for every hundred novels that are written, there’s maybe only one that has a movie screaming to get out.”


***

JRM: What says to you that a novel has a movie screaming to get out? What do you look for in an adaptable property?

Leslie Dixon: I look for a premise and a story that’s not too internalized. For example, if it’s in the first person, and the hero talks to absolutely no one and only keeps you the reader in his confidence for the entire thing, that’s going to be a difficult adaptation because—how do you do that?

And Limitless had that challenge. At no point in the novel was Eddie able to tell anyone what he was doing. Therefore, when translated to the screen—which relies on images and dialogue—you’d have no idea what he was thinking or feeling about what he was going through.

I remember finishing the novel and thinking, oh shit, I am actually going to have to use voiceover for the first and hopefully last time in my entire career. And then I thought, okay, it didn’t hurt Goodfellas. It can be done.

The worst is when they slap voiceover on a movie in post—production to make things clearer, and some great directors have done that. Scorsese did it with Age of Innocence, and Coppola did it with Apocalypse Now.

I happen to find the narration in Apocalypse Now corny, and I would almost rather have the movie be a big, beautiful, incoherent dream than hear lines like, “Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.” That’s one of the lines in there, and it sounds like an old Warner Brothers B movie.

So I was rigid with terror about confronting voiceover. But if I was going to adapt The Dark Fields, I was going to have to be inside Eddie’s head, because he confesses to virtually no one. It was the only way. So I just decided to make it fun.

All told, the movie’s setup is identical and the character of Eddie is Alan’s character. That character and Alan’s voice are what made me fall in love with the book. I felt a simpatico with him as a writer. He wrote the kind of prose that I would like to write if I wrote prose, and I knew that I could pick up Alan’s voice where he left off.

I felt, if I wrote a novel I’d want it to be like this, and so there was that sort of tingle of empathy that I felt for him creatively. But thought-wise, I knew this movie—unlike the book—was probably going to have to have some major action in it, or it would never be made.


***

JRM: Speaking of all this—why did you add Lindy to the story, when Eddie has no real love interest in the novel?

Leslie Dixon: I added Lindy because, throughout the novel, which is narrated in the first person, Eddie has no confidante. No one finds out he is on the drug, he can’t talk about it to anyone, and its existence remains locked in his head, a secret.

As it was, I knew I was going to be stuck with potentially hazardous voiceover—which I wanted to use as little of as possible; less, actually, than what was in the finished film. With the creation of Lindy, I would need less voiceover.

Also, that someone near and dear to him could be threatened by those who wanted the drug. This upped the stakes for Eddie—it wasn’t just his selfish butt on the line.

“I added Lindy because, throughout the novel, which is narrated in the first person, Eddie has no confidante, he can’t talk about it to anyone. Also, it meant that someone near and dear to him could be threatened by those who want the drug. This upped the stakes for Eddie.”

Lindy in trouble (Limitless)

It would be easy to say that she is the moral center of the movie, as no one else in the film exhibits the slightest moral conflict, but too much of that could have made her a prig, so I can’t say that was my major motivation.


***

JRM: How happy are you with the final film—what we see on the screen?

Leslie Dixon: Well, I was in control of the script. I had it in my contract that they couldn’t hire another writer because I controlled the underlying rights at the time the deal was set up.


***

JRM: Nice—and extremely uncommon.

Leslie Dixon: There were some pressures to do a couple of things that I didn’t agree with and which I had to succumb to, and I won’t say at the moment what those were, but at least I was the one who made the changes.

Overall I would say that 100% of the movie is verbatim from my final script, and 98% of it is what I wanted. The voiceover was changing all through post-production, but what’s on the screen is the last draft.

Lindy in good times (Limitless)

“I was in control of the script. I had it in my contract that they couldn’t hire another writer, so 100% of the movie is verbatim from my final script, and 98% of it is what I wanted. That’s not often true.”


***

JRM: Quite an accomplishment for a writer—or in this case, writer-producer, which seems to have made the difference.

Leslie Dixon: That’s really it. I know that’s not often true. In the end, other writers come in and polish things and shit. And even here, there’s a really bad ending that I was forced to write, and which got discarded. And they said oh, we’re going to reshoot this, and we did, so the ending that’s in the movie now is closer to what I prefer.


***

JRM: What’s your 100% preferred ending?

Leslie Dixon: I’m not answering that! There have been so many.


***

JRM: And of course there’s an alternate ending on the DVD.

Leslie Dixon: I don’t know why the director included it. I think it sucks. That was a bad day. And that alternate ending is a perfect example of what happens when the studio has some ideas, I know what I want but a lot of other people are chiming in, the actors have ideas—and it ends up being the way no one wants.

It’s like a bunch of lions fighting for scraps of meat and in the end you just get kind of a bloody pulp. But that was really the only area of the movie where anything like that happened, and fortunately we had the chance to fix it.

“Sometimes filmmaking is like a bunch of lions fighting for scraps of meat, and in the end you just get kind of a bloody pulp.”


***

JRM: How long did the whole process take, from the time you first set your sights on the rights to the premiere?

Leslie Dixon: Oh, it was about seven years, but it was in fits and starts because there were periods where it would be under the awning of the studio trying to get it made, and then I’d write something else while we were waiting.

So I have something like three other credits during that period, and I got entire films made. I did Hairspray and worked on Heartbreak Kid, all sorts of things.

And I just didn’t sit around twiddling my thumbs on this project, hoping it would go; I was at the same time trying to nudge it forward. And in all truth, I think the reason it took so long was because it’s not an easy role to cast.

In a universe where you’re making a picture that’s in the $30 million budget range and you’re never going to get Matt Damon or someone like that, you need someone who’s in the process of breaking big, rather than someone who’s already huge. And you need it to be the right person.

There are certain roles that could be played by ten different actors and they’d all bring something good to it. For the role of Eddie, I don’t know anybody now at the same career stage where Bradley was then, who would be anywhere near as good.

It’s almost as if this project was waiting for Bradley, like he was the right guy and when he finally got big enough to have the studio take a shot at putting his name above the title, it was just the exact thing at the exact right moment in his career. It was just a marriage that was meant to happen.

“We all knew the minute Bradley Cooper wanted to do it that he was the right guy. He’s a really committed, smart, deeply professional, inspired, excited actor. And he just happens to look like that, which isn’t his fault.”

Enhanced Eddie (Limitless)

We all knew the minute we heard he wanted to do it that he was the right guy. I had no qualms about him being a schlub. I knew he could it. He’s a smart guy, and this required a smart actor, a literate actor, which he is also.

Secretly, many people don’t know this, he’s a trained actor, he’s been through the actor’s studio. He’s really not a face man that just drifted from modeling into acting. He’s a really committed, deeply professional, inspired, excited actor. And he just happens to look like that, which isn’t his fault.


***

JRM: Limitless also has one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen. I saw that and I thought, can the movie actually live up to this trailer? I have to see it.

Leslie Dixon: You know, it wasn’t easy because we had to gussy things up, and up the interest with action and glamour because there are a lot of scenes in boardrooms, and often those kinds of scenes can get really very boring.

Luckily, a little money was loosened up right before we started shooting. And not a lot; nobody did this movie for a lot of money, including me. You’re making a drug movie; you’re not going to get the payday of your life.

But some money was loosened up because of Robert De Niro, who elevated the supporting part to something much more interesting. And I also did a lot of last-minute work on the script to expand that part and give him a bigger voice and more power, and be a more interesting adversarial sort of character.

I Actually lost myself in a hotel for about four days and wrote all of his good moments and those speeches, because by that time we knew he was the one we wanted, and the character was a piece of bait to tempt him. And luckily it worked.

Carl Van Loon (Limitless)

“Robert De Niro elevated the supporting part to something much more interesting. I did a lot of last-minute work on the script to expand that part.”


***

JRM: I like the way you tied it together with him being the guy who bought the company.

Leslie Dixon: That was something that was not in the original ending, or the book. Again, I had to bring him back to make it all one piece, and that’s why the ending was so difficult to nail: it was a contortion, like turning a script that has had a very logical but cynical ending into a Cirque du Soleil contortionist to try to get De Niro back into it.

It was very difficult, and there’s still a loose end that people on message boards complain about, which is the woman who died. And all I’ll say is that in the ending that I sold the script with, that was all fully explained, but it ended up having to be a dropped plot thread as to whether he’d killed that woman or not.


***

JRM: Well, we did see Tan Coat in the hall.

Leslie Dixon: Right, but that was a reshoot that was stuck in later because the studios were really worried that people would think Eddie had killed the woman. And I, of course, wanted them to worry about it. It was even explained—but sometimes when you make a major plot change and you’re rushing into production, something gets left dangling, little pieces of connective tissue, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.


***

JRM: So how did you explain it?

Leslie Dixon: Let’s just say the implication in the draft that I originally sold was extremely strong that he had killed her. There is a point where a very mysterious character says, do you really want to know?


***

JRM: I remember that in an earlier draft.

Leslie Dixon: And he goes, uh…no. And it’s very much up in the air that he might have, or did. But that’s even something he’s willing to pay the price for if he can continue on this ride.


***

JRM: I thought the finished film was pretty close to flawless. The only thing that I can get a little bit of twinge about after seeing it the second time was the attorney. I mean, to represent Eddie in that situation, he would have to be a criminal defense attorney—but to be Atwood’s attorney, he’d be in corporate law.

Leslie Dixon: Right, it’s ridiculous. But it’s also a parking lot question; if you don’t ask it while you’re watching the movie, it’s okay. Because it’s not ‘til they’re driving home that people go, wait a minute, what about that? That’s my rule for movie logic.

“Too much logic can be the death of a fun time at the movies. If something doesn’t add up, but you don’t think of it until after you’ve watched the film, it’s parking lot question; it doesn’t matter. Then again, you don’t want to be a sloppy asshole either.”

I do try to be as logical as I possibly can, but occasionally you have to slip something in there. I learned this while working with [director] John McTiernan. He’d say, oh that’s a parking lot question. They won’t ask it while they’re watching the film.


***

JRM: That’s true; I didn’t.

Leslie Dixon: I know.


***

JRM: Same situation with Batman Begins, which I think is a magnificent movie. The weapon they’re after, the microwave emitter, vaporizes water inside pipes under the street. That’s what it was designed for, to vaporize water at a distance.

But of course it would also vaporize Batman, Ducard, and every other human anywhere near it, because we’re mostly water. I didn’t think of that until maybe the fourth time I saw it. Parking lot question.

Leslie Dixon: Right. I’m sure there are message boards with people screaming about it, who don’t have anything better to do. But you are creating a piece of fiction after all. You know it’s a movie. Too much logic can be the death of a fun time at the movies. Then again, you don’t want to be a sloppy asshole either. You have to walk kind of a thin line between fun and fact.


***

JRM: When working with adaptations, to what extent do you generally rely on source materials and creators, versus striking out into new territory?

Leslie Dixon: It completely depends on the material. There might be something that has a great idea in it, but not a single scene that would translate to a cinematic experience.

“There are source materials that have a great idea, but not a single scene that would translate into a cinematic experience, so you have to change it. At the other extreme, you have movies waiting to happen. So how you adapt completely depends on the material.”

At the other extreme, there are things like The Silence of the Lambs, which is a movie waiting to happen. I didn’t get that job, but you almost just have to type it in screenplay format and there it is. You’ve got the characters, the story, the scenes are really dramatic, it’s got action.

I think there’s a lot of great stuff, also a lot of horror but a lot of great stuff in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. The third of those novels has a climax that, if you just wrote it out as a cinema shot, it would be fantastic. It’s like the author did the work for you in figuring out the action sequence.

But again, there are other books where either the story doesn’t go where a movie audience would feel fulfilled and so you have to change it, or a character behaves in a way that is just too reprehensible—they kill a child or something—that would throw you right out of the movie.

There are some things that modern audiences for studio pictures— is what I’ve done for most of my career, as opposed to art house pictures—won’t accept. You can’t kill a little kid. You just can’t.


***

JRM: What are some other absolute no-no’s?

Leslie Dixon: Don’t make an IRA movie. Don’t make an IRS movie. I could say some really bitchy things and I’m not going to, about certain people who shouldn’t make movies starring or directed by.

Do make inspirational sports and teacher movies. They always work. Every few years they seem to do some business. Always make comedies, always make thrillers, always make science fiction movies.

And watch out, don’t make too many more superhero movies or people will get sick of them. That’s what I would say.


***

JRM: A common concern for those looking to see their material adapted is that Hollywood will screw it up, it won’t be what they want it to be or what it should have been or, in the case of true stories, it won’t bear any relationship to the real thing. Any thoughts on this?

Leslie Dixon: Well, welcome to my world, okay? I can write a screenplay, but the minute I sell it, I no longer own it. It’s like getting upset that someone remodeled the house you sold them. You don’t own it anymore.

“Welcome to my world. I can write a screenplay, but the minute I sell it, I no longer own it. It’s like getting upset that someone remodeled the house you sold them. You don’t own it anymore; you will not have control.”

Writers of books and other non-film formats always have the option of pulling a Salinger and just not selling the rights, so that a shitty movie won’t be made.

Or if they really have the clout because it’s a massive, massive bestseller, they can pull a J.K. Rowling and have a certain amount of control over what happens to their work. That is an almost unprecedented deal for a book writer to get, but she did have the clout to get it.

And I managed to specify that there would be no other writers on Limitless. It can sometimes be done if you care enough, and sometimes you have to trade off money to do it. But the better advice is to sell it and bend over, or not sell it at all because you will not have control.

In the case of Limitless, just out of respect and liking for the author, I kept him updated through the entire process. I always told him when I was changing something, I always told him why. He told me that in the end there were a thousand emails between us.


***

JRM: What was the biggest change you made?

Leslie Dixon: Much as I respect his work, I didn’t think the audience wanted to see the movie end with the hero in a motel room, waiting for him to come down for his last pill and die. I just didn’t think that was going to work.

Ultimately it worked out for [Dark Fields author] Alan. He was a teacher of English as a Second Language for a long time, and wrote at night. Now he’s a full-time novelist with a big paperback resurgence and a paid-off mortgage, enjoying his brush with personal publicity. Believe me, he came out of this very nicely and I’m really happy for him. He’s a great guy.

“Ultimately it worked out for Alan. He’s now a full-time novelist with a big paperback resurgence and a paid-off mortgage. He came out of this very nicely.”

Eddie’s Maserati (Limitless)


***

JRM: Great writer, too

Leslie Dixon: Yeah, no shit, huh?


***

JRM: You know I went looking for one of his original hardcovers, and found the asking price was $148.

Leslie Dixon: Oh, that’s funny. I have a couple of them.


***

JRM: A year from now that’ll probably be different. I went with the retitled movie tie-in; nine bucks on amazon.

Leslie Dixon: Yep. It was so front and center in my mind for so long, and that movie ate up so much of my hard drive for so long, that I have to move forward and start thinking about other things.


***

JRM: So did you not get your typical fee for writing this?

Leslie Dixon: No, no, uh-uh. They only spent the money to make this because some of it was deferred. They owe us the money, my producing partner and me, and we’re going to get it all, eventually. But it still won’t be the same money I would have gotten working on a major studio picture.

Relativity is what you would call a mini-major. Needless to say that they have money to make films, but in general and as a matter of course, they’re not going to be making $150 million negative cost movies like a major studio can. They’re experienced film financiers and a fledging studio.

So when you make a picture there, it’s a given that everyone will be ground down on the money. Neither Bradley nor De Niro took big fees to make this movie, and I didn’t either. We were making a movie about drugs. Bradley would often turn to me on the set and say, “I can’t believe they’re letting us make this.”


***

JRM: Bradley’s gone from booze and roofies in The Hangover to NZT in Limitless.

Leslie Dixon: It’s true. But you know, he’s so likable, people don’t seem to mind.


***

JRM: So tell me, this picture made $150 million, which means that with DVD, it’s probably $450, over $500 million—and you’re still not going to get your regular fee?

Leslie Dixon: I will eventually. There will probably be letters from lawyers saying, okay pay up. It’s going to be a disgusting process, but it will dribble in. It’s not the way it is at Warner Brothers, where they cut you a check and do what they’re supposed to do.

It’s a creatively structured deal, which means after a lot of arguing, they will pay us our deferred back ends.


***

JRM: But you can point to a great movie.

Leslie Dixon: I’ve always thought it was a commercial no-brainer as a film. I had no intention of making an art house downer.

The Dark Fields, back in print as Limitless (Limitless)

“I’ve always thought it was a commercial no-brainer as a film. I had no intention of making an art house downer. But it took everyone involved to make it come off.”


***

JRM: It’s like a personal fantasy—where can I get that?

Leslie Dixon: Well, yes. Of course. But it took everyone involved to make it come off, so it was a risk. Less of a risk with Bradley, and that’s another reason why casting was so incredibly crucial: you had to have an actor that people liked even if he was behaving badly. You had to.

And he had to be appealing to women, but not so appealing to women that men didn’t like him. He had to have a huge range, and be really smart. And we got so lucky with that language thing. Bradley does speak fluent French in real life, and he just has a great ear. I thought his Italian was wonderful, and so did my Italian friends.


***

JRM: Not to mention his Chinese.

Leslie Dixon: Yes. There are a lot of things that a number of actors just wouldn’t be able to do.


***

JRM: A lot of people, particularly those unfamiliar with Hollywood, are curious about how things work with multiple writers and writing teams on the same project. What’s been your experience, working alone versus contributing with others?

Leslie Dixon: I’ve written with a couple of people as a team. I wrote the first draft of The Thomas Crown Affair with Kurt Wimmer, and then later the director elected to proceed with me alone.

I’ve written some stuff with my husband Tom Ropelewski, and my very first project—which never got produced—was written with a partner. So I certainly know how to do it both ways, and it’s a lot lonelier when you do it on your own.

“It’s a lot lonelier when you write on your own. But there’s a rabbit hole down in the bottom of my mind, some well or spring down there that I seem to only be able to reach when I’m locked in a room by myself.”

But that’s a two-sided question because the one question I see you’re asking is about various writers working on the same project, and also about writing as part of a partnership, which is a whole other thing. So those are two different issues.

I think I would have really enjoyed working in TV, where there’s a room full of writers and they’re all coffeed up and laughing. I think that really sounds like fun.

That said, there is a rabbit hole down in the bottom of my mind, some well or spring down there that I seem to only be able to reach when I’m locked in a room by myself. Particularly when it comes to the darker, visceral stuff, the kind of thing that a guy would normally write.

I don’t think I’d be batting ideas around with others and then come up with the blood drinking or the ice skate things. None of that stuff is from the book.

I remember lying in bed with my husband, trying to figure out how to get Eddie out of that room at the end. And he said give him a pill, and I said no that’s too easy. So I wrote myself into a corner.

And then I thought, okay he needs the NZT but the pill’s too easy but it’s in the bloodstream and, oh, shit, oh, shit. And it hit me and I turned to my husband and I said, can I do that? Can I have him drink blood and, you know…

And my husband said, sure, Scorsese would do it. I thought it might be too much but that was true, Scorsese would do it.


***

JRM: Was it from that thought that you went to having Gennady inject it directly?

Leslie Dixon: Yeah, that came a little later because I realized we had to remind people it was in his bloodstream. I mean, they wouldn’t forget that he had the drug but just the whole blood thing. I needed to hit that.

And it also led to that kind of fun thing of him realizing that, now that I’m smarter, I can torture you better. I keep you alive longer, I can do a much more thorough job of torturing. I just thought, what would he as a sort of lowlife use NZT for, and the first thing I thought was: how to be a better thug. I mean obviously he would have eventually evolved past that, but these things go by increments.

“I thought, what would Gennady as a sort of lowlife use NZT for, and the first thing I thought was: how to be a better thug. Now that I’m smarter, I can torture you better, keep you alive longer.”

Gennady’s finest moment (Limitless)


***

JRM: Show the dark side. I thought that actor—Andrew Howard—did a hell of a job too.

Leslie Dixon: Yeah, I thought he was great.


***

JRM: I don’t know about the character eventually evolving past that point, though.

Leslie Dixon: Well the drug does tend to build upon itself. You go through phases.


***

JRM: What does it feel like to watch your grosses head north of $100 million?

Leslie Dixon: You know, sometimes you’ve been so bruised and bloodied and damaged by the process that you feel numb, and you almost wish you could have gone back in time and not done it at all.

And other times, you’re doing a victory dance, and laughing and popping champagne corks. Every project is completely different. Every set of collaborators you have is totally different.

“Sometimes you’ve been so bruised and bloodied and damaged by the process that you feel numb. Other times, you’re doing a victory dance, and laughing and popping champagne corks. Every project is completely different.”

You can be on a lovely set with kind, delightful people and have a bomb of a movie. And you can have the most contentious pack of pit bulls tearing at each other for the entire shoot and have the movie turn out to be a hit. There is no one way that things happen.

With an adaptation, you can have one writer who perfectly nails it. I think though, interestingly enough and particularly with dramatic adaptations, that the studios have a tendency to throw fewer writers at a project than usual.

It’s typically not more than one or two writers working on dramatic adaptations, say on a novel. Whereas the bigger the budget, it seems, the more writers they’ll throw at something. I saw something like five credited writers on Cowboys and Aliens, which means there are probably at least nine more.


***

JRM: I’ve heard of one movie with something like 30 writers on it.

Leslie Dixon: There’s something wrong with the process when you do that. There’s no way that 30 writers make something better than two or three would. There’s just no way. There’s no way to keep track of the shape of the story when you have that many writers. I think somebody who wants to make good movies, as opposed to merely commercially successful ones, would avoid that.

I was just part of a long chain of writers on Tower Heist [forthcoming]. In my opinion the final shooting script could have been shot from any of the last three to four people to work on it. Their work was of about equal quality. The script didn’t really get better, it just got different. But that’s my opinion.


***

JRM: To what extent do you see good and commercial coinciding in the marketplace?

Leslie Dixon: Highly. The audience knows when they’ve seen a good movie, even a good popcorn movie. I think it’s true sometimes that bad movies make a lot of money, but when you look at the highest grossing pictures of all time, they all have something going for them.

I would not say that E.T. is anything but a wonderful movie. It’s like The Wizard of Oz of that generation. You can pick a good movie. The ones that Spielberg has in the top grossers of all time are all incredibly enjoyable or moving or exciting films. Cameron has made good films that have made tons of money.

“There’s no conflict: you can make a good movie that’s a commercial smash. And shouldn’t that be the goal? The audience knows when they’ve seen a good movie.”

There’s no conflict: you can make a good movie that’s a commercial smash. And shouldn’t that be the goal? I believe it will be a bigger commercial smash if it’s a good movie. As opposed to something where you got people in from the trailer and just had a big weekend with.


***

JRM: And 8 of the top 10 biggest worldwide hits are now adaptations, as are 17 of the top 20.

Leslie Dixon: Yes. With comics and graphic novels in particular, I think too there’s a tendency to put multiple writers on the projects, because they aren’t as fleshed out as books and so you need a lot of invention to turn a graphic novel into a movie.

And that’s where, maybe, different writers’ ideas may actually help, if the first or second writer just can’t bring it all the way. There’s a tremendous amount of invention that goes into making a graphic novel into a film.


***

JRM: Have you been involved with adapting comics yourself?

Leslie Dixon: I haven’t. I’ve had many, many opportunities and in fact one of them was Cowboys and Aliens. And I’m kind of sorry I didn’t do that one, because I saw the film and I really got a kick out of it. If I had been able to play the trailer in my mind when I was reading the graphic novel, I would have done it. I didn’t get that it could work.

But in general, I stay away from those because I think there are so many fanboys out there who love and live for those works, and those are the kinds of people who should be doing those adaptations: the people who want to see superhero movies.

Personally, I’m now tired of them, and unless I’ve heard from my friends that one of them is really fun—like Iron Man or Captain America—or someone I know or love has worked on it, I don’t see them anymore.


***

JRM: I remember when I first started sending scripts out, one of the comments I got back was “too comic-bookish.” And now that’s all the rage.

Leslie Dixon: True. But you know, times will change again and there’s going to be one superhero movie too many. It was a bold and gutsy move, but I’m absolutely shocked by how quickly they’re reinventing the Spider-Man franchise, and I’m curious to see if they’re going to be able to make it pay off. It’s a gamble, I think.


***

JRM: I would have liked to have seen Cameron’s version.

Leslie Dixon: Me too.


***

JRM: They did make several too many Batman movies, but then they came up with Batman Begins, which I thought was brilliant marketing because the title alone tells you they’re trashing it all and starting over. And wow did Nolan and Goyer get it right.

Leslie Dixon: Right. But there was a Spider-Man origins story nine years ago, so I’m just fascinated to see if they can do it again this quickly. I mean, that again, is a long time after the Batman series started. But overall, I think graphic novels are an art form, I really do. And I respect them. But for whatever reason, the right one hasn’t hit me the right way to take on as a project.

And then there’s another thing that happens with me, which is occasionally I’ll get calls about projects that I wouldn’t have originated. Somebody says, oh please come and help me out with Freaky Friday.

That was not a job that I would have gone chasing because I didn’t want to be offered teenage girl movies for the next 30 years, which is one unfortunate outgrowth of the success of that picture.


***

JRM: Did you approach that as a remake of the earlier movie, or did you go to back to the original, young adult novel?

Leslie Dixon: None of the above; I just made it all up, because I didn’t find anything useful. They both seemed dated in a way that you just couldn’t work with. It had to be re-imagined.

“With Freaky Friday, I just made it all up, because the previous film and the novel seemed dated in a way that I just couldn’t work with. It had to be re-imagined.”

I knew they wanted Jamie Lee Curtis, and that helped me a lot because I had someone in my mind for the mother, someone I knew was really clever and funny. I thought she gave one of the purest comic performances of any woman in True Lies, and I knew she was going to kill this and that was going to elevate the concept.

I did not know that Lindsay Lohan was going to turn out to be the shit, you know, after that. I mean, I thought she was a talented, cute, beautiful, healthy girl.

So sometimes they come to you and say, help us with this. And there are some projects where you’ll see me as a second name in the credits because I rewrote the script based on my relationship with studio executives or a producer I like or an actor I’ve always wanted to write for.

And then for whatever reason it turns out to be successful, but it wasn’t necessarily something I ran into with my heart and soul. I just pulled up my professional bootstraps and went at it. I have several things like that on my resume. We all do.

I really wanted to do The Thomas Crown Affair. I really wanted to do Hairspray, and I really wanted to do Limitless. Those are three where I was really excited, where I thought, if you give me this, I’m going to kick its ass.


***

JRM: What do you really want to do now, or what are you involved with that you really wanted to do?

Leslie Dixon: I want to make sure that I can do more pictures like Limitless, and that I am thought of as a chic who can write like a guy and that you would hire for a job that you normally might not hire a woman to do.

Completely conversely, I’d also like to do a Broadway musical. I have a lot of interest and excitement about that world and I know people who are in it. So that’s hopefully something that will happen at some point. I’ve had flirtations with it already, and I’ve adapted a script based on a broadway musical, so I’m in that world.

Lastly, I’ll never stop writing comedy. I just don’t want to do it exclusively. I find it’s better if I can shake things up a bit and then come back to comedy. I need to be fresh and in a good mood.

It’s also better for me to do R rated comedy, to do edgy comedy. I really have always felt sad to be forced into a PG or PG-13 box. Except for Hairspray, which somehow was able to be wholesome but still kind of have its origins in John Waters.

Somehow you could do a joke where pregnant, smoking women were drinking martinis in 1962, and that’s still a PG joke. But it’s kind of out there, and my natural sense of humor just isn’t safe. That, to me, is funny.


***

JRM: A little humor can be a dangerous thing.

Leslie Dixon: Yeah. I love it, but if I write it exclusively, I get drained.


***

JRM: By the way, when you say you want to make more pictures like Limitless, what do you mean? Because my first thought is that there are no pictures like Limitless.

Leslie Dixon: Oh, I mean nasty, visceral thrillers that are fun but have some intelligence in them.

One of several Limitless movie posters (Limitless)

“I want to make sure that I can do more pictures like Limitless, and that I am thought of as a chic who can write like a guy and that you would hire for a job that you normally might not hire a woman to do. Nasty, visceral thrillers that are fun but have some intelligence in them.”


***

JRM: Among those with properties or true life stories to adapt, there are a couple of basic approaches to pitching Hollywood. Pitching an adapted script that’s already written, pitching an unwritten adaptation with treatment, outlines and so forth, and pitching source material itself with something like, “Hey this would make a great movie.” Obviously every project is unique, but can you speak to the likely success or relative merits of each of those approaches?

For more of John Marlow’s in-depth chat with Leslie Dixon, see Part 2.


###


Author image by John Singer Sargent (portraint of Miss Elsie Palmer, circa 1890-95; a dead ringer for Leslie Dixon / Limitless movie stills, poster, and book cover art owned by Relativity Media / The Dark Fields book cover art owned by publisher

ADAPTATION
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*  ADAPTATION CODES used on this website indicate the type of source material on which the films were based: ART (article in magazine, newspaper, etc.); BLG (blog); COM (comic book / graphic novel); HIS (historic event); MLF (myth / legend / faery tale); MOV (movie remake / spinoff); MOVs (movie short); NFB (nonfiction book); NOV (novel); SNG (song); STO (short story); GAM (game / toy); THM (theme park / theme park ride); TRU (true-life story); TVS (television series).

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anica Moore May 4, 2012

I can’t find part 2! Anyhow, I love her style. Leslie is a great mentorial guide for us women writers. It’s weird to me but, I don’t know if I can write a book/novel and capture the readers attention for the duration, but I can get “jiggy-with-it” on a screenplay! Please host more interviews with Leslie Dixon! I can’t wait to read them. Thanks John!

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Bill July 7, 2012

Where can I find part 2 of John Marlow’s captivating interview with Leslie Dixon? Thanks.

Reply

Tina Field Howe July 11, 2012

Hi John,

Fantastic interview! I very much admire Leslie’s work. Limitless was one of the most intelligent and perfect films I’ve seen. Have you posted part 2 of the interview? I would love to read it.

Tina

Reply

John Robert Marlow December 17, 2012

Leslie is fabulous. Now that the book is out, I can return to the long-delayed process of transcribing and editing the long-form interviews. Leslie Dixon, Part 2 will be among the first I get to…

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