In a candid session filled with personal insights, advice to would-be screenwriters and film industry observations, screenwriter Eric Roth gave a freewheeling account of his decades in Hollywood in the sixth edition of the Cultural Arts Commission’s Salon Series.
Few people are aware that Roth, who lives quietly in Malibu, won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “Forrest Gump” (1994) and wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for over two dozen other films, including four that were nominated for best picture Oscars: “The Insider,” “Munich,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” Almost everyone in the film industry knows who Roth is, but otherwise, he keeps a low profile.
As a child growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, N.Y., in one the few remaining white, Jewish families, he had to learn how to box. Roth maintains that’s what helped him succeed. “I don’t mind writing things where you fail, because that’s how you succeed. I’ve been criticized plenty.”
In recounting the writing of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Roth recalled the difficulties of creating a full-length feature film from what had begun as a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“I think I screwed up some of the storytelling,” he said. “Both of my parents died while I was writing it.”
In another observation, Roth said, “I think this is the movie Brad Pitt made for his dad.” Roth is just the kind of successful, creative individual that members of the Cultural Arts Commission hope to get networked into the local artist’s community through its Salon Series program. Beginning last August, the series has been small, intimate, monthly get-togethers for discussion and Q&A, featuring a different artist and creative art each time.
Roth is now working with Pitt on another project, “Africa.”
“Sometimes I fall in love with things I should discard, and I should pay more attention to ‘less is more,’” he said about the project.
“A lot of good writers write from a theme,” Roth noted. “The theme of whether something is destiny or an accident is always part of my movies ... Loneliness is a big theme in my work as well, but not in a depressing way — there’s a certain core strength to it.”
Roth believes in strong characterizations. “When writing, you should know the person well because it makes the character that much richer,” he said. “You’ve got to give that actor a reason to come out of the trailer.
“I’m big on research, but I don’t hide behind research. I just think you should be somewhat accurate,” Roth advised. “There’s an obligation ... If I’m writing about President Roosevelt and he said certain things, I try to be accurate and not put words in his mouth.”
A screenplay writer usually works hand-in-hand with a film’s director. Reflecting on these relationships, Roth said, “Some directors have enhanced my work and some have not ... Directors are either an occupational hazard or a gift you get ... I’m still amazed at the actors and directors who think they can write better than I can. That’s my arrogance, I guess.”
At age 70, Roth’s current projects include the screenplay for “Africa,” directed by Angelina Jolie, a screenplay for the 2011 book “In the Garden of Beasts,” executive-producer for the hit cable-TV series “House of Cards” and an HBO project.
When asked how others in the “biz” would describe him, Roth said, “I’m known as a good writer, stubborn, slow but producible, and a curmudgeon who doesn’t suffer fools lightly.
“I’m happy with the legacy I’ve made, and I’d like to continue writing.” Roth said. “I like the fact that ‘Forrest Gump’ is on the registry of great movies.”
Richard Gibbs, the Commission member who spearheaded the Salon Series program and is a successful creative himself (film composer/ recording artist), said at the event, “We want to create a community of artists and to get the artists involved in the community. Malibu probably has the highest percentage of artists anywhere in the world.”
Gibbs explained the long-term goal of the Commission is to create a performing arts center, and the Salon Series is just the first step toward that goal.
“They will come and then we’ll build it,” he laughed. “It’s ridiculous to think Thousand Oaks has a Performing Arts Center and we don’t. There’s not even a stage [in Malibu] where a band can perform.”
For more information on the Salon Series and to sign up for future events, go to malibucity.org.