Going from rough draft to 'Draft Day': A journal of the screenwriters' four-year drive

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Image Credit: Dale Robinette

In early 2010, Rajiv Joseph (above left) and Scott Rothman (right) had never before written a script together, nor had either ever had a screenplay produced. But what the friends, who both graduated with dramatic writing MFAs from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, had done was watch a ton of football. It was fitting, then, that just as Joseph’s career as a writer was taking off thanks to the success of his 2009 play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zooa random comment from a surprising NFL draft fan would inspire the two writers to dig in on the project that would eventually, after the dread of turnaround and the euphoria of The Black List, become Draft Day.

Prior to the movie’s April 11 release, Joseph and Rothman described to EW the marathon of anxiety and excitement they endured while watching the movie slowly come to life.

February 2010: “You enjoy the NFL draft?!”

Rajiv: This started because a friend of a friend mentioned that though she’s not a football fan, she liked the NFL draft. I was like, “Why?! I’m a huge fan and even I don’t watch the draft.” She said, “There’s a ticking clock and huge stakes.” And a lightbulb went off. Those two things are the essence of drama. That’s everything you want in a movie.

Scott and I were chatting about it in the dressing room at The Taper — it must’ve been February of 2010. I said, “Hey, what if we wrote a movie about the NFL Draft?” As we started talking about it, we agreed it would take place in a single day and would be about a GM and it would be about both his professional part of his life, but also his personal life coming to a head on the very same day, to make it a human story that even people who don’t like football would appreciate. Then we started to outline it.

September 2010: “He linked us up with the GM of the Jets.”

Scott: We were all set to write Draft Day, but we put it aside when Bengal Tiger was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and hit Broadway. That allowed us to watch football, get drunk, and talk about it. A friend of mine writes for the New York Post, and he connected us with Steve Serby, who covered the Giants. We interviewed him about what he knows about the GM position, and then he linked us up with Mike Tannenbaum, who was then the GM of the Jets. That was the best thing that could have happened.

R: This was around the time of Darrelle Revis’ first hold-out, and when the Jets were on Hard Knocks.

S: We figured Tannanbaum would give us like, five minutes, but we ended up talking for about an hour and a half — to the point where we were like, “Listen, Mike, we have other s–t to do than hang out on the phone with you all day.” But he was a great GM who had pulled interesting moves on draft day, so it was good to get his perspective.

R: We learned so much. We vaguely knew about things like the Wonderlic test, but we didn’t realize the extent to which teams assess the lives of prospects. He told us about how teams employ retired cops or secret service agents who look into the backgrounds of players. We would’ve never come up with that, and it aligned with an important theme in the script — how do you evaluate the guy, not the player?

S: By the time we talked with Tannenbaum, we knew what we wanted to do story-wise. It was more a matter of, “Here’s what we want to happen. A. Are we crazy, and B. How could we make it pass the sniff test?” None of the major sign posts in the story changed, but learning about the location was huge. We had been under the false impression that everything happens at Radio City Music Hall, with GMs running around like cats with their tails cut off. Knowing they were each in their team’s suburban enclave shifted the scope of the script.

R: He also shared stories about NFL personnel, though he wouldn’t give names. They went right in our notebook. Years later we’re sitting on set, and it was Dennis Leary’s first day of shooting. He comes up, and was like, “You know, I’m friends with Bill Belichick, and I gave him the script to see what he thought.” As he tells this to me and Scott, our eyes are popping out of our heads. So Leary says that Belichick came back to him and said, about a particular scene, “Where’d you get this story?!” Turns out it’s a story about Belichick that we didn’t even know we wrote because it had come from Tannenbaum. It was a domino-effect that eventually got back to Belichick, and he was like, “What the hell?”

Mid-2011: “We partied like we won the Olympics.”

S: This part is going to kill a lot of screenwriters: Rajiv got approached by the Sundance Institute, which asked if he wanted to submit a script for their screenwriting lab. It was around the time we were thinking we would start writing this thing, but the deadline was two weeks away. That’s when having spent eight months talking about it really helped. I basically slept at Rajiv’s place in Brooklyn, and we worked non-stop for two weeks on a script. It’s not the draft you see onscreen, but it was halfway decent for two weeks of coffee and bourbon and no sleep and constant writing.

R: After we submitted it we sat there wondering, “Did we just hand in something that made no sense at all?” Then we made it to the semi-finals, which meant we had to have a phone interview. The call happened, and we thought it went well, so we went out and partied like we won the Olympics. Then we didn’t make the finals. But since we had assumed we were going to win, we had put this week in January, the week of the lab, into our calendars. So we said, well f–k that, let’s use this week we had set aside to whip the script into shape.

S: We hadn’t said anything about the project to our agents because it didn’t seem like something they would get that excited about — it required the NFL and was kind of a smaller movie.

R: We finally showed it to our manager, Josh, when we handed it to Sundance. He gave us a lot of notes that guided the re-write. But even then, being that it was our first time writing together, we were really thinking that maybe someone would just be impressed enough to give us another job.

S: Thankfully our reps really responded to it, and ran with it.

R: It was a slow burn, where people started hearing about it and then wanted to read it.

April-June 2012: “Everything he said held true. That probably screwed us up for every movie hereafter.”

S: As it happened, I was going out to L.A. to pitch another project. It was a reboot of Private Benjamin, so you know my career was going just swimmingly.

R: I came to L.A. for some meetings and to see a friend in a play.

S: So both of us happened to be in L.A., and I got off the flight and had a message saying that Ivan Reitman had read the script, could I meet with him that day? Neither of us even knew he had gotten it. We met him the next day at CAA, and he basically said, “I love this script, and wanna make this movie. We want you guys to be partners in this. You’ll be there every step of the way.” And everything he said to us held true. That probably screwed us up for every movie hereafter.

June 2012: “We did a rewrite that got kicked up to the Paramount studio heads.”

S: Before long. Ivan was able to get Paramount to consider the script.

R: It was June 18-19 that we were in the whole negotiation.

S: There was other interest in the project, which made that week very exciting — we tried to play out all these scenarios and determine the best way to get this thing made. That turned out to be sticking with Ivan. After Paramount bought the script, a great executive over there, David Beaubaire, gave us notes, and we did a rewrite that got kicked up to one of the studio heads. By this point, Ivan had gotten Kevin Costner attached to the project. Even so, one of the muckety-mucks at Paramount said no.

Fall 2012: “The difference with ours was that Ivan wanted to direct it.”

S: The acquisition gave Paramount a certain amount of time to decide what they wanted to do with the project. After passing on it, they could have tied it up for a year. Instead, they gave us a great gift — they put us in turnaround, which allowed us to take the movie wherever we wanted.

We always believed Ivan would find a place, but that it would take a while. His company, Montecito, had probably 10-20 movies in development. The difference with ours was that Ivan wanted to direct it. So we had that, but the company was juggling a lot, including Ghostbusters III. We wanted to shoot in the fall, and thought we lost our window.

December 2012: “We were the people who topped The Black List.”

S: Because we’re idiots, we had no idea the situation was bad. We had this blind faith in Ivan, and were optimistic it was gonna work out. I don’t think anyone was telling us bad news. Then The Black List came out, and we were at the top. That got the script going again — and was a huge bump for us as writers. We were the people that topped the list. I’m sure that had something to do with the script being more enticing to Lion’s Gate, which picked up the movie right after the new year.

March 2013: “I hope you guys are sitting down.”

R: In early March, we were told the project was “definitely” going into hibernation for a year. The draft was on April 25, a little more than a month away, and we would have needed to shoot there.

S: Of course, we had heard that the movie was dead five million times before that.

R: Then on March 14, Allie Bell, an executive at Montecito who really took this project under her wing, called and said, “I hope you guys are sitting down.” We found out the movie was a go one month before shooting.

S: Once we got greenlit, they had notes. But really, from the second we went with Ivan we had been re-writing non-stop. He was the guy driving the bus.

R: I initially wanted the film to be about the Browns — I’m from Cleveland, and I’m a fan of the team — but then I became worried about objectivity. So I told Scott, “I don’t want to deal with my closeness to the city and team. Let’s make it Buffalo. My brother lives there, I like that city, I know it; it’ll give me that distance to approach it.”

But once the movie started to go, we looked at the economics of it all. Cleveland’s film commission offers tax-exemptions for film productions in a way that New York doesn’t. So it made financial sense to switch back, and the story didn’t have to change much. We needed a team that was bad in a city that lived and died by their team, even if it hadn’t recently been given much to live by. In that regard, Buffalo and Cleveland were similar.

April 25, 2013: “The NFL was very easy to work with.”

R: One of the big jumps the script took was the setting of the draft itself. We had written the script like an indie film, thinking we would never get access. Originally, it was just exterior shots of Radio City. Once we realized the scale of the movie, we knew we needed to make the draft more of a moment, and Ivan had just assumed he’d be able to get access. The NFL, from our perspective, was very easy to work with. I think they saw this as a way of further building up the spectacle they were creating around the draft.

S: The blurring of fact and fiction during the draft was incredible. We’re hanging with Arian Foster, who’s in the movie and is the best guy ever. Meanwhile, people were going up to actors and asking them about the draft, not realizing they weren’t real players. In some cases we even lost track of who was an actor and who was a player ourselves. Then you had Goodell going up and reading the names of fictional players, and the fans, because they’re fans at the draft, booed. We couldn’t have coached them any better.

March-June 2013: “Costner was very attuned to the fact that he’s been in sports movies before.”

R: Other than getting crowd shots at the Browns home opener, we wrapped shooting in June. All during the production, we were tweaking the script. Nothing changed the story extraordinarily, but we had an awesome experience working with Costner. He would invite us into his trailer and talk through the script.

S: He was very attuned to the fact that he’s been in sports movies before, so he wanted to make his performance and his character in this one unique.

R: To him it came down to sentences, and how he would phrase something, but also he would be talking about one scene, then talking about a scene 16 pages later, and how that might affect that change there.

S: There were also times we’d write this huge monologue, because we’re writers, and he would just say, “How about I just give him a punch on the shoulder in an affectionate way?” and that gesture would work so much better than our two pages of dialogue.

R: Scott and I were still learning, this being our first movie. There’s one thing to write a movie on the page, and another to write it while it’s being shot. It sharpened a new muscle for both of us.

S: Writing this script never felt like work. We just hung out, watching football, drinking beer, which is what we would be doing even if we weren’t writing a script. We are writing other things, and are looking forward to writing non-sports movies, but if we could find something like that again, it would be a perfect world.

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