From Mailroom to Oscar(R) Winner - Marc Norman

Posted by Frederic T. Dray on

This sound familiar? You take a thankless job to pay bills for six months while you write the next great screenplay. Ten years and 20 jobs later, that great script still eludes you. Thinking about giving up?

Marc Norman was. Fortunately, he decided to rededicate himself to learn the craft and write one last script. The result was Shakespeare in Love and Norman's reward was an Oscar. As a means of offering encouragement to others wondering if they should continue writing, Norman agreed to share his story.

Norman received a Masters degree in English at UC Berkeley. As a film lover who didn't have an aptitude for English, he decided to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. This was in 1964, before there were any "How to make it in the industry" books. Not knowing any better, Norman went to all the studios and applied for a job as a producer. Universal offered a position in their executive training program, which translated into eight-hour-days spent pedaling a creaky bike up hills to deliver studio mail.

His co-workers included: John Badham, Walter Hill and Mike Medavoy. Norman remembers, "We all hated delivering mail and soon realized what Universal really wanted to see is who would be clever enough to hustle and get out of the mailroom."

Hearing that TV producer Roy Huggins was starting a new series called Run for Your Life, Norman approached him and asked to be the production assistant. Huggins didn't need a PA, but wanted story ideas. Norman seized the opportunity and wrote several of which Huggins bought one. "That was the beginning of my writing career," Norman reveals. "Someone gave me $150 to dream something up and put it down on paper, I thought that was pretty cool." Universal found out and in their infinite wisdom, promoted him to casting director of character actors, another job Norman hated.

Through networking, he learned that Leonard Stern (producer of Get Smart) needed someone to write his story ideas on paper so he could pitch them to studios. Norman became that someone and while he didn't write for the series, being around Mel Brooks and Buck Henry whetted his appetite for writing.

After several years working in TV, Norman's urge to write increased. "I knew I was probably making a big life mistake, but I had to find out if I could write," he explains. Norman quit, wrote a spec script and found a rookie agent looking for clients. While the script didn't sell, he did secure assignments rewriting TV scripts. After five years of TV, Norman decided to write for features.

He wrote Oklahoma Crude, which sold, but the movie was a flop. This caused Norman to lose focus and he took writing assignments just to keep going. "That's bad for a career because you lose whatever edge you had and become known as just another writer," he asserts. In 1980, Norman reached a turning point. "I had to decide if I was going to keep doing what I was doing and going nowhere in life, or if I wanted to figure out how to be a good writer. In other words, I had to reinvent myself."

To accomplish this, Norman began to concentrate on his writing process rather than the results. He explains, "There is only a limited amount of writing elements that can be taught. To be successful one must work to develop the craft then find some source of inspiration. I learned that the process of creativity is revising something until you get it right, I exhaust all the possibilities until I am left with the only one what works. Thus, I began outlining in advance of writing."

Inspiration struck in the late 1980s when his son called from college to suggest the idea of Shakespeare starting out in the Elizabethan theater business. Norman says, "It was brilliant because it dealt with Shakespeare whom everyone had heard of, but no one knew much about. Unfortunately, I didn't have the foggiest notion of what to do with it."

He finally turned to parallels in his own life to present Shakespeare as a frustrated writer who thinks he can do something better than what he's doing and hasn't been able to.
Norman theorizes, "I don't know if this is historically true, but it has to be emotionally and creatively true. There had to be a time in Shakespeare's life when he was a young guy trying to get a job and figure out who he was. A time when he was in development hell."

While researching Shakespeare, Norman became fascinated with the Elizabethan theater. "The young men who created the Elizabethan theater business, and they did so in about ten years, were the first to discover that people would pay for entertainment. Once money was involved, along came producers, backstabbing, lying, cheating, lawsuits and I thought these are all elements of present-day Hollywood. I had the found the world of the story and could use it to satirize the movie business."

Norman realized that before Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare was simply a promising playwright who had not written anything better than other writers. Norman explains, "Up to that point Aristotle set the guidelines for good plays which is comedy is comedy and tragedy is tragedy and you don't mix them. I realized Shakespeare did something quite radical in Romeo and Juliet by starting out as a comedy and ending in tragedy."

This prompted Norman to wonder what caused Shakespeare to have this creative breakthrough and led to the final piece of his story as he reveals, "I turned to the tried-and-true Hollywood theme that he met a woman who served as inspiration. By having him fall in love, Shakespeare goes from being a poet who can talk about love to somebody who has experienced love and can now write about it from his heart." Great idea, but history got in the way, as women were not allowed to perform in the Elizabethan theater. Thus, to get a woman into Shakespeare's world, she had to pretend to be a man.

With the characters and story ideas in place, Norman's last challenge was to create authentic dialogue. "I love playing with words, hearing how they sound together, especially multi-syllabic words," he explains. "The language was invented by mixing mimicry, rhymes and words until something genuine came out."

After nine months of research, getting to know characters and revising story ideas, Norman was ready to write. He finished the script in about three months. Universal bought it in 1991, Julia Roberts read the script and committed to making the film. This led to Norman's spending 1992 in England as sets were built in preparation for filming.

Finally, all of Norman's pedaling, networking, writing, meandering, reinventing and revising would be translated into an Academy Award winning blockbuster starring A-list actors; right? Not so fast. Norman remembers, "They had a problem finding a Shakespearian-level actor. Someone who is handsome, funny and can carry a movie." Julia wanted Daniel Day-Lewis and flew to Dublin to meet him, but he declined. Thus, she withdrew from the film just a few weeks before production and the picture collapsed.

"When a picture collapses that close to production, it becomes damaged goods," Norman explains. "It creates a stigma in the industry that translates into there is something wrong with this picture." Another problem was that Universal spent $4 million on the sets, which had to be reimbursed before any other entity could secure rights to the script.

Norman endured years of meetings resulting in "We'll think about its," and "Nos," until Harvey Weinstein finally uttered the magic words in1996. Universal sold the rights in 1997, John Madden was signed to direct and Gwyneth Paltrow agreed to star. Norman shakes his head and laments, "Here it is six years later and we still can't find a Shakespeare."

Again, the clock was ticking as Gwyneth only had a short period of time in which to make the film. Several hundred actors read with Madden deciding he could get a great performance out of Joseph Fiennes. Norman smiles, "He really came through and what I saw in the making of this movie was something that I never really saw in all my years and that was everything going right."

Everything did go right for Norman as he and co-writer Tom Stoppard were allowed to participate in all phases of filmmaking, which is rare for writers. This allowed Norman to help protect his vision as he explains, "There was a time when Weinstein wanted a happy ending because marketing told him it would increase box office receipts by ten million dollars. Thus, he wanted Shakespeare and Viola to go off together."

Weinstein listened as Norman explained he was trying to match the emotional story of Romeo and Juliet with what the characters experience in Shakespeare in Love. For that reason, Shakespeare and Viola had to part in the end. The point Norman was trying to make is that all love dies and we know this, which is why we love so hard. Norman says, "To his credit, Weinstein agreed and plans for the typical Hollywood happy ending were scrapped."

Well, the experience wasn't quite perfect as Norman was rewritten by Stoppard. Norman admits, "I think Stoppard's draft really helped the film get made. His name and playwright experience lent a legitimacy to Shakespeare and reassured those who may have questioned my ability to do so." Norman smiles and reveals, "We met on the set and didn't know quite what to say to each other, so we ended up talking about fishing."

What is the moral of Norman's story? It's likely he would agree that persistence pays off. After all, it seems he pedaled up many steep hills only to encounter discouragement before finally reaching the pinnacle of screenwriting success by winning an Oscar.

Norman likens screenwriting to a phrase he used to hear that "The movie business is a place where you can make a fortune, but you can't make a living." Meaning every once in a while, someone comes up with a pot of gold. But, try to do it again or try to do it every year. Writing is difficult because it offers you no solace for failure. If you get frustrated and leave, no one will cry.

Thus, if you're thinking about giving up, save this and read it. Perhaps Marc Norman's story will inspire you to rededicate yourself to learning the craft and becoming the best writer you can be.

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