Marathon runner, policy wonk and Hollywood screenwriter, Ari B. Rubin, shares with us what makes writing in Hollywood different and how he always strives to take the unbeaten path.
Tell us about your background. How did you decide to become a screenwriter? Did you consider other careers?
I like to say my path to screenwriting happened in reverse: I “made” it before I was ready. Though I began writing as a hobby in high school, I studied history and economics in college and planned to work in government. At age 23, while applying for law school, I became so invested in finishing a new spec screenplay that I literally forgot I was scheduled to take the LSATs one morning. Two weeks later that same script sold. It was amazing. Robert Redford signed on to direct.
Though the door to Hollywood opened early, I have since learned that writing, more than many careers, requires absolute devotion. There are great highs, but the lows can be painful. So a few years ago, when I entered a stretch with no work coming my way, I questioned whether I really wanted to stay in the business – and I left. I began working in my other field of interest: politics. And guess what I discovered? I missed writing movies. I hungered to wake up every morning, sit at my computer, and pour my heart onto the page. I wanted to stay in this business no matter how hard it got. So I returned to writing with new devotion. For many reasons, my writing improved. And I have had a string of luck ever since. Years after my big break, I felt I was finally ready to be a writer. Oh, and by the way, I still keep a foot in the political door. The political work just feeds my writing more.
What movies or television series inspired you?
I do not mean this flippantly, but I’m a stickler for lived experience over watching movies. I try to lead a life that offers as much original material to draw from as possible: lots of travel, random local adventures, and meeting experts in every field (thanks Exchange!). So when I do write, I do not have a list of movies or television shows that I’m trying to be like, but instead, I take inspiration from the world around me. That said … I dream of one day making a movie with as much philosophical power as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What was your first big break in the industry? And, what did you do with your first paycheck?
I wrote two “hot” specs within a couple months of each other when I was 23, and that double whammy was the key to landing a big agent. The first was a found-footage film about the last few hours on a passenger jet about to crash. The second was a fictionalized retelling of the lead up to the Iraq War. It was a combination of their unusual concepts and solid storytelling that got me in the door. Then, of course, I had to learn how to keep doing it!
My first paycheck? I blew it on a ridiculously expensive apartment. If they ever invent time machines, remind me to go back to 2003 and teach my younger self a little financial sense.
How did you become involved with The Exchange? How have you worked with The Exchange?
I remember hearing about The Exchange from Jerry and Janet Zucker as it was just forming. I knew it was an organization I had to connect with. Through The Exchange, I have had one-on-one master classes with experts ranging from criminal psychologists (for a television show about terrorism) to astrophysicists (for a project about asteroids). These men and women, leaders in their fields, offer so much material to draw from, I swear, it feels like cheating.
Do you think the portrayal of science and scientists in film and on television is improving?
There are simply more stories trying to get the science right. Think shows like CSI and Breaking Bad. And movies like Flight and Prometheus. Here you see writers using scientific methods to drive a story forward. Will the science always be fully accurate? Of course not. But what strikes me is that even when the film or television show gets it wrong, it often sparks debate about the science among the project’s fans. So first, you see film and television creating a public interest in these fields. And at the same time, the veracity of the science makes the story feel authentic. The two fields benefit each other. And really, who would have thought that a show about methamphetamine would spark higher enrollment in chemistry classes?
You have also written editorial pieces for various publications. Why do you think it is important to use your voice in ways other than screenwriting?
When I’m not writing film or television, I work as a policy consultant on political campaigns, helping candidates brush up on their issues and also to develop their substantive policy proposals. In addition to this, I have written for publications like Politico and The Huffington Post on policy issues such as nuclear waste disposal. I find these efforts complement my creative work. The policy writing is intellectual and exacting; it is as left-brain as screenwriting is right-brain. Being able to exercise my academic writing muscle helps strengthen the creative writing muscle, and vice versa.
Why do filmmakers care about portraying science on screen as accurately as possible?
Film audiences are much too smart these days. You cannot fake the science and expect to keep their attention. Moreover, they have no patience for clichés or familiar tropes. The beauty of The Exchange is that its experts bring new ideas to every project and help spark creative tangents that writers would rarely come to on their own.
Audiences like it when the world they are watching feels real. Consider Howard Hawks’ Tiger Shark, which devotes a whole sequence to showing how fish are processed for canning. Or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the scientists speak in scientific jargon that the audience could not possibly understand. The science does not drive the story forward in these instances, but it does give the audience a true sense of place.
What can you tell us about your latest project?
I am working on a screenplay for producer Joe Roth about a military siege, set in the future. I also just sold a television project about the survivors in Earth’s largest underground shelter after an asteroid impact, their efforts to return to the surface, and their discovery that it was not an asteroid that struck after all. Yes, I like stories with big science themes.
When you are not working, what do you like to do for fun?
I run marathons, fly airplanes, and travel every unbeaten path I can find. My most recent trip was to Chernobyl. I’m taking recommendations for my next trip.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
I plan to still be writing – whether I’m paid or not! Also, it was an important realization for me that writers need to wear multiple hats to survive in today’s industry. Whether that means working in both film and television (rather than just one medium) or directing, producing, and/or acting. Writers need to be more proactive than in the past, in part because there are fewer films getting made, and a writer needs ways to pivot when the studios are not calling. But also, a writer who wears multiple hats has the power to choose what he makes. And the highest-quality, most successful projects are always the ones closest to a writer’s heart. I hope to be directing my own scripts soon.
Is there anything we should have asked you, but did not?
You didn't ask about staying emotionally grounded as a writer. Let me pontificate briefly.
I find it all too easy to become narrowly focused in Hollywood. The ups and downs of business take on more emotional weight than they deserve, often with dire results. For me, one great lesson of science is to think on multiple scales. Sometimes we are talking about atoms, and sometimes we have to consider galaxies and eons beyond easy comprehension. When I find myself stressing about a difficult scene or whether a deal is going to close, stepping back and looking at the profession in a larger context helps me calmly move forward.