Scott Frank breaks down the logistics of telling a good heist film

Having written such screenplays as Minority Report and Out of Sight, Scott Frank knows something about scripting compelling human dramas. So it should come as no surprise that for his directing debut he crafted the highly engaging heist film, The Lookout. The story follows a physically challenged janitor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who becomes part of a heist at a bank that employs him.

Frank recently sat down with us to discuss bringing The Lookout to life.

Had you always planned to direct The Lookout while you were writing it?

Scott Frank: No, in fact there were a couple of other directors who had been attached over the 10 years that it had been knocking around. I only decided in the end that I really wanted to do it. I really felt that I was at a point in my personal life where I felt like I could do it without jeopardizing my family life. Also, I was pretty creatively plugged into it at that point and I didn't want to develop it for another director. I really wanted to do it myself.

How did you come up with this particular story?

Scott Frank: It was a couple of things that had sort of happened. One, I'd been reading for awhile about these little banks in the middle of nowhere, just sort of thinking about these places that had this subsidy cash is what it was originally. I was thinking about it for a couple of weeks, they're in the middle of nowhere, there's no security and I was thinking, "Why doesn't anybody rob one of these places?" The other thing that happened, sort of at the same time, is that I had met somebody who had suffered one of these injuries. I started thinking about the consequences of that in terms of your identity and your life and... what that would do to you; especially if you were very young. The two ideas just sort of became one idea at some point and I'm not exactly sure when or how.

Was it difficult for you working on a screenplay that you were going to direct? Having to think about the logistics of pulling what you'd written off?

Scott Frank: I think what was good about this is because I'd written it for two other directors, I just was focused on making the script as good as it could be. David Fincher was the last director I'd worked with on it and I felt like we'd really gotten the script to a great place. By the time I came over to direct it there were just small issues that I was changing. By and large, the script that I shot was the script that I had written for him not for me. It was sort of an unusual experience. I suppose the next time that I write it will be more for me and it will be a different writing experience.

How precious were you with what you'd written? Did you mind if the actors changed things up?

Scott Frank: It depends. For the most part they were much more rigid about not changing lines. Sometimes I would change a line and they would be, "Why?" Because they really loved the lines and they were much more protective than I was over the dialogue, it was kind of funny. I'm always open to something new if it's better. If it's just the same than I am less open to it but if it's really better, or they discover a line or something, or even better they'll discover that you don't need the line at all. You can do something with a look or a gesture, I am very much open to that. What I was really rigorous about is making sure we were always telling the story. That we weren't losing sight of what the story was at any given moment and where the characters were at, that's really where I was pretty tough.

What was your biggest revelation as a director? Something that you kept coming back to again and again because you kept realizing how true it was?

Scott Frank: I think the thing that I realized more than anything is that you have less control than you think you do as a director. There's so many things conspiring against you. Whether it's the elements or time, in particular, time is the real killer. You just don't have a lot of time so you're constantly making compromises. I think what a lot of writers who want to direct don't realize is, the only difference is you get to decide what compromises you make. Everyday is just the sum of the compromises. The quality of the film depends on you making the right compromises (laughs).

How much research do you do for the things you write? I remember reading in Creative Screenwriting a few years back that you'll make stuff up in your first drafts.

Scott Frank: Then I get stuck, then I go back and then I do a lot of research. It depends. On some scripts I'll just get going and I'll do very little, but more and more I find myself doing more and more research. I really like the whole process of research. I really discover a lot of the story through research or a lot of the character ideas through research, that I don't think I would otherwise get. I've become a big advocate of research and the trick is not using it too much so you get lost in your own pool of information. That's happened a lot of times to me, I've just drowned in it.

Is that research that you'll do upfront?

Scott Frank: I do it upfront. Now, if I'm adapting something I may not do as much research. I may just look into this or that but as a rule, on my original screenplays, I'll do quite a bit of research upfront.

What would you like viewers to take away from watching The Lookout?

Scott Frank: I just want them to feel like they were told a good story. That to me is the most important thing, that they feel like they watched a story well told. Nothing would make me happier than people being engrossed in the story. I don't think there's any overt message I want to give so much as I just want to tell a rip roaring, good yarn.

What do you have coming up next?

Scott Frank: I'm adapting a book for Paramount, right now. Beyond that, I'm not sure. I'm in the very early stages of that so I have kind of a love/hate relationship with it as I do everything I'm just starting. I tend to have buyers remorse, initially. I tend to feel like this is a terrible idea and I haven't quite busted through that point just yet. I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. I also think a lot about doing television. I think that some of the most interesting characters are now on television; particularly on cable. I think a lot about that. I'm not quite sure what the next thing will be.

What is the name of the book that you're adapting?

Scott Frank: It's called How to Talk to a Widower. It's a Jonathan Tropper novel.

The Lookout comes to DVD August 14 from Miramax Films.

Dont't forget to also check out: The Lookout

Evan Jacobs