|ROBERT: How many screenplays had you written before obtaining an agent or making a sale?
CAROLINE: I started out as a novelist and I wrote and published a novel in 1983 called First Born. I was living in Los Angeles, but I really wasn't connected to the movie business. A director wanted to make my book into a movie and she didn't have any money so instead of a regular option, I asked her to teach me how to write screenplays and in return, I would let her have the rights to the book. So, we wrote several drafts from First Born which was later called Boy Child. Her agent, John Burnham at William Morris, loved it and asked if she could represent me. I've been with that agency ever since, even though Boy Child has yet to be produced.
ROBERT: When and how did Edward Scissorhands come about?
CAROLINE: A couple of scripts later I felt I was finally in the movie business and I made a deal at Universal for a screenplay called Distant Music. I got a little office on the lot which was basically at the bottom of a parking structure. I received a lot of notes and direction from the studio that confused the hell out of me. The script turned out to be extremely baffled. Then, my agent at William Morris introduced me to Tim Burton, who wrote Pee Wee's Big Adventure. He loved my book and I loved Pee Wee's Big Adventure and we knew we wanted to work together. Tim had a visual image of a guy with scissors for hands which was an idea that he came up with in high school and one that he's always wanted to do something with. The minute he told me his idea, I was excited. I went home and wrote the script in three weeks.
ROBERT: Was Edwards Scissorhands the first screenplay that actually broke you into the industry?
CAROLINE: Yes. It was the first movie that I ever had produced. Since then, I have collaborated on The Addams Family, The Incredible Journey, which was also based on a novel. The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is another project with Tim Burton.
ROBERT: On the front page of Edward Scissorhands, there is indication of collaboration where it says story by Caroline Thompson and Tim Burton. Was there a split credit once it went into production?
CAROLINE: Yes. There was a separate credit. It said story by the two of us and then screenplay by me. The image was his, so I felt that I certainly owned him a shared story credit.
ROBERT: Did Tim Burton write any of the script? If so, what percentage did you write?
CAROLINE: I wrote the whole thing.
ROBERT: What percentage of the original screenplay of Edwards Scissorhands was changed by the time it got into final production?
CAROLINE: None, as I was with the project from day one.
ROBERT: Did Edwards Scissorhands go through any studio readers for professional coverage or collaboration?
CAROLINE: Edwards Scissorhands was a unique situation to the extent that when Tim Burton went to make the deal for it at 20th Century Fox, we both took very little money up front relative to what we could've made at the time in order to have a very short turnaround and to have a maximum of creative control. We never developed it within the studio system. We developed it completely between ourselves. I never had a story meeting on it with any studio executive, or any coverage. But this was a completely unique situation based on the president of production at that time knowing that Tim Burton was going to deliver, because of the success of Pee Wee's Big Adventure. To some extent, the president of production was taking a gamble, but he was very smart and intelligent about what he had in front of him. I don't think Edwards Scissorhands could have survived a studio development or coverage because they would have never believed that an audience would have gone with it. We were very smart to set it up the way we did and when I turned in the script, the studio had only a month to decide to give it a "go ahead", not just to proceed with the script, but to actually make the film.
ROBERT: In reading Edwards Scissorhands, I was particularly impressed by your style. How much style do you suggest a writer put into a screenplay?
CAROLINE: Thank you. I pride myself on my style. I'm a writer first. I believe that a screenplay is a distinct form with very specific rules. It's meant to seduce the reader. Some people think of a screenplay as a blueprint that should have very little style. Yes, it is a blueprint, but first and foremost, it's a reading experience. I would encourage writers to be aware of that. For me, a screenplay is like a poem. It has a very specific structure fundamentally and quite honestly, I find that structure liberating because it answers so many questions. Within that framework, you can really sing. Somehow, by limiting the vision, you expand it at the same time.
ROBERT: Have you always lived in Los Angeles?
CAROLINE: No. I grew up in Maryland. In fact, my first novel (a horror novel) and Edward Scissorhands were both inspired by the neighborhood I grew up in in Maryland.
ROBERT: Would you recommend an unproduced feature-length screenwriter relocate to Los Angeles?
CAROLINE: I have no idea how you would become a screenwriter and live outside Los Angeles. There are people that do it. I just don't know how they do it. Think about it. If a person at a studio is trying to think of a writer for a project, who are they going to hire? The writer they know or the writer they don't know? Naturally, you would hire people that you know. How would you get to know those people unless you were here. I know a number of people who get themselves started here and then move away, but I still don't know how you'd do that. You'd still have to fly in an awful lot.
ROBERT: What are some of your favorite movies?
CAROLINE: I thought Carrie was a brilliant exploration of what it means to be a teenage girl. I loved Wuthering Heights, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Black Stallion.
ROBERT: What are your methods in developing a screenplay?
CAROLINE: It depends on the project. Lately, I've been doing a lot of book adaptations. That's been a great joy in that it's like having someone to talk to because you get to respond to what's already on the page. In such a case, I never do a step outline. On the other hand, I carded Edwards Scissorhands and kept playing with structure on that. Lately, I usually seem to know where things are going and I don't need to break anything down.
ROBERT: What publications, books, classes or tools do you find most helpful in your career?
CAROLINE: Just write scripts. I had a writing partner in The Addams Family and we were stuck at one point. He sent me some notes from a story structure class and I tore them up and sent them back because I just don't think you can be taught that way. I think you can learn by watching movies and I think you can learn by doing, but I don't think somebody can tell you. You either have your intuition or you don't. I don't think you can be taught intuition. I never took classes, nor do I believe in them. I think it's a good idea to have people that you respect read your work as sometimes it's difficult to determine if you've sold that image or theme that you're tying to put across. You don't know if it works until somebody reads it. I think that screenwriting groups where people read each other's work is a terrific idea.
ROBERT: Have you ready many screenplays?
CAROLINE: I lasted as a professional reader for eight months. I'll tell you, I don't know how those people do it. It's very taxing to read bad script upon bad script which many of them are. Some of them are good though, and it was a real joy to come upon the real good ones. But those were very few and far between. However, I learned a lot by being a reader.
ROBERT: What are the means of obtaining information about complex characters?
CAROLINE: Edwards Scissorhands is about the cleanest example to the extent that I knew that I wanted to have various numbers of characters who had specific and very different perspectives on the characters of Edwards Scissorhands. You have the woman that's compassionate, the woman who wanted to go to bed with him, the woman who thinks he's the devil. The roles that they were to play were so clear to me that I basically took what I needed them to do and then fashioned the character secondly. I would say that for me, character is my strength. I don't really write plots very well. For me, the course of the story is determined by what these characters would or wouldn't do in any given situation. Situations accumulate based on the situations that have come up before. I'm what they call a very character-driven writer.
ROBERT: Did you do the original draft on The Addams Family?
CAROLINE: I collaborated on the first several drafts of it but there was a production re-write by somebody else.
ROBERT: At what point do you consider your screenplay workable material? In order words, ready to be seen by the industry?
CAROLINE: It depends on the project. For example, if I've been hired by the studio to write a movie for Michael Jackson, I basically want to show it to them as soon as possible so that I can make sure we're in the same territory. I will show them something that's not perfect, but is an indication of what's in my mind and where we're going with it. In other assignments where I don't feel in step with the studio, I will hold onto the script and polish it a lot. If you feel that the screenplay is working, as far as I'm concerned, you have reason to show it. However, it never hurts to put the script away for a few months, as difficult as that is, and come back to it, because you certainly get a fresh perspective with time.
ROBERT: How do you feel about collaboration?
CAROLINE: I really enjoy it. Of course, it depends on the project. With comedy, like The Addams Family, it was extremely fruitful.
ROBERT: What was your experience in collaborating once the material was in production?
CAROLINE: I was an associate producer on Edward Scissorhands. Tim Burton and I are very close so it was wonderful and easy. The Addams Family was the opposite experience. We were fired from the production two weeks before they shot and barred from the set -- the whole nine yards.
ROBERT: What is the most useful advice you've learned about screenwriting?
CAROLINE: I think that if you try to outsmart the game by second guessing the industry as to what's commercial, you're a fool. Nobody knows what people will like. Chances are, if you like it, someone else will probably like it. You should write scripts that really mean something to you.
ROBERT: Prior to interview Caroline Thompson, I read the first draft of Edward Scissorhands. I found the screenplay to be a true inspiration. It was as professional and charming as Ms. Thompson herself. I would highly recommend this screenplay to any inspiring writer who desires a good example of the type of professional writing that is being accepted by the industry today.