Last weekend, writer/director David S. Goyer swung through town to talk about his craft at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Specifically, the writer known for penning Blade, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel, and the TV series Da Vinci’s Demons, talked about how he’s made a career of creating modern myths. His obsession with myths began as a child and has informed his approach several of Hollywood’s biggest franchises. “When we’re saying something is mythic, what we’re saying is the story connects with us in a deep, unconscious way” says Goyer, who was very insightful, informative and funny for all 90 of his minutes on stage. Unfortunately he couldn’t really say much about his latest project, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but here are some of the highlights.
On writers having business cards
After graduating from a screenwriting program at USC, Goyer printed off 5000 business cards that said ‘David S. Goyer, Writer’. His mentor, Nelson Gidding, a WWII vet who Goyer described as a real “man’s man” had a strong opinion on these cards.
“Throw them in the trash, any writer who has to advertise his wares on a business card is fucking bullshit. You write for a living, but that’s not who you are. You’re a person first. A person who happens to write. You have to go out and have some life experiences. It’s a craft, it’s not a goddamn religious cult.”
Goyer elaborated on this later in his talk.
“Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even if you’re writing about an alien from another world, your audience is human. Being fully human, living an observant and engaged life and having something to say about it, that’s the foundation upon which good writing is built. So to that end I encourage all of you to go out and take some chances. If the extent of your research is limited to going down the wikipedia rabbit hole, your writing is going to end up being pretty soulless.”
Case in point, if Goyer had never climbed mountains in Tibet, this likely would not have ended up being part of Bruce Wayne’s journey in Batman Begins.
On getting the job to write Blade
“I got Blade by telling New Line Cinema that I would write the ‘Star Wars of vampire films’, it sounded really cool but the truth is I had no idea what it meant.”
Despite not knowing what it meant in the pitch, in a way he did just that.
“‘How do we make him mythic? The first thing I decided to do was make him a hybrid, like Hercules. He would be half human and half god but rejected by both worlds. In the comics he wasn’t actually half vampire but I decided I would make him half vampire, have him inflicted by the thirst.”
By adding mythic elements, like making Blade half human/half vampire and giving him Samurai weapons and traits, he elevated the material from its pulp origins, which is exactly what Lucas did with Star Wars.
On “Story Darwinism”
“When we surveyed the vast field of Batman stories we paid attention to the motifs that were sticky. We made a chart of the top 10 or 20 motifs that kept recurring over seven decades.”
This included things like his dead parents, his mother’s broken pearl necklace, the image of bats crashing through window… “we knew these were the motifs we needed to pay attention to, and everything else could be discarded, so that was our starting point.”
On taking Bruce Wayne out of Gotham
“Our touchstones were films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Man Who Would Be King. These are films about Westerners travelling to distant lands and reinventing themselves.”
This was the first time a significant portion of a Batman film would take place outside of Gotham. “When we first pitched Warner Bros that Bruce Wayne would go to Buton they just said ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’ It felt more epic, provided more texture, and more context.”
On getting pitched other projects after the success of Batman Begins
“I can’t tell you how many times after Batman Begins I was pitched ‘will you do the Batman Begins version of this?’ They asked me if I wanted to do Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they wanted the “Dark Knight” version, and I just said ‘but they’re turtles…’ “
On choosing Bane as the villain for Dark Knight Rises
“There was a lot of talk when you would be taking meetings in hollywood about who the villain will be, before you even have a story. Chris and I just felt like that was not a smart way to approach the story because it wasn’t holistic. When we were doing Man of Steel and the Batman stories, we came up what the story was we wanted to tell about the protagonist first, and then we’d look to the rogue’s gallery of villains that were out there and see which character would help us express this story the best, which is how we ended up at Bane in the third film. When I first proposed Bane, Chris wanted to strangle me because he thought he was a silly character but in terms of the story we were telling he was the only one that made any sense to use. We wanted to tell a story about Bruce Wayne getting old, becoming physically frail, and we wanted to pit him agains someone who was just physically better than him. We were retelling Rocky 3, that’s literally what we did. We needed a brute, we needed someone who was just a monster and that’s how we arrived at Bane. We didn’t decide we were going to be doing a story about Bane first. “
On getting the job to write Man of Steel
Goyer and Nolan were stuck on what to do in the third act of their Dark Knight opus when they decided to break for a week then come back to it. While procrastinating, Goyer was reading Superman comics and wrote down some ideas on the spin he would give that hero’s origin story.
“I met up with Chris and he asked if I cracked that problem in the third act, I said ‘no’ and he said ‘what the fuck have you been doing?’ I said ‘I came up with an idea on how to reboot Superman’ and Chris said ‘that sounds cool, let’s hear about that’ because he also procrastinates.”
Nolan liked the idea so much that he called Warner Bros. right there and said ‘you should do this’. Two days later Goyer had the Man of Steel job on top of Dark Knight Rises.