They may not be famous on a par with icons such as Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, but Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have made plenty of people laugh uproariously over the past two decades, first as part of the influential comedy troupe The State, then as members of the creative team behind Comedy Central’s “Reno 911” and “Viva Variety!” Yet — funny enough — their biggest successes have come not from television but as a screenwriting duo, namely as writers of the two wildly successful “Night at the Museum” movies starring Ben Stiller. Combined with six other films, among them the cult-classic ping-pong parody “Balls of Fury,” with Lennon starring alongside Dan Fogler, George Lopez and Christopher Walken, their work has generated more than $1.4 billion in worldwide ticket sales. With a slew of other projects in the works, that impressive figure will only grow.
Now they’ve written a screenwriting guide called “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!” a humorous yet informative how-to tome in which the cover features the words “Fun and” scratched out of the title. The comedic compatriots will be discussing and signing their new book at 4 p.m. Saturday at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.
“Despite the jokey title, it’s all real,” says Lennon, who hails from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. “So many books advise people on how to do creative writing, but we assume if you’re into trying to sell scripts, you’re already a creative writer. No one can teach creative writing. We’re teaching how to navigate all the business end of things with studios to survive.”
Lennon and Garant are proud they have written successful movie screenplays, a feat even extremely popular screenwriting guru Robert McKee hasn’t managed to achieve. They note repeatedly that their book only costs $15 and can be ordered online or purchased in any bookstore, while McKee rarely hits the same city or town with frequency and charges $800 for a one-day workshop.
But they’re also honest enough to note that studying the screenplays of one’s favorite movies is a great approach as well. In so doing, newbies can learn the beats of the writing and how major events correspond to certain time frames of a film, such as plot twists 30, 60 and 90 minutes into a two-hour film. The authors also save young writers countless worries with a very surprising — and perhaps dispiriting — piece of advice: Worrying about dialogue is pointless, because few filmmakers will care and the audience ultimately won’t notice.
“Many young writers get hung up on getting their dialogue perfect, but not one line of your dialogue is going to wind up the same in the movie,” says Garant. “Worry way more about, ‘Is this the kind of movie that’s in the theater right now? Is your script a ballsy, rated-R comedy with a normal guy in the middle of it? Next year, after ‘Ted’ being so big, there’s going to be 100 movies about a guy with a cartoon duck.”
The writing wunderkinds also discussed the sometimes odd perks of fame, particularly the bizarre experience of watching a porn-movie spoof of “Reno 911” at a charity event.
“Not only did we see the film, but we watched it with the stars of it,” says Lennon, cringing even years later. “We hosted a benefit screening at the UCB Theater, but they all came to see it. We had hoped they wouldn’t attend, so we could talk openly about how horrible it was, but there they had bought the entire front row. The girl who plays Weigel in the porn version is cute and the guy pretending to be me is just pounding away on her. I’m sitting and watching a guy playing me … pounding an actress who looks like my lifelong friend Kerri Kenney as I watch, well, with Kerry; Kenney the real Weigel herself beside me. That was weird and depressing.”
“Not to mention, their sets were better than ours,” adds Garant.
That’s not the only low point the pair discussed, recounting their early days of poverty in Manhattan as The State grew in popularity from a sketch-comedy team of New York University students. Lennon recalls “watching $2 second-run movies surrounded by winos pleasuring themselves to any actress on screen, even though these were mainstream movies.” Garant remembers “sneaking in booze by making it look like I’m carrying Christmas presents.”
The State exploded — first in popularity, landing a hit MTV series, and then going down in flames as CBS offered them a prime-time special that was a disaster due to virtually nonexistent promotion. Next came the pair’s creation of “Viva Variety!” for Comedy Central, in the months after “South Park” became a monster hit and kicked open the doors to wilder programming. But their most lucrative and strangest break came when a project they’d written for Jackie Chan fell apart.
“We are huge Jackie fans and had this idea to create a ‘Sound of Music’ type movie for him as the nanny rather than Julie Andrews, but then he had a string of bad box office (productions),” says Lennon. “Next thing we know, we’re reworking the movie for Vin Diesel as ‘The Pacifier,’ and $200 million in tickets later we’re kid-movie writers, even though our entire history would never lead people to hire us for that.”
Similarly, the “Museum” movies came about as a fluke, as FOX asked them to adapt a Belgian children’s book about a museum that comes to life each night, leaving the guards sleepy each day as the crowds shuffle past. They took the slim picture book and ran wild with their imaginations, and hope to do yet another one soon.
“I recall the day we first thought, ‘Why not make a kids’ movie?’” recalls Garant. “We were driving to a pitch meeting and saw a billboard for the ‘Grinch’ movie and thought, ‘Why do kid movies all have to be awful?’ So we decided to take an idea we liked from when we were kids and update that, and we started ‘Herbie Fully Loaded.’ It didn’t turn out perfectly, but we got the ball rolling on making movies that kids want to see but won’t make their parents kill themselves, and that’s a good thing.”
Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant discuss and sign “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” at 4 p.m. Saturday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromans.com.
I won the title of "America's Funniest Reporter" in a national contest at the Laugh Factory club in Hollywood.
I'm a free-thinking political junkie, standup comedian/reporter and film addict. I'm a big champion of the underdog and love to help others in real life personally as well as as a reporter. I've gone undercover as an inflatable dinosaur whoring myself for Kraft Mac & Cheese, as a Guardian Angel subway vigilante, and injured myself five times while joining a circus for a story. I'm a magnet for weird events and weirder people and you can read all about it on my blog through my articles and essays. I also get to do a ton of celebrity interviews and movie reviews and you will find those there too both now and more in the future.