Allan Loeb Talks Writing, Spirituality, and ‘Collateral Beauty’

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Allan Loeb is the rare writer that has been able to transcend genres. He moves seamlessly between dramas, thrillers, comedies, and sci-fi. His latest work, Collateral Beauty, stars Will Smith and tells the story of a man retreating from tragedy who questions the universe by writing to Love, Time, and Death. Loeb sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about themes of beauty and meaning, as well as Loeb’s writing process.

John Bucher: Could you talk about your motivation for wanting to explore some of the themes that we see in Collateral Beauty?

Allan Loeb: Well, it’s like the chicken and the egg. Originally the kernel of the idea was someone who writes letters to the universe as it were, and what if the universe answered? That was basically the first idea that I started to unpack, and as I did, I had answered a lot of questions on how it would work. And then I thought if he’s writing letters to the universe, what’s he writing letters to, exactly? What are those abstractions? I really did a bit of soul searching and thought, well what are the three most important elements of my life? I think for most of us, it’s time, love, and death.

That got me down those corridors. At the end of the day, I do feel like those are the right choices. There are a lot of other things you could write letters to, but I feel like those are the ones that are the fathers to the other ideas.

John Bucher: There’s a lot about the connectedness of all things and the connectedness between us as humans in the story. Is this something you’d been thinking about a long time? Are you a big Carl Jung/Collective Unconscious guy?

Allan Loeb: You know, it’s funny, because I did read a lot of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. As a storyteller, you really want to talk about the tissue that connects us all. There’s a humanity there that everyone can appreciate, and so that’s kind of where I went with this and what I tried to do. The specifics are different, but we’re all dealing with the same things.

John Bucher: The majority of our readers are creatives and writers themselves. Can you talk about your writing process? Was this something that you outlined first and then daily knocked out, or are you one of those guys that can sit down for three weeks and just knock out a screenplay? 

Allan Loeb: I actually don’t outline. For me, the first rule of thumb is there are no rules of thumb. I have a lot of very, very successful and talented filmmaker friends who have to outline extensively before they put pen to paper. What I do is marinate, and I walk. That’s really my number one thing as a writer — walking. I walk, ten to fifteen miles a day, and I think. As I think I jot down the notes into my iPhone, and so literally, by the time that I sit at a computer to type, I’m ready. It’s a downloading, an unloading — it’s not a creating — at the computer.

I do it all walking, and I would say I think that has been a part of the creative process for many people throughout the ages. I do like the spontaneity to take over when I am writing dialogue, and I like the characters to take the story where they want to take it, and sometimes I let them and see where it goes.

John Bucher: That’s really an interesting answer. I’m so glad you shared that. Thanks for sharing your process. You have two big films coming out within a few months of each other (The Space Between Us and Collateral Beauty) that you’ve written, and there seems to be a connection in themes in many ways, almost a spirituality between the ideas you’re exploring in them. Is spirituality anything that’s important to you? Are you someone who likes to see those sorts of concepts make it into stories?

Allan Loeb: Yeah, absolutely. When I go to a movie, when I read a book, when I see a play, anytime a story is told to me, I want to be moved. I want to connect to it. I want to learn from it. I want to be inspired by it, so that’s what I try to do when I write. I guess the word ‘spirituality,’ semantically, could be said. These things are spiritual. When you see a story that moves you, that may inspire you to change the way you live and love — that’s a spiritual movement. We’re going back to what we just talked about, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and the concept of myth and fable. That is, you know, honestly what moves me to do what I do. Sometimes I fail. Hopefully I succeed sometimes to connect through that universal human tissue of what I guess we could call spirituality.

John Bucher: Can you talk for a second about what characteristics in the character of Howard that you find within yourself?

Allan Loeb: In the beginning, we see who Howard is, and then throughout a lot of the movie, we see the wounded Howard, the down-for-the-count Howard. At the end, as he begins to open up to Time, Love, and Death, we get to see the old Howard. Even though he’s not happy and charming. He’s kind of dynamic. In the subway scene, with Helen Mirren, you see him come back to life. You see a resiliency in him. At the end I think you get the idea that Howard is on the road to healing. I don’t think he’s healed, by any stretch, but I think he’s on the road at the end of the movie.

I’ve gone through nothing as horrible as Howard did, but I’ve gone through tough times, and it’s about a resiliency and having those periods of time after something knocks you down. You’re going to have those periods of time where you’re a bit of a zombie playing dominoes, I suppose. You’ve got to get back up and you’ve got to heal, and I think I’ve been through those things in my career, and in my life, a few times.

John Bucher: You a writer who’s been extremely, extremely versatile in being able to do stories from Things We Lost in the Fire and 21, through Rock of Ages and Wall Street. Is there any sort of through-line you see in your own work? Are there things that connect all these stories that you’ve told?

Allan Loeb: What I’m trying to do is grab onto those moments I felt growing up watching movies, going to plays, reading stories, just getting lost in story, and what was it that transported me into that world, and I’m trying to create that with every piece, no matter what the genre is.

Collateral Beauty opens in theaters December 16.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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