ARIZONA: Writer Luke Del Tredici on TV v. Film and Killing the American Dream

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

If Leap Day William has become a standard part of your February 29 celebrations every four years, you can thank Luke Del Tredici. Luke has had an amazing television writing career on such shows as 30 Rock, Bored to Death, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now he’s flexing his muscles in the world of film. His new feature, Arizona, starring Danny McBride and Rosemarie DeWitt made its premiere at Sundance earlier this year.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Luke about crossing over from TV to film, being mean to your audience, and the death of the American Dream.

Angela Bourassa: You’ve had a very successful career writing and producing TV, including some of the very best episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the amazing Leap Day episode from 30 Rock. So I’m really curious, how did Arizona come about? Have you always wanted to do both film and television, or is this a new direction for you?

Luke Del Tredici: I always wanted to do movies. I grew up loving movies in the pre-Golden Age of TV when movies were all that was taken seriously. I went to college and studied film and moved out to LA, but then I kind of fell into TV. I had a writing partner at the time – we did comedy together – and so for us it felt like comedy TV was the best fit, and we eventually got jobs. Movies were very important to me growing up whereas TV wasn’t, but it felt safer to go into television. It felt like I could fail at TV and it wouldn’t be as big a deal, whereas I was really terrified to find out that I was bad at film.

But I always planned to shift into movies. I wrote this movie ten years ago when I was in between two shows, and then, you know, it took about a decade to get made – it’s a period piece now, but it wasn’t when I wrote it. But in that time I worked on 30 Rock and Bored to Death and had my kids and worked on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now that the movie is coming out, I’m pretty firmly entrenched in TV. And I have fallen in love with writing television, and obviously the quality of TV is so much better than what it was twenty years ago. There’s so much more opportunity to do interesting things – it’s such a great medium for writers… I still like movies and I still want to write them, but I no longer feel like my ultimate goal is to transition into becoming a feature screenwriter.

Angela Bourassa: Sure. And it does seem, too, like TV writers have so much more power now than they used to, even in the film world. It seems like all of the studio comedies, at the very least, are coming from TV writers. Is that fair to say?

Luke Del Tredici: Yeah, well, it’s so hard to know where a studio comedy comes from anymore, because you know who the credited writers are, but maybe they’ve gone through 25 people and it’s this crazy process of group-writing these screenplays, but where the writers never communicate and don’t know what the other ones are doing, and everyone’s fighting to get their name on it, so it’s hard to even say.

But yes, I’d say that largely the reality is just that if you’re a writer, it’s crazy to not be in television at the moment. There’s so much opportunity, and quite frankly there’s more interesting creative stuff happening in television. So I think most writers – and certainly comedy writers – should look to TV, because that’s where the interesting work is at the moment.

Angela Bourassa: Do you feel like writing for TV first better prepared you for working in features?

Luke Del Tredici: The thing that benefits you about writing in TV – and certainly in network TV – is that you come in every day and you write. Network TV writing enforces a discipline upon you and robs you of some of your pretensions about the art form. You can’t be too precious about your process or about waiting for inspiration to strike, because it’s just a series of hard deadlines that you can’t miss. It definitely teaches you to be more productive and, again, less precious.

The other thing that I think is really great about television is that TV writers are all producers – their titles are all producing titles, but you do genuinely do a lot of production work. Like on Brooklyn, when you have your name on an episode, you also produce it – you’re heavily involved in casting, you’re involved in all the production meetings, you’re on set.

And you learn as a TV writer to think like a producer. You think about budgetary concerns, you think about the number of locations. We’re constantly in the moment rewriting scenes to make them more production-friendly, and I think there’s real value in that when you go to write a screenplay.

Certainly for me with Arizona, one thing that I think helped it get made was that – I always loved the idea first – but even from the beginning I was thinking about creating something that was plausible to shoot, something that doesn’t have many characters, something that takes place in a relatively confined location… The scope of it is very produceable, and knowing to think like that is a great asset in terms of writing things that could actually get made.

Angela Bourassa: One of the things that stuck with me after watching Arizona was how mean you were to the main character. Multiple times in the story you open these little windows of hope for her and then you slam them shut at the last second.

Luke Del Tredici: [Laughs] Well, a lot of that is me trying to be mean to the audience, not so much mean to the character. But she is sort of your audience surrogate. I think what you want is for the audience to not feel safe, so a lot of that stuff happening is about trying to unnerve an audience. I think that’s an interesting thing to try to do.

But part of what I always wanted to do with Rosemarie DeWitt’s character Cassie is make her a little bit of a mirror of Danny McBride’s character. One of the things I wanted the movie to be about is the death of the American Dream – not in that you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but rather that “America” is this idea that you get endless second chances and you’ll always have a chance to reinvent yourself and get out from under mistakes. What I felt at the time, and still feel to be true, is that everything isn’t always going to be ok, you know? Sometimes you make mistakes and you just have to live with them, and I think that’s what a lot of people were realizing in the aftermath of the housing crisis. With bad decisions, you don’t always get to just walk away and be like, “Oh, we’ll be fine.”

That’s what Danny McBride’s character is dealing with, and it just breaks his brain, but I also think Cassie is someone who – I don’t think she’s made awful mistakes – but there are choices she’s made that have been the wrong choice and it’s a slow realization for her that maybe everything isn’t going to be ok. It’s also true for Luke Wilson’s character who cheated on his wife and left her, and I think a lot of his journey in the movie is him thinking he can get his family back.

But you know, it has a sort of happy ending, and I think one thing that’s interesting as a writer is that you can earn happy endings where the heroine slays the monster at the end without it feeling cheap if you have a lot of dark stuff happen in the lead up to that ending.

Angela Bourassa: Danny McBride’s character seemed tailor-made for him. Did you always picture him in that role?

Luke Del Tredici: When I wrote it, I didn’t know Danny, but I was watching Eastbound & Down, which I love. That’s a show that I was really inspired by. It’s this great broad comedy that also manages to be this grand American tragedy and so smart about this country and people, and it’s so deeply sad while also being uproariously funny.

So as I was writing the character, I try not to write for a specific actor because you don’t want to get cornered into something and then be disappointed, but I definitely had Danny’s voice in my head, because no one is as good as him at being awful but also having this sort of sadness and insecurity that we can see. I managed to get the script to Danny through his company, and they responded, and for a while Danny was attached to direct, but then it fell apart and when it resurfaced with Jonathan Watson directing, Danny wanted to be in it. At that point, Danny and I worked on the script a little together and it got further into his voice.

Angela Bourassa: The setting is also very much its own character in this story. Can you talk a little bit about how and why you chose Arizona as the setting for this story?

Luke Del Tredici: Part of it is just that Arizona is the posterchild for that housing boom and bust. It’s where all these people went to have more space and warm weather and where everything was new and everything was big and inexpensive and there was a lot of population growth. But it’s also where people were hit the hardest. As I was reading some articles about these exact places – these developments where they built little neighborhoods out in the middle of harsh, hot nature – where as soon as they finished building them and just a few people had moved in, the bottom fell out and they just sat basically deserted with only a few residents. It was such an evocative image to me. As soon as I read about them, I thought, “You have to set a horror movie there.”

And, also, as I said before I think this movie is a little bit about America, and Arizona represents a certain part of America that I wanted this movie to be about.

Angela Bourassa: So you don’t have a personal history with Arizona?

Luke Del Tredici: I don’t have much of a personal history with it, no. It’s just always seemed like… It represents the part of America that I’m most scared of.

Angela Bourassa: [Laughs]

Luke Del Tredici: And I also always wanted to make a scary movie that took place in the sunshine. We ended up having it take place over a day and night, but for a while the idea of the movie was that it never got dark. It was just bright sun beating down on them the entire time, which I thought would be different and interesting.

Angela Bourassa: What was it like getting your premiere at Sundance?

Luke Del Tredici: It was great. I had never been down there, and I was actually in the middle of work on a TV show, so I just went over for the premiere pretty much. But it’s great to be around other filmmakers, it’s great to be around people who love movies. As much as its an industry thing with people there to buy films and make deals, there’s also a real passion for movies there, and it was so exciting to be around that.

Arizona is in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD now.

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Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

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