5 min read

Interview: Screenwriter Mark David Rosenthal

Tips from a screenwriter thriving for 40 years in Hollywood
Interview: Screenwriter Mark David Rosenthal
The image is of a photograph of Mark David Rosenthal holding his dog Louie at a beach. (Photo courtesy of the Rosenthal family.)

"I realized the script is not for shooting; it’s at first a tool for selling." - Mark David Rosenthal

I have known Mark David Rosenthal's writing for years. He is a true Hollywood survivor.

Rosenthal has been married to the medical professional and amateur botanist Kim Rosenthal for 30 years. Together they raised two talented children (in order of appearance): writer Harry Rosenthal and music composer Hayley Rosenthal. He is a milk-chocolate connoisseur, a daily hiker in the Santa Barbara hills, a voting member of the Academy, and an Emmy-nominated writer for the 2016 version of "Roots." His career has been featured in "Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories" and in "Why We Write: 25 Top Screenwriters Share Their Stories."

Mark Rosenthal's credits include: "Mona Lisa Smile," "The Jewel of The Nile," "Tim Burton's Planet of The Apes," "Flicka," "For Love or Money," "Superman IV," "Star Trek VI," "Mighty Joe Young," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Desperate Hours," "Mercury Rising," and "The Legend of Billy Jean." In television, he was the writer and executive producer of "Roots: 2017" for which he received a Prime-Time Emmy nomination.

He is currently writing "Dr. Spock" with Thomas Maier. He just finished the official film story of the 1973 "Wounded Knee" siege with Robby Romero. He is also developing the TV Series "Tribe" with Gale Anne Hurd, and developing an international TV series in Spanish and English.

The photo is of Mark David Rosenthal.

Dan: I had the pleasure of reading some of your early screenplays. I remember being knocked out by the emotional impact of your spec script for "The Legend of Billy Jean." It did not surprise me when it was purchased. How did you develop your writing style in the beginning?

Mark: I came to L.A. knowing no one and never having read a single script. I became a script reader at the newly formed Orion Pictures and then for the director Mark Rydell. After two years of reading a thousand scripts, I got it. I decided to spec a script after I found a very cool idea hidden in the back of the NYTimes (it became The Legend of Billie Jean). But I also decided to change some of the conventional script formats that annoyed me. Dropping all the mechanics of shooting to improve the reading: removing scene ‘continued's', or location slug lines, all to keep the focus on the story. I also picked up on the very new stylistic choice of adding internal psychology to the description instead of simply doing scene blocking. Writers like Shane Black were leading the way. In a sense, it was addressing the executive/reader/buyer. I realized the script is not for shooting; it’s at first a tool for selling.

The image is of Mark David Rosenthal speaking at a lectern.

Dan: You have been hired to re-write entire films as they enter production. What can you share about some of those high-pressure adventures?

Mark: There were many, some un-credited, like "I, Robot," and the reboot of "Poseidon Adventure." But the most surreal and euphoric experience was getting a call six weeks before shooting started on "Tim Burton's Planet of The Apes" while they were building sets. They had thrown out the script which hadn't been shown to the cast or crew yet. We started from scratch and worked as the cast screamed to see a script. Working with Tim and the late producer Richard Zanuck under immense pressure was one of those magical experiences that make this difficult lifestyle worthwhile. It was chaotic and inspiring. (The other thing I loved is that Tim and Dick let us work a political allegory into the script that very few people got. Only the legendary NYTimes op-ed writer Maureen Dowd spotted it and wrote a hysterical acknowledgment.

The image is of Mark David Rosenthal sitting in front of an antique manual typewriter holding a mask from a Planet of The Apes costume. (Photo by Bob Krist.)

Dan: There are hundreds of people out there selling methods to writers promising to get them into the film industry. A quick Google search brings up over 61 different MFA screenwriting programs. You have a Masters and a Doctor of Arts degree. How important is formal education for a beginning screenwriter?

Mark: My degrees are in Middle English and Literature. I never studied screenwriting. Ever. I say read a thousand scripts and take an acting class or two. A directing class. Then start writing. Film school is only worthwhile if you’re going to use this four-year hiatus from reality to either learn a technical skill or make a film to sell. Otherwise, it’s bullshit. Get a medical degree.

The image is of the front page of the Mad Magazine parody of "Jewel Of The Nile". Mark David Rosenthal owns the original art signed by the artists--one of his most prized possessions.

Dan: I have to ask this because you have been doing this for almost 40 years now and have seen the industry change. What would you do if you were starting out today and wanted to write for film?

Mark: If I could write true comedy, which I can’t, I’d write spec comedy scripts. Great comedy writers are always in demand. Because it’s the hardest kind of writing. It’s harder to write hulu’s new comedy series "Reboot" than "Schindler's List." That is my defiant opinion. For everyone else, you have to spec a great script, not a ‘good’ script. A script that must be made. Otherwise, I’d write IP: a novel, short story collection, or graphic novel, and then retain the rights to adapt it. The instant you take a penny from a production company, your life will be miserable.

Dan: Such great information. Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

Mark: Have you tried this Italian Milk Chocolate? It's unbelievable.

The image is of Mark David Rosenthal during our interview in October 2022.

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