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Screenwriter Leslie Dixon Talks ‘Limitless’ and Beyond!

Leslie Dixon is certainly no stranger to the world of screenwriting. Her resume speaks for itself, boasting mega-hits such as ‘Overboard,’ ‘Look Who’s Talking Now,’ ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ and ‘Freaky Friday.’ In 2011, Dixon finds herself branching out from her comedic roots to a techno-thriller adapted from author Alan Glynn’s novel, The Dark Fields. A paranoia-fueled action thriller, ‘Limitless’ stars silver screen icons Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. The film centers on Cooper’s character, Eddie Morra, who is a down and out writer who unlocks the true potential of his brain by taking a cutting-edge pharmaceutical. Every choice in life has its consequences and taking the miracle drug NZT is no exception to the rule. He quickly discovers that his newfound abilities have made him a target for some of the most greedy and dangerous men on the planet. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Leslie Dixon to discuss her career, the journey of bringing ‘Limitless’ from script to screen and much more!

They always say that tackling a career in the entertainment industry isn’t for the faint of heart. Could tell us a little bit about how you got started on your career path?

The way that I put it is I say it’s a tough business to be in if you really love movies. I just got started because I was raised in San Francisco which is a very movie centric culture by a mother who adored film and dragged me around to every revival house as well as every current film you could possibly think of giving me an inadvertent education in film. Infecting me with her disease of loving movies.

Well it seems like that was probably a good thing to get infected with!

Right! Then later when earning a living became an unfortunate necessity I didn’t really – there were really no economic means that we had and I didn’t even know film school existed.  I wish I could have gone to film school.  It would have been great but I just moved down to Los Angeles.  I didn’t go to college at all and as there was just no possibility of that I had to get a job.  I moved out to L.A. and just started working crappy little jobs, reading scripts at night and working up the guts to write one.

Who were some of the influences or what were some of the influences that helped shape you as a writer in those early years?

Probably more classic pictures from the ‘30s and screwball comedies than – well contemporary movies, movies I saw as a kid.  I mean things like MASH and there was – MASH, things like that were great.  I loved the pictures that Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner were making in those days.  I loved Preston Sturges.  I loved all of Ernst Lubitsch’s movies going back to the ‘40s and then the ‘30s, Billy Wilder, big influence.  But probably I was the most influenced by this comedy program my mother would play on the radio on Saturday mornings which was just classic standup routines by everybody from the ‘30s all the way up to and including what was contemporary.  So all of that stuff, early Steve Martin, early George Carlin, Bob and Ray, Nichols and May, all that stuff was programmed into my hard drive.  That was really helpful later when I wanted to write comedy myself.

Your latest project is ‘Limitless’ based on the book ‘The Dark Fields.’  How did you first come across that story?

I came across it because I was looking for something good to read.  I was standing in a secondhand book store in San Francisco and asked the guys to give me something that I would love because I had just been reading so many bad novels and things that studios had wanted to adapt that were mechanical and soulless and I needed to cleanse my palette.<

They gave me this book and I just read it for pleasure.  But at about the halfway point I was getting one of those tingles.  “Oh shit, I’ve got to make this.  This is a movie.”  It turned out that They Miramax owned the rights and I had to go through quite a rigmarole to pry their hands off of the book.  But ultimately I got control of is, wrote the scripts as I wish with no executive input and set myself up as the producer of the movie.  But that – saying that in one sentence is a lot less time than it actually took.

Yeah, I bet.  Something tells me you ran into your share of struggles along the way.  What can you tell us about that?

Well it was hard to get my hands on a piece of material that was owned by someone else, obviously but I was very concerned about making the picture with Miramax because I had heard that the company was imploding.  Indeed, subsequently it did.  So I made a deal with Harvey (Weinstein) that I would write the script for free but if he didn’t respond in a certain period of time I would get the rights.  Then I’m afraid I did a bad thing.  I turned it in during Canne when I knew no one would read it.  The mirror went up and it was mine.

Can you tell us a little bit about bringing the book to the written form that you brought it to?  How do you go about tackling that project?

Well I love the premise, the ultimate smart drug and sort of a slacker loser who gets a hold of it and within three weeks he’s brokering a mega merger between the two largest corporations in America.  I love that whole idea.  It did not have enough visual or action panache to be a feature film though.  So there’s quite a bit from the book in the first third of the film.  The second two-thirds kind of departs into a more actiony, suspenseful genre piece.  I’m pleased or sorry, depending on who you are, to say that most of the truly disgusting action bits in it are made up by me.

What can you tell us about – obviously there are a couple dynamics here but what about the dynamic between you and the author and you and the director?  Were there any similarities there?

Well I – no because one of them you have to collaborate within a mutually respectful fashion.  The other whom, the author, you could if you were the wrong kind of person just blow him out of the process completely, never tell him anything and he’s lucky to show up at the premiere.  Once the guy sell the book the studio and can be quite disrespectful about including them in the process in any meaningful way.  I happen to think Alan is a great writer.  I like him personally and I kept him informed and included and consulted at every turn.

This movie came close to getting made several times.  So some of those times were heartbreaking.  But ultimately in the end he was able to pay off his mortgage with the fat fee that he received.  I kept him in the loop because of respect.  The director of course you are manicult to.  You are stuck with.  Neil is a writer but not on this one.  He was hired to direct.  So there were times where we would get a little contentious with each other but not in any way where the underlying respect was lost or ultimately agreement wasn’t reached.  I think the product is a very good marriage of his sensibility and mine.

Looking back on the project from your standpoint what was the biggest challenge throughout the whole rigmarole?

The biggest challenge was making sure that a major studio understood that we were not making a drug movie.  You could look at the long line of this and think it’s ‘Requiem for a Dream.’  It’s not.  It’s not that.  It’s a Faustian bargain.  It’s a movie about power and what people will do to get it.  It certainly in no way glorifies or – it’s about a designer for a pharmaceutical which is a different thing from a bunch of grubby kids in a crack den.  But sometimes studios when they’re considering reading a script or making a project will only look at the long line.  When you reduce something to two lines they could easily have gotten the impression that it was a drug movie and just go, “Oh we don’t want to make that,” and pass on it..  So I found that it was the people who really read the material that they understood that we were out to make an enjoyable thrill ride, not a grubby, cautionary, addiction tale.

Now that you have made the jump from your earlier material to this more edgy material is there a type of film or a genre that as a writer that you’re eager to explore?

Broadway musicals.


Come on down. Seriously!  I did ‘Hairspray’ and that was just a book but I’d like to do more and I’d like to do it for the stage.  I think it would be really fun. I’ve been wanting all my life to do something like that. But I definitely would like to do more movies like this, too.  I found that this genre seems to come frighteningly natural to me.  I think I’m really a disgusting person inside.

Looking back on your career so far how do you feel that you’ve evolved in your craft?

I’ve had to really stay one step ahead of burnout.  Burnout is a terrible occupational hazard for people who write a lot in any genre, screenwriting or any other.  Screenwriting particularly because everything that you do is hyper criticized and kicked apart at many levels; the executive level, the director level, later at the critical level.  You have to develop the hide of a rhinoceros but even beyond that just the sheer volume of pages that you’re turning and turning and turning and people saying, “No, this way, that way, up, down,” can burn you out.  So it’s really important in my evolution.  Switching genres helps keep me fresh, taking breaks, playing bluegrass guitar with my hippie friends, anything to keep that burnout at bay because when you go there you are certainly not a good writer.

As an accomplished writer what advice would you give to someone who is looking to pursue a career in your field?

Well I would say that they have a lot of advantages I didn’t have because the Internet exists.  You can read professional scripts online.  You can – contests, the reward of which is possibly a professional representation.  There are so many avenues of information on how to do this that didn’t exist when I started out.  But I would say really the only rule is, “Does the reader want to turn the page to the next page?”

What should we be on the lookout next for you?  Is it a big project or a more bluegrass guitar as you just said?

I think if I had to jump into something major tomorrow I’d probably shoot myself.  We are definitely looking at some powering down for awhile.  I am wiped out.  This movie took years off the director’s life, my life.  I can’t say the same for Bradley.  He’s the Energizer Bunny in that way but its road to the screen was exhausting.  We’re very proud of how it turned out but I definitely – I would be doing anyone a disservice if I took a job tomorrow.  They would be getting a little withered husk of what used to be Leslie.

Well thank you very much for your time.  I look forward to talking to you again in the future.  Good luck with your little break and we hope to see you soon.

Thank you so much.