Ask any screenwriter where he or she ranks in the Hollywood food chain, and you’ll get an answer similar to an anecdote told by Albert Brooks in The Muse. Brooks plays a moderately successful screenwriter, and in the opening scene, he gives a speech to a roomful of industry types after winning a humanitarian award for his body of work.
“Being a screenwriter in Hollywood is a lot like being a eunuch in an orgy,” he jokes. “The only difference is the eunuchs get to watch, and I’m not even invited to the set.”
Screenwriters rarely receive the kind of public respect and recognition usually afforded directors and actors. Take Tim McCanlies, for example. The Texas native belongs to an exclusive but relatively anonymous group of local Hollywood players—Lawrence Wright, Stephen Harrigan, and Bill Wittliff, to name a few—who are successful enough to make their living writing for movies and television but who choose to live far from Los Angeles. Although McCanlies added the title of “director” to his résumé in 1997—when he made his first feature film, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81—he was already in his mid-forties. These days, being a first-time director at the age of 44 is a lot less sexy than being a Young Turk like Richard Linklater or Robert Rodriguez.
To examine McCanlies’ impressive career is to understand the dirty secret of Hollywood success: work, perseverance, and more work. Few things rile the soft-spoken 47-year-old more than the misapprehension that one successful screenplay guarantees a lifelong career. Of the hundreds of would-be writers who attend Austin’s annual Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference and South by Southwest Film Festival, where McCanlies is a frequent panelist, he laments, “They think that writing a screenplay is a way to become a millionaire with very little effort.”
After nearly two decades spent toiling in the film industry as a screenwriter and script doctor, McCanlies has paid his dues on such unexceptional movies as Little Giants, My Fellow Americans, and Dennis the Menace Strikes Again. Of his script for the latter, McCanlies says with a sigh, “They made such a botched film, it went straight to video. It’s a very helpless feeling.”
More satisfying, however, was his directorial debut, a coming-of-age movie about four teenage boys set in a fictional Texas The Times described Dancer as “likable, affectionate, and unashamedly warm-hearted,” and the film became an audience favorite when it debuted two years ago at South by Southwest.
But the project that has really made McCanlies’ stock soar in Hollywood is last year’s animated gem The Iron Giant. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. The movie received little advance publicity and lacked the merchandising tie-ins typically used to attract younger viewers. During its opening weekend last August, most moviegoers went instead to see Bruce Willis battle ghostly demons in the sleeper hit The Sixth Sense. McCanlies adapted The Iron Giant from “The Iron Man,” a 1969 children’s story by the late British poet laureate Ted Hughes. Directed by Brad Bird, who also receives screen story credit on the film, The Iron Giant spins a wonderfully clever tale about a nine-year-old boy in cold war America and the towering robot he befriends.
Critics fell in love with this movie, which appeals to children and adults without condescending to either demographic. One of its biggest fans is David Edelstein, a film critic for the online magazine Slate. “I think it’s going to become a classic,” he insists. “People will still be looking at it in ten, twenty, or even thirty years.” In Premiere magazine’s annual roundup of the top one hundred movies based on critics’ year-end lists, The Iron Giant was ranked number seven. It also swept the animation industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony, the Annies, last November, winning nine of its thirteen nominations, including a writing award for McCanlies and Bird.
The Iron Giant’s critical success has meant more money and prestige for McCanlies, but those haven’t been the only rewards. “Earlier on I had to be very sneaky to get my way, and never contradict somebody,” he says of his negotiations with studio executives. “Now I don’t care. I could be doing something else.”
McCanlies maintains that, before The Iron Giant, he was only one of many dependable screenwriters in Hollywood. “Now I’m considered an asset,” he explains with characteristic frankness. But there’s also a catch to his newfound popularity. He has to weigh each project more carefully in terms of how it will affect his career. “They’re after me more, but I have to read between the lines more.”
For the past six years McCanlies, a fifth-generation Texan, has juggled writing and deal making from his 250-acre ranch in Rosanky, about forty miles southeast of Austin. A narrow red-clay road leads from the highway to a cul-de-sac framed by trees and scrub. A wide metal gate marks the entrance to the High Lonesome Ranch, where McCanlies lives with his wife, her mother, a dog, and sixty or so cows. Secluded and quiet, the ranch lives up to its name. Hollywood feels light-years away.
On an overcast January afternoon, McCanlies relaxes in the high-ceilinged main room of his modest one-story house. He is a burly man of average height, with a pleasant face and a no-nonsense attitude. It’s not too difficult to imagine him as a police officer, a job he held for four years before embarking on his screenwriting career. A framed limited-edition Iron Giant poster promoting the film’s European release hangs on the far wall. A few years ago, when he had more time between writing projects, McCanlies renovated the kitchen himself, and he proudly points out the kitchen island’s countertop, which is made from a granite slab he bought in Marble Falls.
As the son of a military man, McCanlies grew up all around Texas. He attended elementary school in Lubbock, spent summers in Cisco with his grandparents, went to high school in Bryan, and took courses at the University of Texas at Austin. A would-be writer, he spent two years at U.T.