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. before he realized that neither he nor his fellow students had much to write about beyond student life. Hungry for a bit of real-world experience, McCanlies moved to Dallas, looking for what he calls a “Hemingway-esque adventure.” He discovered that he could enroll in the police academy and apply the training credits toward a criminal justice degree, which he eventually earned from Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University). In the mid-seventies he enrolled in the master’s film program at Southern Methodist University, and after graduating, in 1978, he moved to Los Angeles. McCanlies first worked on projects for Disney, then Columbia and Warner Bros. During this time he also met his wife, Suzanne, and in 1988 the couple decided to move back to Texas, where they lived on Lake Travis before finding the ranch.
Unlike the stereotypical Texans who have loped across movie screens over the years, McCanlies speaks rapidly and with a nondescript accent that betrays little of his roots. “I feel very much at home here,” he says, “and the sensibility here is my sensibility.”
“I love the fact that he has found a way to live in Texas,” says Chris Castallo, the director of creative affairs for Tollin/Robbins, the Los Angeles-based production company for which McCanlies is developing his first television pilot. Featuring a teenage Bruce Wayne, before the mask and cape, the script has Batman fans buzzing excitedly on the Internet. Castallo credits McCanlies’ “normal” life in Texas as a stabilizing force that allows him to seek out new creative challenges, but he also thinks the writer-director’s age and experience give him a competitive edge. “It’s not like he’s some kid who sold a couple of hot spec scripts to a big studio and now wants to write a TV show,” Castallo says. “There’s a certain level of maturity and sophistication to Tim.”
Scott Bernstein agrees. He is the senior vice president of production and development for Ignite Entertainment, the company that produced Dancer, and the two men currently are in talks about McCanlies’ directing two of his own scripts. “You rarely see writers who stay in a career for two decades,” says Bernstein. “In the past five years Tim has created a stronghold for himself.”
Of the many scripts McCanlies wrote in the mid-eighties, “Thai Pirates” and “Louisiana Run” were particularly significant. Neither was made into a movie, but the fast-paced stories earned him an agent and a reputation in the industry as an “action guy.” McCanlies eventually grew tired of the label, so he wrote Dancer, which he shot three summers ago in Fort Davis. He was already in production on The Iron Giant, and on Sundays, when he wasn’t directing Dancer, he would make changes to the Iron Giant script.
“The drama of real life is something I can identify with more than I can chasing a terrorist through the World Trade Center,” McCanlies says dryly. “Even in Dancer, although nothing blows up, there’s a lot at stake for those guys.” Then, alluding to the movie’s mixed critical response, he says with a shrug, “Some people got that, some people didn’t.” McCanlies says he once heard Dancer described as the “anti-Sundance” film, a reference to the festival known for showcasing independent, edgy movies. “It wasn’t groundbreaking. There wasn’t a lot of angst or drug use or lesbianism or fill in the blank,” he says. “It didn’t push any envelopes except that it was all about people, but that pushed envelopes in a way.”
He is known in the industry as a writer who creates compelling and realistic characters, and The Iron Giant’s characters are what distinguished it from other animated movies released last year. “Tim brought a fresh pair of eyes that were not all about animation but were all about storytelling,” says Allison Abbate, who produced the feature. “He’s got such sensitivity, such truth and simplicity. He really helped shape our characters.”
McCanlies believes there are many interesting stories to be told about Texas, but he’d rather wait to direct his own script than make someone else’s movie. “I’m not driven to be a director, like a lot of people,” he claims. Then, sounding like a screenwriter, he adds, “Very few directors really bring a lot to a film. That’s the big secret of Hollywood that most high-level executives won’t admit.
“I’m doing work that I like,” he insists. “It’s such a painful, long process to spend sixteen-hour days on a set as a director. I don’t necessarily want to do that for somebody else’s script.” McCanlies says that Barry Levinson, who is known for making movies about his native Baltimore, is the kind of director he’d like to become: “I’d love for every other film I write and direct to be one of my ‘Texas’ movies.”
Since the release of The Iron Giant, McCanlies’ reputation has undergone an unmistakable if subtle shift. He admits that he can be choosier about new projects now, but he also believes in keeping a number of balls in the air. “My agent points out—and it’s true—that there’s a lot of downtime if you just take things sequentially. You’ll finish something, and then you start looking for the next gig.” These days he spends much of each afternoon on the phone to Los Angeles. “Writers are like actors,” he muses. “They have to audition quite a bit.”
Which brings McCanlies back to his pet peeve, the myth of the idle screenwriter. “It’s a lot of work to maintain relationships and keep writing better. Nobody ever hires someone to write a crappy script. Sometimes scripts become crap,” he says with a knowing laugh, “but nobody sets out to do bad work.
“I run a career,” he says as he gazes out at the ranch from an airy sunporch. “There’s not going to be a time when I suddenly have all this time to go putter in a garden. Writing is what I do now, and this is what I’ll always do.”