WRITER’S NOTE: The following article is about a screening which took place in July of 2011.
Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon dropped by New Beverly Cinema to host a double feature of the movies they consider to be the best about screenwriting in Hollywood: “Barton Fink” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Garant and Lennon are known for writing the scripts for the “A Night at the Museum” movies, creating the MTV sketch comedy series “The State,” and starring in Comedy Central’s “Reno 911.” They were invited to screen some of their films, but both flatly refused as they consider only two of them “watchable.”
Much of the evening was spent talking about “Barton Fink,” as they both see it as their life story. Written by Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Joel, it stars John Turturro as the Barton of the movie’s title, a respected playwright from New York who moves to Los Angeles to write for the movies. While there, he stays in the dilapidated Hotel Earle where he befriends insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who tells Barton he sells “a piece of mind.” Barton also deals with the overzealous movie boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner, in an Oscar-nominated performance), who tells him he cares deeply about his writing ability but who, in the end, is far more interested in what the audience wants to see.
Garant and Lennon recollected about watching “Barton Fink” back in 1991, the year before they started working on “The State” for MTV. They found it funny and abstract as Jack Lipnick chews out Barton for being “too fruity,” and they both looked at each other and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if movie studios were really like that?”
But soon after that, they both found those meetings Barton had were exactly like ones they ended up having in Hollywood. They consider this and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” to be a far more accurate depiction of Hollywood than Robert Altman’s “The Player,” and, as John Travolta said in “Pulp Fiction,” “That’s a bold statement!” Tony Shaloub’s character of movie producer Ben Geisler ends up getting fired without ever reading Barton’s script, and to this the two of them replied, “That’s Hollywood!”
They also joked about how “Barton Fink” acted as the origin story for John Turturro’s character of Jesus in “The Big Lebowski.” John Goodman, who is also in “Lebowski,” ends up giving Turturro a box, and the Coens never say or show us what is in it (very smart on their part). For all we know, it’s Jesus’ bowling ball in there. Either that, or it is the same box featured at the end of David Fincher’s “Seven.”
Garant and Lennon recently released a book they wrote called “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can Too!” If you take a good close look at the title, you will see the word “fun” has been crossed out. They were a hilarious delight as they talked about their ups and downs screenwriting in Hollywood. It was as fun to hang out with them for this double feature as it was guessing what their favorite quotes from “Barton Fink” were. They did, however, make it very clear that this was not one of them:
“The writer is king at Capitol Pictures!”
A few years later, I got to interview with Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon about “Hell Baby,” a horror comedy they wrote, directed and starred in. I brought up how I attended their double feature of screenwriting movies and of how “Hell Baby” was made independently without any interference from studio executives. I assumed they enjoyed the immense freedom they had in making this film, and it was the kind of freedom which was denied to them when they wrote the “A Night at the Museum” movies.
Please check out the interview below which I did for We Got This Covered. In addition, to Garant and Lennon, I also got to talk with Keegan Michael Key, Rob Huebel and Rob Corddry.