Over a span of 13 years, Scott Z.. Burns has compiled an incredibly rich, diverse body of work as a screenwriter, collaborating with many of Hollywood’s most prestigious filmmakers and stars to make films that broke box office records and left a tremendous impact on popular culture. But when asked what quality unifies his uniquely eclectic filmography, Variety’s 2019 Creative Impact in Screenwriting Award recipient admits that the only throughline is that each project is different than the previous one — and the next.
“Every successive opportunity is an invitation to explore a kind of writing I haven’t done,” says Burns, who will partake in a conversation with Variety’s Malina Saval on Oct. 13 at the Mill Valley Film Festival. “I feel like by the time I’m done with something, I’ve exhausted the toolbox of that genre in my mind and it’s fun for me to go and explore something else.
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“When I finished ‘The Informant,’ I went right into ‘The Bourne Ultimatum.’ The next thing I wrote was a psychological thriller. And after that I wanted to write a comedy again. And this year, ‘The Report’ felt like it needed to be a political thriller-drama, but when I started working on ‘The Laundromat,’ I really wanted to write a crazy, farcical comedy.”
Burns’ second feature as director, “The Report,” arrives in theaters just weeks after the Netflix premiere of his fourth collaboration with Steven Soderbergh, “The Laundromat.” Both are based on real-life events, a constant source of inspiration throughout his career since transitioning to screenwriting from the advertising world.
“I am someone who is very conscious of the moment in which I’m alive and I respond to stories that are going on around me,” he says. “And those are frequently the stories that inspire me to sit down and see if I can crank out 120 pages.”
He says that he set a precedent early in his professional life to work only on things he cared about deeply, but also quickly learned that it’s ideas rather than principles that drive good stories.
“I had an ambivalent relationship with advertising because some of the products and services that I was asked to work on were not things that I felt great about,” he says. “I’m grateful that the people who I worked for respected my wishes and they put me on other things. But you really weren’t allowed to fall so deeply in love with an idea that it ruled out the possibility of others. You need to be able to approach it from the standpoint of, ‘How much can I put my ego away and really just be a resource for other people?’
“Advertising teaches you that because, ultimately, the copywriter or the art director or even the director of the commercial is always subservient to the product and the strategy. So I always came from a place of, ‘I’m here to solve the problem.’”
Burns made his Hollywood breakthrough in 2006 as a producer of the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and director of the HBO film “PU-239,” which took seven years to get made. But it was his next project, “The Informant,” that launched his partnership with Soderbergh, whose influence and encouragement would eventually make him not only one of Hollywood’s most distinctive screenwriters, but also its most successful.
“When we started working on ‘The Informant,’ [Soderbergh] said to me, ‘Try and write the version of the movie that only you would write.’ And because I didn’t go to film school and I don’t have a more classically trained ‘Save the Cat’ background [referring to the screenplay guidebook], I’ve always had to find my own way and my own sense of structure.
“Knowing somebody like that who has spoken so many different languages with his work makes you feel like that’s possible, even though our industry encourages you to inhabit some genre box,” Burns says. “Having them be your partner gives you the belief that it’s possible to have that kind of varied experience.”
Burns has since demonstrated that versatility not only working with Soderbergh, whose collaborations have all been markedly different from one another, but also as a screenwriter and script doctor on everything from “Ocean’s Twelve” to “Rogue One.” He modestly says he hopes serve each project the best way possible.
“Tony Gilroy, who I worked with on ‘The Bourne Ultimatum,’ has always said that you have an obligation to only get involved if you really can help solve problems. So there’s a diagnostic moment where I understand what could help this project, and then there’s a soul-searching moment of, do I have the solution? And then there’s a third part of the process which is a willingness to put your own ego aside and go, ‘I’m here to help.’
“These people are making a movie, which is always a difficult endeavor, even under the best of circumstances,” he adds. “So I look at it like do no harm — don’t show up unless you really can make this thing better.”
As he transitions into the career of one whose credits come with multiple hyphens, Burns still vividly recognizes the appeal — and challenges — of working on a project solely as screenwriter. “The great thing about being a screenwriter is also the terrifying thing about being a screenwriter, which is when you wake up in the morning, there’s a blank screen,” he says. “It’s both an invitation to go to work, and it’s also daunting, because you know that you have to fill out 120 of those that would seem engaging and entertaining. But you don’t have to wait for the phone to ring.
“Most of the films that I’ve been a part of were ideas that started with me alone. So having been in that position where it’s you and your fear and your hope alone in a room trying to write scenes, it teaches you resourcefulness, and as uncomfortable as starting over is, sometimes it’s the best path.”
Next up for Burns is writing “No Time to Die,” the 25th installment in the James Bond franchise. Even for a guy who helped write a “Bourne” movie, the project marked a thrilling benchmark in his career.
“It was being able to throw in with a group of really talented people on a franchise that had a huge impact on me,” he says of the process. “I mean, it’s a dream come true to have grown up in Minnesota watching James Bond movies, and then you look at your laptop and you’re writing the name Bond and then writing dialogue underneath it. If anybody would have told me that was ever going to happen, I would have never believed them.”
But even if there’s nothing that outwardly unifies his eclectic body of work, Burns’ observations about his approach to his craft suggests that the common thread is less technical or thematic than philosophical — to have a sense of thoughtfulness, compassion, and flat-out sincere enthusiasm, not just about the story and characters, but the process itself.
“I don’t know anybody who says, ‘Oh, this movie was really easy.’ They’re all going to be difficult at times and require compromise and collaboration and disappointment. So I’d rather exhaust myself on something that I’m deeply passionate about than just an act of commerce. And whether it’s producing a thing like ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ or writing a script like ‘The Report,’ I feel better prepared for the moments that are going to require an act of will.”