An Interview with
Three Investigators Screenwriter
David Howard

by Corey Steven New

April 28, 2004

David Howard, internationally known screenwriter, script doctor/consultant, is the Founding Director of the Graduate Screenwriting Program at USC. He wrote, "My Friend Joe" which won 12 international film festival awards, including five best picture prizes and an audience award at Edinburgh. He has also written or co-written projects which have won such awards as the Humanitas Prize, the Cable/ACE Award and the Emmy Award. Among his other produced works are the features: "A Sordid Affair," "Mayday," the multiple-award winning Lifetime film, "Wildflower," and "Running Mates," for HBO plus episodes of "Rugrats." Recent projects include the feature length animated film, "A Snail's Tale," "The Bride of the Sea," which was shot in May, 2003 and the upcoming German television film, "Family Time." He is the author of "The Tools of Screenwriting," which has been adopted by many of the world's top film schools and his second book, "How to Build a Great Screenplay," will be published in November 2004. He has also taught throughout Europe, in South America, Central America, North America and the Middle East. 

I spoke with Mr. Howard about his writing career and his latest screenwriting assignment, The Secret of Skeleton Island, based on the popular children's book series The Three Investigators written by Robert Arthur.
Corey Steven New (CSN): What got you interested in screenwriting? How long have you been doing it?

David Howard (DH): My first interest wasn't in screenwriting, it was in writing books. From early childhood on, books were sacred objects to me, because I was a voracious reader. I thought writing books would be the best of all possible ways to make a living. When I became an adult, reality, or fear, set in and I thought perhaps writing might be a more achievable sideline than full time job. I started a small business and wrote in my spare time. I continually wrote on the side, with only marginal success.

Over the years, I started to think film might be a viable direction for my work. I loved films, I tended to think in dramatic terms and I discovered that storytelling was paramount for me; fabulous prose was less important to me than who the human beings were in my stories - what they did and what they wanted. I joined a local film organization and it was through that group that I met Frank Daniel in a workshop. I learned more about writing and storytelling in my first hour with him than I had in the previous decade. I was hooked.

That was over twenty years ago. I sold my business, my wife and I sold our house, we moved to New York and I studied with Frank full time at Columbia University. I became a teacher practically the day I finished my studies at Columbia and have now been full-time on the faculty at the University of Southern California for seventeen years.

CSN: What was one of the things you learned from Mr. Daniel in that first hour?

DH: One of the most important things I learned from Frank in the first hour (and throughout our years of working together) was that a story is about the experience you are creating for the audience.  Like many beginning writers, I thought all I needed to do was figure out my characters and the world and the conflicts and then the story was done.   I didn't realize that is only part of the process.  The "telling" in storytelling is consciously striving to have an intended impact on the audience - to give them an exciting and meaningful experience through the lives of the characters.  To create that experience we make thousands of decisions about what portion of the lives and world and conflicts we reveal when, in what order, for what impact.  That's true storytelling.

CSN: Is Mr. Daniel still teaching today?

DH: Unfortunately my mentor, friend and collaborator, died a number of years ago. He is sorely missed in the world of film and writing education. Last spring an international congress met in Prague to honor and remember Frank and it included writers, teachers and film professionals from all over the world, including Frank Pierson, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - an Oscar-winner himself and long-time friend and admirer of Frank's.

CSN: The University of Southern California is routinely considered one the best film schools in the world. Tell us about your position there.

DH: I've been at USC 17 years now. Sixteen years ago, I was asked to create a graduate level program in screenwriting - so I became the founding director of the Graduate Screenwriting Program which I built from scratch. It is now often cited as the best screenwriting program in the country and has produced some of the top film and television writers not only in the US, but in world cinema.
CSN: Any success stories you'd like to share?

DH: The writers of such American films as Air Force One, Chicken Run, Natural Born Killers, Hand that Rocks the Cradle, End of Days, Permanent Midnight, Kiss the Girls, Sweet Home Alabama, and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge all came from that program or were my students at USC. Also such noted German filmmakers as Hans-Christian Schmid and Susanne Hake studied there, along with Sytze van der Laan and screenwriters from nearly 30 countries around the world. The writer of the last several Ken Loach films, Paul Laverty, and the co-author of the German Oscar-nominee, Beyond Silence both studied there. Writers, staff writers, head writers, producers and even creators of some top American television series have also studied in the Graduate Screenwriting Program. Included in their credits are shows like Cosby, West Wing, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, X-Files, Coach, Home Improvement, The Drew Carey Show, Judging Amy, NYPD Blue, The Practice, Boom Town and Star Trek: Voyager.

CSN: What is it that you find most gratifying about teaching?

DH: What I find most gratifying about teaching is being able to work with, guide and help such talented writers just as they are discovering their abilities and learning their craft. To help someone grapple with what it is to create drama, how drama can be put on the page, how the interactions of the characters can be used for far greater purposes than simply the momentary elements of a scene - all of these are part of what makes teaching a perfect companion to a writing career. It's exercising the same "muscles" I use in my own writing, but in a helpful and social way. It's good for a writer to get out of the house sometimes, to interact with real people and not just their characters - and teaching provides all that.

CSN: Before we launch into your involvement with The Three Investigators, let's talk about your book coming out this fall, How to Build a Great Screenplay. What makes this screenwriting book stand out from the other "How to" screenwriting books on the market? 

DH: Eleven years ago I finally published my first book - which was, of course, about screenwriting - The Tools of Screenwriting. It's been translated into German (Drehbuch Handwerk), Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Korean and is now required reading at a great many top film schools in the world. My new book, How to Build a Great Screenplay will be published by St. Martin's Press in November, 2004.

Tools is an introduction to dramatic theory, with many basic and practical applications to film and television storytelling. How to Build is even more practical and pragmatic and concerned with how stories are structured, how they are "built" by storytellers. This book is specifically geared to help film storytellers wander through the wilderness of their own imaginations and desires for their stories - and come out with a workable story at the end which reflects what they set out to do.

Unlike most screenwriting books you find, mine does not work from a single paradigm and does not try to force every story into that formula. No single structure covers all the differing ways in which effective and affecting stories can be told. Not all stories are hero's journeys and not all stories are anti-hero's journeys. Some aren't journeys at all and they are still just as worthwhile for an audience and just as important to their authors.

I've taken what I've learned in two decades of film study, teaching and extensive professional writing and tried to make it accessible to anyone seriously interested in writing for film and television. I like to say that a lot of the books you find about screenwriting talk very nicely about "flowers." I don't talk much about flowers, I'm a gardener. I've got dirt under my fingernails and I know how much water and fertilizer to spread around. That's what I deal with in How to Build a Great Screenplay - working in the garden of your own imagination and intentions. The results are the flowers; the exhilarating dirty work is what the book is about.
Interviewer's Note: Beginning in 1964, Robert Arthur began to write The Three Investigators series of books in the small Victorian sea resort town of Cape May, New Jersey. He wrote two books per year before he died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 2, 1969, at the age of fifty-nine.  The Three Investigators (T3I) became a very successful children's book series throughout the world in the mid-1960s and 70s, and still holds an almost religious following in Germany to this day. T3I is about three young boys, Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews, who form The Three Investigators, a detective agency in Rocky Beach, California (near Hollywood) whose motto is "We Investigate Anything."

I asked Mr. Howard about the project.

CSN: How did you get the assignment to write The Three Investigators?

DH: One of the things I've discovered in life as well as in storytelling is how important convergences are. Meetings that at first seem to have only one purpose in your life - like meeting Frank Daniel in a one-month workshop - may take on extraordinary new meanings which can only be understood long after the original event took place. What began as merely working with Frank for one month turned into my moving to New York, then to Los Angeles, starting to work and teach in Europe and now having an international career in writing, teaching and film consulting. If that one convergence had not happened, who knows what I'd be doing? I know two books and a number of films and television programs would never have been written.

The road to my being part of The Three Investigators projects is quite similar to that.

A little over a dozen years ago I was teaching a workshop in Holland and had a very talented young writer in my group. He was Syzte van der Laan and I suggested - much as Frank had done with me years earlier - that he come to California and study full-time. He did and we built a relationship that extended far beyond the teacher-student level at which we began. After he started on his remarkable career in Germany, we collaborated on a children's film called My Friend Joe. I adapted the novel and he produced. It won about a dozen festival awards, including Best Children's Film at the Berlinale. Since then we have continually looked for other opportunities to work together.

A number of years later I was doing another workshop, this one in Paris, called Pygmalion and it was for family and children's television programming. One of the participants there was Ronald Kruschak of Studio Hamburg. This was before Syzte had joined forces with Studio Hamburg. We got to know each other a bit and then went on our ways, both thinking the other would be good to work with - but on what? Here is where convergences start to come into play.

When Studio Hamburg secured the rights to The Three Investigators, Ronald and Sytze wrestled with the dilemma of who would adapt it. They wanted someone who knew the German film world and European film making, but who also knew Los Angeles, American life and wrote for children. They both suggested me to the other. You have to love those convergences. Put that in a film and the audience won't buy it - too convenient, too much of a coincidence. 

CSN: Did you read T3I books as a child (or adult)?

DH: When Robert Arthur started writing The Three Investigators books in the mid-1960s I was already older than their target audience, so I didn't read them at that time. But I remember the whole series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents books and I was an avid fan of the television series for which Arthur wrote as well. I worked in a bookstore when I finished my undergraduate studies - sacred objects, remember - and we carried the full line of books. At that time, it was nowhere near the number of titles now available in German.

Of course now I have read many of the titles available in English and will continue to read through the extensive and delightful series. It reminds me of when I received The Complete Sherlock Holmes as a gift - 1600 pages. I dove in, reading as fast as I could. Then after just a few days I had only 1000 pages left! Terrified I would finish those wonderful works too quickly, I started rationing the stories for myself, only so many pages per day. I can see how the same has happened for a couple generations of German readers...there are only 100 books, I'd better ration them. It's such a wonderful, exciting and, at the same time, comforting world to enter. You don't want to leave and you have those 100 stories in which to enjoy it.
CSN: Did you speak with Elizabeth Arthur about her fathers writings? (Note: Ms. Arthur holds the rights to her father's books and was deeply involved in negotiating the film rights).

DH:  I've yet to have the pleasure of speaking with Elizabeth Arthur.  Between her hectic schedule and mine, plus the fact we live a couple thousand miles apart, have so far prohibited our meeting, but I fully expect to have an illuminating time with her sometime soon, finding out more about her father's life and writing. And I'm sure you're aware, she's a professional writer as well.

CSN: How was the decision to set the movie in the present decided?

DH: When we were wrestling with the question of whether to make The Three Investigators a period story or not, we discussed whether the books were intended originally to be period or whether they were simply set in the present when they were first written - and now some 40 years have passed. The truth is Robert Arthur set his first stories in his present time period. Alfred Hitchcock was a famous contemporary presence in the world in those days - as opposed to the famous and influential memory he is now.

Some stories must be told as period pieces because some historic element is part of the story or the world it is set in. Cold Mountain is such a story. Some stories must be told as period pieces because the world has changed so much in some particular way since they were written or since the events happened that the social conditions necessary for the story to make sense must be presented in the original time setting. For example, Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Hans-Christian Schmid's 23 fit this category.

Our question was, did Robert Arthur's work demand to be set in the 1960s, was that his intention? Has the world of 12 year olds changed so much that we would have to set the stories back then or they would make no sense? And, would an audience of today's 12 year olds relate to stories set then or could they more readily find a way into the stories in a present-tense setting? As much as we have a potential audience of 30 and 40 year olds - and we hope they want to see our films - what we are making is first and foremost children's cinema. We hope the kids will bring their parents and we hope the grown-up Three Investigators fans will bring their kids.

But the real question came down to what is most important for accessibility for the core audience - the children of today. It seemed that there was no overriding need to set the stories in the 1960s - there was no social element that has changed significantly since then in terms that impact our stories, there was no original intention that these stories had to exist solely in a 1960s setting and there was a compelling argument that the children of today could more readily be brought into the world we are creating and the stories we are telling if the time setting is their own.

Clearly it is important that we not destroy anything in the process, so a large part of my effort in modernizing and updating this first story has been toward finding the equivalents for today's kids to what kids lived through in the mid-1960s. It's a time I know well from having lived it and, being a father, I feel I have a sense of what children of today also connect with. I hope that I can be a bridge between the two time periods so that what was compelling about the original stories remains, yet finds its place in a 2004 setting.

CSN: How are you going to handle the back story on T3I? What about the all-important Jones Salvage Yard and the secret tunnels which were not mentioned in The Secret of Skeleton Island?

DH: Never fear, the Jones Salvage yard, Headquarters and the tunnel into it all make appearances in our first film. You have to understand that a world 40 years in the making cannot be made into one or two or three films without some accommodation being made, without some efficiencies being created and some liberties being taken. These are not taken lightly, but they are necessary. We have three kinds of audience members to deal with - adults who have grown up with The Three Investigators, children who currently know and love the stories and a whole world of children (and we hope their parents) who have yet to have that pleasure but who will share the joy once they are introduced.

It was clear from the outset that one of Robert Arthur's original ten novels would be the source material for the first film. The question was, which one would give us the best opportunity to introduce Jupiter, Pete and Bob to all three kinds of audience we have? What story could best give us a start, an entrée, into three quite different populations and remain true to the original. Though the series of books began with The Secret of Terror Castle, we felt that story was somewhat less cinematic than The Secret of Skeleton Island which has excitement, danger, mystery, beautiful scenery and exotic locations already built-in. We have had to borrow a few elements and moments from other stories and create equivalents to help introduce newcomers to this world - for the boys to form their team, become friends and become "The Three Investigators."

We can't make a film only for people who have read and loved every word of the novels any more than the Tolkien Trilogy can be put on film solely for the already initiated. We have to let others into the world and we felt that Skeleton Island gave us the greatest opportunity to bring everyone in.
CSN: Did the box office success of Pirates of the Caribbean influence in any way the decision to make of The Secret of Skeleton Island first?

DH: Rather than Pirates of the Caribbean being part of the reason we chose Skeleton Island, it was more a matter of that film making us wonder if we shouldn't choose another of Robert Arthur's novels. With "???" we have stories that happen to "real" kids, to boys who could be you or me, in a realistic version of the world. That's a huge part of the charm and success of the whole series - each of us could imagine ourselves in the shoes of Jupiter or Pete or Bob. The world in our stories couldn't be more different from Pirates, yet there it was, very successful and perhaps making us look like copycats. But we have a novel from 1966 as the basis of our first film, so we're hardly copying a 2003 feature film.

Still, it gave us a bit to think about when that film did so well. In the end, we decided that this was still our best story for the first film for all the reasons I cited above. I think the audience will soon enough learn that we haven't copied anything from Pirates. We have all borrowed from the lore of Seventeenth Century pirates, but where we have gone with that lore and how it impacts the lives of the children and adults in our time period, plus how we have treated that lore are so vastly different, I hope any thoughts of Pirates of the Caribbean will quickly evaporate for our audience. That was last year's mega-hit, I hope ours will be next year's.

CSN: Did you outline the story before you began to write the screenplay? Was there an agreed upon outline or treatment with the producer?

DH: Yes the story was outlined in detail and it was rewritten in outline form several times until we were happy with our initial direction.  Stories inevitably evolve, they don't just come out in a single whole piece, the way a song or a poem might.  A screenplay is simply too complex and inter-related to be perfect on the first try.  In fact, perfection isn't a possibility at all, so one continues to rework, re-invent, re-envision and rewrite.  That first outline and treatment were our first best guess of how the story could work and that was the first draft I wrote.  Even then, there are things which change between outline and first draft.  And then its time for those involved to read, give notes and we re-envision, revise and, in the parts where its necessary, re-outline even.

CSN: Will there be a female investigator added to the boy trio?

DH:  We're not going to change it into ???? but we have developed a female character pretty thoroughly.  No decisions have been made about exactly how we will use her.  I think she will probably be a recurring character, but not a standard part of every story the way Jupiter, Pete and Bob must be.

CSN: Will T3I keep their physical characteristics? Jupiter, fat/stout? Pete, the muscular athlete? Bob, the records keeper? And how old are they to be in the script?

DH: At least on the page, each of them is as envisioned in the books: Jupe is stout, Pete is tall and athletic, Bob is the record keeper who has a limp from his injured leg.  Whether the final casting will reflect every fan's version of these three is another matter.  It's not really possible that we will match everyone's idea of how these boys look and act, since each of us makes them up in our own heads.  But at the same time, the effort is consciously being made to stay with the trio we've all come to love.

It was decided not to make all of the boys exactly the same age, but to spread them out just a little bit.  In the script, we have Bob at 10, Jupiter at 11 and Pete at 12.  How that will translate in the casting is still to be seen, because there's no way to know in advance if we'll be able to find good child actors who exactly fit those descriptions.  That's a big challenge.

CSN: How deep are the social issues that were present in The Secret of Skeleton Island going to be ingrained into the story?

DH: The social issue of the immigrant and outsider who is readily blamed for local crimes is quite present in the novel of [The Secret of] Skeleton Island.  While some adjustments have been made because of the intervening 40 years of historical change, that issue still exists in America, and everywhere else, and it has a significant place in our telling of the story.
CSN: What is the biggest change that faithful Three Investigators readers will notice between the book and the movie?

DH: Do you really want me to give away the biggest change? 

CSN: Yes

DH: Let's put it this way, we are making every effort to give the same exact kind of experience in the film that each of us has had when reading the books:  mystery, suspense, puzzle solving, joking interplay among the boys, kids outsmarting adults, building a close relationship with someone in the story beyond the trio of boys and involvement in a distinct, new corner of the world.  At the same time, we have the needs of an uninitiated audience to consider.  We have to establish the boys, their friendship, relationships and roles within the trio, the creation of the team as The Three Investigators, the putting together of the lives and world that forty years of books have revealed.   So don't expect a transcription of the novel to the screen, scene by scene, event by event.  That wouldn't cover all the things this first film needs to do.  And in fact, straight transcriptions of novels to the screen almost never work, the building of the story in the book was for a different purpose and under different circumstances.  Adaptation requires finding dramatic equivalents and many instances of having to decide between the spirit and the letter of a moment in the story.  We have opted to stay with the spirit of T3I so that you will have the same exact kind of experience in the film as you've had in the books.  But I hope we will still manage to throw a few unexpected twists and turns at you even if you've memorized the book.  I hope everyone gets into that spirit, this is the same thing only it's new and a bit unexpected too.


This interview with David Howard was conducted by Corey Steven New via email over a two month period.  Corey Steven New is a screenwriter and produced playwright.

Webmaster's Note:  As detailed in the movie press release of December 1, 2003, Elizabeth Arthur acts as the creative consultant for The Three Investigators script and overall movie/TV project to ensure that the spirit of Robert Arthur's universe remains intact.  As of this publication, Ms. Arthur has not read the latest draft of the script nor has she signed off on any of the decisions which this interview reflects.

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