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Hollywood’s Franchise Power Couple

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Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are so in sync that they tend to finish each other’s sentences, a habit that has come in handy during decades spent together writing some of Hollywood’s biggest movies — all while maintaining a 35-year-long marriage.

The duo arrived on the scene with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the 1992 female-led thriller that Silver wrote in USC grad school and got made with the help of Jaffa, then an agent at William Morris, who put it in front of the right people and worked as an uncredited writer on the film. Their careers took off in earnest when they revamped a flagging but treasured 20th Century Fox franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the 2011 feature that took a risk by focusing on an ape protagonist (Andy Serkis’ Caesar) and redefined what was possible with motion capture technology. 

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The movie put them on the wish list for top filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, who tapped them to revive Jurassic Park, and James Cameron, who recruited them to join his Avatar writers room and later entrusted them with penning Avatar: The Way of Water and the upcoming Avatar 3. Says Cameron: “I have long admired Rick and Amanda’s storytelling and enjoyed working with them on Avatar: The Way of Water and the other Avatar sequels. They are brilliant writers and thoughtful collaborators, and they have the unique ability to create believable characters in fantastical worlds.”

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes director Wes Ball and producer Joe Hartwick, Jr. say in their own statement: “We feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with such insightful and passionate collaborators in both Rick and Amanda. Invariably, throughout the filmmaking process, you strive to keep a balance between theme, plot and emotion on the page. They were excellent partners in keeping us on track. Of course, you have to make compromises along the way, but when you have creative partners like them, you feel they are somehow able to stay above it all and keep a singular focus on the most important elements of the story. So you trust in both their support and criticisms.”

Jaffa and Silver’s films have topped $6 billion at the global box office, with their latest, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, arriving in theaters May 10. Over a Zoom conversation in April, the duo reflect on how advocating to become producers on Apes saved them when the studio wanted to boot them from Rise, share what it’s like to get 800 pages of homework from Cameron, and explain why growing a thick skin is key to surviving as a Hollywood writer.

Rick, you went from agent to screenwriter. Did seeing Amanda studying in grad school make the jump seem appealing?

RICK JAFFA I would say that actually started when I was much younger. I loved movies and saw a ton of films. I would drive from the small town I grew up in to Dallas and go to a revival house and watch old movies. I always thought it would be fun to try to write movies. On our first date, Amanda and I ended up at Dupar’s over on Ventura Boulevard. We sat up, talking about movies over coffee and pancakes all night long. And that was a moment when I started thinking more and more that I could try to make the switch.

AMANDA SILVER We were always going to movies, talking about movies, and I’d come talking to you about what I had been learning [at USC film school]. But I think it was a big leap for you to write your first script — as an agent.

Amanda, you wrote The Hand That Rocks the Cradle as your thesis project at USC. Did you intend to sell it, perhaps with help from Rick and his agenting connections?

SILVER It was my first full script, so I certainly had no expectations that it could sell, much less be a successful movie. It took a long time and a lot of iterations to get to that place. Rick came on and started writing with me.

JAFFA Once we started getting reactions from our friends, many of whom were agents, we started realizing that it had a really good chance of selling. It started to feel like a very commercial and different kind of thriller.

SILVER I wrote it as my thesis, not because it was commercial. I wrote because it was personal, from a female point of view. I think for a while after, we weren’t writing so much what was personal. We were going from job to job and we were just figuring out what we wanted to say.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was a sleeper hit, earning $88 million and starring Rebecca De Mornay as a nanny with a secret. Buena Visa Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Cradle was a hit, and a few more modest movies quickly followed (1996’s Eye for an Eye and 1997’s The Relic). But then it was 14 years before anything you wrote hit the big screen again. What was life like then?

SILVER We had three movies we wrote that were very different from each other for Working Title in the 2000s. We loved working with those guys, we loved those scripts.

JAFFA One was a love story set against World War I. The other was a Southern California surfer noir, which was really cool and fun. And then the other was a romantic comedy with an element of fantasy in it.

SILVER You write something. You spend a year on it. You pour your heart and soul in it, and 20 people read it.

JAFFA And tell you how great it is.

SILVER It’s part of the job.

JAFFA But it wasn’t like they were hard times. We were making a living and raising a family. And so a lot of it was great. But there are a lot of heartaches saying goodbye to some of those characters who don’t get the chance [onscreen].

How do you two write? Do you trade pages?

JAFFA It’s really evolved over the years. We would be writing two scripts at once, and one of us would take the lead on one script and the other take the lead on the other script. Once every 30 pages or so, we’d trade pages, we’d talk about it, we’d give notes. Then at one point we just thought, “Let’s just stay in the room together from start to finish.”

SILVER We know how to be quiet and let the other one think.

JAFFA We do tend to finish each other’s thoughts. Sometimes we don’t even have to finish the sentence. We sit in the room, and we start from the very beginning. Just a lot of talking, a lot of note taking, a lot of ideas exchanged and so forth. An outline starts to come to shape, and then we just sit down and open up Final Draft and see where we go.

Who does the actual typing?

JAFFA (Motions to Silver.)

SILVER The control freak. That’s me. (Laughs.)

The joke is that screenwriters have the least power on a movie. But with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you became producers. How did that happen?

JAFFA On the scripts that we love that did not get made, decisions were made in rooms that we were not part of. So, when the Apes idea came together and we called Peter Kang, who was the executive on the movies at Fox, we said we had an idea to reboot one of their franchises, but we had to be producers on it.

SILVER It was 2006 when we sold the idea, and they weren’t making a big commitment yet. They were just hiring us to write it. So it was kind of an easy yes for them. We didn’t have grand ambitions about being producers. I’m kind of an introvert. I prefer to be with my computer and with the story, but it just evolved from there.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes stars Owen Teague, Freya Allan and Peter Macon. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Being producers kept you on the project, even when the studio had doubts and replaced you as screenwriters at one point, only to bring you back.

SILVER We were fired a few times and brought back a few times. We followed Rise all the way through production and post. Thank goodness we asked to be producers. I wish more writers got to be producers on their work. You write a script and you’re done, and then the director goes and makes a movie that you’re excited about, and you don’t hear anything. Things go silent for 18 months.

JAFFA We’ve encouraged all the writers we’ve spoken to to push to become producers on their projects. If they say no, they say no. They’re not going to offer it to you. You have to ask and state your case. And sometimes we’ve been told no. That’s fine, but at least we asked.

What was the script that got Steven Spielberg thinking you should come work on the first Jurassic World movie?

JAFFA It was Rise. I think he was a fan. We had our first meeting literally the day before we turned in the first draft of [2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, their second installment in the franchise]. It was kind of a general meeting. We weren’t prepared at all. We were so deeply involved in the script and Dawn.

Jurassic World subverted expectations by making velociraptors sympathetic characters, something Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Steven Spielberg talked about extensively. Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Amanda, as an introvert, how do you navigate Hollywood moments like pitching to Spielberg?

SILVER I am so out of my comfort zone in these meetings, but meeting Steven Spielberg was a thrill. I think he’s used to people being nervous around him. And so he’s very generous and puts you at ease. We did have a bunch of meetings with him, once we got the job, where we developed the story, before he sent us off to write. I think there are lots of screenwriters who are introverts, and you’re out of your comfort zone a lot when you pitch. And you’ve got to grow a very tough, rough skin at the same time as you’re trying to remain sensitive and open.

Unlike Apes, your time with Jurassic ended after the first one, and other talent came in and did their own work on it [director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly]. Nonetheless, do you still feel proud of that movie?

SILVER Absolutely.

JAFFA Some of the same spirit we brought to Apes led to getting Jurassic back on its feet, meaning [attention to] character and honoring what came before, but also going in a different direction. It was some of the same things that we did for Rise and later for Avatar. And then we hear David Koepp is writing the next one [a 2025 sequel for Universal]. He’s a great writer, so it should be really exciting to see what they do with it next.

When James Cameron came calling, did it feel like an audition, or is he calling with a job offer?

SILVER He is a genius at casting, and he knew what he wanted for that writers room, which was a small group to help him figure out what at that time was three movies. We had worked with him and Jon Landau on Fantastic Voyage at Fox, which was a movie they were developing there. I think we did two drafts.

JAFFA He also had been a fan of Rise, and then he had asked if there was one draft of the script that we liked more than another. We sent him a draft — I don’t think it was a final draft. Jim said to me at one point that he knew that, as a married couple, we had been collaborating a long time. We knew how to listen to one another and to work as a team. And so I think that had a lot to do with him bringing us on, too.

Avatar: The Way of Water is the first of two Avatar sequels penned by the duo. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

And the first thing he does is send you 800 pages to print out once you sign on to the movie?

JAFFA Our deal was closed, and I texted him to say, “We’re so excited. Is there anything you want us to take a look at before we get started?” That’s when he sent me this long email with a link at the bottom to Pandorapedia (a Wikipedia-style website for Avatar lore). I just hit print. And it just kept going and going and going. That was just the beginning. He had us read a lot of books, see a lot of movies, look at some art. He’d been making notes on it since high school. And he sat us all down [including fellow writers Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno] and walked us through his ideas and notes for characters and story points, plot twists and so forth. And we just sat there for the first few weeks and went to Avatar graduate school.

SILVER He’s a wonderful collaborator because he’s very opinionated and he knows what he wants, but he’s also open and listening to what you’re offering and incorporating new ideas and thoughts. We had the art department one floor above us. We would be funneling ideas up to them. They would be funneling these gorgeous images down to us, characters and creatures and set pieces. It was a wonderful time to work. It was six months of real productivity.

You broke the stories with Cameron and the writers, then went off to write Avatar 2. How did that movie end up becoming two separate scripts?

JAFFA We sent him the pages [we’d written so far] and he was very excited and very complimentary, but he said, “I’m worried that we’re going to be long.” And so I said, “We are, too. Do you want us to go back and edit these pages or keep going?” And then we got an email back. It just said, “Take the hill.” So, we kept going.

SILVER We knew it was too long.

JAFFA There were attempts to edit it down to one movie. And then Jim came to us and said, “Look, we’re going to make it two movies.”

Did you have to turn down work or put your life on hold when word came that you’d be adding another Avatar to your plate?

JAFFA It didn’t change our lives that much really, because we had already written a lot. There was a different skill set to make it two complete stand-alone films. We had the advantage that Jim was doing a lot of the work, too.

Your Avatar friend Josh Friedman wrote the new Apes movie. Did you bring him aboard, or was that director Wes Ball?

JAFFA We were very instrumental in bringing on Josh. What was then Fox [before the Disney merger] came to us and said, “Wes is interested in this. Let’s get you guys together.” And we said, “We’d love to meet Wes, but we’re not available to write it.” Well, then, who’s going to do it? And it ended up being Josh.

How far out are you plotting these movies?

JAFFA With Kingdom, we really feel like we’ve set the foundation for at least two more movies with these characters. But we’ll see. A lot of it depends on the audience’s reaction, too.

SILVER When you first came up with this idea, the Apes franchise way back, you saw nine movies. We thought, “This is crazy ambitious.” But here we are. We’re at four.

JAFFA I saw nine. I don’t know if we’ll make it to nine. I would love it. We’ve spoken to not just Wes and Josh and [producer] Joe Hartwick Jr., but to Steve Asbell and Scott Aversano at 20th about what these next movies can be.

SILVER It’s really interesting to be working on a franchise which is so quietly subversive in its way and has something to say and asks questions.

JAFFA Is there room for two intelligent species?

Have you ever seriously considered writing a superhero movie? I’d imagine you’ve been approached.

JAFFA We haven’t heard from those people. I think that it would be a lot of fun and a great challenge for us. We’ve been fortunate that since 2006, we’ve just been really busy, and so haven’t had the opportunity to explore that. I was a big comic book fan.

The remake of Disney’s Mulan was released in September 2020, during the pandemic, to theaters and on Disney+. Jasin Boland/Disney+/Courtesy Everett Collection

How would you advise people trying to become screenwriters in this distressed environment?

SILVER Try to make the stories as personal as possible, rather than trying to contort yourself into what the market wants.

JAFFA The key is to get your material in front of people who are actually in a position to move scripts along and help you get started. If you’ve got something to say, then I think eventually you’ll get on track.

As producers on Apes, you had more power. Has that made you want to step behind the camera to direct?

SILVER (Pause.) What do you think? Maybe?

JAFFA Yeah, we’d consider it. I think it has to be the right material at this point. Certainly, we’ve thought about it.

This story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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