Scott Rosenberg, Writer of The New 'Jumanji' Franchise, Part I: From Indie Specs to Blockbusters And Back
December 5, 2019
It would be difficult to pinpoint what screenwriter-producer Scott Rosenberg is best known for.
His original scripts, cult classics Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and Beautiful Girls, catapulted him to A-list writer status in the '90s. He is a writer on blockbuster giants like the reboot Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the Marvel film Venom. High Fidelity, the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel which Rosenberg co-wrote, shaped an entire generation. And there are still diehard fans who ask about that fire truck chase scene in 1997’s action romp Con Air. And that’s not counting the many television shows Rosenberg has developed and produced for various networks and streaming platforms over the last decade or so.
A pillar of the Austin Film Festival (AFF) community, Rosenberg graciously sat down with Final Draft for an interview. In Part I, we’ll cover his extensive history as a writer of both blockbusters and indies, drawing from the interview as well as from past AFF panels. In Part II, we’ll move into his recent ventures as a prolific television producer.
His breakthrough first came with Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, in which an ex-gangster (Andy Garcia) who records messages for the dying on video ends up facing imminent death at the hands of an angry Mob boss (Christopher Walken). Rosenberg came up with the idea after his father died. He wanted to write about terminal disease, he said, then switched milieus to create a gangster film. People were talking about the script long before the film came to life, according to Rosenberg.
His next spec script, Beautiful Girls, is quite a turnaround from Things to Do in Denver. A comedy-romance about a piano player returning home for a high school reunion, the credits read like a who’s who of Hollywood stars: Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Natalie Portman, Mira Sorvino, and Uma Thurman, to name a few.
Rosenberg was going through a break-up at the time and hanging with his rugged Boston friends; guys who literally run the snowplows through vicious blizzards.
“I was so tired of writing hard guys,” he recalled. Rosenberg said he went into his room, vowing, “I’m going to write a movie about guys, and it’s going to be called Beautiful Girls.” A week later, he walked out with a finished script in hand.
Rosenberg has always been known as a fast writer.
“I would just hole up, and that’s all I would do. Three weeks time, if it’s properly outlined and worked out, you can write a first draft.”
He always advises writers not to take too long writing a screenplay.
“It shouldn’t take a year. That’s ridiculous. Especially given that it probably won’t sell.”
Writing fast worked for Rosenberg. The industry loved his voice in these two distinctive films and, in true Hollywood fashion, rewarded him with films at the other end of the spectrum: Con Air and Gone in 60 Seconds, both starring Nicolas Cage.
Both are high-octane action flicks, the first about a hijacked prisoner transport plane, the second following a retired car thief on a mission. Rosenberg is not shy about their shortcomings, such as the fact that Con Air goes on a bit too long after disposing of its central set-piece: the plane.
In an era where studios were frantically trying to one-up Independence Day’s bombastic destruction of the White House, a frustrated Rosenberg suggested a fire truck chase scene and stormed out. That chase scene ended up in the movie.
“It’s the worst part of the film,” laughed Rosenberg.
Still, it’s a film loved by many, with an endearing John Cusack and an inimitable toy bunny hostage situation.
Cusack leads the iconic High Fidelity as a list-making record store owner recounting his top five break-ups. When Rosenberg read the Hornby novel, he thought it was “so me.” He was a mess with women, for one. And “I love music. I love lists.”
High Fidelity is trending again lately because Rosenberg’s production studio, Midnight Radio, is rebooting it as a female-led television series for Hulu. We’ll cover that and an impressive list of other television shows in Part II.
Jump forward a few years (and right past an infamous comedy which shall not be named) to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, starring Dwayne Johnson. Rosenberg and his Midnight Radio producing partner Jeff Pinkner have co-writing credits on this re-imagining of the Robin Williams fantasy.
In the modern version, rather than young board game players releasing the game creatures out into the world, the players are sucked into a video game and trapped in their avatars. Rosenberg observes that the strength of the concept was obvious from the first table read because the actors were having so much fun. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s box office success and upcoming sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, prove that.
And then there’s Venom, Marvel’s parasitic antihero tale which counts Rosenberg and Pinkner among its writers. You might think you can’t go wrong with Marvel. Rosenberg disagrees, not thrilled to have his name attached to what he feels did not materialize into a good movie. However, he dug into the core element that always draws him to stories — a flawed protagonist who has the opportunity to redeem himself and put a new spin on things.
Rosenberg also has a reputation for breaking a lot of the supposed rules of screenwriting. He himself hates reading scripts, so “I have to make it fun for myself. I just have to. Writing is so hard.”
Besides, script readers — the gatekeepers of Hollywood — might read a dozen or more screenplays a weekend so making it fun for them can be helpful.
“But you can’t be winking at the reader if you don’t earn it, if there’s nothing there to support it,” Rosenberg said.
In the past, he's broken the rules in other ways, too. Beautiful Girls and Things to Do in Denver were both produced by Harvey Weinstein, the formerly esteemed producer who is now infamous for his extensive history of sexual assault and harassment. But Rosenberg did not distance himself from the scandal the way so many others did. Instead, within days he addressed the issue in typical candid fashion, publishing a Facebook post that takes his colleagues and himself to task for turning a blind eye.
He got a lot of backlash for that post, in which he states outright that everyone knew something about Weinstein’s aggressive behavior, although not the extent of it.
“It wasn’t the Harvey part that made me feel the need [to write the post]," Rosenberg said.
“It was all the other people that were taking the position that they didn’t know ... The sanctimonious clutching of pearls was, I found, obscene. And that’s why I felt compelled to write it.”
Rosenberg’s post offers a forthright apology for his inaction and a call to his colleagues to stand up as witnesses. It’s raw, scathing, complex, and strangely poetic.
Now a father of two, Rosenberg penned a new feature spec script that was inspired by the birth of his first child. But have no fear; it doesn’t involve abrasive talking sponges or babbling purple creatures. It’s a noir-ish thriller that takes place a month after the protagonist’s first child is born. Adrift in the strange new land of parenthood, the man stumbles onto a mystery that sucks him in.
“After a year of writing the two Jumanji movies and Venom, it was a really good tonic to just be able to go off,” Rosenberg said.
He also acknowledged that having a family has slowed his writing pace substantially. This script took him four years (again, though, while writing three blockbusters and running a production company as well).
According to Rosenberg, he just doesn't have the luxury to the same degree of taking off for weeks on end to do nothing but pure, focused writing. But he still sequesters himself once in a while to write “because if [my family is] with me, then I’m gonna see them. And I’m gonna want to see them.”
Has fatherhood changed what Rosenberg wants to write? Not really.
“I’ve never been one of those guys, like, ‘I wanna write something for my kids to see.’ I was always drawn to stuff that you think I might not be.”
That much is evident in Rosenberg’s unproduced Halloween thriller The Hauntrepreneur, a script that’s considerably older than the writer’s two young children. Austin Film Festival staged a live reading of it in 2018, even flying in Jason O’Mara of Rosenberg’s short-lived ABC series Life on Mars.
Fans of Rosenberg’s films may find this family-friendly spookfest surprising. O’Mara read the role of a peculiar man who decks out a family’s haunted house — for a price, of course. But at its core, the story centers on a young girl struggling with grief in a family in denial over a tragic loss. It’s an incredibly poignant story wrapped up in entertaining Halloween fanfare.
Still, having children has changed some things.
“It sounds tropey to say, but I think that having kids definitely opens your eyes to a lot of things that you didn’t see before,” Rosenberg said.
“I’m not saying that I’ve become a better writer because they’re here. But I think I’m a little bit more connected emotionally to certain things.”
In "Part II: Producing, Directing and Playing with Cow Brains," Rosenberg talks about his production company, the new television landscape, self-doubt, and the craft of screenwriting.
Written by: Asmara BhattacharyaAsmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. More can be found on her website: www.dickflicks.net or follow her on Twitter @hotpinkstreak