Max Borenstein’s meteoric rise through Hollywood began long before he graduated from school. He’s wanted to be a screenwriter his entire life and very proactively pursued the craft when most of us were awkwardly trying to get through junior high. While he was still at Yale, he made a film, Swordswallowers and Thin Man, that won awards for best feature film and best screenplay at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival. Twice chosen for a much coveted selection to the “Black List,” Max quickly gained a reputation for writing smart and entertaining screenplays since graduating school. He’s currently writing his biggest credits to date including the new Warner Brothers remake of Godzilla, with a very bright future ahead. We had a chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions from the perspective of a young writer in the entertainment industry.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
I come from a family of storytellers. Eccentric, convivial, rambunctious intellectuals and show-folks without the concept of an inside voice. Writers, comics, old vaudevillians. In gatherings like that, stories were the currency – jokes, chestnuts, punny turns of phrase – that was how you won the room. So maybe this career path was not so much inspired as required to survive,
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point in your career?
As a high school freshman, I cold-called Oliver Stone’s production company and asked if they needed a summer intern. They told me to come in for an interview, and thinking back on it now it must have seemed delightfully absurd for them to discover in the waiting room not your normal film school grad, but some pimply 13-year-old with both proud parents flanked in tow. They would have driven me because I had no license and both waited patiently, perusing copies of Variety, while their only son adjourned to the conference room for his very first actual genuine Hollywood “meeting.”
The hardball interview questions ran along the lines of “What’s your favorite movie?”, but I suppose I handled myself capably enough because by the time it was over, I had a job. It would not be pretty, they warned me – mostly pouring coffee and making copies – but at least I could read some scripts on the side and learn the ropes. I was thrilled.
And then they broke my heart. The answering machine was blinking when we got home. My new employers had only just looked closer at my paperwork and realized I was 13, a minor – somehow the topic had not come up “in room” – and therefore to hire me would, well, be illegal. I was devastated. I had just lost my first gig in the movies before it even started! A few days passed. Then a package of screenplays showed up at the door along with a note from the executive I interviewed with inviting me to analyze them – write “coverage,” he called it. He paper-clipped a sample, so I could see what that entailed and I came back in for a meeting the following week. That meeting led to another meeting, which led to more (a crash course, by the way, in the basic currency of Hollywood; meetings, meetings, and more meetings!) and soon I was being mentored through a screenplay of my own.
I was writing a movie. Then rewriting it. And rewriting it again – my mentor was tough but fair. And that was another key crash course. I must have written a dozen drafts by the end of that first summer. None that will ever escape the drawer. But my 10,000 hours had begun. At 13. And all because one cutthroat Hollywood executive turned out to have a heart of gold. Thanks, Jon!
What were your favorite movies when you were growing up?
As a young kid, I was a pretty obsessive film buff. Back before the days of IMDb and Netflix, I would while away the hours trolling a terrific CD-ROM movie database called Cinemania, then renting and dubbing copies of everything the local Tower Video had to offer – the more obscure the better – with occasional detours to specialty shops like Vidiots or Cinefile (or Facets in Chicago via mail-away) for the especially hard-to-come-by titles. But my absolute life-changing favorites? Kubrick, Kurosawa, Woody Allen, Orson Welles. Above all others, Welles.
How did you become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange? What were your first thoughts on the program?
I first became aware of The Exchange by way of a phenomenal pair of consultations we had for an upcoming Disney movie. It is basically a space epic and our ambition – producer’s, studio’s, my own – is to ground it as much as possible in authentic science. The Exchange put together a panel of bona fide geniuses. I will admit I went into the first consult with a whiff of concern that our “out there” concept might be laughed off as silly or implausible. But in fact, the scientists were incredibly supportive. Helping us hone the story in innumerable ways, hewing closer to scientific reality where possible, but also giving us the critical dispensation to “invoke magic” when necessary – because hell, it is still a story after all! And besides, sometimes what seems like magic in pulpy science fiction winds up as an app on our iPhones only a few years later.
What do you think you learned from the scientists you have met that made you a better filmmaker?
Awe. Wonder. Sheer, slack-jawed amazement at this vast, unknowable universe combined with a plucky, irrepressible determination to get to know it anyway!
What scientists, dead or living, would you want to have over for dinner?
Carl Sagan. Richard Feynman. Albert Einstein. And can Orson Welles come, too? I think that would be a hell of a party.
Is there a science subject you have a particular fondness for?
I am a huge dork about the universe, space, the possibility – probability! – of extra-terrestrial intelligences, artificial intelligences. Time travel would be neat and I am certainly a fan of the past – some periods more than others, of course; Algonquin Round Table, I am looking at you – but I think if I really had the choice I would crank that dial to the future. And the really grand news is we are all headed that way anyway!
Why should film and television projects consider science advising? What is the advantage of using real science in film or television? How important do you think it is for movies and television to portray science as accurately as possible?
From a sort of larger social perspective, I would say it is crucial. We are living in an age where cutting-edge science and technology are simultaneously more pervasive (we use them every day, in every way) and less accessible (just to tinker, one requires all manner of specialized, rarified degrees) than ever before. That means we understand less and less about the things we use the most. And not just in the technical sense, but philosophically, conceptually, spiritually. Our stories can to help us to grapple and engage these questions.
And also, accurate science just makes for cooler fiction! Not too accurate, mind you. It is inevitable we eventually depart – I mean, that is the job, is it not? But a good story needs firm footing in “what is” to take that leap toward “what might be.” And when movies do science (even pseudo science) really well – 2001, Close Encounters, Ghostbusters leap to mind – well, to quote another favorite, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
I do not know. I like to think of myself as the next generation of filmmakers. So I guess I will be needing that time machine to leap ahead and answer this one in the future. I look forward to hearing what I say!
Anything you can share about your next project? Here is your chance to go crazy!
My next project is a reboot of Godzilla for Legendary Pictures and the folks behind the recent Batman trilogy. Our director is the young and enviably talented Gareth Edwards, whose vision for a fresh but faithful update of this beloved classic will – I feel safe in saying – kick major ass. Wish I could go crazy and tell you more, but I am pretty sure I would then be contractually obligated to be shot.