Bill Marsilii Interview, Screenwriter of Déjà Vu

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

"Déjà Vu," written by Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii, has a uniquely time-shifting, backwards-moving structure and offers a provocative exploration of one of life’s most inexplicable experiences through the lens of a love story and a crime-solving thriller. Around ten years ago, Rossio was in an America On Line chat room talking to different aspiring writers about their careers, when he came across Marsilii, and was immediately impressed by his insights and smarts about movies. The two seemed to have an instant creative rapport.

But Terry lives in Los Angeles and Bill in New York, so they began exchanging ideas and script concepts by e-mail over the course of several years. One of those ideas was for an unconventional, intricately woven thriller/love story that would take place unmoored from the usual rules of time. Starting with a deadly, heartbreaking tragedy, a federal agent would have to follow his sense of déjà vu and, using top secret technology, trace his steps all the way back to the moment in time when he might have a shot at altering the catastrophe and with it, his own chance for a once in a lifetime love affair.

The idea seemed to have enormous potential but was also unusually complex, pushing the thriller into realms where it usually doesn’t go. Soon Rossio and Marsilii were simultaneously developing the nuances of a romance-in-reverse, while also exploring next-generation surveillance technology and conversing with leading experts on the cutting-edge of String Theory and parallel universes.

Over time, Terry and Bill had each written different scenes that were fragments of "Déjà Vu," but had never attempted to put it all together into one continuous narrative. Then, Rossio heard Jerry Bruckheimer Films was looking for a new large-scale film project and he had a feeling this story of romance, crime and time travel would resonate with the producer. He and Marsilii cleaned up what they had, and sent a first draft of "Déjà Vu" to Bruckheimer. They never looked back.

Movies Online recently sat down with Bill Marsilii at the Los Angeles Press Day for "Déjà Vu," directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, and Adam Goldberg. Mr. Marsilii is a sensational screenwriter and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about collaborating with Terry Rossio and the challenges of writing the film’s screenplay:

Question: So, how much of this script was Terry and how much of it was you?

Bill Marsilii: That's like pointing to a newborn and saying how much of it's daddy and how much of it's mommy. We very much co-created it. I can't tell you...originally it was a one-page idea that Terry had and he told me about it and I got very excited. In his original version it was about a detective whose girlfriend gets killed and somehow he gets a hold of this device that lets him look back a few days into the past to investigate her murder. When he told me about it, I got very excited. I said ‘I just have...my big suggestion just what if he falls in love with her while he's watching the last few days of her life’ and that's when the idea really caught fire and we took off with it. Originally I was writing it myself and I spent several months outlining it, had written about 40 or 50 pages of script, and then I got blocked. Among other things by September 11th because I lived in Manhattan, I used to work down there, and I saw the towers fall from the street. And you’ve see how the movie begins. I just put the script away and didn't look at it for a year. Bombing...no, I'm not going to look at it. Then Terry called me one night. He had reread the outline and my completed pages of script and he said ‘You know, this is already plotted out. If I co-wrote it with you, do you think we could finish it?’ At that point, he had been nominated for an Oscar and I was temping again so I said, ‘Yes.’ And goodbye writer's block. If that provides some answer to the question.

Q:You were temping?

BM: Um, actually yeah. My screenwriting career had gone a little fallow, as they say. I have no need to be coy about that. I was back to...I was working doing PowerPoint presentations for Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center and then my script "Jingle" sold to Disney and I quit that job at the end of August 2001 and 11 days later if I still had that job... I was working the graveyard shift actually and if I still had that job I would have been walking through the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. So, yeah, forgive me but after that "Jingle" ultimately did not get made at Disney and I ended up coming back to doing PowerPoint presentations again when we started working on "Déjà Vu." I realize that's not terrifically impressive, I should come off all high and mighty but that's what I was doing.

Q: So it took 5 years after...um, 4 years I guess?

BM: Actually, Terry was kind of busy with "Pirates of the Caribbean" and after Sept. 11th I didn't look at the script for quite some time and ultimately you know, Terry had suggested let's co-write it. And then shortly after that my baby girl was born in November of 2003. She was barely a week old and I looked down at her one night and I thought this little girl deserves a daddy who's trying as hard as he can. So I called Terry and I said, ‘Set aside a week. I'm hopping a plane. We are going to jumpstart this screenplay.’ And I flew out here, we worked together for a week and a half, divided up the scenes, and then I flew back to Manhattan and we wrote the rest of the script by exchanging scenes through America Online, emailing each other stuff, getting on the phone at 2:00 in the morning, and the next time I saw him face to face was at a party celebrating the sale of the screenplay. So it's an internet-age screenplay story.

Q: How do two people work like that so many miles away? How is it possible to have a chemistry?

BM: Well, it helps that Terry is a brilliant writer. What's great about it is that the story is the most important thing. The screenplay. He had a copy, I had a copy...we didn't have to be in the same room. I could make notes on something and email it to him. He could make notes on it and email it back to me. We could get on the telephone and talk about what we had done. Ultimately it worked very well, actually, because our main source of connection to each other was the script...was the story. As opposed to "do you want to come to my house, we'll go to your house" everything that happens when you're in a room together, all of that is gone when the only thing you and the other person on the phone have in common is these pages of script, this scene, this moment, what does Doug do now, what does Claire do.

Q Were there any surprises in the ultimate casting of the film? I imagine when you write a screenplay you're probably thinking of certain people to play certain characters.

BM: The screenplay...we certainly had big dreams. I never imagined we would be blessed with Denzel Washington. When I got the phone call that Denzel was going to play Doug, I went all the way around the emotional spectrum straight back to numb. I was so happy about that. You don't sit there typing something and thinking ‘Oh we'll get somebody who's won 2 Oscars to do it.’ Especially if you're living in Manhattan and crammed in a one bedroom apartment with a newborn. It was wildest dreams time, it really was. All the way down the board I think Tony did an amazing job casting the picture. Val Kilmer to play Pryzwarra...Val's good enough to headline a movie like "Déjà Vu" himself, he's brilliant. Paula Patton...Tony found her and she won the role over a number of other much more established actresses who read for it. Tony chose to cast Paula, I don't know how you felt about it, I think she does a wonderful job. I hope this movie is very good for her.

Q: How hard was it to get your head around the whole time travel issue and do you worry about losing the audience by explaining it?

BM: Yeah, that's always one of the tricks of writing something like "Déjà Vu." One of the things I really admire about Jerry Bruckheimer certainly was his shows like CSI is that he gives the audience credit for a very big brain. He assumes an intelligence of the audience that they will be able to follow a process even if it's highly technical, even if it's highly particular and he trusts that not only will they follow it but they'll be fascinated by it. And he's had an incredible amount of success proving that theory. As far as writing "Déjà Vu," I did a lot of research on the prevailing theories of time travel when first crafting the story. One of the prevailing theories of time travel is that even if it's possible, it doesn't matter...you can't change the past. The past is immutable. Denny has a line in the movie, he says something like "Anything you're going to do, you already did." Instead of looking at that as a stumbling block, we seized on it and thought no, that's great. That means the hero is actually fighting time itself. He's battling the laws of physics in order to try to save this woman and all these people. It made it an extremely difficult script to plot out because Doug's character is constantly trying to change events and everything ultimately ends up happening exactly the same way it already did until very, very late in the story. We did a lot of research. We had a fellow, Dr Brian Green from Columbia University, [who] flew out to talk to us and we were very lucky. He read through the script and once you accept the conceit that this time window could exist, everything else about it is scientifically accurate. This is the way it would behave. This is the way it would look. This is what would or would not happen if you chose to use it. A lot of that science is in the film.

Q: What are you working on?

BM: I am working on an original screenplay of my own and people are talking to me about new projects. It's a very exciting time. But until very recently I was very busy with "Déjà Vu" throughout. It's unusual that the same writer gets to stick with the movie from conception to completion and I've been ridiculously blessed by that and I've got Jerry Bruckheimer to thank for it.

"Déjà Vu" opens in theaters on November 22nd.

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