Sitting Down with ‘Mystic Pizza’ Screenwriter Amy Jones

The art of storytelling, screenwriting specifically, is like a golf swing, it can get rusty fast if you do not practice every day. To have a canon of work (especially in today's industry) in screenwriting and for it to be an actual career is one of the hardest feats to accomplish. Cue Amy Jones. 

Her work includes some of our favorite films: Mystic Pizza, Indescent Proposal, The Relic, Beethoven, The Rich Man's Wife and the list goes on. But what's most important is that she has mastered this field with damn good storytelling. That's a near impossible task to achieve. She did. This is her story. 

Amy, would you mind giving me your full A-Z as a writer? Where did you start? What initially drew you into this medium of storytelling?

I did not set out to be a writer.  I studied still photography and documentary filmmaking at MIT from 1972-75.  The documentary department was spectacular, run by one of the founders of cinema-verite, Richard Leacock.  The films we made there had no scripts.  You took the camera into life and shot then found the story in the editing room.  

A student documentary of mine, made at MIT and called “A Weekend Home,” won the AFI National Student Film festival.  Martin Scorsese was a judge.  He hired me as his assistant on “Taxi Driver” and that was the first time I ever read a script.  I did not consider writing one for several years.  I came at film through an interest in the visual, not the verbal.   

The first time I wrote was for Roger Corman.  I’d worked as an editor for him first, then Roger gave me my first chance to direct when I was just 27.  I’d shot the opening of a script he owned without telling him I was doing it, and gave him a finished reel, just to show him I could direct. To my shock he asked me to finish the film.  At that time, I was supposed to edit E.T.  Spielberg graciously released me and I found myself rewriting and then directing “Slumber Party Massacre.”  It was a big rewrite and when I gave it to Roger, he was the first person to tell me, “You can do this. You can write.”  

“Slumber Party Massacre” remains the only slasher film directed by a woman and was recently re-released on BluRay. The budget was $200,000.  It was highly successful but women were not allowed to direct much in those days.  No one offered me a job. To direct again, I had to generate everything myself, and so I had to write an original script.  I decided to do the opposite of a genre/comedy/exploitation film, an art film.  I read the screenplays of Harold Pinter to prepare. The result was “Love Letters,” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Amy Madigan.  Roger insisted on commercial elements, in this case sex and nudity. Apart from that, as on Slumber Party, he left me entirely alone.  The film did well on the festival circuit, got a nice limited release and some very fine reviews.   

Again, no one offered me a directing job so I sat down to write again.  The result was “Mystic Pizza.” Every studio passed on it.  Universal offered to make it if I made the women into men. Ultimately Samuel Goldwyn optioned it with me to direct.  But Sam was not a fan of working with women and he made my life hell.  Every day he’d come in and say something designed to irritate me, like “We have to change the title,” or “We’re shooting in Palm Beach.”  Ultimately, he stalled, finding reason after reason for not making it and then tried to claim he had an option on it for my natural life. I set it up again at another independent but to block me, he sued me, claiming ownership of “Mystic Pizza” although he’d only paid me $5,000.  Lesson learned: don’t get in a lawsuit with a multi-millionaire.  If you have no money, they stand to win by default as you can’t defend yourself.

The Writer’s Guild got hold of the script and stepped in, forcing Sam into an arbitration.  Ultimately, he had to pay me my directing and writing fee, and thus got the script.  He proceeded to sit on it, then to rewrite it with everyone in the world over several years.  Meanwhile, I rewrote and directed a script by Randy and Perry Howze, “Maid to Order” starring Aly Sheedy, Dick Shawn and Valerie Perrine.  

“Mystic Pizza” was due to finally revert back to me.  Sam, determined to keep it, was in a mess.  He hired Randy and Perry Howze, who I’d just worked with, to do yet another rewrite. They simply returned it to the original script, tossing all previous drafts.  The only real difference was Sam insisted there by three girls, not four because, as he told me, his father had made a film called “A Letter to Three Wives” and 3 was the magic number.  He finally shot this draft of “Mystic Pizza” with Don Petrie, a man who had never directed before.. By now I’d written and directed three films.  That was what life was like as a woman trying to direct their own material in the 1980’s.  It was a long, uphill fight.

I did not arbitrate the writing credit to “Mystic Pizza” out of gratitude to Randy and Perry.  Thus the film has their name on it, and the name of a third writer who wrote a few short scenes.  But  the script was well known in Hollywood and I have always been known as the creator of “Mystic Pizza.”  It became iconic over the years and led to many writing jobs.  

But never got an offer to direct again and so I became a writer.

“Beethoven,” for producer Ivan Reitman, was a huge rewrite that I did of a script that the original writer had disowned.  I got shared screen credit.  “Indecent Proposal” was an assignment for Paramount based on a book (that we threw out taking only the title and the concept that one man offers a million dollars for the other’s wife).  “The Relic,” another book adaptation followed.  So did “The Getaway,” another rewrite.  

I sold a wonderful original screenplay, “Unconditional Love,” for more than any woman had ever sold a script for at the time.  Turner Pictures bought it, then they folded and it became the property of Amblin who already had a similar project.  Neither one was ever made.  

At this time, I returned briefly to directing.  “The Rich Man’s WIfe,” an original script that I insisted on keeping for myself to direct.  It became a thriller starring Halle Berry and Clive Owen. The experience made me realize I had become a writer, not a director. It was the biggest budget I’d had to deal with, and the least fun to make. Afterwards I did a live action version of “The Jetsons,” as did about a million other writers. That was also never made.  And I did “Casper 2”, which fell apart when they lost their star.  And there were many other uncredited rewrites, too.  By the year 2000 I was sick of features and getting interested in TV.

I now write pilots for television and have for the last ten years.  I love it.  The writer is king in television.  You are never rewritten and you are treated with dignity.  The downside is that for every 60 pilots written for any network each season, 4 get on the air, and 3 of those fail.  It’s tough to get a series, tough to keep it going, but I did get a wonderful pilot shot at the CW a few years back called “HMS”.  And last summer I had a series called “Black Box” on ABC.  That was a blast.  I now have a new spec pilot I’m working on and I am considering a blind deal for one of the studios, something I do nearly every year.

What was the initial “breaking in” process like? What specs got you through the door and how did you get people to read them?  

The first “spec” that got me in every door was “Mystic Pizza.”  It was sent everywhere by my agent.  I got the agent by working first as a writer/director in independent film.   I have always generated my own breaks, first with my student films and then by taking the initiative to write scripts and even make films on my own.  Today this is much easier to do with the internet.

Do you think you gravitate towards a specific genre? Or do you enjoy writing all genres of screenwriting/movies?

I wrote all genres in the movies with the sole exception of a western.  They weren’t in fashion at that time.  Most people succeed by picking a genre.  In television I done that.  I do one hour dramas and have gravitated to medical shows because I have an interest in medicine and few people can write them. It’s a fun niche.

The first big pilot I did was a medical show and that script, sold as a pitch, opened every door in television.  It was for CBS and was called “The 17th Floor.”  It wasn’t shot, but people in meetings still tell me they read it and remember it to this day.

What does the day-to-day writing process look like for you?

I work at home, usually starting no earlier than 11.  I usually work 4 or 5 hours a day unless I’m on a deadline, then I work up to 14 hours straight.  When I was running a TV show, I worked 16 hours a day 7 days a week.  “Black Box” had 13 hour long episodes and I wrote or rewrote extensively all but three of them. That meant outlining and writing 10 hours of scripts. It was gruelling but rewarding, too.

What, of your screenplays, is dearest to your heart?

Without a doubt, “Mystic Pizza.”  It was in no way autobiographical but was personal to me.  The original script of “Indecent Proposal,” before star and director input, is also a great source of pride. It was more nuanced and complex than the final film. Robert Redford brought in a string of writers who took away any dark shadings to his character and destroyed the last third of the film.  Among the pilots, the script for the “Black Box”  is the best thing I ever wrote.  I also have a script at CBS I hope to see made one day called “Island Doctor” based on a wonderful book.  A script designed to be a serialized thriller like “24” called “Pandemic,” written for Fox, is also a favorite of mine.  

What films inspire you as a screenwriter? What screenplays inspire you as a screenwriter?

I loved Paul Schrader’s screenplays for ‘Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.”  There is nothing like that written anymore.  They were art, plain and simple.  Both were totally unique and from a magic combination of gut and prodigious brain.  But I am personally more of a popular entertainment writer.  For me, film and television are mass mediums, and many of the scripts I love have mass appeal.  I would say “The Godfather” is my favorite, also “Godfather 2” and probably “Chinatown.” Among the many comedies I love, “Tootsie” ranks high.  “Annie Hall” is genius.

In television, I greatly admire the work of Vince Gilligan, particularly “Breaking Bad,” David Chase for “The Sopranos,” many individual episodes of “The Good Wife,” the current show “Silicon Valley,” “Downton Abbey” and the British version of “Sherlock.”

Do you think environment has a large effect on the work produced? Is there a “special place” you go to write?

I think you have to feel safe and comfortable and have a great internet connection for research.  It’s better if no one is around second-guessing you, at least for the first draft.  Notes are a constant in our profession.  Coming from the right person, they are a godsend.  Ryan Murphy was the original producer on “Black Box” and I adored his input. The executives at CBS, ABC and 20th Studios were and are a great help. But too many notes can also be the death of original work.  Paul Schrader told me, for example, that the studio asked him to give Travis Bickle a dog.  There are a million stories like that. It’s sometimes hard to figure out which notes are right and which are wrong.

Do you have any new films currently being produced? Coming out soon?

I am not working in film at the moment.  I focus on TV.  Feature films were the great art form of the 20th century, but I believe the small screen and the internet are home to the great art of the 21st century.  They make it possible to tell stories over time.  It is more novelistic.  Features sometimes feel like short stories in comparison.  

But I do hope to write a feature film again one day.  I have an original script, a thriller, that I never sold and keep for myself.  It’s called “The Inheritance” and I hope to get it made eventually.  Jason Blum, the wonderful horror producer, was once attached to produce it.  He told me it would take about ten years to get it made.  In TV, you can write a script in several weeks and with a going show, see it on the screen within a few months.  That’s quite addictive.