Along with her husband and creative partner Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver ’89 has written and produced the two most recent films in the Planet of the Apes saga, including Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was directed by Matt Reeves ’88. After Silver graduated with an MFA from the Writing for Screen & Television Division, her first produced writing credit, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, was released three years later. Silver’s other credits include The Relic and Eye for an Eye as well as upcoming projects Jurassic World, Heart of the Sea and an Avatar sequel.
Your USC thesis script The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was produced when you were only a few years out of school. Can you talk about the circumstances that led to this? What were the advantages and disadvantages to having this kind of success in a relatively short amount of time?
I still use a lot of what I learned at USC today in my work.
At that time I was engaged to Rick Jaffa, and he’d started his career as a William Morris agent, so I had an immediate conduit to producers who were willing to read my script. I was incredibly lucky. And I got luckier still when Curtis Hansen came on to direct because he developed the script, patiently working with me (and Rick, who was producing and co-writing by then) to make the script much, much better. The learning curve was steep and thrilling. I was too green to realize just how rare this kind of experience was.
What do you remember most fondly about your time at the writing program at USC?
I was a proud member of [former USC dean] Frank Daniel’s first writing MFA class. He was an extraordinary teacher. I remember he gave a lecture class every week where he would run a movie and talk over it, explaining how the screenplay was structured. It was eye-opening. Even if you knew the movie backwards and forwards, you’d see things you’d never seen before. David Howard, who ran the program, was a wonderful friend and mentor who also taught me much that was valuable. I still use a lot of what I learned at USC today in my work. Also, I really enjoyed my production classes. I made great friends at USC.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
My husband and I have been writing professionally for nearly 25 years, and I’m very proud of some of the scripts we’ve written. It’s hard to choose between them because sometimes they feel like our children — we nurtured them with open hearts, and I went through periods where they were my total focus, taking over my dreams. Some of the scripts I loved best never got made. They were read by only a few people, but I’m still proud of them. I’m also extremely proud of the Apes movies — Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — mainly because I fell in love with the characters, especially Caesar. The box office popularity and good reviews on Rise were very gratifying.
If you could go back and speak to your 20-something Trojan self, what advice would you give?
Don’t worry about getting it right all the time. Experiment. It’s OK to fall on your face. My wonderful USC teacher Nina Foch used to say, “Make failure your friend.” I wish I’d been better at that when I was young. I’ve had a ton of practice now, so I’m much better at it!
Can you describe some of the challenges of having your writing partner also be your husband? How do you balance your professional and family responsibilities?
Rick and I are a great writing team, separate from being married. I can’t really explain the alchemy; we just complement each other. As for balancing professional and family responsibilities, it’s always a challenge. Being a working mom isn’t easy, I think, in any profession.
In addition to screenwriting, you’re also now producing. What led to this decision? Was this always a goal of yours?
On Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we brought the original reboot idea to Fox, so when we sold it, we asked to be made producers as well as writers. Primarily, we did this so that we could stay involved even if they brought on other writers, and so that we could have input through to the release of the movie — in the editing room, etc. Usually, in features, the writer steps aside when the writing’s done.
You’re working with or have worked with other USC alums on a number of recent projects, from Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) to Ron Howard (Heart of the Sea) to Jon Landau (Avatar sequel)? Is that something you’re conscious of — does it ever come up in conversation?
I feel very lucky to have worked with each of these talented men, but our USC connection never came up.
Can you talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced with writing “reboots” of established franchises like Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park? ‘
The challenge is to stay true to the spirit of the original, keeping fans engaged and happy, while offering something fresh and new — something surprising and original.
What can Planet of the Apes fans expect from Dawn (opening on July 11)? Did you have the sequel in mind already when you wrote Rise?
Yes, Rick and I always had big plans for Caesar beyond his leading the apes to freedom. Dawn finds Caesar 10 years later, with a family of his own, now the leader of a flourishing ape civilization in the woods. Up until now, there hasn’t been any contact with or intervention from the decimated human population. But all that’s about to change. And when it does, there’s going to be some huge challenges facing Caesar and his ape compatriots.
Can you talk about your work with James Cameron on an upcoming Avatar sequel? How did you become involved, and what’s the process been like?
Working on Avatar has been an incredible adventure — still in progress. We’re inspired by Cameron’s vision every day.
What’s on your professional bucket list? For example, do you have a desire to direct in the future?
I would love to work as a writer-producer in TV. Rick and I have some ideas, but we haven’t had the opportunity to develop them yet. Soon, I hope.