Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Method Writing: Tarantino and Elmore Leonard


Initially published in the Jan/Feb 1998 issue of Creative Screenwriting the following interview with Quentin Tarantino was conducted shortly after the release of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Described as ‘a comic crime caper based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch,Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s first adaptation. Tarantino’s screenplay closely follows Leonard’s plot line, dropping some minor characters, developing others (most notably Ordell Robbie), while inserting some new scenes. Tarantino has openly acknowledged the impact of Leonard’s writing on his own writing style: ‘Leonard opened my eyes to the dramatic possibilities of everyday speech’, he claims. In Jackie Brown Tarantino successfully defers to Elmore Leonard’s low-life naturalism to produce arguably his most mature work. In discussing Leonard and his writing roots Tarantino sheds light into his world and his technique as a ‘method writer.’

CS: How exactly have Elmore Leonard’s books influenced your writing style?

QT: Well, when I was a kid and I first started reading his novels I got really caught up in his characters and the way they talked. As I started reading more and more of his novels it kind of gave me permission to go my way with characters talking around things as opposed to talking about them. He showed me that characters can go off on tangents and those tangents are just as valid as anything else. Like the way real people talk. I think his biggest influence on any of my things was True Romance. Actually, in True Romance, I was trying to do my version of an Elmore Leonard novel in script form. I didn’t rip it off, there’s nothing blatant about it, it’s just a feeling you know, and a style I was inspired by more than anything you could point your finger at.

CS: The strongest scene in True Romance is the confrontation between Cliff [played by Dennis Hopper] and Coccotti [played by Christopher Walken]. How did you approach crafting that scene?

QT: The way I write is really like putting one foot in front of the other. I really let the characters do most of the work, they start talking and they just lead the way. I had heard that whole speech about the Sicilians a long time ago, from a black guy living in my house. One day I was talking with a friend who was Sicilian and I just started telling that speech. And I thought, ‘Wow, that is a great scene, I gotta remember that.’ In True Romance the one thing I knew Cliff had to do was insult the guy enough that he’d kill him, because if he got tortured he’d end up telling him where Clarence was, and he didn’t want to do that. I knew how the scene had to end, but I don’t write dialogue in a strategic way. I didn’t really go about crafting the scene, I just put them in the room together. I knew Cliff was going to end up doing the Sicilian thing but I didn’t know what Coccotti was going to say. They just started talking and I jotted it down. I almost feel like a fraud for taking credit for writing dialogue, because it’s the characters that are doing it. To me it’s very connected to actors’ improv with me playing all the characters. One of the reasons I like to write with pen and paper is it helps that process, for me anyway.

True Romance (Directed by Tony Scott)
CS: What’s the relationship between your acting and your writing?

QT: I think they’re almost inseparably married. When I describe things in my writing I never use writing adjectives. I don’t know what a writing adjective is. I always use acting adjectives. To me writing’s almost the same thing because you’re acting like a character and that’s what acting is all about, the moment. You don’t want to be result oriented, you don’t want to say, ‘Okay, this is what’s going to happen.’ No, you start with your character and anything can happen, like life. You shouldn’t try to predestine where you’re gonna go and what you’re gonna see. You can hit the nail on the head, but you want the kind of freedom that allows for something you hadn’t even imagined to happen. I’m very much a man of the moment. I can think about an idea for a year, two years, even four years all right, but what ever is going on with me the moment I write is gonna work it’s way into the piece.

CS: Can you think of an example where your perspective at a certain moment really changed the way you approached something?


QT: Well anything that’s really personal I wouldn’t want to talk about because that’s not what the scene’s about, it’s just underneath it there. But like something more on the surface would be Vince’s whole thing in Pulp Fiction about Amsterdam. I was in Amsterdam for the very first time in my life when I was writing that script and it was kind of blowing my mind. And it was blowing Vince’s mind too, he’d just come back from there too. When I spent time in Amsterdam I was just going there to be by myself, but it worked its way in ‘cause that is what I was going through and that was gold.

CS: What adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s books do you admire?


QT: I liked Get Shorty a lot, I guess where he was funny and I really liked 52 Pick-Up. I think that’s the only other crime one that I’ve really liked.

CS: Did other adaptations suggest anything for your own approach?

QT: No, I’ve never really felt that anyone got [Leonard] in the prime zone.

CS: What about Scott Frank’s adaptation of Get Shorty?


QT: Well it’s funny because he came pretty damn close. I actually read his script and thought he did a really good job with it. But there was still something lost in the translation. I’ve always been kind of a perfectionist about the idea of adapting a Leonard novel because I just wanted to have the feeling of the novel, those long dialogue scenes where a character is slowly revealed. To me, that’s the fun of adapting it. I’m not dissing Frank at all. I think he did a great job with Get Shorty, but there’s another aspect of Leonard’s novels that I’m interested in.

True Romance (Directed by Tony Scott)
CS: You’ve voiced concern in the past that your own voice, your own dialogue might someday become old hat, that people might grow tired of it. Was that one of the reasons you decided to go with an adaptation rather than an original script for your next film?

QT: Well, that wasn’t the reason but it does very conveniently serve that purpose. It’s a nice way of kind of holding onto my dialogue, of holding onto my gift and whatever I’ve got to offer. I don’t want people to take me for granted. The things I have to offer I don’t want wasted. When you watch something David Mamet’s written you know you’ve listened to David Mamet dialogue. I want to try and avoid that if I can. I want to try to avoid that as a writer and I want to try to avoid it as a filmmaker. I want people to see my new movie not my next movie. Does that make sense? You’ve gotta remember, I’ve done two movies before this, so wait till I’ve done six movies to start pigeonholing me. I tend to do different types of things. Dogs, Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and my script for Natural Born Killers take place in kind of my own universe. But that doesn’t make them fantastical. Larry McMurtry writes with his own universe. J.D. Salinger writes with his own universe and it’s a very real universe and I think mine is too. But having said all that, this movie doesn’t take place in my universe.

CS: It doesn’t?

QT: This is in Elmore Leonard’s universe and it was interesting making a movie outside this little universe that I created. This was Dutch’s universe, and because of that, I wanted it to be ultra-realistic. I used a different cinematographer to kind of get a different look. It still looks great but just a little bit more down to earth, a little less like a movie movie, a little bit more like a '70s Straight Time. I actually like building sets. In Jackie Brown I didn’t do that. Every single solitary scene in the movie was shot on location. Some things were written for specific locations in the south [of LA] that I went out and found.

CS: I think one of your great strengths as a writer is that you have been able to define your own vision, your own universe, and set your stories within that. In looking at the difference between that and where you see Jackie Brown, what elements would you say define the Tarantino universe of film?

True Romance (Directed by Tony Scott)
QT: Well, that’s kind of a hard question to answer because a whole lot of this stuff is subliminal. It just comes out. One of the ways other writers have created their own universe is through overlapping characters, which I think is very interesting.

CS: I understand what you’re saying about it being kind of subliminal but you’re also a smart guy. I’m sure you get analytical about some of it too, especially as far as where you take your universe.

QT: To tell you the truth, I try not to get analytical in the writing process. I really try not to do that. I try to just kind of keep the flow from my brain to my hand as far as the pen is concerned and, as I’ve said, go with the moment and go with my guts. It’s different than when you’re playing games or trying to be clever. To me, truth is the big thing. Constantly you’re writing something and you get to a place where your characters could go this way or that and I just can’t lie. The characters have gotta be true to themselves. And that’s something I don’t see in a lot of Hollywood movies. I see characters lying all the time. They can’t do this because it would affect the movie this way or that or this demographic might not like it. To me a character can’t do anything good or bad, they can only do something that’s true or not. Basically, my writing’s like a journey. I’ll know some of the stops ahead of time, and I’ll make some of those stops and some of them I won’t. Some will be a moot point by the time I get there. You know every script will have four to six basic scenes that you’re going to do. It’s all the scenes in the middle that you’ve got to—not struggle, it’s never a struggle—but you’ve got to write through—that’s where your characters really come from. That’s how you find them, that’s where they live. So I’ve got basic directions of how to get to where I’m going, but now I’m starting the journey. I can always refer to my directions if I get lost, but barring that, let’s see what we see. I think that is how novelists write. That’s how Elmore Leonard writes.

CS: Do you think that repetition of a phrase or word in dialogue enhances its power for an audience or detracts from it?

QT: Well I do that a lot. I like it. I think that in my dialogue there’s a bit of whatever you would call it, a music or poetry, and the repetition of certain words helps give it a beat or a rhythm. It just happens and I just go with it, looking for the rhythm of the scene.

CS: Some people have criticized your use of certain words such as ‘nigger,’ and you have always responded that no word should have that much power in our culture. I’m not sure I buy that. I’ve got to be frank. Aren’t you also using powerful words to electrify your dialogue, to make it more interesting?

Jackie Brown (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
QT: You know, if you didn’t know me, I could see where you’d come up with that. I mean, I am a writer, I deal in words. No, there is no word that should stay in word jail, every word is completely free. There is no word that is worse than another word. It’s all language, it’s all communication. And if I was doing what you’re saying, I’d be lying. I’d be throwing in a word to get an effect. And well, you do that all the time, you throw in a word to get a laugh, and you throw in this word to get an effect too, that happens, but it’s all organic. It’s never a situation where that’s not what they would say, but I’m going to have them say it because it’s gonna be shocking. You used the example of ‘nigger.’ In Pulp Ficiton, nigger is said a bunch of different times by a bunch of different people and it’s meant differently each time. It’s all about the context in which it’s used. George Carlin does a whole routine about that, you know. When Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy do their stand-up acts, and say nigger, you’re never offended because they’re niggers. You know what they’re fucking talking about. You know the context in which it’s coming from. The way Samuel Jackson says nigger in Pulp Fiction is not the way Eric Stoltz says it, is not the way Ving Rhames says it. They’re all coming from different places. That word means something different depending on who’s saying it.

CS: Ordell uses ‘nigga’ a lot in Jackie Brown. How is his use of the word different than that of the characters in Pulp Fiction?

QT: Actually Ordell probably doesn’t use it any different from Jules. Actually when Jules and Marcellus use it in Pulp Fiction they’re comin’ from the same place, but having it mean different things. Marcellus is very much like, ‘You my nigger now,’ and that was Ving Rhames who came up with that. But Ordell’s comin’ from the same place, he’s a black guy who throws the word around a lot, it’s just part of his dialect, the way he talks. And if you’re writing a black dialect, there’s certain words that you need to make it musical. Nigger’s one of them. If you’re writing about that kind of a guy, motherfucker’s another. Those are two of the key words that are appropriate for that guy. Sam Jackson uses nigger all of the time in his speech, that’s just who he is and where he comes from. That’s the way he talks, so that’s the way Ordell talks. Now what do you have to say to that?!

CS: That’s a good question! I think you have a valid point if that’s where you’re going with the character. Certainly the word nigger is part of the universe you’ve created. It’s one of the things that stands out about your writing.

QT: Also, I’m a white guy who’s not afraid of that word. You know most white guys are deathly afraid of that word.

CS: You’re right.

Jackie Brown (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
QT: I just don’t feel the whole white guilt and pussy-footing around race issues. I’m completely above all that. I’ve never worried about what anyone might think of me ‘cause I’ve always believed that the true of heart recognize the true of heart. If I’m doing what I’m doing and you’re comin from the same place, you’ll see it, no question about it. And if you’re comin with an axe to grind, with your own baggage and your own hate, then you might react strongly to where I’m comin from. Now what I just said there is that if you have a problem with my stuff you’re a racist. I practically said that. Well, I truly believe that.

CS: You always tend to write long, I mean 500 pages for Pulp Fiction, and then cut back. Do you think that’s a good process in bringing out the best in material?

QT: It works good for me, all right, but I don’t actually think about anything like that, for most of the script. I start getting responsible about length in the third act. You can do all kinds of shit at the beginning of the movie that you don’t have the fuckin’ patience for when it gets to the end. You want to see how it ends. I also tried to get away from 120 pages on Jackie Brown. I think in the screenplay there is too damn much importance given to the page count. It's structural thing. I mean, when it came to Jackie Brown, it was like you know what? I'm in a position now I can just say fuck the page count. I know the movie's gonna be about two-and-a-half hours long. All this page count stuff is for the production manager. It has nothing to do with me. So I'm not gonna dumb down my writing to keep the page count down. I end up still kind of pulling back towards the very end of the process because it was getting pretty excessive. But you know it used to be I would write all this description and everything and I would be all happy with it and I would be battling page count by the end, and it would just turn into Vincent and Jules walk into a room and start talking. On this one I'm not gonna even fucking worry about it. Also because now my scripts are getting published now, this is gonna be the fucking document. I'm not writing novels, these screenplays are my novels, so I'm gonna write it the best that I can. If the movie never gets made, it'd almost be okay because I did it. It's there on the page.

CS: How did the writing of Jackie Brown differ from Pulp Fiction?

QT: It was kind of funny because when I wrote Pulp Fiction I wrote that by myself. The middle story I adapted from a script that Roger Avery wrote, but you know it was me at page one and it was me at the end. It wasn't like we were doing it together or anything. I adapted it myself and I made all these changes I was gonna do. My name alone is on the script for Jackie Brown, I'm the guy that did it. But, I think Elmore Leonard almost deserves credit on the script. We never talked about anything but there was a real collaboration . . . actually I was the one doing all the collaborating. So much in fact, that I kept a lot of his dialogue exactly the way it was and I wrote a lot of my own and now as time has gone on, I don't really almost remember what was mine and what was his. I don't think his stuff stands out or my stuff stands out—I think it works like a really happy marriage.

Pulp Fiction (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
CS: You've optioned four of Leonard's books? Why did you make Rum Punch first?

QT: Again, it was extremely organic. I actually read Rum Punch before it was published. It turns out Elmore Leonard's agent is a really really good friend of Lawrence Bender, my producing partner. So they sent us the book and I loved it, but I didn’t want to do his books as big budget movies, because they are actually very modest stories and can’t bear a $50 million price tag. So we were getting ready to go into Pulp Fiction, and were talking about a deal where we could option it for very little money and shoot it for very little money. But his agent very rightfully said, ‘Now guys if we’re gonna do this, and he’s gonna pass up millions of dollars, you guys gotta commit to do this after Pulp Fiction.’ You can never really do that, all right, cause who knows who I'm gonna be after I get done with a movie. I couldn't really commit to it 100 per cent, so I let it go. And it so happened it became available again with these other three novels. I was going to give it to another director to do, so I read it again so I could talk about it. In reading it again I remembered exactly what it was I wanted to do when I read it a long time ago, it was like I saw the movie that I made in my head a long time ago, and let go of, that movie came right back. It came right right back. That’s what I'm gonna do. So that's how that one became the one. You know if you love something, set it free? Well I did, and it came back!

CS: Were there any techniques or any ideas you had, to bring the numerous ‘talking head’ scenes in Jackie Brown to life? To keep the interest of the audience?

QT: It was funny ‘cause I thought about that when I was writing the script. There were a whole lot of scenes with people talking to each other, right? But I thought about it and said, ‘That’s what it is. Don't be afraid of what it is.’ All right? And I made a pact with myself that there are two different styles going on here—the first half is about character and the second half is about action.

CS: Okay.

QT: I’m not necessarily going to try to show off to the world what a great filmmaker I am in the first half. ‘Cause the way you service that is you just get the best single performance you can from the actors and you edit it the right way so that their best work is showing and then you can have talk for ten fuckin’ minutes, twenty minutes or an hour, it doesn't fuckin’ matter. But in the second half we’re going to crank it up. It almost ties back to what you were saying about the editing really kicking in in the third act. There was a lot less flash there I mean, just boom, boom, boom, boom, as opposed to the longer character scenes up front. Yeah, definitely.

Pulp Fiction (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
CS: In reading your interviews you shield it a little bit, but I think you take a little pride in the way you presented Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in non-linear formats. In Jackie Brown you moved to a linear format. Why did you decide that? Was it just the material?

QT: Yeah, I'm proud of what I did in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I’m not too proud of it, ‘cause I think that everyone should be able to do that, and it just seemed like the best way to present those stories. I don’t have any one way to tell a story, all right. I don’t have any rule book of how it’s supposed to be done, you know? But I’ve always said that if a story would be more emotionally involving told, beginning, middle, and end, I’ll tell it that way. I won’t jigsaw it, just to show what a clever boy I am. I don’t do anything in my script just to be clever. That’s the first thing that goes, it has to . . .

CS:. . . be true to itself?

QT: Yeah, emotion will always win over coolness and cleverness. It’s when a scene works emotionally and it’s cool and clever, then it's great. That’s what you want. In the case of Jackie Brown, this story is told better this way. And the sequence where the money is switched three times? That’s how I saw it when I read the book. It’s not in the book that way, but that’s how I saw it.

CS: That’s interesting on the screen.

QT: Yeah, I love it. I was just watching the movie in my mind as I was reading the book and thought, ‘That would be really cool.’ Before Jackie Brown, the most interesting character I ever wrote was Mia [in Pulp Fiction].

CS: Why is that?

QT: Because I have no idea where she came from. I have no idea whatsoever. She’s not from another movie, she’s not somebody I know, she’s not a fantasy girl, she’s not really a part of me, she’s not a side of me. I knew when I was writing that story, I knew nothing more about Mia than Vincent did. All I knew were the rumors. I didn’t know who she was at all, until they got to Jack Rabbit Slim’s and she opened her mouth. Then all of a sudden this character emerged with her own rhythm of speech. I don’t know where she came from and that's why I love her.

Natural Born Killers (Directed by Oliver Stone)
CS: When you’re developing a character, what do you do to get into their mind? Do you do a kind of back story on them? What do you do to get a character down?

QT: That’s a very interesting question. Maybe I should actually—I don’t. I do that as an actor though. That’s very interesting. Maybe I should start doing that in my original stuff or even on this stuff. No, in the case of Jackie Brown by the time I started writing the script I was pretty damn familiar with the material so I felt I knew these people. I don’t know, because part of that process is discovering them as I’m writing them. It’s different from acting. I won’t even think now about acting in a role where I didn’t do a back story for a character. Sit down with pen and paper and bring them up to this point. All right. But there’s a birthing process when you’re writing.

CS: In the past you’ve been real open about how you’ve cannibalized your own work in building new scripts. Is that a way of drawing stories into your own unique universe?

QT: Initially, when I first started doing stuff like that it was just so I didn’t have to write that part of it, it was a way to save time and pages. But it never quite works like a slam dunk anymore. By the time I get through with it I’ve usually rewritten it so much to make it work for whatever I’m doing that I might as well have written a new scene. I haven’t done that in a while actually.

CS: I didn’t notice any borrowing in Jackie Brown.

QT: Oh yeah, not at all. I think it was more like I save my writing and everything, and I never throw anything away. And I’ll just take something and read it, and get excited about it again. ‘That’s good, oh God, why did I stop doing that, that was really good.’ So it’s just an attempt to not let it go to waste. To find some way to fit it in.

Reservoir Dogs (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
CS: The only script of yours that I haven’t read is Open Road.

QT: Yeah, no one has read that. I never finished it. That was like the first time I really wrote a script. Roger Avary had written a script called Pandemonium Reigns that was forty pages long and really funny. It’s like these two characters on the road and there’s this hitchhiker and it’s a surreal, wild comedy. Then they get to this kind of crazy, surreal town. Then he ended it in this way that I didn’t like at all. Because I had never finished a script, I had just written scenes, I asked him, ‘Could I take that? Like rewrite it, just do my own version of it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ I don’t think he was going to do anything with it—I don’t think he liked his ending either. I started with getting the guy on the road, I wrote forever setting up the thing—now that you bring it up, I had forgotten, but there’s actually a really funny, like violent comedy scene in it that’s really good. I get really annoyed with people saying that I ripped off the Mexican stand-off stuff. Open Road was like way before I even knew who John Woo was. It had a Mexican stand-off scene, True Romance has a Mexican stand-off scene. I wrote that like in 1985 or 1986, way before I had seen A Better Tomorrow or anything. Way, way before. That Mexican stand-off scene is mine as much as it is his. That’s always been in my shit. So I really set-up this big fuckin’ deal to finally get him on the road. But I ultimately found out that I didn’t have a good ending for it either, I saw no way to end it.

CS: Did you incorporate any scenes from that script into your later scripts?

QT: I never really did because The Open Road was just so damn specific—well, I did you know, that's a big lie, cause actually I did do one thing, the character I was going to play—a guy named ‘F. Scarland’ was in my very first draft of Natural Born Killers that most people never read. I later did a complete rewrite on Natural Born Killers but in the first draft, F. Scarland was like the third lead in the piece...

- Method Writing by Erik Bauer. Portions of this interview were previously published in the January/February 1998 issue of Creative Screenwriting. To purchase this issue, visit creativescreenwriting.com

Monday, 20 August 2012

Francis Ford Coppola: Into the Darkness

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the Vietnam war Apocalypse Now was released 33 years ago this week. The making of the film is the stuff of legend. Intended to be a 14-week shoot in the Philippines, starting in the spring of 1976, the production ran into immediate problems with logistics, weather and other mishaps conspiring against the filmmakers. In addition Coppola fired his leading actor, Harvey Keitel, after just two weeks, replacing him with Martin Sheen who was himself on the brink of an alcohol-fuelled breakdown. On Sheen’s arrival, chaos had overtaken the production. Coppola was still working on the script, firing people at will while crew members were succumbing to various tropical diseases. Meanwhile the helicopters used in the combat sequences were regularly recalled by President Marcos to fight in his own war against anti-government forces. Things got worse when Marlon Brando arrived for filming, overweight and unprepared. Then shortly after filming began, Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack. A traumatised Coppola subsequently had a mental breakdown, with the director apparently threatening to commit suicide on more than one occasion. The tale of the making of Apocalypse Now was chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse which drew on behind-the-scenes footage shot by the director’s wife Eleanor Coppola, which was intercut with new interviews with the original cast and crew. Looking back on events several years later, Coppola’s wife remarked:

‘It was a journey for him up the river I always felt. He went deeper and deeper into himself and deeper and deeper and deeper into the production. It just got out of control… The script was evolving and the scenes were changing – it just got larger and more complex. And little by little he got out there as far as his characters. That wasn’t the intention at all at the beginning.’

The  following exchange is taken from an interview with Francis Ford Coppola from 1979 for Rolling Stone magazine in which the director discusses the writing and strained production of Apocalypse Now:

Would you do it all again?

I’m tempted to say no. I really think there’s a limit to what you ought to give a project you’re working on. It’s not worth it, it’s really not worth it. I don’t know that I would be able to avoid doing it again, but I’m forty years old instead of thirty-six. My leg hurts, my back hurts, my front hurts, my head hurts. I’ve got nothing but problems. I mean, I could be the head of KQED [San Francisco’s public television station] and do interesting little experimental things and not be such a wreck.

There were times when I wished I was working for someone else so I could quit – but I don’t think I ever thought of cutting my losses and coming home. There were a lot of troubles. Marty’s [Martin Sheen] heart attack [which delayed filming even further] . . . severely traumatized my nervous system. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. If he’d gone home to the U.S. for treatment, he might not have come back – his family might not have let him. I was scared shitless. The shooting was three-quarters done; it was all him, what was left.

Firing my [original] lead actor [Harvey Keitel] – that was bad. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do: sure, it jeopardizes the production, but it can also ruin an actor’s career, to be fired like that. It was a very, very hard decision. But I just pulled the plunger – I did that a lot on this movie. Still do it. I’ve done it before with people – but that’s another form of saying you're going to really try to get it right.

Did making this movie change your idea of what it means to be a filmmaker?

It changed every idea I have on anything I might not do or be. It enlarged my mind in terms of possibilities. It would be very hard for me to go and direct the new Paddy Chayefsky screenplay now. After Apocalypse Now and the Godfather pictures, especially the two of them together, I began to think in terms of the kind of movie that is impossible: movies that are . . . fourteen hours long, that really cover a piece of material in a way that justifies it, shown in some kind of format that makes sense.


Ten years ago, John Milius wrote a script: ‘Apocalypse Now.’ You still share script credit with him. How has the movie changed?

I think the script, as I remember it, took a more comic-strip Vietnam War and moved it through a series of events that were also comic strip: a political comic strip. The events had points to them – I don’t say comic strip to denigrate them. The film continued through comic-strip episode and comic-strip episode until it came to a comic-strip resolution. Attila the Hun [i.e., Kurtz] with two bands of machine-gun bullets around him, taking the hero [Willard] by the hand, saying, ‘Yes, yes, here! I have the power in my loins!’ Willard converts to Kurtz’ side; in the end, he’s firing up at the helicopters that are coming to get him, crying out crazily. A movie comic.

I’ve read the comic.

Have you?

Well, I’ve read comics like that one, sure.

That was the tone and the resolution. The first thing that happened, after my involvement, was the psychologization of Willard – which I worked on desperately. Willard in the original script was literally zero, nobody. I didn’t have a handle: that’s why I cast him with Steve McQueen at first. I thought, well, God, McQueen will give him a personality. But I began to delve more into Willard. I took Willard through many, many instances in which I tried to position him as a witness going on this trip – and yet give him some sort of personality you could feel comfortable with, and still believe he was there.

Marty approached an impossible character: he had to be an observer, a watcher. A lot of reading dossiers, a totally introspective character. In no way could he get in the way of the audience’s view of what was happening, of Vietnam. That wasn’t going to work for Keitel. His stock in trade is a series of tics – ways to make people look at him.


The first scene of the movie – Willard is in his Saigon hotel room, waiting for a mission, drunk, losing control, finally attacking a mirror and cutting his hand open – is described in your wife’s book (‘Notes’) almost as a breakdown on Sheen’s part, certainly not action that was planned.

Marty’s character is coming across as too bland; I tried to break through it. I always look for other levels, hidden levels, in the actor’s personality and in the personality of the character he plays. I conceived this all-night drunk; we’d see another side of that guy. So Marty got drunk. And I found that sometimes, when he gets drunk, a lot comes out. He began to dance, he took off his clothes – this was ten minutes of the most incredible stuff – and then I asked him to look in the mirror. It was a way of focusing him on himself – to bring out the personality by creating a sense of vanity. And that’s what he punched: his vanity. I didn’t tell him to smash his hand into the mirror.

Many of the best things in the movie – the helicopter attack, the surfing motifs – are from Milius. The Do Lung Bridge sequence – which came partly from one of Michael Herr’s Esquire articles – was from Milius. Many things were changed. The concept that the guys on the boat would get killed – that was new. From the bridge on, it’s pretty much Heart of Darkness and me.


Was the film based on ‘Heart of Darkness’ in Milius’ script?

Very vaguely, then: A man was going up a river to find a man called Kurtz. There were few specific references beyond that. I decided to take the script much more strongly in the direction of Heart of Darkness – which was, I know, opening a Pandora’s box.

Michael Herr was brought in after the shooting in the Philippines was completed. Did he write all of the narration?

He dominated it; he dominated the tone. The hipster voice Willard is given – that’s Michael.

Was it from ‘Dispatches,’ in which Herr makes such a point of Vietnam as ‘a rock & roll war,’ that the idea came to use the Doors’ ‘The End’?

No. I knew Jim Morrison, in film school; he came to my house once – this was before he’d had a record out – with some acetates, demos, asking if I could help. I tried; I didn’t get anywhere. But the idea of using the Doors came from ‘Light My Fire.’ That was from Milius: Kurtz’ people would play ‘Light My Fire’ through their loudspeakers, to jazz themselves up. In the end, there’s a battle, and the North Vietnamese regulars come charging in to ‘Light My Fire.’ I went to the Philippines with that ending!


How did the characterization of Kurtz evolve?

Marlon arrived; he was terribly fat. As my wife says in her book, he hadn’t read the copy of Heart of Darkness I’d sent him; I gave him another copy, he read it, and we began to talk. There were a lot of notes that we compiled together. I’d give him some – he’d write a lot himself. I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking.

We had an idea: Kurtz as a Gauguin figure, with mangoes and babies, a guy who’d really gone all the way. It would have been great; Marlon wouldn’t go for it at all.

Marlon's first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is our guilt!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.

Finally, he shaved his head – and that did it. We’d go for it – we’d get there. That terrible face. I think it’s wonderful that in this movie, the most terrifying moment is that image: just his face.

There seems to be no conventional suspense in the movie. Even in the scene where Willard kills Kurtz; that’s an orchestrated scene, full of crosscutting and metaphors, like the killings that end ‘The Godfather.’ Is that the way you wanted to make the movie?

Maybe I’m stupid, but I always wanted the film to be graceful. My very first notion when I began to think of thestyle of the film – of course, style was going to be the whole movie – I wanted to sweep, not go chaaa! chaaa! I wanted it to have grace. I chose Vittorio Storaro [Bernardo Bertolucci’s cinematographer in The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and 1900] because I wanted the camera to just float across the boat. That is always shot handheld, because there’s no building dolly tracks in the water. The music would be Tomita-like [a Japanese synthesizer composer] for that reason.


I don’t understand what you mean when you say that style was going to be the whole movie.

When I first thought of doing Apocalypse Now, and I read Milius’ script, I was looking for a clue as to what kind of movie this was going to be. I was very concerned about style, because I knew it wouldn’t be a realistic style – I knew it would have some sort of what I’ll call extension to it, but I didn’t know what. People used to ask me, well, what’s this movie gonna be like? I said, well, it’s gonna be very stylized. And they said, well, like what? Like what director? And I would say, like Ken Russell. I wanted the movie to go as far as it would go. I was prepared to have to make an unusual, surrealist movie, and I even wanted to.

But you didn’t.

Well, surrealist. What do you call or what do you not call surrealist?

Watching the movie, I never had the feeling that I was partner to a dream – and that’s how I would define the experience of surrealism.

Well, then, what would you call the desire to extend the action so that it had another, different reality –or an extended reality, from just pure reality – that made use of what was going on?

The emergence of a different reality is raised as something that could happen – that could take over Willard, suck him in. There’s an interesting shot in Kurtz’ temple, a copy of ‘The Golden Bough’– a book about ancient myth and practice of ritual regicide. A man became king; after a year, if anyone could kill him, he became king. After Willard kills Kurtz, he emerges from the temple. Kurtz’ whole community is gathered there, and Willard is carrying two symbols of kingship – this is how I saw it –the book, Kurtz’ memoirs, and the scepter, the weapon he throws down when he refuses the kingship. The community kneels before him, and it’s clear that if Willard wanted to take over, he could have. And then he consciously rejects that choice. If he had not, then he, and maybe we, would have been swallowed by the extended realities you’re talking about. But he rejects that. That seemed very clear. Is that not what you meant?

No . . . when I finally got there, the best I could come up with was this: I’ve got this guy who’s gone up the river, he’s gonna go kill this other guy who’s been the head of all this. Life and death. Well, I have a friend, Dennis Jakob, we were talking – what to do? – and he said to me, ‘What about the myth of the Fisher King?’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s The Golden Bough.’ The Fisher King – I went and got the book, and I said, of course, that’s what I meant. That’s what was meant by the animal sacrifices [that occur among Kurtz’ people as Willard murders Kurtz]. I had seen a real animal sacrifice, by the headhunters we had hired. I looked at the blood shoot up in the air, and I’m thinking – this is about something very basic. I’ve gone up this whole river trying to figure out this movie, and I don’t know what’s the matter: What do I have to express, what do I have to show to really show this war? There are millions of things you have to show. But what it really all comes down to is some sort of acceptance of the truth, or the struggle to accept the truth. And the truth has to do with good and evil, and life and death – and don’t forget that we see these things as opposites, or we want to see them as opposites, but they are one. It’s not so easy to define them – as good or evil. You must accept that you have the whole.



Kurtz is consciously participating in the myth of the Golden Bough; he’s prepared that role for Willard, for him to take his place.

He wants Willard to kill him. So Willard thinks about this: he says, ‘Everyone wanted him dead. The army . . . and ultimately even the jungle; that’s where he took his orders from, anyway.’ The notion is that Willard is moved to do it, to go once more into that primitive state, to go and kill.

He goes into the temple, and he goes through a quasi-ritual experience, and he kills the king. The native people there were acting out in dance what was happening. They understood, and they were acting out, with their icons, the ritual of life and death. Willard goes in, and he kills Kurtz, and as he comes out he flirts with the notion of being king, but something . . . does not lure him. He goes, he takes the kid back, and then he goes away and there’s the image of the green stone face again [the face of an ancient Cambodian goddess from Kurtz’ temple complex]. He starts to go away, and then the moment when he flirted with being king is superimposed. And that’s the moment when we use ‘the horror, the horror.’


How do you see what Willard is going through at Kurtz’ compound?

I always tried to have it be implied in the movie that the notion of Willard going up the river to meet Kurtz was perhaps also a man looking at another aspect or projection of himself. I always had the idea of Willard and Kurtz being the same man – in terms of how I made my decisions as to do whatever we did. And I feel that Willard arriving at the compound to meet Kurtz is like coming to the place that you don’t want to go – because it’s all your ghosts and all your demons.

Willard’s a murderer, an assassin, and no doubt when he’s alone in the bathroom, he’s had some moral thoughts about whether that’s good: to go kill people you don’t even know. So I’m thinking Willard has been involved – as maybe Kurtz has – on a moral quest, which is to ‘Is what I have done, or what I am doing, moral? Is it okay?’ So when Willard gets to Kurtz’ place, it’s his nightmare. It’s his nightmare in that it’s the extreme of the issue that he has to deal with – bodies and heads – and Kurtz is the extreme of him, because Willard’s a killer. Here, now, Kurtz – who has gone mad – has become the horror, the whole thing, which is no more than an extension of the horror that we’re looking at on every level. Willard has to come to terms with this – and what Brando really tells him, the way I see it, is, I finally saw something so horrible . . . and then at the same time realized that the fact that it was so horrible was what made it wonderful . . . and I went to some other place in my mind, in which I became Kurtz, who is nuts.

And pathetic. One of the most beautiful lines in Michael Herr’s narration is when he says, ‘Kurtz had driven himself so far away from his people at home’ – the idea that you could go so far that you couldn’t get back, even if you wanted to get back.



That’s what I was trying to do with Willard in that last section. I always had this image, over and over again, of being able to stare at the something that was the truth and say, ‘Yes, that is the truth.’ Somehow a face was always important to me, and that’s why I liked just looking at Brando’s face for ten minutes or whatever. Remember Portrait of Dorian Gray? I mean, it was like ripping back the curtain – ahhhhh! There it is. And that’s the way I felt about Vietnam. You just look at it, you open your eyes and you look at it, and you accept it if it’s the truth. And then you get past it.

One line that seems to be coming out, following the L.A. screening in May and the Cannes screenings – and I’m speaking of the American press, since that’s all I’ve seen – is ‘The movie is terrific for the first hour or so: it’s so exciting, it’s well done, spectacular, it looks as if it were worth the money that was spent, you can see the money on the screen.’  And then, ‘When the picture get to Kurtz, it becomes muddled and philosophical and pretentious – it falls apart.’ That line is remarkably consistent. (And has remained so in most of the reviews that have appeared since the film was officially released.)

Audiences, and therefore certain writers, really know the rules of the different kinds of movies – and whether they want to admit it, in the first hour and a half of this movie, they’re locked into a formula. It’s a formula movie; you just get locked into the slot and it’ll take you up the river. And then, at a certain point, it doesn’t develop into the action adventure that it had set you up for. In my mind, the movie had made a turn I wouldn’t alter – it curved up the river. I chose to go with a stylized treatment, up the river into primitive times – and I eliminated everything in the script that didn’t take you there. It now takes you into various difficult areas, which you have to engage with a little. They’re riding down a big sled on a very formula movie, and they want it to resolve, and kick ’em off, just like movies are supposed to do, and it doesn’t do it. It’s like someone takes them off the slide and says, okay, now walk up the steps, and they don’t want to do it.



I’m not saying they are wrong in feeling that. I think some do and some don’t. But they would have preferred that it just went easy, without any difficulties – let the movie do it all. And I couldn’t do it in the end.

Couldn’t, or wouldn’t?

I couldn’t, I don’t think – I tried. I mean, I couldn’t give them an ending better than I did. I tried, and I’ve been trying and trying and trying. And if I could ever imagine how to do it, I would get out the goddamn film and I’d do it.

I think we live our lives hoping – impatient – for a time when things are resolved. I think that time will never come for any of us – and that’s part of the irony, even in this movie. Although there seems to be a resolution of some kind: that the healthy devour the sickly, and there is some sort of life/death, night-becomes-morning cycle taking place – to me the irony is that we stand on the edge, on the razor blade, all the time, and that’s why Willard looks to the left, looks to the right, and you hear, ‘The horror, the horror.’ ‘The horror, the horror’ is precisely that we are never really comfortable understanding what we should do, what is right and what is wrong, what is rational behavior, what is irrational: that we’re always on the brink.

‘The horror, the horror’ at the end, the fact that I wanted to end it on choice, because I think that’s the truthful ending – We hope for some sort of moral resolution about Vietnam and about our part in it, our participation in it. At the [true] end, you don’t have a resolution. You’re in a choice, still, between deciding to be powerful or to be weak. In a way, that’s how wars start. The United States chose: It wanted to be powerful, wanted to be Kurtz, in Southeast Asia. It chose not to stay home. But choice was just the only way I thought it could end.

Heart of Darkness ends with a lie. After Kurtz’ death, Marlow goes to Kurtz’ girlfriend, the intended, and she says, ‘What did he say before he died?’ And Marlow says, ‘He mentioned your name,’ when in fact what Kurtz said was, ‘The horror, the horror.’ So I feel all lousy because I think the ending I had on the movie was the truth, but this ending that I’m going to put on it now is a lie – and I justify it to myself because Conrad would have ended with a lie, too.

- Francis Ford Coppola interviewed by Greil Marcus.  Rolling Stone,  November 1, 1979


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Charlie Kaufman II: On Adaptation


Adaptation (Directed by Spike Jonze) 
Adaptation tells the story of a misunderstood and socially inept screenwriter called Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s dense book The Orchid Thief about John Laroche, a colorful character who was arrested in Florida for stealing rare orchids from a state-protected preserve. Facing severe writer’s block, Nicolas Cage (playing Charlie Kaufman) early on states his fateful goal of: ‘I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a ‘Hollywood’ thing. It’s like I don’t want to cram in sex, or guns, or car chases or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.’ While the film deliberately meanders through the first two acts, the appearance of screenwriting guru and seminar leader Robert McKee sends the third act into motion when he tells Kaufman, ‘You can have an uninvolving, tedious movie, but wow them at the end, and you’ve got a hit.’ The initial draft of Adaptation took this advice and the third act sent Kaufman and his brother, Donald, into the drug lair of Orlean and Laroche, who’ve kidnapped Charlie and plan to kill him in a Florida swamp. Donald bites the dust while trying to save Charlie, but just as the gun is turned on Charlie, an act-two throwaway joke about a mystic Swamp Ape manifests itself into the scene and saves Kaufman. The finished film ended up taking a different course, however...

The following extract is taken from an interview with Creative Screenwriting in which Charlie Kaufman discusses how he came to write the script of Adaptation and why the Swamp Ape never made it into the final cut of the film:

CS: When you began adapting The Orchid Thief were you given free rein to do what ever you wanted?

CK: They approached me with the book, and I liked it a lot. I was getting other kinds of offers, but this one just seemed more substantial to me. It seemed to be about something other than the usual stuff I get offered. So I took it. I kind of thought I would figure it out, and I guess this is how I figured it out. Or not. They certainly left me alone. I don’t think they imagined... I didn’t tell them what I had in mind because I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I took the job. And when I decided I wanted to take the material in this direction, I felt like I needed to write it before showing it to them. Because if I pitched it, I thought I’d be, you know, dismissed! I don’t think they expected this kind of script; they expected something a little more faithful.

CS: You essentially blew your assignment and handed in a script about yourself. Most writers would either be fired or sued for doing this – why weren’t you?


CK: I wasn’t fired when I turned it in for two reasons. First, my work was done. I guess they could’ve fired me and hired another writer to do it at that point, but I think the other reason is that they liked it. I didn’t know that they were going to like it, but I lucked out, and they liked it.

CS: What did your agent think?

CK: I don’t think my agent saw it until [Jonathan] Demme’s company saw it. I don’t remember the chronology exactly, but by the time my agent saw it, I think it was a good thing, not a bad thing. I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing, because by the time I came up with this idea to do it this way, I was pretty much out of ideas. I thought I’d better do it rather than pitch it because if I did, they would say no and I had no other ideas. I wanted to try it even though I thought it was going to be a disaster.


CS: Were you ever worried about the repercussions?

CK: Yeah, I thought I wasn’t going to work anymore. I thought it was gonna be like, ya know, like you said, they paid good money for this thing, they hired me, I took a very long time to write it, and this is what I finally gave them after they’d been waiting all this time. But at the same time, I’d been talking about the movie/script to people, and I got the sense that people thought it was a funny idea, so I had a little bit of confidence that it might not be so terrible.

CS: Do you have any sort of support group, close friends, etc., that reads your material before you go out with it?

CK: No. No one reads anything I write until I turn it in. I thought the mentions in the film of the Casablanca screenplay were a hilarious insider writer’s joke. Most in the industry know that Casablanca was rewritten continually on set, as opposed to being a screenplay that was simply written and then filmed. I’m actually just quoting verbatim Robert McKee. That’s all McKee always talks about, so I was doing a Robert McKee thing.

CS: Interesting. I assume you went to a McKee seminar?

CK: Yes, I didn’t go to it for the reason that Kaufman goes in the movie. I went for research on this film.

CS: Were there ever any plans to have the real McKee in Adaptation?

CK: We talked about it, but we weren’t putting anyone else real in there, so we thought it’d be weird.

CS: What’d he think about being a character in your film?

CK: Ultimately, he really liked the movie. He came to a screening recently and was very pleased.

CS: I was sad to see McKee’s one-page speech about how you can’t do a one-page speech in a movie go. Why was it cut?

CK: 
I think it was filmed but cut because the movie was so long... a lot of that stuff was filmed, and the assembly of the movie was so dense, so much stuff happened. Even as it is now it’s a little bit overwhelming. So, we’re trying to get the movie moving at that point, and that was obviously, intentionally a complete stop in everything, so I think that’s why it’s gone. I think we’re going to publish the script as we went into production with it, so that will be in there.


CS: Do you think the film remained true to the tone of the screenplay?

CK: Adaptation is an interesting thing because it’s an extremely modular structure. The order is completely open. It isn’t arbitrary. I mean it’s all intention al on my part, but at the same time when you’re cutting any movie, you’re moving stuff around because you have to, or because you’ve cut out scenes and you need to make things work again. Inevitably, you do move things, and with a more linear story there are certain constrictions; it leaves you options but not as many. There are infinite number of options to Adaptation. It’s sort of a godsend, but it’s also daunting because you never really know how to ultimately structure it. You say to yourself, ‘Oh, you could do this.’ Or, ‘Wait, we could do this. Move this here.’ And it goes on and on. So it’s been tricky. We’re probably about two-thirds of the way through at this point, and we still have to shoot. So we’ll see what kind of shape it takes...

CS: Do you ever take rewrite assignments?

CK: No. I’ve thought about taking rewrite work or production polish stuff, but I haven’t yet. I’ve been busy with my own stuff; it’s what I prefer to do. But I guess at some point maybe I will.

CS: Do you plan to direct?

CK: I’ve been writing something now. I’ve cleaned my plate a bit; I’ve been dealing with stuff that I had to do for a long time now. I finished a draft of another script which Michel [Gondry] is going to direct, and that was something that’s been haunting me for quite a while. So there’s a draft in, and there’s more work to do, but it frees me up to start a new spec. My intention is to direct it.


CS: Tell me about your new project, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s set to star Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, right?


CK: Yes. What initially happened was Michel Gondry had a friend in France who had an idea – he’s kind of a conceptual artist – and the thought was, ‘What if you got a card in the mail one day that said you’d been erased from someone’s memory?’ So, Michel came to me with that idea, and we kind of worked it into a bit of story. And we pitched it –

CS: Don’t say ‘pitched’; that’s what Donald Kaufman would say.


CK: [Laughs] Yep, Kaufman’s dialogue in Adaptation. I hated when Donald would say that. Anyway, it was my one sort of pitching experience, and I went around to a bunch of different studios with Michel and ended up selling it. I started writing it probably in 1998, and because there was all this other stuff happening with Adaptation and Human Nature, it kind of took a while. It was also very complicated for me to write. The conceit is sort of tricky, because not only is it going backward, but the memory is being erased while the character is going through it, and there are a lot of technical problems there.

CS: I really liked the screenplay. I heard you cut out the sci-fi beginning and ending from your first draft in order to keep things more rooted in reality?

CK: 
Yeah, I like starting it this way because it doesn’t tell the audience anything about what they’re going to see. I like the idea of taking the audience in one direction and then jerking them in another direction and having them have to catch up to figure out what’s going on, and I think this does that.


CS: Okay, now for the question I’ve been waiting to ask. I loved the Swamp Ape from the first draft of Adaptation and was sad to see it go –

CK: Oh, no...

CS: I’m curious about the decision to leave that and a lot of the other surrealistic scenes from the first draft behind.

CK: It’s a discussion and an argument that Spike [Jonze] and I had for a long time. I think that was Spike’s decision or insistence. The difference in the last part of the movie that we shot and the last part of the movie as I originally wrote it is that it’s less broad. Spike felt it was important that there be no demarcation between the first part of the movie and the last part of the movie – that they blend together so that you could watch the whole thing and be emotionally engaged and then afterward think about it and go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, isn’t that what he said he wasn’t going to do?’ So, that’s the reasoning why it’s not there, and I think ultimately I agree with it, especially in the form that the movie has taken – even though I had an affection for the Swamp Ape too. But I think looking at the movie the way it is, it would have been very out of place.

CS: Were you worried about changing an ending that so many of your various executives and producers loved?

CK: Even Malkovich got changed. Malkovich was a lot sillier than it ended up being as a movie. The last third of Malkovich is completely changed from my original draft. It was very much more comedic, less angst-ridden...

– Extracted From: ‘Charlie Kaufman Interviewed By David F. Goldsmith & Jeff Goldsmith. Creative Screenwriting, Volume 9, #2 (March/April 2002) & Volume 9, #6 (November/December 2002)’.