Interview: George Malko

 Nick Clement chats with the screenwriter (Dogs Of War) about his career, inspirations, his favourite films, and what he values most as a writer.

George Malko’s screen and television credits include “The Dogs of War,” “Luna,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Out Cold,” “Alien Thunder,” “Return to Earth,” and “Tidal Wave,” as well as uncredited work on produced feature and television films.

Among his published books are the novels “Take What You Will,” and “Luna,” while in non-fiction there’s “A Certain Art,” and “The One & Only Yo-Yo Book,” as well as articles which have appeared in a wide range of publications.

For the past 20 years he has been an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts, and once upon a time he was a certified professional ski instructor.

We Are Cult’s Nick Clement spoke with Malko about his career, inspirations, his favourite films, and what he values most as a writer.

What are some of your favorite films, or films that you look to for inspiration?

Early on, Stalag 17 made a huge impression on me. I must’ve watched A Streetcar Named Desire 20 times and I can still see it in my head. The performances are so wonderful in that film, and it’s one of those pictures that literally lives inside of my heart. 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita are films I could watch any day of the week. And even though I don’t own a copy of Il Sorpasso, I love that film as well. I’ve long been a fan of French cinema, and The Hair Dresser’s Husband really hit me hard. That’s a beautiful and strange story of helpless love. I’m a fan of The Magnificent Seven, the original Japanese and the western, and I love Sanjuro and Yojimbo – those are films with a seamless aesthetic and I could watch them at any point. You should be able to stand in front of a film as if it were artwork in a museum. Look at something like The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Those are works of art and definitive motion pictures. Blade Runner I could watch any day, with the sound off, too. That movie is like staring into the abyss of the imaginations of a group of great artists.

What’s the most recent film you’ve seen?

With streaming media, there’s this need to be momentarily diverted. What can keep me busy for 10 minutes, or distract me from my everyday routine? I recently saw The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and that’s a lovely film, and that’s streaming on Netflix, and playing in only a couple of theatres. And I bet that it would be even better to see with a crowd because of the way that it was played by the performers.  I really liked the film, though I’m not sure I’d see it again. But there’s no disrespect in that statement.

When did you get interested in writing?

I always wanted to write. I can remember in either third or fourth grade, the teacher gave us an assignment to write our own stories. So I made something up that I thought was good, but the teacher felt another story, written by a girl in my class, was the best. And that was it – and I said to myself, hey, I love this, making stuff up is much better than reality! Telling a story is essentially telling a lie, and yet nobody cares, because they want to know what happens next. There’s a sense of personal satisfaction that arrives with creating something, and I’ve always felt an inherent need to tell stories. I grew up in a musical household, as my father was a performing musician, so the arts have been in my blood forever. I just love making stuff up, and watching the faces of my contemporaries as they react to the work and seeing their response.

Where does telling “good stories” come from?

People are so eager to believe things, and when someone has a command of storytelling, it’s extremely hard to not want to know what will occur next. As a species, we can be skeptical to the point of cynicism, and these days it goes beyond “what’s the point” and into something more self-serving and possibly evil. One has to be ready to separate the art from the artist, and vice versa. And nobody reads anymore. We’re all too concerned with computers and distracted by social media.

You currently are a teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I’d love to hear a bit about that, and your thoughts on being a professor.

I’ve been an Adjunct Professor for 20 years straight, teaching two courses per semester: Advanced Screenwriting and One-Hour Television alternating with a course in Scene & Dialogue for graduates which I created. I love teaching, but it took me a while to fully understand what I could communicate to students, and also how little I needed to tell them to do, but rather, show them what to do. Teaching forces you to look at yourself and what you’re doing and how you do it. Students these days – it’s the same as it’s always been: some are more prepared and engaged than others, and the overall quality of the writing I see in class is very promising. I’ve had several students go on to big works, hardly because of me: Lucas Hnath has become a successful and respected playwright. Itamar Moses wrote the book for The Band’s Visit which has just opened on Broadway to rave reviews. I never had Donald Glover in a class. As you know he created the television series Atlanta and recently won two Emmys.

How hard is to advise students on what to do, or what path to follow?

We can’t offer career advice because we’re not in job placement. Nobody knows who is going to make it, but the persistent ones, and the ones who have genuine talent, will always find a way to get noticed. We can provide the tools for them to make their own art, and it’s then up to them to take risks and to be unique.

Do you have a preference between writing screenplays or books? Is one form harder than the other to craft?

It always depends on the story being told. It’s never an easy process in both mediums, and it’s always an interesting process when you sit down to create. And I tell my students that it will never get any easier; it’s always a struggle to make sure you‘re communicating exactly what you want to communicate. The problem [with] most first-time writers is that they literally put everything into their work, because they never think they’ll get another creative opportunity. In a novel, you can hear what a person is thinking easier than in a film. But in a film, you have the power to be very visual with your words, which is something that books can’t offer outside of your own imagination. In either form, you need to be as descriptive as possible. But that can be tricky when writing screenplays, because writing scripts can be very limiting, as you’re always trying to streamline and remain disciplined.

Are there any television shows you enjoy that are currently airing? This has been long considered to be the “New Golden Age of TV” and there are some truly excellent programs right now.

The writing on The Americans is wonderful. I think that’s a great show, and when you boil down the writing, you see how there’s a true sense of economy in how it’s put together. I watch that show and think about how the writers get around certain things in the script that might take five or six pages of a novel to achieve. It’s mainly about things making organic sense and that’s what appeals to me most about The Americans. Writing with economy is hard for many people.

Do you have any funny “development stories” from your career, or an instance that sticks out as being classically “Hollywood”?

Paul Klein, former head of NBC Programming in New York, became head of Playboy Films, and I wrote this screenplay for him, about a car inventor who is framed and goes out to get even. Very loosely inspired by John Delorean. We went up to Canada for story conferences. Paul goes into a meeting with the two executive producers, Robert Lantos and Steve Roth. I’m outside, and a guy buttonholed me and said he needs to discuss the script. I listen politely until he says “You may need to replace the car with something else.” I said, “What do you mean, replace the car? It’s about someone who makes cars.” “Well,” this guy says, “we may need him not to make cars but something else.” “Why,” I demanded to know. “We may have a problem getting a car into the studio elevator.” He was the Production Manager! I interrupted Paul’s meeting and told them never ever to expose me or any other writer to a Production Manager who cares not a scintilla about the script, only about what fits into the fucking studio elevator.

What was your “big break” moment as a writer?

I was referred by a producer friend to another producer who was doing a period Canadian Royal Mounted Police story which turned out to be Dan Candy’s Law, which was also known as Alien Thunder. They had a script that didn’t work and the company, which was based in Montreal, they were in a hurry to get the film made because they had a commitment from Donald Sutherland to star in the picture. Sutherland was attached because he was friends with the director. Well, the finished film was a mess. After it wrapped, they never spoke to each other again. I once tried watching it with my son. Maybe fifteen minutes into it he looked at me and said, “Dad, what is this movie about?” I said, “I have absolutely no idea.”

But at least it got you your first credit. When did you first realize the film was a mess? I think it’s a very cool, off-beat movie that could only have been made in the 70’s through a variety of circumstances. It does have “something” about it that makes it memorable, though.

When they were editing, I was asked to fly up with the great Dede Allen, a friend of the director’s who wanted her to see a rough cut. It was a disaster. Among other things, they didn’t know whether or not to subtitle the dialogue being spoken by the Native American characters, and I told them to leave it alone and to not have subtitles just dialogue as it’d be more realistic. Dede agreed. The point is, at the end of the day I got a credit and I got paid, but it didn’t really put me on the map. What got me noticed was the TV movie I wrote, Return to Earth, which was the story of Buzz Aldrin coming home from the first landing on the moon. That got me my first agent, who I worked with for a very long time.

You had the opportunity to work with the legendary filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci on his controversial dram, Luna. I’d love to hear anything about that experience.

That was one of the greatest creative experiences of my life. While I might have been disappointed by the final version of the film, Bernardo did ask me to write the novel; he very clearly said that he did NOT want a novelization, he wanted a true novel. Which I wrote and which he liked and helped see published in several countries and in four or five languages. And in my novel, which I am very happy with, I did not hem and haw but clearly had the mother sleep with her son. In the film it was left on a more ambivalent note. I remember seeing the film with Pauline Kael and when we came out of the screening she said, “God, I hope he finishes his analysis soon.”

See, Fox wanted an American writer involved on the project and my agent brought me in because I knew and know Italian—as a kid I spent some time in Italy with my parents when my father was conducting there. Later, when I was with CBS News, my wife and I lived in Rome for a year. During that time, as part of a three-man production unit, we made three documentary films for CBS Public Affairs. And this year of living there was AFTER we had spent three months making a documentary about the opera house in Parma, about Verdi, and where a very young director was making one of his first movies. It was Bernardo and he was shooting “Prima Della Revoluzione.” We met him, met his parents, remarkable people of a kind of grace and marvelous intelligence that is so generous and accessible.

Anyway there I was, back in Rome for a couple of months working with Bernardo Bertolucci and his own artistic generosity and creative depth were inspiring even if we did have some disagreements about the heroin use on the part of the boy. I told him that his addiction couldn’t just be something that reared its head when dramatically convenient. Either the kid was a junky or he wasn’t. Having said that, knowing how the movie turned out, I would go back and work with Bernardo on it all over again in a heartbeat.

I’m a massive fan of the action adventure The Dogs of War, which you co-wrote with Gary DeVore for director John Irvin. It’s got fantastic action, a propulsive script, macho performances, and it feels like a throw-back to the adventure films from the 60’s that were seemingly made every week, and which nowadays, rarely get financed.

It was an interesting project to be a part of. I’d been offered the project about eight years earlier and before I could say yes whoever had the rights lost them. Time passed and UA got the project and they threw it at everyone in the business, Michael Cimino included; I’m telling you everyone had done a pass on that script. We could have taken a screenwriter’s-only cruise and gotten a discount because of how many people worked on The Dogs of War. I had already read the book, but then I reread it and I told the producers that they needed to stay true to the roots of the book. But, it couldn’t just be the book, which is A hires B to do C and B does it and that’s it. I said that A would hire B to do C, but not tell B everything, hold something back, something critical. And B finds out and turns the tables, so to speak.

I went to London and started from scratch and wrote the script working with John and Larry DeWay, the producer, and then, after UA greenlit the project, Gary DeVore did a polish. His experience was heavier than mine, and while we never met, I was aware that he led a very interesting life, which of course turned tragic in the end. The fate of the movie is discussed in rather bittersweet detail in Steven Bach’s book Final Cut, which is about the collapse of the studio as it found itself trapped by the making of Heaven’s Gate. Steven had been senior vice president and head of worldwide production at United Artists and in his book he wrote that if the studio he spent some of the money wasted on Heaven’s Gate promoting The Dogs of War it would have been a genuinely big hit. When you look at the movie now, it looks just huge and totally authentic, and all of that money is up there on the screen.

Did you ever visit the set while they were filming The Dogs of War?

No, I never did get to visit the set. But after I was done with my work on the screenplay, Robert Stigwood (Saturday Night Fever) hired me to write what he hoped would be a salsa-crossover movie. I went down to Puerto Rico do some research and while I was there went out to a section called Loiza – a town, actually – and it had huts and small buildings and this long stretch of beach and palm trees and all of it more African than Caribbean, and I thought it could be perfect for The Dogs Of War. I called London and told them. They ended up shooting in Belize and it looks perfect.

Are there any interesting projects that you worked on, but didn’t receive on-screen credit for?

I worked with Gordon Willis on the only picture he ever directed, Windows. That was in 1980, and my agent brought me together with Mike Lobell, who was producing – his first. (Mike later went on to partner with Andrew Bergman on a string of pictures, among them The Freshman, which I particularly appreciate because it’s about NYU’s film school). Anyway, they had started shooting and the script had problems of logic and structure and they needed some scenes rewritten. I met Gordy and we got on immediately, I don’t really know why. He had this quiet aura of perfection that he didn’t brandish like some light sword. It was just there and everyone respected it. He also had a private sense of absurdity – about most everything, particularly the business. I think that’s what I responded to and connected with. We met and talked about the scenes he needed and I worked on them, rewrote them, and at one point I said that with one scene I had written, I had fashioned it in a way so that the subsequent scene could be changed to — Gordy interrupted me and said, “We can’t.” I said, “No, you can, look” and again started to explain how I was going to make it work even better. Gordy stopped me again and said, “George, we can’t, we already shot that scene, we had to because of the schedule,” and in that moment I understood the overall problem he was having with the picture and the script.

I’ve still never seen Windows. It’s been on my to-see-list for years. What did you think of the final film?

The finished picture was okay, a quirky little thriller that did little or no business. But Gordy and I stayed friends, talked often, not about much, but just to talk. He was engaging and straight-forward and never wavered from his standards, personal or artistic. One time during my work with him he wanted to talk about a scene and had me meet him at DuArt, on West 55th Street, where he was going to screen some rushes he wanted me to see. First, though, he wanted to check the three projectors in the screening room: he wanted to check the light they threw. For thirty minutes, snapping his fingers for the projectionist to go from one to another to the third of the projectors, and then back to the first, Gordy stared at the white screen, then did a light reading on it, but mostly stared: One, Two, Three, back to One, back to Three. For me, there was absolutely no difference. None. Not for Gordy. After the thirty minutes he said, “Number two is off, we’ll use three.” It was up to his standards.

He was an astonishing visualist and I’m curious why he never made more films as a director.
 
He didn’t much like actors; it was as if they got in the way of his visual intentions. He worked with them, made them look better than good – not more sculpted in beauty or something, just more… profound, deeper, as he worked with the lights or the darkness to create a moment. Yes, he was nicknamed The Prince of Darkness, and when Paramount first screened The Godfather someone said that it looked as if the film had been developed in marinara sauce, but he always knew what he was doing. Always. Damn, he was good. I was able, I can’t remember when it was, to tell Gordy what my wife thought of his work on Manhattan. We had come out of the theater and my wife, a graphic artist and designer and herself a photographer, said, “That is so amazing (meaning Gordy’s work) no one is going to get it.” I can’t remember where we were when I told Gordy what she had said. He got this small look of almost childish delight on his face and said, “She said that? Gee.” Then he laughed.

Is there an unmade project from your past that you really wish had gotten made?

My friend David Picker, one of the great producers in the business, had the film rights to John Gregory Dunne’s novel Dutch Shea, Jr., and asked me to adapt it as a screenplay. David had a deal with Embassy to make the movie and I finished the first draft and he sent it to them and very quickly the executive in charge of the project came back to us to say that it was the best first draft she had ever seen. And then The Verdict came out and we were dead. It seems nobody wanted two lawyer movies at the same time so it never happened. That was a disappointment.

On my own, I had this happen to me: I came up with a strong idea for a Russian-based thriller, but Sean Connery’s The Russia House had come out and I remember someone saying to me that they “already had their Russia movie for the decade.” I naively asked why there couldn’t be two Russia movies at the same time.

Look, in the business everyone says “no” because it’s easier than ever saying “yes” and it keeps them working. Studio execs are hesitant to say “yes” because then there’s the fear of failure, and the fact that they’ll actually have to make the movie. We both know that there are fewer and fewer studio execs who absolutely love cinema so it’s always about finding the few who are the most passionate. Mike Medavoy – now that’s a man who wants to make movies. And does.

 Anything new coming up on the horizon?

I am always writing, working on something. It’s like a shark in the ocean, it has to keep moving. You stop moving ahead, you die.

Any parting words of wisdom concerning your craft?

Nobody forced me to get into this profession, and nobody ever made me any promises. There was no sack of money dangling in front of me. I’m a very lucky person to have been able to have the career I’ve had and continue to have. My family has been immensely supportive, which makes surviving the downs possible. You look at something you’ve written on the stage, or on a screen, or in print, and you always think you could have made it better. Being able to do that — it’s everything.


 Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

 He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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