Interview: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, screenwriter

❉ We chat with the writer of cult classics such as Cutter’s Way, Louis Malle’s Crackers and Tony Scott’s Revenge.

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin has been writing for film and television for over 40 years, with feature credits that include Angel Unchained, Cutter’s Way, The Pursuit of DB Cooper, Revenge, and Crackers. He’s currently a consulting producer on the Amazon crime series Bosch, and was a writer on the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon and many others. We Are Cult’s Nick Clement had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Fiskin, discussing his career, inspirations, and what he values as a writer.

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions, Jeffrey. I’m a huge fan of your work and I’m really excited to learn more about your experiences and how you approach your craft. How did you get bit by the writing bug? How old were you, and how did your passion take shape?

Fiskin: I was seven, maybe eight. Kid next door, Jimmy Seltzer, I believe, was marching around outside with an army helmet on. Coolest thing I ever saw. I asked if I could wear it, too. But Jimmy allowed as how that would require him to remove it and he wasn’t about to do that. I toddled off to sulk. Until I heard Jimmy’s mother call him in for supper. I waited until the back door closed, then snuck over to where Jimmy had to put his toys, a big box by that back door. Stealth, thy name is Jeffrey. I managed to grab the helmet (it was right on top) and scurry home without being seen. I ran in my room, put it on and looked in the mirror. I knew it. I looked even cooler than Jimmy Seltzer. I marched around the house with a touch of what these days we call attitude.  In retrospect, it’s odd, my mother didn’t notice the helmet, but if she did, she decided this was a matter for father’s attention. And sure enough, when he came home from work, first thing he said was, “Nice chapeau, where did you get it?” I guessed that was another name for a helmet and realized “Swiped it from Jimmy Seltzer” wasn’t the right answer.  So I lied. Even then I didn’t know when to shut up. My dad marched me to the bedroom. That only ever meant one thing. But before the spanking, he said, “It’s a shame you aren’t a writer. You could get paid for lies like that.” Even in terror for my life, I still managed to ask the crucial question. “How much? As much as my allowance?” – which may have been a stately quarter per week. “Maybe even more.” A helpful coda to this story may be to remind you that Scrooge McDuck was my favorite character by far. (The character as drawn and written by Carl Barks, and later “Keno” Don Rosa – not the unfortunate animated variation from Disney’s Duck Tales.)

What was the first job you got in Hollywood?

Fiskin: My first job in Hollywood was as a reader for Sandy Howard. I got a stack of some thirty odd scripts. It was a test. Not whether I could get through them, but whether I would like a particular script he had stuck in the pile. I dismissed all of them out of hand.  (I suspect because I presumed that would imply discernment while, of course, it implies the very opposite.)  Sandy focused on one script. “What about the Indian one?” I said that while the set-up was good, a British toff captured by the Sioux, I thought it absurd that the “life lessons” all flowed in one direction, from the First Nations people to the aristo. Wasn’t there even one small morsel from Western civilization worth sharing, not even soap? Sandy, who had just finished filming A Man Called Horse, decided I might not be his perfect reader. But my unearned arrogance reminded him of more than a few good writers he’d worked with, so he gave me a copy of The New York Times Directory of The Film, which included reviews of all the Times’ Films of The Year from 1924 through 1970. My remit was to discover a movie that I could imagine remaking. I read through them all and returned with the notion that one might update The Best Years of Our Lives in light of our ongoing engagement in Southeast Asia. Sold! Five hundred bucks for a first draft. Midas himself never imagined such riches!

Are there any writers who you have looked to for inspiration? Do you have any favorite authors or screenwriters?

Fiskin: Anyone who writes is inspiring, good or bad. They all drive you to “fail better” as one of the very best had it. Favorite screenwriter?  Unanswerable. But among many I do love, Jacques Prevert, not despite his galloping romanticism, but because of it.

What’s your process? Short bursts of writing all day long, or one extended period of undisturbed writing?

Fiskin: Whichever works.

Do you have that “big break” moment that so many other industry professionals do?

Fiskin: After hearing a four word pitch (“Magnificent Seven on bikes”), producer Sam Arkoff said, “Go home and write. I’ll make a deal with your agent.” That film was Angel Unchained.

What was it like meeting Arkoff?

Fiskin: The setup: my agent arranged the meeting without warning me. I balked. I told him I simply wasn’t ready. He assured me I didn’t have to be “ready.” Just meet and greet. Talk a little, see what he’s looking for, go home and come back when you’ve nailed it. Well, if it’s that easy, sure. I am ushered into Sam’s office. He is standing behind his desk, a stogie in his chops and without even hello, he asks: “So what’s your idea?” I looked around for a way out. But there on the coffee table I spy an open copy of the trades with a headline for a story on the overnight Nielsen ratings: “Mag Seven Clicks for 7.” And I turned to him and said: see above.

11 years elapsed between your next on-screen credit – what were you working on during that time? Specs that never got made? Uncredited rewrites?

Fiskin: All of the above, heavy on unproduced specs.

Cutter’s Way is a defining film in so many ways, and a film that has grown in reputation since its release in 1981. How did you get the job working on Cutter’s Way?

Fiskin: Paul Gurian. A mutual friend suggested he read something of mine. He got a script from my agent. Calls me, says: “You’re my screenwriter.” Never one to let well enough alone, I was constrained to tell him – because we did have this mutual friend – that I had no juice in Hollywood whatsoever and this being his first film, I cannot, in all good conscience, recommend myself for the job. He says: “You don’t understand. You’re my screenwriter. Read the book. We’ll talk.” I did not bother to tell him I could not afford a hard-bound book. I stole a copy, read it, returned it (sorry about the coffee cup circle on page 56, it was the cat) and then, sadly called him. Sadly, because I had some very bad news for him. I pointed out that the end of the book had already been done, recently and to excellent effect, in a film called Easy Rider. I fully expected some disagreement. But all I got was: “I knew you were my screenwriter.” Madness and passion are often dangerous bedfellows. Paul is still shtupping both. Takes a genius.

What was it like collaborating with Ivan Passer?

Fiskin: A joy. Complete and utter joy.

How do you approach adapting a novel (in this case, Cutter & Bone) versus writing an original story? What were the difficulties with adapting Cutter and Bone?

Fiskin: In adaptations, someone else has already done a good deal of the hard work. There is always the source at hand to remind you why this was a good idea. With originals, you just keep hoping it’s not a complete waste of time. The only difficulty with Cutter & Bone was the ending. I wrote six.

What do you think of the performances in the film from John Heard, Jeff Bridges, and Lisa Eichhorn?

Fiskin: Supernal.

What was your reaction when you saw the film for the first time?

Fiskin: One: That’s what we set out to do. Two: None of us will ever work again.

How do you feel now that the film has attained cult classic status, and has finally been released on Blu-ray from Twilight Time?

Fiskin: I wonder who wrote it.

One of my favorite movies as a kid was The Pursuit of DB Cooper. How did you come to work on this wild and woolly little film?

Fiskin: I believe it was originally through the good offices of Steve De Jarnatt, an under-appreciated and quite brilliant cinematic mind. He was the first of a plethora of directors involved and easily the best for this film. (And yes, I am well-aware that I got to work with John Frankenheimer on it.)

I know that the film suffered many creative set-backs and went through all sorts of production turmoil. And yet, the film is just a lot of fun and carries such a distinctive vibe. Can chaos create magic?

Fiskin: If any film has ever produced magic, that’s proof enough that chaos can produce magic.

The Pursuit of DB Cooper has been airing frequently – and in HD – on the EPIX Movie Channel. When was the last time you saw the film? Have you heard anything about a Blu-ray release?

Fiskin: I seldom see my films more than once. Low pain threshold. No info on Blu-ray. I don’t think they care much for screenwriters generally.

Back in the 1980’s, my sister and I used to binge watch Faerie Tale Theater, with Shelley Duvall, and it appears that you were a writer on that show. How would you describe that experience?

Fiskin: The original idea was quite promising. Writers and directors who wanted to work together would be assigned a fairy tale to do with as they saw fit. Then it would be cast and inexpensively shot. All the above-the-line “talent” were to receive exactly the same share as Shelley. All very 60’s. I was put together with Bob Rafelson, wicked smart, intense, collaborative and scrupulously honest. Doesn’t get much better than that. Then he asked for an actual breakdown of the monies being spent and discovered that the production company was taking a huge amount for themselves and merely dividing the remainder for everyone else.  He left. Even so, my first episode starred Christopher Reeve, Sally Kellerman, Bernadette Peters, Rene Auberjonois, Carol Kane, Beverly D’Angelo, George Dzundza, Richard Libertini and Ron Rifkin. That’s like the cast of the next remake of Murder on the Orient Express. I did an uncredited rewrite for Ivan Passer on another one and got to meet Barbara Hershey and Mick Jagger. How would you describe a day job like that?? Me? I say, “Cool.”

You worked with Louis Malle on Crackers, which is a crazy little flick. People didn’t particularly like the film, but I think it’s got lots to admire, and I think Malle is one of the most interesting filmmakers to have ever picked up a camera. What was it like collaborating with Malle on Crackers?

Fiskin: I love Louis still. He was strong and thoughtful, open, deeply caring, involved in every aspect of the film’s making, endlessly creative. The movie’s quirks and craziness and tonal shifts were, for a better or worse, our mutual intention and mostly well-realized. We both wished it had been better received, if only for our actors’ excellent work. Sometimes you cook and nobody’s hungry.

In 1990, your adaptation of Jim Harrison’s pulp novel Revenge hit the screen, and it was directed by my favorite filmmaker of all time – the late, great Tony Scott. How did you initially get involved with this project?

Fiskin: Tony had read something of mine and we had coffee and talked in general. Seemed like a good match, but there was nothing going on at the time. Some months later he called and asked if I knew Jim Harrison’s novella, Revenge. I did. Would I be interested in writing it? I would. Could I write it in the next two weeks over Christmas before the option lapsed in early January? I could try. Would I do it on spec since there was no way in hell Ray Stark was going to put any more money into it right now? I would and I did.

What are your memories of working with Tony? Does anything stand out in particular?

Fiskin: Tony was a genuinely sweet person. Very clear-eyed about his own skills and his own vision. Though his image is, I suppose, kinda macho; trade his inevitable cigar for a camera and he was a profound aesthetician. And a terrific storyteller.

 The film was criticized at the time of its release for its bleak vision and for being extremely violent. But that’s sort of the point of the movie if anyone was paying attention! How do you balance critical reaction with what you’re attempting to do as an artist?

Fiskin: Fortunately you never get critical reaction ‘til you’re done, so it never influences your work as an artist.

Tony Scott.

Are you aware that Quentin Tarantino thinks that the theatrical cut of Revenge is Tony Scott’s best film? He thinks it’s a masterpiece. Ever met Tarantino and discussed the film with him?

Fiskin: I’ve never had that pleasure. I’m pretty sure he’s a masterpiece, too.

After working on Revenge, did you write more specs that never got made and d more uncredited rewrites? The IMDB lists that you did some uncredited work on the 2007 thriller Fracture, which I very much enjoyed.

Fiskin: I did. On Fracture I came in very late in the process and solved one vexing problem with the ending. But the real work had been done in Dan Pyne’s original. E. Max Frye did a nifty polish and probably some others I am unaware of, all under the baton of a terrific producer, Chuck Weinstock. I also took some time to work on a book of translations of Eustache Deschamps, a 14th c. French courtier and poet.

You’ve also written for a variety of television series, including From the Earth to the Moon, and The 60’s and The 70’s. What’s it like doing this sort of work, comparatively speaking to writing feature films? Do you prefer one over the other?

Fiskin: The writing part is, for me, always the same. TV does get up on the screen faster which is nice. But finally the writing work is one’s own. The rest is entirely dependent on the folks you work with. I have been incredibly lucky in both areas. Lynda Obst on The 60’s, and Tom Hanks and Erik Bork on From the Earth to the Moon.

Most recently, you’ve been working on the Amazon crime series Bosch, which is an excellent program. How did you get involved working on Bosch?

Fiskin: I got the job by way of one of the show’s executive producers, Pieter-Jan Brugge. He recommended me to showrunner Eric Overmyer and novelist Michael Connelly, whose work the show is based on. They read a recent script and decided they’d give the youngster a chance. When you get to work a show based on the exceptional novels of Michael Connelly, developed by the estimable and very funny Eric Overmyer, not to mention the other writers in the room, all of them with long-standing and serious credentials in TV, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.

What’s it been like working with the creative team at Amazon? They’re now picking up the slack in terms of getting edgier content made that the networks and studios aren’t particularly interested in doing.

Fiskin: I suspect all writers judge the creative team on how much that team trusts their writers. Amazon is ideal. The notes they give us are clear, precise and thoughtful.

You’re listed as a “Consulting Producer” on Bosch – what does that technically mean?

Fiskin: Nobody really knows. It usually implies someone who has been around awhile, a sort of eminence grise with some measure of wisdom. Technically it has no meaning. But it sounds darn good, doesn’t it?

Do you have anything else coming up on the horizon?

Fiskin: Only a spec original that I am certain will change the course of cinema as we know it. Again. As usual.

And last question – what’s your favorite movie of all-time, and why?

Fiskin: Children of Paradise. On account of that galloping romanticism I mentioned earlier. And Tokyo Story for its utter lack thereof.


 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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