❉ The celebrated author and screenwriter chats with Nick Clement about his extraordinary career and Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Last Flag Flying.
“‘Last Flag Flying’ is unlike any movie out there this year. It is the anti-“wild ride” which seems to be how most movies are promoted. If I want a wild ride I’ll steal a Porsche. My hope is that it will be a deeply emotional experience for the audience and a subject of serious conversation for cinephiles and cultural observers. And that they will number in the millions.”
Darryl Ponicsán is the author of thirteen novels, including “The Last Detail,” “Cinderella Liberty” (as well as its screenplay adaptation), “Tom Mix Died for Your Sins,” and “An Unmarried Man.” He’s also an award-winning screenwriter for both film and television, with credits including “Taps,” “Vision Quest,” “Nuts,” “The Boost,” “School Ties, “The Enemy Within,” and “Random Hearts.” He recently co-adapted his novel “Last Flag Flying,” which serves as a follow-up and spiritual sequel to “The Last Detail,” with filmmaker Richard Linklater (“Boyhood,” “Dazed and Confused”), who also directed. The film stars Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne, and will premiere at the 2017 New York Film Festival, with a theatrical release set for November 3rd from Amazon Studios.
Born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Ponicsán taught high school after attending Muhlenberg College and earning an MA at Cornell University. He served in the US Navy from 1962 to 1965, then did social work in the Watts area of Los Angeles and taught high school before the success of his debut novel, “The Last Detail,” allowed him to become a full-time writer. He resides in Palm Springs and Sonoma, California. This interview was conducted via email and over the phone, and was edited by Nick Clement.
It goes without saying how much of an honor it is to speak with you, Darryl. Your work is tremendous, and I grew up watching the films you wrote, whether I realized you wrote all of them or not at the time of their release. I won’t lie and say that I’ve read all of your novels, but the ones I have read I’ve loved. At the end of the day I’m a student of cinema, and I can’t thank you enough for your contributions and this opportunity to chat.
It’s my pleasure.
There are so many things I want to ask you but I guess it would make sense to start from the beginning. When did your earliest creative ambitions arrive, and when was it that you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I grew up in an impoverished coal town where nobody paid much attention to kids if they stayed out of trouble. My fourth grade teacher was old and senile. She might from time to time start a lesson but for the most part she left us to our own devices. Best year of education I ever had. We kids turned to telling each other stories, and I started writing them down. After school I would walk Main Street, dropping in on stores and reading my stories to whoever was behind the counter. I started thinking of myself as a writer by age 18, and by 20 I was submitting short stories to magazines. I could not imagine success until it happened, but for 12 years I could not stop writing either. It was a long apprenticeship.
Do you write from experience, or do you just get inspired by something and run with it?
The book I’m working on now had, as its impetus, two unrelated incidents that occurred years apart. On a job in NYC, I ate a piece of cheesecake that I thought had been poisoned but probably was sabotaged with tabasco sauce by a disgruntled employee. Back in my hotel room I wrote a note naming the coffee shop, in case I died during the night. Years later, my wife bought a house in Sonoma without my seeing it, hoping to open a new chapter in our lives. I linked that to the NYC experience, imagining myself going from NYC to the new house in a town I’d never heard of, a town like any other small American town—or maybe Purgatory if that piece of cheesecake really did kill me.
Are you a “research” kind of guy?
Only a couple of my books required research, one a biographical novel on Tom Mix, the other based on a crime that resulted in one woman and two men being executed on the same day. The others came from personal experience, though certainly my experiences inform everything I write. My time in the Navy certainly helped to shape the content of “The Last Detail” and “Cinderella Liberty.” Did you know that both of those films came out on the same weekend?
Wow, I didn’t make that connection! Both were released at the end of 1973, but I didn’t realize that you were competing with yourself at the box-office!
Yes! For two weeks I was the hottest writer in town. The Los Angeles Times said that it was my weekend at the box-office. I could never have imagined that both of those films would come out on the same weekend, as one took so long to get going, with “The Last Detail.” And “Cinderella Liberty” happened so fast.
We’ll circle back to those breakout films for you in a moment, but I’m curious – which do you prefer – being a novelist or a screenwriter?
Each has its rewards and its pitfalls. I’m fortunate to have a career in both forms. Only a handful of writers have been able to do that and still have the capacity to smile. The future for novelists, however, doesn’t look bright. Still, I believe a writer is called to his process. If I’d had a choice I would have become a songwriter, and who knows, maybe I’m not too late. In 15 minutes you can write a song that will support the next three generations. You can spend eight years on a novel and wind up in the hole.
Have you ever worked as a “script doctor,” and if so, how can you describe that process? I’m not looking for any dirt, or for you to name names or projects necessarily, but I’m fascinated by script doctoring, and your career seems to indicate that this sort of work might have taken place?
I have been known to put a sign on my office door saying: “The Doctor Is In.” I think of a script doctor as coming in after a film has already been given a green light, or is on the brink of it, but the script still isn’t firing on all cylinders. The assumption is you won’t get a credit on the picture if it gets made but if it gets spiked you will be blamed. On “Taps” I went in on a picture that was set to go. Harold Becker was on it and Tim Hutton had already been signed, but no one was all that keen on it. I rewrote it from page one, got a screen credit and was a hero. Kisses from Sherry Lansing. Pretty much the same thing happened with “School Ties.” On another, “Johnny Handsome,” Becker called me to meet with Al Pacino, who was wavering. Al is a wonderful guy and at the end of the process I couldn’t fault him for passing. I was the goat. The picture eventually got made by Walter Hill, with Mickey Rourke, without my credit, for which I am still thankful. On another I was brought in with great urgency – a big budget picture at a major studio with a major movie star, who was still not happy with the script, and which was an original project created by an A-list writing team. The star loved what I did in the first half of the movie. Before the second half was done, however, he dropped out. Once again, I was the goat. Years later I heard it was not the script but the way the director was treating the crew that turned off the movie star.
Can you explain how you got involved with writing the voice over for “Blade Runner”? Given that film’s legendary status and the divisive nature of the voice-over, how did you feel in the moment versus how you feel now?
I saw it alone in a screening room with no prior information, just that they were in trouble with it. I could see some of the problems but they were minor. I didn’t have a clue what it was about, but it blew my mind. After that first screening, as producer Bud Yorkin was walking me to Ridley Scott’s office, I told him the picture would make tons of money and become a classic. I was half right. What Scott wanted was more money to shoot a couple additional scenes, but what he got was me, the poor dude who ended up writing the universally hated voice-over.
Well, as a huge fan of “Blade Runner,” and as someone who has seen every single cut that’s been made available, the voice-over is fantastic, and a big reason why the film feels tethered to the world of noir as much as it does to sci-fi. And I know that there are plenty of viewers who love what you wrote. Back in the day people might have been upset, but over time, especially with film-fandom being what it is, and people having the chance to see all the various edits, I’d like to think that the voice-over sections have some fans.
Oh, trust me, Ridley was a gentleman. He was in a tough spot and he needed something new to be brought in, some sort of fresh element. I was on the shooting range in Ventura when I got that emergency call, and remember that this was pre-cell phones, from Yorkin, a friend with whom I’d worked in the past. I had a lot on my mind. My father had checked himself out of a hospital in Pennsylvania, even though they told him he would die if he didn’t have surgery. He flew out to California and I talked him into having the surgery. Yorkin pleaded with me to come into town. He and his partners had the film in post-production and everybody was confused by it. They were desperate. I went to Los Angeles, was put in a screening room, and was dumbstruck by what I saw. But Ridley was really unhappy, an artist up against a budget. I vaguely recall a problem with the ending. They stuck in a dummy ending in the rough cut from “The Shining” until they could work it out.
What made you think of doing the voice-over?
I thought a noir voice-over made a lot of sense. The tone of the picture almost cried out for it. I worked on it for a week, until my father died during testing. So, sadly, I’ve always had that association. I knew David Peoples and admired his work. I heard he was confused by the voice-over and of course I understood. Then when I met Harrison Ford about ten years after the release, he told me he hated the voice-over and pretty much phoned it in. And at the end of the day, that might have helped it, simply because of his line delivery. It was 35 years before I saw Ridley again, standing next to me at the urinals during the Palm Springs Film Festival. He was cordial.
And will you be seeing “Blade Runner 2049” on opening weekend?
I’ll see “2049” but not on the opening weekend. I try to avoid crowds.
What are some of your favorite novels? Favorite films? Favorite songs?
“The Sun Also Rises,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “An American Tragedy,” “A Garden of Sand,” and “A Fan’s Notes” are definitely some of my favorite novels. I’m of course a film lover, and titles like “Deliverance,” “Catch 22,” “From Here to Eternity,” “On the Waterfront,” “West Side Story,” “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Giant,” “Elmer Gantry,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “High Noon,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Edge of the City,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” and “The Misfits” all immediately come to mind. I love DooWop in general, and I’m a big fan of “Maggie Mae,” which I play on the ukulele at least once a day. “American Pie,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Telstar,” “Up on the Roof,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and “California Dreaming” are always playing in my mind.
Do you write with music on or a movie playing in the background?
No, I need total silence. When I’m in the studio painting or sculpting I play the oldies and dance around. It’s more fun. A Gemini is never alone.
Is there anything creatively you’d like to try that you haven’t been given the chance to attempt yet?
Assuming you mean films, I’ve been working on a western called “After The Thaw” for 35 years. It’s an ensemble piece that takes place during one day and encompasses racial, gender, violence, gay, legal, political, and business issues, dramatizing how America got this way. It sounds overloaded with issues but they never get in the way of the drama, or are even recognized as issues, until you leave the theater and have a drink. It may be the best work I’ve ever done. I’m thinking its’ time has come. I just need to find the right producer or director or actor or agent or…
Wow. That sounds very exciting. People love to say that the Western is dead, and yet Steven Soderbergh is mounting a new TV series for Netflix, and Taylor Sheridan, the writer behind “Hell or High Water,” “Sicario,” and “Wind River”– he’s about to do a 10 episode series about modern cattle ranching with Kevin Costner. You have Christian Bale’s new western “Hostiles” coming out this fall as well. So as much as people say that the genre is dead, it’s clearly not. Are you a fan of westerns in general?
I’m definitely a big fan, which goes back to my youth. There wasn’t a night when there wasn’t a western running on television. It’s a genre that distills everything to its essence, and the stories within seem to have great staying power. It’s rich ground.
I’m curious as to where your pen-name of Anne Argula comes from. Is there any deeper meaning to it, or were you just having some fun?
Not really. Anne was my mother’s name. Argula vaguely suggests something ethnic. Since the four-book series is narrated by a woman I thought I ought to use a female pseudonym. Anne has retired to an isolated cabin on the Mendocino coast. I thought the initial book would make a good movie—a cop solves his own murder from a previous life—but I wound up doing it as a mystery novel, a genre in which I have no experience. The book was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe Award, so I was urged to continue the series. It’s done now.
“The Last Detail” and “Cinderella Liberty” feel like thematic cousins in many ways, and both feel very personal. How did these projects originate, and what was it like to experience them both as your own work and the works of others?
My agent sold “The Last Detail” in October of 1969. By December it was sold to Columbia. My agent told me what it sold for, and immediately, my hands started shaking. Uncontrollably shaking. I could instantly pay my mortgage and live independently for a while. It’s a true jolt when this happens, and it’s very hard to fully explain. And I definitely wanted to do the screenplay adaptation for “The Last Detail.” But my agent talked me out of that one, which might’ve been for the best. It took a while for the film to get going, which I think was partly due to the salty language, which the filmmakers wanted to retain, but the studio was a bit reluctant about at first. And so many actors were up for various parts. At first, Steve McQueen was approached for Nicholson’s role, and they looked at John Travolta for Quaid’s role.
Did you ever meet Hal Ashby and Robert Towne?
I never met Ashby until we were on a panel at a festival. I never visited the set, and had no real interaction with Robert Towne for the most part. I had met Towne socially but that was it. They went off and did their thing. I write about all of this in the preface to the new edition of “The Last Detail.”
I’m an admirer of Ashby’s work, and I’ve always gathered that he lived by his own rules and he most certainly helped to define that golden era of filmmaking.
Things got sticky there for a bit when Ashby got busted at the border, because they were shooting the film in Canada, as they had no Navy cooperation and it was cheaper to shoot there. He had brought some pot with him and the border agents weren’t too impressed, but someone at the studio knew someone and he was set free. Different times.
So, were you upset about the changes made to the ending of “The Last Detail” when you saw the film?
I was initially confused, which then lead into anger when I saw the film. It took me a long time to get over it. A couple of years, to be honest. And when the film screened, and I saw it for the first time, I noticed that my credit had been buried at the end! It was like they were trying to hide that I had created the story. Normally, if the project is an adaptation, you get that up front “based on a novel by” credit. I didn’t see it up front, and waited until the end credits started to roll, and then it finally appeared. I was definitely upset, because the studio could have fixed it. Someone had tried to diminish the value of the source material, and the adaptation had been very close to my original novel. I understand that changes need to be made from medium to medium, but the way things went down weren’t proper.
Wow. I’d have been very upset!
The work speaks for itself in both forms. And the film of course is a classic, and it’s gone on to inspire many people in their lives. And I can remember that the Navy didn’t help us out at all, they wanted no part of the project, and of course, enlistments shot through the roof between “The Last Detail” and “Cinderella Liberty.” They might have hated the book but they loved what it did for them. And then you’d hear from guys who had gone into the Navy after they read these books or saw these films, and they’d say to me that their boot camp commanders would lay down the law with “Don’t be coming here expecting ‘The Last Detail’ because this won’t be nearly as much fun!” I get a kick out of this now, of course.
And “Cinderella Liberty”? That happened much quicker? It’s a wonderful movie.
Yes, that happened very fast. I wrote the book, it was sold in manuscript form to 20th Century Fox, I was signed to adapt the screenplay by director Mark Rydell, which took me about nine months to craft. They cast James Caan and Marsha Mason, who nobody really knew at the time and of course she won the Golden Globe and got nominated for an Oscar.
You worked on the 1981 film “Taps,” which broke out a few massive movie stars, and is now seen as something of a classic for the genre. How did you get involved with Harold Becker and the film in general?
The producer Stanley Jaffe contacted my agent about that project. It was a go-picture and the studio and Harold weren’t exactly in love with everything they had but they had Timothy Hutton on board. I did a full re-write, and that’s another movie that happened very fast.
Tom Cruise and Sean Penn were both major up-and-comers at the time. What did you think of the two of them, and what was the consensus on set?
Tom was definitely the most enthusiastic. Most of the guys wanted to sleep at the hotel after they were done shooting, but Becker wanted all the kids to sleep in the dorms with the real students, so that they’d get a true taste of the life. Cruise was more than happy to live the life, and did that while everyone else went to the hotel. He was extremely committed, called me “Sir,” and you could just tell he had this laser-like focus about him as an actor. Nobody in their wildest dreams could have imagined that Cruise would become the movie-star that he became. I was struck by his level of immersion. During the rehearsals process, it became clear that Cruise was stronger than some of the other actors, and Harold actually ended up switching roles, with a bigger part going to Tom. In my brief encounters with him, Cruise was always in character.
What about Penn?
Well, you could tell he was intense, and that he was heavily influenced by De Niro. It was obvious that he had serious talent, but he was a strong personality even back then. He was the total opposite of Cruise. Listen, if you have the charisma, and you have some luck, and you have the talent, it sometimes works out. But Sean was a different animal all together, and he brought his particular set of strengths to the project.
Let’s talk about “Vision Quest.” I love this movie. I think it’s brilliant. And I think that your collaborations with Harold Becker are all very strong. How did the project come to you, and what were your experiences like?
You know, Cruise wanted the lead role in “Vision Quest.” But Becker didn’t think he had the sensitivity, and that Matthew Modine would better project sensitivity to the audience. I don’t think he was wrong, especially at that time.
I never knew that! You can totally see how back then, people might have felt that Modine could project a type of small-town sincerity that Cruise might not have been right for. Cruise does confident and smart-cocky very well. I think Modine is great, and I always think about what his career might have been like had he not had a few pictures that didn’t turn out to be hits with critics or audiences.
Matthew is a wonderful person. He’s very sensitive, maybe too sensitive for the business. He is the Gary Cooper of his generation. He’s a fine actor, and working on “Vision Quest” was a great experience, even if my recollection is that it was not well reviewed and didn’t make any money. But going through a box of stills from the movie I found a rave review from Jack Kroll in Time, and over the years I keep seeing it pop up in odd ways. I’ll see lines quoted: “His own father has to use a live wire on him to keep him from fucking the fireplace.” The fry cook has a little speech that Kroll said was maybe the best ever in praise of the glory of sport. And then there’s that thing with Louden’s hands. Modine is still a friend and I have great affection for him. I started following him on Twitter and was amazed at how many people Tweeted their love for “Vision Quest. “
I’m not surprised. The film definitely has a very strong cult following.
He told me that guys stop him on the street and do that thing about hands. That bit of business and Linda Fiorentino’s response came from years before when my wife and I were watching an interview with Norman Mailer. She was put off by his small hands. I thought she was making some kind of sexual joke, but she said quite seriously, “It’s the hands that hold you.” “Vision Quest” is based on a book by Terry Davis and the sweetness of it charmed me. It was such a departure from the usual high school or sports movie. Even Shute, the heavy, turns out to be an OK guy, throwing Louden off his game. Everybody in it is decent. It was a studio picture with a producer not noted for his sensitivity, so it was a struggle to retain that.
And then you have Madonna’s famous appearance.
There’s a scene in a dive bar with a singer in the background which was Madonna. After the movie was shot but before it was released she became a big thing, the producers wanted to get more of her in the movie, and they didn’t care how. Fortunately we overcame that. I went into the project knowing nothing about wrestling, so I spent some time at Ventura High watching practices and meets. I admired the devotion of those wrestlers, the work they had to put in for a sport few people came to watch and a match lasted all of six minutes. That inspired the speech J.C. Quinn made about drinking alone in his room and watching a soccer match, and he knew what he had. J.C. told me that when he read that speech he was determined to get the role even if he had to do it for nothing.
“Nuts” is a wild little movie, with a very interesting director in Martin Ritt, and underrated performances from Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss. What was that experience like?
Like pulling teeth! I had worked with Mark Rydell on “Cinderella Liberty,” and he was the first director attached to “Nuts.” Rydell used to be partners with Sydney Pollack who is important to this story. I met with Barbra Streisand and fell in love, though I was expecting to hate her, by reputation. The entire situation on “Nuts” was just that – nuts – and it was unique. I remember having lunch with Pollack at his office on the lot. He made us salads in his little kitchen and I told him I was going to go do “Nuts.” He casually warned me. He said “be careful.” I had no clue what he meant, nor did I press him. But it turns out that Alvin Sargent and I had both been commissioned to write competing drafts of the same script, something that’s a big no-no with the WGA. I’m friends with Alvin, and neither of us had any clue. When we found this out, naturally, we were very upset. And we wanted off the project.
Wow. So what happened? How did you approach Rydell about this?
The studio asked Barbra which of us she wanted. She said she liked us both equally and wouldn’t do the picture unless Alvin and I worked as a team. They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Later, Alvin and I decided that it would be best to just walk into Rydell’s office like nothing had ever occurred, as if he didn’t know either of us, and we were starting over fresh. It was an odd situation to be in. Later, Barbra requested that both Alvin and I spend a week alone with her in her Beverly Hills home, without Rydell, who, naturally, was very upset about being excluded. Streisand has a nun-like devotion to whatever she undertakes. Works like a mule. Good sense of humor and feeds you well. I remember having some very intense conversations with her about the prices she’d be charging for her sexual favors in the film, as she played a prostitute. She really got into it. The movie tanked and that’s on her but I don’t fault her for anything. Originally Debra Winger was supposed to play the part, and she would have been great. Warner Bros. decided they would rather have Streisand than Winger because they could sell it internationally before it ever got shot. But people didn’t buy Barbra in the role. The scowling face on the poster didn’t help.
And what of Ritt’s involvement?
When Ritt came on he told Barbra that he thought she was miscast. I think he said it as a challenge but he was right. But damn, what a cast overall! Actors I’ve admired since my youth, people like Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, and Maureen Stapleton. I was nervous to talk to them, except for Eli who became a friend. Ritt was a good guy nearing the end of a great career. During a break on set I was telling him about one of my favorite movies as a teenager, “Edge of the City,” which had starred John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier, and was the first movie I ever saw that dealt realistically with black and white friendship. The first that portrayed a black man like any other guy, married, hard-working, decent. It had a big impact on me. Ritt said, “I directed it.” I went crazy. I pumped him with questions. He said they did it for $60K in about two weeks and kind of slipped under everybody’s radar. “Nuts” was a disappointment, but a few years later at some panel a woman came up to me, an ex-hooker, and said that the movie kept her from killing herself. Encounters like that can erase disappointments.
How did “The Boost” come about? It’s based on a novel by Ben Stein, correct?
I think it was more a memoir about someone Stein knew in the financial world. He did a script I never read and apparently it was awful, though he made a big stink when I got solo credit, which was never in doubt. The book was called “‘Ludes.” I updated it to coke, which was all the rage around then. It was done on a very low budget. I played a part, gratis. My wife was in the background, also gratis. After “The Boost” was released I got a call from Warren Beatty. He asked me if I was clean now. I told him I never tried cocaine in my life, and hardly ever weed. I grew up in an alcohol culture. During rehearsal, Jimmy Woods was in a panic. He thought Sean Young was not up to it and that she would sink him. He may have been pushing Harold to fire her. Later, of course, he fell in love with her. Until everything went sideways, it didn’t hurt the film, though. I had a producer’s credit but I did not spend much time on the set, so I was surprised to see in the final film that Amanda Blake had a scene. It was supposed to be Kim Stanley. When I was a kid I was crazy about Kim Stanley, a method actor like few others. She came into the office and I was thrilled to meet her. I told Harold to give her the part, she shouldn’t have to audition. He did, but when it came time she was too fragile, emotionally, to pull it off and had to be replaced. Amana Blake was well-known as Miss Kitty from the TV series “Gunsmoke” during the years when you could watch a western every night on TV. I miss those days.
I must have watched “School Ties” 100 times on HBO when I was growing up. I think it’s a quietly brilliant film, and sadly still relevant with its themes of discrimination and intolerance and the need for societal inclusion. How did it come about, and could you ever have expected that so many future mega-stars would have been cast in the film? That script must’ve been HUGE with all the young actors back in the day.
The first script was done by Dick Wolfe but was light on characters. I was brought on by Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, who had produced “Taps.” Stanley was planning to direct it himself, until he was offered the job of being the head of Paramount. It was a long, hard project. Studio after studio had passed on it because anti-Semitism was no longer a problem. Ironically, most of those studio heads were Jewish. I was the only element on the project that wasn’t Jewish, but I was more in touch with the issue than those who were. During development there was a big scandal at USC over anti-Semitism and that might have given us the push we needed to win the argument that we were relevant.
A strong theme, which runs through most of my movies, is honor and human redemption. A private school is a great place to examine that theme. Stanley handed the project off to Sherry after picking Robert Mandel as the director. The kids knew I’d written “Taps” and saw what happened to Tom Cruise and Sean Penn as a result of that. At rehearsal, I sat down with the cast and told them that more stars would emerge from this table than did from “Taps.” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck certainly have made their marks. Chris O’Donnell, the most likeable of the bunch, has had a nice career. Cole Hauser did OK, but Brendan Fraser turned out to be a disappointment. I really thought he’d be a big star, the new Montgomery Clift. He made the mistake of doing dopey comedies right after “School Ties.” He should have held out for serious drama. Though Penn did “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and it didn’t hurt him. Of course, that was a smart picture.
I’m an enormous fan of Sydney Pollack, and while some critics were down on “Random Hearts,” I always felt it to be a solid, multi-layered adult drama, the sort of movie that used to get made on the studio level, but doesn’t anymore. What can you say of working with Pollack and the film itself?
Although I knew and liked Pollack and worked with him on another project, I never worked with him on this. I worked with Ivan Reitman and Dustin Hoffman for the better part of a year. Ivan would have been doing his first drama and Dustin would play the lead, a congressman whose wife died with her lover in a plane crash. I’m not sure we ever got it fully correct. Hoffman used to have a reputation for developing a project for long periods of time, just constantly re-writing and re-thinking, and then before you knew it, you’d all be back at square one again. Pollack came on after the rest of us had dropped out on gone on to other things. He cast Harrison Ford and it was re-written so that he’d be a cop.
Yeah, the film only did so-so with critics and audiences, but I’ve always liked it. It’s that type of morally ambiguous drama which truly feels like a “movie-movie.” What was the project you and Pollack worked on that never came to pass?
Pollack and I worked on an adaptation of my novel “Tom Mix Died for Your Sins.” Fox had engineered a book/movie deal for me to write. First, a biography of Mix, and then the screenplay, which would have been something like “Patton.” My son, who was in pre-school at the time, turned out to have a teacher who was Tom Mix’s granddaughter. When I learned this, I flipped out and I said, yeah, I have to tell this story, but I can’t do a traditional biography, because Mix was always making stuff up about his life as he went along. I wrote it as a biographical novel and they went for that angle, but it would have been outrageously expensive to produce. Paul Newman and Robert Redford were offered roles, as they were of course the dynamic duo in those times, the mid-70’s. I remember meeting Redford around the time that “The Great Waldo Pepper” was opening, and thinking that he was the most handsome man that I’d ever seen. I’m a hopeless heterosexual, but Jesus was he good looking!
“Last Flag Flying” is a daring project, in that it’s a follow-up, to a certain degree, to a revered novel and film. How do you manage personal and outside expectations when you’re trying to create something new yet tied to the past?
It really does break new ground. The only film sequels that make sense to me are ones that look into what the characters of the original are doing years later, in the context of a changing culture. Sequels that go to #8 and then to a prequel are done by miners digging out a vein until no one wants to buy the ore anymore. “Last Flag Flying” would not have been written in the absence of Bush’s war(s). “The Last Detail” had as its context the Vietnam quagmire. “Last Flag Flying” had a new quagmire. Both define duty and justice and unexpected friendship. I was urged by a producer friend to do a sequel to the movie. I had no desire to do a screenplay at that time, but he talked me into writing a novel that revisited Billy Bad-Ass, Mule Mulhall, and Larry Meadows. Sony had right of first refusal, then it went to Paramount. They optioned it in the hopes that Nicholson would jump on it. Randy Quaid was over the moon about it. Otis Young was dead but Morgan Freeman said he’d be pleased to do it. We had a list of only three directors. The book went first to one who had worked with Nicholson in the past. He liked it but said he would never commit to a project that required one particular actor. Richard Linklater read the book and would not let that bit stand in the way.
I love the cast that was assembled for “Last Flag Flying,” but of course people will wonder what it might have been like to see Nicholson reprise that role, or a role similar to the one that helped to make him famous.
While Linklater and I were writing the script the producers tried to set up a meeting between Nicholson and Rick, but Nicholson would not meet, which was kind of an insult. We finished the script and got it to him anyway, but he chose to do “The Bucket List” instead and took Morgan Freeman with him. We ended up making “Last Flag Flying” for what the studio would have had to pay Nicholson just to be in the film. So when Jack said no, Paramount exited as our distributor and I thought that was the end of it, but Rick would not let it go. The story was still important, no matter who was in it. We could have recast it but that would defeat the whole concept of a 30+ year gap in the lives of the characters in a film that had become a classic. Rick also thought the timing was not right. We were still too close to the events following 9/11, but if we were patient our time would come. We re-thought the story. To this day each of us believes it was the other’s idea to bring together the same characters but with different names and a different defining event that brought them together the first time and still haunts them so many years later. To explain in brief what we’ve done: The movie is not a sequel. It is an adaptation of a novel that IS a sequel. That alone makes this film a bold move.
What was it like collaborating with Richard Linklater?
It was mostly electronic. We’d send each other our pages, I’d rewrite him and he’d rewrite me. I would call, leave a message, wonder where the hell he was, and in two or three days he’d call back and wouldn’t shut up. I never had a single argument with him, over anything, which was unique in my experience. Amazon, which financed us, stayed out of it. They trusted that we knew more about movies than they did. Kind of like the few years now described as The Golden Decade of Movies. During rehearsals Rick never spoke above a whisper. I had to strain to hear him when he spoke to the actors, mostly about how they felt during the scene. On location, he was the calmest director I’ve ever seen. As a writer I know enough to lie low and not get into the director’s way, but because Cranston improvises a lot I would pick my moment and talk it over with Rick, the good and the bad to sort out of what came out of Bryan’s mouth. Never a problem. Unlike other sets I’ve been on, there was no fear or insecurity or bitching from anyone. Most of his crew has been with him for over twenty years, which says a lot. I’ve never worked with a director I value more than Rick. He’s brought my movie career full-circle and I’m grateful.
In the current cinematic landscape, which feels increasingly infantilized, where everyone at the studios is so concerned with franchises and four-quadrant CGI-superhero films, how do you hope “Last Flag Flying” is received, and do you have any personal hopes or expectations for the film?
It is unlike any movie out there this year. It is the anti-“wild ride” which seems to be how most movies are promoted. If I want a wild ride I’ll steal a Porsche. My hope is that it will be a deeply emotional experience for the audience and a subject of serious conversation for cinephiles and cultural observers. And that they will number in the millions.
Is there anything you want to say about your experiences in the entertainment industry in general? Any lasting impressions or feelings?
I’ve met and worked with so many talented people. My writing arc was the same as my contemporaries’— poetry, short stories, novels. I never had any intention to write screenplays. The first time I ever saw or read a screenplay was the one I was given to fix. After I adapted my own novel—“Cinderella Liberty”—to film I was offered a job to adapt someone else’s novel. Then more offers came my way, and they didn’t slow down until I hit 60. My guiding rule from the beginning was never to write schlock or anything that would embarrass me later in life. An irony occurred in my career that now haunts me from time to time. My first agent was Ned Brown, an old school agent in a one-man office without even a secretary. He was old when I met him, and after 15 years I began to see that everyone he knew in Hollywood was either dead or retired. During the “Nuts” fiasco, when Alvin and I were hired without each other knowing about it, I needed muscle that he didn’t have. I left him for CAA. We were both broken-hearted but I thought it had to be done. He was then about the age I am now. All these years later, I don’t have an agent for the same reason I couldn’t keep Ned as mine. No agent wants to waste time with someone too old to have a future. This in spite of the fact that I have a major movie coming out, as well as two books, with another due in 2018, and two other books in the works. Not to mention a finished screenplay that will blow the doors off. Still, after too many moments of doubt to count, I can finally look back and realize how lucky I am to have a career in movies.
❉ Last Flag Flying will have its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on September 28, 2017, before being released on November 3, 2017, by Amazon Studios and Lionsgate.
❉ 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.
❉ 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.