A League of Their Own
Maybe Austin's not exactly becoming a rival Hollywood -- and who'd want it to be? But just take a look at the Austin-generated studio films currently showing, coming soon, or just starting production: There's The Faculty, directed by Robert Rodriguez (Desperado); Office Space, written and directed by Mike Judge (creator of Beavis & Butt-head); and Wing Commander, directed by Chris Roberts (creator of the bestselling computer game on which the film is based). Bill Wittliff, the Austin icon/godfather of Austin film, is finishing final tweaks on his adaptation of the bestselling book The Perfect Storm, which Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) will direct. William Broyles (Apollo 13) is polishing his script for Cast Away, currently being directed by Bob Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks, in an unusual two-part shooting schedule. On the small screen, there's The Memoirs of Cleopatra, ABC's mega-budget 14-hour miniseries written by screenwriter-novelist Stephen Harrigan. God's Favorite, the Manuel Noriega story written by Lawrence Wright (The Siege), is currently in production by Showtime.
It seems ages ago that Austin was a laid-back college town, but somehow all the recent bustle of filmmaking activity seems as natural and preordained as the cool waters of Barton Springs and the hot salsa at Güero's. So much so that it's hard to imagine that Austin -- which, besides its rep as a film town, is acknowledged throughout the known universe as a nurturing nest of hip, smart, creative folks -- hasn't always been that way. Where did it all begin? Where can we point and click and say, Here, this was the genesis of Austin film?
The answer is the same place that nearly every film originates: in the words on the printed page, and the writer who put them there.
The more I thought about it as I wrote this story and talked to the writers featured in this piece, the more I liked the idea that it was all preordained that Austin would someday become a veritable nest of writers, inevitably evolving into a film colony.
After all, way back in 1838, soon after a rude colony called Waterloo rose up from the banks of the rascally Colorado, then-Vice President of Texas Mirabeau Lamar, who was also a poet, came here on a buffalo hunt, killed one, and, gazing down from the heights of one of the lush, rolling hills in what is now downtown, declared that this should be the future seat of empire, and the capital of Texas.
At that time, this was a dangerous wilderness outpost deep in Comanche territory, far beyond the borders of civilization. Nevertheless, over the strenuous objections of people like the basically god-like Sam Houston, who called Austin "that damned hole," this town was virtually willed into existence. By a poet.
So no wonder Austin is a place that seems to nurture creative types. In the late 1800s, Austin was also the home of satirist Sydney Porter, later known as the bestselling author O. Henry. Taking note of the visual effects sometimes created by the setting sun over the hills west of town, O. Henry, referred to Austin as "the city of the violet crown."
One can almost imagine that, just before the turn of the century, O. Henry had heard of recent inventions that would lead to the development of a true "moving picture camera." And, being the facile writer that he was, sat down and wrote the words, "Fade In" at the top of a page, as he began to write the first screenplay ever written in Austin.
So much for pre-modern history and metaphysical conjecture. The fact is, today's graduates of film school might be forgiven for thinking that Rick Linklater's Slacker or Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre were the first films written, directed, and produced in Austin. After all, today's graduates weren't even born in the early Seventies, when guys like Bud Shrake (Songwriter, Tom Horn) and Bill Wittliff were writing their first screenplays. They probably don't know that when Hollywood called and insisted that Shrake and Wittliff move to L.A. so their films could be made properly, these guys said "no," and kept on saying it, over and over again. In fact, they eventually proved that their West Coast suitors had it backwards: Hollywood should come to Austin ... which it eventually did.
Bud Shrake's Songwriter (1984) was in many ways the genesis of Austin homegrown films. Not only did the Willie Nelson vehicle give the world a taste of local color, lifestyle, and points of view, it gave local crews the chance to prove themselves, to prove that major films could -- and should -- be made in Austin.
In the early Seventies, another good friend of Willie's, Bill Wittliff, started to write his first screenplays. Wittliff often called on his pal Shrake to talk through the rough spots. Shrake's screenwriting career had taken off with a bang. While still employed as a full-time writer for Sports Illustrated, he took up the craft of screenwriting as a slight detour on the road to achieving his ultimate goal: to be "a former sportswriter who could claim to make his living writing books." By the end of the decade, Shrake had major studio films like JW Coop, Kid Blue, and Nightwing under his belt, and was writing and rewriting dozens of others.
Meanwhile Wittliff, who had gained attention and sold options based on earlier works, made a stunning debut with Black Stallion, the evocative Francis Ford Coppola-produced gem that showcased Wittliff's amazing gift for portraying human adventures in mythic landscapes. So many of the films that helped put Austin on the map -- Barbarosa, Red Headed Stranger, Raggedy Man, and the monumental miniseries Lonesome Dove -- were written by Bill Wittliff. It's hard not to give the man too much credit, much less a full measure of jaw-dropping awe at his incredible gifts.
In any event, Shrake and Wittliff were, in effect, the first generation of successful Austin screenwriters. Some of the shining lights of the second generation -- herein profiled -- included William Broyles, Stephen Harrigan, and Lawrence Wright. All three wrote for Texas Monthly, and fell into the screenwriting trade more or less accidentally in the Eighties. The relationships and sequences of events are tangled together in many marvelous ways. It's also interesting to note that none of these writers claim screenwriting as his sole means of creative output. Wittliff's luminous talent for the visual medium is also expressed in his photography; his current obsession is the primitive technique of pinhole photography. Previously, with his Encino Press, Wittliff made a name for himself as a publisher and book designer, specializing in Texas literature. The other four authors write books, and not inconsequential ones, either. Shrake is the author of Blessed McGill and the bestselling Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. Broyles wrote the Vietnam memoir, Brothers in Arms, which set him on the path which eventually led him to create, write, and executive-produce the award-winning TV series China Beach. Harrigan and Wright have about a dozen books between them, including fiction and nonfiction, and both are deeply involved in Texas literary doings. Additionally, Shrake, Harrigan, and Wright all have big books coming out next year. This is a gang of writers who take their craft very seriously.
The first generation mentored the second. Shrake and Wittliff proved it was possible to park your typewriter here, keep writing your scripts, and not starve. And together, by combination of accident and stubbornness, this bunch laid the groundwork for what became what I like to think of as the Austin film colony. Because, whatever aspirations the Austin film community has for future growth and expansion and actual competition with Hollywood, we're still the iconoclastic outpost in the world of film. It's one of the things we're best at -- not being Hollywood.
And in various ways, the writers profiled here exemplify all that. We're a far cry from Sam Houston's "damned hole," but still, there's a connective thread from those days that enlivens the spark and spirit of the creative force emanating from this town. Austin's film buzz keeps growing louder and more insistent, and whether it's because the town was founded by a poet or because the waters of Barton Springs, combined with generous doses of Shiner Bock, possess magical qualities, it doesn't really matter. The proof is on the screen and in the credits.
Bud Shrake has a personalstory that has a perfect ending, right out of Screenwriting 101: When he gave up his terrific job at Sports Illustrated in 1979 to write movies, he really just wanted to become "a former sportswriter who could claim to make his living writing books." As the author of four bestsellers, including Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, the biggest-selling sports book of all time, it seems that he's reached his goal.
Austin Chronicle: You told me your very first screenplay was Kid Blue. Was that your big start in the business, more or less?
Bud Shrake: I wrote that script in about three weeks. The best thing was not having a clue about what I was doing. It ended up with Zanuck at Fox, and he read the script and put it into production that afternoon. I thought that was the way Hollywood worked. But like the gentleman said in his book, I'd just leaped over a big pile of shit and I didn't know it.
AC: But JW Coop ended up getting made before Kid Blue. How did that come about?
BS: I'd started writing Kid Blue when I got a telegram from Cliff Robertson offering me a job writing this movie, JW Coop, the rodeo movie. I had a story in Harper's about rodeos, and at the same time, Gary Cartwright had a story in Life magazine about rodeos.
I happened to get the telegram on April 1. I called Gary and said, "Who do we know in California that would be stupid enough to think I'd fall for a stunt like this, Cliff Robertson wanting me to write a movie about rodeos?" And Gary said, "I don't know." An hour later he called back and said, "Hey, I got the same telegram." So Gary called him and it turned out to be a real deal. Neither one of us wanted to do it by ourselves, we told him, but we said we'd do it together. So I put Kid Blue aside.
AC: You did Tom Horn with Steve McQueen, which turned out to be one of his last movies. How did that come about?
BS: Tom McGuane had written the original screenplay. Steve McQueen gave me McGuane's screenplay and it was 300-and-some-odd pages long and they said, "We need a two hour movie out of this." I thought, "Boy, this is like stealing." I thought McGuane was a really good writer, and all I've gotta do is take this screenplay and throw away half of it. But then when I got into doing it I found out that didn't work.
AC: The movie didn't do that well, either. What do you think the problem was?
BS: Well, I thought it was a real good movie, myself, except for the last 15 minutes. And that was all Steve McQueen's fault. Warner Bros. was trying to talk him into letting Tom Horn live at the end. But McQueen wouldn't go for that, he wanted to get hanged onscreen. You couldn't hardly win an argument with him about anything. And the reason was because he had gone and slept on Tom Horn's grave for I don't know how many nights and communed with him. And Horn had told him everything. [The producers] kept saying, "This is gonna cost us a fortune at the box office. People don't wanna see Steve McQueen die." And they were right.
AC: After Tom Horn, what did you do?
BS: After that, from about 1980 to '85, that's when I wrote probably 15 to 20 screenplays. Things that kept not getting made. The thing that did get made was Songwriter. Ordinarily, when you're finished with one of these things and it premieres you think, "Boy, this is really exciting, this is really gonna be popular." But when I got the feeling that this wasn't gonna work at all was when I went to the premiere, and they had the premiere in Nashville, and Nashville was the villain of the movie. Willie and I were sitting there thinkin', "Boy, we got somethin' goin' here," and about halfway through the movie, people started booing and yelling and throwing things, and walking out, and when Willie sang, "You're fat and lazy, you were already rich and now you're crazy," the song was, "Write Your Own Songs," you know, "if you don't like my songs, then write your own songs." Boy, they booed that thing.
AC: And through no fault of your own, Kid Blue turned out to be a disappointment, too, didn't it?
BS: That's when I found out how petty people can be. Kid Blue cost a little over $2 million, which was a pretty big budget in 1971. But Dennis Hopper after Easy Rider had pulled everybody's tail out there and told 'em they were all dinosaurs and dying out and he was the new thing and they didn't know shit about movies and all that stuff. Well, they just waited till we finished this movie and then they started shittin' all over us. This reviewer in The New York Times said, "Dennis Hopper is getting too long in the tooth to be called Kid Anybody." They just really got down and petty and started takin' it all out personally on Dennis. I thought, surely they got $2 million invested in this movie, they won't just throw it away like this. But what did I know? They certainly would.
AC: You were also hired to write a remake of The Great McGinty, but that ended up not getting made. Why not?
BS: When I first met Tommy Lee Jones, Paramount had just bought the rights to The Great McGinty, the great Preston Sturges movie, and Larry Gordon wanted to remake it. So they hired me to write the screenplay, which I did. And Tommy Lee was going to play the lead. We were in full production. But then one day Larry Gordon called and said can you come down to a meeting? And I said yeah, and went down there thinking, "This'll be nothing but good news." And I walked in there and there was Joel Silver, who was the co-producer, lying on the couch crying. And I thought, "Boy, this isn't gonna be good news at all."
AC: What happened to make the poor baby cry?
BS: What happened was that morning, Ed Tanner, the head of production, was talking to his wife, and his wife said, "Ed, kids today don't want to see a political comedy." So they talked for a while and then Ed pulled the plug.
AC: Has your success as a bestselling novelist made you feel less inclined to write more screenplays?
BS: Yeah. I'm not really what you might call a movie nut. I mean, I enjoy them and I like writing them and all, but when you write a movie and it gets made it's a miracle, and when it's a good movie then it's truly a miracle. In 1992, when the golf book (Harvey Penick's Little Red Book) was published, that gave me the freedom to finally become what I thought I was gonna be 30 years earlier, a former sportswriter who claims to make a living writing books.
Bill Wittliff is an awfully soft-spoken, modest guy for one who throws such giant scenes and big ideas up on the screen. I began our interview by talking about his script for The Perfect Storm, a subject of intense mutual interest.
Austin Chronicle: How did you get involved in writing the adaptation of The Perfect Storm?
Bill Wittliff: Wolfgang [Petersen] called me. Why in the world they would call me, I don't know. I don't know anything about swordfishing and so on. I think it's probably because I understand those kind of characters, kind of saltwater rednecks.
AC: Well, it's easy for me to understand, because you're so great at doing the man-versus-adversary-environment type of story. You've pretty well nailed frontier settings, and the sea is a frontier, and in many of your films, the frontier is not only an essential element to the story but a very important character.
BW: Well, and in The Perfect Storm, the storm really is a character. It's a central character, and we try to show it grow from the first gust of wind. So it's a real living, breathing monster.
AC: How do you put that on paper?
BW: Start with a drop of water, and start building. For example, the cold front in Canada, I had a herd of elk in a mountain meadow. When the first gust of wind hits, the bull elk trumpets, and you know that's coming. Then later you cut back to them and they're in a blizzard. And then you go to a weather balloon, which explodes at 50,000 feet, sends out two little parachutes, you know, that are gathering weather data, and you go from there to meteorologists studying their computers and they go, "Well, there's a cold front in Canada." And later somebody says, "Whoa, what if this cold front connects with the jet stream and hits east?" We were real conscious of that the whole time writing this script: How do you make it understandable to everybody in the audience without getting bogged down in the technology, because the technology is not important. What's important is that this monster is being born out there in the water, but I think it works pretty well. It's all understandable.
AC:This kind of adventure story, like the polar exploration stories, for example, are real popular right now. I know I'm hooked, anyway. It's kinda like this genre of films have become the new Western, don't you think?
BW: You know, in a sense, everything's a Western. Somebody said there are only two stories in the world. One of them is, a stranger comes to town. And the other one is, a man leaves on a journey. You start thinking about that, and that's every Western you ever saw, and it's actually every story.
AC: Do you have a favorite idea or model or favorite story that you come back to every time whenever you sit down to write something?
BW: I don't know how you write, but I'm totally non-intellectual. I'm not a thinking writer, I'm more of a feeling writer, which is to say when something that potentially is good hits the paper, I feel it, but ordinarily I can't think my way through to get to that point. Like, I never do outlines, because I don't want to know what's coming, I want to have the sense of discovery, and be surprised, and so on. That keeps me interested all the way through.
AC: Have you ever used one of these how-to screenwriting books? Syd Field's, for example?
BW: No, I've never read one. Maybe I should. But you know, I'm just not built that way.
AC: So how'd you figure out how to do it? How'd you get started writing screenplays?
BW: Oh, I'm still trying to figure out how to do it. But way back there, 25 years ago, I was working on a visual history of Dallas, and I was driving back and forth to Dallas, and looking for old photographs, and I started thinking about a story my grandfather told me. And because I was driving it came to me in images. And every time I'd get in the car I'd pick up where I left off, visualizing the story. And because it had come to me visually I wrote it as a script even though at that time I'd never even seen one. And that was Barbarosa, which later on did get made.
AC: And even though Barbarosa didn't get made for a few years, it did generate a lot of action after you sent it out, didn't it?
BW: Two producers, Barry J. Weitz and Phil D'Antoni, who had just done The French Connection and more recently, The Seven-Ups, had a deal with one of the networks to do a series and they wanted to do Barbarosa as a series. But they said I had to move to L.A. And so I would get a call from Baltimore -- they were going around the country promoting the new movie -- and I would say no. The next morning I would get a call from New York, or Florida, or somewhere, this went on for several weeks. They'd say, "If you'll move to L.A.," and so on. ... And I kept saying no. And finally one day the phone stopped ringing. But it gave me enough confidence that I might be able to write a screenplay [and sell it] if I stayed with it. The big break that opened all the doors was when I got hired to write The Black Stallion.
AC: What a break that was. What a great film.
BW: Probably my big contribution to that whole thing was, the mythic aspect of Alexander [the Great] and Bucephalus, you know, the mythic horse, which, actuality was not a black horse at all but a white horse, and I did two drafts in five weeks and they made it.
I've been very lucky all the way through, from the very first moment. I never had to go through all the rat shit that most writers have to go through, like looking for an agent, and all that other business. And I've always been able to stay here. Twenty-five years ago everybody you talked to out there said you can't live in Austin, Texas and write movies that are gonna be made in Hollywood. And that's just not so. And I was lucky, I was really ignorant. I didn't know that could be true, so I just didn't pay any attention to it and just kept writing. Now it's much more possible, but in those days it was much more insular out there.
AC: I've got a million questions about Lonesome Dove, but I think the biggest one is how does a person write a script for an eight-hour miniseries?
BW: I had the whole book translated to audio, 28 tapes, an hour apiece. And I would drive to South Padre, and it's a six-hour drive, and that was essentially the length of one episode. It was really interesting, because you could pretty much tell what would work visually. I'd drive down there and write a rough draft of an episode, and I'd drive back and listen to the next six hours. And so pretty much when I sat down to write, I had an idea of what to use. At that time I was driving a pick-up, and you're in pretty much a confined environment with a bunch of coffee and cigarettes and it was great, it was just a little closed-in world with those characters. It was about a year writing the script.
AC: Do you think it's gotten any easier for Austin filmmakers to get a break, living here, trying to get someone's attention in Hollywood?
BW: In my 25 years what I've learned about writing is that if you've got a story that they want there's no place in the world that you can hide from them, it doesn't make any difference where you are. And likewise, if you've got a story that they don't want, you can be sitting in their lap with a gun at their head and they're not gonna buy it. But in my view the writer is the luckiest one of all. Because if everything goes flat, a writer can always pick up a piece of paper and a pencil and start again. Whereas virtually everybody else in the business has to wait for somebody else to authenticate them with a job or a phone call. Writers write, that's all I know.
William Broyles happens to have one of the coolest offices of any writer I know,
Austin Chronicle: I've been developing this theory that Texas Monthly was sort of a nest of screenwriters, spawning and nurturing a group of Austin writers who followed in the footsteps of Bud Shrake and Bill Wittliff. Was there any kind of nurturing effect going on when you were there?
William Broyles: When I was at Texas Monthly, screenwriting was the last thing we thought about. Everyone was so absorbed in magazine writing. But a lot of things that we did then have helped me a lot with my screenwriting. That is, the importance of research, of actually going out and talking to people and figuring out how to structure a story.
AC: What kind of experience was working on China Beach?
WB: That was like film school for me. The first thing I noticed was just how absolutely hard it was to do. It's much harder than it looks. But it was exciting. We'd be out on this set that looked just like Vietnam, the helicopters would be coming in and I'd be having these weird flashbacks about what the real war was like and these guys would be coming in to lunch at five in the morning and would have bandages on, covered with blood, and the funny thing is that I gradually started getting my real memories and my memories of the series mixed up.
AC: What kinds of things surprised you about the writing aspect?
WB: It was real interesting, because I would try writing all these long, involved scenes with lots of dialogue and it was just all wrong. I didn't understand how you had to take all those three long scenes and make them one short scene, and that's the essence of writing. What I finally learned was that dialogue is like the least important part of the idea. You have to learn to let moving pictures be moving, let actors act, and feel the power of what you can do with just the camera on a person's face, if you've brought them to the right moment. And that was totally eye-opening to me.
AC: Let's talk about Cast Away. There are some pretty big writing challenges in this film, aren't there?
WB: I feel so lucky, because this is a movie that only someone like Bob Zemeckis or Tom Hanks could get made. Because it's so different. The whole middle 50 pages is essentially a silent movie where Tom Hanks is by himself. Tom Hanks plays a Federal Express executive whose plane goes down and he washes up on this island with just a few Federal Express packages. And he has to learn to survive. We get up to the point of physical survival, he's knocking out his own sore tooth, we black out, and we come back four years later.
AC: And the production takes nine months to a year off so Hanks can get lean and mean, and your screenplay becomes more or less a silent movie.
WB: Right. I've got almost 40 pages with almost no dialogue. That to me is the most challenging screenwriting of all, because every scene has to flow into another scene based on actions and elements that are conveyed only visually.
AC: You had some big challenges in writing the Apollo 13 script with Al Reinert as well. You had to figure out how to make it suspenseful, even when everybody knows it will have a happy ending.
WB: That's why the Kip Mattingly story is so important. He's the astronaut who was bumped from the flight just a week before it was supposed to go. And so he was depressed, thinking that he's a failure, thinking, I've worked all my life to go to the moon, I've been rejected, I've been thrown aside. But when the ship blows up, he's the only person on the ground who can figure out how to save them. It was one of those things where fate has held out a role for him that is far more important he could have ever known.
AC: And saved your story to boot!
WB: Yeah, because it gave us the ability to create characters for the audience to identify with who didn't know what was gonna happen. The family didn't know. Mission Control didn't know. So dramatically, if we could anchor the family in those characters, we could catch the audience up in the fate of the capsule even though they know that Tom Hanks isn't gonna die after all. And that was the trick.
My favorite line, "Failure is not an option," came from talking to Jerry Bostick, one of the original flight controllers, about the flight controllers, what their attitude was, and we gave it to Gene Krantz, the Ed Harris character. The minute Jerry Bostick said that, Al and I looked at each other and said, "Yes! This is it," because this symbolizes the whole attitude of this collective effort.
AC: A line like that is a gift. It's hard to make up something that good.
WB: Well, it kind of sums up the collective effort of anonymous people, trying to solve problems and save other people. To me this was kind of the core of how most of us would like to feel. We'd like to feel that our efforts would add up to something bigger than ourselves. That things we're doing every day might make a difference, that we're part of something that matters. These are the kind of questions that we ultimately wanna ask.
AC: Do those ideas apply to your writing as well?
Stephen Harrigan always seems to be juggling two or three major projects at once, as well as teaching graduate courses in writing at the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers, not to mention writing his novel, The Gates of the Alamo. After eight long years, however, the 240,000-word opus has been completed, and will be published by Knopf next year. Harrigan got his start in screenwriting when he was on staff at Texas Monthly in 1983, and Bill Wittliff nominated him and another TM writer, Lawrence Wright, to attend the Sundance Institute's Screenwriters Lab. The two writers were ecstatic. It wasn't until two weeks before their deadline, however, that it occurred to the pair that they'd actually have to write a screenplay. The fruits of their collaboration, Moonwalker, since retitled Ocean of Storms, has not yet been produced, but it is still "alive," as they say -- Warren Beatty has the rights.
Austin Chronicle: All right, Stephen, give me the rundown. What's the busiest writer in town been up to lately?
Stephen Harrigan: I've just finished two television projects. One was the adaptation of a Margaret George novel called The Memoirs of Cleopatra, which Hallmark and ABC have just finished filming in Morocco and London. It's going to be this giant miniseries. Fourteen hours and a $30 million budget. Somebody said it was the most expensive movie ever made for television.
AC: Who's playing the babe?
SH: Some woman they found named Leonore Verilla, and Timothy Dalton is playing Caesar, and Billy Zane as Antony. (laughs) It's a toga movie. A bunch of people riding around in chariots, chucking spears. And I also wrote and produced a movie for CBS, about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the woman who wrote Little House on the Prairie. It was a real neat love story. I'm also working on a feature that I'm writing on my own, a supernatural comedy. And then I'm writing a movie for Fox that'll be about the early life of Alexander the Great.
AC: Any epic battle scenes in that one?
SH: (laughs) Epic battle scenes on television usually mean lots of fog, and clanking of spears offstage. But Cleopatra has huge battle scenes. It's a giant production.
AC: How much influence do you think Texas Monthly had on getting people to get into screenwriting?
SH: Well, Texas Monthly was the flash point for all sorts of writing. In a way it was sort of the "big bang" for Texas writing here. It had a direct influence, for instance, on my screenwriting career, which you would not think, but Texas Monthly had an agent in Hollywood whose job was to try to interest Hollywood in obtaining the screen rights to articles in Texas Monthly. And so Larry and I, when we wrote this script together, automatically had an agent, because we were both working for Texas Monthly, and so that's part of the ancillary effect that Texas Monthly had, which was to kind of get people into the movie business through one door or another.
AC: So I guess you had a lot of your stories optioned that way.
SH: Actually, I never did. But the magazine did. At the time, when it was very voguish to option TM stories for the movies, no one ever optioned the kind of stories I wrote, you know, like rambling around Padre Island and stuff. The thing about Austin is that it was small enough then that every writer almost had an influence on every other writer. Not style so much as opportunity, and I think that's still true to a degree.
AC: I wanted to ask you about something that a lot of non-writers don't know about, and that's the reality that a lot of writers make a good living getting paid to write things that don't get made. A lot of them are very good writers, too.
SH: It's funny because success is determined by how well you write the script, and that's what gets you your next job, not necessarily by how many things you get made. It seems like an incredible waste of money, but when you think of it as R&D costs, well, it's not so egregious.
AC: Plus keeping writers off the streets, which is a noble cause.
SH: Yeah, and it's very difficult to write something that you know isn't going to be made. I've been in the middle of a script, and there's been a change in the management of the studio, and you're sure that the thing isn't going to be made, but I still had to sit there and do the best job I can do, and it's very difficult.
Lawrence Wright happens to live in Tarrytown, so we met at Texas French Bread for lunch. Coincidentally, at the same time we were discussing what it means to belong to a vibrant colony of writers, one prominent fellow member of the colony after another stopped by at our table to say hello. Wright was inspired by the inherent drama and absurdities of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama designed to dislodge Manuel Noriega, to write a two-man play, a screenplay, and finally, a novel. The play didn't work out, nor did the aborted attempt by Oliver Stone to direct Wright's screenplay with Al Pacino playing the lead. This story, however, does have a second act: Bob Hoskins will star in the Showtime production of Wright's script (now called God's Favorite), and the novel was bought by Simon & Schuster.
Austin Chronicle: The Siege, for which you wrote the original script, generated a lot of controversy. Was that pretty upsetting?
Lawrence Wright: It was very upsetting to me. It was hard because I had lived in the Arab world for years and I've always felt a kinship with them that very few people in this country do. I think that the Arab-American community feels that Hollywood has badly mistreated them in the past, and I agree with that. But they were just waiting for another movie to come out that had an Arab terrorist in it so they could use it as a vehicle to air their complaints, and, unfortunately, we were standing next in line.
AC: What inspired you to write Noriega?
LW: When we invaded Panama, I was completely captivated by this scene when Noriega took refuge in the Papal Nuncio's palace and it was surrounded by American troops and so on.
AC: And the music, the rock & roll blasting ...
LW: Oh yeah, I saw that as a kind of Greek chorus. I thought it would make a great play, sort of a two-man play, with the Nuncio and Noriega, and it could have but it just didn't work as a play. I couldn't get Noriega to talk and I couldn't get the Nuncio to shut up. And, finally, I decided that the problem with the script is that it was too static, I mean, Noriega needs to move around, he's a very kinetic figure. So I wrote it as a movie script and it just flew out. I never had so much fun writing a script, it was just really quick.
AC: Then you got one of those phone calls that writers wait for, dream about, even.
LW: I got a call one day. "Larry, this is Oliver Stone. I'm standing in a cemetery. I've just read your script and I wanna do it." It was an unbelievable call. So I spent a good deal of time developing the script with Oliver, and he cast Al Pacino in the role. It was on the verge of being produced. But then Al and Oliver had a big fight and the whole project fell apart. Once again I got disgusted with the movie business. But the truth is I really love to write scripts.
AC: Did you write the teleplay for Remembering Satan?
LW: No, that was an adaptation from my book.
AC: Have any of your stories for Texas Monthly or The New Yorker been made into movies?
LW: Some optioned but none made. It's an interesting business.
AC: Let's talk about the Austin film industry.
LW: I'd like to be able to make movies myself in Texas. I like the idea. It requires a lot more infrastructure than we have now. But Tim McCanlies has done a very credible job. So have Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. But Bill Wittliff was kind of the archetype. Someone who stayed here and managed to do work in the movie business. I mean, it wasn't even thought of as being possible before Bill, but he's so rooted to this place, that he stood his ground and sort of brought the business to him, and once that happened, I think that was sort of the germ of the Austin movie colony. Bill just simply stayed put, and it made a huge difference for the rest of us.