FRANK PIERSON HONORED AT OJAI FILM FESTIVAL
The theme of the Ojai Film Festival is "enriching the human spirit through film." This year the festival bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award to a man who exemplifies that theme, Frank Pierson -- screenwriter, director and President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Mr. Pierson began his illustrious career first as a journalist, then as a television writer on such shows as "Have Gun, Will Travel" and "The Naked City." His screenwriting career was launched in the sixties with Cat Ballou, which he followed with Cool Hand Luke. Those scripts garnered him Oscar nominations. He went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon.
He began directing in the seventies and his film credits include A Star is Born, starring Barbra Streisand. He has directed several important films for HBO, including Citizen Cohn, Truman (which won a Peabody and the Emmy for Outstanding Made for Television Movie) and most recently, the multi-Emmy-nominated Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh.
Mr. Pierson is dedicated to teaching screenwriting and filmmaking to new generations. He is a member of the teaching staff at the Sundance Institute and is currently the Artistic Director of the American Film Institute Conservatory.
He served as President of the Writers Guild from 1981 to 1983 and again from 1993 to 1995. He has received three separate awards from the WGA: The Screen Laurel Award for overall career achievement, the Valentine Davies Award for "bringing dignity and honor to writers everywhere" and the Edmund North Award for "courageous leadership and selfless activity."
The following interview was conducted at the Ojai Film Festival. For more information about the festival, go to: www.filmfestival.ojai.net.
INTERVIEW WITH FRANK PIERSON
The Writers Guild presented you with three very prestigious awards. Which one of those was most special to you?
I think probably the Ed North Award -- partly because of what Ed North represented. The award was dedicated to his memory for his service to the industry as well as a lifetime achievement in writing. Ed had both. Not only was he a fine, fine writer, he was a moralist. He believed very passionately about the responsibilities of the artist.
At the same time he believed very passionately that the artist should be left alone to follow his own conscience. Those two things are kind of polar opposites -- which we are now about to confront Sunday, when a representative from the White House, Karl Rove, meets with the leaders of the industry. I'm going to be there as the President of the Academy. And what is going to be discussed is the extent to which Hollywood can join in supporting the war.
Well, yes and no. What are the best ways in a free democratic society like ours to support a war? There is one very powerful faction which the politicians represent. And that is that there should be no dissenting voices -- that we have to be together. In order to achieve our ends, the means must eliminate the truth. But what artists are all about is telling the truth. As Winston Churchill said, "The first casualty of war is truth."
The responsibilities of citizens necessitate preserving a democratic society by keeping open all of our governmental processes -- including making war. Open to examination. Examination by journalists, examination by documentarians, examination by artists. So that if things are going wrong, there is a means of correcting as opposed to just simply suppressing all the news, suppressing all the evidence and so on. This is a very powerful argument that's been going on for, probably ever since men made war and made art at the same time.
And whether art should celebrate the war that we're fighting or whether art should be a critical examination of the war we're fighting is really the principal thing. I have gone so far from answering the question that you asked.
But that's what Ed North represented to me. And just by the by, one of the best anecdotes of war stories of Hollywood as it were is that Ed North and Francis Coppola together won the Academy Award for writing Patton. The credit on the picture reads "Screenplay by" and the credit on the Oscar reads "For the Best Screenplay by Francis Coppola and Edmund North." And when they won, only Ed North got up to accept the award because Francis was busy with something else and he couldn't be there. And Ed North said, "I'm so disappointed that Francis is not here because I was so looking forward to meeting him."
You brought up the war. Knowing what kind of entertainment was popular during World War II, do you think the public's taste in films during this war will differ?
I was in combat all during World War II, sleeping on the ground in the Pacific. And so I didn't see any of the major World War II films until I came back, you know, by which time it was actually after the war. By then we were seeing some pictures that had evolved beyond just the, you know, typical John Wayne or whoever killing Japs all over the world. The films were beginning to be thoughtful and critical analyses of men at war.
Those pictures -- All Quiet on the Western Front and all the rest of them were made and were enormous successes and so on somewhat after the war. But during the war, what was being done -- I mean, the only film I saw during World War II was a film called Five Graves to Cairo and I can't even remember the damn thing. We only got to see a movie every six or eight weeks or so. And it was always the same picture. They would supply us with beer and we would get to see the picture. And we had a lot of Mormons in the unit, and I used to get their beer. I would see the picture so drunk that I have no recollection of it particularly.
So I really don't feel equipped to answer the question. You know what would be a really constructive thing to do -- and might be a commercial success, who knows? Why not do a picture about an American Muslim family who are struggling to get along anyway, and now have this additional burden put on them. A story about how they are dealing with it all. Do it on the level of Coronation Street or one of those great English lower-class soap operas -- just really confront the issues that are raised.
There are so few movies these days that really, truthfully deal with the daily life that we all live. There used to be a lot more of them. There are fewer of them now because those have all now moved to television. That's not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It's just simply what has happened.
I only wish that television films would be reviewed in parity with movies. I think that the media in dealing with television are still treating it as though it was the stepchild of the industry. As a force in society, I think television has become far more important than movies are.
And this coming from the President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
We all have to confront the truth. And listen, I'm proud to be President of the Academy. And I'm not saying that movies are less important. I think they occupy another position in society. I mean, what the Coen Brothers are doing is not going to be shown on television. And on the other hand, what Alan Ball is now doing on HBO is not going to be shown in theaters. They are two different media. But what degree of relevance do they have? And I'm saying that the media isn't examining what is going on in television -- particularly in movies made for television -- God knows, they're paying an enormous amount of attention to the series, because that's all commercial. It's all entertainment for the most part. But they are really skewing things in the wrong way. Look at the media coverage, look at the Calendar section in the LA Times. Or look at the Arts and Leisure section in the New York Times. And what do you see? You see legitimate theater. Then you see ballet and music, then you get around to movies. And television becomes an afterthought. When you look at the way our lives are lived, especially, you know, in the mass media, you see that it's absolutely the opposite. We spend far more time with our television than we do at the movies and plays. And I don't mean that the coverage should be reversed and legitimate theater should be dismissed in the way that television is largely dismissed. I only mean that the way that our newspapers are edited right now shows that they're utterly out of touch with the lives of their readers. And they wonder why their readership is dropping, dropping, dropping. It's becoming more and more irrelevant.
Do you think that comedies are going to become more important during this time when people want an escape?
Oh, absolutely, and I completely sympathize with that. What did my wife and I do the weekend after 9/11? We put a DVD of Singin' in the Rain on. And, my God, it was such a relief to be lifted out, you know, into that fanciful, sweet, lovely, other world that was portrayed so convincingly that you can accept it for a couple of hours of relief.
So I think that yes, there's going to be that kind of thing. And there's probably going to be a lot of it done not because there's a real honest-to-God commitment to the particular picture that is involved or to the script. But only because they can't think of what else to do. I think everybody is quite bewildered right now about where the public wants to go.
I think we're all agreed in our own minds -- maybe not some producers -- that Rambo is not the appropriate thing to do now. But then, as far as I was concerned, Rambo has never been the appropriate thing to do at all. I think one of the proudest things that I've done -- in the tradition of Edmund P. North, if you want -- was that I turned down doing the first Rambo movie because I was so sickened by it.
You said in 1979 that making pictures is neither an art or a business -- but a sport. Do you still believe that?
Well, I said that maybe we should think of it as a sport. And really, what I was trying to do was open up minds to the semantics of the way in which we talk about things that we do, things that we are, and the things that we handle and so on. Most people don't think. You just put a label on it and that's what it is. Maybe we should re-think these things. I would not be serious about that because sport to me has too much to do with sheer and rather nasty competitiveness. And that's a misrepresentation of the way in which we live our lives or -- this is my moral feeling about it -- the way in which we should live our lives.
The way to survive is to be cooperative and collaborative, and otherwise, we're going to lose this planet. If we go on being competitive about how many birds we can shoot, how many deer we can shoot, how many of our own species we can shoot in order to achieve our own limited commercial gains and ideological gains -- we are not going to survive.
Competitiveness and over-emphasis on competitiveness is the disease that is destroying us all. So, I'm not serious about calling it a sport, even though there are a lot of things about sport that's entertaining. At its best it's collaborative and so on.
That explains that.
Yeah. That almost gets rid of that quote.
Oh, has that been brought up to you a lot?
No. No. This is the very first time.
A lot of your material was adapted from novels, going all the way back to Cat Ballou. Are you most frequently attracted to material in novel form?
Well, novels were being brought to me and I was being asked if I'd be interested in adapting them. In every case, they were novels that had in them some aspect of life that was enormously interesting to me. And each was worked on in a particular way that was interesting to me and seemed right.
But, I've done a number of originals. Dog Day Afternoon in a sense was an adaptation, because it was an adaptation of a real-life event. Working from total scratch, just sitting down and saying, "Gee, I think I'd like to make a movie and what will I do a movie about?" is something that Stephen King could do and Charles Dickens could do. That's on another level beyond me. I don't have the capacity of imagination to do that.
But what I do think I have is the ability to take a look at a situation -- whether it's a real-life situation in Dog Day or whether it's a fictional one that expresses a kind of emotional, psychological truth to me -- and think through what kind of a movie I would like to make that is new and fresh and exists on its own level. It seems kind of presumptuous to say work of art. I hate that.
But nonetheless, an adaptation is not just simply a literal translation, but something that truly expresses that idea of that book or that real-life situation, that is transformed and coming through me into something that's going to be on the screen.
I know you've said you don't consider a screenplay a work of art. Do you consider a novel a work of art?
A novel's a finished work of art. It's the work of the novelist and there's no question about it. A screenplay is -- I mean, look at live theater. A George Bernard Shaw or a Shakespeare play is not a work of art in itself until it has been performed. Some of them are worth reading on their own. But they weren't written for that reason. George Bernard Shaw once said that it was the soul business of the dramatist to write text for exhibitions of acting. And he went on from there to say that any added value -- artistic or cultural or historical -- was totally irrelevant and had nothing to do with it. Of course, he was full of shit because if anybody was conscious that he was creating something, he was.
Shakespeare is fascinating to read. But you're not really getting the full value of it until you've seen it performed by actors because that's what it was written for. And the same thing is true of a screenplay. But we are still only a hundred years into the evolution of making films. And probably, in terms of the writing of screenplays, only about fifty years. Because from the introduction of sound which was when real fully developed screenplays began to be written, all through the 1930s and '40s, they are very crude applications of sound. The attempts to merge the narration and the whole sound with the image. And it wasn't until the end of World War II that you really began to see a successful merging of sound and image into something that you could begin to discern as something like art. I don't think we've really gotten there yet. But we're working on it.
I think we're getting there with a film like O Brother, Where Art Thou.
I loved it. It's absolutely so fresh, so original and so lovely. And I love it when people say that they just didn't get it. Because that's a sure sign that something is happening because there's a certain kind of resentment and anxiety there. You never hear anybody say it's a piece of shit. You hear people say, "I didn't get it." And you hear a certain kind of anxiety in their voice because they wonder if they aren't missing something. But they are. Absolutely.
That's one of the few films I wanted to see again right away.
Yeah, we've done that as well. And that's an adaptation, by the way. It is the reprocessing of Homer through the wild Coen Brothers' minds.
In 1971, you said, "Networks are as wishy washy as ever, confining everything into the narrowest possible of limits, terrified that a breath of life will get into a show." How would you assess the situation now?
Oh, I think that the breath of life -- including a lot of halitosis in its breath -- has very, very definitely entered. No, the shows are a lot more inventive. I'm talking about the level of writing -- even of shows that I don't like. And I'm not going to name them. A show like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" has a level of silliness, but at the same time, another level of something that enables you to sit through it and enjoy it.
We did that in writing "Have Gun, Will Travel." Most of those episodes were done really with our tongue firmly stuck in our cheeks. We also, by the way, did "Oedipus." And we would do Dostoyevsky. Every year, we would go right through the classics and adapt them -- "do a haircut on it" -- as we called it.
And that was a lot of fun. But I don't know how many people got it. When the reviewers these days talk about the Golden Age of Television, none of them every mention "Have Gun, Will Travel." It's always "Gunsmoke." And "Gunsmoke" was, to me, a plodding kind of thing.
But the answer to your question is yeah, I think that the level of series writing -- well, just the general level of writing for television has risen so much. Look at "The West Wing." Look at "Sopranos." Look at "Six Feet Under."
What are the most successful writing habits you've developed?
To get your ass in that chair for at least two hours every single day and do nothing else. Don't answer the phone, be surly to your wife -- anybody who's making demands on you. You have that period of time every day, and I mean seven days a week, and holidays usually, too, for me. You're concentrating your mind, focusing on the story, getting inside the characters' heads and thinking through -- okay, they're in this situation. What will she do? What will he do?
And you're alone with that. Then what happens is the rest of the day and night, your unconscious will take over. And you'll dream about it. Maybe you won't even know you're dreaming about it. But it will come in -- somehow or other, it will come back to you from putting in that two hours a day. But that's the single most important thing to me.
Do you find it's best to do that in the morning?
Well, it is for me. But, you know, every successful writer has got a different thing. David Kelly just simply writes all the goddamn time. And there are others who walk. There are some who spend an hour in the shower. We've had this question asked at Sundance. [Mr. Pierson has served as Artistic Director at the Sundance Institute.] And some of the answers were extraordinary. There's one successful writer, who begs that her name will not be released, who said that she would put on her nightgown and roller skates and roller skate around the house. And she said it very convincingly.
But whenever or however you do it, put in that two hours a day where you're alone and focus on the story. And if you do it long enough, it becomes a habit. And a habit is very, very tough to break. I get very surly and I get very mean if I don't write.
In 1969 you had an idea for an original script that you'd wanted to do for a long time about Mexican migrant workers in the US. Did you ever do anything with that?
I tried to sell it for years and years and years. And was never able to get anybody to understand what I wanted to do with it. And now, I don't know whether I want to go back and re-visit it and unfortunately, whatever I put on paper at that time, I've lost. And I don't know whether I still have the depth of imagination. I recall it as a kind of work of art, if you will, that never got created. And the effort to try to pull it out of myself now -- I just don't know.
As a writer, have you ever been afraid that you've talked something into oblivion and then no longer have the energy to write it?
I think that, in a sense, is what I did with that. There are some times when it has a value, to talk it through, telling it to a friend who is interested enough in you and/or the story to put up with your telling the story. Alvin Sargent and I go to lunch every couple of weeks and sometimes in those conversations we talk about what we are writing, what problems we're having with the story and so on. And I start winging ideas about his story or he'll do the same on mine. But that's a different kind of reinforcement. Going out and pitching the story to a studio executive or what have you just feels very dry. I mean, it's like writing an outline of a screenplay -- which is what we were talking about earlier. A script is already only the text of the work of art. It's the sketch of it.
And I don't diminish the amount of effort and imagination that goes into writing a screenplay. It really is a difficult -- probably the most single difficult thing to do that I know of.
Screenwriters are paid more than anybody else. I mean, except for a very few -- a short list of maybe ten or twelve novelists in the world -- hundreds of screenwriters make an enormous amount of money. But their screenplays aren't read unless they get produced. But even if they get produced, they may be read by at most fifty people.
Whereas poets, who are paid nothing, have their poetry read all over the country. There are meetings, there are poetry reading sessions and one thing and another. Poets probably are heard and their poetry is read by more people than the novelists -- like on the an order of a million times that of screenwriters. And they don't get paid anything. What do you make of that?
You were the President of the Writer's Guild a couple times. Did anybody take offense when you said you didn't consider a screenplay a work of art?
No, I don't remember anybody ever bringing it up with me, no.
The director's possessory credit battle lives on. Now you're President of the Academy, you've been President of the Writer's Guild and you are a director as well as a writer. Where do you stand on this issue?
I want to speak as a director to that. I think that the possessory credit demeans the credit of director. It undermines it completely when some asshole just out of film school, who knows nothing about what the hell he does, puts out a film and it's a "Skippy Horowitz Film." I just think it's insulting and stupid. I don't like it even when major directors use it. But, at the same time, I have to say I think the battle's been lost. The word is out there. Their agents all insist that they use it. I will never use it.
It's become so much a part of the culture, that you find in order to not use it, you have to fight your agent, you have to fight the company that actually does it because they automatically put it on there, and you have to fight the DGA which is my own guild. And it infuriates me. But I think it's a matter of individual conscience. If somebody thinks that they really need that in order to massage their ego, well, okay, fine. But I would never do it. And I think less of those who do do it for having done it.
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