Richard Price: The Originator

A screenwriter who doesn't want to direct? Despite his Hollywood success with The Color of Money and Sea of Love, novelist/screenwriter Richard Price knows his talent is writing. Here Price talks about being a novelist and a screenwriter, about working with Martin Scorsese, about his novel Clockers and about writing the new Night and the City.


As a screenwriter, Richard Price is a remarkable maverick. His debut, The Color of Money (1986), directed by Martin Scorsese, was a strong commercial success that gave him the cachet and the freedom to initiate and develop scripts in his own manner. His work since then has shown a rare personal stamp, a continuity of theme and feeling that extends from film to film. His script for Life Lessons--the "Martin Scorsese" sequence in New York Stories, has much more in common with Sea of Love (which he also wrote) than it does with either GoodFellas or Cape Fear (which were directed by Scorsese but written by others).

This consistency in sensibility, which one associates more with directors than screenwriters, is not so surprising in view of Price's overall career. For Richard Price is the screenwriter as writer, par excellence. He began as, and continues to be, a novelist. In fact, every novel he's published since 1974 has been greeted as an event: Bloodbrothers (1976), Ladies' Man (1978), The Breaks (1983) and now--after nearly a decade--the best-selling Clockers.

Price is right now in the middle of a banner year. Two of his screenplays have been produced, both starring Robert De Niro: Mad Dog and Glory and Night and the City, which opens this month. And Clockers was bought by Universal in a bidding war for $1.9 million (this in the middle of Hollywood's noisily touted "austerity" program) well before it was published.

In person, Price is alert, confident, bursting with nervous energy--more like a stand-up comedian than an off-duty novelist. He starts his day early, and we meet at one of his favorite breakfast dives in the Tribeca area of Manhattan. Later, we stop in at his apartment nearby--a vast converted loft. Trikes and toy vehicles are on the landing; inside there is sunny opulence, with art on the walls, as well as family photographs (shot by Price), primarily of Price's wife Judy and their two children, Annie and Gen.

Many novelists have come to Hollywood and tried to parlay their literary talent into the verbal/visual skills necessary to screenwriting. Some have met with notable success (Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Joan Didion); some have dealt with the devil and gone back home--or died (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West). Richard Price stands out as a writer who has straddled the difficult worlds of fiction and film, and distinguished himself equally in both. Since this is such an unusual accomplishment, I decided to begin our interview with this topic.

F.X. FEENEY: As a writer who is esteemed as both novelist and screenwriter, you're an anomaly. How do you explain it?

PRICE: It's because I always wrote novels like a screenwriter and screenplays like a novelist. Apart from little differences of form and technique, I never differentiated--which I think is a generational trait. I grew up watching television, going to the movies. I think it's safe to say that, in my life, I've seen more TV than I've read books. My frames of reference are visual. I think in pictures and scenes, like a screenwriter, and try to take down what I see. This was true when I was learning to write novels; it was just as true when I was learning to write screenplays. There was never any difference for me between the two, if we're talking about basic storytelling craft.

Q: As a novelist, you're used to being in command of your own art. But now you're moving up in a collaborative medium. What do you see ahead for yourself in the movie business?

A: Well, it's like this. I really believe that if you don't watch out, everybody rises to their own level of mediocrity. So many writers feel that if you get to be a really good writer, the next step is to be a bad director. I'm not a visual artist. I'm a writer. I never really want to go any higher with movies than the level of Originator. I'm curious about directing. For example, last night Scorsese walked through the script of Mad Dog and Glory with the director, John McNaughton, and myself after we'd seen the rough cut. He talked about what could be better, all the different options that could have been taken--it was a good learning experience for me. I know less than a first-year film student about actual filmmaking. So I'm interested, but I don't want to be a director. What I'd like to do is exactly what I'm doing right now. I'd like to alternate novels with movies. I'd like to waltz into Universal and say, "Okay, look. Here's what I want to do next." And have everybody go, "Great." Let them call my agent, set the wheels in motion, let me go off to write this picture. And then we'll go find the right director.

Q: That attitude is at odds with the current trend.

A: I feel like a lot of writers become directors purely because they get so pissed off at what's been done to their scripts. Number one, scripts are not usually that great to begin with. You know--writers like to think they're the Dead Sea Scrolls. But by and large, they're just ... scripts. More often than not, the cuts that get made are honorable, and what's lost is not deathless prose. But writers get so pissed off, they devote their lives to getting revenge and taking control--and they become even worse directors than the guys they hated to begin with. At least that hack who ruined your script, knew how to do it. There's a few people who've made the crossover, where I like what they do. John Sayles, David Mamet. But by and large, the writers who've become directors--eehh. Big deal.

Q: What about when the story gets altered to fit the marketplace and actually becomes less of a story?

A: The illusion is, "Gee, if I were a director I'd have more power." That's false. The director is just as much under the gun. Take Sea of Love. There's not one word in it that I didn't write, but ; when I saw it, I was all I freaked out--I never meant it to be a "thriller." I meant it to be two hours of High Mopery. Very angsty. It probably would not have had as big an audience. It might have been more literate. More original. But hey, I'm working with Universal. It got shoehorned into a thriller-mode so that they could sell it. So you think, "That fuckin' director-- that fuckin' Casey Silver, that fuckin' Universal, that fuckin' Marty Bregman, that fuckin' Al Pacino." But to come back to Harold Becker, the director, the illusion is that Harold could have made any kind of picture he wanted to. And yet he's just as much under the gun in that editing room and behind that camera, to make Universal happy, as anybody. And I wouldn't have shot the picture anywhere near as good. My thing would have looked like you'd just held a script up to the camera and flipped the pages. Follow the bouncing ball. What do I know? So I thought to myself, "Grow up. You want the money, you want the big studio, you want the accessibility, you want the star system--that's the price."

Q: How did Sea of Love get turned into a thriller?

A: My first draft was naive. Dustin Hoffman was going to play it, but by the time I completed the draft, he was all tangled up with Rain Man. So I became the writer on Rain Man for six weeks, but then I quit, because I couldn't stand it. After that, things kind of cooled between us, and he decided to back away from Sea of Love. And then I just hand-delivered it to Al Pacino, myself. In this first draft, the woman character did not come in until page 90. It was all like, "Woe is me," for 90 pages--90 pages of really good scenes, but it was a character study. And then, finally, when this guy can't stand it anymore, he runs into Miss Wrong, and the whole thing happens in one explosive night. The last 15 minutes of the movie are him saying, "I don't care if I die, I've got to get laid, I've got to have some contact."

So all this Did-She-or- Didn't-She was shoved to the end. So everybody says to me, "Hey, the babe doesn't come in till 90, who are we going to get for that? She's got to be there from the giddyap." So I says, "All right, but not from page one. How about if I bring her in at 30?" They said okay--finally--but even then they were kind of hinky about it.

Now, the point is, if I've got a story where the organic structure of it is that the woman comes in on page 90, and all of a sudden I've got to bring her in on 30, what the fuck am I going to do with her for 60 pages? That's when I had to spin a whole line of Did-She-or-Didn't-She bullshit.

Q: Were you completely alienated from the project at that point?

A: I no longer felt involved with it. What do they say? Comedy is Tragedy plus Time? Everybody's telling me I've got to turn my movie into Fatal Attraction. Next thing I know, about a year later, I'm at a party and I run into James Dearden--the guy that wrote Fatal Attraction. And I said, "Oh. So you're the prick who wrote that thing. I can't tell you how miserable that made my life, I had to make my story like yours." And he said, "Look. I've just got a job directing a movie"I forget the title, something with Matt Dillon and Sean Young "and everybody's telling me I've got to make it like Sea of Love."

Q: Tell me about Night and the City.

A: I originally wrote it for Scorsese, back in about 1985. Apparently, [French director Bertrand] Tavernier came to Scorsese and said, "This is ripe for a remake." It was the first thing I ever wrote for Marty. After I turned it in, he decided he didn't want to do it-- because when I wrote it I was in awe of him, and it showed. It was like a compendium of Scorsese's Greatest Hits. He said, "This would be too much like editing my own films. But there's this other thing I'm trying to develop for Paul Newman--a sequel to The Hustler, maybe you'd like to come in on that with me."

Q: Years ago, you caused a stir when you cited Mean Streets as an influence on your novels. Did Scorsese know that? Was it a factor in your first meetings?

A: There was a lot of natural sympathy between us-- though that's not always a good thing. Sometimes, that can be a disaster: "This is my turf." "No, this is my turf." If you think too much alike, you can end up fighting over how many angels are dancing on the heads of pins. Much easier to bring in a Paul Schrader, who's more of an architect. With me, when I do a script, it's like, down to the semicolon. Marty is a great bullshit detector.

He's good at provoking you to go for a kind of artful rawness. His confidence in me gives me confidence--it frees me to fly this fuckin' plane. He never fucks with my work. At most, he'll say, "This is phony." And he's never wrong.

Q: The original Night and the City isn't particularly cherished or well known. Why remake it?

A: You'd have to ask Tavernier. I don't know why. Maybe because he's French, and it was an American B movie, which the French always love even though we don't understand why.

Q: How well did you know the film? Was it a favorite of yours, too?

A: No, I'd never seen it. I looked at it beforehand. Kept the convolutions of the plot. Got rid of the Linda Darnell character, or maybe it was Gene Tierney. [It was Gene Tierney.] Changed it from wrestling to boxing. Brought it up to date--changed it from London to New York. Oddly enough, some time after I finished writing it, I read the original novel by Gerald Kersh, which was much more down-and-dirty than the original movie ever was.

Q: How much rewriting did you do when the project got reactivated?

A: I didn't touch it.

Q: You didn't rewrite it at all?

A: Just minor changes to update it. For instance, I dropped a reference to Mount St. Helens. Big volcano, right? It used to be common knowledge; now it's Trivial Pursuit. I changed it to the Berlin Wall.

Q: What was your level of involvement during production?

A: Nothing. A little ego boost once in while. I'd hike down to the set and be a big shot for two minutes. Everybody loved the script--they didn't ask for any changes. I didn't have to tailor the roles.

Q: How did you get along with the director, Irwin Winkler?

A: What's good about him is he knows how to work with people. We didn't get too much into the artistry.

Q: One reason I ask is, he's an interesting anomaly: a producer who's decided to direct. What do you make of that?

A: Everybody wants to be an artist. How many artists do you know who are yearning to be businessmen? And what bigger artist is there than a film director? You're captain of the biggest artistic enterprise around. If you hang around long enough with Marty Scorsese, Nic Roeg or whoever--and Winkler's worked with a lot of the heavy hitters--you can begin to feel, you know: "I'd like to do this." Then you begin to think, "Maybe I can do this." Pretty soon you feel, "I've got to do this." Irwin's got balls; I admire him for trying. It's only his second movie as a director, no matter how many years he's been producing.

He doesn't have an inflated sense of his own importance. His strategy was to surround himself with the best people possible. The result was a happy set, an atmosphere of real generosity.

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