The road less traveled. An interview with RUSH HOUR
Screenwriter Ross LaManna
by Christopher Wehner
Iíve had a lot of luck lately getting interviews with some
of the classiest writers working in the business, and Ross
LaManna is no exception. When he wrote RUSH HOUR, and it became
a hit, Ross could have pretty much done anything he wanted.
Instead of going for the money, he did what he always wanted
to do, he wrote a book...on spec, so he got paid nothing while writing it.
Ross first landed a term deal at United Artists, where he wrote CHROME SOLDIERS, a USA Network movie starring Gary Busey, and Yaphet Kotto, which first aired in 1993. He then worked on several projects for Carolco Pictures, including UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, and CLIFFHANGER, starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by Renny Harlan. His original screenplay, ARCTIC BLUE, became an HBO World Premiere Movie (1995) starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Peter Masterson. His spec script RUSH HOUR, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, became one of the top ten films of 1998 and broke several box office records. For more about Ross, see his web site: http://www.rosslamanna.com
(Note: this interview took place a few weeks after September
How has September eleventh impacted you as a writer? Has
it caused you to do some self-reflection? Are we too violent
a culture; our entertainment is certainly violent in nature.
Are we too violent? Probably, I think weíre too inappropriately
violent. Violence has a place in popular entertainment. Shakespeare
used it. Aristophanes used it. So if itís used without impact
or without meaning then it becomes desensitizing. A personal
observation on 911, the first two days the human impact was
an intellectual thing for me, not a visceral one. I knew there
were people in the building, I watched it crumble. I intellectually
understood that. But it looked like a special effect. The
human reality of it that stuck in my head happened at the
end of the second day when I saw the families on T.V. The image
of a little girl holding up a poster of her missing father,
that was more horrific than the images of the airplane hitting.
So I think the bigger the blow up the less it means when
Iím writing something. If itís something where there are characters
we care about and there is just the threat of violence, I
think thatís far more effective and real. The net result of
violence for violenceís sake is that you do get desensitized
to that. Should we stop making violent movies? No, but I think
if youíre going to show that type of stuff you shouldnít make
it look cool and glorify it.
We canít forget though, that weíre in the myth making industry.
If you look at history, during World War II they still made
war movies. So to say weíre not going to do any of those kinds
of movies isnít reasonable.
Itís our own form or propaganda.
Well, itís more than that. Remember that old cliché
about the caveman sitting around the fire and he started telling
a story, and it created myths. And myths really do help us
work through the things we donít understand. So everyone
in popular entertainment has an opportunity to help others
work through this stuff through myths.
Is there an event that made you want to be a writer, when
did you know what you wanted to do?
Pretty earlier on. My stock answer is that, "I was fundamentally
unemployable," what else do you do right? [Laughs] But
I think in high school I realized I had an aptitude for it.
I was very interested in the movies. Even back than I was
very impacted by movies, and saw how movies impacted those
around me. Not in terms of the message, but in terms of the
community of emotion. You can make people happy. Thatís very
cool to me.
Youíve written mainly sci-fi and action comedy stuff, what
led you there?
I think itís mostly what I like. I stay close to home in
terms of what I like. I have to have a passion for it.
Was RUSH HOUR your first spec sale?
No, I had written a spec a couple of years before that that ended
up being on HBO called ARTIC BLUE. Before that I did CROME
SOLDIER, which was an assignment. When I first started, about
ten years ago, I wrote a spec script that never was made called
FAMILY HONOR, sort of a mob comedy. Columbia picked it up
and that got me going. And then, when youíre sort of the new
kid, they throw a lot of rewrite assignments at you. Which
I thought was cool. I made a lot of money and everyone was
real nice to me. But soon I realized that even though I felt
I did my job well and improve the script, I was stuck in the
development business and I wanted to write my own movies. So I
went back to writing specs.
How important was your USC education to your career?
Not very, but Iím glad I did it.
Did it give you any more credibility when you were starting
No. Where it did help me was getting my first day job in
the business to support myself. I got a job at a small studio
working in the legal department [laughs]. I worked during
the day and at night wrote, like everyone else.
What about in query letters early on. I would think being
able to mention that you went to the USC film and screenwriting
Yeah, well, Iíd love to say it did as I loved my experience
at film school. But the fact is, as a screenwriter, your script
is your degree. Itís your film school. Itís all about that
script. For aspiring directors I think film school is more
valuable. School provides the structure for directors. So
Iím not putting down film schools. As a screenwriter you
do gain a lot of valuable knowledge from professionals, and
thatís important. Iíve done some teaching myself.
How did you come up with the idea for RUSH HOUR?
I wanted to do a kidnapping story, but it was like, "what
the hell do I do to make it fresh?" Then it came to me,
"what it the victim was from a foreign country thatís
unfriendly to us. Thatíll add some jeopardy." And what
if the people investigating are also foreign to each other,
wouldnít that sort of up the ante on the buddy comedy genre?
In LETHAL WEAPON itís fun and a good thing. But all they really
[Gibson and Gloverís characters] donít have in common is that
one guy is a nut and other guy is grounded. They really didnít
make anything out of the racial differences. So I thought
about everything that would be different between to guys working
on the same case from different countries. They wouldnít even
speak the same language. Then what happens? So I was just
looking for a fresh spin on the genre.
How hard is it to write the action/buddy/comedy movie? On
the surface it may look easy, but there only seems to be a
handful of writers who can pull it off.
That brings me to what I think is a good point. We all know how good the
actors were in the movie, but lets not forget Brett Ratner,
the director. Tell me how many directors do comedy well, how
many can do action well, and than name me how many can do
both well? This guy is on a very short list and is very talented.
There are very few decent action and comedy directors and
he does both very well. It's hard to do since youíre juggling
both. You have to keep the plot going, the jeopardy up, and
youíre able to take a breath and have a laugh. Itís hard to
I read one of your drafts for RUSH HOUR on line, how was
the rewriting process?
The one draft I saw, and I was surprised, was a very early
one. That early draft was definitely darker, and would have
been more of an action thriller than a comedy. Once Disney
bought it they said they could get Jackie Chan, and it started
down the road to more of a comedy. Because as soon as you
have Jackie you can retain the stakes, but the violence and
relationships are going to be different and itís going to
be a whole different kind of movie, jut because of him. So
you sort of have to act accordingly.
Would you have liked the darker layers of that early draft
Once Jackie was aboard it was a different movie. His part
was much smaller in my original drafts. The Chris Tucker part
was more Wesley Snipes or Bruce Willis, a little edgier. The
bottom line, "was the movie any good?" And it was.
So if youíre going to be rewritten, you hope for a good movie.
But on the other hand, you just cringe when you get rewritten.
I was delighted with RUSH HOUR and what they ended up doing
with it. Iím a big Jackie Chan fan.
You write a hit movie, and probably had some good offers
for rewrite assignments, and instead you write ACID TEST,
a book. You didnít go for the money. Thatís not the norm.
Yeah, half of my friends said, "Dude!" and the
other have said, "Youíre nuts." But I view that
as buying me freedom. Because I did establish a sort of successful
franchise, and I guess Iíve moved up the food chain a little
when Iím pitching a project. I always wanted to write a book
and I thought this was my opportunity. RUSH HOUR was a great
thing, and what it did most off all was buy me time. I did
do some screenwriting. I worked on a few drafts of the HOGANíS
HEROES movie. I also did some T.V. stuff. So I felt like I
did exactly what I wanted to do. I see some writers take that
upward trajectory and it sometimes winds up taking them further
away from their own definition of success. Thatís why you
see a lot of cranky screenwriters. They throw money at you,
assignments, but youíre not getting any satisfaction. It all
comes down following your own definition of success. And my
definition is simple, "I do what makes me happy."
I have an office thirty feet from my house. I have breakfast
and dinner with my kids. Thatís my definition of success.
I went for happy, and Iíve made plenty of money. Iím very lucky.
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