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Interview with Brian Helgeland

Interview by Fred Topel

How a commerical fisherman becomes an A-List Hollywood screenwriter is itself an interesting story. Helgeland grew up in New England, the son of a commerical fisherman. Helgeland himself was fisherman but thought better of it after his first cold winter on the job. He decided to move someplace warm, and once in LA he found his calling after attending film school. After graduating, he sharpened his screenwriting teeth on such films as "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master", "976-Evil", and "Highway to Hell". Things changed for Brian when he literally bumped into Richard Donner and finagled his way into scripting the Stallone/Banderas spy thriller "Assassins". By 1997 it was the best and worst of times for the screenwriter-director when he saw three of his screenplays produced: Kevin Costner's legendary bomb, "The Postman", "Conspiracy Theory", and the acclaimed James Ellroy adaptation "L.A. Confidential" for which Helgeland shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar with Curtis Hanson. 

What kind of notes does Eastwood give a writer? Well, not a lot. This is the second movie I’ve done for him. He had me read the book, and we had this sort of initial discussion of what it was we both liked about the book. He had different ways of expressing it than I do, but it was pretty much we liked the same things. The next thing about him is he assumes you know how to do your job, and then it’s up to you to either prove him right or prove him wrong. He’s been around long enough that he doesn’t want to put constraints on you. A lot of directors are still so keen on trying to make it what it is they want it to be that they handcuff you from the start as to what you can do or not do. I think he knows that some things he’s not interested in might come out of it but a lot of good things come out of giving someone their freedom to do it the way they think it should be done. And basically, that’s what he did, he let me go and do the best job I could do.

How does that compare to Richard Donner or Mel Gibson? I’ve written two things for both of them and potentially working on a third for both of them, but Clint is more: take the story that we had at hand and what’s the best way to tell that story. Dick more has a kind of outlook on life that he’s looking to imprint into the story that he’s telling. Someone asked me what Dick was like, and I said, “Well, watch one of his movies because that’s what he’s like.” I think Dick has a kind of life philosophy that he’s interested in exploring up on screen, so he gravitates towards projects that he thinks serve that in a good way, that he’s more intent on exploring certain outlooks. And Clint’s more just taking each thing as it comes.

Did you have to do research outside of the book? Well, the good thing for me was, and the reason I think I fit in well with it was that I’m from that area. The book basically happens in Dorchester, which was a suburb of Boston, and I was not born, but I was raised from the time I was very young in a town called New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was about 50 miles south of Boston in a very similar kind of neighborhood, kind of tenement blue collar neighborhood. I talked to Dennis Lahane about it, and it’s kind of funny because we both grew up with the same kind of guys and the same kind of situations. So, I think my end of the research I had basically lived, which was why I think I could fall into line so quickly with what Dennis had done because we’re the same age, basically grew up in the same time period, same kind of neighborhood. And one thing in Hollywood, when there’s a blue collar movie so to speak, when the characters are from the blue collar world, I think they often either are treated like stereotypes in a bad way or stereotypes like the noble working class man. It’s always bad [to stereotype], but they’re either bad character stereotypes or good character stereotypes, and the great thing in Dennis’s book was that first of all and last of all, they were truthful. And I was able to I think slide into that vibe without starting to, like I said, make a working class hero out of some of them and an ignorant victim [out of others], a bad character who was a victim of his poverty and ignorance. So my research was being from the same neighborhood.

Are you happy the trailer didn’t give anything away? Yeah. I do like the trailer a lot because it’s just kind of vague. I think it creates a mystique for the whole thing where in this case a trailer would just show you the high point of some scene that you really have to watch to appreciate that high point. I honestly think Clint knows that he has something special in his hands and he tried to treat it that way right down to the trailer.

Do you get caught up in Oscar buzz? No, because you will bring the fury of the film gods down on your head. All that stuff is weird. I’m glad they moved the date up. There’s so much everyone out trying to buy an Oscar with all their ads and everything. Even last year there were radio ads for “vote for this guy for best supporting actor.” I thought, “Who’s listening to these ads on the radio?” I honestly just hope the film does well and it’s appreciated for what it is. I think generally the person that deserves the Academy Award doesn’t get it, or especially the film that deserves the Academy Award doesn’t get it. So, if we don’t get it, maybe that’ll mean we deserved it.

With The Order, how did you maintain a scary tone in the script? I think for me, because it’s not a traditional—I shouldn’t say traditional—but I think horror has evolved into just straight ahead madmen with axes in the last 20 years or so since Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, just the madman who’s out there and has to be stopped, which is a shame because I think it had a rich tradition going back to the ‘30s when there was more pathos for the villain perhaps, like in Frankenstein, Dracula and that kind of thing. Also, I think the horror movies in the ‘60s, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were for me scary because they seemed so real. When you go to Nightmare on Elm Street, you know it’s a movie. I mean, you know every movie’s a movie when you go, but some feel more real than others. In this script, what I tried to do was to incorporate those two elements as far as making the villain actually quite sympathetic and understandable in what he wanted and why he wanted it. And also to try to in the writing of it and in the shooting of it, try to make it feel real, like it was something that really was going on in the world if you were interested to sort of peek around corners and things. For this movie, that was the way to try to make it scary rather than things jumping out of the closet at you.

Do you have a shorthand when you’re writing for yourself to direct? Yeah, I think I leave a lot of things out that if I was writing for another director or writing a spec, sending out the script to sell, I’m trying to be as clear about what’s going on as possible and what the scene is about. Not so much in the dialogue but in the descriptions, just making sure I’m not leaving anyone behind. When I know I’m going to direct it, or I’m doing production rewrites, I tend to write very minimally because I know what I want to do, and someone else might read it and unless they’re reading it really closely, they might just think that there’s something missing.

Were you disappointed in The Order’s release? We were supposed to come out in January, and then they really felt like that wasn’t a good time. It’s definitely not a summer movie, so as it got closer to summer, they just couldn’t find a spot they were happy with in the summer, so they were basically waiting for the summer to end, to come out in the fall. Because it’s a dark movie, it’s not a big happy ending movie, so they wanted to avoid basically the happy ending seasons. Out of that, a story started that there were problems with the effects, but no one really knows where that story started because the movie was done. There wasn’t any more work to be done on the effects. I know that when you go online and check things and stuff like that, there’s a story. When the date got moved, a story came out of that that maybe there were problems with the effects and some of them had to be redone, which was why the date was moved.

Do you ever think back to Assassins and say, “Wow, I rewrote the Wachowski Brothers?” No, not really. I was hired by Dick Donner to pare it down and focus it much more on the thriller elements of it and the plot. Whereas I think the original draft that the Wachowskis did was much more, when you read it, was almost like a stage play. I think that’s the best way to put it, that it read like a stage play, read very sparse and almost just like these assassins discussing the wages of their lives, the consequences of their lives. I was brought in to really make much more of a straight ahead thriller out of it.

Was Dick the first director to let you on the set? Yeah.

Was it ever painful? On that movie, I was more of a hired gun than anything. It was really the last time I ever did a rewrite of someone else’s script, just because I didn’t feel like—it wasn’t even a moral thing, but I felt a little lost at times because it wasn’t my original idea. So, it was difficult sometimes to figure out what it wanted to be because I hadn’t come up with it. On that movie, I was really just kind of learning how to stay out of the way and not having some electrician crawl up my back about getting out of his way, tripping over his C-stands around the set and things like that. I spent most of that movie just trying to feel comfortable on a set.

How about later on Conspiracy Theory? It was much more of an eye opener as far as just the difference between sitting in your room, writing the story and then being out in the real world, seeing all the strange things that can happen and how a story can get changed around. Just the demands of practicality in things. I learned a lot about how to deal with a lot of practical decisions and the consequences of all of them on the story. And really also it kind of dispelled for me [the myth of] screenplays having been altered as almost a malicious thing, like the producer and the studio and the directors involved sat down, maliciously trying to [think], “How do we subvert what the author intended?” when in fact, it’s not that at all. It’s really just the script that I write. For me, I see it in such a specific way through my set of eyes that no one’s ever going to see it that way but me. So when Dick Donner comes on set and he’s going to see that script through his own eyes, the actors are going to see it through their own eyes, production designer’s going to see it how he sees it, the D.P., everybody. By the time that’s run its course all the way through the cast and the crew and the director, it’s never going to be what the writer [imagined]. There are varying degrees of how close it can be, but it’s never going to be what the writer envisioned. It just can’t be because only he can see it. To Dick’s credit, about halfway through that movie, he basically said that to me. He said, “I know you don’t always agree with me and you think certain things aren’t being done the way you envisioned them. That’s because they’re coming out the way I envision them. I read your script, and I interpret it, and I see it through my set of eyes, which are never going to be yours. And they can’t be. How can they be? I’m from a different era; I’m from a different place, and we’ve had different life experiences.” He basically said, “Either you’ll have to accept that or you have to direct yourself.” And he was producing a TV show at the time, Tales from the Crypt and gave me one of those episodes to direct so that I could get started directing. I always thought it was a magnanimous thing. It was like, “I can see you’re not always happy with what’s going on here. To get to that point where you can be happy, you have to direct. I’ll help you get there.” What’s an example of a problem you solved on Conspiracy? There was a whole day where we were shooting the opening credits and Mel’s conspiracies rants. We had only a limited amount of time to shoot all that stuff, so we were literally in New York, he was literally driving the cab with the cameraman inside of it. They took the trunk lid off, and I sat in the trunk with a radio, cueing him—“Talk about the trilateral commission”—in his ear.

What’s your typical writing schedule? For me, once I have an idea, sometimes it’s just based on an idea for a movie, or it’s based on a character, like Conspiracy Theory started out as a character. Once I get enough background in the back of my head where I can start writing, I really sort of shut down all aspects of my life and concentrate on the script. I’ll go two weeks, three weeks without even leaving my house. One time I went 56 days where the farthest I went from my house was my mailbox. Not even to the grocery store or anything.

What drives your writing: the characters, structure or theme? I think it would be the theme of the story, whether anyone picks up on it or not. That’s definitely what drives me. But if you start in every scene saying, “This is the theme of this story,” if it starts to preach, I think it’s always a bad thing. It’s not maybe the best example because it’s not mine, but to me, Mystic River is this whole thing about neighborhood that I talked about. If someone else sees the movie and they say it’s the consequences of this violent act and how it’s reverbed through the characters’ lives, that’s fine too. It reverbs through their lives because they’re part of this neighborhood that they can’t get away from. It’s like when I listen to music, I love those old Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs where you don’t really know. You know he’s talking about something that happened to him, but he doesn’t tell you what it is. That’s how you get to be able to relate to him, because he knows what he’s talking about, and he’s got a clear idea of what the song’s about, and he doesn’t tell you what it is. That’s how you’re allowed to relate to it and draw your own conclusions. I’m not as successful obviously as those guys are at doing that, but that’s what I try to do. Hopefully, if I’m true to it, it will have meaning for other people, depending on what their situation is.

Do you mainly use three act structure? Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m not a slave to it in that this has to happen on this page and that page, but I think that film is so limited in time. The amount of time you have to tell the story and a movie could be 90 minutes or three hours, but it can’t be much more or much less. So, because you’re so limited in the amount of time and space you have, I think structure becomes important in that it gives a focus to everything that is needed, much more so in a film than would be needed in a novel.

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