A Conversation with David Odell
By Ross Helford
Were David Odell just a guy I knew, I would be honored to call him my friend. He is a charming, funny, intelligent, witty, and generous man. David, however, is also an abundantly gifted writer whose work in film and television had a profound impact on my childhood—and likely yours as well. As a long-time writer for Jim Henson, David had a hand in The Muppet Movie and classic episodes of The Muppet Show; he wrote The Dark Crystal, and collaborated with his wife Annette Duffy Odell (herself a talented and accomplished writer—to say nothing of all-around fabulous human being) on the sequel to The Dark Crystal. David is also that rare screenwriter whose career spans decades, and who has shown a remarkable ability to grow and evolve, seizing opportunities, and more often than not finding success.
When I asked David via e-mail if he would consent to an interview for the Coachella Review, he quickly agreed, although barbing his assent with characteristic whimsical humility, noting in his reply, “I wonder what you think I might have to say that anyone would be interested in reading? I didn’t invent cancer or anything like that.” In spite of this obvious truth that David is not God, I persisted, and on a lovely evening in late April, I was invited to David and Annette’s Pacific Palisades home, where they fed me a swordfish dinner and more than a couple glasses of wine.
Afterwards, David and I sat down, and I ran my digital recorder for more than three hours before we called it a night—truth be told, we could have easily gone another three. David was open and candid, offering answers both expansive and insightful—to say nothing of having me in stitches most of the night—that went far beyond what was merited by my prepared questions. We talked about Kurt Vonnegut, Jim Henson, Jungian archetypes, why David writes, and a universe of other things.
In short, David gave far more than I could have ever hoped to get, and offered a wealth of material well worth reading. Even if he didn’t invent cancer.
David launched into the interview without my having to so much as ask a question, elucidating on The Dark Crystal 2:
The [Dark Crystal 2] script was based on conversations Jim [Henson] and I had during the making of The Dark Crystal. Jim was constantly, ferociously creative, and from the beginning of starting on the first movie, he was thinking about a sequel. Years later, Lisa [Jim’s daughter] came to me and said, you know Sony, their DVD arm said it was their biggest selling back title, and they hadn’t done any publicity or marketing. They just put it out and people started buying it, and so they thought there’s a market there, and maybe we should do a sequel. So Lisa asked me, Do you have any ideas for a sequel? and I said, of course, and in about two weeks, I had a very detailed pitch, and we [Annette and David] went in and told it to the people, and they loved it and they said let’s go with this, and so we wrote the script….We handed it in and a couple of weeks later, Lisa told me that we had a greenlight…and then the question became, who’s gonna direct it? I was pushing for a guy who had worked for the Muppets on The Dark Crystal shoot, and who became a director and had done some rather good movies since then, [Bernard Rose, director of Immortal Beloved, Candyman, Ivansxtc] who’d known Jim and had filmed Brian and Wendy Froud's wedding, but somehow he didn’t get the job, and [somebody else] was brought aboard who basically wanted to throw out all we’d done and start another story that didn’t make much sense to me. A lot of sword fighting. Like Zorro. And our green light went to flashing amber and then to red.
Can you talk about young David Odell…how you got into writing?
All through elementary school when they needed something written, I would write it. You know, like publicity for the bake sale, or the car wash, or the coming dance. I would put together a poster, some illustration from a history article in Life Magazine, about the Rape of the Sabine Women or something, and I’d put a caption on it like, Come to the Dance and Party Like Your Parents Won't Admit They Ever Did, and the posters were very popular. People loved my work in middle school. I was doing it for free, but getting a lot of rewards and satisfaction—for somebody who wasn't on a sports team.
You were writing, sort of, humorous pieces.
Yeah, and I was writing for the school paper, literary magazine…and then there was an original musical we did every year, and I wrote material for that, all four years in high school, and then directed senior year, so I have basically been a writer-director since maybe fifth grade, and whenever I did something like that, I got a really terrific response, and in college I did a little bit of theater.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Harvard. Terry Malick and I were once in a play together.
So, you were contemporaries with Terrence Malick?
Yeah, Midsummer Night’s Dream, we both tried out for it, and he got the role of Bottom the weaver, and I was Egeus, father to Hermia and Philostrate, Master of the Revels, but they told me if he broke a leg or got sick that I could take over Bottom…. Alas, Terry never broke his leg. Terry's Bottom was OK, but not as good as Bert Lahr's, which I saw around the same time.
[David also went to school with John Lithgow. He points out to me a splendid framed wood-cut that looks like a flower, but is actually “two doves fucking,” which Lithgow made and gave to David and Annette as a wedding present.]
And then, how did you go from Harvard to writing screenplays?
Well, my freshman roommate [Paul Williams, not the songwriter] made a student film, which I acted in, and then he went on to do some documentaries, and then he met a Stanford grad who wanted to be a producer. So they partnered and raised the money to make a low budget feature film [1969’s Out of It], and one of the actors they cast to play a teenager, in a romantic triangle, happened to be a young man named Jon Voight, who after that film had been shot was cast in a movie called Midnight Cowboy, whichlooked to the distributor [United Artists] like it was going to be successful because when people saw the rough cut they came out saying, God what a great movie! So UA called up my freshman roommate and said, you know that little Jon Voight movie you made, why don’t you let us distribute it and we’ll pay you for the cost of the movie and so much in prints and advertising and sign you to a three-picture deal? My freshman roommate said, golly, that sounds terrific. AndUA said, the only thing, we don’t want anybody to see your movie until after Midnight Cowboy comes out so just sit on it for a year or so. Midnight Cowboy came out and it was very successful, and then the little independent feature came out a year later and was hardly noticed, but my freshman roommate ended up as a director with his own production company, so there was a constant need for screenplays for several years there…and then business sort of petered out in New York and so we moved to California.
I did have this fluke hit [1971’s Cry Uncle]. John Avildsen, who had made a movie called Joe [1970, with Susan Sarandon and Peter Boyle], [and as a result of Joe’s success]…then became a hot property and made deals left and right…so he needed scripts, and he knew this guy who was basically a Seventh avenue loan shark, who wanted to do something creative with his money and owned this detective story and he could come up with $200,000 for a feature film, so Avildsen called me up and asked, David, is there anything that you would be able to contribute to this? And I said, are you kidding? Lemme at it! So, I wrote the script in about, I always think to myself a week, but it was probably two weeks and then they shot it, and [Cry Uncle] was the highest grossing film in the United States for one week. There was a certain amount of nudity and what they call adult material. It was an X-rated movie with a plot and real acting, which was kind of a novelty at that time. Pauline Kael called it “a porno spoof.” Anyway, Cry Uncle made back a big multiple of its cost.
Then, my freshman roommate was gonna write and direct a Michael Crichton book that UA owned. He started writing the script, and he ran out of ideas after about 30 pages. He had a shooting deadline, he was really desperate, so I came in and finished it up for him so he had a viable script. He shot it in Canada although it was set in Boston. It was the first movie that shot Toronto-for-Boston.
[Many movies since have shot Toronto-for-Boston, because there are locations that share certain similarities to Boston, and it’s less expensive than shooting in Boston, to say nothing of easier to get around, find parking, and set up trailers and trucks. I once worked on a movie that shot Toronto-for-Boston, and you start to notice those same locations showing up time and again in other movies.]
What movie was that?
It was called Dealing [full title: Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues]. Charlie Durning was in that, and Lithgow, and Barbara Hershey. Also the Producer's girlfriend, Joy Bang.
Can you talk a little about Between Time and Timbuktu?
Fred Barzyk was directing a wonderful local TV show in the sixties in Boston called What’s Happening Mr. Silver? He'd take a video camera out in the street and just shoot interesting stuff…it was completely improvised and avant-garde and fascinating, and he heard Kurt Vonnegut was a fan of his show and got hold of him and said, Kurt, let’s do some television. And Kurt said, I've always wanted to do TV but I didn't know how. So they needed a script, and they asked me because Kurt was a big fan of my Sirens of Titan script. I wrote I thought a rather good script using a few Kurt Vonnegut short stories, which I read when I was a teenager.
Didn’t you also use some Sirens of Titan too?
Yeah, some Sirens of Titan.
And then what were the stories?
Well there’s one called “The Big Trip Up Yonder” where there’s a population explosion and people are jammed together and old people won't get out of the way, and young people are suffering, and old people keep saying, well, I’ll just wait ‘til the Indianapolis 500 race and then I’ll pull the plug on myself after that, or I just want to see one more World Series before I go.
Cause people are living forever, taking pills…
People are living to be very old. The world is getting very crowded. It was considered a little too morbidly Malthusian for television audiences in those days, so it was nixed by nervous executives at WNET. We replaced it with “Harrison Bergeron,” which I adapted, and a couple of others, and we had a nice little 90-minute script. Then they showed it to Kurt, and he got really excited…and he wrote another half hour of material, and he was there all during shooting. And some of his stuff was very clever, but it went way over-budget. It was a very low-budget public television thing, and there’s this scene where the hero, played by Kurt's favorite actor Bill Hickey, runs into Hitler in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, and does this sort of dueling wizards thing with Hitler, and you know, it was very interesting thematically, but dramatically it lost a certain amount of forward-thrust, and the actor they cast as Hitler didn’t really look like Hitler, and they shot it at the site of the 1964 World’s Fair…it’s not like some place beyond the worlds, it just looks like an under-funded film shoot out in a marshy park in Queens in the rusting ruins of a world's fair. So anyway, it was a case of hubris on the part of the director and producer.
They were trying to bite off more than they could chew. Although it was extremely popular on public television [released in 1972] because there was nothing else like it, and there were some great moments. I liked the scene in “Harrison Bergeron” where they’re at Television City, about to make a television show, and people say, Where’s the director? We can’t do anything without the director, and then this guy arrives, and he’s wearing dark glasses and has a white cane and a dog leading him around, and I thought that was ironically self-referential. Barzyk was a very creative guy, but he had a big family and he needed to make a paycheck…so he couldn’t hold out for artistic perfection. It was a very interesting show…and [New Line founder] Bob Shaye…said he thought he could sell it to the college market in 16 mm for midnight shows and cinema departments, and I believe it was one of the first things that New Line distributed.
And…you knew Kurt Vonnegut, you worked with Kurt Vonnegut.
I didn’t exactly work with him, but I knew him. We collaborated serially. I had lunch with him the week before Slaughterhouse Five came out. We were talking about his reaction to my Sirens of Titan script, which I think is now owned by the estate of Jerry Garcia.
Your screenplay or the original property?
He bought the property, but he also bought the screenplay from Ed Pressman. Maybe somebody has bought it from the Garcia estate—things were kind of confused the last time I inquired. I had a long talk with Jerry in Cambridge after a concert once, and he said he wanted to do it as a rock musical. I remember I suggested Alejandro Jodorowsky as the director and Jerry got really excited. He said he'd seen El Topo three times.
But anyway, I was having lunch with Kurt, and he said he’d just written a new book and he’d sent it out to magazines to see if they wanted to run excerpts, and he got a call from Ramparts Magazine saying, excerpts, shit, we’re running the whole thing. Our whole next issue is gonna be Slaughterhouse Five. We already set it in type. And Kurt said, well, are you planning to pay me for it?
Kurt was extremely generous to other writers. One time during a public television pledge week he was on TV promoting Between Time and Timbuktu, he said something like David Odell understands my work better than anyone else ever has or words to that effect. I don’t know the exact quote because we could never get a copy of the tape from WNET, but a lot of people called and told me they had seen it, and everybody of course had a different version of what he said, but you know, he was selling [the show]. One of my favorite quotes from him is, for some reason which I have never been able to figure out, writers always have beautiful wives. If he said it today, of course, he'd say “beautiful spouses.”
Is Vonnegut’s work very influential to you creatively?
Well, I joined the science-fiction book club when I was ten, and the first book they sent me was his novel Player Piano. And after that I read everything he wrote, as it was published. I read the short stories in magazines.
Kurt Vonnegut had a wonderful anti-war sensibility, and you know the ice-nine speech from Cat’s Cradle, I tried to put in the Time and Timbuktu script. But it was the seventies and Nixon was President and the Vietnam war was going on and people were setting off bombs in Manhattan and the PBS people were terrified of angering the government, so any hint of pacifism was cut out.
PBS was also doing, at that time, a series of one-hour shows, sort of a retrospective of the history of American film, and they were going decade-by-decade. They said to me, we’ve done the thirties. We need to find an idea about the forties, and we can’t think of anything we can do about the forties, and I said, are you kidding? There’s 1947! The Blacklist! and they said, ohhh, I don’t think we can touch that, we can’t go there.
How did you get into working with Henson?
Well, I’d written a script for two friends of mine. Jim Frawley was a director who’d directed The Monkees on television, and his partner, Richie Wechsler, had producer credit on Five Easy Pieces. They had this novel by Ludwig Bemelmans called Dirty Eddie. It was a roman a clef about his Hollywood days. I still think it’s the best script I’ve ever—one of the best scripts I’ve ever---sorry, not my best script, but maybe one of the better---one of my many scripts that are not horribly---one of the few scripts that I’m not totally ashamed of.
Frawley tried valiantly to get Dirty Eddie made over a ten-year period, and then one of their partners developed Alzheimer’s and was in a nursing home, and that was somewhat complicating because apparently the paperwork hadn’t quite been nailed down about the partnership, and I think it’s gonna need the world’s greatest super-lawyer to resurrect this project, but anyway, Jim Frawley liked the script.
[Later], Frawley was hired to do the first Muppet movie. And they had a script that had been written by Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns and it was somewhat episodic and the concept was to have a lot of cameos. Every other scene there’d be a cameo appearance by a famous movie star, and they found out that nailing down a famous movie star for a cameo in a feature film was difficult because the stars had tight schedules, and especially in a movie that’s a whole new technology, moving the Muppets into a feature film world, the movie took a lot longer to shoot than they thought. The Muppets usually worked at shoulder-level….and if you write Kermit walks to the window, looks out, and then walks out the door, thattakes like six hours to shoot cause you have to cut a hole in the floor for every shot. So…it sort of went way over-budget, and they needed somebody to come in and constantly readjust the cameos. We had stars like Candy Bergen and Burt Reynolds with great scenes we kept rescheduling until they had to drop out. A lot of different stars were in, and then the schedule would lengthen some more, and [they would no longer be available], so it needed a lot of rewriting. I came in and 75% of the pages were white [meaning that they hadn’t been revised] and 25% were blue [indicating one round of revisions]. By the time we had wrapped, we had gone around the color chart twice [generally there are four rounds of color revisions, so essentially eight revisions, if not more]. There were no white pages left.
Did you write with Jim Henson…who did you write with when you did it?
Well, Jerry Juhl, who was the [head] writer of the Muppet TV series, did some additional writing on [the script], but was extremely tired. And actually, Jim told me the reason I had been hired was that Jerry had said to Jim one night I can’t do this, I’m so exhausted, I’m just completely burned out, I need a vacation or I can't do the next season of the show, and Jim thought it might be a good idea to get somebody the director could work with, so he asked Frawley to recommend a writer, and I came in about two weeks before shooting.
You would definitely say that you had a hand in the whole movie.
Yeah, remember there were no white pages left by the time we wrapped. But I chose not to ask for screenplay credit. That late in the process you’re re-writing, but you’re also trying to keep the same structure to avoid creating havoc. You’re rewriting dialogue, you’re changing gags, you’re bringing in different casting for cameos.
I've done arbitrations for the [Writers] Guild and the rules are that to get credit for a rewrite you have to have generated more than 50% of an original and 33% of a non-original. But you look at a page of a final script and it's a little bit of draft A by one writer, draft B by another, draft C by another. The page is like a mosaic, and what you have to do is try and look at the essence of the scene. There's the basic idea, and new dialogue, plot, characterization, mood, tone, tempo. It's a very subtle thing to tease all that out and assign percentages to different writers.
I'm on a committee at the Guild that works on revising the credit manuals, and we've spent years going over this stuff, arguing it from every aspect, and we've come to agree that the system the writers have developed over the years is the best way to do this. Because any other method becomes absurd. It's interesting that in most of the arbitrations I've been on, the three arbiters have been unanimous, and we study all the drafts and say things like this rewrite by writer G is a very nice haircut but the underlying skull is writer D's.
One of the problems is that a lot of money is dependent on getting credit, because you have credit bonuses, residuals and other jobs that you could get by saying I wrote so-and-so. It's gotten to the point where people are hiring lawyers to write the statements they submit with their scripts for arbitration. I've heard of people paying $50,000 for an arbitration statement. But of course the joke's on them, because there's no evidence that somebody you pay can write a better statement than you can. Nobody knows a script better than somebody who spent eight weeks or eight months working on it. And arbitrators laugh about the so-called writer statements full of boiler-plate legalese.
I've kind of come to a position over the years that you should still arbitrate to find the author of the script and credit them up front with the director and producer, but I think everybody who works on a film under a Guild contract should have their names listed in the crawl at the end under “additional writing.” That's the fairest, most truthful way to do it, and it would assuage some of the hurt feelings.
But anyway, [after The Muppet Movie, which was released in 1979], Jim hired me to go over to England to write The Dark Crystal…and in order to finance that, he put me on the writing staff for The Muppet Show, and so [during the week] I was writing the TV show, and on Saturdays I would walk over to his house in Hampstead and work on The Dark Crystal with him.
As a staff writer on The Muppet Show, my supervisor was the head writer Jerry Juhl. He was the one I would have gone up against to get screenplay credit on [The Muppet Movie], so I decided, in concurrence with my lawyer and my agent, that it probably made sense not to start out a job in television in a bitter fight with my boss, and so the first draft writers Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns shared screenplay credit.
You got a special thanks at the end.
Yes, I share a title card with Big Bird.
That’s pretty nice. I mean, the movie holds up incredibly well.
I rather like it. Every time I see it, I think, this actually holds up pretty well. A fun thing we did was during the shooting we kept coming up with movie references to throw in. One that most people don’t get is when Austin Pendelton comes, [concerned because] Charlie Durning [who plays the villain Doc Hopper] has hired a frog-killer from the coast to come and kill Kermit, and Austin says, “I didn’t think he was gonna hurt the frog, I thought he was just gonna lean on him a little.” Most people don’t recognize that’s a line from On the Waterfront.
Making The Muppet Movie, nothing like that had really been done. I mean, what would you say about the level of difficulty in shooting something like that?
Well, it went over-budget. And it tried a lot of things that hadn't been done before and they didn't always go as planned. They flew a unit up to someplace in Northern California, and they had this cute little Kermit bicycle. Kermit’s sitting on the bicycle and pedaling along under these lovely arching trees, and there’s this wonderful curvy banked road. The take you see in the movie, it’s short. It was supposed to be a longer shot, but right about the time where the shot cuts, if you showed the original daily, Kermit’s pedaling along, and suddenly the bike keels over, the bike breaks into pieces, and the puppet’s legs keep going around and around. It's so sad. They should put that in a blooper reel.
That’s an incredible shot. There’s a lot of that in the movie. It’s very kinetic.
Jim’s crew, not so much the crew on the film, but the crew back in New York that built the puppets and stuff, they were really on the cutting-edge of animatronics. Since then, of course, Disney and science-fiction movies have gone beyond that. But that was really cutting-edge for that time.
If you look at all the Muppet movies, each one during Jim’s life, they did a fabulous new stunt in each movie. You have [in] one Kermit riding a bicycle, and then the next movie there’s a whole bunch of them riding bicycles, and things like that.
You’re working around the technical limitations of the puppets. How does that affect the creative process, the writing process, writing around scenes?
Well, Jim works with the technicians and they say, hey wouldn’t it be great if we do blah-blah-blah, and he says, ooh neat! And then they’d go off and labor for weeks or days and come back with something, like the frog riding the bicycle, and then he’d say, oh great! and he goes to the writers and he says, we gotta have a scene somewhere where he rides a bicycle.
The thing is, you can have a scene where he’s riding a bicycle…but it needs to connect with something, it needs to have a finish. It’s great as a first image, but it needs to go someplace. I said, well what if like there’s a paving machine that’s paving a road and he runs into that. And they said, oh great, that’s terrific, and…they said, but like he gets like squished with a steamroller? and I said, well, probably the bicycle gets squished down in the asphalt, and they say, well, where’s Kermit? and I said, well, he’s a frog, he can hop.
So then you sit down to write that, and you realize you need a line to describe his escape, and you have him say, That was a close call, I was nearly gone with the Schwinn, and then we see the crumpled bicycle, then you cut to Kermit. Then somebody reads the new page and says, I think you need to explain that line a little bit, and I write, It’s a good thing that frogs know how to hop, otherwise I would have been gone with the Schwinn. So the next day they're got a paving machine and they get it all set up to shoot, and somebody comes up to me and says, listen I think we ought to run this past the lawyers, and I get the phone—they didn’t have cell phones in those days, they had big huge things the size of a shoe box—and I called the lawyer and say, we’ve got this scene in the movie where Kermit's bike gets steamrollered and, and Kermit says, “Gone with the Schwinn.” The lawyer laughs hysterically and says, oh that’s great, but I see there might be a problem. It's smashed. Could they claim we're saying their bicycles are more vulnerable in an accident with a steamroller? I'd have to do a couple of days research. I say they want to shoot this today. The lawyer says he'll call back. I tell Jim and he says hmmm. The lawyer calls back and says we might be able to negotiate a quitclaim with the company, say it's good publicity not product defamation. I tell Jim and he says we're gonna shoot this now and cut it out later if there's a problem. So it’s a complicated process of give-and-take.
Anyway, after the movie has been shot, looked at and re-edited and everything, I’m in New York at the mix, sitting there, and they say, oh we’re gonna cut the Schwinn line, all the kids have these Asian bikes now, they won't know what a Schwinn is, and I say uh, okay, and they get to that line, and they run it through and Kermit says, Good thing frogs know how to hop or I’d be gone with the Schwinn, and there’s a terrific burst of laughter from the crew in the sound booth, and Frank [Oz] and Jim and I look at each other and shrug and say, maybe we should leave it in.
For a movie to come out and have it work…is a rare thing because there are so many people with oars in the water, so many people pissing in the soup.
Could you talk about what’s sort of gained/lost when you’re doing animatronics and puppetry versus how now you don’t need to do a lot of that because of CGI?
Jim said to me that the most effective puppets are the puppets that are least realistic. He said his favorite puppets were the Balinese shadow puppets, two-dimensional, visual, and non-realistic. And every time you try to make puppets look more realistic, they lose some of the magic, which is about enlisting the audience into becoming co-creators of the experience. You see little kids playing with a block of wood, it’s a choo-choo train or it’s a rocket or it’s a wagon driven by horses, or it’s a dog—those kid are actively using their imagination to create these characters, and if you give them a realistic toy, a lot of times they’ll get bored very quickly because there’s no input from them, and I think that’s the danger with advances in technology, sometimes they can kill the spirit.
When they first started doing 3D computer animation, it was awful, some movies came out and everyone said these felt like kind of weird zombie creatures…. I mean, I think they’ve gotten it better now. I think what they’re trying to do is less “realistic” stuff and more stylized stuff, and it works better. It took a good five, ten years to make that transition where you weren’t creating zomboid characters.
Why are the Muppets so enduring? I mean, there’s been puppets before, but the Muppets continue playing to new generations. What’s the magic?
The magic of the Muppets is Jim Henson. He’s a genuine film genius like Orson Welles or Walt Disney or Charlie Chaplin or Jean Renoir. I mean, he’s somebody who can create a door between his unconscious mind and the retinas of his audience, and he can come up with images and sounds and dramatic structures and jokes that make people cry and laugh and whatever it is that they go to the movies or turn on a TV to look at. And other people can try and imitate that or do their own version, and when you have a certified world-class genius who comes along and does a lot of work and then leaves us, and then other people try and imitate that and recreate that kind of magic, there’s some missing element. The thing about Jim is he was a whole universe. He had a great sense of humor, he was completely taken by schmaltz and sentimentality, and he was cynical and iconoclastic and at the same deeply conservative and…
Yeah, he was a Republican. I mean I don't know how he voted, or even if he voted---but his instincts were sort of moderate conservative.
One time there was a big show in New York where a bunch of rock musicians were putting on an anti-nuke kind of rally/ show/ benefit [this would ultimately become the subject of the 1980 film No Nukes], it was when I was working on The Muppet Show, and my friend Ed Goodgold, the manager of Sha-Na-Na, called me up from New York and said, hey, what about the Muppets for No Nukes? And so I talked with some Muppet people of like mind and we went to Jim, and said, wouldn’t it be great, you know, the Muppets, and big name famous rock stars and movie stars and television stars, doing this thing called No Nukes Rally…and Jim listened and he said, I don’t think the Muppets should be aligned with something that’s too negative, and we said, no, no, it’s good, it’s positive, we’re talking about how we should move from nuclear power to solar and wind and renewable resources and stuff like that, and we need to do that for the future of our children and grandchildren and the world, and he said, you know what’s gonna happen, somebody like General Motors is gonna invent something the size of a bread box and it'll produce enough power to run a whole city, and then he turned and walked away to do his next scene. We looked at each other, and I said, well maybe if we present it a different way, but the ones who’d been with him for 20 years, they said, no that’s who he is.
Don't get me wrong, Jim was no Simon Legree reactionary. He just didn’t particularly vibrate to the kind of moral and political issues that a lot of us in the sixties were responding to. He tended not to see political issues the way that we did. After all, he was a self-made Southern multi-millionaire. But he wasn't dogmatic or an ideologue. He was gentle, humane, and compassionate, not unlike Kermit. A year of so after the No Nukes refusal, Fozzie and Kermit started doing pro-environment public service announcements on TV for the EPA.
I mean, I remember, I guess they weren’t really political, but I remember some of my favorite moments in the Muppets, there was the Harry Belafonte number.
Oh yeah, that was a great show. Jim could get along with anybody. He got along fine with Harry Belafonte, who was the Paul Robeson of his generation. Belafonte sacrificed his moneymaking career for the sake of being a moral exemplar for the community. He was on the show and they did this wonderful African number, using African music and folklore, sort of like what Disney did later in The Lion King.
Two of my favorite scenes in The Muppet Movie, well my favorite is the Steve Martin bit, and then the Mel Brooks. How much of that was scripted?
They were scripted, but there was a certain amount of improv, especially with Mel. They [Kermit and Miss Piggy] have this romantic scene at a hotel dining room where the waiter comes and insults them, and a certain amount of Steve Martin’s stuff was worked out on the set. Steve had a lot of ideas and he was using lots of his famous shtick, oh Excuuuse me! kind of stuff. I object to Martin’s line [in which he denigrates the wine by referring to it as] one of the great wines of Idaho. You know, actually, Idaho ought to be good wine country, because the soil is sort of rocky and well-drained. The line should have been “one of the great wines of Iowa,” where the soil is heavy and clay-like and it's too hot in the summer. Actually there are some wineries in Idaho and I’m sure the owners cringe a little whenever that scene plays.
Mel Brooks is…a force of nature. I said [to Durning], Charlie what are you gonna be doing with this scene? He said, I’m gonna move as little as possible and keep my mouth shut. And at one point, Mel said…hold onto your hat. Charlie touched his hat in a casual way. And Mel turned and physically attacked him and nearly pulled the hat down over his eyes. It was hysterical, I wish they'd gone with that take, but for some reason they went with another one.
Another favorite scene, I think because it was my favorite scene as a kid, is giant Animal.
[This is the climactic moment in the movie in which the Muppets are surrounded by the villains and Kermit gives a stirring speech to Durning’s character: “I’ve got a dream too, it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy, that’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with…. I don’t think you’re a bad man, Doc, but I think if you really look in your heart you’ll find you really want to let me and my friends go to follow our dreams, but if that’s not the kind of man you are, and what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to you, well then, go ahead and kill me.” Durning thinks for a moment, then says, “Alright boys, kill ‘em!” at which point, Animal’s enormous head bursts through the roof of a nearby building, frightening the bad guys away and saving the day.]
Well, we shot two versions of that. Kermit says this wonderful inspirational speech, which I’m rather proud of as a piece of air-head schmaltziness…and then we have the big finish. There was a lot of uneasiness about that scene because the special effects had been having a very bad couple of weeks. Effect after effect had just completely fizzled. I think the effects people were a little bit over their heads. And anyway, in the rehearsal, Charlie said, you know, Kermit comes up with this great speech, and I don’t know, I mean it’s so persuasive, lemme try it this way, and Kermit says, [in Kermit’s voice]: you know, give us a chance Doc…. And then Charlie takes a long, long pause. Then in a little soft voice he starts to sing, why are there so many songs about rainbows...and he turns and walks off into the distance. And you know Charlie was basically rewriting the movie to give himself this huge finale, and reversing his character at the last minute, but I swear, when everybody in the room saw that in rehearsal, the hair stood up on the back of our necks, because Charlie was so good, because he really took the scene and stole it, and turned it around, so we said, let’s shoot it both ways and see if we can make it work.
[Animal becoming giant] was always there, but we were afraid it wasn’t gonna work, and of course when it did work eventually, there was enormous sense of relief. I talked to Charlie when the movie was in release, and I said, I really loved your ending. It would have been nice to test it on an audience. Charlie said, “millionaires never repent.”
Regarding The Dark Crystal [released 1982], I wonder if you can maybe can talk a little about the mythology, the world-building, about Henson’s spiritual touch.
I think Jane [Henson, Jim’s wife] had a lot to do with Jim’s spiritual interests…and she was very, very involved in the early stages…when I was in New York working with Jim on the basic underlying concept of the film. Jane was going to some woman who was kind of a healer/teacher/guru, she had a group of people who met regularly with her and people would go around the room and talk about spiritual experiences they’d had that week, and she was a fairly powerful woman, and Jane was very much in her orbit, in her thrall…. I think…part of that spiritual aspect of The Dark Crystal was Jim responding to some of Jane’s interests. I think it’s an injustice not to say that she [Jane] was there and she was an important part of his life, even though they had separated around that time, and he had gone his own way romantically, but they still had this strong thing.
Can you talk a little about the writing/creative process of The Dark Crystal?
Is there anything in particular you feel you want to know about?
I guess it’s just sort of in terms of building the narrative, the characters, the actual physical writing, how long it took, writing for the technology…just any creative insights you might have?
I was deliberately trying to work with Jungian archetypes. You know, George Lucas made Jung popular among screenwriters, or if not Jung, Joseph Campbell. But I remember in high school, I read a book called Archetypal Patterns in Poetry [by Maud Bodkin] that discussed things like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”…and talked about these sort of dream-like situations [that] seemed to recur a lot in narratives that strike people as being profound and meaningful…so [for example], Dante’s Inferno has a lot of images that occur in other works of literature and art and drama…you know, for example, when Jen [toward the end of The Dark Crystal] crawls up the shaft, they’re coming in through the bottom of the castle, walking in through the mouth of this thing, and then they’re wandering around in these tunnels in the underworld, and they’re working their way up to the top. Whether that’s a birth archetype or whether it’s some other kind of archetype, the hero has to work his way up to the top. I mean there are science-fiction books and movies that have dealt with people climbing their way out of holes and caves and things, and I just very deliberately wanted Jen to reach the throne room by climbing from down there into up there because it seemed to tie in with the…message of the whole story. He’s going from an earthly state to a more spiritual state. And, you know, the shaft of fire is an important image, it’s an archetype…from medieval poetry to current cartoons, the idea of hell being a fiery inferno deep in the earth....and then going up to cool, airy light, kind of the sense of two opposite worlds. In 2001, nobody ever comes up with an explanation why HAL decides to murder the crew. Why is that?
He gets to a paradox, right? An intellectual paradox that he can’t solve?
Maybe, but you’re inventing that, because it’s not in the movie. But there is an archetype of an earthly slave or servant, a guardian who turns into…Satan, who breaks his chains and comes back to earth and destroys mankind. You have to be careful what means you take to achieve transcendence, and HAL is, I think, basically what Plato says, that in order to keep the ideal society working you will need to have a corps of guardians who will enforce the constitution or the rules of society, to watch over and make sure that nobody breaks the rules and does bad things. And then the question is, who will guard the guardians? And once you give too much power to a Golem…he ends up causing problems because he doesn’t have the essential human vulnerability of a soul. HAL and ASH in Alien are like the Garthim, they have to be destroyed to allow the heroes to fully succeed.
But anyway, that kind of archetype stuff, if you look at…the great stories that have made a lot of impact on people’s consciousness, you know they often have these strange deeply resonant themes and images that don't necessarily work in a rational way. Lord of the Rings has Gollum, and the ring, and Mount Doom, and all these swords with names, and Sauron's all-seeing eye of flame. You find patterns that repeat over and over again, and that’s because they’re hard-wired into our consciousness or subconscious. So basically, I was trying to bring in as many archetypes as possible. You know, after the Garthim attack on the podlings, when Jen throws away the Shard, that's his Hakuna Matata. Or a late Refusal of the Call.
The Dark Crystal did have a rather lengthy and arduous trip before it was released.
Yes, well, it was original, and that frightens a lot of people in the entertainment business because they know it’s safer to try and repeat something that has been successful in the past, and the strength of The Dark Crystal, even today, is that there really hasn’t been anything like it. Although, about a year after The Dark Crystal came out, I started seeing ads for Japanese Anime movies saying, “In the spirit of The Dark Crystal.”
And it holds up incredibly well. And, again, visually, what was able to be captured on camera is stunning, I mean, the sets, the puppets, the action, it’s quite amazing, there’s like no cheats.
Did I ever tell you what Stanley Kubrick said about it?
Stanley’s daughter, Kathy Kubrick…was on the art crew [credited as Katharina Kubrick, assistant art director]. She was a gifted artist, and…she somehow got a copy of a print for her dad to see it. So he watched it and afterwards she said, Dad, what do you think? and he said, it's very nice, but why is everything the same color?
Because Brian Froud [renowned fantasy illustrator, whose work inspired the visual design of The Dark Crystal, for which he also served as costume designer] did the basic look, and he’s inspired by this Victorian artist Arthur Rackham, who basically would do these water colors, but then put sort of a brown wash over everything at the end, and Brian was fairly insistent on that, and had a lot of conflict with Ossie Morris the cinematographer about color correction and stuff. [Froud kept] telling him [Morris], you know, brown it down, not quite so garish and not so harsh, and so he was pushing for the look of illustrations from an old Victorian book; [that] was the ideal of what he was looking for.
I don’t think I can really do justice to everything you’ve done, but maybe you wanna talk about Masters of the Universe ?
Some French guy called me up and said he was writing a book about Dolph Lundgren and would I share my reminiscences.
My only reminiscence, really, about Dolph Lungren, except for the way he liked to make fun of the underdevelopment of Sylvester Stallone's calves, were Dolph's attempts at screenwriting. These characters land from another world on our Earth, and are sort of fish out of water, and they’re looking for the cosmic key or something like that, and Dolph said [Lundgren accent], David, here’s some pages I’m writing, I think it’s a good joke, you put this in, it will get lot of laughs. I’m wandering around after the scene where we steal the food, and I see this garbage truck going down the street, and one of us says, “Hey look, armored personnel carrier, we have to seize that and use it,” and so we climb into the back of the garbage truck and I say it stinks in here and how do we steer this thing? And then the truck collects some garbage and all the garbage is dumped on our heads.
Dolph lets go with a big hearty laugh. I tell him next they should kill the garbage man, cut off his head, and use it for a hood ornament. Dolph never spoke to me again.
[It’s getting close to midnight, and I admit, I’m starting to fade. David, on the other hand, remains sharp as ever, and leads me into a fascinating story about a pirate movie he’d written called Nate and Hayes (1983), starring Tommy Lee Jones.]
[Nate and Hayes] was one of the best scripts I ever wrote. It was originally called Savage Islands. It was done for some New Zealand producers. It's based on a real character who was an actual Pacific pirate in the 19th century.
Jeff Katzenberg gave us a greenlight at Paramount and Tommy Lee Jones was cast as the pirate. So Paramount has committed and Tommy Lee Jones is pay or play [meaning he gets paid whether or not the movie gets made], and they were building ships in shipyards all over the Pacific, but there was sort of a problem, the director didn’t like the ending. I tried several passes, but he couldn't decide what he wanted.
So Paramount said oh wait a minute, John Hughes owes us a commitment, we can get a John Hughes script. They sent him my script and John Hughes did a rewrite in three weeks and then he no longer owes Paramount a script. They sent him a nice 105-page script, and he sent back a 250-page script. Which of course doubles the budget. John Hughes, who’d made his reputation doing teenage prom angst, and…he’d sit in a closet in Winnetka, Illinois, and type for 48 hours without sleeping or eating or something, and that’s how he wrote all those great movies, but that was not the way to tweak the third act of a Pacific pirate movie set in New Zealand. So, anyway, like a week to go before shooting started, and I was sitting in the office with the producer and the director and the other producer, the assistant director and the unit production manager, and the producer said, what are we gonna do with this script? And the other producer took it by his thumb and forefinger and held it over the wastebasket and dropped it in.
I had to go, I had a commitment to write Supergirl in London. I wished them well and gave them my last draft of what to do with the third act. It was basically a technical problem, not character or drama, it was just a question of these ships and where the ships go, and where you put the camera, and how do you stage a sea battle you can afford.
So the director rewrote the last act and solved, at least in his mind, the technical problems. And the Writers' Guild split the credit between me and John Hughes, not a word of whose script had ever been before the camera. People familiar with the situation were horrified: they didn't use any of his script and he got half credit. And other peoplesaid oh it's always those nasty writers screwing the director.
So, if you had been arbitrating…
It was an original so a subsequent writer had to do more than 50%, and nobody had written that much. The third act, which was not that different from mine, was maybe 15 or 20% new material. So strictly I should have had sole credit.
But I think the arbiters looked at the 250 pages from Hughes and figured there must be 53 pages of original material in there somewhere. I don't know what they thought, but I didn't feel like appealing. I was busy writing another movie in London.
Also I was unhappy with some things the director had put in, that I wasn't particularly eager to get sole credit and be blamed. I remember when I saw the final print. I was in the Paramount screening room in New York, and afterwards I went across the street to the Lincoln Center cafe, had about two bottles of white wine, and got the most severe case of alcohol poisoning in my life.
The movie starts with a band of pirates coming ashore on a Pacific island beach and pulling their boat up beyond the wave line and then walking inland. I had thought that was pretty fool-proof, you can't really [mess it up]. Some nice shots of the surf, and the beach, some pirates, some lush jungly foliage. Well this director had them run across a boa constrictor wrapped around a tree like with Adam and Eve in the garden. And these tough pirates freak out [pirate accent] Aarrrgh! A bluddy snaike! These hardened blackguards are terrified of a non-poisonous snake. So one of them shoots the snake and Tommy Lee Jones gets them to continue up the mountain to their rendezvous with the natives. As they leave, one of the guys picks up the dead snake, and it hangs there completely limp like an old sock. I thought this director has never killed a snake. Or seen it done. Once you kill a snake it doesn't die immediately, it writhes and thrashes around for a long time. My heart sank.
There were many things like that. There's one scene where they're selling arms to the natives who are rebelling against the Spanish empire. So they deliver the weapons and demand payment, but the natives surround them with spearmen, and Tommy Lee Jones and his crew have to fight their way out of the village. So this director says to me [English accent], what if this tribe was a matriarchy and the women rule, and the men are all sissy boys and they wear makeup and perfume and eyeliner, and so Tommy Lee is fighting off a crowd of furious amazons and he jumps through the wall of a grass hut, and suddenly he's in the middle of the Queen's harem. And one of them flutters his eyelashes at Tommy Lee, and says “Hello, sailor.” I told the director I thought the campiness might hurt the plausibility of the action material. And he said to me, oh please, it's a fucking pirate movie.
But I'm still proud of the structure. Ian Abrams [accomplished screenwriter, and director of screenwriting at Drexel University] told me he recommends it to his film students for the structure.
Are you actively writing these days?
Yes, I’m actively writing. I’m working on a biblical thriller. Sort of like The Da Vinci Code meets Ben Hur. I’m hoping that the success of The Bible on television [will help]. I was in a bookstore today and I saw The Bible, exciting new novel version of the recent TV smash hit. I couldn't believe it; somebody has done a novelization of the History Channel Bible documentary.
What is writing for you? Why do you write?
Why do I write? I don’t know. It’s the most fun you can have without taking off all your clothes, I think. In a way it is sort of taking off all your clothes, because you are revealing stuff that’s usually kind of private. You know, all these people are writing memoirs, about how I conquered my addiction to snorting Drano or something, and I just find that a novel by say Virginia Woolf or Irene Nemirovsky is much more revealing, even though they’re not confessional. I mean, fiction is stories, they’re always about what bothers you, what frightens you, what you hate, what you secretly desire. You tend to go back to things about the world that you want to set right. Unlike life, where evil is not punished, but in fact gets hired for hundreds of thousands of dollars at Fox News. We were just watching Game of Thrones the other night and a horrible, vicious character was severely dealt with, and Annette said, oh good, it’s about time. I mean, people have a lot of suffering and unhappiness that they can work out in stories and fiction. You know, a good script has to have a central happy idea. There has to be some seductive fantasy to it as a basis, and then there has to be some fear or downside that develops, and then there has to be some resolution, whether it’s tragic or happy, something that creates the sense of an ending, or a little frame around it so it’s not life, which can be endlessly frustrating and upsetting. You know, when you put a little frame around it, people feel, ahhh okay, that’s that.
It’s interesting to me as someone whose high school classmates are retiring, that people can keep on writing until they're like 90 or something. They don't necessarily sell a lot of scripts to Hollywood, but they keep going. I mean Robert and Michelle King [creators of the CBS series The Good Wife] said that after the second season CBS came to them and said that The Good Wife is doing well, and maybe we can give you a little more money for your writing staff. And what they did is they hired [88 year-old] Frank Pierson [legendary screenwriter of Cool Hand Luke, Cat Ballou, Dog Day Afternoon, and Presumed Innocent] to come in and work two days a week or something like that, and Michelle said he was great, in some ways he was the sharpest person on staff.
That’s great to do something you can do for the rest of your life.
Yeah, and now there's all this e-publishing and stuff. But I don't think reading is a big growth engine for the near-future. I think mostly you’re gonna be seeing more and more low-budget HD video. I mean the cost of CGI is gonna get cheaper and cheaper…you no longer need to hire thousands of extras. You hire one extra and have the computer make lots of them. The difference between animation and live action is going to get more tenuous. But they'll always need stories, and stuff for the characters to say.
Thank you, David, that was abundant and great.