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New York Conversations:

Budd Schulberg
Paul Schrader
Richard Price
David Newman

The Storytellers:

Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Jean-Claude Carriere
Sergio Donati

New York Conversations - Richard Price at Hotel Chelsea
06 October 1998
by Mikael Colville-Andersen

[These interview transcripts are a part of conversations with various writers at the Hotel Chelsea in New York and at Vassar College. The interviews are published in the book 'New York Conversations', by Mikael Colville-Andersen.]

RP: The way it has been explained to me, the difference between writing in Europe, and specifically in Denmark, and writing in the studios, are the opposite problems.

The pressure on me is that I have to write stuff that is marketable and commercial and appealing to the maximum number of people possible. And there s competition between studios, I mean, I can bounce around from place to place. And so, American screenwriters, if they can get away with it, will always complain about selling out and "not letting me write what I really want to write and oh you people in Europe, I mean, you re so earnest and sincere and individualistic...". And when I first said that to Mogens (screenwriting teacher at the Danish Film School) he said "please don t tell us any of that crap, we re so bored and sick of hearing that. We wish there was competition, we wish there was pressure on us for maximum audiences, so please just tell us how to sell out.
So, with that in mind, I don t know what to say...

You know, in terms of writing, I always feel that in screenplays, whatever needs to be technically achieved or brought in rein to make a story shootable or whatever, is secondary to just writing the best story that you can.

I mean, not even thinking about it as "all right, this is going to have to be a movie or this is going to have be a short story" or whatever it is, but I d just rather have a story that s compelling and singular and then worry about what we have to do to get this thing functional. I think that my priority would be to just tell the story that I think I can tell the best. Get that down, and once I have that down I can chip off, you know, bulbous edges and rough spots and smooth it down and make it shootable.

Question: How do you get it down?

RP: Well, I don t know, I mean...

Question: Do you write it as a short story first?

RP: No, no, no, I would write it, but I would be more concerned about "is this about this story?", and the characters and just make it a good story. Then, once you have the story down, look at it in terms of, okay, realistically as a film can I have two people talking for 35 minutes on a park bench? Maybe not, but at least I've got their conversation written down and maybe there s something in that conversation which is to the heart of what I want to do. So, can I move any of this conversation somewhere else?

Can I do something else to make where they are more visually interesting. But the first step is to get down what you want them to say and then you have it and you can play with it, you can erase some of it, you can move some of it around, but the first step is to get it down there. Don t jump over that and think in terms of movie feasibility. Story comes first.

Question: You said don t think about movie feasibility.

RP: In the first pass, I wouldn't. Of course, you have to think about it because it s not easy to not think about the movie. But it s much better to have something to work with.

I've taught film and I've taught fiction writing - short story and novel fiction writing - and I tell everybody the same thing. Why should I see your movie or why should I read your book? What do you know that I don t know? And that s the eternal challenge. What can you bring to me that I don t know already? And that s why the first step is to find that story which is unique to yourself.

Question: Do you work with a three act structure?

RP: Well, there s a danger. There s a guy around here, I think his name is _____ or something... okay, you've heard of him... but beware. Remember, it s art. It s 2 plus 2 equals 5. Beware of rules. Rule one is there are no rules. Rule two is see rule number one.

I think its dangerous for beginning filmmakers to get too hung up on, you know, "well, this is the manual and this is what the guy in the book said. Beware of this, emphasise that. You need all your brains to just write.... you know, just make your characters come alive. Make your events compelling. Every ounce of your brain devoted to following the rules is one ounce of brain NOT devoted to making this story kind of magical and singular.

I've never read any of those books... I mean, I purposely wouldn't read a book like that or take a course... you know, they got those quickie 3-day intensive courses. It s like Berlitz French, you know... "stay with us for 3 days and you won t be able to go to the bathroom, but when you come out, you'll be ready to make a big, stupid Hollywood movie.

Just write. Just think of your story.

The way that I learned to write a screenplay was, well, I went to movies. I just went to movies. But I sat down and instead of just watching the movie, I said, okay, I m the writer of this movie. And I just tried to follow the movie like the writer, just follow the dialogue. Okay, now we re over here, now we re in the car, now we re in the funeral home. Just imagine you re the writer, you know, just osmosis. I don t want to make it cryptic and mysterious, but just trust your instincts. It s like writing a play: Somebody says something, somebody says something else, then they go over here and somebody says something, somebody says something else, gun goes off, then we go over here, blah blah blah. You know, it s simple.

The more you study technique, the more distracted and befuddled you might get. If you want to be a writer, you don t start out by taking a course in secretarial skills. You start with your story. You can think how can I make this sentence more shapely, but just get the sentence down.

Question: How did you get into screenwriting? Did you just write a screenplay and go out there?

RP: No, I published two books. Novels, that were both made into movies. A lot of the people out in Hollywood who had read my books thought I would make a good screenwriter because they had a lot of dialogue and they moved very quickly. But they thought I d make a good screenwriter for all the wrong reasons. The ability to write dialogue is not... I mean, of course it s a good ability to have but good screenwriting is not about writing good dialogue. The minute it comes out of an actor s mouth, it s going to sound more realistic. Or it s going to be so bad it s going to be obvious you re going to have to let the guy ad lib here.

What makes a good movie, at least a good American movie, is your ability to move a story along and, in a way, it s almost more like architecture. Once you have that story down, you re planning. It s like a race course or it s like you have to build something very quickly. Your ability to keep it moving and interesting.

I went in there and they said, you write dialogue, you'll be wonderful. I said I don t know what I m doing and they said yeah, don t worry about it, just do it. I said but, but, but. And they said, tell you what, write the first ten minutes of the movie. Write the first fifteen minutes of the movie. And this was the producer, who s now like this huge octopus of a producer. And he said, just write the first fifteen minutes of the movie and show it to me. So I sat down and wrote 95 pages and I hadn't even introduced the main character yet. So he looked at it and said, okay I know what you mean.
You do that once and you re sick of it. You get this nauseous feeling in your stomach. I m just killing trees for nothing. And you learn by banging your head against the wall, therefore you learn not to bang your head against the wall. So, in a way, that s how I learned. I mean, it was a crummy writing experience.

Question: What did you do after the 95 pages?

RP: I had to start all over again. But this time the main character came in right away. It s like when you have kids. Sometimes they have to learn to do their homework. You re on them every night. Do your homework, do your homework. But sometimes you think, okay, they re going to get their ass kicked so bad at school the next day, it will be a valuable learning experience. It s like negative reinforcement. If I stop behaving like this, it will stop hurting.

And that s how I learned. Just trial and error. But I would not get hung up on any particular rules like there s gotta be three acts. I've always heard that, and when I sit down with people at meetings, they're like "where are we, what act is this?" And I m like, it s act nine, or something... I don t know.
The danger is that when you've written a script and you've rewritten it and rewritten it and you have a big actor involved and you re a year and a half into getting this movie made and the actor or director looks at you and asks "What s this movie about?"

I don t know, it s about me getting paid and out of here. They re always trying these philosophical panic attacks.

Question: How do you use research?

RP: What do you mean research?

Question: Like Color of Money, how do you...

RP: Oh, you mean going out and learning enough to sounding like an authority about pool?

Question: Yeah, how much does that give to you as a writer?

RP: Well, that s very different from writer to writer. For me, going out and spending time with people who I want to write about but who I don t have an intimate knowledge of or how they go about their day is very important to me. And I always find something which is.... you know, every day is a little baby epiphany. I never know what it is. I don t usually go out because I want to learn how a pool hustler hustles, for example. I mean, I m going to find that out anyway, but there might be something I m going to see or hear if I m out there that day, which has nothing to do with my stated mission, but in itself, is more revealing that what I thought I was going to go out and see.

It depends. Are you writing about things you know? Then you don t need to do research. If you re writing about a historical time period, or people who do jobs, like a policeman, who you might not...

Question: You followed the policeman, didn't you?

RP: Yeah. I hung out with these cops. I enjoy it, but it s a personal preference. It s not mandatory. Jane Austen is ten times, a million times the writer that Robert Louis Stevenson is. Stevenson, who died in Tahiti, and Jane Austen, who never left the house. It s an option. Do I go out and learn something? Depends what you want to write about.

I would go out with these policemen, when I was writing Sea of Love and later, when I was writing Clockers, and I would go to murders, I d go to homicides. I d be in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and there d be this dead body with 90 million bullet holes in it, looks like Swiss cheese and the people are in the street and this and that and I d be watching them how they process a crime scene and how they interview people in the street.

All that is clinical, technical data. Or I'll pick up little moments of intimacy. With that kind of stuff I'll take copious notes, but what happens and what stays with me longer is a week later with one of the cops who was in this crime scene processing unit. He had about three girlfriends and they all lived in the same building. He was the super of the building - it was his second job to be a super of a tenement in the Bronx. They were all Puerto Rican and he s Irish and all their husbands are in jail so he s letting them slide on the rent and he s being nice to the kids and they wind up liking the guy, mainly for what he isn't.

He s not going to hit them, he s not going to take their money, he's not going to give them AIDS, he s not going to go off to jail on a moments notice because he did something stupid, he s not going to be abusive to the children. So these nots make him very attractive.

I go out with this guy one night, with one of his girlfriends, and this woman takes her son, who s this six year-old kid whose nickname is Machito, which should tell you something. And he s like Ferdinand the Bull - he s this little hyperactive, chubby kid. We re at this restaurant and this kid is zooming around, I mean, this kid is really hyper. And I m having this dinner and it s worth ten murders. I m watching how this woman calms him down. She s like, "whatta want? Just relax. What? You wanna coca cola? You can have a coca cola. You wanna ice cream?" She s plying sugar into this hyperactive kid at eleven o clock at night.

And this cop is looking at her and they re kinda necking at the table at this Chinese restaurant down in Manhattan. People in the Bronx, when they go down to Manhattan, it s like they've travelled thousands of miles. The Bronx is like urban hillbillies, even though it s only fifteen minutes away by subway, it s two solar systems away mentally and culturally.

So, we re down there and it s a big deal. And I m watching this kid and she s saying, well the doctors want to give him Riddilin - I don t know if you know what Riddilin is - pill happy doctors give it out.... hyperactivity in kids is like a disease du jour right now so basically, a lot of kids are promiscuously over-medicated. They re handing Riddilin around like it s a bus pass. And she s saying, "no, I don t want my Chito to take Riddilin, he s gonna turn into a cow... he drives me crazy, but at least I know that s him."

So I m listening to this stuff, and I m thinking, this is all going to go in, in some way, shape or form. I m thinking of all the stuff I've seen around the bodies and stuff. And, anyway, the bill comes in for this meal, and I m treating everybody. So I go to pay with my American Express card, which is this card. (shows the card) American Express comes in blue, gold and platinum and I have a gold card. And all of a sudden the kid, he sees me take out the Gold card and his eyes get huge and he says, "oh mommy look!", and he grabs my card. And I m thinking how does this kid from the Bronx, who lives in this hellhole, how the hell does this kid know the difference between blue, gold and platinum American Express cards? And he points to the image in the middle, which is a Roman Centurion, and he says, "mommy, look, there s one of the guys who killed Jesus!" And that was his take on credit cards. I mean....

When I go out there, shit like this always happens. I didn't know it was coming, I didn't plan to have it to happen, and it happened. So, what I stumble on is always so much more interesting than what I set out to deal with.

Question: But you choose to be with this cop outside of his work hours.

RP: Yeah. I m writing about a cop. I m not a cop, I don t know any cops, so I m starting to make connections.

There are certain archetypal, perpetual characters, in American film at least. You know, cops and robbers. Why do another cops and robbers story. How many cops have we seen this year alone - 30? 40? So I just want to go off-hours. I want a more fully realised character.
But research depends what you re writing about. Sometimes research can take you away from any particular kind of intimacy, because you get hung up on the externals of stuff you don t know. And you want to capture these externals, like you re a journalist, or an investigative reporter and that s not really art. So it depends.

Question: How much time did you spend with the cops before Sea of Love?

RP: As I was writing the story... I mean, I had a rough idea for a story, so I go out a couple of weeks, a couple of months. I m not living with these guys, I m seeing them maybe once or twice a week, for a couple of hours.

They show me around - this is how we do this, this is how we do that. All very interesting, but I swear, every time I went out there, I came back with something I had no idea I was looking for.
I'll tell you another amazing thing that happened with these cops. I got this friend, I doubt... you might have heard of him... he was an underground filmmaker in the 1970 s. His name is Amos .... . He did a lot of films when the punk-underground scene was happening, in all the arts, that s when he came in as a director where he d make a film for 30,000 dollars and you spend the rest of your life being invited to film festivals.

Amos did a number of films, he was a true independent guerrilla filmmaker. At some point, he wanted to do a movie that involved cops. So I said to Amos, look, why don t you come with me. I'll take you out to the homicide squad in Jersey City, New Jersey and they'll talk to you. These cops, they re obsessed... they want to get into movies. Actors and writers want to be cops, cops want to be actors and writers, you know... So, anybody in films, they'll be happy to meet.

So Amos comes down. Now Amos is kinda this funky downtown guy. He s kinda stocky and he s got a shaved head, he s got a thick neck. And he dresses in this kind of weird, Sohoey kinda way: a fedora, a Hawaiian shirt, baggy shorts and black shoes with white socks. But he makes it work. He knows exactly what he s doing. You know, he s always visually interesting. Oh yeah, not only is he bald, but he s decided to grow sideburns, along his jaw.

Now police are basically suburban, middle-class people. And I bring Amos out and he s kinda dressed like that, with this little fedora on and the baggy shorts and I say to the cops, this is a friend of mine, this is Amos. He wants to make a film and he wants to learn stuff. They look at him and say "hi, Amos, howya doin''". They re acting so friendly to this guy. Like, "Amos, do ya wanna see where we keep the evidence from a homicide?" - and they re talking kinda loud. "Do ya wanna see what type of gun we have?"

And they re talking like this and I m thinking, why the hell are they talking like this for. Amos is saying, cool, great, thanks. So we go home and the next day I get this call from one of these cops and he s almost in tears and he says, "Rich, I didn't know you had it in you. I think that s one of the nicest things you ever did." What did I do? "Well, bringing that retarded guy around."

Do ya wanna see our guns? And then I thought, hmmm, if I didn't know Amos, maybe....

Question: Can you tell us if you have a routine? A writing routine? You get an idea, a beginning an ending and you sit down and do what?

RP: At this point I can start films in about 3 or 4 different ways. For example, Freedomland, I sold it to Paramount. Now I m supposed to write the script for this. So I m about to start, I m not looking forward to it, it s my own book, it s 600 pages and I've got to make into a 110 page singing telegram.

And before I start, I get a call. He says "how would you like to make a lot of quick money?" You know the movie Shaft? The black detective movie from the 70 s, a big blaxploitation movie. Richard Roundtree was a big pop icon in the 70 s. They re remaking Shaft with John Singleton directing. And Scott says, well, we've got a script for Shaft and could you give us maybe two weeks on it? Just quote unquote punch up the dialogue?

Punch up the dialogue, in Hollywoodese, means forget everything, you re going to work non-stop for three months and you re going to throw everything out including the words "the" and "and". So that s what I m doing. I thought, oh, it s going to be fun and who cares, it'll be fun to work it. So that s one way I get involved in a movie.

The other way is, if I have an idea, I will approach particular studios with particular individuals that I've worked with before and pitch. I'll tell the story and try to tell it as fast as I can, 15 - 20 minutes, cause that's the attention span. And the danger is talking too long because if they get bored listening to your pitch, how interested are they going to be sitting through a two-hour movie that s gonna cost them 50 million dollars. So the trick is to get and out of there before their eyelids starting drooping.

That s another way I can do it. The third way is that they'll come to me and say that they've acquired this book and we think you'd be good to write this screenplay adaptation. I mean, there s all sorts of ways I can do it.

Question: Let me expand on that then. You have an idea for a film, your own idea. What do you do when you sit down at your computer. What s your personal routine?

RP: Me personally? Oh, you re talking about the technical elements. I thought you meant the business of it.

Okay, what I do is I have an idea. Basically, I write the idea down or keep it in my head and the idea is just a couple of paragraphs long. Then I'll try to break it down. I will basically work off a series of lists.

Let s say I have a story. And let's say I can't figure out the end or, I hate to say it, the third act. What happens to these guys? How do they get out of it? How does it come to a head?

First thing I do is I figure out that. I don t want to start writing until I know how I want to finish the damn thing. Because otherwise I m gonna end up 80 miles into the Black Woods, you know, sixty pages into a screenplay... and you do not want to get lost narratively in your own screenplay when a screenplay is so tight and small. You really should know what s gonna happen. Roughly, at least. Beginning, middle and end. How do you want to end it. You've got to work out your ending. It might change as you write, but at least before you start know your ultimate destination.

Let s say I've figured that out. I'll just write down, bang, bang, bang - these are the three big things. These guys start out this way, all of a sudden they re in the shit and they get out of it. Then I start just breaking it down.

From the beginning to this big quicksand dilemma in the middle. Just off the top of my head, I'll chip in six ideas for scenes for how to get there. Okay, you've gotta show this, then that and then that. I m just writing down short phrases for each event. And now I've broken it down from the beginning to sort of the middle and I've got six or seven strokes. Then I look at them and see if there s any mini-strokes or can I start moving on. And that might be enough to feel like I can start because I know where I m going. Even though what I m writing right now doesn't look like it's going to lead anywhere, I know in my head, seven ticks to the middle. They re like rungs on a trapeze.

The trick is to have enough in the outline... and once again, this is different for everybody, but this is for me... the thing is to have enough of an outline to not ever feel like I don t know where the hell I m going. Things might change but I don t want an outline so tight that I don t have any room to improvise. I don t have any room to change my mind. So the trick is to have it there, but not to have it so that its strangling me. Like scene 1, 1A, 1ABC, C sub-section, etc. If you write it that tight, you might as well mail it in, or like your daughter can do it.

But that s the trick for me, to know roughly where I m headed. Now, what can possibly happen is that when you actually write that very first scene, or the second or third scene, something in what you just wrote is going to make you see that, well this fourth thing I m going to do just doesn't feel right anymore. Things come up in the act of writing, in the physical act of writing, that you can, in no way, anticipate before you write. Characters come alive as they come out of your hand in a way you can t second guess. And that s always gonna happen, it should happen and you gotta allow for that to happen. Hopefully, it s not gonna all of a sudden make you realise that what you really want to write about is the history of the FBI and how they screwed the Oklahoma Indians in 1920 to get all the oil rights, or something like that.

Hopefully, you re not gonna go off on such a tangent that you might as well start all over again. But you just gotta allow for those in-moment discoveries.

Question: So you use seven beats to the middle...

RP: Seven, five, twelve, I don t know. Enough to make me feel like I sort of know what I m doing. I'll more or less get there if not with these seven beats, then by the third beat, or four through six ... it s not really relevant. I have a much better idea now because these characters are living in me. I've broken the ice with them. I've consummated my relationship with them on paper.

Question: Do you ever do a biography for your characters?

No, but I gotta feel like I can answer questions about my characters in my own head. I mean, if you ask me what would this guy do if he had one night in New York and unlimited money, I could probably answer that, but I wouldn't have thought about that until you asked me that. The character is probably alive enough in my head, in my imagination, to fill out a biography if I had to, but I don t see a point in doing that. On paper. I mean, it would kinda like a lucky thing, like carrying a rabbit s foot in your pocket, but I don t see the point in doing a biography.

Each character has gotta be individual enough from any other character. Maybe this is where dialogue comes into it, not just action. They say What s the deal with dialogue in the movies. Well, dialogue is not really that important. However, good dialogue is that when a particular character speaks, after you've heard that character two or three times already in the script, you've seen his name in the script, you've seen two or three other characters - their names and how they speak - 20-30 pages into the script, if you heard a line of dialogue, you d should be able to say, oh, that s probably that guy speaking. And if you write good dialogue, the dialogue will be singular. Dialogue is how people string together words to express their personalities and thoughts. It s like a fingerprint. Everybody s slightly different in how their speak. So that s where dialogue is important.

But that s the frustration of just being a writer. Movies are about visuality, they re not about the page, they re not about the words that come out of people s mouths. It s about the looks on their faces, it s about how they hold their hands on the bar. It s about how their eyes move and they move secretly. So I would write roughly the most banal conversation I could think of but I would also be writing in stage directions, not technical stage directions like close-up, POV or anything like that but like a novelist would write. Little physical observations of how I envision this non-verbally and the director is free to interpret that.

I just want to make it a great read. I want someone to read it and see it. I m gonna try to be efficient with this descriptive stuff. I don t want it to read more like prose than like a screenplay, but I m gonna put in what I think could be significant cues, significant physical acts, actions to help this non-conversation that the characters are having come about.

Question: How much time does it take before you present the script to anyone else?

Well, usually I'll work it all the way through. I don't type, so I'll get it typed up and then I'll look at it. And when it's typed and you look at it, it's a bit a shock, cause you've been working in handwriting and it's visually different so you have to get over that shock. You gotta read it two or three times because the first time you read it, everything seems wrong so you've gotta calm down and then read it again. And you cut a little bit or you add something. Then I'll send it off. Not too much, I'll just play with it a little bit.

But usually I m having a running dialogue with the people at the other end of this process. I mean, people are gonna know the story, because I want to know that I've got an arrangement and so they'll know the story and they re gonna throw their two cents in. Be it a producer or a director or somebody. So it s not like they don t know what they re gonna get. But I want it to be as good as possible before they see it, without killing myself.

Question: We've been talking about rules and research and tools of inspiration. Do you use other tools, or what are the main tools you use?

RP: Either a story comes to me full-blown and I feel that I understand the people enough to just sit down and write, which unfortunately is rare, or I'll just go out, I mean, the stories are out there, you know. Just going out there, I m going see what I think I want, but I didn't really know until I went out there and that's really what I want.

Research is... if you don t really know what the world is like, the world you re writing about, it s hard to say what your story s gonna be. But sometimes it doesn't take much, like this weird epiphany like the kid with the credit card. You can really go to town on that. and it s nothing to do with kids or credit cards but the whole world that leads to a reaction like that.

Filmography for Richard Price

© Mikael Colville-Andersen 2006-2011