FilmCraft Screenwriting: Interview with David Webb Peoples
By Tim Grierson
Starting his career as an editor, David Webb Peoples began writing screenplays in the 1970s, producing a series of scripts that eventually brought him to the attention of director Tony Scott. Through Scott’s encouragement, Peoples became involved with Blade Runner (1982), the seminal science-fiction film directed by Scott’s brother Ridley. However, one of Peoples’ greatest successes came more than 15 years after he first conceived the idea: Director Clint Eastwood optioned his script of The Cut-Whore Killings, eventually turning it into his Best Picture winning Unforgiven (1992), which netted Peoples a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. That same year, he wrote Hero (a.k.a. Accidental Hero), a Preston Sturges-style comedy starring Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis, and Andy Garcia. He and his wife, screenwriter Janet Peoples, also co-wrote director Jon Else’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Day After Trinity (1981), an in-depth account of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. In 1989, he made his directorial debut with The Salute of the Jugger (a.k.a. The Blood of Heroes), a post-apocalyptic thriller with Rutger Hauer, Joan Chen, and Delroy Lindo. In the mid-1990s, Peoples retired as a solo writer to collaborate full-time with his wife, Janet Peoples. Together, they adapted Chris Marker’s heralded 1962 short film La Jetée into Twelve Monkeys (1995), which earned Brad Pitt a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, Peoples received the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. Unerringly modest, Peoples incorrectly insists that he doesn’t have anything noteworthy to say about his process. “An interview implies that the subject is interesting,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I’m not. As a writer, I never intended to be either Frank Sinatra or Howard Hughes. It’s all there in the screenplay.”
I started getting into movies in my late teens, but I didn’t think about movies as writing. In fact, movies at that time made me think contemptuously of writers. I thought the creative world was about images. I didn’t have much respect for the written word. I was sort of a young brat and liked movies from Europe. Somehow, I didn’t think people wrote those scripts—I thought those images just collected themselves. I was very naïve.
Instead of writing, I became a film editor, which was manipulating images. I was mostly editing documentaries, and in documentaries you are more of a storyteller as an editor than you are if you’re editing a feature. In a feature, the writer and the director are telling the story, and the editor is putting it together, which is not to diminish in any way the editor’s role, because the editor makes it magic. But the actual storytelling is often more on the shoulders of an editor in documentary films. The documentary maker InTeRvIeW David Webb Peoples doesn’t know what’s coming and what he or she is going to put on film, so you and the director are important in finding the story in the material.
Still, I did from time to time keep trying to write a screenplay, but I couldn’t finish it and didn’t understand how it was done. Plus, back when I was in college, I was an English major, and one of the negatives was that they taught you to be critical of the great writers. You analyze all these magnificent writers, and then, of course, if you sit down and try to write yourself, it doesn’t come out as good—you immediately feel that you can’t write. But later I found myself editing a very low-budget, exploitation kind of movie. The script didn’t seem to me all that good, and I noticed that the filmed scenes were coming out like they were in the script. So, I thought, “Well, I could do better than this.” So instead of trying to write better than Dostoyevsky or James Joyce, I tried to write better than this particular script, and that was doable. That low-budget script was just trying to do a job, which was to entertain the audience. Suddenly, I understood what the job was, and I stopped trying to self-consciously imitate the masters. Before, I had just been writing scripts because I thought I wanted to be a director, but then I started liking writing scripts—I liked putting that stuff on paper and hoping that it would be entertaining to others.
I was one of the writers on Jon Else’s documentary The Day After Trinity, about Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb. When we were making it, we had an idea that if we did the research and figured out what everybody Jon was going to interview would contribute to the story, we could figure out how he could ask them the right questions and get them to say what we wanted them to say. We wrote what we called a “toy movie”—it was a movie in which all the participants said more or less what we wanted them to say. When the time came to do the interviews, they didn’t say exactly what we wanted them to say—they said much better stuff—but at least we had a guide. There’s an interesting similarity there with screenwriting. One of the more difficult things in screenwriting is that you very often have something in mind you want your characters to do, but somehow you have to get them to want to do it. If you think back on the history of movies—think of those expensive writers from the East Coast locked in their rooms at MGM or at Warner Bros., and then the producer comes in and gives them some story point, like “Hey, let’s have the professor rob a bank.” That can actually be a good idea— maybe it really would be interesting if the professor suddenly robbed a bank—but if you’re going to write a good script, you have to make it appear that the desire to rob a bank really comes from the professor. What you’re trying to do when you write a script is to make the characters behave like they have the plan rather than they are just doing what the writer wants them to do.
Finding out that Ridley Scott wanted me to work on Blade Runner was a very thrilling phone call. Michael Deeley, the producer, called me up, and they got me to go to LA and put me up in this fancy suite at the Chateau Marmont. They sent Hampton Fancher’s script over by messenger. After I read it, Michael Deeley and Ridley Scott came over to talk to me. It broke my heart to say, “I can’t make this any better. I think this is a fantastic script.” I didn’t want to say that—I thought, “It would be so cool to say, ‘Oh, this is a piece of shit. I can fix this.’” But it was a wonderful script, and there wasn’t anything I could think of that I could do that would make it better. Michael Deeley sort of chuckled and said, “I think Ridley has a few ideas . . .” I was a very naïve young man: I didn’t realize the issue wasn’t what the writer could do. It’s what the director wants done.
Blade Runner got mixed reviews at the time, but I always knew I was part of something special. I knew Blade Runner was extraordinary. I was frustrated by some of the narrative issues, because narrative is my thing, but I certainly didn’t help it narratively. So I had some qualms. But as time went by, I began to realize just what a great fi lm it was. It talks to people—it’s a vision. Ridley’s vision superseded the narrative demands, and it made the movie special and exceptional. It’s a more European movie than American movie, and I’m totally an American writer—very American. Hampton and Ridley had this great vision. I made some really good contributions to the script—I’m not being falsely modest—but it’s certainly not my movie in any sense of the word. It’s a movie I was lucky to work on.
I recently got an award at the San Francisco Film Festival, and somebody wrote what a modest, self-effacing guy I was. So I’ve been going around bragging to everybody what a modest, self-effacing guy I am. The fact is, there’s no point in pretending that everything you write works. It doesn’t, right? It’s a struggle. I’m aware there are writers who are not as good as I am— but I’m very, very aware of a bunch of writers who are much better than I am.
When you work on a spec script, you’re working on your own time. And when I was writing spec scripts early in my career, I couldn’t work at a day job and do the spec script at night. I had to carve out a piece of time and write very, very fast. When you write for pay, the whole thing is changed. You’re no longer writing to surprise anybody, because everybody’s already talked all about it. And also, nowadays, when you write for the studios, you’re writing for a committee that’s going to parse it and look it over and critique it. So, the positive side is that you really have to polish things and work them over—the negative side is that this process takes out a lot of the creative energy and spark. Those old pictures that people used to crank out, like Roger Corman pictures, they had a lot of heart and spirit to them. Working for the studios, everything has to be polished to some degree—you can’t just bang out something that’s all spirit and heart. So there’s a compromise there.
I wrote The Cut-Whore Killings, which became Unforgiven, around 1976. I’ve always been drawn to what are called the revisionist Westerns instead of the big John Ford movies. I like things like The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972) and The Great northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), which I consider a masterpiece. But I was also influenced by Taxi Driver (1976), which I thought was an amazing movie. Paul Schrader just opened up the world with that movie. When I first started writing, I didn’t want to have anybody get killed in any script I wrote because I was just so put off by the unreality. When people get killed in the movies, it’s like in James Bond, which is perfectly legitimate because James Bond is James Bond, and that’s the reality they set up. But even in other movies, you kill 10 people and then you go have breakfast—it’s as if it didn’t have any impact whatsoever. But all of a sudden I see Taxi Driver and people are getting killed, and the characters maintained how they would be in real life. But at the same time, it’s an entertaining movie, and that was always important to me—I wanted to write things that were entertaining. I didn’t want to write obscure art pictures with little lessons in them—I wanted to write entertainment. Taxi Driver opened up what entertainment could be. It said, “Yeah, you can write this kind of stuff and it’ll be entertaining.”
All writers work to a large degree like actors. There’s an actor in all writers, but I found I was operating more like an actor than a lot of other writers were—which is to say I get into the thing I’m working on and I’m not able to get out of it. You’re struggling to stay in this world you’re creating, but you’ve got a life to live with a family, so you can’t just be totally in that world. So, I found I could no longer read any fiction, because what I love about fiction is it sucks you in, and you become engrossed in that world. Well, I couldn’t handle three worlds—I could only handle the writing world and the daily world of my family. I needed all that focus. Even now, I don’t read much fiction unless I deliberately and with great care take six-to-eight weeks off, which I never do. I took a vacation once, and after like a week or 10 days of not thinking about writing, suddenly I could read like I was in college again. I used to be able to just lose myself in a book—it’s very hard to do that now.
My wife Janet Peoples and I began writing together around 1995 as a practical consideration. We’d been writing screenplays separately, and it played havoc with the rhythms of our life—I’d be finishing one and want to take a week off, and she’d be just starting one, and it was just madness. So we thought, “Well, we’ll write together and we’ll be on the same schedule.” Chuck Roven and Robert Kosberg came to us with La Jetée, which became Twelve Monkeys, and since then Janet and I have been working together. Initially, maybe there was some concern about how that would work— we both have very strong ideas—so one of the conditions we put on writing together was we wouldn’t do original work. We wouldn’t do my idea or her idea—we’d do something that was brought to us by a third party. That way, neither one of us was the chief authority on that particular piece of material—our viewpoints were equally valid. That’s not to say that it’s not a real struggle sometimes, but it’s a level playing field: We’re working on what we’ve decided to do together.
We’ve written good stuff, but it doesn’t get made, and we’ve also written uncredited stuff on other pictures. But the bottom line is, we have a pile of scripts that are just not in sync with the times. We haven’t had a lot of success because we tend to write a lot like the 1970s and early 1980s films we loved. Those movies were what inspired Janet and myself to be writers. Here was a time when you could pull out all the stops and write something that was entertaining, that would dazzle people, that would be enormously successful, and that you could feel good about. It was a very exciting time, and it’s hard getting those pictures made now. Clint Eastwood still does really strong, wonderful character movies, but he’s not going to do everything you write.
The best thing that Janet and I have ever written has never been made, an adaptation of James Dickey’s To the White Sea. I think there are a lot of screenwriters with projects that are their best work that don’t get made—I don’t think it’s unique in any way. But a movie is much more than a script. You have to have a good director and actors who get it, and there’s not somebody out there to get everything that’s been written. So I don’t think it’s that unusual, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the end of the world. A lot of movies do get made, and it’s wonderful the good ones that do get made.
I’m not eager to see the movies that I’ve written, and I don’t think Janet necessarily is either. It’s not that we’ve never seen any of them, but if you write a really good script, that is in itself an accomplishment. That was something I picked up from William Goldman: I’ve never met him, but he has always been one of my mentors. He was able to make the script itself a finished thing—you could read it and see the movie. That’s what Janet and I are doing, and when other people make the movie, good for them. That’s great, but the part that we did is on paper. It’s an enormous thrill to see Unforgiven and to see the performances—the magic those actors put into those parts is a pleasure to see. But I didn’t do that. That’s what they did.”
Excerpt from FilmCraft: Screenwriting edited by Tim Grierson © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.