[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Introduction by Richard T. Jameson
When it comes to new hope for the American cinema, filmcrit types are always in the market. New hope in 1980 took the form of a low-budget festival film with the misunderstandable title Return of the Secaucus 7. It wasn’t a documentary, wasn’t a tribute to sullen or snarling radicals, wasn’t even a where-were-you-in-’72 American Graffiti–style slice of overpacked nostalgia. What it was was this genial, witty, low-key comedy, with just the right touch of rue, about a group of friends getting together for an informal reunion one summer weekend, and trying to get used to the idea of turning 30—and just a wee bit comfortably bourgeois. The screenplay was a beauty, ostensibly laidback and wide-open, yet carefully detailed without letting the pointedness show; the characters expertly drawn, no fuss, and so cleanly individualized (among other things, everyone’s dialogue has a logic and texture all its own) that for the audience and for one another they step right out of any assigned boxes, free to explore a wide range of possibilities. The result was a droll ensemble portrait shot through with the cozy vitality the Sixties used to call natural, without any of the boring unintelligence that so often went along with it.
The film marked the directorial debut of John Sayles, himself age 30 and one of the most solidly talented writers of contemporary American fiction. About the time Secaucus 7 went into national release, Sayles accepted an invitation to meet with a scriptwriting class at the University of Washington and share some of his experiences. Virtually all the Hollywood personnel who graciously and generously gave of their time to support this course delivered themselves of frank and cogent remarks about the realities of the film biz at the dawn of the Eighties; but even in this company Sayles was conspicuous for the comprehensiveness and lucidity of his commentary. He talked for better than two hours, first supplying a general commentary on his background in film and the circumstances of Secaucus 7‘s making, then opening the floor for questions. Having never heard so much good sense about films and filmmaking collected in one place before, movietone news requested permission to share it with a larger public; the unassuming writer-director seemed surprised that anyone would think so highly of his off-the-cuff remarks, but he agreed. “We’ll send you a transcript so you can check it out.” He thought about that a moment, then said, “No. If I said it, I’ll stand by it. Just go ahead.” And that, with very little editing and rearranging, is what we did.
I’d always been interested in doing screenwriting, realized that there weren’t too many ways into it. I didn’t want to go out to Los Angeles and start knocking on people’s doors trying to get an agent, so I went a route that isn’t much help to most people, which is that I wrote two novels and got them published. I got a literary agent out of that, and his agency had a deal with a film agency on the West Coat, so they were automatically representing my novels as screen properties. I wrote a query letter to them saying, “I also write screenplays”—which I hadn’t done at that time—”do you want to see one?” They said, “Sure, send one,” so I wrote one and sent it off to them, and they said, “Sure, we’ll represent you.” So I moved out to the West Coast.
After moving there, the agent who I’d got—who is still my agent, Maggie Fields—said, “Look, you’re not going to get offered too many good things. People will try not to hold it against you that you’re a novelist, but most of them won’t succeed.” I found that to be true. There’s a real bad rap on novelists, especially novelists adapting their own books, because they tend to want to protect the book—which isn’t always the best thing, for it to be translated into a film.
What happened was, the first thing I got offered was a rewrite on Piranha. Piranha had been a project that had been kicking around for about five years. A guy named Jeff Schechtman, who was Nixon’s youth advisor, had seen Jaws, said “There’s a spinoff here and if I get to it first I’m gonna make a lot of money.” He had had several scripts written on it, had Japanese money in it, but never really got it off the ground. He ended up at [Roger] Corman’s door. Corman said, “Well, let me test-market the title.” He test-marketed the title, it went through the roof, and he said, “I gotta make this movie!” And he gave it to me, saying “Keep the title and the idea of piranhas being loose in North American waters, and then dowhatever you want with it, but do it so that it seems something like Jaws.”
And that’s basically all I’ve ever gotten from him, is a very vague concept. With Battle Beyond the Stars what he gave me was basically “The Seven Samurai in space.” By that time I was in the Writers Guild and he wanted a treatment on it, before I was brought in on the project, to get a commitment from Orion to give him half the money to make the picture. He didn’t want to give me the three thousand that you have to pay a member of the Writers Guild, so he paid one of his office staff a hundred dollars just to put something down on paper that sounded like The Seven Samurai in space. And that’s what he handed me, and he said, “Ignore this. This is just for us to get half the money.”
Writing those scripts was a lot of fun. Seeing the movies after they were done wasn’t as much fun. One of the things you realize screenwriting is that you’re the lowest element on the totem pole. Basically you’re writing—especially in an exploitation picture—you’re writing a blueprint that other people will try to fill out or try not to fill out, depending how much they like it. I never met the director of any of the three pictures that I wrote for Corman until a week before they were shot, or maybe a month at the most. Not while I was writing them. Usually I would get a call from somebody saying, “Hi, I’m directing your picture, I need help. I’m only getting 600 thousand dollars to shoot this thing—you have 60 speaking parts. I can’t possibly afford that many people. Can you help me?” And this is after I’d been paid—signed, sealed, and delivered. “Can you help me out?” And you find that, because you want the thing to turn out good—your name is going to be on it unless it’s so terrible that you ask to have your name taken off—you tend to do free work when you’re first starting out, and say, “Yeah, sure, I’ll try to help you cut down the number of speaking parts.”
I got a call on Battle Beyond theStars saying, “You have to cut the number of Malmori Mutants in half because we can’t afford them; plus the model-shot people say you have to have all the attacks be in multiples of three.” For some reason it was easier for the model-shot people to have attacks if there were three spaceships instead of two or four. And what you realize is that if you don’t do it somebody else will; and it’s usually not going to be a writer, because they’d have to pay a writer. Usually on a low-budget picture like that, it’s gonna be the second assistant cameraman, or the receptionist. This is true! I just did a picture called The Howling that will be out next year, a werewolf picture; I walked in and the receptionist on the picture was the second female lead from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
What you find is that basically you try to cover yourself, try to help them make the picture work. Sometimes you can get them to say, “Yes, this is how much the picture’s going to cost.” I’ve rarely been able to do that. I’ve often asked, “Shall I write this small? What’re you gonna spend on this?” and they say, “Oh, don’t worry, you write the thing and then we’ll make it.” Then, the week before they start shooting it, they say, “You have to tailor this for such-and-such.” I wrote a picture at New World called The Lady in Red, which was about the woman who was with John Dillinger when he was shot. I wrote a script for a woman who ranges during the picture from 17 to 21. The first person they offered it to was Angie Dickinson; and she almost took it. Corman said, “Oh yeah, we can brush it up a little.” It would have taken a total rewrite to make it make any sense at all. Angie Dickinson, luckily, realized that, and realized that a total rewrite probably wasn’t going to happen and there she would be, making a picture about an 18-year-old woman, and she’s over 40.
That experience taught me a lot about the relationship between screenwriting and budget, and I was able to use that when I went into Secaucus 7. I said OK, I’m writing exploitation pictures now. It’s gonna take me a couple of years at this rate even to be writing for major studios. To get to the point—what I planned to do was to break into directing by writing a screenplay, having somebody make it, having it make the studio enough money so that, like the guy who wrote The Silver Streak [Colin Higgins] or the guy who wrote The Sting [David S. Ward], eventually you can bring them a screenplay they like and you say, “You can have it if you let me direct it.” And they either say, “Sure, you made us $20 million last time, it’s worth it”—and that’s stupid: ’cause you can write doesn’t mean you can direct—or they say, “What have you done? What have you directed?” I wanted to have something to show them, and say “I directed this—so there!”
I knew I was going to have $40,000 together in the same place at the same time—for writing the Corman things—before the IRS could get to it; and if I could just spend it fast enough, they wouldn’t get it. I decided I would make an independent film with it. That’s been done a few times. Stanley Kubrick did it ‘way back when; he had family money and family friends who helped him raise money, and he made three features before he really broke through to a studio feature. So I wrote a screenplay and, knowing about the relationship between budget and screenplay, I wrote a screenplay based on the budget. I knew that I had to have a minimum of camera movement in it: camera movement takes a lot of time and time turns into money real quick on a film set. I had to be able to use people who weren’t in the Screen Actors Guild yet but who were very good actors. That immediately brought to mind the people I knew who were good actors who weren’t in the Guild yet, and they were all around 30. So I was going to have a picture where the people were all around 30, and nobody younger ’cause I wasn’t going to have the time to direct a performance out of a kid who was a nonactor. There weren’t going to be any adults—people over 30—so it was going to be like Peanuts, no adults around, all people the same age. And I decided to use that: if I’m gonna have those people in it and I’m not gonna write a lotta action, why don’t I write a movie about people turning 30?
I wrote it for the locations. I knew those locations and I wrote it for them. I knew what I wanted to do in the movie. I wanted to have one or two action sequences so that I could show I had some feeling for cutting action, for framing it, so I wrote a couple of scenes where they play basketball or volleyball or swim. I knew that those were things that I was very familiar with from the inside out, and it would be very easy to shoot those things. You wouldn’t need to wreck cars in order to do them—you know, pay for the car, for the insurance or whatever. I wrote in one or two things that could be considered stunts, cast myself in the film and did my own stunts, with one guy who was crazy enough that if I did it he would do it, too. All those elements were things that I knew I could get for free or cheap, and I wrote them into the script.
At the same time, making an independent film, I didn’t want to make something that the studios would make. It seemed to me, how many times are you going to get to have that kind of control over a film? Even if it’s very low-budget, I wanted the budget to be the only thing that limited me. I didn’t wanna have to worry about the elements. Basically the way that movies are made today, is that they say, “OK, here’s your screenplay and here’s the people that we wanna put in it. Can it make this much money from a network-TV sale, this much money from a cable-TV sale, this much from foreign-TV sale, this much money from foreign theatrical?” If it makes that much money on paper before you start it, and if that money is equal to or greater than the amount that they’re going to spend on the film, they’ll make the picture. They wanna break even on the ancillary rights before they even start shooting the movie. I didn’t wanna have to worry about that stuff. I was willing to make basically a very expensive audition piece—something that I did not expect to be released and distributed, but something that I would wanna go see. There’s a writer named Mickey Spillane, who’s a lousy writer, but my favorite quote of his is: “I write the kind of books I like to read.”
I didn’t want to make a horror film. I’ve written ’em, I like to see ’em, but I didn’t wanna spend a year or more of my life making one just to break into studio movies, which would mean getting offered other horror films. The guy who directed Piranha [Joe Dante],after he directed Piranha he was offered several pictures and they were all Swim Team, Orca II, Jaws 3—People Nothing—and he hates the water, right? It took him about two years to get offered any kind of picture that wasn’t in the water. I didn’t wanna do another horror film, so why do one in the first place?
So basically a lot of what the experience was about was knowing what I wanted to do with it, knowing exactly the elements I wanted in it, and then seeing what things cost, and totally tailoring a script for budget. Usually you don’t have that as your starting point, a budget as a starting point; but you have other things as starting points. If you’re doing a job for somebody else—Piranha—basically Corman said, “You make the people whoever you want ’em to be, we have to have a certain number …” He didn’t specify the number, he said, “We have to have a certain amount of action sequences”—meaning carnivorous fish eating people. And I said, “How’s about one attack every 15 minutes?” And he said, “Try for 15.” Given that, I had a structure for the film. You open it, introduce the piranhas, and if you have one piranha attack every twelve minutes, it’s a 90-minute film, here’s the structure: you have to get them from piranha attack to piranha attack without making it totally repetitious. And that’s hard to do. There’s only so much you can do.
What I’m getting at is that any screenplay that you start with, you have to— One of the things that’s been the most helpful to me in my writing is that I’ve also acted. You take a part on, you say OK, the writer has given me these lines—especially in a small part, he’s given me six lines: I gotta figure out who this character is. And not only do I have to figure out who this character is, I have to figure out what this character wants within every scene I appear in. That’s helped me in writing, in that when I write something I very often write with a large cast, a lot of people; it just seems to turn out that way. I’m able to go through and look at each scene and say, Why is this character there? If I was an actor playing this character—man, woman, or child—is it consistent? Does this person seem to be the same person from scene to scene? Does he have something he wants? And in fact, is he needed? And very often you’ll find out, when you do that, this character is only here to supply somebody for the hero to shoot at. If that’s his only reason for being there, you sometimes can find, why not have another character who only does one thing be that same character? The thing about acting is that a lot of what you’re dealing with is a very technical medium, but the human part of it is following each person who is in it, each actor who is in it, each character who is in it, and making sure that they’re a reasonably rounded human being. Acting has been helpful in that it makes you think, OK, I am this person—what makes me full? what makes me rounded? what makes my character have some kind of progression of character, or at least purpose in this film other than just another body?
[QUESTIONS FROM AUDIENCE HEREAFTER]
I heard something I hope wasn’t falsely attributed to you, that you write different versions of a screenplay for different uses, different readers. Do you?
Sure. When you write a script you’re writing it for somebody. When I wrote Secaucus 7 I knew I was going to direct it. I didn’t put any stage directions in there. I did not write a selling script. In a writing deal, they have cutoffs. After the first draft they can cut you off; so the first draft, I try to make it as easy as possible for a producer to read, which means very small words, no stage directions, keep it clear. There’s a lot of political content to screenwriting; you’re campaigning to get something made, and made the way you want it made.
How does the treatment fit into the campaign? Do you find it useful?
A treatment is the worst form in the world. It’s your story boiled down to 20 or 30 pages of really lousy language. As far as I’m concerned, a treatment is another opportunity for the producer to decide not to use you or not to use the movie.
In the case of The Lady in Red, I wanted to do more than I knew Roger Corman wanted to do with that script. He basically wanted Bloody Mama Part Three; I wanted to get into other things about the Thirties. [Sayles’s script was entitled Guns, Sin, and Bathtub Gin.] So I said, “Roger, I will not write you a treatment, I’ll write you a full draft.” And that way I was able to show him things that, if I had just said, “I wanna go into this area, I wanna take her to jail, take her to a sweatshop,” he’d say, “Oh no, that’s beside the point”; whereas when I put it in the script he sort of got to liking the story. So I was able to campaign for the script that I wanted, and get him to agree that he liked that, too.
Very often I’ll get together with a director when he comes in and I’ll say, “Look, they want this scene in here, you don’t want it in here, I don’t want it in here—I’ll write it in here, we’ll schedule it so that it’s on a day when you have a lot of other things to do, and they’ll be happy to cut it when the time comes.” Or, depending on the producer, they won’t remember, by the time you make the picture, that they wanted it in there. So you don’t end up fighting over things that you don’t need to fight over.
Without being devious, you know, a screenplay is a blueprint and you are trying to convince somebody to make it the way that you want it made, so you have to put it in the best form for that. I’ll write a different ‘screenplay sometimes for an actor. I’ll write lines for an actor that don’t show up in the regular screenplay because it makes it too long, but that actor may not have enough lines to know what his character is about. A couple of times I’ve had an actor call me up after he’s been cast in something that I’ve written, and say, “This character seems pretty thin.” I had this happen with Bradford Dillman in Piranha: “You know, there’s nothing to this guy.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t know who was going to be cast. I wrote a character that was totally actorproof. They could have gotten a guy who was the worst actor in the world and he could have gotten through the script. You can act a little”—I didn’t say it that way—”I’ll write some more stuff for you.” And he ended up getting some more lines that fleshed out his character, but also a lot of lines in scenes that I wrote for him that they eventually cut; but it helped him to know who that character was. I wasn’t going to put it in the script to begin with because if they got a real nonactor we might have ended up with just a lot more of a nonactor trying to act.
I thought Piranha worked very well and I wondered how you set up your story.
The one thing was, you had to ignore the truth about piranhas somehow. I did a lot of research on piranhas. They can’t live in North American waters, they’ll die in the cold water; so I had to have a special breed of piranha. Given that it’s the horror film genre, we had to have something about, oh, you know, breeding mutant piranhas. One thing that Corman always likes to have is a certain kind of antiauthoritarian feeling to his films, because most of the people who go to them in drive-ins hate their teachers or hate their bosses or whatever, and that always makes them feel comfortable. They can honk their horns. So I just came up with the idea that the Army had been raising these mutant piranhas to put them in North Vietnamese waters during the war—Operation Razorteeth—and they lost their funding. And then after that, one scientist decided that he wanted to go on—he’s a fish geneticist—because they’re a hardy breed; and he went up there and kept them alive by stealing dead dogs and cats and feeding them, and continuing with his research. Eventually they get into the river, and they can live in cold water ’cause they’re mutants, and they can live in saltwater ’cause they’re mutants; and that’s why they’re making a sequel where the piranhas have bred with flying fish. That one I’m not writing—the Japanese have taken over for Piranha II.
Anyway, that gave me an excuse for a lot of exposition, so we got the fish geneticist injured so that they had to carry him downriver on a raft. That’s the second thing: if there are piranha in the water and people find out, why don’t they just stay out of the water? That’s the main problem with that script, how to contrive it, ’cause it has to be a contrivance, so that people keep going in the water even though they know there are piranhas in there. Or they don’t know. How don’t they know if they don’t know? The script that I was given to rewrite, the guy had gotten it into his head, ’cause he’d read it somewhere, that piranhas only attacked when you were bleeding. So there were all these scenes where people cut themselves shaving, stubbed their toes, talked about having their periods. My favorite scene was the one where a bunch of people were camping around a campfire and a bear attacked them, mauled them, chased them into the river, they were eaten by the piranha, and then the fire got out of control and chased the bear into the river and the bear got eaten by the piranha. Half the movie was about how people got cut. And every time somebody got cut, you knew they were gonna say, “Oh, I’ll go jump in the river!” So I dropped the idea. They just attacked when they were hungry. And these were mutant piranha who were stuck in a pool for a year with this geneticist feeding them cats and dogs, and now they’re out in the river and having a good time, so they’ll eat anything. So I had to structure it so that, OK, people don’t know that there are piranha in the water. And so I structured it after a trip down the river on the raft: Huckleberry Fin….
Another thing that also happens is that, in the heat of shooting, especially on a low-budget picture, people will—if you’re not there, which I wasn’t because they were too cheap to pay my way down there and put me up and have me work on it, and I was already paid for the screenplay—when they run into a technical difficulty, very often they’ll write their way or shoot their way around it, not remembering that it now makes the script make no sense at all. I got a call from the Piranha location saying, “We can’t get a raft, Disney won’t let us have theirs—couldn’t we have the people going down the river in a houseboat?” I said, “If they go down the river in a houseboat there’s no danger from the piranha. How are they gonna fall in?”—’cause I had set this thing up where the piranha eat the lashings off the raft and it falls apart. They said, “Oh.” Then they went and found a raft. If they hadn’t called me, which they almost didn’t, they would have put the people in a houseboat, shot a lot of scenes, and then said, “Uh-oh, they’re in a houseboat—how are the piranha gonna get after them?” and had to rewrite from there.
All that gets back to the idea of something being functional. In that kind of picture especially, when all you want to do is scare people several times during the movie and have the plot be plausible enough that they don’t just walk out in disgust. And I think I did that. The picture made about $14 million domestically, and about fourteen million overseas. I got ten thousand for it. I wasn’t in the Writers Guild yet. The director and editor of the picture—he’s the same person—got eight thousand for it. And none of us got any points. But you have to figure that the fourteen million, most of that is just Corman test-marketing that title, and knowing that if you have the title Piranha and the thing didn’t get a real stinker of a word-of-mouth, he could go to every major city and every major market, play two weeks, get out of there fast, and make his money back. Which is what he did.
How did Return of the Secaucus 7 find a distributor?
The distribution of Secaucus 7 came about because I was able to get the film—when it was still in 16millimeter, which I shot it in—into a couple of film festivals. Through exposure at those festivals—the Filmex thing in Los Angeles and then the Museum of Modern Art New Directors Festival—several smaller distributors got interested in it, and three or four of them started bidding on it. The bidding was sort of like “We’ll give you fifty–fifty after prints and advertising costs—take it or leave it.” So it wasn’t like there was a big price war going on. I finally went with Specialty Films of Seattle because they were the only company that said, “Yes, we will guarantee you that it will open in ten major cities.” The usual thing that happens with a small film, even with a small special-handling type of distributor, is they’ll open in New York and Los Angeles; if it doesn’t do any business there, they say, “We tried. We spent 40 thousand, 50 thousand dollars—you don’t want us to waste more money, do you?” And I felt that Secaucus 7 was the kind of film that might bomb in New York, just make its money back but no profit in New York, but it might catch on in Seattle or Boston or Portland or Vancouver and play there for half a year, and actually make some profit; and I wanted to give it that shot. Specialty, on top of offering me the same sort of cut if the film made any profit as anybody else was, guaranteed me that they were gonna at least take that much of a risk of their own, financial risk; that they would put out about a hundred thousand dollars in prints and advertising, and open it in those ten cities within a certain amount of time.
How much did it cost to transfer the film to 35mm?
$21,000. Today it would cost 22; within a year it’ll cost 30. The process is just getting more expensive. The people who work in labs just almost went on strike, and they got a ten percent increase, so all labor costs— And there is quite a bit of labor. You know, the guy who does the blowup works on the thing before it goes through the machine; there’s a lot of hours in there, and that all has gone up ten percent, so the cost of blowing a film up is gonna go way up. Plus silver—the cost of the film stock itself has gone up and is going to continue to go up.
I paid for it myself. Once it looked like somebody was going to be interested in the film, I started the process going, because it takes forever to get anything out of the lab. But I knew that one of them [the specialty distributors] when I went with them would pick up the cost. However, that’s part of prints-and-advertising, and that money has to be made back before any money that comes in can be called profit.
When you’re going to write a screenplay; do you do outlines or diagrams or what?
It depends on the script. A couple of the originals that I’ve written, I just had a story in my head and I started writing it. A thing that I’m doing right now with Triple Play for Twentieth Century Fox—it’s a story about— It’s set in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1966. It’s about a sort of Jewish sorority queen, a doctor’s daughter, who gets involved with an Italian meatball who wants to become part of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. It follows that relationship, which can exist in high school because they’re both the sort of people who like their lives to be dramatic, and it follows them from their senior year in high school to when she goes off to Sarah Lawrence and really gets hit with the Sixties. It’s set at that time because that was a time when you could go to high school and be a senior and it was cool to be a virgin, and the next year in college it was the most uncool thing that you could do. She really has to switch herself totally around. It talks about whether that relationship can survive or tries to survive when she goes to Sarah Lawrence and he goes down to Miami and becomes a dishwasher and tries to meet Frank Sinatra in the Fontainebleau Hotel and become part of the Rat Pack.
Given that story, which Amy Robinson of Triple Play brought me, I said, OK, there’s the structure of it. We have a high school year and we have the beginning of her freshman year. I’m gonna write a 120-page script. I don’t like to write a huge script and boil it down. I know that if this thing gets made, if I direct it, it’s gonna be a low-budget picture; that’s the agreement we made. I’m not going to have the luxury of shooting a whole lot of footage, a lot of extra scenes, and then carving a movie out of that in the editing room, which you can do with something like Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate. I want to go out there and shoot everything that I write and only write what I’m gonna shoot.
120 pages, 120 minutes—that gives you a two-hour movie and you may cut five minutes from it; that’s a good running time for a feature film, it’ll give them the right number of shows per night, plus I can tell the story in that time. About half of this film is gonna be the high school section, half the college section, so you’ve got 60 pages, say, to do the high school section. What things do you have to hit on to tell the high school part of that story? I write down what scenes have to be in there, then write down what kind of scenes I need for transition—of time, just to show that time is passing—and what scenes I need for development of their character. Usually I come up with something like 25 or 30 scenes. It’s very mathematical, it’s very technical; but once you take that, and you say OK, I’m gonna have 25 scenes in the first 60 pages of this movie, you realize that you have about two pages of two-minutes’ screentime for each of these scenes. Then you really start to look at what’s gonna happen. I want a scene here where she first meets the guy. And I write very dense movies; a lot of stuff happens at the same time. I want her to meet the guy for the first time—how can I do that and have it only take up a minute of screentime and have it be something that isn’t just film shorthand, that isn’t just two lines and they meet cute and all this thing.
What I do is get an outline like that and I fill it in. And the filling-it-in is where you really get stuck. You say, How can I possibly do the senior prom and have him be robbing the tuxedo store and she’s going to the prom with somebody else in five pages? That’s where the discipline and also the visual part of screenwriting—I mean, most critics who write about film talk about the screenplay as if it’s the dialogue: the screenplay was “good” if they liked the dialogue. When I write a screenplay I write pictures, too. I usually think, How would I write this movie if it was a silent movie, and still understand what’s going on? And then I add dialogue when it’s necessary. That didn’t happen with Secaucus 7 because I knew I had to write a very verbal movie to be able to afford to do it. But with most other pictures I say, Here’s what I have to show in order to tell the story without a word of dialogue. For instance, the guy who directed Piranha and directed The Howling often tells me, “Write me some ‘director’s touches’!'” Which means write him some things that are totally visual, that he can just shoot because they’re scripted there, and he’ll get the credit. On a screenplay, it’s such a technical medium, and because I’ve been working with such low budgets and haven’t had the luxury of being able to write a whole lot of material and sculpt a movie out of it, I work in a very technical fashion as far as the structure of the screenplay is concerned. Then, within each of those two- or three-minute scenes I try to make it as human as possible.
Has it been more exciting for you to write screenplays and to follow the making of the films, than to write a novel?
It’s not a question of excitement. It’s a very different experience. When you write a book, you’re God: you can write any fuckin’ thing you want, it comes out the way you want. And there’s not enough money in it so you’re even tempted to say, “Yes, I’ll change it if you’ll only please buy it and publish it, sir.” I’ve always had the feeling that if they don’t like it they can take a walk—I’ll take it somewhere else or I’ll stick it on a shelf with my fiction. With the movie things I’ve done, they’ve been other people’s ideas. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I have to write a movie called Piranha about little fish eating people!” I was hired to do a job and I was interested in it and it was fun.
With movies, it’s much more political. It’s more like what I was saying before about having to campaign for certain things. Getting a screenplay written and made the way you want is like getting a bill through Congress. You start out, you have this idea, you present it in the best way that you can, the way that you think it’ll get through and still have the impact on the audience that you want it to have. And then as you see it go through Congress, let’s say they attach riders to it, they water it down, they compromise it, and you just hope that when it comes out the other end the piranhas haven’t gotten to it and it looks something like what you put in there and has some of the same feeling. But it can really— When you’re just a screenwriter for hire, which I’ve been, black can turn white. You can really start out writing a movie that you want to be totally unexploitative that turns out to be a very exploitative movie—and they may not even change a line of dialogue; and that’s what you have to live with. That’s one of the reasons I would much rather direct the things that I write, or write things for people I trust, or who I know.