A Chat with Brian Helgeland
Bullz-Eye spent 15 minutes talking with an Oscar-winning screenwriter, and not once did we talk about his Oscar. (He adapted the screenplay for "L.A. Confidential.") But there are perfectly good reasons for this. For starters, Brian Helgeland was not doing interviews to talk about something he did 10 years ago. In fact, he was chatting with us about the recently released (and surprisingly short) "Straight Up" director's cut of "Payback," his directorial debut, and we are never ones to miss an opportunity to talk about Crazy Mel Gibson. Secondly, the writer assigned to conduct the interview had to leave his wife and newborn son at the hospital so he could come home, chat with Helgeland, and go back and get his family. In other words, we stuck to the script, for the most part.
Some quick backstory on the making of "Payback:" Helgeland was fired by Gibson from the movie, and Gibson had an entirely different third act scripted that included lots of mayhem, explosions, and, of course, a torture scene. God love Helgeland for taking it all with reasonably good humor.
Bullz-Eye: Didn't you hear that all directors' cuts are supposed to be three hours long?
Brian Helgeland: Right, right. Yeah, I was actually surprised myself when they told me my version was shorter than the theatrical (version), but I would say that it always seemed like a 90-minute movie to me. So, now it's down to 90 minutes again.
BE: Did it seem strange to see the final (theatrical) version saying "Directed by Brian Helgeland?" Were you tempted to yell at the screen, "No, I didn't!"
BH: Yeah! (laughs) Yeah, it's strange because that's actually how the whole thing got started -- doing this version -- was I got a call from someone in the technical department. Paramount was asking if I would provide a TV transfer, they were updating their media. And I went on a long speech about "Why would I oversee that?" And then it ended up leading to (the director's cut), but yeah, it's an odd thing.
BE: From what I saw in the bonus features, I do have to say that you were the model of diplomacy in talking about the movie.
BH: My whole thing was just to try and get my version of the movie out there. My big interest in the DVD was the movie itself, not so much the "who did what," and "what happened." It's more just trying to prove that there was a worthwhile movie in there.
BE: Did you find it curious that one of the first things they did when they rewrote the third act was add a torture scene?
BH: Yeah! (laughs)
BE: And then blow a whole bunch of shit up?
BH: Yeah! The explosion stuff is almost a cliché. It reminds me of when I first came to Hollywood, I worked with Sam Arkhoff. And he said, "If you have any doubts as to how to end a movie" – this was his screenwriting advice to me – "set everything on fire."
BE: That's awesome.
BH: And those old Vincent Price movies always ended with everything being set on fire. So once everything's set on fire, the movie has to end, and it has to end big. But yeah, it just wasn't the way I pictured (the ending). I didn't see him leveraging an innocent. In the reshoots, they kidnap Kris Kristofferson's son, who was innocent. He was a creepy guy, but he was outside of the Outfit. Porter didn't seem like the kind of guy who would leverage someone else to get what he wanted. He just goes in and gets what he wants. I tried to get back to that idea of the character.
BE: It's interesting to me that the tag line for the movie was "Get ready to root for the bad guy." And yet, it seems that they bent over backwards to make him the nicest, most honorable bad guy you've ever seen.
BH: Yeah! People responded to "Get ready to root for the bad guy," because the movie opened on that campaign, so I always felt like my movie would have done as well. But they want to spoon-feed the audience so much, especially these days. "We're going to say he's a bad guy, but we're going to let you know as soon and as quick as we can that he's not really the bad guy." Part of the idea originally was that he is the hero of the movie. Anyone can be the hero of a movie, if you're in their point of view. But my idea was to keep that character pushed away for a while and not let you in on everything he was about and why he was doing things until at least somewhat into the film.
BE: I have a copy of your script for "A Knight's Tale," and at the end it talks about how they kiss forever to "what else – Gary Glitter, 'Rock and Roll, Part II.'" Then I see the movie, and it's AC/DC. What happened to Gary Glitter?
BH: It was because he got arrested (for child pornography). It was a very big thing (in Hollywood), not to put more money in this guy's pocket. It wasn't a written order that came down or anything like that, but I think everyone got to be a little uncomfortable with Gary Glitter. I liked the idea (of the Glitter song) because the songs (in the movie) were all arena rock songs, and that's obviously a classic. But I was just as happy with AC/DC, and ended up having to fight to keep AC/DC in there, instead of going strictly with the Queen remake, Robbie, um…
BE: Robbie Williams. They used that over the credits, right?
BE: Did he cover "We Will Rock You?"
BE: Nobody should ever cover "We Will Rock You." There's just no point. (Note: Williams actually covered "We Are the Champions," but we stand by our point about never covering "We Will Rock You.")
BH: I know, it's like remaking "Cool Hand Luke."
BE: Back to "Payback." You wiped out all the blues and grays.
"I wanted to be known for my movie, not for getting my ass kicked by Mel Gibson."BH: The blues and grays were the original plan I had for it, but I figured, since I'm doing a new version, and everyone's seen the blues and grays, I thought I'd pull back on the blue and go for more of a contrast-y look. Give the characters more haggard looks. The lines in everyone's faces are a lot deeper and darker. Again, since it had been out there blue, and we had the chance to do something different; also, I liked the blue, but I felt as though the production design suffered a bit under the blue. Richard Hoover, the production designer, did such a marvelous job with the paints and the colors in the background, and the textures. And that stuff got swallowed up by the blue, so I thought I'd do one for Richard and bring that color back in.
BE: Have you talked to Mel (Gibson) since you shot this movie?
BH: Yeah. Well, I hadn't talked to him for a long time, and I had to get his OK to do this, because my understanding is that he owns part of the negative. And I emailed him – I didn't really know quite how else to approach him – to say that I wanted to put out this version, thinking that I was never going to hear a response. And I got a response 15 minutes later, saying he thought it was a good idea and what could he do to push it along. And the next day he called Paramount, and got the ball rolling on the whole thing. But that…when I first cast Heath (Ledger) in "A Knight's Tale," he sent me a nice letter saying that he thought we'd be good together, because he had been working with Heath on "The Patriot." And that was sort of the only communication between us, really.
BE: So there's no lingering bad blood or anything.
BH: You know, everyone does what they do, and has a reason for it. You don't always agree, but, again, that stuff was always between me and him. When I was having my difficulties was also when "American History X" was out, and Tony Kaye had an ad in the trades every day, one more absurd than the next. And I was in the middle of trying to stay on ("Payback") at the time. And I always thought I didn't want to be famous for…not that I wanted to be famous at all, but I wanted to be known for my movie, not for getting my ass kicked by Mel Gibson. I didn't want to go through all that, "I'm a victim of this," and "Look what happened to me," and…
BE: Well, that was the smart play. I mean, look at Tony Kaye now. I don't think he's done much of anything since then.
BH: (hedging) Yeah, but I get the feeling he didn't want to ever do anything again, either. It was kind of a suicide.
BE: Didn't he ask to be called Alan Smithee on that movie?
BH: Well, the Directors Guild has to decide that, and they refused. I actually went in for an Alan Smithee meeting with the Directors Guild, and they were very reluctant, and advised me -- John Badham ("War Games") was on it -- and they more or less said, "It's your first movie."
BE: That's interesting. I never knew you wanted the Smithee name on "Payback."
BH: Yeah, I mean, I went to proceed in that direction to see what my options were. And they said that it would not be smart if I had any plans on directing again. If my very first film was as Alan Smithee, I would not be setting myself up for a very long career!
BE: There was a new project of yours I wanted to ask you about, and that is "Cirque du Freak," this Paul Weitz movie you're working on. That's a very curious combination to me.
BH: Yeah! I've been involved for a couple of years on it. My youngest son, it's his favorite series of books, at the time, anyway. He's a big reader, and he was always going on about it. And I didn't pay much attention, and then I was just visiting at the offices of the Donners, Laura and Dick Donner. (Note: you might know Dick Donner as Richard Donner, director of "Superman" and the "Lethal Weapon" movies.) And the books were on someone's desk over there, and I said, "Are you guys involved with this?" And they said, "Yes, we're the producers if they make a movie of it." And I got home and said to my son, "They're going to make 'Cirque du Freak.'" And he was all excited and said I had to write it if I could, so I called and said I'd be interested in doing it, and Paul is going to direct it. I'm not sure if it's his next movie or not, though. I don't know how immediate it's going to be in production or anything like that.
BE: IMDB has it dated as 2008, and he has nothing ahead of it in terms of directing.
BH: Ah. But yeah, it's basically my son's favorite set of books.
BE: How about you as far as another directing project?
BH: I've written a spec (script) that I'm trying to get off the ground, but I'm just in the process of it now. It's called "Get Up, Sonny Liston." It's not about Sonny Liston. It's kind of a thriller/romance.
BE: Well, I'll let you stay on schedule. I have to go and pick up my wife and son. But thank you for your time.
BH: Yeah, that sounds like a more important thing to be doing!