Q&A with William Kennedy – Set 3

November 28, 1998

BP: Can you talk about when you started working with Coppola? How did that come about?

WK: Coppola had read Legs, and Legs had also been used as source material by the people who had preceded Coppola in the creation of “Cotton Club,” because the real Cotton Club was run by gangsters, basically an Irish gangster named Owney Madden. Madden was a friend of Legs Diamond, and Diamond had his own nightclubs in New York City at various times. He ran the Hotsy Totsy club on Broadway, and he had a nightclub in the Bronx. It was a way of life for gangsters, and the way they moved their bootlegged beer. My novel, Legs, covers that era, and Francis had read it and liked it. In the summer of 1983 I got a call from Fred Roos, one of Francis’s producers, who was trying to produce a film on Vietnam. It was about the show people who went over to Vietnam, and he wanted me to write it. That idea eventually became the Bette Midler movie, “For the Boys,” with James Caan. It was going to be an extension of the scene in “Apocalypse Now,” where they helicoptered the Playboy bunnies into an improvisational show for the troops on the front lines. And the movie would elaborate on who those people were. Bette Midler wanted to do it and Fred and I met with her and talked about it, and I accumulated quite a bit of background on the subject. John Mackenzie was going to direct. It didn’t happen when I was involved with it because a movie about war in Central America, “Salvador,” was just out and didn’t do well.  So the film on show-people in the Vietnam War got shelved.

But in 1983, it was just an idea. Fred Roos invited me to come to New York and discuss it and he added, “I’ll take you in and you can meet Francis.” I said fine. Before this I had heard that my novel Legs was being used for the ‘Cotton Club’ as a point of reference. When I got to Francis’s office in the studio in Queens where the movie was being created, I discovered that all my dialogue in the novel had been excerpted into a script-like document, and Francis had used some of it as source material for a script in progress. He and one of his associates had created a machine he called the Zippy Script, and it turned the pages of a novel and scanned everything within quotes and eliminated all exposition. Then you were left with pure dialogue. So there was this 250 or 300-page manuscript of nothing but quotations from the novel, but it was only an exercise for Francis. He was shaping a film on many levels, visually, and orchestrating it with actors, choreographers, musicians, set designers, etc. He had something like 550 people on the “Cotton Club” payroll when he signed on to direct. Bob Evans was originally going to direct the film, with Mario Puzo writing the script. Puzo had already written four scripts, but nobody wanted to make the film based on Evans directing the Puzo scripts. So Evans and company asked Francis to write a script, and he wrote one that they liked somewhat. They asked him for an expanded rewrite and he did that and they said, “Great. Let’s go.” Then they hired him to direct as well.

That’s more or less when I entered the scene. When I came into the picture, Francis was working from his second script. Legs Diamond was in there for a scene or two and he brought me in because he loved Legs. Francis had just moved his people into New York from the West Coast, and when Fred invited me to go to the set I went in to just say hello to Francis. We talked for about an hour and got along very well. About two days later I got a call from Fred, who asked, “Would you like to go to work for Francis and write some dialogue for about five or six weeks, whatever it takes?” At that point, the assignment was to fill in the blanks on the second script Francis had written. He had created many scenes that he wanted in the film, but as summaries of action. Some places he put in fragments of dialogue from Legs or from Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” or maybe writing his own dialogue. This wasn’t just a treatment. It was a full script and Francis had written quite a lot. What the excerpts from “Threepenny” or Legs did was to a suggested line of talk or a style or a tone he’d like to see developed.

We went to work and there were vast problems with the script in terms of telling the story. So we began to talk and we talked for a couple of days. It was the middle of July, and we had five weeks to get the script finished.  The details of all this are in “The Cotton Club Stomp,” in my nonfiction collection, Riding the Yellow Trolley Car.  I’ll read what I wrote there: “From July 15 to August 22, when shooting began, we produced twelve scripts, including five during one 48-hour, non-stop weekend. We lost track of the total number of scripts we turned out, but it was somewhere between thirty and forty.” And before that, “Fourteen-sixteen-hour workdays were not unusual, and once we worked thirty-four hours without sleep. Coppola called this sort of stint ‘the death trip.’”

I’ve forgotten how long it took us to write the rehearsal draft, which was only 80 pages. Maybe eight or nine days.  It was awful, but it was the beginning of some characters and plot lines we were both happy with, even though there was so much still to be done. Right up until the first day of shooting some scenes remained that were just summaries of the action, with the dialogue still to be written. Richard Gere was downstairs in his dressing room the night before the first shoot, waiting for the final version of the script, and when he didn’t get it by 2 o’clock, he walked. So we didn’t have Richard Gere in the film that first day. Francis shot a scene with Lonette McKee and Gregory Hines. Gere had liked the first half of the script, but he thought the second half was chaos. And it was.

What happened was that Francis reinserted dialogue from “Threepenny Opera,” as he had early on in his old script, but this time I suspect it was a deliberate ploy of incoherence to frazzle the producers, who weren’t giving him the financial deal he was demanding. Weeks later he took the latest version of the script – up through what I had written that particular day – and went to England with it and stayed there till the producers gave him what he wanted. But this night the script had to be fixed for the opening day’s shoot, which was hours away, so I was writing as fast as I could type. And as fast as I could type a page, or two pages, Francis’s whizbang assistant, Anahid, would take it and put it into the computer and print it out and begin to circulate it. Francis finally went home about 1:30, because he was supposed to be on the set at 6 or 7 o’clock the next morning. So I worked for another four and a half hours by myself, writing this high-speed new draft of what would be the shooting script, and I was very arbitrarily deciding on whatever coherence I could bring to this chaotic document. It was a big improvement over what we had – that forced-feeding of the computer was very valuable. People began to say, “Well, it’s beginning to shape up.” It finally had some coherence. But it would continue to change even after the film was shot, a great deal of it had to be dubbed, and I also wrote the dubbing script. Also, Francis never stopped cutting it, even after the final cut was locked. He unlocked it. We had so many scenes that we wanted to use – the conflicts between the black brothers; conflicts with Dixie and Dutch Schultz; Dixie Dwyer, the Gere character, and Vera Cicero, the Diane Lane character.

There were a million conflicts, and Francis was always unhappy, always trying to change it and fix it. As usual, he had the storyboards up on the wall in his office. We worked in this suite of rooms that used to be dressing rooms in the Silent Era. The Marx Brothers had used it; Gloria Swanson had used it. It was the Kaufman Astoria Studio in Queens, and it was in the process of being refurbished into something spectacular, but at that time it was ramshackle and the roof leaked. It was huge, occupied a whole block or two. The Museum of the Moving Image is now in that building. I was living at the Park Lane, on Central Park South, and Francis was living across the street in his apartment on 54th and Fifth Avenue at the Sherry-Netherland.  But we worked in Queens almost all day long. Very often I would work until 3 or 4 in the morning, and then go back and fall asleep for a few hours, get up and have some breakfast, and be back at work for 10 in the morning. And in the early days Francis would always be there. He stayed at the studio until his family came in, in rooms set off as his private living quarters.

Anyway, it was a spectacular experience to see the development of this huge film from scratch and to watch Francis transforming everything. He fired multitudes: the choreographer; the music director; the production staff.  The only one he couldn’t fire was Bob Evans, the producer, and he would have liked to fire him. He wound up in court with him eventually. There was even a murder involved with this film – Roy Radin, a producer who was raising money in the very early days of the film’s development. He got mixed up with some drug deal in L.A., and some woman put out a contract on him. She hired a couple of thugs to kill him, and they did – picked him up in a restaurant, poked a gun in his mouth in the backseat of a car while driving through L.A. traffic, and took him out to some canyon and offed him. They didn’t find him for a while, but one of the killers’ guys got caught on something else and blew the whistle. It was a woman who had killed her previous husband — a dragon lady. There have been documentary movies made about this case and there was a very good piece by Michael Daly on the making of “Cotton Club” in New York magazine that brought in for the first time the background on this murder.

Anyway, it was a three-ring circus, and along the way I learned a lot about writing a screenplay. To work with Coppola was a gift. The main thing I learned from him was the power of concision. You have to find the visual element that you’re going to tell the story through; then you find the dialogue that goes with that and say it all in the shortest possible way. Keep the story moving. In “Cotton Club” you might be in the club itself, then suddenly you’re in a gangster’s conference, and then in a shootout, and than a love scene or a dancehall – the movie just kept running – and always music, and wonderful, wonderful dancing and singing performances.

There could be a 3-hour version of this some day, with much more story and a lot of great music and entertainment that was cut when the film was edited down to 2 hours and 10 minutes. Francis gave the video outtakes to the son of one of the film’s backers, and the young man edited the published video version of the film and the outtakes into a 3-hour movie. It’s rough, but I’ve seen it and it’s terrific. It would be a very entertaining film, and I think it would be re-appraised very positively.

The film’s reputation has grown enormously over the years. A few of us knew it was terrific immediately but so many complained about it because when it was released everybody was reviewing the money, and Francis as a big spender. The story was that it cost 57 million dollars, and that was an enormous amount in the early 80s — maybe the most expensive movie up to that time other than the Russian version of “War and Peace,” which cost about 100 million, or so they said in Russia. People were talking about the money and the hoopla surrounding the film. It was Coppola, Puzo, and Evans, and Evans was hustling shares in it by saying it was being done by the three men who gave you “The Godfather.” He kept me secret – my contribution wasn’t supposed to be known.  The publicity manager, when the shoot was over, apologized for keeping me invisible, but those were his orders.  I wasn’t even listed in the telephone directory on the set. Evans didn’t want me to confuse the issue while he was still raising money to finish the film based on the three big names. But I was the only writer on the film (with Francis) for a year and a half. Puzo was long gone before I came into the picture, and none of his scripts were used in the film. Not a word. He’s given a ‘story by’ credit on the screen, but that was because his first script started the project.

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