November 28, 1998
BP: Let me just ask you one more question, because I know you want to get to work. Can you talk about what happened with The Flaming Corsage?
WK: I was approached by a producer who was very excited to make a film from it, and we talked for an hour in a restaurant. We agreed that he should come to Albany and talk some more about it with me, which he did, and he brought one of his associates in and we sat around for a day and a half and talked through the whole book. Then I began to think about the kind of movie that they thought they wanted, and could get through the system out there at Universal, which was where he was based. We went back and forth on how to approach the novel. I had my ideas and he had his. It took me about a year to decide to really do it, and finally I went to work, and we moved ahead on the deal. I was working some months before I got paid but I knew I was going to get paid. Then it took me another six months to finish the script. Much too long. But what happened in writing this screenplay was that I saw things that weren’t in the novel. I knew the various lives of my characters and began to re-invent the story. So there are scenes in the screenplay that don’t exist in the novel, but that are compatible, also alternative possibilities for the behavior of the characters. I thought for a few minutes that I might even publish the novel and the screenplay together, if the movie ever got made and I liked it, because there were some parallel universes where the characters lived alternative lives. They can still be who they are, and I can still tell essentially the same story, but the reader has alternatives.
Anyway, by the time I got through writing it, everything had changed at Universal. A few directors saw it and didn’t get excited and the project stopped. New people came into power at Universal and it wasn’t their cup of tea; so it ended up in turnaround. It’s hardly news when a movie gets turned down by the first 3, 4, 5, whatever it is, directors or studios. It can go for years. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and many other films deemed impossible, took years to get made. The Flaming Corsage is a period story, for one thing, a tragic love story, and Hollywood isn’t crazy about either one of those. Even when they’re successful, like “The English Patient” – which was done by an independent producer and was not a studio movie – it’s hard to get them done. It’s luck. Or lightning strikes.
Ironweed was the best novel I could write at the time I wrote it, and I thought it was a finished piece of work, but an awful lot of people turned it down on the grounds that my previous novel had not been commercially successful. So much of what becomes popular in this country is the consequence of the cult of personality. It’s not necessarily the quality of the work that makes the impression. It’s the image of the writer in the popular imagination at the moment. I’m not saying that that’s all that happens, but very often it happens. Success just begets more success. Tom Wolfe sold more than a million copies of Bonfire of the Vanities before it was even published – that man cannot do anything wrong in the popular mind.
I think that there’s a chance that somebody who really understands Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game could make a terrific movie. Stanley Tucci has always wanted to make it and maybe he will. Legs could be a sensational movie in the right hands. But it’s like everything else – you have to have that confluence of sympathetic minds – and if you don’t have it, you’re just out there knocking your head against the wall. I wrote to Mario Puzo once to do a piece on him about his early work. He said something very comical. He said that once when he owed shylocks a lot of money and was deep in other debt, that “It was time to grow up and sell out.” So he wrote The Godfather. It was a great line and an honest thing to say. But he wrote some very good and serious early novels, and that was what I wanted to talk to him about, and what it was like to make the transition from fiction to screenwriting. He said, “Look, either you go out there and you live and you plug along all your life, trying to make it, or else lightning strikes.” Well, for me, lightning struck, and for him, it struck big time. For me, it was the publication of Ironweed and winning the MacArthur, all in the same week. Then six months later, I was working with Coppola, and six months after that everything was under option. But it was another four years before the movie “Ironweed” got made, and that was really because of Babenco and myself. The people who had optioned it had very little to do with making the movie. Babenco’s desire to do it and my willingness to work with him, and his friendship with Jack Nicholson and with a producer who convinced Keith Barish to put up the money and pay Jack five million dollars to play Francis – those elements made that film possible.
So that was lightning for me, in the sense that I got into the movie business on a fluke, even though I wanted to get into it and was ready to go into it. That could have happened to a lot of people and they might not have known what to do with it, or wouldn’t want anything to do with it. I know Saul Bellow had one movie made from his books, and Jack Nicholson wanted to make Henderson, the Rain King, but Saul didn’t want to write screenplays. I don’t think he had the patience or the interest.
I might write another script one day, if it’s an adaptation of one of my books or plays. But I’ll never do another original screenplay. If I’m going to invent from scratch, it will be a novel.