For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.
kc: Let's go back to your beginnings as a budding screenwriter in the early sixties. I didn't realize until recently that you were part of that Roger Corman low-budget finishing school that included Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese. How did you get involved?
kc: But what was it that made this milieu so openly collaborative?
rt: It was a collaborative effort in the sense that our ambitions, being shared ones, were healthier. You work in a certain way and you have common goals. It's all about the quality of the work. You believe in a certain kind of work and a different level of reality in it. We thought that when we grew up, we would make movies more real and they'd be better. And through our aspirations, we developed a common language about movies. Then, as we started to work together, we really did change them.
kc: The first major film you were part of and listed as a "special consultant" was Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. How did you get involved in that film?
rt: It was through Warren Beatty. I had written a script for Roger that Warren had read. He didn't want to do my film, but he liked it and he asked Arthur about letting me do re-writes on Bonnie and Clyde. So I did.
kc: What kinds of suggestions did you give?
kc: Was there any one scene that you altered in order to bring that aspect of the story out?
kc: You also contributed a similar shift of emphasis during a scene in The Godfather. Which scene was that?
kc: Ironically, when you wrote the screenplay for Roman Polanski's Chinatown, you were suddenly the one who had a key scene altered by the director. At the end of the movie, the detective Jake Gittes is unable to save the abused heroine, or her daughter, from her land baron father. I gather you had a different idea in mind.
kc: At the time, I couldn't decide whether or not that ending was just a reflection of the darkness in Roman Polanski, or a reflection of that whole post-Watergate mood?
rt: I think that it was part of a feeling that all of us had. It's just that Roman took it to the clearest extremes that he could. And I was notorious for shading even black visions. I was always one for giving a shade of grey - if only to make it more credible.
kc: Part of that shading you describe is very evident in the way you created Gittes.
kc: In The Last Detail, you wrote another character with complex shadings who was also played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is a blowhard sailor who is taking some young turk to the brig. But what's interesting is that we come to see that he's more imprisoned than the guy he's taking to jail.
kc: You wrote another picture for director Hal Ashby - who did The Last Detail - and that was Shampoo. One of the peculiar things about this movie is how misunderstood I think it is. I have friends who feel that the film was just Warren Beatty proving that he's a stud. I know others who feel that George's sexual escapades should have warranted punishment, in fact, they thought that the ending provided it. But I got the feeling that you weren't making those kinds of moral judgments.
kc: When you turned to writing and directing in Personal Best, it's funny that there is very little dialogue. Why did you want to make this movie about two female athletes who are in love and yet also competing to take part in the summer Olympics?
kc: Yet there is a casualness in the dialogue you did write which I enjoyed for both its humour and how it revealed the strength and weaknesses of the two women - How important is that casualness in your work?
rt: It's very important. You can take certain chances with dialogue. If you know you're not going to be harsh in the way the actor says it. For instance, Julie Christie has that famous scene in Shampoo where she tells someone at a dinner table that she wants to fellate Warren. Those lines could be crude, strictly speaking, but coming out of her mouth with her face registering pain and resentment over how she's being treated as Jack Warden's mistress, it means something entirely different. It's an act of defiance and rebellion from someone who is very hurt because she feels degraded. Paradoxically, the scene becomes funny rather than lewd. You're in sympathy with her.
rt: I wanted to take a melodrama and show, while still keeping the characters' emotional lives clear and easy to follow, the practical complexities of what they're dealing with. Kurt Russell plays a good cop who thinks that drugs are a scourge that has to be obliterated. As a practical matter, there is a very real possibility that all he'll do by trying to affect a change in the situation, is to get his best friend, played by Mel Gibson, a former drug dealer who is innocent, put in jail and the woman he loves killed. All of this in the name of doing his job. He's also dealing with a villain who will be replaced by someone else. And that villain will probably have the support of the United States government. A good cop like Kurt Russell runs the risk of being privately corrupted. He lies about what he's doing to the people he cares about most. Sooner or later, he has to corrupt his own feelings. He perverts traditional human values and the strongest human feelings - friendship and love - in the name of a job that won't bring him any more progress than Gittes archived in Chinatown. He may think he knows what's going on, but in fact, he doesn't know what's going on. Whatever his set of assumptions, he's forced to make choices. And, in life, our actions always catch up with us at odd moments.
kc: What constitutes loyalty and friendship is certainly a large part of what concerns you then?
kc: That sounds like a ripe metaphor for the movie business and what has happened to the quality of movies this past decade.
rt: I come from a town that is making movies in a time when the thing they understand best, because they've done it so much, or the times demand it, is a Rambo, a Superman, a Chuck Norris and they feel that they need a low-key Superman like Crocodile Dundee who's never wrong. They need a high-key comedian like Eddie Murphy who - as bright and as brilliant as he is - has an unsettling underlying facet in his work. And that is, that the joke is on everybody else but Eddie Murphy. I mean, he is always right. He's a smart-ass who is the absolute reverse of Chaplin's tramp. We've gone a long way. Comedians used to play victims and now we need superheroes and supervillains. I don't think it's a healthy view of life and it's ultimately not healthy for movies. If you want to get rid of a problem like drugs, you're going to have to accept the proposition that there won't be supervillains doing the dealing. It's far more complex. There's goodness in the darndest places. Unless you're willing to deal with that kind of complexity, you're either not going to solve the problems, nor in my view, are you going to make movies that will hold your interest indefinitely. Sooner or later, you're going to get tired of seeing Superman.