NOTE: This article is a revised version of an interview which will appear in the forthcoming Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s, edited by Patrick McGilligan, forthcoming University of California Press, Berkeley. Copyright Lee Hill 1996. For use by Alt-x only.
Terry Southern's astonishingly varied input was distinguished by humor, irony, compassion and a savage contempt for all forms of pretense, hypocrisy and oppression. Southern's novels, short stories, screenplays, journalism, criticism and other belles lettres were the work of a man far more serious and engaged than other writers who proclaimed themselves as such. His willingness to experiment was demonstrated by a diverse range of collaborations with, to name a few, Larry Rivers, William Burroughs, Stanley Kubrick, William Claxton, Brendan Gill, The Rolling Stones and Harry Nilsson. In 1990, the reissue of his 1968 collection, Red Dirt Marijuana, affirmed that the targets of his satire - politicians, the military, racists, the corporate and scientific establishments, et al. - had not changed for the better with the aging of the baby boom generation. Born on May 1, l924, in Alvarado, Texas, Southern grew up in Dallas. During World War Two, he served with the US Army in Europe. In 1948, after completing a BA at Northwestern University in Chicago, he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. Over the next four years, he met and worked with a new generation of literary expatriates and contributed short fiction to New-Story, Merlin, Zero and the newly founded Paris Review. Southern spent much of the fifties "on the road" between New York, London, Paris and Geneva. His discovery of the novels of Henry Green led to a friendship with the enigmatic English writer. Southern's first novel, Flash and Filigree, published in England in 1958, was more than an homage to Green. It announced the arrival of a unique writer with an enduring satiric vision. Southern's second novel, The Magic Christian (1959), a powerful combination of fable and social commentary, continued to build his growing cult reputation. In 1962, after a few uncertain years as a free lance writer, Southern was hired by director Stanley Kubrick to rewrite the script for what would become Dr. Strangelove. His work was nominated for an Academy Award in 1964. The simultaneous release of Dr. Strangelove and the US publication of Candy, co-written with Mason Hoffenberg in 1958 for Maurice Girodias' notorious Olympia Press, made Southern a proverbial household name. During the sixties, Southern worked on the screenplays for Casino Royale, The Collector, The Loved One, The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella, The End Of The Road and The Magic Christian. His work on Easy Rider, directed by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, earned him a second Academy Award Nomination in 1969. Between the publication of his novel, Blue Movie, in 1970 and the follow-up, Texas Summer, in 1991, Southern continued to devote his energies to a number of film projects. Although much of this work was unproduced due to the vagaries of Hollywood decision making, those who have seen the scripts of Junky, A Cool Million, Grossing Out, and Obits can testify to Southern's continued mastery of dialogue, vivid characterization and compelling storytelling. Since 1960, Southern lived on a farm outside East Canaan, Connecticut. His companion, Gail Gerber, runs a ballet school. In contrast to the wild, shifting character of his novels and screenplays, Southern was shy and courtly in person. While he was reluctant to talk about himself and the meaning of his work, he was also someone whose hospitality and generosity knew no bounds. Like Henry Green, Southern also preferred to write at night and in long hand. During our conversations, Southern eloquently quoted Green on the importance of style: "Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed. It should in the end draw tears from the stone." This interview has been culled from several hours of taped conversation at Southern's home in Connecticut and over the phone between 1993 and 1994. During my visits to East Canaan, our chats took place in his living room with C-Span in the background and wood crackling in the fireplace. Terry loved the act of writing, but he dreaded deadlines or outside pressure. He was a purist who preferred spontaneity even when this ideal made his relations with editors, publishers or film producers problematic. Terry also hated anything that smacked of introspection. It would be hard to imagine him on Oprah or Donahue (although the notion has the kind of comic potential of one of Terry's scripts). Since I first spoke to Terry in 1990, there wasn't a day when I did not think of him in some way. It was a privilege not only to meet a man who wrote several of my favorite books, but to become his friend for a brief time. I expected him to be around forever and through his novels, stories, essays and films he does indeed live on in grand style. - Lee Hill
How did you and Mason Hoffenberg work on Candy? Who came up with the initial concept?
"In the very beginning, I wrote a short story about a girl in Greenwich Village who got involved with a hunchback because she was such a good Samaritan. That became the hunchback chapter of the novel. When I was in Europe, I showed that story to a couple of people including Mason (Hoffenberg). Mason thought she should have more adventures. That seemed like a good idea. So I said, 'why don't you write one and we'll see what we can come up with together.' So he wrote the sequence where Candy goes to the hospital to see a specialist, Dr. Krankheit, and discovers that his mother is disguised as a scrubwoman to keep an eye on her son. It was very much a piece of Jewish humor. He wrote that and I began to write other chapters. Every once in a while, I would show him what I wrote. It was like telling jokes back and forth. Your hearing of the joke becomes as important as telling the joke. In that sense, it was such a good thing because there was this built-in obligation to write the next chapter. "It was like returning a good favor. That approach worked quite well and was in perfect sync with the kind of creative work that people try to do together. Tourette Sur Loup was the ideal place for us to continue our collaboration. Moredcai Richler was our connection down there. Mason and I would let him know we were coming and he would get one of these cottages down there. Tourette Sur Loup was a great place to work. There were few distractions and no night life there. We were there in the spring and summer. It had Cote D'Azur weather without the beach. "
Was this before Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press got involved?
"Oh yeah, it was only as a total afterthought that it occurred to someone, I think it was Marilyn Meeske, who was working for Girodias, that he would be interested in it as a dirty book. Then, the collaboration took on a new dimension and reason for being in that we were getting paid for it. Although it was a minuscule sum. Our connection with Girodias had begun before Tourette, but was quite independent of the work itself."
Hoffenberg was a poet when you met him. How strong was his interest in writing?
"He was a poet and just an ultra-creative guy. He could have been, god knows, a Nobel Prize-type poet, but he just was not disciplined. Poetry was his thing mostly."
Did you meet him through Alexander Trocchi and the Merlin crowd?
"No, he was pretty much on his own, but there was sort of a crowd that was made up of a couple of guys from New York like Themistocles Hoetis and Albert Benveniste, who founded this magazine called Zero. I guess the other person in that group was Jimmy Baldwin. They used to hang out at the big cafe of the time, the Cafe St. Germain des Pres. It was more of a gathering place for British and American expatriates than des Flores or Deux Magots were for the French."
It seems there was a less career minded approach to literature at that time.
"In fact, it was so much so that getting published was sort of an embarrassment like you had sold out or something. If it was corny enough and square enough and bourgeois enough to get accepted by some of these asshole editors, how could it be worth anything? So mostly it was all about reading and turning people on to things you had read like Mallarme, Malaparte and Canetti's Auto Da Fe - he was a great one - and then showing people stuff you had written. There was some things where people would read aloud, which seemed a little suspect and too social to me. I preferred to just sort of show it to someone."
Henry Green is an obvious influence on your work. Before Green, were there other writers you found significant?
"Well, very early on the influences of Edgar Allen Poe and the whole school of horror and the supernatural like H.P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany. Celine and Kafka certainly. Nathanael West."
How did you come to meet Henry Green?
"Someone wrote a piece about Henry Green in The Partisan Review that was so intriguing that I got one of his novels, Loving, I believe, which was the first that came to attention in the United States. I read it and was knocked out. It was so good that I immediately started reading all of his books. They seemed so extraordinary that I wrote Green a fan letter. I just wanted to express my appreciation of his work. Surprisingly enough, he wrote back. So we got into a correspondence and through that developed a curious friendship. When I was living in Geneva, Switzerland, where Carol had this job teaching for UNESCO, we lived above the school in a Kafka-like situation. One day, we got this telegram from him saying, 'Too long in city pinth, I perish. May I fly to you?' or something like that. I wired back 'Come at once.' During our correspondence, he said Switzerland always fascinated him because it is the one place where they inventory every stone in the country. We said you must visit, never dreaming that he would. It just seemed an appropriate thing to say when someone expresses an interest in where you live. Maybe some moment of stress in his scene in London or at his factory, Pontifex and Sons, in Leeds was behind his visit. I think he came over on a train. He spent about a week or two with us, then we decided to drive him to Paris in a 1935 Citroen. It had such an advanced design, low slung and no running board, that it looked like a contemporary car."
Two pre-Dr. Strangelove forays into screenwriting included Candy Kisses, a short film you co-directed with David Burnett in 1955, and an adaptation of Eugene O' Neill's Emperor Jones for British TV in l958. Can you tell me more about these early projects?
"David Burnett was the son of Martha Foley, who edited the Best American Short Stories series. She hired me to work with David and her to read stories for the anthology. We worked in the morning. While David and I were going for lunch on West Fourth Street across from an elementary school. We would see the children come out at a recess. We got the idea that a perfect crime would be to get a box of chocolates, put cyanide in the chocolates, replace the top and artfully put the box of candy in the school yard. During the recess or lunch hour, the kids would see the box and eat the chocolates. It would be a perfect crime in a Leopold and Loeb mold. David had been given this very early Kodak movie camera that you wind up. That was the catalyst for doing the film. So we got the props and a couple of kids from friends of his mother's, who were the right age, and shot this little movie whose principal scenes were the preparation of these candies. We shot this one scene at a cabaret, and a couple of scenes of the children grimacing. That's as far it got actually. It's about nine minutes. " I adapted The Emperor Jones when I was in England in the late fifties. Ted Kotcheff, who was directing for British television at the time, said they want me to do Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones. I already knew Kotcheff through Mordecai. So I did the script for that. We did it with this guy Kenneth Spencer, who was a lot like James Earl Jones. That was an interesting production. I got to use Billie Holiday music in the background."
How did your involvement in the Writers in Revolt anthology (1963) come about?
"One of the jobs that Alex Trocchi had when he was still in New York was working for a publisher called Frederick Fell. It was kind of donkey work editing. He managed to gain some influence there and talked Frederick into letting us put together an anthology of very contemporary prose. Not necessarily contemporary in chronology, but in spirit. It was called Beyond The Beat meaning the beatnik craze which was happening at the time. They changed the title to Writers In Revolt. Richard Seaver was involved because he was Grove Press and could get a lot of the rights. He was also a perceptive and intelligent connoisseur of great fiction. I helped pick out stuff to go in the volume and wrote the odd commentary."
I am curious about the origin of the story "Blood Of The Wig". Did that come out of your brief tenure as an editor at Esquire?
"Well, I had contributed a few things and knew a lot of the people who worked there. Robert Benton and David Newman were there. Harold Hayes was the editor. Rust Hills, the fiction editor, went on vacation to Florida for a couple of months, I think, so Harold Hayes asked if I would like to help out. It wasn't as if they were shorthanded and I would take over Rust Hills decision making power, although I don't know if he ever had complete independence. What I would do would be to read these manuscripts as they came in. They would get a hundred a day and divide it up between Benton, Newman and Rust Hills. So I took this job. I was interested in the unsolicted manuscripts, which was a huge pile called the "shit pile". They had to be dealt with, but it was almost as though you could open them up, put a mimeographed rejection slip and send each one back without ever looking at. At the time I had this notion that there might be something really interesting which would turn up in the shit pile. The women referred to it as the "slush pile". My secretary was embarrassed when I said I wanted to read some of those instead of the ones from the agents, because it reflected on her that I would be reading the lowest of the low. But I was at a point in my Quality Lit syndrome and gestalt of thinking that there could exist a really interesting and primitive, Grandma Moses type literature. Something that was so pure and unadorned without considerations of niceties of style and trying to slant it in a contrived way that it could be slightly extraoridnary. I started reading these unsolicited, non-agent manuscripts wthe extentith that in mind even to the extent of reading something very simple-minded and thinking 'well, this has got to be metaphorical.' Waiting for it to reveal itself as something on a different level than this apparent simplistic level and it just didn't happen. I kept thinking it was about to happen, but it never did. When I gave up on that and accepted the disillusionment, I got very cynical about the whole thing and began to think of it as really dumb hack work."
Before you were hired to work on the script for Dr. Strangelove, weren't you originally just going to do a "making of " article for Esquire?
"No, it was actually a confluence of things. What happened was that Peter Sellers had a hundred copies of The Magic Christian and gave them to his friends at Christmas and on their birthdays. He happened to give one to Stanley Kubrick, who read it and was knocked out. When Kubrick decided to go the black comedy route with his movie, he thought of me to give it that flavor. So he called me to come over there. I was in Connecticut when I took the call. "Meanwhile, my agent found out about this and a number of people wanted me to interview Kubrick. They didn't know what was happening. They just heard I was going to see Stanley Kubrick and thought that this would make a good interview. About three people, Esquire, The Atlantic, I think. Even George Plimpton asked me about it and that would have been a good idea."
What was the status of the Dr. Strangelove script before Stanley Kubrick decided to hire you in the fall of 1962?
"When Kubrick and George first began to do the script, they were trying to stick to the melodrama in Peter George's book, Red Alert.. There was an outline. They didn't go into a treatment, but went straight into a script. They had a few pages and in fact had started shooting, but in a very tentative way. Kubrick realized that this was not going to work. You can't do the end of the world in a conventionally dramatic way or Boy Meets Girl way. You have to do it in some way that reflects your awareness that it is important and serious. It has to be a totally different treatment and black humor is the way to go. That was Kubrick's decision.
When you two first got together did you start changing the tone of the script right away?
Yeah, after the first day, at our first meeting, he told me what the situation was. All those things that I've told you were his very words. "It's too important to be treated in the conventional way. It's unique! The end of the world is surely a unique thing, so forget about the ordinary treatment of subject and go for something like a horror film . " He decided to do it with humor. The flavor that attracted him in my novel, The Magic Christian, could be effective in this new approach. He would talk about the mechanics of making it totally credible and convincing in terms of the fail safe aspect and then try to make that funny. And the way you make it funny, because the situation is absurd, is by dealing with it in terms of the dialogue and characters.
I'm curious about the day to day working relationship with Kubrick as you wrote the film from the pre-production period through the actual shooting?
"Well, after my first day in London when he told me what he had in mind, he got me settled into a hotel room not far from where he lived in Kensington. That night, I wrote the first scene and then he picked me up at 4:30 the next morning in the limo. The limo was a Big Rolls or Bentley. We were in the back seat with the light on. There was this desk that folded down. It was very much like a train compartment. It was totally dark outside. If it got light, we would pull the shades down. He would read the script pages and we would rewrite them and prepare them for shooting when we got to the studio, which was about an hour to an hour and a half drive depending on the fog."
Peter Sellers was going to play all four parts originally including the Texan bombardier. I understand you coached Sellers on his accent?
"The financing of the film was based almost one hundred percent on the notion that Sellers would play multiple roles. About a week before shooting, he sent us a telegram saying he could not play a Texan, because he said it was one accent he was never able to do. Kubrick asked me to make a tape of a typical Texan accent. When Sellers arrived on the set, he plugged into this Swiss tape recorder with huge, monster earphones and listened to the tape I made. He looked ridiculous, but he mastered the accent in about 10 minutes. Then Sellers sprained his ankle and couldn't make the moves going up and down the ladder in the bomb bay. He was out of that part. The doctor told him he couldn't do it. Then, it was a question of replacing him. Stanley had set such store by his acting that he felt he couldn't just replace him with just another actor. He wanted an authentic John Wayne. The part had been written with Wayne as model."
Did Kubrick ever try to get Wayne to play the role?
"Wayne was approached and dismissed it immediately. Stanley hadn't been in the States for some time, so he didn't know anything about television programs. He wanted to know if I knew of any suitable actors on TV. I said there was this very authentic big guy who played on "Bonanza" named Dan Blocker. Big Hoss. Without seeing him, Kubrick sent off a script to his agent. Kubrick got an immediate reply: "It is too pinko for Mr. Blocker." Stanley then remembered Slim Pickens from One Eyed Jacks, which he almost directed for Marlon Brando, until Brando acted in such a weird way that he forced Stanley out."
When Pickens was hired and came to London, wasn't that the first time he had ever been out of the States?
"Yes, in fact it was the first time he had ever been anywhere outside the rodeo circuit as a clown or the backlots of Hollywood. Stanley was very concerned about him in London for the first time and asked me to greet him. I got some Wild Turkey from the production office and went down to the sound stage to meet him. It was only ten in the morning so I asked Slim if it was too early for a drink. He said, "it's never too early for a drink." So I poured out some Wild Turkey in a glass and asked him if he got settled in his room. "Hell, it doesn't take much to make me happy. Just a pair of loose shoes, a tight pussy and a warm place to shit." One of Kubrick's assistants, a very public school type, couldn't believe his ears, but went "ho ho ho" anyway. "Finally, I took Slim over to the actual set where we were shooting. I left him alone for a few minutes to talk to Stanley. While we were standing there talking, Stanley went, "Look there's James Earl Jones on a collision course with Slim. Better go over and introduce them." James Earl Jones knew that Pickens had just worked with Brando. Jones was impressed and asked Pickens how the experience of working with Brando went. "Well, I worked with Marlon Brando for six months and in that time, I never saw him do one thing that wasn't all man and all white." Slim didn't even realize what he was saying. I glanced at James Earl Jones and he didn't crack. Slim replacing Sellers worked out well because unbeknownst to me at the time, the actor that was playing the co-pilot was taller and stockier than Sellers. Whereas Slim was about the same size [as the co-pilot] and more convincingly fulfilled the intention of this larger-than-life Texan.
To what extent did Peter Sellers' improvisation depart from the shooting script?
"It was minimal. It wasn't like Lolita, where he improvised a great deal. His improvisational bits in Strangelove were very specific. One scene that comes to mind is when Hayden goes into the bathroom to kill himself, Peter's lines are, "Oh go into the bathroom and have a brush up... Good idea." Seller changed that to, "Splash a bit of cold water on the back of the neck" which is more of a British thing. That was good."
What was Peter Sellers like to work with in general because you were associated with him off and on following Strangelove with The Magic Christian and Grossing Out, which was going to follow Being There?
"Well, it was a complete dichotomy, because working with him was like working with two people. He was an ultra-talented person who was one of the fastest improvisers ever. He could add to and enrich a scene or character tremendously beyond what was written. On the other hand, he could take it too far and detract from the quality of humor when it was his own. He was too complicated because he was so insecure. If he had reached the saturation point with the particular innovations he was making and you said 'yeah, I don't think we should go any further with this,' he would take it very personally as though you were putting him down as a friend. He thought you were withdrawing your affection from him or whatever he felt was there. Then he would just get more and more into the improvisation as though he were going to insist on it because then your suggestion would represent more than just the quality of the material. For Sellers, it would represent something excruciatingly personal, which was a lot more important than the movie or any of the aesthetics involved. So it was tough because it was a constant balancing act."
Your work on Dr. Strangelove reveals your sensitivity to the way people in a bureaucracy like the Pentagon talk.
"Yes, they all have jargon and a certain vernacular that are specific, peculiar and particular to their skills. Sometimes there is something so utterly pompous about these phrases themselves. If the thing is absurd, like the macho thing of the military is absurd, the very phrases become funny.
What was Columbia's reaction to this subversive black comedy that they helped to finance?
"Columbia was embarrassed by the picture and tried to get people to see Carl Foreman's The Victors instead. They would steer ticket buyers away from Strangelove and try to get them to see The Victors. At the time we thought we were going to be totally wiped out. People would call up the box office and be told there were no seats for Strangelove and asked if they would like to see The Victors instead. Gradually, the buzz along the rialto built word of mouth in our favor."
Wasn't there some falling out between Kubrick and yourself over screen credit following the film's release?
"Stanley's obsession with the auteur syndrome - that his films are by Stanley Kubrick - override any other credit at all. Not just writing, but anything. He's like Chaplin in that regard. That's the reason why he rarely uses original music in his films. Having written this great best-seller, Candy, which was something like number one on The New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks, my reputation eclipsed Stanley's, so I got total credit for all the Strangelove success in Life, The New York Times and other publications. The credit I was getting was just so overwhelming and one sided credit that naturally he was freaking out. He took out full page ads in every paper in America saying Terry Southern has nothing to do with it. He felt that and rightly so and lashed out, but it was like an overnight thing. I wrote a letter to the New York Times explaining that there was no mystery involved and that I was brought in to just help with the screenplay."
You hear all these fantastic stories about how Kubrick lives, did you visit his home much when you were in London?
"He has a castle-like structure, a grand old mansion, which has this two projector screening room. It has electric fences and security devices. It has everything except a moat. He's super private because he lives for his children. He lives in total comfort and luxury in almost total seclusion."
After Dr. Strangelove, you worked on The Loved One and Cincinnati Kid, two films produced by John Calley and Martin Ransohoff, what can you can tell me about those experiences?
"The Loved One has been the most underrated film I've worked on. However, it has recently been released on video cassette and will finally be seen, and presumably, recognized. The cinematography by Haskell Wexler should have received an Academy Award. Everyone who knows anything about film agrees on that. The cast which included John Gielgud and Rod Steiger is one of the finest ever assembled. And working with Tony Richardson was extraordinary. He had just come off Tom Jones which won every award possible and made everyone connected with it a fortune - and yet such is the total sleaze and corruption of the studios that MGM refused to renegotiate his contract and made him abide by his pre-Tom Jones commitment to The Loved One for a minuscule fee. They thought they were being "shrewd." Well, Richardson was so completely pissed off at them that he cast an American actor, Robert Morse, to play an English poet (at a time, when Tom Courtney, James Fox and Albert Finney, to mention a few, were available) and he barred Martin Ransohoff from the set. We started each morning in the production office by opening a magnum of Dom Perignon. The dailies were shown at the screening room of The Beverly Hills Hotel, with plenty of canapes laid on. In other words, their "shrewd" avarice cost them a pretty penny in the end. "Sam Peckinpah was the original director of The Cincinnati Kid. There is a sequence in the beginning where Slade, a wealthy southerner, played by Rip Torn, is at home with his wife and two children. He is shown to be a sanctimonious family man. In a subsequent scene he is shown in bed with his mistress. Well, it was obvious that the full irony of his hypocrisy, in this citadel of southern virtue, New Orleans, could only be attained by her being black. So that's how it was written and that's how it was shot with Peckinpah of course in enthusiastic agreement. When the producer saw the dailies, he freaked. "We're not making a message picture," he said and replaced Peckinpah pronto with Norman Jewison, who said something like: "Hey you guys must have been nuts to try that. "It may have balanced out though because there's a scene in the movie where the Kid (Steve McQueen) is very depressed because his girl (Tuesday Weld) has just left and he's trying to get his head together for the big game with The Man (Edward G. Robinson). Norman said, "Okay, let's create an atmosphere of really devastating loneliness. Maybe Steve walking along an empty street. You know putting an emphasis on his solitary situation. Think that will do it?" "Yes," I said, "If it's at night." That gave Norm pause. "A night shoot? Very expensive Ter. Well, I guess we can manage it." "Well if you really want to max it for loneliness," I said, "It really should be raining as well." "A night-shoot in the rain? Holy Christ!" So there we were with a couple of blocks in mid-town New Orleans cordoned off, at night, with rain machines letting it pour from the roofs of several buildings. Of course, the producer, Big Mort Ransohoff - the guy who had fired Peckinpah - freaked out completely. "Are you guys out of your gourd?" He kept shouting, "You're killing me, you're killing me!"
You spent a lot of time going back and forth to London during the height of the British film boom.
"After Strangelove I also started work on an adaptation of The Collector."
Did you stay in England for that?
"Yeah, although I quit before the shooting began. These two American producers insisted on finding a way to save the girl. At the end of John Fowles' novel, the heroine dies of pneumonia after trying to escape in a rainstorm. Changing that didn't even seem like a possibility. It just sounded like one of those stupid ideas. I was not comfortable doing that because because of my admiration for Fowles' novel. I even wrote a letter to the London Times protesting this change and it had some effect on the producers, which gave me a bit of satisfaction. Then they said, "we've been thinking about it, maybe the real message is that art can triumph over an asshole like The Collector." After showing him for his complete nerd-jerk-nowhere man creepiness, I contrived to have her escape by outwitting The Collector through her art [the girl is an art school student], and prevail. So I wrote a couple of scenes where (Samantha Eggar) was working with this paper mache sculpture in her cell. I set up a pattern of where (Terrence Stamp) would open the door of this room and look in very cautiously to make sure she wasn't trying to escape, because a couple of times she tried to dart out when he opened the door. He would say "I want you to stand where I can see you from the other side of the room." She created this paper mache likeness in such detail that it deceived him. He would open the door and look across the room and see "her", when she was, in fact, just behind the door. But because the sculpture was so artfully done, he fell for it. The scene was like Hitchcock. Then she locked the door behind her and him in her former cell. Years later, she would be seen having a picnic on a lovely day. "It's so lovely here in this pastoral sylvan setting, I can understand why you like to come here," her companion would comment. The camera would then pull away to reveal they are having a picnic just a few feet away from the cellar door. By this stage they had gone too far back to the original premise for them to use the new ending that I proposed."
The making of Casino Royale (1967) was a fairly acrimonious affair with all the directors from John Huston and Robert Parrish to Joseph McGrath. You spent a fair amount of time as an uncredited writer on the film.
"I received a call from Gareth Wigan, a famous British agent, who was representing me at the time. He had this call from Peter Sellers saying he wanted me to write some dialogue for him on this movie. Wigan said, "I think you can ask whatever you want because the producer, Charles Feldman, wants to make it a blockbuster." There was a lot of heavy weight on that movie because of Orson Welles and Woody Allen. However, Woody Allen and Peter were such enemies on that film that I didn't really associate with anyone but Peter. An extraordinary thing happened. Because Woody Allen was having such a bad time on the picture his agent came over to the Dorchester Hotel to speak to him. When he came into the lobby, he was dead sure he spotted his client Woody Allen at the news stand reading a paper. The agent came over and said, "Hey, Woody, we're gonna fix that fucking Sellers and he'll be off this picture." But it was actually Peter Sellers he was talking to. Sellers immediately realized that it was a case of mistaken identity and of course went right along with it and apparently gave a masterful impersonation of Woody Allen. He used to repeat this imitation with the grimace and glasses. The agent kept ranting for three or four minutes how Sellers should be fired and some specific things like "I've seen his contract and I know how much he's getting, blah, blah blah" and then he split. Peter was so irate (later he was amused) that he walked straight out the door and flew home to Geneva and announced he was taking a few days holiday. So this multi-million dollar movie came to an abrupt halt. It was an incredible situation costing thousands a day. They tried to shoot around Peter in his big confrontation scene with Orson Welles in the casino. Welles was furious. They didn't even have all the actors in the master shot, just some stand ins, and each day they would shoot around which ever star didn't show up."
There were lot of writers involved on that project. Can you remember which scenes you wrote?
"Just the Peter Sellers stuff. I rewrote all his dialogue in the scenes he was in. I just rewrote with an eye to giving him the best dialogue so that he would come out [of the film looking] better than the others. I earned about $25,000, which was an enormous amount for work which I essentially did overnight."
Where would you stay in England when working on a film?
"I was staying at the Dorchester during Casino Royale. I stayed at a number of hotels. Writing on a contract for a major studio you get the very best. I would go back and forth on these over the Pole flights, where you would go from LA to London. I wrote a lot during those flights."
You spent a fair amount of time socializing with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and others in the scene associated with Robert Fraser's London art gallery.
"I knew about Robert Fraser's gallery because friends of mine like Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and others would show there. Fraser was an extraordinary guy. Kenneth Tynan lived on Mount Street near the gallery. He used to take me to a lot of places like that. Fraser's gallery became very common knowledge in the industry. One day, Tynan said I had to see this friend of his, Colin Self, who had done this extraordinary piece of sculpture which was like the Strangelove plane. They wanted me to pose with it at Fraser's gallery. That was my first actual trip there. While I was there, Michael Cooper, the photographer who took some pictures, said, "You must come over for drinks. Mick and Keith are going to be there." Robert used to have this very active salon at his flat. So I went over and got to know them in a very short time. Christopher Gibbs, the antique dealer and production designer for Performance, was part of the crowd at Robert Fraser's. Then there was Tara Browne, who was killed in the car crash John Lennon wrote about in "A Day In The Life." It was through him that I knew Christopher. Sandy Lieberson, who was an agent who optioned Flash and Filigree and produced Performance, was there a fair bit. He was involved with the American film industry in London. I wasn't around during the actual shooting of Performance, but I heard a lot of talk about it from James Fox and his father, Willie Fox."
Wasn't your old Paris buddy Mordecai Richler still living in London then?
"He was in fact living there and so was Ted Kotcheff. We had these great poker games."
Did you meet The Beatles around the same time?
"I met The Beatles and Stones at the same time, because Michael Cooper was doing several of their album covers. He had that market sewed up."
Do you remember how The Beatles decided to choose your face for the cover of Sgt. Pepper?
"I was probably one of the few people they knew who weren't icons of a sort. Most of the other faces on the cover were historical choices. I was closest to Ringo. Ringo was a very good friend of Harry Nilsson. Through Ringo, I met Harry, who I became grand good friends with and later worked on scripts like The Telephone for Hawkeye, a company that we formed."
Wasn't there also a social circle in Los Angeles concurrent with the one you moved through in London with Nicholson, Fonda and Hopper?
"Yes, there was an interesting scene with the hub being Robert Walker Jr. You know, the actor in Strangers In A Train, well that was his son. He looked very much like him. He got involved in a commune-type thing. He was the most spiritual of all those people. He was extraordinary. He was the first person I knew to practice Tai Chi. He was in the commune scene in Easy Rider. I remember seeing him in a few films and he was very good, very sympathetic. Every Sunday, Walker and his wife, Ellie had this wide open pad on Malibu Beach. It was very comfortable and people would just drop by. Ellie was a wonderful Earth mother type, except she was very vivacious and cute, so she was great. There were various people who came to these Sundays. Nicholson was one of them and Michael Parks was another. He was there a lot. Peter was there. Dennis wasn't very much. When he was in town, Roger Vadim would come there. There were a few houses along in the area of people who were kindred spirits. There were a lot of recreational drugs. Not so much coke. Coke was still peripheral at that time. A lot of hashish, grass and pills. A bit of acid, mushrooms and a lot of peyote."
Speaking of scenes, another place comes to mind. Wasn't Max's Kansas City in New York a big bar at that time as well?
"Yeah, about the mid-sixties. I used to go there a lot. Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick would always come around at one point in the evening. About 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. The place would get tremendously electric with anticipation and buzzing. Although Warhol was ultra-gay, he always surrounded by beautiful women."
Before Candy was directed by Christian Marquand, you were involved in the adaptation as a co-producer as well as writer.
"Yes, the first plan for Candy was for David Picker, who was the head of United Artists at the time to produce, and Frank Perry to direct. Perry had just come off David and Lisa, so he was big. We were going to get Hayley Mills to play Candy. She was perfect. John Mills, her father, wouldn't let her do it. We were still in the process of trying to persuade him to let her to do it when David Picker lost his position. Then, my good friend, Christian Marquand, the French actor who was trying to break into directing and was certainly competent enough to direct at the time, begged me to let him have the option for two weeks for nothing, so he could put a deal together. So I did and sure enough, Marquand immediately put Brando in the cast because Brando was his best friend. They were life long friends to the extent that Brando named his first son after Marquand. So on the basis of getting Brando, he was able to add Richard Burton and having gotten those two, he was able to get everyone else. Then, he disappointed me by casting a Swedish girl [Ewa Aulin] for the lead role, which was uniquely American and Mid-Western. He thought this would make Candy's appeal more universal. That's when I withdrew from the film. The film version of Candy is proof positive of everything rotten you ever heard about major studio production. They are absolutely compelled to botch everything original to the extent that it is no longer even vaguely recognizable."
Buck Henry wrote the final screen adaptation. Did you know him at all?
"I didn't know him at all at the time. I wasn't even aware that he had written a script of Catch-22. I just thought he was the creator of Get Smart."
Did you look down on TV writers at the time?
"Well, how would you feel? I mean situation comedy! What could possibly be creatively lower than that? It has nothing to do with TV vs. film. It's just that situation comedy is mass produced and not something that has much to do with writing."
In the fall of 1967, you went to Rome to work on Barbarella.
"Yes, I stayed there during the shoot at Cinecitta. I was living at the top of the Spanish steps in a good hotel there. It was a good experience working with Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda. The strain was with Dino DeLaurentis. He was just this flamboyant business man. His idea of good cinema was to give money back on the cost of the picture before even going into production. He doesn't even make any pretense about the quality or the aesthetic. "Vadim wasn't particularly interested in the script, but he was a lot of fun with a discerning eye for the erotic, grotesque and the absurd. And Jane Fonda, super in all regards. The movie has developed a curious cult following, and I am constantly getting requests to appear at screenings at some very obscure weirdo place like Wenk, Texas or a suburb of Staten Island. Around 1990, I got a call from DeLaurentis who produced the picture. He was looking for a way to do a sequel. "On the cheap" was how he expressed it, "but with plenty action and plenty sex!" Then, he went on with these immortal words: "Of course Janie is too old now to be sexy, but maybe her daughter" But nothing, perhaps fortunately, came of it."
Wasn't it during the making of Barbarella that you first began working on Easy Rider?
"Yes. Very early on it was called Mardi Gras--to identify it. The first notion was that it be these barnstorming cars, stunt driver cars, where they do flips and things, but that just seemed too unnecessarily complicated. So we just settled for the straight score of dope, selling it and leaving the rat race. We forgot about the daredevil drivers which is a commonplace thing. It was going to be this troupe who play a few dates and places and eventually get fed up with that and make this score. Finally, we forewent any pretense of them doing anything else than buying cocaine. We didn't specify that it was cocaine, but that's what it would be. They go to New Orleans to sell it. Then once they got their money, they ride to coastal Florida or some place like Key West where they could buy a boat cheap, not in New Orleans, because it would be too expensive.
"That was basically the story which I then started to flesh out after our initial script meetings."
Did they actually do some kind of formal writing or was it mainly in the form of tossing around ideas at story conferences?
"Story conferences mainly."
So when you worked with Hopper and Dennis at your office and during the New Orleans shoot, you would just talk the story out and then go off and physically write the pages?
"I did all the writing on it. They just had the idea in the beginning of the two guys making a score and using the money to buy their freedom from the rat race of America, and their pilgrimage on the road. That was all they had. No dialogue."
So you were the only one doing the actual physical writing on it?
"I did the only writing on it. Peter Fonda was the only working actor in the group. Dennis wasn't really into acting at this time. He was a photographer. He acted a long time ago and was a child actor. He was in Sons of Katy Elder. Peter Fonda had been in several of these really low-ball series of biker movies for AIP. He had a contract for one more in a three picture contract. Dennis had this idea that instead of doing one of their typical B picture dumbbell movies. Under the guise of doing a biker movie, they could maybe pull off a movie that might be more interesting. Dennis would be able to make his debut as a director in one fell swoop. It seemed possible under these auspices whereas he couldn't get arrested ordinarily. Under the set up where Peter Fonda owed AIP this picture, it would be possible to get this different approach in under the wire. He persuaded Peter to go along with this. "We'll get Terry to write the script!" I had this good reputation off of Dr. Strangelove and Candy."
How did Easy Rider end up at Columbia?
"That was through this guy, Bert Schneider, who made a deal for the distribution rights. He wasn't involved during the production. He made some kind of deal with Dennis and Peter. Peter was the nominal producer. So that was the situation when they came by to my place in New York. They said we want you to write this and we're going to defer any money in exchange for splitting ten per cent three ways. For a variety of complicated business reasons, I wasn't in a position where I could defer so they said you can get $350 a week for 10 weeks in lieu of that. So I had to do it that way. So I never had a piece of it which turned out to be very lucrative. "Anyway, so I had the story. They told me the basic notion of two guys who were fed up with the rat race and commercialization of America. They wanted to split. So in order to get out of it, they're going to make this score and then go to Galveston or Key West and buy a boat and take off. The story would involve a cross country trip and the various adventures that could befall them. The idea of meeting a kind of a straight guy, which turned out to be the Jack Nicholson role, was totally up to me. I thought of this Faulkner character, Gavin Stevens, who was the lawyer in this small town. He had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Heidelberg and had come back to this little town to do whatever he could there. So I sort of automatically gave the George Hanson character a similar sympathetic aura. I wrote the part for Rip Torn, who I thought would be ideal for it. When shooting began, we went to New Orleans and Rip was going to come, but he couldn't get out of this stage commitment in this Jimmy Baldwin play, Blues For Mr. Charlie. At the time it seemed like there was a possibility he might. We could shoot his part in a few days and he would still be able to make this theatrical commitment. It wasn't a big part. It was a Greenwich Village production and very little bread for him. He just did it because he felt committed to it. Because he's very much that kind of guy, so he missed the role of a lifetime. And Jack Nicholson was just on the scene, so he was always around. He was a good choice, because he had that sympathetic quality."
How did you feel after the release of Easy Rider, when Dennis and Peter kind of downplayed the fact that you had written the screenplay in interviews. It seemed almost like an attack of amnesia on their part?
"Well, just vicious greed is the only explanation. And desperation for some ego identity material because neither one had much of that. Whereas for me, I was filled with an abundance of praise and things. It would be difficult to exaggerate the underhanded and really shitty, crooked behavior of theirs. In order to get their names on Easy Rider. I had to call the Writers Guild to say it was okay. For a director and a producer to be named on the writing credits is practically unheard of. Since there has been so much coercion, bribery and so on by directors in the past to tack themselves onto the credits, now it's an automatic arbitration. And so, I received this phone call from Peter saying, "Well, we've got this print. I think we've got a nice little picture here. Dennis and I want to get our names on the writing credits, but in order to do that you'll have to notify the Writers Guild to say that it's alright."
Did you think it was a fair request at the time?
"It wasn't fair, but it didn't matter to me at the time because I was ultra secure. I had Candy and Dr. Strangelove. I said sure that's fine. I didn't mind. So I spoke to the Writers Guild. They were a little surprised. They said, "Well, those guys aren't even members of the Writers Guild. They're not really writers are they?" I said "Yes, that's true, but you don't have to be in the Writers Guild to write something" but you are supposed to be in order to participate [in the profits, residuals, et al.]."
A lot of people still seem to think Easy Rider was this completely improvised film, but looking at the shooting script, I was surprised to find even the graveyard hallucination scene completely scripted out. Why did Peter and Dennis take the lion's share of the credit on that film?
"Yeah, well they're not writers. Neither of them are writers. They can't even write a fucking letter. It's often the case with directors that they don't like to share credit, which is the case of Stanley. He would prefer just A Film By Stanley Kubrick including music and everything. Asides from Kubrick, other directors I worked with rarely did anything on the script."
The director of End Of The Road, Aram Avakian, and you were co-conspirators and friends since meeting in Paris in the late forties?
"I met Aram in a little fishing village in the South of France, where I was staying. On a Sunday, about 11 in the morning, I was seated at this cafe near the waterfront. Behind was the village green and then the hotel. This French military band was performing this musicale for the weekly Sunday performance. I looked around and saw this guy wearing shades with a beard walking out of the hotel towards the cafe where I was sitting. He walked through this whole military band in formation. He looked really whacked out. He just kept coming and amazingly enough didn't manage to bump into anyone or get arrested. I was marveling at this...That was our first meeting."
He was a musician then?
"Well, he was a great maven and aficionado of jazz. George Avakian, his brother, was the head of the jazz division at Columbia records. Aram was an expatriate living in Paris and the South of France. When we went to Paris, we shared an apartment. Aram would take me to the jazz clubs in Paris, which was then a Mecca for musicians. He turned me onto a lot of great things like Bud Powell. Aram had a kind of renaissance quality, so he just got interested in films."
He edited Jazz on A Summer's Day. Was that his first gig?
"Yeah, he started work as an apprentice for Bert Stern, who was the director. Aram was invited to direct a film called 10 North Frederick Street. 10 North Frederick Street was going to be his big chance. Something went wrong there, then he met some producer who was powerful enough to get him another directing job. The movie the guy got him was called Lad: A Dog, in which the hero was a dog. You can imagine what a challenge that would be. Avakian did some work on the script. He would come by and we would discuss things. It reached the state where at the end of the movie, the dog, Lad, was getting married. The story called for a kind of wedding between the dog, this lassie-type collie, and some sort of very pampered dog of the same breed. Of course, Aram insisted that it shouldn't happen like that and instead Lad would run off with a mongrel dog. Aram said if he could get away with that, the film would work. What happened was he got fired because the studio wouldn't go along with that. "End of The Road came about through a mutual friend, Max Raab, who was a very nice guy, whose line of business was women's clothing shops, a certain kind of casual wear. Very expensive, very high fashion. Raab wanted to get into show business and he was very knowledgeable about movies and he said "Look you guys, find a property and I'll get hold of about $300,000." "I had just read this John Barth novel. Aram had read it on my recommendation. We simultaneously agreed that it was a good story and that it would make a good movie. So we got an option on it, wrote a treatment and showed it to Max Raab, who hated to be called Max A. Raab, being very Jewish (laughs). So he agreed. We got the money together and hired Steve Kestern, who had worked with Arthur Penn, as our production manager."
Dennis McGuire has a co-writing credit along with you and Avakian, what his role?
"He was some guy who, unbeknownst to us at the time, had an option on the Barth novel, so we couldn't buy him out and we had to cut him in on the writing fee."
Since he wasn't active in the writing of the shooting script, was crediting him a conciliatory gesture on your part?
"Yeah. In the late summer of 1968, we scouted locations around East Canaan in Connecticut and Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We found this fantastic old button factory in Great Barrington, which was perfect as a sound stage. That's how End of The Road got started. Oh yes, one of the interesting things was that we needed a good director of photography. We couldn't afford a regular one, so Aram had this idea of scanning commercials and getting a director of commercials who wanted to break into features. We started to look at these reels of guys who made commercials and we noticed one who was much better than the others. We hired the director, who turned out to be the great Gordon Willis."
You were also fortunate to cast people like James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, Harris Yulin and Dorothy Tristan. The film has some very interesting effects and a startling opening montage.
"We tried to give the film a full-on sixties flavor - student unrest and so on - which seemed inherent in the book . A very good book, and, I like to believe, a most faithful adaptation, with a little something extra in the form of Doctor D's (James Earl Jones) theories."
Your next big project was The Magic Christian. That project had been in gestation for about four or five years before starting to shoot in February of 1969.
"The way it evolved was that Peter Sellers and Joe McGrath had been working together with Richard Lester on his Running Jumping, Standing Still Film, so they got to be good friends. McGrath had been working as an assistant to Richard Lester. McGrath wanted to direct something on his own. He asked Peter what would be a good movie to direct. And that turned out to be The Magic Christian. Peter had bought a hundred copies of my novel to give out on birthdays and Christmas. Joe McGrath thought it was a match made in heaven so Peter immediately started to develop the property. Peter had a contract with some studio which had produced his last movie. He told them Christian was going to be his next movie and he wanted Joe to direct. Did they want to finance it or did they want him to find some one else? Their first reaction was "Yes, we'll do it."
Was it your idea to give Guy Grand a son, which, along with switching the location from America to England, was the major departure from the novel ?
"Well that came about because the producers wanted to get what they called some extra box office appeal. Peter had seen me hanging out with Paul (McCartney), I think, and said "Well, Terry knows the Beatles maybe we can get one of them." Ringo had said that he would like to be in the movie. So I said, "How about getting Ringo and then we can do something." I've forgotten who came up with the specific idea of having one of The Beatles as Guy Grand's son, Youngman Grand, but I was willing to try it."
I understand you completed the script with Joseph McGrath, but that he and Sellers and company made changes while you were busy with End Of The Road.
"When I finally made it to the set, I spent a lot of time doing damage control on The Magic Christian. It was probably due to Seller's insecurity or a manifestation of that. Although he loved the original script and it was the key to getting started, he also had this habit where he would run into some one socially like John Cleese or Spike Milligan and they would get to talking and he would say, "Hey listen, can you help me on this script?" They would come in and make various changes, sometimes completely out of character from my point of view. I came back and found these scenes, a couple of which had already been shot, seemed to be the antithesis of what Guy Grand would do. They were tasteless scenes. Guy Grand never hurt anyone. He just deflated some monstrous egos and pretensions, but would never slash a Rembrandt which they had in the movie There's a scene at Sotheby's or Christies where an auctioneer just to outrage the crowd or the art lover defaced this great painting. Guy Grand would never do that. It was gratuitous destruction; wanton, irresponsible bullshit which had nothing to with the character or the statement. It was very annoying. They had already shot the auction scene and agreed to take it out for a time and Peter did come around to see it was tasteless. But Peter was such a big star that the producers would never argue with him."
There was no dissenting opinion on the film?
"No, Joe McGrath didn't dissent. He could have dissented at the time they were making these changes, because he was the director. He had a more disciplined sense of comedy than Peter, if not Peter's flaring strokes of genius. McGrath didn't have that much control and he was so in awe of Peter that he wasn't able to resist him."
Towards the end of production, you were planning to shoot the final scene with Guy Grand and his son persuading various passersby to wade into tank full of manure and help themselves to money floating at the top of the mess at the base of the Statue of Liberty?
"Peter insisted we had to shoot that scene under the Statue of Liberty. The producers resisted because of the expense of the trip. They were ready to shoot it there in England. So Peter, in a fit of pique and rage, said "Well, I'll pay for it!" and so they said "No, we'll pay for it." We were going to fly first class to New York and shoot it the scene. Then Gail [Gerber, Southern's companion since the mid-sixties] of all people, noticed this ad saying the QE2 was making its maiden voyage. She said wouldn't it be fun to go on the QE2 instead of flying? Peter thought that was a great idea. He assumed that it wouldn't be any more expensive than flying first class, but it turned out to be much, much more expensive. Flying was like $2500 a person, but going in a stateroom on the QE2 was $10,000 a person. because there were all these great staterooms on the QE2. The dining room was beyond first class. Like really fantastic. Instead of eating in the ordinary first class place, they had this special dining room. It was called The Empire Room. It was a small dining room with about six tables in it. That was another $2,000 right there. Like really fantastic. But the producers were committed to it. "Before we left, I'd introduced Peter to this Arabic pusher, who had given Peter some hash oil. Peter put drops of it with an eye dropper on tobacco and smoked the tobacco or if he had cannabis, he would drop the oil on that and smoke it. It was just dynamite. Like opium. Peter became absolutely enthralled. He couldn't get enough of it. It was very strong stuff. So we all went on this fantastic five-day crossing. The whole trip was spent in a kind of dream state."
So there was you, Peter, Gail and Ringo?
"Yeah, Ringo, his entourage, his wife, and some of the kids. We never saw the kids. They were usually with the nanny. There was also Dennis O'Dell, the producer, and his wife."
That trip must have cost, as Guy Grand would say, "a pretty penny."
"Yeah, I saw the figures on it once, the crossing cost about twice as much as the shot. They didn't use the shot of the Statue of Liberty in the end."
In 1969/70, you had three major films in release with your name attached to them. Was it a good situation to have that kind of momentum, or was that a complicated time because of controversies like End Of The Road's X-rating?
"Yeah, it didn't seem to help. Easy Rider did get a nomination like Strangelove. It also won the Writers Guild award of that year. You would think you would have more leverage in a situation like that. I am sure that you are sensitive and percipient enough to imagine how not having certain projects get off the ground would or could feel. If there were anything to be gained about indulging that feeling, I would certainly pursue it. It just seems like a silly thing to think about because it's self-defeating."
You worked with Dennis Hopper on the Junky screenplay in 1977 and then there was the Jim Morrison screenplay, which Hustler publisher, Larry Flynt wanted to produce in 1983. How has your relationship evolved since Easy Rider?
"Well, he's always said, "Yes, we're going to make that up to you." regarding Easy Rider. And I have heard him on the phone when we were working on Junky, "We want to make sure Terry has a good contract because he didn't get his share out of Easy Rider."
Wouldn't it have been easy for them to give you points after the fact?
What prevented them from doing that?
"Well, I say vicious greed. That's the only reason."
What about Junky?
"Well, Junky was something that Jacques Stern, also known as Baron Rothschild, who was a lifelong friend of Burroughs, optioned. Then Hopper and Stern commissioned me to write the screenplay. Hopper was going to play the part of Bill Lee, the junky narrator of the novel, as well as direct. It turned out that Dennis wasn't that interested in making Junky and Stern didn't have enough money to produce the film, although he did have enough to option the book and finance the screenplay. "Stern was trained as a physicist. He would doodle these mathematics equations. He would get mad at Burroughs. He claims that Burroughs prevented him from winning the Nobel Prize by telling people that Stern was on junk. "I would ask Stern, "what is your first language? French?" "No, my first language is mathematics!" Burroughs would say to Stern, "Go on, show Terry your stuff" and Stern would write out these long, beautiful intricate equations. Stern was such a complete decadent drug user. He had some kind of paralysis which left him wheelchair bound and lived in Gramercy Park, while we stayed in a hotel uptown. Jacques Stern had a hypodermic type device taped to his wrist. All he had to do was tap this device and he would get a jolt of speedballs made from heroin and cocaine. We would see him come out of his brownstone townhouse zooming in the wheelchair. He was ultra-lucid. He had these two girls, one black, one white, both wearing short mini-skirts, who were his assistants. One was a philosophy student. They were just sort of gofers for him and when called upon would perform certain unnatural acts for Stern."
Did you actually finish a draft?
"Burroughs, James Grauerholz (Burroughs secretary) and I wrote a draft, which we showed Stern and ask him if he had any criticisms or suggestions. Jacques would say to us at our meetings, "See if you can work up some heavy thoughts? I have to get off!"
When you guys were writing Junky, what was Dennis' function? Was he helping you write it?
"No, he was just hanging out and hoping to direct it, but at the time he was just higher than a kite. That was his pre-clean stage."
Both the book and script jump around quite a bit from New York to the rehabilitation centre to Mexico and then back to the States. It's somewhat episodic. Junky treats drugs in a non-celebratory and non-judgmental way. The book is a rare document.
"Yes. Burroughs wrote some things for Lancet, the British medical journal, like a critique of Dr. Dent, who was this British doctor who had one of these remarkably successful addiction cures using a drug called apomorphine. It's like morphine, but it's used to reduce the body's dependence on heroin. Apomorphine provided some protection so that you wouldn't get this terrible sickness when you try to withdrawal."
I gather apomorphine was similar to the methadone treatment.
"Yes. One of the first scenes in the script deals with this guy who is coming to sell a package of Army surrettes. These are 3cc ampoules of morphine which were in medical kits for soldiers on the front, so that if you get wounded, you can shoot one of these up. That was one of the things sold in trafficking in the forties. Bill suggested we use one of the guys he knew who actually sold this stuff at the time. We located Herbert Huncke [a friend of Burroughs and Kerouac's from the fifties] and asked him and he said, "I don't think this part would be good for my reputation. I don't need that kind of exposure!" (Laughs) Burroughs would say to Herbert, "But you could use the heat!"
You never actually finished a final script?
"No. If Jacques Stern had taken it more seriously as a real project instead of as a way to work out his relationship with Bill, it might have worked. There was an atmosphere of ultra-paranoia between Jacques and Bill . 'Is that why you spoiled my chances for the Prize!"
You were involved in A Clockwork Orange with the photographer Michael Cooper around 1966. How did that project end up with Kubrick?
"When Michael Cooper turned me on to that book, I read it and said this is really good and so cinematic. I sent the book to Stanley (c.1966) and said "Look at this." He got it and read it, but it didn't appeal to him at all. He said, "Nobody can understand that language [nadsat the newspeak type lingo Anthony Burgess created for his novel.]." That was that. The whole exchange occupied a day. Still I thought some one should make a movie of this book. "At one point I was making so much money on movie projects that I needed someone to handle paying the bills. I got involved with this friend of mine, Si Litvinoff, who had produced some showbiz things in New York like off Broadway theatre. He did a couple of things for me as a lawyer. I showed him the book and told him how it would make a great movie. He said, "You have enough money why don't you take an option on it?" So I took a six month option on a Clockwork Orange for about $1,000 against a purchase price of $10,000 and some percentages to be worked out. I wrote a script, adapted it myself. I thought I'd show the book around, but meanwhile I would have the script too. After I finished the script, I showed it around to various producers including David Puttnam, who was working with various companies like Paramount. He was one of the people who read the script and saw the cinematic possibilities of it. In those days, you had to get the script passed by the Lord Chamberlain [the then British censor of film and theatre], so we submitted it to him. He sent it back unopened and said, "I know the book and there's no point in reading this script because it involves youthful defiance of authority and we're not doing that." So that was that. "About three years later, I got a call from Stanley, who said, "Do you remember that book you showed me, what was the story on that?" And I said, 'I was just showing it to you because I thought it was a good book, but later I took an option on it." He said, "Who has the rights to it now?" What had happened was that there was a renewable yearly option. I had renewed once and when it came up for renewal for another thou I didn't have the money, so I told Litvinoff I had to drop the option. So he said "Well, I'll take it out." So he held the rights. So I told Stanley, " As far as I know this guy Litvinoff has it. He said, "Find out how much it is, but don't tell him I'm interested." I tried to do that, but Cindy Decker, the wife of Sterling Lord, my agent at the time, found out about this inquiry of Kubrick's, so she passed the word on to Litvinoff and his friend, Max Raab, who had put up the money for End of The Road. He and Raab sold it to Kubrick and changed a pretty penny for it. Around seventy-five thou, I think."
Did Kubrick use much of your script at all?
"Well, when I learned that he was going to make A Clockwork Orange, I sent him my script to see if he would like it. I got back a letter saying, "Mr. Kubrick has decided to try his own hand." It wasn't really a relevant point because it was an adaptation of a novel. You're both taking it from the same source."
You and Kubrick also shared the rights to Blue Movie. When you decided to write the novel, you dedicated it to him.
"He had in a way given me the idea for Blue Movie. One night, around the time of Strangelove, somebody brought a hard core porn film to Stanley's house to show. They put it on. Very soon into the screening, Stanley got up and left the room. We watched a little more of it and stopped the film. Later Kubrick said, "it would be great if someone made a movie like that under studio conditions." I thought Kubrick would be the ideal person to direct such a movie. When I came back to the States, I started writing a novel based on this concept and would send him pieces of the book from time to time. I still have a great telegram from him saying "You have written the definitive blow job!" in the scene with the Jeanne Moreau type, Arabella."
Was he ever interested in directing Blue Movie?
"No, when he first mentioned it, I assumed that he would be interested in directing it. But it turned out that he has a very ultra-conservative attitude to most things sexual. Around 1974-75, John Calley, who was then president of Warner Brothers, decided to make a film of Blue Movie. A number of other people wanted to do it, but always with the idea of compromising the work by having simulated sex. Calley, however, was convinced as was I, that the first production of a full- on-erection-and-penetration movie using big name stars, a talented director and made under studio conditions would be a blockbuster of Gone With The Wind proportions. "Calley was living with Julie Andrews at the time, and he and Mike Nichols, who had been signed to direct, were able to persuade her (for love, art and a lot of money) to play Angela Sterling, the heroine of the story. A 14 million dollar budget, quite adequate for the time, had been secured and everything was ready. Ringo Starr had held an option on the book, but was quite ready to step aside now that there was an actual production ready to roll. He didn't want any participation. He just wanted to see the book made into a movie. Enter the villain of the piece: Ringo's lawyer (who shall remain nameless) in absolute hysteria, ranting about how he (the lawyer) was "going to look like a schmuck if the picture gets made and we don't have a piece of it." John Calley and I were prepared to give him a piece, but it turned out that Mike Nichols wanted to retain all points so he could use them to make deals with actors. That proved to be a deal breaking stipulation."
Had you written an actual shooting script for Blue Movie?
"Well, as soon as I became convinced that the film was for real, I started immediately without even getting into a contract. I eventually completed a script, but the deals didn't go through. We were as close to a movie ever being made as I ever experienced or had ever heard of. There didn't seem to be any possible deal breaking element. Why it fell apart, it was just a total freak thing."
Did you try to develop anything else for John Calley after that?
"He liked a story I had written called "You're Too Hip, Baby" about a white jazz aficionado, who lives in Paris and goes to see the blacks in the clubs in Paris. He had the idea of a screenplay set in Paris dealing with those characters. That got as far as an outline, which I was paid for, but nothing further was pursued. When Blue Movie fell through that was really the end of our relationship."
Calley was considered the hippest movie producer of the time in the way he was able to deal with the money guys yet maintain an active rapport with directors like Kubrick and Nichols.
"Yeah. I doubt that Kubrick and Nichols would work with anyone else. I doubt if there were any other producers who were percipient, sensitive and aware enough to be tolerated by Kubrick and Nichols."
Around 1972, you were at work on an adaptation of Nathanael West's A Cool Million with Jerry Schatzberg?
"I knew Jerry Schatzberg since he directed Panic In Needle Park. He was the first person who expressed interest in A Cool Million. We finished a script and he was trying to raise money."
Did he have any one in particular in mind with the casting?
"He was a good friend of Faye Dunaway's. So he had her signed up...not that he thought she was right for the film, but that he thought she could generate interest. She understood that and went along with it because they were good friends. We didn't have any male actor. It was going to be someone like Timothy Bottoms as Lemuel Pitkin. The subtitle of the book is The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin ."
Didn't you also work on a script for Mick Jagger in this period?
"I worked on a script, not for Mick Jagger, but a producer who hoped to get Mick Jagger to play the lead. It was a story about Merlin and Jagger would play an Arthurian knight. It would have been interesting."
After The Magic Christian, did you still see Peter Sellers on a regular basis or was it only during the time of Grossing Out (c. 1980) that you got involved with him again?
"I saw him on a sporadic basis which turned out to be pretty regular. There was nothing planned."
You and Peter started to work on Grossing Out, a script about international arms dealing, after the success of Being There. Did you work on Being There at all?
"No. Peter ran his lines by me one time."
Andrew Braunsberg, who produced Being There, was going to do Grossing Out.
"Yes. Grossing Out dealt with the western nations selling arms to the Third World and exploiting these countries."
Was there a director lined up before Peter died?
"No, but Hal Ashby expressed considerable interest. I had written a script."
"Twirling At Ole Miss" and "Grooving In Chi" were two notable non-fiction pieces for Esquire that were later titled as examples of New or Gonzo Journalism by Tom Wolfe and others. Did you enjoy these forays into reporting?
"Yes, I took all the photos which they used in "Twirling At Ole Miss". The camera helped a great deal because the girls at the cheer leading school really flopped around. They took you seriously if you had a camera. I have been told so often that "Twirling At Ole Miss" and "The Big Parade" (a piece on Cuba and The Bay of Pigs) were seminal pieces in terms of Tom Wolfe's approach. Apparently, Jay McInerney also picked up on "The Blood of The Wig" as a stepping stone for his New Yorker piece."
Did you think that the 1968 Democratic Convention Esquire sent Jean Genet, William Burroughs, John Sack and yourself to cover was going to be as tumultuous event as it turned out to be?
"No, we just thought it would be an interesting situation. Going there wasn't our idea. The magazine may have known something. It was an assignment; someone asking if you want to do something. We had no idea it would be that dangerous. I got hit on the head and back a couple of times. You have no idea how wild the police were. They were just totally out of control. I mean, it was a police riot that's what it was."
I'm curious if you ever read The Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly . He believed journalism and politics were injurious to the development of a writer. Do you feel politics compromises one's independence as a writer, if one endorses a specific party or candidate?
"No, not if you come out for the cause you believe in."
Is there a danger of being manipulated even though your motivation might be pure?
"Sure, that happens a lot. I can sympathize with the attitudes some writers or artists might have about not getting involved in a social thing. I imagine Celine felt that. He had no interest in who got elected. He was more interested in his head than Kafka. Except Kafka seemed to get into a kind of compassion mode."
Kafka was politically visionary in the way his work anticipated the concentration camps and the Stalin show trials.
"Yes, but I wonder if he would have signed a petition or anything. On the other hand, some circles of writers like to read aloud and Kafka was very much into that along with Max Brod and others. In his diaries, he would mention how his story was received at the cafe."
I'd like to start discussing some of other multi-media collaborations you have been involved in. How did you get to know the Peter Beard, who is perhaps most famous for his photographs documenting the destruction of African wildlife in End of The Game?
"Peter Beard is one of those people I've known a long time. We have an affinity. We share certain values. I think we first met on that Rolling Stones tour plane in 1972. He and Truman Capote were covering the tour for Rolling Stone magazine and I was covering it for Esquire. "
Wasn't he friends with Lee Radziwill at the time?
"Yes, and he was very good friends with Jackie Kennedy."
That tour was filmed by Robert Frank.
"The film was called Cocksucker Blues, and with a title like that you can imagine its commercial appeal. Frank had a lot of shots of people shooting up heroin. The Stones themselves were down on it, because they were having so many drug problems and hassles with visas so they walked away from the film. [They imposed a ban limiting the type and number of screenings Frank could have]. When Peter and I first started talking, we were flying to San Francisco and there was this terrible storm. It was so severe that we had to make a wide approach to San Francisco airport, so we flew right over The Golden Gate Bridge. When we crowded around the window to look down at the bridge, we saw these buildings. Truman Capote said, 'Well, that's probably the most horrible prison there is. That's San Quentin.' Keith said, 'What a gas, it would be to play a gig there.' And Capote, who was ultra gay, replied, 'Well, they would love it, and they would certainly love you and MICK! They would just devour Mick.' So Keith spoke to Mick about it and Mick asked Truman and I to go check it out. So we did that. The prison was a horrific situation when you talk about stress and density."
So it was kind of like an Attica situation at the prison?
"Yeah, very much so...they had a record number of stabbings. The warden said okay, but in the end, the security people said it was too difficult to arrange. And there wasn't enough insurance to stage the gig."
You were thinking of collaborating with Beard on a film inspired by End of The Game?
"That was the first thing we did together. Peter's a great admirer of Dr. Strangelove. He's always talked about that. When we first met, Peter immediately showed me these notes for a screenplay based on his experiences in the Congo with wildlife conservation and poaching, where this entire population of elephants died off. So he wanted to have a movie exploring this mismanagement with a character called Major Thomson, this asshole British park warden, and his wife and their relationship.
Peter Beard's vision of mankind is pretty millennial. He said that men and elephants are the only two species that have managed to engineer their own self-destruction.
"(The actual quote) is in my text for this book he and I are working on. 'The homo-sap is like the elephant in that it can make valiant efforts to adjust to situations no matter how hopeless they can be.'
Is that something that you also connect with?
"Yes, very much. Well, it's like the difference between Clinton and Bush, although it is profound, it is misleading to think it will change the overview of things considering the population explosion, etc."
When you teach, speaking of hope for future, do you notice a change in attitudes in students?
"Yes, I think they are much more realistic. I think the degree of alienation and despair is more universal."
You have also worked with the noted jazz photographer William Claxton?
"I met Claxton on the set of The Cincinnati Kid. He had done a lot of still work for John Calley the producer. He wanted to get a picture of Rip Torn after he had done his shots of us. Rip and I only had a nodding acquaintance then. Later in the day, I smelled some grass. Claxton was smoking a joint. He saw me looking at him and he smiled. We got to talking and it turned out he was a great jazz buff. We went to his place later and played records. After we got to know each other, he optioned this book, a novel called Trixie, about this young black girl who is very street wise and funny, but she was illiterate. These two professors, one a psychologist and the other, an anthropologist, are interested in her for scholarly research and also because they have eyes for her. They make arrangements to help her get a college degree on the condition she agrees to undergo these experiments that would test her innate skills at language, learning and so on, and perhaps understand her natural musical ability. She has this diary and an adulation for President Kennedy. When he is assassinated, she freaks out. The story is set during the watts riots. She's able to save one of these professors who happens to live there. We wrote this script and it exists to this day."
From 1968 to 1977, you worked with Larry Rivers on a limited edition book, The Donkey and The Darling, which involved complex lithographic techniques.
"Yes, there was this terrific lithographer, Tanya Grossman, who does all the lithography for the great painters in America. She asked Larry if he wanted to do a book and asked him what he would like to illustrate. So he chose a children's story I had written."
In 1981/82, Michael O'Donoghue asked you to work on Saturday Night Live. What was it like to work on network television?
"That was probably the best paying job, but the worst I've ever had given the sort of deadlines you have to work to. I was very grateful to Michael O' Donoghue, who was the head writer who gave me the job. It was difficult because you had this very strict deadline each week, but it's not the way to go about anything. It's pushing back the theory of art."
How did Harry Nilsson get involved in writing scripts?
"Nilsson was a very creative guy. He had this story about a reporter who works for a tabloids with outlandish stories like The Enquirer or the Star. "Headless Man Seen In Topless Bar." So we wrote a script called Obits. Harry was able to finance the writing."
The Telephone was a collaboration with Nilsson that actually got filmed. I have always been curious about the story behind that.
"We had this idea about an out-of-work actor who gets so into hallucinatory type improvisations that he even makes up phone calls to himself. By chance, we ran into the basement parking lot of the Chateau Marmont, and getting out of another car was Whoopi Goldberg. We had seen her work and thought she might be right for the part."
Who were you thinking of originally?
"Robin Williams. We wrote it with him in mind. We made this strenuous effort to get the script to him and talk to him on the phone. One night, by chance we ran into him at the Improv. He hadn't gotten the script and then after a long time, we found out his manager didn't want him to do the film at all."
How did Rip Torn end up directing The Telephone?
"Well, we needed a director and I had seen some things Rip directed on stage like Strindberg. It just occurred to me that he could do it and I didn't think there would be much to do because it all takes place in a one room apartment. It turned out Whoopi was a great admirer of Rip. When he and Geraldine lived on 22nd Street in New York, Whoopi was an unwed mother on welfare and was living in that neighborhood. She would be walking to the welfare office to get her check and sometimes pass them in the street."
Was the shooting of The Telephone quick or was it a long process?
"Well what happened was these big asshole producers, told Whoopi that this is a Whoopi Goldberg movie so she could do whatever she wanted to do. Thus armed, she was able to just ignore the script and just wing it. She's a very creative woman and her improvisations were often good, but she had gotten involved because she really loved the script and now she was suddenly making all these changes. So anytime she and Rip would get into an argument about a scene, she had that this upper hand. After she did her improvisations, Rip would say, "Okay, let's do one for the writer." This went on and on through the production. I was on the jury at Sundance the year The Telephone was finished and took Rip's cut of the film there. I was ambivalent about it. I was too close to it to be objective, but a number of people liked it a lot. [The New World version] is still selling well as a cassette at my local drug store."
Was the failure of The Telephone the reason for the demise of Hawkeye?
"No, the demise was a more interesting story. The third party in this holy trinity of Harry and I was this woman who was so stressed out she absconded with all of the funds that Harry and I had put aside for tax. She was supposed to do our income tax. She had power of attorney. She didn't do it, so she got us into a lot of trouble with the IRS."
As a screenwriter, you often worked on adaptations. of celebrated literary material like Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One and John Barth's The End of The Road. Is there a trick to adapting a novel so that the spirit of the original is still there?
"I don't know if there is a trick. It is certainly an art and a skill, because as a screenwriter, you may not have a choice. In the case of The Loved One, I was hired to collaborate on an updated version of the book. My first reaction was to say 'No way' to fool with it to that extent. It would be like sacrilege trying to give a happy ending, as John Schlesinger did, to Nathaniel West's Day of The Locust. He gave it an ultra-happy ending. The ending in the novel is that Faye Greener is ultra wiped out by these locals, while Todd Hackett, the painter, is subdued and taken away in a police car to an asylum where he thinks he is going to imitate the siren and then he realizes the siren is his own voice screaming. And that's West's ending. Schlesinger, rescued the girl from being wiped out by the crowd. So they're no longer locusts, they're just another crowd with no metaphorical value either. He would be the last director you would think would do that. "But once you say there is a trick and once you accept this untenable situation - which is how dare you presume to fuck around with the work of a great artist like Evelyn Waugh or Nathanael West - you have to do your best as a screenwriter. With Evelyn Waugh I initially couldn't do it. Then I was finally persuaded, reasoned and convinced that it was possible because it was relevant and that we would maintain the spirit . What Tony Richardson wanted to get into his film, which wasn't in the original, was Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, which he read and for some reason he identified with because he had been involved in burying some one in America. He was able to persuade me to change the book from the thirties to the sixties and I participated in the film throughout the production. As it turned out I was happy with the results.
In 1962, you wrote an essay in The Nation, "When Film Gets Good," where you said: "it has become evident that it is wasteful, pointless, and in terms of art, inexcusable, to write a novel which could, or in fact should have been a film." Was this essay born out of your experiences with novel writing?
"The medium is fabulous. You are dealing with communication that doesn't have to be translated from prose. In that sense, film is superior, but the difficulty is your lack of control as a writer. The only power you have is persuasion. It's frustrating not to have more control over your material."
What is your general routine for writing? Do you need to create some sort of discipline to handle different demands from articles to screenplays and teaching?
"I like to work at night. My metabolism seems to be one of those if there is such a thing. It's sort of a hit and miss thing with me. The nearest thing to a methodical procedure that I can relate to, in terms of theory, is unfortunately just a sense of imminent deadline, either imaginary or real. Imaginary in the sense of deciding of 'Well, you really must get working on this' in order to avoid some kind of last minute rush. If I had, as I always try to encourage my son, Nile, to develop a methodical or disciplined approach, I would be more productive and prolific."