Friday, May 8, 2015

JUDITH RASCOE ON WRITING 'WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN'

Before writing her first screenplay ROAD MOVIE (1974), Judith Rascoe was a Stanford graduate, a Fulbright scholar, a Harvard student and a fiction instructor at Yale. Literary  critic Mark Schorer in Esquire considered her one of the most interesting of the young '70s writers. She was personally selected by noted author Robert Stone to take over writing duties on the film adaptation of his novel 'Dog Soldiers' (1974), which was released as WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN in 1978. Judith also wrote the screenplays for LIFESPAN (1975), A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN (1977), ENDLESS LOVE (1981), EAT A BOWL OF TEA (1989) and HAVANA (1990), and frequently works with director Roger Spottiswoode. I spoke to Judith about WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN, a film which still retains its power to this day.    

How did you get involved with the project?
I got involved because Robert Stone recommended me to Karel Reisz. Bob knew I was a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. I had met him and his wife in London a few years before, and he knew that I knew the territory in Palo Alto. I was at Stanford in the early '60s when Ken Kesey came out of the woods from Oregon. I knew him and I knew people in that circle. 
 
Did reading 'Dog Soldiers' reinvigorate your memories of that period?
Yes it did. I do remember how tribal that world was. That whole thing of going off to the mountains of Mexico and having pow-wows and salvation. It was very characteristic of a time and place and of certain people.

What was Stone's involvement in the script?
He wrote the first draft of the screenplay, and he wasn't happy with it. Karel neither. They decided it needed another go. Robert had had a terrible experience with his first film being made into a movie (WUSA, 1970), and so he was just edgy and pessimistic about the project at that point. And so I came in, and that was that. 

What was the biggest challenge for you in writing the screenplay?
There was so much good stuff in the novel. The biggest challenge was to get as much of the novel on the screen as possible without cluttering the narrative. We had to make big cuts. There's a major character called Dieter, for instance, in the novel who owns the place in New Mexico. He's a very colorful character in the book, and important. He comes in very late in the story and we just couldn't figure out a way to make it work. 

Were you at all daunted by it being such a male-oriented story, or by the violence?
I really wasn't, but I think sometimes I should have been! I felt that I had two good males to guide me, Bob Stone and Karel Reisz. Stone was such a marvelous writer that I felt I knew those characters. 

How did you feel about Karel Reisz as a choice of director?
I thought he was such a smart choice, splendid. Some people said ''Karel Reisz is not an action director.'' But on the other hand, he was a man who really knew things about the world. He had gotten out of Czechoslovakia during the Second World War, and then as a very young man, he went back, in the Czech Air Force of all things, after the War. He went back mainly in search of his parents, who unfortunately had been taken off the camps and killed. I remember asking him one time, ''Why do you want to make this film? What do you find interesting particularly?'' He replied ''I am interested in what happens when a nation dishonors its war heroes.'' The title of the book, 'Dog Soldiers', refers to the fact that some Native Indian tribes would select certain young men and designate them as 'dog soldiers'. They were then treated as very special beings. They got all the best food and treats that the tribe had. But the price they had to pay was that they had to be unstinting, and go out and die if needed for the tribe. I think Karel saw some of this in the story of Hicks and what had happened to him in Vietnam.

I imagine Karel wasn't happy about the title change to 'Who'll Stop the Rain'.
He was very unhappy. That was so awful. It taught me that you can't just retitle a movie after you have lived with a different one for a long while. It's like renaming your baby. You can't do it. It's not real. 

How did the Creedence Clearwater Revival music find its way into the movie?
Karel found a wonderful music consultant in Tom Nolan, who was a writer and actor. He lived in Los Angeles and wrote for Rolling Stone. Karel told him what kind of music he wanted, and Tom was the one who came up with the choice of music. We were very fortunate in that. We really had a dream team. I was thinking the other day about the art director and the set decorator. The art director was a guy called Dale Hennesy and the set decorator was a guy named Robbie De Vestel. They recreated the Berkeley apartment where Converse and his wife lived. They shot the exterior of a real house but then they recreated the interior on a set, adding space to it for the cameras. The level of detail was just jawdropping. They had the right kind of spices from the Berkeley Co-op. They had the right kind of records that a couple like that would have in their record collection. It was just amazing. 

Do you think a good adaptation is knowing when to leave material in, and when to take out?
Well I think it depends. There's that old rule of thumb that bad books make good movies. It's true that if you take a book that has nothing but plot, then there's a kind of freedom in adapting it. But I have to say that this one worked. People often give me credit for wonderful lines in the film, and they're just lines that I took out of the book. I don't deserve credit for a lot of that stuff. 

Were you involved with the casting at all?
No, but I did get to watch the casting sessions, which were fascinating. Karel was staying at the Chateau Marmont. The actors would come to his room and he would talk to them. Some awfully good people came. Tommy Lee Jones among others. Karel really liked Tommy Lee as an actor and thought his Harvard background was great for Converse - but otherwise he was just too rugged a presence for the role.

The movie is perfectly cast across the board.
The cast just turned out to be magnificent. The actor who I think doesn't get enough credit is Ray Sharkey, maybe because he died too young. He was wonderful. He was a real trooper, but everybody was. Nick Nolte worked so hard, my gosh. I think it's one of the best things he's done.
 
Of all the characters, which one did you feel the closest connection to?
I felt like I understood Converse best. I was a kind of graduate school intellectual. That was the type I was the most familiar with. But I also grew up in Idaho, and I wasn't unfamiliar with people like Hicks. Guys who were basically very smart, shrewd and approached the world physically. 

Is there any truth in the rumour that Stone based Nolte's character on Neal Cassady?
I don't think so. Neal Cassady was famous for being a big talker. I think he was based more on someone else Bob knew in that circle. I remember that person had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. 

In all your time on the movie, given this was a film about Vietnam, about drugs and containing a certain level of violence, were you aware of any pressure from the studio?
I didn't worry about it at all. We thought very hard about what we put in the movie. I didn't feel any outside pressure coming. We weren't censoring ourselves. Only to the extent that we didn't want the audience running out of the theatre. I knew a director called John Flynn, who made a movie around that time called ROLLING THUNDER (1977) where one of the villains grabs a guy's hand and shoves it into the garbage disposal. Apparently people were running out of the theatre and throwing up. We wanted to avoid something like that!

I've always found the scene where Michael Moriarty is tortured is reminiscent of the scene where William Devane and his family were terrorized in ROLLING THUNDER.
It's interesting because our scene is very violent but by certain movie standards, it's not. Karel plotted the scene out in such a way that it was scary and you felt that it could easily happen to you.

The scenes with Moriarty being held captive are extra scary because his captors are very unpredictable; especially Ray Sharkey's character whose stupidity makes him dangerous.
Yes, exactly. There's a scene where they have Michael Moriarty tied up, and Danskin (Richard Masur) and Smitty (Ray Sharkey) are discussing what's going to happen. Smitty is making a mayonnaise sandwich. I'll tell you what a real trooper is. Ray Sharkey did take after take of that. He went through an entire loaf of Wonder Bread and an entire quart jar of mayonnaise! Not only did he do all that, but he also managed to get a little dab of mayonnaise on his moustache in every shot!

Did you spend much time on the set?
Not as much as I would have liked to. I was on the set in California. I didn't go to Mexico.

What did you think of Karel Reisz's working methods?
What can I say? The thing that did surprise me a little bit was that as we were working on the script he was so meticulous about blocking the action. For example, we would have a scene where Converse comes to the top of the stairs, sees Hicks downstairs and walks down the stairs. Karel would ask ''Well, does he say this line at the top of the stairs or does he say it at the bottom of the stairs? How many steps does he take?'' So I thought ''Gosh, he's going to be that way when he is directing. He's going to know every shot and set-up and so forth.'' But that wasn't true. When he got on the set, he gave the actors a lot of leeway amd let them block it out. He would walk around with his cameraman and find the shots he wanted to make. I found it fascinating. It was like he had to have a storyboard in his head, but he didn't have to follow it.

Did he do a lot of rehearsals before takes?
Not so much. It depended. Some scenes he rehearsed. He did table readings. I learned one lesson on set. Things that work on a table reading don't necessarily work when you get up and start walking around the set. We sometimes had to rewrite things because of that.
 

Was he the kind of director to fine-tune performances instead of having discussions on set?

I always felt that his relationships with his actors were very intimate. One memory of Karel is seeing him across the set, in conversation with one of the actors and you can't hear his voice. Only they can hear. When they're ready to shoot, he backs away and the camera moves in.

Did you do any substantial rewriting while the film was in production?
I can't remember any major rewriting.

Why was there no love scene between Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld in the film?
Certainly there is this powerful connection between Marge and Hicks, but the only immediately obvious place to have a love scene was when they were in the cabin in Topanga Canyon. Karel thought (and I have to say he persuaded me) that having them bonking while the husband was being tortured by these thugs was fairly unappetizing, and so let's not do that. After the movie he advised me ''Shoot a love scene any place you can grab the room for it and then you can edit it in later.'' He was fairly sorry he didn't have a love scene in New Mexico.

After the movie was released did you have a chance to talk about the movie with Robert Stone?
He was kind about the film, but I know he was never really happy about it. He felt that we changed things that he didn't want changed. Marge’s degree of involvement in the dope smuggling scheme, for instance. He hated the title of the film. I could never get him to say the full title of the film. He always called it 'Who'll'. I never had a long conversation with him about the film, probably because I was afraid to. But let's say this. We've remained friends over all these years.

How did you feel about the critical and commercial reaction? Roger Ebert, for example, said it was ''...too genteel for a mean-spirited story''.
I don't know what to make of that. I wonder what he thought was genteel about it? To my mind that's a very odd comment. I was really disappointed that a film as well made and as serious and as entertaining as that didn't do well. A few years after the movie came out, Steven Bach, who was one of the executives at UA, wrote a book about HEAVEN'S GATE (1980) called 'Final Cut'. He mentions in passing that there was a big management change at United Artists and that the marketing division hated our movie. It's possible, but it has never been totally nailed down, that the new head of marketing deliberately sabotaged the distribution of the movie because he had a son who had a drug problem and he felt the film glorified drugs. The weak box-office might have been due to the title change too.

What exactly was Roger Spottiswoode's involvement? He's credited as the associate producer.
He worked with Karel as sort of a chief of staff.  Roger was a very versatile guy. He had been an editor and he was trying very hard to make his first feature film. He'd worked in Mexico, so he was very useful when they went down there. Somebody told me that they had heard Roger had cut the action sequences, and I asked Roger the other day. He said ''No, John Bloom cut the action sequences.'' 

Roger and you have now collaborated on a lot of films together. What is it about him that makes it a good collaborator?
I don't know. We just work together well. He is a writer, and he manages to be so supportive and nice. He manages to be critical in a gentle way. He's an angel director! He's just very congenial to work with. The first feature he made was something called TERROR TRAIN (1981), and although I didn't get credit, I rewrote the script for that. That was a hilarious adventure from top to bottom in Montreal. The streets were literally ringing with gunfire because Canadian productions had just gotten new tax breaks and people were shooting movies everywhere.

What are you the proudest about regarding the film?
I'm just proud that I was on a good movie. Did I have some lightning solution to something? If I did I can't remember.

Why do you think the film has lasted?
I think it's because it is a good movie. I watched it the other day and I was surprised that it didn't date at all. It was of its day but it was very honest and it didn't try to be more with it or less with it. It told its story in a straightforward fashion. You know, I think the problems we addressed in the film are still with us.

If you could go back and change anything about the film, what would it be?
I think I'd put in that love scene! Also, there's a scene in the movie where they get down to Topanga and Nick Nolte digs up a box of guns. Tuesday Weld is sitting there next to him. Karel said ''Wouldn't she react more to his digging up a box of guns?'' I said I didn't think so because A) she's stoned all the time and B) us Americans don't get so excited about guns. I'm haunted by the fact I could have been wrong. Nobody has ever complained to me about it.

The film is psychologically realistic I believe. I also believe humans adapt very easily to situations that may seem incredible to us.
Well, that's what I tend to think too. People just get along. I have an unbelievable story. Around that time I was living in San Francisco and I was a freelance magazine writer. I got an assignment from McCall's magazine and they wanted me to go talk with the wives of Black Panthers and white policemen. I said ''For gun cleaning tips? What are you talking about?'' I remember climbing over sandbags at the Panther headquarters saying ''Hi! I'm Judy Rascoe. I'm from McCalls!''
 
Do you remember seeing the film for the first time?
I saw a lot of the film in post-production, but I remember watching a fine cut of the movie in a little screening room and thinking it was fantastic. I looked at Bob Stone and said ''What do you think?'' and he replied something like ''Pretty damn good''. I said ''Bob, we are in a room full of people just waiting to hear from you, please say that louder!''

I spoke to Judith by phone on 14 May 2014 and would like to thank her for her time.

Thanks to Scott Bradley.
 (C) Paul Rowlands