Wednesday, September 12, 2012

DANIEL PETRIE JR TALKS TO PAUL ROWLANDS ABOUT 'THE BIG EASY'

Daniel Petrie Jr is the son of Daniel Petrie and the brother of Donald Petrie, both film directors. Dan's first success was as the writer of the smash hit BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984), which won him an Oscar nomination. He followed it with the highly-regarded THE BIG EASY two years later. Dan has directed six films, including TOY SOLDIERS (1991), which he also wrote, and also wrote and produced the hit comedy TURNER AND HOOCH (1989). Dan has been both a President and Vice-President of The Writer's Guild and is now VP of The Writer's Guild Foundation. On top of all this, Dan co-owns the independent film company Enderby Entertainment with Rick Dugdale. I spoke with Dan about his experiences writing THE BIG EASY.   

How did you end up writing THE BIG EASY?
I was starting out as a writer and I knew that I needed to write a script that could be used as a sample of my work to demonstrate my skills in a lot of areas. I thought that it should be set in the present day with a good part for a leading man and a good part for a leading lady. I decided to write a love story, but I wanted the script to be more than one genre. I knew a lot about cops just from personal research that I had done. So I started to gravitate towards those genres. But it wasn't until I started to think about the characters that it kind of came life to me as a good idea for a movie. It started as this almost mechanical exercise to write a script that would be a good writing sample, but then as the characters came alive it became something that I was passionate about.

What was the original title? Was it always set in New Orleans?
It was originally entitled 'Windy City' and set in Chicago. I wrote it in 1983 and I did various revisions after that. The reason I set it in Chicago was because that city is rather well-known for a certain level of police corruption. A hero who is a corrupt cop is not a very likeable character, but I wanted him to be likeable. There is one circumstance in which a corrupt character is acceptable to an audience. And that is if there is a certain level of corruption all around, and he is only doing what everybody else is doing. Then it is at least understandable. It also brings a nice kind of tension between the lead male's morally casual attitude, which is in keeping with the city that he's in, and the lead female's inflexible attitude, which would be most people's attitude but is out of step with the city she's in. That's why I felt it important that the city be a character in the film.

In the long interval between me selling me the script, which was right away, to the time the movie actually got close to production, several movies had come out set in Chicago, including one called WINDY CITY (1984), which had no relation to our story. We were looking for a fresh place to set the movie and our director, Jim McBride, suggested New Orleans. Dennis Quaid, Jim and I went down to New Orleans on a memorable location scout to see if it would be a suitable location. New Orleans is also known for a certain level of police corruption and it seemed to us just perfect.

Was it the success of BEVERLY HILLS COP that helped get THE BIG EASY made?
I think it helped. It certainly didn't hurt!

How did Jim McBride get involved with the project?
The producer Steve Friedman had seen BREATHLESS (1983) and was very impressed with it and brought him on board. There was another director involved before him, but I don't know if he was formally attached so I don't want to say his name.

How did you feel about him as a choice of director?
Well, I was very excited. I also saw BREATHLESS and thought it showed very good work.


In what ways did the script change once he came on board?
It changed mostly because we changed the location to New Orleans. The lead character went from an Italian-American cop to a Cajun. He was still very much of the working class but it was a different kind of working class. All of his dialogue changed and a lot of the details.

Was the humorous tone in your original 'Windy City' script?

Yes, and I tried to find the equivalent tone in New Orleans, which was easy.

How about the sexuality?

Yeah, that was an element that really stayed the same throughout all the drafts. Take a character who is okay with police corruption, you're talking about somebody who is very comfortable in their own skin. Take a female character who is uncomfortable with police corruption and morally uptight. Suppose those qualities were reflected in their personal lives and their sexual lives. That's when I really got excited about the possibilities of the script. I don't want to minimise the contributions made by the director and the actors. They made it all just leap off the page.

Were you consulted about the casting decisions?

Only with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin.

When McBride came on board, how many drafts or how much time did you spend on the script?

I think I did two more drafts at least.

Did you spend much time on set?

Not at all, actually.

How close do you think the final film was to your original vision?

Apart from the location change, the essence is the same.

Can you remember the first time you saw the film? What was your reaction?

I saw it alone in a screening room. There were a couple of things that bothered me, things where I thought "Wow! This is not a choice I would have made". But overall, I was thrilled.

What were the things that bothered you?
I know what Jim was going for in the scene where Quaid's character has a victory party. He wanted to see Quaid and Barkin's characters dance together. But I just felt that she wouldn't have danced with him under those circumstances. He told me that "I will dramatise her not wanting to dance with him by having her look away. " And she does look away. She looks one way and then the other. But it looks like she is doing the tango. I think this is just a writer being precious about his material. I certainly don't want to leave the impression that I was anything less than gratified by what Jim did with the material.

What unique qualities do you think McBride brought to the film?

He's got a very laid-back personality and I think he captured that easy, natural charm of New Orleans. He was great at working with the actors and got two of the most outstanding performances of Quaid and Barkin's careers.

In THE BIG EASY and BEVERLY HILLS COP, there is a great balance between the violence and the humour. Where did you draw this element from?
That was my experience from talking with the police officers. When you talk to cops you're in stitches all the time because they're telling these tremendously funny stories, punctuated by the most gruesome violence. Cops cannot be deadly serious all the time and be able to do their job. Their humour helps them to cope.

How happy were you with the way the film was received?

I wish it had done better commercially. It was a film that people saw on video and cable and became a cult favourite. I get as many compliments on it as I do BEVERLY HILLS COP, yet the difference in the grosses between the two couldn't be more pronounced! I was very gratified by Roger Ebert's review. That's one that I particularly remember.

Who came up with the title THE BIG EASY? Was it Dennis Quaid?
It was called 'Nothing But the Truth' for a long period of time. I ran into Dennis last year. He was performing with his band. So I went backstage afterwards and he gave me a big hug and said "Nothing But the Truth'?!" That's the title that he remembers! When they were filming, that was the title. I heard that Dennis came up with the title, but I don't know that for a fact.

How involved were you with the TV series?

Not at all, I just got a credit and money.

For the video releases Jim McBride took out the hospital scene before the wedding. How did you feel about that?

To be honest, I only have a vague memory of that scene.

How do your experiences on THE BIG EASY and BEVERLY HILLS COP compare with your other projects?
In many ways I am the most proudest of them. On the other hand, I am proud of almost all the films that I have been involved with in different ways. I've personally been able to do more on most of the other films, either as one of the producers or as the director.


I spoke with Dan by telephone on 24th August 2012. I would like to thank him for sparing his time.  

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and other sites, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased.
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