Michael Tolkin is the acclaimed writer of films such as THE PLAYER (1992), based on his 1988 novel, for which he won an Edgar Award for Best Screenplay and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, DEEP COVER (1992), CHANGING LANES (2002), NINE (2009), GLEAMING THE CUBE (1989) and DEEP IMPACT (1998). As a writer-director his credits are the excellent and underrated apocalyptic drama THE RAPTURE and L.A. comedy THE NEW AGE (1994). Michael has also written the novels 
Among the Dead (1993), Under Radar (2002) and The Return of the Player (2006). I spoke to Michael about his cinematic influences, his approach to writing, and his experiences making THE RAPTURE and THE PLAYER.  

What films have influenced you the most as a writer?
That depends on the day you ask me. For the longest time I felt like the greatest film of all time was LA DOLCE VITA (1960), because it was epic about triviality after the cataclysm of the War. BOOGIE NIGHTS(1997) is our closest approximation. On any given day I could tell you five different movies are my five different films. I just watched Larissa Shepitko’s THE ASCENT (1977), one of the great war films, not well known because she died young. She was married to Elem Klimov who later made COME AND SEE (1985).  I’m on the Foreign Language Film Award committee that nominates the foreign films for the Oscars and there’s a lot of great talent around the world. This year we had SON OF SAUL, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, MUSTANG, THEEB, and A WAR, all of them sharing a theme, about hatred in the clash of cultures. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), I’ll say that’s today’s best movie ever made.

Are you constantly inspired by new writers and new films, and things you discover for yourself?
I hope so. I’d rather share enthusiasm than debate with someone who hates what I like, but that’s probably a weakness.

Is there an example of a film you thought people were overly negative about?
When an artist achieves a certain undeniable quality, like the Coens or Paul Thomas Anderson, or Soderbergh, even if I don’t like a particular film, I’d rather give the artist a chance to grow on me rather than get into a game ranking. I was talking about THE MASTER (2012) with someone who didn’t like it. I thought it was brilliant. There are couple of moments where Anderson plays a little uneasily with the question of whether or not what you are looking at is a fantasy or real. Are the women at the party really naked or is it a dream of them being naked? When Joaquin Phoenix is in the movie theater and he gets a call to go to London, is it really happening or is it a psychic command in a dream? Maybe it’s clear and I missed it. Those moments come in the third act and I feel it's too late in the film to bring in those devices. I know this, but the strengths of that film are larger than its experiments, because what is great in that movie is so much bigger and more ambitious. Of course, Anderson is going to miss at times. Everyone misses. Especially in film.

Have you ever felt one of your own movies got an overly negative reception?
People use to say to me about THE RAPTURE that ''I don't like that kind of movie.'' I would respond with ''What kind of movie is it? You're so tired of stories where a crazy Evangelical woman goes into a murder-suicide pact with her daughter and kills the daughter but can't kill herself. There were thirty films like that last year? That's exactly how DIE HARD 2 ended, right?''

Films like THE MASTER are usually the films that last.
Well I don't know what's going to last and given the state of education, posterity is probably dead. Whatever will last is already in the can. Nobody remembers anything. My children are 25 and 29 and I’d hesitate to show them – or their friends – a picture of Tony Curtis and I wouldn’t take the bet that they could name him. You could say ''Why should they?'' but at the same time, this is how they can remake BATMAN (1989) every three years, or essentially remake James Bond every two years. What's weird is how few people under twenty-five have actually seen the original STAR WARS (1977) or JAWS (1975). People would look at the opening scene to JAWS and wonder why everybody isn't looking at their phone. If there's a shark, how come nobody is taking a picture of it? Of course, nowadays nobody would go in the water and get eaten by the shark because they wouldn't want to leave their cell phone on the beach. So JAWS would be a short film.

When you meet young people, what films of yours do they usually want to talk about?
GLEAMING THE CUBE has its fans. I was at a special screening of it in LA awhile ago, and it was packed out. We had a Q and A afterwards with Max Perlich. Fans in their twenties were coming up to me and having me autograph their VHS boxes. There are young fans of DEEP COVER too, born after the movie was made.

You worked on quite a few films as a script doctor. Was that something you found enjoyment in?
I'd come in, work on a film with a filmmaker, and get out. There’d be ten writers working on a movie by the time it was shot. Sometimes actors would get excited about a script but it would go through a lot of changes and then they wouldn't be so excited. They needed to be grounded. Sometimes all that was needed was a single speech early on in the script that may never be in the final cut but was enough for the actors to have some purchase on the character.  

What makes you commit to a particular idea or story when you're writing?
The simple answer is 'No better idea'! 

When you write do you start with the ending or with a simple idea?
I think in almost everything I have done that's worked, certainly in my novels, there's a period of exploration at the beginning and then maybe a third of the way in, I know where I'm going. It changes a bit, but I need to know where I am going after I have started. I don't have to have a whole map, and I don't have to have a whole outline, but when I’ve had thirty pages and the last image,  I’ve been able to finish.

 It is very difficult to write a good ending, but your endings always seem to be earned.
It's interesting that you use the phrase 'earned' because that's a question I always ask myself. Has the movie earned its ending? That's the difference between tragedy and melodrama. In melodrama, the ending is not earned.
Have you ever changed the ending to something that you've written because the story you've written has led to a new ending?
Sometimes you're challenged to change the ending, if it is too internal or too small and doesn't end well. You have to go back and say ''How can I make this bigger?'' A book ending should be big, but a good movie ending HAS to be big. It has to expand.

How did you come up with the idea for THE RAPTURE?
I was driving in the middle of the desert having a nervous breakdown. I was speeding and I got caught by a cop. I saw a bumper sticker on the cop's car that said 'Warning: In case of Rapture, this car may be unmanned.' I was listening to a lot of Christian radio at the time too. I guess I was interested in a particular kind of faith, and the logic of a certain faith. It was about rejecting God. It was about how a person can believe in God and reject God at the same time.    

Do you feel the film was misunderstood?
Yes, when it came out, but I don't think it's misunderstood now. I think people understand better now what I was doing. When it came out I think people thought it was religious propaganda.

What inspired you to write the novel of The Player? 
I had been reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain. I adopted those two as my mother and my father. In Cain I found a voice who really understood Los Angeles, and in Highsmith, particularly the Ripley books, I saw a really perversely intellect that was quietly hilarious. The idea came to me partly because there was a particular executive I was pitching to and I saw his eyes roll back as I pitched and I thought ''God, I'd be bored listening to me too. ''I started to feel bad for him that all day long he has to listen to these egotistical writers coming in and pitching their ideas with all their big dreams and their contempt for him. When you walk down the wide hallways and on the deep carpet at Fox or MGM or Sony or Warner Brothers, you see the movie posters or the publicity stills and what you realise is ''Giants have walked the Earth and Holy shit, there is some real incredible work that has come out of these buildings.'' The hook was partly from the Ripley novels, which was that I knew he was going to get away with murder. I think originally I started out with the idea that he was going to kill a lot of writers but nobody was going to know the pattern because everybody in LA has the script.   
Was writing the book cathartic in any way?
I was a late starter with fiction. I had a friend at the time who was working on his first novel and everybody knew what chapter he was on and how it was going. It was stunning how much he was saying about it. In all the time I was working on the book, I think only five people knew I was working on it. If it was going to fail I certainly didn't want to fail publically.  

How did Hollywood react to the book?
Hollywood didn't read it when it first came out. They didn't know about it until it became a movie. It went from being a book to a movie because my publisher gave the manuscript of the book to the editor of a New York business magazine. He went through it and took out all the Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher's character in the movie) stuff and published it as a decent short story. David Brown, a great producer, read that and called my publisher. He read the manuscript of my book and called me, saying ''We should make this as a movie.''  

What kind of directors were circling around it at the beginning?
Mark Rydell was interested in it for a while, as was Chevy Chase, but then it went to Altman and that was that.

What do you think attracted Robert Altman to the project?
It was a way for him to get back at Hollywood. It was his kind of story. He loved making movies about groups of people and institutions: M*A*S*H (1970), NASHVILLE (1975), McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971), GOSFORD PARK (2001). He was really good with people who were locked into a particular hierarchy. He found all this in THE PLAYER.  

What did you learn from the experience of making the film that you applied to your own directing?
Altman's great success with actors was that he was a terrific host. He wanted to make sure everyone was treated well. 
Were you on set much?
I was one of the producers so I couldn’t be banished, but at a certain point, every writer has to walk away and let the director make his movie. No matter how well you get on at the beginning, the writer has to understand he's not the director and he can't stand and hover over the director. He's got to stay way back on the soundstage, chew his Red Vines, not eat too many potato chips off the craft services table and let the director make his movie.

Were you surprised that so many actors came on board?
Once he got Harry Belafonte, he was able to call everybody else, because it was going to be their only chance to work with him. The only one he didn't get was Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was pissed about that because Schwarzenegger owed him a favour. He said ''No, I'm not an extra.''

How many drafts of the script did you write?
The original draft took me about six weeks. There were a few different iterations and variations, and then I sat down with Altman. Once you have a real budget and a location, and a cast and the required page count, there's a certain amount of work to be done. Part of how I saw my job was to make sure that there was a solid structure so that when Altman went off on his semi-improvisational tangents with the actors, there were always  certain things in the scene that had to be covered. What I found was that in the dailies things would meander but by the time it was cut, it was back to the core. I think sometimes the director needs to respect every line of dialogue in the script, but what's important is that the director carry the melody.  The melody is more important than the lyrics. There are scenes in the movie where he's got my lyrics and there are scenes where he's got my melody. The only area in the film that I felt he could have served with a little more intensity was a greater sense of pursuit by the writer of the postcards. Altman let that drop a bit in the third act and toyed with it rather than take it a little bit more seriously.    

Were you happy with the film as it was being made? 
In the course of making anything it doesn't do anyone any good to pat yourself on the back and say ''This is great. ' 

Why do you think the TV series of The Player didn't take off?
I think it was a little early.

Are you interested in turning the sequel you wrote, The Return of the Player (2006), into a movie? 
No. Altman died, and it doesn't seem like we could make a sequel without him. Had he lived, it may have been able to work. Making a sequel now would be like asking someone to hit you in the face very hard. It could have been the greatest film of all time but the critics still would have said ''It's not Altman.'' 

I spoke to Michael by telephone on 26th October 2012 and would like to thank him for his time.  

THE PLAYER is being released by the Criterion Collection on 24th May 2016.  

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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