George Malko is an accomplished fiction and non-fiction author, journalist, documentarian and screenwriter whose life and career has been as adventurous, fascinating and eclectic as any of the stories he has had a hand in creating. In the first of a two-part interview I spoke with George about his early years as a film fan, his foray into screenwriting via making TV documentaries in Rome, and his experiences making the films ALIEN THUNDER (1974), with Donald Sutherland; Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial LA LUNA (1979), with Jill Clayburgh; and the war movie THE DOGS OF WAR (1980) with Christopher Walken.   

What are your strongest memories growing up of watching movies? 
I was afraid of movies for a long time when I was a kid because I thought they were real. As a very small child in Copenhagen, where I was born, I was taken to see SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) and I was carried screaming out of the theater because I thought it was real. I must have been about 10 or 11 when I suddenly realised that these were adventures; that they could scare me but that they couldn't necessarily get me. The first film that I felt comfortable with was PINNOCHIO (1940). It was playing at a local theater on an Easter break and I went to see it every day. I saw it eleven times. 

How about as you got a little older? 
When I was getting older and not yet in high school there were a couple of movie theaters in the neighborhood which showed foreign films and brought back certain American films. I remember going to this one movie theater and seeing BITTER RICE (1949). It made an incredible impression on me. Another theater brought back CITIZEN KANE (1941). I don't know why I went because it looked like it was about newspapers and stuff and I didn't know anybody on the poster, but I walked in and watched it. I was in my early teens and what got to me was the way the story was told. I was absolutely astonished that they were smart enough to find a way to tell me the story that made it interesting to me. It wasn't just a lecture. I thought some 'grown-up' movies were like lectures. 

What are some other films that you saw a lot in your teens? 
I must have seen A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) fifteen or twenty times. STALAG 17 (1953) and THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) left huge impressions on me. I had never seen anthing like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). I thought that whoever made it were geniuses because they made me fel so great. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) had an incredible influence on me because I ended up studying at the Sorbonne. I'm sure it was all because of that movie. I didn't see myself as a struggling painter living near Montmartre because I lived on the other side of the river, but whatever I was expecting from my year at the Sorbonne, it delivered. I saw a lot of movies there. As you know, in Paris, there are places where you can see films that everybody else has forgotten. I remember seeing HALLELUJAH THE HILLS (1963), made by the Mekas brothers. Eventually here in New York I came to meet Jonas Mekas. 

When did you start to entertain the idea of becoming a writer? 
I always entertained the idea but I never thought I had the right to want that. There was a point where I realised that I had to stop wanting it and start doing it. I had written some stories and published some articles and reviews. We were living in Rome in the 60s and a couple of our friends were in the film business. There was a producer named Gabrielle Silverstri, who was this independent producer. Like a lot of people have said, the film business can be found in the briefcases these independents walk around town with. Their lives and the possibilities of films are in those briefcases. Hope springs eternal. I was making documentary films for CBS News and I got to meet some of these producers because we did a documentary on how some of the low-budget sword and sandal movies were being made. We followed the entire production of one of the movies. We were on the set, we watched the dubbing and we watched the sound effects guy do the effects with equipment he carried in two suitcases. The documentary was called The 150 Lira Escape (1964). Being around movies is intoxicating. It takes a while but eventually you realise that all of these people are actually working and not just having fun. But the impression is what a great life it is.  

How did you come to write ALIEN THUNDER? 
One day in Rome, Gabrielle said ''I'm looking for a script. We've got some German blocked funds that some people need to spend on a Western. '' I said ''I got a Western. '' This was a Thursday. He said ''You do? I'd love to see it. '' I told him ''I'll show it to you. '' I went back to my home and over the next few days I wrote a screenplay. On the Monday I sent it to him. There was total silence for two weeks, and I was dying, wondering what was happening. I called him and asked ''Did you get the screenplay?'' He said ''Yes.'' I asked him ''Did you read it?'' He said ''Of course.'' ''Did you like it?'', I asked him. ''Yes, I loved it'', he said. With mounting excitement I said ''Are they going to make the movie?'' He said ''No.'' ''Why?'' I said. ''They disappeared. ''

I wanted to continue writing but CBS wouldn't let me. They wanted me to stay on as a producer, so I quit and we went back to New York. I thought ''Either do it, or shut up. '' So I started trying to write. And trying to write is the correct way to describe it. It took me a long time. During the first years, I did narrations for a couple of documentaries, I had some plays done off-Broadway, I published a couple of short stories, and then finally, a friend told me that Cinema Century Films had a film project in Canada that was in trouble and needed a complete rewrite. It was a Donald Sutherland movie, that was at that time called ALIEN THUNDER. It later became DAN CANDY'S LAW. I went up to Montreal and spent some time rewriting the script and then they shot it. I once tried talking to Donald Sutherland about the movie and he turned on his heel and walked away. He wouldn't talk about it. He had been friends with the people who made it and he felt betrayed by the movie. 

How do you feel about the film? 
It wasn't very good. It wasn't well cut. I got a cassette of it at one point amd my youngest son and I sat down to watch it. After 15 minutes he asked ''Dad, what's this about?'' and I said ''I have no idea. '' But hey, it was my first screen credit. 

Did they change your script a lot? 
They didn't really change the script. It was the editing. At one point they convinced their friend Dede Allen to come up from New York to look at it. I flew up with her. She was one of the greatest editors of all time. She looked at a rough cut and made some comments and they said ''Yeah, yeah.'' The only thing of importance that happened at that meeting in the cutting room was that they started talking about what happens when the Cree Indians are speaking Cree. I said ''Leave it. '' They said ''What do you mean? We need to know what they are saying. '' I said that all we need is a fair idea of what they are saying and that what they said in the film was self-evident. Dede agreed and said ''Yeah, just leave it. It'll be more authentic. '' Look, the director, Claude Fournier, is a sweet guy and we spent time with him in Montreal after the movie. But the movie is out of focus. There's a scene where two women are playing badminton, and it's snowing. 

The film comes across as like a fever dream. 
If only it had that mystical quality. 

How did you follow up the film? 
I did a television movie and got an agent. Work came in, but it was the usual thing. Two-thirds of the stuff you work on doesn't get made. 

What were the events that led to you co-writing LA LUNA with Bernardo Bertolucci? 
Bernardo was represented by Carol Levy in Rome, who was with the William Morris office. I was also with William Morris. Bernardo and his wife Clare Peploe came to New York because Twentieth Century Fox insisted an American writer be on the project. The original story had been written by Bernardo, Franco (Kim) Arcalli, his longtime collaborator, and his brother Giuseppe. Fox was producing with Fiction Cinematografica. Two things happened. First, Arcalli died, which was a terrible personal blow to Bernardo. Then, Liv Ullman, the film's original star, dropped out. 

My agent knew my background – that as a child I had lived in Rome a little bit and then later with CBS News I had lived and worked there. By this time I could read and speak Italian comfortably. He put us together and I wasn't quite sure what the movie was about. I missed the moment of the conversation where they had explained it. After we had had lunch, Bernardo asked me ''Why is it that you know Italian?'' I said ''Well, my father was a conductor and when I was 12 or 13 he was over there conducting and we all moved to Rome. I went to the American Overseas School of Rome for a while. As a kid in Rome it was really quite amazing because you felt you had the language and could get around. You felt the city belonged to you. '' Bernardo looked at me and said ''That's what my movie is about. '' I read the extensive original treatment, and a week later we flew to Rome and began working, meeting every day at Bernardo's home. Giuseppe was there much of the time, but not knowing English, his contributions were minimal, even though we discussed many things in Italian. At the time, Giuseppe was also involved in trying to get what what would be his third movie off the ground - it was made eventually and was called OGETTI SMARRITI, or LOST AND FOUND in English.

Because the original star was to be Liv Ullman, in the movie, where Jill Clayburgh goes to VillaVerdi, outside Parma, which was my suggestion because I had worked in Parma, we were originally going to go to Oslo. After Liv Ullman fell out, they met with Jill, and liked her. She came down to do camera tests while we were working on the script. She had just won an Oscar for Best Actress for AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978). It was only then that Bernardo learned her grandmother had been an opera singer. Jill did all the singing in the film. I remember that originally, for the role of the best friend, who is played by Veronica Lazar in the film, Bernardo wanted Monica Vitti. When he first talked about that, I thought ''Hey, I'll be there!'' It was a smart decision not to use her really because Monica would have overbalanced the movie. Jill was wonderful. A terrific actress and a terrific person. But she couldn't have held the frame against Monica Vitti. 

See below for notes.
What kind of experience was it making the film? 
It was an amazing experience. I'm disappointed that I don't have the correct credit on it but I have made peace with that. I wrote the screenplay with Bernardo, and when we finished I said to him ''I should really share the screen credit.'' He said ''You're right, but I can't do it. '' I asked him ''Why?'' and he said ''I promised it to Clare and my brother. I just have to. '' The film wasn't covered by the Writer's Guild so there couldn't be a credit arbitration. He said ''I'll get you another good credit. '' I believe that if it had been possible for there to have been a Writer's Guild arbitration, the final credits would have been determined to be 'Screenplay by Bernardo Bertolucci and George Malko. Original Story by Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli and Giuseppe Bertolucci.' But we will never know. If I could do it all over again, knowing how it would all play out, I'd still be with him in a heartbeat. Because working with him was wonderful. All the conversations of any kind. It's not a question of overt confidence on his part, it's working with someone who has nothing to prove, which means nothing threatens them. If you have an idea, you talk about it. When they shot in New York, I was there and it wasn't like ''What's the writer doing on the set?'' 

Did the script change at all as he was filming? 
What changed unfortunately was some of the locutions that they gave the American boy. The problem was that they didn't have an American on the set. There are moments in the movie where the boy says things that aren't American. When I wrote the novel I fixed all that. Bernardo said ''I don't want a novelisation. I had a novelisation on LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), and I hated it. I want a real novel. '' So I wrote a real novel and he was thrilled. In the book, I drop the other shoe. In the movie it's ambiguous whether the mother and son sleep together. Not in the book. By the way, Bernardo and I had previously met briefly when I was at CBS News in Rome. I had shot a documentary in Parma, and I met his parents. His mother had grown up in Australia, and my wife is Australian, so they had a nice talk. 

Did you have any worries about the subject matter of LA LUNA? 
No, not at all. I think I had already seen Louis Malle's MURMUR OF THE HEART (1971). The only disagreement that Bernardo and I had was the extent of the son's so-called drug 'addiction'. I felt that the addiction was convenient for any moment he needed to push forward. It wasn't an ongoing addiction that he could turn on and off. I told him that ''You're either addicted or you're chipping. If you're chipping, then fine, but the boy seems to be too young to control that. '' Bernardo said ''No, no. It's fine.'' 

How happy are you with the final film? 
Bernardo is great at flirting with the ambiguities in people, most effectively in THE CONFORMIST (1970), but in LA LUNA, I think he tries to do too much. It's one of those films that you don't want to dislike. I don't really like it, but I guess it's okay. 

How has the film impacted upon your own life? 
Well, I was in a restaurant in New York years ago, and the owner came over and said ''My analyst says I have to see LUNA because it will save us months''! 

How did you end up co-writing THE DOGS OF WAR? 
I had been offered the book years before when a producer named Sir John Woolf had an option on it. That fell apart. Later, my agent put me together with another producer called Larry De Waay and the director John Irvin, who were in New York, looking for a writer. By then they had seven or eight drafts. Everybody had done a draft of it, including Michael Cimino. I had read the book years before when Sir John Woolf had it. They said ''What did you think of it?'' I said ''Well, its main problem as a book is that A hires B to do C and B does it. That's it. There's no conflict. '' They agreed.

Freddie Forsyth had personally backed a failed coup in Africa. He had enlisted that famous mercenary, Mike Hoare. Forsyth had put $800, 000 into this failed coup and he wanted his money back. So he wrote the book as a way to do that. I went to London and we spent 2 1/2 months beating out the script, and United Artists greenlit it. While in London, I met with Pat Birch, the wonderful choreographer, who was going to direct a movie that Robert Stigwood wanted me to work on. It was a musical that was a crossover between Salsa music and New York, much like like the way SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) had been a crossover between disco and New York. So I came back to the States and started working on that. Meanwhile John Irvin and Larry De Waay were looking for places to shoot THE DOGS OF WAR that were Africa but not Africa. I recommended a particular section of the island of Puerto Rico that had been inhabited by slaves originally and was very African-looking. We were in touch about that but they ended up shooting in Belize. It looked great in the film. It was very effective. One of the wonderful things about the movie is that all the money is on the screen. 

When did Gary De Vore come on board? 
They wanted a polish and another pass at it and John Irvin wanted me to come to the Coast. United Artists said ''No, we have someone out here to do it. '' Gary took a pass at it and did beautiful work. I think at the time his credits were stronger than mine so he took first position but that was fine. My opening was different than the one that Gary wrote about them leaving the country after a battle. His opening was terrific. John made that look great. 

Can you talk about your opening? 
My opening was in some African country after a coup and they are all in a whorehouse, just collapsed. Theres smoke in the air from after the battle, there are girls around and there's drink around, but no-one is drinking because they're all listening to Shannon on the phone confirming that their money has been paid into their Swiss accounts. They're not leaving until it's done. Finally it's done and then he says ''Now we can leave. '' They get up to leave and Drew, Shannon's friend, passes one of the exhausted black women and says ''You gonna miss me?'' Then the story moved to New York.

It was an interesting lesson for me. In a story like that you want to start out big. The choreographing of the explosions as the plane takes off is beautifully done. After having seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and seeing his other work over the years, John's use of music is quite wonderful. The end, when the jeep is leaving, and he has that English hymn on the soundtrack is very strong. John and I came close years later to setting up a comedy that I wrote. A producer came on board and we sold it to Interscope and Ted Field in Los Angeles. Five days before going into pre-production, all of the top people at Interscope were replaced and of course the first thing they did was get rid of all the projects that had been in-house. John and I have tried to get other things going but they didn't happen. 

Was Michael Cimino ever in line to direct the film? 
No, he wasn't. I read his screenplay. It was terrific but it had absolutely nothing to do with the book. It was just a lot of stuff getting blown up. I had to look at all the scripts because there was an arbitration. There were eight or nine scripts. Everybody who worked on the scripts could have formed their own affinity group. We could have gotten on a bus and gone touring. 

What can you say about the scenes that were deleted from the movie? 
I don't really remember much about the missing footage. I think it had something to do with the funeral of a friend who was near death when they left whatever South American republic they were fighting in in the opening. I think it also had something to do with Tom Berenger's character. I saw Tom at a screening of a cut of the movie in New York, and he said to me ''Where am I? What happened? I'm barely in it. '' After that screening, John re-edited the movie and cut 18 minutes out of the film, and as a result, Tom was very much back in the movie. I told Tom as much but I don't know if he agreed. The shorter version of the movie played better and really moved. 

Part two of the interview. 

I spoke to George by telephone on 21st October 2015 and would like to thank him for his time. 

Notes on LA LUNA photo by George: ''This is in Queens; the funeral at the beginning of the film, after the stepfather has a coronary outside the family's Brooklyn Heights home and dies. I am behind Bernardo's right hand shoulder. He had originally wanted to shoot in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, with its distant vistas of New York Harbor. Apparently some of the Italian families with relatives enjoying eternal rest there nixed the idea. Queens was fine. Bernardo brought several of his usual Italian crew and supplemented it with New York crew. At lunch everyone went into an open-sided tent where two tables had been set up. There was veal in several forms, and fresh bread and pasta, and bottles of red and white wine. A New York grip took a look and said ''Damn, you guys eat like this all the time?'' The nearest Italian said ''Of course.'' The New Yorker said ''I'm in the wrong place. '' The Italian said ''Come to Italy. '' Another New Yorker nearby, union of course, quietly said ''Yeah, go to Italy and starve looking for work. '' It was a fabulous lunch. ''   

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


Daniel Waters exploded onto the film scene with his brilliant, perceptive, wickedly funny screenplay for HEATHERS (1988). His subversive, outrageous, satirical sense of fun brought extraordinary qualities to films like BATMAN RETURNS (1992), THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990), HUDSON HAWK (1991), DEMOLITION MAN (1993) and VAMPIRE ACADEMY (2014), the latter of which was directed by his brother Mark Waters, the director of MEAN GIRLS (2004). Dan also wrote and directed the unfairly underseen comedies HAPPY CAMPERS (2001) and SEX AND DEATH 101 (2007). In the first part of our two-part interview, I spoke to Dan about the writing, influences and initial reaction of the HEATHERS screenplay, and also the casting of the film.   

Part one of the interview. 

One of the great qualities of the film is that there's real pathos in the film, in the Martha Dumptruck story, for example.
You don't want to have it where everything is a big joke. Having said that, Lehmann and I have that gene where we always want to add humor to a dramatic scene. When he added the 'Fe Fi Fo Fum' music to Martha walking down the corridor I said ''Michael, what are you doing?'' And he answered ''I can't help it!'' We both still have the court jester sides of our personalities that we can't get rid of.

Do the killer lines come easily to you?
The first draft of HEATHERS was done on a typewriter, which was before I could even afford a computer. It makes me feel like I wrote HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). I wasn't walking around my desk going ''I gotta come up with some great lines!'' The great lines come first very slowly, so when I sit down to write a scene I already have this arsenal of stuff that I have come up with. When the actual writing is getting done, I have these weapons that I can use, which are notebooks full of stuff I have come up with. You remember in THE KARATE KID (1984) where Daniel has to learn how to wax on and wax off and paint the fence and all that before he can actually do the karate moves? I think there's a lot of that with my writing. There is a lot of 'pre-writing' – turns of phrases and little ideas like Veronica putting a car lighter into her hand and then J.D. lighting a cigarette off the burn. Something like that doesn't come on the day of the game. It comes way before I start writing.

Did you do extra work on the film during shooting?
Now I often have to do quite an amount of work on a screenplay whilst the movie is shooting, but on HEATHERS once we started shooting I didn't do any work at all.

How did Michael Lehmann get involved?
Michael did this short film when he was at the USC called The Beaver Gets a Boner (1985). Larry Karaszewski worked on it, a friend of mine edited it, and one of my roommates shot it. So it was easy to get the script to him. Michael was the up-and-coming director at USC that all my friends there knew.

Did you immediately think Michael would be a good fit?
I had to go through an evolution. At first I was like ''Who is this schmuck?'' But eventually I realised that he really knew how to make a movie. He had worked at Zoetrope, so when he started dropping Francis Ford Coppola's name I would get into line! We also have such a similar sense of humor too. Sometimes when you work with people you can tell when someone doesn't like something and understand why they don't like it. Maybe their ideas for changes are not better in your opinion, but you know they are not lying when they say they didn't get something, so you go back and rework things. I find a lot of writers when they get notes they just make the changes word for word, and nobody is happy. With Michael I could reinvent what he was saying and he would know exactly what I meant.

In what ways were your visions different?
It goes back to the reviewer saying I was ''chilling for what I saw as common ground''. Michael would bring me back down to Earth. I had the Veronica character much more complicit in what was going on. One of the things that he would always sit on top of me about was that he wanted Veronica to be more of an audience surrogate who is drawn into the homicide of it all, and an unwilling collaborator in the deeply dark stuff. I had her as almost like Travis Bickle with a vagina. I fought with Michael over it at the time, but as I worked with Winona a bit more I could see it working better Michael's way because she is not the slick femme fatale with the cigarette hanging at the corner of her mouth, like Rita Hayworth. She's more Elizabeth Taylor. We can relate to her more. At the time I thought softening anything was a defeat but certainly to this day I appreciate that softening the Veronica character was very helpful.

Do you ever wish that you had directed HEATHERS?
Now that I have directed, I have had fantasies about what it would have been like to have directed HEATHERS, but I also realise how little I knew at that time. Not in the grand scheme of things like coming up with a look for the film and working with actors, but certainly as a 25 year old boy from Indiana I was just not prepared for the grind of it. Back then the idea of me directing it was almost like me doing open heart surgery. There are still things I tease Michael Lehmann about. I went to a screening of it and I hadn't seen it in a while. There's the chase where JD and Veronica are trying to shoot the jocks in the forest, and all of a sudden Christian Slater chases one guy for like 20 minutes. But Michael did a great job on the film.

How do you feel about the ending to the film?
I am more at peace with the 'happy ending' in the finished film than I was before. As a viewer, after you have gone through such pain and hostility, you do want some catharsis at the end. And I don't think the ending is completely on the level. There is something ironic about it. It's a different flavour at the end of the movie, which I don't mind. I don't think anyone wants to see Veronica dead at the end. The ending that I miss never made it into a shooting script. Veronica says to Martha ''Do you want to come over to my house?, and Martha says ''Fuck you, Heather'' and takes a knife and stabs Veronica in the chest. Veronica is lying on the floor bleeding and repeating ''My name is not Heather. My name is not Heather.'' Martha gets up out of the wheelchair, like DR. STRANGELOVE, and says ''I can walk! I can walk!'' I've gone back and forth over the years about which ending would have been the best but now I am just grateful the film got made. Thinking about what could have been just seems silly now.

What did you learn about filmmaking from the whole HEATHERS experience?
At the time I was the screenwriter who said ''I never wanna direct. '' I was embracing my status as a crazy, eccentric writer guy who doesn't have to work with people.'' The first day of shooting was Ash Wednesday and I came to the set with a black ash cross on my forehead. None of the cast had met me so they thought I was this crazy monk who wrote the script and comes out three days a year. I embraced that, and Michael Lehmann enjoyed it because he got to be the sane guy that everybody talked to. It was more my other movies where I realised I had to start paying attention. Michael did such a seamless job on HEATHERS. He was plugged in and he knew what I wanted. I thought ''Great. I obviously write scripts that direct themselves. '' It was only on my second film, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, which Renny Harlin directed, that I realised that you really had to pay attention and make sure that the right tone was being gone after. I saw that directing was really like writing in a way in terms of crafting something into a movie.

Was HEATHERS your happiest experience making a film?
Yes, I'd say so, although I had a great time making SEX AND DEATH 101, which I also directed, even though it seems everyone was out of the town the weekend it opened. The first film I directed, HAPPY CAMPERS, was almost like me going to film school. I spent most of the 90s at Sony developing a project called The Model Daughter. It was an original script of mine and much more HEATHERS in tone. I spent so much time on a film that never saw the light of day that I realised how lucky I had been to get HEATHERS made.

Were you ever worried about the reaction to HEATHERS?
Now I realise that I should have been more worried than I was! I didn't know how precarious a script was and how precarious making a movie was. I really thought nothing could go wrong with HEATHERS because Michael really seemed to get the script. If it was today I would be freaking out a bit more.

What did you hope teenagers would get from the movie?
I thought that the movie was like showing a funhouse mirror of themselves back to them, and that it would be too close to home for them to be tickled by it. There are a lot of people who come up to me and tell me that they saw HEATHERS as a teenager and hated it, but that they now love it. I think my films get more of that kind of response than other writers or filmmakers. I've learned to wear it as a badge of honor that the first time you see my movie you're going to be queasy and uncomfortable but with a little more perspective you're really going to like it. It's never my initial intention but I'll take it.

How did you feel about the reaction HEATHERS got at Sundance?
The first review the film ever got was by Variety and you couldn't have written a better review. That said, there were people in the audience who found the film very insulting and irresponsible, but even that was like a minor victory and the best negative experience you could ask for. I remember that the writer Anthony Shaffer said ''Is HEATHERS a movie that people are watching and really liking? This is amazing. America is much different than I thought it was.'' I had to explain to him that although he got the movie, the rest of America was not going to see it in droves. Part of it also was that New World didn't have much money to release the movie and so it didn't do as well as we hoped.

How did the film impact on your career?
There were people that didn't like the movie, but even those had to reckon with me as a force. I established myself as an original voice but I was still living in Silver Lake, barely out of the video store. When I went out to get work after HEATHERS, it was clear nobody wanted me to do something dark and original. They wanted me to bring my fresh voice to something they had developed. The plan was to do one for me and one for them. I remember getting pitched a comedy with Whitney Houston as a genie who moves in with a suburban family. People who read my original script for FORD FAIRLANE thought it was a really great dark comedy that was a parody of the detective movie and a satire of the music industry, but once Andrew Dice Clay and others got involved, it was never going to be that movie. I remember the first day of shooting and the comedian Gilbert Gottfried came to the set. He was sweaty and nervous, and hadn't read the script. He just started ad-libbing, and I realised ''What have I done?''

Do you see the legacy of HEATHERS in other movies?
All of the teenagers suddenly became more articulate and slangy after HEATHERS. It was a very influential movie for younger writers. It's like I'm the guy who wrote CASABLANCA (1942) and HIS GIRL FRIDAY to them. In some ways the film has been too influential because now we have adult characters in movies speaking like high school characters. The story might be set in a law firm but the dialogue has that HEATHERS cruelty and cadence to it. The fact though, is that what sounds cool for teenagers to say just comes across as glib when adults speak that way.

Is HEATHERS a film that you feel comfortable sitting down to watch?
I've been to a couple of screenings over the years and I always try to remember it as my Stanley Kubrick film, but it's more of a cultish 80s movie than I remember. It has a lot of cheap humour that makes me think ''I can't believe we were so shamelessly vulgar there.'' I always think of it as more of a hoity toity movie than it actually is. There's a lot of silliness in it which I always seem to have amnesia about. I think Michael and I's need to constantly entertain protected us from being too pretentious.

The movie hasn't lost its power, either.
It still has bite to it. It makes me realise that especially in music now, instead of it getting harsher and more out there, its starting to draw back. We had Joy Division and HEATHERS in the 80s, and now its going back the other way. At the time there were a lot of R-rated teen films but now they are so rare. The PG-13 rating has ruined everything. Things that should have just been family fun now have pointless blowjob jokes, and films that should have been rated R are now just watered down.

Would you ever want to write a sequel?
Right after the movie came out, when Winona was really bugging me about doing a sequel, I came up with the idea of Veronica being a page working for a Senator played by Meryl Streep and having to kill the President by the end of the story. I remember that a year later Winona came up to me and said ''I talked to Meryl and she's in. '' Even that wasn't enough to make me want to write it. 

I spoke to Dan by telephone and would like to thank him for his time. 

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


Daniel Waters exploded onto the film scene with his brilliant, perceptive, wickedly funny screenplay for HEATHERS (1988). His subversive, outrageous, satirical sense of fun brought extraordinary qualities to films like BATMAN RETURNS (1992), THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990), HUDSON HAWK (1991), DEMOLITION MAN (1993) and VAMPIRE ACADEMY (2014), the latter of which was directed by his brother Mark Waters, the director of MEAN GIRLS (2004). Dan also wrote and directed the unfairly underseen comedies HAPPY CAMPERS (2001) and SEX AND DEATH 101 (2007). In the first part of our two-part interview, I spoke to Dan about the writing, influences and initial reaction of the HEATHERS screenplay, and also the casting of the film.    

What made you decide that you wanted to make 'The greatest ever teen film'?
It was almost exactly like that. I've learned that naivete is one of the strongest forces in the world. The sad thing about becoming an old, grizzled screenwriter is that you lose your naivete and you start to think about what can be done and what can get made. Back then, after I had just moved out to L.A. and I was sitting writing my first screenplay, it was a case of ''What do I want to see?'' I see so many movies and what I wanted to see was a high school film with Stanley Kubrick's satire from DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and the narration from Terrence Malick's BADLANDS (1973). The high school films that I was seeing lacked a certain something. The parents were always to blame. The kids were always innocent. Even when they weren't innocent, they were never to blame. I didn't want to make a documentary saying ''This is the way teenagers really are. '' I wanted to take a step back and take a darker, more epic, cynical, satirical approach. Stanley Kubrick did his science fiction movie. He did his horror movie. He did his war movie. Well, what if he did his teen film? So I wrote this three-hour script. Screenwriters today they read Variety, and they read the trades in order to find what is hot right now, instead of just writing. I've always found it ridiculous. It's like the light of a star of a planet that blew up two hundred years ago. By the time you write what's hot, it won't be hot anymore. I just went in headlong and wrote this three hour teen film. It was silly and insane of me but in this case it worked out.

You're a fan of John Hughes but the film is often described as an 'anti-John Hughes' film. Do you think of it that way?
In a way it is, yes. That doesn't mean I hate his films though. Looking back now, the thing that I didn't like about them, the quaintness and silliness of them, is even more endearing today. They're time-capsule fun. Even at the time I enjoyed them -it was just certain elements of them I always had problems with. In THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985) a character says ''When you grow up, your heart dies. '' HEATHERS is saying ''When you're 14, your heart dies. '' Evil and bad behaviour can happen at a much younger age than just when you're becoming an adult.

Did you ever think it might have been possible to get Kubrick to do the film?
I honestly did think that somehow he would see the script and say ''Yeah, I'll do it.'' I thought I would have to go to England and work with him, and he would probably take a screenwriting credit with me. That was me being realistic!

Were you inspired by any particular films or books when writing the script?
Both the movie BADLANDS and the work of Kubrick were definitely inspirational. PRETTY POISON (1968) was another one. I also love Michael Ritchie's SMILE (1975). And not to sound too pretentious but I love the whole Shakespeare thing, man! I was always jealous of him because he always wrote about the top people. So, I thought ''Wait a minute. If I go to the royalty of high school, then I can have that same ambience. '' It's funny. To this day I get notes like ''Why can't you write the way people really talk?'' I take all the transportation in L.A., and I hear how people really talk all the time and it can be fascinating. I like it when characters, even the stupid characters, speak as though they were given an extra ten minutes to come up with a good line. I like the dialogue to be elevated. You can say it's Shakespeare or it's Turner Classic Movies, but I'm the last of the anti-naturalistic bent when it comes to screenwriting.

When did you begin writing the screenplay?
It was the spring of 86 when I said ''Right, I gotta actually start writing something.'' My friend Larry Karaszewski was graduating from USC in the fall of 85 and he was getting a place. There was an extra place so I moved in with him.

Were you writing it when you were working at the video store?
Yeah, and part of me still wishes I was working there because there's something about being on the floor, surrounded by movies, that allows you to get your juices flowing. I have never been the guy who sits at a computer and says ''OK, I gotta do five pages today.'' I'm always the writer who sneaks up on the writing of a script. I'm always collecting notes. I call it 'collecting acorns for the winter'. I end up writing little bits and bits and then adding them all up. I do everything by hand, so by the time it gets to the computer it has cleared a lot of customs.

How many drafts did you write?
I think there were three big drafts and then a lot of putting once we got to the green, just getting it right for a movie. There were drafts that went over 200. I found the original draft recently, and I could only get through a few pages. I wrote everything! The draft I showed everybody was a nice, tight 196 pages! I remember Michael Lehmann telling me I had to cut it down, and I was thinking ''Who the fuck are you?!''

Was anything lost do you feel from the shortened drafts and the final shooting script?
The first draft was more like a novel. I have adapted novels myself and you just have to accept that a movie is a different beast. That draft had more characters and more of a Charles Dickens expanse to it. There was a lot more about what happens to the school after the suicides and there were more characters from the media. I don't really miss all that stuff. I used to think it would have been better as a three hour movie but I don't think that way now.

Was HEATHERS always the title?
Yes, always. I wrote a short script in college about a girl who gets burned at the stake during a high school football game, and I had three supporting characters named Heather. People liked that element so much that I jumped off from there.

When you were writing the script did you have any actors in mind for the lead roles?
I had a huge post-LABYRINTH (1986) crush on Jennifer Connelly and I thought she would be the perfect Veronica. To this day, Winona still teases me about it. She did a Ron Howard movie, THE DILEMMA (2011), where she got to meet Jennifer Connelly, and she told her all about it. It was funny when Jennifer was Oscar-nominated for A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001) because it was always like a punchline for Winona. I certainly realise now that Winona was the perfect person for it. I hadn't seen her in BEETLEJUICE (1988) yet because it hadn't come out yet. Michael Lehmann was friends with the writer of it and so he knew more about her than I did. I had only seen her in SQUARE DANCE (1987) and to me she wasn't the dark Audrey Hepburn ingenue that I wanted for the Veronica role. I had my arms folded but I soon realised how stupid I was.

It's incredible that she was only 16 when she made the film, and already a fan of film noir!
And she was really 16 too. I saw her in the elevator going up to meet her and I thought ''Who is this little girl?'' Other people liked the script, but it was only after I talked to her that I realised how good it really was. If a teenager with that kind of intelligence and cinematic knowledge loved it, I knew I must have really done something right.

Were you consulted at all in the casting decisions?
I wasn't initially as involved in casting as I'd have liked to have been. I wasn't even aware they had begun casting people and I got mad. I eventually got consulted. We were never going to get big, established stars. I had not been blown away by the films Christian Slater had made at the time. I really came to appreciate how charismatic his performance was in the movie. Critics complained that he was copying Jack Nicholson, but it's actually the way that he talks!

What sort of reaction did the script get once you began sending it out?
I was really low on the totem pole. I was literally a guy behind the counter in a video store. I didn't even have an agent. People starting out ask me how to get an agent. I tell them ''Write a script that you can get one person other than yourself to like, and people will be willing to pass on to other people. '' I got a lot of great responses from people who said HEATHERS was a great writing sample but that it would never get made into a movie. I did manage to get an agent off the script, but even he said ''OK, we're gonna put the HEATHERS script in this drawer here. It will be our little secret. '' Eventually I got an agent who was also Michael Lehmann and Denise Di Novi's agent (Bobbi Thompson), and she really loved the script. She was able to package it all together and help get it made. I was really lucky to meet all these guys, even though I didn't realise it at the time.

Was there a point where you realised you had something special?
A lot of people wanted to read it and it certainly got a great response from everybody that did. I was so naive that I was saying ''You really like the script? When do we start shooting?'' People would just laugh. The idea of actually making the movie was something that people couldn't deal with. Even when I was having meetings during shooting, people couldn't believe we were actually shooting it. They thought they had discovered this crazy script that no-one knew about and they couldn't believe it was being made into a movie. I call HEATHERS 'winning the lottery'. Writing that movie and having it get made was such a big deal but I didn't appreciate it at the time. I wrote my first screenplay and everyone loved it, so I thought it was just the first of a thousand great films I was going to do. I didn't realise that no-one was going to let me write a movie like that again. When I go and speak in classes with people, I tell them that they are at the best point of their life because for your first script, you're expected to write stuff that is completely out there and completely original. It's the only way you're going to get noticed. There's nothing worse than somebody who sells out before they are asked to sell out. The studios want somebody who is an original talent and then they want to take them and force them to do their crap, but you are in a position now with your first script where you are allowed to be out there. I was in a position later on where it was like ''You know, you should get that HEATHERS stuff out of your system now if you want to work in today's industry.'' You can see with the stuff after HEATHERS, especially the Joel Silver movies that I did, that I was promoted in the worst way possible. ''You did HEATHERS, so now you can do this crap.'' You need to somehow keep the naivete that you had.

How much did HEATHERS reflect your own high school life?
I feel like I'm on the outside looking in. I was the writer even in high school. I had a column in the high school newspaper, and I would write all the PA announcements. It was always ''Get Dan Waters. We need to write a speech for the Pep Assembly. He'll write a funny sketch. '' I always had a journalistic relationship with high school from the beginning. High school was certainly not the traumatic experience many people assume it was because I wrote HEATHERS. College was actually the worst four years of my life because I loved all the pain and drama of high school. In college everybody is just having a good time and for some reason, instead of going with the flow, I just hated it. I didn't wanna have fun. I wanted to see people cry! Everyone in my particular high school class was a friendly bunch. For HEATHERS I kind of stole from my younger brother and especially my younger sister's experiences.

How important was it for you to look at the social issues of high school life in your script?
If I had to write my Seven Deadly Sins in order, Sloth would be number one. I love writing but actually sitting down and doing it is difficult. I love having the ideas floating around in my head more than actually finishing something. When I say HEATHERS was written as a response to the teen films, that's correct, but I need more than that to get me to write. The way teenage suicide was presented in films and in the media as a news story incensed me. A teenager who had committed suicide would be elevated to this God-like level. The way the media talks about these issues makes it too real and suddenly suicide becomes something to consider when you're feeling depressed. One of my favorite lines in the script is when the teacher says ''Whether to kill yourself is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.'' There was a certain sanctity and solemnity at the time about teenage suicide that I wanted to satirise – the highlight of that being the father saying ''I love my dead gay son'' at the funeral. Only now does the father realise the problems his son had been having. Suicide shouldn't be the way to get them noticed.

Do you ever surprise or shock yourself by the stuff you come up with?
I actually never do. And it goes to the part of the way I write. ''Fuck me gently with a chainsaw'' for example, was something that I had floating around in my head long before I put it in HEATHERS. By the time it went into the script I had digested it a million times. There was a review that I have always worn as a badge of honor that said ''Waters is chilling for what he assumes is common ground. '' In other words, ''He has no idea how fucked up he is.'' 

I spoke to Dan by telephone and would like to thank him for his time. 

Part two of the interview.  

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


C.M. 'Carty' Talkington is the writer-director of the 'Western psychedelic road opera' LOVE AND A .45 (1994), a film that features Renee Zellweger in one of her breakout early performances and has an enduring cult following. Unfairly overshadowed by the success of Quentin Tarantino, who remains a fan of the movie, LOVE AND A .45 exudes the restlessness, wild imagination, eclectic tastes and rebelliousness of its creator. I talked to Carty about his career as a filmmaker and musician. In part three we talked about his time working for Richard Donner as an assistant, his documentary MUD MULES & MOUNTAINS (2015), and his music career with his band Texas Radio. 

Part one. 
Part two.  

How did you end up working for Richard Donner?
I was living with my girlfriend at the time, and it just so happened that her uncle was working for Dick Donner. She offered to set up a meeting. Seeing that I didn't know a single person in the film business and really wanted to make films, it seemed like a good thing to do.

Her uncle's name was Hank Palmieri, a great guy. Unfortunately he died of cancer several years back. I believe he was head of development at the time. He took mercy on me and hired me as a reader to cover scripts for Dick's development office. I read scripts and novels, and wrote synopses and reviews. I read everything at home, wrote the coverage and dropped it off on the Warner Brothers lot. The job allowed me to supplement my income from the video store and also hopefully make some great connections.

I have to admit I never got over the tingly magical feeling that I got every time I drove my recently purchased beat-up Volvo station wagon through security and onto the Warner Brothers lot. It has always been my favorite studio. It was an exciting and exhilarating time. Years later I would be hired by Warners to re-write DEEP BLUE SEA (1999), and get to spend time there as a completely different kind of employee.

How long did you work there?
Probably three years, off and on. I continued working there even after I moved to Santa Monica from Silverlake and got a job in a movie theater. I don't think I'd have been able to pay the rent if not for Hank Palmieri and Dick Donner. It was a great place to work. They would occasionally ask me to come and fill in, if someone's assistant had left or been fired. So I probably spent several months altogether actually working in the office. I was Hank's assistant for a month or two, which was kind of a benevolent disaster. I was even Lauren Shuler Donner (Dick's wife)'s assistant's assistant for a month or two as well, which was less of a disaster. I had learned a little more office decorum by then!

Did you get to know Dick Donner much?
At the time, he was King of Hollywood and wasn't around a lot. But I was fortunate enough to spend some good time with him and to get to know him a bit. He was a great guy. Great positive energy. Really deep voice. He was really fun to be around. I will always be eternally grateful to him for keeping me afloat during some very lean years. I'm sure he has no idea who I am, but he was an important guy in my life without him even knowing it.

Funnily enough he had briefly cast me in THE LOST BOYS (1987) a few years earlier, but he had no memory of it, and I never brought it up. I was still auditioning for stuff at the time, and had had several callbacks in New York with Joel Schumacher, and one with Dick Donner, for being one of the vampires. They called my agent and told him I got the part, but for some reason, they changed their minds a week later. My career definitely could have gone in a different direction had I been cast.

Did you make some lasting relationships whilst working for Donner?
I am still friends with Dick's personal assistant at the time, Jason Roberts. He's one of the top assistant directors in the business now. He directed a short film I wrote called Opportunity, kind of a twisted take on the American Dream, which is the first thing I had written that someone else directed. I'm also still friends with Jon Felson, who was one of Dick's army of assistants. We did a crazy Reverend Horton Heat video together in Texas years later. Jon is a successful writer and producer these days, and we still frequently speak and collaborate. Finally, I'd like to mention Scott Nimerfro, who was assistant director of development when I was there and was really good to me. Scott went on to produce TV shows like Hannibal (2013-15) and Tales from the Crypt (1989-96), as well as the films HANNIBAL (2001) and X-MEN (2000). Tragically, he died of cancer a few weeks ago. 

How did the documentary MUD MULES & MOUNTAINS come about?
Several years back, a friend of mine introduced me to the producer Patsy Wesson, who had been documenting a group of WW2 veterans for the past five or six years. She wanted to go to Italy and make a documentary about them revisiting the old battlegrounds of their youth. Two of her uncles had fought there. I have a lot of respect for people who serve and I love Texas history, so I said yes. I flew over to Italy with her and followed the veterans around with a camera, and then I did some more shooting at different reunions in Austin and San Antonio. I inherited some of the footage and shot about half of it  myself. I then edited it all into the mosaic that is the film today. Patsy and I are currently developing a new project together called Mascot. It's the story of how an American soldier came to adopt an Italian war orphan during WW2, and is based on Patsy's uncle's true story.

What does MUD MULES & MOUNTAINS mean to you?
To me it's less about war or history and more about people coming to terms with mortality. All of these guys should have died there 65 years ago and yet they're still alive but about to die of old age. And they're revisiting the place where they survived mainly out of blind luck. I couldn't believe the power of the memories these guys had and the horrible things they had seen.

What do you think drives you as an artist?
I have a lot of goals as an artist but what I want to do the most is make people feel. We are in danger of becoming numb and I want to remind people of how magical human beings are. Art is the most powerful engine of change and transformation and we underestimate it. I believe it's the role of an artist to try and make the world a better place. I think too much value is placed on entertainment these days and we need to talk more about the serious issues that threaten our future.

How long have you been writing and playing music?
I've been playing the guitar and writing songs for pretty much my whole life. I borrowed my stepfather's guitar and wrote my first song when I was ten years old. It was a country tune about not havin' a buck and drivin' a truck through Texas. I have a box filled to the top with handwritten songs. I write and play whenever I can. It's my greatest passion and most treasured pleasure.

Can you talk about your band Texas Radio?
I created the original Texas Radio in 1986 with my friend and mentor Scott Mathews. He actually came up with the name of the band, and I loved it. Scott was the original drummer for The Butthole Surfers. We met when I auditioned for a Theater Festival he and his partner Lisa Tomczeszyn, a wonderful production and costume designer, were putting on in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas in 1985. I learned so much from Scott. He was twelve years older than me, and I looked up to him like a big brother. We did a lot of projects together in my late teens and early 20s. He taught me many invaluable things about art. I wouldn't be the artist I am today without him. It was very hard on me when he died

Where did he get the name from?
Most people think of The Doors song, but it's actually a reference to the Outlaw Texas radio stations that broadcast illegally from across the border in Mexico from the early 1900s into the 1970s. Jim Morrison was referring to these stations in his Doors song The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat). I actually feel like a radio antenna at times and I'm definitely from Texas, so I think it's very appropriate.

Who was in the original version of Texas Radio?
Scott was the drummer. I wrote the songs, played the guitar and sang. We had a couple of different bass players. We played and recorded in Providence, New Haven and New York City in the late 1980s, and we also went on a small tour of Texas. I still have all of our original recordings. I ended up moving to Los Angeles in 1990 and that was the end of Texas Radio at that time.

When you were in LA working on scripts, did you continue to play music?
Yes, I started a new band, The Furies, when I arrived in LA, and we played all over the city in the early 1990s. We never got a record deal and never had any financial success, but we had a blast. I started getting caught up in writing screenplays and once I was making LOVE AND A .45, I literally had no time for music and the band just sort of fell apart. I let some of my music muscles atrophy. My life has been a constant battle between my love of music and my love of film. They are without question complimentary art forms, but it's difficult for me to focus on the two mediums at the same time because they require two different mindsets.

What led to the return of Texas Radio?
I quit drinking alcohol about six years ago and I had a complete musical rebirth. I had so much more clarity and time to be more productive, and the songs just started pouring out of the ether. I was working on MUD MULES & MOUNTAINS during this period and I would work on that during the day, and my music at night. I started up Texas Radio again with a guy named Douglas Forrest. I kept hearing live music coming out of my neighbor's window across the parking lot from me, and it was him. So one day I wrote a note saying I would like to play music with him and I taped it to his door. I'm sure my writing looked like the scribblings of a mad man, and I got his name wrong. Unsurprisingly, he never got back to me, but I met him on the street six months later and introduced myself. I asked him again about playing music together, and he relented. We set a time for the following weekend and Texas Radio was born again.

How would you describe the music you make?
I like to describe it as western psychedelic soul music. It's music you might hear on a road trip through the Lone Star State, moving your way across the AM dial. I write songs to encourage people to conquer their fear and become what they were born to be.

How has the band been going?
It's been going really well. We've been playing shows in Los Angeles and Dallas, and we've had some great reactions. Playing music is what makes me feel the most alive. It's my favourite thing to do. It's very different from making films in terms of its immediacy. There is a direct electrical connection with the audience that is very rewarding and exhilirating. In terms of making people feel, music is the most powerful art form on the planet.

We have a full band now. I write the songs, play guitar and sing. Douglas plays guitar and sings. David Mabry plays the drums. And Kobie Baus plays bass and sings. We're about to make a new record in Echo Park and begin a new tour. There's no greater feeling than making music with my friends but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to make another film. With my newfound clarity and focus, I feel that I'm now capable of working in both mediums. I'm extremely interested in exploring unique new ways to synthesize sound and image, and that's what I'm going to do. 

I spoke to Carty by telephone on 3rd November 2015, and by email during April 2016, and would like to thank him for his time. 

Mud Mules & Mountains trailer and Facebook page.

Carty's band, Texas Radio, on Facebook, Soundcloud and YouTube    

Carty's solo material, produced by Jim Heath (of Reverend Horton Heat, who contributed music to LOVE AND A .45) on Soundcloud

Photographs are the property of CM Talkington and cannot be reproduced without his permission. All photos are by Zachary Mortensen, except (1) Danny Rothenberg, (2, 5) C.M. Talkington, (6) Trimark Publicity, (7) Nathan Thomas Millner, (8, 9) Allan Hayslip.  

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