Jeffrey Alan Fiskin is the writer of CUTTER'S WAY (1981), a film now regarded as a masterpiece, and which won Fiskin an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. His first credit was the biker exploitation pic ANGEL UNCHAINED (1970), and his other credits include Tony Scott's REVENGE (1990) with Kevin Costner, Louis Malle's heist caper CRACKERS (1984), and the action comedy THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER (1981). Fiskin's work for TV includes episodes of From the Earth to the Moon (1998) and Faerie Tale Theatre (1983), and the TV movies THE '60s (1999) and THE '70s (2000). His work is fascinatingly textured, melodramatic and resonant, and in the first of a three-part interview I spoke with him about breaking into the film industry and his experiences writing ANGEL UNCHAINED and THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER.        

What were some of your formative filmgoing experiences growing up? 
My memories actually are of the Crest Theater in Long Beach. For 25 cents, you could see a double feature, a newsreel, six cartoons, and a Superman serial. It was the best place to be every Saturday for I don't know how many years. Some of the films are long since forgotten. The only Superman serial I remember well is SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (1951),  which had the Mole Men coming out from the underground at some point and they creeped me out. The film I remember best, because I sat through it three times and my Dad actually had to come to the theater to find me because I had never ever not been home on time, was Burt Lancaster in JIM THORPE - ALL AMERICAN (1951). I adored that film. A couple of the scenes hold up amazingly well, and have become tropes of their own in other films. For example, there's a scene where Burt Lancaster is late for class and he has to run, and he starts running just as a gun fires and a track team takes off as well. And he leaves them in the dust. I can see it quite clearly. It was a glorious moment, especially for a ten year old. They are my earliest memories. I went all the time. 

Are there any particular films that influenced your own writing? 
Probably all those films I saw at the Crest, American films of the 50s. But certainly the French New Wave, Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. Saying I like Kurosawa and Leone is like saying ''I love American Westerns. '' Which I do. I was very saddened when somewhere around UNFORGIVEN (1992) everybody decided Westerns were 'unforgivable' and stopped making them for a while. 

At what stage did you think you might become a writer? 
I think I was about seven years old. We lived in a blue-collar neighborhood and my next door neighbor in Long Beach, California, was a kid named Jimmy. One day I saw that he was playing outside and he had the coolest thing that I had ever seen - he had an army helmet. Of course I asked if I could play with it and he said no, it was his. So we played but I didn't get to play with the helmet. When we finished playing, I watched as Jimmy put the helmet away where he always put away his toys, outside in a toy chest. He went inside, and I ran outside, grabbed the helmet and ran to my house. I put it on and I was marching around the house like Audie Murphy. My Mom said not a word but my Dad came home from work, looked at me and said ''Nice chapeau. '' I had no idea what that meant but I said ''But what about this?'', pointing to the helmet. He said ''Yeah, where did you get that?'', and I made up a story. He said ''We have to go in the bedroom. '' I knew that that was very bad news because the phrase ''go to the bedroom'' meant I was going to get a spanking. My mother later assured me she would never let my father touch me. Evidently I would start crying the minute he had me over his lap and I would 'remember' how badly he hit me to bring on the tears. Anyway, we were headed to the bedroom and as he put me over his lap and just before I started crying, he said something off-handedly like ''It's too bad you're not a writer. I could give you 25 cents for a story that good. '' I thought ''You mean there's a business where you can get money for lying? This is my life!'' And it stuck with me. It never went away. 

What were some of the first scripts you wrote before ANGEL UNCHAINED? 
I took an MFA in Painting at Berkeley, after I graduated college. I studied with Mark Rothko. I also got married. At the hotel we stayed at that night, before the honeymoon, around 2am, my friend Charlie comes rapping at the door, drunk as the Lord. He had a huge box, and he staggered in, and dropped it on the floor. He spotted a bottle of champagne we had just opened, grabbed it and started swigging away while he said ''You know how after every movie we see, you say you could do a better one than that?'' I said ''Yeah?'' He said ''Well, get busy. And he proudly opened the box. I had no idea what it was, except that it was some kind of a camera. Turned out to be an old rack over Bolex that he had, in the Berkeley phrase of the day, 'liberated' for me.

I went back up to Berkeley and while I was continuing my Masters with Rothko, I started making movies for the Cinema Psychedelica at Berkeley throughout 1966-67. That would have been late 1966. When I saw GREETINGS (1968) I realized I wasn't the only one using a movie camera for similar purposes, though I acknowledge that I didn't do it near as well. When I came back to L.A. from Berkeley with my degree, the family sent the hippest member of the family to find out what I was going to do with my 'fancy' education. Cousin Richard was a voice-over artist. You would know him as the voice of the robot in Lost in Space, the one who says ''Danger, Will Robinson!'' So we go to lunch and Richard says ''Well, what do you want to do?'' I said ''Actually I've got a job teaching drawing at Chouinard (what is now Cal-Arts), but I think I'd rather make movies. '' We finished lunch and he said ''OK, meet Friday, and I'll introduce you to your agent. ''

I was very innocent and I had no idea at the time how the world worked. I was introduced to Stu Robinson, who very clearly owed him a huge favor. Stu turned out to be a wonderful man and a terrific agent, in that order. He said ''Do you have any samples of your writing?'' I said ''Well, here's a short story that was an Honorable Mention in a literary magazine, and here are some poems that were published. '' I gave him the stuff very proudly. He looked at it all and said ''You know, somehow I don't see anybody knocking down my door to publish your next sonnet. Have you got anything that is more like a movie or a TV show? In fact, a TV show might really be the best thing. Do you like TV?'' I said ''Yeah, but it's not a patch on movies. '' He said ''Well, let's start here. Is there a TV show that you like?'' I said ''Yeah, there are a couple. I Spy with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, Mission: Impossible, Run for Your Life with Ben Gazzara, and The Fugitive with David Janssen. Any of those. '' He said ''Pick one. '' So I picked I Spy, because I knew I could write in both of them doing W.C. Fields impressions. So I wrote a script and Stu said ''This is actually not bad. Let me send it over. '' Stu then called back and said ''It's not going to get read. The show has been cancelled. Pick another one. '' So I chose Mission: Impossible. Stu said ''OK, do that, but I know it's coming up for renewal. We have a good writing sample with the I Spy script so just write a treatment. '' I said ''What's a treatment?'' He explained that bastard form. I wrote something that revolved around a Russian cellist who had escaped to the West but without his cello, and now he realised he couldn't stay without it. The team's mission was to go into one of those made-up Balkan countries they're always going to and 'Get that cello'. I met with the producer and he said ''I'm not sending my guys out for a fucking cello. '' I said ''It's fiction. They're going to come back OK. '' He said ''I don't think you actually understand this. '' Of course, he was absolutely right. So I didn't get the gig, and it wouldn't have made any difference anyway since that show wasn't picked up either.

At this point, I needed to get some sort of job, so Stu sent me over to see a movie producer called Sandy Howard, who needed a reader. He gave me like 25 scripts to read and said ''See you next Friday. '' What I didn't know was that he had thrown into the mix the script for A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970), which he had already bought and was making. I told him that every one of these scripts was terrible and he said ''OK. We have discovered one thing. You cannot be a reader for me, since you don't like the scripts I like. So I have another idea. '' He gave me this thick old book called The New York Times Book of Film, which had Bosley Crowther's reviews of the top ten films of the last 50 years. He said ''Read through this and find something that we could make a movie out of now. '' I went through the reviews and I was surprised by how many I had seen. I recognised THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) and I said to Sandy ''This is easy. You could make this today about three guys coming back from Vietnam. '' He said ''I'll pay you $500 to write the first draft. '' I thought ''Holy crap. That's more money than there is in the world!'' I went home and two weeks later I said ''Here you go. '' Sandy read it and said ''This is good, but this character you wrote is not someone you can root for. '' I said ''Yeah, well that is sort of the point. '' He said ''I think we can make this, but you have to make some changes. '' I told him I wasn't prepared to do that, and he said ''Well, we are co-owners of this script since I paid you $500 to write it. So you give me the money back and I'll give you the script. '' So for my first three months in Hollywood I was as broke as when I started. Stu sent the script over to the film producer Harold Hecht, who was getting a little long in the tooth at that time. Harold was worth it just for the stories he told. He had worked with everybody, and since he had produced JIM THORPE ALL-AMERICAN I just thought nobody could be better than this guy. He also knew Burt Lancaster in person! Harold loved the script and paid $2,500 for a six-month option. He tried his best to get it made, but nothing ever happened to it. 

How did ANGEL UNCHAINED come about? 
Stu decided to start sending me out on meetings now that I had a script and the TV samples. He set up a meeting at AIP (American International Pictures) with Sam Arkoff. I said ''What am I supposed to talk about?'' He said ''You're not supposed to talk about anything. You listen to what he wants and you go home and come up with an idea. Then go back and tell him that idea. '' I thought ''This is too easy. '' So I walk into Sam Arkoff's office and he is standing behind his desk with a stogie stuck in his mouth. He does not say hello or introduce himself, he just says ''So, what's your idea?'' I look around the room for something I could crawl under, and what I see on the table I am about to crawl under is the TV overnights in Variety with a headline that reads something like 'Mag 7 Clicks For 7', meaning THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) showed on ABC and did well. I looked up and said ''How 'bout THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN as a motorcycle film. '' He thought about it for maybe twenty or thirty seconds and then he said ''Go home and write it. I'll make a deal with your agent. '' If you look under the hood of ANGEL UNCHAINED, you will indeed see it is THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Since then my so-called career has been up and down and up and down and around. 

Did Arkoff give you any stipulations about the inclusion of sex and violence? 
No, not at all, he just said ''Write the script. '' Dave Madden had been a commercials director in Detroit. His son, Dave Jr. now runs television at Twentieth Century Fox. He shot the film in 24 days. Sam Arkoff got in there in the editing room. This was always the point when he'd say ''Right, this is the way we want to do it. '' He would get antsy and say things like ''The scene is too long. Gotta cut it. '' I heard a story that is almost certainly apocryphal but it tells a clearer truth. Sam is in the editing room of a picture and he says ''He should take the gun out from under the pillow and shoot him. '' And the director says ''Yeah, but who put the gun under the pillow?'' And Sam says ''I just did. '' I remember we couldn't actually have any nudity in the picture. There's one little scene on a pickup truck where the slats hide Tyne Daly. 

How was the experience of working on THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER? 
I thought ''This is really going to be fun. Steve De Jarnatt, both a very good guy and an excellent filmmaker, was going to direct. This is going to be a fabulous film. '' And then the studio says they want such and such an actor for the lead, and Steve says ''No, we can't do that. '' He was right of course. I don't know if they fired him for being right or for refusing to do as he was told. So then John Frankenheimer came on. John was having some problems with the bottle those days. It was clear early on that although he was a wonderful storyteller, his mind was on other things and he wasn't going to last through the movie. That's when Buzz Kulik came on, and he shot almost a whole film.

We had a meeting at Peter Guber's house, which had been built by the film crew in about three weeks. EST, Erhard Seminars Training, was very big at that time. It was this pseudo-religious, psycho-analytic hoohah that was very popular. I think this was the origin of ''There is no try. There is only do. '' That was where Peter's head was at the time. He began the meeting by saying ''We've been having some problems with how this movie is going. We all agree that it can be great, but it isn't yet. Everybody has to open up in this meeting. What we say in this meeting does not leave this room. You are free to say anything about anybody you want. We will get to the bottom of this. '' I am not believing a word of it, so I am quiet. Buzz Kulik, on the other hand, says ''Well OK, you guys did wrong on this, you guys messed up on this, and you were terrible on this. '' Peter said ''Thank you for speaking up Buzz. '' And the next day he was out! That's when they brought in Roger Spottiswoode, who did his best to see what he could do. One can always find moments that are good in any film, but this one had too many masters.

I do remember Kathryn Harrold when she came in for her first audition. She talked about her character and how she would use her body as a weapon of control. It was a wonderful take on the role, way more than was on the page. It wasn't a difficult casting decision. She was intimidatingly gorgeous and a good actress. But once she got the role she decided sexy wasn't the way to go. She felt ''No, she's a mountain girl, she's going to wear a Pendleton. OK, maybe, shorts for a little part of one scene. '' She was very good and certainly didn't hurt the film at all in any way but I think she was right the first time. 

Did John Frankenheimer shoot any footage? 
I don't believe John ever shot footage, except possibly audition tape. I never saw dailies so I don't know who shot the most footage in the final film, but I have always presumed it was Buzz simply because he worked on it longer. 

With the different directors, did the script change a lot in tone? 
Yeah, because I don't think there was a real tone. It turned out more frothy. It was always intended that there would be dirt underneath everybody's fingernails and that the characters couldn't be good all the time. No matter how hard they try, they will always fail, usually in a big, bad way. But at the same time, there should be a lightness. Though these people understand that that rock they've been pushing up that hill is going to roll right back down to the bottom, they also know that they are going to have to go right back down to the bottom and start up again. 

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

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