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 second part of a three-part interview I spoke with him about his experiences making CUTTER'S WAY and CRACKERS.         

Part one of the interview.  

What attracted you personally the most to CUTTER'S WAY? 
It was the relationship of the three lead characters. The moment Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) dies is so tragic, and nobody is going to recover from it. The way Cutter has to focus even more now. That's what it was always about. Paul Gurian had never produced a film before and a mutual friend said to him ''You should talk to Fiskin, he's a good writer. '' He called me and asked me if I could read the book. I said ''Sure. '' At the time, I was absolutely flat broke, so going to the store and buying a book was absolutely not a possibility. So I went to the store and I pinched it. I did take it back when was done. Somebody somewhere bought that copy and on page 152 there's a coffee ring, and I apologise for that! I called Paul, and I wanted the job but I told him ''We have a problem here. Everything that it builds towards is perfect until the last third, when it turns into a bad version of EASY RIDER (1969). It's the same thing – a sheriff with a gun in the back of a pick-up, blah, blah, blah. You can't have that. '' He said ''You're right. You're my screenwriter. '' I said ''You know, just because a mutual friend put us together, my name does nothing for you, you know. '' Paul said ''What did I say? You're my screenwriter. '' This is the passionate insanity that makes Paul wonderful, but on more than one occasion it did rub some folks the wrong way. Still, he's a genius.

He somehow got UA to make the film. It was David Field who took a flyer on us and said ''OK.'' I remember seeing David years later. I was having lunch somewhere with my Mom. I asked him to come over and I told my Mom ''This is the guy who put his ass on the line to get the film made. '' And David looked at her and said ''I will never make that mistake again!'' I remember David always wanted to know how the script was going and I never knew. I like to just start writing and let the characters take me wherever they will. Sometimes that approach works, and sometimes not so much, but that's the way I like to do it. 

I always think there are two types of viewers of the film – those that need to know what exactly happened to Mo, and those who appreciate the ambiguity. 
Well, it can't be anything good. The details don't matter so much. I feel that way about most of the characters. Some people have asked why Ann Dusenberry's character didn't appear much, and the reason was that she was a new actress with very good instincts but not a lot of control yet. Some of her scenes just didn't work. So they were cut. One of the things that Ivan liked about our film was that we could do that, because some characters are there and then they are not. Like life. 

What was it like making the film? 
It was just absolutely magical. Jeff Bridges is a sweet, kind man and a superb actor. Caring and never pushy. He's always ''If there's anything I can do to help, let me know, but otherwise I'm gonna go to bed. '' John Heard was a little too much in character for some people on set, but he was perfect. Ivan Passer was glorious. I remember the first shot we did, which was John walking down a pier. It didn't actually make the movie. Passer would explain each shot to me as he went. He said ''Look, the first set-up for a shot, you don't worry about it. It's gotta be something you throw away because nobody's ready. '' And John comes storming down this pier singing The Sailor's Hornpipe as he goes. In that instant, I realised ''He owns this movie. He's got it, and we at least have something of interest. '' And we did. Even though what I had always longed for, to be reviewed by Pauline Kael, was a case of ''Be careful what you wish for'', because she hated the movie. '' But I was happy anyway. ''Alex Cutter is a one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged, walking literary conceit. '' Yeah, I can live with that!''

Did you have any interaction with Robert Mulligan or Dustin Hoffman when they were attached to the movie? 
Robert Mulligan and I met on it and we actually worked on something else that didn't get made later on because we liked each other. My memory of it is that Dustin would get engaged in a lot of different films and didn't necessarily follow up on any of them. It began to look like that was going to happen.

How did you feel about the idea of Ivan Passer directing the film? 
We finally get the film going forward at United Artists, and Paul says to me ''I want you to see a film by Ivan Passer. '' I said ''A woman director?'' He said ''No! Not Yvonne. Eevahn as in Ivan. '' I had never heard of him or seen his film INTIMATE LIGHTNING (1965). He showed me the film in a small screening room and I said ''Holy crap! He was right there with Ozu and all the greats. How did I miss this guy?'' Paul said ''He wants to do it. '' I said ''And you convinced United Artists to let him?'' And he had. He actually pulled it off. Paul is a great storyteller. He has the patience of a saint, and passion and intelligence that not every producer has. And he never stopped pushing. He would pay attention to everything. But he's also a genuine madman. Passer would never block anyone from the set but he blocked Paul! On the first day, Passer called the entire crew together and said ''If you have an idea about anything, I don't care what it is, you come and tell me. It takes all of us to make this film. I mean, Craft Services. If we don't have the right coffee in the cup, that sucks, and that's a bad start to the day. So, let's all be together. '' Passer was just easy. 

How did Jeff Bridges get cast as Bone? 
UA thought they had an ace in the hole. They said ''We just saw the dailies on a film that is going to be huge. It's called HEAVEN'S GATE (1980). If you get someone from the movie, say Kris Kristofferson or Jeff Bridges, you got a movie. '' We had already cast John Heard in the carpet chewing lead role. We had seen him play Mercutio in Shakespeare in the Park and he was terrific. But why would anybody want to play the supporting role of Bone? Nevertheless, Jeff did agree to the meeting. We went out to the Santa Monica Canyon where Jeff has his ranch house. Paul started to get out of the car and this dog came running up. Passer started to get out of the car but he said ''I don't like this dog. '' The dog was barking like crazy, and was crosseyed. Paul, having read the Salesman's Handbook that says ''Make friends with the pets and the children'' says ''No, I know dogs. Come here, puppy. '' And the dog came up to him, leapt in the air, and took a bite out of his cheek.

Jeff took the dog, took him inside, slammed the door and said ''Damn it, he keeps doing that. Look, there's a plastic surgeon on the next ranch over. '' So he took Paul over there. The guy sews him up and Paul is lying flat out on his back, everyone has left, and says to me with a huge smile on his face ''We got Bridges. '' Jeff didn't really have a choice! It was a situation of ''Jeff, would you like to work with us for ten weeks and get paid $750, 000, or would you like to work for me for the rest of your life for nothing?'' We got him, and he was wonderful.

Did you spend much time on the set? 
On every film except REVENGE, I have been there virtually 24/ 7. Passer loves actors, but not so much their intelligence as their instincts. He would have me rewriting every scene through the middle of the night, and he would tell everybody that that was what I was doing. He'd tell the actors ''You'll get the new pages when you show up. '' So nobody could work on the scene at night. It wasn't until maybe the fifth or sixth day that I realised he wasn't using any of the changes I had been writing. He said ''No, the script's perfect. Why would I write anything else? I just don't want the actors working on it overnight. '' We would hand out the exact same pages the next day but they hadn't been memorising them because they didn't know if the lines were going to be there. It worked perfectly. 

CUTTER'S WAY can be interpreted as a sad farewell to the counterculture idealism of the 60s and 70s. Were you very much a part of that movement? 
As my daughter says ''Dad, you went straight from beatnik to hippie. '' At least in my mind I was part of the movement, but I am not sure I was enough for other people! When three kids, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, were killed in the South doing voter registration, we all thought the same things but my friend Bob, who still plays music with me and my friends every Thursday, got on a bus and went down there and started registering people. In my mind, he was really part of the counterculture. I was an onlooker. I was a conscientious objector and I marched against the War. I never did many drugs. They just weren't my thing. On the other hand, I've got pictures of myself with more hair than you can imagine, wearing bell bottoms and velvet shirts. I was a confused person with maybe a decent heart. 

What was your experience like on CRACKERS with Louis Malle? 
It was actually wonderful until the film came out and nobody came to see it. Nick Meyer and I started out at the same time, and knowing my Francophilia, he said ''You ought to meet my friend Louis Malle. '' So we got together and Louis said ''You know what I want to do? I want to remake BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET. '' He was fearless about remaking it, and we argued for some time. I said ''It's crazy. The film is perfection. There's no way we'll make a better movie. '' I mean, there's a little moment where the wisened old man comes out wearing tennis togs from a thrift shop, and a character says ''What are you dressed as?'' And he says ''Sportivo. '' I told Louis, ''There's no way to translate that. '' He was very persuasive and so I wrote a script and he liked it. The studio wanted to work with him and the film wasn't expensive. We cast it, and we just had a wonderful time. He was the antithesis of Ivan Passer. Ivan was like this reed that bent but wouldn't break. He let the film come to him. He didn't want to make decisions necessarily, but he knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it. But it didn't require a great deal of energy from him. With Louis, every movie was a bull and he had to grab it by the horns and somehow wrench it to the ground. Which he did, quite beautifully very often.

Louis could rarely get the same cinematographer twice because it was very clear after the first ten minutes that Louis was going to be the one sitting behind the camera most of the time. He began as a cinematographer for Jacques Cousteau on LES MONDS DU SILENCE (1956). Louis was incredibly intelligent, and almost perfectly bilingual. I think one of his problems was a problem that anyone has working in a second language, no matter how great their English is – humor is a problem, especially the kind that depends on feel, which is how I work. At the end of CRACKERS there's a scene where Jack Warden is holding a big box of what presumably are roses, but which was supposed to be a side of lox, and he says ''She looked at me and her last word of appreciation was 'Lox'. '' At that time, lox was also the word for something that was inanimate, useless, that just lay there on the plate. Louis changed the line to 'smoked salmon' because that was what props had been able to find and put in the box. Things like that happened more than once. On the other hand, the opening of the film is this remarkable scene set in the neighborhood of the Mission District in San Francisco that has no cuts in it and introduces every character in the film. It was in his head, he saw it, and he made it happen. 

How did Louis Malle and Sean Penn work together? 
They got along fine. Louis is a very good collaborator. He loves actors. I don't remember any problems at all. I remember giving Sean some guitar lessons during the filming. He was a very sweet kid. There was none of the anger or surliness that would come later. I saw him at a Springsteen concert last year. I hadn't seen him in maybe twenty years. He didn't recognise me but as soon as I introduced myself he could not have been nicer. There haven't been a lot of difficulties on the films I have made. The most difficult would have been John Heard because he was drinking too much. After Passer commented on it, John said ''Listen, I'm probably going to be three sheets to the wind tomorrow. Let's make a deal. We'll look at the dailies, and if you don't like the work, I'll stop for the rest of the film. '' John himself didn't like the next day's dailies so he stopped. Everybody usually wants to help if they can, because making movies is difficult. 

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

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