Darryl Ponicsan is the author of thirteen novels, including his debut, 1970's The Last Detail, which was made as a classic film by Hal Ashby, with Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young. Ponicsan recently adapted his sequel, 2005's Last Flag Flying, into a new film, directed by Richard Linklater and featuring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. His list of credits as a screenwriter are staggering - Mark Rydell's CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1973), which he adapted from his novel; three films with Harold Becker - TAPS (1981), which featured early appearances from Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton, the inspirational sports drama/ romance VISION QUEST (1985) with Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino, and the drug drama THE BOOST (1988), with James Woods and Sean Young; Martin Ritt's intense drama NUTS (1987) with Barbra Streisand; Robert Mandel's sports drama SCHOOL TIES (1992), which featured early appearances from Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Brendan Fraser, and Chris O' Donnell; and Sydney Pollack's romantic drama RANDOM HEARTS (1999) with Harrison Ford and Kristin-Scott Thomas. In the first part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Ponicsan about his earliest cinematic experiences, the process of how he became a writer, and his experiences of working on the screenplays to (briefly) THE LAST DETAIL (1973) and CINDERELLA LIBERTY.

Growing up, how important was cinema for you? What were some of the most memorable experiences for you? 
My mother was a big movie fan and she started taking me to the movies even before I was born. She came up with the name Darryl because she saw a movie produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and she liked that name. In those days it was a very rare name. As a birthday gift when I was 6 or 7 or 8, she let me ditch school and go to movies. I would go and see a matinee. The earliest movie I recall seeing was THE SULLIVANS (1944) about a group of brothers who all go down with a ship during WW2. As a teenager I was crazy about Marlon Brando. I thought every movie he did was wonderful, especially THE WILD ONE (1953), where he plays the head of a motorcycle gang. That movie turned my life around and made me want a motorcycle. Then James Dean came on the scene. It was uncanny because in those days I bore a striking resemblance to him. My son, who is now in his forties, also bore a striking resemblance to him when he was in his twenties. It was a tragic loss when Dean died because this was one of the great actors of his time. I was always drawn to intense, smaller dramas than the big pictures.

Were you an avid reader growing up? What kinds of stories attracted you? 
I wasn't an avid reader. I probably wrote more stories than I read, although I did read comic books and I may have read some Jack London or Mark Twain. It wasn't until I got into college that I started seriously reading with some passion and I've been a reader since then. But when I was very young I was never the kind of kid who would stay up late with a flashlight reading. I was always out on the street, running with the gang, doing things.

What do you think compelled you to write? 
In the fourth grade we had a teacher that just ignored us. Left to our own devices, we just started telling stories, and then I started writing them down. I went to a very small high school and I wrote the high school class play. I didn't think much of it. It was just a lark. But once I got into college I started seriously writing poetry and short stories. Something just kind of clicked when I was 17 or 18.

What kind of stories were you writing? 
I got involved with the campus literary magazine and I think even then I was interested in racial matters in the United States. When I was a kid there was still segregation in the South. The first time I ever went to the South I was probably 18, 19, 20 years old and it was just an absolute shock to see separate drinking fountains and separate restrooms and so on. That flavored some of my early stuff, and I was always I was looking for the O Henry surprise ending and that kind of thing. It was a slow evolution process from that early imitative stuff to things that were pretty serious.

Your work is very observant and perceptive about human behavior. Would you say you have always been interested in human behavior from an early age? 
The answer is yes but I think what happened in my case is that I have a very good ear for dialogue. Plus I grew up in an odd little coal mining town that was very diverse and almost had its own patois that always fascinated me. Every day of my life growing up in the town there was great drama, with mine cave-ins and violence but also comedy. It wasn't a matter of going out and observing it - you couldn't escape it. I always sought out as a young guy the more interesting places to be – bars and bus stations and train stations and cafes and all of that. I was never drawn to the upper classes or the country clubs. The writer John O'Hara grew up 14 miles from me and we are like night and day. His interest was always in rich people. I was always interested in the people at the bottom of the ladder.

I believe your agent talked you out of trying to get hired to write the screenplay to THE LAST DETAIL. Why did he do that? 
I think he had a really good point. He was an agent that was really interested in his clients for the long term. He was interested in their lives and wanted to protect them, and in my case I was brand new and he loved my novel The Last Detail and we had great success with it. He said ''You know, if you don't get on a second novel like right now, the odds are good that you never will. '' He had seen this before, where somebody had sold a novel to be filmed and got involved with the movie and never went back to writing novels. So he advised against it and I said ''That's probably a good idea '', and got going on a second novel. But during the course of trying to get THE LAST DETAIL made they hit a snag and they asked me to work on the script for two weeks. That was the first time I even saw a script. I worked on it but I don't think I added much to it. It wasn't until I was hired to adapt my own book, Cinderella Liberty, that I really began to learn the grammar of filmmaking. Even though the LAST DETAIL and CINDERELLA LIBERTY movies came out the same weekend, I had written three books (including Cinderella Liberty) since writing the Last Detail novel, which put me in a good position. There was a period there where I did nothing but write screenplays. I didn't publish a book for eight or ten years.

Why did they bring you in to work on the LAST DETAIL script? 
All screenplays at some point hit a snag and they look for someone to bail them out. I honestly can't remember what the issue was. For me the issue was the ending but that didn't interest them, they were more interested in some character stuff. I tried to push for a different ending but thank goodness they went with the ending that they had. I don't think there would have been a sequel, Last Flag Flying, if they hadn't written it that way. Now I think it was the absolute right ending but it took me a while to come around. It's right dramatically but in terms of narrative and the philosophy of what the characters had gone through.

What was your problem with the ending? 
I thought at the time the ending was abrupt, which was kind of the style in those days. More importantly, I felt the two chasers had to pay the price for completing a detail they knew was wrong. They had to deal with the conflict between duty and morality. But they were dealing with that throughout the movie, I came to realise. In terms of story structure, the movie was over when they delivered the kid. I came to accept that, but I didn't at the time. Robert Towne, the screenwriter, made the argument that they woukd never be off the hook for what they did. They would have to carry it their whole lives. He was right, and thanks to that, Last Flag Flying became possible. We see in the three characters that they have been carrying this moral burden for 34 years. They see an opportunity to shake it off finally during this, their final mission. That moment answers the central question of the movie, and I'm not even sure that the audience will recognise it at the climax. Rick Linklater shot the scene with an understatement that amazes me.

What was the experience like of seeing the film version of THE LAST DETAIL for the first time, with your work being re-interpreted on screen? 
The problem with a writer seeing a movie version of his novel, especially if he's not involved in the making of it, is that you wind up only seeing what's missing. You regret certain scenes that didn't make it. It takes some time and seasoning before you can get used to that and realise that's the way it's going to be.

With adapting your novel Cinderella Liberty where did you start? 
The book has a great sense of absurdity about it and so that's what I saw in the movie. In my first draft, that's what I had. Then when I started working with the director Mark Rydell, he saw the movie in a totally different way, and over a period of time I got swung in that direction. I thought ''Why not?'' It became more of an improbable love story, which was fine. Writing the screenplay was a long process.

Did you enjoy working with Mark Rydell? 
Yes and no. He's a difficult person. On the other hand he's a very engaging and amusing guy, but he has a dark side. We had a lot of disagreements. I remember at the time he thought I didn't take film seriously, which really kind of struck me. We would watch a film together and I would say ''This film is too good to be successful. The story is so good'', and he thought I had contempt for the medium. It made me seriously think about whether it was true, but it wasn't true, although I did have contempt for some of the people involved in films. It's a tough business. Hearts are broken every day in trying to make a film. It's always a miracle when something good comes out. It's just the nature of the beast. Mark and I had a long relationship. It was sometimes contentious, but all is forgiven now!

When you were writing the script, were any other scripts you admired on your mind? 
No. One of the things that bothers me about filmmaking is that in the initial meetings and pitches they say things like ''This movie is like ON THE WATERFRONT meets MARTY'' . They always come up with two or three pictures to describe the movie they want to do and I always thought that was just death. You'll never be an original if you go into a movie saying it's going to be like other movies. I always go in trying to make a movie that's not like anything else. LAST FLAG FLYING is an example. It's simply not like anything out there. It's just a very human, very timely piece. There are no guns in it, there's no sex, no CGI. You'll have the sense when you're watching it that it's original.

Why do you think your time in the Navy has proved such a fertile ground for material? 
It was so unlike the life that I had lived up to that point, which was college and graduate school and teaching high school. I knew that I was going to get stuck in a rut if I didn't break away from that so when they offered me tenure at the high school I was teaching at, I turned it down and joined the Navy instead. I really did want to open up another world. Shortly afterwards I wondered if I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life but now I think it was one of the best moves I ever made. None of what happened would have happened if I hadn't joined the Navy or certainly I would have become a much different kind of writer. I would have been more influenced by academia and those kinds of stories.

Was there something in common with the people who had enlisted or found themselves in the Navy? 
One of the interesting things about being in the Services is that you are going to meet and get very intimate with people that are absolutely unlike you or anybody you know. Quite often you may be comrades and you may depend upon each other, for instance when you are out at sea, but when it's all over, you have to get rid of them and be away from them. The reunion in Last Flag Flying is interesting for that reason. There's only one of the three in the group that really wants to be together again. The others couldn't care less. They wanted to put their past behind them. It makes an interesting dynamic.

Part two of the interview. 

LAST FLAG FLYING opens in the US on November 3rd. 

The trailer to the film. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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