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 second part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Ponicsan about how his screenwriting influenced his novel writing, some of his unmade projects, his three films with Harold Becker (and their unmade version of Johnny Handsome), and his experience as the original writer on the voice-over for a little science fiction film called BLADE RUNNER.

Part one of the interview. 

Did your screenwriting experiences influence the way you wrote novels? 
It cut both ways. With my novel of The Last Detail, some of the critics said ''This isn't so much a novel as it is a screenplay. '' They probably said the same thing about Last Flag Flying. It's because I wrote them in the present tense. They're short books and I thought having them in the present tense would be a more dynamic way to tell the story. As you read them, you do sense that they are cinematic. They're a lot easier to visualise being set in the present tense. I think I brought a cinematic stance to the books, rather than the other way around.

The way screenwriting affected my novel writing is that it really taught me the discipline of rewriting - doing serious demolition and changing a lot of things. When I wrote some of my first novels, a lot of the work was from my first drafts and I didn't change things at all. But things are different now. I've been working on a novel for four years now and I have been constantly rewriting it.

You wrote a series of mystery novels under the pseudonym of Anne Argula. Was that a freeing experience for you, writing under a different persona? 
It was really accidental. I had an idea that I thought was great and by that time I hadn't been working on films for a few years and I didn't want to do the idea as a screenplay, so I did it as a novel. But I didn't think it was a literary novel. I felt it fell into the mystery genre, which I know very little about. I wasn't particularly a mystery fan and I wasn't well versed in how to write one. As I started writing it, it wasn't my plan but I found myself writing in a woman's voice. She was a minor character to begin with, and that kind of changed. I published the book (Homicide My Own) with a small New York publisher, and this was the first time they had ever published a mystery. They had been doing non-fiction, poetry and short stories. The book got nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and that was how it got revealed that I was the real author. I was then pressed to do another one, and I ended up doing four, but I'm done with them now. I enjoyed writing them, and when I re-read them I'm kind of happy with the way they turned out. Unfortunately, they had no distribution and no advertising and so they pretty much fell through the cracks. I don't think many people have read them but I am hoping that somewhere down the line they'll find a second life.

In the eight years between CINDERELLA LIBERTY and TAPS, how many other projects came close to being made? Which project disappointed you the most that it didn't get made? 
I wrote a lot of screenplays but nothing really got that close. There were directors attached but we didn't have people cast. During that time I wrote four novels, including 'Tom Mix Died for Your Sins', for which Fox owns the film rights to. I would have liked to have seen that produced but at the time it turned out way too expensive and there was no way to reduce the cost. Economics are always central to making movies.

You made a number of films with Harold Becker, starting with TAPS. What was your working relationship like? 
It was sometimes great, sometimes contentious. The only directors I didn't have fights with were Rick Linklater on LAST FLAG FLYING and Robert Mandel on SCHOOL TIES. Harold and I had a long relationship and we did a number of movies together. It was similar to the relationship I had with the producer Stanley Jaffe – it was a love-hate relationship. He would hate me until I did something that he loved, and then all would be okay. I ended up doing three pictures with Stanley.

Harold Becker 
How close did you and Harold Becker's version of Johnny Handsome come close to getting made? 
We were going to do it with Al Pacino. I worked pretty intensely on it. Al wasn't part of the development process and didn't have a whole lot of input. He would read the script as it came in. We met several times and I liked him very much. He's a very nice guy. He hung with it for a while during development but eventually he just decided it wasn't right for him. Harold and I fell away from the project, and it ended up getting made with Mickey Rourke and Walter Hill.

Was your version of the story a lot different than Walter Hill's? 
It was a lot different but I don't remember any details. I was very disappointed in the final film when I saw it. I felt the material had much better potential.

You've proven adept at telling stories about groups of young people and from their point of view. Were these screenplays in any ways particular challenges for that reason? 
No. I was a teacher for several years, so I was in touch with young people and I saw them in a different way to Hollywood, which saw them as superficial and always on the town and carousing and all that kind of stuff. I saw the kids as serious in nature. They dealt with the same big problems that everybody else did. I think I had a greater respect for them than was seen previously in movies. TAPS, VISION QUEST and SCHOOL TIES treat kids with respect and grant them intelligence and character.

VISION QUEST, for example, was sweet and inspirational, but never succumbed to sentimentality. Was avoiding sentimentality something on your mind? 
Yes, it was. It was based on a book and was just a very decent, sweet story, which is so rare to find. Nothing was manufactured. There wasn't any imposed conflict or anything. It was a rite of passage in the best possible way. It's not easy becoming a man and to watch a guy take it on like that was really something. As I told Matthew Modine at the time ''This is the closest we're ever going to get to Catcher in the Rye. '' In many ways Matthew's character was as open as Holden Caulfield. The picture didn't do well but has more fans now.

What do you remember of the call to ask you to write the voice-over for BLADE RUNNER? 
I got a direct call from Bud Yorkin, one of the producers, with whom I had worked on a project called Lethal Gas, an absurd look at the prison system. (His new assistant was a nervous kid just out of Harvard named Andy Borowitz, who is now one of the country’s major humorists.) Lethal Gas was another project I wish could have been made. Bud and I became friends, and he was calling as a friend in need. So of course I didn’t think twice about going into LA and helping. He told me the situation and led me into the screening room. He never said a word about what the movie was about, or anything else about it.

What was felt to be the problem with the film? What did you think of the cut they showed you? 
The producers felt it was too opaque and that nobody was going to understand it. Ridley Scott said ''If you give me the money to shoot two more scenes, everything will become perfectly clear. '' They said ''No, we're already over budget. There's no more money. '' So they brought me in and I took a look at it. I loved it. I thought it was fantastic. It was such eye candy to begin with, and I loved the characters. I thought that if there was any confusion, maybe a voice-over would help. I don't feel that films normally require narration, but I saw BLADE RUNNER as being in a long tradition of noir and even futuristic or imaginative fiction and they have a tradition of first-person narration. I also used it in VISION QUEST, but you have to use it where it works and not as a crutch.

How long did you work on the film? 
I worked on it I think for about a week or ten days. I left after my father died.

Is the voice-over in the theatrical cut all your work? 
Who knows if anybody messed about it with it after I was gone. I watched the film again and again, and we tried to pinpoint where a voice-over would add to it. I did the same with the script in front of me. There were some technical issues as well. I would suggest to Ridley little transitions that we could do to help the picture that didn't involve reshooting anything. It was all done with sound. There was something with an intercom I remember.

Did you attend any of the looping sessions with Harrison Ford? 
No, I did my thing and went. I'd never been involved before with anything like that. I don't how long after the movie was released, but it didn't do well and it wasn't until later that people discovered it. Now it's considered a classic. It's happened before. I don't think anybody was crazy about CASABLANCA (1942) or CITIZEN KANE (1941) when they came out.

When you finally saw BLADE RUNNER, what did you think of the film and what did you think of the voice-over? 
I saw the rough cut alone in a screening room. I was blown away. I was sure it would become a classic. I thought the voiceover was a good idea. When the film was released I was invited to the premiere where I flirted with Joanna Cassidy, who was so memorable in that movie. Her running away from Ford is a classic cinema moment. I thought the voiceover worked fine. Many disagree.

What was it like working with Ridley Scott? Did you speak to Scott about the finished voice-over? Was he gung-ho about the voice-over when you came on? 
I like Ridley and I liked his brother, with whom I spent a lot more time. Ridley was not happy. He didn’t want a voiceover, he wanted more money to shoot a couple more scenes, and he told me so. But we made the most of it. I never spoke to him after I did my work, so I have no idea what he thought about the VO. 

Did you ever speak to Harrison Ford about his experience recording the voice-over? 
Years later I was invited to Harrison Ford’s home in Jackson Hole, Wyo. to confer on a script I was rewriting. He was to star in the movie. Over dinner I told him I’d done the VO on BLADE RUNNER. He told me matter-of-factly that he hated it and deliberately did his least on it. I’m not sure how his best would have made it different. 

How do you feel about the arguments between fans about which cut of the film is best? 
I’m amused by it when I pay any attention at all. Rick Linklater called me after he read an interview I’d done and said, “Hey, I didn’t know you did the voiceover. I liked it, and I’ve seen every cut.” So with that I’m ready to put the matter to rest.

Part three 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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