John Cork is perhaps best known as one of the foremost experts on the world of James Bond, writing several well-received books on the subject and working on the special features for most of the Bond 'Special Edition' and 'Ultimate Edition' DVD and Blu-ray releases. Yet there is more to John than is first apparent. He's the screenwriter of the critically acclaimed racial drama THE LONG WALK HOME (1990), has worked on the special features for many other DVD/ Blu-ray video releases, and came close to writing a Bond film himself. I spoke to John about his fascinating career.
Part 2 can be read here.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Alabama. I still have a lot of family there. My friend Bruce Scivally, with whom I have collaborated on most of my Bond projects, also grew up in Alabama, although we didn’t know each other until we both moved to California. We used to joke that all the serious James Bond scholars grew up in Alabama!
When did you leave Alabama?
Between the ninth and tenth grade I spent the summer in Europe on a student tour. In eleventh grade, I did a semester in England and very much enjoyed that. So I did quite a bit of travelling. I went to the film school at the University of Southern California in 1980, and I have been in California ever since.
Was it easy to settle in to California after Alabama?
It was definitely different from my expectations and a bit of a culture shock. One of the things I loved about England was how much better it was than I even anticipated. Los Angeles was somewhat less than I expected. I have met some wonderful people in L.A, including my wife and some great friends. There are things you can do in L.A. that you can't really do in many other places. My family and I moved out of LA to the Monterey peninsula not too long ago, and I love it up here.
What are some of your most memorable movie-going experiences from your youth?
The first film I ever remember seeing was FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) at the age of three. Apparently it was on a double-bill with DR. NO (1962), but I don't remember the film at all. What I really remember about FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE was Bond shooting the flare gun and setting the water on fire. Even at the age of three I knew that water couldn't burn! I remember asking my mother "Why is the water on fire?"
Another memorable movie experience was when my friend and I cycled to watch LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) when I was just eleven. I think one reason it was so memorable is that part of the film was set in the South. My grandparents had a lake cabin, and I would go waterskiing all the time. I knew power boats and that environment really well. I watched the boat chase in LIVE AND LET DIE and I thought "I have never seen anything like this in my life." Of course, there was a lot of other stuff going on too. Bond was confident, sure of himself and knew how to handle himself around women. He had a personal sense of style. Like all kids my age these were all things I was trying to figure out for myself. "How do you talk to girls?" "How do you react when something goes terribly wrong?" "How do you carry yourself?" I don't think it would have mattered if the Bond film had been GOLDFINGER (1964) or DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971). Like so many fans, I was ten or eleven when I became a big Bond fan. I was ready at that particular moment of my life to find something like the Bond series to give me some fantasy vision of masculinity.
What are some other experiences?
There are many. I remember going to see 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and being mesmerised and absolutely enchanted. I loved STAR WARS (1977) but I think the most emotional science fiction film experience at that point in time was going to see CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). I had no interest in wild stories about UFOs at that point, but the movie is an amazing film about obsession. I had just got my driver's licence that month. Driving back from the movie theatre, I passed the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama. It had a big neon star on top of it, but the trees on the roadside were obscuring it. With my mind filled with the images from the film, I see this bright blue neon light flashing through the trees! I'm lucky I stayed on the road!
When I was in England, I saw Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), which was playing in an Oxford cinema in two parts over two weeks. It was really amazing to see an epic on that scale that seemed to have an inner emotional life of that complexity. I loved two Sean Connery films, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and THE WIND AND THE LION (both 1975), and PAPILLON (1973) with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. I also loved PLANET OF THE APES (1968), which I saw at a drive-in with my aunt. All these films had a big effect on me.
At which point did you get into the Ian Fleming Bond books?
I started reading the Bond novels in the summer of 1974. The film LIVE AND LET DIE had stayed with me. I eventually went out and bought the soundtrack album. Sometime later, I asked my mother to tell me about the books. She had read them all in the '60s. She came back from the library with a small stack of them and said I could read them. I read everything the library had that was Bond-related, and which also included John Pearson's 'The Life of Ian Fleming' (1966) and 'James Bond - The Authorised Biography of 007' (1973), and Kingsley Amis's 'The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007' (1965). I had read all the Fleming books by the time I had turned thirteen in late '74. By Christmas of that year I had read most of them a second time. Shortly thereafter I got a number of my friends into reading the Bond novels. I would re-read the books as my friends were reading them. During that time, there were a lot of used bookstores popping up throughout small towns and medium-sizes cities in the US. A core group of my friends and I were doing our best to own a copy of each novel. One of my friends bought two different editions of the same novel because he liked both of the covers. That inspired some of us to obsessively collect all the different paperback editions of the novels so we could get all the covers.
Do you still have a huge collection of Bond books?
I would say I have a very substantial collection. It isn't as big as many I have seen! The biggest collection that I have maintained is a collection of paper materials relating to the Bond films, novels and the people involved with them. That took up quite a number of file cabinets. When you work on the projects like I have worked on, you amass a huge amount of material and then at some point, you have to collate and organise it for archive purposes. I donated all my materials a couple of years ago to the University of Southern California Special Collections Library. It will get more use by more people being in that location.
When you originally read the Fleming Bond novels did you see them as being substantially different from the films?
Yes, to a point. In their own way, the books challenged my perceptions of what the films were. I had read all the books before THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974) came out. Back then, the books seemed more current, and not so dated. At that point only CASINO ROYALE (1967), YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) and LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) had really deviated from the novels, and even in those films contained strong elements of the novels. What fascinated me the most about Fleming was the sense of authority with which he viewed the world. Bond knew the best jam (Tiptree's Little Scarlet) and the best cigarettes (Morland's with three gold bands and a special blend of tobaccos), for example. As a twelve year-old kid, I was digesting this stuff and beginning to get a sense of what was important to me and what things I thought were the best. I saw the books and the films as the same universe. I could see how one lead to the other in most cases.
In Britain in the 1950s and 1960s the empire was disappearing, but the UK was experiencing a boom in the way it was influencing global culture. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are just two examples. There's a swarm of British films coming out, from the great David Lean films to the wonderful Ealing comedies. I was a kid growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, not particularly caring for country music, and realising there was a bigger world out there that I was interested in. At that time I was just dying to see the rest of the world and the Bond films and books really gave that to me.
When I started reading the books, apart from LIVE AND LET DIE, I had seen ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969) in the theatre but had very few memories of it; I had seen DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, which I enjoyed but had not had a huge impact on me, and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, which I only remembered that one scene from. I'd never seen THUNDERBALL (1965) or YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), but I had seen GOLDFINGER (1964) on TV. That was it. I read the books before I knew the films that well.
How did you express your fandom as a youth?
I think I expressed my fandom more than anything else by trying to incorporate elements of Bond into my life in my own way. For example, Bond made me want to get to England to do a semester there. Bond made me want to understand the art of writing and the art of filmmaking. It made me want to make movies. After seeing LIVE AND LET DIE I knew I wanted to do something creative with film. It had a huge impact on me, sitting in that darkened theatre and being swept up in this great story that was perfect for an eleven year old. Of course I also collected the books and posters and kept files of all the cuttings I could get. But for me, being a fan wasn't all about having the best collection.
How did you enter the film industry?
When I was at the University of Southern California I wrote a screenplay called THE LONG WALK HOME (1990), and it was optioned by the producer Dave Bell. We were able to make it into a film with Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. That got me an agent and a number of writing assignments.
Can you talk about the short film version of your script?
It was a very strange system at the University. Even if you had taken all the qualified classes to be able to direct one of the short film projects (known as '480s' after the class number), you had to submit your screenplay in a way that other students could pitch to direct your script. That caused innumerable amounts of conflict. Another student directed the short film, and I had no direct involvement other than showing up at production meetings. I didn't handle any of the rewrites or anything like that.
How happy are you with it?
I'm not particularly happy with the student film, but it's not something I sit around and curse the day it was made! It was a long time ago.
How personal is the feature screenplay to you? Was it based on events from your youth?
There were certainly events that inspired the writing of it. My grandparents would have Christmas party every year, and afterwards, a formal Christmas dinner with all the family. They had maids and bartenders work the party and the formal dinner, and these were black men and women. There was an incident when I was either a Freshman or a Sophomore at college. One of the guests made a comment about 'welfare mothers wanting too much' in front of the African-American staff at the dinner. It was a pointedly racist comment. Here I was being served by women who worked on Christmas Day, eating a beautifully prepared meal off of fine china and listening to a lecture about how greedy some woman on welfare was. My blood ran cold. I pulled my mother aside after the dinner and said to her ''I may never make a film but if I do, what we just saw there, I'm going to put it in.'' The scene is
actually in the movie. There is another true story in the film where my grandmother sent my aunt and uncle, as small children, to Oak Park in Montgomery. Her African-American maid—named, I kid you not, Elizabeth Taylor—was with the kids at the time. The parks were segregated, but maids supervising white children were allowed. But at this point, as racial tension were rising in Montgomery, a policeman came and kicked her out. My grandmother made the policeman come and apologise for doing so. That's the sequence that opens the film.
What's your favourite memory associated with the film?
My favourite memory of the film was when we premiered it at the Capri Theater in Montgomery, where I had seen the DR. NO/ FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE double-bill when I was three, and also LIVE AND LET DIE. It was a theatre where I had seen a lot of movies. My mother's house was just around the corner from it. It was quite emotional for me to have the premiere there. My grandfather was really the father figure in my life, and the most emotional moment was when I walked down the aisle after the film was over and stood there waiting for him to stand up so I could ask him what he thought of the movie. He didn't see me behind him, and I heard my grandmother ask him what he thought of it and he was obviously very proud. That meant a lot to me.
How proud are you of the film yourself?
I'm extremely proud. It was a film that was done for not very much money. It had a tumultuous production. The original director was replaced by Richard Pearce, who came in and did a stellar job of pulling the film together. It was a tremendous amount of work. With the exception of a couple of insert close-up shots that were done on a sound stage in L.A., every shot was done in Montgomery, Alabama. A lot of the people that were in the film, either in crowd scenes or as supporting players, had living memories of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which I did not as I had been born in 1961, and the film was set in 1955-56. There was a screening of it this summer in Florida that I was invited to come and introduce. It meant something to see that for a lot of people the film still has an emotional impact for them.
How did you get involved with working with Eon Productions, the production company behind the Bond films, on writing treatments for future films?At a screening of THE LONG WALK HOME at the Director's Guild, Whoopi Goldberg had invited Timothy Dalton, whom she was friends with. I walked up to him, introduced myself and expressed my admiration for his work on the Bond films. I told him that, although he would never know it from the movie, the Bond films inspired me to get involved with filmmaking. He said "Well, you need to speak to Barbara Broccoli over there.'' I got to meet Barbara and she couldn't have been nicer. But it didn't lead to anything at that point.
Later on, I got involved with the Ian Fleming Foundation. I'm no longer on the board, but one of the things that we decided we were going to do was create an American-based fan magazine where we could publish articles that could involve a certain level of research. We called it 'Goldeneye' after Fleming's Jamaican residence. This was before the film of the same name. Through that I had some contact with Eon, although not directly with Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. At a certain point, everybody on the board of the IFF started asking me "When are they going to make the next Bond film?'' This was during the six-year gap between LICENCE TO KILL (1989) and GOLDENEYE (1995). Eon had settled the lawsuit with MGM and Giancarlo Parretti, and I called my agent to ask her what she knew about a new Bond film. My agent called me back and said, "They're actually starting to develop the next film, and they're interviewing writers. I have an appointment for you to go in and pitch." This was quite the surprise to me, but very welcome. I went in and pitched to Barbara and Michael. Then I had a second meeting with 'Cubby' Broccoli there, too, and they offered me a deal to work on a treatment for a future Bond film. Michael France, who had written the Sylvester Stallone film CLIFFHANGER (1993) was working on what would become GOLDENEYE. He was hired to do a full screenplay. Richard Smith, who had written another Stallone film, LOCK UP (1989), and I were supposed to be developing treatments so that they could re-launch the Bond series and come out with a number of films, one a year like in the early '60s. That did not pan out, obviously.
It was a tough job to be in that screenwriter’s chair on Bond. Eon has heard all the ideas, every variation on what Bond can be doing. It really comes down to whether you can get them excited by your ideas, whether you can bring something to the table that they feel is original and grabs their interest. Quite frankly, I wasn't able to pull that off. I love to think that I could have, but I couldn't get them interested in my take on any Bond film plots. In the middle of the process I got frustrated trying to develop a Bond story because you put a lot of time and effort into every idea you pitch and sometimes those stories can be shot down when you're five minutes into your presentation. You feel, “That was a week of my life that I just poured into researching that!" But it's their franchise.
All was not lost. One of the things that Barbara and Michael discovered about me very rapidly was that I knew more about James Bond than any sane, rational human being should! I also knew filmmaking pretty well. Michael kept asking "What's the villain's plot? What's he trying to do?" It concerned him a great deal. I sort of turned that question on its head and asked "Which James Bond are we developing these ideas for?" Because the Bond of DR. NO is different from the Bond of GOLDFINGER. And that Bond is different to the Bond of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), and so on.
So, we went back to Fleming. We started talking a bit about the novels. Barbara and I would read one Bond novel a week and went through the entire series. We would have brief discussions about what was interesting about each book. This got me no closer to getting a story approved, but it was good. Out of frustration, I ended up developing a kind of 'Character Bible', if you like, for them called 'James Bond of the '90s'. In it, I went through and tried to answer the questions "Who is James Bond in the novels? How is this expressed in the films? How should it be expressed today?" I went through the roles of the women in the films, what makes a good Bond villain, what clothes Bond should wear, and so on. It wasn't really a book, but it was a pretty detailed document that could be looked at in bullet point form. They gave me lots of comments when I was writing it, and, obviously, they had a tremendous amount of influence on the final product. What I think I gave them was a document they could hand to screenwriters or department heads and say "This is our springboard. You may follow it, or you may fight against it, but it gives us somewhere to start.''
So that was my biggest contribution to the cinematic world of James Bond. That document was used for a number of years, but I'd be surprised if anything is really left of what I put into it at this point. But I think most of the writers who were involved on the Pierce Brosnan movies certainly got a chance to view it and laugh at it or contribute to it or enjoy it.
Can you reveal some of the ideas that you pitched?
The initial idea I pitched to them turned out to be very similar to Elliot Carver's plan in TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997), but only on a technical level. There was no plot that was terribly similar. I had a scene where a missile was taken off course to sink a British battleship, but it had nothing to do with China or satellite television rights. It did have to do with manipulating satellites. What you realise so quickly in that environment is that everybody is getting the same feedback from society - that if you're looking up espionage stuff in the mid-1990s, what you're going to find is people concerned with digital security, how we're moving intelligence gathering up to satellites, how much we're relying on electronic data to draw conclusions about human behaviour. So, for example, if I'm reading about satellite-guided misiles and technology that isn't quite there yet but is going to happen, you can bet everybody else is reading about the same thing too. The idea of
manipulating a satellite that I had - none of that contributed to what TOMORROW NEVER DIES became. I know Bruce Feirstein, who wrote the first and last drafts of TOMORROW NEVER DIES, and there is nothing amongst the treatments that I came up with that works in a way he put together that script.
At one point in a story meeting, Michael G. Wilson said to me "What do you think about the idea of a media baron being a Bond villain?" I thought about it for a minute and said "I just think that the world of Bond is so behind the cloak that you don't want someone who is too famous and is too much of a public figure. Too many people will be looking at that kind of person for him to be a good Bond villain." And I was wrong! They did a wonderful job in TOMORROW NEVER DIES. I thought Elliot Carver was a fantastic villain. The amazing thing about it was that later I spoke to Bruce and he told me that he had come up with the media baron idea independently of Michael! You can say "Oh, wow!'' but it makes perfect sense because media barons at the time were making the news. People were concerned about how much they were controlling information. You go through a lot of ideas when you're in there with Barbara and Michael. They have a very high standard for what is going to get by. That high standard is "Does it excite us?" Bruce not only had the idea independent of Michael, but he found a way to make it resonate. I have great respect for that.
You mentioned the Ian Fleming Foundation. What were some of the most rewarding aspects of your time on the Board?
I think the most rewarding aspect was doing Goldeneye magazine, and in particular my article on the development of THUNDERBALL (1965). Much of it had been covered beautifully by Raymond Benson in 'The James Bond Bedside Companion' (1984) and by Steve Rubin in 'The James Bond Films' (1981), but there were things that I had access to that they hadn't had full access to back then. It was fun finding new information. Working on the magazine allowed me the chance to meet some incredibly wonderful people who were Bond fans. I miss working on the magazine but of course in the end it was volunteer labour. Eon
eventually decided that they didn't want the magazine to continue and I fully understood that.
I spoke to John by telephone on 13th September 2012. I would like to thank him for his time.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.