Peter Craig is one of the busiest, most in-demand and talented young screenwriters currently working. Before his success as the co-writer of Ben Affleck's THE TOWN (2010), Peter wrote three acclaimed novels - The Martini Shot (1998), Hot Plastic (2004), and Blood Father (2005). All three share an interest in exploring the complex but loving relationships between fathers and their offspring. Peter, with Andrea Berloff, adapted the latter novel into the excellent 2016 Mel Gibson thriller of the same title. Peter also co-wrote the HUNGER GAMES two-part MOCKINGJAY finale (2014-15), and has worked on scripts for a TOP GUN sequel and a third BAD BOYS film. Amongst his forthcoming projects is the submarine thriller HUNTER KILLER (2017) with Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman and Billy Bob Thornton. In the first of a two-part interview I spoke with Peter about the early years (including his cameo, as a child, in the Burt Reynolds film HOOPER, which also starred Peter's mother, Sally Field); how he approaches writing novels and the themes that interest him; adapting his Blood Father novel into a movie and working with Mel Gibson; and his experiences co-writing THE TOWN.           

Growing up, what were some of the films that affected you the most? 
I remember being very young and seeing Scorsese's movie ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974) and being blown away by it. I found it tragic and terrifying and incredibly real. I felt immediately connected to the mother-son relationship in that movie. It's a road movie too, although I know a lot of it takes place when Alice stops in Phoenix. It just really sunk in and was completely in my head for most of my life. I was also really into BADLANDS (1973) as a teenager. There's a movie that nobody really sees anymore called OVER THE EDGE (1979). It's Matt Dillon's first movie, and is about these kids taking over the school and a PTA meeting. You can't find it anymore, but I watched it over and over as a kid. It came out like when I was 8 or 9 and all through when I was 12 or 13, I was obsessed with it.

The movie has such a great energy to it. 
Yes, and I had never seen characters like that before. It had that kid Carl (Michael Eric Kramer), who was dropping acid in Junior High School classes. I knew kids like that and that was the first time I had ever seen a movie that was showing teenagers the way they really were. That film was pretty exciting. 

Do you think a movie like OVER THE EDGE made you realise that real life could make good cinema? 
It was kind of like punk rock to me in that it made me think ''Well, anybody could do that.'' I grew up in the 80s, which was an era when there weren't necessarily great movies, but there were a lot of really fun movies. Things like REPO MAN (1984), and all the Alex Cox movies. Some of those really weird early Penelope Spheeris movies like THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985) and SUBURBIA (1983). They were kind of like punk rock movies to me because they made me feel like anything could work if you leaned into it enough. 

Did you start entertaining ideas about being a writer, a screenwriter or a director first? 
I always wanted to be a mystery writer, or a writer like Jim Thompson, for most of my life growing up. I was a novelist for a while, a kind of pulpy writer, and I published a few books. They did okay, but I couldn't really make a living off of it. I would have had to write a couple of books a year, and it wasn't going to be sustainable. 

Did your experiences on film sets with your mother, the actress Sally Field, make you want to be involved with film? 
Maybe a little bit. My mom would let me hang around quite a bit on the movies she didn't take as seriously; but if it was something that required a complicated performance from her, I was more with my grandmother or dad during that time. I think I got more interested in being a screenwriter when she would do plays. There were times when she'd do theater over the summer and I would hang around backstage. My brother and I would sometimes sneak onto stage during the day. I would have been 9 or 10 years old. I got the idea that ''Somebody is writing all this. '' I was completely fixated on it. My father wanted to be a writer and wrote huge amounts that he never quite finished. He had completely different views of the world and they weren't all that favorable about Hollywood – but he'd dreamt of being a writer also and used to read me his work growing up. 

How did your small role in HOOPER (1978) come about? 
That was fun. I was a little tiny kid and my mom had just started dating Burt Reynolds. He was kind of a good guy and he would try to keep me out of trouble and keep me engaged. I played an orphaned kid who was trying to convince Burt to do a chariot race fundraiser - and it was in this scene that he first meets his rival, played by Jan Michael Vincent. 

Did you have any conception of how huge a star Burt Reynolds was? 
When you're a kid you don't really pay much attention to adult actors. Of course I knew what my mom did for a living, and she would have interesting people around her all the time. But I don't think I processed at the time how famous Burt was. I just knew that he had a pool table at his house and a gate with his initials on it. 

Do you think being around Hollywood people as a kid stopped you from being starstruck when you worked with stars later in your career? 
I know everyone is just a working person and I don't worry about it too much. But every now and then I get impressed by certain athletes or writers or directors. 

Mel Gibson has been a huge star since the 80s, so I imagine working with him on BLOOD FATHER must have been a kick. 
I had an interesting experience with him because the first day he came to work, we all looked at each other and said ''Oh, shit. That's a movie star. '' He is such a magnetic actor and we were amazed at how good he was from the get-go. There's a quality to being a star that is different from just being an actor. He had it, and he still has it. It was really interesting to just be standing there and watching him turn it back on. 

What was he like to work with? 
Great - it has been a great thing in my life to be able to become friends with him. Mel's such a good director himself, and he's such a generous guy to work with. He wasn't going to step on anybody's toes or cause any problems, but every now and then he'd have a really good idea about a line or lighting, or how to pace a scene - and he would quietly take me aside and say ''What if we tried this?'' If he took the initiative to speak up, it was always a great idea. I had a lot of respect for how he handled it. This could happen at 3am when we are lighting a scene, for example. There's a death scene that we didn't end up using in the movie. Mel was on his back and he said ''Why don't we move that light about three feet down?'' We tried – and it was perfect. He was so alert at all times; it was like he was operating on a different plane. It was a blast to learn from him. 

How was working with the impressive supporting cast? 
There were a lot of good actors on that movie. I'm still friends with Richard Cabral. He plays one of the gangsters and he is on a TV show here named American Crime. He was nominated for an Emmy. William H. Macy was a great guy. He sat there and played the ukelele. Michael Parks just brought it. Dale Dickey was the sweetest woman I've ever met in my life, and I am still friends with Erin Moriarty too, who's been working nonstop. I just saw Diego Luna at Cannes. He's a great guy. I don't want to leave anyone out of that group. They were all amazing. 

Was there a time when you pursued acting yourself? 
There was a sad little phase in my teens. I had acted in high school, but really just because I wanted to write and be around the girls. There was this 'Lunchtime Theater' we would put on, and I would write some of the the skits for it. Then I went through this period of acting classes and auditioning and really trying in earnest – but I just didn't have much talent. Acting is the hardest thing to do, and if you don't have the talent, you shouldn't waste your time. There are a lot of people who are just not born with any natural aptitude for it, and I was pretty clearly one of them. 

Did the acting experience you've had make you a better writer in any way? 
Yes, in knowing how hard it is. It's harder to work with actors when you think there's a chance you could do what they do. I know there's no chance. I know how hard it is. I know how far they have to go. I know how much they have to relive traumas and things every day in order to do what they do. It helps just having so much respect for how hard that craft is. Writing is hard too. But if you're not in the mood that day you can figure out how to get in the mood. You can take a run or have a bigger breakfast or delay for a few hours. Actors can't. They have to get exactly where they need on command. I don't know any other art that is like that. Painters don't have to paint right at the exact moment you're telling them to. I've worked a lot with actors on set and I think they feel the respect that I have for them. 

Your novels, including Blood Father, are concerned with the often fraught relationships between fathers and their children. What fascinates you about this theme? 
The stories have just turned out that way. I've created these characters, and these issues are things I'm working out in my own life. I have kids and I have good but complicated relationships with my father and my stepfather. There's nothing more fraught than family relationships. So you look for any charged relationship and you follow it as far as it goes. 

What is usually the hook to get you started writing on a novel or script? 
Sometimes it's a moment that grows into the whole thing. With my second book, Hot Plastic, it was a father refusing to live without his son. He goes and abducts him from his mother's house and drives off with him. I didn't know what was going to happen after that. I just knew that was how I wanted to start the book. The book of Blood Father is a little different from the movie, but it was just this idea of a father who has just completely got his life together, and he's reunited with his daughter. Fathers have a tendency to think of their daughters as these soft, delicate creatures; but she's harder and more of a bad ass than he ever was. And she draws him back into his old patterns. Some of this comes across in the movie, but not all of it. In the book she is a much more volatile creature. It's like chemistry. You play with a couple of elements and you try to see if they work together. It's kind of the same with writing scripts too. There's less room to stoke the fire with scripts though. You can write yourself out of trouble in a novel, but you can't in a script. 

You're very busy as a screenwriter. Are you still interested in writing novels? 
Yes, but unfortunately I haven't been able to get back to writing them. I'm trying to. I have a mostly- finished book that I have had to keep leaving for almost ten years now because of script work. Scripts are a lot harder, actually. They're really rewarding if you feel like you stuck the landing. But there's nowhere to hide in a script. There's no room for error. Everything needs to hang together perfectly. It's like a spider's web ... sculpted out of so little. In a novel, you can just impress people with a huge volume of material. Not that I impressed anyone ... But if you read Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace, they're so dazzling that you surrender to the narrative. 

How much research do you usually do on your novels and scripts? 
There's never enough, really. There's always something you miss. I did six to ten months research on my first two books, and I kept researching over the rewriting phase. On some scripts, it's almost all research, even on ones that you wouldn't think. I was working on the Top Gun 2 script with Tony Scott before he passed away, and he just loved research. He had his research guy named Don Ferrone, and we would go to every Air Base, every Naval Station, and talk to everybody we could. We got to see the inside of Drone Trailers and hang out with pilots, sit inside an F-16. When it's that exciting, you can get addicted to the research part. But after a while we had thousands and thousands of pages of notes, and I looked up and realised ''Wait a minute. I actually gotta write this script.'' You can't fall in love too much with all that material, because you bury yourself in it. 

What was the first screenplay that you wrote? 
It was a script called Southbound. It was bought and came close to going into production a couple of times, but there were some problems with how the money was configured. It was about a Customs and Border Control agent who takes a bribe to let some 'unknown contraband' across the border,. It was a small movie - about how that compromise affected the officer. A real Mestophilean story. It did well in terms of giving me a reputation. It was at least adequately written. 

What projects did you work on before THE TOWN? 
I think THE TOWN was probably my fourth job. I tried to do an adaptation of my second novel that didn't work out because it's too sprawling. That caught the attention of Adrian Lyne - and we briefly worked together to try to get it made into a film. When that didn't work out, he wanted me to come and work on THE TOWN, which I did for a long time, before things came to a head with him. (Adrian was the director originally attached to THE TOWN. ) When Ben Affleck took over the project it went really quickly from there. Adrian was brilliant but unwilling to compromise on some numbers. Ben did it for a budget the studio was happy with. 

Did you collaborate with Chuck Hogan, the author of the novel, on the TOWN script? 
I did it mostly with Adrian, who would bring in Chuck for notes and suggestions. Chuck was in a weird position, really. I wrote a draft that was just way too long, and I assumed that Adrian and I were going to cut it down. But Adrian read it and decided he didn't want anything cut. He wanted to shoot a really long movie, like WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) length. Chuck was brought on to suggest cuts, but he wasn't really empowered to take anything out. He was in this weird positio where anything he cut was going to upset Adrian, who had really dug in on this issue. You want a director to like your script, of course. But in this case, the studio just wasn't going to make the movie at this length. Once Ben came on to direct, he used all that material – but he also made the smart cuts that needed to be made, the ones that the producers and I had been wanting to do for a while. 

Did you continue to work on the script when Affleck came on board? 
I was kept in the loop a little bit by Graham King and Gail Lyons, who were the producers – but not really. I could see everything that Ben was doing and I was really happy. He used all the best of the earlier drafts, and he just very effectively fine-tuned it with his co-writer Aaron Stockard. Ben's choices as a director are what made the film a hit. There was an issue with the ending. We had a really bad test screening with the original ending, where Doug (Affleck) dies. There were about six different endings written at that point, and ben chose the one that left everyone with the best feeling and the most hope. At the time, I didn't have enough experience to know that that was the right decision, but now in retrospect I can see that it definitely was. He took what was essentially a dark 70s movie and mnaged to turn it into a genuine commercial success. 

How different do you think Adrian Lyne's version of the film would have been from Ben Affleck's? 
It was a lot of the same material; but, that said, it would have been very different because Adrian would have shot it differently and he would have cast it differently. Ben shot it for half the budget Adrian was fighting for. That is a massively different movie. It would have been a very different pace, and had a very different set of priorities, which isn't to say it wouldn't have been an amazing movie. But the director is everything for a movie: its tone, its pace, its theme and underlying ideas. 

Was Michael Mann's HEAT (1995) on people's minds during the making of the film? 
Yes, of course, and so was THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973). Ben put EDDIE COYLE on a TV in the background in one scene. We knew we were using tropes from films like those and we leaned into it. 

Part two of the interview. 

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

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