"Dolph's attitude is it can always be improved."

"He was very serious about having some fun with it!"

 

How did you get involved in the project?
I had met Dolph through the efforts of another producer named Andrew Stevens. Dolph had been prepping a film in which he was writing, starring in and directing called Missionary Man. He was looking for another writer to polish the project. Thanks to Andrew I was asked to come in and work on the script, a modern day western. I love westerns, so the idea of working on it was very exciting. But when I finished reading the piece I really couldn’t see what I could possibly add to it. It was good. Very good. I turned in my notes and moved on.

A few weeks later I was contacted by Dolph. Sure enough, they’d gone in another direction and were proceeding as is. I wished them luck. And then, a couple of months later I was contacted again by Dolph. He said, “I’m sorry we didn’t get to work on this other project but I’d have some other ideas I’d like to discuss with you.” So we sat down and met. We talked mostly about westerns. Now, I know my westerns but I was stopped cold when, at one point, we were discussing John Ford, great dialog, Clint Eastwood and Unforgiven. He quoted darned near every Eastwood line verbatim from the film. I lost that particular contest.

Right, he’s a very big Clint Eastwood fan…
Well, I am too and I was impressed. So we sat and we talked, and he pulled out three different stories, they were action adventure stories, and he says: “I’m going to be doing a project in Eastern Europe, probably some or part of it, perhaps all of it in Russia, and I’d like to collaborate with you.” Now, the weird thing about collaborating with an actor/director, collaboration isn't always collaboration, it's simply them saying “here, I wrote a couple of paragraphs. Turn it into a script”. You do most of the heavy lifting and they share the credit. But that was not the case here. Dolph handed me three extremely detailed original stories that he had written, and by detailed I'm saying he had written three beautifully constructed action adventure pieces. They were very well done, with clearly defined characters and situations, beginnings, middles and ends. They were all very good.

And so, for me it was not a decision of what would be the one that's most developed and ready to turn into a script. It was simply, which one got me the most excited. And the one that really resonated with me was, Command Performance.

So were the stories in the form of long treatments?
Yeah, it was a very long, unusually long treatment. My favorite period of filmmaking would be the forties, fifties, and sixties studio era. In those days before you went to script, you prepared a rather lengthy treatment containing all the beats of the film, all the details, a solid story with a lot of the bugs worked out. And that's what Dolph had handed me. It wasn't a two-page synopsis. It was I think as I recall, between a 25 and 30 page treatment, extremely detailed and extremely polished, and a great starting point for a script.

Nu Image wasn't involved yet when you got on board?
I don't believe Nu Image was involved at the early stages. This was a project Dolph wanted to develop himself and he shopped it around. We both did our work on spec, believing it was good material and would find a good home. And Nu Image was a very good place to land. I wrote a film a few years ago for Danny Lerner and greatly enjoyed my experience working for the company.

So how did the process begin, what was your working method?
Dolph, as I'm sure you know, is on the move a lot. I jumped into the first draft myself based on his detailed treatment. I followed his treatment to the letter, and I felt initially it was my job to get this down as a screenplay with dialog. I made changes and added things whenever I felt I had a great idea or improvement. Dolph was interested in what I could bring to the table and told me to have at it, write it based on what worked for me. And then I emailed that first draft to Dolph. He read it, and then did the next draft himself. And his draft wasn't just a polish of mine. He went back in there and turned it inside out. The best stuff that I added he retained but he polished my changes and additions, added some great stuff of his own, and took the characters a step further in terms of who they were in the film, their entire arc.

I think his second draft really increased the emotional resonance and depth of the characters and situations, better defining who they were, what they wanted and how they related to each other. He also trimmed it. My first draft was 120 pages, and I think the second draft that Dolph did was 95 pages. Everything was still there, just tightened up and polished. He really put a tremendous amount of work in that second draft.

So it was really an effort of going back and forth between you two and going further and further with each draft...
Exactly. He would do a second draft and then he'd get in town, he'd say “OK, I'm over at the hotel, let's meet”, and we'd meet, we have lunch and we’d discuss his draft. He’d have some minor notes… mor of this, less of that, etc., build this part up, and then he’d say, “go nuts, have at it.” And then we’d talk about movies and I’d go home, jump in and do the third draft. I’d make changes, make improvements, polish, polish, polish, and then turn it back to Dolph. He’d work on it for a while, and suddenly we’d have great fourth draft. And that's how the process went. I'd do a draft and he'd do a draft. And gradually, these characters really started to come to life, and we went places with them we hadn't thought about before. It was all still very true to the original, very strong, solid, action outline that he had created, the treatment he'd created, but the characters really got filled up through that process. Dolph's attitude is it can always be improved, it can always be better. So working with him you always do due diligence, always work hard to make it better before it gets to the set. He's very serious about story.

A few months into the process he called me from Europe. He said, “…there's a documentary playing on TV, it's about the terrorist takeover of the Moscow theater.” This was a terrible tragedy that occurred a few years back.

Dolph says, “It's a beautifully done documentary. I just saw it, take a look at it. When you’ve seen it, call me.”

After I viewed the piece, we talked. Dolph said, “We've created a good fantasy movie up to this point, but this documentary, this terrible tragedy is the reality of these hostage situations. It shows the very real pain that the victims go through when they're held hostage, the harsh emotions at play as government anti-terrorist teams try to figure out how to rescue them. We see the emotion and the exhaustion that plays on the terrorists as they're trying to make their decisions, the terrible and difficult decisions that the country's leaders have to make to try to end the stalemate, that's all reality. How much of this can you put into our script?”

I replied, “As much as I can.” So we did another pass on the script, to try to make it as real as we could possible make it.

To add more layers in terms of the emotional journey of the characters...
Right. And then I think towards the end, in the last few months before pre-production started, toward the end of the revision process, after we’d shored up the foundation with a strong dose of reality, we ladled on a little more fun movie type stuff, honing and tweaking the lines and characters, playing with them a bit. That was the fun part; the icing on the cake. Early on, Dolph had liked one of my lines, “Dying is easy. Rock and roll is hard!”

Which is now used in the teaser trailer...
If I may posthumously apologize to British actor Sir Donald Wolfit. He was a very famous Shakespearian actor active in the forties, fifties and sixties. They made a movie about him called The Dresser. On his death bed someone asked him how he was feeling and as he lay there dying he said: “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” I couldn’t resist doing a variation on it for this film. And like I said, Dolph liked that line and towards the end of the polish process he wanted more, “…come up with some more lines like that”. But that was fun. The whole project was fun. I've done probably 35 movies over the past 15 years, and this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had.

It seems like it, because it doesn't always sound as ideal as this?
There's all kinds of different writing. I did a movie few years back called Militia. It was a spec script that I had written. I took it to a particular company, they liked it and bought it. Sometime you work on assignment, where a producer has pre-sold a title, and a concept, a four or five paragraphs concept, and pre-sold it to various territories, and you're writing a script on assignment based on that concept. This one was a genuine collaboration where Dolph had a detailed treatment, with the two of us collaborating on the screenplay. So it was a different way of working. Collaboration isn’t always easy, but this was very pleasant, very enjoyable. Even so, you have to keep on your toes with Dolph. He's all about “it can always be better!” As soon as you get lazy he’s back with a fresh, new spin on the material.

It's interesting because you wrote quite a bit of scripts we could qualify as Die Hard rip-offs, but this seems different...
I would disagree with the phrase “Die Hard ripoff.” I have written a number of films using the concept of an ordinary man under extraordinary circumstances being forced to rescue himself and other innocent civilians from nefarious villains. It’s a well-worn formula, dating back to the silent era. In one major set piece, Red River features ordinary man Montgomery Clift forced to save innocent civilians from a surprise attack when no one else can help. Sound like a Die Hard ripoff? Red River was released in 1948. And it was a western version of Mutiny on the Bounty! As someone once said, in Hollywood films aren’t made, they’re re-made. And they've always said it about westerns, which are the template for action adventure films. In westerns there are only seven basic plots. Conceptually, this is a hero journey film, as I said, an ordinary man under extraordinary circumstances. A man who has a past that enables him to rescue these people, to try to make things right.

Of course stories is a never ending pattern that goes back and forth, all forms of creativity are always inspired by...
Well, you go back to Shakespeare. Shakespeare plays and sonnets were the prime time, network TV of its day, the C.S.I. and reality shows, plenty of violence and sex, action, adventure, good guys and bad guys, same sort of things, all mixed into one. The language was different, the subtext as a whole might have been different. It’s all about the way the story is told, like when you take a standard “quest” story and make un-standard, classic film like The Searchers.

How much has changed from the first draft to the production script?
I think in terms of the visible things you might see, very little has changed in terms of the basic structure of the story. I think we probably put some elements in that have to do more with historical fact, in these kinds of hostages crisis, we certainly added some of that. I think the characters are much more multidimensional.. I mean you can't make characters really multifaceted and multidimensional in a screen treatment, because in the screen treatment they're there to carry the story beats. I think we certainly got in the characters from the first draft to now, much deeper, much better arcs, the relationships are more real, how they relate to each other as people as opposed to characters in a film. Those are subtle things, I think the basic story structure is the same, it's better, much, much better, than certainly the first draft I turned in. And that's due to Dolph saying, “make it better, we can do this, it has a lot of potential, let's push the envelope”.

It seems he wanted to come across as a different type of character, in an early draft he was supposed to be an ex-military, which has been omitted?
In an early draft he was ex-military, There was a subplot and some flashbacks involving his experiences in war that had shaped him into the character he is today. But Dolph decided to go a different direction with his character. He’s been known as a a movie star and a leading man for a number of years, and as a writer you're always somewhat hesitant to tell someone of that stature what direction to go with a leading character. You feel compelled, at least first, to kind have to let them let you know where they wanna go, and what they're comfortable with. In Dolph's case it wasn't about protecting an image, it was about how can we make this guy interesting and different. And I think that was the issue that Dolph had with the military background of the guy. His feeling was “this has been done to death”. Standard scenario… ex military turned cook or whatever. But by gosh, when the bad guys show up he picks up that six shooter one more time…”… this time it’s personal” and all that. Dolph's initial thought was, “well, if we're going to make him ex military, how do we make it interesting and different. Dolph did come up the idea that his character wasn’t real comfortable around weapons.. But gradually, I think Dolph felt the ex-military thing it had been too much, and he went with a different direction. And I think the different direction works better because now his character is even more of a real person.

And it's probably gonna surprise people and be more fun...
I think so. And that's one thing, even at the beginning, and that's one of the things that really excited me about the project when I first met with Dolph is that he was very serious, even at that time, about “I want to do something different, I want this guy to have a sense of humor, I want him laid back...” From the get go, he wanted the guy to be a rocker, he wanted the guy to be light, not this heavy, scary dude. And he was serious, very serious about having some fun with it in that way. And I think yes it's really going to surprise people, the way he's going with this character. I mean you're still going to get what you want of his work but in a new, fun, rock and roll, way! Some of the scenes he’s got in this are really quite funny... I can't wait for people to see it.

Did you talk about collaborating again?
I haven't had the pleasure of that conservation with him. I know he's been extraordinarily busy because he was doing post on Missionary Man, and he immediately jumped into this. I'd love to work with him again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. It was an extraordinarily fulfilling collaboration. It's been a very fun ride to say the least, I've learned a lot.

What do you have coming up?
Deadly Rising, a disaster movie for Regent, is shooting in the fall. The next project for me is a family adventure film I'm very excited about, with theatrical potential.

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