Saturday, 26 October 2013

Rudy Wurlitzer: Infinite West

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
A descendant of the Wurlitzer family of jukebox/organ fame, Rudy Wurlitzer came to prominence with the publication of two short novels Nog (1969) and Flats (1970). Praised by Thomas Pynchon and a key text of the countercultural movement, Nog follows a lone narrator on an endless journey through an American West filled with ‘obsessive monologues, disintegrating memories, hoped-for horizons, buried myths, paranoid plans.’ 

Wurlitzer became a screenwriter around the same time, first collaborating with Jim McBride on the post-apocalyptic Glen and Randa (1971), before being approached by director Monte Hellman, an admirer of Nog, to rewrite a script called Two-Lane Blacktop – an existential road movie that is a logical outcome of the elliptical and filmic aspects of Wurlitzer’s fiction.

Two-Lane Blacktop stars singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson alongside frequent Sam Peckinpah collaborator Warren Oates. Heavily publicised prior to its release (Esquire dubbed it ‘the Movie of the Year’ and published the screenplay in its entirety) but then ignored and dumped by distributors, Two-Lane’s reputation has grown over the years to become a canonical ’70s film. Wurlitzer went on to write Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) for Sam Peckinpah; Walker (1987) for Alex Cox; also working on Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), Volker Schlöndorff’s Voyager (1991) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993). 

Wurlitzer was working on a screenplay with Michelangelo Antonioni at the time of the director’s death. He wrote the libretto for the Philip Glass’ opera In The Penal Colony, and has also written scripts for the television courthouse drama 100 Centre Street, directed by Sidney Lumet.

The following is an edited extract of an interview with Rudy Wulitzer for the A.V. Club in 2011 in which he discusses his early screenwriting career:

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
AVC: How did Monte Hellman approach you about writing ‘Two-Lane Blacktop?’ You were best known then for your experimental novel ‘Nog’, which doesn’t exactly seem like Hollywood material.

RW: I know! That was like, ‘Wow!’ [Laughs.]

AVC: Had you given any thought to writing for film before that?

RW: I was writing these books one after the other – Nog, Flats, and Quake – and I didn’t see it at that time, but it was sort of a trilogy. So, I was broke, because those books weren’t exactly going to be on Oprah. I didn’t want to teach. I was a bartender for a while and I didn’t want to do that. So it was great. It was a real adventure, and I really liked L.A. in those days. I’m totally alienated from it now, but it was sort of a dreamy place. And I didn’t know that many people there, which was a great benefit. I was left alone, you know? I had written some of Nog there, and that was great, because there was a certain kind of freedom involved.

AVC: How did you go from writing ‘Nog’ to writing screenplays?

RW: Well, I have a visual imagination, so it was not an awkward jump into the form. In fact, I liked the form a lot. Especially when I was left alone. In those days, I didn’t feel sublimated to the director as much – at least, at first. With Monte, he just shot what I wrote. And I can remember an old, grizzled producer saying, ‘Well, son, enjoy it, because that ain’t gonna ever happen again.’ [Laughs.] And yeah, he was right. I mean, sort of. Although Sam pretty much shot what I wrote. And Hal [Ashby]would’ve. I worked a little bit on Coming Home for him. I did the last draft, and he was wonderful. I would’ve gone on to work with him anytime.

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
 AVC: Was the raft scene in ‘Pat Garrett’ in your script? It’s a purely visual moment, and seems to be much of a piece with Peckinpah’s oeuvre.

RW: Yes, I wrote that and MGM hated it. And Sam, when his final cut reemerged some time later, he put it back in. It was an important scene for me, because it worked as a metaphor for the whole Western myths of origins. It just worked on a poetic level.

AVC: Which is not the kind of thing you can say to a studio executive.

RW: No! [Laughs.] Are you crazy? ‘There’s the door!’ But in terms of the whole myth of the West and the frontier – which also mirrored my own sense of internal frontiers, the myth of freedom and all that – in this last book I wrote, a lot of those scripts and research and filmic ideas I was left with found their way into that book, called The Drop Edge Of Yonder. It seemed to complete something for me, because I used the best of that.

AVC: The visual quality of the writing in Nog is so important. It’s almost the only thing that allows you to keep your bearings. You can see how Monte Hellman would latch onto that.

RW: Monte is unlike any director I’ve ever known. He’s very innocent, in his way. What he liked – and, I think, he had in his earlier films that he did with Jack Nicholson – what really turns him on is to be surprised. I think he thought, ‘This guy will give me something new.’ It’s the way he casts, too, for better or for worse. They’re mostly people who’ve never acted before. So, there’s a mixture. With Two-Lane, what’s so interesting about it now, in retrospect, is the non-actors, like James Taylor, and the girl, Laurie [Bird], mixing in with the real old pros, like Warren Oates and Harry Dean [Stanton]. It gives it a strange energy, which, at the time, people were sort of freaked by. But now, I find it all quite lovable, don’t you? [Laughs.]

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
AVC: Absolutely. I love James Taylor’s performance.

RW: Yeah, and he was totally out of his mind. [Laughs.]

AVC: I think it’s, by far, the best thing he’s done in any medium.

RW: Yeah, that’s because he didn’t know what he was doing. And none of us did. It was a process that – more than any other film that I’ve been involved with, except maybe when I worked with Robert Frank – existed in the present. Films are such a linear medium, and they depend so much on the overloaded cost of things, and how it’s set up before, and where it’s gonna go after, so you’re locked into this linear process. But Monte, with his extraordinary openness and innocence, didn’t play by those rules. He didn’t know that he wasn’t playing by them. It never occurred to him.

AVC: You mentioned the juxtaposition of the road movie and the internal journey, as well, which is something that very much plays into the books and the films. It seems to be pretty consistent.

RW: To go back to what you were saying about why Monte chose me, for all the strangeness of Nog, it does represent a very eccentric road movie. So, I think that’s what appealed to him, one of the things.

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
AVC: There’s something truly subversive about ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’, which is a movie about a road race that never ends and no one wins.

RW: It didn’t start that way. When I came into the situation, the only thing I kept from the original script was the idea of these race people, the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl, and this cross-country race. But nothing else. So I was very free. I hung out with car freaks in the San Fernando Valley and read all the magazines. I didn’t know a car from a cow before that. It was like a great new language. And the way Monte cast it, with these non-actors like James Taylor and Laurie and Dennis Wilson, and then with these old, great character actors; the balance was really interesting in terms of language and energy, this sort of innocence compared to this high-powered professionalism of Warren Oates. As far as the ending goes, we didn’t know how to end it, and it seemed wrong to end it with them winning or losing; that wasn’t where it was at. The whole thing was about the process of being on the move, the road to nowhere. Of course, when the film opened, people really thought it was nuts. They were expecting a classic story of winners and losers and races, all that stuff. And it didn’t happen.

AVC: Was there a model for the character of GTO, played by Warren Oates?

RW: Not really. A lot of it was just Warren. I just went for it, because I was working against the one-dimensional innocence of the non-actors. They didn’t have that range. They had one note. I wanted to write something that involved a lot of notes that would help balance it. So that’s what I was trying to do. Make it over the top and with humor. The non-actors’ parts didn’t have any humor.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: There’s also, in both ‘Two-Lane’ and ‘Pat Garrett’, a sense of men wrestling with the roles available to them. Pat Garrett and the Driver want to be tough guys, but in a sense, pushing toward that archetype destroys them.

RW: Some of it probably had to do with my own relationship to the film world. One of the things I saw looking at these early films once again was how sublimated the screenwriter is to the powers that be: director and stars. It’s something that I can’t do any more. Although, that said, with those scripts I was freer and looser and more connected to my own instincts than afterwards. So that’s the irony of it. But it was certainly a subject even before the film business, that one has as a writer, and also where I came from – in other words, a complicated relationship with authority.

AVC: You’re dealing with this foundational American myth of the frontier and the road movie, the idea that you find yourself by leaving home. Other countries don’t have that in the same way.

RW: You could say that represents our myths of origins. I’ve always been attracted to that in a lot of different ways, because I’ve always been a kind of nomadic character.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: Did you move around a lot as a kid? When did the wanderlust kick in for you?

RW: The wanderlust kicked in when I was about 16 or 17. I got a job on an oil tanker as a wiper in the engine room. We went from Philadelphia to Spanish Morocco to Kuwait. And then after that, I spent a lot of time in Europe. Paris.

AVC: And that was in the ’50s or the ’60s?

RW: The ’60s. I was influenced a lot by an old poet that I knew, Robert Graves. So I hung out with him. New York in the ’60s was a very exciting place for me, because the first little film I did was with Claes Oldenburg, and it was kind of a happening film. So, I was influenced by Claes and [Robert] Rauschenberg, and the whole art scene, [Jackson] Pollock. And the freedom. The whole jazz scene in New York was great, Ornette Coleman and those kind of people. And the poets: [William S.] Burroughs, I knew, and [Allen] Ginsberg, and Phil Glass was a very good friend of mine. He was working as a plumber then. I had a job at the Five Spot. It was just a kind of extraordinary time of complete permission. The cliché about the ’60s really seemed to be true in the Lower East Side in those days.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: The movies don’t celebrate that kind of freedom, though. They’re about the dangers of freedom, more than its possibility. It seems significant that the race in ‘Two-Lane’ goes from west to east, which is the opposite of the great westward expansion.

RW: Yes. There’s the myth of that. And also, in a literary sense, as I look back on it, what I was questioning was the whole naturalism of the narrative throughline. That was, in a literary sense, what I was trying to do in the books, but also in Two-Lane. Two-Lane related to those three early books more than any other film or book, except perhaps for Drop Edge. That’s an interesting way to think about it.

AVC: There are little bits of Western mythology that thread through them as well, but in ‘Pat Garrett’ you deal with it directly. As with a lot of Peckinpah’s movies, it’s about the seduction of those myths, and also the incredibly destructive power of them.

RW: I was talking about this the other day to this friend of mine, the director Alex Cox, who’s a big fan of that film. And we were saying what’s really interesting, a few people have pointed out about that film, is the politics of it. The Santa Fe ring, and how they were controlling things. That sort of mirrored in Peckinpah’s mind the whole thing he was going through with MGM – being controlled by these other forces where you aren’t quite sure what they’re thinking, you’re at the mercy of. So independence is a loaded thing, and you pay a big price for it at times. But it’s worth it.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: There’s an idea of being in love with self-destruction or nothingness.

RW: That’s an interesting point, because as I look back on that time, I was always sort of skating on the edge of nihilism, but always hoping or trying to find a way to transcend it. To not let it just be nihilism, but to go for a bigger metaphor, and bigger view. Not always successfully, but that was in the room as well, for me, anyway…

AVC: ‘Pat Garrett’ never made it out in its proper form.

RW: I know, I know. There was all that stuff with MGM and – oh man, it was a nightmare. Peckinpah was on the warpath. But those days, now I realize, ‘My God, that was an amazing time.’ When you could just proceed with a certain degree of autonomy and adventure. It was amazing. I would write one of these crazy books and then go out and make a film, and I didn’t know what all the complaints were about. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’ [Laughs.] And then of course, the big, steel doors shut down and it was bad from then on. But the people I worked with, like Monte [Hellman] and Peckinpah, Hal Ashby I worked with awhile, they were all great. And individuals. The whole corporate envelope hadn’t gathered. There were storm clouds on the horizon, but I was so stuck in my own fun, I never saw it coming.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: ‘Pat Garrett’ and ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’, even more so ‘Glen And Randa’, it’s a little hard to believe they got made in the first place.

RW: They couldn’t get made now, that’s for sure. [Laughs.] It’s amazing they were made. Then in the ’80s, of course, it all shifted and changed and became more corporate. The people you were dealing with more were salespeople. Back then, you’d write a script and Monte would say, ‘Yeah, gee, I read this crazy book by you. I’d like to see what you could do.’ So I completely threw everything out and did my own thing, and no one questioned anything. [Laughs.] There were no salespeople in the room. You didn’t have to pitch; you just did your thing. So you were free to go on your own journey, and it was more of a collaboration in that way.

AVC: How did ‘Esquire’ get the idea that ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ was the ‘movie of the year’ and end up publishing the script?

RW: I don’t know. Somebody must’ve sent them the script, and the script had a certain kind of, I guess, cachet they liked. It was the only script they’d ever published. I think they felt, after the first returns were in, ‘My God, what an insane thing. We’ll never do that one again.’

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: Do you feel like ‘Two-Lane’ and ‘Pat Garrett’ reflect what you had in mind? Or improved on it?

RW: In retrospect, I’m stunned by how they turned out better than I thought they would. At the time, once you’re involved in the whole drama of production and this and that and the personalities, you just don’t know. You’re more aware of the problems and the various cuts. And then when it’s released, and the reviews are mixed at best, you think, ‘Ugh.’ But now, I’m amazed at how good those films are. And it’s not just – well, it is, in a way – that they couldn’t be made now, but the degree of freedom and exploration and spontaneity involved just doesn’t happen now. First of all, films are a hundred times more expensive now, and they’re hooked into a global audience, and it’s all a kind of corporate sell. There’s a sort of magic sense when you’re making a film that you’re just in your own world and trying to work for its own sake. These directors, like Peckinpah, he was amazing. He was crazy and confrontational and inspired and generous, and all these things that now get sublimated. That whole photo-artistic temperament was given full range. So now, I’m fond of those films…

Interview: Rudy Wurlitzer. By Sam Adams. The A.V. Club, August 26, 2011. Full article here

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