Thursday, 11 June 2015

Alex Jacobs: On Writing ‘Point Blank’

Point Blank (Directed by John Boorman)
‘Point Blank’ is a masterpiece. Given the firm iconographic basis of the urban thriller, Boorman’s view of man in his own jungles becomes much more compelling. It is a crucial film in the development of the cinema’s portrait of America as a complex of organized crime. It uses the city as a structural model for society so that all the sites of the city – the prison, the sewers, the apartment block, the used-car lot – take on a natural metaphysical significance. The actual and the imaginary are perfectly joined in ‘Point Blank’. For it is not only an account of Lee Marvin’s remorseless and romantic hacking away at the syndicate, but his dream in the instant that he dies. Because the thriller is so strong and vivid a genre, Boorman was able to exploit its potential for fantasy and make the Marvin character a spectator of his own story. His expressive somnambulism is not just a search for vengeance and satisfaction, but the signs of sleep and inertia in a man actually slipping away from the world, defeated by it but inventing a story in which he triumphs as he dies. (David Thomson)
Based on Donald E. Westlake’s pulp crime novel The Hunter, written under the pen-name Richard Stark, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) begins and ends on a deserted Alcatraz, bookending the bloody journey Lee Marvin’s criminal loner cuts across Los Angeles. A violent quest that may be a dying man’s dream. A landmark in the history of the crime movie, the script was adapted by Alexander Jacobs reworking the classic gangster text into a fractured vision of modern America.

In the following extract from an interview first published in Film Comment magazine, Alex Jacobs discusses the process of adapting Westlake’s novel, the conflicts involved in getting the script to screen, and his approach to screenwriting. 


How did the script for Point Blank come to be written?

There were three main versions of the script. The first I did during my first stay in Hollywood, in four weeks, and that consisted of writing the script once and then rewriting it completely. I only had four weeks because I was working on a picture in England. John gave me the script that the Newhouses had written, which was a craftsman-like piece of work but very old-fashioned. And the idea was to make a thriller that was enterprising. What I argued from the beginning was we couldn’t make an Asphalt Jungle, we couldn’t make a Harper, we couldn’t make a Sweet Smell of Success. I thought all those days were over – television had scraped them clean. We had to do something completely fresh. We wanted to make a film that was a half reel ahead of the audience, that was the whole idea. We made a vow that we’d have no people getting in and out of cars, no shots of car doors opening and closing, unless there was a really important reason. And then I wrote a second version which consisted mainly of long letters from me in England to John in Hollywood, plus long telephone conversations on casting and all sorts of things, and of course letters from John, which were amalgamated into a second-draft script. And then I went out to San Francisco on the shooting of the picture the first two weeks. The ending and the beginning of the film take place in San Francisco and that’s where we shot. I then wrote a lot more stuff including a completely new ending and a new beginning, some of which was done in script form, some of which was in discussion, and some of which was literally dictated to a girl and rushed out to location as they were shooting. This included the whole idea of using the sightseeing boat as a means of linking the past and the present I wrote a new ending which wasn’t used. I don’t really agree with the ending in the film at the moment – I think it’s evasive – but that’s the one that was finally shot.


What was your ending like?

We had a grandstand ending which I liked very much, because it seemed to me to be sort of Wagnerian in its own way. In this fort, Fort Point in San Francisco, you had Yost revealing himself to Walker and tempting Walker to join him, and Walker is half-tempted and half-shattered by his experiences and by the fact that he’s been used as a dupe for the whole film; all his passion, all his energy, all his madness were being used – he was like a puppet being manipulated and he becomes absolutely incensed, and he advances upon Yost who has a gun, and Yost is suddenly terrified by this mad force, because Walker is now completely insane. And Walker just advances upon him – he’s going to kill him with his bare hands, a complete animal, he’s frothing at the mouth. And Yost shoots him three times and the three bullets miss. Yost actually cannot shoot this force. He tries, his hands shake, and he suddenly realizes his age; suddenly his age sinks through him like a flood, like a great stone sucking him under, and he’s a completely old man, and he steps backward and falls off the parapet and dies. And Walker comes to at the edge of the parapet, and shaken and quivering is led away by the girl out into the world again. This was the ending we had. And I thought it bordered on the melodramatic, I thought it was really dangerous, but I thought it was a marvelous way of going for an ending to a myth, if you like. And I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but it wasn’t played that way, so I came up with other endings.


Were there other disagreements over various scenes in the film?

I can give you a very specific example – the scene when Brewster (Carroll O’Connor) arrives home and Lee has been waiting for him, and demands his money. John shot that scene before we went to San Francisco and ran the picture for me so I was completely in touch with what was happening. Now the Brewster scene was quite clearly shot wrongly. He had shot it almost as scripted but in fact had cut out a crucial love scene which is prior to the Brewster scene. It’s a scene where Angie and Lee not only make love but become extraordinarily intimate, and he begins to talk to her for the first time and tell her his fears and in fact reveals that this drive is something that he’s generated in himself and that is now dissipating him and wearing him out and crumbling him, and that he’s frightened of it. He’s frightened of where it’s going to lead him, he’s frightened of the way he cannot control it. And I think that would have matched in with my ending very well indeed.

Well, John said it wasn’t possible to shoot it or that he couldn’t shoot it and he didn’t want to. So in this sequence with Brewster the trouble was that because you didn’t have the previous love scene, and because the actor, Carroll O’Connor, is a very strong and intelligent actor, you got a complete unbalance to the scene. There are three peaks in the scene, and Carroll O’Connor took them all from Lee, which is not only dramatically wrong, it’s psychologically wrong, and it’s plot wrong, which is the most crucial point. And I pointed this out to John and he agreed, and he reshot the second half of the scene, and I think if you look very closely you’ll see that the second half of that scene is shot with a different light and at a different area, because I don’t think we could get back to the original location again. We changed it so that in the end Lee became the dominant one, which led on to the ending that we finally shot, but I think if we’d had the love scene, the scene as originally scripted in Brewster’s house could have worked.



Another change was in the wake sequence, the sequence when, after his wife’s committed suicide, the house is sort of stripped bare. The whole idea in that sequence was to show Walker completely revealed, but to no one else except himself. And the second revelation is when Walker at long last comes out of the abyss and reveals himself to the woman. The first time is when he’s in this house and he looks round and a wall is stripped bare; he looks again, the bed is gone; he looks again and the carpets have gone and his feet begin to echo over the place, and he starts packing his wife’s goods and he smells her panties and a bra, and he packs away photographs or trinkets or Welcome to Hawaii or something like that. What you get is a great sense of revelation, which is very strange and completely inside his head in many ways. And this isn’t shot in that way. I think John argues that there are really subtle touches where Lee does show certain sorts of warmth, but my general impression is that he’s too frozen-faced throughout. We showed the film to Hashimoto, one of Kurosawa’s scriptwriters, the man who’s worked with him a long time. He loved it, was very excited by it, but he said, ‘I think you should have been closer on his eyes,’ which is a marvellously perceptive view of the film, because that’s the trouble – it is, I think, too cold-blooded.

How do you feel about the wake sequence as it is filmed?

I don’t think it works. I don’t like it. I like some of its ideas, I think it is very strange, but I think it’s strange because it’s baffling and not strange because it’s got quality and atmosphere. It isn’t developed properly. You should see each room vanish as he walks through it; instead, there are times when you really don’t know whether he’s just walked from an empty room into an empty room. There should have been changes in his shirts and his face. John argues that there are changes; he says the beard gets a bit longer, but who’s going to notice that? You needed something much bolder, much clearer.


The differences in the wake sequence are interesting, because they do reveal a real difference in temperament. He did make the film colder, as you say, just through very subtle sorts of changes.

Well, I think that’s exactly the sort of relationship between writers and directors that is interesting to discuss. I mean, when you have a director as strong as John, and I suppose when you have a writer with ideas like I have, many times it’s a very happy amalgamation, as it has been with him. And of course the next step is for the writer to direct. Incidentally, the film did extraordinarily well. I don’t think it’s the greatest blockbuster of all time, but I know MGM are happy with what it finally made and all the rest of it; it’s done very well in Europe and so forth. In fact, it’s given us all a great boost But I would argue that the film would have been even more popular with this warmer quality to it. I don’t mean by that pandering to the audience, but I mean making Lee more human, less monsterish, less zombie, less killer, if you like – although he doesn’t actually kill a single person in the picture. I think the problem is that that sort of implacable, never-let-up drive is not human, and while it would have been marvelous to have continued our myth that he literally comes from the underground, roams over the surface of the earth for a brief while, then goes back into the shadows – well, by introducing the girl and all sorts of other things, we obviously go away from the essential myth. But by making him variable, by giving him variations of pace, by giving him changes of character, we would have made him human, and – I think much more understandable.


I think it’s quite possible that lots of people were repelled by the drive of the picture, which is frenetic. We did it for a reason. Both of us were extraordinarily attracted by Los Angeles – I still am – and we both hated San Francisco, hated it in the sense that it wasn’t for our picture, and it was very much a touristy sort of town, a town sort of on the asshole of America, it seemed to me. If you couldn’t face the Middle West and the West and what modern America is, you retreated to San Francisco and hung on for your dear life. It’s a very sweet sort of city, but it’s obviously not America. I love LA because it seems to me to be absolutely what America is, at least one aspect of America, and it doesn’t kid around, you know, you either take it or you don’t take it.

What are some other examples of differences between script and film, where you feel this warmer quality is lost?

Well, where he does come alive in a much richer way is the wooing of his wife down by the waterfront, the whole of the flashback sequence there, which I think is beautifully done and far beyond any hopes I would have had at that point. And I thought there should have been indications of that sort of thing in the rest of the picture. But it doesn’t come again. The whole absence of Angie at the end of the picture is a very important clue. But the crucial change is the sequence when she beats him and falls to the floor and then taunts him through the intercom about ‘You’re really dead…’ Now it seems to me that those lines are absolutely crucial, and they’ve got to be said. You can’t have them in this abstract way over the soundtrack through a round black piece of mesh through which the girl’s voice floats. That’s exactly the point where it’s got to be a confrontation between two human beings. And while I think it’s brilliantly shot sequence and some very inventive ideas. it’s really for laughs, and I think the audience reaction is one of laughs basically, and it isn’t revealing on any other level. And then if you’d gone into that very long and tender love scene after that, you would have obviously had a different picture.


Another change, which is more indirect but equally important, is the first time he meets Angie, when he awakens her in her bedroom and she finds out her sister’s dead. And at the end of that scene, I wrote that a certain intimacy begins to grow between them – she’s lying there in bed, the blankets back, her hair tousled, one shoulder bare, and suddenly a sexual element enters the scene, and it’s the temptation that is going to grow increasingly. Now that’s not shown in the film at all. It’s done in a two-shot, a lot of it done from behind Lee’s head or just to the side of Lee. But what you don’t see is a growing intimacy that should have come through a track-in, a slightly different composition, a feeling of warmth and then a drawing back again. This is in the script, it’s not in the picture.

All of these changes are consistent.

I think another point worth thinking about is that I feel there is very definitely an Anglo-Saxon attitude towards art and a non-Anglo-Saxon attitude towards art, particularly visual art. I think Anglo-Saxon culture tends toward a form of social observation. The artist sees himself and is seen as an observer of society, in which personal investigation and a personal viewpoint and a personal passion about life are less important than a highly skilled, very effective, and brilliant sketching in and drawing of a social page. Whereas it seems to me that the non-Anglo-Saxon attitude is much more towards personal investigation, a personal, passionate view of a situation, of people, often hopelessly unfair, but uniquely and individually the maker’s own. And it may well be that part of the tension between writers and directors in English-speaking cinema is that if the writer isn’t Anglo-Saxon, as I’m not – I’m Jewish and I’m certainly not Anglo-Saxon – whereas the director isn’t Jewish and is Anglo-Saxon, it could be that that’s where the dichotomy really takes place; in my view in the script, which is more passionate and warmer and richer, to my mind, than John’s, is eschewed by John because he does have this Anglo-Saxon training. I think that’s one view of it which is perfectly possible.


There’s another factor that’s strange. I think the great problem with writers and directors is to know when to change the role in the progress of the picture. I think at the beginning the writer is totally inside the picture, with the director and occasionally the producer, if you’ve got a genuinely creative producer – like Ray Wagner, the man I’m working for at the moment – outside the material, and it’s the tension between those two positions which creates the material. Then I think when the picture begins the director becomes totally involved with the material, he’s totally inside the material, and it’s the writer, and perhaps the producer, who is outside the material. But of course in most cases in the English-speaking cinema, the writer’s paid off and that’s the end of it. In Point Blank that was exactly my position. At the end of four weeks, I was sent back to England and that was that. It was only because of my relationship with John, these constant phone calls and letters, that I was able to have any effect whatsoever. And then of course John’s plea for me to come out for two weeks in San Francisco and help him again, which the producers agreed to. But under normal circumstances, you complete the script and that’s the end of it. And of course if you write pictures which are purely a stimulus for the director to go on, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the director who can do that. I mean John is someone – I may disagree with his view of the picture – but I know that he can take it on from there. He’s a very strong director, and this means that he’ll argue and fight for what he wants and be prepared to give up the picture if he doesn’t get it. In that sense he’s very good, in that sense he deserves everything he gets. But there are many directors who are very craftsmanlike interpreters and no more. One needs to give them a different script.


How do you write for a director who is nothing but a craftsman?

Well, the first thing you have to do is to turn down work if you think that in the end you’re not going to be happy with the director. I mean one of the great problems in the English-speaking film business is your own artistic growth. A Bergman can do twelve, fourteen films before a Seventh Seal, and each of them some form of development, some form of change, some exploration. In the English-speaking cinema it’s hit and miss, catch as catch can, what comes up. Under those circumstances writers and directors and to some extent actors, I believe, have to shape their careers as purposefully as they can. And I think this involves somehow or other not doing pictures that you know are just going to be shot, trying to work with the best directors you can, and if you can’t, if through reasons of finance or contract you’ve got to take pictures – and this happens to all of us sooner or later – then I think you’ve got to find themes that you can exploit or explore to some extent in terms of your own progression. For example, I think in the English-speaking cinema, to survive, you’ve got to accept that certain genres work, certain modes are in, certain modes are out, and there are times when you can only set up films under certain conditions.

Now it seems to me if that is the case, what you’ve got to do is find a way through that genre, say with Point Blank, through a thriller, to investigate certain aspects of life that interest you. I mean I would not have chosen a thriller, frankly, but that was the way it came up. Obviously to some extent this maims you, you can only limp; you can run certain times and limp at others, but at least you make progress. It seems to me in the English-speaking world – and I make this distinction very sharply, because I think the view towards the cinema by producers and by money people in Europe is a bit different, it’s not vastly different but it’s a bit different – in the English-speaking cinema to survive either you sit in the hills like a Bresson and come down once every five years, or else you’ve got to get in the middle and put your talent on the line every day. And one hopes the talent will be there at 75 and not go out at 57, or be there at 57 and not go out at 27; but you’ve got to put your talent on the line every day. And you do put it on the line every day, because there’s an enormous amount of money to be made, there are lots of temptations, it’s very easy to relax. I think that with a writer or a director in the English-speaking cinema, then, you’ve somehow got to fashion your career as a series of progressions...


I don’t think there’s one solution, I think there are individual answers, and each one is a risk. I’m only interested in exploring my own development, and obviously I must go on and direct as soon as I can, and I’m trying to direct now. In one sense it’s easy to be a writer. You don’t have to deal with actors and actresses, you don’t have to fight with money men very often – not to that extent; you may have rows with the producer. It’s one thing to write it, another thing to shoot it, believe me, and there’s a huge difference between the two. So I think the challenge for a writer is either to go on and become a director, or to become a producer, which is less of a challenge but I can see it, or else to shut up. If writers see their work going down the drain, if they see scenes not realized, if they really are not too happy with directors, if they find in the end they settle for a good craftsman-like director, or if they find that a really inventive, individual director mangles their material, then they must direct. If they don’t, they’ve got to take their money and run, or else write their novels and write their plays or write whatever they want.

I’m interested in what you said about working in a cinema which is not oriented towards personal expression. You have concerns and obsessions that you want to explore, and yet everything in the film industry is working against that. Is this finally crippling?

Yes. Yes. I suppose I’m being very pessimistic now actually; normally I’m much more optimistic. I think that in the English-speaking cinema our development is maimed. We will never reach our full potential. And I think like everything in Anglo-Saxon life, you settle for the next best thing. You hope to fight till the day you die. You try and keep yourself as sharp as possible, you do this very consciously…

Let me ask about the kinds of things that you write in a script. You mentioned that you try to evoke a mood for a scene rather than writing details of camera angles.

Oh, I never write camera angles, ever, because that’s entirely the director’s prerogative anyway, and very often they’re impractical, because you write without seeing locations or anything else. Now that I’m in a position to choose, I try only to work closely with a director. The director’s nominated in advance, so I know with whom I’m working. Secondly, I now try more and more to work directly with a star. I think in English-speaking cinema you’ve got to work with stars, because that’s the reality of the business; and the thing to do is to find out the archetypal image of the star you’re working with and fashion something according to that.


Now that doesn’t just mean horses for courses, but it means working with the star, as in Lee Marvin’s case, to reveal not only the peaks that his audience is used to seeing, or her audience is used to seeing, but also the valleys that the audience has never seen before. If I can’t work directly with the star, I try to write a general sort of image figure of what we’re after, and then as soon as the star is nominated, I would come back on the picture even for free and write for a week to try and get the dialogue nearer the image of the star. But of course ideally, as on Point Blank, we worked closely with Lee, on the script, on the floor, on the cutting. He was a very important contributor. That’s the first thing. By the very nature of my interest in the cinema, I have a shrewd idea of what directors are about. That is, a certain director is suggested to me or else he’s going to work with me; I see his films or I’ve seen his films, I have an idea about his particular interests and obsessions. You find certain attitudes and areas in common, and then I think you must work within those areas. This is a sort of limitation, I suppose. But this is one of the realities we face within the business, and I want to work within the business. And then my personal desire is to go right into the center of a subject in the first scene.

Normally I do not like to have a long buildup. I think you’ve got to get the audience by the scruff of the neck and shove them into your mood and into your milieu and into your atmosphere and into your world straight away; if you don’t do that, I think you have lots of problems. I don’t think it’s a matter of pace or speed or action, because all these things are unimportant. In Point Blank, for example, again and again the dynamic comes because of the cut. We never show policemen, we never show explanations, we let the audience think about them afterwards. Like when Angie’s house is smashed up, well, obviously, the gang have been there, why bother with all the explanations? That’s all nonsense. I like to get the audience and well, you know, really push them onto the bed as it were, really get them going. I hate unnecessary explanations, I hate spare flesh on a script, I’m absolutely obsessed with cutting off every inch of spare flesh. This even goes for descriptive lines in the paragraphs, for instance if it was ‘John and Mary walk across the road’: I’d rather say, ‘They cross,’ and leave it at that; I’m as stupid about it as that. But I do feel that that gives it a ranginess and a sparseness. You know, the ribcage is well-stretched, it’s on the balls of its feet, it’s dancing. And I like to do that with the dialogue and I like to do that with the story, I like to do it with the characters. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going fast – I’m not mad about galloping horses – but what I like is that sense of tension, that sense of dynamism, which is often the juxtaposition between two sequences. You know, you jump a whole passage of time, and the audience pant up with you halfway through the scene, which I think is the way to go.


So you don’t feel dialogue is most important in writing a scene?

Oh no, no, no. I mean, one of the great problems in Hollywood is a ‘great script,’ it’s got ‘great lines,’ and I hate those sorts of scripts, because I think that at best most film dialogue is what I call signpost dialogue – ‘Go here,’ ‘come there,’ ‘grab this,’ ‘go after this,’ you know, or ‘how are you.’ I think much more is done with looks and with body movements. Obviously a certain amount of information has to be given over, and obviously one doesn’t do that in the dullest way; one does that in the freshest way one can, obviously dialect and colloquialism have to be taken into account. But I think dialogue should be kept to a minimum. In fact, I think in Point Blank the first script had under 100 lines of dialogue, and that included words like ‘Yes’ and ‘Okay’ as a line of dialogue. I think you say one or two words or one or two lines that are really pithy, and the rest goes by the boards. That’s why my scripts are very much directors’ scripts and often make the studios a bit uneasy when they read them, because they don’t have ‘great lines’ and they don’t have ‘great descriptions.’ What I like to do is to evoke a mood, I think that’s very important. I don’t think our words are sacrosanct. The stuff we write is very much the stimulus for a director to take off…

– Extracted from The Writer II: An Interview with Alexander Jacobs. Stephen Farber and Alexander Jacobs. Film Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 2 (Winter, 1968-1969), pp. 2-14 (University of California Press).

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