Friday, 25 August 2017

Kelly Masterson: On ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’

Kelly Masterson started as a playwright in the 1980s with limited success. He wrote the original screenplay for ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’ in 1999. A powerful and bleak crime drama that meticulously reconstructs how an apparently perfect crime goes spectacularly wrong. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an insolvent real estate agent. His younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is falling behind on his alimony payments. To relieve their financial troubles they decide to rob their parents’ suburban jewellery store with tragic consequences. Their father’s (Albert Finney) relentless pursuit of the culprits brings everything spiralling towards a terrible climax. The script was optioned by a succession of producers until, after several false starts, the project was given the go-ahead with veteran director Sidney Lumet on board. A superb crime melodrama it was Lumet’s final and greatest achievement. The following is an extract from an interview in which Kelly Masterson speaks about his experience of writing the script: 

What was the inspiration for ‘Before the Devil Knows You're Dead’?

KELLY MASTERSON: I had read a novel I admired called Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwarz. I really liked the structure. It involved a terrible incident followed by an examination of the incident from the point of view of the various participants. I thought it would make an interesting structure for a movie.

I invented my terrible incident: the robbery and shooting of the mother. Then I took each character and followed them to and from the incident.

I also knew it was a tragedy and purposely gave each of the main characters a tragic ‘flaw’ – obsessive behavior they cannot break. For example, the father becomes obsessed with the notion of revenge and cannot stop himself even when he discovers it is his own son who must wreak revenge upon. Devil was the result of my structure and character choices.

Were you involved in any re-writing before or during the production?

KELLY MASTERSON: Fortunately, and unfortunately, no. The good news is I didn’t have to rewrite the script based on someone else’s vision or ideas. I wrote the script and tweaked it here and there over the years. Sidney did a rewrite to get his final shooting script but I was not involved nor consulted. I wish he would have come to me and asked me to make the changes he wanted. The end result, though, is terrific and I am very proud of the movie.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (Directed by Sidney Lumet)
What surprised you most about the transition from script to screen?

KELLY MASTERSON: Lots of things surprised me and most of them pleasantly. I was surprised by the casting of Brian F. O’Byrne as Bobby, the punk accomplice. I had written the part as a 22 year old, stupid kid. I had see Brian on stage in Doubt and thought him remarkably gifted but not right for Bobby. His performance, however, is spectacular and casting a 35 year old made him more pathetic and frightening. It was a stroke of genius on Sidney’s part.

I was surprised by the remarkable restraint and outer calm Philip brought to Andy’s breakdown late in the film. I wrote a cliché scene in which Andy trashes his apartment. Sidney and Philip came up with an eerie, fascinating, slow meltdown that is so much better. Most of all, I was most surprised by the deep, rich, tense and painful relationship between Hank and Andy – Sidney’s rewrite and the performances of Philip and Ethan took this to a level that surprised and enthralled me.

What did you learn in the process of writing ‘Before the Devil Knows You're Dead’ that you’ll take with you to other projects?

KELLY MASTERSON: Raise the stakes. I don’t mean, put the hero in more jeopardy or add a ticking clock. I mean dig deeper – make it more personal and more emotionally significant. Get right into the guts of the characters. While I often try to pull my characters in two or more directions, I think Sidney’s contribution took my material into richer psychological territory. This gave the wonderful actors great stuff to work with in which the emotional stakes were very high. When I am working on projects now, I ask myself the question: how do I get further into this character and really rock him?

What advice would you give to screenwriters who are still struggling to get their work seen and (hopefully) produced?

KELLY MASTERSON: Don’t give up. I wrote for 20 years before Devil got made. And find your voice. I tried for many years to imitate others or to write in ‘commercial’ genres and did not have any success. I wrote Devil from some original place within myself and never dreamed it would get made, let alone succeed. Keep at it.

 - Interview with ‘Kelly Masterson on “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead”’. From Fast, Cheap Movie Thrills.

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