Though David Franzoni's first produced screenplay was for a modern-day thriller, since then his career has taken a big step back -- but in a good way, as he's become known for writing major (and highly successful) historical epics. For one of of those, Gladiator, he received an Academy Awards as one of the film's producers. He also got an Oscar-nomination for co-writing its screenplay.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Screenwriter David Franzoni most recent film credits include the scripts for King Arthur, Gladiator and Amistad." In addition, he wrote Citizen Cohn for HBO. Among Franzoni's other credits are Jumpin' Jack Flash.
[Subsequent to this interview, David Franzoni wrote the screenplay for a film currently in production, known as ‘Untitled Yang Guifei Project,’ a romantic drama in 8th century China. The story is focused on the relationship between Emperor Xuanzong and imperial concubine Yang Guifei.]
> Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
DF: La Strada.
Until I saw La Strada I had seen film as merely a pop art form. Admittedly I hadn't been exposed to any serious film. Although I do recall a local Vermont TV station running the Apu Trilogy and that unnerved me...
But La Strada is a masterpiece. Hemingway's vision of life and of writing are that we should as artists and humans work close to the horns as possible: Get too close, you get gored (you write embarrassing crap), you get too far and the work is cautious and weak. In La Strada, Fellini and Pinelli worked close to the horns all the way, as did Masina, Quinn and Basehart. The simplicity overlying enormous complexity, the clean novelistic metaphors, the tragic irreconcilability of Masina and Quinn's natures and the time Fellini took, the patience of the work in allowing characters room to breathe (as Spielberg allowed me in Amistad, by the way) were revelations to me. And that final scene when Quinn gets drunk and as the brute, the fallen man, fights his way out of the restaurant, knocking over garbage cans and getting dumped in the gutter – then making his way to the sea, the end of everything... he's killed the brilliant and free Basehart, driven the pure soul Masina mad... and now he's come to the end of everything knowing that Masina too is dead... and that he can never make it right with her, never make it right with himself... and in that moment of crushing alienation he has the greatest revelation of his life: that he has loved.
>> When you write, how do you generally work?
DF: I am absolutely dedicated to sharing my time with my family. I go to bed, generally, right after my son. Then get up around midnight and I work through to about 5am when my son gets up and we play like hell before he goes to school. If I listen to anything while I write it's usually punk.
>> What sort of characters and stories interest you?
DF: Generally people who can step up, step away from the bleating mass and create something important with their lives. The stories of these people should be – essentially – a psychoanalytic break down of their personality into a narrative.
>> How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
DF: I keep writing. Usually. Especially when we're talking about the first draft. My productivity will be reduced, that is, good stuff versus pages consumed, but I know I'll get at least 10% and that's better than doing nothing. I'm more cautious on the rewrite, or even on the polish of the first draft. I have never had 'writer's block', because there is no such thing. You either have something to say or you don't. Once I'm through a good first draft then, of course, that's not an issue; the polish is about how to say it best.
>>> Were there any responsibilities you felt you had to deal with in writing Amistad -- not just as an historical film, but largely unknown history?
DF: The most important issue for me was that this is a movie about Black Americans. And I don't mean that in the way you might think. I am absolutely not a politically correct person. For me there were two issue that needed resolving or it wasn't worth doing the picture at all.
First, this could not be a 'white-guy-saves-black-guy' movie. That's a big issue when it comes to a film about Blacks who – on the face of it – owe their lives to a pair of white lawyers. My take, and the take that was followed, was that Cinque, the Black leader, saves John Quincy Adams just as Adams saves him. The Africans from the Amistad save America as much as America saves them.
For example, Adams' core motivation was to keep his father's work – the creation of America – alive and slavery was an abhorrence to that work. But this put him essentially in an impossible bind: the House of Representative had created the 'gag rule' which was an instantaneous tabling of any issues concerning slavery. In other words, he was gagged over his opposition to slavery. Yet the most powerful platform extra-government – the abolitionists – was out of the question because abolitionists were considered so fringe that his association with them, as former President, might help shove the country toward civil war. Of course, Cinque needed to be freed... and to do that Cinque brought Adams to the Supreme Court.
In other words Adams freed Cinque but equally, Cinque freed Adams by getting him to the Supreme Court where he could finally rage against slavery within government and so carry on the work of his father. Thus I have created a parallel of Cinque telling Adams about how his ancestors will help him in the trial and Adams calling down the ancestors of the American Revolution including his beloved father to help him. The fact that the incident was little known was an asset.
>> What is your best experience as a writer?
DF: They've all been memorable... but the best? Amistad.
For me what constitutes a great experience in this business is working with people who are as moved about the project as I am. And, for me to write a script it's got to be about something, if you will.
Amistad was my best experience because right from the start there was a sense that we were doing something that could change the world. Or at the very least make serious ripples. And right from the start Steven gave me carte blanche to write it balls-out. Debbie Allen was a powerful inspiration. Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parks were magnificent throughout. So, even outside the material, I had to live up to the very high expectations of others. Plus I was pedal-to-the-metal because if Steven was going to do it, it had to somehow slot in between Lost World and Private Ryan. It got to the point during the rewrite that Steven was almost literally reading over my shoulder as I was writing. It was exhilarating. Now it's opening and we'll see, but that Debbie had a hand in getting it to open at the Magic Johnson theatre is absolutely reward enough for me.
>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
DF: Stanley Mann and Bill Kirby. Many things for which words would be but empty thanks. I also make it a habit of always learning. You can never take it for granted that you know what you're doing all the time.
I have learned from reading/watching Robert Bolt, Oliver Stone, Ron Bass, Steve Zaillian, Tonino Guerra, Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Kurosawa, the list goes on.
>> Why do you write?
DF: Believe it or not, to change the world. And to be free. As writers, society pays us to be free. I have been putting together a collection of laser discs to pass on to my son – books are easy, but how do you pass on a film? In Vermont I grew up on John Wayne. Then I saw Fellini and my life changed. For him it's the same except I can't guarantee there will be a Fellini unless I keep those films for him. Sound silly? Do you realize how many great films are out of print? Let's hope DVD can save the great films from extinction.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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