By Christopher McKittrick.
Richard LaGravenese is an award-winning New York born writer and director with a career that spans four decades to date, and whose screenwriting credits include The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, Behind the Candelabra and most recently, Unbroken.
For many, however, he remains perhaps best known for writing the much-loved film The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam, and starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. Creative Screenwriting caught up with Richard to discuss this classic film.
In the documentary on The Fisher King Criterion disc, you say that the script for The Fisher King was a reaction to the 1980s and the cynicism of the time. Can you elaborate on these influences?
The Eighties were for me personally a really ugly decade. 1980 was the year I graduated, and after graduation you’re normally overwhelmed by life anyway but that following fall Reagan was elected in November and John Lennon was killed in December. We all looked at each other and went, “Fuck, what is this decade going to be like?” [Laughs]
Things were surreal and changing in ways that were terrible, and then the AIDS crisis happened. Being a teenager of the Seventies, where you were sort of carrying the burden of all the failed revolutions that happened in the Sixties, the Seventies kind of became this neurotic “me time” and then the Eighties felt as if everybody went, “Okay, fuck it, let’s just make a lot of money and do blow.” It was a yuppie generation and all very narcissistic.
I thought the humor and the culture became very mean and cynical as a reflection of it. I had this theory that when Saturday Night Live happened I don’t know if people realized the historical and cultural effect it had on all of us because post-Vietnam and the Nixon resignation we all felt this tremendous shame, especially as a teenager when you’re battling with that stuff anyway and trying to find your identity. Then Saturday Night Live came out and made fun of it, and it was all this sort of national relaxation where we all thought, “Wow, we can make fun of this.” It was wonderful. But then making fun of it sort of snowballed into the Eighties where it felt like everything was being made fun of and cynicism was so pronounced that you couldn’t really have dreams or beliefs in a way while people were fighting for their lives with this virus that was happening.
It felt like a very ugly decade, so I wanted to do something about narcissism and sacrifice, which I felt as a word and a concept was growing fainter and fainter in our culture as we were getting closer and closer to a world that kept telling us “You can have it all,” which I think is a tremendous and destructive lie. A lot of generations really don’t understand the value and extraordinary experience of sacrifice and how much you gain through sacrifice. People hear the word “sacrifice” and they immediately think not getting something or losing something they want. That’s not really what sacrifice is. I was always moved by stories where a character sacrifices for another, right back to A Tale of Two Cities.
The idea of a story about narcissism and cynicism really work in context of Jack being a radio “shock jock.”
That didn’t even come until the last draft. I had done two previous drafts where he wasn’t. I didn’t find the story for a while – it took over a year and a half while also putting it down for several months at a time and not reading it at all because I didn’t know what I was doing since it was the first script I wrote by myself. In the first draft Jack was a cynical cab driver who was very smart and sort of trapped in his own head, but that was kind of pretentious. The second draft was too sitcom-y because he was an heir to a fortune. Then it was really because I was listening to Howard Stern and I suddenly hit on that idea, which pulled everything together.
You also mention in the documentary having to completely rewrite the initial draft of The Fisher King when you first learned about Rain Man and realized the concepts were too similar. How did you approach the rewrite of the script once your original conception of the story could no longer be used?
I threw it out. I started over. I kept the same two characters, and I completely threw it out. I came up with that very silly sitcom-y idea, but in that sitcom-y idea I came up with the character Lydia and I came up with the idea that in order to get his fortune Jack’s character has to find Lydia a husband. It was a really hackneyed idea, but that reversed itself when he became a shock jock and that he actually felt responsible for Parry’s predicament and he decides to help him get the woman he loves, but I kept the same character.
At what point did the Fisher King elements enter the script?
I would say after the second draft, somewhere in there. A few good friend of mine turned me onto the books by Robert A. Johnson, whose books He, She, and We use Jungian psychology and myth. The book He takes the Fisher King myth and parallels it to male psychology and development. It tells a little bit of the Fisher King story and analyzes it in terms of male psychology, then goes back to the story, then goes back to the psychological analysis. I remembered very vividly this paragraph about how when men are young – for Jung it was when he was about twelve – we all have this divine experience where we touch the power within us, what he called the connection to this great unconscious power of who we are and what we’re capable of, but because we’re young we don’t understand it. It burns us and frightens us, so we don’t pursue it. Then we sort of have this wound, called the Fisher King wound, and men spend the rest of our lives trying to fulfill that again, but we usually do it with seeking power or money or cars or women. The point was it is the archetype of the Fool that we need to reconnect with because it’s the Fool that makes everything possible. It’s the Fool that takes risks and dreams and is really the key that helps us to achieve everything that we want. The naive Fool has faith, and what he believes in, what he wants he can make happen. We also lose that as we get old. We get bitter and sick with experience.
When I got that idea of narcissism versus self-sacrifice it helped a lot. Jack says “I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home.” In the end they switch places when he becomes the Fool and Parry becomes the Wounded King.
Parry is obviously a wonderful character, but when he enters the film it shifts the tone somewhat from a gritty street-level story to an urban fairytale. How did you ensure that the maintained a balance between these tones?
Jack is the everyman that to the audience is the “reality” while Parry has this liberation of insanity in him where I could have him do, say, or philosophize anything I wanted. But he had to be grounded, so I guess it was the quest that grounded him. He had a purpose and he wasn’t just bouncing off the walls as a crazy, kooky character, he had a wound in him that I could always go back to. He had clarity of purpose, which was to fight the Red Knight and also his love for this woman, so that kept that character grounded in a certain way. Robin Williams was very, very respectful of the script. He did not improvise off the script very much at all except for a moment or two here and there. He called the script the bible, so he was wonderful with that. That kept his character contained as well. Also, Jeff Bridges is just fantastic, and a solid, supportive actor. He was the spine that kept the whole thing together.
Speaking of the support of the actors, you also had a lot of support from the producers and Terry Gilliam when working on the film. I’m assuming as a screenwriter you haven’t always had that luxury.
Well, that was really my first time so I was really spoiled. I thought that was the way it was. Since then it’s been different! [Laughs] I had a really blessed first experience by having all those people. I was really lucky. We sold the script in 1988 and we didn’t make it until 1990, so there were two years there with studios and notes and things like that but when Terry came on I remember the first time I met him was at the Ritz Carlton in New York and we sat on the floor of his hotel room and he made me put back all my original tone and writing because the first studio was Disney. They wanted Jack to be toned down and not as mean. They wanted him more David Letterman and less Howard Stern. Terry put it all back and put a lot of the edgier stuff back in the script because he didn’t want to make what he called the “Frank Capra version.”
If you look at your career post-Fisher King, most of the scripts you’ve written that have been produced are adaptations. How is screenwriting process different when you’re writing an adaptation?
With adaptations they’re more like jobs, though I would only pick something that I felt I had a reason and a connection to writing it. Like A Little Princess was after my daughter was just born. There were reasons and I would also have to analyze what was in there that I could do that would make sense to me – even Bridges of Madison County, which I originally didn’t want to do. I’m very reverential of writers in my first steps and what they created, and my first drafts – which are just for me – are just getting the book onto the pages of a screenplay, going through the book as an outline and picking out what I need. Then my second draft is inventing off it if it needs to be invented off of or changed. Certain books, like Beloved, are so beautiful that I didn’t invent anything and are pure adaptations. For originals, which I miss doing and I regret not doing more of after The Fisher King but that was just where my own head was at, I usually just have an idea of a character or a theme that I want to do and I have scene ideas, and then I just start writing and sees where it takes me.
In The Fisher King, Parry says there are three things in the world you need: “Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.” Can you make a similar list of three things a good screenplay needs?
1) Strong, complex characters
3) A strong point of view
There has been word of you collaborating with Terry Gilliam on another project. Can you say anything about that?
Actually we have been working on it since The Fisher King. We were flying back to Los Angeles for editing or a screening or something in 1991 and I remember Terry saying to me, “Well, I’ve done what I do in your world, now let’s see if you can do what you do in my world.” He had this idea for a story called The Defective Detective. We started writing it on spec back then, and I can’t tell you how many drafts have piled up since. Now we’re trying to adapt it as a mini-series for television. It’s a much, much, much more Gilliam-esque world than The Fisher King.
What’s interesting about that is The Fisher King is really the first time Gilliam took a big step out of his world.
It was the first time he did someone else’s script, but he said when he read it he felt as if he had written it. So it was in his voice, in a way.