Terry Southern: Writing to His Own Beat


By Mike Golden.

Even if you have not heard of the name Terry Southern, then you will have heard of his films. His writing credits include Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, and perhaps most famous of all, the cult classic Easy Rider. He was also an influential novelist, essayist and screenwriting lecturer.

Although Terry passed away in 1995, Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to speak with him on several occasions before his death, and the following article contains some of the highlights of those conversations.

Pete Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy in Easy Rider

Peter Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy in Easy Rider

How did growing up in Texas shape you as a writer?

Well, Texas is probably a good place for a boy to grow up, in a Huck Finn sort of way, like one big outdoor playground, with a lot of hunting and fishing, Dad-and-Lad stuff going on. But, as Liz Taylor said, “It’s hell on horses and women.” Because it’s a cultural desert.

Once, when I was seven or eight and sick in bed, my mother decided to read to me. The book she chose, for some odd reason, since her own leaning was more towards Louis Bromfield, was a volume of the great E. A. Poe—The Gold Bug, if memory serves. Well, for a young Texas lout, E. A. Poe was heady brew. And it was a perfect turn on to “Quality-lit,” of a weirdo bent. I was hooked on Poe. And Poe, of course, is the gateway to the greatest.

If marijuana leads to cocaine, Poe most certainly leads to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Joyce, Celine, Lautreamont, Huysmans, Nathaniel West, Faulkner, Sartre, et cetera, et cetera, ad glorium.

Paddy Chayefsky. Image by Walter Albertin

Paddy Chayefsky. Image by Walter Albertin

Paddy Chayefsky once said that “Terry Southern writes the best dialogue in America.”

He wrote that in a letter to Peter Beard. He was the best around, so coming from him that means quite a bit.

You seem to have been able to go back and forth between films and prose easier than most writers.

I think it was just the monetary thing. I got hooked on the bread.

Do you find that there is a difference between writing prose and writing screenplays?

Well, there’s quite a difference in the deadline aspect of it. I’ve always sort of visualized things when I wrote prose, so that part of screenplays comes easy to me. In fact easier than prose, because what I really like to write is dialogue.

Mason Hoffenberg

Mason Hoffenberg

You’ve spent a lot of time over the years collaborating in different mediums with different people, from Mason Hoffenberg to Stanley Kubrick, just to name two. Most writers find that difficult, but it seems to have fit in your flow.

In a way it’s easy. Wth Mason it was very good because it was like two guys telling each other jokes. I’d write something and lay it on him, then he’d do the same. Back and forth.

What was the real story of writing Easy Rider, and Dennis Hopper’s writing credit? There are so many versions of how and who created it going around, maybe you can set it straight.

[Laughs] You know if Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines and six of them survive the cutting room floor he’ll put in for screenplay credit. Now it would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the film—but, by George, he manages to do it every time.

The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter Fonda came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded Peter to let him direct the next one and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler, they would make something interesting and worthwhile—which I would write. So they came to my place on 36th Street in New York, with an idea for a story—a sort of hippie/dope caper. Peter was to be the actor/producer, Dennis the actor/director, and a certain yours truly, the writer. I was able to put them up there—in a room, incidentally, later immortalized by the sojourn of Dr. W. S. Benway [Burroughs].

So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a non-stop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score, and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and that was slated to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus, so she would talk about this. Finally, I started taping her and then had her rap about it transcribed—how they were everywhere. Jack Nicholson’s thing was based on that.

Jack Nicholson as George Hanson in Easy Rider

Jack Nicholson as George Hanson in Easy Rider

During these conferences the hippie/dope caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit.

Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension—when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred and intolerance for anything remotely different from himself—somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper [imitates Hopper in Apocalypse Now]: “You mean kill ’em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!?” I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system and sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that their death was more or less mandatory.

Are you saying there was no improvisation in the film?

No, no; I’m saying that the improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene—a scene which already existed.

Then how did Dennis and Peter get included in the screenplay credits?

After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted. And even then they said there was supposed to be a ‘compulsory arbitration’ because too often producers and directors will muscle themselves into a screenplay credit through some under-the-table deal with the writer.

The WGA said I would be crazy to allow it and wanted to be assured I wasn’t being coerced or bribed in any way. Because they hate the idea of these ‘hyphenates’—you know, writerproducer, director-producer. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie. They said they could use it, and it would help them out, so I just went along. [Hopper’s] always been extremely insecure, and I gave him credit because I wanted to pull him out. In Interview he pretty much claimed credit for the whole script. I called him, and I called the woman who interviewed him. He said he didn’t remember saying it. Then I heard he said it somewhere else.

Peter Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy in Easy Rider

Peter Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy in Easy Rider

Writers appear to be considered the lowest of the breed in the film business.

Yes. Except we still have persuasion. Which can be considerable sometimes.

Tell us about working with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove.

Working with Stanley was terrific. It was ideal, although the circumstances may seem peculiar—in the back seat of a big car. The film was being shot at Shepperton, outside London, in the winter. So he would pick me up at 4:30 in the morning and we would make this hour-long trip to the studio. It was a big Bentley or a Rolls, so the passenger part was something like a railway compartment, with fold-out writing desks and good lighting. It would be pitch black outside and really cold, and we would be in this cozy-rosey compartment, in a creative groove, working on the scene to be shot that day.

Writing it? Or rewriting it?

Well, let’s say trying to improve it. Kubrick would say, “Now what’s the most outrageous thing this guy [a character in the scene] would say at this point?” The thing about Kubrick is he’s not only extraordinarily creative, but he will encourage the other person to go all out, and not try to keep a “reasonable lid” on it. Stanley’s like a kind of chess-playing poet. One side of his brain is very scientific, the other very poetic.

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick

Over the years I heard talk of a “missing scene” or a sequence that was deleted from Strangelove. What’s the story on that?

Well that would be the fabulous so-called pie fight episode. You may recall the scene near the end of the film, in the War Room, after the bomb has been dropped, and Strangelove suddenly stands up from his wheelchair, and says, “Mein Fuhrer, I can valk!” And he takes a step? Recall that?

I do indeed.

Well, in the missing sequence, after taking one step he falls flat on his face and starts trying to get back in his wheelchair, but each time it scoots out of his grasp. Meanwhile, parallel to this action in another part of the War Room, the Russian Ambassador is caught again trying to take pictures of the “Big Board.” George C. Scott nails him and again they’re fighting in the War Room.

So Scott exposes about eighteen micro-mini spy cameras on the Ambassador—in his wrist watch, cuff links, tie pin, on his ring finger, everywhere. But Scott says, “I think these are dummy cameras. I think he’s got the real McCoy concealed on his person.” And he turns to the detail of MP’s who have come in. “I want you to search him very carefully, boys,” he says, “and don’t overlook any of the six bodily orifices.” And the Russian Ambassador goes through this quick calculation, “vun… two…” and then when he reaches the last one, he freaks. “Vhy you Capitalist swine,” he says, and he reaches out of the frame, gets something and throws it at George C. Scott. I should mention we previously established a huge catering table that was wheeled in, laden with food, so they don’t have to leave the War Room during this crisis.

So the Ambassador reaches out of the frame, grabs something from the table and throws it at Scott. We don’t see what it is immediately, but Scott ducks, and this big custard pie hits the President in the face. The mere indignity of this is so monstrous that the President faints dead away. Scott grabs him and keeps him from falling, and he’s holding him in his arms like a martyred hero. “Gentlemen,” he says to the others, “Our President has been struck down in the prime of his life…by a custard pie. I say Massive Retaliation!” And he throws something at the Ambassador. And it misses and hits one of the other Joint Chiefs. So this immense pie-fight begins—between Army, Navy, Air Force—a bit of inter-service rivalry, if you grasp the innuendo.

Missing scene from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Missing scene from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Now while this pie-fight is going on, Strangelove is still trying to get back into this wheelchair, moving like a snake across the floor of the War Room, the chair continuing to scoot out of his grasp each time he reaches for it. Finally, he gets to the end of the War Room, and the chair is against the wall and it looks like he’s got it this time. But it scoots away again. So Strangelove pulls himself up so that he’s sitting with his back against the wall. And he’s watching the pie-fight in the distance.

Then his hand—his uncontrollable right hand—reaches inside his coat and comes out with a Luger pistol and points it at his head. He grabs his wrist with his other hand and grapples for the pistol, which goes off with a tremendous roar. Then cut to the long shot of all these generals in a freeze frame. And Strangelove says, “Enough of these childish games. We have work to do.”

So they all stand there staring at him in complete silence, until Scott recognizes this is the guy to get tight with, so he walks all the way across the War Room floor, and says, “Doctor, may I help you?” And helps him into his wheelchair. He starts pushing him back across the floor, which by now is so deep in custard pies it resembles a beach—and sure enough we quickly pass the President and the Russian ambassador sitting there cross-legged like two children, doing sand castles, making mountains. And Strangelove says, “Ah, too bad. Apparently their minds have snapped under the strain. Perhaps they’ll have to be institutionalized.”

And so Scott continues pushing him across to this group of officers and CIA types, who are so covered they look like ghosts. And he says, “Well, boys, I think the future of this great nation of ours is in the hands of people like Doc Strangelove, and I think we owe him a vote of thanks. Let’s hear it for the good Doctor.” And in a really eerie (whispering) voice, they go, “Hip-hip hooray, hip-hip hooray.” And then he continues pushing him across the floor as they start singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow.” And this counter-camera pulls up so you’ve got this long shot of the ultimate allegiance between this mad scientist and this general from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And then they cut to the explosion and the song “We’ll Meet Again,” comes in—and the credits rise.

Missing scene from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Missing scene from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

And that was what was cut?

Not without good reason. The problem was that Stanley, great genius director that he is, forgot to say, “Listen, what we’re representing here is interservice rivalry.” Which is one of the most evil things—each time there’s an appropriation to one group the other says, “Listen, we’ve got to have that too.” And there’s no stopping the Pentagon on this level. It’s vicious. And he forgot to tell them it’s vicious.

So what’s happening in this pie fight is that people are laughing, and they shouldn’t be laughing. It’s supposed to be deadly serious. And it was such a funny situation, that people outside the periphery, including Stanley and myself, were tossing pies into the melee, you see. And so it lost its edge. It was like a comedy scene, when everything else in the film had been played straight, except once when the Coca-Cola machine spurted in Keenan Wynn’s face. So that’s why he decided not to keep it in.



Mike is one of Creative Screenwriting's freelance journalists.

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