I reluctantly got an agent for film. She was disappointed in me as I didn’t like the scripts I was being sent and decided to work with my own material. I had written a ‘sort of’ autobiographical script about my childhood and football and Warner Brothers optioned it. My agent decided that they weren’t moving on it fast enough and advised me to get a movie done as soon as possible. I don’t remember the logic.
I read a bunch of scripts and was taken with one for two reasons, it was plotless and character driven, and Richard Dreyfuss was attached. I had been offered a film a while back and the script wasn’t very good. I was surprised when Dreyfuss did it and more surprised when I saw that his presence made it into a good film, something I hadn’t seen in the original script. Dreyfuss elevated the material to a great extent. He was also on a roll after recovering from personal problems.
I met with the producer and he lit up when I told him that the script’s uniqueness was akin to the Milos Forman film, THE FIREMAN’S BALL, a plotless/character/event-driven film. The script followed two different characters down separate paths. The characters had equal time and I wondered, since Richard was attached, who the other character should be.
The Dreyfuss character was an intelligent, inveterate gambler who life status had fallen because of his addiction. The other character was a lowlife. Some, who had read the script, had criticized it because they couldn’t put the two together, but I ignored those criticisms because we’ve all had curious friendships that couldn’t be explained rationally. The three actors that came to mind at the time were John Candy, Morgan Freeman, and Joe Pesci.
The John Candy idea came from the relationships in Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN. The studio said that Candy wanted too much money.
The Morgan Freeman idea was a good one but the script would have to be rewritten for his new character. A deal could not be made until that could happen and that was impossible.
I loved Joe Pesci and our meeting with him was hysterically funny-a good thing. I think Dreyfuss was intimidated, especially with the stories about Pesci and DeNiro in RAGING BULL. Dreyfuss didn’t think Pesci was funny at all. Go figure. I fought for Pesci for a while but the studio finally said to give it up.
The key to the film was the opening scene, a ‘confession’ by the Dreyfuss character about his gambling addiction and the problems it has caused. Exposition is always awkward but sometimes necessary. The exposition in his ‘confession’ explains and justifies many of his character’s actions in the rest of the film that would otherwise make him somewhat unpleasant or even despicable.
The scene ran several pages and Richard and I wanted it to feel real and improvisational. I decided to use three cameras to be sure that I had any nuance covered. Dede Allen, the editor, said that it wouldn’t work. The producer agreed, but I insisted. I’m not sure that it wasn’t a decision based on the extra expense of the extra operators and assistants. I didn’t like the fact that I had to have this confrontation on the first day of filming, but…
Three cameras, some improvisation, I finished the two days scheduled in one. I spent the second day filming aspects of the others in the session, reactions and closeups with Richard’s double.
Dede was troubled with the footage. I don’t really know why, but she came to me a few days later with a triumphant look on her face. I looked at the cut and was thrilled. It was rough but it was there and was everything I had hoped for. It was a powerful a performance and a perfect start to the film.
It never survived.
Somehow, during previews, the studio thought it was inappropriate and I had to film alternative stuff to replace it. The alternative stuff was what was inappropriate. The ‘replacement scene’ took place in a Chinese restaurant and had Richard’s character having a squabble with his wife that sent the wrong message about him, his character, and their relationship. I was dutiful about filming it and regret not fighting more for the original.
When I tried to find out why the scene was removed, the story I got was that the new head of the studio was part of a twelve step program and didn’t think the scene was appropriate for a comedy.
During testing, they found out that the original cut scored better than the new version and I was elated, but the studio and their various minions, decided to go with the revised version despite that information. I have never understood that decision.
I saved the scene from editing cassettes. I showed it to a friend that had edited with Bertolucci and she burst into tears that the scene hadn’t been used. Some vindication.
I liken the Hollywood Studio, with its committees, executives, various minions, to a snake pit. I was never able to find out who was responsible for the various decisions and how they were made. When we got the information that the original edit had a better score than the one with all the revisions, I cheered aloud and the various executives looked at me with contempt. I could never get an appropriate answer why they decided to go with a lesser version, but…
I admire directors who get their vision across in studio work, like Martin Scorsese. He avoided Hollywood for some time and worked exclusively in New York and he did RAGING BULL with the now defunct United Artists, a studio that supported a director’s ‘vision.’ That support eventually led to the studio’s downfall, but that’s another story…