Saturday, 22 February 2014

interview: Dan Duling

When I transferred my review of Last Lives from the old site to this one in February 2014, I was struck by how little known the film is and wondered whether I could add an interview with one of the people behind it. I was therefore delighted when screenwriter Dan Duling kindly agreed to answer a few questions by email.

What was the original inspiration behind Last Lives and what were your expectations when you wrote the script?
"I was living in a cabin in the Oregon woods in 1984-'85, pre-internet, no less, and I was still working in Los Angeles 1,000 miles away, forced by family circumstance to live and try to work up north. I'd written spec scripts in a number of different genres, but the intelligence and success of The Terminator, which came out in '84, encouraged me to try my hand at sci-fi. I can't recall if I had representation at the time, but it really didn't matter. I was determined to write something I'd actually enjoy seeing. From those very early years of video game development, I latched onto the then-intriguing idea of multiple lives to be squandered on a quest, but I was mostly inspired by the twisted notion of Malakai's dreams being so vivid that they lead an advanced parallel world to discover the existence of our parallel universe. Conversely, for our heroine, what if the man of her dreams turns out to be a nightmare?

"My original vision of Malakai was as a man born with no frontal skull, exposing his brain in such a way that it both unleashes his mental acuity and telepathic sensitivity, but also dooms him to seizures and the need for protective headgear (initially described as a razor-wire crown of thorns). His 'Christ-like' curse even included his two clumsy henchmen (the two thieves) who happily do his bidding, anything being preferable to their incarceration. Then there was the intriguing pitch: 'How do you behave if you no longer fear death?' My answer: by setting up circumstances where you and your adversary will both be killed, with only you holding the 'life band' to bring yourself back. And, of course, the resonance that we're all on our 'last lives' added to Malakai's dilemma.

"The other key for me was the 'bodybag reunion', something I hadn't seen as yet in a film (though I have numerous times since). In my original script, when Adrienne and Aaron are reunited after escaping their body bags at the end, there's a protracted and intentionally absurd scene in which they have both been rendered at least temporarily insane by all that they've been through (more on that in a minute). Finally, like Terminator, once Last Lives was set in motion, I wanted it to be relentlessly moving forward. To facilitate that, I outlined it in great detail and wrote it in 17 days. Only a handful of folks read it during the next ten years, because I was busy with other scripts and I just wasn't cultivating representation that had any feel for low-budget horror-sci-fi.

"The final twist in 1996: an actress friend of mine who was a fan of my plays, asked if I had any low-budget screenplays. I gave her Last Lives, and a week or so later, she gave it to one of her clients for whom she did astrology readings! He, in turn, put it on a pile of scripts he was pitching to Promark, and Last Lives was the first one they said 'yes' to. That director, whose name I have forgotten, stayed along for the six-month development ride, then took another job just as they were going into pre-production (hence, I've forgotten his name). At that point, two things happened that I could have never anticipated. Instead of the mountains and forests and waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest, Promark had cut a deal with a new studio near Yancyville, North Carolina, which is to say, not near anywhere! And instead of the aforementioned mountains, waterfalls etc., we had rolling hills of tobacco fields, and an old plantation mansion filling in for a mountain lodge."

How did Promark come to pick up the project and attach Worth Keeter?
"As noted, Promark was in the business of making low-budget features that generally sold directly to cable and were in profit from foreign sales even before cameras rolled, mostly budgeted around $2-3 million. They responded to the action quotient and do-ability of Last Lives and offered me a step-buyout of the script in which I'd get a percentage to start development, an in-progress payment and the bulk of the payment at the start of production. Which was the best way to keep me from pulling the plug along the way. Worth Keeter was a last-minute replacement. I met him exactly once before he hopped a plane for North Carolina. To my dismay, his first order of business was to rewrite the script in ways that I still find it hard to laugh about.

"The script I had handed Promark was edgy, reasonably smart and often funny. During six painful months of meetings and 11 rewrites (including being given notes from the wife of the German distribution director?!), it was rendered more and more toothless, and things that I thought were nicely ambiguous were spelled out in no uncertain but far less interesting terms. Worth, suddenly finding himself in North Carolina, spitballed the electified fence to replace a death at the bottom of a lake, and the explosives in the shed to replace a ghastly dual tumble over a waterfall onto rocks. I only wish I could have been there to participate in those preposterous alternatives, but since he was already on location and just trying to figure out how to shoot around an impending hurricane and some cast members on the verge of mutiny, it's easier to forgive his choices.

"But, his opening scene - not mine - is so cringe-worthy in its dialogue, not helped by a very unhappy Judge Reinhold wishing he was somewhere else, that I just have to look away even now. And his flashbacks of Adrienne as a fellow revolutionary in Malakai's world years before was never in my script because the whole point was she's not of his world. That was the conceit: you dream about a woman you've never met and she seems so real... so real you ultimately help find a way to get to her in a parallel universe! Now, if that's not romantic, what the hell is?!"

What are the main differences between your script and what actually got made?
"I've just given you the main examples: the wedding chapel massacre. Ironically, around draft 6, they said I couldn't just kill everyone, it was too randomly violent. So we gassed everyone and only killed the Best Man and Aaron. But, when Worth got to North Carolina, he just crossed that out and shot a bunch of people. The wonderful Billy Wirth wasn't my image of Malakai (mostly because I pictured him as a physical grotesque from the neck up) but he more than made up for being too handsome by being moody and intense and, most importantly, ushering a very despondent Jennifer Rubin through a shoot she was simply trying to survive (due to circumstances that had nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with her tenuous relationship to reality and reliance on self-medicating).

"But the biggest change is the complete absence of, for me, the ultimate payoff of the script, a scene of crazy madcap wackiness when our two recently reunited newlyweds, fresh from their bodybags, absorb the full impact of what they've just been through. Worth looked at Jennifer, realising by that point in the shoot that asking her to say lines and show emotions at the same time would just be too much, simply faded to black. I had written a movie designed to drive two 'normal' people out of their minds, with intentional comic subtext in virtually every scene. What was ultimately shot only salvaged hints of that. But then, they did destroy a couple of limos and set off a few nice explosions. So, I couldn't stay mad.

"But, the real reason I couldn't stay mad was because I had two goals from the beginning: to get it made! and to preserve my cameo as the Bodybag Officer through 11 rewrites! So, there I was, earning SAG residuals, standing in artificial rain and mud at 4.30 in the morning, having to say my lines again because up in the window above us, dear Jennifer had blown her line when the post-it she'd stuck to the window sill with her line scribbled on it, fell down into the shot! And, I guess the other thing that will always be a sublime 'what if' was that Promark's first choice for the role played by Judge Reinhold was Malcolm McDowell, and the thought of having the boyhood hero (Clockwork Orange, If..., Oh, Lucky Man!... Last Lives!) would have been sublime indeed. Oh, well, it got made!"

Can you tell me about some of your stage plays; I'm a big fan of anything Frankenstein so particularly intrigued by your take on that idea.
"Forty years of writing edgy, dark comedies (with a few exceptions), taking what I'd learned as an actor and my ideas as a director and not being satisfied to consider a play completed until it contained a risk I'd either never asked of myself or, more likely, never seen in the same context onstage before. Consequently, these are still very fresh, and what I call 'third week of rehearsal plays'. After getting them on their feet and digging around in the murky dark business in the foreground, there's a subtle shift where the inappropriate laughter hinted at (with varying degrees of subtlety) throughout the play begins to emerge and the absurd comedy of human foolishness comes forward to dare the audience to laugh where they wouldn't ordinarily expect to. And that's what I live for.

"The classicism of A Dream of Frankenstein turning Mary Shelley's maternal nightmare into a feminist fantasia written by a 19-year-old woman who grew up knowing she was responsible for her mother's death in childbirth, and who would herself become pregnant five times before age 25 and see only one of those children live beyond the age of three. A novel about a creature made of dead body parts isn't half as disturbing as that nightmare. And not a tenth as funny as my play's depiction of weak, pathetic men underestimating the power of a young, intelligent woman.

"I'll let Monstrosity's hybrid origins speak for themselves, but it has terrific parts for three actors and in readings here in LA, Chicago and Oregon, it works so effortlessly in its mixing of expectations and genres. I truly believe it'll find a home one of these days since I'm too poor to produce it myself.

"And I'll mention just one more script for now: Tesla: A Radio Play for the Stage is just that: a 'fake' radio play with a small ensemble, a 'star' playing Nikola Tesla, and live sound effects and even audience participation to tell a tragic tale of a true savant with no patience or acument for American business. This played to stunning success and ovations at the Pasadena Playhouse this past spring and my director is seeking a next home for it as well. It's based on two years of research I did for a screenplay about Tesla that couldn't get any traction in Hollywood. My hope is it may still have another opportunity if this play adaptation (another hybrid) gets its chance.

"And one last note: For more than half my life I have also been the scriptwriter for the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, CA (google Pageant of the Masters to get a hint of what it's like.) It's a theatrical celebration of art presented as tableaux vivants onstage in an outdoor amphitheater every summer (a different theme and selection of artworks every summer), performed live with live orchestral accompaniment and live narration. It takes a footnote in theatre history and does it with such polish that over 140,000 people come to see it every summer, and it supports a non-profit that actually makes a million dollars profit every summer on Pageant ticket sales alone. It truly has to be seen to be appreciated, but even my most cynical Hollywood friends, once they've seen the Pageant, rave about its sophistication and entertainment value.

"The highlight for me will always be Steve Martin, a connoisseur of art and theatre, asking to meet me after to praise me for what we accomplish. That meant the world. And on any given night, more people see the Pageant than many audiences for a full run of many of my plays. But, I am stubborn and, for better or worse, a man who studied and loves film (and hates the business of it) but who hung his hat in the theatre many years ago, and loved nothing better when in London than the feeling that if someone asked him what he does, he could say, 'I'm a playwright,' and not have to apologise for not having a real job. That's something it's not so easy to do in Hollywood."


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