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Interview by Thomas McGuane with Judson Klinger
SOURCE: "In Pursuit of Crazy Language" in American Film, Vol. XIV, No. 6, April, 1989, pp. 42-44 and 63-64.
In the following interview, McGuane discusses his experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter and the details of his work on films, including The Missouri Breaks, Tom Horn, Rancho Deluxe, 92 In the Shade, and Cold Feet.
Thomas McGuane is accustomed to rough weather. He's lived and ranched for the better part of 20 years on the wide, open rangeland of southwest Montana, and nothing much surprises him. But what's going on outside his window today is, to lift a line from one of his books, "worse than real different," A fierce winter Chinook is blowing gusts up to 100 mph, forming impenetrable snowdrifts in a matter of minutes.
In his book-lined study is a desk occupied by a lap-top computer and the manuscript of his latest novel, Keep the Change. The window overlooks his ranch, and, if it weren't for the snow, we would be able to see 6,000 acres of soft hills, wide river valleys, snowcapped mountains and a huge sky that's seven clean shades of blue.
When McGuane's novels arrived in the early '70s, the country was wallowing in post-'60s disillusionment. Nihilism was the philosophy of the era, ennui was the mood, and James Taylor was the soundtrack to it all. Many novelists of the time chose to reflect that mood with cold stories about detached, alienated characters, written in a controlled, minimalist style. McGuane's writing, by comparison, stood out like a hot pink hearse in a funeral procession. In The Sporting Club, The Bushwhacked Piano and 92 in the Shade, his outrageous wit, hallucinatory prose and comic-romantic-violent vision drew critical comparisons to everyone from Faulkner and Hemingway to the Marx Brothers. The characters that filled his novels were half-crazy, unforgettable people who spoke the most skewed, arch dialogue you'd ever read. But none of his books sold terribly well, so by the mid '70s, like many a novelist before him, he hired out to Hollywood as a screenwriter.
McGuane's literary reputation had grown quietly, but with his immediate success in Hollywood, his "gonzo cowboy" lifestyle acquired real mystique. A tall, rugged outdoorsman with a black-Irish streak, McGuane ran wild for a few years: he carried on with famous actresses, crashed a Porsche at 140 mph, drank and fought with both fists. Still, somewhere along the way, he managed to write his best novel, Panama—as well as almost a dozen screenplays.
His intricate, offbeat comedy, Rancho Deluxe (1975), starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as laconic, chain-saw-toting rustlers in Montana, has become a cult favorite in, among other places, prisons. McGuane then directed an adaptation of his book 92 in the Shade, which he brought in on time and under its roughly $1 million budget. It featured a dazzling ensemble of Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Margot Kidder and William Hickey, and bears the distinction of being one of the few major studio films released with two radically different endings. "That's called not having the final cut," says McGuane. Barbra Streisand was impressed enough by 92 to ask McGuane to direct A Star is Born, but he wisely refused the opportunity.
McGuane's best-known screen work is the high-budget Western, Missouri Breaks (1976)—which might have been called Dueling Egos in the Sun—starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. The emotional turbulence he gathered on that movie, and on Tom Horn in 1980, drove McGuane out of show business and back to the literary life.
His chosen homestead of Livingston, Montana (he was raised in Michigan suburbia), attracted many other show-business friends like Peter Fonda, the late Sam Peckinpah and Warren Oates. Remote as it was, Livingston was still crowded enough that he and his wife, Laurie, recently moved out to a spread at the foot of the Absaroka Mountains, a 20-minute drive from the nearest town. There he raises cattle, trains championship-caliber cutting horses and writes books (Nobody's Angel, Something to be Desired and To Skin a Cat). And, in need of timely injections of Hollywood cash to maintain the ranch, he has lately been contemplating a return to writing and directing movies. The producers have never stopped calling.
A Tom McGuane screenplay is always news, and two of his projects are currently stirring up dust. The Mount Company is preparing his Civil War-era comedy, Flying Colors, and Cold Feet is about to be released by Avenue. Directed by Robert Dornhelm (Echo Park), and starring Keith Carradine, Tom Waits, Sally Kirkland and Rip Torn, the script was a collaboration between McGuane and novelist Jim Harrison, who have been close friends for 30 years, since their college days at Michigan State.
McGuane's choice to deal with Hollywood on his terms, from his picturesque outpost, is considered nothing short of heroic by the legions of unhappy screenwriters who have chosen instead to lock themselves in 8-by-12 rooms all over the Los Angeles basin and wrestle with compromise. "At the age of 49," he says, "I don't want to spend a lot of my time in situations about which I'm cynical.
"I think that the respect the industry's given writers has been so minimal that it's created a situation in which good writers are going to keep that writing which produces their self-esteem elsewhere."
Sitting in an armchair by his stone fireplace, McGuane is a soft-spoken, friendly, at times effusive host and a natural storyteller who slips effortlessly from the subject of contemporary Italian literature to an old Andy Kaufman comedy routine. With his wit and biting irony, he comes off as sort of a one-man Algonquin round table.
[Klinger:] You've lived up here in Montana for 20 years and managed to have a successful screen-writing career, in spite of the industry notion that it's hard to sustain a high-level career without living at least part-time in Los Angeles.
[McGuane:] You know, there used to be an American fantasy not so long ago that everybody would go off to Colorado, live in a log cabin and have a computer terminal. That's one of the fantasies that came after the Abraham Lincoln fantasy of cutting fence posts and becoming president. (laughs)
But nothing happens unless people are actually in a room. It's like AA tells people: it doesn't matter what your motivation is, it's important that you get your body to a meeting. It doesn't matter what you think. You know, fuck your brain. Your brain got you into trouble in the first place.
Unproduced screenplays usually have a very short shelf life. How did Cold Feet get made 12 years after you wrote it?
I have to credit Robert Dornhelm, who ferreted this script out of some musty closet, liked it and wanted to do it. Cassian Elwes was the original producer on this thing, and somehow or another it went to Avenue. So its long shelf life is sort of an accident.
Did you or Jim Harrison rewrite the shooting script?
I rewrote it. The original Buck was very unlike the character whom Bill Pullman played. He was an almost pure denizen of the '70s. (laughs) He was right out of the whiniest of the Eagles music. He was a bit of a doped-out photographer who was working in New York and hanging out with models. We couldn't wait to get him by his little pointed ears and lift him out of the script.
What was the inspiration for Tom Waits' character, Kenny, the health-conscious hit man in Cold Feet?
I went out to Los Angeles one time and met some people who were hit men. And, you know, we think about the sort of hideously awful human being who would be a hit man. Literary types like to talk about nihilism and things like that, but hit men are as devoid of what we call "the human" as it's possible to be. I mean, they literally see the taking of life as a job. But since their dossier is so completely strange, we assume they would stand out sharply from the culture around them if we could ever get to meet them. In point of fact, they're just like everybody else, and they even have these little fetishistic hobbies. I got interested in this workout boom, this health-conscious era that we live in, and I happen to know that these guys have the same kind of petty fetishes as the people at Self magazine. So the irony of someone who makes his living killing people, and whose real interest is in health, sort of appealed to me.
Reading the screenplay, I assumed that Rip Torn had the part of Monte, rather than Keith Carradine.
That's what I wanted. Rip Torn would have been a terrific Monte. But the feeling out there is that people Rip's age have sex less often than people Keith's age. And since movies, in this country, have become a basic tits-and-ass medium, at some point in the process of going from a script to a film, the question of what's sexy becomes the ruling issue.
I'm almost prepared to think that what the American movies want to be about is fucking and shooting, and that you're simply fighting city hall to write about anything else.
You can't really be that cynical, can you?
I'm overstating to be humorous, but my experience, over and over, has been that sexiness is imperative, and to ignore that is to court heartbreak. Why else would you cast Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab? (laughs)
I know of one major producer who won't consider any screenplay that doesn't contain at least one gunfight with Uzis.
We had a situation like that in The Missouri Breaks. Nicholson felt that he never got to "go through with anything"—that was his phrase—and that Brando had all the action stuff. Jack was kind of intimidated by Brando. So when Brando left the scene, Jack suddenly came on strong and wanted changes, right now. Arthur Penn called me and asked me if I was willing to make changes on Jack's behalf, and I said no. So they brought in Robert Towne to help the ending. [As a result] you have this extraordinary moment where the father is getting a haircut in the ranch house, and Nicholson comes in, and the father's got a gun under his barber apron, and so there's this thing where Jack gets to shoot the father. Towne wrote that scene.
In the shooting script of Rancho Deluxe, there's a scene in which Harry Dean Stanton's character is weeding a garden. But in the film, he's vacuuming giant rugs on the ranch lawn—the famous "Hoovering-the-Navajos" scene. How did that change come about?
There was a production problem—somebody got hurt or something. That scene, which I love, I wrote about 20 minutes before they shot it. I had to write it that morning, but I can't remember exactly why. That's what's nice about those situations—in that air of necessity, you really get some great ideas.
That scene has the kind of arch, lyrical, comedic language your early novels and screenplays are famous for.
I wish there was a greater call for it, frankly. You know, Paul Schrader, among other people, has criticized that side of my writing.
Right. He said that your movies have so many great lines that you start listening for the great lines, which breaks the narrative thread. He also thinks too many great lines make a movie unrealistic.
In general, I think what he says it true. But I think the age of the kind of writing that Paul Schrader's done—that modernist, flattened-out kind of writing—is passing. I like very charged language. I wish we could all write this incredibly vivid stuff, because art is not life. I like language that makes me crazy, that's like tidal movement—it sweeps you into some other district.
How long, on average, does it take you to complete a screenplay?
There's really no average. Some of them took forever to do, and some of them just wrote themselves. Rancho Deluxe wrote itself. It was just a matter of trotting into the backroom and fluttering the keys in a pleasurable way for about three weeks. There was no strain, no work, no struggle. Nothing but amusement.
Wouldn't it be nice if they were all that easy.
Yeah, right! (laughs) Others have made me want to hang myself.
Since you consider yourself primarily a novelist, is it worth it to put yourself through hell over a screenplay?
I think it's kind of a bad sign. Cocteau said, and I'm always quoting this: "A writer should never do anything hard." (laughs) When I look back on Rancho Deluxe, I look back on a time when my motivation was rather more simple than it is now, which was: I thought the world was sort of funny, and I wanted to prove it. And I wish I still felt that way as clearly as I did. I really long for those moments, which do occasionally come, when things seem to me to be extremely funny.
After serving as the location for both Rancho Deluxe and The Missouri Breaks, this little town, Livingston, Montana, was the focus of a lot of media attention as a late '70s "in" spot—a new artists-celebrity colony, with your ranch as the hub of the action.
I used to be quite a bit more sociable than I am now, and I didn't mind being the center of this kind of … commune.
Twelve years ago or more, I kind of out-grew that. It wasn't what I wanted to do anymore. It's interesting, you know, wildness kind of takes the place of work. I had worked pretty hard most my life, and I had a period, much shorter than commonly supposed, where I just kind of ran the streets. But that, sooner or later, will devour work. The work I like to do requires long-term concentration—every day, good hours. It doesn't quite fit that chaotic lifestyle.
So that lifestyle was exaggerated in the press?
Yes. I did have friends who were always welcome. But what happens is, the nation is so utterly gaga about celebrities that, though you and I may know that Jeff Bridges is a normal human being who's fun to have around, if it gets in the papers, suddenly the two of you are in this intense life drama, where celebrities encounter on the high plains of Montana. Then, in New York, they get quite worked up about it, because they're all foaming to get out of that septic hellhole where they live. (laughs)
How often do you go down to L.A. to pitch ideas or discuss projects offered to you by producers?
I haven't done either one for at least a decade. I certainly would, you know. I'm thinking now that I might want to do something again, and I'll do whatever it takes. I wouldn't direct a movie unless I was going to stay and be in their faces until the thing was done. You don't want to phone it in on any level.
I had a deal with Sydney Pollack that fell apart during the [writers] strike … we were just going to make a movie. We weren't going to dog-ear it by running around town and boring everybody with an outline. We were just going to get on the same wavelength, and then I was going to try to put my heart and soul in it because I had all this freedom. But that's the closest I ever came to a movie deal I'd really loved to have had.
Sydney has hired a number of good writers over the years and not gotten good screenplays from them. He asked me why I thought that was, and I said because people who get into his position, generally, are masters at controlling the agenda. When you control the agenda of an artist, you cancel his being an artist.
You once described Brando, Nicholson and Penn as being "Kissingeresque in moving other people around for their own plans."
Movies are always described as a "collaborative medium," but all the key players are famous for being uncooperative. The higher up the ladder they get, the more they specialize in controlling the agenda. By the time you got all those guys together, you were closing in on a very, very narrow unoccupied field of control. (laughs) At that point, it appeared to be absolutely Chinese, the minute gestures that would shift power around the situation.
When I was first working with Arthur, I strongly felt his attention to the matters of the screenplay. As soon as the first movie star arrived, I was startled by how my status in the project just evaporated. I remember one day Arthur and I were talking about something that was intensely interesting to me, and Jack Nicholson came in, and suddenly Arthur seemed to be incredibly interested in how blue Jack's eyes were. And Nicholson's standing there like this little balding fireplug, and we're really trying to think about how blue his eyes were! At that point, my interest in the project literally went out the window. I said to myself, "What am I going to do next, because I ain't gonna do this anymore."
You seemed to have lost your enthusiasm for filmmaking after The Missouri Breaks.
I'd have to say that I'm only now getting over The Missouri Breaks. I wrote it as something that I could direct, that would star my old buddies—Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton and those kind of guys. It was going to be an ensemble movie about a little gang of outlaws who outlived their time. Then, all of a sudden, this star casting came in, and it went from being prospectively a very interesting genre movie to this kind of monster.
I went to see a screening of it, and everyone was euphoric at the studio. I came out of the screening and tried to sell my [net profit] points to [producer] Elliot Kastner. I eventually traded two-and-a-half points of The Missouri Breaks for an $800 saddle horse before the movie came out. (laughs) That's how much I thought of it.
Forty years ago, Westerns were an American Myth exported to the rest of the world. A lot of foreigners still think Americans all wear cowboy hats and settle their disputes with gunfights at high noon.
I'll tell you—it's worse than that. The Western is the only mythology we've ever produced. I'm always surprised that the commonly exploited mythological-origin story of America is not the Civil War, which is the thing that sets America apart from all other nations. But for some reason or another, the myth of the cowboy, which [John] Milius sees as the final version of the Aryan Herdsman Myth, is the one that's been our central myth. And for some reason, it seems to have disappeared.
Nobody wants Westerns anymore. I'd love to write another Western. More than anything.
What are some of your favorite Westerns?
I love just about everything John Ford did. I love a lot of the early Sam Peckinpah movies:
Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch. I absolutely loved Hud and The Last Picture Show. To me, The Last Picture Show was so good, I remember exactly where I was sitting, what day it was and what the weather was when I saw it.
Didn't you get into a fistfight with Peckinpah that started out as an argument about Westerns?
That's a funny story. What happened was, we were at a table of really boring people, one of whom was a journalist, but we didn't know she was writing about us. And Sam leaned over to me and said, "What can we do to get out of here?" I said, "Why don't we pretend we're having an argument, stand up and say, 'Let's step outside,' and we'll step outside and leave." So I made some phony remark to him, and he exploded. Scared me to death—he was such a good actor. About two months later, an article comes out in a magazine about how Peckinpah and I had this fatal falling out and stepped outside for a fistfight in a parking lot. All we wanted to do was go home. (laughs)
You once called your script for Tom Horn "the Western to end all Westerns."
Gee, what an arrogant youngster I was! I wonder if I said that before the movie came out? Because I really did try to write this killer Western. It was this enormous thing, a 200-page screenplay. It was this huge, inclusive version that I wrote by myself before Bud Shrake became part of it.
How much research was involved in Tom Horn?
Enormous research! God. Endless research. By research, I mean a lot of fascinating reading about the period. [Horn] lived in a hugely interesting era. He was an abused child out of a Pennsylvania Dutch family. Spoke German as his first language. He jumped on a freight wagon and ran away from home. Ended up in Santa Fe, learning Indian languages, working as a translator. Went through all of the bloody and disillusioning things that happened in that era to the Indians among whom he lived, and ended up being deprived of the usual civilized morals of the day—ended up being a very dangerous character. I thought it was a great story, seen that way.
I wanted to do that project for years and years. Tom Horn was the perfect subject, and Steve McQueen was the perfect actor for it. I thought he was a terrific actor. He was not any fun at all to work with as a producer.
You had a terrible time with him, didn't you?
Yeah. His word wasn't any good. He woke up in a different world every morning—absolutely no continuity from day to day.
I went out [to L.A.] with a long script to meet with him, and he didn't want me to change a word of it. He made me promise I wouldn't change anything! By the time I'd been there two days, he didn't like anything in it. But this was a guy who just smoked dope 24 hours a day. The most wide-open pothead I've ever been around.
I didn't know what kind of ill health he was in at the time. But he had a nice side. It was like being around a thug: there was a terrific side to him, and then there was a side you absolutely couldn't trust. Apart from that, I thought the camera loved him.
When did he turn the script over to Bud Shrake?
The night my phone rang out there in California at about three o'clock in the morning. I picked it up, and I seemed to have a heavy breather on the other end. And this voice said, "You can take your macho bullshit and go back to Montana." (laughs) I knew Steve and I were not as happy as we'd once been together.
Who has the film rights to Nobody's Angel?
It was bought by Warner Bros. There was some kind of a development relationship between them and Robert Redford's company, and I worked with Redford fairly closely till we did a script and at least one revision—and really enjoyed it; he's very bright. Then it just went into that vast, intricate filing system which is the prospective films of Robert Redford.
Why do you think so many of his projects are condemned to development hell?
I think that he has the same problems that anyone faced with an infinity of choices has. What an infinity of choices produces in most cases is indecision. Indecision and procrastination are probably the two greatest sources of unhappiness known to man. I actually think that procrastination and boredom are the two great evils of modern man. (laughs)
Was Redford planning to play Patrick Fitzpatrick [the book's hero] and produce and direct?
Yes, as I understood it. He plays his cards very close to his chest, even in the most intimate work meetings. So you really never know what he's thinking of doing.
Again, it's a strategy meant to maintain the infinity of choices. The infinity of choices might make you unhappy, yet you spend all your working time to make sure the infinity is maintained. It's unbelievable.
In a recent interview, Redford mentioned that the two of you have become pretty good friends.
I wish we did see more of him. He has come up and visited us, and he's really a good fellow. As opposed to most actors I've known, I would have to say that Redford is pretty much of a grown-up. He could go on with his life in a very high-powered way without acting at all.
As one way of getting back into directing, have you considered taking a script through the Sundance Institute and having Redford produce it?
No, I never have. To be perfectly honest, I think writing novels is a more important thing for me to do. In terms of my usefulness on earth, it's a higher degree of usefulness for me to figure out how to write these unremunerative novels.
Asked why he writes screenplays instead of novels, Paul Schrader said, "Films are the medium of my time." He thinks a novelist has to wait too long for feedback from his audience.
I think he's right about that. He's talking about something that's very painful about the novel process. This latest novel has taken two-and-a-half years, and it won't be out for a year. But this business about "the medium of my time"—can you even say such a thing? He's a Michigan boy, as I am; maybe the medium of our time is car manufacturing! (laughs)
So there's little chance that you'll ever direct another movie.
Right now, I've actually been thinking a lot about trying to write and direct a movie. My biggest reservation is that I live in a very tiny town in Montana. I don't know if I know what's going on in the industry … And the either/or thing between movies and literature has been set up so firmly in this country that if I thought about directing now, I'd have to think seriously about not writing novels anymore.
Do you really get that much abuse from the literary community for directing a movie?
Yeah. You get really hammered over it…. You know, it used to hurt my feelings. Panama came out and everyone said it was just a prototype for a screenplay. Well, I knew when I wrote Panama that it could never be a movie. The ideal now in American Literature is to write a really grim, unadaptable feminist novel. (laughs) That keeps your credentials in tact.
As a writer, what qualities do you hope for in a director?
The thing I like in filmmakers is the same thing I like in novelists—I like the sense that they have some sort of personal vision that is independent of their second-guessing markets. When you're watching a marketeer masquerading as a director, it's an unsavory spectacle.
And who do you like?
I thought Hal Ashby was a marvelous director. I like Nick Roeg. I have an appreciation for big, strong-minded directors who sweep all the materials into their own uses. That's why Ford seems to be such a model. Bertolucci has such a tremendously strong view of things, and Altman, at his best, has that, too. I know he's sort of fallen on hard times, but I think his films are just terribly interesting. McCabe and Mrs. Miller seems to me to be a model of new cinema.
Altman would have been a terrific director for 92 In the Shade. I'd have liked Ashby to direct Rancho Deluxe, Peckinpah to have done Tom Horn.
Of the directors you worked with, who came the closest to capturing the spirit of your writing?
Nobody's come close enough to make it a discussible issue. (laughs)
Any other directors you'd like to mention?
Yes. I love Terry Malick. I thought Badlands was superb. I know everyone else thought Days of Heaven was boring; I couldn't see anything boring about it. I loved it. Malick's talent is so enormous, it's kind of like watching Raymond Carver work. He has to come back, or come back to the place he's welcome. Maybe he should be a writer.
But my all-time favorite American director is John Huston. I look down the list of the films he made and get a warm feeling.
I've heard that Malick's absence is partially due to the fact that he had a hard time handling the compromises and emotional abuse that come with the territory.
You know, I think it would really be healthy if writers would just get a little bit tougher—slightly more savage in our dealings with the other elements—and start fighting for stuff.
It seems as though you've done that more often than a lot of writers.
But to tell you the truth, I feel guilty about not doing more of it. I'm sorry I didn't go over to Red Lodge and break a fucking chair over Robert Towne's head when he was in there fucking up the end of The Missouri Breaks. I'm sorry that I didn't tell Jack Nicholson that when you make deals like [bringing in Towne], you deprive yourself of your own claims of being an artist—that you're just another filthy little hustler like the ones you complain about. I'm really sorry I didn't do it. But next time, I will do it. Next time, I'm gonna be absolutely right in people's faces, from A to Z. You have to care enough to do that.
This section contains 4,851 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)