Elston Gunn Interviews BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD Writer Kelly Masterson!!
Published at: Nov. 16, 2007, 8:22 a.m. CST by merrick
Hello. Elston Gunn here.
Amidst the dark and stormy days of the writers strike, the time is
more than appropriate to shine a spotlight on a working scribe.
Kelly Masterson is a playwright/screenwriter whose stage work includes
"Dare Not Speak Its Name," "Into The Light," "Against The Rising Sea"
and "Armageddon North Dakota." After studying theology in college in
California, he headed east to write and produce for the theatre before
penning a screenplay which would take seven years to get made.
Masterson's first original feature script would be brought to
cinematic life in the hands of veteran filmmaker Sidney Lumet
(SERPICO, NETWORK, DOG DAY AFTERNOON), who has crafted what may be his
best film since THE VERDICT twenty-five years ago (which was twenty
five years after his first film 12 ANGRY MEN).
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD is a dark crime melodrama - not
without its moments of black humor - starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman,
Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei. The film centers on two
brothers who try to fix some of the bad decisions in life by making
what turns out to be enormously worse decisions, namely, robbing their
parents' jewelry store. For the most part, that's all I'm really
willing to divulge about the story. It's complex behavior in a
straightforward plot told from different characters' points of view.
And one of the best nail-biters I've seen in a while.
THINKFilm has released BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD in select
cities across the country. To see the trailer and find out more
information about the film, visit THINKFilm's website.
Masterson took some time away from the picket line to answer questions
via email for AICN.
[Elston Gunn]: You've said John Burnam Schwartz's novel RESERVATION
ROAD inspired the DEVIL screenplay to a certain extent in terms of
structure. Did you have that structure worked out before you started
writing? Did any of it change during the editing of the film?
[Kelly Masterson]: I had the basic structure in place before I
started writing. I knew it started with an event and rewound to
examine each character's journey to that event. I did not know what
came next and let that unfold as I wrote. In my first draft, I
backtracked four times, including a storyline for Gina (Tomei).
Gina's storyline eventually got cut as much for length as for theme.
Mr. Lumet was faithful to the structure and did not change it at all
[EG]: What were you confident you could bring new to the heist genre?
[KM]: I did not know I was writing a heist film; I thought I was
writing a character piece. When I first sent it to my agent, I told
him it was a dark drama about people who tragically can not extricate
themselves from their own stupid behavior. It was not until later I
realized that it was a heist movie with noir overtones.
[EG]: Movies with their share of nihlism in it are
typically cold and distant, but this film displays a wide range of emotion
and melodrama, much of which I assume was in the script. Were you conscious of this?
'Nihlodrama' could be the wave of the future.
[KM]: I was not consciously writing a 'nihlodrama.' I wanted to
burrow inside each of these four people and tap into their darkest
impulses and then follow them as they tried to find the light despite
their own darkness. I think of the story as more existential than
[EG]: So, you get the call that Sidney Lumet is
directing your first screenplay. Do you immediately pour a celebratory drink,
or did you refuse to believe it was going to happen until day one of shooting?
[KM]: Talk about existential!! I wrote the script in 1999 and over
the years, while it bounced from one production company to another, we
got close to a 'go' a number of times. So, when I got the call I
greeted it with equal parts of joy and disbelief. I did not tell one
single soul (other than my partner), nor did I allow any celebrating
until the check cleared (after day one of shooting, by the way) – then
all hell broke loose. I am still celebrating.
[EG]: Did Lumet develop the screenplay with you? Were you
on the set? You're probably used to rewriting here and there during play
[KM]: Mr. Lumet did a rewrite that strengthened the relationships and
the story while being faithful to the structure, plot and characters.
I was not involved in developing the script with him. I was able to
visit the set a few times on location and at the Hellsgate studio and
was so thrilled to be there. Yes, I've done my fair share rewrites in
the theatre and even a few along the long and winding road of this
project but the producers (Brian Linse and Michael Cerenzie) had the
good sense to go back to my original screenplay before entrusting it
to Mr. Lumet.
[EG]: What was the best piece of advice Lumet gave you during the
[KM]: Mr. Lumet gave me no advice, but here's something I learned
from watching: 'raise the stakes.' He did not do this in the typical
Hollywood way of putting the lead in greater danger or doubling the
pot – he did it by digging deeper into the psyche and soul of the
[EG]: How do you think this film is a progression for him within his
body of work?
[KM]: I think DEVIL fits very nicely into the great canon of Lumet
films. The obvious place it holds is that of a New York based crime
drama. But I think where it both complements and expands his work is
in combining that aspect with a strong family story and, as he says,
[EG]: What have you learned from writing for the stage that
in turn helped you write for the screen? And what from this experience will
you bring to your next play?
[KM]: Writing for the stage taught to start with character and write
good, interesting dialogue. What I will take from this into my future
writing is a sense that dialogue and flash are not always as effective
as strong visual images and small, sharp choices. I am referring
specifically to the scene in the movie when Andy (Hoffman) snaps and
melts down in his apartment. I wrote that Andy trashes the apartment,
but Mr. Lumet and Mr. Hoffman had him slowly dismantle the apartment
to rid it of the pain it was causing him. That is a much more visual,
interesting and riveting choice.
[EG]: The scene with Hawke and Hoffman in the office
where Hoffman's character is saying 'Say it' and 'Oh yeah, you can. Yeah, you can' is
disturbing because Hoffman's character's power of persuasion seems
somewhat familiar. We know people like that whose charisma,
desperation and overwhelming condescending tone comes together to make
for a dangerously manipulative character. And a lot of times it's
artifice. Why was that something you wanted to explore?
[KM]: I was aware that I was writing a character who was very good at
getting what he needed from others. That he would use this talent for
'evil' rather than good interested me. I was also interested in Andy
betraying the trust and good will of others. I knew that impulse was
born in his desperation. I must also admit that Mr. Lumet had much to
do with that particular scene and the dynamic of manipulation.
[EG]: What did you learn about obsession in writing
[KM]: I consciously gave each of the four main characters an
obsessive behavior. It was my starting point for each of them and the
cause of their 'tragic' end. And my working title was OBSESSION (I am
so glad I came up with a better one later). What did not end up in
the final film was the failed attempt by two of the characters to
change their behavior only to get sucked back into it. Therein lies
what I 'learned' about obsession – we can not control it with mere
choice. We need help to break the obsessive behavior. While the
writer may have learned that, his poor characters did not.
[EG]: Aside from the obvious dark scenes in the film, having
Hoffman's character uttering 'nothing connects to anything else' and
'all of my parts don't add up to one' stuck with me. Pretty bleak
stuff for a theology major. Were you reading Joyce at the time?
[KM]: No. Joyce is way over my head. Thank you, though, for this
question because I so love that speech and how brilliantly Phillip
plays it. It is the most glaring playwright indulgence in the
screenplay – a character with an internal monologue who tries to
explain himself. I love that he can't explain himself because he
doesn't understand himself. Here we are back to the existential question
of poor, poor Andy feeling disconnected from his wife, his family and his life.
And I love that the only person Andy will reveal himself to (the hustler/dope dealer)
does not give a shit about any of this. Andy futilely seeks a connection with this
cold character because he can 'buy' that connection and not have to deal with the
inexplicable, incomprehensible demands and responsibilities of real human connection.
[EG]: The movie is made and out there, but at a time when you're
probably gearing up for the next project, the strike begins. What's
your take on the strike and how is it specifically affecting you and
your projects? What are/were you planning on doing next?
[KM]: Well, you just said a cotton-pickin' mouthful!! I am so
anxious to meet people and explore opportunities, and so depressed
that I can't because of the strike. But hey – I took the stroke of
good luck, I have to take the stroke of bad timing. I support the
strike. I am walking picket lines. I am also writing, writing,
writing at home so that, when the strike is over, I'll be ready for my