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Elston Gunn Interviews BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD Writer Kelly Masterson!!

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 during editing.
[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 nihilistic.
[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 rehearsals. [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 whole process? [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 characters.
[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, good melodrama.
[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 these characters? [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 close-up!

Elston Gunn

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