Scott McLanahan Sends In A Must-Read Interview With Legendary Novelist/Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer!
Published at: June 9, 2009, 12:59 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Hello. Elston Gunn here. And now for something a little different here at AICN. Author Scott McClanahan approached me last week armed with an interview he conducted with the incomparable novelist/screenwriter Rudolph "Rudy" Wurlitzer. We thought it would be interesting to present a new author having questioned a well-established and renowned writer like Wurlitzer. McClanahan's book, STORIES, was published this spring by Six Gallery Press. And away they go...
SCOTT McCLANAHAN INTERVIEWS RUDOLPH WURLITZER
Sam Peckinpah, Phillip Glass, Alex Cox, Bob Dylan, Monte Hellman, Robert Frank, Michelangelo Antonioni, Sam Shepard, Caroll Ballard, and Bernardo Bertolucci. This is just a partial list of directors and artists who have worked and collaborated alongside the legendary American writer Rudolph Wurlitzer (http://www.rudywurlitzer.com).
Starting in the late 1960’s with his novel NOG, and continuing with his screenplays for TWO LANE BLACKTOP and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, Wurlitzer has created some of the most unique and indelible works in modern film and literature. His screenplay credits include WALKER (directed by Alex Cox), CANDY MOUNTAIN (a film he co-directed with Robert Frank), VOYAGER (directed by Volker Schlondorff), WIND (directed by Carroll Ballard), and LITTLE BUDDHA (directed by Bernardo Bertolucci).
Recently, Wurlitzer teamed up with the always interesting indie publishers Two Dollar Radio (http://www.twodollarradio.com) to publish THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER, his latest novel in over two decades. THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER is a book set in the heart of the mythic American West, and is described by the Times Literary Supplement of London as, “Mesmerizing. A Western as Celine might have written one.”
In August, Two Dollar Radio will re-issue the Wurlitzer classic NOG (a work that made Thomas Pynchon finally say, “The Novel of Bullshit is Dead.”), and in October, both QUAKE and FLATS.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Wurlitzer a few questions about his legendary career, and his most recent novel, THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER.
[Scott McClanahan]: Screenwriters always talk about the concept of beats and tone. Usually these are tools that tend to make something more commercial. However, the tone of your screenplays are typically used to produce an unexpected emotional reaction from the audience. For instance, the whole car crash, grandma section from TWO LANE BLACKTOP, which creates this strange anxiety in the viewer. Do you think it’s important to undermine the audience’s typical expectations and maybe even leave them uncomfortable?
[Rudolph Wurlitzer]: I don't know what screenwriters talk about, having met very few of the breed. In any case, I prefer not to be trapped into self conscious refrains about concepts of "beat and tone." Of course, it's always, one hopes, any artist's intention to write something original, something that hasn't been seen or experienced before, the theory being that if one surprises oneself, then possibly the audience might be surprised as well, one way or the other, even if it produces jeers and walk-aways. I never try to "undermine" or know about anyone's expectations and don't really care if folks are uncomfortable or even over the top with applause. The wonderful free-wheeling enthusiasms I experienced working with such originals as Monte Hellman, Hal Ashby, Robert Frank and Sam Peckinpah came from their encouragement to read something they had never read or experienced before. Of course, those days are long gone, slammed into oblivion by glassy-eyed marketing dudes, ignorant venal producers, self consciously academic film school imprints, insane pitches delivered inside corporate rooms crowded with cynical sales people obsessed with being secured by what they've already seen or read, and thus proved to be commercial, and so on ... and on ... perhaps that's one of the reasons why I no longer feel it necessary to be represented by an L.A. agent for what essentially is a broken engine. At least, as it appears to me.
[SM]: A number of critics mention your work being linked to the European tradition of Bresson and Antonioni. This is probably because of the slower pace of your work. What does a slower pace create in a film? Why do you think the typical American audience rebels against this?
[RW]: I love Bresson and Antonioni - two maestros who followed the dictates and dynamics of a visual medium for its own sake. Their work is never slow for me. In fact, once inside the zone of their intuitive imaginations, I'm usually relieved of a sense of manipulated, linear time. A script I wrote years ago with Antonioni, TWO TELEGRAMS, the last one before his massive stroke which took him out of the game, has recently been optioned. So, I've been thinking about him lately - his ferocious uncompromising purity, the way his language was always sublimated to image, but was at the same time, always supportive, always resonant, and on the point, and how fearless he was in defending his vision. Of course, American audiences are increasingly manipulated by the lowest common denomination of banal escapist mono-culture, so independent artists, such as Bresson and Antonioni, could no longer exist in today's paradigm and no doubt probably most corporate film honchos have barely heard of them, or if they did, they're easily dismissed as being "not relevant."
[SM]: You’re often looked at as a maverick in your portrayal of the frontier. For example, the frontier becomes a frontier of the mind rather than an actual physical place. But do you see yourself falling in a tradition of films about the American frontier? For example, WALKER could probably be viewed as the flipside to John Ford’s view of national expansion.
[RW]: Everything for me is a "frontier of the mind." Which is not to say that I don't love Ford's THE SEARCHERS, and many of his films. But I try not to be saddled with a conceptual idea of "national expansion" involving any traditional historical period. Our myths of origins are inevitably invented, along with everything else in what passes for reality.
[SM]: Hal Ashby was an editor, Dylan a musician, Sam Shepard a playwright, you’re a novelist, Robert Frank is primarily known as a photographer. In an age when people making movies typically get their references from comic books, TV shows and other movies, what is it about people coming from different mediums that make films more interesting? Do we need more of it in cinema as well as writing - fewer film schools and MFA programs?
[RW]: I've worked with all of the above and found them almost always inspiring, unique and necessarily dangerous. It was a great privilege to work with such artists, who had the courage to follow their own paths, no matter what, mining their own personal languages and influences. They almost never avoided their dark sides even when threatened to be crushed by rejection from the powers that be. Film at best is a collaborative medium, which is it's great strength, a dynamic that is often degraded by commercial hierarchies and egoic power manipulations. As for film schools and MFA programs, they've ruined more creativity than can be possibly be imagined. I was lucky never to have been exposed to such lethal life crushing imprints.
[SM]: In PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID there are two long moments in which no one speaks (among many). One in which Garrett fires at a bottle floating in a river and another in which Garret opens the gate of his home in a very unusual way before walking through it. What is it about clipped dialogue or no dialogue at all that resonates in your screenplays? And also, why does Garrett open the gate this way? It’s one of the most beautiful moments in the film.
[RW]: The scene with Garrett firing at the bottle in the river represented a central image for me, one that allowed me to enter into the script and thus into mythology of the frontier, an illumined moment when man (Garrett) relates to his own impermanence and wonder inside the vast envelope of nature etc.. The scene by the river was one that the studio, MGM, hated and insisted be dropped, but Sam went to war with them, and, in his final cut after the studio's imprint, he put the scene back in. As for Garrett opening the gate, that move was Sam's inspiration.
[SM]: Did you come up with the Chill Wills line, “Garret, you just made me have a bowel movement. I’ll never forgive you for this”? I guess what I’m asking is, how much improvising goes on with your screenplays? And also does it bother you that people don’t talk about how funny your writing often is? Even the name Hatchet Jack in the new novel is funny.
[RW]: I think that was Chill's line, encouraged by Sam, who had often worked with him; Chill was a prominent member of his outlaw posse, so to speak. Almost all of the script was filmed as written, but Sam was always open for improvised moments, which I appreciated. The few scripts that I remain closest to were hardly ever compromised or tinkered with, although there were plenty down the line that were mechanically massacred. In any case, out of survival, I try not to know or listen to what people might talk about or say about what I've written, although, of course, such news from the rialto inevitably leaks in over the transom. Humor is part of my necessary language, a layered fabric in what's left of my world or mind, the juice that keeps me going, and if people don't respond, so be it.
[SM]: In WALKER you mash-up two different periods of time for a great effect. Why do you think we’re so buttoned down in the use of realism in films? Why are we so obsessed with getting “period” right?
[RW]: This culture has always been afraid and defensive about "surreal moments," film being a linear medium usually bound by a beginning, middle and end. Such innovative directors as Bunuel or Godard, to name a few, are hardly ever acknowledged or even known these days by our generally passive culture.
[SM]: How has the writing of screenplays influenced your fiction? I understand THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER started out as an idea for a screenplay, and even influenced Jim Jarmusch’s film DEAD MAN (“heavily” influenced from what I can see). For example, the chapters in the book are paced quite wonderfully. For all of our talk about your slow pacing, the novel zips along.
[RW]: The less said about Jarmusch's pillage of my original script ZEBULON the better, a script that several directors, including Peckinpah and Ashby expressed interested in directing but who unfortunately died before the project could be realized. After all is said and 'done' about Jim Jarmusch, I ended up feeing strangely grateful to him for being ripped off because it made me circle back into my essential story and obsession with that time period, and I was able to rescue added layers and complex adventures that otherwise I wouldn't have come up with. In the end, if one is lucky, which one hardly ever is, one becomes grateful for primal wounds, which are sadly often personal betrayals, but these wounds often propel one into the unknown beyond conventional boundaries as well as uncovering new ways of surviving and observing life's inevitable tribulations.
In the old days, I would slide off the grid enough to write a book and then pay for the privilege by writing a script, back and forth, for a while a great innocent rhythm, but then as the script scene became more corporate with the whole process becoming insanely labored and damaging as well as endlessly and uselessly taking too long, I drifted away, just to survive. As for my fiction, I've never thought of it as being "slow or fast paced." The content and desperation to find out what one is thinking, determines the interior rhythms.
[SM]: Throughout THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER you reference sufism, an epigraph from the Lankavatara Sutra, Large Marge’s poetic view of the world being “one damn dream after another,” Zebulon being awake when he sleeps, and sleeping when he is awake. Would you talk about the “eastern” influences on your novel?
[RW]: I've spent a lot of time over the years studying and hanging out in India and Nepal with various luminaries, so inevitably such "eastern" experiences have influenced me, removing and even hopefully saving me from the usual toxic conventions of arranged and linear traditional time frames. One way or the other, from time to time, I was able to experience the world with it's illusions of reality as profoundly cyclical and circular. I've written something of that world in a non-fiction book, HARD TRAVEL TO SACRED PLACES, as well as in a later novel SLOW FADE, which is about the desperations of show business as well as demented travel into unknown realms.
[SM]: What was it about telling this story in the third person that appealed to you? Was it a decision based upon Zebulon’s “blank” experience of this world you created for him? And also, does the novel welcome experimentation with breaking up a linear narrative more than a film?
[RW]: Novels always offer more freedom than the conventional grid imposed on scripts. I usually spend a lot of time - sometimes years - listening for the right narrative voice: first or third person, or both. I certainly never thought of Zebulon's experience of the world as being "blank." Rather, the opposite.
[SM]: The literary critic Harold Bloom talks about an “anxiety of influence” in the work of many writers. Would you talk about the influence of Samuel Beckett on your own work?
[RW]: Beckett has always been a major figure for me, so much so that I had to stop reading him for a number of years in order to survive. In the end, in order to go on, one has to discover one's own language and voice, but recently I've been reading Beckett again, and remain stunned and blown away by his precisely evolved language and his extraordinary courage to address what can't be addressed. When I was first in Paris a long time ago, I used to wander every evening over to a Montparnasse cafe and wait for Beckett to show up at his usual table. I was always too shy and nervous to speak or introduce myself to him, but I never tired of seeing him wait at his table, slowly having a drink until Giacometti sat down opposite him, and I would sit watching them as they silently drank for an hour or so, not saying a word to each other, until they stood up and shook hands and walked off towards their separate destinations.
[SM]: Would you tell us a story about Sam Peckinpah you wouldn’t repeat in front of your mother?
[RW]: The last time I saw Sam, I was driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe when I passed a long line of trucks announcing the presence of a film crew. I recognized a few members of the crew and pulled over. I found Sam in the back of his trailer stretched out naked having a vitamin B shot from a pretty half naked assistant who was also involved in a rather exploratory massage. Sam looked up at me, reached for a pistol on a side table, and growled: "Where the hell have you been?" Then with a perverse smile, he passed out. There are other stories, but out of deference to your own mother, those are best left unsaid.
[SM]: What do you think about Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN or his BORDER TRILOGY?
[RW]: BLOOD MERIDIAN is a great book. I haven't read all the way through BORDER TRILOGY.
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID
TWO LANE BLACKTOP