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Talking Pictures
From Godzilla to The Godfather, David Franzoni
and Frank Manchel take on the art and business of film

photo by Al Seib

Professor Emeritus Frank Manchel’s love of film began in the movie houses of New York City in the 1940s, where his working parents found a reliable babysitter and Manchel got his first glimpse of the art form that would become his passion. David Franzoni ’71 grew up in Rutland, Vermont, where his first foray into filmmaking was his high school project about a “Russian sniper,” abandoned for lack of the cash to buy more 16mm film. The two met at the University of Vermont in the 1960s/70s, where Franzoni's interest in film drew him to Manchel's classes and a strong mentorship/friendship began to grow, one that would continue long past graduation. On a life transforming post-college motorcycle trip around the world, David Franzoni’s love of film crystallized into the desire to become a screenwriter, a dream that has been realized far beyond hope. Citizen Cohn, Amistad, Gladiator, King Arthur, and the upcoming Hannibal — Franzoni has become one of Hollywood’s most successful and serious screenwriters. With King Arthur on the way to video and Hannibal headed to a theater near you, Franzoni, the Hollywood screenwriter, and Manchel, the film scholar, sat down for a conversation about new movies and old times.



photo by Sabin Gratz '98

MANCHEL
David, one of the things I’ve always believed in is that when somebody writes about history, they’re really using history to talk about the present. Do you agree with that?

FRANZONI
One of the things I said when I sat down with Steven Spielberg to first talk about Gladiator was we can’t really make this about ancient Rome. Try to imagine this isn’t ancient Rome as much as it is Los Angeles a thousand years from now. Mike Ovitz is a model for Proximo. Ted Turner is a model for Commodus. And this is Dodger Stadium and the CAA agents all represent the gladiators. And Ridley (Scott, Gladiator director) got into thinking of it like that, too. And everyone has always remarked and always seen the movie as fresh and modern rather than like some stagy old ancient piece.

One of the best things that happened when we had the premiere is that the World Wrestling Federation had a huge camera set up there to interview us. They got it completely. I was really happy they were there. I said, “Yeah, this is about you guys. This is about the way we are consumed by the media. We are consumed by our entertainment.”

MANCHEL
After reviewing your films now for two weeks, I’ve noticed that you are much more of a traditionalist than I thought when I first started thinking about this interview. In Amistad and Gladiator and King Arthur, you have this father-son relationship and these strong family relationships. Unlike a lot of films I see, you don’t criticize, you put something up from the past as a way of presenting a model for the present. Did you do that intentionally or am I misreading it?

FRANZONI
No, you’re not wrong, Gladiator is a perfect example. I’ve always told everyone that Gladiator is about family. One example is the family of Marcus Aurelius, which is the most dysfunctional family of the time and the extension of that family is what Rome has become. Whereas the family of Maximus is probably the most perfect family you could imagine. It’s not a hyperbole, I don’t think his family is unreal.

MANCHEL
You seem to hammer that theme over and over again, and you do it in such a beautiful way that I’m surprised that no one talks about it.

FRANZONI
One of the reasons I do that is because I believe, as Americans in particular, that there is this core value we have — corrupted, of course — that is fashioned around the family and about love and trust in the family and that those are the pillars of this country. Besides that, I also think that allows people to get into the movie. It is not about the Prince of Persia or Ben Hur, it’s about us.

MANCHEL
I think you’re one of the great screenwriters of our generation because you take it seriously. To you, it’s not a trivial exercise. I mean the pain and the effort is so clear in the writing. But when I watched King Arthur, I felt as if the film had nothing to do with the script. I spent a good deal of my life, as you know, studying the Middle Ages, studying King Arthur, and I’ve seen almost every movie ever made about the period. None was as fresh as King Arthur in terms of the originality, in terms of the script, and then when you watch the movie, it looks like they were making a comedy —

FRANZONI
Well, they had comedy writers come in and work on it.

MANCHEL
You’re kidding.

FRANZONI
No, no, no, they had five writers come in while I was there as executive producer. When we wrote the original script, it was basically supposed to be Platoon. The idea was this is the fall of Saigon, Arthur and his knights are this one last group of special forces. They can’t get in the helicopter leaving from the top of the embassy. They have to go north for one last mission. Merlin is Ho Chi Minh and the Sarnations are the Viet Cong. That was the metaphor for this thing and the original script was unbelievably cut. They came in and put in all of that crappy Top Gun dialogue and messed up the structure. The problem is that these people don’t understand what they’re doing. So when they move stuff around sort of intuitively, they wreck the structure. Then you start out with a broken script. Then when we got to Ireland, the director began rewriting the script and we had actors writing their own dialogue. That’s why every time Clive (Owen, who plays King Arthur) opens his mouth it sounds like he's making a speech. He wrote a lot of that because he wants to sound like he’s in an Elizabethan movie.

MANCHEL
I don’t understand why they hire you then, if that’s what happens to the script. With your talent and stature in the field, why do you persist in the Hollywood film as opposed to the independent film?

FRANZONI
I personally believe that most independent films today are nothing more than cheap Hollywood films. I don’t find them particularly good. I mean, there are some. But I haven’t seen a La Dolce Vita. I haven’t seen a Conformist. I haven’t seen anything out there that really just knocks me out of my shoes. If I have to go the independent route, I will. But what I want to do — and I think the most subversive thing you can do — is to do what I want to do within the system, not without it. I’m trying to set up something to direct based on a script I have that, I think, in their (the Hollywood studios) minds is quirky, and commercial, and cheap enough that they’ll do it. I think you have to do it in the system. I think the studio system has corrupted the independent market almost totally.

MANCHEL
I find the critics are just as corrupt as the —

There are no critics, this is not the days of Pauline Kael. We’re just talking about people who are going to tell you whether to go to “Magic Mountain” and which rides to go on. They’re not trying to criticize films. They don’t know how to criticize films. One of the new girls working for the L.A. Times, apparently is a big critic over there, has never even heard of the French New Wave. I was working in Paris and people would come on the set to talk to us about what we were doing, everybody knew about film. They were steeped in it. Here, they are like ex-weathermen. There’s no film criticism.

MANCHEL
You couldn’t be an intellectual in the sixties and seventies without film as the center of everything. That is all gone today. This is the year that the three most successful films are The Passion of the Christ, Fahrenheit 911, and Shrek II. That’s where we’ve come to, it seems to me, and I don’t see anyone objecting to it.

FRANZONI
They’re not objecting, of course, because the money is rolling in. Look, the only reason that we had sort of — I wouldn’t call it a golden moment — but Easy Rider came out and nobody could figure out what the hell it was and why it made money, so they kind of let people play with cameras for a while and we got some stuff.

MANCHEL
And it was also an intellectual exercise, we had the rise of the art houses in the fifties and sixties, so people thought it was like going to the opera when you went to a film.

FRANZONI
There were consumers for it. Today, what I’m looking toward right now to sort of give us some direction is popular music. For me, hip-hop has become nothing more than angry elevator music. It has completely lost its stature in the art world. Fortunately, there’s a group called Green Day and their #1 hit, and it’s been #1 forever, is called “American Idiot” and it’s about what you’re talking about. Maybe there’s some hope when kids are starting to react against this disgusting crassness that, apparently, some generation between you and me has just hammered in place. You can’t get rid of it.

MANCHEL
Who were the major influences on your writing?

FRANZONI
Well, besides you, filmmakers you mean? The French New Wave. Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci.

MANCHEL
But not Americans, you don’t mention Americans.

FRANZONI

I don’t have any favorites.

MANCHEL

Not John Ford?

FRANZONI
I like John Ford. The problem for me with John Ford is that although I admire the movies and what he does with them, they’re always predictable to me. I always know how they’re going to turn out. You know what I mean?

MANCHEL
What about Sam Peckinpah?

FRANZONI
Well, off and on Peckinpah. Sure, The Wild Bunch, fantastic. When he was great, he was great. Other American films — Vanishing Point, Easy Rider, Cuckoo’s Nest to a certain extent, Badlands

MANCHEL
How about The Godfather?

FRANZONI
No The Godfather didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t dislike them…I don’t know, maybe I’ve seen them too much.

MANCHEL
Through the years, I’ve always had students ask — what course should I take, where should I go, how can I get into the film industry? What do you recommend?

FRANZONI
It depends on what you want to do. If you want to be a screenwriter, you don’t have to go to film school. It’s better to go get a list from someone like Frank Manchel of films to see and go rent them. That’s A Number One. A Number Two is read scripts. Get them on-line, anywhere. See how people write in different styles. Find movies that you admire. That’s what I did. I found movies that I admired, like Alvin Sargent was at that time doing Julia and I wanted to see how he was writing. Because back then it was up against Star Wars, and everything else just seemed ridiculous. I went to the script library at UCLA and I read his scripts.

If you’re going to write a spec script that you want people to respond to, don’t try to write the same BS that is out there. Don’t go, “I’m going to write the new…Spiderman.” Just don’t even waste your time because everybody is always doing that all of the time. So, all of the scripts studios get across their desks are the same old stuff.

First of all, you should be writing something that you really want to say, because people will notice right away if it’s an honest exercise or if it’s just an exercise. And you should try, struggle, strive, to do something different. It’s like art when you’re trying to paint or sculpt. Well, try doing this with marble instead of trying to do the piazza, try to do…a frog with a square head or something. Just try, as an exercise, to find ways of creating scripts.

You don’t need to go to school for that. You need to see films. In most cases, for most people, I think film school is a tremendous waste of time. If you want to learn a technical craft, yes, that can help. If you want to learn how to edit, or want to learn how to handle a camera, lighting…

MANCHEL
My argument has been, first of all, I think it’s most important to get a liberal arts education before you even think about a professional career.

FRANZONI
Of course you’ve got to do that. I’m assuming that you've done that.

MANCHEL
No, most of these people say, I want to go directly to USC or UCLA. What’s the point of getting a break if you have nothing to say? If you have no background?

FRANZONI
The first thing I advise is get a life. You’re talking about an art form. You can’t create art if you’re empty. Get a life by going to college. Get a life by traveling. I know that everyone wants to run right to film school, right to Hollywood. I was 29 when I came to Hollywood. I’d traveled around the world on a motorcycle. I’d done some things. I had a lot of guns stuck in my face. I’d had a life. So, I was passionate about what I was writing about. We don’t need any more people writing movies about the movies they’ve seen, because it is a downward spiral.

My second advice is if you want to direct a film, go pick up a camera. Today, with digital stuff, it’s a joke. When I was in high school I tried to shoot a film about a Russian sniper and I just ran out of money trying to shoot the film on 16 millimeter. I just couldn’t finish it. You don’t have that problem these days. You can go get a damn digital camera. You can edit it on your freakin’ computer. You don’t have to show it to anybody, but you can do it. You can get your hands dirty without spending any money.

MANCHEL
Tell me about UVM, what was it like back in the seventies for you?

FRANZONI
It was very exciting. When you went to see a movie back in the sixties and the seventies, which is the only thing I can speak for because in the fifties I was back in Rutland, Vermont watching Godzilla. You’d go to the cinema at the college and you saw Breathless, or whatever, and it was part of your conversation, it was part of your life. You’d sit down and have dinner and talk and you were talking about these films. They weren’t an entertainment. It was something compelling and crucial to see.

MANCHEL
The thing that I remember about you at UVM was that you always made it a point to engage people. You weren’t a passive student who went to class, took the assignment, did your paper, got your grades, and walked on. Class was not something that was separated from your life. Also, you were one of the few people I’ve met in my life who always tried to get me involved in some scheme — why don’t you invest in this? Do you remember that?

FRANZONI
(Laughs) Probably…

MANCHEL
After UVM, you traveled to Europe and stayed for quite a while.

FRANZONI
I wanted to check it out. I felt a draw. I had been reading about it. I’m not drawn to the pueblos; the Amazon doesn't draw me. I’m drawn to Europe, the richness of the culture. The motorcycle trip was a big one. There were times I had to sell my blood for money, but that's all part of it. If you go over there and you do the elite tour you never see anything. When I got back from the trip around the world I saw this book in the UVM bookstore, India on $50 a Day. I was doing it on 50 cents a day. You could buy India for $50 a day. No wonder the guy had a good time.

MANCHEL
What was it about that motorcycle trip? You’ve said it was when you decided to be a screenwriter.

FRANZONI
Well, I was a knight. I was Don Quixote, with all that that implies on my trip around the world. I wasn’t necessarily righting wrongs, but I wanted to at least see what the wrongs were. Being on a motorcycle, unlike being a hippie in a van, people responded to me in every country where I went. You came here on a motorcycle? Come have dinner with us. Stay with us. They put me up on the floor of their restaurants. It just opened up the door to everybody. I had that feeling of being a knight, of being completely free, and it actually turned out to be not just an imaginary concept. It was a real concept.

MANCHEL
If we can get back to the process of your writing, do you feel that every scene you write has to drive the story?

FRANZONI
Here’s my opinion. Until you discover who your main character is, you can’t write the story, which is the opposite of what Hollywood does. They want you to write the story and then we’ll fix the characters later. For me, Maximus, the entire landscape of Gladiator, is Maximus’s soul. It’s all about Maximus. There isn’t a scene in that movie that isn’t about Maximus in some way — about what he said, about what he felt, about what he believed, about what he’s striving for, everything is about him. None of it is disconnected from him. To me, you sit down and you take a hard look at your lead character, you try to understand everything about that man, that woman, and the movie happens from there.

MANCHEL
Do you have somebody in mind when you write a character?

FRANZONI
Never.

MANCHEL
So, I’m not in any of your films? (Laughs)

FRANZONI
Oh, you’re in every one. I can’t get rid of you.

MANCHEL
How do you build characterization? Your characters are complex — in Gladiator there are things about Commodus that you hate, but there are things that make your heart go out to him.

FRANZONI
That’s against the Hollywood grain. I think what you have to do is look at Commodus, the big tragedy in his life is that he was always looking for his father’s love. When I was in Austin at the film festival, a high school kid asked me, “If your parents fight all of the time, should you use it?” I told him that you’ve got to use that stuff. Don’t use your parents, but what you feel about that, what they’re saying to each other. Take a hard look at what their fights are about. Because wherever there’s this kind of emotion, something is going on. You can make a king say those things, because the emotionalism is all. I think that you have to look at the people around you. That’s why you have to have a life.

MANCHEL
Big question. I was recently telling someone that I think one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century is the way the public responded to the media. They think that it’s trivial, it’s trite, and that it gets in the way. But we could not have had all of the major events of the past 50 years if it had not been for the media — imagine the civil rights movement without television, imagine reading Martin Luther King’s speech without hearing it or seeing it. How do you convince people of the importance of film in our lives?

FRANZONI
It’s tough. I will not sit down to write unless I can find a way to make it important to me. After Amistad, I was introduced to a new agent who asked me to define exactly what I wanted him to do for me. I told him, “Here’s what our job is, plain and simple: change the world.”