Godzilla to The Godfather, David Franzoni
and Frank Manchel take on the art and business of film
by Al Seib
Emeritus Frank Manchels 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 Franzonis 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 Hollywoods 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
David, one of the things Ive always believed in is that when somebody
writes about history, theyre really using history to talk about
the present. Do you agree with that?
One of the things I said when I sat down with Steven Spielberg to first
talk about Gladiator was we cant really make this about ancient
Rome. Try to imagine this isnt 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.
After reviewing your films now for two weeks, Ive 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 dont
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
No, youre not wrong, Gladiator is a perfect example. Ive
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. Its not a hyperbole, I dont think his family
You seem to hammer that theme over and over again, and you do it in such
a beautiful way that Im surprised that no one talks about it.
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, its about us.
I think youre one of the great screenwriters of our generation because
you take it seriously. To you, its 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 Ive 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
Well, they had comedy writers come in and work on it.
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 cant
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 dont understand what theyre 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.
Thats 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 hes in an Elizabethan movie.
I dont understand why they hire you then, if thats 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?
I personally believe that most independent films today are nothing more
than cheap Hollywood films. I dont find them particularly good.
I mean, there are some. But I havent seen a La Dolce Vita.
I havent seen a Conformist. I havent 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. Im 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 theyll
do it. I think you have to do it in the system. I think the studio system
has corrupted the independent market almost totally.
I find the critics are just as corrupt as the
There are no critics, this is not the days of Pauline Kael. Were
just talking about people who are going to tell you whether to go to Magic
Mountain and which rides to go on. Theyre not trying to criticize
films. They dont 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.
Theres no film criticism.
You couldnt 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. Thats where weve
come to, it seems to me, and I dont see anyone objecting to it.
Theyre not objecting, of course, because the money is rolling in.
Look, the only reason that we had sort of I wouldnt 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.
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.
There were consumers for it. Today, what Im 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, theres a group called
Green Day and their #1 hit, and its been #1 forever, is called American
Idiot and its about what youre talking about. Maybe
theres 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 cant get rid of it.
Who were the major influences on your writing?
Well, besides you, filmmakers you mean? The French New Wave. Truffaut,
Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci.
But not Americans, you dont mention Americans.
I dont have any favorites.
Not John Ford?
I like John Ford. The problem for me with John Ford is that although I
admire the movies and what he does with them, theyre always predictable
to me. I always know how theyre going to turn out. You know what
What about Sam Peckinpah?
Well, off and on Peckinpah. Sure, The Wild Bunch, fantastic. When
he was great, he was great. Other American films Vanishing Point,
Easy Rider, Cuckoos Nest to a certain extent, Badlands
How about The Godfather?
No The Godfather didnt do anything for me. I didnt
I dont know, maybe Ive seen them too much.
Through the years, Ive 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?
It depends on what you want to do. If you want to be a screenwriter, you
dont have to go to film school. Its better to go get a list
from someone like Frank Manchel of films to see and go rent them. Thats
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.
Thats 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
If youre going to write a spec script that you want people to respond
to, dont try to write the same BS that is out there. Dont
go, Im going to write the new
Just dont 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 its an honest exercise
or if its just an exercise. And you should try, struggle, strive,
to do something different. Its like art when youre 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 dont 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,
My argument has been, first of all, I think its most important to
get a liberal arts education before you even think about a professional
Of course youve got to do that. Im assuming that you've done
No, most of these people say, I want to go directly to USC or UCLA. Whats
the point of getting a break if you have nothing to say? If you have no
The first thing I advise is get a life. Youre talking about an art
form. You cant create art if youre 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.
Id traveled around the world on a motorcycle. Id done some
things. I had a lot of guns stuck in my face. Id had a life. So,
I was passionate about what I was writing about. We dont need any
more people writing movies about the movies theyve 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, its 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 couldnt finish
it. You dont have that problem these days. You can go get a damn
digital camera. You can edit it on your freakin computer. You dont
have to show it to anybody, but you can do it. You can get your hands
dirty without spending any money.
Tell me about UVM, what was it like back in the seventies for you?
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. Youd
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. Youd
sit down and have dinner and talk and you were talking about these films.
They werent an entertainment. It was something compelling and crucial
The thing that I remember about you at UVM was that you always made it
a point to engage people. You werent 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 Ive met in my life who always tried to
get me involved in some scheme why dont you invest in this?
Do you remember that?
After UVM, you traveled to Europe and stayed for quite a while.
I wanted to check it out. I felt a draw. I had been reading about it.
Im not drawn to the pueblos; the Amazon doesn't draw me. Im
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
What was it about that motorcycle trip? Youve said it was when you
decided to be a screenwriter.
Well, I was a knight. I was Don Quixote, with all that that implies on
my trip around the world. I wasnt 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.
If we can get back to the process of your writing, do you feel that every
scene you write has to drive the story?
Heres my opinion. Until you discover who your main character is,
you cant write the story, which is the opposite of what Hollywood
does. They want you to write the story and then well fix the characters
later. For me, Maximus, the entire landscape of Gladiator, is Maximuss
soul. Its all about Maximus. There isnt a scene in that movie
that isnt about Maximus in some way about what he said, about
what he felt, about what he believed, about what hes 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.
Do you have somebody in mind when you write a character?
So, Im not in any of your films? (Laughs)
Oh, youre in every one. I cant get rid of you.
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.
Thats 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 fathers 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 youve got to use that stuff.
Dont use your parents, but what you feel about that, what theyre
saying to each other. Take a hard look at what their fights are about.
Because wherever theres 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. Thats
why you have to have a life.
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 its trivial, its 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 Kings
speech without hearing it or seeing it. How do you convince people of
the importance of film in our lives?
Its 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, Heres what our job is, plain and simple: change