Friday, 6 May 2016

Screenwriter David Webb Peoples and the Unforgiven Script

In order to provide this post, I’ve combined material from two main pieces (FilmCraft Screenwriting: Interview with David Webb Peoples by Tim Grierson) and (Q&A with David Webb Peoples: A Reluctant Hollywood Hero by Elaine Dutka of the LA Times). It’s a fascinating insight and an interesting account of how Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning film Unforgiven came to be made and its long journey from script to screen.

'Unforgiven' is one of the great masterpieces of all time. He [David] believes that having Clint Eastwood was the only way they could get the movie made, but I believe that the real star of 'Unforgiven' is David Webb Peoples. You could say that he wrote the best film in two genres. The best sci-fi film I’ve ever seen is 'Blade Runner', and possibly the best and most literate Western was 'Unforgiven’ - James Dalessandro

Starting his career as an editor, David Webb Peoples began writing screenplays in the 1970s, producing a series of scripts that eventually brought him to the attention of director Tony Scott. Through Scott’s encouragement, Peoples became involved with Blade Runner (1982), the seminal science-fiction film directed by Scott’s brother Ridley. However, one of Peoples’ greatest successes came more than 15 years after he first conceived the idea: Director Clint Eastwood optioned his script of The Cut-Whore Killings, eventually turning it into his Best Picture winning Unforgiven (1992), which netted Peoples a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.

I started getting into movies in my late teens, but I didn’t think about movies as writing. In fact, movies at that time made me think contemptuously of writers. I thought the creative world was about images. I didn’t have much respect for the written word. I was sort of a young brat and liked movies from Europe. Somehow, I didn’t think people wrote those scripts—I thought those images just collected themselves. I was very naïve.

Instead of writing, I became a film editor, which was manipulating images. I was mostly editing documentaries, and in documentaries you are more of a storyteller as an editor than you are if you’re editing a feature. In a feature, the writer and the director are telling the story, and the editor is putting it together, which is not to diminish in any way the editor’s role, because the editor makes it magic. But the actual storytelling is often more on the shoulders of an editor in documentary films. 

I wrote The Cut-Whore Killings, which became Unforgiven, around 1976. I’ve always been drawn to what are called the revisionist Westerns instead of the big John Ford movies. I like things like The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972) and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), which I consider a masterpiece. But I was also influenced by Taxi Driver (1976), which I thought was an amazing movie. Paul Schrader just opened up the world with that movie. When I first started writing, I didn’t want to have anybody get killed in any script I wrote because I was just so put off by the unreality. When people get killed in the movies, it’s like in James Bond, which is perfectly legitimate because James Bond is James Bond, and that’s the reality they set up. But even in other movies, you kill 10 people and then you go have breakfast - it’s as if it didn’t have any impact whatsoever. But all of a sudden I see Taxi Driver and people are getting killed, and the characters maintained how they would be in real life. But at the same time, it’s an entertaining movie, and that was always important to me - I wanted to write things that were entertaining. I didn’t want to write obscure art pictures with little lessons in them—I wanted to write entertainment. Taxi Driver opened up what entertainment could be. It said, “Yeah, you can write this kind of stuff and it’ll be entertaining.”


My wife Janet Peoples and I began writing together around 1995 as a practical consideration. We've written good stuff, but it doesn't get made, and we've also written uncredited stuff on other pictures. But the bottom line is, we have a pile of scripts that are just not in sync with the times. We haven’t had a lot of success because we tend to write a lot like the 1970s and early 1980s films we loved. Those movies were what inspired Janet and myself to be writers. Here was a time when you could pull out all the stops and write something that was entertaining, that would dazzle people, that would be enormously successful, and that you could feel good about. It was a very exciting time, and it’s hard getting those pictures made now. Clint Eastwood still does really strong, wonderful character movies, but he’s not going to do everything you write.

I'm not eager to see the movies that I've written, and I don’t think Janet necessarily is either. It’s not that we've never seen any of them, but if you write a really good script, that is in itself an accomplishment. That was something I picked up from William Goldman: I’ve never met him, but he has always been one of my mentors. He was able to make the script itself a finished thing—you could read it and see the movie. That’s what Janet and I are doing, and when other people make the movie, good for them. That’s great, but the part that we did is on paper. It’s an enormous thrill to see Unforgiven and to see the performances—the magic those actors put into those parts is a pleasure to see. But I didn’t do that. That’s what they did.”

Excerpt from FilmCraft: Screenwriting edited by Tim Grierson © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

Try as he might, Berkeley-based screenwriter David Webb Peoples can't distance himself from the Hollywood scene. With three high-profile films on the screen simultaneously, he's been besieged with calls from the press asking him to discuss his work--and from industry types offering him more.

His revisionist Western "Unforgiven" is being mentioned as a probable Oscar contender. A recently discovered "director's cut" of the 1982 cult favourite "Blade Runner," has just been reissued. And his dark comedy "Hero," directed by Stephen Frears, opened last Friday.

Question: "Hero," like "Unforgiven" and "Blade Runner," takes place in a world of moral ambiguity. Heroes and villains are presented as flip sides of the same coin.

Answer: I've never succeeded in writing "good guys" and "bad guys"--and, believe me, I've tried. A lot of entertainment revolves around them. As politicians have discovered, if you can devise a bad guy, people will listen. Others are far ahead of me when it comes to moral ambiguity, though. "Silkwood" was a hell of a script. Karen wasn't a saint. She didn't pet dogs and wasn't easily sympathetic but, thanks to the screenwriter, you respect what's good about her. Same goes for Paul Schrader's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."



Q: "Hero," ironically, comes on the heels of "Unforgiven," which you wrote back in 1976. Why did it take so long getting that project off the ground?

A: Francis Ford Coppola optioned it in '84. He took it around, but couldn't get financing. Clint picked up the option in 1985 and said he was making it "next year" a couple of times. The year before last, my wife was at the Telluride Film Festival and Clint walked on stage. He was overwhelmed by the scenery, he told the audience, and figured it was probably time to make his Western. I was thrilled.

Q: Ever wonder what "Unforgiven" would have looked like had Coppola been at the helm?

A: Francis would have done it brilliantly as he does everything else, but it's hard to imagine anyone making it as straightforwardly and uncompromisingly as Clint. No studio would have made it that way--dark, moody. With a lot of voices, things generally end up becoming blander and more accessible. "Unforgiven" was Clint Eastwood saying "This is what I'm going to do . . . get out of my way."

Q: You never set foot on the set and had no one to "protect" your words. Yet the script that was shot is said to be virtually unchanged from the original.

A: That's true. I didn't meet Clint in person until he invited me to see the movie at Warner Bros. But he and I were enough in sync that he didn't feel it necessary to ask for rewrites. One of the stars, Francis Fisher, told me that this was the first time she saw a shooting script that was entirely in white. Most of them are multi-coloured, full of blue and red pages or whatever representing various changes
in the screenplay.

Q: Westerns are said to be out of favour--and this one wasn't a shoot-em-up tailored for a mass audience. Were you surprised with the response?

A: I was surprised--and happy for Clint, who is long overdue in getting respect he deserves. Though he's perceived as a commercial icon, he's made bold and terrific movies.

From October 5th, 1992 -Elaine Dutka - LA Times Staff Writer - All Rights Reserved.

Eastwood on the script:
I bought the “Unforgiven” script in 1980 and put it in a drawer and said I’ll do this someday its good material and I’ll rewrite it. And I took it from the drawer ten years later and called up the writer and said I had a couple of ideas and wanted to rewrite some of it, and he was fine with that. I told him I might call him because I wanted him to approve my changes. So I went to work and the more I tooled with it, the more I realized   I was killing it with improvements. So I went back to him and said that I had been working on these ideas and I really felt I was wrecking it, so I was just going to go with it the way it was.   
Frances Fisher who plays Strawberry Alice in Unforgiven said "that was the first time I saw a shooting script that was entirely in white. Most of them are multi-coloured, full of blue and red pages or whatever representing various changes in the screenplay."
As an interesting footnote, Richard Schickel's book Clint Eastwood stated that the star's rapt interest appalled his then story editor (and Josey Wales screenwriter) Sonia Chernius. She said of the script - "We would have been far better off not to have accepted trash like this piece of inferior work," she stated in a memo. "I can't think of one good thing to say about it. Except maybe, get rid of it FAST."

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