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Friday
Oct012010

I sat down with screenwriter, Roger Towne, to discuss his first filmmaking experience on “The Natural.” Oh, and he’s also my Dad!



Jocelyn: First, give us a little background on where you were in your career when you first read the novel, “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud.

Roger: I was working at Paramount Pictures as a story analyst for two years when I was hired as director of development for Robert Evan's Productions. First day on the job I walk through Evan’s door at Paramount and this big, broad-in-the-shoulders New Yorker in a suit and tie is standing there with open arms. It was Evans’ cousin, Jimmy Siff. He’s holding a book and says to me, “I think this would make a terrific film.” Just like that. It was “The Natural.” I went home that night, read it and couldn’t get it out of my head. Without really knowing it then, my life had changed forever. Jimmy and I proceeded to develop it as a feature. We learned that the rights were owned by a commercial producer/ director team, Buddy Kahn and Bob Bean, and they had developed a screenplay by Phil Dusenberry, which had already made the rounds to all the studios in town. Bean and Kahn came to California for a meeting and agreed to let us run with the material. I made a lot of notes, and met with Dusenberry at the Beverly Hills Hotel around the pool. We discussed the script and got along very well. We were in perfect synch. As it turned out, he was so busy as an executive at BBD&O he was unable to work on the script.

J: What was his script like, in relation to the novel?

R: It was much truer to the novel’s darkness, to Roy’s character, to his suffering and self- loathing, to his general hopelessness and view of himself in the eyes of say someone like Memo. Phil had a wonderful sense of humor and he and Bean authored the lights-out homerun.

J: So what happened then?

R: We tried packaging it, but got nowhere. I started work at Columbia studios as a story editor. Two years passed and one day I call Bob and Buddy. I said, “Guys, I’ve given a lot of thought to the material and I’d like to write a new draft.” And they said, ‘Okay’.

J: They were willing to give a new writer a shot? You didn’t have any material to show them?

R: Nothing at all. I was hired on the basis of my take on the story and the voluminous notes I’d made. Bean and Kahn paid me $30,000 to quit my job and write a first draft.

J: Nice.

R: Oh Yeah. My salary at Columbia was $40,000 a year. The job was secure, but the chance to get back on track as a writer felt like a gift from the gods especially as I was about the same age as Hobbs was when he showed up in the Knights’ stadium.

J: How long did it take you to write the first draft?

R: About four months.

J: What was the most challenging aspect of adapting the novel? What were the biggest changed elements between the novel and your screenplay?

R: Getting it right. Keeping the material under control. I had so many ideas and in my excitement my biggest fear was veering terribly off course. While the script contained many similarities to Malamud’s novel, it was equally unlike it. Our take was really a romanticized version of the book. What transported me about it was the sheer energy and force of its imagery all bundled up in this Arthurian story about a knight’s journey, his dream, his fall from grace, his attempt to regain it as he does battle with his personal demons and the forces of darkness and evil that haunt and try to hunt him down. Myth and legend all set against the pageantry of baseball. The themes of Malamud’s book remain pretty much the same: the mythological quest, suffering, pain, and redemption. In the book Roy agrees to throw the game, but in his last at-bat, has a change of heart, decides to swing away – and strikes out. Malamud was obsessed with his hero’s failings and was not about to relinquish them for any sentimental notions that Roy had learned from his past mistakes.

J: That seems like it would work better in the novel than on screen because you can’t see his good intentions.

R: Levinson and Redford agreed. We were not going to torment the audience with seeing our hero strike out. Besides, the lights-out homer is so transcendent that it just about eclipses the sentimentalism of the ending.

J: Was the magical realism already in the novel? Where did knocking the cover off the ball come from?

R: That came from the book. So much of it is influenced by Greek myth and symbolism associated with Arthurian lore. Roy’s feats at bat are truly Herculean. Wonder Boy (Roy’s bat) can be likened to Excalibur, drawn from stone by Arthur just as Roy’s bat is drawn from the tree where his father died. The lightning and Roy’s homer into the clock that stops time while Iris, like a shimmering goddess, watches. We simply expanded on it.

J: How long was your first draft? (Because he writes a lot!)

R: (laughing) Why do you remember these things? It was long. It was 180 pages. I write long and I’ve come to love the re-writing and editing process.

J: What did Bob and Buddy say when they got it?

R: They weren’t particularly impressed. They thought there was some good stuff in it. But after a first round of notes and a rewrite they decided to let me go.

J: Oh! (I never knew this)

R: Buddy and Bob said, “Look you took your best shot, it was a gamble, but you have a wife and kids, so I’m gonna give you another $30,000 so you can get back on your feet.” Can you imagine? Mensches. The downside -- Buddy decided to write his own draft. About a month later, I received a huge package.

J: Tell me his version was longer-

R: It was 300 plus pages. Kahn had dictated it to his secretary, God bless him. The project just seemed to die and go away. I took the 30K and began a new draft. It was very long. At the time, a dear friend of mine, and a screenwriter, Roy Rosenblatt, read it. He became my Maxwell Perkins and contributed mightily to help boil it down to 141 pages, as did Phil Breen, a long time friend and producer. I sent it to Bob and Buddy and they were impressed. They said, “You apparently know people around town, so run with it.” I called an agent at CAA, a young woman, Amy Grossman who became my agent. She knew me from Columbia and had been following my move and progress with the script. She also knew Barry Levinson who was a big fan of the novel. Amy read the script. A week or so later she calls and says, “Roger, Robert Redford wants to do ‘The Natural’.” I was stunned. Inconceivable. Lightning in a bottle.

J: Did you call Bob and Buddy and tell them about Redford?

R: Yes, that was pretty funny. I called Buddy and told him. He chuckled and said, “Roger, you’re so gullible, you can’t believe everything that people tell you.” And I said, “No, really, Buddy, he’s interested.” Buddy said, “Look, if Redford is so interested, he’s got an office here in New York. Tell him to come on over and tell us face to face.” I passed that on and as I understand the story, Redford got in his car, drove across town, walked up the stairs unannounced into Buddy’s offices, extended a handshake and said, “My name is Bob Redford and I want to do ‘The Natural’.” I only wish I could have been there to see their jaws drop. Within five months principal photography began.

“Redford got in his car, drove across town, walked up the stairs unannounced into Buddy’s offices, extended a handshake and said, “My name is Bob Redford and I want to do ‘The Natural’.”

J: You were also an executive producer on “The Natural,” and you were on the set. Were you there mostly as writer or producer?

R: Redford and Levinson wanted me there, as the writer, at all times and said, “We’re going to go through this together.” It was so startling a statement because, like most writers, I thought of myself as expendable at a given point in time, regardless of the executive producer title. I never saw myself on the set, every day, during the shooting of the movie, but I was. Mark Johnson was the producer and as exec I was simply along for the ride.

J: How important do you think it is to outline before you write?

R: It’s absolutely critical. In navigational terms, the outline is true north. I learned that the hard way. You have a destination and a timetable. But first you must work out the story beats, the plot and characters. Once done, you’re ready to depart. It’s liberating and the journey is still filled with startling acts of discovery.

“In navigational terms, the outline is true north.”

J: You write very detailed outlines. How long are they?

R: I’ve gone from 22 -70 pages. I used to work with 3x5 cards. I like being able to scan the whole movie on the wall, I can literally watch it unfold in front of me.

J: What’s your daily routine?

R: I get up, have coffee, schmooze with my wife. Like a good worker, I head for the office which in my case is the coffee shop du jour where I meet friends and do more schmoozing. I love getting out. I love being around people.

J: You love talking to strangers-

R: I love talking to strangers – the happenstance of it all. Breaking down barriers of silence. And then I head home filled with guilt that I’m starting my day too late.

J: Sounds about right! When you’re feeling uninspired, how do you get back into the zone?

R: In the past, it was always get in the car and hit the road. That was my great love.

J: That’s funny I just the other day realized I get so many ideas while driving.

R: That’s what I was just going to say. I do my best meditation in the car. My car is my chapel. On the road, you’ve got the past in your rear-view mirror, you’re winging away from it, yet you’re right in the present. And the future is right in front of you. It’s a journey. And suddenly my whole body just becomes euphoric. In fact, I now have a theory that Angelenos have gotten so conditioned to the commutes because they’re discovering the enjoyment of solitude, of thinking things through-

“My car is my chapel. On the road, you’ve got the past in your rear-view mirror, you’re winging away from it, yet you’re right in the present.”

J: I just tweeted about this!

R: It’s a blessing and a curse. Because now we don’t have the will to change things around, we don’t have the will to get this city off its ass and have mass transportation.

J: What are some of your favorite movies, favorite scripts, and why do you love them?

R: I have so many favorites. I think you know what I’m going to say-

J: Well, maybe-

R: I’m gonna say “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

J: That’s the one I thought it was.

R: I could go deeper, but I love it and the man who made it, Frank Capra. I love the movie because it’s so highly charged with romance and magic. George Baily learns how much worse life would be like without him. That resonated with me in telling Roy’s story – a man blinded by his ambition – “to be the greatest there ever was” only to come full circle to realizing his importance as a man, a mentor and father. Screenplay – I’d have to say, “Casablanca.” It is so seamlessly written. It’s remarkable cast of characters. I love it for its repartee and its wit. And as far as I can recall, it has the most brilliantly conceived ending of all. And considering that it was written over six weeks and by a committee of screenwriters? How can you not mention “Citizen Kane”, “Lawrence of Arabia.” And the directors -- Wilder, Ford, Renoir, Curtiz, Wyler, Spielberg – the list goes on.

J: What advice would you give to a first-time writer?

R: If you’re interested in film, read a thousand scripts, see a thousand films and take Raymond Chandler’s advice and I’m paraphrasing, “Read, analyze it, imitate it, assimilate it, then make it your own.” Then forget about it. Get a job, dirty your hands, get to really know people, and then enjoy the instinctual creative process. And I put the emphasis on instinctual. It’s like golf; you have a hundred swing thoughts. The worst thing you can do is to play out of your head. You’ve got to take what you know and let it do the rest. Get to know the people with whom you hope to be working. Go to actor’s workshops. See your work through their eyes; They will teach you so much about your craft. Get involved in any aspect of the film business. It will make you into a better collaborator and collaboration is critical. Be and present yourself as a collaborator. Know your material because others may not know it as well but still have strong opinions and you’ll have to fight to protect yours.

“It’s like golf; you have a hundred swing thoughts. The worst thing you can do is to play out of your head.”

J: What’s the best advice you have ever gotten from a mentor and who was it?

R: There are two. Before I was back to writing, Don Devlin, a friend of mine, once told me over lunch at Musso & Frank, “Roger, just live and work each day like you had a million dollars in the bank.” The second was from a man who worked at a café that I went to everyday. I would go in there and write; I was having a hard time. The owner of the cafe, Bert, came over and said, “What’s taking you so long, what’s the problem? I’ve seen that same page for two weeks. You bring it in here, but you’re not working.” And I said, “Bert, I can’t do it, I can’t make it go forward.” And he said, “I tell you what. Write it wrong. You’ll get it right later, just write it down.” It hit me as the most bizarre solution because I thought, yeah, yeah I am worrying about getting it just right. But getting it wrong first, I can do that.

“Write it wrong.”


Reader Comments (4)

What a great interview (a two-fer!)! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these film-making experiences. I wish you lots of success with your new cinematic ambitions!

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim Martin

Wow, fantastic! I would buy this book, a daughter interviews her father. Thanks so much for this and good luck with the film!!

January 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Great interview... thanks so much for sharing. It is so fun to read the words spoken by someone who truly has a passion for what he/she does. What an inspiration.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Russell

What a wonderful interview!
I enjoyed the ease of conversation and the obvious camaraderie between father and daughter.
I met your father briefly in Abilene, Texas. He was traveling from the Dallas area working on the script of "A Bird of the Air."
I was in the middle of opening a coffee shop in downtown Abilene and he came in looking for a place to eat. I was still painting and such, so I had nothing to offer him, but gave him directions to a couple of places and had a nice little visit with him.
What a kind soul. I will never forget meeting him.

June 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLanae Dycus

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