Interview With Richard LaGravenese

The Screenwriter On The Set Of

Richard LaGravenese

LaGravenese: I didn't think anybody would make it; I thought it would be either a writing sample or a very, very small independent kind of thing. And that Terry was interested really was a surprise and it sounds — I hate to be effusive because he doesn't like American effusiveness — but I'm so grateful I can't even form the words. He's creating a whole world here, and he's adding an edge to it, a visual edge that is so important because the script to me could have been so sentimental and icch! that it makes your teeth hurt, you know? And so, that's the part of it that I don't like, and that's the part of it that he just will solve, you know? I'm really, really happy about that, and I was so happy to get his influence and start working with him on rewrites and stuff because we put back a lot of the edge and the things that previous regimes had made me take out. So the first thing he did was make me put back everything that my first development process had made me take out, which was great. A lot of the odd stuff, the weird shit, you know. So I'm really happy, and grateful.

How did the story come about originally?

I wrote two other, three other drafts with the same two characters but completely different stories and completely different supporting characters. And all I knew was that I wanted to write a story about a narcissistic man who by the end of the film commits a completely selfless act. And I didn't have the story, and I couldn't figure it out. It took a while.

And then I read the book "He," which is this Robert Johnson psychology book, where this Jungian psychologist takes the Fisher King myth and he parallels it to male psychology. It's a wonderful, wonderful book. He did a series — "He," "She," "We" and "Ecstasy"; I haven't read the others, I just read "He," but it's a wonderful book — and that was very inspirational on finding the throughline for Jack a little bit more.

Once I found out he was a DJ, then it sort of wrote itself. But finding the story was hard.

This is your first produced script, isn't it?

My first original, my own, yeah. I finished this and I didn't want to give it to anyone, I'm just going sort of keep it in my drawer. My wife made me send it out. And it was right in the middle of the writers' strike. So I like busted my butt for a year and a half, and then no one could buy it. That was a little frustrating.

So this was a spec script?


And what had you been doing at the time?

I was co-writing, I was working on another film with a friend of mine, it was his story, and co-writing that with him.

Was that produced?

Yeah, it was called RUDE AWAKENING, that Aaron Russo did. That was three years of rewriting and rewriting. That's why this is so just like being in Utopia. It's been an incredible experience being with them and feeling part of such a collaborative effort. I don't know how often they ask the writer, 'What do you think?' They did! And it was wonderful.

What do you tell them, how critical have you been?

It really wasn't even about "critical." It was much more the feeling, and this is what Terry sets; he sets this tone and this energy of total space for everybody to share ideas and throw things in. But it's never criticism; it's more like exploration and finding things out, and 'That was better than that' and 'That was stronger than that.' It was like we were this whole unit, all of us, it was wonderful. I once asked Terry about the ideas from his crew and all that, all the people around him, and he says he feels that the director's main job is basically to field all these ideas that come in and to pick and choose.

He terms himself a filter of other people's ideas.

Absolutely. Even though he comes up with the most original.

So has this turned into a case of, it's unlike what you would have imagined yet it totally fits with how you might see this yourself?

It's everything I had hoped it could have been.

So having worked with Terry, someone who can take your text and make some very visual from it, how do you think it may be changing or expanding your writing? Is that expanding the sort of limitations you put on yourself, thinking that nothing is impossible?

Absolutely. Well, I've never looked at it this way before. You know, he'll look at a scene and he'll look at it as part of a sequence of several scenes where he sees sort of a universal tone, which I've never done before.

And he keeps reintroducing elements from earlier in the film.

That whole thing, exactly. And we've like cut things that maybe on their own were great but in context of this whole sequence just stuck out like a sore thumb. And I'm starting to see it more in those terms, and it's been a real valuable lesson.

Having been able to filter the script through Terry, have you been able to add things to it further?

Hmm, let's see ... A lot of it came out of rehearsals, like the Fisher King monologue has gone through many, many transformations.

Where Robin explains the myth to Jeff Bridges?

Yes. And I'm still in the process of molding, we're supposed to film it on Friday, and I've gone through a few drafts with that now and I've really been taking Terry's lead on that. Because right now what it turned out to be was more like an explanation of the title, and as Terry said it should really be suddenly he just tells the story, so it's now trying to make it sound just like a story —

By the fireside —

Exactly, and then tying it in to all the layers. I mean I didn't know, he just brought out a lot more layers and connections that I had never seen before. Like at the end of the film, Carmichael the old man who's sitting there is also The Fisher King. And at that moment Jack is his Fool. It just starts to unravel and all these other things that I had never meant to be, he saw. The monologue is a big thing. And of course with Robin and Jeff a lot of ideas come out.

During shooting, is Robin improvising a lot or is he staying to what has been written?

He comes up with a few ideas, and he tries them out. And he'll do like, you know, a simple version and he'll do a more exploratory version. But he always checks, and he always come up, 'Is that too much?' 'Is that in keeping with what we all see this is about? Is it getting too far out?' He's really, really conscious of it. He's not irresponsible about it at all. He's just being wonderful. And of course he's coming up with a lot of great lines that the script really needed. I mean, we shot something last week which was always the hardest scene for me, which was his entrance. I could just never come up with bizarre, funny enough stuff, and so I laid the groundwork and then he came up with all these great lines and now we saw the dailies and it's just a question of picking and choosing.

They're shooting the climb tonight, which Jeff had a great idea for, for as he's climbing. You know how when Popeye's doing something and he sort of doesn't like it he grumbles? It's like grumbling and every once in a while a word pops out? He wants to do this sort of mumbling monologue kind of thing which is a really funny idea. He comes up with a lot of wonderful things.

In the script it has, ''Why am I even doing this?''

Exactly. It was more linear. So coming up with something a little more — that's something I'm learning, to be a little less linear.

Well, the script is pretty linear; there's not a lot of fat on it. It's very straightforward.

Right. Thanks. I have a tendency to go on a bit! I have that insecurity that people aren't getting what I mean, you know? So I'm learning that — it's a cliche that less is more, but it really, really is. I mean I'm on the set and I'm the first one wanting to cut the dialogue, because you don't need as much, you really don't.

I based Mercedes [Ruehl]'s character, Anne, on a woman that I know on Second Avenue who runs a video store, and Michael Jeter came into the auditions and read the script and said, 'Oh, I know this woman, this is Annette! She's on Second Avenue!' He just got it right away. Weird things like this.

Does Annette know about this?

Yes! I've been telling her all along. She's a wonderful woman. We lived in that neighborhood. I used to come into her to rent a video and she'd be like, 'Darling, how are you?' Like I was her son. It was so funny, a wonderful woman.

Did you have in-depth conversations with the actors about their characters?

I had dinner with Jeff about a week before we had rehearsals and we were there for hours going over the whole pile of script, page by page. He's very good like that, very methodical when he goes over everything, and any questions he had. It's a real honor, I can't even describe it, it's been such a honor to do that.

Where he created a history for this character, how he would get to this stage, why he would do these things?

What happened in the interim between the First Act and later, exactly what he's been doing. Back up the story even on little bits here and there.

I like how things were so tied up, like the fact that he was up for this TV show, he didn't get it, and then he gets to gloat over the fact that the guy who did get it is arrested in a men's room. There is justice in the world!

Of course, there is order in the universe. I believe that!

Have you become more interested in the technical area, cinematography, editing?

I just listen. I don't understand a word they say, but I love to listen and try to figure out what they're doing. I have no understanding about lenses and things like that.

Now Anne was inspired by somebody you know. Was Perry inspired by anybody you know in particular?

It's actually, this whole thing started when I went to the movies one night alone, and I saw this couple, this sort of retarded man and this very nice looking guy together, and I started, that really set something off.

What brought them together?

I don't know, they were just walking, and they seemed very close, and that touched me. And then I wrote, and I started writing, and then I heard about RAIN MAN and I found out that what I had been writing was almost exactly like RAIN MAN so I threw all of it out and started over. That's how the evolution began. It's funny how you can have an idea, and somewhere across the planet someone has the same exact fucking idea! It's so infuriating, that cosmic consciousness thing!

For Related Articles on THE FISHER KING by David Morgan:

  • "They're Getting A Gilliam Film" — On-set Production Story (Los Angeles Times "Calendar," June 24, 1990)

  • Interview with Terry Gilliam — On Bringing a Myth to Life (Millimeter Magazine, March 1991)

  • "Gilliam, Gotham & God" — The Filmmaker's Views of Urban Landscapes (Metropolis Magazine, September 1991)

  • "A Red Knightmare" — Design and Special Effects Behind the Red Knight (New York Newsday, October 1991)

  • The original full-length interviews with Terry Gilliam and Robin Williams appear in "The Fisher King: The Book of the Film," published by Applause Books (now out of print but available via online sellers)

    copyright 1990, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.