Today’s podcast is a conversation with screenwriter Nick Kazan, whose scripts for the films At Close Range and Reversal of Fortune are considered by many to be classics in American screenwriting.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In this conversation, Nick and I discuss how he discovered his compulsion to write, how he developed his craft and his writing process. We also took deep dives into At Close Range and especially into his screenplay for Reversal of Fortune, examining the moral landscape and narrative structures of these meditations on criminality and our understanding of justice.

And so without further ado, here is my interview with Nick Kazan.

Kary:

Let me begin by asking you to assess the formative forces, events, or experiences that inform what you value aesthetically, artistically, and separately that inform your moral view of the world.

Nick:

I think the only thing that I value, or the thing that I value most aesthetically, is a good story. I don’t want to be bored. If I ever start to bore you, please raise your hand and I’ll do my best to changeIn this regard I think it’s a great asset that I have ADD.  The way I write is: if I start to feel bored, I have to do something else. Morally, I believe we all come into this world innocent and every human being is doing the best that they can at every moment of their lives. So, I guess Kary showed you a few minutes of At Close Range. When I was first approached to write At Close Range, I said, “This man killed his step-son and tried to kill his son. Killed his son’s girlfriend, he’s a horrendous person. I won’t write about him.” I said no twice and then the producer kept talking to me about Greek tragedy, Greek tragedy, Greek tragedy, and one day it just sort of all clicked. It changed from something I couldn’t possibly write into something that I had to write.

Nick:

We went to Pennsylvania and talked to members of that guy’s gang— the few who were not in prison—  and they all said he was a great guy. I just thought, ‘Well, of course. Yeah, he killed these people, and yeah, that was a horrendous thing to do but, from his perspective, it was what he had to do.’ He had his own moral code. It was not a moral code that I would subscribe to or I hope that anyone in this room would subscribe to, but to write him, I had to be him. And in looking through the syllabus, I saw you were quoting Capote, talking about how he had to invest himself in characters that otherwise would have seemed heinous to him or foreign to him, and honestly I just thought, no. But that’s because he’s Truman Capote and he comes from New York society and he can’t imagine being these other people. Frankly, I have no trouble being these other people because it’s just an act of aesthetic empathy and for better or worse, that’s what I do and who I am.

Kary:

Can you identify the moment where you thought you wanted to be a storyteller?

Nick:

My mother was a failed writer. She tried to write plays. She had two produced plays and they were not successful. Well, one of them was moderately successful, the other was a complete disaster and closed immediately. But, beyond that, she failed at the most literal level in that she couldn’t write. She would start a play and write 30 pages and start again and write 12 pages and start again and write 18 pages and then she’d give up on that play and then she’d start another play and the same thing would happen. Mostly she sat in her room thinking about the plays or allegedly thinking about the plays she was writing and playing solitaire.

Nick:

So, at some level, I think I’m a writer because I’m trying to redeem the life of my mother. At another level, my older brother was anointed the writer in the family and he had a gift that I do not have and never have had for graceful language and for prose. His sentences were beautiful, his word selection was perfect and he could just write beautifully. He didn’t have passion, he didn’t have drive. He didn’t have fire. He wasn’t consumed in the way that I was so, at another level, I’m probably a writer because I want to prove my mother wrong and defeat my older brother.

Kary:

Tell us about the seminal moment that made you a writer, that established how you approach writing.

Nick:

I went to Swarthmore College. Swarthmore College, at that time, had a playwright’s festival. I wrote a play when I was a junior. I guess it didn’t make it into the festival, my friends produced it. Anyway, it was okay. It was provocative as much of my work is. I don’t like to do things that are safe. And then I dropped out of college for two years and I went back only because I was faced with going to Vietnam and it was better to go to college than Vietnam. Not by much, but it was better.

Nick:

The students put on a production of a play by Harold Pinter called, The Lover. I went to see that play and the next morning I was walking around my apartment and I got this weird … I don’t know how to describe it, but this weird buzzy feeling, like an electrical storm and I went in the other room and I wrote this scene with a woman essentially making love with a cigarette. I didn’t know what the hell it was and then a line of dialogue came and then another line of dialogue came and I wrote, and I had no idea what I was doing, what the situation was, what the time period was— It turned out to be in some odd fake future— and I wrote furiously for about an hour maybe, an hour and 15 minutes and I got up and I went in the other room and my first wife said, “What were you doing?” And I said, “I think I wrote a play.” And she said, “What’s it about?” And I said, “I have no idea.” And I didn’t. I didn’t know.

Nick:

I couldn’t have told her anything about it. It was like it was delivered to me. My feeling is, it was delivered to me by Harold Pinter’s muse. Why do I say that? Well, for one thing, the situations were somewhat similar. It was about a woman and two men and the men were fighting over the woman in some way or the woman was controlling the men. But beyond that, 25 odd years later I read Harold Pinter’s Nobel acceptance speech in which he talked about his writing process. And the way that he wrote was, he would hear a line of dialogue, he would not know who was speaking. He actually would write, A, for the first character, and then somebody else would speak, he would write B. Eventually, names would emerge. Eventually, a situation would emerge and the play would gradually emerge. It was the same process that I had experienced.

Nick:

So, essentially I’m a writer because I’m still chasing that hour and 15 minutes that I experienced in college. That play, by the way, was then done in college and was done later professionally. It was a one-act play,a short play, like 35 minutes. But I’m still— the moments when I write best—  I’m writing in that kind of way. The other day, two days ago or yesterday I was fooling around with an idea for a play and I was thinking about coming here and talking about this and I was writing just … it wasn’t that same fire, but it was hearing a line and then another line and then another line and another line and another line and then the lines just come. That’s how I do it.

Kary:

You went to the bay area. You ended up at the Magic Theater.

Nick:

Yeah, that play was done and then other plays were done at the Magic Theater, which was then in Berkeley and then later moved to San Francisco and it’s the place where Sam Shephard had his plays first done and other playwrights.

Kary:

How did you end up in Los Angeles writing screenplays and then what was the watershed moment for you with respect to becoming a screenwriter?

Nick:

When I was in the bay area, I was mostly writing plays, I was also trying to write screenplays. I had no money. I was living on, from five to $10,000 a year. I was living with groups of people and that’s how I kept my expenses down. So, I came down here and I got an agent, and went back up to Berkeley…but I couldn’t afford to call the agent very often  because the calls were expensive. So I would call him every few months. He would go, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I sent that script, I should send it to somebody else.” I would remind him and prod him and he would send something out, but nothing much happened.

Nick:

You know, the context for what I’m telling you is this: When you look at me, you think, ‘Oh, that guy is a successful writer. Of course, he’s a successful writer, that was preordained.’ Not at all. When you look at Kary, you think, of course, Kary’s at HBO. He was always meant to have this job. Not at all. There are any number of lucky incidents and junctures in anyone’s life. In retrospect, things look inevitable. It’s like drama. It’s surprising in the moment, inevitable in retrospect. The same is true of people’s lives.

Nick:

What happened with me was: I was a tangential member of a comedy group in the bay area that was like a forerunner of Saturday Night Live. They would do the same kinds of things that Saturday Night Live did. They did mock commercials, they did mock news shows, they did short dramas and frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t have much tolerance for it. I did write some funny stuff for them, but they sat around in groups and that’s not how my imagination worked. But I was part of this group and everyone in this group got hired to come down here and work on a movie that was never made.  I got hired too. I got $250 a week, which was like, “Are you kidding me?” An incredible amount of money and I even got  money to move. My first marriage had just broken up so that’s how I came to Los Angeles.

Nick:

And because I came from the theater, I was writing comedies, I was writing kind of warm dramas. Every single movie I’ve ever had produced where there is a cast reading, it’s always the same. People say, “Oh, it’s a lot funnier than I thought it was.” In fact, the movie you saw today, Reversal… It went to Telluride and Tom Luddy described it in the notes for the festival as a comedy and Warner’s, which was releasing it, was outraged. They said, “It’s not a comedy. What are you doing? Why did you describe it as a comedy?” And then they went to the screenings at Telluride and people laughed and they said, “Oh, I guess it is this odd kind of comedy.” But they hadn’t known that there was anything funny in the movie. They go, “This is our serious movie.” They hadn’t realized the odd tone set by Sonny’s narration aptly clued the audience into a certain kind of humor.

Nick:

In any case, I was writing warm dramas and then one day I read an article in the Village Voice by a man named Michael Goodwin, a journalist, where he talked about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was a movie that—  being a snob— I normally would not have deigned to go see. But he talked about how the movie operated like a dream and that the comedy and the horror were intermingled in the same way that occurs in dreams. There is a dream logic to the movie. And, you l see this in, like, Taken. Taken is a movie that completely ignores normal logic. He hears, “Your daughter might be kept in a construction site.” And bingo, you’re at the construction site. You don’t know how he got there, it doesn’t matter how he got there. He’s going to get there, you know he’s going to get there and that’s what happens in a dream. You’ll hear, ‘Bingo, I like that girl.’ And, suddenly, you’re with that girl. That’s what happens in a dream.

Nick:

Anyway, I read this article and I thought, I should go see Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I went to see it and I loved it. What’s weird is, recently I thought, I should go see that movie again. I watched it again, I go, “Whoa, I didn’t connect to it at all.”, but for better or worse—  in this case much better— I went to see the movie, I really responded to it and in a way, I guess similar to what happened to me with Pinter, I got an idea and I wrote this horror movie called Animals and it was about a disease that knocked out people’s superegos so that they had no control, no inhibitions, they just acted on their impulses. When I finished it, I felt soiled so I put the script in a drawer and, being the kind of person I am, I forgot that I’d written it. Literally, I forgot about it. And then after about a month and Stephen King actually recommends that if you write something, you shouldn’t look at it for six weeks. So after probably five weeks, I thought, ‘You know, I think I wrote that thing. I should take a look at it.’

Nick:

I took a look at it and I realized that it was better than anything I’d written before. A: It was more visual, more cinematic and B: It was just more electric. It was more dynamic. It was kind of undeniable. I polished that up and I took it to my agent. My agent at that time represented John Carpenter. John Carpenter had just made Halloween. I thought, ‘This is perfect. He’ll give it to John Carpenter, John Carpenter will make this and life will be fantastic.’ But life is rarely as fantastic as you imagine. My agent didn’t like it. My agent said, “I still like your other work.” I said to myself, “I think I’ve got the wrong agent.” And I’d just become friends with a group of people and among them was an agent that I really liked personally and I gave him the script. He said, “Give me all your scripts.” I said, “There are a lot of them.” And he said, “I don’t care, give me all of them.”

Nick:

I gave him all of them. He is a very fast reader, he read them all. He said, “This one is much better than the rest.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” And he said, “I think we can sell it.” And, after about a month, we had not sold it and he seemed on the verge of giving up. He was apologizing to me and then suddenly we got an offer from ABC Films and it’s a whole horrible story, but I might as well entertain you with it. I went in for a meeting because I said, “I don’t want to sell this to them if they are going to change it –  if they are going to make it into something horrible.”

Nick:

I went to a meeting and they said, “We only have three notes and it’s this and this and this. Otherwise, we love it.” So I said, “Great.”  And I told my reps to go through with the deal.” But there was a second meeting after I agreed to the deal and then they had a whole lot more notes and they were very detailed and there were pages and pages of things that they wanted to change. I went to my lawyer and I said, “Look, nothing’s signed yet. I have a verbal agreement based on certain verbal assurances that turned out to be bullshit. Let’s walk away.” By this time, I had another company that wanted to do it with Tony Scott directing, Scott Rudin producing. It would have been a really great situation. What ABC Films said, when I said I wanted to take it back was, “We have a lot of lawyers on staff.” What they meant was, I would get no money. I would be tied up in litigation. The script would be tied up. I would see nothing from it and I could precede if I wanted to but I would lose.

Nick:

Being a practical person, I said, “Okay, fine.” Deal goes through. So, I did a draft for them, they fired me. They hired another writer and I used a pseudonym on the finished film. I didn’t leave my name on it, but it opened doors for me and off of that I got other work.

Kary:

I’ve heard you say that you have, and I think this is particularly appropriate as we dive into some of the work in crime drama that you’ve done, that you have a catastrophic imagination. What did you mean by that?

Nick:

I mean that every time our younger daughter drives from our house to Highland Park, I am afraid she’s going to get in a car accident. Every time. And, I mean that our older daughter has the ability to call up and completely terrify us when she’s sick so it feels like, oh she’s going to die. Immediately I go to the worst possible scenario.  And if I see things on the street, immediately I imagine a catastrophic incident. I see a guy who is behaving weirdly and I immediately imagine that he’s a terrorist or a murderer or whatever. And I think actually the catastrophic imagination is very valuable for a writer because it doesn’t allow me to be bored.

Kary:

I also heard you say that when you’re writing, particularly something that is dark and messy, that it kind of liberates you of a lot of anxieties about real life because you’re channeling those anxieties into your work.

Nick:

I don’t remember my dreams. However, when I was writing At Close Range—  this horrible story about this man who murdered children—  I was never happier, I felt like I was having my bad dreams during the day when I was writing and darkness didn’t need to enter my real life, because it was all there coming out. And probably the same thing was true when I was writing Animals.

Kary:

Tell us about how you got involved in At Close Range and how you went about researching.

Nick:

It was based on articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The articles were really good and I think that in writing a true story, the truth is your friend. I tried to use the truth as cornerstones, as parts of the foundation. Just as when you’re adapting, you’re going to change some things in the novel or in the novella or in the short story.  Similarly, in a true story, you’re going to change some things… You know, my daughter was in this movie, The Big Sick. The Big Sick is really interesting in this regard, if you look at The Big Sick, the ending of that movie is something that studio executives would not have tolerated.

Nick:

The couple has a big fight and he goes and apologizes and he explains at her party that he’d done all these things for her that she didn’t kow about…and then she goes to his club and kind of apologizes. That should be the end. If it had been a fictional story, a studio executive would have said, ‘That’s it, then they are together. They are going to end up together, don’t delay it.’ But because it’s a true story, that doesn’t happen and because that doesn’t happen, the audience goes, “Holy shit. What’s going to happen here? This is exciting.” You wouldn’t get away with that honestly if it was fiction, but because it’s a true story, you can get away with it and the truth is… it’s your ally there because the audience is going, “Shit, maybe they’re not going to get together because there was a chance for them to get together and they didn’t t do it. He’s moved? and she’s staying back there.” You’re confused in a good way and then finally when you get the resolution and they’re together, you’re really happy.

Nick:

But that happens because of the way that life doesn’t follow a template. Life doesn’t fall into a three-act structure or into any natural structure. Life has its own weird, fucked up rhythms and if your story has weird, fucked up rhythms that are compelling, God bless. Keep them.

Kary:

And so was it a “yes” immediately when they approached you about writing At Close Range?

Nick:

I told you, I turned it down twice because it was so, the material was so awful but I don’t write things, Kary, because I can write them or … Kary’s tried to hire me a bunch of times and it hasn’t worked. I write things because I’m compelled to write them. And the reason I know I’m compelled to write them is because…because I start writing them. What happened with Reversal is I just started to write dialogue.

Kary:

We’ll get to Reversal, but let’s go back to At Close Range. What was the moment where you had the epiphany that you could write that? That you knew what you were going to do?

Nick:

The movie doesn’t begin this way anymore, but my friend who was the producer who kept talking to me about Greek tragedy, as I mentioned, was also talking to me about Pennsylvania and nature—  because the story took place in Pennsylvania—  and the place where the step-son is shot and killed was at a nature reserve where the brother of Chris Walken’s character had shot a deer the year before and I think what happened was I wrote the first page or page and a half where he shoots the deer and I was very excited because I wrote it in a way similar to that script, Animals, but it was all shot by shot and I don’t mean shot by shot close up. I mean it was:
trees…
brown leaves…
something moves.
A tree trunk.
The tree trunk is actually a man,
the man is holding a rifle.
His eyes are dark,

That kind of thing. Each action is on a separate line and I was just excited by what I was doing and I think I wrote that page and then I was all in.

Kary: 

You really dove into the facts and the environment of the story. Can you tell us about researching it and creating an environment in your head to write it?

Nick:

Yeah. We went back there, as I said, and we met this gang member. We also met Brad Jr’s mother and I picked up language there, how they spoke, and its osmosis, Kary, for me. There are a lot of details, I took a lot of notes, but I just kind of absorb a feeling. One of the fabulous things about that movie was we went to Brad Jr’s house and his mother was there and I wrote down a few things about the inside of her house and I put three details in the script and then I went to the set—  whatever it was, Tennessee, a year, year and a half later—  and the set designer had recreated her whole room based on the three details I’d given. It was uncanny. There were all these other things that I hadn’t put in my description that were there. It was like an orchestra ringing a bell and setting the right notes and I rang that bell and the bell was like… the cross on the wall that I omitted and the set designer put back in…it was one of those magical things that can happen in film.

Kary:

Now we come to the scene that I showed the class before they watched Reversal of Fortune. You have said that you find that scene, still to this day, problematic. And it’s because it never happened. That scene, that confrontation between father and son never happened. Tell us about how it ended up in the movie and why it stayed in the movie.

Nick:

I thought there was a lot of authority in this story because it was a true story – At Close Range – and the cinematographer’s a lovely man and I thought he did a beautiful job and I thought the movie was shot all wrong. I thought the movie should have been handheld. I thought the movie should have been grainy and dark. I thought every image should have told you, ‘This really happened.’ I mean, the truth was that Brad Jr’s girlfriend, Terry, was shot once and died. Brad Jr was shot, I don’t know, six or eight times and lived. But six or eight times. He was taken to the hospital and the idea that he would get up, wash his wounds, go drive over to his father’s house, and have a long scene with dad. I felt that we had left reality.  As for  the scene itself, I wrote the scene, I like the scene as a scene, it’s perfectly fine, but I thought I no longer have the authority of proof on my side there.

Nick:

It’s a problem because the truth, in a certain way, wouldn’t have been as satisfying. This scene is satisfying. The son gets to say to his father all the things he needs to say to him, it’s the confrontation that we’ve been wanting the whole movie. And in that sense, it’s really good, but it didn’t happen and it was false so there you go.

Kary:

And yet it is both satisfying and entertaining.

Nick:

Absolutely.

Kary:

Tell us about the creation of that scene, the shooting of that scene, the performances in that scene.

Nick:

I was in Tennessee, but the director said I couldn’t come on set because Sean had too much respect for me to act when I was present. Wink, wink, wink. Actually, the director admitted 15 years later that it was his own insecurity that kept me from being on set. But I’m told that Sean told Walken that the gun was real and was loaded. There you go, that’s Sean Penn. Method acting—  You want Chris Walken to be scared, tell him that the gun is loaded and real. And maybe it was real, I’m sure it wasn’t loaded, but who the fuck knows with Sean.

Kary:

Another thing I’ve heard you say is that you don’t start writing something until you know the ending and that that lets you know that you can write it. Can you talk about that?

Nick:

My process is as follows. As I said, I write something because I’m compelled to write it because I start writing it. It just happens. I start hearing ideas, questions, voices, dialogue. I write notes.  Notes to myself. ‘Wait a minute, what about … there’s a problem here. Maybe it should be a girl, maybe it shouldn’t be a guy, it should be a girl. What would she say to her father?’ And then I’m writing a scene. I do that for weeks or months. I write outlines and I’ll write an outline that’s the first 15 scenes and then that’s as far as I can think and then I’m writing dialogue and I’m writing about the characters. I’m kind of investigating the movie and I’m writing whole scenes. I’ve written scenes that are seven and eight pages without knowing who’s speaking, but I know it’s a scene from the movie and those scenes have gone in the movie.

Nick:

I’m doing this process of writing notes and I do that until I’m … the analogy I use is from nuclear energy, it’s like I have to reach critical mass. When I’m ready to explode, then I write the screenplay, but I can’t do that until I know where I’m going. I can’t do that until I know the end. I have to have some sense of what the end is. And like, on the movie that I wrote, Fallen, it took me like a year to think of what the end was. I had the basic premise of the movie, I had written a whole lot of scenes, but how the hell does this thing end? And that’s because the way that I’ve historically written is as follows…

Nick:

Once I’ve done all those notes, I write a draft in 10 days and then I take two days off and then I re-write it in 10 days and then I take two days off. Then I re-write it again in 10 days. So in 34 days, I have a draft. Now that sounds pretty fast, but I could have been writing notes for two or three or four months prior to that and some of that draft is plugging in scenes that I’ve written before, although often I barely look at all those notes. I’ve written all those notes for all those months and sometimes I don’t look at them but sometimes I’ll say, wait a minute, I think I’ve got a great scene somewhere and I’ll look up the scene and find it. But I have to know where I’m going because, otherwise, that flood of energy isn’t properly directed.

Kary:

You once told a story about writing a screenplay about a true story in which a woman was accused of committing a crime and when you began the screenplay you believed she was innocent of the crime. But, in the course of writing it, you became convinced that she was in fact guilty and how did that change of opinion affect the writing of the story? Obviously, it affected the ending. Do you remember this?

Nick:

Yeah, I remember it. There were a series of articles in the LA Times about a woman who— it was fascinating— She would paint her face with makeup so that half of it was white and half of it was black and she was accused of killing her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend and there was something tremendously, emotionally compelling about her. Her lawyer was also very convincing that the girl was innocent and I just dove into the story and I read a lot of trial transcripts and I know I’m jumping ahead here, but like on Reversal, I would come home one day and think Claus von Bulow had done it and come home the next day and think he was innocent. I kept going back and forth and back and forth.

Nick:

In this case, I was convinced this woman was innocent and that was kind of the fire. That was the thing that was propelling me through the story because the circumstances of that story were pretty horrendous. I think the victim was stabbed in the belly—  I don’t honestly remember—  But I loved the character and then one day I just felt like I knew that she had done it.  I knew.  And then it was really hard for me to complete the screenplay. The screenplay was different, the movie was different than I wanted it to be. It couldn’t fulfill the original impulse.

Nick:

I had a similar experience. Jodie Foster wanted me to write a story about Leni Riefenstahl and, like, ‘Okay, here’s this incredible filmmaker.’ And yeah, there she was making films for Hitler. It’s a film about such, in a certain way, a despicable figure, but she was a genius. I was doing this research and I was actually starting the screenplay and I came across a photograph of her looking at Hitler and there’s no other way to describe it: she was looking at him with love and adoration and I couldn’t get past the image, the photograph.  I couldn’t write the script.  That was painful – pulling out of that – it ruined by relationship with this wonderful actress, Jodie Foster. 

Kary:

This is a good segue into Reversal… The question of what made you say yes to telling this story of Alan Dershowitz and Claus von Bulow.

Nick:

Psychologically, I take refuge in my work. I’m happy when I’m working and I really think that if you love what you do, you exist in a kind of paradise. In a kind of garden of Eden. Then the movie comes out and if it’s not well received, you have this horrible feeling of, “Wait a minute, it’s a garden for you but the world doesn’t accept it.” I wrote a movie about Patty Hearst, which was a black comedy because if you look at the circumstances of that story, it just defies belief. Paul Schrader was interested in doing it. Paul Schrader made the movie and I went through the screenplay with Paul and he would say, “You know, people might laugh at this line.” And I’m thinking but not replying, “Yeah, that was my intention.”

Nick:

He would say, “But if you would just move this word from the beginning of the sentence to the end, then we won’t get a laugh.” And I’d say, “Okay, Paul.” I would move the word and then we didn’t get the laugh. He was right, but the movie was not the movie that I wanted to make. He made an interesting movie—  a very austere movie that did no business and by and large didn’t get great reviews—  But that movie came out and I was very depressed. They offered me this job and I thought, ‘I’ve got to go to work.’ That was the first factor and that was a really important factor because I really wanted to not be thinking about this movie that just came out. I wanted to do something else.

Nick:

The second factor was that I lived in New York when the Von Bulow case was in the tabloids every day so I was steeped in it. And then, I read the book and I didn’t know how to do it and I went and met with Ed Pressman. He’s been a successful producer and this is the way he’s a producer. It’s kind of interesting. He goes to three meals a day with people who are talented. And he’ll l say, “Kary, what are you interested in doing, making a movie about?” And Kary will say, “I want to make a movie about Yugoslavia.” And Ed will write that down in his little book and three weeks later he’ll run into somebody else who says they’ve always wanted to make a movie about Yugoslavia and he’ll say, “Oh, yeah, you know Kary’s interested in that. I’m going to put you two together.” And then Ed is the producer of that movie if it happens. That’s what he does.

Nick:

In this particular case, Ed did several things that were instrumental. He guaranteed Glenn Close $3 million. He guaranteed Jeremy Irons $1 million. He paid for my script, which was not tremendously expensive, but he bought the book. He was out $5 million guaranteed with nothing guaranteed in terms of anybody producing the movie. The financing came from three different entities which eventually gave all of us – especially the director, Barbet Schroeder, complete control. So Ed is a hero in that regard.Furthermore, at our first meeting or maybe second meeting, Ed said, “You know what, Brian De Palma said to me? Brian De Palma said he’d only do the movie if it was from Sunny’s point of view,” and then Ed giggled and then went on like that was a silly idea.

Nick:

I went home and immediately wrote like six or eight little pieces of Sunny’s voice over – almost all of which ended up verbatim  in the movie. After I wrote those, I felt like, oh okay, now I see a way into this story, which has to be as odd as the central character, von Bulow. Although, the challenge here is von Bulow is the most interesting character and Jeremy Irons won the Academy Award for his performance, but he’s not the protagonist. Dershowitz is the protagonist. Dershowitz is the one who wants—  he’s in the audience’s position. Dershowitz is the one who wants to find out the truth—  We, in the audience, want the truth. Dershowitz wants to get his client off, but he also wants to know what really happened and we kind of want Claus to get off, although if we decide that Claus is guilty, that’d be fine with us too, but we do want to know what really happened and so the movie is operating on a couple of different levels.

Nick:

The critical thing for me was when I had that thing happen where I just start to write and what I wrote provided an entry and a means. I should say that with this movie, as with many other movies, there were times when I just thought, ‘I should give the money back. It’s not going to work. I’m never going to figure this out.’ And then I just went back to work and back to work and then broke through again. I did write a script where, after I wrote that first script, Animals, I was hired to write another script, Scott Rudin was the producer, I wrote something like 50 or 60 pages. I stopped in the middle of a sentence, literally, I took my hands off the keyboard and I said, “This is shit. I’m giving the money back.”

Nick:

I called up my agent, I had my agent call the studio and he said, “He’s giving the money back.” Their response was, “We’re going to sue you.” I said, “What? I’m giving the money back.” And apparently what you’re supposed to do is say, he can finish this and then you’re obligated to pay him or we can just … no harm, no foul, … you’re out the money, he’s out his time. It didn’t work.” But actually, what their objection was that I wasn’t giving them the money back instantly – which I couldn’t do because I’d already spent some of it…it was going to take me a little time. They sent over promissory notes that I had to sign.  It was absurd and humiliating when I was trying to do the right thing.   Anyway, don’t give the money back.

Kary:

I want to dive into the peculiar challenges of Reversal of Fortune. I’m going to read a little bit of Nora Ephron’s review of Dershowitz’ book about the von Bulow case:

“There are undoubtedly readers who will object to all the self-congratulation that perfumes the book from beginning to end, but whatever else he is, Mr. Dershowitz is a superb teacher and his blow by blow description of the thinking that lead to each section of the appeal brief is fascinating. Mr. Dershowitz filed a number of affidavits along with his brief, including one from Truman Capote and one from David Marriott, a young man who might have become a witness but who turned out to have problems telling the truth. Unfortunately, many of Capote’s and Mr. Marriott’s statements are presented in this book as if they had merit and were in some way relevant to the outcome of the case. They weren’t. And after the appeal was over, neither was Mr. Dershowitz.”

Kary:

There have been many trial and courtroom dramas, but I think Reversal of Fortune may have been the very first and perhaps the last appeal drama. How did you approach that? How did you approach making an appeal interesting?

Nick:

I think with great trepidation, with arrogance and trepidation. Trials are dramatic. Trials are like you say, ‘You’re going to have a trial, you’re going to see the witnesses on the stand, they are going to testify, somebody’s going to break down. Somebody’s going to lie.’ But in an appeal, it’s this guy standing up in front of these judges and then another guy standing up in front of judges and stating arguments. That’s not dramatic. That’s really bad. So what I realized was, reading the bookand you’ll see this when you read about appeals of cases, you’ll see that often with the Supreme Court, when the case is overturned, the plaintiffs thought that their strongest argument was X, Y, and Z, but actually, the judges overturned it based on some minor point that the plaintiffs thought was pretty insignificant … So you never know what’s going to appeal to the judges.

Nick:

For that reason, Dershowitz had his team try a whole bunch of different things. The image that I had for this screenplay, it wasn’t going to be a straight line. The image I had was of juggling. They had to throw this ball up in the air and while that was up and three students went and tried to do investigate it,, i’d throw another ball up in the air and throw another ball up and then this one comes down. Throw that one back up. And, as human beings, we have a thirst for knowledge. We want to know. That’s why stories work. We’re like, “How did that story turn out?” A drama begins with: here’s something that you don’t know. There’s a secret. You’re like, ‘What’s the secret?’ It can turn out to be a really boring secret, but until you know what the secret is, you want to know what the secret is. That’s just how we are wired. It’s in our brains.

Nick:

Having all these different narrative vectors where this ball is up in the air and that ball is up in the air and that ball is … We’re going to wonder how all those things are going to turn out and that was the propulsion for this movie because otherwise, there wasn’t going to be any. And then, of course, there’s the ultimate question of guilt and innocence which I couldn’t resolve because, as I said, one day I’d come home and think he was innocent and one day I’d come home and think he was guilty. I read thousands of pages of transcripts. There were two trials.Thousands of pages. I read them all and I found some things I put in the movie – for instance, where Andrea confesses her—  essentially confesses her love for Clauson the stand. She says something that basically means she still loves him. I was like, “Holy shit, look what I found here. Nobody’s ever pointed this out … Dershowitz didn’t see it because Dershowitz is not an emotional human being. In real life, he’s like Woody Allen. He constantly tells stories and jokes. That’s all he does.

Nick:

He wants to tell you a joke and make you laugh in real life. And he has a very logical mind. In baseball, he’s like a .310 hitter. He just, every year, he’s going to hit .310. He’s never going to strike out. He’s just always going to put the ball into play, he’s just really logical. That’s the man. But here, he was guiding all these students and I love Barbet and the tone of the script, Barbet completely got it and I noticed in your syllabus, you talk about the relationship with the director and I should come back to that, but everything having to do with von Bulow and Sunny, Barbet had in his genes. He got it. Barbet’s a wonderfully charismatic, generous, warm, weird human being. He grew up in Columbia. He spent 18 years in Columbia then he went to France for 18 years then he came to the United States for 18 years. And as he said, “I speak no language perfectly.”

Nick:

Anyway, that’s Barbet. 

Kary:

Dive into the conversation about tone and your conversation with Barbet, particularly about the Newport culture, the world of the rich, and capturing the depravity and the notion that the rich are not like you and me.

Nick:

I didn’t have to talk to Barbet about Newport culture. As I said, some things you just get. He got that. What was unusual about Barbet was we went through every scene in the movie, he asked me about every scene. What does the scene do? What do the characters want? And so forth. What are you trying to accomplish in this scene? He had that transcribed. He read the relevant portion every day before he went to the set. I wasn’t on the set much, probably if they had eight weeks of shooting, I was there for one week. But I carried a beeper in Los Angeles for a film shooting in New York and he would beep me and I would call him back.

Nick:

In one case, he beeped me because he said, “In the script, you say that Claus is standing up and Jeremy wants to sit down. Is it okay if he sits down?” And I said, “No.” So he went back and he said, “Fine, thank you.” And he went back to Jeremy and he said, “I’m sorry, but Nick says you can’t sit down.” And Jeremy’s like, “Wait a minute. Are you the director? The writer in California says I can’t sit down?!” Well, I was right because as soon as a character sits down, the tension goes out. It’s much more relaxed.

Nick:

I’ll tell you a beautiful story that was here at USC. We showed Shampoo. Shampoo is about a guy who is a hairdresser, who is sleeping with all the women whose hair he cuts and he has a regular girlfriend, Goldie Hawn. Goldie Hawn finally finds out about everything that he’s doing and they have a breakup scene. In the breakup scene, the first time they shot it, it didn’t work. It’s just Robert Towne and Warren Beatty and Hal Ashby – just the three of them really, making the movie – and they realize something is off with the scene. Towne, probably the greatest writer of his generation, or maybe ever, looks at the script and he’s going like, ‘The lines are all there. The lines are right. I don’t understand what’s wrong.’ He can’t figure it out. He reads it over several times. He watches the scene cut together and finally, he notices that in the script, Warren Beatty is sitting down and Goldie Hawn is standing up. But not when they shot it.  Warren Beatty is a big guy, Goldie Hawn is a short woman. When he was standing up, even though she was breaking up with him, every time that he spoke with emotion it looked like a big guy beating up on a young woman, a smaller woman.

Nick:

It was important that she stand up and as soon as Towne realized this, he told Warren Beatty. Warren Beatty said, “Great. We’ll re-shoot it” and Hal Ashby said, “I don’t know. It looks fine.” Hal Ashby was a stoner and didn’t like to re-shoot, but they re-shot it and the scene worked. Two things there: one, it was important to have the writer on the set and looking at things, but there again, such a tiny thing—  who is standing up and who is sitting down—  it’s really crazy that whatt’s important, what can be important.  Anyway, a digression, but worthwhile.

Kary:

No, very worthwhile digression. I want to dive into the way that the tone, the comedic, ironic tone rather than a more sincere tone allows you and Barbet and the actors to get at a larger truth about moral complexity in the film.

Nick:

I realize that one of the things about comedy is that you have to clue the audience in early. You have to let them know. You have to give them permission to laugh and I don’t know how the film played here because I wasn’t in the room, but if every seat was filled, there would be laughter in this film because laughter is something that’s communicated within an audience. One person laughs and then another person hears it and he starts to laugh and then the group agrees and understands that something funny is going on. You have to let the audience know, and I realized that I had to do that in her opening voice-over.  She talks about being in a persistent vegetative state, perhaps a Brussels sprout.

Nick:

I knew that that was the line that I had to have, that it would give the audience a clue and that if I didn’t have that, the audience wouldn’t know. Even though that’s not a line that would necessarily make people laugh. It would be a line that would clue them in that the film had an odd tone. It was like playing a note over here and they’d say, ‘Oh, they are going to play notes over there. Okay, I should listen for that too.’ And then when Claus comes in and says, “Hello, hello, hello” or “Hiya, hiya, hiya.” Playing to a large audience, you’ve got to laugh there. I don’t know why you’ve got to laugh, but you do. And did I know that? No, but it was part of the same tone that was there through the whole film and tone is critical in a film or any aesthetic endeavor.

Kary:

Can you just spin that into the conversation about the moral complexity that it creates? sincerity has its own kind of moral impact on a viewer whereas when you create a more comedic tone, it adjusts the audience’s sense of a deeper morality, a deeper sense of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s virtuous in the moment.

Nick:

Dershowitz, being a defense lawyer, believes that his moral obligation is to give the best possible defense to his client and there are all kinds of rationales that defense lawyers use. They are defending the whole judicial process. Frankly, I think it’s pretty much bullshit, but that’s their perspective. I don’t know, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t think about the film in moral terms.

Kary:

I’m referencing this interview that you did where you talked about the comedy and Barbet’s approach feeds into a more European sense of morality, which is less sincere and on a certain level, more human and more kind of forgiving of the idiosyncrasies of human nature.

Nick:

Absolutely. Barbet is a completely non-judgmental person. I’m also a non-judgmental person. All human behavior is just human behavior. We’re just monkeys with clothes on and I think if that’s a morality, that does infuse the film. We know we feel maybe Claus did it, maybe he didn’t. He’s kind of entertaining. He’s kind of creepy. He’s kind of touching sometimes and Dershowitz is almost lesser because he’s so one-note.

Kary:

I want to go back to the most famous line from the show, which, as we saw at the beginning of our session, reprised in the Lion King. You wanted to cut that line.

Nick:

That shows how stupid I am. Every movie that’s made, they say the budget is whatever it is, say it’s $20 million. You go into production, it’s $20 million and then a month before you start shooting, they say, “Sorry, you don’t have $20 million, you have $16 million.” It’s like, what are we going to do? They say, “Well, cut, anywhere, we don’t care.” Because they’ve gotten their foreign monies or whatever and this is what they have and this is what you have to do. You’re always looking to cut. What can you possibly cut? Well, you’re cutting anything that isn’t essential. So when it came to that scene, I said, “I don’t know, Barbet. Maybe we should just cut these last lines because everybody knows that Dershowitz thinks that Claus is very strange and everybody knows that Claus is strange, so the lines aren’t really necessary.” And Barbet, bless him, said, “Yes, yes, yes. But I have a very good way to shoot this.”

Nick:

Essentially I get credit for a line that Barbet made work.

Kary:

I just remembered that we had Karaszewski and Alexander in to talk about The People versus OJ Simpson and this, in many ways, anticipates that story. And, in fact, Dershowitz is a character in The People versus OJ Simpson as well. As you saw those events play out and Dershowitz emerging as a character in that whole true story, what were your thoughts about it and particularly as Dershowitz has gone on to become this kind of-

Nick:

Well now with Trump, he keeps defending Trump and everyone else is saying that he’s wrong about all his legal opinions and then I’ve heard on background that some lawyers agree with him but don’t dare say so in public because they will lose their liberal credentials. I don’t know. I mean, Dershowitz is psychologically just strange…he wants to defend the most… if Hitler needed a lawyer, it would be Dershowitz. God knows.

Kary:

One last question, what is the best piece of advice you ever got?

Nick:

I don’t know what the best piece of advice I ever got, but I’ll give you the best piece of advice I can give you. It’s very specific and odd. You want to, when you’re writing, you want to get your critic out of the room. You want to get him out of the building. You want to get him out of the university. You want to get your critic out of the city, out of the state of California, and out of the country so that you can write. Eventually, once you have finished a draft you want to bring the critic back so you can look at what you’ve done and see what’s good and what isn’t. But when you’re creating, the last thing you need is to finish a scene and go, “That’s shit.” Because you have to write the next scene and you have to keep going.

Nick:

The reason I used to write with such propulsion, write so quickly is because there was no time to criticize. It was just like, get it out, getthrough it and my scripts always had a lot of energy because I was going so fast.

Nick:

Okay, when it comes to rewriting, I polish and I polish and I polish and I come to a draft and I think I’m finished and then I give it to—  I have a bunch of friends who are also screenwriters—  and I give it to one of them, and sometimes one of them has a smart idea and my response is, ‘Oh, fuck you. I don’t want to do that. The script is perfect.’ But the smart idea haunts me, I’m compelled to try it.  And I’m really pissed off because I don’t want to change anything because it all works so well.  Or I think it does.  

Nick:

So what I do is, it’s a trick and I know it’s a trick. It’s a trick I play on myself and it works. And it’s a trick that enables me to go back to that initial stage of writing where everything is free and I’ve got the critic out of the United States of America and the trick is I copy the entire screenplay over into a separate file. I still have the original script, the original file, which is “perfect.” I copy that,and I add to the file name the word, play. That’s it. It’s a play draft. It’s not serious, I’m just fooling around with this idea.  And because I’ve called it a play draft, I start flying around the screenplay changing this, changing that, throwing out stuff that I loved, doing this, doing that. And here’s the paradox, I’ve never gone back to the “perfect” draft. I’ve always incorporated the “play” changes. The screenplay is always improved. I know I’m playing a trick on myself, but by doing this I liberate myself psychologically from that protective instinct and from my absolute knowledge that at one level there is nothing wrong with the screenplay as it is. That’s the wacko writer’s trick that I play on myself.

Nick:

And I’ll give you one more, courtesy of my friend, Phil Robinson. When Phil is finished with a script and he wants to read it over but wants to read it with a really critical eye, he takes the title page and he replaces his name with the name of a prominent screenwriter who he thinks is a total hack. He looks at that thing and he goes, “Oh okay, so and so wrote this.” And then he reads it with a completely critical eye. Like, “Okay, this is not going to be good.” And so two tricks.

Kary:

Please join me in thanking Nick Kazan.