Ron Shusett is a veteran screenwriter and producer. You probably know him best from ALIEN, which he co-wrote with Dan O'Bannon, along with TOTAL RECALL. He also wrote a draft of MINORITY REPORT, for which he was an executive producer. I had a chance to interview him, so I did, because how do you not interview Ron Shusett when you have a chance?
: You're quoted on your IMDb bio page
as saying, "I've never written a screenplay by myself. And with good reason. There's one aspect of screenwriting I'm weak at -- character development. I always had a natural gift for the storytelling as well as the film's big moments -- whether it be suspense, action and high-powered imaginative scenes. But when it came to fleshing out the people, the more realistic, mundane aspects of a script that are critical to have you care about the people, I was always mediocre." Can you talk about how you collaborate?
: I realized long ago that I can occasionally write character scenes that work, but it's a lot of work for me. So over the years,
I've worked with different screenwriters: Dan O'Bannon, Gary Goldman, Steve Pressfield. Steve mostly wrote novels, and he's great with characters. We wrote ABOVE THE LAW together. That was a joy – a low budget movie that made a lot of money. The structure was great.
I've deliberately chosen to write my screenplays with people whose strengths are not mine. I'm very good with crazy ideas. I've always had an ear for pacing. But if I hadn't gotten all those people to write with me, the screenplays would not have had the success they did. If I write a screenplay myself, and then read it, I can tell there are some good things in there, but as a producer, I wouldn't buy this. I love Dan O'Bannon's characters in ALIEN – Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto's truck drivers in space.
So usually I come up with an idea or a source, and do two pages on it. Then I get a co-writer who's talented with characters. I like to have someone who, for example, when I come up with the chest-burster, he'll say, "Yeah, that's good, I like that!"
Then we'll start with a ten-page outline. Sometimes it'll go to twenty pages. We'll develop a scene-by-scene.
Then we'll sit on the first act together. Usually my co-writer writes the second act, and I'll rewrite it; and then I'll write the third act, because I have a sense of how the pacing needs to pick up. I don't try to figure it out, my gut tells me this is what has to happen. When I'm done, he'll rewrite that, he'll work on the characters.
I think I excel at third acts. It's the hardest to get right in a genre piece. In a character piece you can waver back and forth. You can do what you want to get to the end. But with a suspense or action piece you have to end up in a specific place.
: You've often
started with an optioned short story…
: I was one of the first people to adapt Philip K. Dick
for the screen. He's one of the most brilliant sci-fi thinkers of the last 50
years. How many original ideas can I find as good as that? If I get a great
idea from a short story, I can write many more hits than I could by writing by
Now of course there have been seven movies based on Phil
Dick, and five have failed at the box office. I've been involved in the two
successful ones: TOTAL RECALL and
MINORITY REPORT. Even BLADE RUNNER was a failure when it came out, although now
Back then, Phil Dick's stories weren't considered
literature, they were considered pulp fiction. They didn't have the gravitas of
success attached to them. He only made a few thousand dollars from his stories.
He never made the crosser to being a well paid writer, even though his stories
had this brilliant wisdom to them, prophetic thoughts.
I optioned TOTAL RECALL, the underlying short story in 1976.
People had never heard of Phil Dick, they said, "You'll never be able to
pull it off, the plot is too complex for main stream audiences to follow—and
you need them because it is very expensive to make."
I wrote the first three drafts of MINORITY REPORT with Gary
Goldman. I did not wind up with a writing credit on it because I had an
executive producer title, and according to the old WGA rules, if you were a
producer, you had to have done 60% of the writing to get a credit.
Spielberg wanted to bring in a much darker feeling than I was known for.
: ALIEN'S dark in
a different way. It's a science fiction / fantasy kind of darkness. Spielberg
brought into MINORITY REPORT that Tom Cruise's son had been kidnapped by a
pedophile. I could never write something like that. I can write bizarre
darkness because it's fanciful.
: In your opinion,
are we meant to take away from TOTAL RECALL that he really saved Mars, or that
he's still in the chair?
interpretation is that I wanted you to feel it's real, or otherwise why was I,
as an audience, so immersed in it. But we also crafted it carefully so that you
can also interpret that he's back in the chair – and we love it. Everybody
wanted it to come out that way, and if you craft something well enough, the
audience will accept it.
More tomorrow of my interview with Ron Shusett!