Ron Shusett, Part Two - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Crafty Screenwriting:    How long does it usually take you to write a script?
Ron Shusett:    If my writing partner and I get the third act in a timely manner, it takes a year and a half. It's a different timetable when you're a writer for hire. I never have trouble coming in on time. We can always write it timely. Usually you have 12 weeks plus rewrites. But if I really want to write something wonderful, it usually takes a year and a half.

TOTAL RECALL was the stunning exception – 3 years to come up with a payoff. We didn't have "Mars gets air" for three years. And only then was the movie of a piece, was of a whole. AFI ran an article:  why can't Shusett and O’Bannon get their Total Recall screenplay made? Because they can't come up with a third act. But finally we did, got it made and it was a big success creatively and financially. I was really gratified to find that later USC had a whole history of how we couldn't get a third act, and finally did and delivered a hit.  The evolution of that script was the film school’s example to writers how you can struggle, but persevere.   

That's why I've never been an enthusiast about writing TV. I've written three pilots. But I can't be comfortable with the limitations of TV timing. An idea could come in an hour or a month. Or a year. And then you think, "How did I not think of this idea five months ago?" They come when they're ready.

CS:    Dan O'Bannon had been working on ALIEN for a year and a half before you met him, and he was on page 29, right?
RS:    He couldn't figure out how to get the alien on the spaceship in a way that no one had done before. He didn't want them to just leave a vent open. We had all these film school peers, and I brought him TOTAL RECALL to work on together. And he showed me what he had on ALIEN. And I came up with the chest-burster. "He impregnates him. He injects something into him. And it just bursts out of his chest." And then we knew, now the story's gonna work. No one's seen something like that. After that moment it took us only three months to get the whole structure, and then maybe another 3 months to get the script written. And it was virtually exactly as you see on the screen, except for Ash being a robot, which was Walter Hill's idea.

CS:    Did you and Dan O'Bannon really wear raincoats for that scene?
RS:    Sure we did. Ridley didn't tell the actors what was going to happen. They shot the scene up to there. The next day they had a dummy body; John Hurt's head attached to a hollow body. And underneath they had a puppeteer with the chestburster, and a guy with a pump full of arterial blood. None of the actors knew – they thought, we're gonna do that later.

But I saw Sigourney looking really scared. She said, "I am scared." Because she'd seen Dan O'Bannon and I trying on raincoats and giggling like it was Christmas morning. So she knew something disgusting was going to happen.

We only needed one take. We had five cameras on the actors. Veronica actually fainted. She hadn't seen John get under the dummy body, so she couldn't understand how his body could split open. She passed right out.

The funny thing, after the chest-burster, there's only three tiny specks of blood in the whole movie. We shot lots of gore, but we didn't use it. When the Alien gets Yaphet Kotto, you see the teeth going into his forehead, but then we cut away. We spent a lot of money shooting all the gore, because you don't know until you get to the previews whether you may need that extra moment of goriness. But we didn't. 

CS:    How do you know when something is ready to go out?
RS:    I go a lot on the feedback of my peers. I have about three or four people I'll bounce my ideas off of. Usually I trust my own instincts. If I'm
getting lukewarm reactions I'll put it aside. Maybe come back with an improvement. Rarely do I plunge right ahead and send something out, unless I have underlying rights that are going to expire.

CS:    How many projects do you typically work on at once?
RS:    I can't write more than two at once, at that's only possible when you have co-writers. I tried three once, and I almost had a nervous breakdown.

Right now I'm just completing two scripts at the same time. One is a huge budget sci-fi, maybe $125 million. One is a low budget horror, around $15 million.

I think the big budget sci-fi is the best and most commercial screenplay I've written in some time. The big tent pole pictures, very few have great characters. You used to have outdoor adventures like GUNGA DIN and THE ALAMO – all the action and great, timeless characters. So I started thinking, I want to write a science fiction that has as much character development as those movies.

I like this low budget horror I'm talking about. It's based on [famous 19th Century horror story], and I tried to think how to make that fresh. And then I had an idea that [obviously I'm not going to tell you guys his hook!].

But I knew I needed three completely new effects for the script to be better than a pretty good movie. I spent four or five months just working on coming up with three new effects that nobody has ever seen before. There was a point where I had two of them. But I knew in my heart, if I were reading the script for the first time, I would not be amazed. Two days ago, I came up with the idea that [third effect]. And I knew, when they see this, they're gonna be buzzing for fifteen minutes.

I really try to have special effects that are bizarre. Two of the most spectacular scenes in TOTAL RECALL were not in the Philip Dick story: the Kuato scene, and the Edgemar scene, "I've been implanted in your brain to talk you down."

They can't just be original special effects. They have to further the story telling. That's the most common mistake I've seen in big budget sci-fi's. If you root the effects in the story, the audience will be far more thrilled.

CS:    If you're working on a script for months just thinking about new special effects – you're obviously not typing all that time. How do you tell when you're usefully setting your mind free by, say, reading websites or books or going on walks or hanging out with friends, and when you're just really loafing?
RS:    I never really stop thinking about the work. That's something my wife doesn't love about me. I'm truly an obsessed man and I'm thinking about it every moment. My friends would say, if a nude blonde came and put herself on Ron's lap, he'd ask her, "What do you think about Total Recall?" That's not good socially. But I'm obsessed with it. I don't want to be a one trick pony.

Sometimes you get a great idea when you're in a shower. My brain doesn't do it's best before ten o'clock at night. I had an amazing idea last night at 2 in the morning. That's my low budget horror. I've been working on it a year and a half already, I have everything but I need one more great effect. I'm making myself crazy, nobody's read it except for my co-writer. And then, just as I'm getting into bed, it comes, and I'm thinking, "Oh my God, this is worthy – yes, this came from the man who co-created ALIEN."

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