Ron Shusett, Not a One Trick Pony, Part OneComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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?

Complications Ensue: 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?

Ron Shusett: 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.

CS:  You've often started with an optioned short story…
RS: 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 myself.

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 it's legendary.

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.

CS:    ALIEN's pretty dark.
RS:    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.

CS:    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?
RS:    My 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!


Thanks for this, Alex. No one trick pony, indeed. And I'm especially intrigued by his decision how (and why) he collaborates with other writers.

By Blogger VLucas, at 11:11 AM  

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