He might not be an everyday household name on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but veteran Hollywood writer David Webb Peoples has had a hand in some of the most noteworthy films of the latter half of the 20th century. He was brought onto Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to perform a polish on writer Hampton Fancher’s original draft. His screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s award winning western Unforgiven was a major success story, finally seeing production after twenty years in development hell and earning an Academy Award nomination in the process. David, along with his wife and frequent writing partner Janet Peoples, also adapted Chris Marker’s poetic La Jetée into a grander science fiction film for Terry Gilliam in 12 Monkeys.
Peoples has worked with some of the best people in the industry, a fact that he constantly seems humbled and amused by as we chat on the phone from his California Bay area home. Three times he found himself working on the best films some of the best filmmakers in the world ever produced. Most people never have the chance to even come close enough to working on one of them.
This weekend, David and Janet will be attending this year’s Toronto Screenwriting Conference on April 5th to participate in an in conversation talk on screenwriting and their experiences with NOW Magazine’s Norm Wilner. The two day event on the 5th and the 6th will also include talks from Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt about how story problems were overcome on Toy Story 3 and numerous other lectures, master classes and talks with various industry professionals from both film and television. For more information on the conference and a full list of speakers and events, check out the TSC website.
But for those wanting an advance look into what to expect, we chatted with David (and briefly Janet while discussing 12 Monkeys, which they did together) about his career (including detours to talk about Hero, Leviathan, and several unproduced screenplays), what it’s like to be a writer on a troubled project, the values of being a patient writer, and much, much more.
Dork Shelf: Most often you seemed to gravitate a lot more towards films that could most often be seen as falling within the science fiction and fantasy genres. What is it about those genres specifically for you as a writer that holds an appeal?
David Webb Peoples: (laughs) I’m not quite sure why, actually. Sci-fi is just a really great place to deal with issues if you don’t want to do a lot of research and get too heavily into factual stuff. I think it’s that element of escape that you have there, but I don’t really think of myself as gravitating too far in that actual direction. I just like telling stories and whatever venue works for a story doesn’t matter as long as I’m excited to go there.
I think that the way to approach that – and I think this is true of my collaboration with Janet Peoples when we work together on scripts – is that what we’re trying to do is to write big, Hollywood entertainment kinds of movies in the grand tradition of all the great movies we grew up watching. Films like Butch Cassidy, Star Wars, Chinatown, and so on and so forth. So we always tended towards writing in that “bigger than life” kind of area as opposed to the much more, I guess you could say, “authentic” films that turned out to be art films and not big audience pictures.
Now the world has changed a lot since we started writing, but we still think in those terms of the bigger than life Hollywood movie as opposed to what used to be television. Television has changed, and it’s all different now, but I’m referring to coming up around the films of the 60s and 70s. Those were the films that got us into writing. That’s what we just stayed doing.
DS: Do you find it strange now when you talk about films that have influenced your career that people now find inspiration in some of the films that you have had a hand in writing? Is it strange to see people taking writing cues from some of the work you have done?
DWP: Ha! (laughs) I don’t know if I was ever really so aware about that with regard to my own work, but I think we all reference stuff and we always have. Everything that’s come before us makes up who we are. That’s sort of a natural process. Both Janet and myself have been influenced by the films that we watched and saw, so it doesn’t really surprise me that something that maybe we were involved in could have that same effect on other filmmakers. It’s a really natural part of the creative process.
DS: With something like Blade Runner in particular, that was an adaptation of a story that people already knew a little bit about before the film came out, so that’s a natural kind of influence that people could infer. But is it true that you had never read Phillip K. Dick’s source material before you worked on the screenplay?
DWP: Not only is it true that I hadn’t, I still haven’t! (laughs) I’ve never read it. The adaptation on that film was very much the work of Hampton Fancher. I was brought in to do what basically amounted to a production rewrite. I did a very good job, but the real author of the adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s work is Hampton Fancher, who is a brilliant writer and who had already written a brilliant script when I came along and did some changing.
Ultimately what makes Blade Runner so memorable to people is the vision, and that vision comes from Phillip K. Dick, Hampton Fancher, and Ridley Scott. They really did something there. I did good work on the picture, and I’m not a bit modest about that, but the fact is that the visionary quality of that comes from Dick, Ridley, and Hampton.
DS: It does sound like you are a bit humbled, though, by the success of Blade Runner because you’ve become noticed for something that not many people get a lot of credit for in the industry, which is the art of the re-write or the polish. Is it strange when you come in as a writer in that capacity and you end up getting more credit than you expected from it?
DWP: That happens all the time, and it cuts both ways. It’s part of the business, and I just have an awareness of certain things. (laughs) I’m definitely aware of that picture because it’s just an extraordinary movie. I was so lucky to be involved with Blade Runner. It’s Ridley Scott’s great masterpiece in my view.
DS: It also speaks to the fact that across your career the scripts you have worked on have been picked up on by really talented, well known directors. Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, Terry Gilliam, Richard Donner, Stephen Frears. You seem to have the enormous fortune of often being brought into the orbit of these great directors. I know as a writer you can’t really pick who directs your work, but have you felt really lucky in that respect?
DWP: Very, very lucky, and that’s a really perceptive comment on your part. It’s like being a really great football player, but if you’re not playing on a team that wins games, people won’t notice as much and that’s not necessarily the fault of the individual player at all. Janet and I have been very, very lucky with directors, and that’s important especially on something like when we did 12 Monkeys because you’re not always going to get a movie made if you don’t have a good director. Those guys that you just mentioned have been the real blessings in our careers.
DS: It’s widely known now that Blade Runner was kind of this enormous spectacle both on screen and off screen and that the production had an enormous set of troubles that ran out of control. That movie has so many different cuts now that it’s really hard to keep track of. And by that same token, and I don’t mean this as a dig against the guy, but working on a Terry Gilliam film almost never seems to be a walk in the park. You can see that if you get the DVDs of those movies and you see Ridley and Terry talking about the production of the films. So from a writer’s perspective, what is it like having to almost watch from the sidelines as a film you have worked so hard on starts to experience a bit of turbulence? Is that hard to take and does it put greater stress on you? Do you get brought in a lot more or do you see a lot of what you worked on get thrown by the wayside?
DWP: Ohhhhhh, that’s a question that’s really difficult to answer. You’re quite right and everyone else would be to watch those documentaries. The one on Blade Runner, which I only saw a couple of years ago for the first time, is quite extraordinary. The Hamster Factor that shows up on 12 Monkeys does a beautiful job of showing the struggles the film had in post-production, which almost never happens in those making-of documentaries. Those documentaries are wonderful expositions of the difficulties of making movies and showing everyone’s involvement.
That part of it certainly is difficult for me, and dealing with those sorts of things are definitely not my strong point. (laughs) My strong point has always been in a room alone or with Janet. In that privacy we do our best work and we hope it survives the improvements and the negative things that can happen over the course of a production. Not all of it survives, but that’s true of all movies. They all go through a really tough process, usually.
Really the only exception to that in my career would be something like Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood seemed to understand every scene and seemed to like every scene and he just made the movie more or less as it was written. That’s extremely, extremely unusual. I mean, he had a vision, but fortunately it was not dissimilar from the vision that I had, so he brought out all the best in the script instead of reworking it.
DS: When you talk about things that get held onto and what gets tossed out, is it strange to watch all of these different edits of Blade Runner that exist to try and keep them all straight and remember what version has certain different scenes in them?
DWP: (laughs) It is very confusing. I have seen the theatrical cut two or three times. I’ve seen the director’s cut. I’ve seen the original cut. I don’t know how many cuts I’ve seen of that film, actually. I saw many, many different scripts and I saw many different cuts of it while the film was still in the editing room. The whole thing has become so confusing to me. (laughs) I have no idea… (laughs) It’s so far over my head. I can’t keep track of it. I once came across an old script that had great scenes that I wrote that were left out, and I can see all of these great scenes that were written by Hampton that were left out. I can’t really evaluate the actual film much more beyond that anymore except that I know that the film is extraordinary and I’m just glad I was there.
DS: Have you been in touch with Ridley Scott at all about the rumoured follow-up to Blade Runner?
DWP: There’s a bit of misinformation out there on the internet. Actually, he’s never been in touch with me about it. The internet is not that great. (laughs) But I know he and Hampton have worked on a Blade Runner 2, but I have no idea what the status of that is right now.
DS: You’ve also worked around some of the best producers in the business, and I wanted to talk to you a bit about working with Laura Ziskin on Hero, which you wrote a screenplay for based on an idea that her and Alvin Sargent had. Is it intimidating to have to work on a story that comes to you directly from the mind of a producer?
DWP: Laura was one of the greatest producers. She was an excellent producer and then she became a studio executive. She was magnificent, and she and another producer, Susan Spinks, came to me with this wonderful project called Pair-a-Dice, and my drafts of that film were some of the best drafts I had ever written. Laura was supposed to be the producer on that.
Her husband, Alvin Sargent, was one of my idols. He’s one of the greatest writers who ever lived. You definitely know who that is. He wrote Paper Moon, Julia, Ordinary People, Spider-man 2, and he’s got several Academy Awards. He and Laura were a couple. They came to me with the idea of Hero, and I didn’t quite go for the idea exactly as they had presented it to me, and I made some big changes so it wasn’t just their idea. It was the three of us working together, and that was exciting because I was getting a chance to work with one of my idols.
Out of that came Hero, but Laura really found her own as one of the greatest producers there was. She was trying for years to finally produce As Good as It Gets with Jack Nicholson. That had a wonderful script that no one wanted to produce, and James Brooks ended up directing that, but it was from this really great script from (Marc Andrus) that she just FOUND and pushed for. The other movie she really pushed really hard for to get made was the Gus Van Sant picture To Die For with Nicole Kidman. She was a terrific producer of unusual material.
Most importantly, she was a great collaborator. She was one of the best producers to work with as a writer. She was awesome, and you don’t often hear that from writers about producers. I wish she was still around now.
DS: One of the first scripts you had produced following Blade Runner, and I bring it up because I was researching it recently since this year marks the film’s 25th anniversary is Leviathan, which despite coming out in a year with a lot of underwater adventure films has managed to maintain a pretty faithful following, but it seems like a bit of a strange direction to go in when looking at your filmography after Blade Runner. What was working on that film like?
DWP: Well… (long pause and a sigh) Boy, that was not a happy experience for me. (laughs) It didn’t work out at all or in any way like I intended it to. I only watched the film for the first time a couple of years ago, and all I saw were the things that I screwed up and the things that other people had screwed up. It’s not something I’m too proud of. I mean, I worked hard, but the assignment from the studio was to simply write Alien, but underwater.
When I wrote it the script had them opening a bottle they found that had some dried up insects in it that suddenly came alive. In this even more than in Alien, the creatures were never these big monsters. They were tiny almost invisible things that got inside of people. It was a very scary idea, but I was discouraged from writing it the way it ended up on screen. I wrote it totally differently.
When the director came on [George P. Cosmatos, ed.] he wanted a whole new set of changes that I was really just uncomfortable with, so I left the project entirely. I had imagined the project as something very dark, probably even darker than when James Cameron did The Abyss around the same time. There’s not a lot of light underwater so the initial concept was that you would see very little. You would see the actors’ faces, but with only a little bit of light around them.
I just had a very different vision of what it was. If some people think the film is good, then I’m glad it’s good! (laughs) But I don’t think of it very much as mine.
DS: Is that hard to deal with as a writer when you leave a project and you’re still credited on the production after you leave as one of the main people responsible when your heart has kind of stopped being in it? I know you and Jeb Stewart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), who I assume came in to do the rewrite on your draft, have the final credits on the film.
DWP: Well, in the first place those kinds of feelings towards a film when it gets rewritten is that it’s not necessarily another writer that’s rewriting you, but it’s the director. (laughs) I mean, when I worked on Blade Runner, I had Jeb’s job on Leviathan: I was brought in to do what the director wanted. When I first met with Ridley Scott I was given Hampton’s screenplay and I seriously said, “Jesus Christ! I can’t make this any better than it already is!” He said he “had some ideas.”
When you do a rewrite under these kind of circumstances, very often you are doing what the director wants done. I have no idea, but I suspect the things that I don’t like about Leviathan are coming from there. Well, a lot of it does come from me. I don’t think I did a great job. But I suspect most of what I don’t like comes from the director, for sure. I think Jeb Stuart did the job he was given, and I think he actually did a really GOOD job given the circumstances.
DS: I wanted to talk about the work that you and Janet did on 12 Monkeys because I’m a huge fan of Chris Marker and to take on something like La Jetée and expand upon it and create this whole new world and context around it sounds like a daunting task.
DWP: It might be of some help to us if we actually got Janet on the phone to help with this one. Would that help you out? She can actually be possibly a lot more informative on this one than I can.
DS: Sure! Absolutely.
[Janet joins the conversation via a second telephone in their home]
Janet Peoples: When we were approached to supposedly do a remake of La Jetée, number one, we hadn’t actually seen it. (laughs) We were busy having children and raising a family at the time.
DWP: We had definitely heard of it and we felt really awkward when we were asked because we hadn’t seen it.
JP: The other thing was that when we did see it we turned to each other and just said, “But this is a perfect film. How can you do a remake of it?” Also especially given the kind of film it was: a series of stills with one little moving part. There were all sorts of reasons why we couldn’t and shouldn’t do it.
So David said that to the producers and they came back and said “Try! Just try!” (laughs) So I said, “okay.”
DWP: We were also haunted by another really big Hollywood film that had already very wonderfully dealt with a lot of the same aspects of La Jetée, which was The Terminator. That’s an absolute masterpiece, too, and the last thing we thought we could do was to both try to follow La Jetée AND The Terminator. Those are such great movies. The Terminator deals so well already with the past and the future, and I think Jim Cameron was also influenced by La Jetée. It’s intimidating not only trying to adapt Chris’ movie, but it had already in a way been done.
JP: What we did was say that if we did do something that it couldn’t be a remake, but maybe we could keep the themes and ideas of it. We always say when we are given this kind of a project “What if someone kidnapped our kids and said, ‘You HAVE to come up with a story.’” That’s by and large how we came up with the story, and thankfully it turned out alright. We never wanted it to be a remake, but we wanted to make an homage to La Jetée, which is still just one of the most extraordinary films ever made.
DWP: And Chris was one of the first people to be very quick to say that this wasn’t a remake. He couldn’t have been more supportive of us and what we were doing. At the same time, the one thing he was horrified by was seeing this woman that he had written in his film coming out and being a psychiatrist. Chris’ idea was that psychiatrists were the priests of America, and he had no time or use for priests at all. He was kind of horrified by some of the specifics, but he was always supportive and we were always clear with him that we weren’t making La Jetée, but rather something that was inspired by La Jetée.
DS: Since you are going to be speaking at a screenwriting conference and we haven’t talked about it as much yet, is that Unforgiven really speaks to the need to have patience as a writer. It was a film that you wrote early in your career that sat unproduced for almost twenty years. Even after Clint Eastwood optioned the film, were you ever worried that it would never get made?
DWP: Yes. There were a lot of points when I thought that. Not even just while you’re starting out as a screenwriter, but always, you have to keep your eye on the ball, so to speak. It’s like a seed that you throw into the garden and you have to have it on faith sometimes whether it will grow or not. You can’t keep hovering over it to see if it’s breaking through. You’ll lose focus on what you’re doing.
I certainly thought that it would never get made, but I couldn’t pay attention to it too much or dwell on the fact that it wasn’t getting made because that would be demoralizing. It would stop me from moving forward in the writing that I was doing and that I wanted to be doing. I didn’t think very much about it all the time.
Once Clint Eastwood bought it, he said he was holding off on it for a while. Then he went and made another western while he had it [Pale Rider, ed.]. Then I thought maybe he would never make it. (laughs) Then Janet actually ran into him in Telluride and he said “Well, I’m going to make David’s picture now.” This was sometime in 1990 or 1991, and I was thrilled to hear it, but I was still unsure it would happen. (laughs)
I have many scripts out there that I think are pretty darn good that haven’t gotten made. Maybe someday they’ll get made and maybe they won’t. The same is true of the work that I do with Janet. The best script that has my name on it is an adaptation I did with Janet of [James Dickey’s] To the White Sea. It’s a beautiful script, but it may never get made. It’s a difficult script. It’s not anywhere near a slam-bang commercial kind of venture. It requires a great actor to want to do it. It’s still the work I am most proud of.
As a writer you do these things and sometimes they get made and sometimes they don’t. Unforgiven had a very happy ending in that it languished starting in 1975 and then it finally got made 17 years later. Maybe that will happen later with some of my other pictures. One can hope! (laughs)
DS: Do you think to a certain degree it’s always good for writers to think grand ideas and do their best rather than to just leap directly into trying to land the biggest deal possible?
DWP: I would say that you have to have a sense of the movies that you like. You have to want to write movies like the ones you like. You have to find something that works for you and that reflects how you see things. As I look from today, I think both Janet and I started writing back in the 70s and we were influenced by a lot of different kinds of pictures and we tried to write like them, but in our own way.
Unforgiven is tremendously influenced by Paul Schrader’s work on Taxi Driver. Nowadays I look at something like The Sopranos and David Chase’s voice and I wish we could have done something like that. And Breaking Bad, too. What a masterpiece! If I were starting out today, I think I would be more influenced by that than I would be the movies, but it’s all about trying to write about things in the area that has the works that you admire the most. It’s about trying to do something as exciting as The French Connection or as exciting as Jaws. You’re trying to do it not by copying them, but by being influenced by what they do.