You probably know that William F. ‘Bill’ Phillips wrote the screenplay for John Carpenter’s adaptation of Christine. You may even be aware that he adapted King’s Firestarter for Carpenter a few years earlier. But did you know he was offered Children of the Corn, The Dead Zone and The Mangler as well? Or wrote a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon that Carpenter was set to direct? Neither did we, until we sat down and talked to him.
How did you come to be involved with John Carpenter originally?
David Gersh of The Gersh Agency was my agent and John’s agent. After his version of The Thing didn’t do well at the box office – it opened two weeks after E.T., and people seemed to love the cuddly alien but not the mean one – David suggested that since I had just done Summer Solstice (with Henry Fonda and Myrna Loy) and was good at writing “soft” stuff, that John and I might be a good combination. He could supply the scares and I could supply the interpersonal stuff. The feeling was that The Thing was “too cold” (no pun intended). I disagree, though. I loved his The Thing – especially Rob Bottin’s great special effects… I think its only problem was that it opened opposite E.T.
What was the project?
It was an original script John commissioned called Sea Story, about a three-person trip from Provincetown, Massachusetts to Corryvreckan, in Scotland, the world’s second largest whirlpool. The idea was that there was treasure from a galleon at the base of the whirlpool, and these folks were going to try to get it. It was deemed too expensive to make, because it was on water – these were the days before CGI.
When that project sank, you moved on to an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novel Firestarter, which Carpenter was going to direct?
We were going to do a version with Richard Dreyfus as the father. The first screenwriter was Bill Lancaster (Burt Lancaster’s son). He did a good job, but I think at that point they wanted to be sure that there was enough of a human element/personal story attached to the frights. That’s where I came in.
Do you have a general approach to book adaptation, and if so, what is it?
I try to do justice to the book first. Of course, a book is a ten or twenty hour experience, and a film is about a two hour experience, so things have to be cut. I probably overdo it with my scruples to deliver a script the author of the book would be proud of. Producers generally don’t care about that so much.
What was your approach to Firestarter?
I felt quite strongly, and John agreed, that we should avoid cheap-looking pyrotechnics, because they could be seen on TV at the time on The Six Million Dollar Man. So I went out of my way to avoid that. My favourite contribution was the birth of the child, who, when spanked into life by the obstetrician, caused the foetal heart monitor to explode.
So… what finally killed John Carpenter’s Firestarter?
John had a “pay-or-play” deal, which meant that whether Universal made the film or not, he would get paid (it’s a normal deal for talent with clout – to get and hold their attention.) When the marketing folks at Universal got cold feet because The Thing didn’t do well at the box office and Stephen King films were clogging up the pipeline and not doing very well… They decided that since John is very good at delivering low budget films, they would cut the budget from $27 million to $15 million. Since John didn’t have to agree to that, he didn’t. He took the money, and with it bought a Bell-Jet Long Ranger Helicopter, which he later rented out to the L.A. Olympics. John is well-known among filmmakers for knowing exactly what he wants, how long it will take to shoot and then change locations, so when the Universal bean counters wanted him to cut corners, he decided he wouldn’t.
What did you think of the finished version of Firestarter? How would you have done things differently?
I didn’t see it for about five years. I didn’t want to get depressed. I was struck by how good a cast they were able to get. But I was disappointed in their ending up using all the gimmicks I had rejected as being “too TV.” I feel like they missed an opportunity. They should have stuck with John (and my script). It would have been lots better, in my humble opinion. They ended up hiring a director [Mark L. Lester] who had proven he could do things on the cheap, and that’s what he did. Unfortunately, they also used a screenplay that put back all the pyrotechnics I had so carefully taken out of it. John later called my script “The best screenplay that never got made.” Ah, show biz.
Moving on to Christine, which actually came out first, were you the first screenwriter to attack the book?
Yes. When Firestarter fell apart, John called me and told me he wanted me to read Christine. I asked him about it and he told me it was about a killer car. I almost didn’t read it. All I could think of was [the old TV show] My Mother the Car, and I didn’t want anything to do with that. But he said, “Just read it. Then call me.” When I got halfway through reading it, I called him and told him I was hooked. As I recall, I had only a few weeks to write the script – they immediately went into shooting. I sometimes think that if I’d had the benefit of more time, it would have been a better script… but that’s part of what they’re paying for: can you deliver a shootable script on deadline. I felt I did.
What did you see as the fundamental throughline of the script?
“A loser fixes up a car, and in so-doing, he becomes cool.” It’s sort of a Dorian Gray story. I always told myself it was a story about possessions possessing you. When it comes right down to it, though, it’s a “killer car” story. Period. Only a few of us would bother to think beyond that.
Are there inherent challenges with adapting King’s novels into feature-length films? Or with those novels in particular?
I was seduced by King’s great dialogue. He’s really tapped in to how people think and talk. I think the biggest challenge is in the special effects needs. He can make something believable by sheer power of prose. Once you translate that into a technical gag that has to be pulled off on-screen, it’s no longer a literary trick – it’s a cinematic one. And audiences are very sophisticated about whether or not something looks believable. Of course, the other challenge is to choose the correct two hours out of the ten or twenty in the book. By the way, I turned down Children of the Corn – never liked the idea – and I remember meeting with Dino De Laurentiis about The Dead Zone. I turned that down, too, on the grounds that it was not logical: here was a man who could see into the future, saw the world destroyed by nuclear holocaust because a certain man becomes President, so went about trying to assassinate him so the future would not be so bleak. I said that if that were the case, then what future was he seeing if the guy didn’t get elected after all. Dino said the Italian equivalent of “Hmm.” Next thing I know, the film is out, and to deal with that problem, they trot out a scientist who says, “You know, just because you can see into the future doesn’t mean you can’t change it.” Problem solved! I wish I had thought of that. The other King story I turned down was The Mangler, about a killer washing machine. I just couldn’t see it walking down the street killing people. Seemed silly.
Can you remember any fundamental changes that were made during your various rewrites of Christine, and how they may have affected the finished film?
There weren’t really “various rewrites” – as soon as I handed it in, they started shooting. Everyone was in a big rush to get Stephen King to the big screen. A conscious decision I made (with which John agreed) is that because An American Werewolf in London had just come out a year earlier, in which Griffin Dunne becomes a rotting corpse in the back of a theater, it had already been done. So we took that aspect of the King book out of the film. Been there, done that. Another thing I did was to turn the killing of Buddy Repperton from being just a “grease spot” on the pavement to the whole blowing up of the gas station and the running burn car running him down, leaving his corpse smoldering in the road. And the killing of Moochie Welch involved an invention of mine: the forklift area… where Christine is even willing to strip its bumpers in order to fit into that narrow gap to finish off Moochie. Generally – and I attribute this to my knowing how to shoot, edit, sound record, light, etc. – I find that writing scripts when you know the technical aspect behind the making of them is pretty good protection from being surprised by a director and D.P. who have to make changes because the writer didn’t understand the film medium. But I learned a lesson I’ve never forgotten in that film. I told John and Richard (with a straight face, because I believed it) that even though the script was 136 pages long, it wouldn’t play that long, because I had kept a lot of King’s description in there… just to keep it atmospheric. Turned out that was wishful thinking. When the rough cut was a half-hour too long, they ended up cutting out the “writerly” parts: the interpersonal ones. Alexandra Paul’s part was cut way down, which I’ve always felt bad about.
What was the part you were most disappointed to lose?
My biggest sense of loss was an emotional scene between Keith Gordon and John Stockwell, where they sit in a car and have a heart-to-heart talk. A couple teenyboppers go by and think it’s an assignation. It was funny, but it got cut. Of course, looking back on it, they cut the right stuff. It’s a killer car movie – not Shakespeare. I now teach screenwriting at Dartmouth College, and I use this 136-page script as an object lesson: write a 120 page script. Even better, make it 110 pages. This quote is attributed to a lot of people, but Descartes is the oldest, so maybe he said it first: “I apologize for writing you such a long letter, but I didn’t have the time to write a shorter one.” That’s screenwriting in a nutshell. Like most art, less is more.
Carpenter has said that he “screwed up” Christine, because he “left out stuff from the novel that I should have used in the film – like the rotting corpse that’s haunting [Arnie].” Would you agree?
No, I disagree – for the reason given above. In fact, I’d never heard he was disappointed in the film… But people in Hollywood don’t often tell you what they’re really thinking. I have to agree that it was not a typical horror film, or a typical John Carpenter film, or even a typical Stephen King film – but I think that’s why people like it. It’s different… but it has substance. Not everyone likes it, of course… but it does have sort of a cult following. It wasn’t full of scares… but it did study weirdness in a way you don’t get in many films.
Christine has quite a legacy among film fans today – people seem to like it a lot better than Carpenter does. Do you think it stands up?
Yes. Also, we got two more good directors out of that film. John Stockwell and Keith Gordon. I see Keith’s name all the time in those good binge-watching sort of cable shows on now. I remember a few weeks after Christine wrapped, I saw Keith on the boardwalk in Venice. He had a blood-spattered business card, red and white, and his company was called “Blood and Guts All Over the Place Productions”. So it was especially funny to see that he later directed several episodes of Dexter. Keith observed both DePalma and John Carpenter very closely. I think he learned a lot.
Do you think it would be possible to remake Christine today?
I hope so. I have in my contract that if there’s ever a sequel or remake, I get to direct it. Of course, in the 25th Anniversary Collector’s DVD, Richard Kobritz says, “There was never any thought to doing a sequel.” Thanks, Richard! But they were very nice to me back then – both John and Richard.
What was it like working with John Carpenter on a film that actually made it through to production?
John was wonderful. Very open, very down-to-earth, not at all presumptuous. When Kevin Bacon fell through because he chose to do Footloose, I recommended Keith Gordon, who had just been Angie Dickenson’s son in Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill. He was great in that, and John and Producer Richard Kobritz agreed. Next thing I knew, they had cast him. (The 25th Anniversary DVD of the film doesn’t mention me at all… but then again, I was “only the writer.” But that impressed me that they listened to me. Likewise, when we couldn’t really answer the question: Is the car the devil, or is Roland LeBay the devil? Richarld called King, who said, “Gee, I never thought about that.” Then MTV had just come out, and George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone played. My girlfriend said, “There’s your answer. The car was born bad.” A funny moment for me was trying to sing “B-b-b-b-b-bad… B-b-b-b-b-bad” to John and Richard. They laughed – but they got the music. Turns out that was the first of many films to use “Bad to the Bone”.
Did you ever work on anything else together, something – like Sea Story or Firestarter – that never got made?
The last time I really worked with John was when I wrote a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. John went to the trouble of having some glass plates made of the lagoon he envisioned, and he hired a master effects man to make a model of the Creature. Universal never did make the movie. I remember Sandy once calling Casey Silver and saying, soon after Jurassic Park came out, “Okay… you have your big lizard movie. How about doing a little lizard movie now?” I’m not sure why that one never got made.
One other thing I’d like to say is that over the years, I got to know John and first his wife Adrienne Barbeau, then his second wife Sandy King. They were both great people to talk to. Sandy, especially, would regale me with sometimes hour-long stories about Hollywood gossip… always fascinating stuff… so even if John weren’t around, it was always a pleasure to end up talking to Sandy. By the way, did you know that John Carpenter, Tommy Lee Wallace and I won an ACE Award for the movie El Diablo? It was a comedy western done for HBO. John always wanted to be Howard Hawks… and I think it’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to do more Howard Hawks-like stuff.
Anything else you’d like to add about your experiences working on those Stephen King adaptations?
One of my favourite aspects of the production was getting to work with Michael Ochs – the music archivist who, at least then, had a house down in Venice, near the beach. (He’s the brother of the late folk singer, Phil Ochs.) It was just before CDs had become big. He was beginning to have them sent to him by all the record houses. But he had a several story house full of I’m sure more than 50,000 albums. I would call him up and say we needed a certain song, and he would immediately rattle off, “Do you mean the 1953 version by the Platters or the 1961 version by so-and-so?” And unbelievably, he had things so well organised that he could have a needle-drop within a minute… and it was a big house. I think he drank about 14 cups of coffee a day. He was very animated.
You recently bought one of the 1:18th scale Christine models from eBay (or LeBay?). Have you ever been tempted to buy a real one?
I had a chance to buy a ’58 Plymouth Fury several years ago (same colour scheme as in the film), but being too smart to waste $7,500 on a car with a problematic push-button transmission, I passed it up. Now my local mechanic tells me that if I’d bought it, I could sell it for $250,000 today. The story of my life (outside films)…
What have you been working on recently?
I just finished making a film about Sabra Field, Vermont’s best-known artist (a woodblock printmaker), who used to be my neighbor back in the 70s. Coincidentally, when Stephen King was hit by that van, I sent him a copy of Sabra’s “Going Home”, which I later learned is her best-selling print (of about 700). I wasn’t even thinking about doing a film about her at that point. I shot it, edited it, sound recorded and directed it… and I’ve learned that making a film is about 100 times harder than just writing one. It’s getting in film festivals now, and we’ll put out the DVD/Blu-ray soon. One thing specifically I learned is that while in writing, my brain is only good for about five hours a day… then it melts down… in editing, I can go on for 16 hours a day. It’s very addictive… and when it stops functioning at higher levels, one can always trim shots, take out “um”s and “ah”s… and do other idiot work that needs to be done. You end up missing lunch, supper… it’s nuts… but fun.
Have you ever thought about returning to the horror genre at some point?
Yes. I like horror. Although King didn’t like it, I thought Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining brought horror to a new classier level. I think Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later did the same thing for “zombie” films. My agent, Nancy Nigrosh, is now retired from agenting and teaches at UCLA. She recommends that new screenwriters find a genre and stick with it. I never did. I’ve written horror, romance, comedy, drama, police procedural, western, and documentary, adaptations and originals… and I’ve done it for features, network and cable. I can’t imagine doing the same thing over and over again. I had one horror idea stolen from me by a terrible person who has made a career of stealing things. But he is also not very creative, so his movie didn’t even make a blip on the radar. This means I could make it and not be hurt by his previous attempt. I even went to a litigation attorney about it. She said that he is so uncreative, and so crooked and cheap, that people are always suing him. So he lives in court. She said what I had to ask myself is whether I wanted to change my lifestyle for a year to sue him, especially knowing that he has learned how to protect his assets so that even if I won, there’d be no payout. So I chalked it up to experience. Fortunately, most of the people I’ve met in Hollywood are honorable. You can’t generally stay in business unless your word is good.