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John Carlen | Worth the Wait
an emily blunt interview



There was a film out a while ago (now on DVD) called simply Sonny. This film, I felt, was unapologetically forward, undeniably original, impeccably acted and far from "simple." Its subject matter was less then light and seemed to make most audience members so uncomfortable they missed the story and the talent in and around the film.

Sonny also had the distinction of being cutey Nicolas Cage's first directorial debut and apparently the first script the writer, John Carlen, had written...though twenty odd years before. Its journey was long and filled with all the usual Hollywood "almost theres" en route to the screen.

But John's real-life story is even more intriguing then his script. If you don't recoil at people who grew up way outside the Brady Bunch facade of the perfectly procreating world within America's mythological suburbia, you should find this man's story as interesting as me. Enjoy.

Emily: First- WOW! I really loved your film. Sonny doesn't seem to dumb up its subject or rather "pretty up" Sonny's world...

John: Thanks! That's the way the script was written, and Nic totally got it. The "matter-of-fact" attitude of the characters in this bizarre world is that way because I wasn't trying to write a fictional narrative. This was my first attempt at screenwriting and I was simply scrolling back through my life and writing the characters and dialogue as I remembered them....After writing screenplays for a living for over twenty years now, I'm like a trained poodle. When I sit down to write , I'm carrying around in my head all the things that I know the studio or network executives DON'T want in the script. Such as truth, and honesty (smile). If I tried to write this script today I think it would have ended up a large stinking pile of contrived vulgarity.

Emily: Hmm. I doubt that - you still seem to be pretty honest, er, straighforward, to me. You say on the commentary this is a very personal story for you. Can you explain a bit?

John: I grew up in a whorehouse-gambling den-outlaw-hangout converted three-story railroad hotel in Dallas, Texas that was run by my great-grandmother. It was one of many whoring and gambling operations she ran all over Texas and Louisiana... I was taken away from my safecracking parents as an infant and raised by the old woman. Her plan was that I would take over the family business when she died. And since she figured I couldn't run an empire of whores without intimate knowledge of the business, she turned me out at nine.

Emily: Did you say NINE???!!! Okay-now even I am shocked.

John: Yes. Nine... With most of my customers in the early days being schoolteachers -if you
think Sonny was dark.... I got out at seventeen. Whereas Sonny is turned out at twelve and gets out at twenty-six. So the character and his mother, as well as everyone else in the film, is fiction. It's just based on episodes of my life, and people I've known. And one thing I'd like to get a chance to clear up here is the line from Jewel where she says, "He's the best there ever was. I know because I trained him myself". I didn't mean that literally. I meant that she personally supervised his training. The same as my great-grandmother did with me.

Emily: Yeah, that was quite a scene in the film. If your story is based in Texas why's "Sonny" story take place in the catacombs of New Orleans?

John: I first set it in Houston because Dallas had morphed into a socially correct, uptight, anal...thing, and I felt that Houston was a place that you could at least still breathe without someone making a mental note of your posture and breeding. Then when I did a rewrite about five years ago I changed the name from FOLKS to PONY RIDES and set it in Lafayette, which is a city that I worked in when I was hustling and later lived in for a while. It's a wonderful little
city and is the seat of the Cajun culture in Louisiana. I set it in 1961 because that was the year I was working there. And Lafayette seemed the perfect setting because it's smaller and sexier than Houston, and has this wonderful look, with the moss on the trees and the whole Southern enchilada. I never considered New Orleans because I always thought the city would overwhelm this small character study film. Then Nic said to move it to New Orleans and set it in the Eighties because he knew New Orleans in the Eighties. So in the shooting script I made the switch, and it turned out great. The sights, sounds, and smells of the French Quarter became one of the characters in the movie.

Emily: Good point. I believe this was actually your first screenplay?

John: Yes. It was 1976 and I was living in another movie at the time - the wonderfully fucked-up coed fiasco at the federal prison on Terminal Island, California. I was close to getting out, and managed to get transferred there from the maximum security lock-up in Lompoc. Not the tennis camp where the Nixon people went, but what stands next to it....This concrete and steel monstrosity surrounded by high fences and razor-wire. I had previously written a couple of plays, with one of them touring a bit back East. Then I discovered that you could be a successful playwright and still starve to death, so I made the switch to screenplays. Sonny was actually just an attempt to become familiar with the craft, and it came pouring straight out of my soul in a torrent. Like I said earlier, I wrote it the way I did because I didn't know any better. Thank God. I felt comfortable writing about people, places, and situations that I was intimately familiar with. I had almost finished when I was released, shortly thereafter
got an agent to read it, and three days later Stanley Donen had optioned it and I thought I had finally been discovered..... Then a quick quarter of a century went by and I got an email one day from CAA, asking for Nic if I still planned on directing the script myself, as had been the situation years earlier when I'd cast him as Sonny. I said no, and not that much afterwards, we were shooting.

Emily: How different was this shooting script from what you originally wrote?

John: In character and plot it's almost identical. The main difference is that it's shorter. My original first draft was 156 pages. There were a lot of things in that first draft that I would have cut out had I any knowledge of the business. You don't have two pages of narrative setting up a shot that isn't necessary to the movie...that sort of thing. I've been fortunate enough to have had several of my scripts turned into movies now, and the process at the end is more or less
always the same. The shooting script is something that has only what's needed to tell the story. By the time you get to the shooting draft, many, many people have memorized the script because it's necessary for their work on the picture. And money is always tight. (I've never worked on one of those big studio pictures where it isn't that important) So by the time you're getting the pages to the point where you're into the pinks and yellows, everyone has looked at
the things that can be cut out...On this movie we had less than four weeks of shooting time and a very limited amount of money. (For those critics who felt it had too many close-ups: YOU go shoot a movie with five million dollars and put those sweeping vistas and wide open spaces in it and see if you have anything left to develop your film.) If NIc weren't so self-confident and shooting so fast, we could have had an absolute disaster on our hands.

Emily: Okay so fess up - Are you happy with the film?

John: The short answer is Yes. Any aspiring screenwriters reading this will understand. I had a feature script that I wrote that ended up GETTING MADE, with a major star and extremely talented individual directing, and the most splendid cast you could possibly hope for. If you can't find a place in your heart for a little joy over that... then you're an agent and incapable. The longer answer is Yes. I'm happy with it. If you've been at this a while and had your scripts produced, there will always be things that you would have wanted to play different. But, trust me, for everything you would have wanted different there will be moments you didn't realize were there and the director or performers found them for you. On this film: There was some early dialogue that got cut that I felt would have explained the characters' motivation better and maybe people could have accessed the story more easily. But then...I didn't write those kids running into the room right after the couple had just been serviced by Sonny and Carol. Nic put that in, and I was jealous that I hadn't thought of it. So I think the most honest answer to your question is that I am grateful that Nic, the producers, the actors, everyone involved with the movie, thought my words merited their attention and labor. I am proud of the end result because since I lived it, I know how much honesty is up there on the screen. And if people viewing it see it as vulgar, or fake, or even "rancid from concept to completion" as one critic wrote, then it is because of my failings as a writer. Those characters are real people. That situation is a real place on this earth. If they failed to convince you of that then please blame me. Not them.

Emily: So.. if a gal were to try and get Nic drunk and naked - oops - er - I meant to say, how was it work with Mr. Cage?

I can sum Nicolas Cage up in very short order: He is a very gracious person and a real gentleman...Being a very crude and ill-bred little boy, I tend to notice those kinds of things. I've had directors tell me they didn't want me in the same state as the production. I even had a television movie start shooting and nobody tell me it had even been picked up. As in....

Don't you think we should call the writer and see
if he has any
ideas about the final shooting draft?

Call the what?.........

To tell you the truth, I have become accustomed to being a very well-paid afterthought. Because, let me tell you a little secret... so that all of you dreaming one day of coming to Hollywood and writing scripts for a living won't be raped in a rude sort of way: Those scenes in Adaptation where the writer is walking around the set of his own movie and everyone is looking through him as if he wasn't there...that wasn't clever writing. That was Charlie showing you what it's REALLY like in Hollywood once the director is hired. As soon as they don't need you anymore for words, everyone tries as hard as they can to pretend that you never existed. And then there are the exceptions. Nic was the biggest exception I've ever experienced. Allow me to nicolas cagedigress for a moment. A lot of writers deserve to be kicked off the set. They are looking over the director's shoulder and delivering opinions on the way it's going. Let me explain a reality thing that will save you a lot of needless grief: Once the director is on board it's his or her picture. And as a writer it is your job to support what is now someone else's vision of what your words mean. Can't do that? Look up the word collaborate in the dictionary... and do it from home. I, myself, learned the rules a long time ago. I always ask beforehand, and in writing, for permission to visit another person's set. If the actors want to discuss their characters, I obtain permission first, from the director, to speak with the actors about their roles. And I keep my mouth shut on the set because I am the only person there who doesn't have a job to do. Which brings us back to Nic. I got to go on a private jet to New Orleans to scout locations. Cast and Crew actually asked my opinions on things because Nic was confident enough in his own abilitlies to be able to say; "I don't know. Go ask the writer". And I've been doing this long enough to qualify for CERTIFIED RETIREE STATUS from The Writers' Guild. And I've NEVER been treated with respect like that. What's it like to work With Nicolas Cage? Let me tell you about something I saw day after day during the shoot that left me somewhat speechless. Between shots, Nic would wade out into the crowds of civilians who had gathered to watch and maybe catch a glance of a movie star, and not only sign autographs, but shake hands, exchange small talk, and generally make these people feel that they were talking to a friend. And you know what? They were. I've been around a lot of stars before. They all tend to think that somehow the heavens have been realigned and they are the absolute center of the universe. Most of them are infuriatingly intolerable as human beings because they have become completely, metabolically self-absorbed. Nic is the anti-star. Because he treats everyone with dignity and respect. Even the writer gets a little of that. And I can't possibly explain how refreshing that is. And how rare.


Yes, indeed John and right back at you. Folks this is one of the most honest straight forward fellows I've met. Sonny is a helluva film; rough, gritty, honest (as we learned) uncomfortable and personal.. Perhaps knowing the truth behind the film will prompt you to take another look or discover this wild American tragedy.


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