Carlen | Worth the Wait
an emily blunt interview
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.
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.
First- WOW! I really loved your film. Sonny doesn't
seem to dumb up its subject or rather "pretty up"
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.
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?
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.
Did you say NINE???!!! Okay-now even I am shocked.
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.
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?
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.
Good point. I believe this was actually your first screenplay?
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
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.
How different was this shooting script from what you originally
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.
Okay so fess up - Are you happy with the film?
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
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?
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?.........
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 digress
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.
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