Q&A; WITH DAVID WEBB PEOPLES : A Reluctant Hollywood Hero

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Try as he might, Berkeley-based screenwriter David Webb Peoples can't distance himself from the Hollywood scene. With three high-profile films on the screen simultaneously, he's been besieged with calls from the press asking him to discuss his work--and from industry types offering him more.

His revisionist Western "Unforgiven" is being mentioned as a probable Oscar contender. A recently discovered "director's cut" of the 1982 cult favorite "Blade Runner," has just been reissued. And his dark comedy "Hero," directed by Stephen Frears, opened last Friday.

A former editor of news programs, TV documentaries and commercials, the 52-year-old Peoples also wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated "The Day After Trinity," the story of the development of the A-bomb. Since breaking into feature films, he has also written the underwater science-fiction tale "Leviathan" (1989) and made his directorial debut with the 1990 post-apocalyptic action-adventure film "The Blood of Heroes." He and his writer-wife Janet are the parents of two grown daughters.

Question: "Hero," like "Unforgiven" and "Blade Runner," takes place in a world of moral ambiguity. Heroes and villains are presented as flip sides of the same coin.

Answer: I've never succeeded in writing "good guys" and "bad guys"--and, believe me, I've tried. A lot of entertainment revolves around them. As politicians have discovered, if you can devise a bad guy, people will listen. Others are far ahead of me when it comes to moral ambiguity, though. "Silkwood" was a hell of a script. Karen wasn't a saint. She didn't pet dogs and wasn't easily sympathetic but, thanks to the screenwriter, you respect what's good about her. Same goes for Paul Schrader's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."

Q: Is there a risk in creating an antihero such as Bernie LaPlante, a loser who, to his surprise and everyone else's, saves dozens of lives when a plane crashes in front of him? Were you afraid people might be turned off--or, at least, fail to identify?

A: Sure, which is why I wanted Dustin Hoffman in the role. Like Laurence Olivier, he's not only a great actor but a great entertainer. People want to watch him because he makes a character bigger than life.

Q: Is it true that you wrote the script with Hoffman in mind?

A: I have him in mind a lot of the time. He's the only actor who can do the women's roles too. Dustin is very handy that way.

Q: Critics have compared the movie to the talky screwball comedies of Preston Sturges. Are you a fan of his?

A: I don't think or write like him, but I love Preston Sturges. "Sullivan's Travels," "Christmas in July," "Unfaithfully Yours," "The Lady Eve" are my four favorites.

Q: The movie has also been called "anti-Capra" in that the populist protagonist, in the end, doesn't get his due.

A: If it has been called that, I'm glad to hear it. At his worst, I find Capra corny, preachy and sanctimonious. I find "Meet John Doe" difficult to watch.

Q: In your early days, you shot documentaries on selected social issues--the anti-war movement of the '60s, the invention of the atomic bomb. Are you still trying to get a message across?

A: No. There are certain movies I suppose I would refuse to write--subjects I'd find offensive. But Hollywood movies are about entertainment. Though we all have our value systems, they're not the forum to promote them.

Q: "Hero" delves into the nature of heroism, the power of the media, even the American character. That's considerably more than "entertainment."

A: Sounds like it should have been written by Shakespeare. Anyhow, the movie was really the vision of producer Laura Ziskin and Alvin Sargent, who co-authored the story. I was just hired to write it. Laura "directed" me . . . gave me rope, reined me in, protected me. For a writer, having Alvin (screenwriter of "Ordinary People," "Paper Moon") on the set was like a baseball player hanging out with Babe Ruth. He was the one who came up with the idea of having LaPlante steal the wallet of the woman he was rescuing, which was a very "Bernie" thing to do.

Q: Were any of you prepared for what has come to be known as the "Dustin Factor"? According to some stories, he had trouble "finding" his character and made life pretty miserable for everyone on the set.

A: We had three awful weeks when things were kind of wobbly. Stephen kept threatening to head back to England. But I don't blame Dustin. He's a hard-working guy who was stumbling around looking for things, trying to get a handle on the material, just as we all were. He's not the type to say the lines and head home at night. I respect him for that.

Q: Ziskin has been quoted as saying that Hoffman resisted playing the character as written. How did you respond to his challenges?

A: At times, I got plenty defensive. At one point, Stephen told me that, though Dustin had the reputation for being difficult, it was actually me that was the problem. I thought I was pretty cooperative, on the whole.

Q: Andy Garcia plays a downtrodden Vietnam vet who takes credit for LaPlante's bravery and goes on to become a national hero. I hear he was also up for Hoffman's role.

A: Yes, though personally I think he was too young for the part. Andy turned out to be a terrific comedian. He's a fan of Buster Keaton and it shows in his work. He saw his role as a kind of Christ figure--in more religious terms than I. But we both perceived Bubber as a special person with magic and grace. The Geena Davis character (a broadcast journalist in search of the man who saved her from the plane wreckage) was my weakest piece of writing, yet Geena managed to lift it from the dirt. I'm better than those guys who write women (characters) with low necklines, screaming at the top of their lungs. But when it comes to writing female roles, I just don't "get it."

Q: "Hero," ironically, comes on the heels of "Unforgiven," which you wrote back in 1976. Why did it take so long getting that project off the ground?

A: Francis Ford Coppola optioned it in '84. He took it around, but couldn't get financing. Clint picked up the option in 1985 and said he was making it "next year" a couple of times. The year before last, my wife was at the Telluride Film Festival and Clint walked on stage. He was overwhelmed by the scenery, he told the audience, and figured it was probably time to make his Western. I was thrilled.

Q: Ever wonder what "Unforgiven" would have looked like had Coppola been at the helm?

A: Francis would have done it brilliantly as he does everything else, but it's hard to imagine anyone making it as straightforwardly and uncompromisingly as Clint. No studio would have made it that way--dark, moody. With a lot of voices, things generally end up becoming blander and more accessible. "Unforgiven" was Clint Eastwood saying "This is what I'm going to do . . . get out of my way."

Q: You never set foot on the set and had no one to "protect" your words. Yet the script that was shot is said to be virtually unchanged from the original.

A: That's true. I didn't meet Clint in person until he invited me to see the movie at Warner Bros. But he and I were enough in sync that he didn't feel it necessary to ask for rewrites. One of the stars, Francis Fisher, told me that this was the first time she saw a shooting script that was entirely in white. Most of them are multicolored, full of blue and red pages or whatever representing various changes in the screenplay.

Q: Westerns are said to be out of favor--and this one wasn't a shoot-em-up tailored for a mass audience. Were you surprised with the response?

A: I was surprised--and happy for Clint, who is long overdue in getting respect he deserves. Though he's perceived as a commercial icon, he's made bold and terrific movies.

Q: "Blade Runner" tapped on a lot of issues even more relevant today--genetic engineering, Japanese influence, acid rain, the dehumanizing impact of "progress"--and was the precursor of films such as "The Terminator," "Total Recall," "Escape From New York," "Black Rain." Did all of you realize what you had on your hands at the time?

A: Those ideas and images of the future had been out there in books, but no one had created a world like that on screen. Entertainment generally lags far behind literature. Ridley made a brilliant film . . . one which broke a lot of ground visually. He always knew, though, that it was a "difficult" picture--a long-distance runner in a sprinter marketplace.

Q: The film only took in $14 million the first time around. Its re-release--without the heavy-handed narration and that audience-pleasing ending they originally tacked on--must give you a sense of vindication.

A: Not at all. Hampton Fancher was the key writer. He optioned the book and made it happen. Though I like the current director's cut a lot better than the original, I have no proprietary sense about the movie. In fact, I get lost trying to figure out where I am in it.

Q: Are you affected by bad reviews?

A: A critic can hurt my feelings publicly, but no one can write a review more negative than my own. I'm always disappointed in my work. I tend to lose sight of the fact that what matters is not what's wrong with a film, but what's right about it. People who criticized "Blade Runner" were correct. The story didn't work. But there was plenty of good in it. Not that I'm drawing comparisons, but Dostoevsky didn't get the end of 'Crime and Punishment' right. So what?

Q: You sound awfully upbeat for a Hollywood writer.

A: I'm sympathetic to writers who've been treated badly, but have never felt short-changed. On the contrary, I'm getting more attention than I want or need. Offers are coming in, of course, but since "Blade Runner," I've had more work than I can handle. My wife and I are now writing "La Jetee"--"The Runway"--a futuristic story we're hoping will be full of character rather than special effects.

Q: Any unproduced screenplays tucked away in a drawer?

A: I have a script, "Pair-A-Dice"--a weird desert island relationship picture--with Larry Kasdan attached to direct. (Producer) Joel Silver has a screenplay I consider my most commercial: "Sgt. Rock," based on the old comic book of the '40s and '50s, which I wrote in 1987-88 for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another of my scripts, "Soldier," is a science-fiction story sitting at David Geffen's company. It would be great with Wesley Snipes in it. Whether any of them will get made, who knows?

Q: Like Bernie LaPlante, you seem to believe that keeping a low profile makes you less of a target.

A: The original line was actually "Keep a low profile. Don't give nobody nothin' to shoot at." Bernie's a smart guy. He knows what he's talking about. An interview implies that the subject is interesting. I'm not. As a writer, I never intended to be either Frank Sinatra or Howard Hughes. It's all there in the screenplay.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 7, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction Director credited--John Else directed the documentary "The Day After Trinity." A story in Monday's Calendar incorrectly identified co-writer David Webb Peoples as the director.
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