An Interview with Frank Pierson, Scribe of Cool Hand Luke

This great interview from the WGAW gets into the mind of screenwriter Frank Pierson, the writer of such greats as Dog Day Afternoon, A Star is Born, and Cool Hand Luke:

Many of you know Frank Pierson’s work as former President of the WGAW or his stint as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Others of you may know of his remarkable writing resume, starting in the ‘50s with television shows such as Have Gun – Will Travel and Playhouse 90, followed by five decades of films like Cat Ballou (Screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank R. Pierson), Dog Day Afternoon (Screenplay by Frank Pierson), A Star Is Born (Screenplay by Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson), In Country (Screenplay by Frank Pierson and Cynthia Cidre), and Presumed Innocent (Screenplay by Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula).

But odds are, all of you know the famous line he came up with while writing 1967’s Cool Hand Luke (Screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson):

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”  

Although younger, less film-savvy readers might recognize it only as an audio sample on the Guns N’ Roses song, “Civil War,” it’s still one of the most iconic quotes in motion picture history. Spoken by a road crew captain after teaching Paul Newman’s eponymous prisoner Luke a rather savage lesson, the line was not in Pearce’s original novel. And, believe it or not, Pierson didn’t think he’d be allowed to keep it in the script.

“The phrase just sort of appeared on the page. I looked at it and thought, ‘Now that’s interesting,’” the scribe told the Writers Guild of America, West Web site recently, “Then I thought, these words are going to be spoken by an actor who is playing a real redneck character who probably never went beyond high school, and it has a faintly academic feel to it, that line. I thought, people are going to question it.”

To solve this, Pierson wrote an entire biography for the captain. “He started out as an ordinary guard in the prison system, but in order to advance to a higher grade, he was required to do a certain amount of study and take courses in criminology, so he was actually exposed to an academic atmosphere, which would justify him using that language.”

As it turns out, Pierson didn’t need it. “No one ever questioned that line,” he shrugs, “so I never used the bio.” If you’ve seen Cool Hand Luke, you know why this is the case; When it comes to character, Frank Pierson’s scripts do not fail to communicate.

What’s your creative process?  

Sit down at 10 o’clock in the morning and write anything that comes into my head until 12. One of the few things I’ve discovered about writing that seems to work, at least for me, is to form a habit that becomes an addiction so that if you don’t put something down on paper every day, you get really mean and awful with withdrawal symptoms, and your wife and your dog and your kids are going to kick your ass until you get back to it because they can’t bear you in that state of mind.

What’s happening is that your unconscious is writing all the time. It doesn’t stop. In the middle of a dinner party or just playing with the dogs or what have you, you suddenly have in idea. Sometimes it’s important to go write that down, but it won’t go away. If it’s a good idea, it’ll linger in your mind. If it’s a bad idea, you’ll forget it.

How did you get started?  

That goes back so far I can barely remember. My first job was in television back in the days when we were doing Have Gun – Will Travel and Alcoa-Goodyear Theater and Playhouse 90 and things like that. That was my entry into the business. My mother was a screenwriter, so I’d had a lot of exposure to the business or the art of whatever the hell we do – maybe it’s a sport, I don’t know.

Also, I had worked for several years in the Beverly Hills bureau of Time and Life magazines covering entertainment among other things. I had a lot of connection to it and was very tempted to do it. Then one day I realized I was writing long reports to dispatches to Time and Life and big patches of my prose were going straight into the magazines but under somebody else’s name, and I got so pissed about not being credited for the things I was doing, I thought I’d get into the movie business, where I’d get credit. Well, hmmm…

So I quit the magazine for a couple years and just wrote samples of various shows, and I finally got an agent, but was selling nothing. Finally, I realized one day that I wasn’t going to make it. I was going to have to shave off my beard and go get a job somewhere doing anything. That weekend, a wonderful man named Billy Sackheim, who was a great producer in those days, bought a teleplay of mine for Alcoa-Goodyear Theater. It was my first sale. Of course, Billy, who later became a great friend and patron of mine, the first thing he did was assign a different writer to have it completely rewritten.

That moment comes up a lot when I talk to successful screenwriters. That moment where they give up – and for some reason, that’s when it finally comes together for them.  

Well, it’s a hell of a lot of luck involved in this business. There are many very fine writers who have not just had that lucky thing happen to them. Somebody sees something they need at the moment, and they buy it and you’re off and running.

You wrote some of the big, important ‘70s films – a time people consider the Golden Age of Hollywood – but you also wrote really hard-edged movies in the ‘60s and ‘80s – do you really think the ‘70s were that different?  

They were, but some of that kind of openness to what you refer to as “hard-edged” was going on in the 1960s because Cool Hand Luke was 1967, and lingered a bit into the ‘80s. And still, today, very interesting pictures get made by Tarantino and the Coen Brothers and Paul Haggis and so on. These people are coming up with things. But there’s no question that the ‘70s themselves were really wide open. There was just so much being done at that time. Every year, the major studios were commissioning things that they would never touch today or even thought of touching in the 1950s. It’s a bell curve. It starts in the 1960s, reaches its peak in the 1970s and peters out in the ‘80s. But that doesn’t mean nothing is happening now. It’s happening here and there – and it ain’t happening in Hollywood.

Cat Ballou was your first film script. It was also very different from everything else you’ve ever done, given its comedic tone. How did that come to you?  

Harold Heck, who was the producer, had a contract to do it for Columbia, and he had a start date on it. He was just coming off a string of disastrous pictures and the studio was ready to write the whole thing off. I was working along with John Cassavetes, and Bob Rafelson, and Paul Masursky, and Bob Altman and crowd of other distinguished people at Screen Gems, which was the television of Columbia.

It just so happens that we were all writing pilots scripts, but nobody was buying the pilot scripts, so they brought someone in to run the TV thing. He fired us all and then realized that we all had contracts that were very expensive television-wise, but extremely cheap by the standards of the movies, so what he did was in order to unload the red ink from the books of Screen Gems, he traded us all across the street to Columbia to do rewrites for very cheap rates. Columbia was glad to get us because we were so cheap!

That was the beginning of all of our careers. Cat Ballou was one they were trying to write off, so I was assigned at television rates to do a final rewrite on it. I was the 11th writer on that, but they’d all been trying to do it straight, like a Gene Autry singing movie. Walter Newman, who was the writer on it before me, had the inspiration to do it as a comedy, but he was fed up with the whole damn thing, so he sketched it as a comedy. Then he quit, and that was my opportunity to come in and pick up where Walter left off. He just gave me such a gift because he showed how to do it as a comedy, and all I had to do what follow in his footsteps. It was extraordinary.

Has your time as president of the Academy changed your opinion on the role of the writer in Hollywood?  

No, it hasn’t changed my view of the role. You know, Bob Towne once said, very famously, that the reason everyone hates the writer is because nobody can go to work until the writer is done. Everybody’s always waiting.

Writers have always been in a position of being rewritten. The difficulty is that too many directors find themselves competing with the writer rather than looking for the truth or the sense of feeling or the dramatic value in whatever the writer has done and trying to express that the best way that they can. Those directors are in short supply. I suppose that’s what happened mostly over the years, because of the shifts in the way that movies get made, more and more of us have tried to become directors and direct our own material, so I think the rise of the writer-director is bigger, proportionately, then it was in the past.

What about the writer-producer?  

Well, producers have been so castrated by what’s happened in the business. There are only a few, Scott Rudin, Harvey Weinstein, and maybe two or three others, who are producers in the old sense in having an idea for a movie and hiring a writer and developing the idea with the writer and then finding the right director. Those people have virtually disappeared in the business. It would be hard to find a Selznick who is so dominant that he actually fired directors all the time. Someone asked him once why he didn’t direct – because he approved absolutely everything in the movie – and he said, “Why would I direct? I have more important things to do.”

Are you writing anything now?  

I’m in the middle of developing a series with David Milch and also halfway through a screenplay for a project based in the Korean War, which will be a big war movie. It’s got to be about an $85 million picture.

I’m not quite sure how you find time to work on those projects with your work with the Academy.  

Well, you know, primarily, I’m a writer and the unconscious never stops. It just keeps going. At 10 o’clock in the morning, I find myself sitting down and looking at what’s in front of me and trying to write a scene.

I was once sitting at this lunch, and the person who was sitting next to me said, “What’s your favorite movie of the ones that you’ve done? Dog Day?”

I said no. It’s any number of the unproduced screenplays I’ve done because they unspool in my head, absolutely unspoiled by all the compromises you have to make in order to get a movie made.

Are they still out there?  

Back in the 1950s, writing for live television, Playhouse 90 and shows like that, the writer retained the copyright and the studios were only leasing the performance rights. The Writers Guild gave that up in 1960. Since then, everything that has been written has been very neatly written around the copyright laws to be defined as work for hire. And the problem then becomes, you write a picture for Warner Bros, or whoever, and if it doesn’t get made, it still remains their property. The most aggravating part of it for me is the semantics of it. The copyright laws say that when work is done for hire, the employer is deemed to be the author, which is like saying that Pope Julius II painted the Sistine Chapel or Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria wrote Wagner’s operas. It’s ridiculous. And the worst part is that the scripts remain in the vaults of these studios, and it is extremely difficult to get them back. And the result is that there are some wonderful projects – and I include some of my own – that are just lying there and are never going to get made for one reason or another.

If one of the studios offered to give one of your scripts back, which one would you grab?  

Oh boy. That is hard! Warner Bros is sitting on about three of them. I guess probably one that I called Second Coming, that is about a television evangelist who believes that God has told him he’s going to be President of the United States. But that’s neither here nor there because it sits in the vaults, and they will not let it go.

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