AutoBARography: A Noir Rewrite


Everybody loves beautiful gringo girls!
As promised, here is my correspondence with ROLLING THUNDER co-scripter Heywood Gould.

From me:


If my email is an intrusion please forgive me. I am a film programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse theaters in Austin TX. I will be presenting Rolling Thunder next week and I was curious about the collaboration on the script with Paul Schrader.

Specifically, who wrote the first draft, did you collaborate actively or were you brought in to rewrite an existing script. Or none of the above? Did director John Flynn write any of the script?

The reason I thought to ask you was that Quentin Tarantino mentioned a few years ago when he visited us that his favorite parts of the script were your contributions. Which really got me wondering about specific scenes in the context of your and Mr Schraders’ work.

This is all old news and possibly small potatoes to you but I will write up the film and hopefully in some small way the information you provide can help film historians in the future.

Thanks for your time,

Lars Nilsen

From Heywood Gould:


Let me answer your questions and then give some background. Paul Schrader wrote the first draft and I was brought in to rewrite. I never spoke to him about it and haven’t met him to this day. John Flynn didn’t do any writing, but like a good director he and producer Larry Gordon shaped the script. In the great tradition (now lost) they let the writer do his job and then made adjustments.

I was working as a bartender in Soho, living in a residential hotel and generally having a blast. Bill Devane had read a draft of a script I wrote called Fort Apache the Bronx, plus my novel One Dead Debutante. I don’t know what was happening behind the scenes, but I know they were already in prep when they decided they needed a rewrite and he suggested me. So they flew me to LA and I met Larry Gordon, the producer and the director, John Flynn. I read the script that night and as I remember it was a relentless bloodbath, which I guessed they didn’t want. At the meeting the next day I said they could keep the structure of the story, but needed more scenes to explain Raines, more emotion in his family life, more realistic bad guys, and they definitely needed a plausible, sympathetic woman (who doesn’t?) I did a little writing out of sequence because they wanted scenes for the auditions. I wrote the scene in the bar where Raines meets Linda Haines first and then the scene in the garage where he relives the torture for Cliff. (The line “you learn to love the rope” became the motto for the shoot when the temperatures went over 110.) Then I did the homecoming scene with Raines and his wife in which she tells him she’s found another man and stuff where he reconnects with his son.

I pretty much wrote the picture (or thought I had) in LA and went home. The next week they called and flew me down to San Antonio to do a production rewrite based on the locations they had chosen. I stayed for about a month and ended up writing new scenes for Raines and Linda and rewriting the fight scenes and the big brothel shootout at the end. The only scene they wanted intact was the one with John’s family where they talk about the Japanese cars, although I remember I wrote the last exchange between John and his dad. I wanted to show some unspoken love and communication between the two men because I objected to what I considered to be the original’s heavyhanded snobbery about working people.

A picture changes a lot when the reality of cast, location and schedule sinks in. John wanted scenes punched up and new scenes written. I wrote the target practice scene between Raines and Linda after he looked at dailies and decided the relationship was playing well and he wanted more.

That’s the best way to make a picture, keeping it alive and open to the very end.

I keep saying I remember because I was drinking mescal and eating cabrito every night and there’s a lot I don’t remember.

This was the first feature I ever worked on and it was a great experience.

The crew was old Hollywood mostly second or third generation, whose families had come up in the Golden Age. They were calm and professional in the face of the grinding pressure to finish long days on a short budget on location. I didn’t realize how unusual that was until I witnessed the hysterical anarchy in which most other pictures were made.

The budget was a million-three so there was no room for error. The line producer, Norman Herman, could look at the lens and know what the frame would be. The UPM, Tony Wade, went across the Mexican border, and rented real brothels (and some of their employees) for the big shootout. The First AD, Pepe, had been Henry Hathaway’s first and got the crew to hustle in the blazing heat without ever raising his voice. He brought his little dog on the set and it never barked during takes.

John was completely prepared. He had an encyclopedia of shots in his head. “This is a Kurosowa 150…” Or “A Huston low angle…” He may be one of the most underrated directors ever and you should definitely give him a retrospective. At least show “The Outfit,” which is a terrific picture.

We became close friends and I was shaken by his sudden death.

The crew worked hard, partied harder, and were ready to go the next morning. We were staying at the Holiday Inn and making good use of the bar. After the first week I noticed we had a discreet contingent of Texas Rangers hanging around to protect us from obstreperous locals. They studiously ignored the strong herbal odors coming from the prop truck.

An amiable old man in faded jeans and scuffed boots started hanging around, cadging drinks. One night he approached shyly and asked if we would come to his house for a barbecue. We didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He told us to start looking for his name when we got twenty miles out of town. We found his name, but it took us ten more miles to get to his house. Turned out he was one of the biggest ranchers in the area. He barbecued a whole steer and the fixins for us that day. His daughter thanked us for being so “hospitable” to him. And I caught a look a shrewd amusement in his eyes as we wandered around in awe.

In the bar of the Holiday Inn one night one of the local stunt men said he had been Roy Rogers riding double. The Hollywood stunt guys took this as unpardonable blasphemy and demanded a retraction. Before I knew it I was in the middle of a brawl. The next day the stunt guys came over to me and said: “Hey, you New York writers can really handle yourselves.” To this day that’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten in this business.

I could go on and on.

Hope I answered your question.

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