Allan Durand’s original screenplay “Willie Francis Must Die Again” is an amazing real-life story and a script that won Allan a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. However the story behind the story is also quite remarkable, one I’m happy to share with you through this interview.
I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week, and for those of you who think the only people who break into Hollywood as screenwriters are young USC or NYU grads, Allan’s saga will dispel that myth quite nicely.
Today in Part 5, Allan shares his thoughts on some key aspects of the screenwriting craft.
Scott: I’d like to ask you some questions about the craft of screenwriting. Let’s start with this: How do you come up with your stories and story ideas?
Allan: Well, I just wait till the bird lands on my shoulder. For example, one of my favorite ones is one titled, “Mary Magdalene.” I was sitting in church one day listening to this really boring priest, preaching a sermon about…I don’t know what it was. I’m daydreaming, and I hear him say that, “You’ve got to realize, the name of Mary Magdalene appeared more in all four versions of the Gospel than the name of Mary, mother of Jesus.” I caught that and I said, “What?” Wait a minute.” I started going through the Gospels. It turned out to be correct.
I read the Gospel of St. John. I see the most important event in Christianity is the resurrection from the dead. Who’s the first at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning to discover Jesus has risen from the dead but Mary Magdalene.
I started thinking, now, if you bring in the two billion people in the world who think Jesus was God. You’ve got two choices. You can say, at the most important event of Christianity, God said, whoever shows up first, shows up first. It’s not a big deal. Or he could use that as a teaching moment and place there who he wanted to be there for a very, very important reason, which is the option I took.
Then, I said, now, why was that? Why was this woman, who you never would have heard of if she had not showed up at the tomb first on Easter morning. Because the spin doctors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would have left her ass so far out of story, you wouldn’t have even got a whiff of her. They only got the prostitutes hanging around Jesus in the story because there was no way they could have left her out.
I started thinking about it and came up with something that makes sense. Being French by heritage and a natural romantic, it just came to me. I did that.
When I was doing the Texas Rangers documentary, one of the stories I ran across, the most famous Texas Ranger of the 20th century was a guy named Frank Hamer, H‑A‑M‑E‑R. He had come out of retirement to hunt down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. And then, a few years later, he’s watching the movie in 1940 in Austin.
The newsreel comes on, and there’s Hitler standing on the French coast getting ready to go in and invade England. Frank said, “I don’t think that’s right.” Frank writes to the King of England and says, “If you want me to, I’ll come over there and protect England from the German army.” The King of England calls back and says, “Please hurry. Do you think you can kill him by yourself?”
He says, “Of course not. I’ve got about 20 of my buddies who are retired, and we all want to come.” When I read that I said, “That’s a movie. There’s a movie.” A story hits me like that just interests the hell out of me.
If you’re going to write a screenplay it better interest the living hell out of you, either the story or the amount of money you’re getting paid, because at some point before you get to the end of it, you’re going to want to quit. It better be a story you love.
I just run across something, and it’s just like walking around the corner and seeing a really beautiful woman, it just stops you in your tracks and you say, “Whoa.” When a story idea makes you say, “Whoa,” then I sit down and write a screenplay about it.
Scott: How about the prep-writing? How much time do you spend preparing the story before you type, FADE IN, and what’s that process like?
Allan: Not long. I’m lazy as hell. I don’t like to do treatments. I don’t like to do outlines. Sometimes I get an end of a story in mind and I figure out a place to start it, and I just work my way to the end. Or, sometimes I have a beginning in mind and I start there. I just start following the characters and see what they do. In the end, historically, I have not done much. The most that I ever did was on “Willie Francis,” but that’s because I had a lot of information just through the years from my uncle. When I decided to make the documentary, my uncle’s family gave me a box of files, which was all of his files on it. He had kept all the old newspaper clippings on it. Then I had the Arthur Miller book, that they had come down here 40 years ago and interviewed a lot of people and done a lot of research.
But in terms of research, people that do a lot of research think that that’s a joke that that’s all I did for, “Willie Francis.” But that’s the most I’ve ever done. I may run into a stumbling block in places and then I have to go back and do something.
When I make a long trip, I like to get up early and get started. Same thing on a screenplay, just start it. I just go till I meet the edge.
Scott: “Willie Francis” has got some terrific dialogue in it. Is that something a writer is born with or do you think that can be developed? If so, how have you gone about developing your ear for dialogue?
Allan: Well, when I write a line, I sit there and I try to imagine myself hearing somebody say that and wonder whether I’d wince or not. You talk to people every day. You have conversations every day. You hear people talking. You’ve got to just make it sound like real people talk.
Scott: Theme. Let’s talk about theme. What would you say is the central theme of “Willie Francis”? Did you land on something there? I know you talked a bit about it from an emotional standpoint, the Protagonist being torn between two families, his own and his connection to Willie Francis. Was there anything else you gravitated toward thematically in terms of that script?
Allan: This may sound thin and shallow to you, but I really don’t think much about theme, I just think about whether it’s a story that really interests me. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about why. Maybe I should. Maybe if I knew why the story was so interesting it would help me over the rough spots when I’m trying to figure out how to make it work. I used to worry about all that. I didn’t want to admit it to anybody. But now an Academy Award winner, the hell with it. It worked. I’m not ashamed of it any more. But I’ll think about it. I think about what’s interesting about it. Why is it an interesting story? You’re either interested or you’re not.
You ought to know what’s interesting or if you don’t know what’s interesting, you ought to go sell life insurance or do something where you don’t have to know what’s interesting to get it done.
Scott: You wrote those first scenes for the “Belizaire” in 1986 and have written screen plays since then. What was your training? Reading scripts, reading screenwriting books?
Allan: Nope. I had no idea. Well, I had the script for “Belizaire” to look at, so I knew what one looked like but I didn’t …The reason I ended up writing that was because the original ending of “Belizaire” was Belizaire was in jail accused of murder. He had to negotiate his way out of prison. I told the writer-director, I said always think of “Casablanca”. At the first scene of the film, the guy gets off the plane and Inspector Renault says “Due to the importance of your visit, we’ve rounded up twice the usual number of suspects.” That’s why that line plays so well at the end.
But if you’re going to have your hero negotiate his way out of jail then you probably at some point early in the film ought to show him having an unusual ability to negotiate in unusual situations. I came up with the idea of him going to confession and arguing with the priest about the penance. We ended up starting the movie with that sequence.
I think the book I read about screenwriting that helped me more than anything else is there’s a little tiny book called “500 Ways to Beat the Reader”. It’s 500 things, the first act, the second act, the third act, things to avoid, things to do, things that readers look out for, things that readers hate to read. And that book has probably helped me more than anything else did. It’s really very succinct, very practical advice.
Of course, I do like to go to Barnes and Noble and go to the film section and read through other screen plays of things that have been made into films to see exactly, because the dialogue to me is real easy. It’s the rest of the stuff that I want to get better at. It doesn’t mean it’s good. It doesn’t mean my dialogue is good. It just means that I don’t have trouble with dialogue.
Ideally, I’d like to get to a point someday if somebody read something I wrote and said, “Boy, if I didn’t know better I’d say William Goldman wrote that.” [laughter]
Tomorrow in Part 6, Allan reveals more insights into his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
Please stop by comments to thank Allan for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
Allan is repped by WME and Madhouse Entertainment.