AFF Interview: Brian Helgeland
04.03.2013 | Erin Hallagan
In anticipation for our Wednesday, April 10th Conversation with Brian Helgeland and Advance Screening of his new film 42, Austin Film Festival sat down with Brian for a sneak peak on his thoughts on screenwriting, filmmaking, and his research and process. Joins us Wendesday for a Conversation with Brian Helgeland where we will discuss his career, inspirations, and advice for writers, particularly sharing his experience on directing his own scripts. For more information on the Conversation, and for tickets, click here.
AFF: You are originally from the Northeast and were a fisherman before you became a screenwriter and filmmaker. What made you decide to start writing screenplays?
Brian Helgeland: I was in a bookstore in between fishing trips in 1984 looking for something to read on the boat. I have been reading voraciously since I can remember. I had graduated a year before from college with a degree in English. I couldn’t find a job and as the only male member of my family who had never been to sea… I went to sea. Browsing through the store, a ‘Guide to Film School’ book caught my eye. I loved movies, but I literally had no idea you could go to school to learn how to make them. My second, cold winter of fishing was coming up; I had saved some decent money, and I cashed it in for the warmth of Los Angeles.
AFF: You’ve said before that you don’t like to call yourself a screenwriter. Why do you prefer the term filmmaker?
BH: I prefer filmmaker because that is what I am. If I wanted to write for a living I’d be a novelist. But I want to make movies; therefore I am a filmmaker. Screenwriting is just my end of it. I consider film editors to be filmmakers. Editing is just their end of it. If only the director is a filmmaker, then what are the cinematographer, the costume designer and the rest of us doing?
AFF: What excites you the most about writing a screenplay?
BH: The best part of writing a screenplay is full immersion. When I am working on a script, I don’t leave the house, I barely speak on the phone, I work seven days a week until it is done. It’s often frustrating and confounding, but I get to make a world, populate it and live in it, as imperfect as it might be.
AFF: How much research do you usually do before writing a screenplay?
BH: I do an inordinate amount of research. I try to read anything and everything I can get my hands on if it relates to what I am doing. There is no substitute. You cannot be smarter or know more than the actual reality of something. The key is when you think you finally know, then read one more book to make sure. And then another after that. I also interview people if it is appropriate for the story. When I was doing MAN ON FIRE with Tony Scott we spent a week in Mexico City simply interviewing people who had been kidnapped, families of kidnap victims, ransom negotiators, police experts and even former kidnap gang members. When you see the process shown in the film it is all real. On ’42’, besides the plethora of books available that touch upon the Dodgers 1947 season, I had the good fortune of being able to talk with Jackie’s widow Rachel and with former teammate Ralph Branca directly. Research becomes the breadcrumbs others have dropped before you to help lead you where you’re going.
AFF: How does your writing and process differ when you know that someone else will direct your work compared to when you direct the film yourself?
BH: My scripts are longer if I write for another director. I need to make what I am getting at clearer and easier to understand. The scripts I write that I direct are always 10 pages shorter.
AFF: 42 is based on a true story. What did you enjoy most about writing this screenplay? What were some of the challenges and benefits in writing something based on true events?
BH: In ‘A Knight’s Tale’ the character of William accuses Chaucer of lying. Chaucer’s reactive response is, “I’m a writer; I give the truth scope!” The trickiest thing for a screenwriter working on bringing to life a true story is to do their best not to lie. In ’42’ I tried my absolute best to document every major scene in the film. In fact, there is only one scene I made up and I felt I had enough circumstantial evidence to do so. Of course, ‘the truth’ can always be pushed left or right, but I did my best to avoid that as well. My job was to dramatize and structure so that, hopefully, the truth of two years of a man’s life could be boiled down to two hours.
Favorite moment/experience in making 42?
BH: The day Hank Aaron visited set, watched 20 minutes of footage and told me he thought I got it right.
Who are some screenwriters/filmmakers that have influenced your work?
BH: I am a big admirer of screenwriters who traded in their pen for the director’s chair. John Huston, Richard Brooks, Frank Pierson, Walter Hill. All bare knuckled directors who started out as bare knuckled screenwriters.