This is part 1 of FilmDrunk’s interview with Allan Weisbecker. Check out the intro here.
“I’d just had a run-in with the U.S. Coast Guard off Puerto Rico, had scuttled a boat crammed to the gunnels with Colombian gold buds, and which didn’t sink quite fast enough, and was under intense surveillance by various law enforcement agencies. I suspect they got confused at my subsequent movements and behavior, given the sudden, disorienting change in the drift of my life.”
Lance Martini, FilmDrunk: A major through-line in Can’t You Get Along With Anyone: Writer’s Memoir and a Tale of a Lost Surfer’s Paradise is your history as a screenwriter, specifically the book deals for Cosmic Banditos and your first memoir, In Search of Captain Zero. How did the Hollywood “fiascos and catastrophic shit” you describe get started?
Allan Weisbecker: In 1980 I ‘retired’ from my former career as a large-scale international pot mover – speaking of fiascos and catastrophic shit – and in trying to figure out What To Do Next I came up with Screenwriter. I called the only person I knew out in Hollywood, a successful TV writer/producer I knew socially, and asked how to get started, segue from international crime to writing movies. He was a funny guy, my friend, got right to the point, said, “Write the best screenplay ever written and bring it out here.” Then he hung up on me. Funny guy.
I was in New York at the time, holed up in a suite at the U.N. Plaza hotel. I’d just had a run-in with the U.S. Coast Guard off Puerto Rico, had scuttled a boat crammed to the gunnels with Colombian gold buds, and which didn’t sink quite fast enough, and was under intense surveillance by various law enforcement agencies. I suspect they got confused at my subsequent movements and behavior, given the sudden, disorienting change in the drift of my life.
I bought a book on screenwriting so I knew what the fucking thing I was about to write was supposed to look like, hunkered down at the Plaza, wrote a story I’d been thinking about based on some maniacs I’d been associated with in the smuggling business, then flew out to L.A., showed up at my friend’s Bel-Air mansion and handed him the script.
This was during a strike, actors this time, so he had time on his hands. He sat right down at his pool with a margarita and a blow-laden mirror, read the thing in one sitting, me napping in his guest house. Wrote an option check that same day. The movie biz is a piece of cake, is what I was thinking. In fact, that may have been an all time record for least time elapsed between a wide-eyed jerk showing up at H-wood and getting a deal. What I didn’t know at the time was that the business I was about to get involved with was more vicious and duplicitous, plus ridiculous, than the one I was bolting from.
My friend wasn’t able to put the package together so six months later when the option ran out, Michael Mann grabbed it. By then I had an agent and a Mercedes and was banging starlets, the whole predictable screenwriter nine yards. Meanwhile, my ex-associates in Colombia and the States were one by one dead, in jail, or in one case, both. The timing of my career change was good. The decade of the 1980s was when the life expectancy of a fun-loving international criminal got iffy.
FD: What was the script like?
AW: A Strangelovian lunacy about an unbalanced CIA operative running amok in the Middle East in a stolen Agency Learjet (Learjet being my favorite means of travel), using his “dope cover” to run hashish (I’d begun my former career smuggling Moroccan blonde). While laying waste to every country he lands in, he’s casually staying one step ahead of a spook colleague who’s trying to terminate him, meanwhile blowing up oil fields, assassinating slimeball Arab diplomats, screwing foxy CNN reporters, causing an invasion of an Iraq-like shit hole by U.S. ground forces, and making a deal with a KGB agent, first for black market blue jeans and then for a tactical nuke the Russian stole from a silo in one of the ‘stans and is peddling to the highest bidder. At the climax, our hero’s sidekick – an Arab motor-head named Achmed who’s obsessed with souping up anything with moving parts — is tinkering with the nuke’s rocket engine and accidentally lights the fuse. As our guy (plus his dog Tonto), the Ruskie and Achmed calmly watch the nuke streaking up and away in the general direction of Europe, Achmed mumbles in his thick accent (his Rs roll on forever), “I wonderrr wherre that baby going to touch down.” As I say, Strangelovian.
The title was Foreign Policy.
FD: Was it ever made?
AW: No. The timing was off. Michael (Mann) was hot from Thief, with James Caan, but was about to cool off: the only turkey he ever made was just being released — a monster movie set during World War II, with a Nazi as the hero (I’m not kidding), called The Keep. No one was in the mood to trust him with a lunatic comedy about corrupt, murderous politicians, psychopathic oilmen, nymphomaniacal CNN correspondents, and unbalanced CIA agents as nihilistic war profiteers. Now, just fire up one of the cable news channels and there it is, the same shit, live from Washington, Baghdad, Tehran, and elsewhere (maybe minus the nympho CNN correspondent, although even that’s there, in subtext, if you pay attention).
But on the positive side, I got friendly with Michael, helped him with a script he was writing at the time and so forth, so a couple years later when he was creating Miami Vice, I was one of the first writers he called. Plus Foreign Policy got read by everyone in town, and they all loved the lunacy of it, even if they didn’t have the balls to make it. I was quickly a hot property, offered one assignment after another. Got a movie made with Oscar winner Bob Chartoff (of Rocky, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff and many others, fame).
FD: What was the movie?
AW: A catastrophe called Beer, a comedy about a beer advertising campaign that gets out of hand. Long story short: Bob hired the wrongest director on the planet. The frustrating thing was that Robert Altman wanted to direct it, but they couldn’t agree on financial shit. Would have been a whole different movie, to say the least. That a director is capable of destroying a story (especially a comedy) was among the first of the hard lessons I would soon learn.
FD: At what point did you know the director was wrong for the project?
AW: Within minutes of meeting him. Within seconds. As soon as he opened his mouth.
FD: What he said, or how he said it?
AW: Look, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead.
FD: He’s dead?
AW: Yeah, the shitball motherfucker…
FD: In CYGAWA, you mention you and Don Johnson (the star of Miami Vice) not getting along. Care to elaborate?
AW: This is a good example of a nonfiction semi-deceit I perpetrated, albeit a harmless one: It wasn’t that Don and I didn’t get along, not exactly; but there was an incident that happened on the Vice set wherein Don sucked up to me in order to get me to write him more lines. He actually said, “Philip (Philip Michael Thomas, the costar) prefers to react to my lines.” Hilarious. I retaliated for this bullshit by basically writing Don out of the next episode I did – which turned out to be everyone at Vice’s favorite. It was the only (intentional) comedy the show ever did.
FD: What did you think of the Miami Vice movie? I enjoyed it, but is it just me, or was a good 55% of the dialogue unintelligible mumbling?
AW: The Vice movie wasn’t one of Michael’s best, but I’ll tell you, he’s near the top of my list of writer/directors working today, although I wish he’d work out his dick-size issue or whatever’s goosing him into the uber-macho subject matter he chooses. (The Insider being a brilliant exception.) Michael is sort of a thinking man’s John Milius. Hold on. That’s not fair to Mann. He’s more than that. [Ed. Note: Milius is the man responsible for the camel-punching scene!]
FD: How about Collateral? Personally, I thought it was worth it for the intensity, but the final third of the movie felt like they were trying to squeeze in an unnecessary (and completely far-fetched) love interest. Your thoughts?
AW: I disagree. I think the ending with the chick in distress was perfectly set up. Hey, you gotta keep upping the stakes, upping the jeopardy. How else to do that but make the last of the Cruise character’s victims a personal thing? And for symmetry he had to make it one of the other taxi fares. I liked Collateral a lot.