By William Hjortsberg
When the LEGEND of Darkness script was published by Harvest Moon Publishing (now defunct) in August 2002, William Hjortsberg wrote an introduction to the script book which he has kindly allowed the LEGEND FAQ to republish here.
By William Hjortsberg
My alternate career as a screenwriter came to me through the back door. As a struggling novelist, I had been supplementing my meager income in the early seventies with freelance magazine Journalism (mainly for Sports Illustrated) when my agent called to say that William Friedkin had read one of my books and was interested in having me work on a film. At the time, I knew so little about the business that I had never even heard of the man who had just directed The French Connection and The Exorcist back-to-back- As it turned out, the script I wrote for Friedkin and Universal (Morning of the Magicians, very loosely based on the 1960 French cult classic by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier) was never made, perhaps mercifully for all concerned.
Thrilled by the prospect of more than doubling my annual income with three month's work, I ran across the creek to share my good fortune with my friend and Montana neighbor, fellow writer, Richard Brautigan. "Hmmm." Richard rubbed his chin thoughtfully when he heard the news. "You know the secret of writing screenplays, don't you?" His blue eyes danced with merriment.
"No," I replied. "What's that?"
"You have to leave all the writing out."
As with every great witticism, there was a profound element of truth in Brautigan's offhand remark. Movie-making is all about telling stories with pictures. A screenwriter need not be Shakespeare in order to describe a sunset. EXT. BEACH - SUNSET will suffice. The cinematographer frames the shot and captures a sunset worthy of a thousand words. If the writer has done his work, the images he has chosen and the manner in which he juxtaposes them shape the narrative. Nevertheless, I realized from the start that screenplays were also meant to be read, especially first drafts, and here was where an adroit phrase or deft bit of description might make all the difference.
I first encountered Ridley Scott in New York in the fall of 1980. I was returning from a long European sojourn and didn't hold out much hope for our meeting the next day because my agent told me Ridley wanted to talk about Frank Herbert's Dune, a novel I had never read. This time around, at least I knew who the director was, having much enjoyed his film, Alien. Although over the past few years, I had written several screenplays (including a couple of car chase comedies for Roger Corman which actually got made) Ridley Scott was not interested in seeing me because of my movie work. Once again, he had read my fiction.
As it turned out, Ridley had no intention of discussing Dune. He asked if I would like to write a fairy tale. Of course, I said yes, and not just because it's insanity for a freelance writer to turn down any intriguing job offer. By one of those magical coincidences which so often animate an artistic career, I had recently begun working on a sequence of fairy tales.
Because sceenwriting had come to occupy almost all of my creative energies, I found myself with little time left over to devote to my first love, creating fiction. The brief tales and fables I wrote were utterly uncommercial and purely for my own enjoyment. I might read them to my friends and family, but when they were done they went into a drawer and that was that. Under these circumstances, there was a certain element of "once upon a time" in getting to know Ridley Scott.
The prospect of writing an epic fairy tale held great appeal. My brief fictional efforts in that vein had largely been ironic in tone, modernist takes on the genre. I wanted to play it straight this time and hopefully create a classic, a story with elements which would echo eternally in the public imagination, like glass slippers and magic beans, pumpkins that turned into golden coaches and cannibalistic witches living in gingerbread houses. Great fairy tales live on forever. This is as close to immortality as any writer might imagine.
Shortly after the new year, I went down to LA. for story conferences with Ridley. He was busy working on Blade Runner and we met in his kitchen for coffee in the mornings before he took off for the studio. We tossed various ideas around, circling the problem like wary cats eyeing an inviting mouse hole. Ridley said he wanted the story to include unicorns, "the fastest steed on earth." I agreed that unicorns were a fine idea and improvised a quick mental riff about a princess in love with a commoner, the miller's son perhaps. She sneaks out of the castle to meet him in the woods and he takes her to see the unicorns, setting in motion potential disaster.
The princess toys with the boy. She takes off her ring and tosses it into the air, saying she will marry whoever finds it. The ring bounces over a cliff and into a deep pond. The miller's son dives after it. While he is under water, something terrible happens to the unicorns and the whole world turns to winter. Returning to the surface, the miller's son finds the pond frozen solid. He breaks through the ice. The princess is gone. Snow covers everything. The boy must figure out what went wrong and save the day. Ridley Scott loved this idea. He said he'd heard enough and told me to go home to Montana and write my script.
At the time, I was living in a cheap furnished apartment in an old brick building overlooking the railroad yards on Livingston's north side, A friend informed me that back in the 1880s the place had been the town's contagion hospital and whenever I swept the floor I imagined clouds of ancient cholera bacilli rising out of the cracks. But there were broad windows facing the mountains and my picture postcard view of the Absaroka range fueled my imagination every time I sat down to write.
The script sprang straight from my unconscious, almost writing itself. I felt I had the classic elements I needed, a search for the ring, unicorns, the frozen pond, eternal winter. My only reference work was Fairies, a marvelous picture book by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. From it, I garnered some folklore and a few traditional names like "Jenny Greenteeth" and "Jimmy Squarefoot." The first draft is the only time a film project belongs completely to the writer and I reveled in my proprietorship, allowing my daydreams to carry me off in any direction they chose. I followed some dark paths, perhaps because I was going through a painful divorce and it's impossible for the imagination to completely filter out reality.
My first draft weighed-in at 145 pages, the excess heft due mainly to lengthy descriptive passages. I mailed it to Ridley and when he phoned, a week or so later, his Geordie accent burred with enthusiasm. "It's a hole-in-one," he crowed. I naively assumed this meant he was ready to film the screenplay exactly as written. Not long afterwards, at our first script conference with the executives at Twentieth Century Fox, I learned otherwise. "One thing simply has to be changed," Marcia Nassiter growled between drags on her cigarette. "You can't have the villain fuck the princess."
This began nearly four years of rewrites. In all, the screenplay went through fifteen drafts and although new characters were added and various scenes changed continually, the essential arc of the story, (the ring in the pond, the killing of the unicorn, a world frozen in
winter, death and resurrection,) never varied. That was my hole-in one. Through it all, (and the production ground twice to a halt) Ridley Scott remained a loyal champion of my work, as well as a stimulating creative collaborator. Never, not even in the worst of times, was there even a hint of finding another writer.
Ridley's imagination knew no mundane limitation. Trained as a visual artist, he would rapidly sketch his ideas like a tiny story board as we worked our way through the various possibilities for new scenes. Once, he called me into his office, exuberant with a fresh notion. The male lead, Jack, had gone from a miller's son to being a Green Man, one of those legendary British hermits for whom so many pubs have been named. The character was now called "Green Jack." I sat across the desk from Ridley, my notebook open on my lap. "What about making him green?" Ridley asked.
"You mean, Jack?" I felt like I was on ice as thin as hope.
"Yes. How would it be if he was green?"
"You mean green skin?" The ice started cracking beneath my feet.
"Absolutely! Green skin." Ridley grinned with primal excitement.
"You mean.. . like lizard boy?" I dropped beneath the icy surface, drowning in my director's runaway imagination.
"Absolutely! Lizard boy. A chameleon."
All the impossible complexities of plot and characterization wrapped around me like the frozen tentacles of some hideous nightmare octopus. How many more rewrites would this change require? "But ... but...," I stammered before the beast dragged me completely under, "how do we explain why the princess would fall in love with a lizard boy?"
Ridley sucked on his cigar. "Right," he said. "Fuck me. Forget about it."
And so we did. That was the amazing thing about Ridley Scott. He came up with the wildest suggestions, no holds barred, but if the rebuttal made logical sense, he accepted it immediately. There was no ego involved. He just wanted to get the story right. Exposition remained one of our biggest problems. It's always better to show something than to talk about it. We had a term for scenes that were overly expository: Irving the Explainer. "Too much Irving here, don't you think," Ridley might say, frowning at several turgid pages I had labored over for days.
"You bet," I'd reply and head back to the typewriter.
In this way, the process continued over the years in a number of locations. Early on, when our production company still operated out of a small office on Duke Street in London, Alan Lee signed on as a conceptual artist, another amazing coincidence. The man whose work had inspired me during the writing of the first draft now sat in a tiny garret room next to mine, transforming my verbal images into the most wondrous watercolor paintings. Whenever I grew stagnant, I would peek in at his latest glowing effort and feel renewed.
Around the same time, our team acquired several talented story board artists. The best and fastest of the lot was Martin Asbuy, who also drew Garth, a daily comic strip, for a London tabloid newspaper. As a kid, it had been my ambition to become a cartoonist and hanging out with Martin, whose dry barbed wit deftly pierced my pretensions, was a continual delight. Asbury, as it turned out, stayed with the production right to the end, gradually replacing most of the other story board artists' work as scene after scene was completely rewritten.
Among the first things to go were all the names I'd borrowed from Fairies. I wanted my own imprint firmly on the story and inventive nomenclature provided great pleasure. The water hag "Jenny Greenteeth" became "Meg Mucklebones." Pig-faced "Jimmy Squarefoot" transformed into "Pox," one of a trio of goblins who invaded a later draft at Ridley Scott's sage suggestion. The other two, "Tic" and "Blix," were also names of my invention, along with "Blunder," "Brown Tom," "Honeythorn Gump," and "Screwball."
Throughout it all, the work remained a great pleasure. Shooting lasted almost nine months at Pinewood Studios and, even after I returned to Montana, I was still phoning in new pages to the Heath Farm production office. In spite of all the changes, Legend's heart, the core of the narrative, never altered. Film-making is a collaborative art, yet I maintained an intense personal attachment to my story which felt as much a part of me as any of the novels I had written.
When Tom Cruise, cast to play Jack, arrived for rehearsals in the spring of 1984 he had a number of questions to ask about the script. Like all serious actors, he had done his homework in preparing for the part. One of the things he wanted to know was whether I'd read Bruno Bettleheim's book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Tom expressed surprise when I said I hadn't. Bettleheim's thesis presented a Freudian interpretation of fairy tales and much of the imagery in Legend seemed directly connected to the symbols he described. How was this possible, Cruise wanted to know.
I thought it over and told him how I had written the story instinctively, the characters and situations springing directly from my imagination. If such a thing as the collective unconscious truly exists, I must have dipped my bucket into this deepest of wells and hauled up what was clear and pure, something as common to everyone as water. Looking back after almost two decades, it strikes me that this was the most profound collaboration of them all.
Copyright 2008 by William Hjortsberg