AICN BOOKS! Frank Bascombe Interviews Richard Freakin’ Price!!
For a very long time I thought Richard Price and his screenplays walked on water. I worshiped at the Price altar. I’m probably the only person who love, loves, loves The Color of Money. I mean I love that movie. The script is so tight, the acting spot on, and the pool playing isn’t bad either. I was asked by the fantastically nice people at the publicity agency ‘42 West’ to interview Richard Price, which was a real blast and I was flattered to be given the opportunity. Thank you.
FB: When you were writing Lush Life, did you find that New York City and the parts you'd written about, specifically the lower east side, had changed right under your feet so to speak?
RP: Well it is one of those places the minute you turn your back giant hole in the ground. The next time you turn your back, there’s a high rise going up in that whole. I would say, yes, that place physically changed from day to day.
FB: It just seems like New York City evolves so quickly…
RP: Well, there are a lot of big alarming gaps in the streets.
FB: You've been known to do ride-alongs with police officers in the past, and you've mentioned that criminals and suspects always point out the fact that you're a writer, and sometimes point to the stack of books you carry with you. Did you go through that process with Lush Life or did you draw from a deep well of procedural history?
RP: Basically, you know- no matter how many books you write, New York is a powerful bureaucracy. You have to figure out how to get on the inside. I just had a guy call a guy call a guy. Once I was in, it didn’t hurt that these guys had at least seen one of the movies that I had written, but you know, even if I were Albert Einstein trying to get in with the physics police you’ve still got to get someone inside bureaucracy to say “OK.”
FB: You treat New York honestly and fairly. So I’m sure they weren’t looking down on you in any way. You've written a number of books specifically set in New York City . Samaritan is about one guy in NYC, Clockers a drug/detective procedural, as much about the business of the drug trade as it is about the business of stopping it. Do you see a provincial quality to these stories, meaning, do you think the drug business has run rampant in New York City with dealers going door to door and closing up their store fronts? Do you see the business side of what you're writing about? Can drugs ever be legalized? If so, what would the police do all day? I know it's a huge sack of snakes, but I'm curious to hear what you think.
RP: Well, what did police do all day before drugs were a big deal? Other than, you know, get apples for free. You know…it’s New York City anything can happen and will. I don’t know what happened to them, I think they basically went in doors in the lower east side. Because, I mean, you had people going around the block for heroin, lining up like they were giving up blocks of government cheese. And that apartment’s probably two million dollars now. And there is a billboard on Houston Street that simply says, “Where did all the junkies go?” The need is always there. It’s like energy, you can never vanquish it. It sort of morphs and goes somewhere else. So, I don’t know where it went. Most likely it went indoors.
FB: Seems like it’s been marginalized and pushed out of view and we don’t see it anymore. Out of sight out of mind.
RP: That’s the rationale, I mean, you know, in a way real estate is the biggest crime fighter. “We need this crack squat, we’re gonna convert it to a duplex.” It doesn’t mean those people smoking crack inside are gonna go to rehab, they’re gonna go somewhere else. Probably where you don’t see them. Every time they have a red light district sweep- “We’re gonna get all the prostitutes off Lexington and 23rd”- Fine, you’ll catch them up on 38th and 9th. It’s like you have a broom but you don’t have a dustpan. It’s like you’re just moving to the other side of the apartment.
FB: Since this is a website about the movies, I have to ask you a few questions about The Color of Money, a huge influence on me and a great introduction to your screenwriting talents. What was that research process like? Pool halls like the ones portrayed in the movie are all but gone now. (I used to hang out at Chelsea Billiards and Julian’s, where some of the talent in that picture got instruction from some of the old pro's who hung out there.) You adapted that story to the screen, from a book that was nothing like the movie. What lead you to that end product? The Tom Cruise character is an exact replica of any hustler in any pool hall in New York City. Was anyone in your mind when you wrote that?
RP: It was a very important thing in my life, because up until I went off to do Color Of Money, I thought everything I wrote had to be autobiographical. I could only write about things I had personally experienced. Which is quite a strait jacket. It’s the first time I had to go off and learn something. So I went to Alabama, I went to Kentucky, and I went to Virginia. And I just hung out. And it was the first time I realized- you can do just go someplace, hang out, and by osmosis, come back with enough to dramatize. The guy does it for who does it for a living might look at it and say this guy doesn’t really get it, but you know, 90% of the people will read it and go for it, even if you don’t get it exactly.
FB: Was the tom cruise character based on anyone?
RP: No. He was totally my creation. Well, the irony is that the movie is based on a Walter Tevis novel. I read it once. It wasn’t even in galley form yet. I put it down and I started writing. The power of movies is that when the paperback came out, the tom cruise character, who doesn’t even exist in the book, is on the cover of the book,
FB- With the Paul Newman character having this relationship in the art world and buying and selling artwork and you know, it’s like, this character would never do this. It seems like such a leap.
RP: The thing that happens is that, when you write movies, you are basically for the surface, you’re writing for the screen. When you’re writing books, the characters have interiors and histories. They have thoughts. You’re going from a four dimensional medium- the book form- to a two dimensional medium, which is the screen. It’s not like one is better than the other, it’s just different. I mean everything has to be on the surface when you write a script. Whatever journeys Paul Newman’s character took in the novel, if I felt they were not translatable; they had to go, unfortunately.
FB: If you look at movies, they only tell you what you need to know. And the book can get away with telling you more, you can get deeper.
RP: In books they can tell you more than you ever need to know. And then some.
FB: And then of course there is the script for Night in the City. Where did Harry Fabain come from? And this was another adaptation. Where do you leave your novelist talents and just write dialogue, scene, story for the screen and actors to speak?
RP: It was an adaptation of a Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin movie called “Night And The City.” It was a British movie actually. It took place in post-WWII London. And it was about the wrestling scene. And the Richard Widmark character was kind of like Tony Curtis in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” He’s this jittery little hustler. And I took that archetype and just went with it. It’s a great guy to put words in his mouth.
FB: Yeah De Niro’s career at that point, he had started to become sort of overexposed, but then he dipped into this role where it just, the whole American express card joke, he just played a schmuck and he gets eighty sixed out of a bar, and the line where he puts his thumb down…the whole thing was like, he was just such a loser. It was the most remarkable character…
RP: Well, that’s why they call it acting. (Laughs)
FB: I know you've talked about Clockers the movie not being what you wrote in the book, which means something happened to your script along the way. Can you elaborate? David Benioff wrote his own script for 25th Hour, which was basically a word for word rewrite of his novel. What did you think of that movie/script? Since it was Spike Lee again and NYC, I wonder if you've seen a kind of maturing in his movies.
RP: Well you know Spike re-wrote the script. He told me had the time, he said he read all my drafts. I had spent two years working with Marty Scorsese on that script and De Niro to some extent. And then Marty did Casino, which wasn’t really a big surprise. And Spike stepped in immediately and I said why not. And Spike said, “With all do respect, I only direct what I write.” And at that point, I was so tired of it, I said, “good luck.” So the script is more Spike’s than mine in terms of the finished product. But you know, I’m author of book, the director’s the author of the movie. It would probably have been a terrible mistake for him to shoot the book I wrote. I think the movies that are totally in awe of the source material, like we’re doing Moby Dick or Catch-22, you know, the movies are often not that memorable because filmmakers tiptoe around source material. You’ve gotta really pulverize that thing and rebuild it for the screen.
FB: Going from books to movies is always a really strange process, the only time I’ve ever seen it work, this is one example, David Benioff wrote a script for the movie the 25th hour
RP: Yeah I read that and I saw the movie.
FB: It was spectacular, he is a great guy. And you know, I’m wondering, since it was Spike, the movie seemed like a mature Spike Lee and that the characters were wonderful and full-blown. He was very honest to it. There was no Spike in the script- it was a David Benioff story. I’m wondering if you have you seen a maturation of Spike’s movies?
RP: Yeah, I don’t know. He does what he does. I’m not a Spike watcher. I’ll see everything he makes pretty much but I’m not thinking about it in any academic way. It seems like the last couple of things of his, he seems kind of pulled back from that “Do The Right Thing” type of filmmaking. He seems sort of like he’s pulled more into the director’s seat.
FB: Right. You think he’s entertaining a little bit more?
RP: It depends what entertains you. I don’t know. That’s a little too subjective to answer.
FB: Back to your early novels for a minute. I remember reading Ladies Man and thinking you were a complete master, from the point that you effectively captured early manhood in a city environment. You even bounced back a little bit with The Breaks, showing your hero living at home just before he goes out into the world. Do you see yourself in those novels? Are they the types of books you could write now? Do you think you might write about your life now, a success in your field, enjoying critical praise? How would that character come to the page if you were to write it?
RP: Well, I don’t choose to write about myself directly right now.
I feel like whatever you write is autobiographical, even if every character is a different race or speaks a different language- it’s all you. Because every time your character hits a crossroads, they make a choice that you’re making for them. And that is predicated on your values and what you’ve experienced in life. And I find I can write more freely and less self-consciously if I just go out into the world and write about something out there. And it’s only one way to go. I know writers who never have to leave the room to have a lifetime as a writer. I just feel more liberated. When I’m in there I feel like I’m writing for a shrink or something. There is a danger. If you start thinking like that, you’re gonna get hit by a bus, like if you’re walking across the street cause you’re too busy staring at your navel. I feel like, there’s a whole world out there. If you want to find yourself, get lost in it.
FB: Good point. I've always loved your script for Life Lessons, the Scorsese section of New York Stories. I know you have a connection to the art world - do you see yourself writing about that more? You seem to capture the essence of the artist’s struggle with the Lionel Dobie character. You even have a cameo (you do in most of your scripts) where you pour praise on that character. Is this a world you’re interested in exploring in a novel, like Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath?
RP: I always seem to avoid the arenas that I’m most personally involved in. They’re just like a little too close to home; I don’t know how to separate out my day-to-day life, pulling back, and creating a fictional version of that. It’s a little too confusing. It’s sort of like you’re at the Grand Canyon, but you’re making a frame out of your fingers and looking through that and going, “Wow.” I feel like I’m better off I go off somewhere and write about something else. Like my kids get into the books in various ways, but I’ve got to tread lightly on that, because if you’re trying to figure it out on a day to day basis, this stuff, and also for it to be raw material book at the same time. It always feels like it’s too much. Like you’re like a cannibal eating your own foot or something.
FB: Right, after a while the self-examination you start to pull in on yourself. I’m always wondering when people write autobiographical fiction, when do you stop examining yourself?
RP: Well, I’ll tell you where I stop, that was The Breaks. That was enough for anybody.
FB: Yeah, The Breaks is a really raw book. I mean, that character is really frazzled by what’s going on. I remember being quite shocked when I read it. Getting back to Lush Life, how do you think your writing about the city and the characters was affected by 9-11? Specifically how the culture has seemed to be drained from day to day life, replaced by money hungry business people armed with MBA's. It's a much different place than it was when you wrote Night and The City. What kind of place do you think the city has become in the last ten years?
RP: That’s almost too big a question to answer. I’ll write you an essay on that one. 9/11 has changed everybody’s life so pervasively they don’t even realize it’s changed anymore ‘cause it’s changed so much. The things we take for granted that we have to do now. But, you talk about the Lower East Side, and there is a quality of obliviousness there sometimes, with some of the people that live there now, the new wave people that live there. They’re very young people, they’re very engaged in their own lives. As I would be- I mean, if I was 23 and wanted to be a writer, I would crawl on broken glass to live on the Lower East Side right now. Because it’s all me. It’s all guys like me. And at the same time, I might not notice that there are 6,000 projects there. I might not notice that the building next to me has 200 Fujinese and Chinese living there like Jews lived 110 years ago. That’s what the book is about, how every group only sees itself. And what happens when you have 6 planets on the same orbit, and every once in a while at 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s like when worlds collide. There is a lot of obliviousness.
FB: It reminds me of how between 14th and 29th street on 6th avenue changed between 1992 and 2005. When I was living there you could walk down there was Billy Topless on 23rd street, and there were all these empty parking lots, there was this whole world that was brought down on a Saturday or Sunday for these antique markets and the whole city descended on this area and now it’s all high rises. I just feel like there is a “me, me, me” feeling about the city now. And it’s where to go, where to be seen, whereas in ’93, ’94 it was a really raw, kind of creative and wild place where you could see stuff that would happen that doesn’t happen now.
RP: Ironically, I feel like on the Lower East Side, the people that complain about the real estate boom are the white people that moved down there in ‘60s and ‘70s, but if you look at the Chinese people, and the Hispanic people, and black people that have been there since WWII or earlier, they’re not as vocal about what’s going on. The irony is, it’s these hippies and the artists, and the radicals that went down there in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in the ‘80s to some extent, that in a way started the whole thing blowing up. Because the realtors are always trying to smell the good coffee. And that’s where they go. And the artists go to a bad neighborhood, or they go to a deserted neighborhood, cause they need space and don’t have any money. But the minute there is a bar in the neighborhood that’ll swap a tab for art, or some place opens up that serves Italian coffee, the realtors coming right behind. And within three years, those artists who started the people coming down there can no longer afford to live there. So they’re going to go down to Williamsburg, and here come the realtors right behind them. Then they’re moving to Bushwick, well, here come the realtors. They’re gonna be living in the ocean in a few years. I’ve lost track of the questions, but I do know the irony is that when you go to state liquor board hearings down there, the complaining people are always the middle class people or the people that have become middle class, but they’re not the ethnic people at all.
FB: That’s interesting. This sort of leads into my next question. There are details of artistic struggle with Eric Cash, a type of sadness from consistent failure that leads him to tell lies and steal from his co-workers. What was it about him that made you turn the character in on himself? This type of person seems to be a standard starting point. I've only seen bits and pieces of The Wire, but these people exist in society. Do you think there is a cause for this, say from the pressures of society?
RP: Man, I feel like I’m trying to get into college here with these questions. Let me just tell you about Eric Cash. If I didn’t get published at 24 years old, with The Wanderers, I would be Eric Cash 10 years later. When you’re in your 20s you think you’re gonna live forever. You go down to a place like the Lower East Side, with like-minded people, you’re all doing shit jobs, but that’s okay because you’re going places. And this is just the means to an end. But it never happens. You know, here’s like a maitre’d hypen screenwriter hyphen playwright hyphen actor and 13 years have passed and all the hyphens kind of get dropped off maitre’d. It’s the tyranny of youth, you know, the tyranny of optimism. He is constantly surrounded by people like himself 13 years ago, and he’s hanging by a thread. He really is.
FB: It’s like at any moment he could just step off the balcony and that’s it. I really felt like he was only a couple of seconds away from…one more heavy blow and that’s it.
RP: He was, and that’s why the cops read this guy and they feel like this guy definitely has the potential to pull the trigger. It’s just a more metaphorical in Eric’s head.
FB: Last question. Your characters always have a part of their life that seems like a quest, a postmodern discovery of themselves. Are you purposely trying to show life as a confusing and mysterious journey, which most of the time takes them to a very violent and brutal place before they come into sunlight?
RP: Sure. Let me answer in a way that sounds very indirect. Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “The only thing anyone ever really writes about is love.” I feel the only thing anyone really ever writes about trouble. So the answer is yes. And I also I think love is a subdivision of trouble. Look, if there is no struggle there’s no story. I mean, somebody had the balls to write a story called “Happy All The Time.” [Laughs]
FB: Do you think any of your characters could ever be happy all the time? Is it possible?
RP: Not if I have to be the author. Cause I haven’t quite done the research yet.
FB: What stage is the film adaptation of your LUSH LIFE in right now?
RP: We’re just in the early stages. The only thing I can say right now is that it’s going to be really interesting, because what I’m going to have to do is cannibalize my own book again. But some things will have to be the same. There is no way you can fake the Lower East Side. But, I don’t know how I’m going to tackle my 450-page book and convert it into a 120-page kind of Nashville, or MASH, or something. The book’s all about people passing each other. And I’d like to capture that in the script.
FB: And, besides it being a big book, page-count wise, it’s a broad cross-section of a lot of things going on, and I would imagine that you would have to take some of your favorite children out.
RP: It’s not only that, because not only do I have to do that, but what you’re left with, therefore, becomes a little incoherent. You’ve got to reinvent the wheel a little. If a book is A all the way to Z, for the movies you’ve got to take out C through X for the sake of the time of a movie. You’ve got to reinvent a way of getting from C to X because you took out the 20-odd letters. So, I’m going to sort of have to reinvent things. Usually easier if somebody else does it. But I’ve been here before, and I know I can’t respect my own book if I’m going to do this successfully. It’s hard for me, because I’m the mother and now I have to be the babysitter. But I know if I try to protect my book too much it’s not going to work. So this should be a very interesting exercise.
FB: One last thing, do you still think that to write a screenplay you have to live in LA and to write a novel you have to live in NY?
RP: It depends how good you are. Look, that’s why God invented Federal Express. I haven’t been in LA more than 48 hours in a row in the last 25 years. Everybody comes to New York.