That’s Hollywood

Stephen Frears

I had finished my first American film, The Grifters, and was looking for another job. I liked a script called Gloucester Waterfront, which Columbia owned and didn’t want to make. Some friends of mine at Paramount wanted to make it. Columbia changed its mind. I decided to stick by my friends. From a cottage in Somerset I tried to make sense of the transatlantic phone calls. I have on occasion bought a Sunday paper in Crewkerne and had dinner that night on Rodeo Drive.

I was approached to direct a Mafia film called Donnie Brasco. The producers were Barry Levinson and his partner, Mark Johnson. We had first met when Levinson, Alan Parker and I had dinner in London. It was a wonderfully smug affair: the last three films we had directed, Rain Man, Mississippi Burning and Dangerous Liaisons, had between them received 23 Oscar nominations. Levinson himself was to have made Donnie Brasco but for domestic reasons couldn’t leave Los Angeles. When I said I knew nothing of the Mafia, they said nobody did except, possibly, ‘your friend Marty’. I had known nothing of the 18th century or indeed of Pakistanis, but Hanif Kureishi had said: ‘Don’t worry – they’re exactly like you.’

Donnie Brasco is about an undercover agent who infiltrated the Mob, became alienated from his family and the Bureau, and came to realise that moral duty involved human betrayal (the same theme, you could say, as The Third Man). The spine was the friendship between Donnie, the agent, and a lovable psychopath called Lefty Ruggiero. I asked who they wanted to play Lefty and they named Actor A, but in conversation he had said he would rather play the title role. We joked that the script should have been called ‘Waiting for Lefty’. I said A would be perfect as Lefty, and that Actor B would be good as Donnie.

An agent who represented the Producers, the Writer and Actor A rang me (in Somerset) to suggest Actor C, a huge star of the cinema, to play Donnie. I was suspicious, but said I would meet him. I had already planned to be in New York the following week to publicise The Grifters, and I agreed to continue my journey to Los Angeles to decide whether I would make the film. The New York bills would be paid by the distributors of The Grifters; at the appropriate moment my prospective employers would start to pay.

I flew to New York on Concorde, pausing only to buy new Green Flash sneakers in Hounslow. I had done this when I flew to New York for the Dangerous Liaisons interview over lunch at the Carlyle Hotel, and it had brought me luck. I arrived two hours before I left, and half an hour after I got to my Central Park South hotel room, the giant star, Actor C, walked in. He was very nice, wild about the script, talked a lot about the FBI, and began to fill me in about the story. The next day I met Actor A in an empty café. He said if we offered him Donnie, he would accept immediately. I said he was wrong but would be great as Lefty, and that all he had to do was sit around, make jokes and break people’s hearts – what more did he want? He said he would do what he always did; get a group of his actor friends to read the script aloud, with him reading Lefty, the part he didn’t want to play and thought he was wrong for.

I flew to Los Angeles on the MGM Grand, and accepted an invitation to stay at the Bel Air Hotel which is, I suppose, as near Paradise as you can get. A friend said I should stay at the Beverly Wilshire because at least there were streets outside, but I can’t because of what happened to my former agent, Clive Goodwin, when he was staying there. He had a cerebral haemorrhage on a Saturday night, had asked for a doctor, had been taken for a drunk, and died in the police tank. I met with the Producers and the Studio and we agreed that the film should be made with stars. Levinson said that if we could get Actor A to play Donnie, we should take him, but I asked the studio to offer the two parts to Actors A and C. (My participation was always dependent on getting the combination right.) The Studio consulted their computers, worked out that the salary bill for the two actors wouldn’t entirely preclude the Studio from getting a return on its money. Meanwhile, Actor A had a hilarious reading of the script, but turned down the part of Lefty.

I had arranged to come back to England on Friday, but Actor C said he could only come to a meeting at four that afternoon. The London planes leave at 5.30 p.m. I resigned myself to another night in the gilded cage, but Virgin Airways turned out to have a late-night flight to Gatwick. (When I turned up to collect my first-class ticket, they gave me as well a voucher – good for a year and transferable – for an economy ticket on the same route.) This second meeting was to discuss the writing of a second draft of the script to accommodate Actor C.

This business of rewriting for the actors takes up a lot of time in America. I am still surprised that John Malkovich agreed to play Valmont without having it written in his contract that he didn’t have to die. It would have left him available for Dangerous Liaisons II. Diana Ross, on her way to Paris to make a ‘highly personal’ (auteuriste?) film about Josephine Baker, was asked if she was going to write the script herself: someone else, she trilled, would have to do ‘the paperwork’. Meryl Streep spoke glowingly of sticking to the text when they filmed The French Lieutenant’s Woman from Harold Pinter’s script. I first came across the problem in Bangkok when the American actor Fred Forrest would spend the evenings laboriously changing David Hare’s dialogue for Saigon, Year of the Cat. When I asked him why, he said: ‘Can you imagine Marlon sticking to the text?’ Forrest had been in Apocalypse Now, and had watched Brando climbing palm trees in the Philippines and throwing coconuts at Coppola. When in the heat of filming I asked Forrest what Coppola would do, he would say: ‘Go up in a helicopter and think.’ In our case, Actor C was younger and less cynical than the character in Donnie Brasco, and it made sense to take this into account.

We also talked about GoodFellas. ‘My friend Marty’ is the director Martin Scorsese, who had produced The Grifters. His fine film GoodFellas had just opened, and Donnie Brasco strayed into its territory. We had missed each other in New York and Los Angeles, but eventually met at Michael Powell’s memorial service. (He said he would probably not have made GoodFellas, but Powell had picked up the script and said how good it was.) Scorsese liked Donnie Brasco very much, pointed out the differences between the two films, and thought I should make it.

I flew back to London to home and children and to meet the Writer for the first time. He had been on his honeymoon in Europe, but – such is the power of celluloid – we were able to divert the happy couple to London for two days’ work. He is a handsome Italian-American (a ‘hyphenate’) who has the confidence of the good writer who will rewrite anything if the reasons are right. We talked, he went back and produced a second, better draft of the script. It went off to Actor C – and indeed, back to Actor A to see if it wouldn’t change his mind. My producers installed a separate phone line in my house (for calls to the US) and a fax machine. Until its installation I was using my friend Leo’s machine; she would arrive in her office to find sixty new pages of script scattered over the floor. Prospects looked good, and agents, lawyers and accountants started to negotiate my contract with the Studio. Words like ‘bifurcate’ and ‘good faith’ were in the air, and I was to be paid a weekly wage immediately – a ‘holding fee’ which would take me off the market. I took a job at the National Film School in Beaconsfield.

There was a long, eloquent silence. Actor C’s agents liked the script; they liked it more when I said we were making an FBI movie, not a Mafia movie. In America a spate of (unsuccessful) gangster films had opened hot on the heels of GoodFellas, and at Christmas comes The Godfather III. The release of The Grifters has been put back because of this. Actor C saw some of these films, especially GoodFellas, and did a runner. I had been through this crisis myself some weeks back, but had decided that Mafia films were like Westerns used to be, of their own kind and with their own rules. Renoir had said that one year all film-makers should make the same film: then ‘you would see the originality, the differences among the films’. I rang the Writer to say how sorry I was. Before this, however, Actor A had asked if, in the event of Actor C turning the title role down, he could be offered it. The Studio did their sums again and agreed. Actor A flew to New York with his agent, acting out the part on the plane. He then organised another read-through, this time with him reading the coveted title-role. Alas, he discovered that the part he was right for was Lefty – and for various reasons he couldn’t accept it.

All this time I had been dealing with the question of ethnicity. It was in The Godfather and Mean Streets that Italian-American actors were first cast to play Mafiosi: before then they were played by Cagney and Bogart, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson. Al Pacino and Robert de Niro changed all that. Now I concentrated on two Actors B and D, who were not Italian-American. I had surreptitiously met Actor B, my original choice, while I was at Fox meeting a producer from Columbia. He was nice but depressed and frustrated, and only for ten seconds, when mocking an Italian accent, did his face light up as you dream Garbo’s must have done. Like everyone else, Actor B thought it was a wonderful script. How could we meet? he kept tasking down the phone. I arranged to fly to New York the following week, but on Monday news from London reached me that he wanted massive rewrites or else he would ‘pass’. The next night, he listed various things that ought to be in the script. When I pointed out that they already were in the script, and spoke about the ten seconds at Fox, he again wanted to meet: all he wanted, he said, were ‘little’ changes. By the following night, he was gone, his final complaint being that it was too much a ‘Barry Levinson movie’: why couldn’t it be an ‘Actor B movie’?

As for Actor D, his agent, though he, too, thought the script was wonderful, advised us not to get involved. His client was doing four films over the next two years. Although we might be able to find a ‘window’ (in which he could make our film), the four contracts stipulated that no other films could be released with this actor in the summer or at Christmas in the next two years. If we went an hour over the contracted period, we would be sued. Actor E had heard the script was great but, understandably in his case, didn’t want to play a gangster or a cop. The Producers, the Writer, the Studio have been thoughtful and generous. The actors are under enormous pressure, and anyway are the ones who have to do it. We have defended the script but have no stars. I have told the producers to go ahead and cast the film. If the combination makes sense to me, I’ll direct it. In the meantime I enjoy teaching, and have written this on the instructions of my therapist.