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"... if you are driven by your story and characters you do whatever it takes. Like a cabinet maker, 8-10 hours a day."

Interview: John Fusco, Author of ‘Dog Beach’

John Fusco, a veteran screenwriter, has written a fascinating, entertaining novel with Dog Beach.  Fusco’s screenwriting gigs range from Young Guns, Hidalgo, and the Academy Award-nominated Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron to the long-awaited sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I was excited to interview him about his novel, which is about a guy who writes a screenplay that features a former stuntman who in both real life and in the movie is in big trouble.

How did you come up with this story?

It came about as a confluence of ideas that had been brewing for a while. One was a fascination with the lives of Hong Kong stunt men after having spent a lot of time working with them and, as a martial artist myself, training with them.  Two was a memory I had of some fellow film school grads who were all living in a palatial Malibu beach house because one of them had traded a screenplay commitment to a B movie producer for a year’s rent. Three was personal frustration about what the Hollywood film industry has been devolving into these days and the need to find some healthy humor in it.

Somehow those ideas all came together as one, with the character of Louie Mo — who had been haunting me for some time — pulling them all together.  It became a sauce. A fra diavolo as I like to say.

You wrote a script called the Cage and the guys in the movie also have a script called the Cage. I’m assuming that’s not coincidence. Are the two scripts very different?

When I was writing about Troy’s secret screenplay in his bottom drawer I began inventing what he might be working on, but then I remembered that I had an unproduced spec script in my own bottom drawer that was exactly like what he would have been working on.  So I just used my own script and it is identical (except for Troy’s inserted margin notes). Now, suddenly, I have people wanting to option that script.  I tell them it’s not mine. It belongs to Troy Raskin.

I don’t usually get a chance to ask question of a Hollywood script writer so I’m going to take advantage of that opportunity. What are some stereotypes and/or myths about scriptwriting in Hollywood?

One myth is that screenwriting is not an authentic, artistic writing life and that a screenwriter should always have a novel or poetry going if he or she wants to be a serious writer.  As a writer of both novels and screenplays I can say that screenwriting is a vastly rewarding creative life – if you fight hard enough to do it on your own terms.  Whether I write books or not, my screenwriting life has been creatively rewarding and remains so.

Another myth is that screenwriters are expected to “leave your script at the Nevada border” and go away once the movie starts shooting.  If you understand the importance of developing a relationship with the director and making that director see that you’re the best technical adviser and resource in the world on your subject, you’ll be invited on set as a respected and integral part of the process.  I have been on the set, full-time, on all 11 movies I have had produced.

The biggest screenwriting myth is workshops and formulas and magic paradigms. Don’t even get me started.  I have seen too many screenwriters of promise become formula addicts and slaves to stop watch structure.  Spend that time watching movies, reading screenplays, reading plays, and most importantly — write from your gut.

How does writing a book compare – in good and bad ways – to writing a movie script?

In many ways it’s easier to write a book.  You have more latitude with structure and you have the freedom to luxuriate within the internal lives and musings of your characters.  But where a screenplay does not always demand great prose, a novel lives or dies by it.  Both mediums are hard, bloody labor.  But if you are driven by your story and characters you do whatever it takes. Like a cabinet maker, 8-10 hours a day.

How have you been able to write such diverse work from Young Guns to Hidalgo to the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?

I actually believe that there’s a thread that runs through everything I have done and have been continuing to do.  I often cite my fascination with the cycle of influence between John Ford, Kurosawa, and back around to Sergio Leone.  In fact, I think I talk about that in Dog Beach, attributing that study to Troy.   The loner horseman of Hidalgo is not that different from the wandering swordsmen of the classic wuxia tales.  The Native American horse culture is very similar to the Mongolian horse culture that I’m currently exploring in my TV series Marco Polo.

I don’t sense any shift or departure.  It all comes from a well of loves and passions that started at an early age.

Ok back to the book. Is there something about stuntmen that fascinated you? If so, what is it?

My long years in the business, and the nature of the kind of stuff I write, has allowed me to work with some of the legends of the stunt world:  the late Everett Creech, Mickey Gilbert, Jackie Chan, and the master Yuen Woo-Ping. Not to mention the precision stunt drivers.

There is a fascinating, fearless quality and an obsession with replicating dangerous actions to artistic perfection.  They are natural risk takers and many are, as in my book, adrenaline junkies.  There is also a true sense of fraternity and loyalty.  I am also fascinated by people who can “play hurt.” Jackie Chan has literally broken every bone in his body. I got drunk with him one night and he pointed out every one of them and had a story to go with each!

I tend to hang out with the stuntees. I’m often mistaken for one.  Of course, because of my interest in martial arts, I get very involved in fight choreography and I train with the stunt team on my movies and shows.

Recently, on Marco Polo I had been training with the Chinese stunt man Ju Kun whom I worked with on The Forbidden Kingdom in 2007.  This past March 8th, he tragically perished on the Malaysian Airline flight that went missing while he was working on my show.  I have dedicated the book to his memory.

I like your writing style. Crisp, fast stuff that reminds me favorably of Elmore Leonard. How did you develop that style?

Elmore Leonard is king and master and in a realm all his own. The style that suited and served the Beach story that I wanted to tell was a style informed by writing screenplays over the years. Less is more, lean and mean, drive the action, tommy-gun the dialogue. Frankly, I never even thought about it. I just saw the story cinematically and wrote the way  I would write a screenplay. Only I did it as a novel.

Which of these characters most resembles you?

Almost all of them in some way.  But I guess it would be Troy. I know what it feels like to be seduced by Hollywood and tempted away from the kind of films that drew you to the game in the first place.  And I have that same love for movies and the forgotten players, however marginal, that helped create such lasting works of magic and influence.

Are there sketchy producers like the ones you described with questionable investment sources? Have you worked for one?

I can answer the first part of the question with a resounding yes. I’d rather not answer the second part.

What are you working on next?

I am in Malaysia right now, wrapping up production on a show I created for Netflix called Marco Polo.  It’s a 10 hour dramatic series scheduled to launch late 2014.

I also have the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon shooting right now, and my adaptation of the young Elvis bio Last Train to Memphis begins production this fall, produced by Mick Jagger.  I also adapted The Alchemist which begins shooting in Dubai soon. It’s been a wonderfully busy year.

It’s just one of those things: you write your ass off, the material gets stockpiled.  Some projects stall,  but you just keep on writing like a motherfucker. Then suddenly it all starts to explode, like planting six different crops and then they all come up at once.

It happened once for me like that, years ago, but never quite like this. I’m extremely grateful.

How do you go about researching  a book like this?

I have lived it. Very little research necessary.Thank you for your interest, Scott. And thanks for reading Dog Beach.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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