Christopher Kyle is an interesting writer. He’s quite prolific at writing plays, but he’s only written a few screenplays that have been turned into films. It’s interesting that these features should include K-19: The Widowmaker and Alexander which he co-wrote with Oliver Stone and Laeta Kalogridis.
Both films were a met with mixed critical reaction and largely overlooked by the general public because they had a catch that captured the attention of the press. K-19 was over shadowed by Harrison Ford’s Russian accent and the press had a field day hammering Oliver Stone’s Alexander because of the lead characters sexuality. Personally I think Alexander is a great film and as far as recent sword and sandal epics go I feel that it’s the best-yes even better than Gladiator! It’s okay, I can already hear you shouting and screaming, I still can’t wait to get my hands on the Final Cut!
Kyle comes across as a normal guy and he seems to enjoy the writing process. I also quizzed him about some of the films that he’s working on. I didn’t even know that he was writing a remake of Warren Beatty’s Parallax View for Tom Cruise before I started researching and he’s pretty frank about where the film is on the development slate following Cruise’s split from Paramount.
Anyway, enough of my crazy ramblings, here’s the interview. Enjoy.
How did you first get interested in writing?
I began writing short stories and poetry when I was 13 or so, just as a hobby, with no thought of doing it as a career. Then my high school drama coach (I was actor then– the highlight of my acting career was playing Felix in “The Odd Couple” when I was 17) encouraged me to enter a playwriting contest. I came in third, which meant I got $10 and the opportunity to see my play performed in Muncie, Indiana. The experience of seeing my work on stage convinced me that there could be no better life than that of playwright.
Who are your writing heroes?
Dead ones: I’ve always been fond of the German playwrights, especially Brecht and Wedekind. Also Pirandello, Beckett, and American playwrights of social conscience like Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. Living ones: Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, and more recently, Conor McPherson.
What inspires you? When you have an idea how do you develop it before you put it down on the page (screen)?
When I’m not working for hire (i.e. screenwriting), I often find an image or situation will implant itself in my head unbidden. For instance, a driver falling asleep at the wheel and almost running over a man on the side of the road. If the image doesn’t go away after a while, I begin to think about who the people are, how they got there, etc. Then I take a lot of notes, sometimes dozens of pages over years, before I start to create any firm idea of how the story will be structured.
When starting to write a script do have the entire idea planned or do you just type away and see where the script takes you?
With a play I make a very loose outline of where it’s going to go and just dive in. With screenplays I do a much more detailed treatment because there are deadlines and one can’t afford to drive into a cul-de-sac. Of course, one often finds interesting things in cul-de-sacs…
What are the challenges of writing a play, considering that you are restricted to one location?
I have never thought myself restricted to one location. Plays are wonderful in that you can simply have a character say, “Isn’t Bulgaria lovely?” and all of sudden the audience is in Bulgaria. The sorts of plays that restrict themselves to one location are often (though not always) boring to me. I find the challenges of WRITING a play are few; theater is open to all sorts of formal experimentation and imagination. The challenge comes in PRODUCING a play because there is so rarely any money to hire actors and build sets and publicize the work…
Rewriting is a huge part of the scriptwriting process. How do you keep ideas fresh and interesting as you are working on them?
Rewriting is huge part of any writing, I think, and I actually prefer rewriting a scene to staring at a blank page. The hardest part of writing a script is getting out that first draft. Once you have that, once you have some raw material to manipulate and revise, it starts to get a lot more fun.
You’re quite a prolific writer, how many ideas are you working on at anyone time?
I know writers who are good at juggling several scripts at once, but I don’t think I am one of them. So I try to be actively writing only one thing at a time. But I am always making notes and outlines and looking for new material while I’m working on whatever script is on top at the moment.
How did you first get involved in writing films?
Through playwriting. I had two plays produced off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons and after that I began to get interest from Hollywood– not so much in the plays themselves but in me as a writer. One of the projects that came out of that period was K-19: The Widowmaker.
What are the main differences in working on a play and working on a film?
Well, they are similar in the sense that both tell stories dramatically– that is in the present tense. But plays are driven primarily by the spoken word and movies are driven primarily by images. Dialogue should be a last resort in most movies; audiences understand and remember information much better if you can find a way to show it to them instead. But in a play, where we may be seated in the back row of the balcony, we have to listen, and the story unfolds largely through conversation. Of course there are exceptions– talky movies and visual plays– but I think the generalization holds. As a playwright, I always reminding myself to cut the dialogue and find pictures to say it better when I’m writing a movie. The other big difference is the amount of control the writer has. A playwright is involved throughout the production process, with contractual approval of director, cast, and designers– and not a word can be changed without his or her permission. In Hollywood, of course, the writer is a hired gun, generally ignored once the script moves into production, and often fired and rewritten by others. But the pay is better.
As the writer of Alexander how did you feel about the critical reaction that it received?
I thought it was over-the-top and far out of proportion to the flaws of the film. Critics often complain about the lack of imagination and originality in movies, then savage anyone who falls short trying to do something different. (Particularly if the filmmaker’s name is Oliver Stone.) I also felt the frank way the movie dealt with Alexander’s bisexuality was a turn off for a lot of critics and people in the press. I’ve heard there were headlines like “Alexander the Gay” in some places.
What is your opinion of the various different versions that have been released?
I was not involved in the production and post-production process, but I heard from some people who were that the first cut of the film was the best– but it was four hours long. And the studio simply isn’t going to release a movie that long. So I think as Oliver has recut and expanded the film, he has been able to get closer to his original vision. Alexander was a very complex figure, heroic and monstrous both, and Oliver, to his credit, was never willing to simplify him.
What was it like working with Oliver Stone on the project, considering that it was a passion project of his for years?
I really enjoyed working with Oliver. He began his career as a screenwriter and has a patience and understanding of the process that few directors and producers have. And I wish all my projects were somebody’s “passion project”. What’s hard is when you’re writing one of the 22 things a director has in development, not knowing if he’s really serious about it…
Another film that you wrote was K19 : The Widowmaker how did you come attached to that project?
I was a playwright then, with no film experience, but I persuaded the director, Kathryn Bigelow, that the confined spaces of a submarine demanded the dialogue skills of someone trained in the theater. She bought it and convinced the studio to give me a shot, for which I will always be indebted to her.
Harrison Ford is particularly renowned for his script notes, what was it like working with such an iconic star?
Harrison is very demanding, very meticulous, but not in a way that’s disrespectful. He just wants every detail of the film to be right. I remember he had me on the run for a week trying to find out whether the crew repairing the reactor welded the pipes or soldered them… Does it matter? I don’t know. But I’d rather work with people who care than people who don’t.
The press of the film seemed to focus quite a bit on Harrison Ford’s accent in the film, do you feel that this may have over shadowed the film on its release?
That was the most ridiculous thing… It definitely overshadowed the movie in a lot of reviews. I thought it was one of his best performances– who cares if the accent wasn’t always consistent? But Harrison Ford is an American icon, so I suppose it was just too strange for some people to see him playing a Russian.
Tell me about the remake of The Parallax view that you’ve worked on, how is it different from the original Warren Beatty film? Is Tom Cruise still attached?
It kept a similar plot to the original but updated it to the present. Instead of being a government conspiracy, it was about a corporation manipulating world events for profit– think Halliburton. But I’m afraid that one will remain in limbo. It was written while Tom Cruise was still at Paramount (they made the original film) and you may have probably read about their acrimonious split…
What can you tell me about the Interpretation of Murder. How far along in the development process is it?
That one’s still early– I haven’t finished the first draft yet. It’s a very challenging book to adapt: a dense, intertwining plot and several historical characters to deal with.
What sort of challenges do you face when adapting a book for the screen?
The challenge is usually that there is too much good stuff to use. A movie is very lean narrative compared to a novel. The best novels to adapt are sometimes the least interesting to read (for me, anyway). You know, pulp stuff with strong, simple plots and not too much character development… Some of the hardest adaptations are when the book is hugely popular and beloved (think Harry Potter) because the fans can get upset by some of the things you have to do to make fit into the frame of a film.
Do you feel that you’ll ever write a book yourself?
Not likely. It’s too solitary. With a play, I am writing to create a collaborative situation– a production. I look forward to that. To some extent, I put up with the struggle of the first draft in order to get to that moment. Writing a novel seems like all wrapper and no candy.
In 50 years what you like somebody to say about your career?
I don’t suppose I have a very original answer here. I hope that I write some things that still have value to people in the future– films that are still watched; plays that are still produced. I think all writers want the same.
This interview with Christopher Kyle first appeared on Collider in 2007.