As a companion piece to the article Frank Howson and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, we have this interview with the Producer/Writer/Director himself. Melbourne’s Frank Howson (1952-) started in show business on the stage at the age of seven. A prodigious and prolific writer of music, film and the stage as well as other media, Howson directed the film Flynn about the life of Errol Flynn, which had a tumultuous production. He co-wrote the hit stage musical Dream Lover about Bobby Darin and his new film “epic” Remembering Nigel looks like one to catch… His Boulevard Films produced over a dozen films and he has lived and worked in Hollywood. In this interview Howson goes in-depth about the productions of Backstage with Laura Branigan, the F. Scott Fitzgerald inspired Boulevard of Broken Dreams and 80s pop/rock tale Heaven Tonight as well as reflecting on the creative process and more. He still has an unproduced script about Aussie boxing legend Les Darcy (1895-1917 sepsis) whose life and death in the United States has been compared to Phar Lap…
To begin with Backstage (1988)… Who did
you originally have
in mind for the pop/rock star in the script idea?
No one. The origin of this script was it had been written by Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens for producer John Lamond, who’s commissioned it, and once done it collected dust in Lamond’s office where it lingered forgotten for years. I had written a screenplay on the tragic life of Australia’s golden boy of boxing, Les Darcy, who got caught up in the conscription hysteria during World War 1, and died lost and despairing in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 21 amidst mysterious circumstances. The Edgley Organisation, who’d had the phenomenal success with “The Man From Snowy River” and “Phar Lap” read my version of the screenplay and loved it, seeing it as an obvious follow-up from those first two blockbusters they’d produced. I thought it’d be a good idea if I brought in another writer for the next draft to give it some objectivity and develop it more, so seeing Hardy had been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing “Breaker Morant” (with David Stevens & Bruce Beresford) I thought his input and the fact that he’d been nominated would bring the Darcy script some added weight.
Anyway, long story short, whilst I was in Auckland, New Zealand, working with Hardy on the second draft of the Darcy script, “Winter In America,” he showed me his “Backstage” script. I got around to reading it on the plane heading to Los Angeles where I was going to pitch the Darcy screenplay. There was much I liked about it and much I didn’t, and understood why Lamond hadn’t moved on it. It seemed to me to be very old fashioned. At that time the lead character was a soap star craving credibility. It was over-written, twee, and read like an Ealing Comedy without the laughs. There was no texture, no hint of darkness, no statement or meaning to it. Whilst in L.A and staying at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, I had the TV on one morning, and was watching MTV waiting on some return calls from producers regarding the Darcy script when the Laura Branigan music video of her latest hit “The Lucky One” came on. It had a spoken word comedic scene before the actual music came in, and I was beguiled by Laura’s charm, charisma, comedy timing, and natural beauty. I suddenly got the idea that if the lead character of “Backstage” was changed to be a pop star wanting to be taken seriously as an actress and her only offer was from a producer in Australia, we had a film that would be modern, relevant, funny and say something meaningful about how we categorise and box artists in and restrict their growth.
I immediately phoned Atlantic Records and pitched them my idea, they then told me they’d have Susan Joseph (Laura’s then manager) phone me. Within the hour Susan phoned me, I pitched her the idea, she loved it and laughed, and asked where I was staying. She told me the stars must be aligning because Laura was booked in there from the next day on the L.A leg of her tour, and bingo – stranger than fiction.
I heard it was you who helped organise
Branigan. How did you
meet Laura Branigan and how did she become intrigued by the script?
Laura and I met in L.A and she loved the idea of the script. I didn’t show her the Hardy & Stevens version as it would’ve frightened her off. So, I bought some time by telling her that I was on my way back to Australia to write the next draft with Hardy and would send it to her within weeks. And so I did. She read it, loved it, and was in.
Was the script complete or was she sold
on an idea? And how
much did they pay a rock star of her calibre at the time? Her career appeared to have already peaked…
Laura’s husband Larry Kruteck was a New York lawyer, so he handled her negotiations. They wanted a pay or play contact, meaning that if we didn’t come up with the money to produce the film, then Laura would be given her entire fee anyway. You have to remember that at this time Laura was the biggest selling female recording star in the world. My business partner Peter Boyle and I bit the bullet and agreed, signing the contract and agreeing to pay Laura $250,000 U.S. dollars whether she did the film or not. Being young and naïve, we were incredibly brave and full of positive belief. We had within 12 months to make this film happen or go bankrupt. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you are driven by fear. We were manic, panic-stricken, and delirious with ambition, and achieved the impossible. It was probably our finest moment as business partners and showed that we were a magical team when we worked in harmony.
You get a co-writers credit but do many
of your original
ideas remain in Backstage? Was Branigan at all perturbed by the skulduggery that went on behind the script and yourself or was she kept in the dark? It sounded like a very toxic production…
Well the main idea was mine, a rock star trying to become a serious actress and accepting an offer from Australia, her only one, to star in a local production. Some of the darkness in Landau’s character is mine. I’d like to think that the scenes that aren’t twee and dated and over-the-top are all mine. The ones that ring true. Of course when I walked off the production because Hardy was manipulating the executive producers to put more and more of his dated script back into the movie, the final film becomes a mish-mash between two styles.
My film would’ve been harder and darker, with some funny but believable scenes coming out of the very clear narrative. Laura knew what was going on but being a very ambitious New Yorker she would always side with whoever she thought was winning. I had an exit agreement that paid me a lot of money, and it spelt out very clearly that I was to be shown the final cut of the movie at which stage I could decide whether I wanted my name on the credits or not. I was never given that contracted right, and once they realized they’d produced a turkey, my name suddenly appeared everywhere on the film.
Were you at all cynical about Branigan’s
acting abilities? Were
others? The critics savaged her. Or was she essentially playing herself?
No. To this day I believe I could’ve gotten a very believable performance out of Laura and one that would’ve captured her charm and sexuality and humour. But I don’t think Hardy ever respected her enough to push her and delve deeper. After all she was a New York trained method actor and worked with Oscar winning director Billy Friedkin who raved to me about her acting abilities. But even Marlon Brando gave less than great performances when he worked with directors who didn’t know how to handle him. The majority of critics are idiots. Don’t think so? Just take a read of the reviews to most of the movies, plays and musicals we now accept as classics, and you’ll see that at their time of release they were not embraced by the critics of their day. Even “Citizen Kane” got hammered by the critics. So did “It’s A Wonderful Life”. And both those films were also box office flops. If something is different, it’s usually slammed at the time. But it’s that difference that makes them live on. Makes them memorable. Time is truly the only real judge of creative works.
Your script for Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1988) is inspired by the short story Babylon Revisited (1931) by F Scott Fitzgerald. You are a self-confessed F Scott nut. His film adaptation would be an interesting read if it still exists… Although his character has no redemption in the story…yours does… would you still give Boulevard the same ending today? And what fascinates you about Fitzgerald?
The first time I read Fitzgerald I wept. I really felt that this man’s emotions were my emotions. I do think there is redemption in his short Story “Babylon Revisited” – the lead character has stopped drinking and even though his dreamed reconciliation with his child hasn’t worked out, he is offered a drink afterwards at a bar, and declines it, determined to come back again next year for one more attempt to make things right. It is sad, but Fitzgerald also leaves us with some hope. When I was living in L.A, the legendary film director Arthur Hiller optioned “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” for a remake and I wrote for him the American version.
In that screenplay, he doesn’t reveal that he is dying because he doesn’t want them back out of sympathy. But he sets things right, and even helps restore his ex-wife’s relationship with her partner, and rises to be a bigger human being than he was. It ends with his tearful but happy farewell at the airport and then he gets on the plane and takes his seat. A man sits next to him and keeps staring at him. He finally asks, “Aren’t you Tom Garfield?” To which he replies, “No. I’m Jessie Garfield’s father.” The confused man doesn’t understand the reply as Tom smiles, his eyes brimming with tears. The plane takes off into the blue skies. It is sad, but it’s a triumphant sadness. When I returned to Australia after 9 years in Hollywood, Richard Wolstencroft showed me his modern-day adaption of Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful And Damned” as he knew I was a bit of an expert on Mr. Fitzgerald’s life and writings. He asked me if I would rewrite his script, polish it and edit it. I did, and many of my lines exist in the finished movie of his.
The title Boulevard of Broken Dreams
seems to have a few
meanings. What does it mean to you exactly?
The title relates to an old Tony Bennett song. No doubt the songwriter was referring to Hollywood and all the people who went there only to have their dreams dashed and their hearts broken. \
Boulevard was made around the same time
as the train wreck
that was Backstage. Boulevard is a more personal film and I’ve heard you
mention that in this case life imitates art in that the script was a
premonition for things to come in your life. Do you think that is a part of the artistic condition? And do you think you ever “sold out” like Tom Garfield? If you did, you did it ingeniously with the ending of Boulevard…
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was made after “Backstage” and Peter and I made sure I had complete artistic control over it and all our future movies as a result of corrosion of our control on “Backstage.” I guess we got the last laugh when both films were eligible for the AFI Awards that year. Both were entered, and “Backstage” got nominated for zip, and “Boulevard” got nominated for 7 AFI Awards including Best Film of the Year. No, I have never sold out. In fact, I am proud of all things I have my name on. With “Backstage” I wasn’t granted my contractual right to have my name removed. But, with the passing of time, “Backstage” sure as hell is not the worst movie ever made. And I am proud of my contribution to it. Just regret that more of what I wrote didn’t make it onto the screen due to the egos of various people who thought they knew better than me. But, alas for everyone, they clearly didn’t. I have walked away from fortunes in order to protect my artistic integrity. Walking away from “Backstage” was only one example of many walkouts I’ve done, sometimes at a loss of a great deal of money. As for creative work being premonitions – It has happened like that for me in a strange way. Perhaps because creative ideas are like dreams – we unconsciously tap into something. Some spiritual world that is more powerful than anything we can ever comprehend.
Boulevard is a “weepie”. Were you
inspired by the movies of
John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk at all? Which weepies stick in your mind? The male sports weepie is more common in the US these days in terms of a male character…
My favourite weepies are “How Green Was My Valley,” “An Affair To Remember,” “The Champ,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Bobby,” “A Star Is Born,” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Boulevard’s soundtrack is excellent, I
own a copy on vinyl…
you and John Capek should have been a shoo-in for Backstage! How long did you work on the songs and which are you most proud of? Certainly the main theme has stuck in my mind over the years…
John Capek came to Australia at my request and commenced work with me on the songs and incidental score for “Backstage” until he was unceremoniously sacked by the Executive Producer without even discussing it with me. So much for “creative” control. As a matter of interest, the Howson & Capek song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” that you refer to, was originally written for “Backstage” and Dragon were poised to record it when all hell broke loose.
You and director Pino Amenta seemed to
share the same vision
of Melbourne… and you worked with him again… Can you explain your working relationship? Is Melbourne your New York/Los Angeles?
Yes, Pino and I worked very closely and very well on 3 films, but then he got his nose out of joint that I wanted to direct “Hunting.” Seemed a little selfish of him. But you know the old saying, “Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.” I was going to get him back to direct “Beyond My Reach” but his girlfriend, a make-up artist of little note caused some problems and that was it. And t-t-t-that’s showbiz, folks. Egos, egos, egos. It’s all in my memoirs.
From what I hear Boulevard was a happy
shoot. It must have
been like a chummy theatre company with all those stage actors… Was it the same with What the Moon Saw and Heaven Tonight?
Yes, we had a wonderful rep company going. I liked how John Ford had that. Mostly the same actors and crew most of his movies. Everyone is like a family and it makes for relaxed performances and getting the best out of people because they genuinely care.
While Boulevard is about the underside
of the Hollywood
Dream and the Not Quite Hollywood dream, it is essentially about the stage, like Backstage was, which was your first love… Do you understand those filmmakers without a stage background?
I started in the theatre when I was a child performer of 7 years of age, and it’s ironic that I have returned to the theatre with writing the musical “Dream Lover” (The Bobby Darin Story) that became a smash in Sydney and then broke all attendance records in history at the State Theatre in Melbourne. I think the theatre is a wonderful grounding for actors, directors, etc., I have been blessed in my life to have been an actor, a writer, a director, a songwriter, etc. So, when I produce something I have experience in all those areas so it certainly helps. Having been an actor in my youth, it has been a great bonus when I am directing as I know how to talk with an actor and what they need to be relaxed enough to give a wonderful and textured performance. Again, it’s ironic, that in these past few years I’ve been asked by several directors to play roles in their movies i.e, for Jason Turley in his film “Crazy In The Night,” and for Richard Wolstencroft in “The Beautiful And Damned,” “The Second Coming Part 2,” and his latest film, “The Debt Collector.”
You must have met some
colourful producers over the years? The
critics of Boulevard accused you of caricature…
Any critic who thought Kevin Miles performance in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” never met Adrian Rawlings!
Again, what do critics know? I have a letter from Evan Williams of The Australian who gave “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” a damning review where he apologises for the inaccuracies in his review and admits that he was ill that day and had to leave after watching only 15 minutes but asked a friend of his how it turned out. Based upon this he savaged an Australian film and turned people off going to see it. Shame on him and he can rot in hell. Tin gods who alleviate themselves at our expense. Want to get a great review? Make a film that they can’t understand and they’ll all want to pretend that they “got” it. What a joke they are. Not all but, sadly, a great deal of them.
Boulevard is also about the creative
process. How did you
work over the years? What is your discipline? A pack of cigarettes and a bottle of wine, as I imagine Tom Garfield, or is it more aesthetic?
I really admire Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and all those guys who could get up, have breakfast, and sit at their desk in their writing room from 9am until 5pm every day and write. I can’t do that. I have to let an idea churn away in my mind for some time.
As Hemingway once said, “A writer is always writing even when he’s not writing.” That’s me. When I have an idea I let my subconscious chip away at it and then when I feel it’s time I sit down and write in a very intensive burst that may last 48 hours of black coffee and some cigarettes until it is done. I feel if you can do that you somehow capture the energy of the piece and the orchestrated ebb and flow. Amy Ephron who observed me writing in Hollywood told me I was a method writer. When I’m writing that script I am totally in it, I am the characters, I laugh, I cry, and I feel for them all. I’m not great company when I’m writing because even when I take a break from it I am still in their world. Of course, once you’ve gotten it out and there’s a first draft, that’s when the real fun process begins. Polishing it. Adding bits here, bits there. Adding texture to the characters to make them real.
Cutting scenes you realise with a fresh mind, you don’t need. Sometimes you even have to cut a scene you love because as lovely as it is, and well written, it isn’t moving the story forward. And your first loyalty is to the narrative. If it’s not servicing the plot, it’s an ego scene and you’re just showing off. If you don’t cut that scene, trust me, the editor of the movie later will. This takes a lot of objectivity and discipline. But the audience is only interested in “Where is this movie heading?” And if your characters sit down for a nice chat, generally the audience get bored and start to get ahead of you. Don’t let them catch up. You’re taking them on a ride to an unknown destination. Don’t give them the time to work out that destination before you get them there. That disappoints them and is a letdown. “What The Moon Saw” I wrote in one long night, and it captured a real energy. Even when I was writing it I had no idea where it was heading. Which is good, because neither did the audience. It’s the only script of mine that didn’t need a polish and that not one actor wanted to change a word of it. It really did capture some kind of magic. It became the first Australian film sold to Miramax and opened the London Film Festival in 1990 and was selected for competition at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. Even I can’t explain its appeal. In fact, it breaks quite a few rules of the formula movie, and perhaps that’s why it worked. The publicity by-line on the Miramax poster was, “A look at the magic of innocence.” And that’s what it was.
How did the idea for Heaven Tonight
formulate? It appears
All my films are personal in some way. Even if it’s symbolic. I remember Elia Kazan saying in one of his books that he couldn’t direct a movie or a play unless it was somehow personal to him. Unless he found something in it that he identified with, and then once he did, he could direct it from experience. From his guts. I spent a lot of years in the music business as a performer, a songwriter, a record label owner, a music publisher, etc. So in “Heaven Tonight” I know all those characters very well. A friend of mine once told me that he saw a lot of me in the Johnny Dysart character. In the fact that I stubbornly hold onto a dream and won’t let it go until I achieve it. But, unlike me, Johnny is trapped in the music industry and can’t get out because it’s all he knows. And the pop music business is a tough world. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who become icons, it eats you up, spits you out and slams the door shut. I liken it to being a boxer. You are only at your peak for a few years, a very small window, and then it’s onto the next champ. And that’s rock’n’roll too. But, unlike a boxer, a singer/musician/songwriter may actually get better and better with time, but no one’s listening anymore because you are categorised as “old hat” or “over the hill” or “not cool anymore.” I wrote this movie for all those talented people who had their 15 minutes of fame and then got shut out in the cold.
It captures the music scene of the time
very well. It’s
really a time capsule… don’t you think? For that alone it’s priceless.
It got sold to the giant American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and they told me that one of their international sales was to Russia and that it was the first Western-made movie to be shown there after the Cold War bullshit died. And I wondered why. And Sean Scully told me that it made perfect sense. He said it filled them in on the whole rock’n’roll business and era that they’d missed out on. I guess it did.
John Waters is a rock in Boulevard and
Heaven Tonight. And
you spotted great talent in Guy Pearce… What led you to these actors?
John Hargreaves was the original choice for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” but he was busy with another project. And then Pino suggested John Waters, whom he’d recently worked with on “Nancy Wake.” I had known John for many years, in fact, he appeared on a recording of an album of songs from a musical for children I’d written entitled, “The Boy Who Dared To Dream” and gave a superb performance and was so easy to work with. So, I immediately agreed with Pino and we flew up to Sydney to meet with John, who read the script and loved it and was in. In regard to “Heaven Tonight” John Waters and Kim Gyngell had such great chemistry on “Boulevard” and of course won AFI Awards for their respective performances, so with the characters of Johnny Dysart and Baz Schultz it was too good an opportunity not to cast them both again. And I thought in “Heaven Tonight” they were amazing. John Waters told me that if his grandkids ever asked him what he did for a living, he’d show them that movie. I’d never seen Guy Pearce on “Neighbours” so I hadn’t type-cast him so when he came in to audition for “Heaven Tonight” I had an open mind and he fitted the part of Paul Dysart to perfection. He also had a very good singing voice, and could play guitar, which was a huge plus as I wanted to record all the music live, which we did, to give it a real earthy credibility.
Stevie Wright seems to loom large as the
basis of one of the
characters in Heaven Tonight. Did you know him over the years?
I grew up loving The Easybeats. In fact, to my mind, they were Australia’s Beatles. Then years later I was cast in the original legendary stage production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Stevie was in the show. So I saw him just about every night for 2 years of that run. Yes, the Baz Schultz character was a combination of Stevie Wright and another dear friend of mine, Ken Firth, who was in The Ferrets and co-wrote their hit record “Don’t Fall In Love.” Sadly, both of them are now gone.
Again, does life imitate art in the case of Heaven Tonight
as it turns out? It seems to be a cautionary tale for a father and son… I hope you had a happier relationship with your family in the ensuing years…
There are always ups and downs in family lives. But that relationship wasn’t based on anything personal at that time. It just seemed a good idea to place a father and son relationship against the backdrop of the rock music industry. And have the drama come out of the fact that the type of music his son was playing was putting his own father’s music out of business.
I mentioned your discovery of Guy Pearce. Flynn (1993),
about the early life of Errol Flynn, was your Apocalypse Now (1979). Any life lessons learned from that one? I would be interested to see the original version of the film. Does it still exist?
The original version of the film is literally unshowable. I had to sack the director and start again at great personal expense to me and my business partner. Remaking that film out of our own pockets, basically, put a huge financial pressure on our company. And ourselves for a few years and no doubt added tension that ultimately ruined our relationship, and then wound up the company. But, if I’d have released the original version I think it would’ve killed Guy Pearce’s blooming movie career that I was actively designing. When I went to Cannes with the film, Screen International did a feature story on me that was titled, “The Man Almost Destroyed By Errol Flynn.”
And what Errol movies still resonate
with you today? Would
you trade having done the Errol movie for a chance to have done Les Darcy’s story instead?
The Les Darcy script is probably my finest work and yet, ironically, remains the one still unmade. It’s an amazing story, very emotional, and says a lot about Australia and America. It’s entitled “Winter In America.” A sad, sad story. My favourite Flynn movies would have to be “Gentleman Jim,” “The Adventure of Robin Hood” (of course), “They Died With Their Boots On,” and “The Sun Also Rises.”
Lastly, what would you like to say to those arsehole critics…who turned up to review your film in 1989?
I think I’ve already said it all above. But, it seems to me that we have very few serious critics these days. I mean, people who really know their stuff. These days we have “reviewers.” And anyway with a laptop now can be a critic. Not that long ago I received a unfavourable review (on another theatre show that ironically was a huge hit with the public and achieved a sell-out season). I then went and researched the critic that had slammed us. His claim to fame was he’d once directed a play for St. Michael’s Grammar School. Yet, he has an online page and can do damage to people like me who have spent their whole lives polishing and perfecting their craft based upon many years of experience. Doesn’t quite seem fair. But don’t think I’m slamming all critics. Some over the years I’ve very much admired and even if they didn’t like something you did you still got the feeling that they know their stuff. Even if you don’t agree with them, their point of view was valid. I don’t get much of a sense of really great, respected critics commenting anymore. Alas. It think it’s also true to say that if you attempt to do something original the majority of “reviewers” will have nothing to compare it to, and in their state of confusion, will no doubt slam it. As I said earlier, time is the only true judge of the value of something.