Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 12, 2010
This is the second half of David Konow’s interview with the late Tom Mankiewicz. The first part was posted earlier today.
It was the early ’70s and Cubby Broccoli was preparing Diamonds Are Forever. He told David Picker, then the head of United Artists, “I’m lookin’ for a writer who’s young. I think we gotta stay hip. He has to be American because 75% of the picture takes place in Vegas, but he has to be able to write the British idiom because I don’t want to hire another writer to do that.” As luck would have it, Picker saw “Georgy” before it was shut down and remembered that Joe Mankiewicz’s kid wrote it. The play was all in Brit speak, but he knew the young Mank was American.
“I went up to Cubby Broccoli’s house, I met with him and the director, Guy Hamilton, and they signed me for $12,500 a week on a two-week guarantee,” Mankiewicz recalled. “They said, ‘Let’s see what you can do with the first thirty pages.’ I went home and thought, ‘Damn it, this is the kind of film when I’m sitting in the audience I’m going: I can do this better.’ I thought if I didn’t work out I was going to get really depressed. I wrote the first thirty pages and they said, ‘This is terrific, keep going.’ Suddenly I was writing a major motion picture.”
Mankiewicz continued to work on the Bond series throughout the ’70’s, writing Live and Let Die, co-writing The Man With the Golden Gun, doing an uncredited rewrite on The Spy Who Loved Me, and writing the story for Moonraker. Now Mankiewicz was the next established and wildly successful writer in the Mankiewicz clan.
There was a lot of pressure trying to establish yourself as a writer or director with the last name Mankiewicz, but Mankiewicz felt there were more advantages than disadvantages to having a famous Hollywood moniker. “If a script said ‘Tom Mankiewicz’ on the cover, more people would pick it up and read it than if it said ‘Tom Schwartz.’ I could call an agent and get him on the phone instead of, ‘He’s just gone to Chile for three months.’ Once you’ve got ’em, you better have something good to say. The scary part was once they’d say, ‘Okay, let’s give him a chance.’ Then it had to be good. Even if I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, I was saying to myself, ‘They’re reading it and they’re saying, “Poor Joe Mankiewicz, look how terrible his kid writes!”’ Even though you didn’t flat-out think that, it was always back there.”
“If a script said ‘Tom Mankiewicz’ on the cover, more people would pick it up and read it. The scary part was once they’d say, ‘Okay, let’s give him a chance.’ Then it had to be good.”
Mankiewicz didn’t consciously set out to separate his own work from the kinds of films his father and uncle wrote. A happy accident allowed him to work without having to worry about writing the next All About Eve. “When I stumbled into that first Bond movie, I suddenly realized I had my own playing field that wouldn’t conflict with my father or Uncle Herman. I was in this big action adventure field, and I was safe there. I may have also dug a big hole for myself too.”
One could also imagine having Joe Mankiewicz as a father would be a dream for a young writer in that you’d have an incredible in-house writing coach. But Mankiewicz says he didn’t actively solicit his father’s advice until after he became established on his own. “It was weird because I didn’t want him to read my scripts, and when he read them he didn’t want to give me advice because he was afraid I was going to resent it. I gave him my stuff more and more as I got more comfortable with myself, and it was easier for him to give me advice when he knew I could make a living as a writer without his advice. So it just became easier on both of us.”
By the late ’70s, Tom had also become one of Hollywood’s top script doctors, and he performed literary surgery for many years. Top script docs often build their reps after “saving” a film that turns into a big hit, and Tom’s new behind-the-scenes career started with his rewrite of The Deep. As he recalls, “It was Peter Benchley’s next novel right after Jaws, and they signed Robert Shaw, Jackie Bissett, and Nick Nolte with no script. They were signed off the book.”
Once the cast and crew of The Deep reached the Virgin Islands, Robert Shaw saw the script they had to work from, and refused to act in the film. Tom got an urgent call from the director, Peter Yates, pleading to come down to the shoot and help out. “In three weeks, and I mean three weeks of not sleeping, I rewrote that thing,” he says. “It didn’t turn out to be a great movie, but it was a huge grosser.” In fact, The Deep was the second-highest grossing film of 1977, right behind Star Wars.
Mankiewicz often found himself working incredibly harried schedules. One time he was on location typing up new scenes in the back of a limo while the film was shooting fifty yards away, and handing the new pages out the window when he was finished. But he didn’t really understand the meaning of “harried” until he went to work on Superman.
It was five o’clock in the morning when a Richard Donner’s phone call woke Mankiewicz.
“Get up! Get up!”
“I’m in Paris, I’m gonna do a movie called Superman. Actually it’s two movies. It needs a whole rewrite and you’re gonna do it.”
“No Dick, I don’t wanna rewrite movies anymore. Thank you, but Superman sounds pretty silly to me.”
“Don’t go to sleep because there’s a woman on the way to your house right now with the screenplays, and I know you’re too nice a guy to fall asleep and not answer the door.”
Sure enough, the doorbell rang, Tom answered in his bathrobe, and a messenger handed over the scripts, which were about 200 pages each. Donner called again. “Are you reading? Are you reading?”
“Dick, the scripts are too heavy to get up the stairs!”
“You gotta do it! It could be heartwarming…”
“Dick, I am so tired of rewriting pictures, I never get credit…”
Mankiewicz went to Donner’s house to give the scripts back, and when he opened the door, Richard was standing there wearing the Superman suit. “If you put the suit on, you’ll do it!” Mankiewicz finally gave in. Although he’s credited as a “Creative Consultant” in the final films, Mankiewicz’s contributions to Superman I and II were tremendous. “It was the most monumental job,” he says. “It was the hardest I ever worked, and if I wasn’t working with Dick, I would have thrown up my hands.”
Donner and Mankiewicz started working on the film in January, 1977. The film had to start rolling that May because Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman had unmovable start dates, and they were the only actors signed on at the time. The role of Superman was not filled, and wouldn’t be until the last minute before production. “Boy, was it scrambling,” Mankiewicz continued. “You think four months is a lot of time, it’s no time at all. I was writing to stay ahead of myself because I was working on all aspects of the film with Dick, who was saying, ‘Don’t leave me alone!’”
What still sets Superman apart from most comic book adaptations is the filmmakers didn’t treat the material as campy or beneath them. “You can’t keep camp up in the air for two hours,” Mankiewicz said. “It sinks of its own non-weight. What I really liked was Dick’s take on it: ‘Let’s make this real.’ That’s why I started with that scene on the balcony. It was really Superman asking Lois out, and when he takes her flying, I consciously had her say, ‘You mean me? Fly? Like Peter Pan?’ Superman looks at her and says, ‘Peter Pan flew with children in a fairy tale, Lois.’ I wrote that to say, ‘This is different.’ The first line of the picture is Brando saying, ‘This is no fantasy, no careless product of someone’s wild imagination.’ I meant that as a signal to say, ‘Come with us, come inside the movie.”
Although he continued to doctor scripts, Tom wanted to move away from that aspect of screenwriting because, as he once told The Washington Post, if the movie tanks, the main writer accuses you of screwing it up, while if the film is successful, the other writer wins the Academy Award. Mankiewicz wanted to direct, and was offered work writing and directing for television. Yet it took him time to warm up to the idea. “In those days there was a huge split between television writers and movie writers, which has largely disappeared,” Mankiewicz said. “A lot of the best writing today is done for television, but there was a big dividing line then. You didn’t do television.” Nevertheless, he rewrote and directed a pilot script originally written by Sidney Sheldon called Double Twist. It was later renamed Hart to Hart, and became a very successful series with Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers. And while it wasn’t All About Eve, Mankiewicz’s best known directing credit–the big-screen version of Dragnet, starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks–did respectable box office in the summer of ’87.
Joe Mankiewicz was directing his last film, Sleuth, when the major differences between the films he made, and the films his son was making, became obvious. Sleuth and Live and Let Die were both shooting at Pinewood Studios in London. Sleuth took up one sound stage while Live and Let Die took up eight. One night Joe walked onto one of the Bond sound stages and saw women in bikinis by an enormous pool, gigantic rockets, and high-tech weapons. “What are you people doing here with all this stuff?” he asked. “I have two guys and a camera!”
Thankfully Tom hasn’t repeated the fate of his Uncle Herman, who died bitter and disillusioned from his years in Hollywood. As Herman’s son Don recalled in the book Hollywood Dynasties, his father warned him not to go into Hollywood by saying, “Try to understand that whatever they pay you, A) you will earn it five times over, and B) it will not suffice to pay your psychiatrist bills.”
While Mankiewicz has been inactive from the business after several decades of writing, rewriting and directing, there’s still time for him to come up with the cinematic gem he can close his career with, like his father did with Sleuth. “I get writer’s block now more than ever,” he said. “And I think I got it more than ever when a certain fire went out of my belly. When you’re working great, it seems to flow. I think every writer has this dread in them that the block is coming. There are days when it doesn’t come. When you’re under the gun, sometimes you can force it out of yourself, but there are days every writer has when you just can’t. But even if you write four bad pages, don’t give up because it becomes very clear the next day after a night’s sleep why those pages are bad, and you can fix them like that. The point is you’ve got to just keep at it.”
That concludes David Konow’s two part piece on Tom Mankiewicz. Unfortunately Tom Mankiewicz didn’t make another film that would garner the kind of critical success and fan adoration that he achieved with the Superman films. And although his contributions to Richard Donner’s fantasy film Ladyhawke (1985) might not be the kind of career ending swan song that many of Tom Mankiewicz’s fans were hoping for, I personally think Ladyhawke is one of the best fantasy films of the ’80s. I also think some of Tom Mankiewicz’s most impressive writing can be found in the dramatic comedy Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976) and I really like his adaptation of the 1976 thriller, The Cassandra Crossing. All three films are highlights in Tom Mankiewicz’s impressive screenwriting career and well worth a look if you’re interested in becoming more familiar with his work.
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