Writer/Director Richard LaGravenese—best known for films like The Fisher King, The Horse Whisperer and Freedom Writers — chats with Blake about breaking into the business, encountering fan backlashes and why it “wasn’t a good decision” to adapt and direct the Twilight-like tween tale Beautiful Creatures.
In February 2016, filmmaker Richard LaGravenese received the WGA’s Ian McClellan Hunter Award for Career Achievement.
“With sensitivity and a sure grasp of the human condition, Richard’s screenplays poignantly capture the vicissitudes of life,” WGA East president Michael Winship wrote in a statement at the time. “His creativity and skill bring to all of his work a distinctive point of view that wins the hearts and provokes the minds of anyone lucky enough to see a film that bears his credit.”
With two-plus decades of heartfelt hits like The Fisher King (1991), Freedom Writers (2007) and Unbroken (2014), it’s hard to argue with the WGA’s words of praise. LaGravenese truly does have a gift for writing poignant, mind-provoking popular films. But there is one film on his resume that, well, let’s just say that those who saw it might not claim that they were “lucky enough to see a film that bears his credit.” And that film Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural love story that was recently featured on the How Did This Get Made podcast.
To understand what was different about this film — what worked, what didn’t; and why this franchise-to-be never wound up spawning any sequels — I sat down with Richard LaGravenese to talk about the making of Beautiful Creatures, and other highs and lows from his storied career…
Synopsis: In the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, a teenage boy’s world is turned upside-down when he falls for a girl with supernatural powers beyond her control.
Tagline: Is Falling in Love the Beginning…or the End?
Blake J. Harris: Hey Richard, thanks so much for chatting with us.
Richard LaGravenese: My pleasure.
Blake J. Harris: You’re based in New York, right?
Richard LaGravenese: Yes I am.
Blake J. Harris: Have you always lived in the area?
Richard LaGravenese: Yeah. Born and raised in Brooklyn. And I’ve been in the city since ’78.
Blake J. Harris: To be a screenwriter, aren’t supposed to move to Hollywood at some point? Isn’t that how it works?
Richard LaGravenese: [laughs] That’s not what I did.
Blake J. Harris: Good. Well let’s talk about that. And let’s start at the beginning. With how you first fell in love with film. How did that happen?
Richard LaGravenese: Well, since I was a little kid, I loved film, theater and television—the whole thing. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was kind of an odd boy out in sort of a tough neighborhood. I went to the movies a lot on my own. And also my dad, who was a cab driver, he would take me to the movies every Sunday. And at that time, all these amazing filmmakers were doing these extraordinary things. I remember he took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was 9. And he didn’t really care about the [recently implemented] rating system; he just recognized William Holden cast and so he thought it was a Western, and so he took me. He never cared about that kind of stuff. So I had these incredible late 60s and then 70s films that I was growing up on. And at the same time, my mom introduced me to old films of the 30s, 40s and 50s because the television networks had bought the libraries; so all these old movies were playing on television. So I got a full, kind of, education of all films from the beginning.
Blake J. Harris: What did you love about film (versus, say, novels or comic books)?
Richard LaGravenese: I don’t know. I’m not quite sure. There was something about being told a story in 2-hour period with highs and lows and ending that was encapsulated. I think that was very satisfying for me. And also: I just loved the ritual of it too. I loved going to…we had a great big movie palace in Brooklyn; the Loews Oriental, a big giant art deco theater—where I saw The Godfather, and The Wild Bunch and all these amazing movies—with a balcony and two grand staircases, it was just a special thing. In those days, there was no such thing as a summer release or even a wide release. All the movies would stay in the city for about six months before they came to the boroughs, before they came to Brooklyn. If it was a really special movie, my parents and I would get dressed up and drive to the city.
Blake J. Harris: Almost like going to a Broadway show?
Richard LaGravenese: Exactly. As if it was the theater. Like I remember they took me to see Planet of the Apes for my communion; it was a big deal, a special occasion.
Blake J. Harris: That’s awesome. And given that this was pre-internet, pre-magazines like Entertainment Weekly and all that, how did you or your parents know about these movies? Meaning, like, how did you, or they, know that The Godfather was a “really special” one?
Richard LaGravenese: Well, first of all: everybody read The Godfather. It was the book that everybody was reading in Cony Island, the summer before.
Blake J. Harris: Ha. Okay, that makes sense.
Richard LaGravenese: I mean, it was like that for a lot of the movies. Jaws was a bestseller before it became a movie; The Exorcist was like that. So a lot of times we read the books before. And also, growing up in Brooklyn…the working class of Brooklyn has always been very into films and movie stars and that sort of culture of that time. So it was a very exciting thing for us back then.
Blake J. Harris: You clearly had an affection for film, but did you—at that age—imagine that you’d one day actually work in the film industry? Was that a dream, or a goal?
Richard LaGravenese: I wanted to be in that world, very much. But I didn’t realize it would be from writing. At first, I thought I wanted to be an actor. And when I left home to go to school at 16, I went to a school for theater. So I was a theater major (not a film major), and studied acting. All along I was writing—monologues, and plays, and things like that—but I never really paid attention to it, because it was always in the service of acting. For example: instead of doing traditional monologues for auditions, I thought I would stand out more if I wrote an original monologue and performed that.
Blake J. Harris: Interesting…
Richard LaGravenese: Then that became a thing, and I started selling my monologues to other actors.
Blake J. Harris: Ha! That’s awesome.
Richard LaGravenese: And that’s how the writing kind of got started. Because a teacher of mine a wonderful teacher, Kate McGregor Stewart, acknowledged that the writing was good. And she gave it to a film director, Joan Micklin Silver, who at the time was directing an off-Broadway review of sketches and monologues and songs called A…My Name is Alice. And the first thing I ever sold was a monologue; along with a whole bunch of other writers, which included Kaufman & Crane (the people who created Friends), they were a team and they also wrote something for that show as well. And that was the first bit of writing I ever sold.
Blake J. Harris: And then was Rude Awakening [released in 1989] then the first feature script that you sold?
Richard LaGravenese: Yes, yes. That is accurate. So this is what happened with that: I was part of a comedy act, so I would write skit comedy. And a friend of mine from college married a guy named Neil Levy [a writer and talent coordinator for the original Saturday Night Live]. He was a very funny, very smart guy and he had sold an idea [for what eventually became Rude Awakening] to a producer: Aaron Russo. Aaron Russo had produced The Rose and Trading Places, so he was a big producer.
Blake J. Harris: Sure.
Richard LaGravenese: So he [Neil] saw my comedy act and he liked my dialogue. So he invited me to co-write it with him. And we became this sort of team, and I learned how to write a screenplay by sort of sitting beside him. And we worked on that for like 3 years. It was a terrible experience. And Aaron completely ruined it. It was a smart satire to start out with, and then he turned it into this terrible, terrible thing. He [Aaron] ended up directing it as well. So my career almost was over before it started!
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