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GOLDMAN, BO: Meet Joe Black

NICK RODDICK talks to two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman about how he reteamed with director Martin Brest on Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt and inspired by the 1934 classic, Death Takes a Holiday.

A few years back, veteran screenwriter Bo Goldman was pitching a script idea. Goldman has been around Hollywood for almost three decades, picking up two Oscars - the first for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, the other for Melvin and Howard five years later - along the way. But he still has to pitch from time to time. And he still finds some of the rituals irritating.

‘Life is the hook!’

"I’m not too good on hooks," he says, referring to the tendency of time-conscious executives to seek the shortest possible description of any project, usually along the lines of ‘It’s Oklahoma! meets Titanic’. "I’d written a screenplay which Paramount was originally interested in. I proposed it to the head of the studio and he said, ‘What’s the hook?’ I said, ‘Life is the hook!’"

He chuckles happily at his own story. But, in Goldman’s case, it’s more than just a story: if a plot-line doesn’t find a resonance in his own experience - if it’s not about something real to him - then he will not tackle it. ‘Life is the hook’ could be (maybe even is) pinned up above his work table.

But it’s a phrase that took on added meaning when he was asked by producer/director Martin Brest - with whom he previously worked on Scent of a Woman, a film which earned them an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award each - to help him solve some problems he was having with a screenplay he was trying to adapt from the classic 1934 film, Death Takes a Holiday.

"All that really remains of the original movie is the idea of Death coming to earth"

Directed by Mitchell Leisen and starring Frederic March, Death Takes a Holiday is a lightweight tale about how Death disguises himself as the aristocratic Prince Firki and comes to earth to find out a little bit more about human beings, falling in love with the beautiful Grazia (Evelyn Venable) in the process. It struck a chord with thirties audiences, despite the nervousness of the studio (Paramount) about a film with the word ‘death’ in the title. They ran it for a week in Fresno as Strange Holiday, then for a week in Sacramento under the original title. The latter run did much better business and, when the film opened nationwide, it went on to become Paramount’s second biggest hit of the year. "We were right behind Mae West," joked Leisen later.

In Meet Joe Black, the script which finally went in front of the cameras in a coffee shop on Broadway and 103rd on New York’s Upper West Side, all that really remains of the original movie is the idea of Death coming to earth. The story here is of a fabulously rich media tycoon called William Parrish, played by Anthony Hopkins and embodying, says Goldman, a kind of benevolent, idealised version of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, who is both rich and powerful but also a really nice guy. Then the Parrish household is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a charming young stranger called Joe Black (Brad Pitt).

Like March in the original movie, Joe Black is Death, and he’s on a learning trip to earth, where he encounters such strange and wonderful things as Manhattan traffic and peanut butter. And, of course, love. For Meet Joe Black’s title character also falls in love, this time with Parrish’s beautiful daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani).

"When you write about death, what you are really focusing on is life."

As with all the scripts on which he has worked, Goldman thought about the idea for a while, trying to find things he could relate to - not so much in Leisen’s film, as in the idea of what you would do if Death casually walked through your door. He declined to read any of the previous script drafts Brest had commissioned, refused to look at the Italian novel adapted into a West End play and readapted into a Broadway hit, but he did watch bits of the movie. He finally decided, however, what almost all writers who have taken death as a theme have come up against: that when you write about death, what you are really focusing on is life.

"As I got into the material," recalls Goldman, "I realised it’s not about death, it’s about life. Death is the only completely unavoidable thing in life and we all know it comes to us. But what does it mean to somebody who finds out that they’re going to die? What does their life mean? What becomes valuable to them?

"One guy said to me a few years ago, ‘The last thing we say on our death bed is that we should have spent more time at the office!’ And then other things began to occur to me. I think it was Freud who said that there are two choices we make in our life: that of a mate, and that of our work. And these are the two issues Anthony Hopkins’ character has to confront. Family, what that means to him, and then there’s this whole plot that revolves around his work: somebody’s trying to sell his company out from under him.

"We had to address the theme of death in exactly the same way we addressed blindness in Scent of a Woman"

"Not so much death, then, but life. What do you value when you have a short amount of time left? And what is the nature of Death? He does not need to be this dark, brooding presence. That was one thing that I took from the original movie: Frederic March dressed up in this kind of comic-opera white uniform, like a Prussian prince. And it occurred to me that we had to address the theme of death in exactly the same way we addressed blindness in Scent of a Woman. I said to Marty, ‘We must never think of Pacino, the Colonel Slade character, as being blind. We have to think of him as a person. One of the things he happens to be is blind, beside being this misogynist and all the rest...’."

It was - Goldman is quite open about this - the prospect of renewing his working relationship with Brest that first drew him to Meet Joe Black. "What appealed to me right away was Marty," he says. "I wanted to return to the relationship. I said, ‘I’m coming back to work with you again. I had a happy time doing Scent of a Woman.’ I love Marty: he’s a brother, he’s a colleague, and it’s just one of those rare happy collaborations that happens in this business. So we began work, and we worked for two years."

As with Scent, the pair worked closely together for a while, then went off and worked on their own, then came back together to share progress. And, over this period, Goldman learned of his friend’s first exposure to the original Frederic March film.

"All that sunshine and nothing to do, and he was in a sort of misery"

"Marty had this kind of dark period when he first came out here in the late seventies," recalls the writer. "He had an apartment in the San Fernando Valley with a Murphy Bed, like they have in Laurel & Hardy and Chaplin films, that folds into the wall. It was a Sunday afternoon: all that sunshine and nothing to do, and he was in a sort of misery. Then I guess he was leaving the apartment and he happened to turn on the television set and this movie was on, and he was really fascinated by it. That’s where the idea came from. He’s sitting on the end of this Murphy Bed and he thought he was going out but he flicked on the television, and he never left. That was 20 years ago!"

Goldman also learned that, while the part of Parrish was open at the time Brest first approached him, that of Joe Black was already pencilled in in the director’s mind for Brad Pitt. Goldman hadn’t then seen Pitt in his first big hit, A River Runs Through It, which he refers to as "that fishing movie of Redford’s" (he still hasn’t seen it, he admits). But he had caught Pitt, rather improbably, in a scene in Kalifornia, a very mid-nineties movie in which Pitt plays a volatile individual called Early Grayce, travelling across country with a spaced out Juliette Lewis on a ride-share with a journalist who is researching a book on serial killers. It was a scene in which Pitt walks into a room and effortlessly takes control that stuck with Goldman.

"I thought, ‘I don’t know, he looks real interesting’," and thereafter conceived of Joe Black as a much younger man than Frederic March’s Prince - and a good 35 years younger than the Tony Hopkins role, which was exactly Goldman’s age (65) when he wrote it. "A lot of things, a lot of resonance’s in my own life, to do with my family, came up then," he recalls, "and we started going into those corners.

"He’s lovely, charming, attractive - but he is also very menacing."

"Joe has a certain New England formality and a courtesy," he adds. "But he also has something more: a profound innocence. He speaks as a child does. He’s curious, and he has respect for people. He doesn’t judge anyone, not at first, anyway.

"And yet he’s possessed with this unutterable, terrible power. The ultimate power. So he’s lovely, charming, attractive - but he is also very menacing."

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