Dharmesh Interviews ‘Mank’
Tom Mankiewicz had a sense of adventure, it was this quality that infused his work. He didn’t have a particular style, a jack of all trades, if you will. He jumped from the cynicism and wit of James Bond to the emotional Americana of Superman with such effortless ease. Tom could easily have James Bond stab a villainous Bond girl in the back during dinner and write delicious dialogue to complement it, “She had her just-desserts.” Flip the coin and he was able to dig deep and tug our heart strings, “All those powers and I couldn’t even save him,” the pivotal scene when Clark Kent mourned the death of his father against the backdrop of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Although it’s unfair to credit Tom with every aspect of the scripts for the Superman films, some praise should go to David and Leslie Newman for steering the direction away from the Mario Puzo version which had Lois as a weather girl and Clark Kent as a TV reporter. I seriously doubt that much of what Puzo wrote survived the final version we now enjoy watching, but his “story by” credit is fully deserving since the template did remain. Tom’s brief was to write two shooting script in just five months. This wasn’t just taking scenes out, he had to structure the screenplays to form a cohesive story and bring forth the conceit, the central idea that Superman came from the heavens to serve humanity, but succumbs to the human emotions, like love, rendering him more human than alien. Unfortunately, when Mankiewicz decided not to come back and finish Superman II, the story arc was abandoned and the bond between the first and second film severed. The Donner Cut goes a little way in re-energizing the link back to Superman-The Movie, but it’s only a glimpse of what could have been.
I’d been hankering to do a phone interview with Tom for several years, and when I decided to visit Los Angeles I took my chance to actually meet him. Thanks to James Christie (author of the Donner biography) for getting us in-touch.
It was the end of October 2006, I’d arrived in Los Angeles on the Friday night, absolutely exhausted, but excited to watch the Donner Cut before its premiere and meet friends during the next seven days. One meet I was highly anticipating was an interview with Tom Mankiewicz. We had already conversed for several minutes on the phone before I left for England – and we arranged to meet on Thursday morning.
Thursday morning was heralded by the fireball in the sky. It was another scorching day, and I remember feeling unprepared but also exhilarated. Michael Matessino joined me – at the time he was he was working on the Superman soundtrack boxset, and this was an opportunity for him ask questions about the music side of things and be able to glean some new anecdotes for his liner notes.
After negotiating the bumper-to-bumper grazing that is Los Angeles traffic, we turned off the main road and drove up the winding steep hills. Making wrong turns were greeted by sympathetic, friendly smiles.
We eventually reached the pinnacle – Tom’s house was the last one, mounted on the crest overlooking the city of angels. It literally was a dead-end, surrounded by luscious trees and bushes, and beyond that was a long drop into oblivion. It was beautiful and tranquil. His Jaguar was parked in the garage, Tom had an affinity for all things British. I stab the doorbell…
“Hello?” Tom’s inquisitive voice asked.
“I’m Dharmesh… Superman CINEMA. I’m here to interview you.”
“Yeaaaaah, wait a moment.”
My palms were sweating, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the birds were singing and the air tasted good. And then the door creaked open. It’s Tom Mankiewicz! But my heart fell, the enthusiasm, this larger than life character was not there. It was Tom alright, but he wasn’t smiling, he was frowning, troubled, and looked a few pounds lighter. Perhaps he didn’t want to meet me? Perhaps he thought I was an irritating fanboy, Maybe he was sick of talking about Superman. It was something else.
He led us into his home, and gosh, it was gorgeous, it was massive. If I slid the patio doors open, I imagined that parrots would swoop past and monkeys would swing in. A red leaden telephone box, incongruous to the surroundings, was planted in the middle of the garden – I understood there and then why he was perfect for James Bond.
So we sat down and Tom lit up a cigarette, but I was feeling uncomfortable and quite concerned. I tried to keep my spirits up, but deep down I felt I didn’t want to do the interview because clearly he wasn’t one hundred percent today. He told us that he was feeling pains in his back, the doctor checked his kidneys and fortunately they were functioning fine. I showed sympathy and concern but he shrugged it off, he didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him.
So whilst I was fumbling around figuring out what I was going to say, Mike jumps in and discusses the soundtrack boxset – and that ignites Tom’s passion about scoring a film “…and the composer raises his baton and picture just comes alive,” and so did Tom, suddenly the atmosphere shifted, the worries dissipated, the grey clouds parted. Tom was jovial, regaling, he couldn’t stop talking, and I fired off a few questions and he answered them like he was promoting Superman for the first time. We hobbled back to the beginning of his career where he was depressed after his play Georgy Girl was mauled by the critics, then we sauntered off to James Bond and soared with Superman. When you gave him the spotlight he shone. He loved sharing his adventures in this crazy industry; he wasn’t just a great storyteller on the page, but also one in the flesh. The hour flew by. Eleven AM was closing, he had an appointment, but we were not finished, Tom was on a roll, excited, he gave us a mini tour of his place, leading to his bathroom the size of a bedroom. He wanted me to see his Superman posters and premiere photos which were hanging on the wall.
I’m not really an autograph hunter, but I was carrying the Superman poster with me to collect as many signatures as possible, and Tom signed it for me, plus he was happy to get Dick to sign it too, and then Mike Matessino kindly collected and posted it to me at Christmas. Thanks Mike.
When I left his house I was sad, I realized that I wasn’t finished. I wanted to ask about his writing process and other topics, but I figured that I’ll meet him again. So we left this idyllic area and descended back into town for lunch. That was the last time I spoke to him in person, after that we corresponded via e-mail.
When I heard the news that he passed away my heart crashed into my stomach – I remember walking in a daze. Dick Donner was his dearest friend, I can’t imagine how he felt at the time. Their relationship seemed more like brothers than friends. In the countless interviews Tom spoke so kindly about Donner, he was his stanchion support during the Superman shoot, or as Tom likes to be referred to “…his Jiminy Cricket.”
Dharmesh: How do you think Superman would’ve turned out if Guy Hamilton had stayed on-board?
Tom: I’m extremely fond of Guy who did three James Bond movies, I know him very, very well. He was very loyal to me. I think Guy would’ve been a disastrous choice for Superman; he’s very sophisticated and a very cynical man.
Dick Donner really believes in the myth and if you’re going to write these things properly, the ones that work like Spider-man, or the first Batman, you have to get inside the material, you have to believe it, and if you stand outside it and make it campy or comment on it, it doesn’t work. Conversely, Dick wouldn’t be right for James Bond. What Dick completely lacks is the cynicism of Bond, the one line wit, that kind of thing. Dick can do action as well as any other director whoever did it but Guy’s attitude to life, and the sophistication made him ideally suited for Bond but not for this.
It was a complete accident that Guy didn’t direct the picture when they decided to move it from Italy to England. Guy couldn’t go because he was a tax exile. A lot of people back then were. The British rate was up to 90%. Somebody I know very well who loved England more than life itself: Michael Caine moved over here because he couldn’t afford to live there anymore. He likes to do two pictures a year, actually four pictures here if he could. After the first film he said he was giving 92% to the British taxman, and it’s absolutely insane. If you worked for an American production…you became an illegal foreign resident and didn’t pay taxes.
Dharmesh: How did you first meet Donner and first worked together?
Tom: You know the famous story, and it’s true; he called me at five in the morning and said I’m doing Superman and so are you and the girl’s coming around to your house with the scripts, and I said no. The next day, I went over to his house, and he was dressed in the Superman outfit. He came running at me across the lawn and said “If you put the suit on you’ll do it, just put the suit on and you’ll do it.” That’s what I mean about Dick being right for the material. There was a time when we were, and I think it was a couple of months before shooting that Dick and I were at the studio very late at night. He had a couple of joints and I had a third of Jack Daniels and we were driving back into London. We had a driver. Anyway, Dick says, “What are you thinking?” I said, “I’m thinking we don’t have a Superman; we don’t have a Lois; I’m thinking we are presiding over the greatest financial disaster in the history of film that’s what I’m thinking.”
Anyway, the driver lets Dick out on Flood Street, (where I moved in later with him) and Eddie, our driver, took me back to the car lot. I get out and I say to him, “Eddie, would you give the two men who were just sat in the backseat of your car 40 million to do two films?”
And he said, “No, sir, no I wouldn’t.”
I called Dick and said, “Even Eddie wouldn’t give us the money”.
Dharmesh: Did you read the Mario Puzo scripts?
Tom: Never read them. Bob Benton who was one of the later writers along with the Newmans and is a very good friend of mine said, “Don’t bother.”
Dharmesh: Lois was a weather girl. (David Newman told me this)
Tom: I don’t know. It was very transparent and a very good idea by the Salkinds, because they were trying to raise money; to take a James Bond director, even though I think he was miscast, and Mario Puzo, and give a heck of a lot of money to Brando and Hackman so they could go to the ‘Cannes film festival’ and get people to invest.
Dharmesh: How did you go about re-writing the 1976 script?
Tom: When Dick and I sat down and started to talk about it, Dick said, “If we can make the love story work between the guy and the girl, Superman and Lois, we can get the audience to root for these kids to get together, then we got the movie and I know you can write the Lex Luthor stuff, etc.”. And we have to make the growing up in Smallville emotional and we have to make Krypton emotional. Write it like it is happening.
It’s no accident that the first line of the movie is, “This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination.” I know that because I only saw it the other day. But I did that on purpose. There was a two-page scene in the script as it existed, it was the balcony scene and it was played for comedy. And I expanded it to six or seven pages, which was used as the screen test scene; the interview and then he takes her flying. I called Dick up and told him that he ends up taking her flying; he said, “That’s the picture – that’s the picture.” You’ve got the romance and on purpose I wrote the line about Peter Pan — meaning this is real, obviously it’s not real if you’re sitting in the audience but we kept harping back to the fact that it’s really happening.
Dharmesh: Reading the scripts again, what I thought you did the best on the first one was restructuring and slicing the fat off it.
Tom: Yeah, that was the number one thing because the scripts were unfilmable. And then trying to change the tone and then certain things that became key scenes like Brando’s long speech to his son when he puts him the capsule, which is 100% mine, and father becomes the son, the son the father, which they used in the new one. The illusion is that God sends Christ to Earth. I was telling my students yesterday whilst watching Brando, a film directed by my father, Julius Caesar, and it was first time he had done Shakespeare in his life, and never even done it in class. He won the British Academy award and, as my father said, “The Brits would rather slit their throats than give an award to an American – their Oscar for Shakespeare.”
When we were going over the speech (soliloquy to baby Kal-El), Marlon and I, there was this very funny thing, Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter and we got to the line, “They could be good people Kal-El, if they wish to be”. “They only lack the light to show the way”. Marlon says, “That’s iambic pentameter.” I said, “What?” He said, “They only lack the light to show the way,” I said, “Son of a gun”, I didn’t mean to, but the fact that an actor could remember after 26 years, he never played Shakespeare again, I mean Julius Caesar was in ’53 and this is 1978, I couldn’t believe it.
Dharmesh: You pretty much revised everything on the Superman II script, with all due respect to the Newmans, their 1976 version wasn’t very good.
Tom: Bob Benton is a friend of mine, David Newman is no longer with us and I don’t know Leslie Newman. Bob Benton’s one of the great screenwriters of all time and again, disastrous casting for this. If you look at Kramer vs Kramer or Places in the Heart, the guy who wrote that has got no business writing Superman. I called him up before I went on it and asked, if he had any objections, because he is a very good friend of mine and he said, “I have absolutely no emotional attachment to the script at all, please go on, you’d be great. Right up your ally.”
Dharmesh: How come you didn’t get screenplay credit?
Tom: What happened was that I got on it with Dick, and it was well known that there were disagreements between the Salkinds and Dick from the very start, obviously they [Salkinds] fired him, the first time in the man’s career, and for making a hit picture! From the very beginning there was no producer that was a film-maker that was on the picture. The Salkinds, and I give them full credit for the idea to do Superman when Warners owned the thing and didn’t think it was such a good idea (they had a negative pick-up on it), but the producers were more impresarios, promoters, people who could sell things; they weren’t film-makers in that way. I already produced films, I’d been assistant director, written films and Dick and I were close friends. From the moment I came on the film we did a lot of the casting together, we looked at every test together, we picked locations together and I was on that film for well over a year, and at the end of my service on the film, finally, before Superman became a way of life, Dick said that I think you deserve a separate credit on the main titles, you’ve done so much than write the pictures and I said, “Thank you, I’d love to have one,” even if it means giving up residuals because of the year of my life or more that I put in, and it was a very strange thing, because the title “Creative Consultant” had never been on a movie before in the main title like that and because there was, and I was completely unaware of it, such a hurry to finish the picture in time. I mean Deluxe was flying prints out two weeks before opening, I had no idea my name was coming after the writers, which is a total no-no.
The WGA [Writer's Guild of America], DGA [Director's Guild of America] and everyone else, they say, “Writer, Producer and Director.” You don’t put a writer with another title after the writers, it’s just not done and the Writers Guild sued me, in the sense that they called me to a hearing with the head of the guild and everyone else, including Warner Bros. legal department. I showed them thirteen round trips to London after I finished writing – then it was the editing, the scoring, and I said that it really reflects what I did and I’m so sorry about the placement of it because I didn’t know that was where they were gonna put it there and they said, “Fine, but in Superman II we’d like to correct it, it should come before the writers”, which is what happened. That’s how that credit came and subsequently outlawed by the Writer’s Guild. It’s called the ‘Tom Mankiewicz rule’. Informally, there’s no such thing as a separate title called “Creative Consultant” anymore.
And like the Clint Eastwood rule under the DGA, he fired the director on Josey Wales after two days and took over. You can fire a director if you want to but nobody from the production can take over the direction, and that stops the producer becoming the director, the actor and everyone else, you just have to hire an outsider. That’s called the Clint Eastwood rule. There are certain informal rules…
Dharmesh: What did you think of Alexander Salkind when you met him?
Tom: I thought he was incredibly charming, short charlatan. The very first meeting we had was in the Grand Hotel which was his castle in Zurich. He liked to travel as little as possible because I gather he paid the governor of Costa Rica for a diplomatic passport. He was cultural attaché to Switzerland for Costa Rica which made him immune from arrest in Europe but he was not in this country [U.S.A.] which is why he never came to any of the openings because he was wanted on several charges on financial misdemeanours and the FBI said, “A cultural attaché from Costa Rica to Switzerland doesn’t cut any ice over here.”
Anyway, the first time me and Dick wanted Goldie Hawn to play Miss Teschmacher and Goldie agreed and she wanted the same money as Gene Hackman which was too much, and they were not going to pay it. She wanted two million dollars, a million a picture. Second choice was Ann Margaret who wanted five hundred thousand per picture, she agreed, one million for both. We were very happy with Valerie Perrine and she did a great job, so Valerie was third choice and she wanted $250,000, by the way, these figures are not accurate but they went down like that – so we are at the Grand Hotel in Zurich and Pierre Spengler, their hatchet man, and Pierre was very charming, but they used to saddle him with all the dirty jobs like when bad news had to be broken. Anyway, Pierre came running in from some phone bank and he said, “We’ve just made a deal with Ann Margaret for Miss Teschmacher.”, and we said, “Oh Alex, thank you so much”. And he said, “You see Mr. Mankiewicz and Mr. Donner, the money you make me spend”, and we’re all toasting each other. An hour later, Pierre runs back in and says, “We’ve just made a deal with Valerie Perrine.”
I said, “Wait a minute, didn’t you just say you made a deal with Ann Margaret?” And Alex retorted, “She can sue”.
Okay, we’re in for it here guys and we were warned because of what happened on the Three/Four Musketeers when they tried to pay the actors for one movie not two. They were told they were making one movie. Both Dick and I had our salary paid Escrow in a Swiss Bank. So a certain amount was released to me and Dick every Monday morning.
There was one day where they were trying to make things look better for the investors and Warners, of course, were starting to pump in more money because they were seeing the rushes and were saying, “Hey, this could be a very good movie.”
The super villains break into the White House, where they come through the ceiling and the marines are firing at them, I think that was scheduled for half a day and Dick said, “Are you outta your mind? First of all, if they fly through wrong the first time, we will have to put the dome back, this is two days, even in television it’s two days, you got a gun battle, machine gun fire, we got stuff flying all over the place, you can’t schedule this for a half a day!”. It was like that every day.
There was a time when the old man, with everything going on, considered me as co-producer, and I flew down to Zurich and he said to me, “Every time Mr. Donner”, he always called him Mr. Donner and he always called me Mr. Mankiewicz, anyway he said, “Every time me and Mr. Donner have an argument you’d be siding with Mr. Donner”, and I said, “That’s probably true, Alex, because he knows how to make a picture, he really does.”
I found Alexander Salkind very charming but I didn’t have to work for him in the capacity that Dick did, but that trip to the Grand Altar was just to meet him and talk about this or how the picture was going. I had in my contract that wherever I went I had a suite because I can’t live in one room and I prefer to write in the hotel, much easier than the studio, and I don’t want to bore you but I actually like to write in bed, and I remember the agent saying, “Don’t let the Salkinds ever take one thing from you, if they do then they’ll take more”. I go to the Grand Altar and have a single room and it’s a beautiful room. I’m just down there for a meeting, it doesn’t matter to me.
The phone rings, it’s Alex, he says, “Mr. Mankiewicz, you see what your friend, Mr. Donner is doing to us, here I am in my single room calling you in your single room”, so he says, “I’ll meet you at six o’clock at the bar”. So I go down the centre staircase and I can hear Alex yelling in Deutsche, whatever, and I go down the hall like a cheap nosy guy and there he is talking to all these investors in a big suite! So at ‘six o clock’ we have a drink and I say to Alex, BTW, it’s just a little thing, why did you call me and say that I’m calling you from my single room to your single room because you are in rooms 260 to 275 [laughs]. Why would you lie about such a little thing like that and he said to me, “I can’t help it.” [pause] I thought it was very disarming and very charming. It was his style of life.
I remember just before the picture [first one] opened. Sidney Kewick, who was head of Warner’s legal, he got furious because a few weeks before the picture was going to open, the Salkinds held the negative ransom unless Warner Bros. would buy two or three territories for them, because they needed the money. Warners bought the three territories; one was South Africa, can’t remember the others, and he told me, “It was like someone put a gun to your head in 1950 and forced you to buy IBM.” The Salkinds thought that Warners was trying to wrestle the film away from them.
I thought Warners, who saw more and more of the film, said, “Hey we made a big mistake by not making this in the first instance”, also people are not very generous about things like that in the film business, they smelt blood in the water, they knew the Salkinds needed money and they were happy to pump some in for extra ownership. You can bet your bottom dollar that if Warners owned the film at the time, Dick would never have been fired. His offices were on the lot for 25 years. Warners got a guy called Charlie Greenlaw over to help him [Donner] production wise. I was doing something else.
Dharmesh: What about Pierre Spengler?
Tom: I thought Pierre did yeoman duty. He was saddled with all the dirty work but he knew more about making a film than Ilya and Alex did. Pierre was very limited in his authority. He could not make a decision, i.e., I need three more days to finish this, or that scene, it wasn’t up to Pierre, that went to Zurich and, by the way, it happens all the time, I think the Salkinds promised their investors much more than they could deliver and they were in desperate need of more money and desperately needed to get this picture over and done with as quickly as possible and still have a wonderful picture, if they could. My God, they spent a lot of money by the time Dick came on and they had to pay Guy off a very healthy salary and they had to start from scratch from set design and everything else.
So they had spent a lot of money and that was the basic problem, Dick, during the whole film, never saw a budget and they kept saying, “You are over budget.” Dick kept saying, “What is the fucking budget? Tell me how much money you guys got and how many days?” Or, as he used to say, “I tell you what, I’ll schedule the rest of the picture for two days and I’ll be nine months over, what am I suppose to do?” I’ve never actually saw in my forty years working in any job where a director never saw the budget.
Dharmesh: So, Richard Lester came on board and Dick liked him.
Tom: That was a very complicated deal, and this is as far as I knew, I and Lester had talks: The Salkinds owed him a great deal of money for Musketeers. He sued them and won but he won against a Bahamian company which was broke and he wasn’t getting any money, and Richard had a reputation for shooting fast. It was in the back of their minds that he was going to be the “ace in the hole” if they ever got to Donner who had called them assholes in print. The deal was going to be, finish the picture and we’ll pay you the money we owe you. I quite like Dick Lester and I also think he was bad casting for Superman because he’s also very sophisticated, cynical guy, and as far as I know, after the picture, Lester called Donner and said, “We should share credit, you’ve already shot 70% of it”, and Donner said, “No, I don’t share credit”. Lester was in a strange position, unless he shot like 40 -50% of the picture he wouldn’t get credit, so they shot new scenes and cut out a lot of scenes that all ready been shot. Lester asked me to come back to the picture and Terry Semel came down to my office and I told him, “You know I can’t do that, Dick is my friend.” He then said, “Could you go to London and accidentally arrange to run into Dick Lester and have dinner with him and talk about it?” I said, “I can’t do that”, And Terry said, “I understand”, and wasn’t any slight to Dick Lester, I have a lot of respect for him. Friendship is more important than anything. And Dick brought me on the picture and my loyalty was with Dick and I couldn’t believe that they fired him.
Dharmesh: It took three months to fire him.
Tom: Yeah, but shooting was long, long away from starting and finishing up. And the thing that I never forgave them for, and I think it was the old man, was cutting Brando out of the second movie just to save a small piece of the gross. I thought it was criminal, and I’m speaking as a writer, the whole thing was Brando sending his son to Earth and the scene you’ll see in Superman II where he comes back, father I’ve failed and Brando is glaring at Margot Kidder who is standing there scared. The whole deal, committing suicide to give his son new life is one complete story of father and son and artistically it was a very bad thing to do. And there was plenty of money for everybody. I can only think it was greed. You’ve already paid Brando three million, you’ve got the four scenes in the can, why pay Susannah York, who is a nice woman and a wonderful actress, but had nothing to do with the story.
She was joking with me when Brando put the kid in the capsule, “Wow, the father sends everything what does the mother send?” And I said, “When you’re getting three million for 23 days work you get to send everything too.” They put Susannah back in Superman II but it didn’t make any sense, narrative wise.
Dharmesh: In the Superman II commentary, Ilya takes the opposite view; the mother should be counseling the son about love.
Tom: Christ, we’re in the movie business, guys – Marlon Brando is the biggest movie star in the world and you have him in four scenes that were already shot what the hell are you replacing him with Susannah York!? Come on that’s the cheapest explanation I’ve ever heard.
Dharmesh: They set aside too much money for Brando.
Tom: Yeah, but they need the names, BRANDO, HACKMAN, PUZO. Mario Puzo was a great novelist but a very mediocre screenwriter; he got re-written all the time on screenplays, he never wrote a great screenplay. There are two types of writing, prose and screenwriting. But I’ll give them credit; they got the film off the ground by signing the big names. If they offered 1.5 million or two, they wouldn’t have got him. But to show how important it is to have Marlon Brando: They could fly the banners over the Cannes Film festivals to attract investors. But now you say, jeez, but artistically it’s wonderful to put Susannah York in the second movie even though we have Brando already shot, it’s in the can, it’s there, and we did it.
Dharmesh: He did have a ridiculous deal, 11% of the gross?
Tom: Yeah, but Jack Nicholson made more money on Batman than Warner Brothers did. He had 25% of the gross or something. Everybody made a lot of money, that’s okay.
I wish Ilya, who I have nothing against, would be honest enough to say, we were in a lot of debt and we were trying to cut as much money as possible and this was gonna save us 20 million dollars. That’s a point of view at least.
Dharmesh: How do you feel about the Donner Cut?
Tom: I feel great. I was in the editing room with Dick and there were a lot of things I saw and said, “Oh my God, I forgot that scene”, etc. I’m happy for Dick than anybody else because it was a couple of years of his life. As I’ve said, he’s one of the most successful directors in the film business and he got fired for making a hit movie.
Dharmesh: So you spent a year?
Tom: Yeah, at least a year. When did we shoot? I got on it in ’76 and I was certainly on it all through ’77 and into ’78, back and forth whilst I was doing other stuff. Dick would say, “I need you back here for two weeks, can you come back?” We would look at sections of the film. The first time John Williams came over to see the rough cut, I flew over to be at the screening. I remember John Williams saying to me after seeing the rough cut, which was very long, something like three hours; anyway, he said to me, “What do you hear Mank when you see Superman?”
I said to him, “The picture’s gonna open at the end of December, and at the end of January is the Super Bowl, and at half time the band’s going to march onto the field and they’re gonna be playing the theme from Superman, that’s what I hear.” He said, “I got it.” And you know what? The band marched on and played the theme from Superman.
Mike Matessino: Jerry Goldsmith was approached to do Superman; do you know anything about that?
Tom: That I don’t know – I do remember that when we did Ladyhawke, and I know Dick wanted Jerry for that, he wanted the rock and roll score for some reason, he thought it was going to fit the film. I wished Jerry Goldsmith had done that. Dick loved Jerry Goldsmith. In 1978, I was directing a two-hour movie for television which was a pilot for a series called Hart to Hart. My office at FOX at the time was right next to John Williams. A wonderful guy named Mark Snow, a composer who wrote for a lot of television, he was going to write the theme. He said, “Can I come in and play for it you? Have you got a piano?” “No, but John Williams has next door.” So I say to John, “Do you mind when you go to lunch that this kid comes in and plays his theme from Hart to Hart?” He said, “No, not at all.” So, John goes to lunch and I bring Mark in there and there’s the score for Dracula all over the piano on different sheets. I left John a note saying, ‘Thank you John, I think we found everything we need.’
Then, an hour later, a knock at my office; he comes in, “That w-a-s a joke, right?”
Of course it was a joke!
Dharmesh: How did you get involved with the Bond series?
Tom: It was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me and I keep telling the kids that I’m teaching now that it just happens that way sometimes.
I wrote the book for the Broadway musical, Georgy Girl. Carole Bayer wrote the lyrics and George Fischoff wrote the music and we were nominated for three Tonys and closed after three nights.
It was a whole year of my life down the drain. My credits up to then were two musicals specials with the Sinatras and a little surfing movie called, The Sweet Ride, which didn’t work, and then I went on to Georgy.
I came back to California with my tail between my legs wondering if it’s ever going to happen. After working on something for a year and after three nights the play closes – it’s one thing to be on Broadway at 26 years old and it’s another thing to be closed on Broadway in 72 hours.
I came home wondering what to do. I had this little place at the beach and my agent called me and said, “How’d you like to write the next James Bond movie?” And I said, “It’s not nice to be cruel, Malcolm.” And what happened to me, unbeknownst to me, was that David Picker, who I did not know, rang.
United Artist had dinner with Cubby Broccoli in New York. Cubby said, “Here’s the deal: I need a total rewrite on Diamonds Are Forever. I need an American writer and I want him to be young. Most of the picture takes place in Vegas. The Brits don’t write people in Vegas well, but I need someone who can write in the British idiom and it’s impossible to find someone. David Picker said, “I was at a musical two nights ago, Georgy Girl, all the characters are British and I thought the book was really terrific. It was written by a Mankiewicz – I don’t know remember his first name but he’s got to be a young Mankiewicz because I know all the older ones. So he’s American and he wrote all these British people just great.”
So I went up to see Cubby Broccoli and they had such confidence in me that they signed me up on a two week guarantee. Two weeks to turn in the first 30 pages, and the greatest phone call I ever got in my life was from Cubby, “Keep going.”
Now, if David Picker hadn’t been in one of the opening three performances of Georgy, and I don’t know why UA (United Artists) were there because we didn’t have any stars, who knows, I’d never have had that meeting and I’d never have gone on to Diamonds Are Forever. You’d like to think, well you know – three or five years from then – something might happen but you keep on writing. These are the accidents that happen in this business all the time.
Dharmesh: Was it a conscious decision to make Diamonds Are Forever more comedic?
Tom: Yes it was and Sean liked it that way too. I became a big hero on the Bonds because they sent the first 60 pages [to Sean] when I had done the first half – Sean had said that he was not going to do it unless he got a script he liked and they had John Gavin waiting in the wings, who was going to play Bond if they couldn’t get Sean back — he was an American.
They sent the 60 pages to Sean and he said he liked it, “The writer, how old is he?” And they said, “26,” And then Sean started calling me “Boyo”, which he still calls me to this day. And he said, “Tell the boyo to keep working.”
I tell you something very funny, an interesting trivia story. There’s this wonderful little sophisticated moment in the beginning when M and Bond go to Daviers.
Bond: “A Sherry Commander?”
Bond: “Thank You.”
And M says: “Not for me, Doctors orders.”
And the line originally was when Bond sipped it, “Pity about your liver, sir, unusually fine Solera. ’61, I believe.”
And Cubby’s lawyer was reading the script, and he was part of the wine jury who gave the stars out to different wines, and he said, “Would you tell that kid that there is no year on a Sherry bottle, it can’t be ’61. What they do is take casks and put the worst vintage on top and then the next and the next and then the best vintage is on the bottom, so they all run through the best vintage but there’s no year. So quickly, embarrassed as I was, I changed the scene to:
Bond: A Sherry Commander? Pity about your liver, sir, unusually fine Solera. ’61, I believe.
M: There is no year for sherry, 007.
Bond: I was referring to the original vintage on which the sherry is based, sir. 1851, unmistakable.
In DAF, they try to sneak diamonds up the asshole of a corpse and Bond and Felix are looking at it, and Lieter says, “I give up, the diamonds are here somewhere.”
Bond says, “Alimentary, my dear Leiter.”
And Cubby says, “What the f*ck is this?”
It’s the alimentary canal, Cubby. It means it’s stuck up his ass. He said, “Take it out — no one will know that.” Guy Hamilton said, “Oh no, I like that.” So it stayed in the picture.
Cubby and I were at Mann’s Chinese standing in the back. It was a full house and Sean says, “Alimentary, my dear Leiter. Out of 1500 people two guys laughed. Cubby looked over to me and said, “Big deal – two doctors.”
Dharmesh: In the original script it had a different ending, Tiffany Case being tied to the bed whilst Wint and Kidd.
Tom: Yes, we decided that it was too S and M.
It was very weird thing because in those days, and it still holds true, largely, the Brits cared a great deal about violence in terms of your ratings. I had originally had Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd put a scorpion down the mouth and the Brits said, “The kids will not be allowed to see that.” Although it’s fine with the Americans. Then you saw Lana Wood’s breasts for about a quarter of a second and the Americans said, “No, no, no”, and of course that’s fine with the Brits because they are more healthier about that, but the tying her to the bed got a little hot for the censors.
I’ll tell you another story, Charles Gray who was a very sophisticated feller and a wonderful actor playing Blofeld. At the end he’s got Bond trapped on the oil rig and Bond says, “Well, I guess you’ve won, Blofeld”, or something like that. And Blofeld says “As François Duc de La Rochefoucauld once observed, humility is the worst form of conceit, I do hold the winning hand,” And I wrote that and Cubby once again said, “You what?”
I said, “La Rochefoucauld, Cubby, 17th century French writer.”
“Get it out,” He said.
Then, he started calling it Nicklaus, I don’t why know. He’d call and say, “Is that Nicklaus line still in there?” Guy loved it and he shot it in the scene in such a way that it had to be in the movie because there was no coverage and Cubby got furious, and I mean furious like you know, really angry. He said, “I told you guys that I did not want that Goddamn Nicklaus line in there.”
So now we are starting Live and Let Die and we are in Cubby’s office and Guy says, “By the way, Cubby, I saw Diamonds in Paris and La Rochefoucauld got a big laugh,” and Cubby answered, “Paris was the only place we made no fucking money.” He always had an answer for ya, I loved Cubby.
Dharmesh: For Live and Let Die, you changed a lot of things…?
Tom: Yeah, we changed a lot of things because Roger was taking over and nobody knew if that was a big disaster, or not, meaning that the world was so used to Sean that it didn’t matter who came. I wrote Solitaire Black and Diana Ross was going to play her, but at the last minute, David Picker said, “NO! First of all there’s two or three countries where I can’t open this in if she sleeps with a black girl, one being Japan, they don’t like race mixing at all on the screen. Secondly we don’t know how good Roger is going to be, Ross might blow him off the screen; we don’t know. But the black thing – don’t do it.” I said it’s a much better picture, David, and he said, “Don’t be a James Bond about this, just change it later.”
I said, “Okay.” So Solitaire became white.
John Barry, who everybody loved and came back later on to the series, was deemed inappropriate because his themes were so connected to Sean, I mean everybody would see Sean in the John Barry themes.
And Paul McCartney, uh, here’s a good story: Paul McCartney writes Live and Let Die. Cubby says to me, “Boy didn’t we get taken – listen to this!” He plays Live and Let Die, which he hates, and I said to him, “Cubby, this is terrific.”
Jerry Moss of EMI Records was in London at the time; Cubby loved him, and I said, “Let Jerry have a listen to this.” Jerry listened to it and he said, “Cubby, I can guarantee you that this record will go platinum and it will become the number one song in the world. If you don’t like it, I’ll be happy to give you one million dollars for your rights to the song right now.” Cubby just stared. Starting the next day, Cubby said, “We have this great song by Paul.” George wrote a wonderful score. But, yeah, a lot of things were intentionally a little different so we didn’t handicap poor Roger with things reminiscent of Sean.
Dharmesh: Was it a conscious decision to make a blaxpoitation picture?
Tom: Yes, it was and I got a lot of compliments at that time especially from Vincent Canby in the New York Times saying that, “It was handled well”, and the black people loved the movie, and remember, Ian Fleming was an incredible racist. The last black person he talked to, or saw was in the 1930s because in the book they say stuff like show-nuff and talk in this old Negro, like waiting for the Levy; it’s like you’re in Gone with the Wind, it’s really awful.
I’d read Fleming and God knows they are wonderful books. He was very much the British Raj, but the Black people in Live and Let Die were completely unrecognizable to the United States of America; you wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Why would they talk like that from the 19th Century?
Solitaire in the book had a deck of cards; I changed it to Tarot cards because I thought they’d add more mystery. I started doing everyone’s Tarot cards in London because I got into it, and pretty soon, every party I went to I took my Tarot cards.
Here’s a funny story:
Michael Caine lived out on the river by the Thames and he had a big party. He said, “Don’t forget to bring your tarot cards because everybody wants their Tarot read.” So I’m sitting there and doing people’s Tarot. I’m not really getting into the party at all; then finally I think I’ve done everybody until this beautiful mixed-race girl comes up, “You haven’t done mine yet”, and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” So, I sit down and I realized from Michael that this is a girl he didn’t buy for a couple of weeks.
And I’m doing the Tarot cards and I’m saying what’s really happening, “You’re very much in love.” She said, “Yes.” “The man you love is near.” “Yes.”, and I said, “It’s going to work out and you’ll marry him.” And Michael is listening. I say to her, “It will work out and I see visions of a child.” Michael, behind her, goes “Jesus.” Her name is Shakira Caine and they’ve been married for over 30 years and they have a child, and to this day whenever we run into each other, Shakira says, “You have to get him to do your Tarot cards, he’s amazing – he has this power – amazing.”
Dharmesh: The Man with the Golden Gun?
Tom: I was not that happy with it, and some people really like it, I don’t like it so much. I left that picture halfway through. To be frank, I and Guy started snapping at each other; we became great friends again later. Guy was responsible for bringing me back on Live and Let Die. We went on location scouts to Thailand, Hong Kong and Iran and all over the place. I finished the first draft and I went to Cubby, “Cubby, I really think my usefulness is done on this picture.” And he said, “Okay, if you feel that way.” And so I came back here to do a picture with Peter Yates called Mothers, Jugs and Speed with Bill Crosby, and then Guy and I became friendly again.
I rewrote the Spy Who Loved Me at Cubby’s house for no money and no credit because they had already given out the credits — you could only have two non Brits in the main titles. Cubby paid me cash under the table to rewrite the picture and when Roger Moore started getting the rewrites in England, he said, “This is Wankiewicz, Wankiewicz wrote this.” He could tell right away, “Good, he’s on the picture.” Cubby said, “No, no one is supposed to know he’s on the picture.”
The Spy Who Loved Me was all at Cubby’s house. I had a typewriter and I was at the cottage down by the pool.
Dharmesh: So a lot of your work is in the final picture?
Tom: Oh yeah, a lot of the dialogue is mine. They kill off a Dr. Markowicz in the beginning.
Dharmesh: And you did something on Moonraker?
Tom: Cubby asked me to kick off Moonraker because they didn’t have any idea how to kick it off. Lewis, Cubby and I went to NASA. We got in those machines and we thought about some things. I wrote three or four pages for Lewis to kick off the thing because I was never going to write it. Some of it was NASA, and they did have an idea about a space shuttle swallowing whatever, and so I tried to piece together a barebones story form for Lewis to go and find himself a writer. I was on it for about three weeks.
Dharmesh: You’ve never felt the urge to go back to Bond?
Tom: There comes a certain time in your life, you know. Including Spy Who Loved Me and the little bit on Moonraker — I had done five of them and that was enough. They deputised me to go and have lunch with Sean just before they were starting to cast Live and Let Die, just to see if he would come back because he and I got on well. I said to him, “Sean, there are alligators, there’s crocodiles, there’s boats, etc.” And Sean said, “You know, boyo, I always hear that it’s my obligation to play James Bond. I’ve done seven, when does my obligation stop? After ten, twelve, fifteen? You can’t type this thing for your whole life, you can’t do it.” I think that’s true of writing, after you’ve written four and half Bonds, let somebody else do it — it’s their time.
And that was the interview. It was a shame that I couldn’t do a follow-up, but I will always treasure this memory. Tom had a big heart, was incredibly smart and intelligent, and willing to share his knowledge of cinema with anyone who met him. His admiration for anyone who could make a film was immense and he was a dear friend to Dick Donner for a lifetime.
Additional reading: My friend, Ray Morton, conducted one of Tom’s last interviews in April 2010 for ScriptMag.com. Click here to read it.