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William Broyles has written some of the most enduring movies to ever grace the silver screen. From Apollo 13, to Cast Away to the The Polar Express, Broyles has crafted films that have captured our imagination, warmed our hearts and given us a deeper understanding of humanity.
It is this humanity that plays itself out so strongly in his adaptation of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War chronicle, Jarhead. Directed by Sam Mendes, this film examines the US mission in Iraq in 1991 from the perspective of the soldiers involved. While not necessarily a statement about war, the film is more a look at the relationships that are forged in such situations.
Broyles recently talked with us about writing Jarhead, his screenwriting style and his newest project Shadow Divers for Ridley Scott.
What attracted you to adapting Jarhead into a feature film?
William Broyles: Well, first it was an amazing book, second, it was about a topic that was very close to my heart which is what happens to a young man who becomes a Marine. And third, my own son was in Iraq at the time and I really wanted to do something that portrayed the people in uniform in a positive way.
How involved were you on the set of this movie?
William Broyles: Well, I visited the set several times. I was extremely involved both with the preproduction and with the editing. The actually filming... I wasn't on the set that much although I spoke to Sam Mendes, the director, like three or four times a week because they would send me dailies everyday. We would be adjusting future scenes based on how scenes had been shot, and try and take advantage of tensions, or dynamics or chemistry among actors or things like that.
I was very involved with the shooting in keeping the script updated, but I find the movie set to be one of the most boring places in the world unless you're an actor or a director. Also, that's just me. There's nothing more exciting than your first day on the set, and nothing quite so boring as your second.
Do you think your background in the military gives you a keener insight into the material of something like Jarhead, than if you were just a civilian doing research?
William Broyles: Well, it certainly gave me a kind of compass that I could kind of point toward the tree north of my own experience. In contrast, Sam Mendes is the least military person that I know, and he could not have brought more passion and dedication, and humility to the path of making this movie that a veteran would have. It was really kind of nice, the dynamic between us, because here I was the kind of old Marine, and here he was the cricket playing Brit and we just both fell in love with this project. (Laughs) Pretty soon, he knew as much about the Marine Corps as I did.
As this movie is based on Anthony Swofford's book and personal experiences, how did you decide what would and wouldn't go in the screenplay?
William Broyles: Well, it was hard because the book was so rich. Usually, the better the book the harder it is to adapt. This one was particularly difficult because the voice was so subtle and it went back and forth in time. I kept trying to get in a lot of material about Tony Swofford's life before he joined the Marines, and a lot of the material after he was in the Marines. Ultimately, we really decided that we would just focus on the Marine Corps experience, and try and deal with the before and after in a kind of visual shorthand. We had to because there were a number of movies we could have made out of the book.
How much different is your writing process when you're working from a book like Jarhead and Apollo 13, as opposed to when you're writing something like Entrapment which isn't based on a book or other material?
William Broyles: Or like Cast Away? Well, that's a really interesting question too. I think one of the things when you have a book is there's always the point at which you realize you're trying to be too true to the book. Where you then think, "Ah-hah, here's what I need to do to get over the hump of trying to film a book." And get into the world where you're trying to make a movie that captures the essence of the book.
Tony's book was so great as a book, that it simply couldn't become a movie as it was. You had to find part of a story that would work on film, and actually Tony himself was really helpful. I sent him various drafts of the script and talked over certain problems with him and that helped a lot. When you're doing something original it's just a blank page. You have to kind of find your way from the beginning and that can be exciting and daunting. With a book, it's the difference between having too little material and too much.
With a book you almost have too much and you keep hating to lose things that you love. I like both. I go back and forth and really enjoy both processes but they are different.
I have heard a lot of negative criticism regarding the use of voice overs. Not in Jarhead, per se, but in general. I was wondering if you had heard that about voice overs and what you thought of it?
William Broyles: You know, I'm not a fundamentalist in any way... from religion to filmmaking. I don't have hard and fast rules like, "Voice overs are bad." For example, the studio in Cast Away was desperate to get a voice over across the time Tom Hanks was on the island and just there with the volleyball. And I would not do it because I felt, you cannot take the audience out of his experience.
Whereas Jarhead is clearly a story recalled by an older man of his youth. So having a voice over captured, I thought, some of the essence of the book... So I would have fought to have kept the voice over out of Cast Away, and I would have fought to keep it in Jarhead. I think it's just a question of what works. What makes the movie better?
Can you talk at all about Shadow Divers, the project that you're writing for Ridley Scott?
William Broyles: Well, yeah, it's about two working class guys from New Jersey who start out hating each other, and together they find a World War II U-boat off the coast of Jersey that nobody knew was there. They spend seven years trying to identify it and identify the crewmen on board. In the course of time they lose their marriages, some of their friends die on the boat and they become really tight... It's a wonderful kind of story, I think. It's in a way like Jarhead is, that it's about the families that you make with your passions and with your work, as opposed to the family that you have domestically.
That's actually one thing I think Jarhead got across very, very well was the bond that is created when you're placed in a situation like those characters were.
William Broyles: Oh thanks, because that was what I really wanted... if you had asked me the one thing I hope people got out of it it would have been that, because that transcends the specific politics or details of... war, like the war going on today is much different in it's politics and it's details, but the personal experience for these kids that are there now, in their units, is so similar to what you see in Jarhead.
What is one tip of advice that you would give to up and coming screenwriters?
William Broyles: First, I would say, "Keep your day job." Secondly, I would say find things that you're truly passionate about and write about that. Read a lot. Write a lot and particularly don't quit. Don't become too satisfied with your own work. If I've learned anything, it's that I never find my script until I'm in the tenth, twelfth, twentieth, fiftieth draft. I don't know, it takes me forever. I do know that with some younger writers they fall in love with their first draft. That can dampen or even kill the creative process that I think a writer has to go through to discover their material. It's just sitting down everyday and doing it.
Lastly, I really am impressed with the materials on this DVD. Tony Swofford did an amazing documentary... there's an amazing documentary about the extras... I was really impressed. To me it was such a cut above the usual extras that go with the DVD, that I really wanted just to mention it.
Jarhead comes out on DVD March 7th, 2006 through Universal Home Video.
Dont't forget to also check out: Jarhead