The super-producer talks about the film he co-wrote 25 years ago and dishes on upcoming projects
If you look at Walter Parkes' filmography, he's ammassed hit after hit as a producer, with his partner Laurie McDonald. He has lined up hit after hit with such films as Men in Black, Gladiator, The Ring, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can and last year's Sweeney Todd just to name a few. Back in the 80s, though, he and screenwriter Lawrence Lasker wrote this script for WarGames, which came back to DVD in a 25th Anniversary Edition on July 29, and the influence of that film is still felt today. I had the chance to speak with Parkes over the phone about this seminal 80s film, and here's what he had to say.
Where did the idea for this original film come from? Where you all into computers when you were younger?
Walter F. Parkes: No, no, no, not at all. The beginnings had something to do with computers and it started off as a character story. My partner, Larry Lasker, had been researching a story about... actually, he was interested in Stephen Hawking, of all people. This idea of a super-genius who was sort of in need of finding a successor. I had been interested in a story about a kid who was born into a family that isn't really able to deal with his intelligence. We got together and merged those two ideas and knew it was going to be some kind of journey with a kid into a high-tech world where he would kind of encounter this father figure. It was based on that, then we started researching what was happening, at the time, in various emerging technologies and that's what brought us to computing.
What sorts of things in researching this did you come across? Did you talk with anyone in the government?
Walter F. Parkes: Yeah. We did months of research from everywhere from Stanford Research Institute, Hughes Research Institute, we went to NORAD. On the other hand, we also had relationships with the emerging culture of computer hackers. We kind of looked all over the place to try to find our story.
It was rumored awhile ago that Matthew Broderick's character was based off the hacker Kevin Mitnick and Larry said he hadn't even heard of him. Was there anyone in real life, though, that Matthew Broderick's character was based on?
Walter F. Parkes: No. I think Kevin Mitnick's after us.
Yeah. I read that and I thought it was quite bizarre. I didn't think he was really around back then.
Walter F. Parkes: Yeah. There was this guy, David Lewis, that we spoke to, who was a young computer enthusiast at the time, but he was sort of an amalgamation of kids we met who were into it.
I interviewed the director, John Badham recently, and he said he never heard of the sequel, WarGames: The Dead Code, until a few months ago. Did they approach you at all?
Walter F. Parkes: No, and it's one of the great examples of irony. The first I'd heard about it, the only reason I heard about it, was one of the assistants was surfing the Net and came across a mention of it. It's kind of weird when you think that WarGames, in a way, predicted that (Laughs). No, Hollywood works in strange ways and, for whatever reason, the people who, I guess, owned the rights to it, who are not me, (John) Badham, or Larry (Lasker), decided to go and make a direct-to-video sequel without ever informing us. It's so strange. You can see with the reaction to the 25th Anniversary, that it's a movie that people like. Whether or not it's a great movie, who knows, but it's certainly marked something, in terms of pop culture and a young generation discovering technology. It's odd that, rather than trying to build upon it, they just want to make a very simple movie, but I don't know. I haven't seen it. I mean, who knows, maybe it's good, but no, they never told us anything.
The original film really jump-started Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy's career. How did their portrayals match up with your original vision for these characters?
Walter F. Parkes: Well, honestly, Matthew (in playing David Lightman) was a more accessable kind of kid than the original David Lightman, who I like to think was a little more alienated. The character as John and Matthew interpreted it, turned out to be more of a nice kid who's an enthusiast. I think our original draft had him slightly edgier. Other than that, it's very very close and I actually think the natural charm that Matthew brought to it, helped it enormously. I'm not so sure if Larry and I weren't writing towards an untrue stereotype, you know. At that time, people who were into computers were rough around the edges, but now it's so normalized in a way that the movie feels more modern because of the fact that Matthew portrays David Lightman in a way that isn't anti-social. He just wants to change the girl's grade and get on with it.
Do you have a favorite memory from the set?
Walter F. Parkes: My favorite memory on the set. You know, we were such new writers that every day, we would learn something. I think the thing we continually learned was what a scene needs, because what a scene needs from a writer is very different than what a scene needs from an actor. I remember Dabney Coleman taking us to task once. He said, 'Well, I don't understand what I'm doing in this scene.' It was the scene in which he's about to make his big pitch to General Beringer, that we should take the people out of the loop. I remember launching into this big, long analytical speech. 'You're from another generation. These people believe in the human chain of control and they're threatened and they see you as the threat and you see the computers as an extension of your own personality...' and he said, 'No, no, no. I understand all that. It's like, am I in a hurry? What about this. I only have three minutes to get the pitch out or I'm gonna lose them and it's all about me saying something so out there that I get their attention.' And that was like, 'Oh, I see.' That's what the person is actually acting at the moment. He's not thinking about what these sociological meanings, the actor has to have something to do. It was a fundamental lesson I learned that I come back to over and over again in the many years since then.
I could probably go on all day asking you about your upcoming projects, because it seems you have quite a few in the mix. Is there anything you can tell us, though, about The Ring 3 or The Trial of the Chicago 7?
Walter F. Parkes: Well, The Ring 3, we don't know about. Actually, we just finished work on a remake of a different Asian suspense/horor picture. We remade a Korean movie that was called A Tale of Two Sisters, and I think it's going to be released under the title, The Uninvited. I think it's just great. It's very much in the style of The Ring. It's stylish and hopefully thoughtful horror. We also just finished the directorial debut of Guillermo Arriaga, who was the screenwriter of, amongst other things, Babel and 21 Grams and "Amores Perros", all those (Alejandro González) Inarritu movies were written by Guillermo. We were fortunate enough to provide for his directorial debut. The two that are the most on the horizon, hopefully, we're working on Chicago 7. We have a wonderful script. We haven't quite settled on a director yet, and that's probably the next one down the pipe. We're also in the middle of a comedy with, hopefully, (director) Jay Roach and Sacha Baron Cohen. We're fortunate that we have a few things going at the same time.
So, (Steven) Spielberg isn't going to be directing Chicago 7 then?
Walter F. Parkes: No, he is not going to do it. He kind of had a moment of availability to do it, and the strike got in the way. We were unable to do the script work that Steven felt he needed and then, by the time the strike was over, he had already committed himself to to begin production on Tintin, which he's shooting along with (producer) Peter Jackson, and I guess it's in October or November. So, it's not inconcievable that he would come back, but for now, he's had to move on to Tintin, which is something that he's been working on for 20 years.
So you've obviously had enormous success as a producer, but is there any part of you that wants to get back into writing again?
Walter F. Parkes: It's interesting. I'm writing quite a lot now, Brian. I did a lot of writing on the horror picture, The Uninvited. At the end of the day, your job as a producer, even if you're not writing, it's about the writing. I think 80 percent of what I do has only to do with the development of scripts. Once you have a script that people want to make, the job is easy. What's difficult at our job, is finding the idea or acquiring the underlying property and then either finding the right talent, the right writers, working with them to come up with an approach to the material and going through that long process of coming up with an idea and turning it into a screenplay and a movie that can be made. It doesn't have the highs that you have when you write a script and people really like, like WarGames, but it also doesn't have the lows when you're looking at a blank computer screen.
Finally, the original WarGames really paved the way for, obviously the current sequel, but a wave of movies in the last 25 years. Did you have any idea when you first wrote this that it would be as current as it is now?
Walter F. Parkes: No, none whatsoever. It really was more of a fringe thing. Larry Lasker's background is as a journalist and my background, in college, I was an anthropologist and I made some documentary films. We really approached it more as reporters. We had a good story idea, but then we went in and found the story in the research and the characters we met. Our heads were looking down in the ground. We didn't really look up to ponder whether or not this would really have meaning 5, 10, 15 and in this case, 25 years in the future. Looking back, it makes perfect sense because the lives and work of very smart people were becoming more and more involved in computers and we were able to see that, but I don't think either of us had any inkling, whatsoever, that we were just writing something that was about a wave of the future.
Excellent. That's about all I have for you, Walter. Thank you so much for your time and I'm looking forward to a lot of your new projects.
Walter F. Parkes: Great. Thank you very much.
You can find the 25th Anniversary Edition of WarGames on the DVD shelves now and we'll be sure to update you on Walter F. Parkes high-profile projects in the future.