"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“I‘ve never been involved with a picture that anyone was remotely interested in before I’d handed in the script,” says screenwriter Steve Kloves. “Certainly not a picture that people are interested in doing articles on before I’m even finished with the polish on the first draft.”
Kloves is talking to me on the phone from Los Angeles about the hottest property in Hollywood — his adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first in the British children’s fantasy series that has swept to the top of adult bestseller lists.
Rumors have long linked Kloves’ “Harry Potter” adaptation to Steven
Spielberg — and indeed, Kloves has met with Spielberg — but Kloves told me
last week he never thought it was likely that the man who made “E.T.” would
tackle this instant classic. Spielberg, after all, is the sort of moviemaker
several projects germinating — and Kloves guesses Spielberg will return to
directing (after an unusual, for him, two- to three-year hiatus) with
“Minority Report,” the sci-fi crime epic the director has been developing
Cruise. (In a statement released Tuesday, Spielberg said, “I have every
certainty that the series of ‘Harry Potter’ movies will be phenomenally
successful. J.K. Rowling’s vision of Harry Potter is modern genius. Warner
Bros. and [President] Alan Horn have been more than generous in the time
they’ve allowed me to make a decision. However, at this time, my directorial
interests are taking me in another direction.”)
Unlike Spielberg, Kloves, whether as a writer or a writer-director, is a one-picture-at-a-time kind of guy. After 19 years in the business, he has all of four credits. He wrote the beautifully acted Sean Penn-Nicolas Cage coming-of-age movie “Racing With the Moon” (1984). He wrote and directed the classic contemporary romance (but box-office fizzle) “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1988) and the peculiar Texas-noir-cum-Greek-tragedy “Flesh and Bone” (1993), which gave Gwyneth Paltrow a career boost.
And he’s written a marvelous new comedy, “Wonder Boys,” from Michael Chabon’s spiky and enchanting novel. Kloves’ tenacity at doing films he wants to do is a trait he shares with Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”), who directed “Wonder Boys.” Indeed, Kloves quips that he’s never attracted much attention because “tenacity is the only card I have to play. I never charged a movie on my credit card, and I didn’t learn how to direct by stealing videos in Thailand.”
Tenacity pays off once again with this film, which stars Michael Douglas as a ganja-smoking novelist and creative-writing prof with the opposite of writer’s block — “writer’s diarrhea.” Frances McDormand co-stars as his college chancellor and lover (who is married to the Douglas character’s boss, the head of the English department), with Tobey Maguire as his spooky protigi and Robert Downey Jr. as his editor. It’s a virtuoso performance for the entire cast and crew. But in its free spirit and avalanche of blending tones, it feels more organic than virtuosic. And though the movie is drenched in the atmosphere of a Pittsburgh college in winter, the director never finished high school — and the screenwriter never finished college.
“I remember when I started ‘Wonder Boys,’” says Kloves, “that’s one of the things I was a little daunted by, because Michael Chabon is clearly an educated person — he’s incredibly well-read. I think of Michael in his spare two hours going through ‘Finnegans Wake’ while I would be in the jazz section at Tower Records.”
Yet thanks to Kloves’ and Hanson’s fresh look at campus subjects, the story offers a tragicomic slap-and-tickle that’s brand-new. Its lovable uniqueness comes not just from its dead-on satire of literary and academic types but from its fully reimagined and emotional milieu. The oddball precision of the moviemaking makes you feel as if you’re laughing in a dream — and you don’t want to wake up. Combining psychological specificity and wacky fantasy, “Wonder Boys” is both wonderful in its own right and, for Kloves, perhaps the best preparation for “Harry Potter.”
Kloves was born in Austin, Texas, and grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., at a time when the local industry was aerospace, not computers. His father worked for United Technologies, but Kloves “always wanted to write.” In high school, he penned short stories and collected New Yorker rejection slips. Kloves calls his early inspirations “curious.” Rod Serling heads the list, not only because Kloves loved “The Twilight Zone” (and one chilling episode of “Night Gallery”) but also because Serling was the only writer who introduced his own work on TV.
“He was a compelling presence,” says Kloves. “When you watch entertainment as a kid you don’t even think that someone wrote it. I thought Steve McQueen just made his stuff up and they turned the camera on. But Rod Serling put it right in front of you: ‘I’m the guy who wrote what you’re about to see.’ He made being a writer real for me.” Kloves was also drawn to the fables of Jerzy Kosinski, from brutal parables like “Steps” to the relatively gentle book and film “Being There.”
At the same time, Kloves felt the inchoate, fantastic tug toward movies that many of us shared in the pre-video era. He remembers looking at the movie ads in newspapers and wishing he could go; he recalls begging his parents to take him to “The Dirty Dozen,” although “that might have been because I was a sports fan and I knew it starred Jim Brown.” It “killed” him at age 9 that he couldn’t see “Easy Rider” (1969).
After high school, he made what he calls a “cameo” appearance at UCLA (the college itself, not the film school). “At UCLA, I was really just working at the North Campus Deli. By the second year I was taking minimum units and working 30 to 40 hours.” Then he woke up, and dropped out. “But going to UCLA made me grow up. And it got me to Los Angeles.” He took an internship with a talent agent — “basically an excuse for him to get me to work for free, delivering scripts around town.”
But the job compelled Kloves to familiarize himself with the studios. It also landed him a well-connected reader for his scripts. “I was spending the holidays up north with my family, in 1980 or ’81, when I got a call from the agent saying ‘I read that script of yours and a guy at Paramount wants to meet you.’” The screenplay, an “’80s version of ‘Diary of a Mad Housewife’ called ‘Swings,’” opened doors for Kloves. “It was about women in the suburbs; after all, I grew up in the suburbs. What caught people’s eyes was that it was written by a 21-year-old man.” It got him a meeting for “Racing With the Moon,” which he pitched, simply and successfully, as the story of two kids before they go off to World War II. (One of Kloves’ favorite films was “Summer of ’42.”)
Kloves had seen “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and urged the director of “Racing With the Moon,” Richard Benjamin, to cast Penn as the goodhearted gravedigger’s son who falls for the pretty new gal in town (Elizabeth McGovern) and helps his oldest friend (Cage) get the money for a girl’s abortion. “Richard, to his credit, as an actor himself, knew that it was remarkable” for Penn to go from the cadet he’d played in “Taps” to the space cadet he played in “Fast Times.”
The slew of Oscar nominations for “The Cider House Rules” made me consider how few films since “Racing With the Moon” have dealt with the emotional consequences of abortion. “That was hugely important to me,” Kloves says, “and I had written it more graphically. In the script, there’s a point where the Elizabeth McGovern character is comforting the girl who’s had the abortion. They’re in the back seat of the car, driving in the dark, and Elizabeth’s hands come up. As light comes into the car she sees that her hands are covered in blood — she knows that the abortion has gone horribly, that it has been a butcher job.”
The making of “Racing With the Moon” turned out to be a first-class film school for the screenwriter. When Kloves first saw it he was shocked. Now, he says, “I realize how lucky I was.” Benjamin (“a wonderful guy to be around day after day — he’s hysterical and dry”) had directed a softer but funnier film than Kloves had envisioned. Kloves recognizes that what shaded his reaction to the movie was his own impulse to direct. “Once you see a work brought to the screen, even when it is done with real passion and respect, you see things that you would like to see done differently. The painting looks different than what you had in your head, so you’d like to see if you could handle the brush.”
In particular, Kloves was drawn to working more directly with actors. “I always felt that writers and actors share an obsession with the truth of their characters. The first day of shooting on ‘Racing With the Moon,’ Richard was staging the scene, and I walked over and made a suggestion — maybe someone could cross this way — and he gently took me aside and said, ‘You sit here.’ He did it so sweetly. I realized he was right, but I also realized that I wanted to be over there playing in the sandbox.
“Once you are a director, you realize you are still outside the sandbox. You’re responsible for so much; it’s not play. And of course, it’s not just that for the actors, either. But I tried so hard to shape characters in the script, through the rhythm of the dialogue and through the expression of simple gestures in the script, that I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to take it onto the floor and continue that dialogue with the actors about characters I spent a year or two creating. I don’t think it’s any accident that the two movies I directed were originals.”
In 1985, Kloves completed a draft of “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” a movie about a dual-piano brother act and its sardonic bombshell of a singer, a former escort girl named Susie Diamond. “I spent three years trying to get it made. No one in town wanted to make that movie. Actors always loved it and always thought it was funny. I always thought it was a comedy on some level. But the studios thought it was too dark, too depressing. And who wants to see a movie about two guys in tuxedos playing piano in a Holiday Inn?
“Halfway through shooting, I woke up and thought that too. What made me think that an updated version of Ferrante and Teicher [the dual-piano team who had a string of easy-listening hits] was a compelling idea for a movie? It had absolutely come out of me seeing Ferrante and Teicher on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and thinking what a weird act this is, and what if you had a low-rent version of that working the Holiday Inns? Here I was spending $10 million on it and it felt insane. But I got over that and was sure in my mission, and enough people have seen it over the years that I feel justified.”
Rueful and electric laughs emerged from the writing of the brothers’ roles and the casting of Jeff and Beau Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer. So did potent romance in the chemistry of Jeff Bridges and Pfeiffer and the moody feel of the movie. “What’s always been important to me as a writer and as a director,” says Kloves, “is atmosphere. And I think that comes from the films I grew up on. ‘The Last Picture Show’ drips with the atmosphere of that small Texas town; it’s as much a character in the piece as the actors themselves. The whole thing of the Baker boys is the way their act creates a romantic aspect for people in these bars.”
One of Kloves’ favorite quotes is from the late British screenwriter Dennis Potter, who decried the mistake of snobs “assuming that because people like cheap art, their feelings are cheap, too.” To Potter, when a couple speak of having their own song, “what they’re saying is, ‘That song reminds us of that tremendous feeling we had when we met.’” This was Kloves’ touchstone for how the Baker boys and Susie should interact with one another and with their audiences.
“The truth is, I intended for Susie Diamond to come in at Page 40 and exit at Page 70 or 80. But I couldn’t get her out of the script. Once Michelle was playing it, no way she was going away. Michael Ballhaus, the cinematographer, and I had always talked about the colors of the movie. And I said, ‘I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I see this as [an Edward] Hopper painting.’ Jeff Bridges’ character is a walking Hopper painting. I have always had a fascination with hard-edged romance. It’s what I always try to do: edgy, character-driven movies that have a romantic cast about them. ‘Baker Boys’ is probably the truest expression of my sensibility.”
“The Fabulous Baker Boys” had a healthy post-theatrical life on cable and home video. “Flesh and Bone” never developed a following. It’s the story of a Texas boy who stands by as his dad (James Caan) slaughters an entire rural family except for a baby — a crime that haunts the boy as an adult (Dennis Quaid) and casts a pall on his relationship with a woman who’s fleeing a bad marriage (Meg Ryan). Kloves’ roots in Texas and Louisiana drew him to the setting, and he’s “proud of a lot if it, especially some of the performances,” such as Quaid as the hero and Paltrow as a young scam artist who throws in with Quaid’s murderous father.
“Paltrow was superb in it. I wish I’d had 120 pages with her,” Kloves says. “She was a dream to work with — a remarkable 19-year-old girl. I think she’s strongest when she’s dangerous: Her sexiness comes from danger and intelligence — and her sense of humor. The failure of that movie is mine. I lost my nerve. The script was highly metaphoric, but in the shooting it became more real. I should have gone more aggressively toward the allegorical. It probably would have been just as despised, but it would have made me happier if I had been truer to my vision of the script.”
“Flesh and Bone” was a “complicated, emotional, exhausting” movie for Kloves. His best friend died during the making of it: Mark Rosenberg, the producing partner and husband of Paula Weinstein (both had fought to make “The Fabulous Baker Boys”). “After that, I took some time off. I was not actually looking for work. My agent would call and ask if I’d want to read something, and I’d say no. I didn’t do anything for three years. I just stopped for a while, then realized that with a young daughter it was not a good time to stop writing.”
It seems ironic that Chabon spent five years working on another novel before ditching it for “Wonder Boys” and that Kloves went through a similar experience before working on the screenplay. “But Michael wrote something,” says Kloves, “and I didn’t write a word! Part of it was from the gift and the curse of becoming a director. Whenever I started to write, I’d realize that a scene would be part of the next three years of my life. When you become a director, you realize how many questions a scene has to answer, how much pressure it has to withstand. When I was a writer, I just wrote. Then again, I always feel like I’m blocked. The exception was ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys,’ where the idea of brothers in a dual-piano act was enough to get me started. So maybe it was more like I was in a holding pattern. I was also sick of the business. But I didn’t know anything else. I did make ice cream for a living once; that may have been what I was best at.”
Luckily, Kloves fell in love with Chabon’s novel. “It was like, ‘Wow, and you’ll pay me to do this?’ I liked the sensibility. I felt a kinship with its tone. And it was a chance to do something like the movies I grew up watching.”
As a first-time adapter, Kloves had to “learn on the job. I wrote a long first draft that was incredibly detailed. I found it harder to kill someone else’s little darling than it ever was to kill my own. I had to run with the story more, to cut away from whatever wasn’t helping move the characters.”
His breakthrough came when he excised an elaborate Passover scene featuring the hero’s wife and in-laws — a family of Jewish parents and adopted Korean orphans. “That hurt! As a goy writer with a Jewish wife, I wrote this incredible Seder. But it was 25 pages that didn’t do much for the film. Also, sometimes, what can be hysterical in a book can seem, in a movie, like pushing the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. It can make an audience feel that the filmmakers are fucking with them. When absurd moments happened, I wanted you to believe them totally. My sensibility is a little more grounded than Michael’s; his book has a streak of wild, unruly and anarchic farce. I’m not comfortable with farce.”
What Kloves liked most about the book “was that it doesn’t comment on things and it doesn’t tell you what to feel,” whether the hero is smoking marijuana or letting his editor seduce his protigi. And unlike most college comedies, it doesn’t trivialize campus life as a center of “Animal House” high jinks or inflate it as a hotbed of rebellion.
“There’s no rebellion left for the Michael Douglas character. But he has his job, and there is life. It confronts him directly when he finds out his mistress is pregnant. Probably the hardest thing was not to let the resolution get too sappy.” The key was letting the hero “stumble into what is right — he learns what he wants, then stumbles into it. And I think the ending is ambivalent. These situations are not usually dealt with in adult films. And that’s another thing I liked about the material: It felt very adult all the time.”
Kloves realized that the teacher’s prize (and problem) student, played by Maguire, was as crucial to his epiphany as his lover: “I had to drop crumbs along the way establishing their connection.” He also had to be flexible about the supporting characters. When it came to casting Downey as the editor, “Curtis didn’t want to limit his search for the actors who could play that role to actors aged 54 or 55. We started to talk about how, if the actor playing the editor seemed to be part of that Jay McInerney/Bret Easton Ellis group, there would be something graceful and ironic about having his biggest writer now be this guy who is in his 50s. All the people in the Amaretto ads have gone, and this is who he’s left with. Downey was a great idea. It would be easy to go wrong by making him a ‘character,’ but the way Robert plays him, he’s this smart, intuitive, fucked-up, talented, strange man.”
Kloves had considered directing “Wonder Boys” himself. “But I’m not sure I’m ever going to want to direct anything that’s not an original, and when the time came to put or shut up I didn’t want to. There was family stuff; my daughter was entering first grade; I didn’t feel like I should direct it. I loved it but I had to let it go. All I feared was that the interpretation would be dead wrong. But I had a really great time with Curtis. He saw it the same way I saw it; there were never any ego problems. It’s hard to quantify, but the script was made better by me talking to him and focusing with him.”
Hanson and Kloves collaborated closely on and off for a year. “We kept tweaking the voice-over, doing all the usual things.” And unusual things, too. When Hanson settled on his locations, he would send Kloves “real blueprints, even if it might only change one line, because it would allow me to see the scene better. We both feel that what the actors and crew read on the page should reflect what they see when they’re standing there.”
A screenwriter friend who was a veteran adapter had advised Kloves, “If you find something good, take it, because someday you’ll be doing a book and you won’t be able to take anything from it.” Kloves seized on as much of Chabon’s juicy dialogue as he could, including its literary references.
“One thing I am real allergic to is preciousness,” he says. “But I found little of that in the book. Any references that were out in front and meant something we used; we figured it would be a bonus for anyone in the audience who would get them.” When the Douglas character has lost his manuscript, and his editor brings up that [Thomas Babington] Macaulay and [Ernest] Hemingway once lost theirs — “well, 90 percent of the audience won’t know who Macaulay is, and 50 percent won’t know who Hemingway is. But Curtis didn’t want to talk down to the audience. Curtis said we should write this for our best audience, and not feel we had to make this understandable for kids who may know only ‘Star Wars.’ We wanted to make this movie for the right reasons.”
That’s Kloves’ hope for his Harry Potter movie, too. “Adapting the first book in the series is tough because the plot doesn’t lend itself to adaptation as well as the next two books; Volumes 2 and 3 lay out more naturally as movies, since the plots are more compact and have more narrative drive. The first one is about exposing you to this world of a boy who grows up in a cabinet and finds out who he really is — that he is the son of wizards who are now dead and that he has inherited their talent — and then goes to a school to explore that talent.
“It came about because a little less than a year ago Warner Bros. sent over this raft of coverages on books [that is, synopses of upcoming titles being considered as film adaptations]. I rarely read this stuff, but I don’t know why, this time I did, and it really felt like Harry Potter was thrown in as the Cracker Jack prize. It was the only thing I was even remotely interested in. It stunned them. But I responded to it. I liked the feeling of the book — there is genuine edge and genuine darkness to it. One reason it’s so popular with children is that there’s no pandering whatsoever.
“By the way, you couldn’t tell a thing from the coverage — the book was too hard to distill, so I went out and bought it. At the first page, J.K. Rowling had me. The book is written with tremendous charm. And having a 7-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy, I felt it would be a wonderful movie to do for my kids. Because of my kids, I was able to read the book with different eyes. I read so many books to my children. Everybody should read to kids: It’s amazing to do with any regularity because they’re so open to a story and so smart.
“The first thing I said to Warner Bros. was that I love the characters — and that is the whole movie. Obviously you need a plot, but the charm of the movie should be these kids, and you have to be as faithful as possible. The picture has to be British, and it has to be true to the kids. I’m speaking from my own experience, but I find that children 7 and under respond less to special effects than to characters and to what’s happening to characters. And Warner Bros. seems to be wholeheartedly embracing this approach — that if you don’t care about the kids in ‘Harry Potter,’ you’re not going to care about the movie, no matter how remarkable the dragon or the flying broomsticks.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)