Richard Price by Amos Poe

“You have to get under the skin of a character so much more profoundly, to write about it as opposed to filming it.”

BOMB 30 Winter 1990
030 Winter 1989 90
30 Price 1 Body

Richard Price. © 1989 by Bastienne Schmidt.

A few things you should know about Richard Price. He’s written several novels: The WanderersThe BreaksLadies’ Man and Blood Brothers. He’s a good and generous friend of mine. With his wife, the painter Judy Hudson, he lives across the street. His daughter Annie is “engaged” to my son, Nick Tiger. They’re both four, going on 24 (hours a day). Some people say Richard is “testy,” “moody,” that his nerves seem to be on the wrong side of his skin. The important thing is: Richard Price is probably one of the best screenwriters we’ve got, so far ahead of the others, he’s lapping the pack. Sea of LoveColor of MoneyNew York Stories—take anything he’s written, and your dialogue, character, humor and pathos are all there. Bring in a producer with balls and taste, a director with vision and grit, actors of instinct and intensity, and your chances of making a good movie, maybe even great, are assured. You and I know there’s no formula for movie magic, but step on your cynicism for a second, this is the one exception. Shake hands with Mr. Tension. Richard Price.

Richard Price Have you ever done this before?

Amos Poe Yeah, I’ve done it twice. So what’s Homicide class?

RP Maybe I shouldn’t talk about that … I’ve been sitting in on lectures on how to be a good detective.

AP Is it only for cops?

RP Yeah. It’s a training program in all aspect of homicide investigation and … sexual homicides.

AP Sounds educational.

RP It’s a slide show. The guy who was lecturing—I don’t know why he said it—gave us a picture of a guy in bondage, dead, from homoerotic strangulation … . And, he says, “This guy, he probably thought he was an Arabian slave and was trying to escape.” Well, where the fuck do you get this stuff? How does he know the dead man was thinking that? Where in forensics? Why Arabian?

AP He was probably just trying to be jolly.

RP No, he was serious.

AP You’re going everyday from nine to three?

RP Yeah, it’s a two-week course. They make me sit outside the room.

AP Why?

RP Well, ’cause cops are kind of edgy and paranoid and they know I’m not a cop and they think “Who the hell is this?”

AP How do you see the slides?

RP There’s a partition. There’s a big lecture room and then there’s a dining room behind and there’s a folding screen so they just pull the screen back about three feet so that I can see the slide show and hear the lecture. It’s funny, because I’m the only guy without a gun and I make everybody nervous.

AP It’s like a fraternity.

RP It’s more than a fraternity because to be a cop is to be an artist. On one hand it’s your job, but it’s not really your job, it’s your life. You take it home with you. And I don’t know anybody who’s not a cop when it’s five o’clock. I mean, cop is a head. An artist is a head. A priest is a head. You are your job until you die.

AP What about that guy that just killed that girl and boiled her and put her skull in a trunk in a Port Authority building?

RP I got a call about that. A friend of mine calls and says, “We got something in your neighborhood.” It was Sunday morning, it hit the papers Wednesday.

AP Yeah.

RP I used to date that girl.

AP What?

RP No … just kidding.

AP What did you mean Sea of Love turned out differently than you wanted?

RP Can this thing pick up my voice from here? Well, I never meant to write a thriller. I just wanted to write two hours of high mopery. I looked at it and said, “This is terrific mopery but we gotta film edit it, so push me, pull you. Is it the girl? Is it? Isn’t it? Is it? Isn’t it?” So it became all cut and dry, and I wasn’t really interested in that so I didn’t really apply myself to it that much, except in a kind of dogged way. Now the film is being reviewed as a thriller and it’s getting all this praise as a thriller and it’s getting all its criticism as a thriller, but I don’t really care. I don’t give a shit about plot or anything like that, I just care about character and dialogue.

AP I was thinking about the thriller aspect—as the McGoughin in a genre.

RP They have the property and you’ve got to mold it into some recognizable form. It’s not like a European picture. In American movies everything has to come to an end and be resolved happily which makes everything predictable and everything’s kind of like … bullshit. I don’t think I’m a good screen writer in that traditional American way. I’ve got good scenes and good dialogue but in terms of what happens next and what happens next, I could care less. That means that all the guys who can’t write for shit take over.

AP But nobody did any rewriting on this.

RP No, no. But you know, it’s just hammered into it. It’s like a lamb carcass in one of those Tartar horse hockey games or who ever does that stuff. That’s what the script was like. I got so carried away with what happens next that I found myself fading and fading.

AP But you were always telling me that the film was going to be really horrible and the film is far from horrible. Is that just your own paranoia?

RP That’s how I’d review it, I’d say, “It’s far from horrible.”

AP It’s very far from horrible.

RP I never meant for it to be in that genre so now when all those reviews come out and say this plot has enough holes. It’s like well, yeah, this was never a plot.

AP Did you see that thing about Vincent Canby in the Post today? They rip him apart for exactly what you said.

RP Time out. Time out. I’m not going to get sued. I’m not going to say anything.

AP Come on, say something controversial.

RP There’s been talk.

AP There’s been talk. But it was the only review that was disparaging.

RP Yeah, well I had heard that it was very personal, but I don’t know what to say about that.

AP In New York Magazine you were touted as the best screen writer in the country! How does that feel?

RP I always thought David Denby was brilliant. Yeah, that’s gratifying.

AP It’s strange that none of the little blurbs in the ads mention the script.

RP Yeah, but no one goes to see a movie because of the script. You don’t hold the paper against the screen and follow the bouncing ball—okay, everybody ready, now turn the page. It’s like let’s make a deal. I knew I would get a call from People magazine. “Is it true that Al and Ellen have a real hot scene?” That’s what they want to know about.

AP And it is hot. It made me rethink The Color of Money. Like when Paul Newman says, “I’m not your Daddy”—or something like that—Al Pacino says, “I’m everybody’s Daddy.”

RP Well, I have an Oedipus complex. Did you ever see that kid’s book Are You My Mother? about the bird going around to this crane, “Are you my Mother?” To the tractor, “Are you my Mother?” Well, I’m not your Daddy.

AP Do you think that’s your best script?

RP Which one? There were like 33 drafts. Some of them were … and they progressively didn’t … they got less and less good. I like Night In The City. They’re trying to make that at Fox now.

AP That’s the best screenplay I’ve ever read. Bar none.

RP Joe Roth who’s one of the producers on it, is running Fox and trying to make it. I’d love to see that thing made. I mean, I haven’t read it in a long time. I’ve got a lot of good stuff out there.

AP Sidney Lumet would be a good director for that.

RP I’m trying to remember what the story’s about. I think Lumet likes things that are sort of political.

AP It’s almost a thriller, but more like an existential thriller or something.

RP Yeah, I think Roman Polanski would be good for it. Well Scorcese was going to do it, and then Scorcese and Tavemier were going to co-produce it with Andre DeToth as the director—and then it got into some political trouble with Fox. When I met him [DeToth] he was about seventy years old, ramrod straight, 6 feet 2 inches, long gray hair and an eye patch and he was taking his first sky-diving lesson. He’s going to outlive us all.

AP He did a lot of film noir type things.

RP Yeah, he did a lot of B movies. But Scorcese is a living film historian, you know. He’s a walking library. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it. I got at least three or four out there.

AP You do? What’s else is out there?

RP Wingo …

AP Wingo is what … the guy who wins the lottery?

RP Yeah. About a mailman who wins the lottery and becomes a celebrity. I’ve got that. I’ve got the Night and the City. I got Mad Dog that I’m producing.

AP What’s happening with Mad Dog? Did the director drop out?

RP Yeah, Glen Caren dropped out and I’m talking to Ron Howard. Should be a strange combination. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. There are a lot of other directors who have expressed interest. I just don’t tend to like very many directors. Movies here are just so … I don’t know as opposed to—like Iceland—movies here are kind of predictable. Everybody is hireable by virtue of having done a movie before. It’s like being a coach. If you get fired you’re just going to end up being coach somewhere else. Or like being a studio executive—you’ll just wind up at some other studio.

AP But you’re the producer of Mad Dog so you have more say.

RP Whatever that means. That means I just get to whine and piss and moan officially and get paid for it but I don’t think I have any real power when it comes down to it.

AP Did they assign a co-producer to Mad Dog?

RP No. Not yet. But I guess if Ron Howard does it—his company. I would just as soon have the director as co-producer unless he’s a psychopath or something. I don’t want to get that involved in it. I just want to have some say about who the actors are and what if I see some dailies and it looks like they’re coming out of left field …

AP I haven’t read Mad Dog, that’s the only one I haven’t read yet.

RP It’s a cop movie.

AP Is that more of a comedy?

RP No, it’s about a guy who’s a crime scenes cop, a forensics cop, who saves the life of a loan shark and the loan shark gets him a woman for a week as a thank-you present. At the end of the week, the man falls madly in love with the woman and he won’t give her back to the loan shark. And the guy’s kind of mild-mannered, a bachelor. It’s sort of like a cross between Mean Streets and The Apartment. You know, it’s kind of like romantic horse shit.

AP So is Universal very hot on it now?

RP Yeah, they want to do it. All we need is a director. Most of the directors they’re suggesting I don’t want to work with or I kind of am waiting for somebody who doesn’t feel to me, here comes another one just like the other one. Or … you know, there are just too many guys out there. Anyways … I’m looking for interesting people. I like to go foreign or something like that but I don’t know what that means, you know. The studios are very timid about anybody whose name they can’t pronounce. They say, “Oh shit.” But I don’t know, there’re some good American guys and there’re some good European guys but the European guys are into, you know, their own thing and there’s no guarantee that they’ll do a better job than anybody else. But I know a lot of American guys are so trained to be a certain way that I can read the reviews before the movie is being made.

AP But the director has to be on their “A” list.

RP You know what an “A” list means? It means somebody made some money. It doesn’t mean they’re good or anything. Basically, it’s like an army of mechanics. Like a whole line of guys in overalls with tool kits.

AP What’s the title of Mad Dog from? Is that the guy—the loan shark’s name?

RP No, it’s the cop’s name. I’m going to change it. It sounds like Tomasina in Bushrod. It sounds like some stupid Western. The House in Big Falls … Freebee and the Bean … Sacco and Vanzetti.

AP Sounds a little bit like Paul Schrader, maybe.

RP Nino and Toronto. I’ll change it to something else. How about They Came On The Bus?

AP They Came On The Bus?

RP Like Swedish meatballs.

AP Did they cast it yet?

RP You got to get a director first. Universal wants it to be in production right now. I could name you a half a dozen guys who’ve said yes to it, this thing would be half way through filming already; but I’d rather wait and get somebody who’s got a fighting chance of doing something unusual than get something predictable. See, I don’t think that in American film there are many people who are into character anymore. It’s all about that affect of lighting and film effects.

AP Well, Barry Levinson.

RP Yeah, but you can name them on one hand. There are a couple of great guys. But they’re busy because they’re the only guys that do that stuff. And every once in a while people really like to watch movies that are about people. So, you’ve got your “A” list, Scorcese and Levinson …

AP That’s also what’s good about Sea of Love. I mean, it’s one of those movies where the character that Ellen Barkin plays could have been trounced, but she comes across.

RP You’re really at the mercy of someone. When you write a script, you’re at the mercy of so many other people. You might have meant one thing and your character turns out the entire opposite way between the actor and the director, the editing and the lighting and the promotions and this and that. I mean, it’s completely turned around. You’re the first one in and everybody’s piled on top of you and you don’t know what the hell’s going to emerge from the other end.

AP What’s this thing about hanging out with cops? When did you get into that?

RP For Sea of Love I started doing that. I didn’t realize that I liked big guns. Big men with big guns.

AP How long have you liked big men with big guns?

RP Ever since I was a child. No. A couple of years ago. I always felt most comfortable writing about working-class people. Blue collar people or, you know, middle-class. Whatever you want to call it. That’s where I’m from. It’s like people I grew up with—give ’em 50 yard line tickets … cops see all extremes of human behavior and they’re in charge. It’s the most extreme kind of job I can think of.

AP Do you think that cops have to be a little crazy?

RP I don’t know. There’re assholes and there’re good guys. It’s just like anything else. Anyway, I did Sea of Love and I got this new script about a cop and then this novel I’m writing now, and the central character’s a cop. I’m going through my cop phase. But, you know, the thing with cops, they can be hard-ons or they can be good guys or they can be really smart or really stupid. But the thing is if you’re a cop, it’s a little bit like being a priest. It’s like nobody thinks of you in terms of what your name is. They think of you in terms of what your job is. It kind of separates you from everybody else. Like they think of a priest, they say, “He doesn’t fuck. He’s got a pipeline to God.” And they see a cop and say “Wow, he can put me in jail. He’s got a gun.” If you see a lawyer, “Wow, he’s got a briefcase.” A writer—”Wow, he’s got ink on the side of his hand.” It’s a very melodramatic kind of job to have and it’s also a very isolating kind of job, because people don’t think of you as a person. If you know somebody’s a cop, you can’t forget that fact about them for a second. Why am I so interested in cops? Because I’m not a particularly brave person, it blows my mind that these guys—at some point as part of that pay check, they’ve got to be brave. They’ve got to take risks. It’s a scary kind of job. So I started thinking, well, if I’m going to continue into writing about them, I don’t want to be writing some John Wayne jerk, you know. I want to write about the contradictions of stuff, like a cop, who’s not brave. A cop like me and that’s the character like Mad Dog. He’s a guy’s who’s very retiring, he’s never pulled his gun in 15 years. He never should have been a cop to begin with. He’s never had to be brave and then something comes up where he has to be brave. So I made myself a cop who is very hung up on the fact that he feels he’s a fraud and he’s not the man that he’s supposed to be. And he tortures himself because all the other guys around him seem to be pretty unconflicted about stepping in. It’s about his being forced to finally step in and confront this thing about himself.

AP Did that lead directly into the novel?

RP No, I was thinking about the novel before that. It was a murder that took place with these cops I was hanging out with in New Jersey. And out of that murder, I went to visit the parents of the perpetrator and started thinking about the perpetrator. My mind started going—I had been spending so much time with cops and seeing the world through cops’ eyes, I started to get interested in the reverse angle. The people who are not the police but the policed. How do they see the world? Like mirror images of the same world. I just devised a homicide investigation which would take points of view from various people, the victims and the persecutors, do an overall thing, around a combination of racism, drugs and a look at what people call the underclass. That permanent disenfranchised welfare state that exists.

AP The research on this book has been lengthier than research on the other projects?

RP Yeah, yeah. I’m covering all my bases. I haven’t written a book in five years. I’m thinking I forgot how. Relatively speaking, screen plays are easy work because you’re only dealing in surfaces. You don’t have to get into depth of somebody’s thoughts or feelings. It’s all mind. Their intellect is all mind.

AP That’s because the actor does that.

RP Well, the actor does that. And music does that and there’s no real content to it. I can spend two weeks with anybody and I can write a script about them that’s going to be realistic. But I could never in a million years feel I knew what that guy did from some other area. I could never go off and in a couple of weeks research and write a book about somebody unless I could find that connective tissue between me and them. Again, you have to get under the skin of a character so much more profoundly, to write about it as opposed to filming it.

AP Okay, say you do that two-week stint and research somebody. When you do that do you write while you research or do you wait until …

RP I take notes. I take voluminous notes. I have a police reporter’s notebook wherever I go and just write down impressions. Every once in a while there’ll be some connection between what I’m seeing and an idea for a scene, so I write a note to myself. By and large, I’m just trying to sew things up in the plot. I either come out of what I see or I have a plot in mind before I see anything. Either way.

AP And that’s the same process that you use in writing a novel?

RP I’ll tell you when I write it. I write my plot but the point is everything I do, it’s like I’m trying to write about homicide and drugs and a certain level of poverty and white civil service cops looking at blacks through their eyes. And then I start thinking, how can you write it without knowing anything about intravenous AIDS? So now I’m doing research about AIDS and going into all these support groups with people who have AIDS. You don’t know anything about AIDS without knowing anything about the heroin subculture, so I’m starting to go to heroin shooting galleries. How can you write about shooting galleries without knowing about—I mean, it’s an expanding plane to the point where I almost forgot to do any research about homicide. Which I have to do, which is why I’m doing the Homicide class, just to get the mechanics of it.

AP How did you find out about the Homicide class?

RP Through friends. Friends of friends who are cops. I got permission to audit certain classes. Others I’m not allowed to go to. Probably those are the ones I need the most.

AP Does the novel have a title?

RP Nah, not really. A couple of them but nothing that sounds like anything yet …

AP Is anything that you’re writing now different from what you were writing before because your life has changed?

RP Yes, it’s very different. The people I’m writing about now have nothing to do with me. Before, basically what I was writing were variations on my autobiography. I think everybody’s entitled to one autobiography and then things start getting kind of spacey and drawn out. I was falling into that rut the last time I tried writing a book. The hard thing about this is that I don’t know anybody. I got to learn who these people are. It’s just real different.

AP So it’s a more objective story?

RP I’m nobody in this book. In my other book, I was always the main character. But I’m not. I’m not a cop. I’m not black.

AP But does the cop have any of your ticks or whatever?

RP Well, sure, of course. I mean you can’t help but do that.

AP But it’s more of an objective thing.

RP So are the black kids and the drug dealers and—I mean, you inject yourself into everybody you write about. You can’t help but do it. Everything’s an autobiography.

AP It’s a more objective book than the others.

RP Yeah. I’m not drawing on anything in my life.

AP It’s third person?

RP Yeah, it’s going to be third person. It will be from a bunch of different points of view. But I’m going to be doing a 19-year old crack dealer. I’ll be doing a 43-year old cop and a bunch of people, none of which I can say is me.

AP What else should we talk about?

RP Um, I don’t know. How long are these interviews for BOMB?

AP Along with your picture it’ll be two pages, three pages tops.

Amos Poe is a filmmaker, currently in preproduction on Triple Bogie on a Par Five Hole.

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Originally published in

BOMB 30, Winter 1990

Featuring interviews with Mary Gaitskill, Carroll Dunham, Richard Price, Eduardo Machado, Sarah Charlesworth, Jane Campion, Fay Weldon, Anish Kapoor, Atom Egoyan with Arsinée Khanjian, Katell le Bourhis, and Jonathan Lasker.

Read the issue
030 Winter 1989 90