DVDTalk Interview - Brent Hanley Screenwriter for Frailty
by Phillip Duncan
DVDTalk writer Phillip Duncan was lucky enough recently to chat with screenwriter Brent Hanley about his screenplay for the Bill Paxton directed film Frailty. An interesting interview, Hanley has opinions on everything from the state of horror films to the studio system in Hollywood. He was in a unique position on Frailty. Bill Paxton had him on set for most of the shoot and he got to see first hand all of the steps involved in making a film of this size. Seemingly bitten by the directing bug himself, he reveals a little about his next screenplay and what he hopes to be his directorial debut. Honest and opinionated with an obvious love for film, Hanley proves to be an interesting interview and even manages to turn the tables at the end of the interview by asking his own question.
Where did you come up with the idea for Frailty?
It’s 100% autobiographical. You laugh but most people don’t. That’s actually freak out quite a few creative executives in Hollywood. Where did I get the idea? You know, it’s a myriad of things. I grew up in Texas, the Bible belt, grew up in church, kind of raised by my grandma who was a Southern Baptist. So I kind of sat in the back of the church flipping through the back of the Bible to read about all of the dark things that were going to go on there and also all the dark things that went on in the Bible in the Old Testament. That had a lot to do with it. I’m a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. That had a lot to do with it. Stephen King, I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was about 10-years old, huge influence on me. Plus, the more banal answer is that it was a combination of two ideas that kind of lead to me writing the script. Listen to the Answer...
Based on the subject matter was it difficult to get the story produced in Hollywood?
Not necessarily. Really, I don’t know. I’ve been asked that question; it’s kind of a hard question because all the studios turned it down. I mean Frailty was my second piece and it went out on a Tuesday I believe and optioned on a Thursday. So it wasn’t really like I had the script and everyone liked it and no one would buy it. The first day it went out to all the major studios, and they all turned it down because it was too dark, which you know granted. It went out to all the production companies in town and David Kirschner jumped on it and optioned it. As far as getting it made, it took and year and a half from option to actual pre-production. Not really [it wasn’t difficult], I did another draft. I optioned in the first draft. I worked very close with Kirschner and we did a second draft. A lot of that was my ideas and whatnot, I ran the second draft and it took probably about six months or so. It took about a year after that draft to get it going. And I’m not quite sure why it took so long, but in the scope of things that’s not very long. I always thought it took incredibly long, but now after talking to other people I know now that’s actually pretty quick for a script to get made. There was no real resistance, but there were a few people and I won’t name them and there were some directors we went out to. Because that was the thing, we go to some directors and get directors attached to get stars attached and that’s how you get movies made. We had taken it to one director and he called the thing evil and he said it was just a work of pure evil and that I must be the devil or something. Listen to the Answer...
That’s got to make you proud.
Right. Actually I knew this guy. That could’ve upset me if it had been somebody I respected but it was somebody that I considered who made incredibly boring fucking movies. So I really wasn’t affected by. I was like great, whatever.
We had some resistance. Columbine happened after we had the second draft out. The whole child violence of it scared a lot of people. Lions Gate, balls of steel, they said, “No, it’s not about that.” They really supported the film and believed in it. We never had any internal doubters. Everyone that worked on Frailty, everyone that was involved in it believed in it 100% and loved it. They didn’t see it as wrong, didn’t see it as bad. They saw it as what it was, a good horror movie or thriller. It wasn’t that hard. I’d like to be able to tell you or actually I’m glad I don’t have to tell the story of how it took 10 years to get it made and everyone was too afraid of it. I think if you get Frailty you get Frailty, if you don’t you don’t. Listen to the Answer...
Some people think it’s exploitive, it’s horrible. I don’t. I’m not in that percentage and neither are the people who made it. There were enough people that really believed in it so it wasn’t a huge battle to get it made. Every film is a battle, but I don’t think this one was any more so than any romantic comedies I’ve heard of. Listen to the Answer...
Were there any major changes between the first and second draft?
No one’s ever asked me that question before. They always ask about the difference between from script to screen. Actually that’s an interesting question.
You said it took six months.
It did, but that wasn’t necessarily writing period. I think it only took a couple of months to redraft it and go through the notes. I think the 6 months encompassed the down time while they get their ducks in a row. There’s always a lot of waiting in Hollywood.
The only major difference that sticks out in my mind between the two drafts was Doyle’s character (Powers Boothe). Originally he had killed his daughter and not his mother. It was one of those things where he just freaked out. That was the idea behind the demons. That they just kill without remorse or reason. He devoured his daughter one day and that got changed. It was a “picture of your daughter” instead of a “picture of your mother.” So it stayed the same. I mean the string itself was always there but it was daughter instead of mother. Kirschner had some problems with that simply because he felt we were already walking this tightrope of child violence. This was even before Columbine. For some reason he wanted it to be the mother. Which I though was perfectly fine, that didn’t really bother me that much. Plus, even then it got changed because I had gone with the idea of the mother and made Doyle a teenager when he did it to parallel Fenton killing his father. That got axed to because they didn’t want to shown, the only person that’s ever shown doing any violence is Fenton and Adam at the very end. You see Fenton kill Dad. Which no one ever bitches about that because the first time you watch that film you think he’s nuts. When Adam kills the demon, which usually gets a scream or a raise out of somebody in the audience, which is thrilling for me. Those were the only moments of child violence in there and they were very necessary. Essentially that’s the climax of your picture so it had to be there. That never really got attacked. I have some notes actually about the violence in the film. I had to defend every single hint of violence in the picture after Columbine. Listen to the Answer...
Were you worried with Bill Paxton directing this as his first feature?
No, I actually wasn’t. I was kept in the loop on all that and I knew they were going to him and we had originally just gone to him for Dad. When he asked to direct it I actually kind of liked the idea because Night of the Hunter was a huge influence for this film and Night of the Hunter was Charles Laughton’s only directorial credit. I always thought it was fitting that Bill would direct it considering the whole Laughton thing. Listen to the Answer...
Paxton had you on set the entire time?
I was there every single day that I could be. He kept me involved throughout the process. I got to work with the actors. All of the main actors in pre-production were right there. I was essentially on set and made changes right there. I was actually rewriting the demon imagery right until we shot it. Listen to the Answer...
Is that a process you enjoyed and would do again?
I absolutely love it. Honestly at this point I’m really focused more on directing. My first story that I wrote, He Dreams Awake, which is how I got involved with Matthew McConaughey in the first place, is that he optioned my first script. It’s come back to me now to direct. We’ve got Wes Bentley from American Beauty attached and we’re trying to get that going in February. We actually go into pre-production in February. Listen to the Answer...
Any hints as to the storyline?
That’s actually a homage to one of my favorite all-time movies, Out of the Past. It’s a tragic romance, film noir kind of thing. Listen to the Answer...
Do you think working so closely with the actors on Frailty helped you understand the process even better?
Absolutely. One of the things I learned most about actors and from actors, and McConaughey has been a huge mentor for the directing actors thing. The thing I’ve learned is how much can be said without saying anything. How a good screen actor can get across what you need them to get across without saying a fucking word. That to me is magical. I love that. Listen to the Answer...
I thought that showed really well in the transport scene.
Yeah. Matthew is fucking awesome. He’s really one of my all-time favorite actors, living actors. But he says so much with a look. That’s his thing and I love it. Listen to the Answer...
The film seemed to be influenced by older films such as Hitchcock like you said. I also felt a connection to films like The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby where the horror is based on beliefs rather than physical threats. Do you think that’s something that is missing in horror films today?
I do. I think it’s something that’s missing from horror films in particular. Nowadays horror has been relegated to the frickin’ teen-slasher pictures. You know, that’s not scary. You know buzzer horror, the idea of somebody walking into a dark room without turning the lights on, which no one fucking does. To me, scary movies aren’t scary anymore, with the exception of a few. I don’t think people really try to scare people anymore and I think that’s kind of sad. Listen to the Answer...
It was a throwback to the way movies used to be made.
I think there’s been a huge regression that has gone on in cinema to some degree. Of course there are many exceptions to that. Fight Club, American Beauty, Three Kings are some of my favorites from recent years. I do think that’s it’s sad, to me. We couldn’t get Frailty made on a studio level. That wasn’t going to happen. We weren’t going to make Frailty for $30-million. That was not going to happen. That’s not the reality of Hollywood at this time. What gets me is Frailty is no more violent than or no more disturbing than Rosemary’s Baby or Taxi Driver. You’ve got Jodi Foster, especially on the child violence complaint, as a 14-year old child prostitute. You want to talk about teen/child violence, look at Pretty Baby for God’s sake, that Louis Malle film with Brooke Shields. She’s screwing Keith Carradine and that’s more disturbing to me than anything that goes on in Frailty. It’s amazing that we couldn’t get Frailty made on the studio level, and I think that speaks of the regression of Hollywood. We had to make it on a mini-major level. We had to make it for $10 or $11 million because of the content. I defy anyone to get Taxi Driver made now. I don’t think you could get Taxi Driver made now, much less on a studio level. Listen to the Answer...
Even Scorsese is having/had problems with Gangs of New York.
Right. If you look at history, even The Last Temptation of Christ was made for a shoestring budget. That’s part of the late ‘80s. I just think you’ll see, if you really look at film history, a huge regression in content. What studios will tell you nowadays, and not all of studios do. There are always exceptions to the rule. Fight Club was made on a studio level, which was amazing. Seven was made on a studio level. Listen to the Answer...
But both of those had Brad Pitt.
Exactly. You’re exactly right. It’s just amazing the types of movies in the ‘70s. I’ve always said I wish I could have been a filmmaker in the ‘70s because I would have absolutely no problem. I would be able to make all of this stuff on a studio level. Even now we have a dark little film. He Dreams Awake is a tragic romance along the lines of Badlands or True Romance or stuff like that and we’re having an incredibly hard time getting it made. People read it and they tell me “we love it.” It’s the most frustrating thing in the world. They tell me it’s great. We love it. It’s great writing, a great story, I cried but I’m not going to make it. You’re like, what?
It’s because it’s a small, dark, little film where all the characters basically die near the end. But it has to go that way, that’s the type of story it is. To sacrifice that would be to sacrifice the whole piece. They’re [studios] are saying it’s dark, depressing, beautiful and we love it but we’re not going to make it because it’s not going to make us any money. Now even on independent films no one wants to spend even $2 million dollars. No one wants to spend $2 million to make $2 million back. They want to do My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That’s what people are looking to do in the independent world. It kind of shuts you out there too. To me, anytime anyone says that it’s just too dark for audiences I just think they’re full of shit. I’ve always said this about He Dreams Awake; it’s almost a modern retelling of Wuthering Heights. It wasn’t intended to be but it almost is. That’s a huge film and a beloved novel. I just don’t get it. Listen to the Answer...
Studios are worried about grosses and dollar amounts.
Of course they are. Not to sack them, I’m in this business to make money just like everyone else.
You have to get paid.
You want to get paid but you also want to make something that you believe in and I think audiences can take this stuff. They took it in the ‘70s and it’s just this mentality. Like I said, no one would want to make Taxi Driver now, especially not on a studio level. It would not get huge distribution like it did before. I don’t really know what to say about that. There are certain films that make me think it’s getting better. The fact that Fight Club got made in ’99 on a studio level really gives me hope. Listen to the Answer...
After I first saw the movie I found a quote by philosopher John Locke, "God knows are Frailty and pities our weakness."
We did all the research we could on frailty and that one came up and we always liked that one a lot, the producers and me. There is relevance to the story. The title being abstract doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have relevance, because it very much does. It is abstract because it isn’t said in the film. Nobody ever brings it up. There’s not some great quote. We actually thought about putting a quote in the film and the Locke one was definitely on the list. We found a bunch of stuff in the Bible, too. We thought about putting it in there and then we thought it was a cheap trick. I felt like it’s not necessary. It’s really not necessary for us to name it in the film. I love the idea of an abstract title. I love the idea that it does have relevance to it but no one ever brought it up. I love that. There are a lot of meanings that went into that. One of my favorite quotes is, from all things, The Philadelphia Story with Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. Have you ever seen that? You should. It’s a great film and really funny. It’s one of my all-time favorite screwball comedies. You’ll think, what? The guy that wrote Frailty loves this movie. It’s in no way like Frailty at all. It’s 150 degrees away from that. There’s a line in there that they say twice (first by Cary Grant, second by Katharine Hepburn). The gist of the line is you’ll never be a first-class writer or a first-class human being until you learn to show some small regard for human frailty. That’s always stuck with and is one of my favorite lines in a movie. That bled into it too. These are all abstract reasons. There are some very concrete reasons as to why I picked Frailty, too, which I talked about, like the frailty of perception, the frailty of morality and the frailty of human beings. Listen to the Answer...
Again I thank you for taking the time to talk with me and I wish you the best of luck in the future.
I’d like to ask you one question before we go. Where are you from?
Yeah! I though I heard it man. That’s cool. (laughing)
I know all about the Bible belt and that’s part of the reason I think I liked the movie so much.
Right on, right on. I’m glad you liked the movie. Thank you so much. Listen to the Answer...