InDepth InterView: Marshall Brickman Talks JERSEY BOYS From Stage To Screen, Plus ROY ROGERS, ADDAMS FAMILY, Woody Allen & More
Today we are talking to a spectacularly talented screenwriter and bookwriter known for his legendary string of onscreen collaborations with Woody Allen as well as for writing and directing films himself in addition to penning the Best Musical Tony Award-winner JERSEY BOYS and others - the accomplished and entertaining Marshall Brickman. Discussing bringing the tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons via JERSEY BOYS to the stage as well as the new big screen movie musical adaptation that is finishing up principal photography, directed by Clint Eastwood, Brickman outlines his role in the international stage sensation and what we can expect from the highly anticipated celluloid creation on the way in 2014. Besides JERSEY BOYS, Brickman also sheds some light on the ongoing success of THE ADDAMS FAMILY, touring the country and being performed around the world. Plus, Brickman shares first details on his new musical project, a biomusical based on the life of legendary 20th century American entertainer Roy Rogers. Additionally, Brickman details the finer points of his decades-spanning collaboration with Woody Allen on an incomparable assortment of modern comedy classics, including MANHATTAN, SLEEPER, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY and the iconic, Best Picture Academy Award-winning Annie Hall, for which he and Allen received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. All of that, reflections on his early career working in the Golden Age of television with legends like Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett and comments on some of his own projects as a writer/director (like bringing Christopher Durang's SISTER MARY EXPLAINS IT ALL to the small screen), as well as how his skilled banjo playing figures into a classic DELIVERANCE Hollywood moment, developing a new The Mamas & The Papas biopic - and much, much more!
Talk Like A Man
PC: Would you comment on the fact that five movie musicals are currently likely for release in 2014 - one of them being your very own JERSEY BOYS?
MB: Well, I don't think it's such a crowded field - I think it's great, actually. But, really, all I can say is I wish everyone well! You know what they say: a rising tide floats all boats. So, I think they will each stand on their merits - just as any movie stands on its merits. Some will work and some less so. I mean, remember RENT? Didn't quite work.
PC: Movie musicals are tough. Could you take me through the process of how the screenplay for JERSEY BOYS developed? John Logan was involved at one point when the film was with Jon Favreau as a director, of course.
MB: Here's what happened: part of the understanding when Rick [Elice] and I signed on with Bob Gaudio and Frankie [Valli] and ultimately the Dodgers to do the stage musical was that we had first refusal on the screenplay, which we did. So, we wrote it and Sony didn't like it or somebody didn't like it and then they hired John to do it.
PC: Was the screenplay close to the stage show?
MB: No. No, it wasn't. It was enough of the stage show so that people who had seen the stage show would come and not only not be disappointed, but they would be even more excited to see the stage show and all of this other stuff that we added that we knew after having had spent so much time with the guys and having done so much research and knowing stuff that basically no one else really knew. So, what happened was that that screenplay, more or less, is now being shot by Clint.
PC: John Logan and Jon Favreau's version came in between, then?
MB: Yeah, I'm not sure if Favreau was brought in before John did his second version or after - and, I'm not sure why he left. We weren't really part of that whole negotiation period where the movie was landing at different studios, but it's ended up at Warner Brothers now that Clint Eastwood is doing it. To be honest, we weren't keeping the pulse of it at every minute because otherwise we would have had a heart attack! [Laughs.]
PC: Was Des McAnuff considered to direct? What about Martin Scorsese?
MB: There were a lot of directors early on who wanted to do this - the top of the A-list. I can't get into it with the tape recorder on, though, Pat... [Laughs.]
PC: It's great to know that Eastwood's film will be following your original vision for the movie musical version of JERSEY BOYS. When did you first pitch the movie concept?
MB: We didn't pitch the movie until many, many years after we were on Broadway, actually. It was only after the rights were acquired that we even started working on the screenplay. Since we had first refusal, there wasn't really any pitch, per se - we wrote it and now it's being done. Clint Eastwood apparently only agreed to do this after his A STAR IS BORN got put on the back burner and he was looking around for another project and he happened to be in Vegas, so he saw JERSEY BOYS and they called us from Vegas a little later and said, "Guess who's back to see the show tonight - again?!" It was Clint. And, we said, "Hmm. That's interesting!" And, so, as it turns out - and I haven't been on the set myself; neither has Rick - everybody is just thrilled with it so far. You know, he is a great director, especially when you look at his resume and all the great films he has done.
PC: Have you seen the casting tapes for the various actors who auditioned for the main parts?
MB: Well, I've only been involved in the casting in the sense that Clint - in his vast genius - primarily cast with actors from the stage show.
PC: Indeed. Christopher Walken, Vincent Piazza and Kathrine Narducci are the only major non-stage participants, right?
MB: Right. As I said, we mostly got people from the stage except for Vincent from BOARDWALK EMPIRE and Kathrine from THE SOPRANOS, and, of course, Chris Walken who is going to be so wonderful as the mafia guy.
PC: An Annie Hall re-teaming, too! Talk about full-circle.
MB: Isn't that funny?! I know. I know.
PC: Too much.
MB: It's like that old saying, though: Hollywood is a small town.
PC: He comes from the theatre, as well, in any event.
MB: Yes, he does. He's a brilliant, brilliant theatre actor.
PC: So, I'm curious: how do you look at how Hollywood has changed in your time?
MB: Well, I think that there are so many different venues now - with cable and the internet and the fact that the technology allows you to make a good-looking movie for not a lot of money. I think that all of that has opened up the possibility of an independent cinema now where you can make a movie for a half-million dollars and it looks good on the screen, too. So, I think that part of it is just wonderful.
PC: What about writing for cable someday yourself?
MB: Actually, Rick and I have been working on something recently that is exactly that - it will either be for Showtime or HBO, I think. But, as you know, there are like 5 or 6 cable companies now that are doing interesting stuff. So, I have an idea that is like, you know, ROME - something that you couldn't do in a film, but you could do it for HBO with all of the vast resources they provide; meaning, lots of money! [Laughs.]
PC: Your last movie project was at Showtime, of course, too - SISTER MARY EXPLAINS IT ALL.
MB: Oh, yes - that was just a crazy, weird, fun thing to do. Thanks for mentioning that, though.
PC: So, what about an ADDAMS FAMILY musical film someday soon?
MB: Well, to be perfectly honest, I think the chances of that are probably slim to none! [Laughs.]
PC: Your next stage project is the just-announced Roy Rogers biomusical. What can you tell us about that?
MB: Am I crazy?! I must be. They came to me with this idea for a Roy Rogers musical and I thought, "This is so outside of my wheelhouse that I just have to do it! This is the ultimate challenge - I have to make this work!" And, so, I think I've come up with something that is going to be really good. But, I hate when writers talk about what they are going to do, though - it's very fatuitous; that is, full of empty promise. So, the less I say about Roy Rogers the better at this point - at least until I get to where it is something that I can be confident about.
PC: It's a work in progress at this early stage of the game.
MB: It is. But, let me tell you, the more I learn about this guy, the more interesting he gets. I mean, he was the most popular country music star ever! He did a hundred movies! He had millions of people in his fan club. So, I've sort of gotten bitten by the bug about it I guess - I felt the same way back when I was writing JERSEY BOYS, too; I fell for the Four Seasons. I mean, I was a banjo player! I was playing folk music and "We Shall Overcome" while they were doing "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You".
PC: How precisely did you become involved with JERSEY BOYS in the first place?
MB: Rick came to me and he said, "This guy has just acquired the catalogue of the Four Seasons and he wants to do a musical like MAMMA MIA!" And, I said, "No." [Laughs.]
PC: Classic initial response, right?!
MB: Of course. But, then, Rick said, "Listen to their music." And, so, he sent me their double album - the Rhino hits album - and I thought it was really great. It was very eclectic, too - they would use all of these weird instruments and the harmonies and everything; it was both very sophisticated and very simple at the same time. It was a bunch of guys singing about girls - not singing to girls, but singing about girls to other guys, essentially; you know, stuff like "Walk Like A Man" and "Walk Away From Her".
PC: An instructive point.
MB: Yeah - it all became interesting to me after that. So, I sat down with Bob and Frankie and they said, "So, what about it?" And, we said, "We don't want to do MAMMA MIA!, we want to do your life because your life is amazing - these kids growing up in New Jersey in the ghetto and trying to make ends meet and involved with the mob and all of that." We said, "If you let us do that, that's really worth doing." And, what's also interesting is that people actually didn't know a lot about the Four Seasons - about their background and all of that. They didn't want it to come out, actually, I don't think - you know, some of those guys did time and stuff like that. As opposed to The Beach Boys or the Beatles - everybody knew everything about them - we thought, "Oh, here's a chance to tell a little bit about the inside story of this group who sold 150 million records." And, so, after that, they were pretty good about it. They said, "Go ahead and try it. Do a scenario." So, we wrote a 70-page scenario and they read it and they said, "OK. We're in."
PC: Is there anything that you put into the screenplay that you always wanted to put in the show?
MB: Yes, there is. A lot. There is so much anecdotal material and interesting stuff that we discovered doing the research that we just couldn't have in there - you know, we wanted people to be able to be back at their cars by 10:30 rather than midnight; so, there were some songs that didn't make it and some anecdotal material in some scenes that didn't make it. And, you know, onstage, what is wonderful is that it is live and it is happening before your eyes, but what is limiting is in terms of locations - so, what we did was we designed the show around a very simple set that could be anything; it could be a bunch of guys in a car or a nightclub or somebody's living room or anything. But, when you have a camera you can go anywhere, so we really took advantage of that with the screenplay. So, yes, there are many scenes and some songs and anecdotal stuff that we couldn't do when we were doing it onstage that we do in the movie. And, then, there is the most obvious thing when comparing the musical to the movie: a song that is two minutes and thirty seconds will hold very well because it's the strong personality of the people who are doing it, but if you just film four guys singing a song for two and a half minutes onscreen it dies. So, you have to come up with a whole lot of other stuff to look at and think about while the song is going on because of that. There were definitely some technical difficulties and challenges that we had to address in translating it. There will be some things that are new that are not in the musical onstage and there are some things that we have taken out to try to make it work better.
PC: Will there be any Four Seasons source records used, as far as you know?
MB: I don't think so. I think the songs that are in the show - the 30 or so of them - are all going to be performed by the actors in the movie. There will be no source records, I don't think - I don't think they want people to compare them. And, you know, the tempos are different and the feel and the tone is different, so I think - and Clint is very savvy about this stuff - we want it all coming from the same source; the performers.
PC: It will run shorter than the show, as well, I assume?
MB: Yes. You have so much more information coming off the screen per minute than you do onstage that you don't really miss anything, though. They are really very, very different media, after all. So, it should be around an hour and forty minutes or so, I would say.
PC: Are you looking forward to seeing the final finished film, particularly now that shooting has wrapped?
MB: I am. I would think Clint would ask Rick and I to come in and see it just to see what we think of it, but he may want to keep it private. On the other hand, I am happy just to go to the premiere! [Laughs.] I say, you know, "Get it out there and it will help the theatrical version." As you may know, there hasn't been a movie made of a Broadway musical currently running that hasn't helped them. I can't wait to see it.
PC: Moving from musicals to your comedies: is it true that there is a connection between Annie Hall and MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY? Elements from the latter in the former script or vice versa?
MB: Someone else said that to me, too - but, no, there is not. It was an idea Woody had years and years ago and I guess he put it in the drawer, but, then after we had done a bunch of films he said, "I've got this idea, why don't you write it?" And so we talked about it a little bit - you know, just a couple of conversations - and then I went off and wrote it. But, then, something happened and it was one thing or another and Woody ended up directing it and he was in it, too - but, it had nothing to do with Annie Hall, really. It was its own thing - MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY.
PC: How does your process work with Woody? Do you write together or separately and then revise together? Perhaps rewrite each other's work?
MB: A little bit of all of that. The work process on the first one, a screenplay we did years ago, before SLEEPER, never saw the light of day - we didn't like it and so it just went in a drawer - turned out to be mostly ineffectual and time-wasting, where we would literally discuss each line of dialogue as we went along. That turned out not to be the way to write at all.
PC: What did you find did work?
MB: We would talk out the shape of the thing, and, then, the finer points - more or less what the scenario would be - and then what happened usually would be that Woody would go off and write a draft and then he would come back and give it to me. So, then, you know, it was always brilliant! After that, there was some stuff of his that I'd have a lot to do with and some not a whole lot. Usually I'd suggest a few things and we would go back and forth and I'd work on some scenes, too. Because he was in these things, though, too, who better than Woody to write for himself?
MB: Right. So, the structural part of it and the initial ideas and scenario we would usually work out together first and then he would go write the first draft and give it to me and we would trade off back and forth rewriting it. Actually, most of the time we would walk around New York City and just talk it out - endless walks...
PC: How picaresque - like an actual scene from a classic Woody Allen film!
MB: Exactly. Endless, endless walks.
PC: Where? Central Park?
MB: Sure. Central Park or wherever. Everywhere. And we'd talk about the whole scenario and the script and then we'd talk about food and we'd talk about women and we'd talk about how terrible the business was and all of that, too.
PC: Are you more the Yale to Woody's Woody, then, to cite characters in MANHATTAN?
MB: Oh, no, no - I'm not Yale at all! [Laughs.] We didn't split it up like that, though, either. I'm too Jewish to be Yale!
PC: How did you and Woody meet in the first place? I would assume through show business given you have a colorful past.
MB: I do, I do - you're right. I tell my kids, "My life is no example of how to plan a life!"
PC: You can't plan a life anyway, though, can you?
MB: No, I guess not - but, basically, I have just taken each step to avoid falling on my face. I didn't ever really set any long-term goals or agendas, but, as it turns out, when you look back on your life there is usually a pattern of some sort there and I think for me the pattern is that I usually wanted to do projects where I didn't mind having lunch with the people working on the project - that was my main criteria. Honestly.
PC: It worked out pretty well, to say the least!
MB: It did! To answer your question, though - the way we met: I was out of college, not knowing what to do with my life at the time. I had been a banjo player...
PC: How unique!
MB: I was! I'm telling the truth. And here's a tidbit for you: you know DELIVERANCE?
PC: Of course! The most classic banjo scene ever.
MB: That was my roommate and I playing that!
PC: Tell me the story behind that - this is modern movie history!
MB: Well, here's the thing: I was in this group called the Terriers in, like, the middle-to-late-'60s or something like that - just out of college - and there were four guys in this group. Now, it was the middle of the big folk scene, and, so, I was a pretty good instrumentalist - you know, I was this kid from Brooklyn who was infatuated with bluegrass music, and, so I became a pretty good player. But, my roommate in college, Eric, was an even better player and so we put out an album on a little label back then called Elektra Records and it was called NEW DIMENSIONS IN BANJO & BLUEGRASS - it was the kind of thing that Steve Martin and his band are out there doing now.
PC: It's a recently revitalized genre in itself, actually.
MB: Yeah, yeah, yeah - it is. Anyway, we made this record and it sold like twelve copies or something. So, then, John Boorman was putting together DELIVERANCE and he somehow heard this music and he wanted something like that in his movie. I guess James Dickey, who wrote the novel and the screenplay, had written a scene with a guy with a guitar and the albino kid and the dueling banjos and all of that. But, by then, I was out of the music business and I was Johnny Carson's head writer. DELIVERANCE came out in about '72 or so, I think. So, one day, I got a call from my business manager and he said, "I have this big check sitting on my desk made out to you from Warner Brothers and it's for $170,000 - what's going on?!" And, I said, "I have no idea!"
PC: What happened?
MB: What happened was the movie came out and they called Eric to come and play dueling banjos with somebody and that's what they used in the scene in the movie. The soundtrack for the ad for the movie was us - these radio spots that Warner Bros was running around the country; the "Dueling Banjos" we did was used behind it. So, in Detroit, somebody sort of locked on to it and kept playing it over and over and people called in and said, "We love it! Where can we find this?" and, so that got back to Warner Brothers Records who went to Elektra Records, who had since been bought, and they reissued our album by Warner Brothers Records. And, now they own our masters. So, what they did was take the first side off the old LP and then slapped on "Dueling Banjos" and the rest of the tracks are all ours from our original album, NEW DIMENSIONS IN BANJO & BLUEGRASS. Then, they renamed it THE SOUNDTRACK TO DELIVERANCE, which it is not, and they issued it - and it goes platinum!
PC: No way!
MB: A platinum record! And a gold record - back when it passed 500,000 units years and years ago,
PC: Did you go see the movie anticipating the music you had a hand in would be in it?
MB: I had no idea! It was a total surprise. Of course, in the movie it is Eric and the guy John got to do the scene, but the soundtrack for the movie - what they call the soundtrack; the CD - is our old album. So, I keep getting checks... [Big Laugh.]
PC: What a fantastic story.
MB: Isn't that weird? It's so weird. But, my goodness...
PC: Did you ever consider pursuing songwriting as a profession?
MB: No, I didn't. The reason for that is the music that I was interested in was usually folk music and that was essentially to meet girls - you know, you could show off, but you were protected in a way and there was no risk. I'm actually working on writing a movie about that era and about John and Michelle Phillips and The Mamas & The Papas right now, as a matter of fact.
PC: What a fabulous project that could be! So many great songs from that catalogue.
MB: Yeah, Michelle called me awhile ago and she said, "We want to make a movie. There's some interest in doing something about the rise and the fall of the group and we couldn't think of anybody better than you since you were there!" [Laughs.]
PC: A first-hand account.
MB: Yeah! You see, I was with John and Michelle in this little trio called the New Journeyman and it got too crazy for me - I mean, I was with the New Journeyman for eight or nine months and they were all so stoned and everything and I am basically just a nice Jewish boy trying to do well and so I said, "I love you all, but I want to be a writer - I don't want to carry a banjo around for the rest of my life."
PC: You're more likely to reenact the cocaine sneeze from Annie Hall in real life, right?
MB: Oh, that's so funny you mention that - that's a perfect example of how Woody and I used to work. He was in the middle of shooting Annie Hall, and, so, occasionally he would call and say, "There's this scene and it's followed by this other scene but we need something in between them - a transitional thing or something to get from one time period or another. I just need a great visual joke or something." So, we talked for a couple of minutes about what we could do and we came up with the idea about sneezing in the cocaine. You know, sometimes the best stuff just comes out of desperation! [Laughs.]
PC: Another classic movie moment on your credits.
MB: Yeah, we came up with that on the spot - that was not in the original script. That was just sort of a save.
PC: Were the dense conversations and intellectual name-drops like Ingmar Bergman and Isak Dinesin in MANHATTAN scripted?
MB: Yeah, most of that stuff was pretty much scripted. You see, Woody is not absolutely adamant about getting every scripted comma and word exactly the way it was in the script as long as you get across the idea of the line and say it in your own words. He's very smart that way, because he wants the actors to contribute as much as possible...
PC: And with Diane Keaton...
MB: Oh, Diane's contribution to Annie Hall was immense - that whole personality and the way she dressed herself and the way that she spoke. I mean, the character that she created is 60% of that film.
PC: The juxtaposition between her performances in your films with Woody is so impressive - SLEEPER to MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY.
MB: The range that she had that she could do all of that - the intellectual stuff in MANHATTAN and then Annie Hall and MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY and the silly stuff in SLEEPER; she's extraordinary. An amazing talent.
PC: Would you be open to collaborating with those two again in the future?
MB: We flirt with it, yeah. It's a bit of the ROBERT & MARIAN problem - the Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn movie; Robin Hood and Maid Marian thirty years on. All I can think is that people are going to look at it and say, "Well, she aged pretty well, but maybe he hasn't," or whatever. You know, there's always that risk that you want people to remember the characters and the movies the way that they were when you first saw them. So, I think that in terms of doing a sequel to Annie Hall, we would move away from that sort of thing. I would love to work again with him, though, and we still take our walks in the park. We started out that way many years ago and we still take our walks and talk about the same stuff we used to.
PC: Did Woody ask for any advice on the new musical version of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY coming up, particularly given your theatrical hits?
MB: Oh, BULLETS is already in great shape as it is! He doesn't need me. I said to Woody, "Oh, who's going to do the libretto?" and he said to me, "I think I am going to. It's not a lot of work. I just have to take out some stuff to make room for the songs." So, I certainly think Woody is clever enough to create a libretto from a movie of his own.
PC: Speaking of your hits, what can you tell us about the new ADDAMS FAMILY tour?
MB: You're right - there is a new tour going out. You know, we just can't kill it with a stick! I mean, it keeps living! [Laughs.]
PC: What a way to put it.
MB: After our sort of rocky entrance onto Broadway, as we stumbled in from Chicago, I just thank God for Bebe [Neuwirth] and Nathan [Lane] - they gave us a really nice run in New York and so after that we thought that was going to be it. But, the guys who have the subsidiary rights have been great and have booked this thing all over the world, so go figure.
PC: Is it true the first tour was professionally filmed?
MB: No, I don't believe it was. You can check with the producer, but I don't think it ended up happening - I know that they were trying to do it, but they never quite came up with the right deal or the right money or whatever they needed.
PC: What are your thoughts on in-theater showings of filmed productions being so popular recently?
MB: Oh, I think it's great that people who can't come to New York can see the performances and get the chance to go to their local movie theater and see it instead - it brings more attention to Broadway and to the theatre and that's a great thing. What could be bad about that? They are great performances, too.
PC: Lastly: one of your own writer/director projects, SIMON, is now available on demand and in a new DVD release, in case you were not aware!
MB: Oh, how wonderful! Thank you for telling me that. Hopefully, now I can look forward to a check for 92 cents or so! [Laughs.] Honestly, though - that's great. Thanks for telling me. I hope some new people get the chance to see it.
PC: Thank you so much for this today, Marshall - what a fascinating life and career you have had so far.
MB: So far! So far. Don't get me depressed now, Pat. [Laughs.] Thank you for being so nice and I appreciate this so much. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro