When I think of the film Navy SEALs nowadays, that line of Randal’s from Kevin Smith’s Clerks is usually the first thing that pops into my head(I hope Chuck will forgive me):
Randal Graves: They never rent quality flicks. They always pick the most intellectually devoid movies on the racks.
Low I.Q. Video Customer: OOOOH! NAVY SEALS!
If this is Mr. Smith’s point of view on the movie then so be it. After this thought fades away though, I find myself placing Navy SEALs up there with all those glorious military/action movies from the 90’s like Fire Birds, Flight of the Intruder, Under Siege, Hunt for the Red October, the Iron Eagle films, just to scratch the surface.
The film’s writer, Chuck Pfarrer was the perfect choice to pen such a movie – Chuck, you see, used to be a Navy SEAL. After graduating from military school plus two other colleges he went through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S). Over the next eight years he racked up an impressive military career serving as a military advisor, training NATO forces, an executive officer of the SEAL Team assigned to the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force, before ending as Assault Element Commander at the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), formerly known as SEAL Team 6.
Then Chuck went and did a crazy thing – he became a screenwriter.
With movies like Darkman, Barb Wire, Hard Target, The Jackal, Virus and Red Planet, plus uncredited writing on Arlington Road, Second Nature, Sudden Impact and The Green Hornet, as well as being author and creator of graphic novels for Dark Horse Comics, and writer/ producer on interactive full motion videos – all this on top of being a bestselling author – Chuck Pfarrer has traded one distinguished career for another.
Still the man remains humble and I was delighted to hear during one of our chats, that he refers to himself (as I do) as merely a scribbler. He has been busy promoting his new book Philip Nolan: The Man without a Country, but he has taken time out to have a chat about adventures in the movie business.
KH: Sir, it is a privilege for you to take time out of your busy schedule to chat with me?
CP: Thanks, Kent, for asking me.
KH: I am a big fan of both your fiction (Killing Che) as well as your non-fiction (Warrior Soul), but round these parts we talk about movies, so we shall focus on your screenwriting days if that’s okay?
CP: It’s absolutely true that screenwriting gets all the sizzle.
KH: So how did you get started in Hollywood?
CP: Oddly enough, I sold a couple of screenplays while I was in the navy. They didn’t go anywhere but they did get optioned and that encouraged me to try my hand after I got out of the Navy. When I left the SEAL Teams I was going to go to medical school to be a psychiatrist. While I was waiting for acceptance into medical school, I sold a screenplay about Ernest Hemingway and I thought, probably naïvely that I should go to Hollywood and give screenwriting a try. I got lucky and sold another screenplay based on my experience in the SEAL Teams. It became the movie Navy SEALs and based on that screenplay Sam Raimi hired me to write the film Darkman.
KH: Did the impact of Warrior Soul help when it came to shopping Navy Seals around town?
CP: Actually, I didn’t write Warrior Soul until I was pretty deep into my Hollywood career. When I first sold the screenplay for Navy SEALs an editor at Knopf wanted me to write a book about the SEAL teams. I refused because no SEAL had done that yet. Richard Marcinko was the first SEAL to write about our community. Before that, no one in the Teams had written about being a SEAL. Navy SEALs are so famous now it’s hard to imagine that just about 10 or 15 years ago the community itself (and the government that hires us) considered the entire program too secret to write about. With Warrior Soul I was only the third SEAL to write about SEAL Team Six, and I did so only after my commanding officer Bob Gormley wrote his book Combat Swimmer. I didn’t want to be the first SEAL to write about SEAL Team Six.
KH: What was selling that first script like?
CP: The first screenplay I sold was actually about Ernest Hemingway’s life in Cuba. I sold that while I was still on active duty as a Navy SEAL. I co-wrote it with a great friend of mine, Richard T. Murphy, who was then in the MFA screenwriting program at NYU. To our shock, our screenplay was nominated for Focus award and William Morris signed us both. We suddenly found ourselves as working screenwriters. It was especially strange for me because with that signing, I became the only Navy SEAL with a William Morris agent.
KH: You have created graphic novels, but your first clash with the comic book style world was working on Darkman?
CP: It was great working with Sam Raimi on Darkman. He’d recently finished The Evil Dead and had a really good idea about what he wanted to see in Darkman. Sam’s style is big and brash, and his films move by leaps and bounds. Sometimes it was a bit of a fight with Universal to make sure Sam got what he wanted. In the end the battles were worth it. We were all very happy with how the film came out and it was really a great honor to work with Sam, and a lot of fun.
KH: Let’s talk Hard Target, and your debut as an actor, you are Douglas Bender; killed in the film’s opening scenes?
CP: I was in New Orleans working with John Woo to make the movie, which was pretty unusual for a screenwriter but there were some small tweaks in the script that needed to be made as we went along. We were about three weeks from the wrap of the movie when John came to me and said, “I want you to play Douglas Binder”. At that point in the draft we were shooting there really wasn’t much about the character Binder. As a victim, Binder had been basically a chalk mark on the sidewalk. John and I went out to dinner and John told me about the 10-minute opening scene he had decided to do about the murder of Douglas Binder. It involved almost 10 days of shooting. Binder winds up getting hunted all over the city of New Orleans, shot at, stabbed with arrows, run over by motorcycles, blown up and finally shot through with a cross-bow. All very exciting — that is, until I wound up doing all of my own stunts. At the end of it I was black and blue. John Woo was also a director with a really clear vision and worked in a very collaborative way with the writer to get exactly what he wanted on the screen. Working with John was a privilege. He’s really an amazing and extremely creative guy.
KH: You now cross paths with another comic-book style piece in Barb Wire. Tell us of that experience?
CP: That was a nightmare. I had written a series of graphic novels for Dark Horse and they came to me and wanted me to do a rewrite on the script. I read it; it was bad, and I passed. They came back and asked again. I kept declining and the “negotiations” finally reached the point where the money they were offering was absolutely ridiculous and I said yes. I had just finished the shooting script for The Jackal and I thought what the hell. I thought I would be just another anonymous pencil trying to make the script into something. The script was so bad I thought I could make it better, but I was wrong. It turned out that by the time I started working on the screenplay for Barb Wire, the previous writer had already submitted paperwork to take her name off the movie. The fine print of my contract prohibited me from taking my name off the final product. No matter what I came up with for the script, the notes from the studio never allowed me to make any real changes to improve it. I thought the whole thing would go away, but the movie got made, it came out, and it was a train wreck. And my name was on it. It’s funny now. The movie they made was so bad it even got a Razzie award. It just goes to show that you should never do things you don’t believe in, and you should always read the fine print of your contracts.
KH: Bruce Willis is The Jackal. How did this gig come across your desk and did you have the opportunity to meet Bruce?
CP: I was at Universal and finishing up a three-year deal. The studio came to me and told me they had just bought the rights to The Day of the Jackal and asked me if I wanted to write a remake. I said no. However, the studio gets what it wants. Eventually, they twisted my arm and I said yes. During the time I was writing it they were vacillating a bit about calling it a remake. I submitted the script and they were actually very happy with it. We went right into preproduction. I thought that they were no longer going to call it a remake, but simply just set it up as a brand-new movie. Wonderful, I thought. There won’t be any blowback from fans of the original film. When they cast Bruce Willis and Richard Gere I was even happier because I realized they were going to make a serious movie out of it. On most of my movies, I wind up training the actors how to use firearms, how to shoot and move, etc. Diane Venora, who played the Russian investigator, worked for about a week with me on the LA SWAT Team range in LA. I didn’t work very much with Bruce—his schedule was full right up until shooting. I saw him on the set, of course, and talked to him as we worked. But to me the biggest thrill on The Jackal was getting to work with Sidney Poitier– probably the only time in my career that I was ever star struck. He was a joy to work with, a craftsman, a professional and a gentleman of the old school. Just to add it too—he did his own stunts!
KH: Virus I thought was a great movie and Donald Sutherland was delicious in his role. The film is based on the graphic novel of your creation?
CP: I pitched Virus to Universal at the beginning of my three-picture deal and they passed on it. So I went ahead and wrote the series of graphic novels using the idea for Dark Horse. They wound up selling 400,000 copies. I went back to the studio armed with the four graphic novels, and the studio saw the potential, and told me to write it. Virus was made on the cusp of the age of digital filmmaking. It was a story about bringing to life machines infected with a digital “Virus”, machines that could replicate themselves and use human tissues. It called for some really complicated effects. The studio spent millions building the machines used in the movie. The digital image technology just wasn’t there yet. And there were some huge hurdles for the filmmakers to get over. To be honest, I didn’t care very much for the movie. I was rewritten and I didn’t think that the real human drama of the “events” came through.
KH: Writing comics and also video games; was it a case of something you always wanted to do, or is it an opportunity seized upon?
CP: I was approached by Tusmani Media just after we made Virus to make interactive movies. They had a new technology that allowed them to vary story paths in video and they asked if I’d be willing to write them a script. We did Flash Traffic and then Silent Steel. Again, this was on the cusp of the digital age—we did some heavy-lifting. It was really interesting for me to write scripts with multiple outcomes. They weren’t shooter games—they were interactive thrillers. We were doing things then that no one had ever done. Now with GTA and products like it, “interactive” stories happen every day. It was really great to help take that from theory to reality. There are still things yet to be done with the technology.
KH: You got Val Kilmer to the surface of the Red Planet which was shot in my neck of the woods, Australia?
CP: It sure was. We were originally going to shoot it in Namibia. I was going to direct it, but the studio went in another direction, and I was thrown a bone as Executive Producer. The original script was called “Alone”, and like “The Martian”, it was about one guy, alone on the surface of Mars. It was the studio that added three other guys. I guess the original screenplay was the way to go. Fifteen years later someone shot something very like the original script and it was extremely successful. One of the big frustrations about being a screenwriter is that your work passes through other “creators”. When they improve the work, it’s great; when they drive it off a cliff, the easiest thing to do is blame the original writer!
KH: Like Bill Goldman, do you have any interesting tales that have not surfaced from the Screen Trade?
CP: Bill Goldman said it all. Almost everything he said in the book happens everyday to screenwriters in Hollywood. Sometimes working in the process is great; sometimes it is a complete stick in the eye. Part of it is the way the Guilds are set up. If a director is hired for a film, that’s it—he is the director. When a writer comes up with an original screenplay and the studio buys it, the studio is free to hire a dozen other writers to “improve” the screenplay. It is interesting what is happening now in TV. Writer/creators have the power to maintain their original idea—and that has been an epic move to correct the abuses that happen in feature film. When the studios hire a writer-creator to run a show, the vision gets to the screen. That has changed series TV but feature films are going to stay as frustrating as ever.
KH: I found you have done uncredited script work or punch-ups as it is sometimes referred on scripts like Arlington Road, Sudden Impact, Green Hornet. How does this work come to you and is it tiresome to do such work and yet remain uncredited?
CP: It’s just part of the job. Sometimes it’s a lot like being a session player on an album. You are hired as a technician a lot of times to come in and “punch up” the dialogue or get the plot sorted out. The problem with changing anything in a screenplay is that it soon becomes very, very complex. A small change in act one reverberates though the entire movie. The crediting process through the writer’s guild is also complex. For the most part, I think it is pretty fair. I know the process is as honest as it can be. In most cases, when I do a rewrite, I don’t ask for credit. Arlington Road and Green Hornet are examples of work I did without credit. With Second Nature I didn’t even know they were shooting the script–and a lot of what I did went into it.
KH: You’ve not had a film out since Red Planet; are you still developing scripts and what is the status of your latest film Crash Site?
CP: I have a few things in development– the effort goes on. As far as Crash Site is concerned, it is no longer being developed by ALCON. It is in turn around, in the hands of another producer. But I am working mostly now as a novelist. I have a historical novel, Philip Nolan: The Man without a Country, that just came out from the Naval Institute Press, and I am working right now on a thriller. It has been amazing to me how differently writers are treated in publishing and in screenwriting. In publishing, the writer is the creator, and in screenwriting the writer is an expendable commodity. The important thing—always—is to create believable characters and put them into interesting plots. That’s the joy of the process for me. That, and entertaining the people who see my movies or read my books.
Again I offer my thanks to Chuck, for not only his generosity, but for taking the time out of busy schedule for this interview. He is a gentleman and a scholar, as well as being a truly unique and interesting character whose life and career are to be marvelled at.
All the films he has written are widely available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Below I have placed links to his books so that you may see for yourselves that he not simply a screenwriter or a novelist – but a great writer in general…