To talk about W.D. (Rick) Richter, is to talk about one of my all-time favorite films, Big Trouble in Little China. It is, to put it simply, one of those films that comes along (not so much anymore) once in a generation. As we know in this age of remakes, reboots and re-imaginations, there is a very good chance that this film, because of its staying power and built-in fan base, will more than likely resurface with Dwayne Johnson playing Jack Burton. Just like Hansel in Zoolander he is, as far as the Studios are concerned, so hot right now!
And you can be your bottom dollar that it will try like hell to recapture the magic of what was – and more than likely – crash ‘n’ burn in its attempt to do so. I might be wrong. Because, BTILC, was and is what is often referred to as a “happy accident”. What began as a seemingly awkward combination of a western with a plot that involved Chinese black magic became, thanks to my guest, a glorious blending of genres that there is really no recipe for.
I rarely get nervous doing interviews, but I was glad to be sitting down for this one. When the person on the other end of the line had a hand in creating a couple of the seminal film of one’s existence . . . it is tough to play it cool, plus for the first time in a long time, I found the need to have my questions written, rather than merely see what the conversation would provoke. Primarily because I knew I was only going to have a limited time, and secondly because during our email exchanges prior to the chat, I found Rick to be extremely matter-of-fact and, wishing not to have the interview published in audio form, he merely wanted to be concise and not ramble on as, he says, has happened in the past.
So I sat and pondered questions. Having read other interviews with him in the past, before he’d stepped away from the business, the focus was on the films he had released at the time and didn’t really get below the surface. Off the record, we spoke about a few of the things that were beneath the polished exterior of the press kits, but that was not all that interested me. There have been many books and articles on his films, as well as many having excellent special features and commentary tracks which mine their depths – so I wasn’t going to waste time there.
In the end I waited till the last minute and scribbled down the first questions that popped into my head. Some of course are elementary, but one or two I’ve had on my mind for a while.
Well, it took a long time, but sometimes, good things do. It was well worth the wait and the frustrating silences in between messages from Rick’s friend who very graciously made the introductions, and I, as a fan first, was humbled, honored and thrilled at the prospect of speaking to yet another film-making idol of mine.
While Rick, early in our email exchanges said, “I prefer to let he films, for better or worse, speak for themselves.” I am and will be forever grateful he took the time to talk a little about his work. In the end I wasn’t nervous or scared at all . . . I felt kind of invincible.
KH: Did you always want to work in movies and if so what were the films which influenced you?
WDR: First I wanted a paper route. Then I wanted to run a circus. Then I thought about pursuing a career as an English teacher. Then I thought, “Why not aspire to become an actual tenured English professor?” But, by the time I got to college, graduate film programs were springing up here and there. Having loved movies since childhood, but never imagining there was a route available into the business, I suddenly saw a way to pursue a career in film in a structured, sensible way.
I went to a lot of movies of all kinds as a kid, but mostly B horror films from the mid-fifties through the mid-sixties. In 1964, I saw DR. STRANGELOVE and in 1965 THE LOVED ONE. They suggested a new direction and deeply influenced me.
KH: How did you break in to the business?
WDR: I wrote screenplays at USC, and one of them secured me an agent. I then worked as a reader for Warners and wrote on the side and continued to do so when Warners and Irvin Kershner let me work as his assistant while he was prepping DIRTY HARRY for Sinatra. That project fell apart, but a spec script I’d written, SLITHER, got to the director Howard Zeiff, and he set it up, odd as it was, and we shot it. Presto! I was a produced screenwriter.
KH: Your early career was full of greats like Dracula, Body Snatchers and your Oscar nod for Brubaker. How much does momentum play a factor in one’s career (films coming out and performing well) as well as recognition for one’s talent?
WDR: Actually, none of those films did perform well, but they were respected, and, as a result, I was respected as a young writer with perceived potential. You must remember that during the seventies and eighties eccentric characters in unusual, small stories were nothing Hollywood ran screaming from. That came later.
WDR: I’ve never given much thought to being “remembered”. After all, sooner or later, this whole planet is going to be forgotten.
KH: If people want the skinny on Banzai, you have already provided an excellent commentary. What I would ask is, did you ever see Kevin Smith’s Q & A whose guests were Weller and Lithgow, and how did you feel about possible versions of the continuing story of Banzai?
WDR: I thought Kevin did a spectacular job that evening, and it was nice to learn how much the movie shaped him. As long as Mac Rauch is involved, I feel quite confident that a “new” BUCKAROO could be as startling as the original.
KH: BTILC was ahead of its time, in my opinion. What I’ve always wanted to know is, what the “western version” was like prior to your work on the script, and how much of the finished film remains your work?
WDR: The “western version” just didn’t work for anybody, sad to say. It all seemed too distant…the Old West and the Asian occult, etc. So I proposed moving it to a modern, familiar setting and swapping the hero’s horse for a big rig. The pitch went over well, and, with a writers’ strike looming, I dug into the challenge of creating a contemporary script in about seven weeks, choosing to do that with a somewhat dim but hopefully lovable hero at the center. The finished film stayed absolutely true to my screenplay, apart from the inevitable ad libs here and there. Jack Burton’s John-Wayne cadences, though, are definitely nothing I wrote or endorsed. John and Kurt settled on that themselves.
You asked me prior to this conversation: “Did you write the line or was it improvised: I feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of… feel kind of invincible?”
Turns out I did write it. I wrote the whole script furiously in longhand in several spiral notebooks, and a typist transcribed them into script format.
KH: There was a significant gap between Home for the Holidays and Stealth. I have interviewed many writers who talk of these periods. They say, it’s not that I wasn’t writing, it’s just my scripts weren’t getting made. Was that true of your career at the time?
WDR: Definitely. I had movies actually green-lighted then cancelled when directors went over budget in pre-production.
KH: I understand Stealth was a troubled production.
WDR: STEALTH was just a bizarre and massively unpleasant experience. Directors and location scouts shouldn’t rewrite writers, if you want my opinion. Kind of like Presidents shouldn’t tweet.
KH: Did your involvement end after the writing?
WDR: The “writing” never really stopped. I was removed from the picture several times when my revisions failed to please the director. But I was repeatedly brought back by the studio to pull the script back from the brink after the director (who shall remain nameless) had worked it over again in his spare time. It’s the only film I’ve had made that, with great care, I kept my distance from during production and through release.
KH: I also love Needful Things. What was it like to adapt King?
WDR: Crazy. The book is 690-pages of single-spaced prose. My script was 124 pages, and you know how much “air” there is on a script page. I figured that if one were to retype the novel in a crude screenplay format, it might easily hit 1000 pages. So I lost roughly 876 pages while trying to keep King’s story and mood intact. I have no sense of how that worked out because I’ve never reread the book, but I always imagined a looser, grittier, less-arch movie.
KH: Any advice you would give to a struggling screenwriter – not unlike myself?
WDR: Write. Write. Write. But always try to imagine the movie itself playing to paying strangers. Why would they — or you! — want to watch it?
KH: Sir it has been a profound honor to converse with you. I cherish the moment and humbly thank you.
WDR: Thank you, Kent. Take care.