Film at its best is like poetry. Bursts of sound and vision compressed into moments of longing; moments severed by light and air. Guy Gallo is a poet who writes screenplays. In his original work, characters ache to speak, to leap across an invisible chasm: light and air become time, history, language…
His screenplays which have been produced include adaptations of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, directed by John Huston, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for PBS. Others, still pending, Tim O’Brien’s Going after Cacciato, Robert Stone’s Flag for Sunrise, and James Carroll’s Prince of Peace; are not dissimilar. In all of them, the characters are caught between historical circumstances where love succumbs to obliteration—and their own oxymoron, to obliterate and succumb to love.
Gallo’s latest, Shooting Grizzly, is based upon the life of a Vietnam veteran. Shepard, in the fiction, struggles within America’s heartland—the mountain, the bear, the woman, the blizzard—and heals. This is the inversion of his first screenplay, Under the Volcano, in which the Consul, in a sweltering Cuernavaca on The Day of the Dead—struggles within the land of the heart; and is killed.
Betsy Sussler How’d you come to write the screenplay for John Huston’s Under the Volcano?
Guy Gallo My first draft was written in 1979, three years before I met John Huston, while I was still at graduate school. A college friend of mine thought he could get some money from Mexico, and asked me to write it—for no money. It was December and he said, “I’m going to Mexico January 1st, can you do a treatment?” Being hungry and ambitious and not going home for Christmas anyway, I spent the next week doing the screenplay instead of the treatment. He went to Mexico and basically lost interest. Nothing happened.
Three years later, fast forward, 1982, I got a phone call on a Sunday morning, about a week before I was to graduate from Yale Drama School, from Annette lnsdorf, “Michael Fitzgerald is looking for a bright young screenwriter to do a film with John Huston.” Ten minutes later, Michael Fitzgerald called—the film’s to be from a novel about tuberculosis in 1947 called The Rack. (Dreadful, dreadful piece of work that John Huston wanted to make with Nastassia Kinsky). “I was being considered and what could I send him?” So I told him. He said, “Don’t send me Under the Volcano. I do not want to see it. I want to see your original work.” I said, “Fine.”
A couple of weeks went by and Michael calls and says, “I mentioned to John Huston that you had done a version of Under the Volcano and he’d like to see it.” John was in town. So I furiously rewrote the script over the weekend. Not too long went by and John called and said, “I really like what you did with the characters.”
BS What was it?
GG In the novel, it’s four people; it’s a rectangle. Yvonne betrays the Consul twice: she sleeps with his half-brother, Hugh, and with his childhood friend, Laruelle. A rectangle is unwieldy as a dramatic structure. I made it into a triangle. Originally, I collapsed the half-brother into Laruelle… Ultimately, we shifted the emphasis back to the brother.
BS Right, the guilt has to get transformed.
GG It’s even stickier if it’s your half-brother. There’s something missing in what ultimately got made about Hugh’s relationship to Yvonne. In the novel, Hugh would make the same mistake again, in an instant. He’s very happy that she has come back to the Consul, and yet he still wants to seduce her and run away with her to America. And that edge of being ready to take Yvonne over—and Yvonne almost being willing to do it…
BS Hugh is moving towards life, and hope. The Consul’s romanticism gets drowned in despair. In several of your scripts, especially in Prince of Peace, despair is associated with sin: because it precludes hope and therefore, action.
GG We have a problem here. I surely can be credited with the fact that I am drawn to these stories. And that I choose to keep that line as opposed to another, but the line about despair is James Carroll’s. So it’s hard for me to talk about it as if it were mine.
BS Humility aside. That idea is in almost all of your screenplays.
GG But my point is really central—you’re talking to not only a screenwriter, but a screenwriter who’s done adaptations.
BS I’m talking to a Southerner.
GG Talking to a Southerner! What’s that got to do with anything?
BS Southerners have a very deep sense of honor: it’s very dear to them.
GG Yes. That aside…
BS It’s as if you take a book, turn it upside down, and shake it: choose the pieces of the puzzle you like, make some more up, and put them back together. You collapse imagery, dialogue, characters. Ends are in the beginning… It’s a whole new puzzle. It’s a film. It’s definitely film, rather than prose, structure.
GG Isn’t the substantive question here, if they are films, why haven’t they been made?
BS No. Justin, in A Flag for Sunrise, says to Frank Holliwell, “You betrayed me. Imagine. Not knowing.” And in Prince of Peace, Frank Durkin betrays his best friend. Two different scripts, two very similar characters. They’re both sloppy liberals; they both teach at NYU; and they both betray the people they love most, or decide to love, their dopplegangers.
GG And so does Hugh with the Consul. I used to describe Under the Volcano as a tragedy of failed intentions. All three characters have what I call left-handed emotions, like a left-handed compliment.
BS A slap and a kiss.
GG I love you but I can’t stand your guts. And I’ll betray you in a second. And both emotions are firmly held and believed. In Under the Volcano, their absolute intention is to rise above history, to overcome what they’ve already done and make up for it. We’re going to get together on the Day of the Dead, 1939 to fix it all… The point of the book is that you cannot escape history. You cannot escape responsibility for what you’ve already done. You have to confront it. Similarly, Frank Holliwell and Frank Durkin have left-handed emotions. They are completely committed to their love of the other person, but they are simply human. They simply cannot rise above these forces that they cannot control. Many of these characters are struggling to define for themselves a way of being in the world, a consistent relation to their surroundings, their religion, their love. And their drama resides in the continual difficulty of achieving a consistent and generous commitment to a set of values—be it Southern honor, or Liberalism, or Catholicism, or the CIA. Heath, the CIA character, is perfectly consistent. He’s doing what needs to be done, according to his beliefs. Whereas Holliwell has the left-handed approach to his own morality.
BS In your ending of A Flag for Sunrise the priest, Godoy, steps out from behind a stone ruin of Mayan God #7 and blows Campos, a man we’ve seen commit atrocities, to kingdom come. Is #7 the Mayan Sacrificial God?
BS So your priest becomes…
GG The angel of retribution. In my mind, for Godoy, that was simply the final statement. He has taken liberation theology to the Nth degree.
BS Your original screenplay Shooting Grizzly is based on Doug Peacock, a Vietnam vet, who has lived out in the wilds of Montana. Did you go out to Montana?
GG No, never did. Unbelievably enough.
BS Did you travel up and down the Mississippi before adapting Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn?
GG No. I grew up on the Mississippi—in New Orleans.
BS All your young life?
GG All my young life, I grew up in New Orleans. I left in 1973 to go to Harvard. And have stayed up North ever since.
BS Had you ever been up North before?
GG Nope. Furthest north I’d been was on a fishing trip to Minnesota when I was a kid but that’s not New England, that’s north. That’s something else.
BS Was it shocking?
GG It was shocking. New Orleans is a Catholic city and up here, all of a sudden, I was a minority. Despite the evidence in the screenplays that I’ve chosen, I do not consider myself a Catholic. Which is hard for a lot of people to believe, but I am a very, very lapsed Catholic. A lapsed Catholic in most parlance these days has real caché to it because many great philosophical thinkers of the 20th century seem to be lapsed Catholics.
BS Did you study with Robert Lowell?
GG I never officially took a course with Robert Lowell. I sat in on some. He was very close friends with William Alfred who was my tutor. Lovely man. Playwright. He wrote Hogan’s Goat, in iambic pentameter. He had a saying that really stuck with me. I asked him why he had written it in verse. And he said, “To make it as actor-proof as possible.” And that’s what I try to do with my screenplays. Write them in iambic pentameter, but nobody notices.
BS Actually, I thought you had studied with a poet because there is a very clear rhythm to your lines. It’s odd that you think you don’t write for actors because your lines are very easy to memorize.
GG That’s nice to hear.
BS How many script offers do you turn down?
GG These days? Not many. I was the flavor of the month for about a year and now I’m Baskin Robbins number 56 instead of 55. The accusation that’s leveled at my work non-stop by the studios is that it lacks passion.
GG Good. The tape is running. And I for the life of me—I have been trying to figure it out. Because I think there’s some truth in it; I just don’t know where it resides.
BS Hollywood equates passion with sex. Your characters have passion, but they manifest it through a search for a spiritual commitment in which one can believe. And making that commitment is what will enable them to love a man or a woman.
BS The question is, how does that dilemma manifest itself in the passion between a man and a woman? And in your scripts, ironically enough, it is through love and betrayal. Of course, most people are terrified of love.
GG I want to say something about why this idea of spiritual and carnal passion finds its way into my screenplays in the form of betrayal. I think that comes very much from a conviction I have that has yet to be disproved. That if you are in fact willing to risk love, you can’t help but destroy. You can’t get involved with someone, you cannot touch someone without hurting them.
BS You believe that?
GG Yeah. It’s not possible. There’s no way that two people with disparate desires and ambitions and views of what makes for happiness can combine and not have parts of those two views collide—in catastrophic ways. We are continually taught about accommodation and compromise. How love is work. Fine. But that all makes it sound like when it’s all done, it’s fixed. And it’s not. It’s continually going to hurt. It’s continually going to pain you.
BS Do you think that’s a particularly Catholic point of view?
GG I am not a Catholic theologian. The biggest influence in Catholicism on me was the poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. And interestingly enough, it’s primarily through his view of what is beautiful. The center of his aesthetics—and his theology—is a term he coined, “inscape,” the inscape of a tree or the inscape of a poem. Hopkins never really defined inscape in his journals or his letters but in a college essay on Parmenides, he said, “The inscape will be the proportion of the two.” And the two is an ellipsis for being and nothingness; for being and becoming. In another essay, called, “On the Origins of Beauty,” he constructs a Platonic dialogue around a maple leaf. A maple leaf has seven parts and each part looks like the whole. So there’s this regularity and irregularity. If you take the terms regularity and irregularity, or pattern and broken pattern, and transpose them with being and nothingness—inscape is the proportion in any object of regularity and irregularity. The way you apprehend beauty is to look at a whole, but when you look at the whole, you are seeing all these disparate relationships and the comprehension of that object and the appreciation of the beauty is actually an act of comparison. Which is why he can say. “All beauty is rhyme,” because those disparate elements are the rhymes. You take disparate elements and relate them, like metaphor, one to another and two to three others and five to 10 others: forming this matrix of relationships that is the pattern of that object, the inscape of that object. The only time Hopkins almost defines inscape is in a letter to Coventry Patmore. He said, “As design in painting, and melody in music, so what I am in the habit of calling inscape is, above all, what I aim at in poetry.” If you take a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem and you find a metrical aberration in line three, there will he an identical aberration in line 12. And what is thematically asked in line three will be thematically answered in line 12. It’s not about screenplays, but that’s what Hopkins is really about. And it’s a secret. The Jesuits are keeping him a secret, have been for the last hundred years.
BS When you put a script together, you work in visual metaphors, yes? You obviously do.
GG (laughter) Then why are you asking the question?
BS There is this recurring image, in the scripts—The Day of the Dead, Mayan Gods: spirits come out at sunset and haunt the land…
GG Where is that?
BS This particular one is from Prince of Peace. “Vietnam at sunset, the gates of the underworld open and the souls fly out, back to their home villages to eat the food left for them on their family altars.” That’s magic time, twilight. In Shooting Grizzly, lightning hits a tree in the middle of a lake: it bursts into flames and snow falls. You know that snow is a symbol for the spirit.
GG It wasn’t a conscious choice when I wrote that down.
BS Well, you can make unconscious choices and still…
GG No. I’m not going to take credit for that one, sorry.
BS You wrote it. Shepard says, “I feel like I’m 10,000 years old. I’m a tree and I’ve already died.” In Prince of Peace, Michael and Frank are on a mountain looking out over the land, and Michael says, “I give all this to you.” In the book, it’s a direct reference to Christ’s temptation. The Devil says, “If you fall down and worship me, I’ll give all this to you.” But you bring it back in your next screenplay, Shooting Grizzly. The two vets stand on a mountain top in Montana, and Gage says to Shepard, “All this I give to you. It’s a gift.” There’s something here about the land holding both good and evil. Let’s go back and find the question. What were we talking about? Trees?
GG You were talking about souls. Flying around.
BS Souls flying around, being held in the land. The land having a soul, in a way. This is something else, which is specifically yours: “It’s irrelevant where he was born. It’s where he thinks he was born which is a country none of us none of us have been to.
GG That’s about writers, about a writer’s sense of place. Some writers are definitely from a particular place. Others reside most comfortably in their language. I’m from New Orleans but I’m happiest living in English. That’s home.
BS Not in American?
GG No, English.
BS Do you think your work is operatic?
GG I’m not sure what you mean.
BS You do have larger than life characters? Did you say that “yes” into the recorder?
GG Yes. The characters I have dealt with are usually, in one form or another, larger than normal.
BS Okay, so maybe we should go back to Greek Classicism, that would be more specific.
GG One of the problems with modern drama is that it has become very representational, very familiar. For instance, soap operas work because people come to think of these characters as friends. In Classical drama, the hero was always larger than life, his problems were the problems of mankind, not of a man. A character on stage should not just represent a member of the audience. Ideally, a dramatic hero should be a sort of mediator, a witch doctor or a priest, standing between the audience and the gods.
The problem is: how do you write about a character who is trying to straddle that boundary and, at the same time, make Gone With the Wind?
BS Well, how do you?
GG I guess you make Gone With the Wind.
BS Why does Gage say to Shepard in Shooting Grizzly, “All this I give to you”?
GG It’s about a form of brotherhood that is beyond speaking; Gage is trying to cure Shepard and this is what he’s giving him. This will make you healthy. The whole trip will make you healthy. Watching me get eaten by a bear will make you healthy.
BS Gage is showing Shepard how to track. And quite deliberately walks into the embrace of a blond grizzly: he is mauled to death. Why?
GG I wanted this image of the bear as Moby Dick: the bear as giver and taker of life. Gage has given himself to the bear. The bear eats Gage. The bear becomes Gage. So for the rest of the script, that bear, not just all bears, but that bear is the one Shepard has to come to terms with.
BS What’s the Indian legend about the skin of the bear being holy?
GG In almost every Indian tribe, in almost every primitive culture, the bear was a holy animal. The bear was man. The bear walked upright, had a certain intelligence, took care of its children: and did this renewal every year by going into hibernation. The bear became an icon for many cultures of a truly deitific animal because it represented so many human qualities and so many cosmic qualities of renewal. For the American Indians, the bear’s skin is God’s skin.
BS Who gets the skin?
GG In some cultures, the skin could be used for shamanistic purposes. The priest could get the skin. But not just anybody.
BS In Shooting Grizzly, the skin…
GG... gets taken back to Gage’s grave site at the end. That’s the whole point. It’s God’s skin and Shepard is putting that part of him that is Ahab to rest. He’s putting together Moby Dick and Ahab. May they rest in peace. Ideally, I wanted the audience to feel that Shepard was now going to move on to a real life. He had cured himself. Dr. Grizzly had worked his magic. Which is the name of Doug Peacock’s book. Medicine Grizzly. Because in many of the Indian cultures, the bear was viewed as a medicinal animal, associated with witch doctors and cures.
BS What I loved about Shooting Grizzly was the repetition in your dialogue. There’s a dumbness to speech as if it were caught in the throat. A strange dichotomy—an urgent need to express and an inability to say anything more than, “Come here. You. Look.” But the characters say it over and over again, until finally you understand what they mean. Shepard tries to tell Laura he loves her. He goes back into the bar and says, “You. Here. Out.” And then they go eat corndogs at the Dairy Queen. And climb up a hill overlooking the drive-in and watch Barbarella, no sound… Do you like writers like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver? They have the same ability to take that inarticulate American language and make it articulate.
GG I was very influenced by Raymond Carver at a certain point in my life, several years ago, when What We Talk About When We Talk About Love first came out. Carver did a wonderful job of making idiomatic speech dramatic. All good poetry has a tension between idiom and artifice. What I try to do in all of the scripts—in Huck Finn, for instance, is to try and figure out what combination of artifice and idiom is going to make Nigger Jim sound like Nigger Jim, without using dialect. I did not use dialect. Actors don’t like it. It reads silly. It never sounds as beautiful as the language. So I kind of trashed a lot of Twain’s actual dialect and kept his syntax. It’s the syntax that makes for the music. The bending of the music is the bending of the syntax. That’s where the music resides.
BS You did Huckleberry Finn for PBS, what happened?
GG I had a little bit of a problem getting them to do it the way I wanted. It was really quite a shame. They didn’t want to change the ending because Mark Twain is very sacrosanct. And the ending needs to be changed.
BS What did you do?
GG Well, there’s this line from Hemingway that is always quoted, in almost every book on Twain, and every introduction to Huckleberry Finn, and it goes: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” What most people never are told—a sort of literary white lie on the part of Twain critics—is that Hemingway went on to say, in the next sentence; “If you read it, you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That’s the real end. The rest is just cheating.” Well, that sentence, the complete version, was my starting point in doing the script. After giving Jim this amazing dignity and telling what is essentially a love story between two men, slave and white trash, he doesn’t know what to do with them. Huck and Jim find their identity on the river. Every time they hit the land, they bump into a little satire of America and have to survive the episode. The whole tenor of the book is so much about defining freedom and sacrificing for freedom and trying to figure out what it is. In Twain, Miss Watson frees Jim. Deus Ex Machina: you’re not a runaway slave, you’ve been free all along. The quest for freedom has been happening for three hours. Then you get to the end and there’s nothing to get because you’re already free. So I wanted to cut Miss Watson’s freeing Jim. There’s a wonderful line in the book, “You’re free now, Jim. Free as any creature on earth.” And in my mind, that resonates when you think through history of what the black man’s quest for freedom has really entailed and what it has come to. Jim may be escaping, but he’s not free. I very much wanted this more ambiguous ending. Where Jim is not quite free—he’s almost to New Orleans and even if he gets there, how free is he? But not this sort of pablum that Twain resorted to. Basically he got scared. Every Twain scholar you talk to will say, yes, Twain didn’t know what to do with this thing he had created. It was 1884 and you couldn’t say those things. So he had to figure out something, and he made it all better and they published him. It’s true, you’re doing an adaptation of a classic, you have certain responsibilities. I tried to be very clear with all of the scholars I consulted about what those boundaries were. What I could change. But any time you do an adaptation of a novel, you’re going to change something. You can’t help it. The changes that they made anyway are no more extreme than the changes I wanted to make. They just weren’t in the direction that mine would have been. We had something of a fight and I said, “Fine. Do it yourself.” That’s the one time where I said I wasn’t going to do it.
BS Good. For you. What do you think about Pablo as an American character in Flag for Sunrise?
GG Do I think he is an American character? Yes. Definitely. I think the whole way Robert Stone introduces him—the Coast Guard rifles, the dogs, the beach—the hamburgers, the trailer park, the rat burgers, “Take a little meat trip. Time for a meat trip.” And the image of spreading the meat patties around his wife is really stellar. Pablo takes over the book and the screenplay in many ways. A lot of the really difficult theological or philosophical problems were put into Pablo. We can now go to Dee Dee and Pablo and see them act out, without any conscious existential crisis at all, the same problems Justin and Holliwell have.
BS Your note read: “This lovemaking has none of the gentility of passion which exists between Holliwell and Justin.”
GG That’s an understatement since he’s almost got a gun on her throat while he’s fucking her. But there’s something so brutally honest about that.
BS What did you think was particularly American—the allegiance to violence?
GG Don’t lead me.
BS I was just making a suggestion.
GG I’m not sure that I would phrase it “allegiance to violence.” Because that makes the choice of violence too conscious, as if he has an alternative, has other outlets, but he chooses violence. Americans have always solved problems with violence. We’ve never had a negotiated settlement: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War.
Let’s get at it this way. Pablo is half-Spanish, half-Mexican and resides in Texas. He’s not a member of any culture. That is a typical American situation: the vacuum, the cultural vacuum. He doesn’t have a sense of community or a sense of place: a sense of belonging that would give him an alternative to simple showy violence: to drinking and amphetamines and bravura, to shooting his dogs and shooting at airplanes. In his way, he is orphaned. Perhaps that’s what I’m looking for—there are classes of Americans who are cultural orphans.
BS He looks for God. He pops his pill and says, “Very far from you this morning, God.”
GG “You do this God? You operate and maintain mornings like this?” He actually says to God, you know, You really fucked up with me. Where do I—I don’t belong anywhere.
BS There is one thing we talked about, which was a land and its people as being sacrosanct. Which I’ve brought up a couple of times, but which you haven’t wanted to address.
GG We haven’t come up with a very good question.
BS I’m going to try to. How attached are you to the American novel?
GG How attached am I to the American novel? It’s like, how attached are you to your language? I write my language a lot, thank you very much.
BS There’s something that seems to sprout forth from the land which is in fact, language. Your character, Shepard, is able to get close to the bears by mimicking them, and talking to them, “Come on, big boy. Come on, big heart.” What is he after there?
GG He’s looking for something that’s bigger than him. That’s what the bear represents. That’s why he loves the bears, because when he’s with them, he’s not the top of the food chain anymore.
BS What do you think the land represents?
GG I think land is always an icon for something else. And that something has to do with community, and culture, and commitment—morality. A system of values that you succumb to.
BS Succumb to? You don’t build them?
GG No. They’re outside. They’re bigger than you.
BS For instance, in a place like Vietnam. Where that was destroyed. Where Gage and Shepard took part in that destruction…
GG That’s the tragedy of it. And that’s what these people keep seeing. They see a culture they can only respect from afar while they are destroying it.
BS In Going After Cacciato, a Vietnamese girl explains the ideogram for land, Xa. “Community, and soil, and home. And earth and sky and sacredness… at heart it means that a man’s spirit is in the land, where his ancestors rest and where the rice grows.”
GG I think in Western culture we translate it differently. The two images I’m trying to reconcile are the English Garden and the Hudson River School of painting—those huge, romantic panoramas. Each stands for an aspect of what we value as a people: on the one hand, the Garden is rationality, cleanliness. Cleanliness of thinking.
BS Purity of thought?
GG Right, and on the other, there is the savage power that you can only stand before in awe, cowed—Moby Dick. You have to say, “I am smaller than that. I am part of it and that’s my victory.” All these characters are trying to come to terms with their place both in the natural world and in society. My objection is with the idea that it’s the land. The land is only a representation of place…
BS It’s a metaphor.
GG Metaphor for what: for comfort in your own body and your own culture? Is that the same as the magnanimous gesture of Gage or Michael when they say, “All this I give to you.” In some sense they are both saying, I wish you had the purity and peace of mind that this gesture gives to you, hopes for you. I want all this to be yours in such a way that you are comfortable in it. I want you to be comfortable in the world. Again.
LETTER TO NEBRASKA
I wrote you a letter the other night
And sent it to a fictitious address
Somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska.
It is fitting that my feelings, in lushly
Rhetorical detail, should end in a town
I’ve never seen, in a state I’ll never visit,
Under the trained and watchful eye of postal worker
I once believed there was such an office,
Bartleby, mad as nails, opening so
many letters like mine: those to Santa,
Those to God, those to lovers, lost without
A word, like you. I imagined endless corridors
Lined with pigeon holes, clerks filing filled
With a stranger’s sympathy, the letters
They’d just read.
And one day, on the last day,
All desperately addressed men and women
Would come for their mail and read
For the first time, how they were loved,
How they were missed, why they were left
Without so much as a word from the bus window.