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February 2006
16 Blocks: An Interview with Director Richard Donner and Screenwriter Richard Wenk

16 Blocks: An Interview with Director Richard Donner and Screenwriter Richard Wenk

By Wilson Morales

When you think of Richard Donner, you can go back to the days of television shows, with classics such as The Fugitive, Gilligan's Island, and Kojak, and The Six Million Dollar Man, and even film favorites such The Omen, The Superman films with Christopher Reeves, and then of course all 4 Lethal Weapon films with Mel Gibson. The guy has left his mark in Hollywood, but he hasn't made a film since he helmed "Timeline" in 2003. That's okay. We wouldn't want him to start directing any film to stay in the game. Well, he's back with a new film centering on a beat down cop (Bruce Willis) and a witness (Mos Def) who's wanted by corrupt cops on the force. In speaking to blackfilm.com about his latest film, 16 Blocks, Richard Donner along with screenwriter Ricard Wenk spoke about using parts of New York City for filming and working with Willis and Mos Def.

Can you talk about finding the locations and closing off those areas of Chinatown?

Wenk: We didn't close them off.

Donner: Everything flowed. We just would announce... you know New Yorkers? Somebody lies dead in the street. You have to make an announcement that I'm shooting. Could you please not look at the camera, and don't be on the street if you don't want to be in it, and people kept going. We had 150 extras or something and we'd fill in the foregrounds. New York... it was really no problem whatsoever. And you know we shot 14 blocks in Toronto and 2 blocks in New York, 10 weeks there and 2 weeks there. A lot of that is Toronto, but we had a really good production designer, and it's hard to find the cut where it happens.

What about the names of the characters, Bunker and Mosely are also writers...

Donner: Yes. No, I was always a big fan of Edward Bunker's stuff and I struggled a long time to find the right name. It just sounded right.

The story seems to be inspired by the The Gauntlet. Was that an influence?

Donner: Get out of here! (laughs)

Wenk: Not really. The idea was... a lot of times as a writer, you come up with great characters and the you don't know where to go and you have a good premise, and sometimes they fit perfectly, and the idea of pairing a broken guy who had everything and quit with a kid who had nothing and never quit, together in a short period of time was exciting to me. And how that kid could change somebody who was on his last legs.

What about the dirty cop element, not a great portrayal of cops. Did you have any pause about that?

Donner: They're not bad guys. I'm friendly with a lot of cops because of all the cop things I've done over the years. They're the most frustrated group of human beings if they're in the echelons of being a detective, that'll ever happen, because in LA. They'll get a murder case, and they're on it for two days and then they're taken off to go on another murder case, and then they're on another murder case. It's their personal mission to solve those cases, and it becomes almost impossible. Are these bad cops? In reality, yes, in their minds, no. They'll do anything to put the bad guys away, and we say it. They cross the line, and David Morse's character says it to Bruce in the end, in the last scene, "If I'd put the gun in the old man's mouth and he hadn't died, and we'd have solved this thing, you would have patted me on the back and said good job." I assume it happens every day. Are they bad cops? Do they take crap? Do they kill people indiscriminately? No, they're bad cops because they crossed the line to do the right thing. It's wrong, but nonetheless, they're not these guys who you pick up the paper and read about the worst kind of corruption.

Can you talk about the two different endings for the movie and did you test them to see which one would work?

Donner: They were two endings and I completed them and tested them

Wenk: On the same night.

Donner: Two theatres right next to each other, and they tested great next to each other. They're almost exactly the same, and the decision in a strange way came from the finest producer I've ever worked for, Lauren Schuler-Donner, my wife. She said, "Look this is a guy who has suffered the last part of his life in the worst way. He's got an opportunity now to go through a change. He's tried everything. You care for him. You see him pulling and fighting for it. Give him a chance. Give the world a chance to see that there is an upside that you can change." And I love happy endings.

We assume there wasn't a happy ending in the other one.

Donner: No, he dies.

Wenk: He dies, but he won. The guys went down, the tape recorder played, he just didn't live.

Donner: It just goes up to the right second of the film that you see anyway.

Wenk: And his sister gets the cake.

Who's idea was it for Mos Def to speak that way? (Nora Ehron's opinion of the film?)

Donner: Well, to go to the second part first. Nora and Nick are really close friends. I love them. Lauren did "You've Got Mail" with Nora, and I love Nick. I think he's one of the crazy guys that's ever lived. And they said, "Oh, we love it," I said, "You'd say that if you hate it" and she said, "You're right, but we loved it." I was thrilled because they're my biggest critics and dear friends. How did that thing come? Mos. Tell them about him being a savant.

Wenk: Our first choice was Mos and he was unavailable. He was doing another picture, so we started to read a lot of other actors. We were close on some really good actors but something was missing.

Donner: We could have made a decision and it would have worked.

Wenk: it would have worked. We kept using the words that there's something savant-like about Eddie. As someone who has such a belief in himself in spite of his life, has to have some sort of savant-like quality of belief. When Mos suddenly became available, because his picture dropped out, we sent him a letter, that we wrote, along with some notes and the script, and used the word that Eddie is somewhat savant-like. And that was something that stuck with Mos and inspired him to come up with that sort of approach to his voice.

What about Mos as an improviser?

Donner: I hate to talk in front of him because we're doing another script again and it's going to cost more money. It was so well written and the characters are so well-defined, and their speech wasn't speech; it was inertia. It just came out of the moment, and it worked. But at the same time, I'm notorious, and writers hate me most of the time, because if you have it and it's there, and an actor has something, then let him try something, and if they can improvise something and it works, let him go. Find out. And some of the things worked. There's the scene where Eddie puts the gun against David...

Wenk: That's a perfect example. The scene was written like he puts the gun on him and says "You can get lucky all day" and then the scene was over. But not to Mos. Mos felt, growing up in Brooklyn and being oppressed by police most of his young life, that if that character had a gun on a cop than it wouldn't just stop with that one moment and he took it further.

Donner: But he took it past Eddie Bunker, and it became Mos Def.

Wenk: It was a much longer scene than it was in the movie. It was a very intense scene that just came out of him. We fought with him a lot, but again, it was how true he was to the character. It was a line in the script where Bruce called him a rat, and...

Donner: Improvised...

Wenk: And the script said "You're a rat and you'll always be a rat." He goes "No, I could be a mole." He looks like a rat, but you get up close and it looks like a rat, but it's not, and Mos said "If anyone calls me a rat, I will kick their ass". And that was really.. if anyone on the street called you a rat , there's just no joking about it.

Donner: It's ratting on somebody.

Wenk: And that was just it. Again, he said "I can't say those words."

Donner: And they went into a three-minute dissertation, improv, from rat to...

Wenk: "You're a pig" (talking over each other)

Donner: And on and on, and I woah woah woah

Wenk: But you have to accept those things, because it is as much as I do a lot of research, I didn't grow up in Brooklyn and I didn't grow up in that neighborhood and I'm not African American, so that is something you have to embrace when you ...

Are you involved in the update of the new Omen?

Donner: No, they didn't even call me.

And how do you even feel about it?

Donner: Well, you know they're doing it on everything now. It's too bad because there are so many great original pieces of material around they're afraid to take a hand on. I wish they'd have called me just to ask if I had any thoughts, but I never got a call.

Kind of makes you think what's the point?

Donner: It is what's the point. I guess. Well, I don't know. I guess just because there's a whole multiple generations of filmgoers that never even saw the Omen, so it's a good revitalized commercial piece.

With this film, you've shot it much more claustrophic, in sequence... did you feel that you did things differently than your previous films?

Donner: This was a claustrophobic film. It was very, and it was basically a two-people picture. It wasn't a visual tour of New York, and I felt that if you're really involved with somebody in conversation, that's all you see, is his face and he sees yours, and it keeps the thoughts tight, and we opened it up once in awhile, when it wasn't only hard class subjective scene between two people. We tried to keep that gritty look. The cameraman was wonderful. Glenn McPherson... great great cameraman.

Is a remake of The Gauntlet?

Donner: I read it. Richard created it, we talked about it, and I never even thought about that. I'll tell you a funny story...

Cause they're both Warner Brothers.

Donner: I know and Clint's a dear friend. I was in Hawaii with him, and he asked what I was doing next, and I told him I was doing this picture, and he asked what it was about and I told him.. he says "A bus? That sounds familiar!" and I said, "What do you mean?" and he said, "Did you see The Gauntlet?" Every picture has a bus that's not The Gauntlet.

What does Bruce Willis bring to the picture?

Wenk: I think because he wasn't the guy.

Donner: That's it. Bruce has done some really unusual films. Totally offbeat films. 12 Monkeys! Fifth Element! You know he's really a good actor, and he always plays relatively macho and within his age parameters, and we just thought here's a guy that maybe will take a chance. He's a good actor, we know he takes chances on other roles. Will he take a chance and put himself in a category that a lot of young actors on that middle road don't want to put themselves in, because there's no going back. In this case, he can go back anytime he wants.

Were you surprised at all that he agreed to take that chance?

Donner: No, not really. We felt that the minute he reads it, being an actor and being such a good role. You know, he aged himself physically with the moustache and with Richard's hairdo (laughter). He saw Rich's hairdo. Richard met him, he took picture and said "that's going to be my wig!" [joke about the gimpy leg coming from Donner]

What about the paunch?

Donner: He promised he'd put a paunch on, but he forgot, so we built one. The interesting thing, with all of that, if you really want to study him and see how dissipated, alcoholic and what internal problems this man is living with, look in his eyes in this movie. It's extraordinary. It's almost like waking up and getting soap in your eyes in the shower, and you look at yourself. He had these dissipated eyes which went far beyond that physicality because it came from inside. He's a solid. I don't want to say he surprised me, but he's really a solid actor. He made that work.

Can you talk about this other project you're working on together?

Donner: Well, we're doing a project together, Richard and I. He's going to direct it and I'm going to produce it. It's called...

Wenk: "Walking Roxy".. it's a remake of "The Gauntlet" (laughter) from a female point of view (more laughter) It's basically... Dick brought me this true life story of this zoo in Anchorage, Alaska that housed two elephants and they're stuck in a pen and one of them has died already, and the other one is dying. In fact, Dick offered to buy the elephant and transport it to a wildlife refuge, but it's privately owned so they refused, it's just ego and things, and the poor thing is dying.

Donner: It's going to have a much greater sense of reality than Willy did, cause Willy was in a period and it's almost for adults. It will start in Alaska and end up in ..there's a true sanctuary in Northern California, a couple thousand acres, where they bring the circus elephants, and the ones that have their own life to retire.

Will you shoot in Alaska?

Donner: Oh, yeah... we may do it in Canada if we have the same conditions where we can find a city that has a zoo, but we'll traverse that country supposedly.

Can you talk about the look of the film?

Donner: I wanted to have it as close as I could a black and white film and for a reason... and so we desaturated the color, and we took a lot of the reds out and put the blue in. It gives you what we call a cold look, but it's actually, you can feel the heat, the humidity of New York (another interruption) You just wanted that old fashioned New York, gray, cold unfriendly feeling, total isolation. Do you have a favorite movie?

Donner: I think that's it. Well, I love Inside Moves tremendously, but I also love Radio Flyer and I think my favorite is probably Ladyhawke, because my wife hired me and I married her. I fell in love with the producer. They're all.. We're the luckiest guys. What a trip this has been.



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