Historian: Interview with Brian Garfield

It’s official: Sylvester Stallone is remaking Death Wish. Well, not entirely official, but close enough that the IMDb has the title listed as due in 2009, although you have to be a member of the site “Pro” version to view the details. The rumor mill runs hot about Stallone’s version. Will the 60-plus actor play the lead? Will he set it in the corporate world? Will he stick to the original story or shake things up so much only the concept vigilantism itself will link his film to the original book (as a recent Rotten Tomatoes article suggests)?

Perhaps a more interesting question is what does Death Wish creator, Brian Garfield, think of the Rocky and Rambo star taking on his much beloved work? He recently told PopMatters, he’s into it.

“I’m curious to see what Stallone will do with it. I have no idea whether it’ll be successful at the box-office, but I have a feeling it’ll be a better film than the original was. The original Death Wish movie had enormous impact on people, but if you look at it as cinema, it’s woeful.”

Funny, that’s exactly what I thought when I viewed director James Wan’s update of the vengeance-vigilante story, Death Sentence, so loosely based on Garfield’s novel of the same name, a direct sequel to his Death Wish story, that it’s about a vigilante, but certainly not Paul Benjamin from the books. Wan’s update is grittier, with concerns far different than the original novel. While the novel queried socialized forms of violence and the system’s treatment of violent criminals, Wan’s film was a simple slash and burn revenge tale that tried (and, in my opinion, failed) to parallel family survival stories — the father with his suburban family fights to survive against the violent “street” family and vice versa.

My discontent with Wan’s take compelled me to contact Garfield. He of all people would understand my horror that his name was attached to this so very other version of the story. When I spoke to the author, I found he wasn’t as in my corner as I’d hoped. Instead, his belief in the core issues at hand with his story and just how those issues can be altered and shaped to suit modern society forced me to reconsider my initial reaction to Wan’s film.

Polite, unshakingly honest, and wonderfully introspective, Brian Garfield calmly addressed my Death Sentence ranting, before rightfully steering our conversation towards other topics, including fiction and non-fiction writing, Hollywood, research, and finally to his latest work, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, just out in paperback.

Death Sentence

“Every crime has its own causes. Every defendant I try has a marvelous excuse of some kind. But when the Nazis mobilize and arm themselves and invade your country, you don’t ask why — you defend yourself and leave the causes to the historians.”

— “Irene” in Death Sentence

I was horrified at the new Death Sentence film! I realize the film is not based on your book, but it was hard to judge the film on its own after reading the books, and following Paul’s story as closely as I have over the years. The new film was really just a retelling of the first story, heavily altered, removing much of Paul’s character, and the issues and debates between Paul and Irene the lawyer that make the second book so great. That bothered me. Or am I looking at the project in the wrong way?

I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way to look at it. The novel was written 30 years ago in a different sort of world. The first thing I did, when offered the screenwriting task a couple of years ago, was to point out that it needed to be updated. The second thing I pointed out was that contractually we could not create the film as a sequel to Death Wish. Somebody, somewhere, still controls those film rights, and neither the producers nor I was interested in testing those waters. (Four sequels to Death Wish were filmed in the 1980s and 1990s; all of them starred Charles Bronson, but they were made by four different companies, none of which exists today. Tracking their assets and obligations would be an exercise in frustration at best.)

How did you feel about this new version of the story, in the end?

As a story it made the point I wanted it to make. I like Ian Jeffers’ screenplay (he wrote the shooting script).

Does the finished film resemble your original screenplay drafts?

Only partly. My screenplays were about a nerd, a social misfit computer repairman. Traumatized by street violence (in my script it was the random murder by gangstas, as an initiation rite, of his brother who’d just survived a hitch in the war in Iraq — I think that was more ironic and fresh than what ended up in the film by way of motivation, although the random murder of his family member by gangstas as an initiation rite does remain). In my scripts there was a clear moral difference between him and the gangstas. He didn’t kill anybody. He hunted them and in several cases he shot them, but he’d shoot to destroy their kneecaps or hands. His rationale: “Any idiot can kill people — and you can’t teach someone a lesson by killing him.” He put them out of the mugging business but there was no need to kill them. I like to make movies in which nobody gets killed, or even injured (see Hopscotch.)

By the end of my Death Sentence scripts the hero has learned a great deal, partly in the way Paul learns it from Irene in the novel, and he withdraws from his vigilantism, having killed no one. That was okay for the original producers (Karen and Howard Baldwin, who’d produced several movies including the biography Ray about Ray Charles) but it didn’t survive the committees of 20th Century Fox executives. That was the companies’ decision, and it’s all right with me; writers don’t make movies unless they also direct and/or produce them, and Death Sentence is not “mine” in any but a distant sense.

I’ve produced or co-produced just two films, which I think of to some extent as mine — Hopscotch and The Stepfather. All the other movies belong to other people. They may be good movies or bad movies but they’re not really “my” movies. When you involve yourself actively in the production of a film you can achieve a degree of control, but that sort of involvement can take years (six years each, in the cases of those two films). I’m not really patient enough to put up with that, and I learned that the credit “associate producer” means you’re the only person who’s willing to associate with the producer. Film executives have a great talent for raising money and spending it, but generally speaking they’re not the sort of folks with whom you want to spend your time. I prefer writing books, because a book belongs to its writer. And nobody has the power to tell me how to fix it. But like most people I’m a moviegoer. Movies are our saveur du jour. As a writer I like participating in them, because it’s fun and you meet fascinating folks (most of whom are not movie stars), but I know I’ll have little or no control over what ends up on the screen.

How did you feel about James Wan, prominent in the horror world, directing it?

I thought Saw was quite effective, especially in view of the fact that it was made for about seven cents. Saw is not my sort of movie, but it was very well directed and conceived — Wan’s imagination seemed fresh. Given the limited budget allocated to Death Sentence I thought he did excellent jobs of setting up the situation and its milieu, and showing us the characters who were developed in Jeffers’ good script. But I do think Wan went way overboard in the graphic absurd violence of the latter part of the movie. It didn’t need any of that nonsense, and in retrospect I think we can see that none of it sold tickets. It’s the fashion of the day, but it’s not for me.

Is it a horror film, do you think? So much of the marketing makes it look like an exploitation film, but it doesn’t feel that way when you watch it, or at least it didn’t for me. What did you think of the approach taken to the film’s marketing?

I usually think of horror films as movies in which there’s a supernatural element. Under that definition Death Sentence is not a horror movie. I’d like to use the term “thriller” although that seems to have been redefined since the heydays of Graham Greene and John LeCarre — in publishing it still means a story of suspense, but in the movies a “thriller” is more likely a slasher or chainsaw film. I have no patience with those either. I know they attract certain (apparently large) audiences.

Anyhow, whatever you call it, Death Sentence is an awkward hybrid — it’s a crime-suspense movie, good idea, good execution (so to speak) in its first two-thirds; then it plunges overboard. Mainly the marketing that we saw was the TV and newspaper/magazine interviews with the participants (director and stars). There were quite a few of them in August and September. I gather there are interviews and commentary by director and stars on the DVD, which is now in release, but I haven’t looked at those “extras” yet. I saw the film about two days before it was released and the marketing “push” seemed pretty good to me. I was particularly impressed by James Wan’s unique method of filming that foot-chase set piece, the one that ended with the car going off the garage roof. He was marvelously ingenious in setting that up, and it reminded me of some of the bits of “Who says it can’t be done” creativity that our crew invented when we were filming Hopscotch 20-odd years ago. But that’s another story …

What did you think the direction taken by the Death Wish sequels? Death Sentence, the book, took such pains to delve into these issues of vengeance and modes of violence and crime eradication, yet the sequel to Death Wish really seemed to retread old territory. The book reveals so much about Paul, and is such a fascinating continuation of his story, an evolution of his motives. I found myself reading Death Sentence and kind of feeling annoyed that your theories weren’t explored more fully in the films. Was that on purpose?

I hated the four sequels. They were nothing more than vanity showcases for the very limited talents of Charles Bronson. The screenplay for the original Death Wish movie was quite good, I thought. It was written by Wendell Mayes — look him up; he was a great guy and a splendid screenwriter; but his Death Wish script was designed to be directed by Sidney Lumet, with Jack Lemmon to star as Paul. The last-minute changes in director and star were imposed by a new producer to whom the project was sold, rather under protest, by the original producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts. The point of the novel Death Wish is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy but it only makes things worse in reality. By the end of the novel, the character (Paul) is gunning down unarmed teenagers because he doesn’t like their looks. The story is about an ordinary guy who descends into madness. Oddly enough Mayes’ script honored that thought, and the only significant change in it during shooting was the wordless ending, but that ending changed the story entirely. (Bronson cocking his empty hand like a gun and grinning wickedly at young hoodlums in the Chicago airport.) By contrast I think that except for its ludicrous violence toward the end, the Death Sentence movie does depict its character’s decline and the stupidity of vengeful vigilantism — and Kevin Bacon unflinchingly gives us the character’s entire slide into atavism. I think his performance is excellent.

Andrew Kevin Walker said he wrote his Se7en screenplay as a response to what he saw living in New York City, that John Doe’s final speech about his victims (“how can you call them innocent?”) was in alignment somewhat with his feelings at the time. What inspired Paul’s story? As Paul’s creator, to what extent did you support his actions in both books? I felt that Irene the lawyer in Death Sentence was a great sparring partner for Paul, used to great effect to explore arguments about vengeance and vigilantism. I found myself on her side through much of the book — was that intended?

To answer the last part of the question first, yes. She was the voice of sanity and the conscience of the novel. To skip back to the earlier part of the question, I was the victim of a minor crime of violence; it all followed from there. I’d been at my publisher’s apartment — a penthouse overlooking the Hudson River (the area where Paul stalks muggers in the film). When I came out to get my car and drive home to the Delaware River, I found the top of my 10-year-old convertible slashed to ribbons. Must’ve been some vandal having his fun with a knife. For me the “rage” element was that it was snowing pretty hard and it was cold. I had a two or three hour drive home. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable ride. I got pretty mad, [and thought] “I’ll kill the son of a bitch”.

Of course by the time I got home and thawed out, I realized the vandal must have had a strong sharp knife (convertible-top canvas is a very tough fabric to cut) and in reality I didn’t want to be anywhere near him. But then came the thought: What if a person had that kind of experience and got mad and never came out of it? I thought at the time that the impetus needed to be something stronger, more personal, than the slashing of an impersonal canvas car-top, but later I’ve become aware that the very triviality of the crime would have made much clearer the point of the story. Anyhow that was its provocation. The hero, or anti-hero, set himself up to clean up the town. I felt a sort of sympathy for him, but right from the outset it seemed clear enough to me that he was a nut who kept becoming nuttier.

How have your feelings towards modern justice and corrections changed since you wrote Death Sentence?

The world has changed since then. I don’t think it’s any better — actually it’s far worse — but the specifics have changed. The “system” is so badly warped it’s nearly destroyed. Today the United States has more people in prison than does any other country in the world, and what do we have to show for that? Nothing, except for a huge prison bill. Vigilantism isn’t the answer, but I do think we might wipe reams of ridiculous laws off the books and get back to an examination of justice, rather than legalities. Shakespeare wasn’t entirely joking when he wrote, “First, kill all the lawyers.”

What did you think of The Brave One? Surely that owes much to Death Wish. And with both films out this year, notions of everyday men and women pushed to extreme ends in these circumstances still resonates — is it surprising at all to you that this theme continues to show up in mainstream films?

Haven’t seen The Brave One yet. It’s on order from Netflix. I’m told it’s similar to Death Wish in theme, but can’t judge it until I’ve seen it. Evidently it is a vigilante movie, which the movie Death Sentence is not — the latter is a revenge fantasy and I suspect those are as old as the human race.


The Meinertzhagen Mystery

Brian Garfield is, of course, more than just the man behind Death Wish. The author has written more than 25 books, including novels and short story collections, as well as works of historical research. His The Thousand Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1970. He is also responsible for the Gwen Verdon TV movie Legs, and Terry O’Quinn’s evil-eyed Stepfather, both films based on his original stories.

Garfield’s manifesto as a writer is very simple. He writes on his website: “Game’s object: to perch the reader on edge — to keep him flipping pages to find out what happens next.” As much as this is key to his suspense novels, it comes in handy in pieces like The Meinertzhagen Mystery, which is as tense and gripping as Garfield’s fiction. The book tells the story of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a “storied British hero of natural science, exploration, espionage, military intelligence, and front-line warfare.” It is said Meinertzhagen was the inspiration for James Bond, and that his friends included Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. The truth behind these bold stories is explored in Garfield’s book. It’s a compelling exploration of heroism and hoax, of how much we all love a good story, regardless, sometimes, of the factual underpinnings.

How did you first become interested in telling the story of the Meinertzhagen fraud?

Like Death Sentence it was a sort of penance. I’d co-written a novel, The Paladin, with an Englishman who claimed he’d been Churchill’s teenage hatchetman in the Second World War. I wrote the book not as an as-told-to memoir but simply as a yarn, written by me, based on but not entirely faithful to the stories he told me. The book became something of a bestseller and quite a few reviewers and readers and generals and political leaders seemed to think the adventures depicted in the novel were real. The publisher put something like “based on fact” on the jacket. That wasn’t my doing, but I suppose I could have forced them to change it, and I didn’t. So I must share the blame. As time went by I began to feel I’d collaborated in a sort of hoax.

Meanwhile I’d spent time in East Africa continuing research I’d started in the 1960s into the curious events of the First World War over there, and had encountered the claims of Richard Meinertzhagen, who’d been the chief British Army intelligence officer in that theatre. It seemed clear to me that this chap Meinertzhagen must have been either a German spy or a liar. Eventually, when it came clear that he was the latter, I was hooked — partly because the Meinertzhagen legends reminded me, in some way, of the behavior of my former co-author “Christopher Creighton”, but mainly because it seemed to provide a tangible example of how gullible we all can be.

The book is a great testament to how much we want to believe in heroics and fantastical stories. Do you think Meinertzhagen was conscious of that, or was he simply out for attention, or was a just a liar?

Your guess is as good as mine. Off and on, I worked on that story for more than 40 years. It’s still a mystery to me. That’s why I entitled the book The Meinertzhagen Mystery. As the book says, it’s easy enough to attach labels (particularly psychiatric ones) to his behavior, but it seems virtually impossible to explain how and why he did some of those things. What did he actually believe? I don’t know. He obviously understood reality, and therefore must have understood that he was lying. It’s quite possible he did not understand the ripple effect his alterations would have on our knowledge of history. He was trying to make himself look good. He was trying to justify his feelings of having been overlooked — his need to feel important. But other people don’t go to those extremes. Even though the book is nonfiction and wholly documented, I feel he’s the most unreal character I’ve ever depicted. That, of course, is what makes him endlessly intriguing.

What did you enjoy most about the research for Meinertzhagen? Can you explain the research process, how you collected and collated, when you knew you had fixed on how to tell this incredible story?

All of it was fun — otherwise I’d have quit long ago. The process of research was simply following one lead to the next. We met captivating people (especially members of the Meinertzhagen family, most of whom seemed as baffled as I was, and Africa expert Gerald Rilling, and previous Meinertzhagen biographer Mark Cocker, who with great generosity and warmth steered me in previously unexpected directions).

It was especially intriguing to go through the files of actual events in what was then called the Public Records Office (now the National Archives) and to compare them with Meinertzhagen’s typescript diaries at Oxford, which my wife and I studied at length and with sometimes hilarious reactions. After a while, in a way, researching the book was my method of learning about a great many aspects of 20th century history. As you can imagine, I have a fairly vast collection of materials that didn’t get into the book because there wasn’t room for them and because some of them wandered a bit away from the colonel’s life.

The materials were of all kinds. I accumulated a complete collection of Meinertzhagen’s books. In museums and libraries I photographed pages when allowed, and took notes when it wasn’t possible to make copies. We tape-recorded interviews. My assistant and I scanned everything into the computer to make it quickly accessible. That was the process. Actually I wrote three versions of the book. I’m not sure I ever did “fix on” how to tell it. The third version seemed to work, at least for me and my wife, so that’s the version we sent to the publishers. A previous version had set forth the Meinertzhagen myth first; the second half of the book corrected that. But it didn’t work because it was too far away and thus required me to repeat episodes. Gradually it became clear that Meinertzhagen’s life had been a procession of “corrections” to the actual incidents, and that he made up his hoaxes when they seemed useful, rather than in any special chronology. He not only wrote those hugely long “diaries”, he kept rewriting sections of them to suit the needs of the moment. In that sense his life doesn’t follow the usual chronological pattern, so I jumped around quite a bit in the book, but still it seemed less confusing (at least to me) than any other approach I could think of. This was an instinctual decision, like many we all make.

Do you approach fiction and non-fiction writing differently? Do you prefer one to the other? Can you talk a bit about you experiences, as a writer, in both arenas?

You have to approach them differently (and screenwriting is yet another separate kind of work, requiring yet another set of abilities and tools). If you’re writing fiction you let your spirit lead you around, the way a scent may attract a hunting animal — most predators don’t approach the prey in a straight line. They cast about, needing to know what the other factors may be in the environment they’re entering. The writer invents characters and they may not “take over” the story but the writer is, or at least I am, quite happy to follow them as I guide them — I envision a character as having a certain sort of personality, and I imagine how that personality would act in a given situation. The characters are not “real people” but their behavior and traits may be modeled on people we know.

We usually don’t think about that sort of thing consciously. Fiction comes largely off the top of the head — you simply establish a premise and start it moving and see where it takes you. In my case, with fiction, I always need to know where the story will end up — I don’t have a “scene” in mind but I know what will become of the major characters. Beyond that, however, I wing it. Outlines don’t work for me because once you outline a story, it’s already written in a sense, and you begin to get tired of it. I work more like an actor who doesn’t like to rehearse because he prefers to come to the scene fresh. That’s not a prescription for anybody else; it’s simply the way I prefer to work. With fiction, I don’t have to spend weeks or months looking up facts. Either I’ve been to a place and have it in memory (or in a notebook or a computer), or I simply skip over it.

Fiction, for me, goes rapidly. I wrote Hopscotch, the novel, in less than a month, and wrote the novel Death Wish in two weeks. (Several alleged friends asked, “What took so long?”) I’ve written a number of historical novels, which attempt to bridge the breach between fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve written those in various ways. Manifest Destiny hews very closely to the realities of young Theodore Roosevelt’s years in the wild West (nearly all his dialogue in the book is taken from his letters and other writings, or from the reports of people who were there to hear him say it), so it did require research.

I spent quite a while in North Dakota where TR had prowled. The Romanov Succession and The Paladin are set in World War II; the latter has several real people (Churchill et al) as major characters. I tried to be as faithful as possible to the realities of those people, and of the era and the war, but the story of The Romanov Succession is largely fiction, and if anyone wants to know whether the adventures in The Paladin contain any actual truth, it’s best to ask Christopher Creighton about that, rather than me. Still, I did my best to draw Churchill and other real historical people as they were. Wild Times is a novel based to some extent on the exploits of an exhibition sharpshooter called Doc Carver who invented the Wild West Show, but the story includes various events in which the real Carver did not participate. And Kolchak’s Gold, still my favorite among my own hybrid historical novels (some just work better for the writer than others do), is divided into five sections — the second section is almost pure history (and has been used in university courses as a summary of the Russian Civil War), the fourth is a somewhat looser narrative history of the Second World War in southeastern Europe, and the other sections are romantic melodrama about fictitious characters. None of these novels is very much like the others.

Agents and publishers keep telling me I’m not much of a marketable commodity because they can’t type-cast the works. To me this is a matter of emotional survival. I did an apprenticeship in the 1960s, writing mostly Westerns, and they were genre pieces that probably have a lot of similarities. But once I outgrew or at least got past that spate of on-the-job training, I realized I wasn’t really cut out to keep writing the same story. I’m motivated by curiosity. Each book is like a different course in school — it’s a learning process. I really don’t want to take the same course again and again. And if the writer gets bored, God help the reader. So I try not to write the same story more than once. (In the one case where I successfully adapted one of my own books for the screen, I converted the characters and plot of Hopscotch — a lighthearted but serious suspense novel — into a movie comedy. It’s the same story with the same characters and events, but it’s altogether different in spirit.) Between fiction and nonfiction, do I prefer writing one to writing the other? No. Each has its fascinations; each has its frustrations; it’s apples and oranges.

What’s up next for you? New books in the pipeline? Are you excited about, or in any way involved, in the upcoming Stepfather remake?

At the moment I’m writing a suspense novel, a sort of enviro-thriller. The working title used to be Islanders but a couple of my alleged friends have suggested that the only way I can be successful in the market is to put the word Death in the title. So, as a joke on them, I’ve re-titled the current book Death Knell. The next book after that will be a family memoir — not about me; about my forebears. They were a truly fascinating lot. It will not have Death in the title. Re. movies, I don’t know if the Stepfather remake will take place — it’s very iffy, and in any case I would expect to have no real role in the project. I’m mystified by Hollywood’s determination to remake good movies. Why not remake bad ones? At least those could be improved upon.