William Wisher, Screenwriter
What are you going to do today? William Wisher may be saving the world – again! Well-known as a screenwriter and script doctor of Hollywood blockbuster franchise films, Bill worked closely on “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” with his longtime buddy, director James Cameron; “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” the Bruce Willis action thrillers; “The 13th Warrior,” with Antonio Banderas, “Judge Dredd,” with Sylvester Stallone, and many other films. A storyteller who often writes about creation, destruction, and resurrection, Bill is masterful at movies that loom large on the screen and in our psyches. As he says, “I like action films because they're fun and because you know they're hyper real. You can have a character who can be the architect of their destiny in a way that you can't in real life. They’re not just silly movies, they're mythical.”
For someone who spends much of his time creating fantasy lands, Bill is incredibly down to earth. Essentially a self-taught writer (there’s a story around that!), Bill was raised in Brea, California and had an early plan to be an actor. You can see him on screen in various roles, including a police officer cameo in "The Terminator," but once he found writing he never really looked back and later went on to executive produce films as well. Bill’s inspiration is widespread, from Ernest Hemingway to Vincent Van Gogh to Frida Kahlo, and, along with a powerful imagination and careful attention to the details of character creation, he’s a very thoughtful-about-the-process writer.
“A Roman Catholic with a Zen Buddhist topping,” Bill sees writing and all of life as a spiritual event. He spoke about his upbringing with Jesuit priests who taught him intellectual honesty and exploring ideas, his as-yet-unmade (but sure sounds interesting!) reincarnation film, the concept of “multiverses,” and his personal ghost stories. On screen and off, Bill’s worlds are action-packed, memorable, and at the epicenter of possibility!
RG: Bill, it's incredibly kind and generous of you to talk to me. You are a celebrated screenwriter, executive producer, and actor in franchise action thrillers and supernatural science fiction films. Just some of the blockbuster films you've been involved with include ‘The Terminator,’ ‘Terminator 2,’ ‘Die Hard’ 3 and 4, ‘The Exorcist’ prequel, ‘Judge Dredd,’ ‘The 13th Warrior,’ ‘IT.’ Mankind’s survival has been in your hands on a regular basis!
WW: I suppose so!
RG: How did that happen?
WW: I guess it really started with the first Terminator. Jim Cameron had pretty much written the treatment and had the story and then he invited me to help him write it. I probably wrote maybe 20 percent of it. ‘Terminator 2’ was an entirely different animal. We sat down about seven years after the first film, and it was like, 'All right, we have a release date and we're behind schedule on day one so what should this thing be?' We literally sat down in the same room and traded turns at the keyboard and knocked out the treatment and the story and then we cut that in half and each went off and wrote one half, glued it back together and went over it again.
Then Jim had to run off to Cannes so Arnold (Schwarzenegger) could read it. We had conversations with Arnold but he had never read it until we finished. I don't know how many times I've said this, something will come up about military robotics or AI and people say, 'It's your fault, it's your fault!' And I'll say, 'It was a cautionary tale, not a how-to-do video,’ you know?! But it is kind of funny. I think all of that would have happened anyway. The world was going in that direction and we tried to jump ahead of it a little bit with the films. But it is odd that you can sort of say, 'This is a very bad idea,' and they’ll say, 'Cool technology, let's do that!' And here we are today.
RG: How far ahead of technology do you think you and Jim Cameron were?
WW: Probably about 15, 20 years. Robotics and AI were in the ether, but it was all conceptual and to the best of my knowledge none of it had actually come around. We were taking ideas and concepts that were probably already floating out there to some degree and then imagining where they would be in a quarter century or something like that.
RG: Terminator was in '84, right? That film really came out of nowhere and was groundbreaking in so many ways.
WW: It was, and it was done on such a modest budget. When you look at it today you can sort of see that, but Jim was very clever in how we shot that. ‘The Terminator’ holds up pretty well and T2 holds up remarkably well visually. Those were very early CGI (computer-generated imagery) days. There's a scene where they're in the mental institution and there's a security guard who walks across a black and white linoleum floor. The floor rises up and it's the Terminator as a duplicate of the security guard and he kills him. We're like, 'Oh, that would be cool! We better get on the phone to ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) and see if they can do that!’ We made a lot of phone calls every time we had one of these ideas, and they'd say, 'Yep, we can do that!' I would joke with Jim and say, 'I'll bet they hung up and went, “What the hell did we just say we could do?! We got to figure out how the hell to do that!”’
RG: Never say no!
WW: They came through brilliantly. Then there were all kinds of little things that you think might be CG that weren't. In that scene with the security guard there’s a shot where the two of them are practically nose to nose. They're duplicates of each other, but that's not CG, that's a pair of twins! So that didn't require any special effects. Your eye doesn't really know what it's looking at – is that a practical effect, is that a CG effect? It worked out really well.
RG: You've done so many things and worked with so many people. I want to get some names in the record. James Cameron, obviously. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack McTiernan, Bruce Willis, Paul Schrader, Sylvester Stallone, Pierce Brosnan, Diane Lane, Antonio Banderas, Omar Sharif, and on and on it goes. What is your thumbnail of who you are and what you do, from your perspective, and how you would characterize your artistic sensibility?
WW: That's a good question. I've had a couple of different careers. Some of them have been, like with ‘Terminator’ and ‘13th Warrior’ and ‘Judge Dredd,’ where I was hired, day one, to adapt or create a thing by a studio. Then I spent a good 50 percent of my career, at least, being what they call a script doctor and that's how I ended up doing ‘Die Hard’ 3 and 4 and several other films as well. They're different jobs. I like to think that what I bring is getting to the core of who the characters are, what their needs are in terms of the story, and focusing on that – or detangling that if you're rewriting something – because it's my belief that nobody cares how big an explosion is. I like action films because they're fun and because you know they're hyper real. You can have a character who can be the architect of their destiny in a way that you can't in real life. They’re not just silly movies, they're mythical. But none of it matters if you don't care about the characters. In my mind the characters are what matter the most and it's the characters that will make the plot matter. If you don't love the characters then you won't care about the story.
RG: What's interesting is that you’re creating strong characters when there really isn’t very much dialogue.
WW: That's something that I really enjoy doing. I grew up reading a lot of Ernest Hemingway. I think if I'd ever met him in real life I'd have probably wanted to punch him in the face. Everything I've ever read about him, he seems like not the most fun to hang around with, and full himself. But his writing is just beautiful to me in its simplicity. One of the things I've learned over the years is that unlike a novel, a film is a very tightly strung piece of work. There are exceptions to everything, but most films run around 2 hours or a little shorter, and the idea is to pack as much into that limited period of time as you can. That boils down to me to try and say the most with the absolute least amount of words without shortchanging what you're trying to evoke. It's tough, but really fun. Everyone likes to say film is a visual medium and certainly it is but it's an audio medium as well. There's dialogue, there's music, and so all three of those elements have to work together to create that piece of work.
RG: Which character do you feel you've been the most successful creating?
WW: I kind of fall in love with everybody I've written about, all the characters. There are two that I really like the most. I really loved writing Sarah Conner, but I did that with Jim Cameron and he brought a whole lot to that party. But the character I wrote twice on was John McClane in the Die Hard series, and even though those were rewrites, they were pretty much day one ground floor, keep the plot and start over. I really like John McClane, and I really like Bruce Willis. He is that guy. There's not a whole lot of difference when you're standing around on set with Bruce and they say, ‘Cameras,’ and he starts being John McClane. It's not that he's not acting, it's just that that character evolved. I came in on the third pitch and he had sort of defined who that guy was. I loved writing that character and I really like him.
The reason I like John McClane so much is he's such a quintessential American icon. He's the reluctant hero. He doesn't want to be there, he doesn’t' want to be doing it. In one of the things I gave him in ‘Live Free or Die Hard,’ he's sitting there with Justin Long and Justin Long is telling him, 'You're that guy,' meaning the guy that can fix all that stuff. And he says, 'I don't want to be! Believe me, if there was anybody in the world that I could hand this to, I would do it! I hate this! But there isn't anybody, there's only me.' I'm badly paraphrasing. Then Justin Long says, 'Yeah, but that's why you're that guy!' I like that a lot, and also that he's flawed. At the end of the day, hopefully, you'll see that he's essentially very decent. Again, a total fantasy figure. Nobody jumps off of buildings and out of helicopters, but he gets to so that makes him a lot of fun and very exciting. I like him as a character and as a human being, I like that guy a lot.
On set of "Live Free of Die Hard," with Len Wiseman, director, and Bruce Willis
RG: I want to circle back. I’m sure you've told the story a million times but I'm hoping you'll indulge me. You've got a best buddy in James Cameron, and I read that you two met when you were growing up in Brea, California. Obviously the film world is pretty grateful for your meeting each other. But how did you come together and what was growing up like? Did you guys go to the movies together, and what were you seeing? Did you talk about making movies?
WW: Oh yeah, we did. How we met was the woman who became his first wife, Sharon Williams, was a friend of mine. Jim is some months older than me, just older enough to have graduated the year before and he moved down from Canada in the summer just before my senior year of high school. Brea was then, probably still kind of is, a very small town in north Orange County, maybe 20 minutes from Disneyland. It was pretty rural – we still had a farm attached to the high school. I was already in the theater department and Sharon said, 'You should meet my boyfriend Jim, he's into science fiction and movies and stuff like that.'
We met and hit it off. It was a small town, not a lot of people were interested in making films there or acting. My head was into acting in those days and Jim was an artist who wanted to write. He really was into science fiction, much more than I ever really was. We kind of grew up absorbing films. We had a third friend, a guy who's also a writer, Randy Frakes, and the three of us kicked around Brea together. We'd go see '2001: A Space Odyssey' when it was rereleased, and whatever was playing. I did a tiny film, 'The Reunion,' as an actor and Jim was working on his stuff. I remember one project called 'Xenogenesis' that we did together. He was writing that with Randy and asked me to be in it. It's floating around the internet somewhere. But over time I was less enamored with the acting world. It’s a tough world.
RG: But you were acting in high school.
WW: In high school and then shortly out of high school doing local theater and this small film. I got married when I was 25 and then I got divorced and thought, 'OK, it's time to really get serious. You don't want to be an actor, what do you want to do?' I wanted to write. I didn't want to go back to college. I knew that I had a penchant for writing but I wasn't trained in it so I went to UCLA, down to the creative writing department, and saw what classes they were teaching. I went to where the professors all have their offices and they had the syllabuses for their courses in a slot on the door for students to take. I just grabbed them all and went and dropped 500 bucks, which was a lot of money then, at the UCLA bookstore. I thought, 'Well, I'm going to take these classes and audit them at home, do the coursework.’ There were lectures now and again I could drop into because nobody did a headcount. I thought at the end of this I'm going to write a screenplay. It took a couple of semesters, nine months or something like that, and I wrote a script that was really bad but it had a beginning, a middle, and an end and I started writing after that. Jim and I, we were in our 20s, we would look at each other's stuff, give our two cents, and we learned that language together – the language of how to write films.
RG: He was learning at the same time you were learning.
WW: He was. He also was working for Roger Corman on a couple of pictures and became an art director on one of his films. We were buddies through all that, and then we got an apartment together out in the San Fernando Valley for a year or two and that's about the time the first Terminator happens. We made it in 1983 and released it in '84. We were still living together when that project was starting.
RG: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a storyteller?
WW: It was probably around that time. I was working on what they call spec screenplays with our mutual friend Randy. He's a few years older than Jim and me, so he was kind of a mentor when I was starting out. I think of those days really as learning curve days. And I had a day job.
RG: What did you do?
WW: I did a bunch of stuff. For the most part, I picked the most brain dead dumb things I could think of. Factory and warehouse stuff, punch my clock, get my paycheck and go home and write at night. I avoided thinking about anything else as a career. About every six months I would quit and get another dumb job and that always felt great. Quitting a job was the most fun. Every time I did it, it was like, 'Hey! I don't have to go there! I can take three days off and then I'll get another stupid job! And then I'll do that for six months!' Eventually I ended up in retail sales at Highland's Tobacco Locker and did that for a few years. I was writing and writing and writing. I think Terminator was my first movie paycheck. I was writing other stuff and I ended up doing a TV movie in the late '80s. You go to 1990 and then T2 came around and I really got a career after that. This really kicked me into never having to have a day job again.
RG: One could argue that you're actually an inventor. There are these worlds you're creating out of whole cloth.
WW: Wow, OK!
RG: What's interesting to me is that so many of them are about creation and destruction.
WW: Well those are really cool things, aren't they?!
RG: They are, but where I'm headed is spirituality and metaphysics. It's an interesting tie in with the movies you've been involved with.
WW: I do like that stuff. I'm going to back up and go sideways for a second. I was raised as a Catholic and at some point in my 20s I became really fascinated with religion and spirituality. Over the course of a year or two I read all of the major works. The Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Bible front to back, the Talmud. I just wanted to see what all of that was about. Then I discovered Zen Buddhism, and there really isn't anything like a Bible on that but there are several books about it that are really fascinating. Most of them are very very old. I really got into that for a time. What the Jesuits initially did in my Catholic school upbringing, all of that affects how you think and how you see the world. My favorite thing that I've never been able to land or sell or have made is a story about and the idea is that reincarnation is real, but it's cosmically illegal.
RG: Tell me more!
WW: I wrote it many years ago and every now and again I'll take another look and see if I can revise it a bit. It's a love story about a couple, and the idea is that if you come back, because your life ended short or something like that, that there are these dark angels that come and hunt you and try to send you on your way. It’s a gothic, not really religious but spiritual, love story thriller. I always liked it and I've had people who read it and said it’s cool but I think that studios and financers look at it and say, 'We don't know what the hell to make of this, it doesn't really fit neatly into any particular category.' Maybe one day I might finally get it made but it may just sit in my drawer forever. But I enjoy that kind of thing, that viewpoint of creation, destruction, the cycles of that. It's something I rather like and I've gotten to take those themes and weave them into things that I've done.
William Wisher with "I.T." director John Moore
RG: Apart from the reincarnation film, are you thinking at all about spirituality when you're writing? I don't know if I'm the only one or not, but it seems to me that there is a lot of spirituality mixed in with the Terminator and with Die Hard. I wondered if it was intentional.
WW: The short answer is no but I'm not going to argue with you that it isn't there. The other thing I've been teased about, my wife and some friends, is any project I undertake I've managed to turn into a redemption story. Doesn't matter what it is, I'll find a way to make that play and that's a little more conscious. It always starts as an unconscious thing but then I become aware of it at some point and I'll go, 'Just embrace that, just do that.' I love those stories because I think they're very universal.
One of the films I saw as a kid, and subsequently read the novel, was 'Lord Jim.' It was such an exotic world. I don't think the film is nearly as good as I did when I was 12 but I still kind of like it. It opens on this raging sea, as I recall, and this ship, the Patna, and the narrator's voice comes on and says, 'Who among us has not begged God for a second chance?' Jim spends the rest of the story trying to redeem himself. That always stuck with me and I like those stories. I do think they're very universal and I think they're pretty satisfying because it sort of implies you start out with someone who's wholly imperfect or has done something wrong or bad or what have you and then wants to redeem themselves, wants to become a better person or right that wrong, or whatever it is. I think that we can all relate to that. I certainly can, just the things in your life that you might have wished you had done differently or better. That doesn't mean that you spend a lot of time thinking about the past, but just in general, every day I wake up and think, 'OK, I'd like to try and be a better version of myself today.' I think that's all in a general sense how we try to navigate life. That's a scene that I'm always interested in, whether I even realize it or not when I start something.
RG: With ‘The Terminator,’ I don't know if this is you or Jim Cameron, but you're talking about a character who is not human but seems human and has skin over wires. He's particularly dark and brutal and then by T2 he's become a good guy so there's a bit of transcendence there.
WW: There is, wow. I mean, I'm aware of all of that, but I don't think I really thought of it as a redemption thing initially. But it is, actually. There it was, unconsciously, making that work. How that came about is Jim called and said to come over because T2 was a go and we're behind schedule and have to write this thing really fast. We didn't know what it was going to be. We talked about it over the years and in between but we didn't really know what it was going to be. I remember we were sitting there and Jim said, and I wholly agreed with him, 'Look, there's got to be a reason to make a sequel, beyond just let's make some more money. We can make money writing anything, so why in the hell do we want to do this?' In other words, what's the reason that justifies making this?
We began to talk about it and in fairly short order we came up with the idea of turning the Terminator into the good guy. No one's going to see that coming, and it really is a way to extend the story. In some ways they're kind of like the same movie, just extended. It will seem kind of silly from today's perspective, but we both immediately said that's a really good idea, but that it could be a terrible idea! Because by then the character of the Terminator and Arnold as the guy playing him had already made several lists of Best Film Villains of all time. We were going to undo that, and we sat for a second saying, 'Is that really a good idea?' Then we thought, ‘It's a great idea, we've got to do it,’ got on the phone with Arnold. He gave us a listen and trusted us and I think he said something like, 'Just don't make me look stupid.' It turned out everybody thought it was a good idea. The film was very successful but initially this one particular scene got cut from the original release. It's been restored now.
RG: I didn't realize there are two versions of T2.
WW: There may be three! One of the scenes I really didn't want to see go is where they take Arnold, the Terminator, to an abandoned gas station in the middle of nowhere and the kid takes out his CPU, his little computer brain, and there’s a switch that turns it from Read, which just means he follows his initial programming, to Write, which means he can learn. They take it out and put it back in, and from that moment on Arnold begins to learn, among other things, morality. The kid's trying to teach him right from wrong and he starts to become a bit more humanized. The kid says, 'Can you learn?' and he says, 'Yeah, the longer I'm here the more I'll learn.' I love that moment when he actually changes the very nature of this creature to something that can begin to learn, and it's a human that does it to him. He begins to very slowly humanize the Terminator, and there's your redemption right there, I suppose.
RG: It all seems to be very mythology based, and a lot of faith and trust. Without going too far down this road, is there any Biblical component from your perspective? There certainly are some parallels that kind of jump out. I watched the movie with a different eye this time, but it could be the annunciation of John Conner, T2 is Judgment Day, John Conner's initials are JC.
WW: So are Jim Cameron's, by the way!
RG: This is true! I'm sure somebody somewhere has written a dissertation about this but on a very superficial level, was there any thought about any of his?
WW: Well Jim is not a religious guy at all and he would be the first one to tell you so I don't think I'm speaking out of school. There was no conscious decision to put Biblical stuff in it for religious reasons. On the other hand, you're working on the story and there's a lot of symbolism and global life and death at stake. We were exploring what it means to be human, and in the second film we got to dig deeper because as Arnold becomes more human, so to speak, Linda becomes more of a Terminator. She's losing her humanity as Arnold is attempting to gain some, and we were very aware of that. It was more like, 'That's just really cool!' Then Arnold, the Terminator, makes the ultimate sacrifice, he decides to destroy himself, or allow himself to be destroyed, when they run into the molten metal so that he can't cause any harm to anyone. That's pretty Christ-like if you think about it. We were aware of all that, but I promise we weren’t doing it because we were secret Bible studiers. It was just that those themes are ingrained into the Western consciousness and they also made for great story turns when you're working with something that has so much mythology in its DNA.
RG: I'm not saying that I think Terminator is a message film in that respect, but it is interesting how things can seep into the consciousness of writers and the people who are watching the films. I remember when ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ came out it people started talking about it in the same way.
WW: I agree with you, and I think it's unavoidable. We all come out of the same soup and we all have the same mostly Western civilization mythologies that we either are consciously taught or that seep into our own consciousness, or both. It's probably inevitable and unavoidable, because they're great stories! The thing about the Bible is that it's full of great stories. There's an old saying, 'Writers don't steal, they plunder,' so everything becomes pretty much fair game to use. It goes into the Mixmaster that is your brain, gets recombined like recombinant DNA, and pops out as a different version of maybe something that you read when you were 12.
RG: I heard there's a new Terminator coming out in 2019 and so the iconic line, 'I'll be back,' was very prophetic. Do you remember if that was your line? It's not a question about establishing credit, it's more about where did it come from.
WW: One of the things that I've found over the years is Jim will be talking about a thing and I'll be talking about a thing and our memories won't be exactly the same. When you're not thinking legacy at all, it's late at night and you're drinking coffee and spewing stuff at each other, no one's writing any of this stuff down like, 'Today, we came up with this, this is how we came up with this.' What I remember is Jim had written a line, 'I'll come back' in the police station and he said, 'What do you think of it?' I said, ‘It's really really good. If he said, “I'll be back," it's a little more alliterative.' Jim thought for a second and said, 'You're right, I'll change that.' So I don't know, who wrote it? I think he probably really did, and I suggested he change a word of it.
RG: It's very prophetic.
WW: I guess! It was very cool, his treatment, and it was more or less what ended up being shot. But that's the thing of it, I've only ended up working with him twice, except for a project I wrote with him that did not get made, a World War II bomber picture called 'The Liberators.' He may get around to making it one day. I like it a lot.
RG: Neither of you are involved in whatever's coming of Terminator in 2019, correct?
WW: I'm definitely not involved. Jim is producing it but I ended up not being involved. I don't want to know anything about it because I'm going to get asked and if anybody leaks anything...
RG: It's not going to be you!
WW: Yes! So I only know what everybody does from the photos that have been released. Linda looks fantastic! She’s in her early 60s now and they sent her off with a trainer and they decided to give her gray, whitish gray hair. She's incredibly fit. She's got the sunglasses and the T-shirt and the body armor and she just looks really kick ass. So I'll buy a ticket! I've always really really loved Linda, and I know that Arnold is in it because I read that. But beyond that I don't really know what they're up to but I wish them well!
William Wisher in hotel room in Vietnam
RG: I think everyone does, right?! I wanted to talk more about the writing, the concept of intuition and where the art comes from. My site is about the intersection between your creative life and your spiritual life, and you talked about being raised Catholic. How much of this filters in for you when you're writing? We've talked about how things bubble up unintentionally, but how much awareness do you have when you're putting a treatment together or starting to write a script? You and Jim Cameron famously wrote Terminator in six and a half weeks, so one could argue there's a lot of intuition happening there. I'm not going to say divine guidance, but maybe?
WW: I don't know about that. The first draft was done in six and a half weeks. We did a little bit of adjusting before they went off to shoot it but nothing major changed at all. When I sit down to work on a piece, it swirls through your head and I don't know where the ideas come from, necessarily, but something will pop in my head and I'll go, 'That's good.' Then it just starts to organize itself. I don't make a lot of notes anymore, maybe a line here, something there. I can kind of hold a piece in my head. An interesting phenomenon begins to happen. The characters become very real to me, like actual people. I know they're not, I'm not insane, but in my mind they’re real. The best writing days I ever have is when I feel more like a stenographer than a writer and I'll just listen to them. 'Oh, I didn't know you were going to say that! That's good, I’m writing that down!' You're sort of watching the movie in your head, and when those days happen it feels effortless and they surprise me sometimes with what they do or say. It really does feel like I'm just taking notes and that they're actually doing the work.
RG: What do you think that is, and where do you think that's coming from?
WW: I don't know. There might be a spiritual side to that or something. I don't think about it a lot because I'm afraid it will go away!
RG: I go the opposite way, thinking that if I think about it a lot it will happen more!
WW: I think about it a great deal, but what I don't think about is why it’s happening. That scares me, because then I think I might be able to just talk myself out of it happening at all. I spend at least as much time thinking as I do typing when I'm working on these things, and I listen a lot. Then there are days when I'm pushing a boulder uphill. 'This shouldn't be that hard, where am I going wrong?' I'll back up and think, 'I took a left here when I should have taken a right,' and get the thing back on its path and then it become more effortless again. You've read about multiverses, yes? Or you're aware of the concept?
RG: Yes, but tell me your views about it.
WW: It's a relatively new concept. It's a theoretical scientific thing that life exists in several dimensions all at the same time and that instead of a universe, which is a single thing, a multiverse means there are several, perhaps millions, maybe a trillion, some uncountable number, of universes coexisting in different dimensions all at the same time. Which raises really interesting story possibilities, about slipping from one multiverse into another. As I've read it, they will say there's an infinite number of Bill Wishers, an infinite number of Kathryn Williams’, and any possible thing that could happen to you is happening to you. You might be king of the earth in one, you might die at age 12 in one, you might live to be 120 in another, you might have every possible life that you could have. There was a book I read years ago and really wanted to acquire it.
RG: Do you remember who wrote it?
WW: No, I don't. But the title will come to me.
RG: Probably Bill Wisher in that other universe was reading it!
WW: Made that movie 18 times! Kurt Vonnegut wrote a similar thing called 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' in which the main character becomes unstuck in time and he's traveling back and forth without a whole lot of control through various moments in his life. He's in this POW camp in 1944 and suddenly he's an old man who's a professor who's become a writer and then he's a young writer. So we were talking about multiverses. I hope they don't put a net over my head and drag me away when I talk about these characters being very real to me but just in a different dimension. They're as real as anybody I know, at least in my mind, reinforced by being surprised by what they say sometimes when I'm writing. It’s like, 'That's not supposed to happen, I'm supposed to be in charge of the whole thing!' Sometimes I don't feel like I am. Sometimes I'm just listening.
RG: And there’s the question! If you're not in charge, you with the computer in front of you, then who's in charge of those characters?
WW: Well I'm always ultimately in charge because I can kill them any time I want to! Imagine if you're staring at your cast of characters. 'Behave! Because your fate is in my hands!’
RG: Now we're back to 'Hasta la vista, baby!'
WW: Exactly! ‘I brought you into this world and I can take you out.’ I'm not under any kind of illusion about that. If you trust yourself and your imagination and if you've really thought these people through, yes, you can be surprised sometimes by what they do. But when I sit down to write, the first thing that happens is I know where I'm going to start and I know where I'm going to end. Those two compass points have to be there or I get lost.
RG: Does it always end the way you initially think? I've heard writers say something went in an entirely different direction from what they intended, that they don't know how it happened but they jumped on the train and rode to the end.
WW: That has happened to me but it usually presents itself a bit differently and only when I'm working on my own spec material. You can't do that if you’re working on a picture for a studio. It's like, 'Hey! I just decided John McClane dies at the end!’ I don't know how to write a story if I don't know how it's going to end. The concept of that is very scary to me because it's like taking a hike through the woods with a blindfold on, and I don't know where the edge of the cliff is and where I'm going to fall off, or what I might run into.
RG: Well now you have to try it at least once.
WW: Two months later I'll be pulling my hair out and saying, 'This is utter crap!'
RG: Maybe not! You don't know where it might go, right?
WW: That is true. I had this idea years ago, this vision in my head, of a guy sitting on the hood of a car in the middle of the desert and he had a pistol in his hand. I knew he was getting ready to go kill somebody, and I thought, 'He's going to drive to the guy's house. Why would he do that, what's the guy done wrong?' I really liked the idea of climbing into his head but I could never figure out what the hell to do with it. I could never figure out where it ends or why I'm telling this story. But I was intrigued by those opening ideas. I think I wrote six paragraphs and it's in a drawer someplace.
RG: Maybe this is the guy you resurrect and you ask him what he wants to do, because it's a very powerful visual.
WW: Thank you, that’s how it struck me. I thought, 'Oh God, the guy's going to commit murder! What's going through his head?'
RG: My first thought wasn't necessarily that he was going to kill somebody, but that he might kill himself.
WW: That's not a bad possibility, either. Then what, he changes his mind, or maybe he's going to kill somebody and then he decides to kill himself, or maybe he's going to kill himself and he decides, 'No, no, no, I'm going to go do this thing instead.' But that's not really a story. That's an image, it's a thought. Sometimes these things jump into your head and you don't know what to do with it.
RG: Do you have any rituals before writing? Do you meditate? Do you pray?
WW: No, I drink a lot of coffee! I wake up in the morning, have about two cups of coffee, maybe three cigarettes, and I clear my mind. I still smoke but I work out really hard, too. I gather my thoughts and go in and I pick up where I left off. I don't know if this is a ritual so much, but I remember reading, it might have been Hemingway, talking about when to stop on a daily basis. The idea was never write until you can't write any more that day. Always write until you know exactly what's going to happen next and that you could work another hour because then when you wake up in the morning you don't have to think, 'OK, what do I have to do next?' You've already got it, and it kick starts your engine. I've been doing that for years and years and years. Maybe the ritual is coffee, cigarettes, and then I zero my mind in. Did you ever see a movie called, 'The Sand Pebbles,' with Steve McQueen?
RG: A long time ago.
WW: I love that movie. It's a lot of people's favorite movie that they never remember until you bring it up again. There's this moment, I don't ever say this, I'd feel silly saying it out loud, but he's a motor mechanic on a big gun boat in China in the 1920s, an American gunboat. He's the engine guy and he comes aboard as a replacement. He goes down to the engine room, looks around and puts his hand on some of the various pipes and motors and stuff, and he says, 'Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman.' It's kind of a reverence and love in the way that that's done, and I kind of feel that way when I sit down to write. ‘Hello computer, let's go to work.’ We understand each other and there's a nice feeling about that, like, 'We’re going to be buddies today, let's help each other out.’
RG: Do you see your life as a screenwriter at all intertwined with a spiritual component, or do you see them as separate?
WW: I see my whole life, not just writing, being awake, being alive. I don't think there's really a difference. I wouldn't know how to disconnect one from the other, honestly.
RG: Do you use it in any way as a writer?
WW: I think so.
RG: What does that look like?
WW: These are very difficult questions to answer! The best way I can answer this at the moment is to go back to a Zen parable trying to describe what life and the universe and all that is. In the beginning there was nothing but God. Just God, and after some amount of time God got really bored just being God so He decided to play a game of hide and seek. He created the universe and everything in it, all the trees, all the oceans, all the animals, all the people, all of everything, rocks, stones. With human beings, He gave them the ability to be self-reflective so they went around looking for God their whole lives, trying to find it here, trying to find it there, trying to find the meaning of life and why are we here.
When you die, you wake up and realize that you were God all along, or an aspect of Him, and you laugh because that's a Zen form of enlightenment. Everything that you can possibly come into contact with is just God pretending to be something else and putting you on a journey of trying to find it. I realize that's a metaphor, that's a parable and not to be taken entirely literally, but I kind of believe that. I can't avoid a sense of spirituality in anything. It's in a cup of coffee, it's in the cigarette I just lit, it's in the couch I'm sitting on in my backyard, and it's all so interwoven that really talking about them as separate things is not meaningful to me.
I don't know how to separate them completely nor would I really want to. When I sit down to work, I realize that that is effectively a spiritual exercise, if you choose to look at it that way, because as a human being, as an expression of the universe that takes this form of myself, I'm attempting to do something creative that will hopefully be entertaining but also instructive to people and get them to thinking about a thing. Even when you're working on a film that's sort of a lark, that's just entertaining, you can weave into that all kinds of things that people can later go up and think about.
'The 13th Warrior' which I wrote, the Antonio Banderas film, is a coming of age story about how someone who is still a boy becomes a man, and the things that you have to go through and embrace and discard and the fears you have to face in order to earn that, in order to understand it. At the same time, it's about some Vikings who run into the last Neanderthals and have a big battle, which on the surface of it sounds silly, or could be, but there's much more serious stuff going on inside that story that I think is worth telling.
RG: A lot of these stories on the surface can seem silly but when you add all of this underpinning to them they're not so silly anymore.
WW: That's what makes them worth doing. I think toward the beginning of this conversation I was saying I really don't care how big of an explosion is if it doesn't matter. What makes it matter is who you put there, why they're there, what they have to go through, what they're learning, what they're being tested on, and what they have to overcome, or any combination of those things. That's the only reason you care about that stuff. It's the only reason I care about it. Even when I'm working on what someone may dismissively call an action film, well, it isn't really that to me. The action is just the heightening of reality to make it exciting, but the story isn't about that. The story is about what these characters are experiencing, what they're going through and how they navigate all that. That is where I sink my teeth into, and if that wasn't there there would be absolutely no reason for me to want to work on it.
RG: You mentioned that you were raised Catholic. Are you still a practicing Catholic?
WW: Not anymore. Sorry, Mom. When I was a kid I went to Catholic school and had nuns and Jesuit priests. I will always owe them, the Jesuits especially, for teaching me how to think. Doesn't matter what I'm thinking about, it's how to organize thoughts, how to try and really be intellectually honest and not have any fear of exploring whatever thoughts might pop into your head. I remember talking to this priest when I was a kid and really questioning the existence of God at that point. I was 10 or 12, something like that. I said, 'Is that wrong?' And he said, 'Of course it's not wrong, we question it every day! God gave you a brain, don't feel bad about using it. Now, at the end of the day I really hope that you decide that there is one, because that's kind of what we're all about. But if you decide that there isn't, as long as you really honestly think about it and are true to the intellectual process of how you get there and the spiritual side of things, you can't do anything wrong. You can't make God mad.’ I always really liked that.
Then in the mid to late '70s I went through a period where I read all of the religious books but I was really captured by Zen Buddhism and most especially the Japanese version of it, and koans, which are these mind puzzles. I often will flippantly say I'm a Roman Catholic with a Zen Buddhist topping. When I was a child I would walk into a church and really feel like I was in the house of God. Now I’m just in a really cool building, that's sort of how I feel about it. I certainly have respect for people who believe in that. I'm not one of those guys who wants to run around enjoying testing people's faith and things. I find that to be kind of boring. You're not doing anybody any favors, in my opinion. If they want to question that stuff they can go do it. I'll sit down and have a chat with somebody who wants to chat about it and tell them what I think but I know what works for me and what doesn't. I kind of believe in reincarnation, or I think it's a strong possibility. I don't think you die when you die. I think you transform into a different dimension. Maybe you come back, maybe you go on to something else.
RG: Do you believe in ghosts?
WW: Yes! I've seen them.
RG: So there's a story!
WW: I really am going to have to go in for an eval after someone reads this! My grandmother could do it, too, see ghosts, all of that kind of stuff. She was pretty psychic. She died when I was about eight years old. She was like my second mom.
RG: Was this your Mom's Mom or Dad's Mom?
WW: My Dad's Mom. Both of my parents worked through a good part of my life and when I was a kid we lived very near her. At one point we lived across the street but we were always within a block or two. I'd come home after school and go to her house so I spent a lot of time with her as a child. She could see ghosts, and I was really freaked out about it when I was young because I didn't understand it. I just think it's perfectly normal now. To borrow a term from the Harry Potter series, there are Muggles whose antenna isn't tuned to that, and there are people like me who encounter that stuff with some regularity.
RG: No pun intended, but how did this manifest for you? When you say you've seen them, what does that look like?
WW: I don't see them like it's a hallucination. Right now I'm staring at a tree and I don't see them like they're physical things. But you become aware of them. The very first time that I can recall was when that same grandmother passed away. They didn't let me go to her funeral. They probably thought I was too young. But we were very close and I was upset. The night of her funeral I saw her come in my mind's eye so to speak. I was in bed and she came and sat on the end of the bed and put her hand on my foot or my leg and basically said, 'Don't worry, everything's OK,' and she smiled. Now that was sweet, and I wasn't spooked in any way. I think it was 1963 or something, and she was wearing this blue nightgown with a blue diaphanous housecoat over it which they had back then. It was powder blue. The next morning I said to my Mom, 'Oh, by the way, what did you bury Grandma in?' She described exactly what I had seen her wearing. I was pretty sure at that point that I had actually seen her. Then as time went on there were feelings you get, things that you kind of see in your mind's eye, and I don't find them to be strange or odd or anything like that. You can make them go away, it's pretty easy, you just sort of shove them off, so to speak, and they'll leave you alone.
RG: You mentioned that your Dad died recently. Has there been anything like that with him?
WW: You know there hasn't, which has sort of been on my mind. Maybe he's off resting up somewhere. I've had friends that have passed away and they'll kind of come around.
RG: It's interesting hearing you talk about it because you obviously have a very powerful imagination and how you relate to your characters as you're writing them, and then there’s this idea of seeing ghosts, seeing something from the other world. There's a similarity there.
WW: There is, and here comes the big question. I've never been able to satisfactorily answer myself. I know I have a really good imagination. So am I imagining all of that? It's possible. It's possible that I'm not seeing anything.
RG: But how did you imagine what your grandmother was wearing?
WW: See that's one of those things kind of like, ‘Well maybe it's not just my imagination.’ At the end of the day when you're talking about stuff like this you just really have to go with what the accumulation of all of your senses seems to be telling you. It's not a thing you can prove to anyone, and it's not a thing that I feel inclined to want to prove to anyone. It's not like I'm some sort of ghost whisperer who wanders around talking to spirits every day. It's a thing to me, it just seems like a normal thing. Every now and then I think, 'Oh, there's something here, oh there it is,' and then I don't think about it after that. One of the things I can tell you is if I'm busy working, it's like a switch I can turn off because it's distracting. 'Everybody go away!'
RG: And my inclination is to say, 'How can I put this to work?!'
WW: I'm not that good at it. 'I've got to go to bed, you guys finish up this scene for me.'
RG: There might be something in what's happening that you can use with your characters, or use in that scene or in the story.
WW: Often when I'm talking about my characters and how they seem to become alive to me, it's not a whole lot different than being aware of something that may be someone's spirit wandering around.
RG: Who do you have in mind when you're starting to write?
WW: Do you mean actors?
RG: Not necessarily. I’m thinking about when you’re sitting down and trying to come up with an idea of what you're going to write next. Is there an image that happens? Is it something you're aware of or have in mind? Is there a subject?
WW: If I'm writing something for (Sylvester) Stallone or Bruce Willis then obviously I'm picturing them. But what usually comes into my head first is a situation, or the beginning of a plot, and then it just sort of builds from there. It's like unwrapping a package or peeling back an onion – the more you think about it the more things begin to reveal themselves. In terms of characters, this is a funny thing. Sometimes I'll think of actors and sometimes in any given scene it's one actor, in another scene it's another. If it’s Harrison Ford at 40, I can picture him talking and I write that scene. Then the next one, no, this feels more like George Clooney. But no matter who you've pictured when you're writing spec, I have learned over time that it is non transferable. No one has ever said, 'Wow, that sounds like a Harrison Ford thing.' They'll come up with something entirely in their own imagination. 'What if Nick Cage was in this?' Wow, never thought about him. So it doesn't work like that. It only works in my head and it's non transferable to somebody else's head. They just read the character. Sometimes I don't have anybody in my head. It's just a fictional someone I've made up.
RG: For example, the fellow on the car with the gun. Do you have somebody in mind?
WW: No, not really. Like three or four, I remember thinking it could be somebody in the vicinity. An actress can be any age they want in my head. Like a cross between the guy in 'Sling Blade,' Billy Bob Thornton, and maybe Jeff Bridges. When I'm writing spec stuff I usually don't settle on any one person, it's a prototype of five or six different sorts of people that maybe could be that guy. I let it hang there like that and then after awhile I feel them more than see them in some ways. Not distinct features but an attitude or a sense of who they are.
RG: You mentioned Hemingway. Are there books, art, music that you keep in reach as inspiration? I know when we spoke earlier you mentioned loving Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo.
WW: I don't know that I actually have that. I love art and I have several art books and sometimes I'll leaf through them doing two things. One is distracting my conscious brain so my unconscious one can work. Sometimes I'll just look at photographs because so much is captured. There's a thing I want to do about war correspondents, one or two projects down the road, and I've started collecting photography books of that. Some of the faces in there are just so haunting. There can be a whole story in photographs of someone just looking at the camera, and I'll let things like that wash through my head. With war correspondents some of it can be quite grim. I love the Expressionists, the German Expressionists, and the French Impressionist and post-Impressionists. I just love that stuff. And Suzanne Unrein's work! Who's a mutual friend of ours. I've got a number of her paintings.
RG: Suzanne’s paintings range across a wide landscape. Which sorts of her paintings are you particularly drawn to?
WW: She's really evolved over time. When I first met her she was into German Expressionism, I think, she was very influenced by that. She'd probably be the first one to tell you. She actually made a portrait of me. It's incredibly cool, it is physically dark, in other words dark colors, and it's painted on a piece of like thrown away wood. There are layers of it, and she probably retrieved it out of someplace 30 years ago. I love that thing. She gave it to me so it sits in my dining room which is pretty much my office. Every writer I know has commandeered their dining room to write! It's the largest, flattest piece of furniture in your house so of course!
RG: You seem to be incredibly visual. Do you ever storyboard when you're writing?
WW: No, I don't. I can see it, I can picture it, and again, we're talking about trying to be very brief with words. I recently ran across something I wrote years ago and I think the first page, three-quarters of it was a paragraph of description. I looked at that and just laughed! That's insane. I can turn that into two brief lines now! You want to give a sense. This is how I kind of see my job. I know the next person who reads this is going to be a director or a producer. I want to give the director, who is really going to be the one storyboarding and thinking of the visuals, an indication of what they're supposed to see, or something that's evocative that I can hand them without getting into too much detail. They find it annoying if you do too much, and it's like, 'Who's directing this picture, you or me?' Also, I don't want to limit them in how they might want to put the camera.
There are two things I try really hard to do. One is never write down anything that you’re not going to see. There are people who work jokes into their screenplays to make it more of a fun read for a producer. They'll put in clever little things that you're never ever going to see. I just don't do that. Shane Black does that, he's a friend of mine. I’m not criticizing him for it, he's really good at it! That's just how he likes to do it. But I don't like to do that, personally. The other thing is, I remember reading a script for ‘Alien,’ forever ago, and the two guys who wrote that came up with this very spare technique which is that every line is a shot. A line of description. I try really hard so that my lines don't wrap around. ‘Exterior, beach, day, we see a sailboat. Drop down. The sailboat is moving toward the shore.’ Unconsciously that’s telling you that’s two different shots there. It moves the camera, and drives your eye down the page. You’re reading rather quickly and it gives you a sense of momentum in the act of reading. Believe me, I've spent an hour going, 'I need to erase two words from this sentence!' It's like, God, it can't be done.
RG: What happens to you long term with films you've done and affection you have for them in present day?
WW: It's interesting. When you make a film, you see it like 30 times if you have a good relationship with the director, and then you can go to edit and discuss different cuts with them, especially on a couple of the films that I’ve executive produced. By the time the film comes out you've seen it a lot! Then you see it a few more times because all your friends want to see it with you, and the premiere. I've written it, we've shot it, it's been edited, it's come out, it's in the theaters, I've seen it, I don't really want to watch it again for a very long time because you're full.
RG: You probably can't even ‘see’ the film anymore.
WW: Often that's the case.
RG: There have actually been some remakes. Didn't 'Judge Dredd' get remade?
WW: It did. I saw about 15 minutes of it. The Dredd that I did was not exactly the movie I wanted to make. The director reworked some of it and his approach was a little more cartoony than I wanted it to be. The one that I wrote was a darker, more serious film. It's pretty much the same story, it's just how he interpreted it was not how I envisioned it so I had mixed feelings. Then I saw some of the remake and thought, ‘I like my movie a lot better!’ I really don't spend a lot of time looking back. I did the best I could when I was there, and I like to think I get better at my job all the time. Once in awhile it's fun to go look at an old film. But if I ever see 'Terminator 2' again, as good as it is… I've seen that movie so many times. It holds up really well and there's nothing I really want to change. I hadn't seen 'The 13th Warrior' in years and I got a kick out of seeing that about a year ago. There's a lot of comedy in it that I liked.
RG: Is there a script you've always wanted to write, and are there new projects coming up that you want to talk about?
WW: I'm writing a spec which I'll be done with in a couple of weeks. It takes place in Vietnam but it's not a war movie. That's kind of all I really want to say about it. It's a terrific story. Other projects coming up, Tim Miller and I were going to do a thing and then he got onto T6 and it's going to come out in November so we may go back to that when he's finished. It's a famous novel that we would be adapting if that comes to pass. I wrote a television pilot, an espionage thing with a female character driving it that's making the rounds right now. People who've read it seem to like it a lot. It's called 'Pitfall', and it's a pretty cool story.
RG: Can you say more about it?
WW: It’s about a woman who's a CIA analyst whose husband – and this is often the case – also works for the CIA but he's in Operations, Special Activities Division. He goes missing and then people try and kill her and she wants to know why so she goes off to try and find him herself. It's about a world in which you don't know who to trust and who not to trust, and is he alive, is he dead, is he a good guy, is he a bad guy?
RG: This sounds great.
WW: I wrote one a few years ago called 'SAD Boys,' which was also Special Activities Division. I spent some years hanging out at the CIA and with Intel type guys. The thing I'm writing now is a heavily researched historical piece about the end of the war in Vietnam. I've interviewed a bunch of people who went through that. It's a neat story, kind of a heartbreaker.
RG: Do you remember what it was like for you the first time you heard your words on a big screen?
WW: I got a real kick out of it! If an audience laughed at a thing, or went, 'Eww,' at a thing, I thought, 'I got you, I got you, that's working, good, good, good!' One of my favorite jokes, because writers get rewritten often, is two writers are sitting in a theater watching the movie that one of the writers wrote and they're chatting. That writer says, 'Quiet! I think I just heard something I wrote!' It's pretty cool and much more fun to be able to do it anonymously. About '88 or '89 I did a 90-minute television film called 'Desperado,' and all my friends said, 'We have to come over to your house and watch it when it's on TV.' I found that to be incredibly uncomfortable and I really wanted to leave the room. You’re watching everyone's faces watching it and I had to go outside during part of it because it was not fun. But in a theater you're completely invisible and anonymous.
RG: Do you have a creative secret weapon?
WW: If I do I don't think I know what it is.
RG: Or you're not telling!
WW: I don't necessarily think of it as a secret weapon, but it's that I'm probably smart enough and creative enough to think up a good idea and too stupid to be frightened about trying to execute it.
RG: That's completely brilliant.
WW: If I thought about it too much I'd see all the ways it wouldn't work and then I wouldn't do it. It's just plow ahead, don't be scared.
RG: Immediate self-editing is perhaps the worst thing a creative person could do.
WW: There's a strange balance to being disciplined enough to edit as you go but being free enough to not overdo it to the point where it cripples you. I couldn't begin to explain to you how to find that balance, you either get it or you don't. There are plenty of people who will tell you if you got it right or got it wrong when you're finished with it. Now here's a ritual, but it's an ending ritual. When you're writing a piece, whether it's your piece or an assignment that they've given you, the minute you finish, 'Fade to black,' it's perfect and it will never be perfect again. In that moment – which if you're me, is about 5:30 in the morning – there's this kind of golden moment. I'm almost always completely alone, my wife's usually asleep, and I will just sit there with it for about 10 minutes. It's 5:30 in the morning, no one's awake waiting to get it. I just sit there with it and think to myself, 'You did it! Good job. It's perfect right now.' Now, once I hit Send and it lands on somebody's desk it won't be perfect anymore. I've learned to enjoy that moment. I always go into the other room and I pour myself a small glass of Scotch and light a Cuban cigar and just feel good. Then I hit Send and go to bed and I know that when I wake up it won't be perfect anymore and I have to go back to work! But you need to learn to enjoy those moments that are just yours.
RG: There's a gorgeous visual quality to that.
WW: Thank you, and it's a lot of fun.
RG: Somehow I'm equating that guy on the car with the gun with you with your Scotch and cigar and the perfect moment!
WW: Yes, but I don't want to hurt anybody! I'm feeling really good! A guy lost in his own thoughts, maybe. Maybe that's the connecting tissue.
RG: One last thing. I know you love Frida Kahlo, and I was just at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit of hers and thought of you.
WW: I've heard that it’s pretty amazing. I like some of her art very much, and there are other pieces so brutal and painful to look at that I can't say I enjoy them, although I think they're remarkable. Her whole life was a work of art and I think she approached it that way. More than anything else I find that to be so fascinating about her. I have a photograph, a silver gelatin print, of Frida Kahlo taken maybe in 1930 that I found at a little boutique up in Gualala, California when I was going to a friend’s wedding a few decades ago. It’s a picture of her sitting in a chair and she's looking straight into the camera. It's been hanging over the dining room table where I work for, I don't know, 25 years, and I always think of her looking down, keeping vigil while I work. It just makes me happy to look at it.
RG: She's a really huge inspiration for you?
WW: She's not a direct inspiration on my writing, per se, in terms of story. I always wanted to make a film about her and maybe someday I'll get an opportunity to do that when enough time passes and they say you can make another Frida Kahlo film. She's a huge inspiration to me in terms of being an artist, or living one's life in that regard. I do not have anything like the flamboyant life that she had, but she's a kind of a muse of mine and an artistic inspiration on a daily basis.
RG: She was extraordinary, and very inspirational to me, too.
WW: She had such a difficult life, a very public life, and a painful one as well. I don't know that they did this in the film they made about her, but she basically held her own wake from a bed! It was her final party. She knew she was dying, and I've seen photos of that event that were taken at the time. How remarkable. 'I'm heading out the door, let's have my party now!' Pretty amazing!
RG: Bill, you’re amazing and I can't thank you enough for talking with me! I've really enjoyed this and I'm so appreciative of you and your storytelling.
WW: This has been a pleasure. It’s really been fun!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
All photos courtesy of William Wisher.