It was just good luck that I happened to be in New York City when Sunshine Cinema held screenings of Robin Williams’ last film Boulevard. It is the story of a man who is dying the slow, suffocating death of trying to delude himself in being something he is not. Williams played characters like Nolan Mack throughout his career--one of these sad, quietly determined figures one more time. He does an excellent job, and the film leaves us with the unhappy task of mourning his loss all over again.
Unfortunately, in my review of the film for Cultured Vultures, I found issue with the screenwriting and overall direction of the film. My initial impression was that both the writing and direction were good enough, but beneath the talent of Williams, as well as cast members like Kathy Baker and Roberto Aguire. In the review, I’m perhaps a little too blunt. I’m not apologizing for that, nor am I taking it back, but I do think that in retrospect, I could have elaborated on the writing and direction. Should I have? Maybe not. I didn’t feel the need to elaborate in the review. I felt that there were other things about Boulevard that I wanted to discuss. Generally, I don’t have the space to deconstruct every aspect of a film. I cover everything I can, and I try to keep the tour moving along.
When Boulevard screenwriter Douglas Soesbe sent me a friend request on Facebook, I didn’t apologize. I accepted the request, more than a little shocked by the contact to begin with, and we got to talking. While there was no apology, our conversations did compel me to take a closer look at my process of writing reviews. It’s not impossible to prove one of my arguments about one cinematic subject or another wrong, but I’ll stand by everything I write.
In talking to Soesbe, a veteran script analyst, novelist, and screenwriter, I thought more intently about the things I liked about the script, as well as the things I didn’t like. I loved Soesbe’s frank depiction of his characters. Soesbe succeeds in crafting believable, interesting characters. There are also several scenes which showcase Soesbe’s talent for writing dialog that emphasizes the drama of the moment, without going too far over the top. The scene in which Nolan and his wife (the absolutely fantastic Kathy Baker) come to terms with everything as it relates to their marriage is beautifully written, flawlessly carried out by the actors, and painful in its realism.
Drunk Monkeys: In my review of the movie Boulevard, I was less-than-kind when mentioning the screenplay, even going so far as to call it “middling” at one point. I’m not trying to dredge up the fact that I kind of slammed your script, and I’m not going to backtrack on it now. However, as we’ve been talking, I’ve started to reappraise the script. There are indeed things I like about it very much. In particularly, I love the way you handled the scene where it all comes out between Robin Williams and Kathy Baker. Was that a difficult scene to write?
Douglas Soesbe: Yes, it was. The movie to me was a “slow boil,” and the danger of a slow boil is always the word “slow.” I know there are those who felt the pace was too slow, that it didn’t move enough, but I felt that Robin’s performance, so wonderfully still, compensated. There was always a sense of danger and of something exploding at the core of it. Getting to that scene was to light the fuse, and the danger was lighting it too fast or making the explosion seem too big and thus melodramatic. I thought of the stages of grief, “denial, bargaining, etc.,” and took Joy through those phases. The backstory that I intended and one with which Kathy Baker agreed is that Joy has always known. She’s tried to keep it together, but all those nights of his coming in and out were pretty much red flags for her. She sensed the ending was coming, but tried her best to forestall it.
DM: One of the things you said to me that moved me towards genuinely revaluating my opinion of the screenplay was when you said something to me along the lines of “perhaps it was too minimalist.” I never even really thought of it as a minimalist picture. Could you elaborate a little bit on why you might think that?
DS: Again, per the above, I wanted it to be a “slow burn,” gradual piece with very little plot. I perhaps erred by inserting the external plot of Eddie, the pimp, but during the rewrite I worried that with the conflict entirely internal the movie would grow impossibly static. So, the minimalism was trying to show this change of heart, this acceptance of self with a minimum of Nolan being pushed by plot. Again, however, I might have been too on the nose with the “miss the big dinner” scene, but sometimes that happens with plot. You need to condense life, bring it to its essential moment and sometimes that might read as contrivance.
DM: It’s interesting, because while I stand by my opinions, the “minimalist” comment, as well as your elaboration on it, have really made me think more intently about the things I did like. I think the biggest achievement with the script is in how you handled such a dramatic moment in a human being’s life without making it too dramatic. The script might be a little too minimalist in places, but I’ll definitely take that over the movie going way over the top. Was there anything in earlier drafts that didn’t make it to the final one?
DS: Yes. Some was actually filmed. The scene wherein Nolan buys Leo the shirt for work. This scene was actually shot. I miss the scene, because it’s an important moment in which Nolan, for the first time, is actually a bit “flirty” with Leo in public. It’s the closest they get to seeming even the remotest bit “romantic.” Leo picks out a shirt for him, which is the one Nolan is wearing in the last scene when he meets the unknown gentleman in the bar. The scene was cut for length, probably a wise decision, since the issue of pace was always important. The motel scenes were written a bit longer, too. Leo had more to say. He had a long speech about always having wanted to work in a diner. I miss that scene. There’s a “diner” reference later on, which, without it, doesn’t quite resonate.
DM: You’ve had five screenplays produced, which we’ll get into later. It’s a strange collection of films, when you take them as a whole. I mean, Til Dad Do Us Part is pretty strange, when it’s compared to Boulevard. Would it be fair to say that Boulevard is your most personal screenplay to date?
DS: Absolutely. Although I’m pleased with the cable movies that I wrote, they were works for hire. Boulevard was entirely personal. In fact, when I first wrote it, I never even expected it would be produced. It was somewhat cathartic. It’s not based on real events in my life, but it is about aging, facing reality, making shifts of direction late in life.
DM: It’s very difficult to talk about those things, without dipping into something that’s overly sentimental. I think the movie certainly succeeds in avoiding that for the most part. I think the movie implies hope in a fairly realistic way. Would you consider yourself to be an optimistic person?
DS: Good question. The positive ending was encouraged by others involved in the movie. I think we were all worried about it being too bleak. The original ending that I wrote wasn’t quite that way. Nolan was seen driving down the boulevard, that voice-over that was over the action. There was a sense of forward momentum, but it wasn’t clear whether it was good or bad. Just life. The risk has been taken. Now what?
DM: What was the journey of the script from when you wrote it, to when it was finally produced into a feature?
DS: I wrote it ten years ago. A couple people optioned it but nothing much happened. Eventually, a company came along with sole financing and it came together very quickly. One of the producers, Jeffrey Gelber, knew Robin’s agent and got it to him. Once he was involved, it really came along quickly.
DM: What was your initial reaction to knowing Williams was going to be involved with the project?
DS: One of the great days of my life. I felt on a cloud for days. I still do. Even though it’s now been touched by his tragic passing, I look at the film and cannot believe that this great actor is up there saying my lines. It’s an amazing feeling.
DM: One of the things I liked about Boulevard is that it was Williams’ best work in quite some time. I feel like his career had taken something of a downturn over the past few years, and that seems to be something that happens to even the best actors as they get older. In your experience, do you find that to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case?
DS: I think so. The industry is very faddish and now, frankly, very youth-driven. “What have you done for me lately?” kind of applies. What’s your latest success? Who are you? And there’s ageism, too, a reality that’s always faced women in movies, especially. With emphasis on “big” movies, some actors are driven to take big paycheck movies for obvious reasons and may not like the results. One of the flattering things about Robin choosing this movie is that he knew there was no money there. He just wanted to do it.
DM: I’ve been curious as to why you contacted me on Facebook. Obviously, I’m not the only one who wrote a review of the film. I’m certainly glad you did, but I’m still a little baffled.
DS: The movie received a few more negative reviews than I expected. I don’t believe those who say they don’t read reviews. I became compulsive about it, perhaps a trifle masochistic. I was trolling for reviews, found several, and although a part of me felt that it wasn’t professional to contact reviewers who had not totally responded to the work, I looked you up on Facebook and thought, why not?
DM: I’m glad you did. It’s been really great chatting with you. Was I the only reviewer you contacted?
DS: Yes. I did drop a note, however, to one critic who wrote a very positive review.
DM: For you, what was the best part about your script that you saw on the screen?
DS: The intimacy of certain scenes. Intimacy is rare on the screen today. I like the scenes that are less about plot. I love the scenes between Nolan and Joy, between Nolan and Leo at the motel.
DM: Although known for improv, I understand Williams stuck to your script? Were you pleased with the job he did?
DS: Absolutely. I didn’t know he’d be playing it when I first wrote it, of course, but now I can’t imagine anyone else. A quality that he has that worked so well for the movie, in my opinion, is that although Robin was a mature adult, there always seemed this little boy trapped inside. Perhaps that was the genius of his humor, but it also spoke of Nolan, who remarks in his monologue that he feels trapped at the age of twelve, back when his first discovery of self felt truncated.
DM: What was your reaction to the news of his death? Is there any kind of feeling associated with the realization that your screenplay was eventually released as his final film?
DS: I thought it was a horrible Internet hoax at first. Once it was confirmed, I was devastated. I still don’t quite believe it, particularly when I see him up on the screen. I was honored to be the person who wrote his final dramatic performance, a distinction I never expected and wish circumstances had not brought my way.
DM: Did he ever discuss anything specific about the script with you?
DS: Not really. We talked about it while I was there for a few days filming, but most of his concerns were filtered through Dito, the director. There weren’t that many, actually.
DM: You’ve worked as a story analyst and editor at NBC/Universal for a long time. What does that job entail?
DS: Two things. I evaluate scripts submitted to the studio, meaning whether or not they might lead to profitable movies. I also am assigned projects here and track them draft to draft. My job is to work as a liaison between the studio and the writer, delivering studio notes on what to do with subsequent drafts.
DM: Are there any films out there whose development you played a role in, in terms of your position?
DS: Yes. Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, the Judd Apatow movies, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Along Came Polly. Again, you will find these, all comedies, a universe away from Boulevard.
DM: Would it be fair to say you’re a fan of comedies then?
DS: Oh, yes, indeed.
DM: That’s really interesting about Judd Apatow. I always thought it was a little funny that this guy struggled in television for so many years, working on these fantastic shows that never quite grabbed the audience they deserved, and then 4O-Year Old Virgin came along. Were you surprised by how successful that film was? How many careers it launched?
DS: I was but it made sense. He is so talented and had such an original voice. He was surrounded by so much young, raw talent, most of whom in the past ten years have gone on to find great successes of their own. Judd’s a very sweet guy, aside from being very talented.
DM: We have an interesting connection to each other with Ashland, Oregon, as well as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You were part of the festival in your youth right?
DS: Yes. I went to university in Portland. They had a scholarship and sent one student a year there. I was their selection in 1969. I was way over my head, and all I did was carry a spear, but it was an important summer and I was proud to be a part of it.
DM: At any rate, it’s an interesting path, from something like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, all the way to NBC/Universal. How did that come about?
DS: When I was in university, they didn’t have film departments so I majored in theatre. I enjoyed it but always loved film more. This got me involved in theatre and acting, so the scholarship came about. I taught school for a few years, but I needed to try the movie business. I moved here with nothing, eventually got a job at Universal as a typist. I ended up in the Story Department and learned the ropes. I worked at Tri-Star when it first started, and I was there I was given a three-picture writing contract. This got me into the WGA and it’s therein that my writing career started. I did that for about five years, and then came back to Universal and have been here ever since.
DM: Would you be willing to tell us a little bit about each of your four other screenwriting credits? Taken as a whole, you have a pretty interesting, varied resume as a writer, especially when you throw Boulevard into the mix.
DS: The Wrong Woman was a pitch I made to CBS. They had a low-budget TV movie unit at the time, and they bought it and developed it. It was a difficult development progress, as I was new to the game, but we finally got it made. As a result, I pitched another thriller, Blind Terror, to Lifetime and they eventually bought and developed it. I saw these Lifetime movies as equivalents to the old B movie film noirs, and I enjoyed writing them. Till Dad Do Us Part was a bit of a fluke. I got the idea, wrote it as a spec. A friend of mine, a producer, sold it to Fox Family and it got made. Several years passed and a company in Canada read on old script that I had written (again, it was a Liftetime-like female in distress idea) Look Again, and that got made. And then Boulevard.
DM: Tell me a little bit about your book Children in a Burning House. I know it is out-of-print, but I was really fascinated when you told me that it has connections to Boulevard. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
DS: Yes. I wrote it in 1978. The central relationship is very much the same, only in the case of Children it was a Hollywood writer, gay, who befriended a young man off the street. It was a larger idea, more about Hollywood, and, again, so long ago a bit naïve, but it occurred to me how similar that relationship was, although the characters and stories are much different.
DM: Are you ever tempted to revisit characters? Not to say that there could ever be a sequel to Boulevard, but do you ever wonder what happens to Nolan through the next few years of his life?
DS: Very much so. It’s possible that Nolan might never find anyone. Maybe he’ll just be alone. Or he could go back to Joy. As for Leo, I fear the future is bleak. Dito thinks he just moved on to another town. That might be, but the shelf life for such a profession is brief. I’d like to think he’d get his act together, but I doubt it. I think he’s lost. Roberto, the fine young actor who played him, agreed.
DM: Strictly from the position of a story analyst/editor, has the film/television changed significantly, in terms of how scripts are considered/produced? If so, how have things changed?
DS: Very much so. Even back in the 1970s, the movie business wasn’t so blockbuster driven. You could still make the “mid-list” movie, one that isn’t too expensive but not too small. They just don’t make them anymore. The same thing has happened to the book business. It’s tough to sell a book that might not be a blockbuster. I’m not crazy about the change.
DM: Is it worth it then for someone with a vision for a smaller movie to even try the studio route? It still seems like there are at least a decent number of non-blockbusters coming out. Are we headed down a path in which blockbusters squash all?
DS: It’s all about getting that big weekend number. That’s hard to do with a small or mid-size script. I’m having trouble selling a new project for that reason. The best way in for young writers/directors is the indy route, but also writing a youth-driven comedy that has a unique idea and voice.
DM: How do you feel about the rise of superhero movies? They certainly weren’t so prolific when your career with NBC/Universal began.
DS: With the advent of CGI and an ability to turn out incredible effects on computer, it certainly blossomed. As with all trends, it will fade, but it’s something people can’t quite get at home – huge screens, big sound, sometimes 3-D – that will keep studios making them, and, of course, that box office weekend bonanza.
DM: Beyond Boulevard, are there any other scripts of yours that you hope to see made?
DS: Yes. My manager has a couple of them out now. I’m not sure if they’ll find homes, but, of course, I hope that they will. They’re a bit bigger than Boulevard, but not blockbusters, so, regarding my last answer, difficult to sell.