Haywire

In this film image released by Relativity Media, Gina Carano and Ewan McGregor are shown in a scene from "Haywire." (AP Photo/Relativity Media, Claudette Barius)

Claudette Barius

But what he really wants to do is not direct.

With a long list of screenplay credits that includes "The Limey," "Dark City," "The Score" and the new action film "Haywire," it would seem natural that writer Lem Dobbs would want to move into the director's chair someday.

But in an interview Tuesday night before a "Haywire" screening at Sundance Cinemas in Madison, Dobbs said that screenwriter's life, as frustrating as it can be at times, is one of absolute freedom that he'd hate to give up.

That frustration was notoriously heard in the commentary track for the DVD "The Limey," Dobbs' previous collaboration with director Steven Soderbergh, in which the two squabbled entertainingly (and Dobbs confirms, affectionately) about changes Soderbergh made to his script.

For "Haywire," which stars mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, Dobbs seems much happier, having collaborated from the get-go with Soderbergh on the screenplay. He talked with 77 Square about writing a "female action hero" movie (a genre he hates), his lifelong love of movies, and that "Limey" commentary track:

 

Were you an avid filmgoer when you were a kid?

Totally. I was one of those totally one track mind children from the earliest possible age. It was just all I ever wanted was movies. My father was a huge film buff, and I grew up learning who all the actors were, and learning about directing.

What drove you from being a cinephile to actually make movies yourself?

There was no distinction in my mind. I was always somehow going to make movies, even before you even know what that means. I suppose it came into focus when I was a teenager, and I started to think more about screenwriting. Screenwriting, you could at least start. You could make the movie on paper.

I started to notice screenwriters in the ‘70s. It was that golden moment - never before and never since have screenwriters come into their own like they did as authors, where they were distinctive, original voices, who wrote original screenplays like playwrights had written plays and novelists had written novels.

If I had, for some reason, failed - it scares me now to think of the young person I was now coming to Hollywood thinking I was going to be a success - if I hadn't succeeded as being a screenwriter, I'm sure I would have fallen back on being a cinephile. I'm sure I would have ended up being a film programmer, or a curator, or selling posters in a bookstore or writing movie books. The obsession would have been channeled into some kind of peripheral thing.

Did directing ever interest you?

I think I found out over the years that I'm quite terribly lazy. Maybe I don't have the personality for it, and I don't have the will to do it. Particularly, in my view, as Hollywood went into decline, and that era of personal cinema went into decline and became harder to do.

I realize as I became successful as a writer that I live a life of absolute freedom. And I jealously guard it. If I became a director, I would have to give up that freedom to a certain extent. You have to show up every day for months and months and months, and have to deal with all different kinds of people.

Is that decline why Steven Soderbergh has been talking seriously about retiring from directing?

Nobody has been more prolific and nobody deserves to take a breather. But it's absolutely tied in with how much worse Hollywood has become, and the fights and the battles and the compromise. And he talks too about how the art form itself isn't as important as it once was to the culture. It just doesn't seem to have the impact that it had for us, watching movies in the 1970s. The distractions that young people have, video games and everything else, just a multitude of choices. A movie just seems like a weaker thing, a less important thing.

Do you feel that way about screenwriting?

I think it's a natural point that people reach in any profession when they reach a certain age. We all feel it at some point. You have to get beyond it, or reinvent yourself and try something completely different. I'm obviously disappointed and disillusioned by the business, and the kind of movies that predominate now. It's changed rapidly, and for the worse.

I sort of made a decision a while ago, a good long while ago, to only work with directors that I have some respect for, or fellow creative people, rather than work for studios for hire. And I've been luckily been able to do that, as well as write my own original scripts. I'm still fairly excited about doing that, but you do feel a sense of backing off and taking a breather, recharging the batteries after doing it for so long.

I know a screenwriter writes the dialogue for a film, but how much do you shape the contours of action scenes and other moments without dialogue?

It varies from movie to movie, but it is one of the maddening aspects of being a screenwriter that when people think of it, they think it must be what actors say, and the plot. And obviously, any screenwriter worth his salt is dealing with many more elements than that. They're dealing with a lot of visual elements, action sequences and whatever else the movie requires.

Like this film tonight. The most important moments to me are the look on actors' faces. Some people might think, ‘Oh that's the actor." But that's a huge part of the storytelling. That's all in the screenplay, or should be or could be.

How is your relationship with Steven Soderbergh? The commentary track for "The Limey" has become infamous, which I took as sort of a brotherly ribbing.

Yeah, exactly. I'm happy when people realize it's just like two friends having an argument. Sometimes I say a "love-hate" relationship, but "hate" is the wrong word. Love is the word that's more germane. It's a standard male thing, when you're in the same creative profession, that Lennon-McCartney, Peter Cook-Dudley Moore thing. There's always that level of competitiveness or envy, even at a low level. I think it always come with the territory. He's one of the great people in my life and incredibly generous. We're both, despite "The Limey," actually non-confrontational.

Tell me about "Haywire." Will that commentary track be as contentious?

No, we're not going to do one, because you can't top "The Limey!" I'm quite happy with "Haywire," so there really would be no drama to it. The first two films of ours were original screenplays by me, so I was maybe a little too attached to them. This one was more of a collaboration between the two of us from scratch.

He saw Gina Carano and wanted to make a movie around her?

He was just watching TV one night, and saw some sort of cage fighting, and thought "Who's this?" She was incredibly attractive and had this martial arts talent, and why not make an action movie with her. And I though that was the most horrible genre in the history of film. And his response was, "That just shows you how low the bar is."

What was your way into creating this story?

I hate the genre of "female action hero" so much that I ignored it. Given that, I thought of it as the opposite of that, which is like a women's melodrama, like the kind Hollywood always used to make, about a young woman trying to find her place in the world. It's really the opposite of an action movie.

In a typical women's picture, it's the emotions and psychology that's affecting the character rather than external action. I thought that if I could do that along with the external action it would be interesting. Basically it is just a B movie, but it does have that other level simmering under the surface.

One thing I noticed from the trailer, and a couple of clips I've seen, is this sense of violence erupting out of nowhere.

That was Steven's desire to show fights in a more realistic way, to have fight scenes play out in real time in real circumstances. When a fight erupts in a bar, nobody knows why, it just suddenly happened. The shock of that, and then over with fairly quickly, not these ridiculous extended cartoon fights.

 

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