Whether he is a screenwriter for hire or a writer/director, Brian Helgeland thrives on mixing and matching his work. He sharpened his screenwriting teeth on such films as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 976-Evil, and Highway to Hell. Things changed for Brian when he persuaded Richard Donner to let him script the Stallone/Banderas spy thriller Assassins. From there was a phenomenal leap into the Hollywood fast lane thanks to his Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential screenplay, before making an auspicious directorial debut with Payback, which he also wrote.
Despite problems on set with star Mel Gibson, the film’s commercial success led to A Knight’s Tale, an offbeat period comedy that introduced Hollywood to Aussie Heath Ledger and beautiful newcomer Shannyn Sossamon.
Despite lukewarm reviews, the film’s commercial success led to a follow up with his same leads, but a different genre, The Order. A supernatural thriller, Ledger plays Alex Bernier, a member of an arcane order of priests known as Carolingians. When the head of the order dies, Alex is sent to Rome to investigate mysterious circumstances surrounding the death. The body bears strange marks on the chest which may or may not be the sign of a Sin Eater (Benno Fürmann), a renegade who offers absolution, last rites and therefore a path to heaven outside the jurisdiction of the church. Alex enlists the aid of his old comrade Father Thomas (Mark Addy) and of a troubled artist (Sossamon) upon whom he once performed an exorcism. He soon finds himself plunged into a mystery only to find that he himself is at the heart of it.
Helgeland also scripted Clint Eastwood’s upcoming Mystic River and Tony Scott’s Man of Fire. A busy man who had much to discuss with PAUL FISCHER.
Brian there doesn’t seem to be as much publicity on The Order as one might expect. Is that because Fox because doesn’t quite know how to put a handle on it?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s the most commercial movie ever made, but I think it’s a very good film, I’m really proud of it and I stand, completely, with it. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s my favorite movie I’ve ever worked on.
Why is that?
I think just because, I think because between the actors, production designer, composer and everybody, we all had ideas, we all wanted to kind of push and try to see if we could make it work. I think it was kind of a fearless production in that way, which is always really nice. There wasn’t much second guessing anybody, in that the actors would have their take on the characters and I would just try not to second guess THEM, and the DP had certain things he wanted to do. Everyone tried to push things as much as they felt they could as far, in the interest of telling the story in a way that I’m really proud of. I guess there’s kind of strangeness to the film that I’m really excited about and proud of. I think, at the same time, when you try to think of how to sell this movie, it is difficult.
Where does the idea for a supernatural thriller with a religious undertone come from?
Well, the way it came about was I have plenty of reference books in my office, which I’m always thumbing through and a book of quotations which I look through all the time, One day I was looking through, I have a book called Brewer’s Dictionary of Fables and it’s a kind of book where it has definitions like Achilles’ Heel and there was a definition for Sin Eater, a little two sentence description. It said in ancient times, one who ate bread and salt off the body of the corpse to absolve them of their sins, and it said something about usually someone who had been excommunicated. I didn’t have a movie or anything, but I immediately thought, you know, what a kind of cool character for a film, and that was it, and I didn’t do anything with it after that. Then finally I got around to finally coming up with a story for the whole thing and I sold the script to Fox back in ’96, that was basically a kind of murder mystery, cult thriller, kind of straight ahead and I wasn’t the director of it. Then after Payback, I tried to get it going but unsuccessfully, as me directing it after a couple of other directors had come and gone on it. Then, it didn’t happen and I went and did A Knight’s Tale and then after I did that, I tried again to do it and then it happened the second time, but when I read the script the second time, I just didn’t like it that much, because it just seemed very kind of plot heavy and kind of by the book. Five years after I had originally written it, it wasn’t what I had written.
There’s a thing in Heath’s back story, in the original script, that he once had a relationship, a sort of unconsummated romantic relationship with this girl in the film and that was just really a back story element. So for whatever reason I was looking at that one day and I was thinking: Wouldn’t it be neat if everything that happens in this movie is the result of the fact that he had a chance to love this woman and he turned his back basically on his chance to love. In my head when I re-wrote it, everything that happens in the movie is a result of his having a chance to love and not taking it, so I re-wrote the script. Basically it is a completely new script and as dumb as it sounds, I don’t think anyone ever really noticed.
Did you accentuate the religious aspects second time around?
Not really. Not really, and they were always what they were. I just used them as a jumping off point, for things having to do with faith, whether it’s religious faith, faith in yourself what it is and how you use it to make it through the day.
Is that also part of your own philosophy?
Yeah, I think you have to have something. I mean the power of faith is something you believe in that has no physical proof. And that’s how you become an atheist and on the other hand it is also the power of it. But it is faith in whatever it is, be it love or in your own abilities.
What do you think is unique about Heath?
I think there are a couple of things. I think his voice first of all. I don’t know anyone who has a voice like he has; he’s channeled a Richard Burton voice, but he has a very kind of powerful nuanced voice that I really enjoy. But I hate to say because it is such a cliché at this point but I think he has wisdom beyond his years.
Would you work with him again, you think?
Oh yeah, I would be happy to. I have met his family so many times and he seems like the father of this big extended family with father and mother, step parents, half brothers and sisters and brothers and sisters and he feels like he is the father of a whole group of them.
They all kind of look to him for guidance; he has this kind of odd maturity to him.
Are you more comfortable as a writer or director these days?
I think as a director just because I realize that though I like a couple of things that I have written that I have not directed, I am proud of them but I have sort of a big detachment for them so I just don’t feel part of them. A big part of the whole experience is making a film is the gratification is, the experience and collaboration which is another reason why I like to work with the same cast, in that we can all kind of see something different from each other.
Are you happy with Mystic River?
I think it is really good and some of it is really startling.
How do you write a script for a director like Clint Eastwood?
It’s tricky because, for me, I had to get past the hero worship aspect of it so I could deal with him in a how-are-we-going-to-do-this kind of way. So I had to forget the fact that I adore him but he was good but he was very gracious to the writer and the entire crew. It was a pleasure.
Talk about Man of Fire.
Denzel Washington plays a body guard and it’s a kidnap movie; the best way to describe it is Denzel Washington as Dirty Harry basically.
THE ORDER OPENS ON SEPTEMBER 5
MYSTIC RIVER OPENS ON OCTOBER 8
MAN OF FIRE WILL BE RELEASED 2004