Caffeinated Clint’s Greats : Interview Series

What is Caffeinated Clint’s Greats?
I’ve had plenty of emails from you guys asking such questions as “Who were your favourite actors growing up?”, “Do you have a favourite movie?”, “You’re producing films now, any particular film that inspired you to take that road?” and “Hey man, Got Kristen Stewart’s phone number?”, and it gave my an idea – why not profile some of my favourite films? (It saves me from flaming a pimply, unintelligent publicist or another fresh-from-junior-high exec over some harebrained remake he’s just greenlit for a couple of weeks, after all) and in doing so, why not make contact with some of the people from these films?

Today’s Favourite Film Profiled :

Title : St Elmo’s Fire
Year : 1985
Director : Joel Schumacher
Starring : Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Mare Winningham, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, Andie MacDowell, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Jenny Wright

Regular readers of Moviehole will know I’ve been hooked on ”St Elmo’s Fire” since, well, Kirby watched Dale rush back into the surgery.

I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I’m so attracted to about the movie – all I know is, I’ve watched it about 200 times since catching it a mostly-empty theatre sometime in 1985 (It’s likely the only VHS in my collection that barely plays now because of how many times it’s been played) and the mere mention of the title evokes a smile every time.

I’d say my fascination with the film begun because of the film’s ‘all star’ cast – the coolest of cats, all sharing the one litter box! – but also its divine soundtrack (the title track I remember hearing, for the first time, at a roller-skating rink. In fact, I believe it was at the same roller-skating rink that I first spotted the poster for the film), but over the years I’ve learnt to appreciate it more for its credible chronicle of friendship – elements of which I’m sure a lot of us can relate to – and it’s brave, uninhibited performances, particularly by the likes of Rob Lowe and Demi Moore.

This was also the start of my love affair with Joel Schumacher. Oh, shut up! For every bad film the guy has done (*cough* “Batman & Robin *cough*), he’s done two good ones. And you know it. Look back through the man’s filmography and you’ll realize he’s treated you to more good times than most filmmakers. From “St Elmo’s Fire” to “The Lost Boys”, to “Flatliners”, “Falling Down” and “Tigerland” – If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Schumacher was making movies squarely aimed at…well, me.

Q&A with Carl Kurlander :

Carl Kurlander wrote “St Elmo’s Fire” with Schumacher. I caught up with the former earlier this week to discuss the conception of Kirby, Jules, Kevin, Billy,Alec, Leslie, Wendy and, of course, Dale Biberman.

Straight-up, are you proud of “St Elmo’s Fire”?

It’s funny-when the movie came out some of my friends made fun of it, and we had some tough reviews, but I am very proud of the movie now and all the life experience that went into it.

Is it your script on screen though? One-hundred percent?

Though I had written an earlier script called “St. Elmo’s Fire” while an intern for Thom Mount, then head of production at Universal, based on a short story I wrote in college, the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire” really came out of a dialogue Joel Schumacher and I had been having for quite awhile about “life after college.” I was twenty four when we wrote the actual script together and was living much of what we were writing about, and wanted to make a movie about “my generation.” Joel kept telling me that it was not just “my generation,” but every generation which goes through this– the “this” being that these feelings in your twenties about whether you can actually become a “real person” with your first job, your first apartment, your first real love. And I feel the movie really captured that search for identity and so, yes, I’m really proud of that-probably more today than I was at the time. It’s amazing and humbling to me that the film has had such an after-life.

Were these the characters from your script?

The original script I wrote was about my infatuation with a girl named Lynn Snyderman – who became Dale Biberman – while she was working as a waitress and I was a bellhop at the St. Elmo Hotel in Chautauqua New York-hence, the “St. Elmo” title. I was so obsessed with Lynn I had mailed her a short story I first wrote called “St. Elmo’s Fire” (today, they call this stalking), and instead of calling the cops, she encouraged me to write more which led to me getting a freak internship to Universal Studios. Meanwhile, Lynn moved to D.C. to work for Senator Arlen Specter-so conveniently we shot blocks from her workplace. Some of that original material still exists in the Kirbo/Dale subplot, but most of the screenplay came out of people who I knew and who Joel knew, and our own experiences in various forms.

So who were they?

“Kirbo” was a nickname Joel had for me based on a story I told him about a high school friend- and while that character has some lines from the actual short story and original script-I was probably closest to, and wrote the most lines for the “Kevin” character played by Andrew McCarthy who was also based on my best friend who wrote for the newspaper in college; Jules was the name of a real girl who I was living with in an anarchist collective in a rough section of Hollywood who was as wild as the character, but some of Jules’ humor was based also on Joel and my mutual friend Wendy Finerman who has become a huge producer (“Forrest Gump”; “The Devil Wears Prada”); the Rob Lowe character Billy had some composites of some folks I knew and some folks Joel knew.

I used to think some of the more innocent idealistic characters were closer to me; and some of the wilder, darker characters were Joel, but frankly, we each put a lot of ourselves into all of them. For instance, I hate to admit it, but one drunken evening, I did put a girl’s car keys in my pants, and I once dramatically tried to “freeze myself to death” during college after a girl broke my heart-but as I was going to school at Duke in North Carolina where it never gets that cold so it was more about the melodrama.

The truth is that for the script that became “St. Elmo’s Fire” Joel was twenty years older than me and had much more worldliness and controlled the structure of the script and integrated many of my real life experiences, combining those with his own, to direct the film. We wrote the script known as “St. Elmo’s Fire” together with me putting pages on the wetbar of his office each morning and him re-writing them and combining them with his own scenes during the day. The whole script was written very quickly, but we re-wrote many things, even on the set. So in the end, I consider the characters in the movie to be a product of both Joel and I. and our friendship.

Any of the casting choices you weren’t particularly happy with?

Nah. I know Emilio strongly wanted to play Billy, the part Rob Lowe would play in the film. But Joel had decided on Rob, and still wanted to use Emilio’s huge talent in the movie and so offered him “Kirbo.” Emilio, knowing that much of this came from my somewhat pathetic life, would good-natured joke with me about some of the things I did to try to win Lynn’s affection.

And, before Andie McDowell was cast, I never felt any actress could live up to the real life object of my desire, Lynn. But the first day of the reading of the script, Joel asked me to tell the real life Carl/Lynn story to Andie and Emilio. As I remember it, Andie was wearing a t-shirt that said “if you love something, set it free. If it won’t come back, hunt it down and kill it”-or something like that. And after I told the whole St. Elmo story, she just smiled and said something like “you have beautiful eyes” in that sweet Southern drawl-and well,… I always thought she was doing a bit of method acting in trying to get me to be infatuated with her… and it worked.

As for the rest of the cast, I was lucky to be in on all the casting and those who got the parts really emerged as the frontrunners-though we had some great people read such as Anthony Edwards who would later do “ER” and Lea Thompson who I had a bit of a crush on. A friend had suggested casting Kevn Bacon from “Footloose” and Jennifer Beals from “Flashdance” and getting the rest of the actors from Yale Drama school. But we looked at hundreds of actors.

I love Demi Moore in this movie. She’s brilliant.

Joel spotted Demi Moore after she was auditioning for John Hughes in the office next door-and, at his instruction, I ran after her. That may have been one of the few times I ran after anything in my life-and it seem so hoaky- there I was panting, saying “excuse me, we are doing this movie…” Demi turned out to be so wonderful in so many ways in this role as I think it ended up being cathartic for purging her own wild side.

Any other stories about the cast members?

I recall that after Andrew’s audition, I ended up driving him around in my Rabbit Hatchback (in this recent book, Susannah Gora’s “You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried”, he talks about me being Joel’s assistant and thinking he blew the audition), but I remember thinking how much he was like Kevin. He’d say all these cynical things-sometimes about the script, and I could never tell if he was in character. But I thought he did a great job in the film.

He did. I still think he’s one of the most underrated actors of his time… as is Judd Nelson

I remember Judd after Breakfast Club you thought could do anything-but I think he had a rebel side and playing the leader was tougher on him. He had actually graduated from college so that helped. Most of the others were either still taking classes or had gone straight to acting.
It is funny, in that we had written “Wendy” as this character fighting with her weight and then Mare came in so thin, and we re-wrote, and then, she was pregnant during the movie, so we put the weight lines back in the script. And Ally Sheedy, well, who wasn’t in love with her after War Games, and Breakfast Club, and she was very sweet in person.

Again, it is hard to imagine anyone but each of these actors playing the role now. It just wouldn’t be the same movie.

How did you get hooked up with Joel Schumacher?

I think it was my first week at Universal as an intern, based on a scholarship I had won while at Duke University. I had to get lunch for a meeting that was between Thom Mount, who was head of production at Universal, Bruce Berman, the executive in charge of me as an intern (who now runs Village Roadshow), and Joel Schumacher. I got Joel “gazpacho, no sour cream, no croutons, chopped egg on the side.” The meeting was about a movie Joel was doing called “D.C. Cab” which starred Mr. T, Bill Maher, Gary Busey, about cab drivers.

Yeah I know it well, ”D.C Cab” is great!

Yep. A year later, after I had written the spec script “St. Elmo’s” and had gotten an agent, I was on the Universal lot and the production coordinator Mary Courtney Edwards invited me to see “dailies.” I asked her if it would be all right, and she said sure, the director was a sweetheart. Well, the lights came up after dailies and Joel looked over at me and curtly asked who I was-I was nervous as hell and said, “I’m Carl, I got you gazpacho, no sour cream, no croutons, and chopped egg on the side a year ago.” Joel laughed and had me get him a Perrier, lemon, no ice. I eventually became his assistant, and he become a real mentor to me in so many ways. I was terribly shy, especially with girls, and Joel encouraged me to be more aggressive with them, and even taught me how to get a good table in a restaurant.

That’s great. And then you started working together?

After “D.C. Cab” came out, Joel was thinking about what to do next, and one rainy Thursday, I told him the story of the girl I had met at the “St. Elmo” hotel and I how I had written this short story to impress her and how I had expanded it into a screenplay. That night, Joel read the screenplay and the next day, he said he wanted to do a movie about life after college and use my title and the Carl/Lynn story, but make it an ensemble. We drove around for three days around L.A. talking about stories and the final script that would become “St. Elmo’s Fire” we wrote very fast together. The title and movie always had a “magic” about it, and I was lucky in that, having been Joel’s assistant, and learned how to get lunch orders – and much of show biz is about learning to get the lunch order right, I was part of every aspect of production alongside of Joel-which most screenwriters don’t get to do.

You didn’t work with Joel after “St. Elmo’s”… was there a bust-up or something?

Joel and I had a very close working relationship and he was very much my mentor, but that cut both ways. I had to establish my own identity and wrote a script right after “St. Elmo’s” on my own called “Baby Talk” for Steve Tisch and Wendy Finerman about a guy who thought he could talk to babies after his wife leaves him. Joel and I wrote another script after that together about how one transitions from hanging out with the guys to being hooked up with a girl and establishing that whole life-which was also very personal. That got optioned by Paramount, but never made. We worked together unofficially on “Cousins” and, eventually a “St. Elmo’s II: 5 years after.” The premise of the story was carved out without me, and eventually Joel had me write a draft, but it was definitely too soon, and, by then, it was not from the heart as much as an “assignment.” And it was hard then to get all the actors together because they all were in different places with their careers.
At the time, I was writing screenplays for various studios and pilots for networks. I had a script at NBC I did for comedian Louie Anderson which got a lot of attention, and so was offered a housekeeping deal on the Fox lot by producer David Newman. I was really wanting to establish my own identity and Joel sent me the script for a movie that he was about to direct, and I didn’t probably handle it as maturely as I could have. We had a long conversation about who I was, and what I wanted, and well, we had been incredibly close for most of the Eighties with many mutual friends. But I had-like the spec script we had written-met a girl who would become my wife Natalie-and well, our lives, like the spec script we hard written a few years earlier, just went in different ways.

Do you keep in touch?

Joel and I have kept in touch a bit, and I called him last year around Father’s Day just to tell him how grateful I was to him for all he had done to shape me in my youth. Mentorships are complicated, as I have discovered being a mentor to a few people myself. And Joel used to quote I believe it was Orsen Welles-”success-better too late than too soon.” On my twenty fifth birthday, I was at the table read for “St. Elmo’s Fire” with all the actors. It was heady stuff and hard to not be affected by.
But there is still one script I’d like to write with Joel about those days. And I hope Joel will write more of his own life-which is fascinating and certainly worthy of a few movies.
He has been a mentor to many people, and I think it is a bit like being in a relationship-when you are out of it-you can still be “friends” but it is hard to recapture that closeness you once had.

True. What’s “My Tale of Two Cities”?

“My Tale of Two Cities” is a movie about people and cities reinventing themselves, which, like “St. Elmo’s Fire”, came out of life, and which, much to my own amazement, is playing in theaters in selected cities this summer. (see www.mytaleoftwocities.com)
After “St. Elmo’s”, I ended up writing a lot of scripts under contract and doing TV, and, though I was living above Sunset Plaza in my dream house, I felt like I had become Holden Caulfield’s older brother who had written one good short story and then sold out and driven around the Hollywood Hills in his Jaguar. Okay, I had a BMW.
Then I got this serendipitous job offer to move back to my hometown to teach at the University of Pittsburgh for what I thought would be a one year Hollywood sabbatical, but the next thing you know, I ended up on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on a program about people who changed their lives. Just as I told Oprah how happy my wife and I were raising our daughter in what was literally “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (Mr. Rogers taped his show a few blocks from where we were living), Fred Rogers passed away, and the city of Pittsburgh went bankrupt.

My dermatologist offered me money to make a movie about Pittsburgh’s efforts to comeback as a city, and my cameraman said he would only film it if he could shoot me asking my dermatologist for money for the movie-as he was convinced this whole Don Quixote quest to help our hometown would be more entertaining than just talking about Pittsburgh.

So we ended up making this film which is not so much a “Roger & Me” as a “Mister Rogers & Me” about the city of Pittsburgh which built America with its steel, conquered polio, and invented everything from aluminum to the Big Mac, which now, like many cities, has been challenged to reinvent itself. For the movie, we ask Mister Rogers’ real life neighbors from the famous (Teresa Heinz Kerry, Hall of Fame Steeler Franco Harris) to my old gym teacher and, of course, Lynn, the girl who inspired “St. Elmo’s Fire”, how Pittsburgh can comeback as a city. In a move that even my cameraman shook his head at, we re-enact a scene from the original St. Elmo’s Fire short story with her daughter who looks like she did when she was young and an intern who bore an uncanny resemblance to “young Carl.”

The amazing thing is that as we were filming, Pittsburgh really did come back as a city to the point that last year it hosted the G-20 Economic Summit where it was called “a model for the future” and it was just named “America’s Most Livable City’ by Forbes.com. But the movie turned out to be the most personal thing I did since “St. Elmo’s Fire” and has gotten the best reaction of anything I have done since the movie.

That’s great. It sounds like it’s striking a chord with people

The film became not just about cities, but about people reinventing themselves and that is something a lot of people can relate to these days. “My Tale of Two Cities” has now been picked up by Panorama Entertainment and is playing in theaters in selected cities this summer. You can go read Newsweek’s Howard Fineman’s quote on the movie and see clips at the website. Like “St. Elmo’s Fire”, I think the movie is about trying to figure out who you are-which doesn’t end when you are 22.

Look forward to it. Did “St Elmo’s” land you a lot of jobs back in the day?

After “St. Elmo’s”, I wrote scripts in for Universal, Paramount, Sony, Orion, Disney, and Fox which danced around in “development” almost getting made in various incarnations. I also wrote and produced television shows at CBS, Fox, and NBC including spending seven years writing and producing various incarnations of the “Saved by The Bell” franchise. I was a showrunner on a show called “Malibu, CA” (an ill-fated cross between “Saved By the Bell” and “Baywatch”) in 2000, the year before I went back to Pittsburgh to teach. When I saw my life played back on Oprah in 2003, she had said I was looking for a more authentic life-and I think she is right-though that is not easy.

I continue to teach, but also am the executive producer for a non-profit, the Steeltown Entertainment Project, which has been successfully developing a commercial entertainment industry in Western Pennsylvania which also hopes to build on Fred Rogers’ legacy of making film and TV programming which would, as Fred said, “make good attractive.” To that end, we just finished a really powerful documentary on Jonas Salk and the development of the Salk polio vaccine which is getting a lot of attention because it tells a hopeful story of just what can be accomplished when we all pull together which seems timely these days.

But as I mentioned, to me, “St. Elmo’s Fire” was about finding your identity-which is the journey of a lifetime. And, though we may be older, for a lot of us-this is still our “time on the edge” where we are trying to make sure we are living a life that is worthwhile. Though we no longer live in the “fabulous” eighties apartments, nor have that hair or fashion sense which seems to be captured in time in the movie, hopefully we still see flashes of “St. Elmo’s Fire”, and have some good friends to help us through the rough waters.