Richard Wenk – The Magnificent Seven

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we got lucky enough at Moviehole to get an interview with scribe Richard Wenk when he had worked on “The Equalizer.” Now he’s back as a co-writer on “The Magnificent Seven,” a “reimagined” remake of the huge hit back in 1960. Wenk was hugely affable and entertaining as he talked about his new project, which from the trailer looks to be a blockbuster for sure. We got on track immediately on how this film Columbia Pictures production got made.

Moviehole: How did you start working on this project?
Richard Wenk: I got a call from Denzel (Washington) and Antoine (Fuqua) and Todd Black, all three who I worked with shoulder to shoulder on “TheEqualizer,” it was an easy transition to work with those you worked with before. They met with MGM and talked about some of the things the movie might be missing or casting with some adjustments.

Moviehole: The original “Magnificent Seven” has a big reputation – what with actors Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson – how do you begin a remake of such a big hit?
RW: I didn’t, it was Nic Pizzolatto who gets all the credit, he wrote a first draft years ago and he crafted a fresh,updated setting. It’s not set in Mexico but in California, it had interesting characters already. I came in to adjust and smooth things out, I changed things based on the casting of the characters. I want to give most of the credit to Mr. Pizzolatto – there were other writers, but his version was the most interesting draft.

Moviehole: What time era is this?
RW: It’s around 1870, about five years after the Civil War, so that is percolating with characters. Denzel was a Union soldier, and there are racial overtones with an American Indian and a Mexican bandit — the palette was great to massage these characters into a cohesive unit which they don’t begin as. They begin as gunfighters and become a unit and want to redeem themselves in some way. That was in the original one too, with James Coburn and Yul Brynner, they had a common cause they could get behind. It begins about money and becomes about having peace with the past. That was nice to do as I like to do movies that end up there.

Moviehole: What was it like working with Chris Pratt, Denzel (again), and the others?
RW: They corralled themselves together. I met with Vince, Manual, Chris, Denzel, I met with them all separately or four at a time. Chris’s character changed quite a bit from beginning to end, he had a lot of input. They were all so professional and committed, my job was to filter through all their ideas to find their way into the script.

Moviehole: What were the challenges of this film?
RW: I think the biggest challenge was having seven people in a scene and making sure that each perspective was dealt with and given their due, all had specific talents and skills. It was a little daunting to keep focusing on seven people and they are all very good, the balance that Antione Fuqua had was really good. You don’t know when you are on set watching it because it’s such a huge production, standing in middle of an Old West town. It’s not only about telling the tale but illuminating all the characters in this great light.

That was something magical that Antoine was able to do. When I watched the preview, it was every character, you were sucked into everyone’s character and felt for them, the task was to give everyone their due and make you care about each one.

It transcends being a western; it’s really the redemption of men, finding a ray of light after coming out of darkness which could be the Civil War or coming out of a criminal past. Martin (Sensmeir) is Red Harvest, an American Indian — it’s a beautiful scene when he joins them. That was sort of created by Nic, he had Red Harvest similar to how it appears in the older film.

So many things can go wrong in these movies, but under Antoine’s leadership, it was the intonation of the whole movie, it was perfect, no egos, nobody was fighting for screen time, just a group of guys who had their own journey in their heads and stayed true to them. As a writer, I was able to sit with each actor or four at time. Vince (D’Onofrio) had a way of speaking and certain words that was in the script. Ethan (Hawke) and I talked in NYC of him being very superstitious and together we made sure that was reflected in the script. Actors are sometimes happy to participate and then can over-participate, it can become about them. Chris had a great deal of ideas, everyone was respectful to each other and understood the palette of the movie.

Moviehole: Has your writing changed since last we spoke? Do you work on new techniques or strategies?
RW: I learn a great deal on each movie — like coming in with “The Magnificent Seven,” with existing material, staying underneath and getting out of way. And with Nic’s story, making sure it doesn’t get lost. When I did “The Equalizer 2,” I was far more comfortable because I knew who would be reading it. I’m now far more comfortable in my storytelling abilities. Not many movies get made, so when you see it on a screen and watch others work, the next time you write a movie you take that into account, and you learn from it. You learn all the time and learn to trust your instincts when things are working and not working.

I think Francis Ford Coppola was helping me edit a film when he said, “the goal is to get the person to turn the page. When you want to turn the page.” I’ve learned to try to think that way when I work. And sometimes the best things you write, take you down the wrong road. That happened to me on Equalizer, I had to go back and acknowledge one of the best scenes took me down the wrong road, I had to take that out. Sometimes it takes five days to write four pages. You have to let go of things and take things out. When I have to work really, really hard, there’s something wrong. I start thinking there is something wrong with this whole approach.

Moviehole: If you were going to tell a beginning writer how to break into the biz, what would you advise?
RW: Two things, I would read all successful movie scripts, from little movies to those in cineplexes, you should immerse yourself in that. I would look at all the movies – my homepage is the iTunes trailer page, there are movies and there are some that will go right to iTunes, OnDemand and out to theaters. These are the movies that got made – why did they get made, that someone wrote a check for? You want someone to make the movie. I’d want to write something somewhat marketable where actors want to portray the characters, whether it was a small film, etc. Looking at films, do I have a story to match that world?

You could write a Marvel movie, but you have to know what a Marvel movie is and what people want to see. I’m writing a film like a Marvel movie, it’s a reimaging of a movie called “Universal Soldier,” with Jason Blumenthal and Todd Black. There’s no cast yet, it’s a new kind of genre – this version has nothing to do with the old one, like “The Equalizer.” I’m sort of constructing it like a Marvel or DC movie. I would tell all young screenwriters to start there, that’s the business part, people write checks to make movies.

Roger Birnbaum who was a producer of the old “Magficent Seven,” said “You know how to decide how to make a movie? If I can put a full page ad in the New York Times.”

Moviehole: What are your hopes for this film? I know westerns can be a tough sell, right? Although Quentin Tarantino does it quite often.
RW: I think it’s a really terrific film, it’s got fun, weight, great action, I hope people embrace it as a great piece of entertainment. I’ve seen it with two preview audiences and the reaction went through the roof. It was a very hard movie to make. This movie is a much bigger movie than Quentin’s last one, his took place in sort of one room, it was authentic and interesting. This movie is more panoramic with big ideas and a big scope, yet handled with a lot of weight and grit to it. Antoine is a genius and he elevates these things beyond what is on the page, and he keeps topping himself.

Moviehole: How about your upcoming projects?
RW: “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” is coming out in October — I just saw that one, it’s playing better than the first one. Also “The Lake,” “The Equalizer 2” is finished and waiting to be scheduled and I’m working on a project with Lionsgate called “The Second life of Nick Mason” – it’s a book, a best-selling book that was on the New York Times list by Steve Hamilton.

And there you have it. We hope to speak again to Richard in the near future!