Sometimes the best career advice is for someone to tell you your work sucks.
Years ago, when I first met writer, director and producer Frank Pierson at the Austin Film Festival’s writer’s conference, I likened it to a devout Catholic meeting the Pope. For a writer, you just couldn’t get much better than Mr. Pierson.
I call him Mr. Pierson because he deserves it. He was one of the greatest screenwriters of our era. His body of work and his generosity of sharing advice with other writers are legendary in Hollywood… and he had a very special connection with Texas.
His body of work and his generosity of sharing advice with other writers are legendary in Hollywood… and he had a very special connection with Texas.
Barbara Morgan, founder and executive director of the AFF, told me when she’d invited him to attend their starter fest 18 years ago, she really had “no reason to believe he would.” However, AFF included a conference for writers and that made it worthy to Mr. Pierson. He did come to support the newbie festival and “that said a lot about him,” she remembers.
“There were thousands of reasons not to have the festival again,” admits Morgan. “Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. There were only about 10 reasons to do it again. Frank was one of those reasons.”
That first year, Mr. Pierson pulled Morgan aside and said, “Do you realize what you’ve done? I don’t know why it took two girls in Austin, Texas to do what we (the Writers Guild of America) should have done years ago. This is wonderful. You need to keep doing it.”
The second year, Mr. Pierson personally helped make it possible for the event to grow. He got the prestigious Writers Guild to become a festival sponsor. A very big deal. The AFF will celebrate its 19th year this October 18-25 and in many ways it’s due to the support of Frank Pierson.
A way with dialogue
Though his name might not ring a bell with a lot of folks, if you are somewhere between 18 and 80, you’ve watched something on a screen that he’s written. From an Oscar-winning movie to Emmy winning television, this man had a range and a wit and a way with dialogue that is unforgettable.
As a person, he also was unforgettable. I have a hurt in my heart today because my writer hero passed away on Sunday. He was 87 and had still been working.
Though best known for his films that collected a slew of awards including an Oscar win and several more nominations, Mr. Pierson’s greatest body of work was in television (1962-2012) starting with Have Gun Will Travel and Naked City and ending with The Good Wife and Mad Men.
Only two years ago, at 85, he was consulting producer for The Good Wife. This year he was consulting producer for 25 episodes of Mad Men. He also co-wrote an episode, “Signal 30,” with Matthew Weiner, the series creator.
In a statement from the Writers Guild, Weiner said, “I feel very lucky, as do all the writers at Mad Men, to have collaborated with and enjoyed the amazing presence that was Frank Pierson. He was a writer’s writer: sharp and funny and clever and, most importantly, honest about the details that make one human. He was a great artist and made everyone around him better. I can’t believe I knew him.”
And I can’t believe I met him.
Austin Film Festival fixture
Mr. Pierson was a fixture at the Austin Film Festival for years and so was I for the first seven straight. (I still attend every chance I get.) Once, I was lucky enough to land a one-on-one consultation with him to discuss one of my screenplays in progress. This debonair gentleman with snow white hair and neatly trimmed beard was very kind as he told me all the million things wrong about my work. He didn’t sugar coat. After many re-writes, heeding his advice, my script went on to shine and win a few awards.
Another year, Mr. Pierson participated in an AFF panel on “violence in films.” I remember it was held at the beautiful old Paramount Theater on Congress (and how it made me worry about Houston’s grand dame, the River Oaks Theater, whose welfare always seemed to be in jeopardy).
Screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) was also among the luminaries on stage with Mr. Pierson. There was debate about how, or if, film violence contributed to violence in society.
That was probably 15 years ago and even today, with the Colorado movie theater shooting in our consciousness, no one seems to have an answer.
Some of Mr. Pierson’s own films fell squarely into the category under discussion. He felt that if violence was integral to the story, it could not be left out. Sometime violence is the story. I asked about “gratuitous” violence, like when writers throw in a scene just to get an R rating or to stir controversy. That led to some heated, defensive discussion.
Later on, during the conference, Mr. Pierson happened to see me and he came over and whispered in my ear that his next film was going to be “Very, very violent. Lots and lots of violence.” Then he looked me in the eye and grinned. I was so stunned that the Frank Pierson was talking to me that to this day I don’t know if he was kidding or not! I was speechless.
After serving twice as president of the Writers Guild, he went on to become president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people) from 2001-2005.
Mr. Pierson had an Oscar of his own, for scripting Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Two other films of his were nominated for the honor, Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Cat Ballou (1965). These movies featured mega-watt stars, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, and Jane Fonda respectively.
In Cool Hand Luke, about a convict (Newman) in a Florida prison camp who refuses to knuckle under to the system, Mr. Pierson wrote a line that has been quoted and misquoted ever since. He put it into the mouth of the evil prison boss; “What we've got here is failure to communicate.” The audience knew then what was about happen with his billy club.
In Cool Hand Luke, about a convict in a Florida prison camp who refuses to knuckle under to the system, Mr. Pierson wrote a line that has been quoted and misquoted ever since.
That line is #11 in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.
It’s been repeated in everything from song lyrics (Guns N’ Roses’ “Civil War” and “Madagascar”) to cartoon characters (a Rugrats parody was dubbed Cool Hand Angelica) to television dramas (in an NCIS episode DiNozzo talks to God when he’s alone in a chapel) to horror films (Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake).
For Dog Day Afternoon Mr. Pierson created a couple of down and out bank robbers who create a media frenzy by holding hostages. A young Al Pacino plays the lead, Sonny. This scene, courtesy of Wikiquote, says it all:
Sonny: I'm robbing a bank because they got money here. That's why I'm robbing it.
TV Anchorman: No, what I mean is why do you feel you have to steal for money? Couldn't you get a job?
Sonny: Uh, no. Doing what? You know if you want a job you've got to be a member of a union. See, and if you got no union card you don't get a job.
TV Anchorman: What about non-union occupations?
Sonny: What's wrong with this guy? What do you mean non-union, like what? A bank teller? You know how much a bank teller makes a week? Not much. A hundred and fifteen to start, right? Now are you going to live on that? A got a wife and a couple of kids, how am I going to live on that? What do you make a week?
TV Anchorman: Well I'm here to talk to you Sonny...
Sonny: Well I'm talking to you. We're entertainment, right? What do you got for us?
TV Anchorman: Well what do you want to get for it? Do you expect to be paid because...
Sonny: No, I don't want to be paid, I don't need to be paid. Look, I'm here with my partner and nine other people, see. And we're dying, man. You know? You're going to see our brains on the sidewalk, they're going to spill our guts out. Now are you going to show that on television? Have all your housewives look at that? Instead of As The World Turns? I mean what do you got for me? I want something for that.
TV Anchorman: Sonny, you could give up?
Sonny: Give up? Right. Have you ever been in prison?
TV Anchorman: No!
Sonny: No! Well let's talk about something you fucking know about, okay? How much do you make a week? That's what I want to hear. Are you going to talk to me about that?
TV: Sorry, this has been interrupted...
Sonny: Hey, what the fuck happened?
Mulvaney: I guess he didn't appreciate your use of language.
Sonny: Fuck him.
“Few things carry more pain, disturb more, than hearing that a great talent’s gone. Frank was one," said Christopher Knopf, former Writers Guild West president. "He could bring life to life with remarkable honesty. No using his shoe tip to test for landmines, he once told a Humanitas luncheon, ‘The writer who takes the chance to dig into his own soul is tackling stuff that is hard, not just because he is vulnerable, but because we tend to defend these areas ourselves as private and secret.’ He was among the best because he gave of himself.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Pierson.