First photo -- Johnny Depp as Colonel Joll
Michael Fitzgerald and the 30 Year Struggle to This Film Made
Some time this spring I learned that Coetzee had written screenplays based on two novels: In The Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians and, even more tantalizing, that there was a 2014 book entitled Two Screenplays that included the complete text of each. It was available through Amazon Canada. Not cheap, but did I want it? I hemmed and hawed about it for several days, finally deciding that I did not want to read a screenplay before I saw the movie. But it got me thinking. If there was a screenplay, there had to be a story behind the screenplay. Coetzee is a measured man -- he writes what can be useful, nothing more. So, how did he expect to use these screenplays?
This tidbit is about the 30-year attempt to get the book we have been reading before a wider audience.
Our story begins with a man named Michael Fitzgerald. Born in NYC, raised in Italy and educated at Harvard University, Fitzgerald began trying his hand at screenplays in Italy back in the 1970s. His father, the renowned poet Robert Fitzgerald, named US Poet Laureate in 1985, is best known as the paramount modern translator of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad, as well as several other remarkable translations.
Michael Fitzgerald , Flowers of the Steppe: Festival of Kazahkh in Boston, MA
Robert and his wife Sally had deep ties in the American literary community. In 1949 the poet Robert Lowell introduced the pair to a struggling young writer -- Flannery O’Connor -- who needed a place to live while completing her debut novel Wise Blood. The Fitzgeralds warmly welcomed Flannery into their Connecticut home. The trio remained close friends for many years, Sally Fitzgerald eventually compiling O’Connor’s letters and publishing The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (1979) and later, Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (1988). After O’Connor’s death in 1964, the Fitzgerald’s served as her literary executors.
By 1976 twenty-five year old son Michael was in Hollywood and intent on getting some movies made. It proved a challenging prospect. After shipping off at least a dozen screenplays and receiving not even a nibble he changed tactics. As he puts it, “If I could choose something that would, if I could get it made, be so singular, it would compel attention.” And thus open doors.(AFI Interview)
He had a property in mind -- Wise Blood. And while Fitzgerald had excellent literary bones, he admits to total naivety regarding the process of getting a film made. With a minor assist from an agent his first attempt was a visit to Columbia Studios where an arrogant executive suggested he needed a director before they would even consider the property. Jaws and Spielberg were all the rage, and yes, the executive continued, if you got Spielberg we would make the movie. The ever innocent and very persistent Fitzgerald turned up at Steven Spielberg’s home, book and screenplay in hand. The director wasn’t home but the butler, with whom Fitzgerald left the packages, must have followed through. Columbia was not amused -- several screaming phone calls followed. Spielberg was an important asset at Columbia, only recently on board and at work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The studio was aghast that Fitzgerald had followed up on what was intended to be a dismissive comment.
Plan number two. While in boarding school in Ireland Fitzgerald had heard a lot about the famed American director John Huston, a longtime resident of Ireland. So, why not? He made a call to Huston who was then living in Mexico, and Huston said send it down. A few days later Huston called back. He was very interested and invited Fitzgerald to Mexico. In the space of one week the pair had a deal. “I am with you,’ Huston said, “and I will be with you when you get this thing going.” It took Fitzgerald two years to pull the funding together.
Director John Huston
The film was released in 1979. Vincent Canby, NY Times film critic called it, “"one of John Huston's most original, most stunning movies.” More recently Sam Jordison of The Guardian in a retrospective review praised the adaptation of O’Connor’s novel as “wonderful. It pulls off the rare trick of seeming faithful to the spirit and voice of the book, while being a work of art in its own right.” Exactly what is desired when a film follows on a book. When asked about what he had learned from Huston, Fitzgerald hones in on the need to avoid making improvements in a novel. Instead the rule is always to “be as faithful as possible to the text,” thereby allowing the writer to speak to the audience.
Fitzgerald worked again with Huston on the 1984 film Under the Volcano this time in a capacity of an executive producer. So, exactly what does a producer do? The following list comes from journalist Nina Metz at the Chicago Tribune:
- o Conceiving the movie’s premise, or securing the rights to a movie’s source material (a script or book to be adapted
(or someone’s life rights).
o Lining up initial financing.
o If there’s no script, hiring a screenwriter to bring the story to life and then working with that writer though the development process, which might mean bringing more writers on to the project.
o When the script is ready, hiring the creative team — which includes the director, cast and crew department heads.
o Once filming begins, supervising the day-to-day operations on set.
o And when the film is in post-production, working with the creative team on that end (editor, composer, visual effects supervisor), as well as people on the business side who are focused on marketing and distributing the movie.
And the executive producer? Their role is more focused than the generalist producer. But absolutely central to the success of a film. Hollywood often assigns the title of ‘executive’ to the individual who can bring the money.
But enough about Mr. Fitzgerald for now. What about that Coetzee screenplay story?
JM Coetzee (credit: Numero Cinq Magazine)
I have only been able to nibble round the edges of this story. But enough to make it interesting. As it turns out, the editor of Coetzee’s 2014 book Two Screenplays -- Hermann Wittenberg -- wrote an introduction which is possible to read without buying the book. And that introduction sent me scrabbling for additional articles by Wittenberg on the subject of Coetzee and screenplays. I found an good one in 'Coetzee in California: adaptation, authorship and the filming of Waiting for the Barbarians.'
In his introduction to Two Screenplays, Wittenberg describes both pieces as ‘creative works in their own right, reshaping the material of the novels in ways that are attentive to a visual mode of narration, with considerable attention and thought given to scene setting, lighting and framing.’ Wittenberg also says that ‘Coetzee did not follow his own texts in a constrained and derivative manner, but that he took considerable liberties with his stories, trimming down the material for better focus, and also inventing scenes, dialogue and even characters that are not found in the original prose versions.’ The first screenplay, based on Coetzee’s novel In the Heart of the Country was completed in 1982 while Coetzee was working with Belgian film director Marion Hänsel. In the end Hänsel didn’t use Coetzee’s script, preferring her own version for a French-language adaptation called Dust and released in 1985.
Coetzee started writing the second screenplay began in 1980 following the publication of Waiting for the Barbarians to international acclaim. Almost immediately he was deluged by weekly offers, including some from major film companies, such as Warner Brothers, willing to put substantial sums for money on the table for a signed option. Several offers had potential. One featured John Hurt as Colonel Joll. Another offered Richard Burton as the Magistrate. Coetzee couldn’t see Burton in the role because ‘My feelings (my prejudice?) is that actors who have been raised on Shakespeare don’t listen when other people speak, they simply compose themselves and wait for their turn to speak.’ (Coetzee letter)
Hermann Wittenberg, University of the West Cape
Then there was Jack Nicholson as the Magistrate, a pairing that gave Coetzee great reservations, ‘Nicholson would have to divest himself for certain qualities I can only call slyness and subversive humor, which have been part of his hallmark in other roles.’(Coetzee letter)
A number of offers failed because of Coetzee’s determination that the ‘right kind of film be made.’ He felt a sense of responsibility towards his book. Wittenberg quotes Coetzee’s correspondence to his agent, “The problem, from my point of view, always seems to be the following. (A) The filmmaker, for perfectly valid reasons, does not want to spend time and money on the project till he has an option. (B) I, for perfectly valid reasons, do not want to give the filmmaker carte blanche to do as he wishes with the book. Therefore (A) the filmmaker does not want to commit himself to a particular treatment, and (B) I do not want to commit myself until he has committed himself. It is a perfect impasse.’
Wittenberg makes the following observation, ‘we see Coetzee as being cognizant of the multiple pitfalls in the adaptation enterprise: films could, on one hand, make his stories into powerful screen narratives that would reach a much wider audience, but also, on the other hand, distort and misrepresent the meaning of his fictions in a such a way that his creative work could be diminished.’ (Wittenberg)
Frankly, Coetzee had reason to be cautious. German-American producer Wieland Schultz-Keil had the perfect profile for Coetzee. A literary background, early career experience in German theatre, extensive connections in the film industry. When the German translation of Waiting for the Barbarians came out in 1985, ‘Schultz-Keil had written a nuanced and intelligent review of the book in the respected German political magazine Der Spiegel.” During negotiations with Coetzee, Schulz-Keil stated that the ‘film would require a massiveness and, so to speak, a grandeur the only a few directors today can produce.’ He mentioned several possible directors: Peter Weir, Bernardo Bertolucci, Akira Kurosawa. In 1987 Coetzee and Schulz-Keil agreed to undertake the film. (Wittenberg)
But, it was Schultz-Keil that proposed Jack Nicholson. And it was Schultz-Keil that commissioned a screenplay by Walter Newman, a prolific writer who gave audiences Cat Ballou (1966), and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1952) as well as the 1979 Bloodbrothers with Paul Sorvino and Richard Gere. All three of these films landed Oscar nominations for Newman. But Newman’s take on Coetzee’s novel is oddly western-flavored, and comes complete with a ‘trusty dog, Schmutzig’ for the Magistrate. Wittenberg offers readers a short excerpt from the 1987 screenplay. I will quote only one paragraph. The scene is the archaeological dig and the Magistrate has already experienced the wrath of Joll.
Tossing the stone aside, he moves back a dozen feet, raises his smock to reveal a holster and cartridge belt at the wait, and takes out the pistol. The arm is unsteady, its movement awkward, he aims at the target and pulls the trigger: BANG! He is wide off the mark. He’s wide off the mark. BANG! That’s closer. Holding the pistol with both hands, he aims and fires again, and BANG! The bullet hole is right between the eyes.
After this misfire Coetzee renewed work on his own screenplay, finishing it in 1995. The deal with Schulz-Kiel expires.
So let’s go back to Fitzgerald again. Because it turns out that he is a constant in the process that finally results in the filming of Waiting for the Barbarians.
When Fitzgerald worked with Huston a second time -- on the 1984 Under the Volcano -- Schultz-Keil was the producer. Perhaps Fitzgerald would have been a producer for the Schulz-Keil adaptation of Coetzee’s novel? Perhaps given his own literary background Fitzgerald sustained an interest in the making this film long after the deal with Schulz-Kiel expired? My research turned up another tantalizing clue in a 2019 feature article about Fitzgerald’s son Kieran, another Harvard graduate looking to establish himself in Hollywood. In the article Kieran shares the story of his father’s 30-year push to make an adaptation’ of Coetzee’s novel. (Oliveria)
Huston directing Under the Volcano
So I was on the right track.
One more raveled bit to examine, and another Harvard graduate -- Tommy Lee Jones.
Coetzee finished his screenplay in 1995. There was a new option for filming the book, and a new star: Tommy Lee Jones. Jones is also a Harvard graduate like Fitzgerald, not that this alone was a significant motivator, but connections do count as does a certain way of looking at the world. Yes, Fitzgerald was producing. I have no idea who was directing, although I have hunted assiduously. Sometime in 1995 Tommy Lee Jones withdraws from the film and funding prospects vanish. I don’t know why Jones withdrew. According to ImDb he was extremely busy during this period with five 1994 films in which he had a role. In 1995 he was in Batman Forever and a TV movie.
I did discover some interesting facts. Jones’ senior thesis at Harvard was ‘the mechanics of Catholicism’ in the works of Flannery O’Connor. Jones and Fitzgerald first became friends when Fitzgerald, then producing Wise Blood, almost hired Jones for a role in the film. They have worked together in two other films. In 2005 for the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) in which Jones and Fitzgerald produced; and Jones also directed and acted. In a December 2005 piece in Variety about the film, Fitzgerald stated that the idea for the movie came out of hunting trip with Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, ‘Having Guillermo onboard really inspired Tommy to contemplate a story about his part of the world.’ And then in 2014 The Homesman, where Michael’s son wrote the screenplay with Jones, who also starred and directed. Fitzgerald was the executive producer. Only other fact -- Tommy Lee Jones will be at Venice with the film Ad Astra. He plays the role of Brad Pitt’s missing father. Hot competition folks!
Michael Fitzgerald at the photo call for The Homesman at Cannes in 2014
According to Marc Farrant, senior editor at Review 31 and reviewer of Two Screenplays, ‘Fitzgerald (who had previously worked with Sean Penn to produce the critically acclaimed The Pledge) is noted by Wittenberg as a key influence on the notable commercial viability of the screenplay, and their numerous meetings testify to Coetzee’s interest and commitment to see his work realized on screen. (That’s probably also in the section of the book that I can’t download.)
What happened next?
Marc Farrant reports that ‘in 2005 Fitzgerald, having exhausting Western funding opportunities, flew to Kazakhstan, a natural choice of location for the novel’s steppe-like, timeless, central Asian mise-en-scene, and pitched the film as a chance to promote Kazakh culture and tourism. Awash with oil and gas money, hopes of finding support and a suitable location were high.’ The last information on this deal comes in the form of a 2010 article in a local newspaper which mentions a forthcoming film entitled ‘In Expectation of Barbarians.’ (Farrant)
But perhaps more importantly, in 2005 in an interview in Variety, Fitzgerald provides us with his career mantra -- ‘Only to make films I really love. Otherwise, it become almost intolerable.’ That sir, is an understatement.
So now we come forward to 2016 and an article in Deadline which reports, ‘Fitzgerald is the one who pulled the prestigious project together with Rylance and Guerra.’ In the weeks ahead we are certain to learn more about Fitzgerald’s undying persistence and creativity that finally brought this project over the line. At least I hope so!
Video: Q&A of Wise Blood (1979) screening and discussion with producer, Michael Fitzgerald
co-presented by American Film Institute AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and Crossroads Cultural Center on November 11, 2017. Part 1
Busch, A. Deadline October 13, 2016
Coetzee, JM and Wittenberg, H (editor) Two Screenplays, 2014 UCT Press
D’Alessandro, A. ‘Michael Fitzgerald’ Variety, December 15, 2005
Farrant, M. Review 31: ‘Coetzee and Cinema’- a review of JM Coetzee’s Two Screenplays - Wittenberg, H editor
Metz,N. ‘What does a producer do? No, seriously, who really knows?’ Chicago Tribune, February 20, 2019
Oliveria, E. ‘Alumni Profile, Kieran Fitzgerald B ’03 Harvardwood
Sally Fitzgerald papers, circa 1930 - 2000
Thomas, D. An Interview with Michael Fitzgerald, 2014 Santa Fe Film Festival
Wittenberg, H. ‘Coetzee in California: adaptation, authorship and the filming of Waiting for the Barbarians’
Also, ImDb for Michael Fitzgerald, Kieran Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Wieland Schulz-Keil, and John Huston