In 1979, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli filmmakers, bought Cannon Films. Throughout the 1980s, they released many low-budget films until they went bankrupt in 1987. Their most successful films were the films that starred Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. Recently, a documentary on Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo was released. I have already interviewed one Cannon alumni, James Bruner, who wrote most of the Chuck Norris films. That interview can be read here. David Engelbach is my second Cannon alumni in this blog. Engelbach wrote two of Cannon’s most well-known projects: Death Wish II, and the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling picture, Over the Top. However, his scripts for both films were much different than what finally appeared on screen. He also wrote and directed another Cannon feature, America 3000. That film is a futuristic comedy set in a post-apocalyptic age when there is a literal battle of the sexes: women and men are at war with each other. In addition to Cannon Films, David also wrote some episodes of MacGyver.
While fans of Cannon Films are familiar with Engelbach’s work, they may be surprised to learn some of the other people he also worked for. David assisted Steven Spielberg on Jaws and helped with the US government after the 9/11 attacks.
Today, David is a screenwriting professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He recently appeared as an interview subject for the Electric Boogaloo documentary.
In this candid conversation, we discuss David’s time with Cannon Films and the three films he made with them. We also discuss his work on Jaws and with the US government. In addition, we discuss his current days as a professor. I want to thank David for taking the time to do this interview.
Jeff Cramer: All right, so how did you get into writing?
David Engelbach: Well, it was the route to become a director, which is what my background is in. I had an undergraduate background in theater and drama, and I went to USC Cinema for grad school to learn film. One of the routes to become a director was to become a writer, and one of the ironies of my career was that I ended up becoming more of a writer than a director.
JC: What had interested you about going to film school?
DE: It was a choice to either go into theater and direct theater, or to go to film and direct film. I always loved movies, and I had that kind of assumption that a lot of young people do, which is that somebody has to do it, so why not me? I went off and found out that one, I seemed to have a talent for it, and two, I was pretty good at it, so I pursued it.
It was also a time when I was in school, which was a period where there were young filmmakers getting into the business before it all became about the latest $400 million blockbuster.
JC: So what did you do in the industry before you came into contact with Cannon?
DE: Well, I had sold some scripts to the studio, as well as a few development projects and a couple original ideas. I had previously done some work after I got out of school. I worked for a couple of smaller production companies shooting commercials and directing commercials. Later, while I was doing some additional documentary shooting, and I met Steven Spielberg. He had seen a film I had made when I was in film school. I ended up working with him on Jaws.
JC: What exactly did you do with Spielberg on Jaws?
DE: I was Steven’s assistant.
JC: Oh, you were his assistant?
DE: I wasn’t his assistant director, but his assistant. Not a personal assistant—he had a gofer for that. I did background action. I did local casting. I worked with the casting director. I supervised some of the original tests that were done on the shark, which didn’t work, and a lot of the dialogue. For example, from Robert Shaw, who plays Quint, I found an old Yankee fisherman who had this very colorful way of speaking, and I spent a lot of time recording him and transcribing. That became a lot of the basis for the rhythms and the expressions that Quint used in the film.
I had met Steven earlier before he did Sugarland Express, and he wanted me to make a documentary on the making of Sugarland, which I was prepared to do and I created a budget for him. He said later that Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who produced Sugarland, didn’t want to spend the money on a doc. I mean, it was not common as it is today—everybody makes a film about the making of something.
That was kind of unusual then. So, he went off to Sugarland, we stayed in contact, and then he was about to do Jaws. I was going to do a documentary on the making of Jaws, which probably would have been fascinating given the problems that they had. And again, Zanuck and Brown didn’t want to make it or put up the money. So Steven said, “Well, why don’t you be my assistant and come out to Martha Vineyard’s with me?”
JC: The problems with Jaws, as I understand it, was that the shark models were not working.
DE: Well, part of the issue was the fact that the shark had originally been designed by Bob Mattey, who had done the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He was brought out of retirement to do this shark and he designed it to operate with hydraulics. A lot of the shark was designed to have a lot more articulating parts. When they finally picked the location on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the State had passed some really stringent antipollution laws.
They would have been fined so heavily if there would be any leaks from the hydraulics, which happens—it’s oil and water. So he had to remodify the shark to run on compressed air, and, consequently, that’s part of the reason that it didn’t work the way it was designed. It didn’t have the same dynamic pressure to articulate some of the things in the shark it was supposed to work, like the eyeballs and teeth and mouth, because it was dealing with the resistance of the water. The shark didn’t work as well as it was intended, which turned out to be to the benefit of the film actually. The less you saw, the scarier it was. Had it worked originally the way they intended, I’m not sure the film would have been as successful as it was.
JC: What did you do after Jaws?
DE: I was at Universal as a potential television director and worked on a couple TV series and discovered that I really didn’t want to direct television. I wanted to direct my own work, so I started focusing more seriously on writing. The way that Cannon came to connect with me was that I had written a movie called Over the Top, which was supposed to be produced as a low-budget movie. Columbia was going to distribute it, but it turned out that the original producer, who was also supposed to star in the film, didn’t have the money to make the movie. I only found that out after spending a year on the project.
A couple of years later, somebody who had been involved in trying to finance the film—after the original producers failed to do so—had introduced the script to Menahem Golan and he fell in love with it and we went ahead. I ended up writing Death Wish II for him in return.
JC: So it was Over the Top that had led you to write Death Wish II?
DE: Well, they wanted to make Over the Top, but they could not make an agreement initially with the original producer/actor. Menahem had called me up and said that they still wanted to make a deal with me and have me write and direct something for them. But before I would write and direct for them, they had this project they had gotten the rights to. Menahem described it as a sequel to one of the big films of the 70s, and I said, “Are we going to do Godfather III?” He said, “Close.” He wanted to do Death Wish.
I had actually turned it down the first two times. I didn’t want to do a sequel, and I didn’t want to do a sequel to that movie. I didn’t dislike the original film. I thought it was okay for what it was, and I had always been a fan of Charlie Bronson, but they made me an offer. If I did the film, they would finance a film for me to do, so I did that. Have you ever seen the film?
JC: Yes, I have seen the film.
DE: To be honest, I was kind of appalled by Michael Winner’s work on it. I have said this before. He added that totally gratuitous rape scene with the Hispanic maid, which I thought was unnecessary and turned off a lot of people, particularly any women who would be interested in seeing the film. Michael Winner was an all-around bad guy. I don’t know anybody who worked with him who had anything good to say about him, but Bronson would not do the film unless Michael Winner directed it. Originally, Menahem wanted to direct the film, but neither he nor Globus had a hit before, and they had only just acquired Cannon from its original owners. They really needed to have a box office success to put them on the road, and so Death Wish II was their film. [Click here to watch the trailer for Death Wish II.]
Death Wish II poster
JC: Well, first off, you’re not the first person on my blog to speak ill of Winner. One of the people I have interviewed on my blog, Sally Kirkland (who got an Oscar nomination for Anna), worked with Winner on a film. She had this to say about Winner: “I never knew what a misogynist was till I met him.”
DE: That’s correct, absolutely. That was my opinion of him at the time, and that was before I knew that was apparently a sure belief. You saw the Cannon documentary Electric Boogaloo?
JC: Yes, I did.
DE: The comment that came from a lot of people was that he was a misogynist. In fact, the original cameraman for Death Wish II, quit after they shot that scene. He said he wouldn’t have anything to do with that. Winner later said that he fired him, but as far as I know that was not the truth.
JC: On YouTube, there’s a discussion of Winner with an English critic and an actual rape victim about the Death Wish II rape scene. Needless to say, the victim is appalled by the scene and tells Winner how offended she is by it. I don’t know the exact words of Winner’s response, but I do know he isn’t going for sensitivity here.
DE: I think the reason he made the film was so that he could do that rape scene.
JC: It’s obvious once Winner came in he took control of this project. What was your script of Death Wish II like? Was any of it similar to the finished product?
DE: Well, let’s put it this way: he took pieces of my script and cobbled them together to make his film, but the original script was more about the idea of lightning striking twice and that the character really resisted falling back into becoming what he became. That is why I created a relationship with the woman. In the end, he sacrifices his relationship with the woman to indulge his vengeance. He had to make a choice, and the choice was to pursue his vengeance, and he would never be the same again.
I did like the one last image of the film with the shadow of Bronson against the stark downtown wall and this kind of ominous figure. I think that was an image Winner came up with, but my film puts it in context. It was originally set in San Francisco, first of all. So the idea of finding a place where these punks hung out and tracking them down was a much more believable situation because it was a much smaller city. In Los Angeles, they could have been anywhere. I believe they chose LA for budget reasons, because it was cheaper to shoot there.
The other thing is that there was a whole subplot involving the fact that the character that emerged, the Bronson character that I was writing in the sequel, was an amateur the first time. The second time, there is a sequence after his daughter dies and he goes off to the woods. His friend, who owns the radio station, says, “Ah, take my cabin and get some time away.” While he’s there, he encounters some hardcore survivalists who are waiting for the future race wars to happen. They recognized the character from a newspaper about his daughter having died and having been the victim of something. They erroneously assumed he was a kindred spirit, but the net output is that they end up outfitting him with body armor and road-killing weapons, and he is no longer running around with a little pistol.
They did keep the thing where he sets up an alternative identity for himself in a rundown apartment somewhere, but he was no longer just walking around with a little pistol and shooting muggers. He was a guy who was seriously out to find the people who did this and destroy them no matter what it took. Apparently, some of those ideas found their way into later Death Wish movies. To be honest, I never saw the other sequels. I have seen pieces of a couple of them, but I really wasn’t interested.
I didn’t have the rape scene. I did have where they broke into his apartment. He struggles with them, and the daughter, who is having her day out from an institution, throws herself out the window and gets impaled on the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the Bronson’s property. I’m not sure I remember this in the movie or not, but the police say that she threw herself out of the window because of her mental state, and that even if they’d found the guys responsible for it, they probably wouldn’t charge them with first degree murder. He decides not to help the cops go after them and find these guys himself.
JC: Can you talk about some of the other projects you were involved in with Cannon?
DE: There was a script called Déjà vu, and a French producer had the rights to some project. I had actually developed this script from that idea. It’s about two old detectives who get together on a case because of a woman they were both in love with—the femme fatale who broke both of their hearts twenty years earlier. Her daughter, who marries a very wealthy man, has been kidnapped and the ransom demand was a priceless necklace that neither of the two guys was ever able to find. They both get reconnected with this woman, and it turns out that the daughter is one of theirs but we’re never sure who.
It was originally intended as a property for Yves Montand playing this former European detective and Robert Mitchum. The script was set up funny, but it was kind of in the noir style. Mitchum had a manager for many years—a woman whom he later left—and she didn’t want him working for Cannon because they had not quite established a reputation. It’s ironic because he later ended up doing a couple of movies for Cannon including The Ambassador, which Menahem had also offered me to direct and then later changed his mind about. He said to me, “You should do something more personal.”
JC: Is that how America 3000 came about?
DE: That was actually a script that I had originally written and the original title for that movie was called Thunder Women. It was one of my earlier scripts. It was kind of a comic book adventure set in the future. I always wanted to make it, and when Déjà vu couldn’t come together because of casting issues, I told Menahem that I had this project I wanted to do. It was kind of a farfetched funny, futuristic comic book and I wanted to reacquire the rights. The original producer, who owned the rights had left the business primarily. Yet I wanted to reacquire it, not even for the subject matter, but I wanted to get the title back. I always thought Thunder Women was a great title for that kind of tongue-in-cheek story. The irony, of course, as you know, is that it’s called America 3000, which I thought was a dreadful title. I had serious discussions with Menahem, and he said, “No, no, no, films with women in the title don’t make any money.”
He was dead wrong, but that’s another issue, so I reacquired the rights. I was trying to finance the original story and shoot in the US. He basically gave me two choices, which was to shoot it in Israel. He said, “Desert is desert,” or to shoot it in South Africa. At the time, South Africa was still under the old apartheid government and I didn’t want to do anything in South Africa then. Now, looking back on it, I should have. It would have been a different kind of film. I rewrote the script and then we went ahead and did it. It was quite a difficult shoot. It was very physically stressful.It was very hot. We were shooting by the Dead Sea in June. It was 130 degrees. It got down at night to about 100 degrees. [Click here to watch the trailer for America 3000.]
JC: With all that heat, it had to be a real problem for leading actor Chuck Wagner wearing that nuclear radiation suit.
DE: The real problem was the character who played the monster Aargh the Awful.
Aargh the Awful
JC: Oh yeah, I forgot about that.
DE: That costume had been made in LA and the guy we got to do it was a basketball player. He was a very nice guy. After the first time he wore it, he was sweating so much that I thought that he was going to have heat stroke. We tore a lot of the stuffing out of it, and the minute we finished a take, he would take it off and we had this big fan, like you would use for making small hurricanes. They would hold it up to try to dry out the inside, so you could put it back on. Yeah, that gold lamiae president’s suit was not the most comfortable thing for Chuck to be walking around in, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Aargh the Awful.
JC: You’ve also invented language for the film. The only translated word from this new language the viewer gets is “Woggos,” which means “crazy.” I could follow somewhat what the characters were saying, but I couldn’t understand every word because of the new language.
DE: I assume you saw it on either VHS or—
DE: They recently released a DVD as part of another package. It was released with the wrong soundtrack.
DE: The film that you had seen and most people have seen was not the same soundtrack as the original release print. I didn’t like the original mix. I didn’t like some of the voices of it. I was very unhappy with the original music that had been created for it, so I went to Golan and I said, “Look, I would like some more time to recut this. It’s not so much the picture, but the soundtrack. I wanted to make some changes too.”
He said, “Okay, we won’t pay for any new music, but you can use anything in the library that we currently have.” I did re-voice a couple of the actresses mostly. Victoria Barrett, who is kind of a heavy-set blonde, was actually Menahem’s girlfriend at the time. He was married, but she was his girlfriend. She had this West Virginia accent, so I re-voiced her and changed some of the narration. I got to pair some of that down and I changed some of the other elements, mostly the soundtrack. The picture track was pretty much the same and that was the theatrical release. When they went to go to video, I told them, “Look, contact me. I’ll supervise the transfer because I wanted to make some color adjustments and things like that as well.” One day I swung into my local video store and I started to play it, and in the first couple seconds I realized it had the wrong soundtrack on it. It was too late; that was cast in stone.
It irks me that it’s popular in video and weird cult markets. Apparently, it’s very popular in places like Finland. But they are seeing it with the wrong soundtrack. Some of the narration helped to clarify some of the language. I made up a language for it. Part of the visual design of the film, which was a little harder to do well, was impossible to do in Israel actually. I wanted the film to look like it was surrounded by wrecked Americana, but not the good stuff, only the garbage. You know, the really good stuff didn’t make it, but the trash did.
So, for example, the original design I had for the encampment—the camp where the women were—there was this big gate that was supposed to protect them and I wanted to make it out of Cadillac tail fins, which was impossible to find in Israel. Also, the design of the camp itself was a much more imaginative design than what I ended up finally having to work with. Cannon built sets that were so heavy that nothing could be moved, so I was kind of stuck with the productions. The visual qualities were not what I wanted for the film, but at that point, we were all pregnant together, so I had to go work with what I had.
I had designed a marketing plan for Thunder Women and I still call it Thunder Women because that’s what it was to me. In fact, I had even hired a company to do title search. They had done one of these research things where they talk to people who are standing in line for movies and did titles with them. It was like an 87 percent interest in seen something called Thunder Women. There was like a 21 percent interest in seen something called America 3000.
I didn’t want them to release it as they did their normal release pattern. The film was already in profit before it was finished. I was starting to shoot the film when Golan and Globus were at the Cannes film festival. I front-loaded my first weeks shooting to really push the action stuff. My editor put together a quick cut, which we sent to Menahem in Cannes, and he showed that, so they basically presold the film. They were in profits in the movie before it was ever released.
That was part of it that helped me get it made, but it worked against me. Once I was done, the guy was running the distribution for Cannon—I forget the guy’s name—looked at me and I said, “You have never seen my film.” He said, “I don’t have to see your film to sell it.” And I said, “Well, actually you do.” I just wanted to do midnight screenings for it for a couple weeks to build up some word of mouth for this kind of funny, offbeat adventure movie, and they just threw it out there as another one of their B movie action films. It never hit the audience it was intended for.
JC: Actually, the movie, I thought of when I saw it was not Mad Max. I was thinking more of that Ringo Starr movie Caveman, a pre-historic comedy, where they invented their own language for that movie.
DE: You’re not wrong. It was closer to that. It was funny because Caveman was written and directed by Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the shooting script for Jaws. Carl and I were living in Spielberg’s house during Jaws, so it was Carl, Spielberg, and I living in this rented house he had in Martha’s Vineyard. I always appreciated Carl’s sense of humor. Yeah, it was closer to something like that. It wasn’t supposed to be a straight-ahead action movie. It was never supposed to be sold as that. It was really supposed to be sold as kind of a goofball six-pack movie or smoke-your-favorite-thing-and-watch-this type of film.
Cannon never paid any attention to it, so I was pretty bummed by that point. Also, Cannon was running into money problems. They were stealing money out of release for films to spend the money to make offers to keep themselves alive. At this point, I believe they were burning the candle at both ends, although they did not foresee anything about that. It was part of the reason that led to their demise.
JC: Around that time, Cannon made Over the Top with Stallone.
Over the Top movie poster
DE: Yeah, Stallone did a rewrite on the script and so did Stirling Silliphant and I had nothing to do with it. I saw the film at the screening and was very upset about it. [Click here to watch the trailer for Over the Top.] The script was actually much more focused on the relationship between the father and son and that was originally the script that Stallone had committed to. It was more like Rocky and less like Rambo. But Rambo had just been a success for him and I think his managers had said, “You can’t have a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old as your nemesis,” so they built up the part of the grandfather and had ridiculous scenes where he drives his truck into the grandfather’s house and stupid stuff. I was really disappointed with it because the script was very different than what the movie was. I mean, Death Wish was Death Wish—it was never going to be anything other than kind of a revenge story or a cowboy movie set in the contemporary environment.
But Over the Top is actually a much more heartfelt story about this strange relationship between this father and son. For example, the truck driver character that Stallone played was not your typical truck driver. He was a guy who recognized what he didn’t have in his life, so he would listen to book on tapes in his truck, not country music. He was a guy who was trying to educate himself and confront the fact that the break up between him and his wife, which he always blamed on the kid’s grandfather, played a part in that. He let himself be bullied by this guy and so the grandfather was a presence in this story, but I didn’t have some of the B movie White Line Fever stuff that they subsequently added because they think they felt they had to pump up the action on it. I think it was a mistake, but to fully explain the difference, they would have to make a movie on my script and then compare the two movies to see the difference.
JC: In your script, was Stallone’s character an arm wrestler? Did it also have an ending at an arm-wrestling championship like the movie did?
DE: Well, the original script did have his fixation with the arm-wrestling thing and he would hustle along the way. I think there is a scene in there where he’s with the kid and he’s at the bar. He hustles some guy at arm wrestling to pick up some extra money. But the reason he wanted it was to buy this little island he saw when he was in the merchant marine, so the whole idea was going to be his big payoff. And he realized that through the process of the story that the real payoff for him is this relationship with his son, and that’s really what’s important to him. And not this island, which he probably would never be able to get to anyway.
But the payoff and also the cast was different when I was in the process of preproduction for Columbia initially. The kid in the finished product is a sweet, little, nice, gooey thing. The kid I had in mind had a chip on his shoulder. I had casted a young actor in Chicago who never had done film. He was really terrific and it would have been a very different film, because it would have been a much stronger part for the kid, and when he challenged the Lincoln character, he had to come to grips with his own failings.
The last act was the arm-wrestling contest. The kid is with his grandfather after his mother’s funeral in the end of second act two. In the third act, Lincoln is selling his truck, wanting the money, trying to win this arm-wrestling contest. The real payoff is still the payoff that they have, but the kid finally comes and cheers on his dad and that’s the end of the movie. So that part was right, but they took the heart out of it and kept the bones.
I was very disappointed when I saw the film.
JC: Cannon imploded with that film and Superman IV. Did you have any involvement with them before they finally close their doors down?
DE: Not with them.
JC: What did you do next?
DE: I did some television.
JC: I noticed you wrote for MacGyver.
DE: Yeah, my agents at the time specialized in television and they had gotten me a gig on MacGyver. I had never seen the show, but my mom watched it. So I called my mom up and said, “What’s this MacGyver show? Who is this guy MacGyver?” She kind of gave me a distinct and accurate description of the show. I called the producer up. They shot the show in Canada outside Vancouver. I think it was in January or something, and I said, “What are you guys looking for? You know, in your episodes.”
And he said, “Snow.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We got a lot of snow and we want to make use of it.” So I came up with an episode that depended on snow.
I ended up doing a lot of development and original writing. I made some serious studio money, but I didn’t get to do another movie again the way I wanted to.
JC: I remember those days when screenwriters were paid very well. When I was a dramatic writing undergrad in the early 90s, I was constantly hearing these stories about screenwriters getting millions for their original work.
DE: I was one of them.
JC: You were? Good for you!
DE: Post Thunder Women, yes, so I was one of those people paid for those million-dollar original scripts.
JC: Was there a particular script that you wrote that you would have liked to seen hit the big screen?
DE: Yeah, I have got a few of them, actually. Some of them are different. One of them was a romantic adventure that Matthew McConaughey was going to do.
JC: Oh really?
DE: Yeah, but he went ahead and did Sahara. I have a film that’s very different from that, which is actually based on a true story in Hawaii in World War II, but I rather not talk about that because I still have somebody who is trying to get it set up somewhere. I’ll let you know what happens and I’ll be happy to give you a follow up interview.
JC: Okay, sounds good.
DE: Most writers have one or two or three or four projects that didn’t get made, that didn’t fit in, or whatever that narrow window was for that hour that Hollywood is looking for that are still substantial or worthwhile. I have a couple of projects that I would like to see get made, whether I direct them or not at this point. I don’t have the same energy or interest that I did when I was younger, but I would like to see the movies made.
JC: There is something I read about you. It’s quite a coincidence to mention after Paris, but I read that right after 9/11 you and Joe Zito, another Cannon alumni, and maybe a few other people were called in by Washington to think of creative ways of how terrorists might attack.
DE: That is correct. There was actually a group of about twenty people who were asked to participate in this group to kind of brainstorm outside the box since the government, the CIA, the FBI, and all the agencies were stunned by 9/11. There is an organization in LA called the Institute for Creative Technologies. It is actually run out of USC but was funded by the Pentagon, and it was originally set up to use technology to train leadership, and brief military leadership on how to deal with issues. For many years, they were teaching people how to drive tanks or fly airplanes using trainers, but how do you apply emerging technology to teach a lieutenant on how to deal with a riot while they are on some kind of peace mission? So they had this entity there that existed. They asked them if they would contact people in the film industry, mostly producers and writers and directors, to come together and make an ad hoc think tank to come up with some ideas about potential terrorist activities. Joe was there for one or two meetings. I don’t really remember Joe being that involved.
But there were people there . . . I’m trying to remember his name. The guy who did Training Day and Fury, the tank movie with Brad Pitt.
JC: Oh, David Ayer?
DE: David Ayer, yes. There were some other people, and our number kind of got wheedled down. It finally ended up with a small core group. Two years later, we were asked to go to DC and meet with George Tenet, who was then head of the CIA, right about the time we got involved in Iraq, to discuss ways to deal with what they saw was this growing Jihadism across the Middle East. They asked if we had any ideas and we came up with a number of ideas. Most of the work that we did, from what I understand, was actually well received by the government agencies. Whether it made any difference, I don’t know. I have no idea.
It was challenging, and I was impressed at the time. A lot of people joked about it, and I know it was mentioned on the Daily Show. I think it actually showed that they were willing to look in different places to come up with ways to deal with issues that they had not thought up before. It was literally outside their comfort zone and they said, “There are people who make their living coming up with these kind of ideas,” so it was kind of a natural connection.
JC: Today you are a teacher at Savanah College of Art and Design. How did you become a professor?
DE: I spent nearly forty years in the film business, and I was seeing that the kind of films that I had been working on writing and wanting to make were becoming harder and harder to get financed. What we see now are sequels and superheroes.
DE: These were not the things I wanted to do. My wife and I were talking about other options. You know, leaving LA. I had been in LA for a number of years and no longer wanted to live there and the environment had changed. It was becoming Manhattan with palm trees.
A close friend of mine had been a producer and had ended up teaching at Savannah. He invited me to come and visit, but I hadn’t seen him in a while. While I was there, he asked me to give a guest lecture to his class. I did and it was fun. I didn’t think anything about it, but a year later, there was an opening for a position for somebody to teach screenwriting at the college. He called me up and said, “You should think about that.” I said, “Well, teaching was never anything I was interested in doing. It wasn’t on my bucket list, let’s say, and certainly not living in the South.” He said, “Well, are you happy with what you are doing now?”
And the truth was, no I wasn’t. The business was changing. I was tired of chasing money as so many people do. I said, “Well, okay. Let’s see what happens.” He gave my résumé to the then-chair of the department, and he said, “Call me up. We would like to meet you and talk to you. We think you would be great for here.” I thought about it and talked to my wife. She said, “We’ll try it for a year and see how it works.” So we went east instead of west. I enjoyed the experience of it and I liked the connection with the kids and the energy I got back from them. I thought, You know, this is not bad for a second career. I have been doing it for a few years now. It is rewarding in ways I never thought it would be.
I have been teaching long enough that I have students who came in as freshman and are now out in the business. They still ask me questions and people send me notices that they have sold their first script, or they are getting to make a movie, and it’s kind of nice to know that I have been able to make a favorable impression on the next generation of filmmakers.
JC: That’s good. It’s interesting because you are my fourth screenwriter I have interviewed for this blog. Two of them went into teaching. One of them is Barry Sandler, who wrote Crimes of Passion with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins. He’s teaching in Florida now and he’s been teaching for a while. It started the same way like you did. There wasn’t really much going on with him in LA. He was a little burnt out and he initially started out in Florida for one year, but he’s been there for a while, so it’s very similar to your story.
Likewise, another Cannon alumni, James Bruner, who is another guy who did work with Cannon, he wrote the Chuck Norris movies.
DE: Yeah, I know James, as our paths crossed as they tend to in that kind of Cannon environment.
JC: Right, he taught for a year at a film school in Jordan.
DE: That’s funny. It’s just strange, and the business that I got into is not the business that exists today. It was losing its rewards and like anything you do long enough, you get a little burned out. This is a way to keep me engaged. By helping my students with their scripts, I can engage in part of the same part of my creative energy that I had as a writer, only I don’t have to deal with the existential dread that happens to all filmmakers, where you are halfway through a project and you know you have to start working to sell your next one.