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Q&A WITH DAVID WEBB PEOPLES : A Reluctant Hollywood Hero

October 05, 1992|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Try as he might, Berkeley-based screenwriter David Webb Peoples can't distance himself from the Hollywood scene. With three high-profile films on the screen simultaneously, he's been besieged with calls from the press asking him to discuss his work--and from industry types offering him more.

His revisionist Western "Unforgiven" is being mentioned as a probable Oscar contender. A recently discovered "director's cut" of the 1982 cult favorite "Blade Runner," has just been reissued. And his dark comedy "Hero," directed by Stephen Frears, opened last Friday.

A former editor of news programs, TV documentaries and commercials, the 52-year-old Peoples also wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated "The Day After Trinity," the story of the development of the A-bomb. Since breaking into feature films, he has also written the underwater science-fiction tale "Leviathan" (1989) and made his directorial debut with the 1990 post-apocalyptic action-adventure film "The Blood of Heroes." He and his writer-wife Janet are the parents of two grown daughters.

Question: "Hero," like "Unforgiven" and "Blade Runner," takes place in a world of moral ambiguity. Heroes and villains are presented as flip sides of the same coin.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 7, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Director credited--John Else directed the documentary "The Day After Trinity." A story in Monday's Calendar incorrectly identified co-writer David Webb Peoples as the director.

Answer: I've never succeeded in writing "good guys" and "bad guys"--and, believe me, I've tried. A lot of entertainment revolves around them. As politicians have discovered, if you can devise a bad guy, people will listen. Others are far ahead of me when it comes to moral ambiguity, though. "Silkwood" was a hell of a script. Karen wasn't a saint. She didn't pet dogs and wasn't easily sympathetic but, thanks to the screenwriter, you respect what's good about her. Same goes for Paul Schrader's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."

Q: Is there a risk in creating an antihero such as Bernie LaPlante, a loser who, to his surprise and everyone else's, saves dozens of lives when a plane crashes in front of him? Were you afraid people might be turned off--or, at least, fail to identify?

A: Sure, which is why I wanted Dustin Hoffman in the role. Like Laurence Olivier, he's not only a great actor but a great entertainer. People want to watch him because he makes a character bigger than life.

Q: Is it true that you wrote the script with Hoffman in mind?

A: I have him in mind a lot of the time. He's the only actor who can do the women's roles too. Dustin is very handy that way.

Q: Critics have compared the movie to the talky screwball comedies of Preston Sturges. Are you a fan of his?

A: I don't think or write like him, but I love Preston Sturges. "Sullivan's Travels," "Christmas in July," "Unfaithfully Yours," "The Lady Eve" are my four favorites.

Q: The movie has also been called "anti-Capra" in that the populist protagonist, in the end, doesn't get his due.

A: If it has been called that, I'm glad to hear it. At his worst, I find Capra corny, preachy and sanctimonious. I find "Meet John Doe" difficult to watch.

Q: In your early days, you shot documentaries on selected social issues--the anti-war movement of the '60s, the invention of the atomic bomb. Are you still trying to get a message across?

A: No. There are certain movies I suppose I would refuse to write--subjects I'd find offensive. But Hollywood movies are about entertainment. Though we all have our value systems, they're not the forum to promote them.

Q: "Hero" delves into the nature of heroism, the power of the media, even the American character. That's considerably more than "entertainment."

A: Sounds like it should have been written by Shakespeare. Anyhow, the movie was really the vision of producer Laura Ziskin and Alvin Sargent, who co-authored the story. I was just hired to write it. Laura "directed" me . . . gave me rope, reined me in, protected me. For a writer, having Alvin (screenwriter of "Ordinary People," "Paper Moon") on the set was like a baseball player hanging out with Babe Ruth. He was the one who came up with the idea of having LaPlante steal the wallet of the woman he was rescuing, which was a very "Bernie" thing to do.

Q: Were any of you prepared for what has come to be known as the "Dustin Factor"? According to some stories, he had trouble "finding" his character and made life pretty miserable for everyone on the set.

A: We had three awful weeks when things were kind of wobbly. Stephen kept threatening to head back to England. But I don't blame Dustin. He's a hard-working guy who was stumbling around looking for things, trying to get a handle on the material, just as we all were. He's not the type to say the lines and head home at night. I respect him for that.

Q: Ziskin has been quoted as saying that Hoffman resisted playing the character as written. How did you respond to his challenges?

A: At times, I got plenty defensive. At one point, Stephen told me that, though Dustin had the reputation for being difficult, it was actually me that was the problem. I thought I was pretty cooperative, on the whole.

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