YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

He's a man of revision

Writer David Franzoni is Hollywood's choice for historical epics, such as 'Gladiator' and now 'King Arthur.' To him, past is prologue.

July 09, 2004|James Verini | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — On a recent bright, muggy morning in Manhattan, the screenwriter David Franzoni was reclining in a low-slung chair in the tapestry-strewn barroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, across from Central Park, talking about history. Franzoni, who writes big clanging period pictures like "Gladiator" and "Amistad," was wearing jeans, an open-collared shirt and a loose jacket, and waving about a mop of thick black-gray hair (the last time he seems to have put a comb to it was when he accepted the Oscar for "Gladiator").

He was cursing copiously. Reverence was nowhere in sight. Everything was up for revision.

Franzoni on former presidents: "Jefferson -- what a jerk that guy was. Jefferson was an animal." Years ago Franzoni wrote a biopic of George Washington in which he dismantles the third president.

Franzoni on famous battles of yore: "So I'm beginning to think maybe Scipio actually got the crap kicked out of him at Carthage." He is working on a script about the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who is commonly thought to have lost to Scipio.

On the Greatest Generation: "I can't find any stories I like in World War II." And Camelot: "These guys were the Wild Bunch, not some shiny little cans of metal cruising around the countryside rescuing bored housewives from distress. These guys were killers."

Franzoni, who is 55, was especially animated on this last topic. He was in New York for the premiere of "King Arthur," his latest film, a $100-million-plus Jerry Bruckheimer-produced retelling of the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Lerner & Loewe this is not: "I like to think about these knights as guys who came back from 'Nam. My description to Jerry was 'The fall of Saigon, the last chopper's on top of the embassy and they have to go, and these guys can't get out. They have to go up to the DMZ for one more run. Merlin's Ho Chi Minh, up there with his Viet Cong. We don't have him flying through the air talking to chipmunks.' "

Living the paradox of Hollywood's muckety-muck screenwriters, Franzoni, for all his clout, has seen his name in the credits of only a few films over his 25-year career, so premieres are always exciting for him. He'd brought along his wife and son, with whom he lives in Malibu.

Still, he was bothered. Disney had just cut "Arthur" to get a PG-13 rating, and he had no idea what the new print looked like. "Here's what [ticks] me off about PG-13 -- you don't see the blood. You have people dying like in old Ronald Reagan movies again -- gloriously. PG-13 is like this '50s lobotimization of kids again. So a kid is from Iraq, and his family's been killed and he's lost a leg -- can he see an R-rated film?"

Lost legs -- this is how Franzoni sees history. His characters, when they're not busy being shackled in chains or declaiming on the rights of man, are usually dismembering each other. Franzoni believes that Arthur, for instance, was not a chivalrous medieval king but rather a tragic Roman mercenary with a weakness for humanist philosophy whose lot it was to be stuck in Britain while his empire fell around him. Assorted British cultural groups are objecting to the portrayal, as are some historians.

"The Celts despise our theory. We have a Celtic advisor on board, and he's always under fire." Franzoni was taking it in stride. "Historians -- they're just drunk idiots in tweed." He likes to take a fatalist's view. In his eyes, America, like the Rome of "Gladiator," is an empire in decline. "Ultimately we're going to fall," he said. "This Patriot Act is the tenuous beginnings of the erosion of free speech. Rome fell -- it took a long time. We're going there, but it's a slow process. CNN was taken over by the Caesars a long time ago. You're not getting anything out of these people."

Franzoni may get his fascination with war from his father, a veteran who owned several companies, a gun maker among them, in Vermont, where Franzoni grew up. As a kid, he watched John Ford and Roger Corman movies. "One night I stayed up really late, and 'All Quiet on the Western Front' was on. And I remember it was like I was hit with a hammer."

He studied paleontology at the University of Vermont and after college traveled to Germany, where he bought a cheap motorcycle. He rode it across Europe and western Asia. In Baghdad, he traded a book on the Irish Revolution with a traveling companion in return for "Those About to Die," a book about the Roman games. He was in thrall. "The Romans had this unique vision of themselves -- they were born monsters and proud of it.

"Somewhere in India I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter," he added.

Los Angeles Times Articles