Combustible Celluloid

A Talk with Scott B. Smith

On Writing A Simple Plan

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the best attributes of the genre known as "film noir" is that the main character is given a choice, which he usually takes, that leads him into the dark underworld where nothing is ever the same again. Usually this choice involves dangerous sex or dirty money. In the excellent movie A Simple Plan, directed by Sam Raimi and adapted by Scott B. Smith from his own book, the characters find over $4 million dollars in a crashed plane in the woods. They must decide whether or not to keep it and what the repercussions are. They not only make that fatal choice, but are constantly asking more questions and considering all the different possibilities available to them.

I recently discussed A Simple Plan with screenwriter Smith who lives in Berkeley. Smith began writing at Columbia University where he received his Master's degree in Creative Writing. For a class, he wrote a key scene for what was to become the novel A Simple Plan. Later, Smith moved to New Orleans, and began to write. "I never considered writing for a living until after I graduated. I had a couple of ideas, but I ended up going back to that scene," Scott says.

Around the same time, he got a short story published in The New Yorker after several rejections. The fiction editor of the magazine found out about Smith's novel, asked to read it, and forwarded it to an agent. Later, Smith got a phone call. "'Mike Nichols wants to buy the movie rights'. I said, 'great', hung up the phone, and said, 'Who's Mike Nichols?'".

The novel was ultimately published and spent 7 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. But the screenplay languished in nowhere land. Smith submitted a script for Nichols, but it was "256 pages long" (which works out to a four-and-a-half-hour long movie). Nichols eventually passed and actor/director Ben Stiller (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy) became interested. "Ben was the one that showed me how to write a script. He worked with me and gave me the cue to visualize the movie and write down what I was picturing in my head." When Stiller passed on the movie John Boorman (The General) and John Dahl (Rounders) became interested and then passed.

After four years, Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman, The Quick and the Dead) came on board. "I wasn't familiar with Sam's other work, but I met with him, and in talking to him I was very pleased. I felt like he understood the story. He understood the people. We grew up in the same area of the country. He knew what I was writing about and he knew how to tell the story in the right way."

A Simple Plan has Hank (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) accidentally finding a crashed plane with $4 million in cash inside. Jacob and Lou want to keep it, but Hank is not so sure. Hank's condition for going along with their plan is that he keep all the money himself until the plane is found after the Spring thaw. At that point, if it appears that the authorities are not looking for the money, they will split it up. But Hank and his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) keep revising the plan. And each time the plan changes it creates more ripples in the plot, as in a pond. At the same time, the two brothers find themselves in a kind of relationship they never had before and many secrets are revealed.

The two lead actors, Paxton and Thornton, play their parts with amazing and painful subtlety. Thornton's character, Jacob, initially comes across as shy, clumsy, and dumb. But as the movie progresses he becomes more tragic. He has a big heart, and no one to share it with. He strains to connect with his brother, and he does make that connection, but only for a few heartbreaking moments. Paxton has the less showy role as the younger brother Hank who was blessed with an education, a wife, and a baby, and who slowly learns who his brother really is.

Although it stays fairly faithful to the book, there were certain visual changes necessary for the movie, like "throwing the snowball to uncover the plane for one. In the book, they're just walking and they find it." Producer Scott Rudin decided to change the focus of the story to the two brothers, and ordered Smith to shorten the screenplay to an even 120 pages. "I had to work to make Hank a more rational character, less evil." As a result of this shortening the character of Jacob gets to live longer (in the book, Jacob dies in a shootout at Lou's house), but Sarah loses some of the force she had in the book. "If anyone was short-changed I'd say it was Sarah." Also Jacob, who is disgustingly fat in the novel, lost a little weight after being inhabited by Billy Bob Thornton.

In the finished film, the characters come alive. We're plunged intelligently and realistically into their small-town lives, and we willingly and easily follow them into their story. A Simple Plan reminded me of movies by Fritz Lang (M, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), who always seemed to be fighting the demon of fate, and of Jim Thompson's books. Smith says that he never read Thompson before he wrote A Simple Plan. "I have since read The Killer Inside Me. I think Hank was a little like that [character] in the early drafts of the book."

This style doesn't sound like the work of Sam Raimi. He is more known for his kinetic genre films in which his camera moves quickly, smoothly, and abruptly, in a frenzy of filmmaking. Raimi is like the court jester version of John Woo (The Killer) or Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch). For A Simple Plan, Raimi focuses on more realistic violence--violence that has consequences. The movie makes beautiful use of white snow, contrasted with black crows sitting on sinister, spidery tree branches. It looks similar in some ways to Fargo, a movie made by Raimi's pals Joel and Ethan Coen. Scott says, "I'm not worried that there will be comparisons to Fargo. Fargo is part of that new hip genre of violence combined with humor, like Pulp Fiction. A Simple Plan doesn't go there."

Indeed, although A Simple Plan is not strictly a film noir, it ends with a great film noir twist. Normally, Hollywood pressures filmmakers into creating "happy" endings. "I never wrote an upbeat ending [for A Simple Plan], but apparently one was added at some point. I guess Sam [Raimi] was asked to shoot one. Thankfully, it's back to normal now."

Smith enjoys movies but is not a film buff who remembers the names of actors and directors. He didn't really want to visit the movie set to see his story come to life. "I had attended some auditions, which made me very nervous, because already [the movie] was different than what I had pictured. I figured that if I went to the set, it would be just like that, but all the time. I would have no power. Rather than risk getting ulcers, I decided not to go... Plus it was cold."

Smith moved to Berkeley 18 months ago. "It's a great writing environment--all those bookstores and movie theaters." His wife had a bit of shell-shock, though, being born and raised in fast-paced Manhattan. As for his writing schedule, Smith gets up and writes right away for a period each morning. He says, "If the day gets away from me at least I know I did that bit of work in the morning." His wife is also a writer. She likes to get away on weekends, but he would prefer to stick to his work schedule. Of his new book Smith says, "My wife accuses me of writing the most un-optionable book in history. It's more of a novel than a screenplay."

What did Smith think of writing the screenplay vs. the book? "Writing the book is like dinner, and the screenplay is like desert."

November 18, 1998

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