Interview: THE RUNNING MAN Writer Steven E. de Souza on Living in the Future of 1987
One of the great modern thrills unique to being an aging science fiction fan is the rare privilege of living in a beloved film’s supposed dystopian future, ie the arbitrary years in which they’re set.
Some faux-futures have come sooner than others, like the future of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, which occurred a whopping 20 years ago. The long gone 1997 was also the year that the robots of Skynet became self-aware and initiated Judgment Day in Terminator 2. The original Terminator film took place in present day 1984, which is also the year of my birth, making me the same age as John Connor. 1984 is, of course, a year made popular by George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future oppressed by a double-speaking government regime, which was far from the first work of fiction to imagine a dystopia wherein a future reveals the evil seeds of its present.
While there are plenty of sci-fi greats in the field of dystopian literature, few things are more tickling than living works of cinematically realized futures that are not only informed by the political landscapes of their present, but also the limitations of the production’s time and place. One could make an argument for the 80s being the best decade for this genre, particularly due to the lack of advancements in the field of special effects, causing art departments to have to be creative, making for works of endearing sci-fi that act as uniquely 80s time capsules. Comparing these dated works to the actual present is always enjoyable and often fascinating in terms of their occasionally prophetic visions.
Many will highly anticipate November of 2019, when they can watch Blade Runner during the time of its vaguely dicerapharable world of human vs replicant. But for my money, few futuristic visions are more comically badass, charmingly 80s, and shockingly on-point with our current times - which, if fictionalized, would make for a very entertaining and believable dystopia of a bygone age - than 1987’s The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and written by action-great, Steven E. de Souza (based on a novella released under Stephen King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman). The film underwent a series of director rotations during its troubled production, but you wouldn't know it from watching the finished film, which ages like a fine wine.
The Running Man may have seemed like a hysterically dark vision of the future in the 80s and 90s, but now that 30 years have passed and we find ourselves in the present of its future, we can marvel that few works turned out to be more relevant to today’s world of reality culture than this schlocky 80s Action film made in the prime of its genre, before big budgets killed the charm of what it tried desperately to replicate. If Running Man were a Black Mirror episode of today, it would be a certain fan-favorite for its depiction of what Alamo Drafthouse refers to as “a future where the media manipulates with fake news, a reality show host gives orders to the military, and the populace is too engrossed in their screens to care.”. Luckily, since the people at Drafthouse are naturally huge fans of the film as well, and also share my fondness for watching films in the time of their dystopias, tonight there will be an epically timely screening of the prolific Running Man with screenwriter Steven de Souza in attendance to discuss his 30 year old work. With this wonderful event came the opportunity for me to have a conversation with de Souza about one of my longest standing favorite films.
Truthfully, I would have been over the moon to discuss any number of de Souza’s films, particularly his other action favorites which have come to define the era - 48 Hrs, Commando, Die Hard, Ricochet - but I was glad that the occasion centered around my favorite of the bunch - The Running Man. Considering how back when I was in film school 10 years ago, RM was a huge influence on my freshman sense of filmmaking, you can imagine how thrilled I was to find myself driving to the Pacific Palisades a few days ago to meet Steven de Souza and chat about his career for however long he was willing to spend with me. To my happy surprise, we didn’t leave the restaurant until they kicked us out two and a half hours later, at which point we continued our conversation on the sidewalk where, after having discussed his life and work at length, one project after another, the subject finally turned to Judge Dredd. Had I any money left on my parking meter - I’d already refilled it four times - I would’ve gladly opened the subject of Street Fighter.
Since the film of the hour is The Running Man, I’ve transcribed most of our discussion of it below for your reading pleasure, but considering I have three hours of audio, spanning so many interesting topics, I’m also offering the full audio of our long lunch, warts and all - warts include my overuse of the word “right” and de Souza self proclaimed state of being doped on cold meds. I’ve done a so-so job of dividing the chat into chapters, so feel free to skip around. Should you desire even more information about The Running Man, in the audio you can hear an additional eight minutes regarding the rotating lineup of directors that plagued the production.
If you’re in LA, get your butts to The Regent theater tonight for a live discussion of 2017’s most dangerous game. Get tickets here!
(Jumping into mid-conversation)...While we're still on the topic of Commando- so many amazing one liners in that film. You hadn't really been doing that up until then in your career, had you?
Steven de Souza: Yeah, if you look at my television stuff, whatever I was writing for, I'd always put in some comedy relief. If you dig up some of these TV shows I worked on, you'll see comedy. A show I did, Rosetti & Ryan, for Don Mankiewicz was a very witty show. If you know who he is, he got an Academy Award, leading writer from a very famous Hollywood Family. So they were smart, witty, urban... Tony Roberts was one of the lawyers from the Woody Allen movies. It was a fast, glib legal show with smart dialogue.
Right, but still, that dry action cool wit is so specific to these movies-
I've always been a fan of the Bond movies. When I was in high school I made a parody of James Bond called "Coldfinger", and it won a national award. You can figure the plot from the title. I even had a girl, a good singer in our school do a Shirley Bassey parody called Coldfinger. He was obsessed with ice. His killer was called Snowjob, instead of Oddjob.
Both COMMANDO and RUNNING MAN have "I'll be back" in it. Was that intentional?
That was on purpose.
Contractual or something?
No, no. I said to Arnold you know, why don't you make that your catch phrase? And of course he did. What was funny is that the persona that he's played in every movie now, it comes from Commando. I mean, that guy, the 'Arnold character' appears for the first time there, not in Conan or Terminator.
That's right, you in many ways established that character, helped author it.
Not realy, I met him and just tailored a part for him that fit him like a suit. He likes to give wisecracks, and put downs, and stuff like that. Again, the real Arnold is in the documentary, Pumping Iron.
You worked with that, cool. Alright, so did you read “Richard Bachman”'s book?
Well, what happened on this was Rob Cohen, who has since gone on and directed a lot of movies, Fast and Furious and XXX, he's kind of like a renaissance man of Hollywood. He started out as a junior executive right out of college, working for Casablanca Pictures, he was head executive on The Wiz, movies like that. Then he was a studio executive for a while, and then a television director, and now he's a feature director. So he moved around, and very few people had done those different jobs, so he'd just become an executive at an independant company on the Columbia lot (now Sony).
A guy named George Linder, who had made his fortune in wheelchairs for paralympic athletes - not your grandmother's wheelchair, but the wheelchairs for sports - decided he wanted to be in the movie business one day, he's stuck at a layover in an airport, and he buys this book, The Running Man by Richard Bachman, and he goes, “Wow! This could be a good movie”. So he options the rights, and he didn't know it was Stephen King, and even when he took it to Rob Cohen ...
In the mid-eighties I guess?
Yeah, this was in the mid eighties. Now the studio had to kick over the option, discover we're dealing with Stephen King here. He says why'd you make such a bad deal? The next payment is huge! And that's the reason why, they didn't know.
Linder hired two people to write the script with him. And they just basically transcribed the book. So Rob, looking around, already thinking about Arnold, called up Joel Silver, who i'd done 48 Hrs. and Commando with, and Joel Silver gave me a glowing recommendation, so they send me the book and the screenplay.
This is your first time looking at the material.
Right, my reaction was, they're both the same. There wasn't much daylight between the screenplay and the book. I said, here's my issues. The first thing is, you've got the same dystopia everybody has, the same horrible dystopia, which is fine, it works with the picture, but the dystopia in the book of the novel, you're saying that the economy is so bad, it's a giant depression, and the hero is so bad, that the hero is "sickly and tubercular" - Stephen King's actual description.
And you're casting Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in the worst depression, couldn't he get a job delivering pianos door to door? It's beyond me.And I add, 'I'm just gonna guess, you probably don't want him to have the wife who's a hooker, and the child who's dying and needs medicine, right?' Because in the book, he can't get work, the wife's hooking because there's no work, his kids need medicine, the wife isn't hooking enough to get medicine, but the game show he can win money, and that's why he goes on the game show.
Another problem is Stephen King is writing this thing like in 1981 in New England, maybe there was lousy television reception there, or he doesn't watch much TV, but the game show he describes in the book is like a game show from the 1950s. It's almost like Groucho Marx, You Bet Your Life. Where the host has a microphone, there's a studio audience, a pretty girl comes out with a box around her neck, and the contestant picks an envelope, and that tells you how much lead time you have to run. I mean, look at Wheel of Fortune, the game show’s bells and whistles, and the pretty girl turns the numbers - it's gotta be like a game show today, ie the 80s.
In the book, there's references to other TV shows in the near future, but The Running Man is on every day for an hour, with a recap of all the people who are running, and part of the deal is, you only win the money if every day you make a video tape and snail mail it back to us. So everyday, we're showing the video tapes that came in the mail, from three days ago, right? And the runners cooperate!
The hunters, which is what they're called in the show, are in disguise, so you could be walking down the street and the meter maid kills you. If I learned one thing working with Joel Silver, it's you want to fall in hate with the bad guy. How do you fall in hate with anonymous people? So it seems for this thing to work, you've got to have him be forced onto the game show, right?
'Cause he's never gonna be that desperate. You've gotta have bad guys, that are big huge guys, that you can start to hate who keep coming after him after every previous fight, and game show within the movie has got to be entertaining! Which it isn't at all, in the book. The amount of time they spend on the game show in the book is like four pages, when they introduce him to the audience, and he picks the envelope, and then he's running accross the whole country, he can go anywhere! Each season of the show is a month long - "Tonight we start our month". So one month? You're gonna have calendar pages fall down like an old move from the 30s?
So it wasn't like I said I'm here to piss all over Stephen King, I'm saying we got a star, it has to fit him, and there's obvious stuff. Like the producer of the show and the host, who are two charcters in the book - he should be one character, it's just simple economy, in fact, in reality the host, you look at any game show, the host is a producer by the second season, because he puts a gun to the network's head.
So most of the changes from the book to the movie were because of the reality of who we're casting, and the genre of movie we're making. Forget the bizarre convergence of reality in this thirty year old movie, where there's lines in the movie like, “Get me the Justice Department, entertainment division.” He says “You can't get him, he's escaped prison, he has to go back in prison.” The host says ,“Oh yeah? Get me the President's agent.
You now have a president with an agent.
The character of the movie is very Trumpian. It's really bizarre, there was no reality television! There was no reality television when that movie came out!
No fake news.
As a kid it was one of my favorite movies, but once Survivor came out, I started thinking about it totally differently. Now Trumpism and the celebrity politics...
I can tell you, it's not my fault! I tried to warn you all.
Now, wrestling was going on. WWF, AMERICAN GADIATORS were going on.
Oh yeah, yeah sure, and we already had the movie, Network. So obviously that was in the back of my mind. I would give Richard Dawson a lot of credit too. He'd been around for a long time and he was really into that. One of the things that would happen during the shoot was when he was doing his scenes on the game show, he started to ad lib like crazy the way he used to do on Family Feud. He had an audience of bored extras, who were suddenly laughing and reacting! So every day, he would ad lib more and more, and his part of the show where he's just being the game show host, which is amusing, but it's not the movie, was growing exponentially. He'd have half a page of dialogue where he's supposed to get to a plot point, it would be a page and a half.
Or he would just arbitrarily call somebody in the audience up on the stage and say where you from, but that's not in the script! It's what he would do in the real TV show. So finally one of our producers, Tim Zinnemann, son of Fred Zinnemann from High Noon - been around for a long time - he pulled me aside and said you gotta get down to the set and see what Richard Dawson is doing. I said, if I can get in there with a shoehorn, cause every guy in the studio was going down there to see the dancing girls, Paula Abdul was you know...
Paula Abdul was there?
She was choreographer. She was not in it, but she was the choreographer of the dancing, girls with leotards. Tim was like, “It's out of control! You know, so go talk to him, pick his brain, and see if you can get him to stay on script a little more.”. So I sat with him at lunch a couple of times and he was talking about the media, and working in television in the UK, stuff like that.
We had Reagan as the president then, so he pointed out that Reagan had made a speech at one point, where he talked about "our brave men and women who serve in the costumes of the Armed Forces". He's already crossing the streams. Our men in uniforms, not our men in costumes. So I took notes, and then I brought revised pages to him, and then he stayed on script.
Because you wrote it to him.
Yeah, I wrote it to him, and it was importnat. The real problem was, as he would ad lib in the script, they'd bring Arnold out with armed guards, he's in shackles. He goes “what the fuck”, for a second, then they throw him in the rocket chair and shoot him away. But with Richard Dawson ad libbing on and on, you go, ‘well why doesn't Arnold like knock out a guard and take a machine gun? Why does he just stand around like a schmuck while this guy's rambling on?’ So we had to solve that problem. If you scrutinize the movie now, you can see where we skipped over that problem as quickly as possible.
Right right, that's funny
So it was a fast shoot. It was done, they had multiple directors on this movie, you know that story.
I don’t, actually…. ….For all the times I’ve seen your films I feel like your DVDs never really had special features.
The silver Die Hard had commentary, but it was text...
For the next eight minutes, de Souza discusses the carousel of directors that failed to complete The Running Man before Paul Michael Glaser brought it home. Should you care to hear it, it can be found around the 90 minute mark of the audio recording. Jumping ahead...
(While we’re breaking, I should mention this small Special Features and Die Hard insert is taken from the end of the conversation.)
….I have a theory on why the movie underperformed. We had a test screening on this movie - it was probably one of the best test screenings ever attended to, in my entire life.
They went out towards Palm Springs - you want to get out of LA so you have sort of real people, but also you don't want to have somebody from a rival studio stumble into your screening and badmouthing - if it's really bad.
So Rob Cohen was very famous for an anecdote which is, literally, his first day in Hollywood as a lowly story reader, at Universal Studios - this is before he got the job at Casablanca FilmWorks. They say, “Okay read these scripts and fill out this”- you know what a reader's report is?
It's a standard form. It's like a one page thing, it says ,s'ynopsis of script, characters, and a checklist, production values high, low, medium, social relevancy, comedy'. It's a recommend yes/no, right. So he reads the script he says, “Highest recommendation”. He checks all the boxes. So his boss calls him in, he says, “This is your first day, you don't understand how this works, nothing is this good, you're not getting any credibility here in this department if you throw around fairy dust like this all the time, go back and do this over again.” He says “No”, says, “I've read the script, I know how to read, I took literature courses, I over prepared for this thing.” “Okay fine, I'll send it in, but it's om your head. Don't say I didn't warn you!”, and the fucking script was The Sting! - a giant hit. To this day he has his reader's report, plus the note from his boss saying, ‘You really want to do this over’, right? He has them both framed on his wall to this day.
Anyway, as we’re doing the movie we had a special effects company come in and say, ‘Listen we have this new thing, we can save you all kinds of money and keep your stuntmen out of danger, we can make your actor here’. So they showed us an example of computerized stunts, but the truth was, where it was sort of okay, the only thing it got right was putting the face on the ...
On the stunt guy.
The face on the artificial person. This is ten years before Tobey Maguire's Spiderman, but even remember Doc Octopus, there was the "unnatural valley".
The only thing that worked was the face swapping, which was actually was intermittently good. So they said you guys will do the special effects, but we're not doing that (swapping). After they left I said “Rob, you know I'm thinking about the thing in The Sting, where you blew the audience's mind -Redford and Newman killed each other and the audiences all went 'What the fuck?', and then they both get up and say "Aha!, We sure fooled them!" We should do the version of that, since it can't be expensive to swap the face on somebody who's not moving around. The demonstration they show you where they swap the face, here's how we do it, and you go wow, but then they put it in movement, and it was kinda eh.
But if he's dead ...
...“So what if the show prodicers are so fucked they have to do that, the news is coming on, the show has to end, they fake Arnold's death”. Rob's like “That's great! That's great, it's like The Sting, we'll do that!” That's what I wrote, that's what we shot. So in the movie, as written, as shot, as shown to the test audience, they get away, he and the girl are running, a wall comes down, they turn around, it's Jesse Ventura. They start to fight, they're fighting, they're fighting, Jesse Ventura kills the girl, breaks her neck, like a chicken. The audience is stunned, Arnold is stunned, now Arnold gets up and does the most colossal beat down you've ever seen of Jesse Ventura. I'm talking like the most brutal ... the Ryan Gosling Drive movie like the hammer, pounding and pounding.
Then at the last second, when he's almost dead, Jesse Ventura recovers and throws Arnold on spikes. And then, after that's over they say, “That's it, goodnight folks!” We cut to the control room and they go, “That really worked! Good thing we got that new face swapping thing!”, and we see them un-face swap the poor dead bastard. That's what we wrote, that's what we shot.
So we showed this thing to like 700 people at the movie theater, and it's a rough cut, it has ‘shot missing’ sometimes, and there's a black and white SFX image of Arnold, and a jump cut to the other guy's face, so out of like 700 people, 12 people say, ‘I don't understand how they fooled the audience.’ Meaning not us, the fictional audience. And because of this, some studio executive says, "This doesn't work, but I have the solution I'm good at post. Take those two scenes, reverse them, and then get the guy that says afterwards, “It's a good thing that face discombobulator works”, have him say, “Hey let's try the face discombobulator.”, but first!"
So this was done against my will, but what this ruined was, you know they always say it's the last 10 minutes of a movie that's most important? Or they want the audience of a Broadway show to be humming the last song two minutes after they come out? So all I can tell you is, it wasn't until a test screening of Die Hard, that I saw an audience go as batshit crazy as when Arnold came back to avenge Maria. When they killed her, the audience was completely stunned. Dead fucking silence - almost a collective moan. Then, when Arnold got up and was furious, they were like “Kill em! Kill em!” They wanted revenge, because, I mean, nobody did this. No one kills the fucking leading lady.
The last thing they expected.
This was not Se7en. This was 1987. But in the picture as released, when they say ‘Let’s pretend to kill Richards;”, you watch that fight without any ‘suspense’, it's like watching the replay of the Super Bowl.. IMHO it is what prevented that movie from going over the top. Now with Blu-Ray, you can put it back in the right order.
Wow, interesting. Now you know, there are many people like me who have gown up on your films and have always loved them, and they have only grown more beloved in our collective memories, but that's probably not the reaction you were getting most of the time. I mean, at the time you probably got some criticism from hoity-toity critics, no?
Well there were a few reviews that were really intrigued by the political, and sociological, and satirical elements of it. There are some reviews I can direct you to from back in the day that sort of got it. In fact, one reviewer said, “I wonder if this subversive progressive view of our violence-infused culture could be due to Arnold's marriage into the Kenned-- nah, never mind.” I remember that review, it was from The Washington Post. There were some reviews that liked it a lot, others just sort of said it revels in what it criticizes.
At the time, Commando got a lot of reviews from some critics who liked it, because it was so cartoony. There were some really good ones. I would not say it was universally pissed on. Commando got a lot of good reviews, because it was so ridiculous, and Running Man got noticed for the subtext. My two favorite film critic stories are this. I did a movie called Ricochet.
I really liked RICOCHET.
On that cliffhanger, here’s the full conversation. Our discussion of Ricochet picks up an hour and 49 minutes into the recording, attached below:
0:00 - Early years / Hollywood Hustle
0:30 - Television
0:57 - 48 Hrs, / Return of Captain Invincible
1:04 - Commando
1:19 - The Running Man
1:30 - The many directors of The Running Man
1:49 - Ricochet
1:56 - Die Hard
2:26 - Reflections
2:29 - Hudson Hawke / Judge Dredd
2:33 - Judge Dredd