Twice now in less than a month I’ve been taken completely by surprise by an action movie that looked utterly terrible to me. First it was Jack Reacher. Now it is The Last Stand, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s much-anticipated/not-anticipated-whatsoever (depending on your taste in movies in the 1980s, if you were even alive then) return to the center stage of action cinema since becoming governor of California in 2003. Never one to shun the limelight, he’s popped up for cameos of varying sizes in films like The Expendables, but the Austrian Oak hasn’t had a starring role since Terminator 3 and hasn’t had protagonist duties since 2002’s Collateral Damage.
Has Arnold still got it? Did he ever have it? Do you even care? Admittedly, I kind of do. Aside from the fact that I’m not a Republican, truth be told I was far more upset by his election because it meant that John Milius’ proposed Conan the King got shelved. Arnold hadn’t really been making good movies for a while at that point, but once he was gone I realized I missed him. And The Last Stand delivered him back into my warm embrace, just how I wanted him. It doesn’t pack the same punch as his classics of yore, but it is his best film since True Lies.
I’ve had to recuse myself from reviewing the movie because it is written by an associate of mine, Andrew Knauer (who I know from our days toiling in the comedy mines at the humor site, MadAtoms). But this seemed like a good opportunity to make Andy answer some questions for me. The Last Stand is his first produced screenplay.
Josh: What was the genesis of the script? When did you begin working on it?
Andrew Knauer: There was an urban legend about a drug dealer who used a jet black Lamborghini to make his drops. He would drive up and down the turnpike at night with the lights off and use night vision goggles to see. I always thought that was a cool thing to start with and when I was bouncing some ideas off a friend of mine, Hernany Perla, who worked at Lionsgate at the time, I mentioned it to him. We both liked the idea, but we knew it didn’t have legs as a story. The next day Hernany calls me and says “make it about trying to stop the car and you’ve got a story.” It took on a life of it’s own once I got going, but that’s pretty much the genesis of the script. The urban legend is bogus by the way. If you drive with night vision goggles on you’ll be blinded by oncoming traffic, so don’t try it. I’d feel bad if some kid with a Lamborghini wrecked his ride because he thought it be cool to try out something he read here on CHUD.
I got canned from my job in July of 2009 and started writing this shortly thereafter. I had been writing seriously for a while before that, but that was the first time I had nothing else to do but write. So it went pretty quickly. The first draft took me a little under three months.
Josh: Without getting into spoilers, at this stage of the project, when it was still just a spec script, were there any notable differences in the story compared to what audiences will see in the theater?
Knauer: A few. I wrote a driver into the script, a specific character who was just there to drive the car. I was trying to leave things open for a sequel so I had him get away, but he really wasn’t necessary and at some point along the way we got rid of him. Now the bad guy, Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), drives himself, which just makes more sense. I wrote the car as a Gumpert Apollo, which is this obnoxiously expensive super car. They only make like 30 of them a year so I’m sure when production crunched the numbers they figured it would be better to look elsewhere. So in the movie, Cortez drives a custom ZR-1. I think it’s legitimately the fastest car made in America and if not, it’s close enough that I’m cool telling people it is. It’s fast as fuck, that’s the bottom line.
Josh: Are you a car guy, or did you need to explore that territory only after you had the idea for the script?
Knauer: I don’t know shit about cars, at least not in a real world sense, but I didn’t really need a working knowledge of cars to write the script. The car is crucial to the plot, but this isn’t Gone in 60 Seconds or something like that. After it sold I got a couple meetings for car based ideas and I was like, yeah you’re talking to the wrong guy.
Josh: You mention when the script sold. Talk a little bit about when the project actually got off the ground. Am I correct in the recollection that the script made the famed Black List at one point?
Knauer: I should have said “optioned.” Technically it wasn’t sold until the first day of principal photography, but Lionsgate optioned it in November of 2009. It made the Blacklist that year, but the twenty something months from option to production were rough. It was completely out of my hands and I never knew if we were getting the green light or not. I definitely got lucky when Arnold came on board. Everything really fell into place after that. Let me caveat that. From my perspective it was very lucky. Truth is there were a lot of people working very hard to get it done, but I was on the sidelines just hoping everything came together.
Josh: It is exciting for any writer, that moment things finally come together, but talk a little about the fact that things coming together for The Last Stand was Arnold getting involved and the film going from just being an action film to Arnold’s comeback project. I mean, that’s kind of crazy for a guy of your generation, I have to assume.
Knauer: It’s completely crazy. It’s like being a rookie manager and the night before opening day the GM calls you up and says “oh hey, Babe Ruth wants to come out of retirement and play for you.” I don’t know how else to describe it. Arnold is the greatest action star ever. Period. It’s not even a debate. Everybody knows his body of work, I don’t need to list them. Then throw in the fact that he was governor… It’s mind boggling what this man has accomplished in his life. But like you said, as a screenwriter, you wake up every morning hoping that things come together and the script gets made. I have Arnold Schwarzenegger in my movie. I still don’t know if it’s completely sunk in. I definitely can’t wrap my head around it yet.
Obviously I’m biased, but he chose the right movie to do for his comeback. This is classic Arnold action. It’s gritty, it’s fun… this is the movie I would want to see him in.
Josh: When did Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil) come onto the project? And did his arrival mark any changes to the script?
Knauer: Director Kim was the first guy attached and he was very involved in the development process from that point on. There was a slight time delay in communication because the script needed to be translated to Korean and back, but otherwise it was like any other writer/ director relationship. This isn’t TV, the writer isn’t the boss. It’s the director’s movie and he’s in charge. Fortunately for me he is a really good director.
Josh: And having a good director is make-it or break-it for an action movie. How did you approach writing the action in the script? Did you come up with interesting set-pieces and then find ways to work them into the film, or did you try to conceive them as you went along? Also, knowing that a director was going to come in and make things his own, how detailed did you allow yourself to get in describing the action?
Knauer: Because this was written on spec I had the luxury of doing whatever I wanted. I like to let the story dictate things. If I can work a predetermined set piece in, great, but the best stuff usually presents itself as the story takes shape. On the flip side, the problem with writing something on spec is chances are it will never see the light of day. There was no guarantee this would ever be optioned, let alone get made. I think if I had written it trying to guess what a director or anybody else wanted to see it would have been a lifeless pile of shit. So I did whatever I wanted and as a result it probably read a little fresher than what people were used to. I was killing characters left and right. There was no love story at all. Personally I think love stories are a crutch writers use to get you to root for a character. A lot of times it works, but most of the time it’s in there just because its convention. I don’t write love stories unless the movie is a love story. That’s where I’m coming from. It’s easy to root for a character if somebody kidnapped his wife.
Josh: What kind of notes did Kim have for you? Was the epic cornfield chase part of the original script?
Knauer: No. That was director Kim’s idea. It was in the very first rewrite, so pretty close to the beginning. It may even have been his first note.
Josh: Someone like Arnold hopping on your script is a dream. But it can also be a nightmare, full of script notes that crush the original writer’s intentions in service to a movie star’s ego and brand. Obviously from your enthusiasm I can tell that this didn’t happen here, at least not in a big way. But I still have to imagine that once this became an Arnold movie, some things changed. What kind of Arnold-y tweaks did Arnold want?
Knauer: All of my work was done at that point. Another writer did the Arnold-specific changes. Truthfully I probably would have fucked it up. This is my first produced script. I’ve seen every movie the man has ever made, most of them multiple times, most of them in the theater. I’m the exact guy who runs around quoting Arnold movies. I don’t know if I could have handled that responsibility.
Josh: What kind of alterations were made? Was the script always about an older guy needing to get back in the saddle, or was that change made to reflect Arnold’s age?
Knauer: It was pretty close to that from jump. I can’t remember how old I wrote the character exactly, early 50s I think. Obviously they made some tweaks, aged him up a little but, accounted for the accent, that sort of thing.
Josh: When you were writing the script, did you have any actors you were envisioning for the role of Sheriff Owens? Do you fan-cast your films during the writing process?
Knauer: Typically I don’t do that. I’m more likely to do it for comedic roles, just because its easier to hear a certain actor deliver a line in your head. As far as the Sheriff goes, when I sat down to write it on day one I do remember thinking, “Steve McQueen would be perfect for this.” But that’s about as far as I went with it.
I’ll struggle with character names sometimes, going back and forth in my head until I settle on something that sounds natural, basically just wasting a lot of time. The 2009 track and field championship was on when I started writing this – It was in Daegu, Korea that year. So I decided, rather than waste any more time on this, I’m just going to name the characters after runners. It’s obscure enough that nobody will notice or if they do at least it won’t be too distracting. So pretty much every character in the movie shares either a first name or a last name with an Olympian.
Josh: Naming characters is a maddening process. And something regular people probably never think about when they imagine how films are put together.
Did you visit the set at all?
Knauer: Yeah. They shot a lot of it in Belen, New Mexico, not too far from Albuquerque. It was really cool. I got there just in time to see them film some of the stuff in the town. Actually, that scene from the trailer when the guys in the diner ask Arnold how he’s feeling and he says, “old.” I was standing about 10 feet away, off camera. That was pretty awesome.
Josh: When Jingle All the Way was being shot at my hometown’s mall [in Bloomington, MN], I witnessed Arnold get into a playful wrestling match with his nearly identical stunt double. It was surreal. Arnold used to use the same stunt double for all his films. Possibly you can’t answer this question, but I’m curious if that guy is back to work now?
Knauer: Yeah, there was a big dude there who took most of the bumps. It was probably the same guy. I think he and Arnold are pretty good friends.
[The stunt double in question is Peter Kent, who might also be known to some of you Chewers as the first human re-animation test subject in Re-Animator that ends up killing Dean Halsey. Kent doubled for Arnold in all of Arnold’s films from The Terminator up until Jingle All the Way. Possibly that wrestling match wasn’t so playful. Far more possible though, Kent was getting too old; he moved onto stunt coordination afterwords. It is unclear if he came out to double for Arnold in The Last Stand, as the IMDb does not currently list anyone for Arnold’s stunt double. UPDATE: Arnold’s stunt man on the film was possibly Billy Lucas.]
Josh: How did director Kim work with the actors and crew, as my understanding is that his English is not great.
Knauer: He had translators on set and good portion of the crew were his guys from Korea. As far as I know, none of the actors had any difficulties. I don’t think the language barrier was an issue at all.
[At the press junket, Arnold related that Kim often resorted to pantomime instead of relying on the translators, hopping around the set and staging one-man fights with himself as demonstration. He was apparently quite good at conveying what he wanted without using English.]
Josh: Granted that, in the end, you knew the “style” of the film was going to be dictated by the director, did you have (for lack of a better word) an agenda while writing the script, as far as the type of action film you wanted to create? The film obviously has some Westerns influence.
Knauer: Undoubtedly and it even goes beyond this script. I wanted to be a part of this business because of Die Hard. You know? Lethal Weapon, Predator, Robocop… these movies kicked ass. Hollywood used to make great action movies that stood the test of time. Then all the sudden, about ten years ago we started churning out dog shit. There are a few notable exceptions, but as far as the American action movie goes, the genre has been on life support since Terminator 2. Over the last ten years if you wanted an action movie you basically got two choices: comic book movies and remakes. How many times do we have to see a classic R-rated action movie get remade as a PG-13 snooze fest? I’m tired of these cheesy PG-13 action movies that are basically marketed to little kids. Look what they did to Alien vs Predator. Two of the greatest R-rated action movie franchises of all time and the crossover is PG-13? I don’t even know how that happens. I get it if you are going to spend 200 million dollars on Superman, you want to make your money back, but Die Hard is PG-13 now? Seriously? What the fuck happened?
The audience hasn’t gone anywhere. Look at the success of Old Boy, Ong Bak, The Raid… These movies aren’t even English and people are going to see them. These are the exact kind of movies that Hollywood used to make and make well. If The Last Stand does anything, I hope it reminds people how much fun a real action movie can be. But yes, I love Westerns. I would love more than anything to make a straight western. Unfortunately its really hard to get a western made nowadays. I hope Django gets studios excited about westerns again. If not, I hope Tarantino at least considers doing another one.
Josh: Arnold has always been maligned for his acting skills, and in a way The Last Stand is going to be a test of whether or not he is a nostalgia piece or a star who can connect with a young audience who knows him best as a politician and an actor their dad loves. For you, how would you explain Arnold’s appeal, beyond the fact that he was in films you loved when you were young?
Knauer: Arnold doesn’t disappear into a role. He’s not Gary Oldman. I don’t think anybody wants to see him try to do that anyway. He brings a presence to the screen that very few people can match. I think that’s his appeal. There was nobody in movies like Arnold before him. Nobody who looked like him, nobody who sounded like him. He created an opportunity for himself when one didn’t exist and I think people will always admire that. I do think nostalgia plays a factor, especially because he’s been away so long, but he’s the real deal. When he hangs that little dude out with one arm in Commando, nobody said “oh, that’s bullshit.” This man wrote the book on how to lift weights. Like literally, he wrote the book. Anybody who is serious about lifting has a copy of the Encyclopedia of Body Building. Fathers give it to their sons when they want them to become men.
Josh: Have you cooked up any ideas (that you can discuss) for a sequel in case The Last Stand proves a success?
Knauer: This is the sheriff’s story and I think that character does everything he needs to do in this film. I don’t know if an audience would buy it if another catastrophe hit this little town and I’m not sure if it would make much sense to take the sheriff out of it. If they came to me and said Arnold wants to do another one I’d drop everything and see what I could come up with, but my gut feeling is that we did a sequel it would have to be a one of the other character’s story.
Josh: I’m sure the writers of Die Hard said a similar thing too!
Knauer: Hey, we can dream.
Josh: Alright, before I release you… Do you have anything else cooking in the pipeline that you’re excited about?
Knauer: I co-wrote a movie that’s premiering at Slamdance called Ghost Team One. It’s a found footage comedy about a haunted house. Think Paranormal Activity if 99% of what the cameras recorded were two idiot roommates trying to pick up the same girl. It’s not a spoof though. It stands on its own. I still haven’t seen a Paranormal Activity movie.
Josh: You’re not missing too much.