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BICENTENNIAL MAN: Writing the Script
Screenwriter Nicholas Kazan on adapting Isaac Asimov to the screen.
By Mike Lyons
December 21, 1999
It's a wonder Nicholas Kazan isn't schizophrenic. After all, the screenwriter does what many can't: he slip-sides between fantasy and reality. For every script he's penned, whether drama (AT CLOSE RANGE) or those based on real people and events (FRANCES, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, PATTY HEARST) he's also crafted stories filled with great imagination (FALLEN) and whimsy (MATILDA, which he adapted from Roald Dahl's book, with his wife, Robin Swicord.
Now, Kazan has once again ventured into the world of the unreal with his screenplay for BICENTENNIAL MAN. Adapted from Isaac Asimov's short story (and a later novella, co-written with Robert Silverberg), the film, directed by Chris Columbus, tells the story of a robot (Robin Williams) and his 200-year journey to become human.
Kazan began his career as a playwright in Berkley and San Francisco. He then moved to Los Angeles and began writing screenplays, until, as he says, 'they got good enough for people to pay attention.' Last week, via telephone from his Santa Monica office, Kazan took time out to discuss BICENTENNIAL MAN, realms of fantasy and the art of screenwriting.
FANDOM: FIRST OFF, TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU BECAME INVOLVED WITH 'BICENTENNIAL MAN.'
Nicholas Kazan: I was sent the novella by Gail Katz and Wolfgang Peterson [the film's producers]. When I read it, I more than fell in love with it; I began to see actual scenes and started to write them down. I wrote ten pages in just a few hours. I came in and read it to them and, from there, got the job. We then had a bit of a 'hiccup' after I did the first draft, because they thought that covering two-hundred years wasn't going to work and thought it should be cut to one hundred years.
The film is essentially about a robot with human feelings and human consciousness. The main problem is that everyone to whom he forms an emotional attachment dies. Machines, on the other hand, if they're well repaired, can keep going forever. So, when they wanted to move it from two hundred to one hundred years, it was so he could have an emotional attachment to the same people. I thought that was avoiding what was his essential problem, which is that everyone around him dies.
So, I did a second draft of the script, just to prove that it would work over two hundred years. After some hemming and hawing, they agreed. From there, I did the third draft that got Robin Williams and Chris Columbus involved.
I FIND IT INTERESTING THAT YOU BEGAN TO SEE SCENES WHEN YOU FIRST READ IT. SOMETIMES, NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES DON'T EXACTLY LEND THEMSELVES TO FILM, BUT WAS ISAAC ASIMOV'S STORY DIFFERENT?
The way I know that material is fertile for me is that I start writing immediately. I'll write notes about what might be a provocative, thematic area or, more frequently, dialogue. I usually ignore the structural problems immediately, but I see bits and pieces of the movie. When I start writing initially, that's how I know, as I did in this case, that something would work out.
THE MAIN CHARACTER, NDR-114 OR ANDREW, AS HE COMES TO BE CALLED, IS A ROBOT WHO TAKES ON HUMAN CHARACTERISTICS. WAS IT A CHALLENGE TO DETERMINE HOW TO REVEAL HIS CHARACTERISTICS?
The character has consciousness and, for lack of a better term, human spirit. He has that from the outset. He doesn't exactly begin 'cold'; he begins somewhat mechanical. There are glimpses from the outset of a human process. That process and glimpses of it emerge fairly early on. It's like watching a human being grow up.
IT MUST HAVE BEEN AN INTERESTING CHARACTER TO CRAFT, IN THAT HE'S LIKE A CHILD DISCOVERING THE WORLD.
Essentially, the movie deals with the question: 'What does it mean to be human?' Many people, especially men, are like the character, in that many men put on armor, which leads them into mechanistic responses to stimuli. Then, you must loose that armor to become a human being again.
ROBIN WILLIAMS, ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST IMPROVISATIONAL ACTORS, PLAYS ANDREW. DID HE BRING A LOT TO THE CHARACTER THAT YOU DIDN'T ENVISION ON THE PAGE?
It's interesting, the character is very elegant. So, Robin did have places where he could improvise, but in many areas, improvisation would have led him away from the character, so he was more narrowly confined. It wouldn't have made much sense for him to 'riff' as a robot [laughs].
YOU'VE DIRECTED YOUR OWN WORK IN THE PAST ['DREAM LOVER']. IS IT DIFFICULT TO GIVE YOUR WRITING OVER TO ANOTHER DIRECTOR?
It's the nature of the beast, but it is difficult. It's much easier when you remain involved; it leads to a consistency in tone and vision. Certainly, that's much more satisfying. In all frankness, I think the autuer theory has made some directors feel as if they have to control everything. Film is essentially a collaborative medium, and when a film works well it's because of many points of view.
YOU MENTIONED BEFORE THAT, DURING THE INITIAL STAGES OF YOUR WORK ON 'BICENTENNIAL MAN,' YOU IGNORED STRUCTURE ALTOGETHER. WHEN YOU START WRITING IS THERE A CERTAIN STRUCTURAL PATTERN THAT YOU DO FOLLOW?
In the beginning, I free associate. Once I'm 'hired,' so to speak, I begin to think about structure very seriously. Movies are structure. If you have good, strong bones and a good skeleton, then everything else you do will work reasonably well.
There are a lot of writers who use paradigms, computer programs or cards. I don't, but I do outline very carefully. From the moment I start writing, I'm also writing dialogue whenever it comes to me. If I hear a funny line or think of a certain moment I'll write it down. So, I keep all of those things in my 'hip pocket,' figuratively speaking. Then, as I'm writing, I pull out what will work.
YOU'VE WORKED IN BOTH THE REALMS OF FANTASY AND REALITY. IF IT WERE UP TO YOU, WOULD YOU CHOOSE JUST ONE OF THSEE, OR DO YOU ENJOY THE VARIETY?
I enjoy doing all of them. To me, it's really just about the individual story. I try to do things that I feel compelled to do. Some of those happen to be biographies; some happen to be fiction; and some just happen to be fantasy.
IT'S PROBABLY LIKE PICKING A FAVORITE CHILD, BUT IS THERE ONE PROJECT THAT STANDS OUT IN YOUR MIND?
It's tricky, because there's always a big difference between the script and the movie. With a few exceptions, I love them all.
IS THERE ANY WRITER, SCREENWRITER OR OTHERWISE, WHO INSPIRES YOU?
I'm very inspired by older films, such as those by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond and Preston Sturges. And, two of my all time favorite films were written by Paul Schrader: TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL.
WHAT'S IT LIKE WHEN YOU'VE WRITTEN A SCREENPLAY, GIVEN IT OVER TO THE WORLD AND EVENTUALLY SEE YOUR WORK UP ON THE SCREEN?
The most exhilarating thing is when you see a scene in a film that brings back the feeling of writing it. There's nothing that compares to that feeling of writing, but sometimes a film reminds you of that.