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Austin Scribe Lawrence Wright Tackles Noriega -- Twice

By Cary L. Roberts

MARCH 13, 2000:  Screenwriter Lawrence Wright and General Manuel Noriega are both eligible for freedom this year.

With the release of the Showtime movie Noriega: God's Favorite and the appearance of his novel based on the screenplay, Wright will escape a story that has occupied him for more than a decade, triggered by the 1989 United States invasion of Panama. During the military attack, Noriega briefly evaded American forces by seeking asylum in the papal nunciature, surrendering in early January 1990 and was eventually convicted on charges of racketeering and conspiracy.

A character study dramatizing the final years of the Panamanian dictator's "outrageous reign," Noriega: God's Favorite premieres as part of the SXSW Film Festival. The movie, directed by Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) and starring Bob Hoskins (Felicia's Journey), will also air on the Showtime Cable Network beginning Sunday, April 2.

Wright, a reserved 52-year-old screenwriter and staff writer for The New Yorker, first tried writing the story of Noriega's last days in Panama as a play with two characters, the dictator and the papal nuncio, but it went nowhere. "I couldn't get Tony Noriega to talk, and I couldn't get the Nuncio to shut up," he remembers. "It wasn't until I tried it as a screenplay and later as a novel that my Noriega sprung to life." Oliver Stone optioned the script in 1992, but the Hollywood honeymoon was short-lived. "The studio gave Stone a budget of 40 million dollars, but when he couldn't get the budget under 56 million he dropped the project," Wright explains, "so I figured the movie would never get made." So Wright decided to attempt the story as a novel, an effort that consumed more than a year. But last year, the film was resurrected when producer Nancy Hardin secured the participation of director Roger Spottiswoode and $5.6 million in financing from the Showtime cable network.

Early on, Wright decided against meeting Noriega "because I'd start acting like a journalist. I had to free myself from that. I wanted to imagine this character as fully as possible." And how does he view the deposed dictator? The General "is all id," says Wright, "a drug-dealing, philandering, pockmarked, woman-fearing, enemy-slaying, voodoo-mongering, soul-searching, Buddhist, bisexual, vegetarian, Central American dictator." But like many writers, he came to identify with his subject. Invoking the poet Yeats' dictum that the mask is "identical to one's desire," Wright adds, "In some respects, I wanted to be Noriega."

While shooting Noriega on location in the Philippines last summer, Wright was finishing the novel based on his screenplay God's Favorite (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $24). Already a successful journalist and author of five nonfiction books, he enjoyed the switch to fiction and relished the challenge his first novel presented. "For a writer to make a living these days, in practical terms, you need to have multiple skills," he contends. "You need to be able to move through different kinds of media and be flexible and adaptable to the changes that are coming." When it comes to comparing the work of screenwriting versus the novel, though, Wright says it's no contest. "Novel writing is more difficult, a much greater investment of one's intellectual capital." Unlike a film, he adds, "You can't rely on actors and set designers. It's so exciting to make a world of your own."

Wright's mother and Walker Percy are probably the two people most responsible for his career as a writer. "I have two sisters, and they're both writers. We're all competing for mother's attention. Mother is the great reader in the family. Subconsciously, we all knew if you wrote a book and put it in front of her, you'd get her attention," he says. While an undergraduate at Tulane University in New Orleans, Wright made the short drive to Covington, Louisiana to interview Percy, author of the acclaimed novel The Moviegoer, which won the 1962 National Book Award for Fiction. That first meeting sparked a correspondence that lasted for years between the revered Southern physician-turned-novelist and the young writer from Texas.

Wright spends most of his day in an office on the second floor of his Tarrytown home. Within easy reach of his computer are shelves of reference books, including the multi-volume Handbook of Texas, Modern American Usage, and the New York Public Library Desk Reference. His favorite is a well-thumbed thesaurus. "You can't write without a thesaurus," he claims -- advice he attributes to Percy. Wright starts his day with interviews, research, and correspondence. He then writes from mid-morning until early evening, spending most of his time in front of the computer. Like most journalists his age, Wright started out on a typewriter. He typed on thin, canary-colored second sheets. "The percussive sound of my old Royal Standard was so sharp that I'd put earplugs in," he remembers, and rewriting was laborious. "I really had to cut and paste, though I used Scotch tape." There was an "element of resignation in the polishing stage -- too much trouble." An early adopter of technology, Wright thinks personal computers "improved the writing process immensely, allowing the mind to be freer to create."

Now, at age 52, Wright has seen all his dreams come true. "I've had a lot more success than I expected to," he says. "I was hired by The New Yorker and reviewed on the front page of the Sunday Times." It is a different life than he envisioned. "I pictured a squalid, bohemian existence in a loft in SoHo -- alone," he says. "Instead, I have a wonderful family and have never lived in New York." It is sometimes difficult to reconcile Wright's current life in an affluent Austin neighborhood with his experiences as a conscientious objector during Vietnam and journalist for the Race Relations Reporter, but every now and then, the radicalism re-emerges. Last October, he appeared on Entertainment Tonight to defend the civil rights and reputation of his across-the-street neighbor Matthew McConaughey, whose infamous run-in with local police made headlines.

But success hasn't been without its roadbumps. Wright's first feature film screenplay was for The Siege, a 1998 movie directed by Edward Zwick and produced by transplanted Texan Lynda Obst that met with disappointing box office results. Exploring the implications of domestic terrorism, the film became a lightning rod for Arab-American organizations. "I was perfectly willing to defend that movie because I thought it was unfairly attacked," Wright says. The movie was "either misunderstood, or willfully misunderstood by the people who were attacking it." Wright insists The Siege is a sympathetic portrayal of Arabs in America. "I can understand why they might have felt frightened by the theme of the movie," but the story -- which tells of U.S. government internment of Arab and Islamic citizens -- was drawn from real life. "It wasn't as if I was making it up."

After the movie trailers were released in August 1998, two people were killed and more than 20 injured by a car bomb outside the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa. A Hollywood trade publication quoted unnamed sources who indicated that the Planet Hollywood bombing had to do with Bruce Willis, a star of The Siege and a prominent investor in the restaurant chain. No one has claimed responsibility for that or two subsequent bombings outside theatres, although Wright says "American intelligence links the bombings to an Islamic splinter group called People Against Gangsterism and Drugs."

Wright is currently finishing a New Yorker story about violence in the media that grew from the South African bombings. He's asking some basic questions: "Does violence in the media affect behavior in real life, and if so, what's the responsibility of the artist if people imitate violence he put in a book or movie?" Basic maybe, but not easy. "It's a difficult question," Wright explains. "It's possible two people died because of The Siege. Where does the responsibility lie for these actions, and does the artist have any responsibility?"

As far as Wright is concerned, media companies are being blamed for social ills, as are tobacco companies and gun manufacturers. On this subject, his position is clear. "Even if there is a surplus of death or crime in this country caused by media, it's worth it -- that's the price we pay for freedom of expression. In the same way that we know fewer people would die on the highway if we kept our speed limit at 55, we want to go faster, and artists want to go faster, and they should be allowed to go fast. That's what art is -- it's transgressive, it confronts society, questions values. Moreover, you cannot predict which pieces of art are going to affect behavior. If you're going to indict art, you'd have to indict The Catcher in the Rye for killing John Lennon."

As an award-winning journalist who has written for national publications, Wright has earned a reputation for confronting controversial subjects. "If you wade into controversial public discussions, you're going to get battered occasionally. That's the price of entering the contest. I used to really shrink from that. The first time I was ever attacked in print, I felt ill. It's not that it rolls off my back now. I understand that's the penalty for being involved in controversial public discussions. What else is a writer supposed to be?"

Wright's subjects are likely to stay controversial, considering his interest in the darker sides of human nature. "I don't know why that is, exactly," he says. "I think, probably, growing up in Dallas, in this pious, white-bread, sanctimonious, hypocritical environment -- at least that's the way I perceived it. I had all these unexpressed dark thoughts. I felt like I was the only person in the whole city that had such thoughts. It was an explosive situation for me. I felt very isolated. That experience has driven me to rip the covers off things that are hidden in our society."

Like many Americans his age, the events of November 1963 were a watershed in Wright's life. As he remembers it, everybody in the writer's native Dallas was accused of the Kennedy assassination. It was a "bizarre and shameful experience to endure to have people accuse you of murdering the president. As a child, it's really a stunning experience. No doubt that colored my perception of reality. I absorbed a certain amount of guilt from it." Much of Wright's later work was influenced by this confusion, particularly the "hysterical contagion" of recovered memory detailed in his remarkable 1994 book Remembering Satan. "That's a contribution journalism can make," Wright claims, "to expose the underpinnings of hysteria. Having grown up in a hysterical environment, I'm probably more sensitive to it than other people."

Will public-interest journalism lose Wright to Hollywood's siren call? "I'm not giving up anything, I'm just expanding as much as I can into areas my subconscious is urging me to go," he says. "I don't think a writer has much control over the kind of ideas that come to him. Ideas usually come to a writer in a package. When you get the package, you think, 'This is a screenplay, or an article, or a book.' Most of the ideas that have arrived for me in the last couple of years have been movie ideas." Wright's latest project is a screenplay for director David Fincher (Fight Club) about Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, and the making of The Last Waltz.

When asked about breaking into the film business at an age in his life when most people are leaving, Wright says, "I refuse to acknowledge that. I think of John Huston directing The Dead with an oxygen mask. That's the way I want to go out."


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