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Austin Chronicle Making Waves

Screenwriter Bill Wittliff Discusses 'The Perfect Storm'

By Sarah Hepola

JULY 3, 2000:  The snarl of traffic, the human genome, the rising price of housing -- it seems like everyone's talking about how things have changed. Inside his Austin office, which smells of cigarette smoke and well-worn leather, Bill Wittliff is talking about how some things don't. Grief. Love. Heartache.

"I'm utterly convinced that pain is the same thing to you as it is to me," the screenwriter explains. "All those emotions run through all of us as humans, and it doesn't matter whether you're back in 1670 or 2000."

This is the key to the success of Wittliff's stories, often epic dramas that unfold in mythic landscapes. Take, for example, Legends of the Fall, or the Western Barbarosa, or, perhaps most memorably, the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove, photographs of which hang on the walls of the office entrance, taken by Wittliff himself. Although he has been called the godfather of Austin film, Wittliff is also an accomplished photographer and founder of both the Southwestern Writers Collection and the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography. Add to those credits his work as a director and producer, and it often seems there's nothing he can't do. (Well, there is one thing. To prove it, Wittliff holds up a white pad of paper scribbled with notes; Bill Wittliff can't type.)

Regardless of the medium, however, Wittliff's muse is the same -- he is inspired by the endurance of the human spirit and the truths that lie therein. Like we said, some things just don't change.

His latest script is for The Perfect Storm, adapted from the Sebastian Junger bestseller based on the true story of a group of swordfishermen from Gloucester, Mass., who clash against the storm of the century, an unprecedented, seething tempest of 100-foot waves. Although the film boasts dazzling special effects and the star power of George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, The Perfect Storm is instead fueled by good, old-fashioned human drama. As directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who helmed the extraordinary underwater adventure Das Boot in 1981, it is a terrifying tale of being lost at sea, of raging against the unpredictable, sometimes vicious forces of Nature. "It's about the sea, but it's also about people and the sea," Wittliff explains. "And that's why, most likely, I was asked to do it, because generally my characters are real people, and these are real people in this storm."

Much of the credit for the film's success goes to Petersen, who balances spectacular computer graphics with the always-beating heart of the adventure. But Wittliff must be lauded for taking a calamity so huge as to be unimaginable and whittling it down to a scale small enough to burrow under our skin. This is what Wittliff does. Whether the backdrop is the plaintive, hardscrabble South or the Mexican Revolution or colonial America, "We still have the same human emotions. So what I'm trying to do is tell those stories through human emotions."

When we spoke, he had not yet seen The Perfect Storm. So in our conversation, the storyteller stuck to the things he knows -- the doomed fishermen aboard the Andrea Gail, how he writes a grand adventure, and the heroism of the ordinary man.

Austin Chronicle: Like a lot of the characters you've created, the swordfishermen in The Perfect Storm are men who communicate primarily through what they do rather than what they say. Is that challenging to write?

Bill Wittliff: Some people, in all walks of life, are reluctant to talk and reveal themselves because they feel it's not manly to speak their hearts. I pretty much feel like I know these people. But did I really know them as individuals? No. But are they, in essence, accurate depictions of those kind of people? I hope so.

AC: What are some of the qualities in those men you wanted to come across?

BW: Well, I don't think these guys thought they were doing anything heroic. They were trying to make a living. For me, that is a kind of heroism. Just people making do. I didn't try to set them up as something beyond what I suspect they were and what pretty much everybody is. I mean, everybody is just trying to get along and make do and be honorable, be a friend when a friend is needed. Trying to make a living for the people you're responsible for, to me that is a heroic thing. I would think to some degree that a guy who sells insurance probably feels the same kind of frustration that these guys do. We're all part of the same fabric, which is life.

AC: That seems to be a common theme in your work.

BW: It's not a conscious thing, but it's just the way I view life. There are a lot of guys who do things that I consider heroic, simply because I wouldn't want to do it. Guys who are working on the road -- I'd never want to do that. But what's at the end of it is that the guy's just trying to make a living. It's what he does for himself, or his family, or to have a beer, whatever.

AC: You're known for writing these sweeping historical dramas. What appeals to you about those kind of stories?

BW: I don't know how to answer that because in a sense everything's that's past is a kind of historical drama. And I'm not sure what that means anyway. I would probably be more prone to use that term if we were talking about a documentary. But even in writing something that's said in a historical event or historical terms, you're trying to make it relevant to the people you want to talk to now. And it's always about the people. Is The Perfect Storm a historical drama? I guess it is. But I'm more drawn to human drama and more the human drama of everyday life. That's not to say I don't love just outrageous, huge heroes. I do, and I've written some, and I really love them. But I also like the guys that are simply just trying to get along. Probably because it's who I am.

AC: But is there a part of you that enjoys doing the research?

BW: Yes and no. I learned a long time ago that if I spend a lot of time doing the research, then I feel obligated to use the research because I've invested so much in it. And sometimes, then that research all of a sudden becomes more important than the human story. So what I started doing was -- this is a long, complicated conversation but I'll give you a whiff of it anyway -- I don't believe it's possible to have an itch without the ability to scratch. So if I'm interested in the Mexican Revolution, I go in assuming some part of me already knows enough about it for me to start writing, which is maybe an arrogant attitude, but nevertheless I have it. So what I've started doing is just write my story and then do the research, because the first draft will have the human story and then I can temper the setting and the historical events with research, but that way the research for me doesn't get in front of my human story.

AC: So in approaching The Perfect Storm, is there a scene that you started with?

BW: Chris' nightmare in the beginning. It was the first thing I saw. And I saw it whole. I did. And I mean, this is not a new story. Guys have been going down to the sea in great ships since time immemorial. There are guys who have been going aboard a boat and getting lost forever. And there's somebody who dreamt about it before, and somebody who wept afterward. But I think there is a better chance to tell the horrors of it and the anguish of it -- being in a storm, being against the elements -- because now you have computers that can actually re-create that world. An ocean with a hundred-foot waves? If you could find it, you couldn't film it. You couldn't even be in it. In that sense, this is the first time you can actually tell this story. I mean, you really see what it was like to be in something that awful and huge.

AC: Watching the movie, I really couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. And the storm seemed to be a character in itself, this terrifying presence. How do you write that?

BW: You just stick your little butt right out in the middle of it, which is the joy of the imagination. And the neat things for writers in this period is that, essentially, if you can imagine it, and someone's willing to spend money on it, they can do it. And that was exactly the case with this. I mean, there were things in this that I never would have dared write 10 years ago, because I knew they simply could not have done it. They didn't have the vehicle to do it. But this time, you could just cut loose.

The danger is making sure the effects don't get in front of the person's story, and hopefully this film doesn't do that. The impact of the effects on the human beings -- that's the real story. I know I had no interest in writing an "effects" movies nor did Wolfgang [Petersen] want to direct an "effects" movie.

AC: I read an interview in which you said, "If I know everything going in, then there's no sense of discovery for me in the writing." Since you obviously knew a lot about these people going in, what were some of the discoveries you made while writing?

BW: From Sebastian's book, I knew what was going to happen to these guys. But I did find a part of myself relishing tempting the gods. There were times when I was absolutely horrified at the forces they were sailing against, and there were other times when I found that to be inviting. And that was a big discovery for me -- I would love to experience that. That's not a thought you hold onto. Oh no, that makes no sense -- you'd be dead. But that moment, when you're in it, you don't hold back any part of yourself. There's no reason to, and getting to that place, even in the imagination, is kind of attractive. And I know all of us think, "I wish I could just cut loose and do ... whatever." In the writing of this, the largest discovery and the first discovery was in sensing, as deadly as it was and as final as it was, nevertheless the attraction of being in a situation against almighty God and shaking your fist at Him, which is what these men do, just trying to survive.

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