Richard Price is the best-known American writer working with equal distinction in both fiction and film. He has published six novels to date: "The Wanderers" (1974), "Bloodbrothers" (1976), "Ladies' Man" (1978), "The Breaks" (1983), "Clockers" (1992) and "Freedomland" (1998).
The last book mentioned is based on Susan Smith's murder of her children in South Carolina, but transposed northward to the familiar literary turf of Price's invented town of Dempsy, N.J. His most acclaimed novel is "Clockers," a book about urban police and the cocaine trade, which he and Spike Lee made into a movie in 1995. Price's writing credits include at least 15 films, and he has done uncredited script-doctoring on many others. His screen credits include The Color of Money in 1986, a sequel to The Hustler, Sea of Love in 1989, the Life Lessons section of New York Stories in 1989, Night and the City in 1992, Clockers in 1995, and Ransom in 1996. He also collaborated on Rain Man in 1988, though his name does not appear on the credits, and he most recently collaborated on Shaft 2000. Price has also acted in at least ten films and produced four, including Clockers.
Among his current projects is the screenplay for "Freedomland."
Price's productivity is enormous, and his renderings of urban life and speech are drawn from the streets themselves. The characters and situations in his novels are derived from his immersion in the life he writes about. He has traveled with police and drug dealers alike, and has sometimes found himself in perilous situations as a result. His feel for the housing projects in which his later novels are set is built-in.
Price grew up in the Parkside Projects and Co-op City in the Bronx., though he has said, "Housing projects were launching pads then, and now they're terminals."
For all his social awareness, Price is a writer first and foremost. As the introduction to the interview with him in Paris Review notes, " "Clockers' was widely recognized as a dispatch from the asphalt combat zone of the American underclass, but Price . . . seems prouder of its artfulness."
His understanding of the street and his ear for its speech are trademarks of his work on the page and on the screen. He has been called a modern-day Dickens and Dostoevsky, for his renderings of gritty urban reality and the post-industrial dispossessed, and there are striking plot similarities between "Freedomland" and Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," both being about criminals who in the end are trapped by their own guilty consciences.
Our conversation began with "Freedomland."
The story of the faked kidnapping of a child by a mother who had killed the child herself is based on the Susan Smith case -- the South Carolina woman who drowned her own children in 1994, claiming that they had been abducted by a black carjacker. What attracted you to that story?
It subliminally caught my eye on TV, because she had been going on TV every day, addressing this bogus carjacker, and it was this ongoing drama on national television. I didn't think I was paying all that much attention until the day she was indicted for the murder of the two kids. At that point, something clicked in me. The combination of having kids myself and the notion of black scapegoating, and everybody falling for it including myself, and some X factor that I didn't really understand, but it was a feeling that I hadn't had in a long time that it was going to cause me some work.
Is Brenda Martin of "Freedomland" based on Susan Smith or is she your own invention?
I went down to South Carolina and sat through the sentencing trial, in which Smith's entire psychohistory was unfurled for all to hear. I found myself uninterested in her per se, because there was a quality of heartlessness in what she did. It was also a part of the country that I'm not really familiar with; it doesn't feel like home to me. I suppose that everyone has felt what Susan Smith has when overwhelmed by kids, so anyone can run a few yards with her. But after about 10 yards, we drop off and she goes the extra 90.
In creating the character of Brenda Martin, I was looking for someone whose motivation and circumstances I could better understand and could control.
"Freedomland" is as much about the press as it is about crime, police work and urban life. And it appears that you don't hold the press in high esteem. The character of reporter Jesse Haus (who covers the story for the Dempsy newspaper) looms large, and yet she strikes me as both unpleasant and unprincipled; an adrenaline, action and information junkie, as you call her.
I don't think I did anything new or created a character that was not in the realm of public information. Basically the job is to get the news. On the one hand people are repulsed and horrified about these ghoulish photographers horning in on people in the midst of their suffering, but when we watch it on the news at night, we see the images and don't think about how they were achieved.
So on one hand, we reap the benefits of their ruthlessness, and it is only when it is turned on you that it seems heartless. It's sort of like you have to butcher animals to make shoes and hamburgers.
About Detective Lorenzo Council (the black police officer who is the central consciousness in "Freedomland"). Is he black or is he blue? Where are his loyalties? With the people of the housing project that is turned upside down by the police, or with the police who are called upon to do a dirty job?
That is not an either/or situation. Whatever you do, half the people are going to be mad at you. It is a dilemma for black cops. He is black and blue. It is a condition that is filled with tension, and it sure keeps you interested in the job, because nothing is routine and everything is loaded, because of who you are and what you are doing.
I read in another interview that you felt that when a choice had to be made, a cop would likely choose blue rather than black, the role rather than the race.
Sure, but then you've got organized police groups in New York that are very political in terms of their public stance. You know, a lot of kids in ghetto areas are more afraid of black cops than they are of white, because black cops are thinking, "It's people like you who make it hard for me and my family to have respect."
It's not a black thing. I experienced the same thing in Cincinnati, where the white kids who had come from an Appalachian neighborhood were more afraid of the white cops from Kentucky. For the same reason: They feel that it is "people like you that make it hard for me to get respect."
In the book there is a group called The Friends of Kent, who are private searchers for lost children. Are they based on something actual, or are they an invention?
Everything ultimately is an invention, and everything is ultimately inspired by truth. But, yes, there is a group called The Friends of Jennifer in Staten Island. Through a chain of connections I became friends with the leader of this group and learned what they did. The advantage and attraction of these people is what they say to the cops: We're not cops, we're moms, and we can get in where you can't. You know that 70 percent of the people who report missing children are responsible for it themselves, and after some experience you know how to read people pretty well.
How far along are you on the film?
I did a few drafts, and Sidney Pollack is directing it. I asked for someone to take over the screenwriting for me, at least for now. I'm having a hard time getting distance from the book, and that is imperative for making a successful film. It is very hard for a writer to tear apart his own book to make it suitable for another medium. Just because you're a dentist doesn't mean you should do your own root canal.
In the film of "Clockers," how much of the dialogue is yours, how much is Spike Lee's, how much is the actors'?
It's hard to say. Spike Lee took over the writing of it. I had written it originally for Martin Scorsese, and Scorsese decided to do "Casino" instead. Spike Lee came in and said, "I only direct what I write myself." At that point I was so tired of it, I said, "Fine, good luck." He roughly preserved the sequence of events and about half, maybe less, of what I wrote, and then put his own more personal and political spin on things.
At the beginning of the movie, a group of young drug dealers is sitting on a bench talking about something, in a language that sounds like a cross between English and Finnegan's Wake. What is that? Is that your work?
All that dialogue was Spike's, and it was very pointed dialogue about rap and violence. I would never write like that. It was like they were delivering a lecture in bop talk or something.
The dialogue between the cops, Rocco Klein (played by Harvey Keitel) and Mazilli (played by John Turturro), sounds like your writing: hard, edgy, brittle, bravado covering fear. Is it?
It is so hard to say. They'll use some of my lines, but who knows? There is some improvising going on, some rewriting, some half-baked preservation of my script. Let's put it this way. Spike Lee is the author of "Clockers" the movie.
You have said in a number of interviews that you do research by hanging out. Who do you hang out with? How do you get access? Why do they let you?
Because I've done movies and people like to rub up against anyone who has done movies in our culture. I'm as interesting to them as they are to me. The first time they'll let you in on spec, and then they see what type of person you are, and if they don't feel threatened by what you're doing, and if you're not bad company, they will refer you to other people. You basically get passed around.
I never use anything I literally hear or see. That's just raw material. But by seeing the real thing, I'm confident that the parameters of reality are not being breached in the fiction that I create.
What are the dangers? Have the police ever found you in the company of drug dealers? Drug dealers in the company of police?
Both. But I'm not so heedless that I would put my life in jeopardy. I'm pretty alert to who I'm with and the circumstances, but basically I'll go anywhere, unless I feel it is suicide. You get hungry out there to see things.
What do you learn when you are investigating a crime with the police?
It isn't the exotic stuff but the banal stuff, and sometimes it is the juxtaposition of the terrible and the banal that affects you. There is the melodrama of the drug arrest and the mundane quality of the conversation between the cops and the suspect. Or, you go in on a police raid into a drug apartment. The gun that they find on the table isn't always as interesting as the movie poster for "101 Dalmatians" that they'll have up in their kitchen.
And yet, by itself that doesn't make for a book. You can go out for a thousand years with the cops, but then you have to do something with all this data. You have to forge it into art.
The mark of your writing, in both fiction and film, is its tense and evocative language. So much of it comes from the street, but I think of it as street bumped up a notch. What do you listen for?
It's an asset if you can write good dialogue, but good dialogue does not mean that you have a good screenplay. A screenplay is more about shapeliness and momentum. Once the actors open up their mouths, that's human speech, and it will automatically get better. If they can't say what you wrote, they'll change it into something more human sounding.
Of course, I always have most fun with the dialogue, but that doesn't make for a good screenplay by itself.< I haven't seen "Shaft."
I've read that Samuel L. Jackson didn't want to speak your lines.
I don't know what he was talking about, but anybody at these press junkets is so desperate for anything to write about other than the usual pabulum: "We all loved each other so much; this was the most fun movie to make." They've got to write about something, so the guy mouths off for two seconds and doesn't think about it anymore, and suddenly it is in 140 papers that he won't say this white man's dialogue. . . . It wasn't even a tempest in a teapot. It was a tempest in a teaspoon.
You give the appearance of moving easily between fiction and screen writing, and you do it on the whole with less complaint than other writers who have gone to Hollywood and been dissed and come back complaining about Babylon.
Basically everything is a pain, and when you are doing one you wish you were doing the other. But writing screenplays is not particularly rewarding, except financially. When you're writing a novel you're constructing a building. When you're writing a screenplay you're just a mechanical draftsman laying out a blueprint for others to build. And they can do anything they want with it.
What about directing. Would you be interested?
Not really. I don't think I'm temperamentally suited for that. I don't want any more friction in my life than I can handle, and I'm not a filmmaker. I'm a writer, and I know that.
Do you intend to keep up the double writing life?
So long as I need money, I'll be writing screenplays. As for fiction, I'm halfway through a book right now.
What has been the most satisfying film project for you?
The easiest and most satisfying work was this 40-minute thing I did for Martin Scorsese as our contribution to "New York Stories" (i.e. "Life Lessons"), with Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette. It took three days to shoot and he shot from my script as though it was the Bible. And he brought a lot to the party as well. This one was a great marriage between my writing and his visual mastery. And it was also three days out of my life, as opposed to two years.
The other thing I liked was the first cut of "Sea of Love," where they really tried to stick to my screenplay. Then came the pressure from the focus groups and the audiences in the studio anxious about not making money, so they cut out a lot of the good stuff. You know, "We aim to please" and all that.
And the least satisfying?
May I not answer that?