“I Want To See Movies About Lives People Have Led” David Franzoni Talks ‘Gladiator’
Gladiator is an epic film released in 2000. Twenty years later, it is still as popular and enduring as it was then. Screenwriter David Franzoni who co-wrote the screenplay with John Logan and William Nicholson spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about what sustains his film career.
Franzoni confesses to being something a rebellious screenwriter. “I don’t believe in structure. I don’t outline.” In order to write an epic screenplay in the vein of Gladiator, the character needs to be epic. The story needs to emerge from the character. “Maximus [Russell Crowe] is the story of Gladiator.”
The screenwriter wanted to tell the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius for decades before it finally got made. Franzoni came up with the idea of Gladiator when he rode a motorcycle from Berlin to Baghdad when he was twenty-five years old living in a yurt. This journey inspired the journey of the Roman General reduced to a slave. “By making that ride from West to East, you come across these arenas. You can’t turn back and you don’t know what lies ahead of you,” mused Franzoni.
Despite its critical and box office success, bringing Gladiator to the screen was not an easy process. The bigger the budget, the bigger the number of studio executives getting involved – each with their own opinions on how Gladiator should best play on the screen.
Franzoni discussed the dance between studio notes and telling an authentic story. “Studios wanted the usual [audience-friendly] stuff such as happy endings and heroes triumphing over adversity.” This clashed with the story Franzoni wanted to tell because he initially envisaged Maximus dying at the beginning of the screenplay. Clearly this conflicted with the studio heads who did not want the hero to die.
David Franzoni mulled over his strategy of winning over studio executives to stage Maximus’ eventual death. “Do I fight for it now or when the movie is shooting and you have them backed into a corner?” Ultimately, Maximus’ death was postponed until the end of the film because it was integral to the story of Gladiator. Maximus couldn’t simply ride away on a horse after defeating his opponent.
“The changes I wanted to make, eventually got themselves made,” declared the writer. Story always wins.
Gladiator Is A 60s Film
Franzoni draws upon his formative filmmaking years, the sixties and seventies, to define his tastes and approach to writing the screenplay of Gladiator.
“The hero builds up against the impossible machine. You have two choices. You can be like Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces where you go hitchhiking and prevail against the inevitable, or you can be like him in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest where you go up against Nurse Rachet, you can’t possibly win, and are destroyed.”
Maximus falls into the latter category. In fact, the scene in Gladiator where Maximus rubs his hands together before the battle he can’t possibly win was inspired by a similar scene in Easy Rider. Franzoni also notes that Captain America similarly rubbed his hands together before his big fight.
Franzoni also parallels Kowalski’s character in Vanishing Point to Maximus in Gladiator. “You know he’s going to die. He’s not going to jail and released on paroles a few years later.” Rome will always be Rome. Maximus can’t change that. He’s resigned to his fate.
Epic Films Need Epic Characters
Heroes facing certain death begs the question, “Why did they do it?” Maximus’ epic decisions for going into a battle that ended in his death were, “personal and intimate. They’re not globally political.” According to Franzoni, Maximus’ decision emerged from his strong character. It wasn’t a screenplay about an idealistic character who was simply going out to change the world. Deep down, Maximus knew that his actions would resonate beyond his death.
That’s what makes an epic film timeless.
Characters, like humans, rarely make a conscious decision to die, even though they know death is probable. “Maximus is doing this in pieces.” Much like Franzoni’s motorcycle trek across Europe to the Middle East, Maximus had never been to his final destination of Rome.”His spiritual interface with the world was through Marcus Aurelius who guided him toward his destiny,” said the screenwriter.
Maximus refuses to take the position of Emperor of Rome, so he is condemned to its underbelly. He is eventually captured and forced to become a gladiator. “It isn’t until he’s captured that he gets to understand how awful this monster is that he helped support.” Maximus faced two impossible choices – flee the Gladiator arena to see his family and be killed, or fight and probably be killed. Maximus does not want to be a hero. He just wants to go home.
Too Many Cooks In The Studio
Every big-budget film has a ton of studio executives making decisions – including the writers. Sometimes, not everyone’s on the same page.
“There are writers and people trying to control the writers in the studio process,” said Franzoni. He wrote the early drafts of Gladiator. Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott gave him their script notes. Then the decision-makers decided to hire screenwriters John Logan and William Nicholson to write an additional draft of the screenplay. Due to the tumultuous nature of clashing opinions, the studio finally went back to Franzoni’s polished draft which they shot. “John and Williams’ influences on the shooting drafts were indelible, but there were too many screenwriters involved.” Neither was better or worse than Franzoni’s screenplay. The issue was their visions were different.
David Franzoni fought for his cinematic vision of Gladiator. “The big differences between competing drafts were the studio was trying to enforce their rules on how a hit movie was composed.”
Despite the rough and tumble in the development process, “the drive for the main character had to get back on track – Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Proximo (Oliver Reed) must die,” according to Franzoni.
“Gladiator had to be Maximus’ journey, not the studio executives’ journey.” That was hard for them to accept because they saw Maximus as an imaginary character with more of a “hero overcoming adversity ending.”
The screenwriter expressed his consternation about the current state of the film industry.
“The idea of good storytelling is fading rapidly. I’m tired of seeing movies today about movies other people have seen. I want to see movies about lives people have led. Films should be a mirror of who we are.”
Classic films from auteurs like Truffaut and Bergman have become invisible. “The touchstones that kids have today are so thin. You can’t become inspired by these films. Watch La Strada, 8½, La Dolce Vita, and The Conformist if you want to see good films. How do you watch Blowup and not talk about it afterward? It’s an eternal film.”
If you want to tell a compelling story watch these seminal films. “Then you understand why living a life gives you something to talk about rather than just mocking other stories. Our job as artists is to add to the wealth of humanity,” continued the writer.
David Franzoni made a splash in Hollywood in the mid-80s with his screenplay Jumping Jack Flash (1986) which he originally wrote as a thriller, not as a comedy. He later progressed to writing big-budget historical movies like Amistad (1997), Gladiator (2000) and King Arthur (2004).
Franzoni describes his story tastes as becoming more political as he matures in his career. He’s getting more personal about the humanity of story. “The unifying theme in my stories is that they’re not about anything other than people’s lives. They don’t need to be profound and change the world.”
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