“It’s a lonely job, you know?” Dolph Lundgren on Screenwriting
Dolph Lundgren discusses screenwriting, balancing creativity and financing, what he’s learned from Stallone, and his role in the upcoming Coen brothers movie.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Most audiences recognize Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren for his portrayal of the towering Soviet brute Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. However, unlike Drago, Lundgren is not a man of few words.
In fact, in recent years Lundgren has branched out from acting to co-writing several of his movies, including his latest film, Skin Trade. In the action-thriller, Lundgren stars as an American cop who teams with a Thai cop (played by martial arts superstar Tony Jaa) to bring down a human trafficking ring in Bangkok. The project has been a very personal one for Lundgren, who spent a decade trying to bring Skin Trade to the screen.
Lundgren’s first two on-screen appearances were in venerable franchises – a small part in A View to a Kill, the last James Bond movie to star Roger Moore, and his much bigger role in Rocky IV. Both films were big hits, with Rocky IV grossing $300 million worldwide, the most successful film in the Rocky franchise. Lundgren also had memorable roles in Masters of the Universe, The Punisher, Universal Soldier, and most recently in the Expendables franchise.
After acting for two decades and making his directorial debut with 2004’s The Defender, Lundgren got his first on-screen writing credit for developing the story for 2005’s The Mechanik (released as The Russian Specialist in the United States), which Lundgren also directed. He followed that up by co-writing the screenplays for 2007’s Missionary Man and 2009’s Command Performance, both of which he also starred in and directed. Skin Trade marks the first film that Lundgren co-wrote the screenplay for but did not also direct (the direction was by veteran Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham). Lundgren also served as a producer of Skin Trade, the first time he has produced one of the films he has written.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Lundgren about why he decided to try his hand at screenwriting, the different iterations of the Skin Trade screenplay over the years, balancing creativity and financing, and what he’s learned about screenwriting from working with Sylvester Stallone. He also talked about his surprising role in the upcoming Coen brothers movie, Hail, Caesar!
How did the screenplay for Skin Trade develop?
I had an idea about ten years ago to write a film about human trafficking because I read about it. It was something that wasn’t really in the news too much ten years ago, not like now. There was an incident I read on the Internet where some girls were trafficked from Mexico to the U.S. and the traffickers left them in a van sitting on the border somewhere in Texas. They all suffocated and died from heatstroke. I used that as a jump-off point. I was busy filming at the time – I think I was shooting a movie in Africa – so a friend of mine from England who’s a writer came over and he wrote a treatment for a screenplay. I worked on the treatment and the three-act structure a little bit, then we did a screenplay. I moved the locations around because I was trying to find financing. It ended up in Southeast Asia, where a lot of human trafficking happens. It went through so many drafts – twenty drafts or something. I found some financing in Thailand, and then when we started casting I had to rewrite it many times, of course for the location, characters, and actors.
Did you always envision Skin Trade having two leads?
Yes, I did. I figured for financing it would be better to have two names. First I was going to play the adversary, not the lead, when it was set in Eastern Europe. I was playing a Russian cop, and the lead would be a guy from the States. I was going to do it that way, but then when it switched to Southeast Asia, I had to move that around. I ended up taking the lead and Tony Jaa ended up playing the cop.
But I always like those movies, like Michael Mann’s movies, which usually have two characters who are sort of mirror images of each other, like Heat, Manhunter, and Collateral. It’s kind of interesting, because you never know how it’s going to end and you’re on the fence. You’re not quite sure who the real hero is. I was in Universal Soldier many years ago with Jean Claude Van Damme, even though that was a little more good guy-bad guy. Characters who are in between are always interesting because they have both positive and negative aspects.
When you write an action sequence like the motorcycle chase obviously a lot of that has to do with location and stuntwork. How does that appear in the script?
That’s a good point. Originally, it was a car chase. But when I got to Bangkok, I thought it would be cool to see a little more of the area and more of the colorful aspects of Bangkok. So it ended up becoming a motorcycle chase, and at some point Tony was going to be in a boat on the river, and I was on a motorcycle. I think that changed for location purposes, and he ended up being on foot. I saw some of the things he has done before when he jumps through rings or off rooftops, so I thought he could chase me on foot if there were enough obstacles. It was interesting how it evolved from the original car chase to something different.
You’ve co-written several of your movies in the last decade. What inspired you to write your own projects?
Well, I always liked writing ever since I was a kid. I was always a pretty good writer in school, and I’ve helped analyze some of the scripts I’ve done to varying degrees of success. There are so many people involved in filmmaking sometimes it’s tough to get your voice heard, even if you’re the star of the movie. I think I’m evolving to being more involved as a writer. I have a few other projects now, including one I want to direct that’s a historical movie, a period piece, with two writers, but I’m the one who is orchestrating the rewrites on a couple of movies. I like it because I think you have to be creative and imaginative, and you also have to be an engineer. You have to think about if it all makes sense and if it’s logical. It also takes a lot of discipline to write a script. It’s good if you’ve made movies so you know what can be done and what can’t be done, so I think I’m going to end up doing it more often.
Your breakthrough role was in Rocky IV, which was written by and starred Sylvester Stallone. Stallone was one of the first blockbuster actors to write many of his own scripts. Have you learned anything about screenwriting from him?
I think so. It took me twenty-five years to move into that position [Laughs]. You look at Stallone, when he takes time out to write and produce something, it’s usually a fairly successful movie, like Rocky, Rambo, and The Expendables, all those franchises that he started. When he doesn’t write a movie he’s in even if it’s a good script and involves good people it doesn’t seem to do as well. I don’t know exactly why, but maybe it has to do with when he designs the project and character it’s really from his heart and it shows, and the audience feels that. It’s not true for all actors. He’s one of the few, like you said. There’s him, there’s Woody Allen… I mean, who else is there that writes and acts? Clint Eastwood doesn’t write, he directs and acts. There are just a few of them, right? Like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. So it’s not easy. I enjoy it anyway, I think it’s very satisfying to create stuff on the page, or even just rewriting.
All your scripts that have been produced have been collaborations. Do you have a particular co-writing process with your collaborators?
I think it changes a little bit. There are ones I’ve done where I’ve come up with an idea and have someone write it for me so I don’t have to sit there and do it. Sometimes I find a script and then I work with the writers, like the historical picture, which I’m going to direct. When you direct you have a responsibility to work on the material. I think it changes from project to project. I have another script or two where I came up with the original idea and it’s being developed by another writer. Maybe it’s because English isn’t my first language that I don’t mind. I think I’m pretty good with structure, logic, and coming up with ideas, but I might not have the time to crank out every page. With Stallone he worked with other writers on The Expendables. It’s a lonely job, you know?
When you are the writer of one of your films, do you tend to stick to the script on set or do you make changes throughout filming?
I’ve only directed some of them, and one reason why I produced this film was because when I directed some of my scripts I had other producers in the way who would change things or make me change things that I didn’t really agree with. So I decided next time I directed I would have to produce, and it would have to be my project where it would stand or fall with my tastes, more or less. At least ninety percent, or something. I don’t want other people in there messing with it. That’s difficult in this business. It’s tough have that sort of control. That’s why a lot of movies don’t turn out that well. They might have had a good script and a good director, but there’s too many people meddling with it who shouldn’t be involved in the creative process. But that’s just how it is; it’s always been like that. I like to change things if I have to. The good thing is if you wrote the script and you’re acting in it or directing it, you know the material quite well and you can just change it right there. There’s nothing holy about it. If you haven’t written it, the producer might not want to change it because it might affect something else in the script later. If you wrote it, you can say that it doesn’t affect anything and can be changed or if that has to stay because it’s really important. It gives us insight into what’s important and what isn’t.
Skin Trade ends very open-ended. Why did you decide to leave a major plot thread unresolved?
That’s a tough one. I didn’t want it to be kind of fairy tale, where it ends and all is well. Human trafficking is still a very serious crime, and there is a lot of people being trafficked and hurt by it. So I decided to leave the audience a little unsatisfied at the end, but with a little bit of hope. I’m not sure if it really works, but it’s something I tried. I just wanted people to feel a little bit concerned about the issue and not feel so good when they walk out of there. Maybe a year from now the film will be more memorable because of that. It doesn’t mean that you’ll feel great at the end, but maybe you’re not supposed to, in my opinion.
The way I looked at it was to send the message that human trafficking is a serious problem that two heroes with guns can’t solve on their own. It’s a global issue.
Yes, and because I had to compromise a bit on the action – originally I wanted to stay very serious with the action and not to do it like an action movie – I managed to balance that a little bit with the ending, because it’s not perfect. Like you said, it’s still a serious problem.
Now for something completely different, it’s been reported that you filmed a part in the upcoming Coen brothers’ movie. What was it like working with them?
It was a bit of a shocker. They called me out of nowhere a few months ago. It’s a movie set in the 1950s called Hail, Caesar! and it’s about the studio system. Basically, one of the characters is going to defect to the Soviet Union because he loves communism because they have great uniforms [Laughs]. That’s Channing Tatum’s character in the movie, and they wanted someone to play a submarine commander. I guess they wanted someone kind of iconic where the audience sees the person and says, “Holy shit!” [Laughs]. So I’m wearing a Russian fur hat and I’m on this huge submarine in Malibu. It was fun to work with them. They were very nice guys, and of course I’m a huge fan of theirs and I never expected to be in any Coen brothers movies, but I guess I am!