John Fusco On ‘Young Guns,’ ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’ & ‘The Highwaymen’
As a teenager, John Fusco made an unlikely transition from living on the road as a blues musician to getting accepting at NYU Film School. Thanks to his intriguing background, he soon found himself the interest of mentors like Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico) and Ring Lardner Jr. (MASH, Cloak and Dagger).
“Waldo was a Godsend,” said Fusco. “He took an interest in me because of my background. I remember him saying he was reading too many scripts in film school that were about other movies and he felt that my stuff reflected a lived life and real characters. He encouraged me to stay true to that and to build on that and to always go back to that well.”
“Waldo was a real champion of the screenwriters craft and he was one of those writers who didn’t want to be a director. It was about the proud craft of the screenwriting and he instilled in me the idea that the writer is king. With the first draft, you take the reins because you’re making your movie in this draft.”
“Ring Lardner Jr. really encouraged me in the world of discipline. Discipline in writing and developing my writer’s toolbox and to never be lazy and to look at the screenplay like a novelist would look at a novel. Make it a reading experience and really caste a spell for the reader. I was very fortunate to have Hollywood’s blacklisted veterans as my mentors.”
Thanks to the advice of these veterans, Fusco was able to shape real characters in his stories, such as those in one of his first films, Young Guns. The movie, which is about gunmen such as Billy the Kid, stars Emilio Estevez, Keifer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, and Dermot Mulroney. Now, Fusco passes on similar advice.
“Don’t be discouraged or baffled by this notion that you can only write what you know about. That is true, but that doesn’t mean it’s limited to what you know right now at this point. If you have some deep passion about pre-Columbian tribal life, become the expert. Get out in the field. Take it to the point where when that movie gets made, you’re the best advisor on the subject.”
“You don’t have to be limited to the region you grew up in or your scope of your experience,” he added. “You can go out and go after it and follow those passions. “
Lone Westerners & Wandering Swordsman
Thanks to the success of Young Guns, Fusco went on to write an array of iconic movies and shows including Young Guns II, Thunderheart, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Hidalgo, The Forbidden Kingdom, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Macro Polo, and now, The Highwaymen.
Amongst his many films, there are similarities between the Eastern Kung Fu films and the Westerns, which mainly involve “the wandering hero.” While some may describe the category as “Americana,” Fusco’s influences come from Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress) and John Ford (Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
“The mythos of the wandering hero – whether it is the lone western character or the wandering swordsman – is the kind of similarities between those types of heroes and those types of societies and themes. There is a real thread that runs through it and I’ve been fascinated by that,” added the screenwriter.
“I also feel that my interest in Native American material kind of connected into that too. I love historical cultural material and also I’ve long been drawn to digging underneath the myth and the legend to find the history and explore why it gave birth to such legends.”
Through these explorations in legend, Fusco has been given rare opportunities to write for legends of the screen. When The Forbidden Kingdom came out, for example, it was the first film to put Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same movie. At the time, both men essentially led their own martial arts crusades, but Fusco’s story interested both icons.
“I never like to cast when I’m writing, but once the script was written, I like to sit back and look at it. For The Highwaymen, I suggested Robert Redford and Paul Newman. After The Forbidden Kingdom, I suggested Jet Li and Jackie Chan, knowing they had never worked together before. But, because it was the story of a kid who goes into his King Fu dream world, these guys would have been his heroes, so that’s how that happened.”
Combining Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same film wasn’t just about story though. The martial artists literally had different styles and made different types of movies. Fusco clarified, “I’m a lifelong martial artist and I write my fight scenes in with a great detail, especially when it comes to classical Kung Fu.”
“That was a big part of the appeal for me. I wanted those characters to have styles that can form their character.
Woo-Ping Yuen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Kill Bill) was the choreographer. I first sat with him and he turned pages and went through and his interpreter said, ‘Master says you writers usually just put down: Now they fight.’”
Before the reading, Woo-Ping’s also saw Fusco around the workout area practicing Old Style Shaolin.
At this point, Fusco was worried he would be called out or ridiculed for excessive detail for the Master, but Woo-Ping actually loved the detail and it created a foundation for his choreographers and stunt men to build upon.
“So he became like a mentor in the world of martial arts choreography, but I think he was so familiar with these styles of Jet and Jackie that he knew how to work with that and how to reuse their styles to capture the characters I wrote. You should reveal elements of character through action. It should never be a gratuitous action scene for the sake of it. If it’s not moving the story forward or revealing character or theme, it’s just eye candy.”
The Highwaymen’s Journey
Sixteen years ago, Fusco started his script for The Highwaymen. The producer laughed when he suggested Paul Newman and Robert Redford but wanted to give it a shot. “They both went for it,” said the screenwriter. “Redford said, ‘Don’t even send this to Paul – I’m going personally hand deliver it. I’m going to fly to Connecticut because I’m not going to let them get out of this. This is got to be our capper – our number three.’”
For several months after Redford got Newman on board, Fusco worked with the actors to shape the script. But, at that time, Newman started to get sick and soon found himself unable to do another film. “Once the town was buzzing with Redford and Newman, where do you go from there? So the project set dormant for a while after that.”
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Founder) wanted to do the film with Redford and Newman, but he continued to push the story forward even while the project gathered dust. “In the meantime, Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson got a little older. They’re actually closer to the actual ages of the historical characters (Frank Hamer and Maney Gault). In hindsight, I think Redford and Newman would have become the event, other than the untold side of the Bonnie and Clyde story. For me, it’s been worth the wait.”
Surprisingly, Fusco didn’t need to make many script changes during the down time. Hancock, the director, made a few updates over the years as he shepherded the project, but it’s essentially the same version Redford fell in love with. Besides a strong initial version, it’s also likely unchanged because it’s a piece of historical fiction.
“The process for me is to research it so deeply, to the point where I feel like I’m overflowing with historical details of the period, so when I sit down to write, it is sort of there. There is definitely not a checklist. In one scene, we just get a glimpse of Bonne and Clyde holding up a car, where we cut to Hamer and Gault in the rain. We are listening to it in the radio.”
To write the scene, Fusco researched a few dates in February 1934 to figure out what might be on the radio. He listened to the George Burns & Gracie Allen Show for inspiration. “I call it casting a spell. You let the story breathe in that setting, in that time and place… so that the viewer can be drawn into the reality of how it feels.”
The screenwriter will sometimes immerse himself in a time period so deeply that he uses ancient vernaculars at the dinner table. He’s truly engulfed in the era to create the work. “I do take a bit of a method approach to my work. I really stay in that zone. Language detail, getting it right, but also making it accessible.”
Outside of character, there are also “historical signposts” in his fiction. “I know what the big historical incidents are going to be or should be once I find that framework. You study it long enough and you look at it and see where Hamer came in. When did they go to recruit him? Well, it was after the Eastham prison farm when Bonnie and Clyde didn’t break out but broke into a prison and killed a guard. That was the catalyst before we went to Hamer.”
Amidst the action, there are also strong conversations within the film. Issues like nature vs. nurture, how criminals always go home, and basically just right versus wrong. “I think that this story is about two Texas rangers. It’s not some high concept Hollywood thing. It’s not just old time cowboys entering the gangster era. There is this deeper, haunting, elegiac theme. These guys know they are heading to do something. There’s going be blood at the end of this and it is only going end in one way.”
As “man hunters from another time,” the characters have moral dilemmas that they are forced to revisit on this journey. “Woody Harrelson’s character Manny; he is really the conscience. You look at their background, past history, the border territories when they were rangers, and there’s an overarching theme informing the dialogue along the way.”
Ironically, the role was actually offered to Costner year ago, but he felt too young for the role. The second time around, he quickly signed on. “Kevin Costner is part Gary Cooper, part Clark Gable and a little Jimmy Cagney, as a laconic man of few words. His character adheres to the law in an almost inflexible way. You believe he’s down the middle with right and wrong.”
“And, Kevin loves a Western as much as I do. We both lament that these kinds of movies are not made anymore. Kevin was just telling me he’s got one more big Western he wants to get going. I’m always trying to get these done. I’m always drawn to them. I thank Netflix for giving us this opportunity to do this type of story.”
Over the years, through lone cowboys and wandering swordsman, Fusco has taken a deep dive into what it means to be virtuous. “I think virtue is all inherit. When you look at Clyde Barrow and Bonnie, if they couldn’t be famous, they were going to be notorious. Clyde wanted to be a musician but he didn’t want to put in the hard work.”
“He didn’t like labor and he even chopped off one of his own toes and they got him to prison farm to get transferred out of the chain gang because he didn’t like labor. Hamer, on the other hand, was a hard working, honest man. I think he really embodies the spirit of the country and I think he is that type of character that’s appealing and needed right now. I think young men need to look more into that type of thing.”
In addition to modern role models, the film is also meant to reveal the true pain of the entire spectacle behind Bonnie and Clyde. “You end up feeling bad for everyone at the end of this film. This was not a glorification of violence in anyway and we started out to do the opposite because Bonnie and Clyde were glorified… but at the end of the day, everybody is wounded and that’s powerful.
For final advice, it all comes down to persistence. “This script took me sixteen years to get made and it is willing a project into existence. Just because you had a screenplay or piece of writing sitting there for few years, doesn’t mean that it didn’t work. You have to look at it like your real estate portfolio. It is money in the bank. Keep giving it attention.”
“I’ve got a white board with my passion projects written down in a list. I look at that every day and I look at each project and say, ‘What am I doing for that to keep the chain moving?’ Believe in it and will those projects into existence. That’s my advice. ”
This article has been condensed. Listen to the full audio interview HERE.
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