Sunday, December 04, 2016
A conversation with Gerald Petievich, May 1988 Part Two
This is Part Two of an archival interview with ex-Secret-Service-agent-turned-novelist/screenwriter Gerald Petievich. It was conducted on May 13, 1988, shortly after the release of his sixth novel, SHAKEDOWN. You can read Part One of the interview HERE.
(Above, Willem Dafoe as Rick Masters, the brutal counterfeiter and career criminal from the 1985 film version of Petievich’s novel TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which he co-scripted).
WALLACE STROBY: TO LIVE AN DIE IN L.A. at first had some problems with the Treasury Department, regarding the film’s detailed depiction of counterfeiting. In an interview I read with (director) William Friedkin, he said some of that had to do with an attempt to get back at you. Do you think that was true?
GERALD PETIEVICH: Let me just put it like this: Every writer who has ever worked for a bureaucratic agency has had problems. And the problems come when you have success. I had no problem with my first book, when it sold 5,000 copies a number of years ago. They kind of looked askance at it, but let’s face it, bureaucracies aren’t set up to tolerate people who write books or make movies, particularly about the agency they work for.
But I hold no grudges against the Secret Service. It’s a government agency and there’s a lot of nice guys in it, and I still have a lot of friends there and I keep in touch with them.
Q: There’s a long sequence with no dialogue in the film in which Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) basically takes us through the process of counterfeiting money, making the plates, etc. (you can watch that sequence HERE.) Personally, did you have any qualms about showing that on-screen?
A: No. not at all, because there’s no one who can learn to print from watching about two minutes of film. Besides, every printer in the United States – and there’s probably 200,000 of them – has the ability to print counterfeit money. It’s a very easy run. In fact, I’ve arrested counterfeiters who’ve learned to print from a book in the library. So you could make the same analogy.
(Right,the Arbor House first edition, published in 1984).
Q: Overall, how did you feel about the film?
A: I’m not one of these writers that cries about the film. I’m glad it was made. If I wanted to do it myself, I probably would have done it a little bit different. But I thought it came out to be a better–than–average police film. It got a lot of good reviews and it won a couple of film festivals in Europe, and it’s in art houses now and is shown very frequently on cable. So it was actually a popular movie (Shout Factory released a special edition Blu-Ray of the film in November 2016).
But my books speak for themselves. Writing is pure art. Movies are neither art nor science. ... They never reflect the true art. They can’t. They’re an hour and a half of visual media.
Q: What was it like on your first theatrical film working with a heavyweight like Friedkin? I imagine you’d seen THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
A: I learned a great deal. I would say that in a certain way I was able to learn the business with that one film. We certainly saw eye-to-eye on the basic structure of the film. Looking back on it now, I wish I could have had a little more say-so in it, but when you’re the writer, you don’t. The writer’s the last guy anybody talks to in Hollywood. And I thought I was treated very well with the movie and the production of it. They took a great many of my suggestions, so I have no complaints about that.
(Left, a rare Pinnacle movie tie-in edition from 1985, with a blurb from Elmore Leonard).
Q: The overall tone of the movie is much, much darker than the book. Jimmy Hart, the hero of the novel, is killed off early in the film. Is that Friedkin’s influence?
A: Virtually everything Friedkin has done in quite a few years has been extremely dark. He controls his films from beginning to end, from story to the cutting room, and I think what you see is his personal imprint. I also think you have to give the guy a certain amount of credit for being willing to take whatever happens – whether failure or success – to his films by putting his own personal imprint on it.
Q: My feeling about the film is that in 20-25 years people are going to be talking about it the way they do about certain film noirs of the 1950s now.
A: You know, I actually think that’s going to be true. The way the film was made – the work that went into it, the story that came out of it – I think it fits right in with American film noir. I think it fits in very well, and I think it stands up to a lot of the best of American film noir. I agree with you. I think the film will hold with time.
Q: To get back to your novels, a lot of them are moral tales and have a lot to do with corruption and – especially in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. – the dangers of becoming what you’re supposed to be fighting. Was that a constant threat while you were in the Treasury Department? And how does an agent cope with that, especially when there’s large sums of money involved?
My life’s view of that world is probably opposite of someone like Joseph Wambaugh who – at least it’s my opinion – thinks that policemen are like these normal guys who just happened to have that job and then their morals disintegrate and they become different people. Well, I don’t believe that.
Having come from a police family and being around it since I was a kid, and spent 18 years carrying a badge of one kind or another, it’s my belief that policemen are different. Policemen are a different kind of guy. The chicken came before the egg. And the guys that I know that are policemen, they’re not quite like everybody else. They had to wait in line to get this job, and then they stay with the job and there’s a reason for that.
So when I show people that are in this environment ... they place themselves within this environment. And it’s something to do with a desire to see the bizarre and experience the bizarre, and it’s something to do, I think, with their own self-esteem. It has something to do maybe with seeking out rare status. I don’t really understand it all, and all I can do is write about it as I see it.
A: There are very few things that occur in life that are translatable into fiction exactly as they occurred. There’s two reasons for that. Number one, the most bizarre events that occurred during my time in the Secret Service are too bizarre to be believed in fiction. And then on the other hand, some of the biggest, most important cases I ever made were very dry. They were made by someone calling me up and telling me who did it, or watching a place and seeing a guy move a press into it, something like that. So you have to pace the drama differently.
But I like to think that the people are pretty true to life, the crooks, the bureaucrats. And a number of the events have happened. For instance, (as in) TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., there were some agents for a certain federal agency who did steal some money from a dope dealer. And one of these guys was a base jumper, a parachutist. And he ended up getting killed jumping off a mountain with some friends shortly after the crime had occurred. These are stories that I kind of mixed in and changed around.
Q: Did you personally know anyone like (agent Richard) Chance in the novel, who had a lot of those qualities?
A: Yes, I’ve met people like Chance many times. You could probably find him in the military, his name would be Ollie North. And it doesn’t make him a nice guy or a hero.
Q: What do your former colleagues think of your books? Are there any that think they’ve seen themselves in the books and aren’t happy about it?
A: oh yes, without a doubt, particularly some of the efficiency-motivated bureaucrats I write about. I can assure you that they hate me. But let me tell you, the guys that make the cases in the Secret Service, the hardworking guys I know, certainly like the books, and my books are read extensively in the Secret Service. But you won't find too many of them at headquarters.
It was a very fine line that I was riding. It was unheard of, I mean, no one’s ever written a book in the Secret Service, much less fiction and much less criticize supervisors and the system. I felt the heat, I can assure you, from the first book.
It’s nice to be freed from that, but that doesn't mean I’m going to tell any secrets. I would never tell any secrets about the politicians that all Secret Service agents know. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.
Q: Was it difficult making the jump to the lonely discipline of writing, as opposed to being a field agent? Do you miss that at all?
A: I have to say I’ve never been happier, because I’m doing what I want everyday. But every once in awhile you miss the excitement of serving a search warrant or chasing somebody down the street or that sort of thing. But I did have 15 years of it – I worked in the field for 15 years, I wasn’t a bureaucrat – so there’s virtually nothing I hadn't done in Secret Service work. I had a full career.
The thing that you miss is these bizarre people that you meet in the underworld. The only reason I miss it is it’s great food for my novels.
PART THREE: Moral ambiguity, and when to be ruthless.
(Above from left, director William Friedkin, and actors Michael Chong, William Peterson and John Pankow on the set of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.)