Here's a different kind of success story. Screenwriter Allison Burnett, whose new movie Untraceable opens today, studied playwriting at Julliard, became a screenwriter to pay the bills and used his newfound financial stability to become a novelist. His first novel, Christopher: A Tale of Seduction (2003), was a finalist for the prestigious PEN award. His first movie, however, was supposed to be a realistic depiction of life in prison, until Roger Corman bought it and turned it into Part 3 in Don 'The Dragon' Wilson's Bloodfist series.
Nevertheless, movies are apparently in Burnett's blood and he persisted. His screenplay for Autumn in New York became Joan Chen's much-despised 2000 weepie with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. And his two most recent works, Resurrecting the Champ and Feast of Love (both 2007), opened to tepid reviews and cool box office receptions. (Although both were decent films and both probably suffered mainly from marketing problems.) But Burnett directed his own low-budget film, Red Meat (1997), that remains a high point for him. When Cinematical spoke to him via phone the morning after the Untraceable premiere, he was very excited and hopeful.
CINEMATICAL: You're credited on Untraceable with two other writers, Robert Fyvolent and Mark Brinker. How did this partnership come about?
ALLISON BURNETT: They had written a script that was around for a long time, called Streaming Evil. It had many big names attached, but it never took off. And then Lakeshore came to me. At first I was supposed to work on Marsh's character [Jennifer Marsh, played by Diane Lane], do some character work and some dialogue work. Then I pitched them some ideas, and they began writing and I pitched them some more stuff. In their version, the killer really had no reason to kill people on the internet, and there was a randomness to it. It was a hideous carnival atmosphere. What I brought to it was, the more who watched, the faster the person dies. There was an MO to the killer: why he does it. We were going to go into arbitration over screen credits, but in the end we decided to be friends. I felt very good about that.
Did your experience as a playwright land you the job of polishing characters and dialogue?
AB: Not really. I've been with Lakeshore for 2-1/2 years. I've done everything. Adapting novels, doing polishes. I've written everything, I did a re-imagination on Fame. I did A Venetian Affair. I did revisions on a Philip Roth novel, American Pastoral. For this movie, I added Griffin's internet dating, a lot of the twists and turns. I worked with two top-level retired, FBI agents. [Director Gregory] Hoblit's father is an FBI agent. Hoblit had this scrupulous attention to detail, but he didn't care about search warrants. I put all kinds of search warrants in there. The FBI is very picky about them. That's why at the end of the movie, Marsh has this thing where she's telling the team about who the killer is, and it's because they're waiting for the warrant.
Untraceable is filled with technical dialogue, but it sounds good. There's a real trick to doing that, isn't there?
AB: It's a desire to please the tech community, who is angry at Hollywood for never depicting technology correctly. And at the same time, you don't want to alienate and bore the average moviegoer who couldn't care less. Tech people who really care about this stuff felt that it was sufficient, as to making a website untraceable. It's a balancing act. That's why I put in the character who says, 'I have no idea what you're talking about.'
Billy Burke, who plays Detective Box, was also in Feast of Love. Is that a coincidence, or did you have something to do with it?
AB: A coincidence. Lakeshore loves him and I love him too. I just love the way he delivers my dialogue! If you deliver it literally, it just lays there, but he has this great, ironic, streetwise thing he brings to it.
His character has a great name: Detective Box. Was that yours?
AB: No. A lot of re-writers go in and change names willy-nilly, but I don't do that. I thought, 'that's interesting.' So I put in that line: 'unusual name.'
Part of writing Untraceable must have been dreaming up ways to kill characters using the "slow increase" of the internet users.
AB: Yeah. I reversed the order of the heat lamps and the blood thinner. The acid was mine and the ending was mine. There were similar things. Watching this, I never looked away. I looked away in Eastern Promises. It's such a balancing act: it wants to appeal to intelligent moviegoers, and it wants to show you what this generation feeds on. One of the things I brought to it was this feeding frenzy of online, horrific images. I went to some sites that are unimaginably hideous. There are whole montages that are beheadings. You can see it anytime, for free, anytime, no matter how old you are. I couldn't get through it. In this movie, this guy Box is working the streets, and the streets are nothing compared to what's going on in cyberspace.
I liked the depiction of Marsh's home life: she's a widow, who lives with her own mother and her daughter. Three women, three generations.
AB: Outside is this violent male world, and there was this female domestic thing at home. You understand why Marsh is hiding behind a computer and doesn't want to risk her life. There was a lot more about the three of them, but it got cut. Tom Cruise has said this: When you make a movie about action, it's hard to linger on the characters.
I'm very curious as to how your first screenplay (Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight) got produced. How differently did it turn out from where it started? How did you sell it?
AB: My writing partner and I wrote a movie based on his real experiences in prison for bank robbery. It was sold to Roger Corman. We had no idea that he intended not only to destroy it, but to make it the third installment of a terrible franchise called Bloodfist. A brutal welcome to Hollywood: You think you've written a high-minded drama about racism in prison, and instead you've written a C-level kickboxing movie!
You directed a film, Red Meat, starring Lara Flynn Boyle and Jennifer Grey. Would you say that this was your most satisfying project so far?
AB: Yes, because it came out exactly as I wrote it. I loved directing, every minute of it. We shot it in 18 days for half a million dollars. It gave me the same pleasure that I get from writing my novels.
Do you feel recharged as a result of having recently returned to novels?
AB: Yes, it's joyous to work with no authority to answer to by that of my own artistic standards and judgment. It is no accident that when working this way, my editors find my work immaculate, suggesting almost no changes, and the critics treat me kindly. I cannot say the same for my film work.
How are you spending your days with the strike on?
AB: In the early morning, I work on a new novel. In the late morning, I picket. In the afternoons, I play with my son. Not a bad life.