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DAVID WEBB PEOPLES - MY STRANGE CAREER


art1_b.jpg (8651 bytes)David who? Well, if I tell you it's the guy who wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner then you'll probably nod your head and say, oh him. Add to his credits the screenplay for 12 Monkeys and you'll realise that he has been involved in two of the greatest sci-fi movies of recent years. Intelligently written, both these films have even gained the respect of those people who usually look down on the sci-fi genre. Add to People's CV the screenplay for the revisionist Clint Eastwood western Unforgiven, and then you know what one movie critic meant when he said that Peoples was "overqualified."

However, Mr Peoples' output seems to be schizophrenic when one consults his biography in Baseline:

A relatively reclusive American screenwriter (who refuses to be photographed for interviews and resides in Berkeley rather than Los Angeles), Peoples has built a strong reputation with a handful of distinctive screenplays. His work is characterized by a probing interrogation of genre conventions and strong moral ambiguity. Peoples' heroes tend to be only marginally more sympathetic than his villains. He has been quoted by The New York Times' Bernard Weinraub: "I have a hard time being on anybody's side in anything. I'm inclined to see everybody's point of view."

soldier.jpg (7210 bytes)Prior to making his mark in fiction film, Peoples worked primarily as a news and documentary film editor (and occasional writer) in northern California, often in collaboration with his wife, producer-writer Janet Peoples. The pair worked together on Jon Korty's Oscar-winning WHO ARE THE DEBOLTS? (AND WHERE DID THEY GET 19 KIDS?) (1977) and the Oscar-nominated THE DAY AFTER TRINITY (1980). The latter was an acclaimed profile of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in producing the first atomic bomb. Peoples began dabbling in fiction filmmaking in the 1970s working as an editor on the action flick STEEL ARENA (1973) and the X-rated THE JOY OF LETTING GO (1976).

Impressed by one of Peoples' unproduced scripts, director Tony Scott referred it to his brother Ridley. This lead to Peoples' feature debut as a screenwriter (with co-scenarist Hampton Fancher) on the sci-fi classic BLADE RUNNER (1982). Though a box-office disappointment, the film was a critical and cult hit that boosted the reputations of many of those involved with the project. Peoples next surfaced as the writer-director of the unimpressive sci-fi actioner THE BLOOD OF HEROES (1990) starring Rutger Hauer and Joan Chen in a grim post-apocalyptic future. He did not fare much better penning a poorly-received underwater version of ALIEN (1979) entitled LEVIATHAN (1989) and used the pseudonym Anthony Able as the scripter of the direct-to-video PROJECT: ALIEN (1990).

Peoples' career was transformed in 1992: two major films made from his scripts—Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN and Stephen Frears' HERO—were released within months of each other, just as BLADE RUNNER, finally recognized as a masterpiece, was successfully reissued in a "director's cut" version. While HERO received a lukewarm response from both press and public, UNFORGIVEN—written in 1976 when Peoples was an unknown quantity—was a critical and commercial smash. Hailed as a classic Western, UNFORGIVEN was credited with revitalizing both the genre and the career of star-director Clint Eastwood. The film's many honors included Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman). Peoples received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Meanwhile, the flawed comedy-drama HERO took some cues from Frank Capra to tell an implausible story of mistaken identity and slippery notions of heroism.

Peoples and his wife Janet reteamed creatively to pen the screenplay for Terry Gilliam's sci-fi think piece TWELVE MONKEYS (1995). Inspired by Chris Marker's memorable 1962 French short LA JETEE/THE RUNWAY, the film was a gloomy time-travel tale starring Bruce Willis as a man from a post-apocalyptic future looking for salvation in the past. Gilliam usually writes his own scripts but he was intrigued by the intelligence of the Peoples' screenplay. He observed: "The story is disconcerting. It deals with time, madness, and a perception of what the world is or isn't. It is a study of madness and dreams, of death and rebirth, set in a world coming apart." Nonetheless, the film opened to good reviews and respectable business, netting Oscar nods for supporting actor Brad Pitt and costume designer Julie Weiss.

twelve.jpg (14962 bytes)The guy who wrote Blade Runner also wrote Leviathan, The Blood Of Heroes and Project: Alien? Those straight-to-video cheapies that you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot barge pole? I know how you feel: and now Peoples' name has been attached to Soldier - the latest Kurt Russell action movie - which has thrown away every bit of subtlety regarding violence ever hinted at in Unforgiven in favour of pure "kill them all" Rambo style action? Is it the director's fault? Is it possible that a director can utterly destroy a good script? Probably - if that director is Paul Anderson who made the no-brainer Event Horizon and Mortal Kombat . . .

Then again, are Peoples' previous successes because of good directors? After all, few directors can come close to Terry Gilliam and a Ridley Scott at the height of his creative powers? Or is it just another episode in the weird screenwriting career of one David Webb Peoples?

Complete filmography:

1973 STEEL ARENA editor
1976 THE JOY OF LETTING GO editor
1977 WHO ARE THE DEBOLTS? (AND WHERE DID THEY GET 19 KIDS?) editor
1980 THE DAY AFTER TRINITY screenwriter, editor
1982 BLADE RUNNER screenwriter
1989 LEVIATHAN screenwriter— from story
1990 THE BLOOD OF HEROES/SALUTE OF THE JUGGER director, screenwriter
1990 PROJECT: ALIEN screenwriter— credited as Anthony Able
1992 HERO co-story
1992 UNFORGIVEN screenwriter
1995 TWELVE MONKEYS screenwriter
1998 SOLDIER screenwriter

 

 



 

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