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Written By:

Martin Unsworth

The 1978 adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is widely regarded as one of the best remakes ever. It kept the essence of the story while adding so much more. With the Arrow Video 4K edition in stores now, we caught up with acclaimed screenwriter W.D. Richter (also known for Big Trouble in Little China, the 1979 version of Dracula, and as director of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension) to chat about his work… 

STARBURST: How did you come to adapt Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
W.D. Richter: Producer Bob Solo liked my work and approached me to adapt it. He was simultaneously wooing Phil Kaufman to direct. Phil and I knew and liked each other, but the way I remember it, Bob didn’t know that, and I wasn’t aware that Bob was talking to each of us at the same time. That was a risky move on Bob’s part. It’s always best to get either a writer or director set first and then work with that person to find a compatible partner as writer or director.

Were you on set for the production?
I was there in San Francisco for both preproduction and production, going on location scouts with Phil and, in a hotel all during production, doing a major rewrite of my first draft script. That version had been set in a small town like the original movie. Once we decided, at the last possible minute, to move it into San Francisco proper, I was writing nonstop, often only days ahead of a scene’s being shot. The set was fun, and full of really talented people. I met the terrific and profane costume designer Aggie Rodgers there, and also Jeff Goldblum. That’s why they both came aboard Buckaroo Banzai.

One of the most terrifying moments is the dog with a human face. How did that come about?
Phil and I discussed it before it was put into the script. I loved the idea because it graphically demonstrated that nobody anywhere is perfect, not even the fearsome alien invaders. They wanted to snatch the form and the stature of the apex predators on our planet — humans — but sometimes you just can’t get between a guy and his dog.

The climax of Body Snatchers is wonderfully bleak; can you talk a little about how that came together?
Phil and I wanted to make a movie about the consequences of complacency in the face of a mindless mob bent on relentlessly and mercilessly crowding out diversity, tolerating only conformity… sort of like today’s white Christian nationalists or Don’s Terrified Base. I live in the Vermont countryside now, on a farm at the end of a dirt road at the forest’s edge, so through my bodysnatcher radar that’s developed over the years, I watch all the invasive plant species in our woodlands similarly crowding out diversity, oppressing ‘the other’, if you will, acting blindly in their own worst interests as they try to establish a fragile monoculture that would eventually collapse in on itself and kill them off, as well. I recall Donald Sutherland’s line in the movie about Brooke Adam’s boyfriend: “Maybe Jeffrey’s turned into a Republican”.

Don Siegel’s original ending was just as dark as ours, but a cowardly studio forced him to tack on a hopeful final scene. Fearing the same reaction, we kept the last few minutes of our story a secret during the entire shoot. I wrote a different, more upbeat ending for the same location, and all production copies of the script had only those pages in them. Just Donald and Veronica knew the real ending, and I think Phil only told them toward the end of the shoot just what was coming on the last day. Miraculously, Mike Medavoy, the studio chief, thought it was a great idea.

W.D. Richter (second left) with the cast of Buckeroo Banzai.

When adapting a story, what is your process?
Oh, god! Pretty much improvisation because all adaptations are different. Some books are hundreds and hundreds of pages long — Stephen King’s Needful Things was a backbreaker — and others are too internal for easy visual translation — Dracula fits that category. I always start by reading the book, a hard copy back then, with pencil in hand, marking sections I feel the movie needs. I might or might not do a rough outline. I worked closely on a lengthy treatment for Dracula with both John Badham and the great producer Walter Mirisch. With Big Trouble In Little China, I wrote it before John Carpenter even came aboard. It was a page-one ‘adaptation’ — I prefer ‘transformation’ — of a period western into a contemporary, mystical, action extravaganza. I wrote that first draft in about four furious weeks under a deadline of, I believe, a looming writers’ strike. No real notes or outline. Just a stack of books on Chinese mythology piled alongside my computer — I’d gone digital by then. I just tried to put the hero Jack Burton and his motormouth into corners I didn’t know how to get them out of when I wrote them in. I thought if I could figure out the next morning how to get Jack out, I’d surprise myself and the audience, too.

Which was the easiest to adapt – Body Snatchers or Dracula?
That’s a hard question to answer. Each presented different, tricky challenges. There was certainly more pressure to produce quality work quickly on Body Snatchers for reasons I’ve mentioned, but just before I started my adaptation of Dracula, Walter Mirisch let slip that they already had a start and release date!

Could you tell us how you came to work on Big Trouble in Little China – were you around on set for that one?
That was a strange experience. The script that existed was a late-19th-century western — cowboys and horses. It was a spec script that Fox had recently bought.  he original writers did a second draft for the studio, but that disappointed, so Fox and the producers, Keith Barish and Paul Monash, decided to replace them. The spec script was submitted to several writers who were asked to come in and talk about a new take, if the project interested them. I was one of those writers. I thought the problem was conceptual: having a mystical underground kingdom in a period western. It seemed twice removed from a modern audience’s reality. Why do that? So, I just said I’d make the story contemporary, then the only unusual thing about the setting was what lurked beneath ‘little China’… essentially play the movie off our world, not the 19th century’s. That notion immediately got everyone excited — studio execs are often a desperate, impressionable lot — and they hired me on only that thin proposal. Luckily, I stumbled upon Jack Burton’s voice as soon as I started writing. It was like he was real and couldn’t be shut up. That doesn’t always happen, at least not to me.

I did a polish for John when he first came on, but my work was done before principal photography began, and John, whom I knew from USC film school, shot the script pretty much as written. I only visited the production once, just to meet everyone and see the sets.

Have you had any input on the Big Trouble remake?
None. I was never approached. Do you mean the one with The Rock as Jack Burton? Is that still alive?

What made you turn to directing with Buckaroo Banzai? And what was that experience like?
Mac Rauch, who created and wrote Buckaroo’, was a good friend. My wife, Susan, and I paid him a small stipend to develop his idea. When we pitched it to David Begelman and he hired Mac to write a full script, with me and Neil Canton producing, He asked me if I wanted to direct it. I did because nobody else writes like Mac.

Directing it with crazy, suicidal David Begelman looking over my shoulder had its hellish aspects. But the cast and production team were great, and we were all determined to get the job done, especially after Begelman fired my first cinematographer, the peerless Jordan Cronenweth, out from under us because the operating room and nightclub scenes that Jordan shot looked to Begelman “like Blade Runner“. No shit, Dave. I’ve done dozens of interviews over the years about this. Begelman was a sad, late 1950s Beverly-Hills’ throwback who still had a manicurist lacquer his toenails because going sockless in Gucci loafers was his crowd’s gold standard in the ‘80s and who knew when you might have to remove your Guccis in public?! Not very Buckaroo.

How does it feel to know the films you’ve worked on are still being discussed and still finding new audiences?
Strange, for sure. Buckaroo is almost 40 years old. When we shot it, Gone With the Wind and The Philadelphia Story were 40 years old and seemed to have come from another world. That people are still passionate about Buckaroo and new folks are still stumbling enthusiastically upon both it and some of the other stuff I wrote is gratifying, of course. And in many ways baffling. No complaints, though. Take chances, that’s what I’ve learned. Never look over your shoulder. Just make movies that you want to see and let time sort things out.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is out now in 4K from Arrow Video.


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