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George Axelrod: Breaking the Rules

The Manchurian Candidate (Directed by John Frankenheimer)
One of the most incisive and witty writers for Broadway and Hollywood during the 1950s and 60s, George Axelrod wrote the stage hits The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and film scripts for such classics as Bus Stop, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Manchurian Candidate.

In the following extract George Axelrod is interviewed by Pat McGilligan about adapting The Manchurian Candidate for director John Frankenheimer.

Tell me more about how you put ‘Manchurian’ together. 

Johnny [Frankenheimer] and I had become friends and were looking around for something else to do. I read a review of The Manchurian Candidate in the New Yorker and bought the book [by Richard Condon (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959)] the next day. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, what a fucking movie!’ There was a lot of resistance. It was everything the studios didn’t want —political satire, worse than regular satire. It was not easy, but [Frank] Sinatra made it all possible. Sinatra agreed to play [Bennett] Marco, and that’s the only way United Artists would let us do it.

Was Condon or Frankenheimer involved in the script? 

I worked with Frankenheimer on it from the beginning.


Was he helpful? 

Very much so. Condon was not involved, although Dick became a very good friend. I wrote the first draft of The Manchurian Candidate in New York, in a house in Bedford Village, in the summer. Then I came out here in August or September of ’61 to work with Frankenheimer, who produced Manchurian with me, and to prepare the film... For film, I do two very specifically different things. I’m a pretty good adapter, and I can do the odd original. They’re two very different techniques. The very best adaptation I ever did was The Manchurian Candidate. It is a brilliant, wildly chaotic novel. Wonderful voice. To take the essence of that and try to make it so that it worked for a film was a challenge.

A very good example of breaking the rules of the craft is The Manchurian Candidate screenplay: it breaks every single known rule. It’s got dream sequences, flashbacks, narration out of nowhere. When we got in trouble, it had just a voice explaining stuff. Everything in the world that you’re told not to do. But that was part of its genetic code, the secret of the crossword puzzle. It worked for this script.

For example, one scene: When the book describes the reading matter of the hero, it says his library consists of books which have been picked out for him at random by a guy in a bookstore in San Francisco from a list of titles he happens to have on hand at the moment. What I did was transpose that, so when the colonel [played by Douglas Henderson] comes in to fire Marco, he notices that Marco has a lot of books. I had Frank read off the titles of all his books: ‘The Ethnic Choices of Arabs, The Jurisdictional Practices of the Mafia...’


With Frank saying the titles, it makes an excellent scene. But it was not a scene in the book—I had to make a scene out of a piece of description by Condon. That’s what I mean by transposing the gene.
The main trick of Manchurian was to make the brainwashing believable. What I did was dramatize the way the prisoners were brainwashed into believing they were attending a meeting of a lady’s garden society. I had the further idea of making Corporal Melvin [played by James Edwards] black and doing the whole second half of the dream with black ladies. I remember we shot for days, getting all the different angles—front and back, black and white. At the time, we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to fit together. We had miles of film. It was bewildering.

Meanwhile, we had to screw the [production] board all up and schedule all Frank’s scenes up front. We had to shoot all his stuff in fifteen days—because he has the attention span of a gnat— to keep his interest. Then he was set to leave. He was going off to Europe or some place.
 
Before he left, he announced, ‘I want to see every foot of film that I’m in before I leave.’ Johnny Frankenheimer said, ‘You can see everything except the brainwashing sequence.’ Frank said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I want to see everything,’ in a voice where you felt kneecaps were going to be broken. Now, this is totally self-serving but absolutely true: I said, ‘Let me take a crack at it because I really understand what I am trying to do . . . ’ The editor, Ferris Webster, and I went back to my office, and we got the script out. I just penciled the script where the shots were—cut, cut, cut—then he went back and put it together, and we never changed the sequence. That’s how it was cut, that magical sequence.


Was Frank a good actor, acting out of continuity? 

Frank is one of the best screen actors in the world. He’s magic. Like Marilyn. But you have to understand how he works. When he won’t do many takes, it’s because he can’t. He has no technical vocabulary as an actor. Something magical happens the first time, and sometimes, he can do it a second time. After that, it’s gone.

But can he work out of continuity? 

He understands how to do each scene—what it’s about. He’s a musical genius, and he’s lyrically sensitive. He knows that each scene tells a little story. He never tries to change a line. He has enormous respect for the dialogue. He was just a dream to work with.



This post first appeared on Diary Of A Screenwriter, please read the originial post: here

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George Axelrod: Breaking the Rules

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