Elmore Leonard remembers Bill Deneen
Bill Deneen, who passed way in October, 2012, made many references to working with noted author Elmore Leonard during his early filmmaking days. In December, 2012, AFA director Geoff Alexander interviewed Leonard in order to confirm the screenplays he wrote for Deneen during his days at Encyclopaedia Britannica Films and to ask about his reminiscences regarding working with Deneen. Elmore Leonard himself passed away August 20, 2013. This interview has been shortened for brevity.
GA: Bill Deneen worked with you, and he often discussed the screenplays you wrote for some of his earliest academic films.
EL: I wrote a bunch. I’d say I wrote at least ten.
GA: We’d love to determine which ones you wrote. In most of those cases, you are not credited.
EL: Oh really!? Was I credited on any?
GA: I believe on one of the Roman films you were, but the other ones I’m not so sure about. Encyclopedia Britannica Films was pretty good sometimes about giving directors and producers film credits, but not writers, and that’s a challenge I’ve had in compiling the history. Incidentally, Bill used to refer to you as “Dutch”. How would you like me to refer to you?
EL: It doesn’t matter. Elmore or Dutch. Most people now call me Elmore.
GA: Okay, then I will call you Elmore. I’ve got you down as the writer for “Julius Caesar: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” I think the reason that I have your name there is because last year when they made the remake, they were pretty emphatic about putting your name in there as the writer. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that that is the only one. You weren’t given credit for “Western movement: the Settlement of the Mississippi Valley.” I know you wrote that one because Bill told me. And those are the only two, Elmore, that I have documented.
EL: If that’s the way he wanted it. He always did re-writing there’s no question about that. Those were my first screenplays, but that was the beginning.
GA: So that’s how you got started in the business?
EL: Well, I’d been writing books long before I met him. I’ve been writing since 1951. I’ve written 45, and I’m on my 46th book. I’ve written probably a dozen screenplays. I’ve gotten credit for some. The one that’s still paying residuals is “Mr. Majestic” with Charles Bronson. I’ve had about 20 movies made from my books.
GA: Well that’s what you’re best known for. I have you credited for a couple of early Deneen films, but the fact that you started writing screenplays with this kind of material is fascinating.
EL: Yeah, they were the first ones I had ever done.
GA: We’ve started to put Bill’s films up on the Internet Archive so that people can watch them free of charge. I’d like you to tell me which of Bill’s films you wrote screenplays for., I could make it very easy for you by sending you an email and sending you a link to Bill’s page…
EL: I don’t have email. I don’t have any of that. I write with a pen. 45 books.
GA: Well, I’ve never owned a television, so you and I have similarities, and I still don’t own a TV and I’m not going to get a TV.
EL: Is that right? I couldn’t live without one.
GA: I have a 16mm film projector. How’s that?!
EL: Well, Yeah, but there are an awful lot of good things on television.
GA: I know, but I have watched 10,000 16mm educational films and I keep watching stuff I’ve never seen before, so I’m stuck in the 16mm educational film world which to me is just endlessly fascinating, Elmore. I do have a filmography of Bill’s work and it’s pretty complete and he did a lot of films. There are a couple of ways we could do this. I could read off the names of the films and you could tell me which ones you wrote the screenplays for, or you could do it by memory.
EL: Well, if he didn’t give me credit, then I don’t want credit, because he could have rewritten them for all I know.
GA: No, let me tell something. He would just drop a comment on these things from time to time. He would say “oh yeah, Mississippi Valley, my friend Dutch Leonard wrote the screenplay for that”. I asked him why you weren’t given credit for that, and he would say that” they wouldn’t give credit to writers,” and I asked,” how many did Elmore Leonard write for you?” He said “he wrote a bunch,” and before we had a chance to notate them, he’d passed away. So Bill did give you credit. My only issue is which ones were they because I want to make sure that you get credit because that’s what Bill wanted.
El: Alright, the one you mentioned, the settlement of the Mississippi valley, the settlement of the northwest territories.
GA: Okay, I know that one.
EL: Frontier woman or something like that.
GA: Okay, let me see if I can jog your memory a bit here. Frontier Boy 1962.
EL: “Frontier boy”, that was it. I think another was “Puerto Rico.”
GA: You wrote “Puerto Rico”? That is a fantastic film.
“Puerto Rico: it’s past present and promise” that is a remarkable
GA: Okay, “the Danube Valley and its People.”
GA: Right, “The French and Indian War” That’s right here.
EL: Boy of Rome, but he rewrote that.
GA: That’s “Claudius: Boy of ancient Rome.” Let me go back to the database that I was telling you about, because I believe that he gave you writer’s credit for that. No, that was Julius Caesar. There were three Roman films. There was “Claudius…”
El: I think he rewrote that one completely. I remember that I wrote Julius Caesar in Spain on the set. I mean the set was there. The Roman Empire set, and uh… those are the only ones that I can think of.
GA: There was one more Roman film. Let me see if I can find it. “Life in ancient Rome” Did you write that one as well?
EL: I don’t know.
GA: Okay, there were three Roman films that Bill did for Encyclopedia Britannica and they were all on that set. All on the Bronston set. And if there were three, I’m wondering if you would have written the third as well?
EL: I don’t know. I remember that we saw Bronston’s picture, and Bronston and some woman were sitting about 20 rows ahead of us, and we were the only ones in the theater so we knew he was going to come talk to us. We didn’t think much of his picture, and when he stopped we said “Wow! That was a picture!” That’s about all we said.
GA: What’s the story about how you got out there? Did Bill call and say “Hey, were going out there. Come along and write a screenplay for us?”
EL: No, I had finished most of the writing for him and he hadn’t paid me yet. He finally paid me and I took my family to Europe and I think we landed in Paris, and then we went to [Spain] and met him and went to the set. It was quite a set for that time.
GA: Are you aware of the documentary version that The Miriam Collection put about that? I think it’s a 3 DVD set.*
EL: I think I saw it. I think he gave me “Julius Caesar.” I think he included a couple of pictures. It was perhaps not long before he died. I’m not sure.
GA: So we have ‘Northwest Territories,’ Frontier Boy,’ ‘Puerto Rico,’ ‘ Mississippi Valley,’ ‘Danube Valley,’ ‘French and Indian War,’ ‘Claudius,’ and ‘Julius Caesar,’ so I’ve got 8 films so far that you wrote.
EL: Well, that must have been it, but I did work on others that he re-wrote. He did a lot of rewriting that I know of.
GA: I’ve got a relatively short list here, I could read these off and you could let me know if you worked on any of these?
EL: No, oh wait was that on the Arie Bakery?
GA: It’s ‘Bread: the 2nd edition’, 1960.
EL: Oh, I don’t know. I did one on the Arie Bakery and he did it over again. It was his picture and he did it very fast. I mean it moved very fast. A lot of bread making.
GA: Did he keep your screenplay?
EL: I doubt it
GA: Okay. I’m going to put a question mark by it, because knowing Bill, he would have kept your screenplay since he told me that he kept your screenplays for virtually everything you wrote.
[Elmore and I now discuss the remaining films Bill Deneen’s filmography, and he determines he didn’t write the screenplays for any of them. GA]
GA: Okay, well then what we’ve got here is 8 films with a question mark on “Bread.”
EL: With the way he shot it (Bread), I don’t think he used my script for that one. It really went fast. I liked it a lot.
GA: That’s one of the films that I have never seen.
EL” If it’s “Arie Bakery” We spent several days on that one.
GA: In fact, I’m looking on my master database here.
EL: Where are you?
GA: I’m in San Jose California. I got involved in this because I’m an ex school teacher and I ended up buying our film library because they were going to throw it in the garbage can and so I decided that I would acquire it. And then what happened was I started going through the films and started seeing a lot of remarkable work and wanted to know more about the people who made these films. This is going back to 1993. What I found out in my research was that nobody had written anything about any of them. There was a whole corner of cinematic history and there wasn’t going to be a history written about it, so I decided that I would do it and became an accidental historian. Bill was always emphatic about helping me as much as possible with the history of these. And not only in Encyclopedia of America, but in the Learning Corp. of America as well, which Bill founded. That’s what got me started and what’s interesting now, Elmore, is that people are starting to realize that there is something there. A number of these films are up on the internet now and people can watch them. I’m not much into School Bus films and Hygiene films. I like historical films, science, and humanities films. People are using them now for everything from teaching and homeschooling, so they have taken on a second life which I didn’t think was going to happen until I had been dead for a few years. At North Carolina State University, they’re even teaching a graduate course in these films, so I’m shocked and delighted. And I’m racing against time because all of my film makers are getting old right now and I’m 20 years younger than they are, so I’m trying to grab as much about them while they’re still alive.
EL: Yeah, well the last screenplay I wrote was in 1993 for Paramount, and I was so sick of writing for that kind of studio, because there was always some guy who didn’t know enough about it and asked for more. A little more back story or something like that is usually what they asked for, so I quit. I got tired of writing screenplays. First they were based on my books and then I would get tired of it because I’d already written it. I went into one studio and there were 3 guys at this table and one of them was the head of the studio and he said “ All you did was put the book into a screenplay” and I said, “well I thought that’s what you wanted.” He said “Well, you didn’t add anything! What the hell? We could’ve just shot the book.” About that time, I realized that I was not meant for this business and went back to writing books.
GA: Was that ‘Get Shorty,’ is that the film you’re referring to?
EL: No, but that was a good picture. I liked that one a lot.
GA: That’s the one that I’m familiar with. The one you mentioned in 1993, which one was that?
EL: It was what’s his name? He was married to what’s her name? The head of the company. Lansing? I think her last name was Lansing. He married her. I said “Well what happens now?” because they had offered to have me rewrite a screenplay. I told them I didn’t like the screenplay and that there was nothing more for me to write. I wouldn’t write that story to begin with. But I changed it enough. Then I went down to Hollywood and my agent said “You’re writing a book. Why do want to get in to this now?” I said “Because it’s there”. I had told the guy, let’s change the format. I wanted to change what it was about. I said “no dope,” and he agreed. I said I’ll think of something and I’ll come see you, and I was going to be in Hollywood anyway. My agent told me to just forget about it. I told him I’d think of something. So I got up the next morning at 5am and 5 five minutes later I had the idea, but I had to wait 3 or 4 hours to call him up. This was to what’s his name? The director? He just made another picture. He married Sherry Lansing. [It was William Friedkin, GA]
GA: If you could give me the name of the Picture, I could figure it out real fast.
EL: I don’t know if I had a name for it.
GA: Let’s see… Was it “Touch”?
EL: No. Touch, I’m trying to remember if that was made in to a movie. I remember offering “Touch” to Bill and a girl called me up and said that they didn’t care for it, and he (Bill) knew the priest who was a missionary that was is in my story, and I have a feeling that it never got to him and he never saw it.
GA: You’re not talking about “Father Columbo” are you?
EL: No, He was a Franciscan.
GA: Oh, he was the guy in Brazil I guess. [Deneen made ‘Latitude Zero’ for PIME regarding the work of this priest. GA]
GA: Yeah, I’m sure Bill never saw that. Was that Linda Gottlieb that you spoke to by any chance?
EL: I don’t know. I remember that she was young.
GA: I would agree that Bill probably never saw it, because Bill really liked that priest.
EL: Oh I know. He brought him here to Detroit. And he was really a great guy. He always smiled and never acted anything like a priest. He was the nicest man I have ever met and he laughed at everything. He let a friend of mine put on his brown hat when we went in to a beer store to get some beer.
GA: Amazing. And that film was directed by Paul Schrader. “Touch”
EL: Oh right, Yeah
GA: He was a really good writer in his own right. Well, I have a question for you. How did you and Bill get involved in the first place? Because you two went back an awful long way.
EL: We went to High School together. He was a year behind me in High school, but it seems to me that I was already writing. I sold my first story in 1951, so this was probably 10 years later. So by then he knew I could write, so maybe I’d like to write him some screenplays, and I did. The first three that I sold; ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and oh nuts… whenever I need to come up with a name, I don’t have it. It was the Burt Lancaster picture, ‘Valdez is Coming’ and I wanted to write that one because it was a one line story. It just shot ahead. I knew I could write it and I didn’t get a chance to. I finally wrote one called uh… for Marty Ransohoff and it was awful, the picture I mean. “The Big Bounce” They made it twice and it was worse the 2nd time.
GA: So it sounds like you were already writing some screenplays before Bill convinced you that he wanted you to work with him on EB?
EL: Well it wasn’t until the 1960’s that had a chance to write some screenplays. It was in 1969 when I wrote one for Marty as well. What was it called?........ I don’t know. I’m getting old.
GA: What was it like working with Bill? You knew him before any of us did, so what was it like working with Bill Deneen the film maker?
EL: Well, I was very confident in his ability. He was very good. He was cool shooting. I remember a horse they were riding across a field, one of those land rushes, and the horse stumbled and broke his leg. Bill was very cool about it and I don’t know what he did about it, but I don’t think he did much of anything. The guy was there with his horses. He asked for horses and he got them. That was it. I don’t know if he paid the guy or not.
GA: Did you find that Bill was an easy guy to work with?
EL: No, he wasn’t at all.
GA: So what were the challenges of working with Bill?
EL: Pleasing him. Doing something he wanted to shoot. But I had good ideas. I had written books with a lot of scenes in them, so I wasn’t afraid of that.
GA: Do you have one anecdote that you remember about working with Bill particularly?
EL: Well, when he would pay me, he would hand me the check, but he would hold on to it for a little bit (laughs).
GA: It sounds like you two were pretty good buddies.
EL: Well, we would do all this work together, and we would go to his house for dinner and a number of times he would invite priests from the local parish. I thought that that was interesting. I never thought that he was particularly religious.
GA: You went in your direction and he went in his and you both became very well known in your fields. After the EB days did you ever come close to working on any project subsequent to that?
EL: No, and by the 90’s I was through with wanting to write screenplays. They were work and I don’t consider books work. I just get in to it, and I don’t even know what’s going to happen in my books while I write them until the end, and I want to know. That’s why I write the book. And I’ve always had a good time writing. I’m writing one now that I started 6 months ago and I’ve got almost 70 pages of scenes that are in the wrong place and I’m trying to figure the thing out and put it in order. It’s called “Blue Dreams”. It’s about a guy who’s a bull rider in competition. There are a lot of bull riding events in a popular town in Texas.
GA: Well you have been so generous with your time and I know that you want to spend time with your researcher, so Elmore I want to thank you so much. You spent an hour with me and I didn’t think that I would get that from you so I thank you deeply.
* Samuel Bronston’s production of ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire, directed by Anthony Mann and starring Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd, was released in 1964.’ Bill Deneen and Encyclopaedia Britannica Films had received permission from Bronston to film academic films using the set. This resulted in three films, ‘Claudius, Boy of Ancient Rome,’ ‘Julius Caesar: The Rise of the Roman Empire,’ and Life in Ancient Rome.’ All three films, along with an on-camera discussion of them by Deneen, as well as the original feature film, have been released in a Three-Disc Limited Collector's Edition by the Miriam Collection.