An Afternoon with Frank Pierson
Saturday, April 30, 12:30 pm
Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street (at Fillmore)
The Film Society is proud to present the 2011 Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting to a living legend, Frank Pierson. The voice behind some of the freshest and most enduring films in the canon of American cinema, including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, Pierson also directed and helped write the legendary (and infamously difficult) production of Streisand’s A Star Is Born. Pierson’s pen has not dulled: Last year he won an award from the Writer’s Guild of America for his work on season three of Mad Men. Join the Festival in honoring Pierson with an onstage interview prior to a screening of the iconic 1975 film that won him an Academy Award, Dog Day Afternoon.
The bank heist movie to end all bank heist movies, Dog Day Afternoon leaves the hardened action criminals behind and gives us Sonny (Al Pacino, in one of his greatest roles), a neurotic yet sensitive first-time crook who holds up a Brooklyn bank only to have everything go terribly wrong. Equal parts suspense, pathos and humor combine for one of the subtlest of all crime films.
The Kanbar Award is made possible through the generosity of Film Society board member Maurice Kanbar.
Frank Pierson: Screenwriting's Cool Hand
By Pam Grady
The breadth of Frank Pierson’s career can be suggested by the contrast between two films and a single night in March 1976. That was the evening he took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s tense, character-driven drama Dog Day Afternoon. Presenter Gore Vidal accepted the statuette on his behalf. The writer of the tough, violent story that Pauline Kael hailed as “one of the most satisfying of all the movies starring New York City” spent awards night in a Phoenix parking lot directing scenes from his script of an altogether softer and weepier film, Barbra Streisand’s version of A Star Is Born.
That pair of movies may make unlikely twins, but what they share is Pierson and his vision.
“What I do think I have,” he explained in a recent interview for Inside Film Magazine, “is the ability to take a look at a situation—whether it’s a real-life situation in Dog Day or whether it’s a fictional one that expresses a kind of emotional, psychological truth to me—and think through what kind of a movie I would like to make that is new and fresh and exists on its own level.”
A World War II combat veteran, Pierson was a Time magazine correspondent before turning to scriptwriting. He honed his craft in television, contributing to such shows as Have Gun, Will Travel (for which he also served as producer) and Naked City. He jumped to the big screen with the comic musical Western Cat Ballou (1965), sharing an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay with cowriter Walter Newman.
Two years later, Pierson got another Oscar nod, this one shared with Donn Pearce for their adaptation of Pearce’s novel Cool Hand Luke. The drama starred Paul Newman as a chain gang convict dedicated to flouting the rules and eventual escape. It was set in a prison in the Deep South but nonetheless captured the zeitgeist of an increasingly fractured America, as the Vietnam War continued to escalate, in a single line that did not appear in Pearce’s book: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” The dialogue was Pierson’s, coming to him as he labored over the script on his Underwood typewriter.
After contributing to the screenplay for the 1967 mob/hippie hybrid comedy The Happening, Pierson made his feature-film directing debut in 1969 with his adaptation of John le Carré’s spy thriller The Looking Glass War. In 1971, he created a television Western for James Garner, Nichols, serving as writer and producer on the short-lived series. That same year also marked his first collaboration with Lumet, with Pierson penning the adaptation of Lawrence Sanders’ crime drama The Anderson Tapes.
A Star Is Born marked Pierson’s return to screenwriting after his Dog Day Afternoon triumph. He was the seventh writer and fourth director hired to work on a rock-and-roll update of a story filmed twice before, in 1936 and 1954. It was not a happy experience, as he revealed in a 1976 story he wrote for New West magazine, excoriating Streisand and her then-partner and producer Jon Peters. Pierson’s article is a peek behind the curtain at a troubled shoot and a mercurial star, but it also provides insight into his thinking as a writer, as he neatly sums up the challenges in transforming a tale first told during the Great Depression to the Watergate era. “The simple unvarnished dialogues of 1936 are embarrassing today,” he wrote. “We need to update a sentimental romantic story for an audience that has become skeptical about sentiment and almost derisive of romance.”
Pierson went on to write and direct King of the Gypsies (1978) and collaborated on the teleplay adaptation of Haywire (1980), Brooke Hayward’s memoir of life with her troubled parents, actress Margaret Sullavan and producer/ agent Leland Hayward. After cowriting an adaptation of Bobbie Ann Mason’s post-Vietnam novel In Country (1989) and collaborating with Alan J. Pakula on the screenplay of Scott Turow’s novel Presumed Innocent (1990), Pierson concentrated more on directing and producing for television, most recently sharing a Writer’s Guild of America Drama Series award for his work as consulting producer on season three of Mad Men.
Long active behind the scenes in Hollywood, Pierson has twice served as president of the Writers Guild of America, West, and from 2001 to 2005 as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where he is currently a member of the board of governors. He is also active in educating the next generation of screenwriters and filmmakers. He has taught at the Sundance Institute and is the artistic director of the American Film Institute Conservatory.
Pierson is hard at work as ever. In addition to his teaching, he recently served as a consulting producer on the drama series The Good Wife and is currently writing the screenplay for 17 Days of Winter, a 3-D Korean War drama due for release in 2012. As he recently joked to Variety, “By this time I thought I’d be playing golf, but I never had time to learn.”
Pam Grady is a San Francisco–based critic and journalist who contributes to Boxoffice, the San Francisco Chronicle, FilmStew and other publications.
1990 Presumed Innocent
1989 In Country
1978 King of the Gypsies
1976 A Star Is Born
1975 Dog Day Afternoon
1971 The Anderson Tapes
1969 The Looking Glass War
1967 Cool Hand Luke
1967 The Happening
1965 Cat Ballou
2010 James Schamus
2009 James Toback
2008 Robert Towne
2007 Peter Morgan
2006 Jean-Claude Carrière
2005 Paul Haggis