When John Fusco was working in saw mills and living on the streets of New Orleans, after dropping out of high school at the age of 16, he never would have imagined his future career as a highly successful screenwriter. His latest film, the martial-arts epic The Forbidden Kingdom starring kung fu veterans Jackie Chan and Jet Li, was released on a two-disc special edition DVD and Blu-ray disc on September 9th from Lionsgate. After more than 20 years in the business, Fusco has assembled an impressive list of credits. From the Western re-imagining Young Guns (1988) starring Emilio Estevez and assorted other brat packers, to the Native American reservation murder mystery Thunderheart (1992) starring Val Kilmer, to the rollicking Arabian adventure Hidalgo (2004) starring Viggo Mortensen, Fusco has demonstrated a knack for writing epic, larger-than-life stories with relatable human characters.
MM spoke with Fusco about The Forbidden Kingdom, screenwriting tricks of the trade and how the industry has changed since the beginning of his career.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): How did you get involved with writing the screenplay for The Forbidden Kingdom?
John Fusco (JF): It was an original screenplay that began as a story I made up for my young son. He was beginning his study of martial arts and I wanted to introduce him to the classical and philosophical roots of kung fu without preaching. To me, it seemed that the best way to get him passionate about the Chinese myth and literature that informs the art was to create an eastern-western adventure fable that I would make up, as I went, night after night.
When I told producer Casey Silver that I was doing this, he encouraged me to turn it into a screenplay.
MM: You have a background in martial arts. How did you draw on this experience to write the script for The Forbidden Kingdom?
JF: I could not have written the script if I didn’t have that background. I even wrote out the fight scenes using practical martial arts applications and Shaolin styles and counter-styles. Of course, the master [choreographer] Woo-Ping Yuen was going to do what he wanted with those scenes, but he tended to anchor those scenes in the fight stuff that I wrote. For instance, Jet and Jackie dueling with Praying Mantis versus Tiger was written into the script.
As far as the martial arts philosophy in the movie, it all comes from my own study. Martial artists who see the movie get it and appreciate it—including some of the highest ranking masters that I know. Some of the film critics called it “fortune cookie philosophy” and assumed it was some screenwriter stretching for Chinese maxims. But all of the philosophy conveyed in the film came directly from Lao Tzu, Cha’n Buddhism or from Jet Li, and it is all relevant to the character’s journey and understanding of martial art. ?
?MM: Many of the films you’ve written are epic adventures. What draws you to this classic genre?
JF: I’ve always been drawn to the relationship between history and legend, and that canvas tends to be a large one.
MM: What films inspired you growing up; which ones made you want to become a screenwriter?
JF: I loved Westerns, kung fu cinema and the Universal horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula. When I was 10, I would write my own “remakes” of the latter and shoot them in Super 8 with a neighborhood cast and crew. A little later I did the same with Bruce Lee movies. They’re hysterical, but I loved Super 8 and I had my own small editing deck down in the basement.
? ? ?
Growing out of that period, I fell in love with films like Lonely Are the Brave, The Night of the Hunter, On the Waterfront, Ace in the Hole. I dreamed of writing screenplays for a living since I was 10 years old. But the films that inspired me to pursue it in a practical way were Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Bonnie and Clyde and counter-culture classics like that. I would eventually get the chance to study with Waldo Salt who wrote Midnight Cowboy, and he mentored me through my first screenplay Crossroads.
MM: How has the screenwriting industry changed since Crossroads in 1986?
JF: It all felt so cutting edge back then. It was very rare for a film school student to break into the business and I was one of only a handful. The New York Times did an article about me selling a script out of my Screenwriting 101 class. Now, that’s not so unusual; there are more opportunities out there with new media and indie films and screenwriters doing their own graphic novels to control their destinies. But it still always comes down to the power and integrity of the story. I think there are more opportunities available, but less inspired and original material.
On a workshop level, computer technology has changed the game in a mind-blowing way since I started. I might be the last of the screenwriters who wrote on an electric Royal and became masterful with a White Out brush. Then Waldo Salt showed me his computer. It was a thing the size of an industrial generator that made crunching sounds when it saved onto a floppy. Having sold my first screenplay, I bought one. But to do research I had to go to the library. A few years later, after moving to Vermont, I’d have to fly to the New York Public to do certain research. Now it’s all right there. The resources and the links to personal contacts are incredible. With that access, screenwriting software and the wonder of e-mail, I think writers have a gigantic advantage compared to when I was starting out. It has certainly made my living and writing out of town easier and I’m surprised that more screenwriters don’t do that now.
As far as trends in the kinds of material, that seems to change monthly, so I can’t point out any overarching transformation. Just when I think a character-driven 1930s Western is dead, I submit a spec script and suddenly there’s as much excitement as I remember when I turned in my first thing 20 years ago. It simply comes down to writing from the heart and that will win over trends and technology every time. It will find its way up the river and nothing will stop it. ? ? ? ?
?MM: According to IMDb, you dropped out of high school at 16 to travel the American south as a blues musician and factory worker. How did that experience influence you as a screenwriter?
JF: It was the best prep school for film school that I could’ve had. When I got into NYU (by some miracle or mistake in paperwork), my first class was Basic Screenwriting. The assignment for the semester was to complete a 10-page screenplay. I was shocked that these students began groaning about the task. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the French cinema terms down like they did, but I turned in a 120-page screenplay in a month. Most of the students never did complete their 10 pages.
Hoboing, working in saw mills and living on the streets in New Orleans had given me a backpack of material. I had the 120 pages already worked out in my head, almost line-by-line, because I’d been gathering it and shaping it and taking notes on trains. The road also made me hungry and insanely determined to go back for that first dream, which was telling film stories.
?MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters wishing to break into the industry?
JF: Try to tap into content that you truly love and stop reading the online trades to see what’s selling. Even if you have to stop going to the movies for a while, break the cycle of influence and try to reach back to what it was that made you want to write in the first place. Pull out of the pack.
If I look back at the stuff I’ve gotten made, it all comes from some place of passion or interest. Even if you think there might not be something there on the surface, keep digging. Some people are surprised that I just wrote a kung fu movie with Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But that one has been brewing for more than 30 years, steeping back there in the pool of the stuff that I lived for as a kid. That’s where the juice is, I think—way back in that childhood magic. Ray Bradbury wrote a little book called Zen in the Art of Writing. He speaks to this process more eloquently than I can. I recommend reading that book even over Aristotle’s Poetics.
More importantly, go blue collar. Work harder than every other aspiring screenwriter you know. If the other guy is writing for three hours before he goes to his day job, get up an hour earlier than him. Give up your weekend and put a sleeping bag beside your desk—go on a marathon writing bender and barricade yourself. Especially from all of those people who want you to give up. Twenty-three years later, I still do that.