HDTGM: A Conversation With Richard LaGravenese, Director of 'Beautiful Creatures'

Writer/Director Richard LaGravenese—best known for films like The Fisher King, The Horse Whisperer and Freedom Writers — chats with Blake about breaking into the business, encountering fan backlashes and why it "wasn't a good decision" to adapt and direct the Twilight-like tween tale Beautiful Creatures.

In February 2016, filmmaker Richard LaGravenese received the WGA's Ian McClellan Hunter Award for Career Achievement.

"With sensitivity and a sure grasp of the human condition, Richard's screenplays poignantly capture the vicissitudes of life," WGA East president Michael Winship wrote in a statement at the time. "His creativity and skill bring to all of his work a distinctive point of view that wins the hearts and provokes the minds of anyone lucky enough to see a film that bears his credit."

With two-plus decades of heartfelt hits like The Fisher King (1991), Freedom Writers (2007) and Unbroken (2014), it's hard to argue with the WGA's words of praise. LaGravenese truly does have a gift for writing poignant, mind-provoking popular films. But there is one film on his resume that, well, let's just say that those who saw it might not claim that they were "lucky enough to see a film that bears his credit." And that film Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural love story that was recently featured on the How Did This Get Made podcast.

To understand what was different about this film — what worked, what didn't; and why this franchise-to-be never wound up spawning any sequels — I sat down with Richard LaGravenese to talk about the making of Beautiful Creatures, and other highs and lows from his storied career...

Beautiful Creatures

Synopsis: In the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, a teenage boy's world is turned upside-down when he falls for a girl with supernatural powers beyond her control. 

Tagline: Is Falling in Love the Beginning...or the End?

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Blake J. Harris: Hey Richard, thanks so much for chatting with us.

Richard LaGravenese: My pleasure.

Blake J. Harris: You're based in New York, right?

Richard LaGravenese: Yes I am.

Blake J. Harris: Have you always lived in the area?

Richard LaGravenese: Yeah. Born and raised in Brooklyn. And I've been in the city since '78.

Blake J. Harris: To be a screenwriter, aren't supposed to move to Hollywood at some point? Isn't that how it works?

Richard LaGravenese: [laughs] That's not what I did.

Blake J. Harris: Good. Well let's talk about that. And let's start at the beginning. With how you first fell in love with film. How did that happen?

Richard LaGravenese: Well, since I was a little kid, I loved film, theater and television—the whole thing. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was kind of an odd boy out in sort of a tough neighborhood. I went to the movies a lot on my own. And also my dad, who was a cab driver, he would take me to the movies every Sunday. And at that time, all these amazing filmmakers were doing these extraordinary things. I remember he took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was 9. And he didn't really care about the [recently implemented] rating system; he just recognized William Holden cast and so he thought it was a Western, and so he took me. He never cared about that kind of stuff. So I had these incredible late 60s and then 70s films that I was growing up on. And at the same time, my mom introduced me to old films of the 30s, 40s and 50s because the television networks had bought the libraries; so all these old movies were playing on television. So I got a full, kind of, education of all films from the beginning.

Blake J. Harris: What did you love about film (versus, say, novels or comic books)?

Richard LaGravenese: I don't know. I'm not quite sure. There was something about being told a story in 2-hour period with highs and lows and ending that was encapsulated. I think that was very satisfying for me. And also: I just loved the ritual of it too. I loved going to...we had a great big movie palace in Brooklyn; the Loews Oriental, a big giant art deco theater—where I saw The Godfather, and The Wild Bunch and all these amazing movies—with a balcony and two grand staircases, it was just a special thing. In those days, there was no such thing as a summer release or even a wide release. All the movies would stay in the city for about six months before they came to the boroughs, before they came to Brooklyn. If it was a really special movie, my parents and I would get dressed up and drive to the city.

Blake J. Harris: Almost like going to a Broadway show?

Richard LaGravenese: Exactly. As if it was the theater. Like I remember they took me to see Planet of the Apes for my communion; it was a big deal, a special occasion.

Blake J. Harris: That's awesome. And given that this was pre-internet, pre-magazines like Entertainment Weekly and all that, how did you or your parents know about these movies? Meaning, like, how did you, or they, know that The Godfather was a "really special" one?

Richard LaGravenese: Well, first of all: everybody read The Godfather. It was the book that everybody was reading in Cony Island, the summer before.

Blake J. Harris: Ha. Okay, that makes sense.

Richard LaGravenese: I mean, it was like that for a lot of the movies. Jaws was a bestseller before it became a movie; The Exorcist was like that. So a lot of times we read the books before. And also, growing up in Brooklyn...the working class of Brooklyn has always been very into films and movie stars and that sort of culture of that time. So it was a very exciting thing for us back then.

Blake J. Harris: You clearly had an affection for film, but did you—at that age—imagine that you'd one day actually work in the film industry? Was that a dream, or a goal?

Richard LaGravenese: I wanted to be in that world, very much. But I didn't realize it would be from writing. At first, I thought I wanted to be an actor. And when I left home to go to school at 16, I went to a school for theater. So I was a theater major (not a film major), and studied acting. All along I was writing—monologues, and plays, and things like that—but I never really paid attention to it, because it was always in the service of acting. For example: instead of doing traditional monologues for auditions, I thought I would stand out more if I wrote an original monologue and performed that.

Blake J. Harris: Interesting...

Richard LaGravenese: Then that became a thing, and I started selling my monologues to other actors.

Blake J. Harris: Ha! That's awesome.

Richard LaGravenese: And that's how the writing kind of got started. Because a teacher of mine a wonderful teacher, Kate McGregor Stewart, acknowledged that the writing was good. And she gave it to a film director, Joan Micklin Silver, who at the time was directing an off-Broadway review of sketches and monologues and songs called A...My Name is Alice. And the first thing I ever sold was a monologue; along with a whole bunch of other writers, which included Kaufman & Crane (the people who created Friends), they were a team and they also wrote something for that show as well. And that was the first bit of writing I ever sold.

Blake J. Harris: And then was Rude Awakening [released in 1989] then the first feature script that you sold?

Richard LaGravenese: Yes, yes. That is accurate. So this is what happened with that: I was part of a comedy act, so I would write skit comedy. And a friend of mine from college married a guy named Neil Levy [a writer and talent coordinator for the original Saturday Night Live]. He was a very funny, very smart guy and he had sold an idea [for what eventually became Rude Awakening] to a producer: Aaron Russo. Aaron Russo had produced The Rose and Trading Places, so he was a big producer.

Blake J. Harris: Sure.

Richard LaGravenese: So he [Neil] saw my comedy act and he liked my dialogue. So he invited me to co-write it with him. And we became this sort of team, and I learned how to write a screenplay by sort of sitting beside him. And we worked on that for like 3 years. It was a terrible experience. And Aaron completely ruined it. It was a smart satire to start out with, and then he turned it into this terrible, terrible thing. He [Aaron] ended up directing it as well. So my career almost was over before it started!

Blake J. Harris: Oh, man...

Richard LaGravenese: And during that time, I was so frustrated with the process, I decided to write my own screenplay and try to sell it as a sample of writing to get work. So I started writing my own screenplay and that was The Fisher King. And that was the first script I wrote on my own.

Blake J. Harris: So given that [unpleasant] first experience, were you able to do anything with The Fisher King to ensure that something similar didn't happen again?

Richard LaGravenese: Well, I didn't sell it to Aaron Russo!

Blake J. Harris: [cracks up]

Richard LaGravenese: And because of that, he barred me from the set. He kind of fired me from Rude Awakening. That was the first decision. Then the second decision was: what happened was, I finished it, after a couple of years, in the middle of the longest Writer's strike that we've ever had. The Strike of '88. And so nobody could buy it, because of the strike. When the strike was over, it got read and I was confronted with it being sold. And I had two options: one were these producers that I loved and felt really understood the script; and the other was a studio offering me double the money, but had a completely different idea how to use the script. And I said no to the money and I stayed with the producers who I thought understood it. And it got made.

Blake J. Harris: That's great.

Richard LaGravenese: Yeah. Because I think, as a writer...the most control we have is who we're in bed with.

Blake J. Harris: Right. Do you remember how Terry Gilliam got involved with that?

Richard LaGravenese: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So this was September of '88 and it was sold to Disney. Because Lynda Obst, the late Debra Hill and Stacey Sher were all at Disney. And then I did rewrites under Disney's development process at the time, which was pretty intense. I did everything they asked for. And when Katzenberg—who was the head of the studio then—read the script he said: This isn't as good as the first draft, but I'll never make the first draft."

Blake J. Harris: Ha, nice.

Richard LaGravenese: So they hired me, they put me under contract, and then they put the draft in turnaround. Then it went to TriStar, and it stayed at TriStar for over a year and at the same time, Terry was going through [The Adventures of Baron] Munchausen with Columbia, and that was a terrible experience for him. And he was at a point in his career, when he was going to try something different. He had never had an agent before and he had never done other people's scripts before. He had this agent (I think at CAA) who sent him two scripts: Adam's Family and Fisher King. Two scripts sitting on his kitchen table one night, and he decided to open mine. And when he started reading it, it felt to him like he had written it—it was very much in his own voice. The good news is that when Terry came on board, all the rewriting I had done for Disney, he had me throw out; and put back a lot of my original tone and original writing.

Blake J. Harris: Ha.

Richard LaGravenese: Which was really great of him. But I did have a great development process with Lynda Obst and Stacey Sher in some of the stuff I learned from them. Very, very smart producers; and some key scenes were added (that were not in the original) because of them.

Blake J. Harris: That's great. And so, as you've sort of touched on, there are ups and downs to the development process. But regardless, it is a "process." So I was wondering, during that time period—the late 80s, early 90s—what kinds of things did you learn about becoming a screenwriter?

Richard LaGravenese: What did I learn? Well, I learned what I was able to do—that I was fast, in terms of being able to incorporate feedback. But also, looking back, I think that was a little bit of a handicap. I was too facile. I wish that I had protected more and had more confidence. I really didn't have a lot of confidence and I felt so...you have to understand, with where I came from, it was out of this world that this was happening. So I was very overwhelmed, a little bit. And I didn't really have a lot of confidence. So I didn't protect things as much as I learned later on to fight for the writing in a better way. [clarifying] I would always speak my mind, but I sometimes caved in to others.

Blake J. Harris: At what point did you start to get serious about thinking about directing?

Richard LaGravenese: Oh, not for almost 10 years. It wasn't until the late 90s and I was at Jersey Films, which was a great home for a lot of us. Quentin was there, and Scott Frank. And Stacey Sher was the President. And Danny DeVito and Michael Shamberg. Pam Abdy. And it was this great home, of this really great feeling. And my relationship with Stacy Share, really urged me to take a try at directing. And that's where I did Living out Loud with Danny [DeVito] and Queen Latifah and Holly Hunter for my Mike DeLuca at New Line.

Blake J. Harris: How much did that experience of directing match up to what you expected?

Richard LaGravenese: [laughs] How can I say this? Very much like my first experience with writing, I wasn't as lucky as some of my friends. I had a really traumatic first experience of directing. A lot of challenges... a lot of things were really, really tough and put me off wanting to do it again for a while.

Blake J. Harris: So what eventually intrigued you to consider directing again?

Richard LaGravenese: Well, the business was changing. When I started, there were many of us who loved being screenwriters and there was a...it was a viable community that was recognized by the industry (even though we were always kind of bottom of the food chain). It was a great thing, you know; collaborating with talented producers and directed. I came into the business a big fan of a lot of people, and I got to work with a lot of the people that I was a big fan of. And then the business started to change; and I really credit people like Quentin and the Coen Brothers—people who were writers and directors, bringing their own originality, and not working in that system. So the business really changed, and in order to get things done the way you wanted to [as a writer], you really needed to take control; or find a great partnership with a great director. Several years passed and I was writing. And then I got kind of frustrated; and then I found a piece of material that made me want to direct again. It was a story about a real thing that had happened. And it inspired me, it motivated me—it was a story I wanted to tell. So that got me out of my kind of paralyzed state and back into directing. That was Freedom Writers.

Blake J. Harris: How did this directing experience compare?

Richard LaGravenese: That was an amazing experience, totally incredible. It really was.

Blake J. Harris: Excellent. So let's jump ahead a bit, to Beautiful Creatures: the film at the center of our most recent episode of How Did This Get Made? Do you remember how Beautiful Creatures first entered your radar?

Richard LaGravenese: Yes. You know, at every agency there is a literary agency that handles books. And they have meetings with writers, directors and production companies about properties that they have in galleys (you know, books before publication). So I had this meeting and they talked about this thing. And YA books—YA movies—were really on the rise. Like Twilight, and stuff like that. Franchise-y movies. Anyway, this was a possible franchise (there were three books) and it was my attempt to do a YA franchise movie. And it was the first time I had ever, in my career, decided to choose something because of what I thought the marketplace was doing. I had promised myself at the beginning [of my career] I would never do that. And I didn't, for the majority of my career...but it was the first time I decided to do that. And it wasn't a good decision.

Blake J. Harris: And at what point did you start to believe that maybe it wasn't a good decision?

Richard LaGravenese: Well, while I was trying to adapt it, I had a really hard time adapting it.

Blake J. Harris: Well it was several books, right?

Richard LaGravenese: Yeah, but I just did the first one. Which was like 800-900 pages long. It was by two writers, writing together for the first time; so there was a lot of stuff in this book that felt over-plotted and I was trying to streamline it. That was...that should have told me something. But I had people around me who saw in it a possible franchise and that kind of stuff, and I got kind of swept up in that. You know, when you start to adapt something that you don't have a strong take on, or you can't quite figure it out, that's a sign that you should sort of stop.

Blake J. Harris: Good point. And so I was wondering...there are plenty of YA novels—not all with franchise potential, but some—so what attracted you about this specific world? Even if you maybe didn't have a take on it.

Richard LaGravenese: I liked the two main characters—played by Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich—and their relationship. There was something doomed, and tragic, and romantic about their relationship. That was, for me, an elevated YA; there was something adult about what they were going through. And I tried to make it really about that love story; that's what attracted me.

Blake J. Harris: I read that there was a tornado that made things challenging at some point. What do you remember about the production process?

Richard LaGravenese: [laughs] Uh, I have to say that the shooting in New Orleans was fantastic. I loved my actors. I had the best time. I loved New Orleans. I loved my DP, my crew; it was a great experience shooting it. There were tremendous challenges for me—big scenes, and all that stuff—but I really did love it. The real problems for me started in post.

Blake J. Harris: How so?

Richard LaGravenese: I was a first-time director doing this kind of thing and I didn't have the best...my producer wasn't present a lot; I didn't have a lot of guidance and help in the post. And it was a very difficult post for me. My first time dealing with parceling out special effects to different houses, and how that works; and getting it done, and choosing it, and the supervising. It just was...I didn't have a lot of very strong guidance and support.

Blake J. Harris: From what I read, it sounded like even though there was CG that practical effects were important to you. Is that accurate?

Richard LaGravenese: Yeah, I tried to keep things as practical as possible. Again, that was just for me—to try and do something that interested me; and it probably made my life harder. Again, all out of inexperience. I didn't know what I was getting into and [frankly] I wasn't prepared for it.

Blake J. Harris: Even though it didn't turn out how you wanted, what were some of your favorite parts from the process? Or what are you most proud of about the film?

Richard LaGravenese: The actors. And there are a lot of things in the script that I'm proud of that, for me, kind of elevated the YA formula. The dialogue between the two of them; and some of the ideas—the character ideas—that were running through the script for those two characters, I was proud of that. I liked how that worked. If it hadn't been in a world filled with witches and special effects [cracking up] it might have been a straightforward coming of age love story. But it got, you know, I had such wonderful actors and I feel terrible that I couldn't serve them better. But I take full responsibility.

Blake J. Harris: The performances really are stellar.

Richard LaGravenese: Yeah. They're wonderful actors, absolutely wonderful. I was so lucky.

Blake J. Harris: I read, I think, that the lead dropped out? What happened there?

Richard LaGravenese: Well, something happened. Jack O'Connell was gonna be the original Ethan (and he's a wonderful actor), and it was just an issue with timing and his visa and that stuff. There was just an issue that we couldn't solve, so Alden came on board, and he was absolutely incredible.

Blake J. Harris: Do you have time for a couple more questions?

Richard LaGravenese: Sure.

Blake J. Harris: What were some of the biggest logistical challenges? Or even just the hardest scene to wrap your head around, or to film?

Richard LaGravenese: [thinking] I thought it was going to be the Civil War battle stuff, but I actually did that in a day. That was not...that turned out to be so well organized, we planned it so well, that that wasn't as difficult. I'm trying to remember what was...oh! I remember: the dining room scene with the table spinning. That was fucking tough.

Blake J. Harris: Ah, okay. And my last question is...so right before Beautiful Creatures, you had adapted Water for Elephants, which was a fantastic book; a very popular book.  But I suspect that the fandom is very different for a YA book.

Richard LaGravenese: [laughing] Yeah.

Blake J. Harris: Did you experience any sort of fan backlashes? 

Richard LaGravenese: Oh god, yeah. That's why it failed. What happened was: when I was working on it, when I was writing it, I kept saying to the studio and my producer: you know, I'm changing this a lot because I don't know how else to do it; there are problems with the book. And they all said to me: it doesn't matter, because it's not a popular YA. It's not like Hunger Games. So you can do whatever you want. And then because we were making it, and they started marketing it, it started to outsell a lot of the other YA books. So that when it was done, American teenagers completely rejected it because it was too different from the book!

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]

Richard LaGravenese: If I had just filmed the book, I don't think it would have been a good movie, but it probably would have been successful. But I just couldn't bare the book (that was my issue), so there was a tremendous backlash. And the odd thing was the people who really loved the movie are teenagers from, like, South America and France. I get tweets all the time: we love it! When can we see the next one! And they're always foreign teenagers. These kids seem to have understood what I was going for [laughing], and the American kids just rejected it.