streets of fire oral history

In 1982, an action comedy called 48 Hrs. took the world by storm. Not only did it finish seventh at the box office that year, but it also launched the film career of Eddie Murphy and spawned a slew of buddy cop imitations. Although a true sequel to 48 Hrs. wouldn’t come until 1990, a follow-up of sorts came out two years later: Streets of Fire.

To understand how Streets of Fire came to be (and its relationship to 48 Hrs.), I sat down with cowriter Larry Gross to discuss the film’s origins—and his as well.

streets of fire

Streets Of Fire Oral History

How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies. This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Streets Of Fire edition of the HDTGM podcast here

Synopsis: Set against a brooding rock & roll landscape, a mercenary tries to rescue his ex-girlfriend after she is kidnapped by a vicious gang.

Tagline: A Rock & Roll Fable

streets of fire

Part 1: The Bartender and The Driver

Larry Gross: It all started for me when I was 12 years old. I went to visit my dad in New York City; he worked in Midtown, and when I got there he didn’t know what to do with me. So he sent me to the Museum of Modern Art. And when I got there, they were screening North by Northwest. I have a visceral, neurological memory of the excitement of that film. The suspense of that film and the fun of that film. After that, I started going into the city by myself on a regular basis, and it happened to correspond to an explosion in Manhattan with revival theaters.

Blake Harris: Would you go alone, or did you have friends with similar interests?

Larry Gross: Occasionally I would drag my parents with me, but generally these were very solitary experiences for me. People have different sociological habits or dreams, and my sociological dream, as it were, was to be around older people. I played basketball with older people when I was a kid. I was kind of a mild prodigy at basketball, but as I got older, I submitted to “White Men Can’t Jump” syndrome and I failed to develop. After that happened, movies fully took over for me.

Blake Harris: As a viewer, or were you thinking about making films yourself?

Larry Gross: Well, the first idea in my mind was that I wanted to pass myself off as an authority on movies. And early on, I learned about the cinephiles who had become filmmakers. So the idea was planted early on that I would become one of those guys. I had this thing mapped out where I’d become a great filmmaker like those critics had been. I would take my knowledge of film history and become a great filmmaker, like they did.

With this path in mind, Gross saw as many films as possible during his teenage years and then, in college, started writing screenplays with a friend.  

Larry Gross: During my first two years after college, I didn’t really know how to make the transition. L.A. was always kind of a distant plan. And then what happened in my case was sort of three things happened at once: 1) I had an unhappy love affair; 2) I had a very painful breakup with my writing partner; 3) my brother got a development job out west, in television, for ABC. And he helped me get a job out there.

The job entailed working for a British television director named David Greene, who was coming off of two historically high-rated miniseries: Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. While working or Greene, Gross also continued writing screenplays on spec. 

Larry Gross: The script that kept getting me meetings was called The Bartender, and it really was like a flat-out imitation of Walter Hill’s The Driver, in a way. That script got as far as to have a director attached: Ted Kotcheff. And through that, for various reasons having to do with the writers strike in 1982, Kotcheff asked me to rewrite a script for him that was in production: Split Image. That was very big for me. It was a real movie with a real cast and it was shooting. And they needed several scenes revised. So I went on location and worked with them. And even though the movie had almost no release, it then led to Ted hiring me to do a similar production rewrite for a good deal more money on the next film he did. Which was First Blood (the first Rambo movie).

Blake Harris: Ha. Nice!

Larry Gross: The point is that those two rewrites on real movies, the fact of them, got my name around. And around that time, by a series of social accidents, I went to dinner with Walter Hill. And we became friends. During that time, we discussed movies, we discussed politics and we discussed women; but we never discussed work. I certainly made it unmistakably clear to him that I knew his films well and indicated that I was a fan, but I never raised the question of working for him.

Blake Harris: And what was going on in Walter’s career at the time?

Larry Gross: It was a unique period of frustration, relatively speaking. He’d had some success, but then he had a series of setbacks. And there was also the scandal around The Warriors; any success had been eclipsed by the killings in the theaters. So there was that, as well as the noncommercial success of Southern Comfort and Long Riders and the fact that there was a writer’s strike. All of that meant that Walter hadn’t worked in a while. Meaning a year or so. And what happened was the strike ended and the studios didn’t have a lot of ready scripts. So this clever colleague, Larry Gordon, dusted off a script that had been shuttling around development and got it greenlit at Paramount with his friend Michael Eisner. And that script was 48 Hrs.

48 Hrs

Part 2: 48

Larry Gross: 48 Hrs. had been in development for most of the ’70s. It had been rewritten 9 or 10 different times, never to anyone’s complete satisfaction. And Larry Gordon’s idea was to revise it along the lines of being a black/white story. This was at the time of the ascent of Richard Pryor. And basically everyone in town was dreaming of developing the next Richard Pryor movie. He was hot and he was cool and he was new. I mean, the ferocity of people’s enthusiasm for Richard Pryor at that time was really kind of amazing. He crossed that barrier into being artistic and commercial at the same time.

Blake Harris: So the plan was to rewrite 48 Hrs. with Pryor in mind?

Larry Gross: Exactly. And Walter was about to do a draft when they found out Pryor wouldn’t be available. So he was sort of a little bit stalled. And then his girlfriend, who was an agent, said: “I’ve got this client who you should maybe consider.” He was a young guy, never done a movie before, on “Saturday Night Live.”

Blake Harris: Ah, so that’s how Eddie Murphy got involved.

Larry Gross: With Eddie attached, Walter had done the beginnings of a new draft with Larry Gordon’s second in command, a guy named Joel Silver. And they were looking to bring in a new writer. And here’s a funny coincidence. Walter was looking around and thinking about suggesting me to Joel, but then Joel proposed my name.

Blake Harris: How did that happen?

Larry Gross: Well, the reason Joel proposed me is that Joel had just come off of a couple of months where he had been at Polygram Pictures and they had made the little movie I rewrote for Ted Kotcheff. And he knew that I had rescued it on the set. So when Walter was about to bring my name up, Joel brought my name up. So when I was brought on, this movie was moving forward at a feverish pace. It had a greenlight and was going to go into production despite not having a script that everybody liked.

Blake Harris: And why was that? Without Pryor, why the feverish greenlight?

Larry Gross: There were a couple of reasons. One was that the budget of the movie was relatively miniscule and, bottom line, Michael Eisner trusted Larry Gordon. They’d had a somewhat similar set of circumstances on the making of The Warriors. They had begun with an unfinished script and Walter had improvised a great deal of it during the making of the film. So Eisner trusted that, at a price, they could pull this off.

Blake Harris: Gotcha. And what was the other thing?

Larry Gross: Under Eisner, as the head of production, was a guy who was at that particular moment was kind of melting down: a guy who had a notorious drug problem and wasn’t getting along with Eisner. And that man’s name was Don Simpson. And because of what was going on with Simpson, they pretty much ignored us and our project. So, for the most part, we were left completely unattended to make the movie we wanted to make. A movie which we only vaguely knew what it was. I said we only vaguely knew what it was in the sense that the plot and the situation and circumstances never altered, but what we didn’t know was who Eddie Murphy was and what his interaction on screen with Nick Nolte would be like and could be like.

Blake Harris: And what was Eddie like? This unknown quantity.

Larry Gross: During the first two weeks of production, which was the brief location shooting that we did in San Francisco, Eddie was nervous, unprepared and basically terrible. Not funny. In fact, at the end of those two weeks, Paramount wanted to shut the film down and recast.

Blake Harris: Oh, wow.

Larry Gross: But Walter felt extremely embattled and hassled by studio anxieties. He felt that it was an absolutely do-or-die thing that he be able to stand his ground and not replace Eddie. So that was part of why a change did not take place. But also, something else happened. Up there in San Francisco with him, working on the script, we began to feel at the end of the eleventh or twelfth day of production that we’d begun to see glimmers of something better.

Blake Harris: And what do you attribute that to?

Larry Gross: We just understood certain things that we hadn’t understood at first. We saw certain things Eddie didn’t seem able to do (at the time), and we’d seen other things he did seem able to do. And all that conjoined with Walter saying to the studio, “Let’s get him an acting coach and make sure that he goes home every night (and doesn’t party) so that he’s awake and ready, and I promise you he’s going to work on the film. And if you replace him, you’re going to have to replace me.” So the studio threw up their hands and said: Do what you want. And Eddie got better every day. We knew by the next week he was going to be okay. And day after day after day, he just got better and better.

Blake Harris: What did Nick Nolte think about Eddie? Did that frustrate him at all?

Larry Gross: He was a professional. He liked Eddie, and Eddie, to his great credit, was immediately in awe of Nick. I will never forget him saying, “Nolte makes you act.” And that’s a very profound statement for a 20-year-old kid at the time. It’s what the other guy in the scene is doing that determines what he can and will be able to do.

Blake Harris: Since, as you mentioned, the script was still in flux, how did all of this change—if at all—how you rewrote the script?

Larry Gross: What we understood was there was a vein of back and forth between them that we could focus on in the writing. Early on, I made this analogy to Walter with regards to how we should write the scenes: Think of it as a jump ball situation in a basketball game between these two guys. They walk into the scene and compete for the ball. We should write the scenes as if it were a sporting event. And here was another thing: Eddie, coming from the live medium, needed to experience the present moment. What I noticed was I’d written various scenes where Reggie Hammond talked about things that were happening off screen or had happened off screen in the past, and Eddie didn’t do well with those lines. He read them fine, but they just didn’t work. But when he was reacting to the situation, or responding to Nick’s hostility, he lit up. So we said: Let’s rewrite everything to be in the moment. And let’s also find out what he wants to say. So he improvised a tremendous amount of it as well.

Blake Harris: What did Paramount think of all this?

Larry Gross: Well I remember, maybe two weeks before production ended, we showed Paramount a rough cut of assembled footage. They came back and said, “We love it; [jokingly] how can we edit Nick Nolte out of the movie and make it just an Eddie Murphy film?” That was perhaps the single pleasantest moment in the process with Paramount, and it’s actually what led to Streets of Fire getting started.

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