Michael France goes 5 for 5 in Hollywood

by Mark Burger

You may not know thename Michael France off-hand, but you certainly know the movies he’swritten: Cliffhanger (1993), GoldenEye (1995), Hulk (2003), ThePunisher (2004) and Fantastic Four (2005). Earlier this month,Michael France was the area, soaking in the sun and visiting with hischildhood chum and fellow filmmaker Richard Clabaugh, with whom he grewup in Florida. The two talked shop (Clabaugh produced and directed theupcoming sci-fi thriller Eyeborgs) and talked over old times, withyours truly lurking in the background. Having done his time inLos Angeles, France lives in Florida with his wife and three kids, notfar from where he and Clabaugh grew up. The two shared a love ofmovies, science fiction and comic books. “Mike was always a MarvelComics guy,” clarifies Clabaugh, “and I was always a DC Comics guy.” “Absolutely,”confirms France. “I especially loved the Marvel comics because theywere obviously meant to be movies, so it was a big thrill to work onthree of them, and so was meeting with Stan Lee (the legendary founderof Marvel). “The nice thing,” says France, “is that he’s exactlywhat you’d hope from the persona you’d heard about. He really is ‘UncleStan.’ He’s super-sharp, full of ideas, and very energetic.” Butlet’s go back to the beginning, after France had flunked out of filmschool at Columbia University and decided to try his hand in Hollywood.After a stint as a script reader, he decided to take the plunge himself. “Asa script reader, I noticed that every variation of Die Hard had sold,”France says. “Not all of them got made, but they all sold.” SoFrance wrote Cliffhanger. Not only did it sell, but it got made. Andnot only did it get made, but it was a smash. Even critics liked it! Originally,France had envisioned Cliffhanger as a PG or PG-13 action move. Leadingman Sylvester Stallone’s rewrite changed all that, and although Francewonders if the R rating didn’t limit the box-office appeal, he’s notabout to second-guess a film that grossed $300 million worldwide,essentially resurrected Stallone’s career, and put France on thescreenwriting map. The success of Cliffhanger led directly toGoldenEye, which introduced Pierce Brosnan as James Bond and revivedthe 007 franchise. Having created a fan magazine devoted to Bond duringhis teen years, France was in heaven. This was his license to kill. “Asa kid, I didn’t want to be Bond,” France says. “I wanted to be RichardMaibaum.” (Maibaum adapted Ian Fleming’s novel Dr. No and wrote morethan a dozen 007 adventures.) France recalls with greataffection working alongside Bond producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli asthey mapped out the story. “He was so friendly and even though he wasin poor health, he was as sharp as a laser,” France recalls. “We’d sitand outline the roles of Bond and the villains, and he would say ‘No,no – Bond wouldn’t do that’ or ‘Yes, that’s something Bond would do.’ “After all,” France says with a smile. “He was the source. Nobody knew Bond better.” Thefilm’s subsequent success, becoming the highest-grossing Bond film forthe time, was to France a pleasing testimony to the tenacity ofBroccoli, who died the year after its release. (Some of France’sadditional material for GoldenEye was revamped and used in thesubsequent Bond outing The World is Not Enough, although he didn’treceive a credit on the final film.) With two big hits under hisbelt, the realization of one of France’s life-long dreams came truewhen he was tapped to work on a Marvel Comics adaptation. Thus far,he’s had three dreams come true. Interestingly enough, the first one heworked on (Fantastic Four) was the last one to be produced. Franceisn’t complaining. Not only were he and the studio concerned about theextensive CGI special effects that the film would require for fourdifferent principal characters, but there was the matter of finding awell-known actor to play the pivotal role of Ben Grimm, the eponymous”Thing.” In some ways, Fantastic Four is France’s favorite amonghis Marvel trilogy. One reason is that he was invited to come to theset to watch filming. Actor Michael Chiklis, whose casting as Grimmassuaged any fears that France had had about the character, remained inmakeup long after shooting was done and entertained France and his son,who was five at the time. “I had a blast,” France says. “I’m glad it took so long to come together, actually. It worked out perfectly.” Fanswere hugely divided on the 2003 adaptation of Hulk, directed by AngLee. Yet another mega-budget, super-hyped Marvel Comics adaptation, thefilm was ultimately considered a disappointment despite an $60-millionopening weekend and a total gross of over $130 million in the US alone. “We should all live so long to have a $130 million ‘flop,'” jokes Clabaugh. Whenhe was younger, France was not a fan of “The Incredible Hulk” TV series(although he likes it now), so he paid particular attention to what theshow didn’t do when writing the script. He wanted to bring to life thebig action sequences that had made such an impression on him as a kid,reading the comics. Although loath to nitpick, France admitsthat “the mistake, I think, was that they made it a father-son movie,and in doing so made it not really appropriate for kids.” As for the mutant poodles, France laughingly denies any credit (or discredit) for that. Withregard to the current film The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Nortonin the title role, “I have nothing to do with it,” says France, “andI’m interested to see it, as any fan would be.” With ThePunisher, France knew exactly how to approach it – “just like a ’70srevenge film,” he says. “It was a vigilante picture. It absolutely hadto be an R (rating).” Many fans thought that The Punisher wastoo long and too drawn out. As a fan himself, France doesn’tnecessarily disagree with the fans’ assessment, but he was happy tohave the opportunity and he’s been around long enough to know that whatone writes is not necessarily what gets filmed. On every one ofhis films, France shares credit with another writer (or writers), manyof whom changed things he wrote (or vice-versa). That’s part of thegame. Some he likes better than others and few are what he originallyenvisioned, but there’s the other side, too: Every one of his films wasgiven a major promotional push by the respective studio involved, andnone of them lost money. Although The Punisher was by no means ablockbuster, on DVD and home-video it was “a monster,” France says – somuch so that a sequel is due for release at year’s end, but France hasno involvement. Having weathered the recent Writer’s Guildstrike (he managed to avoid marching on picket lines because, well,there weren’t any in Florida), France is hardly coasting on hisprevious successes. He’s working on adapting the series of Casca novelsfor the screen. The principal character, billed as “the eternalmercenary,” is the Roman soldier who killed Christ and is now cursed towander the planet for eternity. He cannot age. He cannot be killed. Buthe can feel pain. The series was originated by Barry Sadler,best known in pop-culture history as the real-life Green Beret whosepatriotic song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” became a one-hitwonder in the 1960s. France also continues a relationship withStan Lee, and the two have a project in the works at Disney. There’salso an animated feature that France is excited about, but can’t quitediscuss at length just yet. And, of course, he and Clabaugh would loveto work on a project together, having been friends for so long. Whennot pounding away at the keyboard, bringing larger-than-life charactersto life, France also runs the Beach Theatre in St. Petersburg Beach. Itwas the same theater that his grandmother used to take him to seemovies as a kid. The success of his own movies allowed France topurchase the theater and refurbish it in a colorful art-deco style. Thetheater screens current feature films and the occasional revival. Havingconquered Tinseltown the old-fashioned way – with the written word -Michael France has come full circle and come home. Can you dig it?