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Michael France goes 5 for 5 in Hollywood

by Mark Burger

You may not know the name Michael France off-hand, but you certainly know the movies he’s written: Cliffhanger (1993), GoldenEye (1995), Hulk (2003), The Punisher (2004) and Fantastic Four (2005).

Earlier this month, Michael France was the area, soaking in the sun and visiting with his childhood chum and fellow filmmaker Richard Clabaugh, with whom he grew up in Florida. The two talked shop (Clabaugh produced and directed the upcoming sci-fi thriller Eyeborgs) and talked over old times, with yours truly lurking in the background.

Having done his time in Los Angeles, France lives in Florida with his wife and three kids, not far from where he and Clabaugh grew up.

The two shared a love of movies, science fiction and comic books. “Mike was always a Marvel Comics guy,” clarifies Clabaugh, “and I was always a DC Comics guy.”

“Absolutely,” confirms France. “I especially loved the Marvel comics because they were obviously meant to be movies, so it was a big thrill to work on three of them, and so was meeting with Stan Lee (the legendary founder of Marvel).

“The nice thing,” says France, “is that he’s exactly what you’d hope from the persona you’d heard about. He really is ‘Uncle Stan.’ He’s super-sharp, full of ideas, and very energetic.”

But let’s go back to the beginning, after France had flunked out of film school 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.

“As a script reader, I noticed that every variation of Die Hard had sold,” France says. “Not all of them got made, but they all sold.”

So France wrote Cliffhanger. Not only did it sell, but it got made. And not 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. Leading man Sylvester Stallone’s rewrite changed all that, and although France wonders if the R rating didn’t limit the box-office appeal, he’s not about to second-guess a film that grossed $300 million worldwide, essentially resurrected Stallone’s career, and put France on the screenwriting map.

The success of Cliffhanger led directly to GoldenEye, which introduced Pierce Brosnan as James Bond and revived the 007 franchise. Having created a fan magazine devoted to Bond during his teen years, France was in heaven. This was his license to kill.

“As a kid, I didn’t want to be Bond,” France says. “I wanted to be Richard Maibaum.” (Maibaum adapted Ian Fleming’s novel Dr. No and wrote more than a dozen 007 adventures.)

France recalls with great affection working alongside Bond producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli as they mapped out the story. “He was so friendly and even though he was in poor health, he was as sharp as a laser,” France recalls. “We’d sit and 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.”

The film’s subsequent success, becoming the highest-grossing Bond film for the time, was to France a pleasing testimony to the tenacity of Broccoli, who died the year after its release. (Some of France’s additional material for GoldenEye was revamped and used in the subsequent Bond outing The World is Not Enough, although he didn’t receive a credit on the final film.)

With two big hits under his belt, the realization of one of France’s life-long dreams came true when he was tapped to work on a Marvel Comics adaptation. Thus far, he’s had three dreams come true. Interestingly enough, the first one he worked on (Fantastic Four) was the last one to be produced. France isn’t complaining. Not only were he and the studio concerned about the extensive CGI special effects that the film would require for four different principal characters, but there was the matter of finding a well-known actor to play the pivotal role of Ben Grimm, the eponymous “Thing.”

In some ways, Fantastic Four is France’s favorite among his Marvel trilogy. One reason is that he was invited to come to the set to watch filming. Actor Michael Chiklis, whose casting as Grimm assuaged any fears that France had had about the character, remained in makeup 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.”

Fans were hugely divided on the 2003 adaptation of Hulk, directed by Ang Lee. Yet another mega-budget, super-hyped Marvel Comics adaptation, the film was ultimately considered a disappointment despite an $60-million opening 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.

When he 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 the show didn’t do when writing the script. He wanted to bring to life the big action sequences that had made such an impression on him as a kid, reading the comics.

Although loath to nitpick, France admits that “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.

With regard to the current film The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton in the title role, “I have nothing to do with it,” says France, “and I’m interested to see it, as any fan would be.”

With The Punisher, France knew exactly how to approach it – “just like a ’70s revenge film,” he says. “It was a vigilante picture. It absolutely had to be an R (rating).”

Many fans thought that The Punisher was too long and too drawn out. As a fan himself, France doesn’t necessarily disagree with the fans’ assessment, but he was happy to have the opportunity and he’s been around long enough to know that what one writes is not necessarily what gets filmed.

On every one of his films, France shares credit with another writer (or writers), many of whom changed things he wrote (or vice-versa). That’s part of the game. Some he likes better than others and few are what he originally envisioned, but there’s the other side, too: Every one of his films was given a major promotional push by the respective studio involved, and none of them lost money. Although The Punisher was by no means a blockbuster, on DVD and home-video it was “a monster,” France says – so much so that a sequel is due for release at year’s end, but France has no involvement.

Having weathered the recent Writer’s Guild strike (he managed to avoid marching on picket lines because, well, there weren’t any in Florida), France is hardly coasting on his previous successes. He’s working on adapting the series of Casca novels for the screen. The principal character, billed as “the eternal mercenary,” is the Roman soldier who killed Christ and is now cursed to wander the planet for eternity. He cannot age. He cannot be killed. But he can feel pain.

The series was originated by Barry Sadler, best known in pop-culture history as the real-life Green Beret whose patriotic song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” became a one-hit wonder in the 1960s.

France also continues a relationship with Stan Lee, and the two have a project in the works at Disney. There’s also an animated feature that France is excited about, but can’t quite discuss at length just yet. And, of course, he and Clabaugh would love to work on a project together, having been friends for so long.

When not pounding away at the keyboard, bringing larger-than-life characters to life, France also runs the Beach Theatre in St. Petersburg Beach. It was the same theater that his grandmother used to take him to see movies as a kid. The success of his own movies allowed France to purchase the theater and refurbish it in a colorful art-deco style. The theater screens current feature films and the occasional revival.

Having conquered Tinseltown the old-fashioned way – with the written word – Michael France has come full circle and come home. Can you dig it?

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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