A roundtable chat with screenwriter Lewis John Carlino of “The Mechanic,” (2011 and 1971)

If there’s a picture of Lewis John Carlino anywhere on the Internet, I haven’t been able to find it. Does it matter?

Unlike other notables, writers are still allowed to be a little mysterious. Indeed, other than the fact that he wrote several widely acclaimed movies, an episode of the legendary television series “Route 66,” some plays, and directed a few movies, very little information is available online about Lewis John Carlino.

The Great SantiniCarlino is probably best known as the director and writer of 1979’s “The Great Santini,” a beloved sleeper about a military family based on a novel by Pat Conroy and featuring one of Robert Duvall’s greatest and most bombastic performances. “Santini” is, however, one of the more conventional films in the Carlino cannon.

In 1966, he adapted a novel by David Ely into John Frankenheimer’s famously eccentric paranoid science-fiction thriller starring Rock Hudson, “Seconds.” Less well remembered are his non-“Santini” directorial efforts. “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea,” a bizarre and intense 1976 drama based on a book by Yukio Mishima, and “Class,” a 1983 comedy in which Jacqueline Bisset has an affair with brat-packer Andrew McCarthy, the best friend of her son (Rob Lowe). In between, Carlino also wrote the acclaimed fantasy drama, “Resurrection” starring Ellen Burstyn. After 1983, Carlino stopped directing movies entirely and his credited writing work declined dramatically.

Now a soft-spoken seventy-something intellectual, Carlino met with a group of writers to discuss a remake of one of his best known films, “The Mechanic.” The 1971 original starred Charles Bronson as a troubled but ultra-stoic hit-man who tries to end his isolation by taking on a protegee (Jan-Michael Vincent), even though his last hit was on the young man’s father (Keenan Wynn). Despite its action film trappings — including a nicely accomplished quarter-hour dialogue-free opening set-piece — it’s an often chilling look at men who have embraced death and cruelty. Bronson’s character does have a “code,” but it’s not a moral one. His aim is to embody an amoral version of existentialism that might be familiar to readers of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.”

The new version, which stars Jason Statham and Ben Foster as the cool-blooded killer and his more hot-headed mentee, keeps enough of the original story and dialogue that Carlino is a credited screenwriter on the film. This time, around, however, Statham’s character is less vicious and the movie hits a number of more familiar action-flick beats. Viewers looking for traces of Camus will have to go elsewhere.

THE MECHANIC

So, one of us asked, did Carlino like the new version? Since this was a press junket organized to publicize the new film, of course, he said, “yes,” but there was more.

“So much of that movie is the spectacle of it. A lot of times in films that are made now, that have a lot of special effects and stuff, the characters seem to get lost. So, the film becomes a film about effects. Here, what they were able to accomplish is [that] they kept the human relationship very central to the story while all this visual circus is going on around you. I think [screenwriter] Richard [Wenk] and the director, Simon [West], were able to meld those two elements and keep it really personal, at the same time providing this big visual entertainment for the audience. It’s kind of unique.”

Getting a bit deeper into Carlino’s career, why did he direct only three movies?

Carlino hesitated a long time before answering. “Something happened in my personal life, in my family, a tragedy that made me not able to pursue my career as a director any more, but I still kept writing. It was just not in the cards any more.”

In a rare show of good taste by some of the journalists there, no one followed up with a question about the nature of the tragedy, although we all assumed it would be something that could be easily researched. We were wrong. I have as much morbid curiosity as anyone, and as far as I can tell, Carlino’s private tragedy, whatever it was, remains entirely private.

Still, one of us wondered if Carlino had any regrets in terms of preferring the solitary life of the writer to the more gregarious and public work of a director.

“I liked directing. Of course on [“The Great Santini”], it was a great privilege because of the people around me that were brought into that film. Wonderful, wonderful actors.” The cast also included a very young Michael O’Keefe and a thirty something Blythe Danner.

The Italian woman who’d been asking all but one or two of the questions so far, next asked the name of Carlino’s favorite writer. The answer was Herman Hesse, author of such fantastical philosophical novels as “Steppenwolf.”

I asked if Carlino had ever thought about doing a film version of one of Hesse’s books.

“Yes, I did. Early on I wrote a script. I was in a partnership with another gentleman to do ‘Siddhartha,'” Carlino said, referencing the Hesse novel about a character whose life in some ways mirrors that of the Buddha. “Conrad Rooks did it, but not my script. It’s a perennial great story, even more important in our times. It really should be done as a contemporary film.”

Since, unlike most of Carlino’s other films, the original “The Mechanic” was a wholly original work, just where did it come from?

“Oh, God. You know, everybody talks about gangsters, crime and stuff like that. But, as a writer, I’m really curious [about] what goes on in somebody’s mind. You can talk about the act in the abstract, but when you deal with it in actuality, how does a person make that adjustment in their mind and go home at night and play with his kids and be with his wife? That curiosity, as a writer, led me to do a lot of research on killers and their methods, that sort of thing. I thought it would be really interesting to do a character that, because of the work he does, is locked in such isolation that he’s desperate for a relationship.”

flingueur-1972-03-g

Someone else asked if Carlino thought that theme was maintained in the new version.

There was some hesitation before Carlino spoke again. “I’m not sure that they did it that well. Maybe not,” Carlino said, accurately enough.

In general, how did Carlino feel about the way his script had been rewritten?

“I thought that Richard did some really interesting things with it. As I said, the central issue of this is that, if somebody is so desperate for a relationship, which was the original, that he has to train another assassin. The irony is the better you train him the more capable he is of killing you and he has one agenda and you have another agenda — I thought they really maintained this really well. The difference of this material was that it was much more complex in terms of the Ben Foster character. In my original, it was just a question of one-upmanship. In this one, he has all this anger and no place to put it until he learns that Bishop [Jason Statham] was responsible for the death of his father. It’s not going to go in that direction….I thought it was really a much more complex approach to the character he had created…”

What does Carlino think of remakes generally?

“I’m mostly disappointed in them. Maybe that’s a bit unfair because, usually if I’m really concerned about a picture that I really like, then, because of my age, I have a certain set of cultural values that I attach to the original that I don’t find in the remakes. But that doesn’t mean they’re not as effective in this culture.”

Speaking of culture, with all the technological changes that have impacted the movies, what does Carlino think of the current state of the cinematic art?

“When I see a movie, whether I see it at the theater or I see it at home theater, my experience is like everybody’s experience. I just put the disc on, or I go to the movies. I sit there in the dark and I say ‘take me.’ That’s my requirement, ‘take me.’ That’s the reason why [movies] exist. I see two things happening in the film industry. There’s a danger of the technology outstripping the human factor so that you get a lot of cartoon stuff. For me, in the culture that I grew up with it’s all about relationships and behavior. The technology, at times, can really enhance that and make a wonderful experience for you.”

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in “On the other hand I’m so pleased and optimistic that these things can exist side-by-side. When I see a movie like ‘The King’s Speech‘ — wow. Everybody tells you can’t do a drama, they will never be successful. Every time I pontificate about how I feel about something, somebody comes along and breaks the rule.”

Asked about what movies “took” him this year, Carlino named a few others: “The Fighter,” “Black Swan,” Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” and the underrated English historical-political comedy, “Made in Dagenham.” From there, we moved on to what Carlino is writing these days.

“I’m working with small independent company out of Seattle on an adaptation of a book called ‘Losing Nelson’ written by Barry Unsworth. I just finished a script for that and we’re hopefully that together. As you know, it’s hard in today’s market to get an independent drama [made].”

That was followed by some more chatter about the contrast between the unprecedented availability of films via Netflix and other services and the fact that most filmgoers are, at best, slow to catch up with older films. For example, the original version of “The Mechanic” can be viewed via Netflix streaming, which is how I caught up with it. (I have since learned that at least one of the DVD versions available may be a poorly re-edited chop-job, so caveat emptor.)

We then found out that, alas, that we weren’t going to get any funny or interesting anecdotes about original “Mechanic” Charles Bronson. Bronson was, as Roger Ebert learned, one strange, strange dude. Carlino, however, only met him once and they apparently just talked about the script.

I took the opportunity to ask about what struck me as the remarkable aspect of Carlino’s “The Mechanic.” The first film was, as I’ve mentioned, extremely blunt about what it means to be a hit-man and makes no attempt to make these two professional murderers sympathetic. Carlino discussed how the newer film, which is considerably glossier, goes out of its way to “humanize” its leads.

“There is some attempt to make them sympathetic…It’s a hard line to follow. It’s a real tightrope. How do you do that, with what’s going on,” Carlino said, alluding to a scene where, trying to extract information from a criminal, Jason Statham’s character puts the crook’s daughter’s hand into a garbage disposal and says he’ll turn it on if he doesn’t get his information. We are led to believe it is no idle threat.

THE MECHANIC

“The character does anything to accomplish what he needs to accomplish. That’s just it. What’s really interesting about this movie is that [screenwriter Richard Wenk] makes this statement which I thought was really good. He says ‘Watch out for vengeance, it’ll get you killed.’ That was a kind of throw-away line, but it’s a really important line because that’s how the movie ends up. In the original, the first time you see him at home, do you remember what he’s doing?” Carlino asked.

Neither I or another writer there who was a fan of the original could answer precisely.

“He’s got a big art book in front of him. He’s looking at the triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch. He’s turning the pages and you see all these grotesque figures in hell and the torments that they’re suffering…That’s a nice opening statement for that character…”

  

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