"...A STORY OF REVENGE, COWBOY STYLE":AN INTERVIEW WITH WYATT & THE DUKE'S PATRICK CIRILLO
Patrick Cirillo's Wyatt & The Duke is fun buddy tale set in 1927 Hollywood with an old Wyatt Earp teaching a young Marion Morrison, before he became better known as John Wayne as they battle mobsters, The Solomon Brothers. Needless to say the idea of the book alone, met me more than halfway and Patrick's crisp dialogue and impressionistic yet vivid look at the time and place carried me the rest of it. Patrick was kind enough to talk about his debut and Hollywood history.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: Which idea came first using the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor or putting Wyatt Earp and John Wayne in a buddy story?
PATRICK CIRILLO: Wyatt Earp by himself came first. I was doing routine research, and I discovered that Wyatt Earp lived to be 80 years old. I thought all the Western heroes and villains died young. It was interesting to me that he spent his last years in LA, less than a mile from where I was living at the time. If it was 70 years earlier, I could have walked to his apartment and met him.
I wanted to write a screenplay about old Wyatt Earp, but the right story just never came along. It sat for 20 years or more. Then, a few years ago, I saw a video of Ethan Wayne, the Duke's son, saying that his father, as a struggling young actor, met Wyatt Earp and was profoundly influenced by him. I knew immediately my story would be a mentorship story about old Wyatt Earp and a pre-John Wayne, Marion Morrison.
The William Desmond Taylor murder mystery was something I knew about and had on board. Still, I wasn’t going to have John Wayne and Wyatt Earp gumshoe around and solve a mystery. That would have been the wrong genre for two Western legends. Then, I reread the story and the answer hit me. One of the theories of the case was that William Desmond Taylor was killed because he stepped between Mabel Normand and her gangster drug dealers. Perfect. I’ll accept that as fact, and I won’t let Wyatt and the Duke waste a lot of time figuring it out.
It will be a story of revenge, cowboy style. The perfect genre ending for Wyatt and the Duke. It paralleled Wyatt’s famous Vendetta Ride. The story would reach its climax on the Tombstone set they never got to use for the movie. Marion Morrison would go through real loss, risk everything, and come out John Wayne.
S.M.: The idea of legend plays an important part of the story, What did you want to explore in that theme?
P.C.: Wyatt Earp and John Wayne cast big shadows. Earp was a hero of the West, and John Wayne was a hero of the Western. When one thinks of the Western, most people think John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Wyatt Earp first, second and third.
I wanted to be true to both men, as I saw them, and true to their legends. I didn’t want to tear them down. I wanted to add my chapter. The more research I did, particularly on Wyatt, the more I saw that my story could easily have been part of his reality. There is nothing he does in my novel that he didn’t do, or couldn’t have done, in real life.
For Duke, it was something different. His legend was built on Hollywood mythology. Let a man play a hero enough and people will believe he’s really a hero.
Ask any Western fan who shot Liberty Valance and they will tell you John Wayne shot him. Well, John Wayne didn’t shoot Liberty Valance. His character, Tom Doniphon, shot him. John Wayne just gets the credit.
One of the through-lines of this book is about Marion Morrison becoming John Wayne. It tells the reader that before he became an actor who played heroes, he was a real hero; that he earned his stripes in action. In the end Wyatt Earp almost literally passed him the gavel when he says, “Kid, you can play me any time.” This novel is another myth, or part of the myth, that adds to the legend of John Wayne.
John Ford had his eye on him since he was 19-years-old moving boxes around a set, but he didn’t put Duke into a big-time movie (Stage Coach) until he was 32. Ford was waiting for him to look like someone who’d done important things. I saw this book as one of those important things.
S.M.: Without bogging the book down in historical detail you give us a strong impression of Hollywood at the end of the silent era. As a veteran screenwriter and producer, what did you want to convey about film work?
P.C.: I wanted to convey that at its best, filmmaking is a joyous, wonderfully crazy business. It was that way then, and it’s been plenty crazy and joyous during my tenure. It’s a world of fantasy, like the circus, but behind the curtain it’s very real, as are the people in it. I’ve met with a lot of Hollywood people, and they take their business seriously. I wanted to give the reader a peek into what goes on before the cameras roll.
I chose to set this story 1927 only because that’s when John Wayne was 19 and Wyatt Earp was 79. It was the only year this story could have taken place, but there was tremendous luck in that too. Silent pictures were going out. Talkies in. Nobody knew where it would lead. Careers were ended and new ones were started. America was changing too. We had just gotten out of the Great War and emerged as a world power.
Transition is all over this book. John Wayne from boy to man. Wyatt Earp is in the ultimate transition, from living to legacy. Even the villains are wracked with uncertainty as they try to prepare for what comes next.
S.M.: There are differing opinions and portrayals of Wyatt Earp. What was your take on him?
P.C.: That’s a hard question to answer because Earp was an enigma. I can’t think of anyone who stepped back and forth across the line between heroism and villainy more than Wyatt Earp did.
He tried to join the Union Army at 15. At 21, he was a horse thief. As a young man he was also a pimp, or at least a bouncer at brothels. Most of what was written about him before he turned 30 was negative. He was known as the “Peoria Bummer.”
He often followed his older brother Virgil from town to town, including to Tombstone where Virgil was the City Marshal. Virgil was likely the moral center of the family and Wyatt was a follower. The OK Corral was Virgil’s fight. Wyatt was there to support his family and because, by all accounts, he was virtually fearless in a fight.
There is no doubt that after stepping out of Virgil’s shadow, Wyatt was a hero to many. He risked his life to protect people in towns all across the west. But even as he grew older his moral code remained flexible. He was arrested in Los Angeles for running a crooked Faro game. A lot of people think he was in on a fix when he refereed the Tom Sharkey vs. Bob Fitzsimmons championship fight.
Still, he had a lot of important friends who were loyal to him. For that to happen, he had to be loyal to them.
By the time I got him for this story, he was 79-years-old. The hungry, criminal element within him was gone by then. In my novel, he’s reached a point where he’s taking stock of his life and when he adds up the totality of his deeds, even he doesn’t know if he was a good or bad man. That’s why the last act of heroism is so important to him. He believes it will put him on the right side of the moral ledger… by inches.
S.M.: What did you have to keep in mind in writing for John Wayne before he was John Wayne?
I have a friend who worked as a production assistant on two of John Wayne’s movies in the 1960s. He said what he remembered most about Wayne was that he was playful and loved to have a good time. He was big and loud and bawdy and fun to be around.
My view is that a person’s personality doesn’t usually change much over time. Extraverts stay extraverts. Duke was a college football player who quit that when he was injured to become a stuntman and movie extra. He was a rough and tumble kid. John Ford and Raoul Walsh were famous directors and they looked at him when he was little more than a child, and both somehow saw a movie star. They didn’t see him on stage acting up a storm as Hamlet. They saw him walking around in every-day life. He had to have had a big personality even then.
So, even at 19, I let Marion Morrison be John Wayne. I just made him more naïve and socially awkward as he’s finding his footing. I had to keep in mind that everything was new to him, particularly Hollywood stardom, acting and women. However, in places where he was comfortable, among stuntmen, etc., he was already John Wayne.
S.M.: The story has the tightness and momentum of a movie. Did you initially plan it as a film?
P.C.: Yes. I outlined it as a movie, and I even started piling up some screenplay pages. Then, I had a realization that made me decided I was done writing spec screenplays. Still, I loved this story and couldn’t let it go.
So, I started writing Wyatt and the Duke as a novel not knowing if I would finish it. I wrote a chapter, going straight from my movie outline. Then I wrote another and another and pretty quickly I realized that I would finish it… Or at least I would get to the end of the outline.
What I found was that the years of training I had as a screenwriter were helpful. I knew how to structure a plotline and how to create unexpected turns in a story. I didn’t need an editor because I’d been editing myself for years. Screenwriters must. I recognized flaws in structure and weakness in characters.
When I got to the end, it still wasn’t really a novel, or at least not a good one, but I could see what was missing. I needed to add the tools the novelist has as his disposal that the screenwriter doesn’t. There were many, but primary among them were quality of prose, backstory and the inner life of the characters. After 30+ years of writing screenplays in sentence fragments, the prose style was a challenge, so I kept it simple and just dug in and did the work.
Regarding backstory and the inner life of the characters, that was a great revelation. I could digress in ways I never could as a screenwriter and it didn’t slow the story down. I found it wasn’t really digressing at all. It added to the reality of the story. Creating a life prior to the character’s arrival in a scene helped enormously.
In my outline, the Solomon family were little more than a monolith of villains. I dug into who they were and how they were formed. It gave me a window into the behavior of each one of them that I was able to use to strengthen the story. They became individuals, which was a huge expansion of my movie outline. I did the same with all the characters.
Still, the underpinnings of that movie outline are there. The drive from that outline remains. The majority of the plot also remains. I added to it, but the bones of it held up.
S.M.: You also have a thriller coming out. What made you switch to novels?
P.C.: I made the switch as a necessity to maintaining my sanity, I think. I was working on Wyatt and the Duke as a movie script, maybe ten pages in, when I got a call on another project of mine that I’d been waiting on. It was a project with Ethan Hawke attached to star that I thought would go into production, but it fell apart.
Then I looked at the rest of my active inventory of screenplays. I realized that the last five or six scripts I’d written had all been relegated to the independent film market. The thing about the independent film market is, no one pays you, or they pay you very little. I had producers attached to all of those projects, directors on some, partial financing on others and my job by this point was to wait for a producer to call with good or bad news.
If I had been in that spot with so much going on ten years earlier, it would have been great being me, but it wasn’t ten years earlier. The business had changed.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Well, I decided I was not going to add another screenplay to that firepit.
I stopped writing the Wyatt and the Duke screenplay. I’ve only written one screenplay since. Instead, I started writing the novel Wyatt and the Duke. I enjoyed the process more than I ever thought I would. Now that it’s done and the book is out there, readers seem to like it, so I’ll keep doing it.
My favorite compliment came from my son. He has been catching up on his reading and he said, “I just finished A Farewell to Arms, then I read your book, and I like Wyatt and the Duke a lot better.” I said, “Don’t give up on Hemingway. He’s good too.” And then had a laugh.
It’s funny, but even the most successful screenplays I ever wrote were never read by more than a hundred or so people, all of them Hollywood insiders, producers, directors, development people, actors or department heads. Wyatt and the Duke has been read by many times that and it’s just getting going. My friends can hold it in their hands, and they know what I’ve been doing. That’s a kick I never got as a screenwriter.
The new novel is called The Lie That Kills and is all but done. It’s about a young woman who tells a lie to the feds to save the father she loves from life in prison. That turns out to be a big mistake because she gets sucked into the center of a criminal conspiracy that threatens the lives of her and her family. If she’s going to survive, she has to go through hell and come back a very different person.
It's an exciting edge-of-your-seat story that falls right into the crime thriller genre and stays there. It’s very different from Wyatt, which brought in elements from many different genres.
I’m enjoying this new career every bit as much as I enjoyed writing screenplays back in the golden days when I managed to sell a lot of them and get some of them made into films. The reality is, I have been writing almost every day since I was 23. If I weren’t piling up pages, I wouldn’t know who I am.