In 1997, Alan J. Pakula's "The Devil's Own" came and went with minimal fanfare. Although coming from the director of "All the President's Men," and the recent John Grisham hit "The Pelican Brief," no one much paid attention. Even the presence of Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt couldn't pull in audiences or dazzle critics. "The Devil's Own" was a modest hit, earning $140 million worldwide, and earned tepid reviews from critics; it currently holds a 35% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's one of those major studio releases that seems to exist only to provide the writers of movie-related Trivia Pursuit cards an opportunity to stump players. It awaits on basic cable, filling time between dinner and the late shows. It was Pakula's final film before his death, and cinematographer Gordon Willis' final film before his retirement.
"The Devil's Own" is about an Irish operative named Frankie (Pitt) who comes to New York to secretly secure weapons for the IRA. He is given lodging with a New York cop named Tom (Ford) who doesn't know about Frankie's terrorist plans. Over the course of the film, Tom slowly begins to discover what Frankie might be up to. The film is shot in very shadowy locations, and Pitt's Irish accent leaves a lot to be desired. After filming concluded, stories began to spread that production was a minor disaster.
Pitt, in a 1997 interview with Newsweek, agreed with the summation that "The Devil's Own" had script issues, and he was very clear as to why. It turns out that the script (credited to David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick, and Kevin Jarre) was thrown out, and a new one had to be written on the fly. Shooting was taking place before the writing was finished. It made for a stressful and tattered filming experience.
One of the issues studios seemed to have with the original script to "The Devil's Own" was that there wasn't a clear-cut hero or villain between the two leads. It was meant to be a piece of moral ambiguity, pointing out that both characters were heroic according to each one's personal ethics. This ethical dilemma seemingly caused studio heads to flinch, and massive re-writes were required at the last minute. Pitt recalled the chaos, saying:
"Maybe you know the story. We had no script. Well, we had a great script but it got tossed for various reasons. To have to make something up as you go along — Jesus, what pressure! It was ridiculous. It was the most irresponsible bit of filmmaking — if you can even call it that — that I've ever seen. I couldn't believe it. I don't know why anyone would want to continue making that movie. We had nothing. The movie was the complete victim of this drowning studio head [Mark Canton] who said, 'I don't care. We're making it. I don't care what you have. Shoot something.'"
Pitt also seems to imply that he and Ford were already locked into their parts when the old script was gone and new pages came flooding in. He described the new, incomplete screenplay as "20 pages of dog****," and was happy to walk off the film entirely. Thanks to his contract, however, and the fact that Columbia Pictures had already pre-sold the film overseas, Pitt could have been pretty savagely sued:
"I wanted out and the studio head said, 'All right, we'll let you out. But it'll be $63 million for starters.' They sell movies to foreign territories on box-office names and they can sue on what they could have made if you'd stayed in the movie."
Ford was seemingly more diplomatic about the process. In a 1997 interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Ford seemed at peace with the fact that he was locked into a sloppy production. This interview was conducted about a month after Pitt revealed his misgivings with Newsweek, and the interviewer wanted to get a clearer picture as to what was happening behind the scenes.
Pitt felt things were falling apart, and Ford knew that. The actor remained calm, saying:
"All I knew was that I was going to spend a good deal of time talking about it. That's all I regret. It was true. You can't object to something that's true. That's how he felt. That's how I felt at that time. But as I knew they weren't going to abandon this project, that we were too far into it, I knew we were going to have to work our way out of it."
A good work ethic. Ford — again, diplomatically — said that he and the filmmakers all knew the situation was desperate, but that working through the problems and finding a path that worked best was all that mattered. Was it a perfect way to make a studio picture? No, but there were no other options, and Ford did the best he could under the circumstances. He said:
"There were things that I didn't think were good enough yet, moments that were not as fully fleshed out as they might be. I think the film is better for having gone through the process. We all worked together to bring our concerns and ambitions and feelings and thoughts about it together into something that is a collaborative effort, and I'm pleased with the result."
The final film was not great, but it was no disaster.
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