Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: When did you begin writing, Duke? What was your first screenplay about?
Duke Haney: Writing is something that, starting in the fourth or fifth grade, I did often and naturally, with no sense that I would ever attempt a career at it. I demonstrated a flair for visual art in childhood, so the presumption was that I would grow up to be a painter. Acting also came naturally to me, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the theater. Movies were a different story. Because of my interest in movies, I decided I wanted to be an actor, and in high school I tried writing a screenplay with the idea of creating a role for myself. The screenplay was sort of a 1970s version of American Graffiti: a bunch of teenagers drive around all night, finding and causing trouble. (When I saw Dazed and Confused, I wondered if Richard Linklater had similarly been influenced by American Graffiti.) Later, as a young actor in New York, I collaborated with my personal manager on a script about the Lost Generation in Paris—Hemingway was one of the characters—but I didn’t receive any credit for it. Then I was hired to star in a movie produced by Roger Corman to take advantage of standing sets at his studio in L.A., and because the movie had no script, I dashed one off, and very quickly I was asked to write another script for Roger and the latest “Friday the 13th” sequel. It all fell into my lap, but I never cared about screenwriting the way I cared about acting. I did, however, care about writing prose. Insofar as I had a Plan B, it was to be a novelist à la Faulkner or Kerouac.
John Wisniewski: Any favorite films?
Duke Haney: Oh, many. I think “Chinatown” is pretty much perfect in every department: direction, art direction, photography, screenplay, score, performance. “The Misfits” is very imperfect, but it’s the saddest film I’ve ever seen, and I mean that as a compliment; I watch it in the same spirit that some can listen to a sad song on repeat. I’m a great fan of a rare French film called” Le Crabe-tambour,” which calls to mind the sea novels of Joseph Conrad. I love “The Decalogue,” and “The Searchers,” and “Savage Messiah” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” and “Performance,” and “Wings,” and “The Best of Youth.” I could go on and on, so I should probably stop here.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about writing your book “Death Valley Superstars”?
Duke Haney: My last book, “Subversia,” was an essay collection, and its publisher wanted me to do another collection—this one, unlike “Subversia,” with a unifying theme: L.A. and film. I had already written a few such essays for an online magazine, and I wasn’t having any success with a sophomore novel—”Banned for Life,” my debut novel, was published in 2009—so eventually I decided to set it aside in favor of a collection. A serendipitous encounter at the L.A. courthouse was key to the decision: I met someone who had been friendly with Errol Flynn’s son, Sean, a reluctant actor who turned to photojournalism and disappeared in Cambodia while covering the war there in 1970. That I should write about Sean Flynn seemed like kismet after that encounter, and my essay about him set the tone for much of the book: there are a number of pieces in it about troubled celebrities of the sixties, people with extraordinarily trippy stories that have never been told in depth. There are also personal essays in the book, stories from my own experiences as an actor and screenwriter. I worked on it for eight years altogether. A lot of research was necessary, and I’m very much a perfectionist in terms of style. How something is written is just as important, if not more so, as the subject matter. I’ve heard Death Valley Superstars compared to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, but the latter book is campy and trashy, and I was aiming for a different effect—fun but empathetic; colorful but conscientious.
John Wisniewski: While writing “Death Valley” was there one particular star that you liked? Whose story interested you the most?
Duke Haney: If they’re in the book, I’m interested in them; I can’t point to anyone whose story interested me more than the rest. I’m not very interested in Hugh Hefner, period, though I am interested in what went on around him, so that’s the focus of that particular essay: the world of Playboy and its overlap with Hollywood. Every subject is a kind of world unto him- or herself, and to write about that person was to inhabit that world, each with its own allure. With Steve Cochran, for instance, it was the noirish L.A. of the forties. Also, in researching Cochran, I spoke to a few people who knew him, including his second wife, Fay McKenzie, who was Gene Autry’s leading lady in Republic westerns, and toured as a singer with Frank Sinatra and so on. Fay was ninety-four at time of our interview, and still lucid and lively, so that was a treat. But so was meeting Sherry Dodd, the former manager of Christopher Jones, “the next James Dean” of the sixties. The piece about Chris Jones may be the most poignant in the book, but that doesn’t mean I favor him as a person. Like the majority of my subjects, he was deeply troubled. The sensible and respectable rarely make for compelling reading.
John Wisniewski: Why did you write “Subversia”? Could you tell us about writing this collection of essays?
Duke Haney: After “Banned for Life” dropped, as they say, I tried to promote it by way of writing memoir for the online magazine I mentioned earlier, The Nervous Breakdown, and those essays proved so popular that, when the editor started a book imprint in 2010, they were anthologized as its inaugural publication. It was a bit of a rush job; I had time only to finish three three new pieces and determine a sequence for the book as a whole, since, to repeat myself, it had no unifying theme. Also, since the essays were so short, Subversia had to be padded to a reasonable length with photos and interviews. My models were, vaguely, Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself” and Camille Paglia’s “Vamps and Tramps,” and while it’s nowhere near as grand and it barely sold any copies, I love it the way I might love an overlooked puppy—the runt of the litter. There’s nothing terribly subversive about it. I write, for instance, of behaving appallingly at a Hollywood party in a piece titled “The Assholes,” yet I don’t come off like an asshole, according to one of the book’s few reviews.
John Wisniewski: You have written many screenplays. Any particular genre that you like?
Duke Haney: If I had to choose a favorite genre, it would be the crime movie—classic noir or neo-noir or European noir per Jean-Pierre Melville—but I wouldn’t say I prefer writing crime movies. Screenwriters invariably end up being hired guns, so it’s unwise to invest emotionally in a project. That’s why I no longer write screenplays. I’m a passionate guy, and the entertainment business is especially destructive to passionate people. “Death Valley Superstars” is full of such casualties. So it’s better for me to write books, even if nobody reads them. Have you seen “Who’ll Stop the Rain” with Nick Nolte? He has a great line in it that’s pertinent to my past as a screenwriter: “All my life I’ve been I’ve been taking shit from inferior people. No more.”
John Wisniewski: What makes a good screenplay, Duke?
Duke Haney: If it can be read quickly and painlessly, it’s a good screenplay. Most screenplays are torture to read. They’re generally written by people who could never, and would never, write novels or stage plays or journalism. They’re ambitious people with no real interest in writing; many hope to be directors, so their scripts are a means to that end, though you would never guess it from the clunky storytelling and semiliterate syntax. We’ll never see the likes of Joseph Mankiewicz again. Now, he was a screenwriter. Every film student should be forced at gunpoint to read, or at least watch, “All About Eve”—and, you know, I believe it would take a gun in most cases. There’s a widespread aversion to anything “old” and therefore “irrelevant.”
John Wisniewski: Any future plans and projects, Duke?
Duke Haney: I would feel like a horse’s ass by trumpeting my future plans here. I mean, who cares? I’m wary in any case. A plan is a dream until it’s realized, and the world is overpopulated with dream killers. I’ve only started to realize the worth of dreams now that I have fewer of them. When you stop dreaming, you’re dead, even if you remain alive bodily.
Born to a Virginia farming family, Haney relocated to New York City at age eighteen and studied acting with Mira Rostova and Frank Corsaro. He made his film debut in a NYU student short directed by Joseph Minion, who would later write the Golden Globe-nominated Martin Scorsese film After Hours (1985).
Soon after moving to New York, Haney was cast in his first starring role in a feature film, the Canadian thriller Self Defense (1983). A few years later, Haney was hired by Joseph Minion to write and star in the Roger Corman production Daddy’s Boys, a period crime drama directed by Minion and made in order to utilize leftover sets from Big Bad Mama 2 (1987). For Haney, this began a six-year association with Corman’s Concorde Pictures.
Immediately after completing Daddy’s Boys, Haney was asked to write Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood for Paramount Pictures. As Haney recalls in Peter M. Bracke’s book Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2005): “Barbara [Sachs, Associate Producer] was the first person I had contact with. I pitched her a few ideas and she shot them all down. I only had one more. I said, ‘I notice that at the end of these movies, there’s always a teenage girl who’s left to battle Jason by herself. What if this girl had telekinetic powers?’ Barbara immediately said, ‘Jason vs. Carrie. Huh. That’s an interesting idea.’ Then we talked once or twice before I had to go back to New York. The next day I had literally just flown in and walked up the stairs of my old apartment, and the phone rang. It was Barbara saying: ‘You got the job.'”