David Morrell Bought Me Breakfast
By Zachary Oberzan
Early this morning, David Morrell bought me breakfast. If you had told that ten-year-old child, opening First Blood and reading for the first time, “His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid…,” that in twenty-five years, the guy who wrote this magical, tragic work of fiction would be sitting across from him chatting about books, movies, theater, Polish politics, and airplanes, he most certainly would have believed you. Children believe in heroes, and they secretly believe in their deepest heart of hearts they will some day meet their hero. And maybe even become their hero.
If you happened to see Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Rambo Solo or my one-man film Flooding with Love for The Kid, you know of my admiration, well, maybe mania is a better word, when it comes to the nov
el First Blood. What I didn’t know, however, was that the guy who wrote this book would turn out to be a man of uncanny generosity and authenticity. When presenting those projects there was a fear, known to many artists who borrow work, of the ominous “cease and desist” letter.
I had wanted to contact Mr. Morrell, to share the work he inspired, but really did fear that “cease” letter. As fate would have it, Mr. Morrell did indeed learn of these projects through the grapevine. But to my great astonishment and joy, he was thrilled. This is a man who enjoys sharing his work and is touched by the impact it has on other people’s lives. That’s his bottom line. Sure, if Stallone makes a few hundred million bucks off of Mr. Morrell’s imagination, he deserves his fee. But if you’re a young artist in NYC who uses his work, he is flattered, supportive, and he wants to meet you.
Mr. Morrell, who now lives in New Mexico, was in NYC to receive the International Thriller Writer’s top award for his extensive and influential body of work, and to promote his latest novel, The Shimmer. We had made contact during the off-Broadway run of Rambo Solo, and he became a big fan of the film I made, even going so far as to promote it on his own website. We planned to meet when he was in town.
We met at the Grand Hyatt, wher
e he was staying. I was very nervous, and glad to feel nervous, because that was clear proof that something important was happening to me. That first handshake was twenty-five years in the making. He was fit and vivacious in a way that belied his sixty-odd years. And maybe I
imagined it, but he was perhaps slightly nervous about meeting me. This was one of the great qualities I discovered. He is not at all taken by his success. Completely down-to-earth, friendly, humble, maybe even a little shy, he does not have the ego of a man responsible for creating a literary character known the world over. (“There are five characters from thrillers that became internationally known,” he told me. “Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, James Bond, Rambo, and Harry Potter.”)
He asked me about the progress of Rambo Solo, and I told him how well it went
in NYC and recently in Montreal, and how the response in Europe was maybe slightly more distanced. I chalked that up to the 100 mile an hour English that I speak during the show, as well as Europe’s relationship with the concept of Rambo, which I imagine is different than America’s. “Have you done it yet in Poland? Let me tell you about an experience I had.” He was in Poland in 2001, at an event where ex-President Clinton was
making an appearance. Strangely though, the press was giving him a lot of attention, despite the presence of Clinton. He asked a reporter why the fuss over him. The answer: Solidarity were huge Rambo fans. “They would have rallies, and watch those Rambo films, then put on the headbands like Rambo, and go out and march.” In the 80’s, Rambo of course was the poster-boy of anti-communism, due to Stallone’s choice of characterization.
This led me to a question I was deeply curious about, from an artist’s point of view. I asked what it was like to create a book, and a character, and then to see that creation take off in the public’s perception in a way very different from what was initially intended. He was very accepting of this fact, and glad to see how his work was adapted and celebrated by others. I guess that’s why he was thrilled to learn of my little contributions.
We talked about a lot of non-Rambo related stuff, too. He had just received his pilot’s license a few weeks ago. (Mr. Morrell is a self-described ‘method-actor’ when it comes to his writing. If he’s writing about a pilot, he learns to fly.) His zest for life truly impressed me. How many guys at retirement age go
out and get a pilot’s license and start flying around the country by themselves? He answered a lot of questions I had about airports. I learned about soft landings and short landings (the short landings are the toughest part of the license test.) We talked a bit about his family, and a bit about my career. We bonded over the fact that I recently departed my day job and am living an artist’s life full time. I also learned a few things about the film industry and a writer’s relationship with it. (Not always pretty).
As the conversation drifted back to First Blood, we discussed some of the points of the book, its qualities of Greek tragedy, and the time when he was writing it. “I was reading Joseph Campbell at the time, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and there’s that Jung
ian influence,” he said. “Rambo’s journey through the cave with the bats, his emergence on a higher plain of awareness…that’s very Jungian.”
We talked for an hour and a half before he had to get to a radio interview uptown, which happened to be near my apartment. He offered to share his cab. If he hadn’t been pressed for time, I would have loved to show him my film set. Our conversation continued in the cab. I learned some great facts: In an early treatment, John Travolta was going to be a comic sidekick in Rambo II. The idea for Rambo II (Mr. Morrell wrote the subsequent novelization, but not the screenplay) came from the producer’s hunting buddy, who thought it would be great to send Rambo back to Viet Nam. At one point, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were considered for the roles of Teasle and Rambo, respectively, in the film First Blood. Sylvester Stallone is lovely to meet in person. And a suspicion of mine was confirmed: that cave scene in Cliffhanger where Sly is engulfed by a million bats was almost certainly inspired by First Blood’s bat cave episode. “Sly knows the book very well,” Mr. Morrell winked. Not quite as well as I, though, I thought.
Nearing our stop, I asked, “Besides my humble adaptation, did you ever want to see a big film version of your First Blood, done completely true to the novel?” Gracious as ever, he said, “Oh, they did a great job with the movie they made, [director] Ted Kotcheff did a great job. Watching Sly run around in the woods with that, that tunic thing he wears…” he said, smiling. “Besides,” he went on, no one’s really interested in Viet Nam anymore, and the money it would take to recreate that era…you’d have to get cars from ‘72…I don’t think that will happen.”
“Yeah,” I said, “But would you want to see it done? Because I’m going to make it.”
“Well, then you’ll really run into copyright issues with the film studios,” he laughed.
“Oh, I don’t mean anytime soon,”
I said. “It’s a long term project. But I’m going to do it.” He chuckled. I think maybe he thought I was joking.
We got out of the cab. Despite my protestations, he paid for that, too. “It’s OK, I make more money than you.” Couldn’t argue with that.
We shook hands again and I told him what a pleasure and honor it was to meet him. “Listen,” he said, looking down the street. “What you’re doing is great. Your energy and openness and enthusiasm remind me of myself when I was beginning. I think we’re both on a voyage. Don’t worry about the ending. It’s the voyage that counts.” He suddenly and briefly locked eyes with me. “We’re kindred spirits,” he said.
So I want tell that ten-year-old kid, thanks for believing. It came true. Mission accomplished.