N LATE 1995 Ron Hutchinson found himself marooned in remote northern Australia,
staring at Marlon Brando dozing in a hammock. Hutchinson, an Irish-born screenwriter who had become one of Hollywood’s most in demand “script doctors”, had been flown into Queensland to help rescue a $40m adaptation of HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau.
“It was a nightmare,” recalls Hutchinson, 70, who this week returns to the screen with a new RTÉ thriller, Acceptable Risk. “I have a memoir of my 30 years in Hollywood coming out the end of next week. At the end are 40 pages on Moreau. It was the most bizarre experience.”
Doctor Moreau would become a shorthand for catastrophe in Hollywood and assume near-iconic status as one of the great turkeys of our time. Original director Richard Stanley was sacked but, refusing to give up on his dream, lived in the wild and sneaked back onto the set. Even with veteran John Frankenheimer (The French Connection) parachuted in as replacement, Brando’s behaviour remained highly eccentric, even by his standards. The film’s other star, Val Kilmer, threw hissy fits throughout and openly questioned the competence of his collaborators.
“It was the most bizarre experience, “says Hutchinson. “You had a 350lb Brando. All he would do is sit on a hammock with a midget on his chest, refusing to say a word to anyone. They had flown me in at vast expense to do his lines for him. It is a movie about the making of monsters — in a way it turned everybody involved into a monster.”
Hutchinson, who was born just outside Lisburn, Co Antrim, has lived the Hollywood dream in a very literal sense. He won an Emmy for the 2004 HBO remake of the Channel 4 drugs drama Traffic (in turn expanded into a movie by Steven Soderbergh). And he was one of the first A-list screenwriters to write for cable television — then regarded as a backwater.
“I used to work on The Equaliser [hit crime show starring Edward Woodward]. The guy who invented The Equaliser was told by Paramount that the character couldn’t have a dark side. Nowadays you can’t sell a show with a hero or a heroine unless they are flawed. They’ve got to be someday who had a darkness that is probably deeper than the darkness of the villain they’re chasing.”
He joined HBO in the late ’80s and was struck by the creative freedom he was allowed under the company’s new chief executive, Bob Cooper. This was a decade before the
network’s double-punch of Oz and The Sopranos ushered in the era of “prestige television”. Still it was clear that something revolutionary was under way. The contrast with Hollywood’s way of doing business was stark.
“You drive onto those studio lots and you see all these park spaces with names stencilled in bright yellow. All of those people have to justify that they have a parking space. If they don’t have a dozen bright ideas a day, why is anyone paying their salary? Those ideas may be to the detriment of the show, but they still have to stay them. They can’t say, ‘this is fabulous let’s shoot it’.”
The balance of power between television and cinemas has, in the intervening decades, flipped. When he started, television is where you went when your movie career wasn’t happening. The opposite is arguably now the case. Look how pleased Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon looked being feted at the Emmys. “There was a sense that you were a lost case if you wanted to work in TV. Now, who the hell would want to be a writer working only in movies — where you are dictated to by comic strips and by merchandising and marketing? You want to write long, complicated stories, make characters, put them in situations that test them — make the actor work harder. You want to be in television. You are writing the equivalent of a 700-page novel.”
He brings the full weight of his experience to bear in Acceptable Risk, one of RTÉ’s big new autumn dramas. Elaine Cassidy plays a wife and mother whose sales rep husband dies in murky circumstances.
“Pharmaceuticals is such an interesting industry to write about,” says Hutchinson. “You can’t bash it — when you are sick you want to reach for a pill. On the other hand, in order to make the stuff they have to take certain decisions that may not pass the smell test. It’s a competitive business with huge amounts of money at stake — and a lot of sharks in the water.”
Cassidy’s character gradually discovers a dark side to a man she thought she knew. “She thinks her husband is this international sales guy who jets off every couple of weeks. Then he is dumped dead from a car in Montreal, while apparently on a routine medical conference trip. She begins to realise her entire life is unravelling. When you don’t know anything about the person in bed with you, the person helping bringing up your kids, then you actually don’t know anything about yourself.”
He enjoyed working with RTÉ and was determined that Acceptable Risk sidestep cliché.
Hutchinson sees Dublin as a noir labyrinth rather than soft-focused tourist destination.
“We were all on the same page — there would be no shots of the Ha’Penny Bridge, no toothless fiddle players. The Dublin I know is like the Vienna of The Third Man. All those back streets and railway arches… streets you don’t want to be walking at two in the morning.”
A lifetime in Hollywood has given Hutchinson a healthy scepticism about the industry — and an appreciation for its absurdities.
“Take your work seriously but not yourself — that was told to me by a guy named Brian Dennehy, a famous Irish-American actor. We both arrived in LA at the same time. Brian’s job was playing the sheriff in Rambo part one. He had so much money he decides to buy a Stingray Corvette. He can’t decide whether to get the black or white one. The guy on the lot jokingly says, ‘what about both?’ Which is what Brian does. Of course, neither of those cars could drive 50 miles without breaking down. Brian would say, ‘LA money isn’t real money… it’s ridiculous and it’s all going to come to a crashing stop. Let’s just enjoy it while it lasts’.”