Price on His Head
"I don't know many people for whom writing novels is a moneymaking proposition, unless you're someone like Stephen King," says Richard Price, whose latest book, 2003's Samaritan, is being released this month in paperback. "I doubt there are fifty novelists in the country who can live and support a family off being a novelist without having to do something else, like teaching or freelance journalism or screenplays."
Price chose this last method to supplement his income, and his scripts for The Color of Money, Sea of Love and the 2000 remake of Shaft have undoubtedly kept his cupboards well stocked. In addition, two of his novels, The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers, were adapted to the screen by other scribes. For Clockers, arguably his magnum opus, he did the deed himself, penning a blueprint directed in 1995 by Spike Lee, and he's set to receive a screenwriting credit again for the movie version of his 1998 novel Freedomland, which may or may not begin shooting this fall. At least one start date's already passed, and director Michael Winterbottom dropped out in favor of Neil LaBute.
Price considers the Freedomland gig a decidedly mixed blessing. "I did it because it was a package deal," he explains. "They wouldn't have bought the book unless I came along as a screenwriter, and there was a considerable amount of money at stake. But it was hell doing it. You've got a 600-page book. How are you going to make that into a 120-page screenplay -- 120 dialogue pages, where everything's turned into telegrams? It took me a couple of years to do that, and even though it came out really good, it cost me a couple buckets of blood."
This painful process may be repeated with Samaritan. Paramount purchased the film rights, and execs there asked Price to turn the book into a script -- a request he's currently resisting. "I'm trying to talk them into using someone else," he says. "I never want to do my own stuff. It's like, why? I just spent three years doing it, and I'm not getting any younger. Why would I want to regurgitate this stuff? Plus, there are people who can say, ŒI don't like this. Do this. Do that.' It's not even mine anymore."
The uncut version of Samaritan is set in Dempsy, New Jersey -- the same fictional city where Clockers and Freedomland took place -- and features protagonists far more complex than those in typical Hollywood projects. Nerese Ammons is a forty-something African-American who survived a rough childhood in public housing and escaped that life by becoming a cop. She devotes herself to figuring out who severely beat Ray Mitchell, an acquaintance from her youth. Ray made a pile of dough as a TV writer before returning home, but when he spreads his cash around to several folks still mired in poverty, his giving is as much about self-aggrandizement as generosity. "It's my own personal feeling on mixed motives," Price says. "There's no such thing as pure altruism. Even Mother Teresa got real famous."
Ray is the most autobiographical character Price has created since his first books, penned in the '70s, and writing Samaritan helped him come to terms with his own impulses. "I'm aware I do this, and I'm aware that it's as much a weakness as a strength," he says. "It's an ongoing issue in my life."
Maintaining a balance between novels and scripts is, too. "There's a money issue there," Price admits. "I can make much more writing screenplays. But I don't think of myself as a screenwriter. I think of myself as a novelist."
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