David Ward talks about his Oscar winning 1973 Classic THE STING
To celebrate Universal Pictures’ 100 year anniversary comes the Blu-ray release of the 1973 classic The Sting – to be released as a Limited Edition Blu-ray on June 11, and The Fan Carpet‘s Stefan Pape caught up with the writer of the much celebrated film David Ward.
Having won seven Oscar’s (including one for Best Screenplay) The Sting was a huge hit upon its release – as a slick heist movie featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as con men, and directed by George Roy Hill.
Now teaching in the US, Ward – who also wrote the screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle – was in a jubilant mood as he discusses the highly regarded picture, admitting to being surprised by the films longevity. The 66-year-old writer also speaks of his joy at working alongside Newman and Redford and how his intrigue into con men first came about…
The Sting is considered to be one of the greatest ever films, winning a host of Oscars. You must, to this day, still be so proud of your creation?
Yeah, as the years go by you tend to think more about the experience of making it and the people you made it with as much as you do about the actual movie itself. I am really glad that, to date, the film seems to have withstood the test of time and people still respond to it today. You never know when you make a movie whether that will happen or not but I think more in terms of having had the opportunity to work with Redford and Newman and George Hill – not too many people have been lucky enough to experience that perfect storm in making this movie, and especially when Paul died I thought that I was so lucky to have worked with a man like that. So I think about that as much as I do about the movie. The movie has its own life and it really was a big part of mine and always will be, but you remember the people you did it with.
When you wrote it, did you envisage that 40 years down the line you would still be talking about it?
Not at all, when you’re writing you’re just trying to not fail! You’re trying to write something that you would want to see and that someone would want to make, you don’t have any illusions of grandeur, you spend so much time doing it that, by the time you’re done you have lost any objectivity about it, you just hope that its good and that it gets made and that people like it, but I didn’t have any grandiose ideas about it being a movie that people would still be watching 40 years on from when it was released.
So what do you think it is about the film that has allowed for it to appeal to people 40 years on – and to different generations?
Well I think it’s a couple of things. It was sort of the first of its kind in the sense of being a confidence movie, no one had really made movies about confidence bets before. I also think the movie has two of the most charming movie stars of our history in it and it’s fun. I think people enjoy the surprises and the twists and the turns and I think it keeps them engaged in it. Although when you look at it in terms of how its cut, the pace is much slower than most movies today and it always surprises me that people engage with it when there’s a much different pace to movies today when they are cut so fast. Especially for young people who are used to getting their information in quick flashes and cuts, when they relate to the movie, its’ particularly gratifying because its not like the movies they are seeing.
Can you tell us how the idea for it all first came about? Were con artists always a fascination for you, or did that grow as you were researching the film?
I was doing research on another film actually, I was researching pick pockets and they’re also grifters, so I was reading on grifters in general and several of the books had chapters on confidence men and I just happened to read a couple and I thought these guys are fascinating. They’re criminals but they don’t use guns, they don’t use violence, they don’t even steal. They actually – through the sheer force of their own wit – get people to give them their money by playing on their greed, and I thought there was something almost heroic about that, turning the tables on people with privilege and wealth, using their own greed against them and in some ways exposing the hypocrisy of people who consider themselves better than the class of people that are conning them.
As for the director George Hill, could you have imagined anyone else taking your script on?
Not at all, George is unlike a lot of other directors. This wasn’t about showcasing himself, he was a story teller and I think he underestimated himself. He was a brilliant director but to him telling a story was paramount. Working with him was great because he was one of the most specific and prepared directors I’ve ever worked with, in pre-production we went over every page of the script, to make sure that he understood how the con worked, where it all changes, why people did what they did and he gave me a lot of good advice which I used later when I was directing. Basically he said you should never be in a position when an actor can ask you a question you cant answer, you should know the script as well as they do, if you don’t you’re asking for trouble, you’re asking them to go off into their own interpretation that you might not want them to, because they feel as much, or more, about it than you do.
As for getting Robert Redford and Paul Newman together after the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a fantastic move – when you were writing the screenplay were they the actors you had in mind?
No, I loved Butch Cassidy, but I didn’t dare dream that I could get them and when I was writing the script originally the Johnny Hooker character was 19 years old, it was really more a father-son relationship, a sort of a mentoring relationship because the age difference was greater than 10 years. So when we got Redford and Newman I had to change the Hooker character and make him a little older. I was delighted Redford wanted to do it and I knew he would bring things to it that no one else could and I was very fortunate to get that kind of casting and very fortunate to be able to work with people like that, it was a real thrill.
It must have been wonderful as a writer to see the words you’ve written spoken by some of the most renowned and talented actors of all time…
It was, and George did not change the script very much. Like I say we changed the the character played by Robert Shaw. The original character I’d written was a polish gangster, not an Irish gangster but basically Shaw did that himself, so a lot of the changes were naturally made on their own, but I certainly had no problem with anything they did.
The film is also very cleverly split up into sections, what was the thinking behind that?
It was basically determined by the fact that con games were played in sections, stages, and each stage has a name, the set up, etc. So I divided the movie up into these stages, and in a way the sting is a five part movie, not a three act movie. It’s split into the chapters because each stage has a beginning, middle and end, they don’t move on to the next stage until the previous stage is complete because its very careful the way they set it up, if they don’t they are liable to blow it.
We have seen heist movies remade in recent years – the likes of Ocean 11 and the Italian Job for example – have you ever been approached about a remake and if so did you ever entertain the idea?
No, I’ve never been approached about a remake, I think because they don’t usually remake Academy Award winning movies because they are too well known. The Italian Job is a brilliantly terrific movie, but its not as well known, and Oceans 11, obviously if you’re a rat pack fan you know it, but it wasn’t an Academy Award winning movie and there was a way to update it and make it a lot more high-tech than the original. I think it’s because they think who can you get who can compete with Reford and Newman? The movie is just a little too well known, most people who write movies will have seen it or at least heard of it. We are in the process of trying to do it as a musical on Broadway, so a different format.
What does the future hold for you know? Are you writing at the moment?
Yeah I am writing at the moment, I have a project with Martin Campbell, where we’re trying to get Major League Three made. I have another project which is an adaptation of a Belgian film called Memory of a Killer, and I have a script I’ve just finished writing about a military dog.
So you’re pretty busy then…
Yes I’m pretty busy, its not easy to get movies made today, but I keep writing because I love movies and I love to do it.
THE STING IS OUT ON LIMITED EDITION DIGIBOOK BLU-RAY ON JUNE 11