Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

The Buster Keaton Biopic Starring Rami Malek: All the Latest from the Man Who Wrote the Source Material!

Buster Keaton fans waited decades for the definitive biography of their silent hero, James Curtis’s bestselling Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, which was recently named Book of the Year in a readers’ poll conducted by Silent London. But the biopic based on the book is moving along much faster, thanks in part to the passion of its lead actor: it turns out Rami Malek is a huge Buster fan and is already working with the motion coach who guided him through his Oscar-winning portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Warner Bros. is set to produce the miniseries, with Matt Reeves at the helm.

We sat down with Curtis for all the latest on the biopic and more.

So everything’s coming together for this project!

Yeah it seems to be. The final step is for someone to buy it, which could happen fairly soon.

When you were writing the book were you thinking at all about who might play Buster?

I never think about those things. I’ve got to think about putting the book across, and all the other stuff is someone else’s worry. It’s like writing a book and expecting an award. I think that’s foolish. If you enter into something like this with an expectation like that, it’s  guaranteed it’s not to happen!  <laughs>

I was surprised, even before the book came out, at all the inquiries we got in terms of film rights. I’ve gotten nibbles in the past but never anything like this. A lot of the inquiries come through third parties so you don’t even know who’s interested. “We have a client…” That sort of thing.

I was getting ready to go to New York to do some promotional things,  and I’d been working with writer-producer David Weddle, whose current series on Apple+ is the terrific For All Mankind,  He took the meetings, and it just started to get more and more solid as an idea. So I’ve just been watching with a certain amount of amazement because it seems to have taken on a life of its own. [Editor’s note: Both Curtis and Weddle are members of the Buster Keaton Society, also known as the Damfinos, so the project is in loving hands all around!]

Could you tell when you were researching and writing the book that there seems to be this sort of groundswell of interest in Buster?

Yeah, I was aware of that, and I knew there was going to be a readership for it.

What was your approach to the subject?

I always play around with a lot of ideas, and one thing I did not know if I was going to keep was the idea of having episodes of the making of The Railrodder at various points in the story. The first person to read anything I write is my wife Kim. When I get finished drafting a chapter and it’s been done and dusted to some degree, I hand it over to her. As we were going through it I said, “Do you think I should cut that structural element?” And she said, “No, it works fine!” Also, I figured my no-nonsense editor would tell me to cut it if she disliked it. So I just barreled forth with a certain amount of trepidation, and no one said, “Jeez this is awful, get rid of it!” So that’s how it stayed in.

I think it works great!

Well thank you. The thing I was trying to do was to tell the reader that Buster got through everything he faced in life, however horrible, and here he is near pretty much the end of his life and he’s back co-directing a silent comedy again. So it all comes full circle in a way.

Right, and you get rid of the sort of tragic veil over Buster, which has always kind of irritated me.

Yes, I agree.  That’s the cheap, easy sort of conclusion, and I know there are certain readers who want to be led around by the nose and told what to think and what to feel, but I’m not suited to that sort of sledgehammer approach. The people who are missing that are going to say, “Well, he just didn’t ring the bell for me on that one,” and my reaction to that is, “Good!”

What kind of choices do you make as an author, writing about a life like his?

Really the research is your guide. I recently saw the documentary about Robert Caro and Bob  Gottlieb, and one thing Caro said really struck me: “Writing is hard but I love the research.” I feel exactly the same way. I love doing the library work, I love talking to the people.

Often the most interesting things are not always the things you have lots of material on, so you really have to dig. Some authors might say, well, I have a lot of material on this so that gets the emphasis.

Yes and then that availability ends up being the engine that drives the whole project.

Right, right! I’ll use an example from the Spencer Tracy book: The most documented of all of his features was The Old Man and the Sea. Every major player on that film left papers behind, so there was just scads and scads of material. The problem is, it’s not a very good or significant film. And so I could not use that material to the extent that I might have. But there were  other important films that deserved greater emphasis but for which I  didn’t have the material I wish I did. As the great John McPhee said, “Creative nonfiction is not making things up. It’s making the most of what you have to work with.”

 I’m a really tough audience for biographies anyway, and frankly I’m appalled at some of the stuff I see out there—especially the stuff that gets good reviews! There are a lot of reviewers who really don’t know what they’re talking about but they say it with authority and the authority of their medium.

How about regular readers? Have you enjoyed being out there with Buster fans?

Oh yes. My favorite environment when promoting the bio is when I’m paired with one of his films and you’ve got people there who are really serious about him.  People come up to me after a film like Go West and thank me for programming it. It’s their first time seeing it on a big screen, or their first time period.

Now that you’re about to venture into the world of biopics, what are some of your favorites?

I’m a difficult audience for biographical films, but there are some I love. I tend to put them in different categories. There are some that are wildly off base factually but are  very entertaining. In that category  I would certainly put Yankee Doodle Dandy and maybe a few of those that Paul Muni did in the thirties. In the fifties it was a real trend for a while, and that’s when you got films like the The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O’Connor and Man of a Thousand Faces and I’ll Cry Tomorrow and The Helen Morgan Story.

The second category is for slice-of-life films where they focus on a narrow period in the person’s life, like Patton, which is one of my favorite films of all time. So it’s more of a character study that masquerades as a biography, and some of those are awfully good.

The ones that are toughest to pull off are those hat cover entire lives, or those, in other words, belonging to the cradle-to-grave category. I thought the Ray Charles movie was very good, as was the Clint Eastwood film Bird, which, in my opinion, is the best thing he’s ever done. It’s an example of a film where he’s not telling you what to feel, he’s showing you so that you can muster your own reaction, which to my way of thinking is the essence of good filmmaking.

The problem with a feature film is that you only have a hundred twenty minutes or so to put the whole life across.

Which won’t be an issue with the miniseries!

Right! In this case, we’ll probably have eight to ten hours to tell the story.

So they’ll be able to start with his childhood?

It’s not my decision to make, of course, but I think they’ve got to start with his childhood because that’s where Buster learned comedy. He was on stage from the time he was four or thereabouts.

And his childhood was fascinating! So much in the book about how successful the family act was, even though they had the Gerry Society chasing them around Manhattan.

They were one of the standard acts in vaudeville, and that’s the period of time when Joe Keaton gets to shine. Joe would be a helluva role for the right actor. And this is where Buster learns  how to engage an audience, and how to fall and take tumbles without injuring himself.

And not to sort of milk scenes for sympathy, which is huge.

Right, and there’s just so much that happens there, it’s probably at least one episode, I’d guess, and it’s the sort of thing that really sets up the character so when the grown Buster appears later on, he’s got all that background informing his actions. So I really think you have to cover his whole life, and we’ve got the time to do it.

There are all sorts of great characters in the Keaton story. Imagine an actress taking on Mae Scriven. That would’ve been a Shelley Winters role at one time.

Or Gloria Grahame!

Yeah right! And Fatty Arbuckle is a great role. And Al St. John in his way. And Joe Schenk is a great character part.

How familiar are you with Rami Malek? Did you see Bohemian Rhapsody?

I did and I thought he was awfully good. That’s a good biopic.

It was almost like an old-time musical where we’re gonna form a band and put on a show!

Yeah if you go back to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, taking over the garage or the barn or something and putting on a show.

I was really excited to find out that Rami Malek was such a big Buster fan!

It’s wonderful in that respect. He’s the perfect choice. He’s got the feeling for it, I think he’s got the intensity for it. My take on him as an actor, based upon the very little I know about him, is he’s got the same obsessive qualities as an artist that Buster had and I think he’d understand someone with that fierce dedication to his art. I think when Buster was at work, especially during his prime period, he was laser focused on that to the exclusion of all else. I think someone like Rami Malek would be able to understand and get into that very deeply and show us things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

It seems like this is going to be a real labor of love all around.

Yes. I think  they’ve got the opportunity to do a really bang-up job with it. They’ve got the time and the wherewithal and they’ve got the right actor, they’ve got the right team. There are a lot of things that are right about this, and I’m very happy about it.

With streaming there’s so much more freedom, you’re not boxed into a two-hour format and you can really run with something if it’s a project that’s important to you.

These days in terms of streaming series like The Queen’s Gambit and Succession and the like, they really have the time to  give you first-rate quality.  It’s an embarrassment of riches, and I don’t know how it will all play out but for the time being we’re in a golden age of content—and a new way of experiencing it.

How involved will you be in the actual production?

I don’t know. They probably would like me to stay as far away as possible. <laughs> And I certainly wouldn’t blame them. If they do figure out there’s a role for me to some minor extent, I’d be happy to pitch in.

With a traditional film you can pretty much guess how the process is going to go when they want to option something you’ve written. Streaming hasn’t been around that long and it’s almost like they’re figuring things out as they go along. So it’s been interesting to observe how this whole process has gone down. It’s been a real education and a nice one. I think the goal is to make something that’s really good and memorable, and  I’m looking forward to observing even from a respectful distance.

Well I couldn’t wait for your book to come out, and now I can’t wait for the miniseries!

Stay tuned!

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