The Inverse Interview

Screenwriter on Fire

Man on Fire scribe Brian Helgeland reflects on writing the Denzel Washington classic and reveals new details about his A Knight’s Tale sequel and the Game of Thrones spinoff he wrote that fans may never see.

Man on Fire 2004 movie poster
20th Century Fox
The Inverse Interview

Brian Helgeland’s journey to write Man on Fire started with a video store clerk named Quentin Tarantino recommending a film. It would later involve contributions from Mexican gangs, Clint Eastwood, and Saddam Hussein. Talk about an unconventional love story.

Yes, a love story. A love story with an ass bomb.

That’s how the Oscar-winning screenwriter of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River describes Tony Scott’s beloved film to Inverse.

“We got a note from Fox that said ‘Nothing happens in the first hour.’ I replied and said, ‘You’re right, except they fall in love with each other. Everything happens,” Helgeland says.

Brian Helgeland in 2004.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment

Before thugs messed with John Wick’s dog or Liam Neeson’s family kept being taken, Mexican kidnappers learned why John Creasy’s (Denzel Washington) art is death. Two decades after painting his masterpiece, Scott’s film continues to hold a special place in the hearts of film fans.

Combining kinetic visuals and raw emotion with some killer one-liners, Man on Fire can’t be solely defined as a revenge film for an obvious reason. You care about the characters. Bullets and bears carry equal dramatic weight.

“We had an alternate ending of the film where Denzel has a bomb up his ass, which he uses to kill the kidnappers. That was not popular with Fox!”

As the burned-out ex-CIA operative who’s hired by a wealthy family to protect their precocious daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), Washington does what he does best: command the screen. Any other actor who’s up against such a tour-de-force performance may have wilted, but Fanning’s prodigious talent and heartwarming chemistry with the two-time Oscar winner is astonishing throughout.

“Great actors are like knife-throwers in the circus; all the director has to say is move a little to your left or right,” Helgeland adds. Man on Fire constantly hit the target.

Two decades after Man on Fire’s April 2004 release, Inverse sat down with Helgeland to chat about making the film, but the director of A Knight’s Tale also discussed the plot for a sequel to his beloved medieval action comedy that Netflix recently passed on, the biblical Game of Thrones spinoff he wrote that earned George R.R. Martin’s endorsement, and the remake of The Wild Bunch that Scott was going to adapt before his tragic death.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Denzel Washington on the set of Man on Fire.

Susana Gonzalez/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

How did you get involved with Man on Fire?

After directing three films and working with Clint Eastwood on Blood Work and Mystic River, I was looking for my next project and got a call from Regency, who I worked with on L.A. Confidential. They’d wanted to remake Man on Fire for years. So I read the book, loved it, and wanted to direct the film.

Tony Scott had been attached to it for almost 20 years, but he never committed to doing it. So, I agree to write it, but if he passes on it, I’d direct it. A few days later, producer [Arnon] Milchan called to say, “I’ve good news and bad news. We’re making the movie, but Tony Scott’s directing.”

How did your relationship develop as the production went on?

We butted heads a few times because he wanted me to write a draft that explicitly detailed Creasy’s background and how he ended up in Mexico. I knew that wouldn’t work because it’s too specific. We’d be removing any mystery from Creasy, and the audience wants to fill in those blanks themselves. Tony said, “If you don’t write this, I’ll get someone who will.” I told him to get someone else.

Then, Clint Eastwood invited me to Cannes because he was showing Mystic River. I went to France, the film was received well, and there were a few parties. So I got a bit drunk. After getting back to my hotel room, the phone rings, and it’s Tony. He says, “I need you to come to Mexico tomorrow. We’re days away from shooting, and the Creasy exposition angle doesn’t work.” At that moment, I realized how literal Tony was. He had to see it to know why it didn’t work. As a writer, I’m more instinctive. He’s more visual.

Washington and Jesus Ochoa in Man on Fire’s infamous suppository explosive scene.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The film is unique because it’s two films in one. The first half is all about Creasy and Pita’s relationship, then the second half is all action. How did you crack the material?

When we test-screened the film, it tested highest with women. By a mile! Tony was under immense pressure to trim down all the characterization work in the first half and get to the action quicker. He always resisted that, which is why the movie is special. He never buckled under studio pressure. That’s a hard thing for a director to do. Directors pretend to do it, but they don’t. Tony did.

Were there any major changes from your first draft to the final film?

The book was divided into four chunky chapters, so I removed the middle two.

Tony was right about changing the location to Mexico. When the book was written, Italy was the kidnap capital of the world and where the story is set, but Mexico City made more sense.

“In Mexico, we talked with kidnappers in prison and researched a gang that was famous for sending one of their victim’s ears back to the parents.”

In Mexico, we talked with kidnappers in prison and researched a gang that was famous for sending one of their victim’s ears back to the parents. We were interviewing an intermediary, and he described how they received an ear that was put in a Ziploc bag, right after it was cut off. The bag was still steamed up from the flesh. That anecdote was used in the film’s opening credits. I loved that about Tony. He wouldn’t try to invent anything better than what real life gave him.

Christopher Walken plays Paul Rayburn, who operates a security company in Mexico.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The history of action films is littered with brilliant one-liners; I’d argue that Man on Fire has at least five. Is there a line or scene that stands out for you?

It’s [Christopher] Walken’s line when he says “Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” I also love “Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” I took that from Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf, who led Operation Desert Storm. He was once asked about Saddam Hussein and said “I have no opinion. I’m just here to arrange the meeting between him and God.” Another one that stays with me is when Creasy interrogates Fuentes under the bridge, the ass bomb scene.

That stone-cold delivery of “Last wish? I wish you had more time” was all Denzel. As a writer, you want your lines to be delivered well, and there’s nobody better than him. A funny thing about that scene: We had an alternate ending of the film where Denzel has a bomb up his ass, which he uses to kill the kidnappers. That was not popular with Fox!

“Ridley [Scott] is an incredible filmmaker, too, but Tony is the better director because he truly understands human emotion.”

Every few months, I think about the landscape of cinema and how much Tony Scott is missed as a director. What did you learn from working with him so closely?

He was the hardest-working and most committed director I’ve ever worked with. In the morning, he’d stand up on a platform and talk to the whole crew. He was like a general leading an army into battle, running through what the crew were doing for the day. Tony always talked about process, but he’d simply say, “I make movies about what people do for a living. That’s all I do.” He described Top Gun to me as a movie that’s just about showing audiences what fighter pilots do for a living! His levels of passion, dedication and commitment were on another level. When he finished Man on Fire, there was no stone left unturned. Ridley [Scott] is an incredible filmmaker, too, but Tony is the better director because he truly understands human emotion. I’m allowed to say that after working with both of them. Sorry, Ridley!

Dakota Fanning’s prodigious talent and heartwarming chemistry with Denzel Washington is astonishing throughout.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

I’m reading Ed Zwick’s book at the moment, and he’s glowing about his experiences of working with Denzel. How was that for you?

Denzel is an incredible actor for a reason. He has all his mental installation and prep work done before he even gets on set. The great actors make each character their own, and to a large extent, a movie star plays themselves; that’s why they're stars. Denzel and Creasy worked together in this film. When Denzel gets into character, he ad-libs, improvises, and finds meaning in strange places.

Do you have a particular favorite memory of making the film?

The scene where Creasy is bleeding in the swimming pool was shot in a venue used for the 1968 Olympics. It was enormous, and Denzel is the only person in it. We’re shooting all day, and you can see in Denzel’s eyes he’s saying “I cannot be in this fucking pool any more. I gotta get out.” However, Tony was always a one-more-take kind of director. I’m watching on and thinking “He’s pushing Denzel to the limit,” but Tony gets him to do another take.

“Denzel is still floating with his eyes closed, but Tony is completely naked.”

Four camera operators and Tony climb up onto this tiny diving board to get a shot of Denzel with his eyes closed, he’s floating on the water in a Christ-like pose. The first AD calls, “Action!” and Tony starts to take off his shoes. He drops his shorts, then the shirt, and vest come off. We’re 10 seconds into the take, and Denzel is still floating with his eyes closed, but Tony is completely naked. After he gets the shot, a naked Tony just runs and jumps off the diving board! He’s yelling “Geronimo! Cut!”

Denzel opens his eyes to see a naked Tony heading right towards him. Tony almost hits him as he splashes down. Denzel was laughing so hard that he almost drowned, but he made it over to the side of the pool, got out, and was in hysterics. Naked Tony then gets out and shouts, “I’ll see you tomorrow, D!” before throwing on a robe and walking over to me with a big smile on his face. He says, “Always leave them laughing, mate. Always leave them laughing.”

“I would write anything for Tony. I love him to bits.”

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Aanother film that’s close to your heart is A Knight’s Tale. A few years ago, you spoke about the idea of a potential sequel. Can you elaborate on where that’s at?

When we finished A Knight’s Tale, we were already thinking about making the sequel as a pirate film. The plot revolved around Count Adhemar kidnapping Jocelyn and taking her to Constantinople. They end up as galley slaves after their boat is captured by pirates. There’s a prisoner on the boat who has a treasure map tattooed on his back, but he keeps getting flogged for indiscipline. The guys volunteer to take turns getting flogged in this prisoner’s place, so the map isn’t erased. Sony didn’t want to do it.

“When we finished A Knight’s Tale, we were already thinking about making the sequel as a pirate film.”

There was another idea pitched to me that was all about William’s daughter. Paul Bettany called me after he had dinner with Alan Tudyk, and the guys had an idea that William had passed away during a war. However, William has a teenage daughter who wants to joust, but she’s not allowed to because she’s a woman. She tracks down the gang and they agree to teach her how to joust, but she has to hide who she is. They cut her hair short and she speaks with a deep voice, et cetera.

I pitched it to Sony because they own the rights, and it seemed like they were interested in making it with Netflix, releasing it as a Netflix movie. My understanding is that Netflix tested this sequel idea through their algorithms, which indicated that it would not be successful. A Knight’s Tale seems to get more popular with every passing year; it’s the strangest thing.

Brian Helgeland with Heath Ledger at the Spanish premiere of A Knight’s Tale in 2001.

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images Entertainment

I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan, and I know you were originally attached as a writer for one of the potential spinoffs that wasn’t picked up. Is there anything you can say about that experience?

It came out great, but I think they felt the period of my show was too far removed from the pillars of the original. That’s why it hasn’t been picked up yet, but nothing is ever dead. My script was based on Queen Nymeria and this little blurb about her that was in a Westeros encyclopedia. Essentially, it was the story of Moses but swapping him out for Nymeria. Her country gets ruined and her people are forced to live on the water, which is why the show was called Ten Thousand Ships. They end up having to leave and find a new home like the Israelites leaving Egypt. She’s leading all these people, trying to hold everyone together but things are always in danger of falling apart as they travel around a fictionalized version of the Mediterranean, looking for a new home to settle in.

“I met with George R.R. Martin to pitch him the idea, which he signed off on.”

Their life was nomadic. Living in a raft city that was bound together, this big floating city. Sometimes, the characters would come ashore, but they ultimately get driven off the land as they search for a home, their version of the promised land. I met with George R.R. Martin to pitch him the idea, which he signed off on. Sadly, I didn’t work with him closer, but I would have done if the show was picked up. It was kind of like Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films mixed with The Odyssey. In a way, Nymeria is Odysseus, but instead of a 12-person crew, she’s responsible for every citizen in this floating city-state. My work is still there if HBO wants to pick it up. I enjoyed my time developing it, and you just never know.

Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.

Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Please correct me if I’m wrong because IMDb is unreliable, but I see that your script for Cleopatra is listed as being in pre-production. I remember Denis Villeneuve was linked with that project; is there anything you can say about that?

I was the very first writer on Cleopatra when it was being developed for Angelina Jolie to star in, which was almost made. I don’t have anything to do with the current version unless they call me and want to use my draft.

It had elements of a political thriller with assassinations and sex, but it’s an epic that’s divided between her love affairs with Caesar and Marc Antony. Lots of true events surprised me when I was writing it. For example, the day Caesar was assassinated — the Ides of March and all that stuff — she was in Rome. They were leaving for Egypt, and the reason why they had to kill him at that time was because he was headed out of town with her. That’s historically true and featured in the script. She writes Marc Antony’s speech — “friends, Romans, countrymen” — because he doesn’t know what to say, but she tells him what to say. It’s sort of her way of saying “fuck you” to those guys because she’s smart enough and he’s not. I have no idea if that script is being used, but I’ll be very happy if it is.

Looking forward, I see an adaptation of The Button Man and The Wild Bunch remake listed on your credits too. How are they going?

I wrote Button Man, but it’s not being made at the moment. Netflix had The Gray Man and The Killer being released in a relatively close window, so they decided not to make all three at once because they’re kind of similar. It’s still there for them to make if they want.

I also wrote 45 pages of The Wild Bunch for Tony to direct before he died. Sadly, I always say that I’m still on page 45 of that project. It’s pretty violent and set in the modern day. The plot revolves around L.A. rampart cops that were being sent to prison, but during the trial, they’re still technically free. So, they decide to head down to Mexico and rob a bank before scattering to the ends of the earth with the money. However, like the original, it doesn’t go as planned. My next film is not that far from The Wild Bunch though. I’m attached to direct a remake of The Professionals, which was a Western that originally starred Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. The script is finished, and we’re trying to cast it. The hook is really good: It’s about two guys who have to deliver a ransom for a kidnapped woman.

Tony Scott and Denzel Washington on the set of Man on Fire.

Jurgen Vollmer/20th Century Fox/Regency/Kobal/Shutterstock

Let’s go back to Man on Fire and my apologies for being very simplistic, but there’s a general argument that only two kinds of films are being made now. Small, independent films with a tiny budget, or massive $200 million blockbusters. Films like Man on Fire, Payback, and the stuff Tony Scott directed are being squeezed out. What’s your take on that?

Traditionally, films like Lethal Weapon or Die Hard have a very manageable budget. The movie star’s fee is built into the budget because their name anchors the project. With most films, you’re mainly selling the movie star, not the spectacle. Of course, you can have both, but allow me to speak generally. That’s how a lot of ’90s and early 2000s action movies got made. In some cases, the star of the movie made almost as much as the budget. If it’s a $40 million movie, an actor might get $20 million because their name gets people buying a ticket. Studios used to nurture that movie star system because they needed stars. In the last 10 years or so, there’s been an emphasis on the spectacle. The star’s name doesn’t really matter as much; you can plug and play an actor into any film and the result won’t be massively different. Again, that’s a bit of a generalization, but it’s also a shame because we’re left with a world that has no major movie stars in it.

“That’s why the action in his movies is so great. It’s all there in the lens, not captured in postproduction.”

The other thing about Tony is that six months after shooting wrapped, he didn’t want to be in a visual effects studio looking at a computer screen. He had an eye for visuals unlike most other directors because he wanted to see the final product right down the lens as he was making it. That’s why the action in his movies is so great. It’s all there in the lens, not captured in postproduction. There’s no substitute for getting it right on the day.

“When Denzel gets into character, he adlibs, improvises, and finds meaning in strange places.”


When it was released, the critics rejected Man on Fire, but audiences continue to adore it. Do you have a take on why that is?

There’s nothing you can do about that. I’ve had stuff that got good reviews [that] I don’t think was really that good and vice versa. Everyone gets unfair praise and criticism. However, the fact that we’re talking about Man on Fire 20 years after it came out is all we need to know.

I heard a story that Quentin Tarantino originally recommended the 1987 film to you when he was working as a video store clerk and you were a customer. Is that true?

That’s true! When I lived near LAX, I’d visit the Video Archives store where Tarantino worked, and he recommended the original film starring Scott Glenn. I never even clocked that it was him until years later, but I’ve talked to him a few times since then. He also went on to work with Tony on True Romance. It’s funny how life works out. I’ll always say that I could not have directed Man on Fire as well as Tony did because I didn’t have the balls that Tony had to make that film. Nobody had.

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