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Richard LaGravenese on His ‘Rude Awakening’ to Hollywood

Richard Lagravenese first time in Variety
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

Richard LaGravenese was nominated for an Oscar at age 32 for his first solo screenplay, “The Fisher King.” But his movie career got off to a rocky start a few years earlier, as co-writer of the Cheech Marin-Eric Roberts comedy “Rude Awakening” for producer Aaron Russo. LaGravenese, who most recently directed the musical “The Last Five Years,” reflected on his humble beginnings.

How did you get involved with “Rude Awakening,” or as it was then known, “The Guatemalan Papers”?

I was writing plays and doing standup comedy. A friend of mine from college is married to Neil Levy, who started on “Saturday Night Live” in the early days and is a really great guy and funny writer. Neil had sold an idea called “Guatemalan Papers” — a “Dr. Strangelove”-like satire about these ’60s radicals hiding in Guatemala — to Aaron Russo. What we didn’t know is all Aaron heard was “the ’60s meets the ’80s.”

What was the experience like?

For three years we worked for Aaron, did hundreds of drafts for no money. He kept dangling that he was going to make it and, unfortunately, he did. About halfway through, he fired the director and directed the movie himself.

By 1992 you were nominated for an Oscar. What changed?

During the period, I got married, and my wife was supporting us. I started writing a screenplay on my own. That became “The Fisher King.” The month that I sold that in ’88 was when Aaron was starting production. He fired me. I was literally banned from the set of “Rude Awakening” because I would not sell him “Fisher King.” I didn’t know a lot, but I knew enough not to sell him my spec screenplay.

How did you feel when “Rude Awakening” was released? Roger Ebert gave it zero stars, and it was a box office bomb.

I thought my career was over before it began. I wanted to keep working, and said yes to everything I could. “Fisher King” didn’t go into production until 1990, so I was just a working writer.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I think I would’ve stuck with writing more originals, which is what I’m going back to now finally.

Was the goal always to direct?

I didn’t write to become a director, which many people do. (“The Last Five Years”) is my first project that I didn’t write at all, just because I love the material. It’s an Off Broadway musical and a great challenge to dramatize on film. I know my theater audience will understand what I’m going for. I made it for very little money because I wanted to keep it true to its original form.