The Longest Yard writer, screenwriter Sheldon Turner
With the recent re-release of “The Longest Yard” on DVD and the new version starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock hitting theaters, Bullz-Eye caught up with Sheldon Turner, screenwriter of the remake, to talk about the process, the business, his many other irons in the fire, and getting schooled on the court by Little Nicky.
(Spoiler alert: the following contains several mentions of pivotal moments and climactic scenes from both versions of “The Longest Yard.” If you haven’t seen one or both of the versions, you’d best stop here.)
Sheldon Turner: You saw the movie last night, right?
Bullz-Eye: I did.
ST: What did you think?
BE: I liked it better than the original.
ST: Can I tell you, I was a fan of the original but — and obviously I’m biased — I think we’ve actually improved it. I think it’s the kind of movie that is made for a remake, simply because there are a lot of setups that are never paid off. So it was sort of easy for me as a writer to go in and go, “Whatever happened to this lead?” and come up with a payoff, you know?
BE: I know exactly what you mean. I just had to watch (the original) again to write it up for Bullz-Eye, and I thought there were a lot of loose threads, and I didn’t really associate it with the story so much as the direction. I thought it was really poorly cut.
ST: I think that’s it exactly. You know what it is? I always joke that the American public has gotten infinitely dumber, but I think the moviegoers have gotten smarter and savvier. Meaning that, they can see the puppet strings now. So you can’t get away with the stuff that you’re used to. It’s amazing to go back and look at iconic movies like “Bullitt,” and look at it and see what they could have gotten away with. It’s like, my God, I wish I was writing then! I wouldn’t even have to think about things, you know?
BE: The one thing I noticed about the original “Longest Yard” in particular was that it focused more on the story, and didn’t really develop the characters too much.
ST: Absolutely true.
BE: And the other thing is that it’s really not that funny! There are scenes that just devolve into a bunch of people laughing, but they’re not particularly amusing.
ST: (laughs) Right! At some point, I remember watching it having the same conclusion, like, I think they’re all deluded! They’ve been in prison too long, where they just cackle.
BE: Yeah, ooh, watch me stick some mud in a guy’s boots! (mock hysterical laughter)
ST: Yeah, at what point is putting mud in a guy’s boot high comedy?
BE: But at the same time, you had to have been thinking, I mean, this is your first screenplay credit. What’s it like having to start off rewriting a script to a movie that people admire and adore as much as this?
ST: It’s funny, you know, if you had told me when I first got out here that my first major movie was going to be an Adam Sandler film, I would have told you, “No way,” because you’ll probably see on my bio, there’s a lot of films of a darker nature, a lot of thrillers, a lot of action. So I had the gift of stupidity on my side, that I didn’t feel the onus that comes with (adapting a high profile remake). Truth be told, I always liked the (original) movie, but I wasn’t obsessed with it. I’ve adapted five books now, and I always say that the best movies come from the worst books. And that certainly doesn’t apply to this, because “Longest Yard” is a good movie, but I wasn’t beholden to a lot there, so I wasn’t afraid to go in and say, “You know what? We have to change this,” you know? And for the most part, structurally, it’s pretty solid, it’s hard to screw up the structure, you know? But it also enabled me to focus on the intricacies of it, the inner workings of it, you know?
BE: You hit on something that I had written about the original before I saw the remake, which is that this movie wasn’t so good that it couldn’t be redone.
BE: I think a lot of people view these movies with rose-colored glasses, and I’m just as guilty. I mean, if you try to remake “Bull Durham,” I’m going to burn your house to the ground.
ST: (laughs) It’s funny, though, David, you’re right. I went and watched “Three Days of the Condor,” and there are always movies that you can go in and reference when you sit down with movie executives. And half of them, to 90% of them, nobody’s seen. They’re movies that make you sound a lot smarter than you are when you reference them. And one of those movies was, for me, something I had seen quite a while ago, “Three Days of the Condor.” And I gotta tell you, I lasted about 20 minutes, I was falling asleep.
BE: I rented that in the mid-90s, and didn’t find it nearly as compelling as everyone led me to believe it was.
ST: Yeah, and a lot of those films take on that level of hype. And a lot of it’s the comfort food of, wherever you were in your life or however old you were when you first saw it. And I think that’s really applicable to “The Longest Yard.” I mean, I was one year old when the first one was made. I remember playing football in high school, and we used to have movie night. And my senior year, one of the selected movies was “Longest Yard.” And I thought it was a pretty good movie. I was probably more concerned with how I was going to play the next day than about watching the movie, but it was the benefit of not going, “Oh my God, it’s the greatest film of all time, we can’t change anything,” which would be the most boring adaptation possible.
BE: I agree. This one is certainly a hell of a lot funnier than the original.
ST: Thank you.
BE: How much room did you leave for Sandler and Rock to improvise, if any?
ST: You know, those guys do their thing. And having seen the movie, there’s a line where Rock says, “That boy’s got slave feet.” Well, for one, as a white guy named Sheldon, I couldn’t get away with writing that line.
BE: I wondered about that, I’m glad you mentioned that.
ST: But that’s an example of a punch-up that came on set. And not having a comedic background the way those guys do, you have to defer to those guys, so I was happy (with the ad-libs), and I told Sandler, “If it kills, I’m taking all the credit for it.” And I think what’s great about the material, not even my script per se but the material itself, is that it lends itself to those sorts of extemporaneous, impromptu, on-the-set moments that Adam and Chris do so well.
BE: Well, that whole sequence was tailor made for it, the bit where they’re trying to figure out just how talented the cons are.
ST: Oh, yeah. And I wrote it in a collegial enough way that I wanted to tap into Sandler and Rock, who have been buddies since “Saturday Night Live” and all these things. And that’s what I love about the scene, that it really, not so much from my writing but from what they did, that it had the sense of two guys kind of winging it, rather than that stiff, staid training sequence that we’ve all seen before. I wanted it to seem like these guys have no idea what they’re doing, but they’re having fun doing it.
BE: Were you on set when they shot this?
ST: I was not on set that much. I went down and I visited, but at that point, it’s in their hands. Certain projects I’ve been on, that haven’t been my original (script), I’ve gone on set a lot more than “Longest,” which is ironic and odd. But I knew that those guys, Happy Madison (Sandler’s production company), have a certain process, and I’m kind of a control freak, in that the last thing I can do is just sit around on the set and watch.
BE: I think all writers are control freaks by nature.
ST: It’s the hardest part and the best part, David, of watching that movie for the first time three or four months ago, being proud of the script and happy with it, but also knowing that it’s the kind of movie that, if it sucks, it’ll suck hard, you know? And being so proud of seeing what (director) Pete Segal did with it, and Adam, and everybody, those guys absolutely made me look better than I am.
BE: Pete Segal, who knew he had a little Michael Bay in him?
ST: I always say that Pete is kind of the unspoken star of that movie, because God, does he step up.
BE: He shot that like a Bruckheimer movie.
ST: And the football scenes… I’m a guy that played football in college. I love the game. One of my pet peeves is when I see, ala Keanu Reeves in “Point Break,” when he throws the ball and he looks like a girl. Automatically, credibility goes right out the window. So I love the fact that, Goddamn, Adam looks like he can throw a freaking football.
BE: He throws some tight spirals in it.
ST: Yeah, and he truly can throw, and he’s an athlete, and I know this first hand, because he beat me in a game of one-on-one basketball. I’m still getting over the fact that The Waterboy beat me in a game of one-on-one basketball. He really is an athlete, and I’m so happy that it comes across in the movie, and you buy it. I’m reading some reviews as they’re coming in, and you get those shots of people saying, “Adam Sandler, I don’t buy him the way I did Burt Reynolds.” I’m like, Bullshit!
BE: I didn’t have a problem with Sandler at all. The reason I asked if you were on set is because I was wondering if Michael Irvin could really dunk like that.
ST: Yeah, he can. I mean, talk about an athlete. That guy is a serious athlete, and he has some (acting) chops! Irvin is actually...
BE: He was good, I was really surprised by him.
ST: My favorite scene in the movie is the basketball scene.
BE: Yeah, he just pops Sandler, doesn’t he?
ST: Yeah, that was a nice, nasty day of shooting.
BE: But that did beg another question. When I read that Bob Sapp (he plays gentle giant lineman Switkowski) was 6’4”, it made me think, Okay, how short is Adam Sandler?
ST: You’d think he’s shorter than he is. He’s 5’11”.
BE: Did they just frame the scenes in such a way that Sapp looked bigger?
ST: Yeah, and Cromwell (actor James Cromwell, who plays warden Hazen), They said he’s 6’4”, but I’m sorry, he’s 6’5”, 6’6”. There’s that one shot of Adam standing next to Cromwell, where he’s looking up at him, sort of David to Goliath-like. Yeah, Cromwell’s a tall guy, too. So Adam didn’t have the benefit of having sort of average sized guys around him.
BE: This is a general screenplay question. When it comes to writing for a PG-13 movie, how hard is it to decide where you’re going to place that one ‘fuck’?
ST: At first, we thought about the great “He broke his fucking neck” moment (from the original). The first draft I did was an R. And I don’t know if you know the germination of it, but Adam was not (the lead). When I initially wrote it, I wrote it for the paradigm of Brad Pitt, for Vince Vaughn, for one of those guys that’s typically associated with a Burt Reynolds of the 21st century. And at the eleventh hour, Adam hopped on. I was developing it with Jack Giarraputo, his producing partner, who deserves all the credit in the world on this thing. I mean, Jack was just a demon on this, and honestly was just on a mission to get this thing made. And every time Adam was in the office, we would say, “Why don’t you play Paul Crewe?” And he’d just blow it off, going, “Ah, I’m too short, leave me alone.” And sure enough, at the eleventh hour, when we’re going after actors and directors, I get a call from Jack telling me that we found our Paul Crewe, and it’s Adam Sandler.
At that point, I wasn’t thinking in terms of, we just went from an R to a PG-13. But that’s the only way you can do an Adam movie at this point and capitalize on his audience, was with that PG-13 rating. And then it did come to that point where… I had a fair number of ‘fucks’ in that movie. I took the license of, all right, we’re in prison, you’ve got a former jock, there’s going to be a pretty liberal use of the word ‘fuck.’ And Jack was great with it, because it’s always easier for somebody else to kill your kids than you, and Jack was very helpful. I think our one use of (‘fuck’), for Rock, is great. If you’re going to use it, you gotta get a laugh out of it.
BE: Well, giving it to Rock was the smart call, too.
ST: Yeah, with him, you can’t go wrong. Rock makes me look a hell of a lot funnier than I am.
BE: Given the PG-13 restrictions you have for a prison movie, I think you used (foul) language effectively enough that you got the point across.
ST: I had that moment where I was thinking, God, I kind of want to do an R, and have those hardcore moments. But what I’m really happy about is that we retained them, you’re right. Thank you.
BE: You were able to recreate the ‘He broke his fucking neck’ scene in a way that still works (under PG-13 guidelines).
ST: A friend of mine saw the film, and his first reaction when he came out was, “My God, this movie has balls!” And I thought that’s exactly it. It’s a hard thing to capture, and it’s the first thing people are going to realize when they come out of the movie. There’s an inherent expectation that comes with an Adam Sandler movie, and balls is not the term that comes with it. So I think that’s one of the things that will really surprise people.
BE: There was one thing non-“Longest Yard” I wanted to ask you about: “Snakes on a Plane!” (An upcoming movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, “Snakes on a Plane,” is about a hit man who’s trying to kill a federal witness on an airplane, and to help him achieve his goal, he unleashes a crate of deadly snakes. No joke.)
ST: (with same mock enthusiasm) “Snakes on a Plane!” I think it’s called “Flight 121” now.”
BE: I think “Snakes on a Plane” is the best movie title I’ve seen in years.
ST: (laughs hard) An actress called me about seven months ago, she’s a friend of mine. And she said, “I’m reading your new script.” I had a couple of things out there in the ether, so I said, “Oh, what’s that?” And she said, “Snakes on a Plane.” And I was horrified just because there’s so much baggage that comes with that title. Now I think from a marketing standpoint, you’re right on, why not just embrace what the movie is? But I think at the eleventh hour, New Line probably flinched and said, “My God, we can’t put a movie out there called 'Snakes on a Plane.'
BE: I’m sure you’re right, and they’re going to give it some title like “Passenger 57” or something.
ST: Well, it literally is now called “Flight 121.”
BE: Oh, God. That stinks! It’s just inoffensive enough to alienate everybody.
ST: It’s vague enough where you have no idea what it is.
ST: I know, and somebody told me, I don’t know if this is true, but Sam Jackson was the one who said he didn’t want to be in a movie called “Snakes on a Plane.” And that’s what precipitated the change in title.
BE: Oh, because he’s been so choosy lately. (Editor’s note: So, Samuel Jackson will DO a movie about snakes on a plane, as long as it’s not CALLED “Snakes on a Plane.” Uh, okay, Sam, whatever you say.)
ST: Right! (laughs) I guess there’s something about snakes and planes that scares even the most indiscriminate of actors.
BE: You’ve probably heard this already, but the screening I went to for “The Longest Yard” just killed.
ST: Did it? I’m so happy to hear that, that’s awesome.
BE: Yeah, it blew the house down.
ST: That’s awesome, and that’s what that movie is made for. During the premiere last week, a bunch of us had the same impression, that God, that was such a Hollywood, cynical crowd. And I had seen the movie three times before with real audiences, and I’ll tell you, what I’m doing (on opening day) is I’m going to Westwood, I’m going to Magic Johnson theaters, I’m going out to Westlake Village, where maybe people that, God bless ‘em, have nothing to do with the industry, can go and just have a good time, and that is what that movie is made for. So that’s nice to hear.
BE: The two main sponsors of the screening were CD101, a local modern rock station, and UPN, so they had a really good mixed crowd, about half white, half black, and they all howled.
ST: That’s great. In an early draft of it, we had a female character, who was a penologist, so you can imagine the jokes I got out of that. But we ultimately decided to take her out (of the script), and quite honestly, I fought them on it, but Adam’s instincts were right in that she would be out of place. But what I’m really happy about is that we’re thinking we have to hit the female audience, and hit the urban audience hard, and the 25 and younger audience really hard. But in all of the tests that I’ve seen of the movie, women love the movie! My mom’s seen it, and she’s clearly biased, but also one of the more candid women you’ll ever meet. She’d absolutely tell me if she didn’t get it. She knows nothing about football, hated the fact that I ever played the sport, but got all of it. Hopefully, it’s legitimate to someone who’s an ESPN2 sports fan, but also accessible to a woman who kind of reluctantly goes along with her boyfriend, and finds that they can follow the emotional arc of the game, without knowing the difference between a flea flicker and fourth down.
BE: The ending is quite different than what happens in the ending in the original. Burt Reynolds, in the original, knows the he’s just sold himself down the river and that he’s going to be spending the rest of his life in jail. That doesn’t happen with Sandler in this one. Whose idea was it to change that, because that’s a pretty significant change.
ST: It definitely is. The original went so dark, and – this will tell you the difference between 1974 filmmaking and 2005 filmmaking – they shot a version (of the original) where Reynolds got shot.
BE: When he was going for the ball?
ST: Yeah, the guard shot him! And Reynolds fought for that ending, one that for obvious reasons didn’t make it. It was really a collective decision. I didn’t want to be manipulative in the sense of, oh, here it comes, you’re not gonna have a happy ending. It’s about as happy as it gets. They win the game, and there’s such wholehearted focus on that game that the reality of what his life is going to be like after that almost takes a back seat. And if you step outside of it and analyze that movie — which is not made to be analyzed — but if you do, you’ll realize that (winning) was more important for him. To me, there are ways to get excited about a movie, and you have to get excited about it, rather than being a paycheck for me. Someone asked me, “How do you get it up for a movie like ‘Amityville Horror,’” which I did a rewrite on, or the "Chainsaw Massacre.”
BE: Which was my next question.
ST: (laughs) I knew you were getting to that. And it’s the themes, the themes are what excites me. More often than not, it’s something like the contagion of courage, which is very much what “Longest Yard” is about. Let’s face it, 98% of the people who see that movie aren’t going to give a shit about the theme. But for me as a screenwriter, and for those who look for a little meat on the bones of their movies, they’ll find that in there. That’s what we tried to stay true to.
BE: Okay, so back to that “Untitled Texas Chainsaw Massacre Prequel.” A prequel, huh?
ST: (laughs) A prequel, yeah. I came about it because I had just done the rewrite on “Amityville Horror,” and got friendly enough with (“Amityville” producer Michael) Bay and those guys where they had mentioned that they had been trying to find a way to do a “Chainsaw Massacre” sequel. And I said, “You can’t really do the sequel, but I think you can do the prequel.” And I think a lot of that is driven by how we’re all sort of amateur psychologists nowadays. Everybody has that sense of, how did this person become that person? It’s a big part of the “Star Wars” franchise now. It’s the knowing wink-wink of, this is Leatherface as I know him, this is Anakin Skywalker as I know him, and this is how he became that thing. I’m also writing “Magneto” for Fox, based on one of the X-Men characters.
BE: Is that right?
ST: Yeah, it’s a young Magneto. It opens up with a 14-year-old Magneto being abducted and put into Auschwitz.
BE: This is live action?
ST: Yep. Yeah, it’s made for a 28-, 29-year-old actor. And then it tracks on how he seeks vengeance on the Nazis who killed his parents in the camps. And in the same way — ala Anakin Skywalker, Leatherface, any of these iconic characters — what was interesting for me and what will be interesting for the audience is, “All right, now I understand why he did that thing. Does it make me love him more? Maybe not, but-”
BE: But you understand it.
ST: Yeah, it definitely makes me understand it more. People are fascinated by the origins of any human being. It’s a way to indulge their pseudo-psychological interests, and have fun at the same time.
BE: The origin of evil in particular.
ST: Absolutely, you essentially see how Thomas Hewitt (Leatherface) became this thing, through his family, and it definitely makes him more apathetic, but also he’s still the very face of evil.
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