Q&A with John Fusco: A Screenwriter’s Thoughts on Writing and Living Your Personal Legend
John Fusco holds a black sash in Kung Fu. He’s been sparring partners with Jet Li and drinking partners with Jackie Chan. His Vermont farm is a refuge for rare and wild horses. He’s the screenwriter of nine films including Young Guns & Young Guns II, Hidalgo, and The Forbidden Kingdom. His current projects include The Highwaymen which will star Liam Neeson, a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an adaptation of Paulo Coehlo’s international best seller The Alchemist, as well as others that he could tell you about but he’d have to kill you with a lighting quick strike to your solar plexus. He’s the creator of Marco Polo, an original series that will premier on Starz in 2014. He’s a poet-warrior, and he might be the most interesting man in the world. He took a some time to share his thoughts on writing and living a great story.
JW: John, tell me a story.
JF: Have I ever told you about the time I crossed Central Mongolia on horseback with desert nomads?
JW: Nope, let’s start there.
JF: It had been my then thirteen-year-old son Gio’s dream since early childhood to ride the Genghis Khan trail on Mongolian horses. We drove nine hours through a sandstorm across Central Mongolia to find a horse-herder who would provide us with mounts to ride across steppes, desert, mountains, and alkaline marsh toward Ulaan Baatar. When we arrived however, we found that the herder had been at a traditional wedding four days earlier, was still drunk and had lost his herd. Now stranded, we had no choice but to ride half-wild horses caught by a nomad named “Borte” who would ride with us. By day’s end, we had run out of water and were separated from our support vehicle, a russian utility van which never met us at our rendezvous point. We got to a river bed but there was no water, and at this point I saw the nomads were uneasy. We looked out across this expanse and far off on the horizon was a ridge with the sun setting quickly setting behind it. Borte said he had a vague memory from childhood of a well located in a valley out over that ridge. Our only choice was to ride full gallop, racing the sunset to try and find this well. I looked at my son, with dirt on his face, and knew that as a father, not only did I have to survive this thing, but I had to protect my son. So we went full gallop across the dessert, crossing into the “Province of Bandits” and found the well just as the sun disappeared. It’s one of those experiences that really wakes up your primal DNA. I was really proud of my son and it’s become something that we draw upon often.
JW: This theme of adventure runs throughout your films. Your heroes are men who stare down larger than life villains and overcome insurmountable odds. Given that we don’t live in the wild west, the battles that we face are not often for our lives. How important is it for modern men to seek out situations that require bravery and sacrifice?
JF: You know, I’m working on a screen adaptation of a book called Shadow Divers, about the high-risk obsessed culture of deep wreck divers. These are guys that work regular jobs, but on the weekends risk their lives for the sake of adventure and discovery. The director and I were talking about why these guys do this, what drives them, and what we realized is that ultimately they are diving for self-worth. I think at heart, boys and men are adventure seekers but as we grow older that sense of adventure gets schooled out of us. Tamed out of us. Often what you see happen is that, as boys we are always climbing mountains and setting off on great adventures in some form–and then we slowly lose that desire over time as we often find ourselves in a life routine that smothers that instinct. But It’s an inescapable part of our DNA and it’s important to tap into and pursue.[/col_5] [col_5]
As I work on my adaptation of The Alchemist I’ve been thinking about this stuff. In the book, Paulo Coelho asks the question “what’s the world’s greatest lie?” And the lie is this: At a certain point in our lives we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. “The Alchemist” is about reclaiming our Personal Legend that we knew, deep inside, when we were younger. So when we cross Mongolia on horseback or run the Iditarod or climb Kilimanjaro, we are, in essence, kicking fate’s ass.
JW: Your films are not only tales of epic adventures, but of the relationships that are forged on the journey. What insights have you gained into the depth of relationship between men and are those relationships something you seek out in your own life?
JF: That theme is something that’s very important to me and I think that’s why I write about it so much. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve been able to sustain or achieve that depth of relationship, but the longing is there. If you go to Fort Sumner, New Mexico you can find the tombstone of Billy the Kid. He’s buried there with some of his regulators, and the epitaph on the tombstone is one word: “Pals”. When I first saw that years ago I knew I had my theme for Young Guns. And there’s a point in that movie where the gang is in jeopardy of breaking up and Billy the Kid, trying to keep them together, says “you get yourself three or four good pals, then you’ve got yourself a tribe. And there ain’t nothin stronger than that.” It’s a key moment in that story and really defines this band of brothers.
For me, the making of Young Guns, especially because we got to do it twice with the sequel, and we were pretty much living together for three years riding around New Mexico on horseback, going down across the border and getting in to trouble with Charlie Sheen… that really became that kind of experience for me. Those guys were my posse for a long time. I think there is a deep need for that kind of friendship and I still long for it. That’s why I’m drawn to the Texas Rangers, David’s Mighty Men of the old testament, the Wulin martial fraternity. There is a shared code of loyalty across those cultures and a sense that they have each other’s backs.[/col_5] [/row]
Interview by: Jeremy Wheeler | Images provided by: John Fusco