When the Devil offers you a deal, it takes balls to negotiate the terms and conditions, but that’s exactly what Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did when they made their mark upon the movie industry. Their rebellious nature and determination resulted in some of the most unique films of the 1990s, including the essential biopic of HUSTLER founder Larry Flynt, in THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT (1996).
Their first script got stuck in development Hell and never made it to the screen, but their second (Problem Child) was green lit and became a huge financial success for the studio (Imagine/Universal). The end result, however, was very different from the original tone and intention that the writers set out to create. What was initially meant to be a very black comedy about how awful children can be had been reduced to a puerile mixture of infantile slapstick and toilet humor. This left the writers in a conundrum. They were considered ‘hot’ in Hollywood and the studios all wanted to work with them, but now they had an indelible reputation as the guys who made kiddie comedies, and so their more outlandish pitches weren’t even given the time of day. They wanted to tread new ground, and so a change was on the cards.
Alexander and Karaszewski made a conscious decision to rebrand themselves and forge a career in the manner of which they had originally desired. They returned to their roots, into the world of American Independent Cinema. Casting their minds back to their student days at USC in the early ‘80s, they focused on a lingering obsession for a project; the life and work of Edward D Wood Jr. Assembling a treatment, they presented it to several directors (including Michael Lehmann and John Waters), but it was through Heathers alumni Denise Di Novi that the project was passed on to Tim Burton. The writers wanted him to lend his name as an Executive Producer (or ‘Presents’ credit) so that they could generate more funds for the film. Burton loved it, expressed his desire to direct and the rest is history. Suddenly, Alexander and Karaszewski’s little movie about an oddball exploitation filmmaker had transformed into an Oscar winning behemoth that changed the way that we looked at the outsider as part of mainstream cinema.
Realising there was a short window to capitalise on this opportunity, the pair immediately began piecing together information on one of their other obsessions; Larry Flynt. During their college years, the stories of Flynt’s escapades had dominated the LA Times, and they followed every movement in detail. Here was a pornographer who ran for president, a man who was shot for what he believed in, yet still would not be silenced. He was, in many ways, an American icon, albeit an unconventional one. Flynt was someone who continually used his money to ‘push buttons’ as Karaszewski puts it.
“We consciously cooked up Larry Flynt, almost like a sequel to Ed Wood.” notes Alexander, “We used to joke that we only had two ideas for movies; two dream projects which both got made.”
As it became apparent that no one had written a book on Larry Flynt at that point, the writing duo quickly formed a plan. “We had followed the courtroom events as they happened and so we craftily realised that we could actually get paid to write the Larry Flynt story.” continues Alexander, “We wrote Ed Wood on spec, so we didn’t get paid to do that, but we thought that we might have this bizarre opportunity to set up a pitch about Larry Flynt of all people.”
It was a gambit that paid off. A short treatment was presented to Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, Platoon) who became involved as a producer, along with Janet Yang (The Joy Luck Club) and Michael Hausman (Silkwood). It was Stone’s involvement that enticed Milos Forman, who was initially dismissive of the subject matter. Upon reading the screenplay, he was incredibly enamoured with it, telling collaborator Adam Davidson “This was the kind of script directors dream about. It had a strong story; very interesting characters; a good structure.”
The writers worked with Forman for a full year, developing a first draft the script in hot, smoky hotel rooms. They attained a ‘mole’ in the Larry Flynt Publications camp, in the shape of Chris Gore, the founder of Film Threat (a movie magazine which was acquired by LFP). Alexander and Karaszewski had contributed to FT in the past, including an interview with Johnny Depp (essential reading from Issue 19), and were on good terms with them. Gore stole the pair a copy of every back issue of Hustler for their research, which was now reaching Herculean levels. Folders upon folders of newspaper articles, clippings and reports all began to filter into a three act structure.
“What happens on all of these films though is that we have been much more involved than writers tend to be in Hollywood.” explains Karaszewski, “This is because we become the historians. These are not extremely famous people, and it’s hard to find out a lot of information about them. Due to this, we become the archive, so we meet with everybody involved with the production.”
Shortly afterwards, Larry Flynt found out they were making a movie and sought out the people behind it. At first, the studio was terrified, with no one wanting to return his call, however, meetings were set up and it transpired that Flynt was fully behind the project. In fact, the writers were surprised by the fact that he focused in on minutiae, as opposed to the grander, more potentially embarrassing aspects of his life. As highlighted in their Newmarket script notes, Flynt took them up on tiny details; “I never served biscuits and molasses at my club. The Jackie O issue went into three printings, not four. My magazine never depicted bestiality.”
Alexander and Karaszewski challenged Flynt on the latter claim, drawing reference to a grizzly bear pictorial which ran in October 1982. According to the writers “There was a pause. Larry’s eyes twinkled mischievously before replying; “Ah, that grizzly was just bein’ friendly.”
In a strange, ironic twist due to the massive First Amendment case that Flynt won against Southern Baptist and Televangelist Jerry Falwell, the filmmakers did not actually need Flynt’s consent to make a movie based on his life. They would, however, need his permission to use the Hustler brand within the film; something they had now acquired.
Casting was a difficult process in certain ways, for the writers were not intent on serving as cheerleaders for Flynt. They didn’t want to present him as a squeaky clean bastion for free speech, but it would be impossible to maintain interest in someone wholly reprehensible for over two hours. A complex and ambiguous figure was required; someone who an audience could simultaneously love and hate. At one point, Bill Murray was being seriously considered for the titular role.
It would be Woody Harrelson who perfectly encapsulated Flynt with his domineering, forceful presence, Southern charm and effortless swagger. He was complimented greatly by a career best performance from Courtney Love the tragic Althea, a former stripper who became Flynt’s business partner, soul mate and wife, before contracting AIDS and drowning at the couple’s home in 1987.
A five minute audition tape had been circulating among the studios while the film was in development. It belonged to a young actor by the name of Edward Norton, and contained his casting video for Primal Fear. In Norton, they had found their Lawyer; Flynt’s confidante, champion and support. The character of Alan Isaacman was a composite, as there had been many legal representatives pass through Flynt’s employ throughout the years. This is something that the writers try to avoid at all costs, but was unavoidable in this particular instance.
“I always enjoyed our time with Alan Isaacman, who was delightful.” Says Alexander, “He was vaguely astonished by the whole production.”
Supporting roles from Crispin Glover (who glued his left eye shut for the justification of a single scene) as Arlo, a long standing Hustler employee, James Cromwell as political antagonist Charles Keating, and Brett Harrelson as Larry’s brother Jimmy Flynt, all helped to elevate the realism and authenticity of the feature. Flynt himself even appears as Judge Morrissey (despite being reluctant to appear onscreen, due to his poor state of health at the time). The reasons for these casting choices also contain an array of enigmatic and intriguing motivational factors which add depth and meaning to the construct of the film.
Certain elements were altered and omitted from the original script, including Flynt’s campaign for the Presidency, but one thing that makes The People vs. Larry Flynt a standout ‘90s film is the attention to detail and dramatic flair which exists amidst the courtroom scenes. Forman was obsessed with the O.J. Simpson case, and wanted to portray the intricacies of the legal process as part of the film, something which has been subsequently emulated on many occasions.
Touching, humorous, original and striking, The People vs. Larry Flynt has become a benchmark of ‘90s cinema in that is helped to define a structure and approach that was very much against the grain for major studio productions at the time. Alexander and Karaszewski cemented their propensity to celebrate the outsider with their ‘Anti-Great Man Movie’ and set the groundwork for their subsequent collaboration with Forman; Man On The Moon (1999), the superlative tale of incendiary comic Andy Kaufman.
“All of these years later, because of all these movies, people try and understand Larry Flynt’s story or the mythology that surrounds him,” concludes Alexander, “The idea of framing him as this complicit battle between the guy who puts out smut and the guy fighting for free speech. That was the way we saw his life. At the time (when we conceived the film), he was completely reviled. He was horribly despised and universally hated. People just thought of him as grotesque. The idea of us coming in and saying ‘Let’s make a movie about him’ was so perverse and so weird.”
Thankfully, it was something that they persevered with, for if it hadn’t been for Alexander and Karaszewski, the 1990s may have been a very different decade in terms of movies, and for that we all need to be eternally grateful.