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A Conversation with Mark Bomback

The writer of Die Hard 4 and Unstoppable, Mark Bomback is one of Hollywood’s leading action screenwriters with a long list of major projects in development or about to go into production. Below, Mark talks about his love of classic genre stories, working with the unstoppable Tony Scott and Denzel Washington and what really makes the Die Hard series tick.

Your story, “Still Life” feels very much like an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone.  Are there any particular “eerie” stories that provided an inspiration, on the screen or off?

I am most definitely a huge fan of both those shows, as well as The Outer Limits. I think The Twilight Zone in particular has informed my approach to genre fiction, both as a screenwriter and in my occasional stabs at prose writing.  Regarding the story “Still Life,” I wasn’t directly inspired by any film, TV episode, or short story in particular, however I’ve been a serious Stephen King fan since I was 11 years old, and his short fiction – particularly his collection Night Shift – hugely influences any genre writing I attempt. I also love Jonathan Carroll’s fiction, and particularly adore the stories in his collection The Panic Hand (the title story, as well as “Mr. Fiddlehead,” are especially great). In terms of the subject of immortality, I can still recall how moved and troubled I felt after reading Natalie Babbitt’s brilliant Tuck Everlasting when I was in 5th grade. It had an almost biblical impact on my opinion regarding any and all fountains of youth.

Your film Unstoppable is in theaters now, directed by Tony Scott.  In terms of the modern action film, Scott has few peers.  His relationship with Denzel Washington is one of the more notable Actor/ Director alliances in contemporary Hollywood. How did writing for the ongoing Scott/Washington juggernaut affect your process?

To be honest, from the moment I first conceived of the character of Frank Barnes, I had Denzel’s voice in mind – this was way before Tony came on to the project.   My big fear was that Tony would shoot down the possibility of Denzel simply because they’d just wrapped on The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, and in fact I do believe Tony would have preferred to avoid the inevitable knocks from critics regarding his going back to Denzel once again.  However neither of us could deny the fact that there truly was no other actor on the planet we’d rather see play that role.  Once Denzel came on board and we began script meetings in pre-production, it was truly fascinating to watch the two of them at work. They have a certain shorthand, of course, but what’s so unique is the level of trust each has in the other.  It allowed them to collaborate in a very truthful and focused way, without any of the nagging fears and insecurities that so often fuel those anxious conversations during prep.  What was even more gratifying was how quickly they came to extend that level of trust to me. I think it’s a testament not only to their confidence as artists, but also to the level of experience each of them brings to a film. I’ve personally never felt so secure in asserting my opinion as the writer, and I have never had that opinion so welcomed.

You wrote Die Hard 4, Live Free or Die Hard. To a certain extent, the Die Hard series goes all the way back to the 70’s, to the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe, which was the basis for Die Hard 1. What is the ongoing appeal (both from an audience and creator perspective) of the contained threat scenario?

Actually, I’m not entirely certain that the “contained threat” is really the secret of the franchise’s longevity. Certainly the first film created this whole sub-genre of action movie – the “Die Hard on a fill-in-the-blank” movie, and that is directly attributable to the narrative ingenuity of that first film – but what I think accounts for the success of the subsequent Die Hard films, including the one I wrote, is simply the character of John McClane. The same might be said of the Indiana Jones films – like Die Hard, the unique conceit of Raiders is undeniably something audiences responded to, but I think the reason both films did more than just spawn imitators resides in the power of thier protagonists.  I know that when I wrote my first draft of Live Free or Die Hard, it wasn’t so much the spirit of the action I was trying to nail (although that was a major, major concern) but really the voice of McClane that I knew would ultimately make it read like a Die Hard script.

Your forthcoming film Protection has an amazing pitch, a reversal of normal action film protocol that appears to cast The Witness Protection Program as the bad guys. What was the genesis of the project?

This is a project I was hired by 20th Century Fox, producer John Davis, and director Gary Fleder to rewrite.  The original draft was written a few years ago by Allan Loeb, a very talented writer, and was then subsequently rewritten by Miles Chapman, who incorporated some clever revisions.  Gary has his own specific ideas as to the kind of film he thinks this could be – something in the vein of Marathon Man, especially in terms of the psychological journey the protagonist takes over the course of the story.  Gary and I had been trying for years to find something to work on together in just this arena, so I was very excited by the opportunity to get involved. I hesitate to divulge much more, as it’s still in development, but I think it could wind up being a really fun film.

Another upcoming project, Jack the Giant Killer, as it is billed, seems like it will present an amazing opportunity to reinvent a classic story. How does one go about updating a narrative that is such an intrinsic part of our collective experience?

Again, this isn’t my original script, but another project I was hired to rewrite.  The original was written by Darren Lemke, who made some really interesting choices as to how to interpret and expand on the familiar fairy tale. I wrote on it for a little over a year, and worked with the director, Bryan Singer, to really try to mine every bit of visual and narrative fun that the tale offers. I had an opportunity to see some of the pre-production materials, and it’s definitely going to be a pretty massive spectacle.

The concept of eternal life is obviously one that many people think about. Still Life presents quite a dark view of what the reality could really equate. Did writing the story make you think twice about what you might do if the option came your way?

I confess, I’d pretty much weighed in against it before I sat down to the computer.  That said, I don’t believe anyone really knows how they’d respond to such an offer until presented with it.  Hopefully I’d have the foresight to turn it down.  Or at least remind myself to quickly re-read Tuck Everlasting.

Mark Bomback is a screenwriter whose credits include Live Free or Die Hard and Race to Witch Mountain. His new film, Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine is now in theaters. Mark lives in New York with his wife and four children.