A passion for words: Rutland native David Franzoni excels at what he loves

By Janelle Faignant

This past Thursday, AMC was playing the movie, Gladiator. The blurb in the channel guide boasts Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix in the movie, but it never mentions the writer.

The writer is Rutland native David Franzoni and his story — along with the movie’s five Oscars — is proof that wild dreams can come true.

Born March 4, 1947 Franzoni went to Rutland High School, hung out on Lake Bomoseen, where his family had a place, and went to UVM to study. He could have been any Rutlander, or Vermonter, at that point.

“I guess I became a film buff when – ” Franzoni began. “Look, when you grow up in Rutland, Vermont, in the 50s and early 60s the usual fare in theaters is Roger Corman monster movies and John Wayne westerns. When I got to college and discovered French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, it blew my mind and I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker.”

After college he tried grad school and “couldn’t stand it,” he said. “So I went to Berlin and bought a motorcycle.”

He drove all through Europe and the Middle East, and during that time bought a book called “Those About to Die,” by Daniel P. Mannix, which planted the seed for the script he later turned into Gladiator.

When he returned to the United States at age 29, he headed west, making the move they say all movie-career-oriented people must make to be in the business — he moved to Los Angeles. He knew one person there, a friend of his father’s, who was a producer at Disney. But when Franzoni met him he was working for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), screening movies all day and rating them, “PG, that sort of thing.”

“When I met him he was semi-retired,” Franzoni said. “So I didn’t really have any connections at all. But I dug in and just started writing. I figured the bottom line is you can politic and go to parties, but when you have to show somebody a script, you have to have a script.”

He was working on two. One became his first movie, the 1986 comedy “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Penny Marshall’s directorial debut, which starred comedians, Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Lovitz.

“It was not originally a comedy, by the way,” Franzoni said.

The other script never got made, but it got him his first agent. He sent it unsolicited to the infamous Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which represents stars like Jennifer Aniston, and they took him on.

“She hated the spec script that was Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Franzoni said of the agent. “When I got with CAA, which was kind of a miracle, I was a pocket client. Which meant (the agent) liked me but couldn’t actually sign me because you can’t get signed unless you’re making money. But you can’t make money unless you sign. So she handled me as a pocket client which meant that when there was something available she didn’t have to give to her regular clients, she sent me out.”

Franzoni then gave the script to Irving Azoff, an entertainment exec and manager who represented The Eagles and Van Halen, among others, and had just worked on the movie “Urban Cowboy.” They met at a party a day before Azoff was due to fly back to New York.

“He called me from the airport to tell me he wanted to do a script,” Franzoni said. “So what happened was because he was so powerful with CAA, CAA then had to sign me.”

CAA gave the script to Sissy Spacek. She hired him to write, and three days later, they sold the script to Ladd company — a production company founded by Alan Ladd, Jr., formerly President of 20th Century Fox.

“I was working a couple jobs at the time and I remember taking the meeting with Sissy, and I came out and had a flat tire,” Franzoni recalled. “I opened the trunk and my spare was flat, and I had 26 dollars in my checking account. A week later I had a quarter of a million in my checking account.”

But he wasn’t intimidated by the sudden onslaught of bankable Hollywood names suddenly in his orbit, because, “I believed strongly in what I was writing,” he said.

Since then he’s added many credits to his name, including his 1992 adaptation of “Citizen Cohn”; the 1997 Steven Spielberg-directed “Amistad”; and in 2000 he won two Oscars for writing and producing “Gladiator”.

Today he still lives in the L.A. area with his family and has three TV series in the works, plus a feature.

“The biggest difference between television and features was that TV was run by writers and features were run by directors,” he said. “And my feeling is, I really think that (TV) is the place to be because as a writer you have an enormous amount of respect. There’s much more of a band of brothers feeling among writers.”

One of the TV projects is called “The Osenberg List,” about Hitler’s grant writer Werner Osenberg, and the Nazi scientists who had a huge impact on U.S. science, including space exploration at NASA.

“There’s time machines and antigravity machines and death rays from outer space,” Franzoni said. “All this amazingly mad shit that the Nazis were paying to have developed. It’s a story about putting down those super weapons.”

And he recently submitted the first draft of a film project based on the life of the Sufi poet Rumi, who Franzoni calls “Like a Shakespeare. He’s a character who has enormous talent, and resonates today.” Last summer there were rumors that Leonardo DiCaprio would star in it.

Franzoni visits Rutland from time to time to see family, many of whom still live in the area. And no matter where he is, people look to him for advice on how to do what he did. His words of wisdom are frank, “Just come out here and f—–g write a script.”

“I think the most important thing, for kids reading this, you have to chase your dreams,” Franzoni said. “You have to decide. Look, we’re all going to die, so you can’t win at life, right? So if that’s the case then why not chase your dreams, why not go after the thing that means the most to you? Why not take a chance.”

The same idea is in one of Rumi’s quotes, which could sum up Franzoni’s experiences: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”