For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with Nicholas Jacobson-Larson & Dalton Leeb about their Black List script Strongman from Backstory Issue 31.
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Nicholas Jacobson-Larson and Dalton Leeb met in a way even these talented writers couldn’t dream up. They first crossed paths in Los Angeles in 2014 at a wrap party for the web series The Well, in which Leeb—a longtime commercial actor—starred and Jacobson-Larson composed the score. They got to talking and realized that not only were they both from Minnesota but they happened to grow up on the exact same street, some 100 yards apart, yet somehow had never met. Better late than never. They’d each been working in the film industry in their respective fields for years, but they also shared a desire to write. Jacobson-Larson had recently been commissioned by Florida’s Naples Philharmonic to pen a live concert piece based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. The work would require narration so Jacobson-Larson asked his new friend to write it with him, and a partnership that would land them on the 2017 Black List was born. “We both had tried to do it separately, but it was sort of obvious when we started working together that it was a perfect match,” Jacobson-Larson says. “We filled in gaps for each other, and I knew if I wrote something that was just okay, Dalton would make it better and vice versa.”
In the first years of their collective efforts, the duo wrote two comedy pilots and a feature, and then in December 2016 they found themselves in L.A. for the holidays with a lot of free time. “We wanted to do something that would allow us to go nuts and really stretch out creatively,” Jacobson-Larson says. They happened on a few articles online that featured some interesting—and bitter—quotes from British actor David Prowse, hardly a household name but someone who portrayed the most famous villain in cinema history: Darth Vader. As many did not know, Prowse apparently had a tortured relationship with the character, Star Wars creator George Lucas and most of the cast and crew of the original trilogy. His willingness to share those sentiments publicly led Lucasfilm to ban him from all official events in 2010. “We came across Dave’s story, did some more online research and realized there might be enough there for a movie.” They ordered Prowse’s autobiography, Straight from the Force’s Mouth, which chronicles his journey from bodybuilder to small-time Hollywood actor to a guy who spent his workdays on the set of the beloved Star Wars films. “There were so many interesting anecdotes in there that struck a chord with both of us. His entire life experience felt so dramatically rich that we dove in [on his story].”
Their script, Strongman, is nothing like a straight biopic. Rather, Jacobson-Larson and Leeb aimed to craft an incisive reflection of the man at the center of the action. Prowse had become a complicated figure, often telling different versions of the same story or inventing a narrative that made him look better than he really did. By many accounts, he was difficult to work with on the Star Wars films, but Jacobson-Larson and Leeb smartly try to understand why he behaved that way. After all, though it’s Prowse in the Vader suit for the majority of the time, you never get to see his face, his voice was famously replaced by James Earl Jones, and when Vader’s mask finally did come off in Return of the Jedi, Lucas hired actor Sebastian Shaw to perform those scenes. “We really can empathize with him,” Jacobson-Larson says. “We do feel a lot of sympathy for Dave and hope he’s happy and doing okay. But at the same time there are so many stories about his behavior that have been corroborated by so many people, and they were just hilarious to us. So we decided to embrace that comedy and honestly just tell his story as truthfully as we possibly could. Not in a journalistic sense but through all our research, we came up with our interpretation of who this man is and what his life meant.”
The writers broke the entire story over the course of a week, doing a detailed outline that they didn’t alter too much as the writing process played out. While they were in the same room for outlining, they did the actual writing of the script separately—kind of. Using a program called WriterDuet for the first time, they were able to contribute individually and see their partner’s edits in real time. The program has a video function built in as well, so they could chat about the script each morning. “I think we were able to fly through it because of that setup,” Leeb says. “The actual writing was maybe three weeks at the most. Everything we’d written prior to that took quite a bit longer, but there was something about the material that just clicked with us. It came together very organically.” Their script uses a smart framing device that features an older Prowse sitting down for a TV interview about his exile from Lucasfilm. The actor uses the camera—and the opportunity—to tell the majority of his life story, and the script then flashes to those memories. “We found so many interview clips of Dave as an older man, so we had that framing device pretty much right away. We found him so fascinating it felt very natural to do it that way.” And as noted, not all the stories Prowse told matched up with the visuals. “When we watched however many of these interviews, we noticed he tells some of the stories differently,” Jacobson-Larson adds. “He’s the perfect unreliable narrator.”
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