'American Assassin' Writer on Changes From Book to Movie, Real-Life Similarities

"For better or for worse, in some ways for worse, the world didn't change, the world headed even more in the direction I was writing from," Stephen Schiff says. "So [the movie] does feel timely, and I'm glad it feels timely."
Christian Black

[Warning: The following story contains spoilers from the movie and book American Assassin.]

Michael Cuesta's American Assassin is based on a book of the same name by Vince Flynn, who wrote an entire series of thrillers about counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp. But there are some key differences between Flynn's novel and the movie starring Dylan O'Brien as Mitch.

"The movie's very different from the book," screenwriter Stephen Schiff says of the changes made for the big-screen version. "There's no bomb in the book. There's no character like Ghost in the book. Most of what's in the movie is not in the book."

Perhaps most significantly, the tragedy that motivates Mitch, which in the book was the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, has been updated to the film's opening terrorist attack on the beach.

"We weren't going to go back to [the Lockerbie disaster] so I had to really create something contemporary that would be as huge and as terrible, which I think the movie conveys," Schiff adds. Still, the movie does portray the same "coming-of-age story."

"One of the things that I really felt in the whole Vince Flynn series was, if you go through all the books, he becomes a very experienced, powerful adult. You get a sense of [the beginning of] that in the book American Assassin and I wanted to convey that sense very strongly albeit through different means in our movie. I kind of wanted to do that idea justice. And I hope we did," Schiff says. "That guy on the beach at the beginning is a boy and that guy at the end is a hardened — even though he's boy-ish in many ways  he's American assassin."

Schiff, who serves as a writer and executive producer on FX's The Americans and whose film-writing credits include the Wall Street sequel Money Never Sleeps and the 1999 Michelle Pfeiffer starrer The Deep End of the Ocean, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about what attracted him to this project and the timeliness of a number of plot points, which have echoes of recent terrorist attacks and geopolitical issues.

How did you get involved with this film? I know it's been in the works for a while and took on a few different incarnations.

Yeah, well that's true. There were some previous scripts, and people worked on it and had various ideas for it over the years. I was approached two or three years ago, 2015 maybe. And I looked at the scripts and the book and the character and the idea of basically launching something like this, because there were a lot of books and a lot of places to go and there were a lot of changes that needed to be made, and I saw something in it that surprisingly interested me. In the approach that Vince Flynn took to the character and to all of his characters, he gets inside their heads and you watch them go through these very dire situations and you see what's inside the traditional CIA secret agent tough guy. I was struck by the idea that you could get inside the feelings that these people have and even though you would be experiencing their extraordinary competence and skill and speed and energy and athleticism and fearlessness, you'd also see what's behind that. You'd see fear, vulnerability, indecision, emotion, conflict — all of the things, all of the drama that goes on inside them as well as the drama the action scenario sets up. And trying to find that and do that really interested me. [There was also a desire] to make it feel really gritty and down to earth that we're on now, and the challenges of that interested me.

There is a lot of gritty stuff in this movie, particularly the scene where Mitch's fiancee is killed. And that and the scene where, viewers know it's Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), but someone basically opens fire on a square in Europe, those incidents seem very similar to recent terrorist attacks. Did you draw on any real-life inspiration as you were writing these things?

Well the strange thing — and the sad thing really — is that I didn't. I was just making these things up and then unfortunately a lot of them happened, not because I'm prescient but because that's the world we're living in and I guess as I was writing it some of that edginess that we're all experiencing seeped into the work as I think is justifiable for a movie like this.

Obviously you couldn't predict the climate in which the movie's released, but what happens all feels very timely, even the fact that the plot involves a nuclear weapon and concern about nuclear warfare. What do you make of the timeliness of the film?

It was kind of a big risk that I took, and I was aware of it at the time. One of the things that felt like a risk as I was writing it, and I questioned myself about it was that this takes place in a world that's post-our treaty with Iran, curtailing their nuclear weapons program. And I had already written that into the screenplay when the election happened last November and we were already shooting, or almost done shooting. Not that these things are immutable, but there was a lot of talk about getting rid of the treaty. The world changes, and the more you try to hew to reality the more risk you take and we took a lot of risks. For better or for worse, in some ways for worse, the world didn't change, the world headed even more in the direction I was writing from. So it does feel timely, and I'm glad it feels timely. There may be people who expected more of a comment or political analysis of what the situation is. That of course was not what I was trying to do here. I wanted the situation to be real and have it feel like this is happening in our world. It's not a movie about discussing that but it's a movie that includes that and part of what's exciting about it is that it really feels like it could be happening right now.

As Mitch goes along in the film he meets Hurley, Michael Keaton's character, and Ghost, and Hurley and Ghost have a history that the viewers learn about as the movie unfolds and the characters interact in the present. Did you play around with how much to reveal in terms of the backstories for Ghost and Hurley?

Yes. I played around with that a lot. And I played around with different backstories at different times. I always knew that I wanted Ghost to be a kind of mirror of Mitch and they are, in a strange way, sort of a misbegotten and pretty dysfunctional family. You've got Hurley as the father and Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) as the mother figure and these two Cain and Abel brothers who don't even know each other until the movie's gone on for quite a while. Ghost had come to hate Hurley, coming out of in a way, a kind of love for Hurley and a feeling that Hurley had selected Ronnie who became Ghost as a very special son and made him feel like a son, and then Ghost disobeyed the chief lesson he'd been taught and Hurley reacted to that and did what he said he'd do in those circumstances, but Ghost, because of that emotional bond that occurred, can't forgive him. That creates that fury in him. There were versions of my script where I filled in a lot of backstory [and there were even scenes showing that]. There were scenes in which you could find out much more about the incident Ghost and Hurley are discussing because they allude to it but they don't go deeply into it. But my feeling about this is that we're all very used to backstory in movies and we think it's important to have and we sit still for those scenes but really, actually it's not very realistic. When people have a backstory like that, they don't sit there and talk to each other about it at great length because they both know the backstory. They might spin a few accusations and express some pent-up rage about it the way our characters do in that torture scene but they're not thinking, "Well, there's an audience here that we have to fill in." We wanted to avoid that too. I felt that as long as you get at the emotion of the backstory there to know the details I don't know if that's a question the audience really has. It's a question that filmmakers have but does the audience really have it, maybe some do, but I felt let's not slow this down. Because I had a story of what happened in the incident, in which Ghost was left behind and was captured—it was probably something that was related to the ISIS and Syria conflicts and what happened and where it happened. All of that I had in my mind and all of that was there. But to burden that scene with it would have slowed that scene down and slowed the movie down.

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