The screenwriter talks about his big-budget blockbuster scripts like ''Die Hard'' and ''The Flintstones''
He writes movies you don’t think anybody writes — movies that feature exploding buildings and choruses of automatic weapons — but unlike the much-trodden-upon authors of sensitive dramas, Steven E. de Souza gets respect in Tinseltown. At 46, this self-described ”underfed, scrawny teenager” has grown up to become the Charles Atlas of screenwriters, pumping out a succession of explosive hits — Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hrs. (1982), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985) and The Running Man (1987), and Bruce Willis’ Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990, De Souza’s top-grossing movie at $117 million) — and one sulfuric bomb, Hudson Hawk (1991).
He kicked off this summer with Beverly Hills Cop III and, for a change of pace, The Flintstones. De Souza was the first of an inglorious cavalcade of 32 writers on the latter project and boasts, ”Every joke that was in my script is in the movie, including RocDonald’s.” It’s a typically bold comment from a rapid-fire talker whose Hollywood pitch is seldom less than perfect. And now that he’s directing his feature debut in Australia and Bangkok, turning the video game Street Fighter into a film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, De Souza, the man of few scripted words, is eager to expound his philosophy of action.
The hook of laughter and bloodletting. ”Some movies have gotten more violent because they also have the humor to offset it. 48 Hrs. was a watershed — the first movie that was balls-out funny and at the same time tough. The biggest laughs in my movies are things that really wouldn’t be funny out of context. Like the biggest laugh in Die Hard 2, when Bruce Willis says (to a flirtatious airline employee), ‘Just the fax, ma’am,’ it’s a terrible pun that gets a tremendous laugh.”
Hasta la vista, tag lines. ”Everybody wants a ‘Make my day’ line, but they try too hard. In In the Line of Fire, they decided ‘That’s not gonna happen’ was the line. Well, it’s not going to happen. It’s the audience that decides.”
Think bumper-car fights. ”Too many movies have generic action-car fights, people falling off buildings. I try to do something that’s part and parcel of the setting. The events in Beverly Hills Cop III could only happen in a theme park. The Flintstones is my first picture where no one gets killed — it predates the invention of the machine gun.”
Less is gore. ”I’m surprised by the escalating violence in movies, including my own. I’ll write, ‘He shoots the guard,’ but on the set they figure maybe the bullet should go into the guy’s ear and come out his eye and his eyeball should dangle. [A key theme in ”Street Fighter”] is that to be really tough, you have to face someone empty-handed. It’s sort of like a pacifist movie on steroids. There must be something snappier to say than ‘The buck stops here.”’ De Souza’s face lights up as he winds up and releases one final pitch: ”In this picture, the buckshot stops here!”