In Education of a Felon (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), Edward Bunker describes growing up on the fringes of 1930s Hollywood, where his father worked as a stagehand and his mother danced in Busby Berkeley musicals. Bunker, though, soon fell adrift in the world of make-believe. A perpetual delinquent, he first entered San Quentin at age 17. For the better part of the 1950s and the tumultuous ‘60s, Bunker inhabited America’s most storied prison. That he would one day return to L.A., find success as both a novelist and screenwriter, own a house off Wilshire, live with a loving wife and son, and have a 14-year-old golden retriever named Winnie, thus seems like pure convict fantasy, or a life story made only in Hollywood.
Bunker’s latest film is The Animal Factory, based on his own novel of the same name. Directed by Steve Buscemi and starring Willem Dafoe, the film opens on October 13. The Rail caught up with Bunker this past spring at his home in Los Angeles.
Rail: What qualities make up a good prison film?
Edward Bunker: Generally, what makes up a good film—story, characters, and so forth—except that with a prison movie I look for what’s real. You can have a great movie without it being real, true to life. But prison is a bit different. The best prison film I’ve seen that was both real and a very good movie was Cool Hand Luke (1967). It wasn’t a big fortress-like prison, but that’s just how Southern joints were.
Rail: Was the character of Luke in the film “real”—I mean, can one prisoner come to embody the hopes of all prisoners like he does? Or was it something else about the film that made it stand out?
Bunker: He is a Promethean character, really. But what I especially liked was just the way they ran the place. The prisoners’ moves, the sweatbox, the dorm, the count—all were accurate. And they don’t really have killers out at those places. Guys are usually forgers, burglars, or thieves, like Luke.
Rail: In Education of a Felon, you mention that the Cagney, Bogart, Garfield characters helped you carve an image of yourself as a small-time gangster.
Bunker: If you’re going to be a criminal, you gotta know what kind of criminal, how you’re going to act. You have to have a style. And they had a code. You killed a dirty rat, with one shot. Nowadays they just open up with a machine gun. Just like then, life still seems to imitate art, and so now kids just spray and pray. They mimic Pacino’s Scarface, not Paul Muni’s.
Rail: Do any of those films from Cagney or Bogart particularly stand out?
Bunker: High Sierra (1941), Raoul Walsh directed it, John Huston wrote it. Roy Earle’s the name of the main character, and I even named the main character in The Animal Factory Earl Copeland, after him. I mean, we all wanted to be like Bogart. [Bunker lights his cigar, winks.]
Rail: What about Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) with Burt Lancaster, which many critics consider to be a prison classic. You have written a remake of the film, yes?
Bunker: Brute Force doesn’t stand out when you look at it now, but when I was a kid, I thought it was a great movie. The structure doesn’t work now. It slows down, goes back over too many people’s lives. Some people who own the rights paid me to rewrite it, and I found that as I looked at it, it definitely set a standard with the showdown between the brutal guard and the rebellious convict, the rousing climax. But in my version, I cut down the flashbacks and focus more on the Cronyn-Lancaster conflict.
Rail: Turning to your work, do you consider Straight Time (1978) to be a prison film? I realize that only the beginning scene takes place in a prison, but could you make a case that the Dustin Hoffman character, who is trying to survive on parole, is still really in prison?
Bunker: No, I wouldn’t call it either a prison novel [No Beast so Fierce] or a prison film. It’s about how prison affected him. I actually thought I portrayed the parole system better in the book, where the antagonistic parole officer was really just playing by the bureaucratic rules. But in the movie the M. Emmet Walsh character was personally vindictive, because it played better. I thought the character was more evil in the book because it was more an indictment of the whole parole system.
Rail: The scene where Walsh gets his pants pulled down on the freeway—is that every convict’s fantasy?
Bunker: [Excitedly] Yeah, the convicts love it. They remember that scene and the one where Harry Dean Stanton is sitting by the backyard pool and says, “You gotta get me outta here.” It says it all—he’s got the whole house and yard and wife cooking hamburgers, but he can’t handle it.
Rail: Did you have much influence over Dustin Hoffman in creating the character?
Bunker: Yeah I did, but I should have had more, but I wasn’t taking of business back then. I helped with his gestures, and the capers. But somebody else should’ve played the part—he’s just not convincing as a criminal. He’s a great actor, but he doesn’t intimidate you. On top of that, Ulu Grosbard, the director, really didn’t like the character, so he made him into a fool. The jewelry store heist and the scene where Hoffman shoots Gary Busey weren’t accurate, because Grosbard didn’t care for the character.
Rail: How much impact did you have on Runaway Train (1985)?
Bunker: That’s my script. Anybody who knows my work knows it’s mine. When it came to me the two other writers had that Jon Voight character as a wife-killer. You can’t be a wife-killer in prison and be a legend, that’s a contradiction. He was also sick and kind of mentally ill, whereas I made it so you could believe he did what he did, that he could pull himself up from under that train.
Rail: How did the story differ from Kurosawa’s?
Bunker: Kurosawa’s story had been kicking around for a long time. It was about three convicts escaping, a going-from-frying-pan-into-the-fire sort of thing. They hired me because Bobby Duvall was thinking about doing it at the time, but he didn’t like the dialogue. So he said, get Miguel Piñero or Eddie Bunker to go over the script. Piñero had just gotten busted for coke, so they found me in Brooklyn. They set me up back here in Hollywood with Andrei (Konchalovsky), who is the best director I ever worked with. Most directors excel at one or another phase of making a film, but Andrei knows everything.
Rail: Were you happy with the way Voight played the character?
Bunker: Yeah, he gave the performance of his career. He essentially played me—the laughter, the manners, the style. And he’s done it twice, that’s a helluva compliment. The second time was in Heat (1995) Michael Mann made all those guys read No Beast so Fierce. Mann, by the way, knows more about how to pull a crime than I do—how to rob a bank, alarm systems, etc.—he’s a real perfectionist.
Rail: What was the response to your bit part in Runaway Train?
Bunker: [Stands up, excitedly.] I got convicts up north who bought the film just for the scene where I stick the guy who is trying to kill Voight. “That’s the best joint stabbing scene I ever seen,” they told me [Laughs]. And when there’s the riot in the cell block, I said we’re not going to bang cups. We’re going to do it like they really do—fire and flood, you know what I mean?
Rail: Did you have any control over the script of Reservoir Dogs (1992)?
Bunker: When I tried to change my dialogue, Quentin made me go back to the way he’d written it. How I’d gotten involved with it was that he had gone to the Sundance Institute, where one of his assignments was to break down a picture scene-by-scene, and he chose Straight Time. So when he was looking to cast Reservoir Dogs, he said, “I want to have somebody who really looks like a bank robber.” But when I got the script and it started with eight pages of dialogue, I was like “Man, what the hell is this?” And then we go to shoot that scene and we put on these black suits, I said, “this is not real, the waitress will recognize us after the job.” But then when I saw the movie, I realized it was not supposed to be real. It’s really a dark-as-you-can-get-comedy, and it worked. So now from Quentin I’ve learned to be looser with my dialogue, to throw in the off-beat stuff.
Rail: Are you satisfied with the way The Animal Factory turned out?
Bunker: Mostly. The acting by and large is great. Willem Dafoe does a very good job as Earl, Danny Trejo as Vito is strong, and Mickey Rourke as the drag queen steals the show. Edward Furlong, however, just didn’t understand the part. Steve Buscemi was my first choice as a director, and he really captured the emotional and psychological part of the relationship between the two leads, which is really kind of homoerotic, a love story without sex. But he toned down a couple of racial conflicts, though. I think he feared not being politically correct.
Rail: As a point of contrast, what do you think of more sentimental films, like The Shawshank Redemption (1994)? Was such open interracial friendship possible inside prison?
Bunker: Well, it’s a helluva movie. But, as for the realism, I don’t know. In places like Maine, they do transfer the hardcore prisoners out to the federal system, so you can have softer prisons like that one. For 99.9 percent of the prisons, the story was totally unrealistic, though. As for race, the story took place at a certain time. I mean, when I went to San Quentin in the 1950s, there was no racial trouble. An interracial fight wouldn’t start a war, like it did in the late 1960s.
Rail: One other sentimental film that comes to mind is Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (1958), about Barbara Graham, who was executed at San Quentin in 1955. In the film, Susan Hayward portrayed Graham as someone who had been rehabilitated and really wanted to become a suburban housewife. In your memoir, you cast her in a different light.
Bunker: [Laughs] She was a dope fiend and a whore up ‘til her last breath. After they transferred her to Quentin to be on death row, she would do striptease acts in front of the guys. She even got herself sent to the infirmary so she could put on a show. They had to put fogged glass on the windows to stop her.
Rail: The San Quentin prison writer Jim Tully once wrote that “criminals don’t change, they just grow out of it.” Do you agree?
Bunker: That’s true, they burn out. Except with these “Three Strike” laws, they reverse the old process. They’re keeping the older guys, past 40, inside. Whereas I would keep younger violent criminals in prison up to that point, and give them education and get them ready for the outside. That may sound punitive, but it would be like a medical quarantine, because the id seems to burn out. But the way they have it now, dehumanizing people in places like Pelican Bay, they’re just creating more trouble when these people get out. People can still come out of prison better, but in spite of the place, not because of it.