War films are a dime a dozen these days, but Recon is noteworthy in how it steers away from being a macho power fantasy about tough guys on a mission and exposes the truth of the men who go off to fight, kill, and die for their country; most of them just want to make it through the day so they can rest at night and go home in one piece when their time is up. Set during World War II, Recon follows a small scout team who, after witnessing their commanding officer commit a war crime, are tasked with venturing into enemy territory with a local guide who may or may not be an enemy spy leading them all to certain doom. Every moment of the film is laced with paranoia, dread, and uncertainty, with only the presumed urgency of their mission driving these men forward, giving them the strength to put one foot in front of the other and march towards their unknown destiny.
Recon, starring Alexander Ludwig, is based on the novel, Peace, by Richard Bausch, which was published in 2008. Over the decades, Bausch has written tons of novels and short stories, several of which have been adapted into film, most notably Bob Balaban’s 1994 version of The Last Good Time.
While promoting the release of Recon, author Richard Bausch spoke to Screen Rant about his work on the original novel, Peace, as well as his experience with seeing his work adapted for film. He talks about his relationship with filmmaker Robert David Port, his views on adaptations in general, and shares some fun anecdotes from his brief time visiting the set. Finally, he shares the origins of the story’s grim subject matter, much of which was experienced first hand by his own father, who served in World War II.
Recon is out now on Digital and VOD.
How are you holding up in this odd and uncertain season?
It’s been something. There’s actually been some good things about it, in the sense that I no longer have to apologize for staying in all day and working.
Can you say what you’re working on?
I just finished a long novel called “Playhouse,” about some people putting on King Lear with a mad director who wants Cordelia to be deaf, and for The Fool to be signing her lines. I mean, she signs her lines and then The Fool says them. It’s been fun, but it’s done now. I finished a long story called, “Is That Gold?” and I’m working on stories now, while I sleep on nails, waiting to hear what they want to do with the novel.
As an author, when you write something so big, I don’t know how long it takes you to write something like that, but it’s like working without a safety net. You don’t know what’s going to happen with these hundreds of thousands of words you put down!
Yup. It’s six years worth of work, so… You never lose the sense of, “Am I the right person to be doing this?” William Maxwell said to me once, and he was in his 80s, he said, “I always felt like there was someone better qualified to do this than me.” So it’s just the life.
Incredible. Okay, so let’s talk about the movie, Recon, and your book, Peace. When you write a novel, do you think ahead to, “Man, I hope someone options this and makes a movie!” Or is that the farthest thing from your mind?
You’re not thinking about it while you’re writing. You want it to be clear, and you want to make a kind of cinematic thing in the reader’s head, you want the reader to see these things. That’s what Conrad’s talking about, to make you see. He’s not talking about “making you see my political agenda,” but he’s talking about “making you see these people that I’m seeing, exactly as I’m seeing them.” So you’re thinking about that, but… I’ve had options quite often. Just about everything I’ve ever done got optioned for one amount of time or another. And there was a film made, back in 1995, by Bob Balaban, called The Last Good Time, which was the title of that novel. But I never think about it until after the work is done. And then you hope that someone might want to pick it up. Because it’s a marvelous kind of validation.
So what happens with this one in particular? Did they call you? Is it out of your hands? Does the publisher let you know? How does that shake out?
My agent called me and said, you know, there’s this young guy in LA who wants to option Peace, and I said, that’s great! And pretty soon, he said, maybe we can have a conversation about it. So there was a three-way conversation, and Robert said, “I wish I could get together with you, where do you live?” He thought I was still living in Memphis. But I said, “I’m living in Orange, now,” and he said, “Oh my God, you’re only 40 miles south!” I said, “Yeah, so let’s get together.” So we met and had lunch, and a friendship started immediately. I said to my wife, Lisa, I said, “He’s a great guy. I hope the best for him.” I had the same amount of hope or expectation as I always have with options, because most of them don’t pan out. I said, “I wish him all the best.He’s really good, he’s good company and a good guy.” But he kept after it, he’d call me and say he was going to filming places where he might film it, and that he really wanted to do the film. He sent me a script. I don’t know how many times we met for lunch to talk about it all. The script was brilliant. I couldn’t ask for better. He’s a hell of a good writer. Finally, it happened! Typical of Robert, he paid me the purchase price months before the contract called for it. I said, “You know, you don’t have to send me a penny for another six months,” But he said, “No, I want to pay you now, it makes me feel better,” He said. We went up and we were on set. I have two families now, Robert and his wife, Lisa, and their boys. And my Lisa and my daughter-in-law, I love. We see each other socially, a lot. The best thing about it, actually, is that friendship, and the movie is amazing. It’s a hell of a good film.
There are a lot of war stories that wind up, to a certain degree, betraying their intentions by getting overloaded with being action movies. But they’re just guys out there. I imagine war isn’t like Hollywood depictions of it. This movie leans into how harrowing and terrifying and dehumanizing and ugly it is to have to go out and kill people.
Yeah. I think Robert handles it so amazing. These guys are just guys, and they’re terribly interested in just getting to the next day. None of them have an agenda except, “Just let me get through this.” I thought he handled that brilliantly. He added a couple of things, and the things he added, I thought were amazing! I’m going through it going, “God damn, that’s good!” That scene on the high suspension bridge is just incredible. It’s so intense, and then the tension seems to ease, like the terrible thing you’re expecting isn’t realized, but then, suddenly, it is, in a way you weren’t looking for. To pull that off, it’s straight out of the Russians, that’s Dostoevsky, you know? And that’s not in the book, but I’m glad it’s in the movie, and I told him that.
Did you wish you had written that?
Yes. There were many things in the film, I wished I had written them or thought of them. When they’re dragging (spoiler) away from the sniper, there’s a trail of blood in the snow that you see in that zoom shot. I said to my wife, Lisa, I said, “My God, I didn’t think of that, look at that! That’s amazing!” In any case, a writer who says that a movie maker hasn’t put his book down exactly the way he or she thought it up, is a fool. A movie is a different art form. And this movie deeply respects the novel. It’s mind-altering, and I loved it. I think people are going to respond, I really do.
You said that they sent you a script. Did you give them notes or anything, or were you deliberately hands-off?
I jokingly said to Robert, when we were just beginning to see what friends we were going to be, I said, “It’s your movie. I don’t care if you make a musical out of it starring the Muppets!” I said, “Make your movie.” But when he sent me the script, I looked it over very carefully, and I kept saying to Lisa, “My God, he gets it, he really gets it! This is gonna be wonderful!” I did see it, but I didn’t have anything to say but “keep on going!” I really liked what he was doing with it. One of the things I thought was wonderful was how much he respected the dialogue that I had written. But the dialogue he adds is marvelous and funny and just right, you know? The guy’s a hell of a writer. So, for me, the whole experience was just fun, another good thing going on. I’ve been very fortunate… I’ve had two movies made and another one on the way, just in the last three years. I mean, this wonderful French director, Gilles Bourdos, has made a movie out of six of my stories, called Espèces Menacées. That was released two years ago. It played all over the world. It didn’t get released in the States, but it’s a hell of a movie. I’ve been very lucky. Very lucky.
We’ve heard so many stories about authors who aren’t huge fans of the movies that have been adapted from their work, and it looks like you haven’t had that kind of experience.
No. And in fact, sometimes a writer who objects like that is being a fool when you think about it. A movie is a movie, and a book is a book. They’re just different. If the movie respects the book, then I don’t think a writer can ask for anything more. In this case, the movie not only respects the book, but it enlarges it in ways that the author of the novel wasn’t really looking at! If I’d had another ten years with it, maybe I would have seen some of the stuff Robert added, but I’m just so happy with the way it turned out. I’ve seen the movie about seven times now, and I never get tired of looking at the pictures he puts up. It’s stunning. I’ll tell you one funny thing. I was on set, and Chris Brochu is standing there, and they have to pretend to see this beautiful deer. They finally didn’t end up putting it in the movie, and one of the reasons was because the only thing they could find that resembled a deer was this mangy looking… What’s it called? Taxidermy. It looked sad. It was, like, the fourth take, and he says, “I’m supposed to say that’s beautiful? What am I, a f****** actor?” It was just perfect. Everybody on the set laughed our asses off! (Laughs) Everybody was terribly serious getting this done, but there were times to be goofy, too. It was fun to be around, you know? And to watch Robert work. He has a patient way about him. He’ll say, “Oh, I like that, I really like that… Now let’s try it this way.” You know? And they went right with him. Every single thing he wanted to do, they were there. And they were freezing! It was cold as hell.
When you’re on set, do you become a resource for the filmmakers?
I was just a fascinated observer. Everybody was so hospitable and so sweet. They’d come up and shake hands, talk about how much they liked the book… It was really a fun experience. And afterwards, we all went to a restaurant, told jokes, laughed. The guys did Karaoke in this one restaurant up there. So it was a lark, you know? A whole lot of fun.
I’m thinking now about the story of Peter Benchley throwing a fit when he discovered Steven Spielberg was going to blow up the shark at the end of Jaws… Fortunately, nothing like that seemed to happen here!
(Laughs) Not at all. No. And, you know, that movie is better than the book. To be honest, it really is.
The book is sort of pulpy, really. And God, those actors, geez. Robert Shaw? Christ! Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, they’re all great. Murray Hamilton, standing there, saying, “My kids, too, were on that beach!” I love Murray Hamilton. He was a terrific character actor.
Watching Recon, I’m so glad there aren’t scenes of thousands of soldiers going up each other. You got to tell a personal, intimate story that is rarely achieved in this genre.
The story itself was quite… The woman being killed, the sniper, those are things I made up, but the basic story, of coming upon the dead German soldier on the path, and being guided up and over the hill by the Italian peasant with the rope-sewn shoes… My father told it as a funny story. He came this close, he would say, to shooting the son-of-a-b**** because he wouldn’t run. He’d say, “Via! Go, Goddammit, Go!” But the thing that really did it for my father, who was a devout Catholic, was that he realized the sergeant was telling him to take him off to the woods and shoot him, and the old man realizes it and starts crying, saying the Hail Mary, and my father recognized the prayer. And then the old man pissed himself, he was so frightened. My father told the story about how awful it was, and how he took him down to the woods, away and out of sight, fired into the ground, and made him run, made him go away. That part of it is so intimate that it sort of makes the story intimate, just by the power of what’s going on with it.
That’s incredible. That’s such an integral scene, and it’s straight out of your father’s life.
Straight out of it. I gave it to him as a story I wrote when I was 24. I wrote it as a story. He read it, and he said, “I disagree,” as if it had been a proposal or something! (Laughs) And then he said, “We overturned a car the day before, and a kraut officer and a whore fell out. We took them away, but you never knew what you were going to find. It was really paranoid.” And I was thinking of that, one night. I had just finished a long story called The Harp Department of Love, and I was feeling all proud that I’d finished it, and I was lying there, thinking about my dad. It was getting near his birthday, he’d been dead 11 years, and I started thinking about that story, and I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m old enough to write that. I can write that. I’m a novelist! I don’t have to hold myself to the facts.” And then, as I was writing it, the wagon was unloaded, the kraut officer and the whore fell out, and the kraut officer shot two of them, and my hero, Marson, shoots the kraut. And none of that happened in the story my dad told, but I realized, being a novelist, you can make this happen. And I got five pages past it, and went, wait a minute, I can’t just leave that… They murdered this woman! And the whole moral center of the book opened up, to my surprise, which is when you trust it: when it surprises you. That’s how that all unfolded.
Next: 10 Of The Best War Movies Of All Time, Ranked According To Rotten Tomatoes
Recon is out now on Digital and VOD.
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