Entertainment Weekly: Have you spoken to Tom Clancy since you finished Clear and Present Danger?
Harrison Ford: We spoke about a month ago. I ran into him in Las Vegas at a symposium for honor students.
EW: What did you talk about?
HF: It was a private meeting. We chatted for some period of time.
EW: Did you know Clancy would be there?
HF: Listen, I’m not going to continue talking about this. I don’t want to make this interview about me and Tom Clancy.
Perched on a San Francisco hotel couch two and a half weeks before the opening of the latest Tom Clancy-based techno-thriller, Clear and Present Danger, Harrison Ford seems tense. The edginess is uncharacteristic for someone who has made a career out of appearing unflappable. Ford’s low-key performances as regular guys rising to extraordinary occasions have helped his films make more than $2 billion. And he has made his roles in the two most lucrative franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, seem effortless.
The attempt to launch a third Ford franchise hasn’t gone so smoothly. The actor faced hard work and headaches on 1992’s Patriot Games, when he first played Jack Ryan, the CIA-analyst hero of Clancy’s hugely successful (and just plain huge) novels. Clancy proved a loose cannon, trashing the film to the press, and a new ending was shot at the last minute after the first one bombed with test audiences. Ford signed on for another tour of duty in Danger, and it didn’t get any easier.
Danger is a case study of the perils of adapting a best-seller for the screen. It’s no easy task boiling down a nearly 700-page, labyrinthine novel (in which Ryan battles both Colombian drug lords and the U.S. politicos who wage an illegal war against them) to a 126-page screenplay without alienating devotees of the book, most notably its own cranky author. Ford’s insistence on altering the politically charged material threatened to rend the uneasy alliance between liberal Hollywood and conservative Clancy, a former insurance agent who skyrocketed to literary superstardom during the Reagan era thanks to a series of hardware-heavy novels, starting with 1985’s The Hunt for Red October. The ever-escalating cost of action movies (Danger cost nearly $60 million) made the stakes even steeper.
It’s not a pretty story, but it may have a happy ending: Danger opened in first place at the box office, earning $28.8 million in its first five days. So why isn’t Harrison Ford — or Tom Clancy — smiling?
Once upon a time, Tom Clancy was pleased with a Hollywood adaptation of one of his books. Well, sort of. Producer Mace Neufeld bought the rights to Hunt in 1984 before it was published, and when the 1990 film, which starred Alec Baldwin as Ryan, bagged $120 million in the U.S., Clancy conceded, ”They didn’t screw it up too much.”
Clancy then sold Paramount two more Ryan novels, 1987’s Patriot Games and 1989’s Clear and Present Danger. But when Baldwin opted to star in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway and Ford took over the Ryan role, things began to go sour. Prior to the June 1992 release of Games, the author started firing verbal torpedoes. Clancy (who declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article) publicly accused the filmmakers of bastardizing his book with plot alterations and technical mistakes, and sniped that Ford, who was 49 at the time of filming, was too old to play the 31-year-old Ryan.
Brandon Tartikoff, then head of Paramount, reached a cease-fire with Clancy, reportedly by offering him a rich deal for future projects with the studio, none of which have materialized. Nonetheless, if Clancy had intended to damage the franchise, he succeeded to some extent. Games fell short of Hunt domestically, with a solid but unspectacular take of $80 million.
”I think [Clancy’s criticism] did hurt the film,” Ford told Entertainment Weekly on the Mexico set of Danger in January. ”I don’t think it should have. It’s inevitable that a book changes in bringing it to the screen. It’s generally accepted by those professionals that have had some experience with the process. And if one doesn’t want to submit to the process, the simple expedient is not to sell your stuff.”
But Clancy had already sold more of his stuff. Games did well enough to sustain Paramount’s interest in continuing the Ryan film franchise with Danger. The next step was getting a screenplay ready. John Milius, who had cowritten Apocalypse Now, had completed a script for Danger before Games started shooting. ”Tom loved it,” says Milius, a right-wing comrade of Clancy’s. ”I was very faithful to his book.”
Given the books content, fidelity was a virture the filmmakers couldn’t afford. Ryan barely appears in the first half of the story, and he spends most of his time cooped up in a D.C. office, leaving many of the big action scenes to a squad of professional soldiers.
”There was no place for Harrison Ford in that film,” says Phillip Noyce, who directed both Games and Danger. Then, correcting himself, Noyce adds, ”There was a place, but the audience would have rioted.” So in March 1992, Paramount hired one of Games’ and Hunt’s cowriters, Donald Stewart (Missing), to put Ryan at the center of the story.
Stewart’s script — and a reported $10 million-plus payday — was enough to convince Ford, who commits to only one Ryan movie at a time, to agree to do Danger. Meanwhile, Clancy was getting steamed again. In June 1993, he told a Washington Post reporter that Stewart’s script was ”really awful.” Privately, Clancy’s words were even less kind. He faxed a series of memos to the production team, with comments ranging from quibbles (corrections of nautical commands and complaints about changes in characters’ names) to condemnations (”If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then this ‘script’ must have been crafted by a panel of maniacs”). He even took a potshot at Noyce’s oeuvre: ”If you shoot this script, Sliver will look like Citizen Kane.” (Noyce laughs off the salvo: ”He’s a writer. Hyperbole’s his trade.”)
”First things first,” Clancy wrote in sum, ”Clear and Present Danger was the No. 1 best-selling novel of the 1980s. One might conclude that the novel’s basic story line had some quality to it. Why, then, has nearly every aspect of the book been tossed away?”
Note to Clancy: What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. Or as Ford put it to EW in January, ”You do things when you’re typing that you would never do if you had to f—ing stand there and deliver [the lines].” Still, Ford and Noyce had their own concerns about Stewart’s script, and another Games coscribe, Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), came on board. His semi-contradictory mission, as stated by Noyce: to make the movie more like the book while continuing to strengthen Ryan’s role.
Hewing to Clancy’s vision, a subplot concocted by Stewart that had Ryan’s doctor wife (played by Anne Archer) performing experimental eye surgery on a young patient was excised. ”It was another movie, not just another strand,” says Noyce. ”I don’t think [Archer] was too happy.” (The actress was not available for comment.)
Zaillian’s script significantly departs from Clancy’s blueprint in the final scene, however. (Warning: Skip the next four paragraphs if you don’t want to know the ending.) In the book, Ryan confronts the President in the privacy of the Oval Office about the covert drug war. In the film, he then blows the lid off the scandal by publicly testifying before Congress.
Ford was a driving force behind this change. ”I thought we would be making an insufficient entertainment if we didn’t give people the satisfaction of knowing Ryan did testify,” he says. ”It’s hard to make an ambiguous ending to a two-hour movie. The audience is not normally satisfied [with that].”
With Danger’s resonances of Iran-contra, this new coda seems to attack the President, a Reaganesque figure let off easy in Clancy’s book. Says Ford, ”We have softened somewhat the political bias [Clancy] brings to the subject, not because we’re bleeding-heart liberals, but because we wanted to divest it of some of its baggage and let it walk on its own two legs.”
Clancy liked this script even less, according to Milius, who himself objected to the new ending. ”To go before Congress, which as we well know is a nest of snakes, is ridiculous,” he says. ”Anyone in this day and age who thinks that Congress is an honorable organization is a fool.”
Yet Milius’ reservations didn’t prevent him from cutting a special deal to rejoin Danger as an adviser for the action sequences, including the film’s centerpiece, in which a convoy of Chevy Suburbans carrying Ryan and other U.S. officials is ambushed by terrorists on a Bogota street. ”I said, ‘You are going to have four Suburbans destroyed. You will buy five, and my Suburban will be packed with Cuban cigars.”’ When Milius’ payment arrived, he reports, ”it was pretty packed.”