Abnormal Interviews: My Cousin Vinny Screenwriter/Co-Producer Dale Launer

For our next installment in our week-long My Cousin Vinny tribute, we here at Abnormal Use are once again proud to present to our interview with the film’s co-producer and screenwriter, Dale Launer, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Nick Farr late last year.  No stranger to Hollywood, Launer is the the son of actor John Launer (Hitchcock’s Marnie, and TV’s “Dragnet” and “Perry Mason“).  Along with Vinny, Launer has written and produced several hit movies, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Love Potion No. 9. As you can see from the interview that follows, Launer offered plenty of insight (and more) behind one of our favorite films, including the genesis of the Vinny character, inspirations for the screenplay, his thoughts on the production of the film, and news to us, the proposed My Cousin Vinny sequel that was never to be.

NICK FARR: Looking back twenty years, what are your thoughts on My Cousin Vinny and how it has been received as a courtroom or a legal drama?

DALE LAUNER: You know, it’s interesting how the story was conceived.  It was actually one of the first stories I ever had.  It was conceived back in the early seventies.  I had a vague idea of what the story was.  . . . In the very early seventies, I met a guy who had taken the bar and was waiting the bar exam results.  So I asked him, “What happens if you don’t pass?”  He says, “Well, I can take it again.”  I said, “Well, what happens if you don’t pass then?”  ”You take it again.”  ”Well, how many times can you take it?”  He said, “You can take it as many times as you want.”  ”What’s the most someone has taken it?”  You can see this is a little like a third degree, like a cross examination.  So I said, “How many times can you take it, fail and then eventually – no what’s the most times somebody has taken and failed and finally passed?”  He said, “Thirteen times.”  I was surprised at how many law students seem to know that number, you know. That, by the way, since has been superseded in California, it was doubled.  It took some guy twenty-six attempts to pass.  And I believe there is now a limit, interestingly enough.  But I always thought that guy who took thirteen times to pass the bar, or girl, is probably out there practicing law in some capacity.  Now, how would you feel if suddenly you learned that guy is your lawyer?  And then I stepped it up and made it a little funnier.  What if you have been accused of a crime and clearly, you have what appears to be the worst lawyer in the country?  And then even funnier yet, then I set it up, what if you’re driving through the deep south [and] you’re arrested in a small town for a murder you did not commit?  And that was back then when I would say generally if you’re from the north or a big city, you had a certain prejudice against the south, and that was largely because it was portrayed in movies like Easy Rider.  So, I took that straight out of Easy Rider.  I mean, that was basically where that idea came from. And that idea was back in 1972.  And so it was an idea I sort of sat on, and when I actually had a career and a couple of movies made, I remember pitching it.  . . . I still wasn’t sure exactly what the story was, I just knew the kids were going to be innocent.  And then I actually flew down to New Orleans, picked up a car, drove up to Mississippi, I went through Jackson, I stopped in, I think, Yazoo or Wazoo, I think I made up the names of one of them, I can’t remember.  And then went over to Alabama and drove through there, and I stopped in a little town called Butler and knocked on the door of a local lawyer, I think the district attorney, and sat down and chatted with him.  So a lot of ideas came from that trip.  . . . [P]eople seemed to be excited about the fact that somebody from the movie business would be down there actually doing research.  . . . [T]hey let me know that they hoped I wouldn’t portray the south unfairly.  A lot of times in movies it made them look like a bunch of rednecks.  And so that is actually part and parcel of the movie.  So when he goes in to meet the judge, because see the judge is a little like, a little tough on him, a little extra tough to let you know.  We’re very sophisticated up here.  Don’t get any ideas.  As a matter of fact, I’ll show you how sophisticated we are.  I intend to hold you to the letter of the law.

So, that was great.  That all works for the story.  Then what happened and while I was writing it, I had a friend of mine, he was a lawyer who was a litigator and he’s an old friend from high school and we had a number of brunches.  And I would ask him a lot of questions about exactly what the procedure is.  Then I asked, “Where do you learn this stuff?”  He says, “Well, you learn it from either going in the court and finding out and watching or you learn it from the firm that hires you.”  I was taken aback.  They don’t teach you this in law school?  He laughed and said, “No.”  “Are you kidding me?  That’s fantastic, okay.”  So that’s what the movie’s about.  And I thought what’s great about it is, especially from the audience point of view, is how many courtroom movies we see and how many times we don’t understand what they’re saying, I get to explain it.  So the movie explains things to the layman.  Now, . . . [the movie is] mentioned in a lot of law exams.  It’s mentioned in an evidence exam in Harvard.  And anytime I run into a law professor, often they’ll mention Vinny.  . . . [O]ne guy said that you’re going to learn everything in this class that you didn’t learn in My Cousin Vinny, which is great.  So, it has taken on a certain life.  You know, what’s odd is I thought the movie would be embraced by the car guys because that movie gets in some real automotive details.  It wasn’t picked up by any of the car magazines.  But the legal community absolutely seemed to have picked up and embraced the movie, so it’s very exciting to me.  For me, one of the most exciting things in my career was when the American Bar Association’s monthly journal came out a couple of years ago with an issue that said the twenty-five greatest legal movies – then they had twenty-five runner ups.  And Vinny came in number three which was like getting the Oscar.  In some ways, better.

NF: And Vinny, Vincent Gambini, was also ranked number twelve on the list of greatest fictional lawyers as well.

DL: Number twelve?  I thought it was higher than that.

NF: I was surprised that they could come up with eleven people who would outrank him.

DL: Well, he used to be number one.  I think they allowed the public to get in there because it was number one for a while.  There was number one, Atticus Finch was, I think.  Another one, the other number one – Oh, no, no, no, the article was “The Greatest Fictional Lawyer Who Wasn’t Atticus Finch.”  And Vinny – he was number one for a while there so –

NF: Now they have Frank Galvin from The Verdict.

DL: Well, they’ve been stuffing the ballot.

NF: Did you foresee these types of accolades when you were writing the script?

DL: No.  I perceived different accolades.  I’m writing my Oscar speech and things.  On a certain day, write one scene, and “Oh, this is great.”  But no, not for what the movie has become.  And with a certain amount of distance, the movie seems to have gone and snowballed a little bit in terms of attention and respect.

NF: Just a minute ago, you spoke about the lawyer in California that had failed the bar exam thirteen times before passing. Vinny failed the bar exam five times before finally getting it right on his sixth attempt.  What does does the film say about the difficulty of the bar exam?

DL: Actually, I’m going to have to tell you.  This is a little interesting inside information on the movie.  And I’m going to say things that may be a little critical of the director and you are welcome to print this.  What happened was, I did not want to make Vinny a dumb guy.  . . . Vinny was supposed to be originally a bag man for the mob.  He was supposed to be a big tough guy who seemed a little dopey, but he’s not dopey.  He seems to have an intrinsic intelligence.  Occasionally in my life, I’ve met people like this who acted a little dopey, but they were smart people.  They seemed to go out of their way to act a little dopey, but they’re actually fairly bright people.  Off the record, I think our last president was like this, George W.  I think he liked to act a little dopey, but he wasn’t that dopey.  Does that make sense?

NF: Yes, sir.  I totally understand.

DL: I don’t think that’s so bad.  I think it’s sort of a backhanded compliment.  It also goes in the vein of Will Rogers.  I think Will Rogers acted dopey per se, but he acted like just kind of a “Gee, shucks” common folk who had a very sharp way of looking at things.  So, rather than make Vinny dumb, what I did is [make] Vinny dyslexic.  So, . . [w]hat I had in the script is, the kid said, “Why did it take you five times to pass the bar or six years to get through law school and six times to pass the bar?”  And Vinny says, “Well, I’m a little dyslexic.”  It’s just one line.  I didn’t want to focus [on it] too much in the movie, but that actually says a lot about his character.  People with dyslexia tend to have a little chip on their shoulder that they think in some ways people perceive them as being either backwards or retarded.  When in fact, that little chip on their shoulder means they’re a little sometimes overly independent.  And it should reflect something in their personality, which it does with Vinny.  He’s a little dyslexic.  Next scene, or a scene or two later, he meets with the judge.  The judge gives him this big thick book on Alabama criminal court procedure.  ”Read this over the weekend.”  It’s really kind of funny if you think about it.  Dyslexic guy?  Reading a book like that over the weekend?  Yeah.  Not going to happen.  So, then, later, we see him looking at the book.  Then we see what he sees, and we cut to a very close shot of a word, and the word’s jumbled up.  Then the word would dissolve, do you know what dissolve is?

NF: Yes, sir.

DL: Okay, then the word would dissolve to the word less jumbled up, and then, finally, it would dissolve to the word not jumbled at all.  Then we would pan over to the next word, and that one is jumbled up.  He sees it’s going to take him a year to get through this book.  It’s going to take him a while.  Then there was one additional moment where this was mentioned where his girlfriend says, “Is there anything I can do to help?”  He says, “No.”  She says, “Do you want me to read to you?”  She said this kind of delicately.  He says, “No, I don’t want you to read to me.  I’m not a fucking child.”  That’s it.  That’s all that’s mentioned in the movie.  I’m sorry, in the script.  That got cut out of the movie because the director said he did not know how to portray dyslexia.  So I said, “Why don’t you know how to do it?  Why don’t you just do it the way I wrote it?”  He says, “You know, like where the other words are darkened out, and you see that one thing, it’s too deliberate.  I don’t like that.”  “Well, you don’t have to darken them out.  Just go close shot on the one word.”  “I don’t know.  I don’t like that. I don’t like dissolve.”  So guess what?  Since he doesn’t like dissolve, since he could not figure out a way to do that, which is what a director should be able to do if you had a little talent, that gets cut out of the movie.  So when they asked Vinny, “Why did it take you so long?” – I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even remember what he says – it doesn’t make any sense to me.  So Vinny’s not dyslexic in the movie.  However, in the electronic news kit – which is the press kit that goes out that’s made by the studio that goes to all the magazines and the newspapers and all the news shows and the entertainment shows and there’s clips from the movie, there’s also interviews from the director and the actors.  I don’t know if there’s an interview with me in there, I don’t remember.  And the head of publicity, or someone who works for publicity for Twentieth Century Fox interviews the director.  This is not like somebody who’s trying to trip you up.  This is not “60 Minutes.”  So this is someone on your side, and the trick question was, “So, what’s this movie about?”  The director stumbles a little bit and says – he’s English – “Well, it’s um, um, it’s about a dyslexic man.”  That’s the first line out of his mouth.  And he’s the one that cut that out of the movie.  You wouldn’t know that.  There’s a long involved answer so one thing that I’m not happy about in the movie is Vinny comes off not so bright.  You don’t know why it took him so long to get through the bar.  And then suddenly he starts acting smart.  What you have to do is make assumptions that he is actually a smart guy, and the law is just complicated and boring.  And for some reason, he didn’t pay attention.  . . . I don’t know if there is any other conclusion than that.  There’s also one other line in there – one other thing that the director changed which doesn’t make as much sense.  When Vinny’s cousin, played by Ralph Macchio, is . . . describing how Vinny has a kind of innate intelligence, he describes a wedding that Vinny was at for a mutual relative and that they hired some sort of famous magician there as some entertainment.  And that Vinny could figure out all the tricks.  Now to me that takes a certain kind of intelligence. So that way of observing something that looks a certain way, but the reality of it is something else.  So, I would think that would be a kind of intelligence a good litigator would have.  Then Vinny is explaining something to the kids and he’s explaining this with a deck of cards.  And he says that the prosecutor has to build a case, and he takes pieces of evidence which looks solid from one angle, and he assembles it and it looks like it’s a solid case.  In a sense, a three dimensional thing, and there’s a little bit of a metaphor for that.  Then he knocks it over and says, “When in fact it’s really a house of cards.”  That all makes sense to me.  But the director rewrote that a little bit and turned it into a magic trick which doesn’t make sense at all.  . . . It doesn’t make any sense to me.  It sounds like Vinny is trying to make the case that’s completely opposite of what I just said.  It looks like he’s suggesting that either the case is magic or the deck is stacked, it doesn’t make any sense to me.  I’m rambling here.

NF: How were you able to create realistic courtroom scenes and still make them funny?

DL: Doing research and trying to find some good juicy courtroom ideas.  Especially, there’s a book out there which I think it’s called – I don’t know what it’s called – but it’s like “Comedy in the Law.”  That’s not the term, but sort of, I don’t know, it’s a book of humor and there’s some great little moments in there.  They’re all real so they’re basically public domain so I could take them and use them.  One of them I lifted up and put directly into the movie.   [That one] is where someone was doing a voir dire of a potential juror and they . . . ask them their opinion on capital punishment, and they said something like, “I think it should be left up to the victim’s families.”  Then they then described exactly what the murderer did, and then that the juror actually said, “Fry them.” So I put that right in the movie.  There was another thing which I would liked to have worked in. Some police, I think it was police, were questioning somebody.  There was a fax machine in there – no, no, a copy machine.  A Xerox machine.  They put some wires in the back of it and then attached the wires to an aluminum salad colander.  They put the colander on the guy’s head.  They told him, in fact, this is a lie detector.  They asked him a question.  He would answer it.  They would press copy.  Apparently, they had a [piece of paper] underneath there that said “He’s lying.”  They showed it to him, and it said, “He’s lying.”  It actually unnerved the guy so much that he broke down and told them the truth.  This apparently was thrown out of the court.  But it was just hilarious.  I always wished I could have worked that in. I studied some court cases including one which is a very interesting, one which I had remembered in a movie as a kid.  I didn’t know what it was, and I went online, I think I went online, but I found it somewhere. But it actually was a court case that was tried and won by Abraham Lincoln.  . . . [I]t was a murder case.  He was defending somebody, and somebody said, “Are you sure it was him?”  He says, “Yes.” “How can you be so sure because, it was nighttime?”  He says, “Because I saw him in the moonlight.  There was a full moon.”  Well, what happens, he picks up a Farmer’s Almanac, [and] points out [that] on that date there was no moon.  Certainly, no moon at that time.  Bang.  Wins the case.  Which I thought that’s great, that’s great lawyering.  That’s a great reversal.  That’s a great turn in a case.  How can I take that conceptually and then turn that around and make it funny?  And a lot of the humor just would come out of a certain character.  There was one guy who was not too bright, played by the actor Raynor Scheine, which was great.  He was living in a trailer, and he was looking through a dirty window, through leaves, and through all that stuff.  So that’s generally what you do in a regular court case.  I’m not sure how to answer that question.  I didn’t make it funny.

NF: How did Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei become involved in the project?

DL: When I was writing the movie, I liked that sort of Italian American lower class or working class, whatever you want to say, that patter that you would hear in certain movies.  It’s also sort of a Mediterranean thing, the way they talk back and forth and seem like they’re arguing when in fact it’s just a discussion.  A real good example of that is Raging Bull.  The guy says, “What are you doing?” ” What am I doing?”  ”What’s it look like I’m doing?”  ”I don’t know, if I knew what you’re doing, I wouldn’t ask what you’re doing.”  So it goes on and on like that, and it’s fun to write, it’s easy to write, and it just sounds funny to me.  So I kind of took that out of that movie.  That kind of sensibility.  A lot of that was a certain amount of improv in there.  In those movies.  Not my movie.  Adapt that to the character.  So the characters – somewhere along the way – I didn’t know where Vinny was from when I first conceived of the idea.  Then somewhere in the mid-eighties I wanted Vinny to be like Sam Kinison.  Remember the stand-up comic?

NF: Yes, I do.

DL: He was the screamer.  I saw Kinison a number of times in concert at the comedy clubs.  You just prayed, you prayed there would be a heckler there because this guy had a way of just eviscerating a heckler.  I started to think that the hecklers were planted because he was so funny with them, and he would just rip into somebody so well.  . . . [A]lso, in college, I was on debate team, and I remember going to a couple of debates before I debated and seeing some really good debaters.  A really good college debater wouldn’t just win an argument, they would devastate you.  Not just devastate you, ideally, they would humiliate you.  It just worked better that way.  And it was much more interesting to the debate judges.  I wanted to put that in the movie.  I wanted that kind of character.  So it was going to be Sam Kinison, at least his personality.  And at one point in the story, . . .  the original idea was probably to have him do that with every witness, and then I changed that.  I wanted it to be a little different with every witness.  So there was one woman who came in with very thick glasses.  She was very sweet, and he was very sweet with her.  Very candid with her.  I can’t remember the name of the character, but the one Raynor Scheine played, the one who was looking through the dirty window, through the trees and the leaves.  And this guy was a little dim.  But he didn’t really humiliate him.  He did, but in a very subtle way, you know what I mean?  You really had to take some guy who being a little belligerent, and then the payoff is better.  So there was that one character who was talking about the grits.  And that was the one where I got to use that idea and that was probably the only time I ever used that idea.  And he would humiliate the guy with the grits.  Because the guy with the grits had a little bit of an attitude. So the whole idea that it takes X amount of time to cook grits, and it took you such and such amount of time that this happened, or something like that.  The line there that was one of my favorite in the movie was, “Do the laws of physics cease to exist on your stove?”  Which is great.  That’s really ripping somebody in court.

NF: What I was getting towards was Joe Pesci or Marisa Tomei. Did you have them in mind?

DL: How did Joe and Marisa get involved?  . . . [T]his is kind of an interesting story.  If I can name the names, yeah, sure, why not?  Being the writer and producer of the movie, I met with the president of the studio, Roger Birnbaum and the chairman, which was Joe Roth.  We were going to talk about casting.  And Roger said, “Who do you think would be good for this?”  So I said my first choice for Vinny would be Robert De Niro.  Then Roger had a kind of pained, almost embarrassed look for me.  Then he said, “Robert De Niro?”  Then he shook his head slightly pained.  ”For one, he’s just not funny.”  I said, “Robert De Niro?  You know, he started as a comic actor.”  He said, “Really? I don’t know, he’s just not funny.  And his movies don’t make money.”  I said, “Well, Midnight Run did make money, and he was in it, and it was a comedy, and he was funny.  I like how he plays it straight and knows where the jokes are.”  So he said, “No, no, no.”  Now, cut to now.  I don’t know if any drama or thriller that De Niro’s ever done that has really made much money.  But the comedies all make money, and everybody thinks De Niro’s funny now.  Isn’t that interesting?

NF: That is interesting because you think of De Niro now and you’re thinking Meet the Parents and Analyze This.

DL: And notice he plays it straight, and it’s still funny.  It’s great.  And that’s what I wanted for Vinny.  That’s the tone I like.  That’s the tone I write for.  So the bane of my existence is when the director tries to come in and changes it.  You could play it straight, and it would be, if anything, to me, even funnier.  Otherwise you, by trying to be funny, by trying too hard, you tend to step on the joke.  Especially if the joke is somewhat situational.  So most of the humor in that movie can be played very straight, and it generally works that way.  . . . Joe was not the first attached.  He was certainly discussed.  And I say he’s not my first choice because Vinny was supposed to have been, like I say, a bad man for the mob.  A big guy.  A tough guy who’s supposed to come in and be imposing in the room.  De Niro is not that big but he comes off big.  Especially if you make all the other actors short.  . . . The first name that comes up from them is Danny DeVito.  I’m thinking, Danny DeVito?  Bad man for the mob?  I mean, Danny’s less than five feet tall.  That doesn’t make any sense to me.  He doesn’t come off as any threat.  There’s no irony that this tough guy could come in and be kind of smart.  So all that was very frustrating.  I said no to that.  They went after Danny anyway.  They basically completely ignored me.  Danny reads the script.  He’s now interested.  I’m not told how Danny is interested.  Do you want to direct?  Do you want to star in it?  Or both?  And he’s like, “I don’t know.”  Danny wasn’t sure what he wanted.  I had a meeting with Danny.  It was a creative meeting.  I sat down with Danny.  Here’s how it goes.  Danny says, “You know, the script, it just doesn’t, it just doesn’t go.  It doesn’t go.”  ”So you want more go?”  And he laughed.  That’s kind of an absurd statement.  I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?  It’s one of those things that when you’re a screenwriter and somebody comes up to you, you’re in a meeting, and they have a problem with the script, it’s very important they be precise and convince you there’s actually something wrong and they convince you something’s wrong by telling you what’s wrong.  Then you can fix it.  If you’re a writer, and someone says, “The script just doesn’t go,” you can’t do anything with that.  All you can do is leave the meeting feeling bad about the script.  Or, hopefully, finding somebody somewhere who says, “The script’s got a lot of go to it.”  I had no idea what he meant.  As a result, the meetings were slightly strained in that way because he didn’t really know what to say.  So somewhere along the way he dropped out.  Then the script was offered to Jim Belushi.  Jim Belushi was to star in a movie called A League of Their Own, which is about a female baseball team.  And he was the coach.  I know Tea Leoni who was not a star then but was a friend of mine’s girlfriend, she was to be in it.  And then that movie fell apart and . . . they [had] made a pay or play deal to Belushi. Do you know what that means – pay or play?  A pay or play deal means we’re going to offer you this movie.  Here’s the offer, here’s, let’s say $2,000,000 or $5,000,000 or $10,000,000, it’s a pay or play deal.  We’re going to offer you this.  If the movie falls apart, we still pay you the money.  Great deal.  Especially if it falls apart.  You can get rich and never do anything. . . . . So they had to pay or play Belushi, and what they were hoping was that instead of paying you off nothing to not make this movie, we’ll offer you this instead.  Will you do My Cousin Vinny?  He passed on My Cousin Vinny.  So, I actually think he would have been good in it.  And then, after that, it then went to Joe Pesci.  Now, what had happened in the meantime, Joe was in a movie called Goodfellas, and in Goodfellas, he played a scary guy.  Before that, Joe didn’t come off threatening to me.  But in that movie, he comes off threatening – a little bit of a psychopath.  And then he won the Oscar.  And he actually was nominated for the Oscar while he was shooting Vinny.  So I said, “You’re a shoo-in.  You’re going to win.”  He says, “Well, I don’t know.”  I said, “I’ll bet you.  I’ll bet you money.  I’ll give you odds.”  He goes, “I’ll take that bet.  I don’t want to lose that bet.”

Marisa was on a list I had given the casting director. . . . I usually say there’s a list of ten actresses, I think there was more like six or seven.  And I put them in order of desirability.  I said, “Any of them will work, including the last one, which is Marisa Tomei.”  And I had seen Marisa in a play in New York.  She was part of an ensemble, a repertoire group called Naked Angels. I saw her in a play called “Aven’u Boys,” which was written by her boyfriend at the time.  The only reason she wasn’t at the top of the list is the top two or three actresses actually inspired the character in the movie.  So I think top of the list was Carol Davis.  Carol Davis was a girl I actually went out with a couple of times.  She was a hip hop singer.  She was an actress with real credits.  She was fluent in French and Italian, spoke a little Thai, mother was French, father was CIA.  She was a big brassy personality.  She showed up.  She was  a Penthouse Pet.  I think she showed up in Playboy, so she was sexy and foxy and brassy and funny and smart.  She was an interesting character.  When I was in Butler, Alabama doing research for the movie, I remember calling her up and describing the small town, which is like so many small towns in the south.  I remember she said, “I’ll bet the Chinese food is terrible.”  So, I wrote that down, that’s a good line.  I put it right into the movie.  I don’t know if she knows that line is hers.  If my friends say something that’s funny, I’ll write it down, and it goes into a script.  It’s mine.  They’re not writers, so.  . . . [S]he was on the list.  There was an actress named Lisa Gaye, I used to know.  I haven’t spoken to her in forever.  I remember she was a New York actress.  She showed up in the Troma movies – these Toxic Avenger low budget horror comedies.  I don’t remember what she played in them.  She played some wild character, I think, like some sort of a dominatrix-y kind of character.  But I remember going out with her to play pool in New York.  She shows up, and she’s got her own pool cue.  She’s sitting there screwing up.  That’s a great little thing.  I don’t know any woman who have their own pool cue.  There was another character named Nancy Boykiss who has since passed away.  Nancy was pursuing an acting career.  Nancy lived with this singer-songwriter named Staples Burkhart – not his real name by the way.  Staples and Nancy had this weird combative relationship.  You’d go to their house, and they would have these unbelievably vicious knock-down arguments, but they’d be performing.  It’s like they’re performing in front of people.  It’s like “The Honeymooners” or something.  . . . [O]ne of them would come up with something so unbelievably below the belt horrible.  The other would respond, and go, “Ho-ho, that was good.”  So the idea of them arguing was interesting to me as a component of the story and also a reason why Vinny might be considered to be smart.  He’s got a girlfriend, he’s been with her for ten years, and they argue all the time.  It’s all about argumentation.  It’s all about trying to like what’d you just say.  And then we establish that in the movie with a scene that was not played quite right, which both Marisa and Joe admit.  It was a little of my fault in there because I wrote something as a metaphor, but the director took it not as a metaphor which, as I say, is almost a form of seduction for them.  It was a form in the sense that one of them says something smart and the other is kind of like impressed with it.  Impressed with their intelligence.  Impressed with their comeback, their snappy comeback and it’s kind of cool. . . . .

NF: Are you referring to the leaky faucet scene?

DL: The leaky faucet scene.  Which is a very good example of, I guess, of cross examination.  Anyway, so in the movie, it plays a little different.  He actually plays it, and as they’re saying it, the other one is actually getting turned on, and they end up kissing at the end, which was just a little bizarre.  I should have worded it a little different, so the director understood.  But in that scene was a little like the arguments that Nancy and Staples would have, except it was about something rather specific, rather than being vicious and personal.  Again, it wasn’t exactly like the arguments they would have, but that’s where I got the idea from.

NF: What do you think lawyers could learn from Vinny?

DL: . . . [J]uries are common folk, and if you present a case to them in a way that makes perfect sense, that, of course, is what you want.  You want to do that because you want to get them on your side.  . . . I have always found that if you make an argument succinct, but with humor, you point out . . . the absurdity of the other guy’s case. If you can make them laugh, you’ve taken it to another level.  If you can make them laugh, you’ve got an emotional charge to your case or against their case.  I don’t know how often that happens, but clearly, and sometimes in a case, I can see if someone made a point and then the court laughs and the jury laughs, wow, they’re on your side.

NF: The testimony of the state’s expert witness, George Wilbur, played by James Rebhorn, is vital to the state’s case.  In fact, had Vinny not been able to look at these photographs and put all the pieces together, those boys could have been locked up for murder.  Ultimately, Lisa came was a good rebuttal witness.  So what does the film say about the use of expert witnesses?

DL: They can be manipulated.  Absolutely.  In my research, that happens all the time.  I know people who have been expert witnesses, and they know that they are sort of slanting things in a certain way, that you can absolutely jumble up statistics in a way to build a case and make it your case.  To give you a good example, and now that the guy’s dead, I don’t think he’s going to come back and sue now.  I wrote a movie called Blind Date. The movie was taken away and given to – I was told and it was later denied – to a female writer to soften it up.  It was too edgy.  That draft was then given to Blake Edwards who rewrote it.  I read it, and I thought it was horrible.  I actually argued two things which were somewhat opposed to each other.  One, I argued to have my name taken off the screenplay and put an anonymous name or a pseudo-anonymous name which I had registered with the Writer’s Guild which was Nigel Grosswinker.  Turns out the studio has the right of whether or not a pseudo-anonymous credit can be granted if you make a certain amount of money, and I had that amount of money.  In other words, if you make a lot of money, they want to kind of exploit your name by attaching it to the movie.  If they don’t pay you much, if it’s underneath a certain precedence, then you, the writer, can elect to use the pseudo-anonymous credit without permission of the studio.  I wanted to argue to have my name taken off.  On the other hand, I was arguing for sole screenplay credit.  If I were to share credit with any of the rewriters, I then have to share my production bonus.  I didn’t have a huge production bonus – I know this is very Hollywood, it was only $100,000 – but I didn’t want to split that.  So I had to argue the case that despite the fact the script had been rewritten massively, I deserve complete and total screenplay credit.  Now, part of that is rather strategic and creative interpretation of what they call the “Writer’s Credit Determination Manual.”  It was actually about five or six pages, if that.  It would tell you what you had to do to deserve a shared credit on a movie if you rewrite a script.  The most important thing is the structure.  Second most important thing are the characters.  So if you’ve added new characters or taken characters out or changed characters substantially, you then will deserve credit.  You can change all the dialogue, and you will not get any credit at all because that’s more of a dialog punch-up guide.  So they put the emphasis and they slanted it towards the original writer, as well they should, but they also slant it toward structure.  And I have to tell you, I’d say 99 percent of the people working in Hollywood, including a huge majority of the writers, have no idea what structure means.  To give you a little example, structure is a setup and a payoff.  It’s a joke setup and then the punch line.  That’s structure.  That’s a very simplistic version of it, but that’s essentially how it happens in a movie.  When you start writing scripts, it all starts making more sense, and then it becomes a more complicated structure, yes, but it’s still the same thing.  There’s something that comes first, and then the structure evolves, and then eventually, it turns into something else.  But all that has to work together and flow together and support each other.  When it’s weak, it doesn’t support, it doesn’t work.  So I ended up making it as a metaphor of the structure of a house.  So I said Blind Date is about a guy who’s set up with this girl, he gets her drunk, she ruins his life.  I said that’s the premise of the movie.  That is the structure of the movie.  Blake Edwards came in.  He did not change much, and he certainly didn’t change that structure.  Therefore, I deserve total screenplay credit.  Now, I was a little more elaborate than that, and then, I got the full credit for it.  I’m not sure why I’m getting into this whole story.  There’s a reason for it.  Where did this start?

NF: We were talking about expert witnesses.

DL: Expert witnesses, there you go.  What I had done is I had taken the Credits Determination Manual and had juggled it in a way where it seemed to say exactly what the Credits Determination Manual said.  Certainly in the spirit of it when, in fact, if you were to ask me now, “Do I deserve full screenplay credit for that movie?”  Good God, no.  The last third of it had nothing to do with my script.  But they’re all my characters and it was still my “structure”.  So I went in – since no one knows how to define structure – I went in with my own definition of what structure is.  This is what structure is.  It’s like the foundation of a house.  Here’s the footprint.  Here’s the foundation of this screenplay.  Here’s the footprint.  It is unchanged.  You have to grow up.  You have to build up from that.  And what you’re building is on the foundation that I gave and this foundation provides the structure of the story.  I could go back and rip that apart but when, in fact, it was a very good argument.  No one else gets to read my argument.  The only ones that read it are the judges.  So no one actually gets to listen to your case and take it apart.  So that’s what’s kind of interesting, so I actually won full screenplay credit.  Blake Edwards was livid.  He wanted to sue the Guild.  But because the guy refused to ever talk to me or return my calls, . . . knowing he was livid was especially satisfying.  You know what I find is interesting right now, I’m working on an essay on economics, which is something I’m fascinated by.  I did write one essay which is, I described what the recession is, what caused the recession, which most people don’t seem to understand but economists are comfortable with it.  But the pundits go off, and they have these crazy ideas.  And I said the left and the right, the Democrats and Republicans, really have solutions which amount up to nothing less than dumb and dumber.  It’s amazing that both can take statistics, point to them, and come up with all this support of why it works.  And what I did is not unlike what Vinny did.  And one advantage I have as a screenwriter is you have to take an idea and then you have to game it out – three or four or ten or twenty or fifty steps ahead.  A lot of these people come up with these ideas for a solution to the recession and they’re not two or three steps ahead.  They can easily be condemned.  They’re easily disproven.  One of which – I don’t know where you lie on the political spectrum, but I had a girlfriend who is a libertarian.  She’s head of the – I know this sounds oxymoronic – Malibu Tea Party.  She was absolutely livid and passionate about Obama raising the federal income tax 2 percent.  . . . [S]he’s too upset over that 2 percent.  If it was ten or twenty or thirty percent, I would be upset.  Then she talks about the corporate tax.  And that the corporate tax – the lower corporate tax and you would increase more jobs.  I’m sorry – this is off on a tangent which I doubt is going into this thing –

NF: That’s okay, keep talking.

DL: This is just an example of taking statistics and twisting them around.  I have some friends in the political community, and I go to this cocktail party, which I’m now hosting once a month and we – a lot of writers, some screenwriters, a lot of journalists and a lot of pundits and a lot of political bloggers, and we have got anybody from a political strategist that will show up and campaign people, people who have run campaigns, presidential campaigns, Ann Coulter to Arianna Huffington could show up to these things.  I do remember at a dinner party with a bunch of fairly prominent conservatives and they all sort of toed the line – cut corporate tax and that will create jobs.  And I said, “Hold on a second.  That doesn’t make sense.”  They’re all: – “No, no, no, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  They really didn’t game it out.  It just makes sense to them.  There’s extra money.  They’ll use that money and go hire more people.  I said, “Why don’t you talk to someone who actually runs a business?”  You hire as few people as you can because you want to protect your bottom line.  That doesn’t make any sense at all.  And guess what, if you hired more people, and you made more money, you would hire them anyway because, guess what, labor is deductible.  They don’t argue that.  They never really thought it out that far.  And I actually came up with a plan for my libertarian ex-girlfriend where I said, “I can come up with a way where you can increase corporate taxes to 100 percent and still create jobs.”  And she was like, “How could you do that? They’d take all your money.”  I said, “No, no, again.  None of you guys actually run businesses.  Why don’t you run a business, have a corporation?  Trust me, you don’t really have to pay taxes.  Two-thirds of all corporations pay no tax.”  You can do, for instance, I asked, “Do you know what a loan-out corporation is?”  No, she didn’t know that.  I have a loan-out corporation.  I’ve never paid a dime of corporate tax.  Wouldn’t make sense, because at the end of the year I then bonus myself all of my money.  So they never see a profit.  A corporation can do that, too.  You’re using statistics, but they’re not always accurate.  I’m sorry, the statistics are accurate, it’s the conclusions people draw from them.  So it’s a little like looking at the evidence of a case and putting together and making your case.  It’s fascinating to me – especially like in a criminal case or any case – there is sometimes one side is telling 100 percent truth, usually not always the case.  But it’s usually one side that’s telling the truth in general and the other side is just making up any kind of bullshit they can you cannot prove wrong.

NF: Getting back to Vinny, Judge Chamberlain Haller, played by Fred Gwynne, was a very dynamic character, which is atypical of how judges are traditionally portrayed on film. How did you write for a judge?

DL: A lot of it had to do with again talking to my friend Doug, who is a litigator, is now an assistant attorney general, deputy or assistant, deputy attorney general in California.  In asking him questions about what would happen here, he says, “Well, it depends on the judge.  A judge can do this, and a judge can do that.  So knowing what a judge can do could allows me to kind of manipulate the case to go in a certain direction.”  Now, there is one scene in there which infuriated me.  It was the scene the director put in there, and to his shame, as far as I’m concerned, I think he was either a solicitor or a barrister at one time.  So it was something where Vinny has an objection, he speaks in a way in a wording that Vinny would not use – “the veracity of this witness,” blah, blah, blah or something like that.  But the judge said that’s a lucid well thought out argument – denied.  Or overruled.  And I’m thinking like, “Whoa.”  I would not put that in there because for something very, very important to me, I did not want to make the judge into an asshole.  It was very important to me that this movie had no clear delineated antagonist, and if you look at it, it doesn’t.  Except perhaps that one scene.  The judge seems as though he’s the bad guy.  The judge shouldn’t have been the bad guy.  In that scene, he’s the bad guy, and that throws the movie off for me just a little bit.  There was no reason for that.  It’s not necessary for the judge to be a jerk.  The reality of it is information is stacked up in a way where it looks to the prosecutor that these guys did it.  And that happens.  There are cases where the prosecutor somewhere along the way realizes, “Wait a second, this is wrong.”  And that to me – I liked that part of the movie.  I liked the fact that Vinny is battling something.  If there’s an antagonist in the movie, it’s the truth.  And Vinny doesn’t know exactly what it is.  And it doesn’t reveal itself until towards the end of the movie.  . . . [W]hat I really like about the character . . .  is that Vinny is clearly from the north, clearly from New York, and he has a little chip on his shoulder about how the south is portrayed.  So that came out through the research.

NF: So what is Vinny doing now?

DL: Well, in the sequel which I wrote – you know who Gerry Spence is? . . . Gerry Spence is a litigator, very smooth talking, kind of handsome guy who wears these leather fringed jackets, and he shows up on CNN.  He would show up on Larry King a lot.  . . . And he was a very good lawyer.  I’m good friends with Elon Dershowitz, who is the son of Alan Dershowitz.  Alan likes Gerry Spence a lot.  He likes the kind of portrayal of this country lawyer.  And he shows up on CNN wearing a leather fringed jacket.  He’s kind of a character.  So what I did is that Vinny is clearly pretty good and pretty sharp.  That he’s actually a good lawyer.  But that he’s a bit of an urban lawyer.  So I wanted to make him kind of the urban version of Gerry Spence.  So, he’s a guy, he goes into a courtroom, he still talks like this.  But he’s still sharp, and this and that.  It’s a character, and it’s also very entertaining.  I figured that could be viable in the courtroom.  In the sequel, Vinny, in the screenplay, because there’s an actual play version, but in the screenplay . . . Vinny is representing a John Gotti-like character who apparently has . . . like thirty-one charges against him.  Basically, in the title sequence, Vinny’s there, he’s checking off each one of – not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty – until we go to thirty one counts.  He’s gotten Gotti off.  So in the sense, Vinny’s a little like Bruce Cutler.  But Bruce Cutler is very urban, very New York.  He’s got a real New York accent.  So Vinny is a little more Long Islandish, a little more Queens than New Jersey.  So I kind of like that as a character.  Then we see Vinny go over to CNN and get an interview.  I think we might even have him on with Gerry Spence.  Then he goes off to a victory party, and then he’s in the car with her, and he decides, “Let’s get married.”  [He] doesn’t portray it in a very romantic way, which pisses her off, and . . . he doesn’t understand why she’s pissed off. He said, “Maybe we ought to just go ahead and do it.”  ”Do what?”  ”Get married.”  ”That’s it?”  ”Yeah.”  ”Yeah.”  ”That’s it, huh?”  ”Yeah, just go off and get married?”  ”Yeah.”  So he can see she’s pissed off, and he doesn’t get it.  He’s got an issue with romance anyhow.  Then she gets pissed off.  She gets angry at him.  She says, “Well, maybe I’ll think about it.”  ”What do you mean think about it?”  He’s been with her for like twenty years or something. “Come on, what’s to think about?”  ”I’ll think about it.”  ”Well, what are you going to do?  Say no?”  ”Yeah, I could say no.”  Anyway, they live together.  She’s pissed off at him.  And this becomes part of the plot and part of the structure without revealing too much – I’ll tell you exactly what happens in the play because here’s how the play starts out.  The play actually starts out in the Old Bailey, which is the court in London.  She is the defendant.  She has a solicitor.  Her solicitor informs the judge that her barrister at Queen’s counsel which tend to be older died that morning.  She is without counsel.  They . . . inform her that according to English law, if you are not represented by somebody, you’re allowed to choose any barrister in the room, and they have to defend you.  Before he can finish that sentence, all the other barristers had left because they don’t want to work – it’s what they do.  She looks back at the barrister’s bench and there’s this one guy, and it’s Vinny.  And Vinny’s wearing a barrister’s robe and wig.  And she chooses him.  Of course, he comes up.  He has no idea what he’s doing so we can sort of do the whole procedure thing because procedure in England is different than procedure in America.  You can’t approach the bench.  You don’t refer to him as Your Honor.  You refer to him as My Lord.  You have to be a member of an Inn of Court otherwise you’re not a real attorney, none of which Vinny is.   . . . It’s kind of funny because he makes every mistake you can imagine.  If you say something incorrectly, when Vinny says, “Your Honor,” the judge looks off and says, “Excuse me, I can’t hear you.” Which is a polite British way of saying, “I didn’t hear that, why don’t you correct yourself?”  So Vinny just speaks louder.  And he says, “Excuse me, don’t yell at me.”  ”You said you couldn’t hear me.  Can I approach the bench?”  ”No, you can’t do that. You don’t do that here.”  He freezes in his tracks.  At one point, he objects.  You don’t do that in an inquiry in England.  You can’t do that.  The judge explains you cannot do that.  “You don’t object here.  That’s an American aberration.”  . . . [I]n this version, the judge is unbelievably frustrated and annoyed with Vinny.  But you’re sympathetic with it.  . . . When I was flying over to England, I was reading the in-flight magazine, which was describing a certain judge in England who corrects everybody’s grammar, and in the middle of the case, might discuss the etymology of a word. Where that word came from, the Latin this for that.  And this all goes into the transcript, which I thought was great. So I figured for a guy that talks like this and uses sometimes double negatives and triple negatives to be in a courtroom with a guy who’s correcting your grammar,  it’s funny.  So, sure enough, in the case, there’s actually a character named Julie Warner.  She says, “I’m not Julie Warner.”  ”Well, then you have an a/k/a.”  ”I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I’ve got nothing to do with no Julie Warner” – which is a triple negative.  It’s driving the judge crazy.  He says, “That’s a triple negative.  That then lands you in the affirmative.”  She’s looks at him like, “What the fuck you talking about?”  She says, “You’re going to correct my grammar?  You’re counting grammar here?”

NF: So, what’s the status of the sequel?  Is it going to be made?

DL: Probably not.

NF: Probably not?

DL: Yeah, what happened is when I was writing it, Marisa was nominated for an Oscar, which she won.  And she dropped out of the sequel.  And then the studio wouldn’t replace her, they wanted to rewrite her character.  They can’t rewrite her character.  It’s easier to replace her.  . . .  I said, “Why don’t you just replace her?”  ”Oh, you can’t do that.”  ”You can’t replace an actor? ” “Yeah.”  ”No.  ”It’s the character that’s supports it.”  ”No.”  ”It’s done all the time.”  ”Where’s it done?”  ”In plays.  They have different actors playing characters all the time.”  ”Well, this is a movie.”  ”This is what they do in the movies.”  ”Where do they do this?”  ”How about the biggest franchise ever made?”  ”What’s that?”  ”James Bond.”  ”Can you think of another case?”  ”Tarzan.”  ”Oh, well, that’s Tarzan.”  You win, you lose.  You cannot win.  What’s the point of even arguing?  There is no point.  You can’t argue.  I think it’s Mark Twain said, “You never argue with an idiot.  They’ll bring you down to their level and they’ll beat you with years of experience.”  And that’s kind of what it’s like to deal with the studio heads.  So, they wouldn’t replace her.  So then they had another writer come in and write another draft because I wouldn’t do it.  And they gave that . . .  page one rewrite . . . to Joe Pesci who stopped talking to the studio.  They let me read it.  I said, “This is terrible.  It’s not funny.  Not one funny moment in here.”  The studio executive said, “Oh, I think it’s great.”  ”You think it’s great?”  ”Yeah.”  ”Great?”  ”Yeah.”  ”Great as good, very good, excellent, and then great?”  ”Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s great.”  I needed to define what great is.  I don’t think it’s even good.  Not funny.  They gave it to Joe.  As I say, Joe stopped talking to the studio.  He thought it was so bad.  So, then there was a time when Marisa came around, she wanted to do it.  She and Joe were willing, but it did not happen – the studio said no because it’s taking too much time.  Do you think people have forgotten the movie?  Yeah.  I don’t know.  Again, it’s one of those things where you make your arguments.  I said, “Go ask your guys in video because this movie still shows on TV and it still sells DVDs.  It’s a very popular movie.”  You can’t convince them of anything.  I finally went to them and said the most convincing argument of all.  I said, “Okay, tell you what.  I’ve got financing for the movie and prints and advertising.  You don’t have to put any money out at all.  Not a dime.  All you do is collect money.  The thing is, you have to give the investors the lion’s share, which is not uncommon for the general distribution, for the theatrical distribution.”  . . . I just threw this at them because I wouldn’t normally do this.  You get the DVD.  That’s why going to a studio saying you have nothing to do, I’m going to give you $20,000,000.  You’re going to get $20,000,000. But here’s how studios work.  Wait a second, we get $20,000,000 and not do anything?  What do you get?  I said, “I get $20,000,000 if you get the $20,000,000.”  ”We don’t pay the $20,000,000?”  ”No, I get the $20,000,000 from someone else.”  ”Really?  Well, we want your $20,000,000.”  It’s not enough they make money.  They have to fuck you.  That’s it.  If they don’t fuck you, sorry, excuse my language, but you absolutely print it, they don’t feel like they’ve done a good job.  So, that’s part of the problem too.

NF: I know you said that she dropped out.  Do you know why she dropped out?

DL: I don’t know exactly why.  She was nominated, and what happened, she was being offered lots of different parts.  I think the idea of doing a sequel would be – maybe she was afraid she’d get locked into that character.  That might have been it.  But it was, I think from a career strategic point of view, I think it’s a mistake for her, because what actors fail to understand, is the audiences really don’t know they’re acting.  They just don’t think, “Wow, you’re a brilliant actor, you should be great in this, oh, you’ll be great in this.”  They don’t know you’re great in it until they see you.  They also loved her in My Cousin Vinny.  You’ve got to give your audience something like that now and then.  There are certain actors [who] are very smart with their careers.  Jack Nicholson, who’s been a star throughout all his career. There are a lot of actors who have not.  There are certain actors who have been the number one actor in the world, bang, and they go away.  Either they stop making those movies or they don’t make a smart movie that sells them.  Sean Penn, although he’s made some smart movies, he hasn’t made a truly satisfying commercial movie.  As a result, he’s not a big star.  He’s a star, but he’s not a big star.  He can get a movie of a certain budget made but not a big budget.  Certainly not one that’s going to rely on him.  What Nicholson is good at, he’ll do something that’ll be a big idea for the audience, a big people pleaser and then he’ll do something that’s more of an art film.  So he’ll stagger them out.  And he shows up as the Joker in Batman, as the Devil in the The Witches of Eastwick.  Smart actors like that.  That’s a smart career move.  But you take someone like Mickey Rooney, who was the biggest star in the world.  Not anymore.  He could barely get hired.  Burt Reynolds was the biggest star in the world at one time.  Not anymore.  There are certain actors that do that and then screw up their careers.

You can learn more about Launer”s films and career by visiting his official website here.

(To see a full index of our My Cousin Vinny twentieth anniversary coverage, please see here.).

Comments

  1. there’s something wonderful about the fact that this blog is now the best source of information on the entire internets about my cousin vinny. and hot coffee. both of which, by the way, are excellent.

  2. Great blog post. I’m surprised the screenwriter is so hard on the director, and on the role of Yale Law School grad Judge Chamberlain Haller played by Fred Gwynne. I know Gwynee spent many years on the tube as Herman Munster, but I think his performance as the Judge in My Cousin Vinnie was his finest hour.

    @bradfurber

  3. stillbreeze says:

    Funny that he’s panning the director, totally misplaced for one, and very ungracious after the wonderful movie he made …thumbs down to the writer for dis interview ..but nicely written movie tho!