Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz Interview: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ writers
“It’s written very much like a police report,” “BlacKkKlansman” co-screenwriter and co-producer Charlie Wachtel says about the film’s source material — the 2014 memoir by Ron Stallworth about his infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan as a black detective in the 1970s. Wachtel continues, “Ron was a cop, so it’s not written in a way that immediately lends itself to being cinematic, so you have to take what is in the book, work with it and build it into this cinematic universe.”
Gold Derby sat down with Wachtel and his creative partner David Rabinowitz (watch the exclusive video above) last month at the 18th Whistler Film Festival, where the pair was honored by Variety as Screenwriters to Watch for 2018. “You look at the people who were on the list in previous years and it’s very impressive,” Rabinowitz says about the recognition, alluding to the likes of Oscar winners Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), Geoffrey Fletcher (“Precious”), Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”).
Although Wachtel and Rabinowitz are credited on the screenplay with director and producer Spike Lee, they did not meet him until a “cocktail reception at Cannes,” where the film premiered and won the festival’s runner-up award, with the top prize going to the Japanese “Shoplifters.” Rabinowitz explains about being rewritten, “When you give it to Spike Lee, you’re hoping that he makes it into a Spike Lee film. You want him to put his stamp on it. It’s always hard to give your script away… It’s the reality of being a screenwriter, but again, if you’re going to have somebody do a pass of your script, have it be Spike Lee.”
Breaking down what changed beyond the spelling of the title, Rabinowitz explains, “The stuff in the beginning — the ‘Gone with the Wind’ [and] Alec Baldwin scene was not in our script; obviously the Charlottesville stuff was not in our script. The Harry Belafonte sequence as well and there were some characters that were combined, but the meat of the story is very much our structure — our story.” Speaking to how they restructured the story from the book, Rabinowitz explains, “The true-life story gave us roughly an act one and that fact that David Duke did visit Colorado Springs and Ron was made his bodyguard when he was in town, that gave us an act three, but there wasn’t really an act two. The investigation in real life — there wasn’t really a specific objective, so one of the major things that we did up front was literalize these threats of a bomb attack, which gave us a nice engine to get through our second act.”
Wachtel and Rabinowitz have won a handful of Best Adapted Screenplay awards with Lee from various film critics associations since the Whistler Film Festival, but they have a vocal critic in “Sorry to Bother You” writer-director Boots Riley, who alleges that “BlacKkKlansman” unjustly glorifies Stallworth. Rabinowitz responds, “If you’re making a film with a police officer as a main character, there’s going to be certain aspects of that character that are deemed heroic because that’s your main character, so that’s what I would say in that case.”