Screenwriter John Fusco remembers his role in creating the influential Western.
Young Guns has reached middle-age. No joke: The enduringly popular Western opened at theaters and drive-ins everywhere on Aug. 12, 1988, immediately stampeded ticketbuyers to boxoffices, and has been a cable, streaming and home video staple ever since.
Indeed, later this year, Lionsgate is set to release a spiffed-up 4K restoration on Blu-Ray that includes such extras as interviews with such stars as Emilio Estevez and Lou Diamond Phillips — and screenwriter John Fusco. (“Young Guns II,” the 1990 sequel also written by Fusco, will be getting the same treatment.) We spoke with Fusco shortly after he completed filming his contribution to the package, way before the start of the ongoing WGA strike, while preparing our cover story profile of Phillips. Here are some highlights from our conversation with the talented wordsmith, whose other credits include The Highwaymen, Hidalgo, Thunderheart and, most recently, The Wind & The Reckoning.
Cowboys & Indians: They say you know something is a classic when you can no longer imagine a time when it wasn’t hailed as one. But back when Young Guns was originally released, while audiences were receptive, reviews were, well, mixed. Right?
John Fusco: Francis Ford Coppola has said movies are defined by time. It’s interesting because, yes, I think we all know that the initial critical reaction to Young Guns was so cynical, and everybody assumed it was a contrived attempt to put the Brat Pack on horseback, or “Young Buns,” or whatever. But everyone involved knew how serious we were about it, and the research that we did. We just had our own irreverent rock-and-roll take on it. But it’s so beautiful that, over time, it’s become so well-loved and iconic. In fact, the new generation of Billy the Kid historians like James Mills started with an obsession with Young Guns. And so it did something I wanted to do, which was light the fuse to reignite an interest in Westerns and to bring in a new generation of interest.
C&I: When you came up with Young Guns, you were a young gun yourself, 25 years old with only one produced movie to your credit — Crossroads, directed by Walter Hill and starring Ralph Macchio as a wannabe blues musician.
Fusco: Yes. I was the new kid on the block. I moved to LA, and I was getting offered all kinds of development deals. But I didn't like anything I was hearing. And I sat down with my William Morris agents and I said, “I don’t want to do any of these things.” They were turning white because these were big offers. And I said, “I don't know how to write that way. It has to come from passion and love.” And they said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “I want to write on spec, and I want to do a Western.” And they said, “Please don't say that to anybody in these meetings, because it's a total joke in Hollywood about the Western being dead for 20 years. Even Silverado didn’t really break out. A western hasn’t really made money since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So don’t go down that road.”
C&I: And this immediately dissuaded you, right?
Fusco: [Laughs] I said, “I want to do it.” And I dug my heels in. And on top of that, I left town after a short time, then went to Lincoln County and did my research, got my ducks in a row, and wrote the script. It was never a thing where we thought, “Hey, we got the Brat Pack! We got The Outsiders!” It was, “Hey, let’s do the early years of Billy the Kid and the Regulators, and let’s show just how young the Kid was, and how the Old West was kind of like the NFL, where you were done and buried at a young age, and to sort of capture the echo of disenfranchised youth and youth gangs.” That was the whole impetus.
Because, to be honest, I wasn’t really that aware that there was this Brat Pack or this trend. But as soon as the script got out there, no pun intended, there was a stampede. Every young gun actor from Tom Cruise to Sean Penn, Jason Patrick, Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe — everyone, they wanted in. They wanted to be a part of this gang, get on horses, suit up. It was like a childhood fantasy. So we had our pick, and as we went down the line. my first choice for Billy was Sean Penn. But Sean Penn was in jail at the time. The director brought the script to Sean in jail, and Sean wanted to do it, but his legal problems wouldn't allow it.
C&I: That’s when Penn was expressing himself nonverbally a lot while dealing with paparazzi.
Fusco: Yes. He was punching people left and right. But we had all these other choices. And so then we started the cast with Kiefer and Emilio. Now, I was a producer on this because once my agents said, “Okay, look, Morgan Creek wants to buy this script,” I said, “Okay, but I come along with it as a producer, and I’m involved in everything.”
So I was in all those meetings, and when it got to the subject of José Chávez y Chávez, I said, “I’ve been doing some looking. And it’s my understanding, after La Bamba and reading about this guy Lou Diamond Phillips, and seeing him — he’s awesome. And he’s got the look. He's terrific.” And so when we got him, I remember just being so thrilled because I loved him as an actor. And I knew he was going to bring a lot of heat to the game, and I loved his background. So I was over the moon when we landed Lou.
C&I: What do you think he brought to the role that made it his own?
Fusco: He was so passionate. He was such a consummate actor when it came to the research. Actually, I could say that about Emilio and Kiefer and all the other guys we cast — they really respected the script and the work that I did. And not just the historical research, because they were well aware that I did my own twist on it. But they wanted to know everything about how I got to that twist. Like, how did I get to that twist on Chavez? Because you and I both know there’s some imagination, a little bit of composite characterization, to go into that. So Lou wanted to know all about that.
C&I: How did he go about doing that?
Fusco: He wanted to go spend time with the Navajo, which he did, and learn the right songs to understand the culture. He had a real love for the Hispanic culture, and already obviously had, through his La Bamba connection, knowledge about that. When Lou showed up, when I first met him, I bought for him a special knife from the 1800s with a Navajo sheath. Vintage, really expensive. I was so thrilled. I had a gift for every one of these guys that they all ultimately used in the movie. But Lou took that knife, and it meant so much to him, and he said, “I’m going to be throwing knives, so obviously this isn’t a throwing knife. I’m going to be wearing this all the time, because it’s going to bring something special to [my performance].” I think that is what Lou brought to the role, cause the role of Chavez as written is very serious, and he carries dark wounds.
Another thing: Lou has something unique that I’ve heard said about Robert De Niro — he has this uncanny way of capturing the two faces of drama, comedy and tragedy, at once. And it’s interesting, because Lou and I both worked with De Niro. I don’t know if Lou worked in film with De Niro, but he was business partners [in Manhattan’s Tribeca Grill restaurant] and friends with him. And Lou had his own way of bringing the gravitas to that Chavez role — but underneath it, having this glint of survival humor that’s so real in the world of Native Americans. I mean, there’s some moments in there where characters are under great duress, and he has a really serious line — and yet he kind of hits you in a wry way. Lou, as you know, he's a very funny guy.
C&I: How so?
Fusco: He used to entertain us with impersonations on the set every day. He was a true light on the set, and you can never be down with Lou Diamond Phillips around. And he brought humor and compassion into the character. He also brought a great athleticism. I don't know if you’ve ever heard about this, but I was like a kid in the candy store, because we set up cowboy camp for the actors to get them ready. Where did we do that first? It was somewhere outside of Santa Fe, but we had knife throwing, gunplay, horsemanship, saddle workshops. And I was was there for all of it, and I was a horseman, and I just loved it. But I saw right away that Lou was like, well, I believed this guy was a knife thrower.
Yeah, Lou’s an entertainer. He is the real deal. He’s kind of a throwback. I remember one night [while filming Young Guns II] when me, Emilio Estevez, pretty much all of us were down on the Mexican border, in a little cantina drinking tequila with James Coburn. Lou, true to his discipline, wanted to get to bed to be ready for [the] early shoot. He was first up, and as he left the table, he stood up and he said, “Goodnight everybody.” And then he said, “Mr. Coburn, what a privilege and honor it is to be working with you, to be at this table with you, to hear your stories and your history. You blazed the trail for us, and you’re the real deal, and such a class act, and the rest of us are mumblers just trying to live up to your level.”
And I remember James got all teary-eyed. He was kind of left speechless. He just said, “Well, thank you, Lou.” That’s the kind of guy Lou is.
C&I: Finally, how did you go about casting some of the old guns — like Jack Palance, Terence Stamp and Brian Keith — in the Young Guns cast?
Fusco: It all started with who was going to play Lawrence Murphy. We were driving around in a scouting van one day, when we had cast the Young Guns, but we hadn’t fleshed out all the other roles. And I said, “I think it should be Jack Palance.” And I remember the whole van started laughing. So I said, “Is he still alive?” And someone said, “Yeah, he is. But he’s retired. He lives on a farm in Pennsylvania, and we know he’s done because we tried to get him for something else.” And I said, “Try him for this. Tell him that this is a movie about these young upstarts who think they’re going to come in and take over the West, and that they then face the old school West guys." And they signed it to him with that pitch, and he came out of retirement, and then he had a great time on the movie. And then he kept on working — and won his Oscar for City Slickers.