Wednesday, April 6, 2011
What happened to Bobby?...
I have been asked a million times, "What happened to Bobby at the end of RADIO FLYER?"
A few years ago my friend, Stephen Greenfield interviewed me for an article and my answer to this question is as good a one as I think I have ever given. If after reading the Q&A you're still questioning the ending, sit-tight until I have my Blog figured out you'll be able to get a copy of the original screenplay and the original novella.
Here ya go:
"What's the Message?" Article by Stephen Greenfield Many years ago, friends warned me about seeing Radio Flyer. This 1992 film was the result of a very hot script auction (reputed to be $1 million). The production was the subject of additional controversy when the 27 year-old writer, David Mickey Evans, having negotiated a pay-and-play contract to direct the picture, was deliberately slowed down and caused to go over schedule, so that he could be thrown off the project after two weeks and replaced by Richard Donner. Donner is the esteemed director of the original Superman movie, the Lethal Weapon series, Conspiracy Theory, and more. That move escalated the budget of the small, deeply personal story from $18 million to $30 million.
Mixing warm, reminiscent fantasy with frighteningly real drama, Radio Flyer is about a young boy (Bobby), who endures the secret abuse of a sadistic stepfather (The King), and Bobby’s distressed older brother (Mike) who desperately tries to end that abuse. The concerned brother is inhibited from telling anyone, especially the mother, because knowledge of the abuse would destroy her happy relationship with the stepfather. So the kids can’t tell anyone: not the mother, not the concerned policeman who sees that something’s going on, not anyone. Nor do they attempt to run away to escape the abuse.
What these kids do, in fact, is build a pretend airplane out of a Radio Flyer wagon, and in the end, the seriously abused brother flies off into the night sky.
When I saw this, I thought, these kids seemed so concerned about mom’s feelings, don’t they think she’s going to be SHATTERED when she finds out her son has flown off, never to return?
To me, and to many other critics of the movie, the message seemed to be that although child abuse is a real problem, there is no solution short of suicide. Exactly what did the filmmakers think a child seeing this movie was going to think? That they, too, could build an impossible device and fly it away to solve their problems? I have kids, and I’m certain this wouldn’t be a message for any child I cared about.
But there are many stages between the idea and intent that forms in the writer’s mind, and what gets filmed, edited and ultimately interpreted by the audience. Over the intervening years, I had become acquainted with the writer, David Mickey Evans. Before revisiting my reaction 18 years ago to “Radio Flyer”, I realized I had a unique opportunity to go right to the source! David answered my questions with some very candid replies:
Stephen Greenfield: How did the story change from what you ultimately sold? Were there changes the studio compelled you to make, that you perhaps only did because you (at that time) didn't want to rock the boat directorially?
David Mickey Evans: It was softened, which I never liked, and in comparison to a recent film like "Precious," seems to have vindicated my point of view. Things that bothered me about the changes were that they kept coming from places that I didn't think had the right to make and/or suggest them. For example, the V.O. over the scene when The King comes back to the house after having been arrested, was written by the editor, Stuart Baird. Donner liked it. I did not. It was never a matter of me not wanting to rock the boat, it was simply that ALL decisions began and ended with Mr. Donner. The most glaring change was the end of the film, the original script ended with a reunion of sorts between Mike and Bobby, grown up, in the Smithsonian National Aerospace Museum where the Radio Flyer is on display next the The Wright Flyer -- with the exception that is has no visable means of support (no wires, nothing... just hovering in mid air proudly). I wrote it because I intended it to mean that the Radio Flyer had actually worked -- whatever the machinations of how Bobby survived notwithstanding. Mr. Donner's opinion was that the ending should be a "Rorschach Test" for the audience. I believe that is entirely wrong. Having said that, he was very kind to me, and included me at every stage of production and post-production.
SG: What changes were made to the story without your participation?
DME: The only thing I can recall as having been "sprung" upon me was the rewritten V.O. over the scene I mentioned above.
SG: Were aspects of abuse in the story either toned down or amped up after you were "replaced" as director?
DME: Yes. Toned down. I had in mind something more like "The 400 Blows." Mr. Donner had in mind, I think, something more like, "My Life As A Dog."
SG: Mike and Bobby never tell mom about The King's abuse, presumably because doing so would ruin her relationship with him. They also don't tell anyone, including the police. Is this for the same reason? And was this a key requirement of the plot for the ending to work?
DME: No, it wasn't specifically so that Mom's relationship with The King not be ruined, it was because, "Mom's happy now." There's a big difference there. Yes, they do not tell the police for the same reason. Yes, the ending, as I wrote it, but was not included in the film, had to have this element to make it work. Keep in mind the time the story is set in -- the early 70's, and there wasn't the sort've help and support for domestic abuse issues as there is today.
SG: Why is it Mike and Bobby can't run away? That's usually the first thing that kids think of. Was the reason for not being able to run away ever addressed in the script?
DME: Sure it was addressed, and that small piece of explanatory dialogue was edited out. Sure they could've both run away, but Mike wasn't getting abused, Bobby was, and the logic the kids use is that "someone has to stay home and take care of mom." Simple. Honest.
SG: The kids seem so concerned about Mom's feelings — but don't they think she is going to be SHATTERED when she finds out her son has flown off, never to return?
DME: That's hardly something that would've occurred to them in their state of fear. Their thought process goes like this, "Bobby's getting hurt. Can't tell Mom because she's happy now. Gotta get Bobby away and safe. I, Mike, will stay and take care of her. That's a good plan." Anything after that is asking too much of the 10 and 8 year-old minds to consider. There's also a metaphorical sense in which it is meant, and that is simply, "the radio flyer having worked" = "that Mike and Bobby finally got help" however that may have actually happened. I did not intend it that way, but I acknowledge it's potential.
SG: In the beautifully set up montage, "seven things all kids under 12 believe" (one of my favorite bits of writing!) you set up that “monsters exist”, “animals can talk” and most importantly, “kids can fly”. But at virtually every point in this film, where the kids have an opportunity to come face to face with the seven things, they ultimately see the truth: monsters don’t exist, animals can’t talk, and a favorite blanket can’t protect you like a force field from the neighborhood bully. So why do these kids have any faith that the Radio Flyer can deliver?
DME: Really good question! Because in the original script, they're real: monster do exist, animals do talk (in fact all the material with Mike and Shane [the dog] communicating was removed), a blanket is an impenetrable force field; e.g. (in the original script) when Bobby hops off the roof with the umbrella, he floats gently to the ground. That was the point of the entire section, to depict that within their world, all that stuff is vitally real, actual, it "is"... it's their reality, childhood magic to be sure, but real.
SG: Does the ending of the film essentially amount to suicide for Bobby? Is the message of the ending, and thus the film, that even though child abuse is a very real problem (and portrayed as such), there is no real world solution short of suicide? Because the argument that a kid can build an impossible but magical device to whisk himself away from abuse seems contradicted by the setup of the "seven things". And you make a compelling case for why these characters cannot tell anyone else.
DME: No f***ing way! I've been asked that a thousand times. I understand how an audience could come away with that impression considering the way the story was altered, but I NEVER intended that. Ever. The argument I was making was entirely the opposite, in effect, "Never give up no matter what!" And really, i was blurring the metaphorical line as it were in the original script, the Radio Flyer is a metaphor, it worked in the vastness of childhood imagination, and because of the 100% belief the kids had in it, it worked in reality-reality as well. If that seems contradictory, read the paragraph again, and remember, that the original ending of the film is not in the film -- Mike and Bobby as adults, Bobby in an Air Force Officer's uniform, in the Smithsonian Aerospace museum (the hallowed hall of the preeminent artifacts of flight) reconnecting after a long absence in front of the Wright Flyer and the Radio Flyer both on display beside one another. There was also V.O. there that tied the entire story up on a cathartic and understandable bow.
SG: And ultimately, how do you frame the message you were trying to send? Was it aimed at a purely adult audience? Was it a mistake for the film to be marketed as a PG-rated "family" movie?
DME: I never aim any story at any audience when I write it. The story was the story. Who was "The 400 Blows" aimed at? Who, for that matter, really, was "Precious" (to use a much more recent example) aimed at? I really couldn't care less. And was it a mistake to market it as a PG-rated family film? Of course it was. Look at the disaster it was at the box office. I'm proud of the story, the script, but handling what should've been an intimate, tense, dramatic, lower budget sort've story in a HUGE holly-woody way (budget, marketing etc...) was clearly a mistake.
So there you have it.
Personally, I believe the project was intended as an exploration of a real issue, with the cinematic and entertaining device of a kid flying off in a impossibly non-aerodynamic contraption.
David told me that the head of Columbia really identified with the story, quoting “Hey, kid, you wrote my life…” David’s desire to blend the serious aspects of abuse in the framework of entertainment was probably the key decision that launched “Radio Flyer”.
Unfortunately, the film’s intent was mangled in the delivery. The result was a movie with a confused and disturbing message, targeted at parents and kids.
For a more detailed historical article on the genesis of “Radio Flyer”, see Entertainment Weekly article: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,309669,00.html.