Jesus Walks His Dog
An Interview with screenwriter Bob Comfort
By Chris .G Parkhurst
The way the story goes, Jesus was out one day walking his dog. In his weather-beaten Birkenstocks, he traversed the long walk that runs along Portland, Oregon's Willamette River.
For most of the walk, the dog pulls on the reins continuously, trying Jesus' patience, until finally, even Jesus can't take it any longer.
"Heal!" he says to the dog. The dog appears to hear nothing. But a blind woman, who happens to be walking by at the time, suddenly throws her cane into the Willamette, crying out that she can see. She thanks Jesus for her good fortune.
But Jesus only has time to smile before the dog is pulling him again. "Heal!" Jesus says. At that very moment, a young man happens to be wheeling by in wheelchair; suddenly he stops, stands and kicks his chair into the river. He thanks Jesus for his good fortune.
And so the story goes according to Bob Comfort, a 64 year old, Portland-based screenwriter. After constructing this sketch for me while we sit outside a local Starbucks,
Comfort is quick to point out that it's a sketch and not a skit. "Never say skit and never say cute," he says.
Comfort is mostly known for his 1991 screenplay, 'Dogfight', staring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Comfort initially seems hesitant to talk about his past or his future or much about anything for that matter. There's a guarded air about him.
He wears baggy sports pants, sneakers and a loose-fit button-down shirt. He looks like he once towered over people, but now gravity has somehow pulled him forward in a slight hunch.
I offer to buy him a drink, but he declines. "Great breakfast," he says laughing a little at my food and beverage selection, a scone, decaf coffee and water.
I introduce myself as a fellow screenwriter and independent filmmaker. He doesn't say much. Not that I expected him to. At least he doesn't smirk or scoff, which is usually what people do when you tell them you're a Writer or worse yet, an independent Filmmaker.
At the risk of sounding like a pathetic fan-boy, I tell him that I've recently taken in another viewing of 'Dogfight', a film that I loved back when I first saw it, nearly ten years ago.
It's the story of a group of young marines the day before they're shipped off to the Vietnam War. During their last night they decide to engage in a bet to see who can hook-up with the most unattractive girl - a 'dogfight', if you will. The male lead, played by River Phoenix, picks up a young, not-so-pretty, but not-exactly-ugly, folk singer wannabe, Lili Taylor, as his entrance into the contest. Unexpectedly (well, sort of) the two polar-opposites, end up sharing a night of friendship and enlightenment.
Comfort smiles. "Oh, you've seen it? You're like one of four. That's good. Did you borrow it or rent it?"
He is happy when I tell him that I rented it. I understand exactly what he's getting at. Royalties. We Writers like that word.
"Yes, that's a good script. I hate what the director (Nancy Savoca) did with it, at times, but it's a very good story."
My ears perk up. I try and pry him, hoping for some good industry gossip, but he doesn't budge. He doesn't want to get into trouble anymore, he says. I believe him.
You get the impression that Comfort has had his share of problems in the past. Maybe it has cost him a picture or two or maybe a royalty. Who's to know?
He'd only tell me, "she wanted to make a chick flick, which was not how I wrote the thing. I wanted to do something about keeping people out of the Marine Corps."
Comfort was unhappy with how Phoenix's character was re-written and played with a nicer, less divisive manner. The not-exactly ugly aspect to Taylor's character didn't help matters either.
"I coulda won an Academy if they'd had a fat chick, like how I'd written it," he says. It may seem like a harsh, insensitive statement to make, but you only need to look at the story behind 'Dogfight' and at the man saying it, and it really starts to makes sense. It's a screenwriter's worst nightmare, the studio or a director takes a writer's characters and changes them in such a way that the intent of the story is jeopardized or worse, completely disregarded.
Comfort spent the first 17 years of his life growing up in Edmonton, Alberta. He jokes, with a slight glimmer in his eye, that he needed to leave Canada for fear of killing his family. I wonder if he's only half-joking when he tells me that he'd devised a plan to blame his brother if he'd gone through with it.
Not surprisingly, he says, that it was anger that drove him to Pasadena. It was anger that drove him to "the Business," anger that enabled him to write, anger that got him through a bout with lymphoma cancer, and anger that kept him going through most of his life.
Though these years he's softened up a bit. "I'm more likely to sleep in than I am to write," he says sounding slightly saddened as his eyes shift elsewhere, mostly downward.
'Good Luck' is the only other Comfort screenplay that wound its way through a projector. It was also the first. He recalls when it opened, premiering in Portland, at the suggestion of the director as it was mostly shot in Portland and in southern Oregon. Comfort doesn't remember where it was screened, but seems quite certain that only six people were there to see it.
Not unlike 'Dogfight', 'Good Luck' is another feel-good story about two people who initially are at odds with one another, but end up finding some common ground. In this case, the common ground is disability. A wheelchair bound, Bernard 'Bern' Lemley (Gregory Hines) seeks out ex-NFL star wide receiver, Tony 'Ole' Olezniak (Vincent D'Onofrio), who has been blinded by a freak football game accident, to compete in an annual white water rafting competition. At first Ole suspects that Bern has only sought him out to take advantage of his celebrity status, but eventually consents when he is convinced otherwise.
The story plays out like a decent after-school special, but a little sex, a lot of profanity, and some true to life Comfort comic scenes make this more filmic in scope.
An outstanding example of a true to life Comfort scene, and one that he's particularly proud of (as he should be), is when one day after having completed their first rafting practice, Ole wakes up Bern to inform him that he's taken his first solid turd in years. He even goes so far as to make Bern get up and see his glorious achievement.
Another scene that takes advantage of Comfort's quirky, yet feel-good humor, is a full-on three minute driving sequence where they discuss at great length and in vivid detail what their sex lives were like after incurring their disabilities.
Done today, these scenes would have been written and filmed in an entirely different, lowbrow, fashion by lazier Hollywood hacks looking for a cheap laugh and quick buck. The Farrely Brothers (insert insanely close-up shot of turd) or the 'American Pie' franchise (insert lengthy sex in wheelchair scene) are two immediate examples that come to mind.
However, in Comfort's scripts and in the films they are presented in such a way that they come across as both shockingly hilarious and yet quite heartwarming, even touching - a statement that could also be made about the whole subject matter of 'Dogfight', and it's a statement that could be made about Bob Comfort.
Ending our interview, I hope to see more work from Comfort. He's had all 22 of his scripts optioned at one time or another, but nothing has hit the screen since 1996. Though it should be noted that one big-name director, who shall remain nameless at the insistence of Comfort, is currently trying to get a Comfort script made. With his keen sense of humor and attention to heart and soul, it seems obvious to me that the man has more to say, and that people will listen.
I like to think of Comfort out walking his proverbial dog, shouting for it to "heal", and anyone in earshot, becoming mended or enlightened by his real, not-exactly-Hollywood stories.
I only hope that Hollywood will listen.