Hollywood screenwriter shares the stories behind his biggest films
Larry Ferguson ’64 is responsible for movies that have grossed more than a billion dollars combined, including entries in some of the most well-known franchises in cinema history. Highlander? Beverly Hills Cop II? The Hunt for Red October? Alien 3? All his.
He has worked with a veritable “Who’s Who” of award-winning actors, a list that includes Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, Charles Dance, Dennis Hopper, James Earl Jones, Eddie Murphy, Jean Reno, Meg Ryan, and Sigourney Weaver.
A heady career for a Duck who grew up dreaming of one day just making it to the bright lights and big city of Klamath Falls.
“I grew up on a farm near Klamath Falls, and went to Henley High School,” he said. “I remember being 15–16 years old, changing sprinkler pipes at 3:00 a.m. and looking out at lights on the horizon. That was Klamath Falls, and I thought, ‘If only I could get there.’”
Ferguson did more than just get to Klamath Falls, graduating from the UO’s College of Arts and Sciences before moving to California to try his hand as an actor. After a stint spent repossessing cars instead, he followed his then-girlfriend to an audition for a play at UC Davis, and after being cast, enrolled at UC Davis to work on his MFA. A few seasons with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco followed, before Ferguson moved to New York to tread the boards on Broadway.
That was when he got his first introduction to the surreal world of Hollywood.
A young Larry Ferguson as “Turk” in William Inge’s
Come Back, Little Sheba, performed at the UO’s
“An agent from Los Angeles saw me, and said, ‘You should be a movie star,’” he said. “I moved my family from New York to LA, and was excited about the whole idea of it. I called the agent when I got there, but he didn’t remember who I was and told me to come back later.”
Instead, Ferguson opened his own conservatory on La Brea and wrote a screenplay. When he finished, he set about trying to find someone who would turn it into a film.
“I took it to Ben Benjamin at the largest agency in the world, International Creative Management,” Ferguson said. “I masqueraded as a FedEx employee. I signed in at registration, went to the seventh floor, and went straight to Ben’s office. I started opening the door, and his secretary stopped me. I went in anyway, and Ben was in there with Burt Lancaster. I said, ‘I know I’m pushy, but read my script and I want you to represent me’ and I left.”
Ferguson heard nothing for weeks, until Benjamin called and said he did indeed want to represent him—but not before saying, according to Ferguson, that the young writer “represented an unattractive part of the human anatomy.” Benjamin had shown the script to Paramount, and it sold for $125,000.
The young screenwriter learned early on about the star dynamics in Hollywood, and realized that to stay involved with a production, he would have to make himself necessary to the process without upsetting the tenuous balance of power that exists between famous directors and actors. One of Hollywood’s most notable directors also gave Ferguson a lesson about storytelling—advice that not all audience members or writers would necessarily be in agreement with.
“I was at Steven Spielberg’s house, and it was after one of the Indiana Jones movies had come out,” Ferguson said. “There was a scene where Indiana Jones hangs on to the side of a submarine during its trip under the water. I asked Steven about the scene, about whether or not he expected people to believe he’d survived underwater by hanging on to the side of the ship.”
The response from three-time Academy Award winner Spielberg?
The explanation to the error in question was actually filmed, but never made it to the final cut of the movie—Indy used his whip to lash himself to the exposed periscope, and clung to that during the journey—but how editing choices affect the final version of a movie was something else Ferguson learned very early on.
“So much goes on that people don’t know about,” he said. “One of the first movies I worked on was Highlander. The producers changed the ending and messed it up, then tested it and realized it wouldn’t work.”
Ferguson had to rewrite new dialogue to explain a continuity error created by the new ending, dialogue which was recorded and dubbed over shots where you couldn’t see the actors’ mouths moving.
Ferguson owes his success to more than just his moxie, talent, and quick thinking though—another Duck, Don Simpson ’67, figured prominently in Ferguson’s rise. Simpson was a producer, responsible for—among others—Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, Dangerous Minds, and The Rock. While sitting in Simpson’s office discussing scripts, Ferguson opined that “All comedy is tragedy gone sour,” and Simpson hired him immediately to write the follow-up to Beverly Hills Cop.
By the end of the 1980s, Ferguson was firmly established as one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood, having written Highlander, starring Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert; Beverly Hills Cop II, starring Eddie Murphy; and The Presidio, starring Connery and former UCLA quarterback Mark Harmon.
Benjamin, Ferguson’s agent, then contacted Ferguson and asked him to read a novel by a popular new author named Tom Clancy, with a mind to turn it into a film. The novel was Clancy’s debut effort, a Cold War thriller named The Hunt for Red October. Ferguson declined to write the script, saying he didn’t want to write “a submarine movie.” Benjamin reminded him that he was under contract with Paramount, but suggested asking for such a large sum of money for the script that Paramount would almost certainly say no.
“He called me up a week later and said he had good news and bad news,” Ferguson said. “The good news was that I had become extremely rich. The bad news was that I had to do a submarine movie.”
The Hunt for Red October starred Connery, Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones, and Sam Neill—with a cameo by Ferguson himself as the USS Dallas’ Chief of the Boat—and grossed more than $200 million worldwide. Called “A skillful, efficient film” by critic Roger Ebert, The Hunt for Red October was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one.
After Red October wrapped, Ferguson was contracted to work on Alien 3, the third film in the hit Alien series, starring Sigourney Weaver. For Ferguson, writing a sequel presents a unique challenge in that the audience simultaneously wants to see the original film all over again, while wanting to see something fresh and new. For Alien 3 though, there was an entirely new twist that limited what he could and could not write.
“20th Century Fox had already started production on Alien 3 in London,” Ferguson said. “They had hired David Fincher to direct, but he hadn’t done anything but rock videos. They came to me and said we needed to come up with a new story, but they’d already built the sets in London and the new story had to use the same sets.”
Ferguson turned out to be one of a number of writers to end up working on Alien 3, and while the chaotic nature of the production resulted in a movie that was not critically received, it nevertheless still earned $160 million at the box office, more than three times its budget.
After 25 years writing screenplays in Hollywood, Ferguson has moved back to Oregon to write a book, which he is in turn adapting for a screenplay, giving him a glimpse at the two sides of the author-screenwriter relationship he had only ever experienced the one side of.
“I’m told Tom Clancy would get physically ill if he heard my name,” said Ferguson. “You take what he spent eight or nine years of his life doing, and cut parts out to get it down to ninety minutes. The Wall Street Journal said the film was better than the book, but Clancy did not put me on his Christmas card list.
“And now here I am, murdering my own novel.”