Breaking Away: The Story Behind the Movie - Rolling Stone
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Breaking Away

A real life fairy tale with a happy ending

Peter Yates

Peter Yates at his Chelsea home in London on September 23rd, 1981.

David Corio/Redferns/Getty

Once upon a time there was a poor Young Playwright who struggled and struggled to get to the Great White Way. When his first play opened off-Broadway to critical raves, the Big Producer swooped in and told the Young Playwright he could make lots of money if he wrote a Movie. Did the Young Playwright have an Original Idea? Dazzled with the vision of Big Bucks, he quickly told a story about an American boy living in Indianapolis who fantasized he was Italian and spent his days riding a bike. Hmmm, purred the Big Producer, his eyes glazing over as he rushed out to Lunch. What the hell, give it a shot.

And he did….

The Young Playwright wrote and wrote, but no one seemed to like his script, except the British Director who befriended him and tried to set up the Deal. Alas, no luck. Fearing that the Young Playwright would become downhearted, the British Director asked: why not write a comedy about the class system in the United States? Why not indeed, thought the Young Play wright, and he sat down and wrote a script about a group of working-class boys who live in Bloomington, under the academic shadow of Indiana University, and how these boys face their future. The British Director loved it, but once again, the Deal eluded them.

Years went by….

Then one day, the British Director called the Young Playwright with an idea: combine the two scripts. It seemed that the Deal Makers on the Coast liked the central character of one script and the setting of the other. The Young Playwright secretly thought the British Director had lost his marbles, but he faced his typewriter again. At least, he thought, both stories take place in the same state.

When the script was done, they traveled to the Coast and this time made the Deal. Granted, it was a small one, a mere $2.4 million, but the British Director and the Young Playwright took the money and made their movie. And it was wonderful. Everyone thought so. In fact, the National Society of Film Critics said it was the Best Film of 1979, and it won the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award for Best Screenplay. And now there is talk of Oscars.

“Well,” says Peter Yates (the British Director), “that’s pretty much how it happened, except you make it sound like we didn’t do anything else for eight years. I directed movies….”

“Ha!” booms Steve Tesich (the Young Playwright). “We all know you were directing movies, but no one knew I was writing plays….”

What an odd pair. We are sitting in Suite 420 at L.A.’s Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the very room where Yates and Tesich holed up to put together the Deal for Breaking Away (the Movie). Yates is sipping white wine. Tesich is chain-smoking. Yates, 50, who now makes his home at New York’s fashionable Dakota, still retains his British accent after more than a decade in the U.S. Dressed in a lime-green cableknit sweater, with gray hair and a slight potbelly, Yates resembles an aging preppie. On the other hand, Tesich, 37, with his intense brown eyes and a strange thatch of brown hair, looks like a composite drawing released by the police department. He lives in the less-fashionable town of Conifer, Colorado, and his voice carries no hint of the fact that he grew up in Yugoslavia.

Both men are as excited as little boys on Christmas morning. Breaking Away copped an unexpected five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Score Adaptation. Yates and Tesich have their fingers crossed. Winning would be a most fitting epilogue to this classic Hollywood fairy tale.

“When you finish a film,” says Yates, “you take for granted that it will be a huge success.”

You do,” bellows Tesich, pulling at his hair. “I don’t feel that way at all. I feel that anything I love, people will hate. When I really got to like the film, I figured that was it. Everyone would hate it.”

Breaking Away is a terrific tale, and it so vividly captures bits of Americana — the “townies” in a college community, the subtle class distinctions and that awful, scary feeling of being nineteen and trying to figure out what the hell to do with your life — that it makes you wonder how these two men, one from England, the other from Yugoslavia, made this very American film.

Yates is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has directed such plays as Edward Albee’s The American Dream and The Death of Bessie at the Royal Court Theatre. His film credits include Bullitt, John and Mary, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Deep.

Tesich’s father was believed to have been killed in the war. But when he was thirteen, his father surfaced and sent for him, his sister and his mother. “There was a meat shortage in Yugoslavia,” says Tesich, smiling, “and when I found out that the meals on the boat were paid for, I looked up the word for meat. I’ll never forget the look on the waiter’s face when he came to our table and I yelled, ‘Flesh, flesh.'” Tesich settled in East Chicago and attended Indiana University, where he actually knew a guy who pretended he was Italian and won the Little 500 Bicycle Race.

Breaking Away has that integrity, freshness and enthusiasm rarely seen in films anymore. And it might be because this was a “first” for Tesich and many of the other people who made the movie: the cameraman, the art director and most of the actors. Even if Yates had been able to afford stars, he wouldn’t have used them. “The story wouldn’t work if you didn’t believe in the innocence of the people involved,” Yates explains. “You know, an actor gets to be a certain age and he gets that look in his eye. He’s trying to work out what he thinks you want him to be like. The actors we found were young and inexperienced enough to come in, open-faced, and understand and identify with the characters.”

Besides, Yates adds, “The whole point of the picture was that you must not look at one character more than the others., Motion Pictures except when it is demanded by the weight of the story. It would have been wrong to have Walter Matthau playing the father. It would have thrown off the balance.”

The actors not only looked real, but what they had to say also sounded real. “When people say the movie is about real people,” says Tesich, “they immediately think boredom. What’s gotten boring is the hype, the super adventures that have no bearing on our lives. Real people have fantasies, real people are funny, real people do outrageous things, and you just have to give them credit when you write.” Agitated, Tesich pulls fiercely at his hair again and adds, “It’s the way they have kids talk in the movies. God! Why do they portray kids like that? You know, ‘Hey, man.’ A lot of times kids sit down and tell you these very heartbreaking things, very concisely. Having young people speaking in whole sentences was an adventurous move in the first place.

“There were only two words added to the script that I didn’t write,” Tesich continues. “When the boy is sitting on the rock and is talking about his father selling the house, and he says we could use the money ‘something fierce,’ that was it. I was the writer, Peter was the director and the actors were actors.”

“When you are lucky enough to have a well-constructed script,” Yates explains, “and the words are in a certain order and the sounds and rhythm are important, then you need good actors because it is not an easy thing — to make certain words sound like your own. Unfortunately, the state of writing in films is so low that often the words are interchangeable, and a bad habit has developed. Actors find it easier to say a word they think up.”

Tesich had little difficulty making the transition from play writing to screenwriting. “The difference,” says Tesich, “is really very simple. In the theater, you look to language for some eternal truth. Films are much more lifelike. In real life, people don’t have enormous scenes. They will hint at things, look out the window and see something that means much more to them than, say, the friend they haven’t seen in five years.”

As for the success of Breaking Away, Yates acknowledges the public’s contributions. He is a firm believer in having sneak previews when changes can still be made. “In New York,” he says, “you can take the film out to a little theater every week and sit in the audience and feel the reaction. You begin to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not working.”

“In a methodical way of looking at the film,” says Tesich, “Breaking Away had a much faster, snappier rhythm without the scene in which the father returns to the mill where he worked. But when we tried it without the scene, there was this gap, this emptiness. I don’t think we could have made that decision wisely without an audience.”

When the film was in one piece, Yates and Tesich showed it to Twentieth Century-Fox. “Fox took a chance,” Yates says simply. “First off, the film didn’t smell like a winner. It was too small. And even though the budget wasn’t much, they couldn’t lay off any of the cost to, say, television, because there were no stars.

“This picture owes a lot to Gareth Wigan,” he continues. (Wigan was the executive in charge of Breaking Away.) “He suggested that the final scene come out. We tried it his way and it just didn’t work. Gareth, very generously, agreed. That’s what you need in a studio executive, someone who is n’t threatened.

“When I screened The Deep, Arthur Penn wanted to take out the sharks. Bob Benton wanted to take out the saw, and Steve,” Yates says, nodding to his colleague, “wanted to take out Jackie Bisset.”

“And to show you the kind of guy Peter is,” adds Tesich, “he didn’t listen to any of us.”

The phone has been ringing all afternoon. The Young Playwright, no longer struggling, is much in demand. (He has just begun his next project, adapting The World According to Garp for director George Roy Hill.) The phone rings again. Most of the callers can wait, but Yates must take this one. It is James Wood, who will appear in Yates’ next film, The Janitor Doesn’t Dance, written by Tesich. Yates has already started filming in New York. “I want to make a real mystery where the shadows are more important than the light; the things you don’t see will scare you off the edge of your seat. And as with all of Steve’s scripts, there is an awful lot of humor in it. It’s a murder story….”

“Oh, God,” Tesich groans, “I can see where this is going.”

“Do you want to tell the story?” asks Yates.

“No,” says Tesich. “You tell it. We don’t want it on television a year before we’re finished.”

“Well,” continues Yates, excitedly, “it’s a murder story and it involves this young man [William Hurt] who works as a janitor in a large office building in New York. He becomes infatuated with a newscaster [Sigourney Weaver] and….”

“Oh, God,” interrupts Tesich nervously, grabbing at his hair. “I know where this is going to lead. You’ve already told too much.”

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