Dean Devlin: My Hollywood Breakthrough

“So I turned to the director and I said, ‘You’re really a first-class director. Why are you doing this piece of s— script?”’”

Best known for co-writing and producing such films as “Stargate” and “Independence Day” with director Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin has more recently branched out with his company Electric Entertainment to produce the acclaimed documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” He made his directorial debut on the pilot for “Leverage,” starring Timothy Hutton, which he executive produces and continues to direct for TNT.

Devlin spoke with Eric Estrin about the 12-year partnership with Emmerich that put him on the map and the four-year, daily contact with Al Pacino that inspired his to breakthrough.

My father was a film producer, and my mother was an actress, but I actually got my start as Al Pacino’s chauffeur.

I was raised in Los Angeles but felt like getting away after high school, so I moved to New York where I have some family. I was working at a company that rented film equipment there. One day a unit production manager was checking out some equipment and said, “What do you want to do?” And I said I wanted to get more involved in filmmaking. He said, “I’m doing a new movie with Martin Scorsese. Why don’t you come on and be a PA on the show?”

I was like … are you kidding me. So I found a replacement and quit my job. And on my first day of work the guy looked at me and said, “Oh my God, I forgot to call you. I had to hire Scorsese’s nephew.”

So I went home and I was totally depressed. And the next day the same guy called and said, “How’d you like to be Al Pacino’s chauffeur?” I went, “Uh, I’ll take any job I can get.”

I ended up working with Pacino seven days a week for four years. He really changed my outlook on a whole lot of things. I had done some acting earlier in my life, but it wasn’t really something that I took very seriously. It was always a means to an end. But the more I worked with him, the more interested I got in the craft and what it was about.

Just  at the tail end of working for Pacino, I found out about this audition for a play called “There Must Be a Pony,” by James Kirkwood, and I thought, You know what, I’m gonna try. And I went out for it and I got the lead role.

I came back to Los Angeles in 1983 with the idea of taking acting really seriously. I started studying with a fantastic acting teacher named Roy London. He coached a lot of people who went on to win Oscars. Brad Pitt was studying with him then, Geena Davis, Sharon Stone — it was a remarkable period of time to be studying with him.

I got a lot of TV work — and helped a lot of TV series get canceled. Shows that had been on the air for a long time would put me on, and they’d immediately get pulled. I really got to the point where I thought this is not a good career for me. In the ‘80s, if you looked like I looked, you were going to play guys named Flaco and Loco and Angel. Basically, you were relegated to being a gang member.

 I was just really about to give up when I got cast in a movie, “Moon 44,” that was shooting in Germany. It had a terrible script, but my agent assured me it was so bad that it would go right to video; no one would ever see it. It wouldn’t hurt my career, and I could go make a couple of bucks.

So I took the job and I flew out to Germany, and the next thing I know, I saw the most beautiful sets I had ever seen. The camerawork was spectacular, and the way the director worked with the actors was really extraordinary. So I turned to the director and I said, “You’re really a first-class director. Why are you doing this piece of s— script?” And he said, “Well, when I wrote it … “

And that began my partnership with the director Roland Emmerich.

So while I was doing the movie he came to me and he said, “Dean, I like when you improv,” so I started doing more and more improv. Finally I said, “Would you mind if I rewrote my dialogue?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, even better. “

Then a couple of days later he came to me and said, “We have a big problem. The other actors are very upset. You have all the best lines in the movie now. Would you mind rewriting their parts?”

And that led to this creative partnership that lasted 12 years.