Monday marks 25 years since the release of “Falling Down,” which found unemployed defense engineer D-Fens (Michael Douglas), destabilized by the dissolution of his family and the growing frustrations presented by modern society, tearing an increasingly weaponized, increasingly violent path through the streets of Los Angeles.
A quarter of a century later, with armed gunmen turning mass shootings into increasingly commonplace occurrences, and gun violence at the forefront of the national conversation, the film seems more pertinent than ever.
As “Falling Down” turns 25, TheWrap spoke with the film’s screenwriter, Ebbe Roe Smith, about the circumstances surrounding the making of the film, and whether D-Fens would be #TeamMAGA in the modern age.
TheWrap: When “Falling Down” was coming together, Los Angeles was experiencing a lot of tensions and frustrations that were starting to bubble up. How much of that influenced your story?
Ebbe Roe Smith: I guess it was sort of all in the background. There was nothing new, of course — whatever was going on had been around. It was definitely reflected [in the film]; the Rodney King episode was just happening. When the riots happened we were shooting, and they had to shut down production for a couple of days because of it, so there was that. There was a thing going on between Korean grocers and Black neighborhoods, too. There was tension between those two communities, and it was especially exasperated because a young Black girl was shot by a Korean grocer because she stole something and started to walk out the door, and she was shot and killed. So that was a big thing that was going on.
Do you think that the film could have been set anywhere else than L.A., or were the circumstances in the film unique to Los Angeles?
I thought about that. I think it definitely could have been [set elsewhere]. The details would have been different, but the overall push of it would have been the same. It was L.A.-centric, as far as what was going on. And also the concept of him walking, of him leaving his car, was a big L.A. thing. He was a guy who got out of his car and entered into areas where he didn’t belong. So that was a big L.A. thing — you know, the car culture. The tensions were going on all over the place, though. You could have done it elsewhere — it would have different details, but yeah.
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Do you feel that those tensions have abated or increased in the past 25 years? It seems like there are a lot of D-Fenses, or at least potential D-Fenses, running around the country these days.
It seems like they’ve been exacerbated. And it’s kind of more visual — they’re out there, now. You know, the white supremacists are marching now. They weren’t really marching back then. They were around, but they were more under the radar. And this idea of the aggrieved white man, which is something that is in the news now. They’re still there; it may be exacerbated, like you say. Since Trump came in, you know…
To what extent do you think D-Fens’ rage was specifically a white male rage, as opposed to a reaction to frustrations that anyone might experience?
I’ve always thought that D-Fens was racist, but that he kind of didn’t know he was. I don’t know exactly how to put that … More like privileged, you know? He was privileged. And he felt that would be taken away from him.
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Had D-Fens not died at the end of the movie, do you think he would have voted for Trump in the last election?
Yeah, I think so! I think that’s a good bet. Yeah, I think definitely.
It seems like Trump’s message would resonate with him.
Yeah, I think it would. You know, the aggrieved-ness of it — “Wait a minute, what happened to MY rights?” That’s a big thing that’s coming down now with a white supremacist kind of idea. You know, “MY rights are being taken away from me and given to these other people of color.”
A lot of the racial face-off in “Falling Down” seems like a function of the film being set in L.A., with its varied demographics. But you get the sense that he had problems with certain people, even if he didn’t realize it himself.
Definitely, yeah. When he meets up with the white supremacist in the store, where he changes his shoes out, the idea that the guy says, “We’re the same, you and me,” that idea was foreign to D-Fens, he didn’t see that in himself. It was kind of a shock to him.
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Your new book, “Pro Bono,” involves an assassin who volunteers to help a quadriplegic seek revenge on the people he feels are responsible for his problems, which seems to venture into similar territory as “Falling Down.”
It’s sort of from the other side. The aggrieved guy in this really believes that he was aggrieved. That really wasn’t the focus of the book, the focus was on the mind of the killer, the hitman. He wasn’t feeling aggrieved, but the focus was on him.
Have you ever worried that you might have opened up a Pandora’s box with “Falling Down,” in terms of emboldening would-be vigilantes?
I don’t feel responsible, I don’t feel like I’d be causing anything. I feel like I was noting it as opposed to causing it. It is kind of baffling; I had a guy, he was in New York and he had a blog, and I looked at some of his stuff, and he had some real racist, slanted stuff. He wanted to do an interview with me, and I said I didn’t want to go there because I didn’t want to help his agenda. But it kind of baffled me, that they could look at D-Fens as a positive figure, because to me it seems so clear that D-Fens is really messed up, you know. Where he’s coming from is because he’s in a really messed-up state, so I don’t see him as a good character to live up to.
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A lot of people seem to see him as a champion for anyone who’s been run down by the world and wants to take a stand, although D-Fens takes some very problematic stands. What would you say to someone who sees him as a heroic figure?
I would say, take a look — the guy is sick. He has real issues. He’s not really [taking] a heroic stand. Although I think two things were going on in the movie — one is how messed up he was, and the other part of it was that he was doing things that made people feel good. There were things that people wanted to do themselves but couldn’t do it, because of the risk and putting themselves out there in that dangerous place. Those two things were going on. To me there’s a separation there. The joy that people take in the movie is from that aspect of it — that when he goes into the Whammy Burger, he pulls out a gun and says, “Give me my goddamn breakfast.” And they are meant to be comedic, but that aspect of it is kind of separated from the darker, more dangerous, sicker aspects of D-Fens.