John Fusco Interview

John Fusco is a man of many talents. His first screenplay was the blues cult classic Crossroads. He’s also written such movies as Young Guns, Hidalgo and the new Netflix film, The Highwaymen, set to be released in October. He’s also the creator of the Netflix series Marco Polo. Not only that, Fusco is an author, but one of his first loves is music. Fusco has always had a passion for the blues and now he’s sharing it with the world as he’s been actively recording new music. Blues Rock Review caught up with Fusco to discuss his love of the blues, new music, the possibility of a Crossroads sequel, and more.

What drew you to the blues?

Going back to my younger days when I was about 13 or 14 I was introduced to the Allman Brothers by my older sister. I kind of grew up in the slipstream of the 60s and my sister was a part of it. I would listen to the music that she listened to and I was drawn to some of it and didn’t quite get some components of it, but the Allman Brothers really connected with me. There was something about traditional blues being played and I was, like, this is their take on Blind Willie McTell or Elmore James and so I wanted to know more about those cats and so are started looking into the blues. What was under the Allmans, what was under the Rolling Stones. These popular bands that I really respond to have built upon this blues music, so I dug into and really became interested right around that time.

John Fusco on the B3 organ.

My first creative love in life was how I make my living today as a writer and a film maker. That’s what I wanted to do from the beginning, but I could never find an outlet for that. I grew up in kind of a blue collar, practical environment. My dad was a junkyard owner and I would work with him crushing cars in the junkyard and I’d say I want to go to Hollwood, I want to make movies, and it’s, like, son, you need to grow up. He grew up during the Great Depression, and I understand now that he was just looking out for me. I rebelled by going off and hanging out with garage bands and writing lyrics. These bands responded to the lyrics. They had their three chord originals, but they had no one to sing them. I said I’ll get up and I’ll sing them and they’re, like, dude you can sing. It evolved into music. I segued from the movie dream to music as I discovered the Allman Brothers and the Stones and that all culminated with me dropping out of high school at 16, getting into a fight with my father over our Hammond organ at the house because we had an understanding that it would not leave the house. I had an exit plan with four or five of my big friends, and we’d load it onto a truck and play and take it out and stuff like that. I taught myself organ around that time, too. I ended up leaving home and I just beelined down south and I had this plan that I wanted to find the sound that is underneath the music I love. That’s what drew me to the blues.

How much of a creative inspiration was dropping out of high school to search for these blues musicians?

It was my high school. It was where I learned about character and writing. I was kind of on a heroes journey and odyssey I didn’t realize at the time. I got so much material out of it that it would ultimately lead to my first movie, my first screenplay. When I eventually came off the road from that and decided I was going to circle back around and pursue that first dream, I went to night school, got a GED, got into NYU somehow. I was told later it was based on my writing, which they they responded to and found highly original because it was coming from a lived life at a pretty young age and it led to Crossroads, my first movie, and I would not have been able to write that if I didn’t have that inspiration. It was basically semi-autobiographical. I was this east coast white boy seeking out lost blues masters.

Being a screenwriter, what are the biggest creative differences between writing songs and writing movies?

I always say it’s all writing. It’s all story telling.  I write screenplays, but I also write TV, longform shows like Netflix Marco Polo, I have a new history channel series coming out, stuff like that. I also write novels, I have a children’s book out. To me, it’s another medium for story telling and when I come up with an original idea, a story I want to tell I know very quickly what medium it wants to soar in, where it wants to live.

Case in point is my single “Drink Takes the Man.” I heard this Irish proverb in a bar one night and some guy was reciting it. He held up his glass of wine and he said, “First a man takes a drink, and then a drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes the man.” I just made an annotated note in the margins of my brain that night and said I’m gonna write that song and it comes along like that.

You have a few singles out already, do you plan on putting out more singles or eventually releasing a full-length album?

Right now I’m dropping singles pretty much monthly. I continue to travel down to Memphis and then I go do a quick trip across the river to get with my friends the North Mississippi Allstars, the Hill Country Revue, as Sharrise Norman (Memphis Norman Singers) has called it musical marriage. It’s just been a happening thing and we stay in touch all the time and as soon as I get a window I ask them if they’re good and I shoot down to Memphis and go in and we bang out three of my originals and I have four more to record with them and I’ll have 10 originals in the case, so my goal is basically the end of the year to have a full-LP and release a CD.

How did you get connected with North Mississippi Allstars?

Once again it traces back to the movie Crossroads. I was so fortunate and mindblown as you can imagine knowing about my early wanderings and that passion that I basically thought that I struck out on the road, that I kind of went bust, but suddenly in a very short time after getting a GED and getting in the backdoor of NYU I had a movie, a student screenplay going into production in the Mississippi Delta, in the same areas where I was homeless and hungry at times, and I had Ry Cooder doing the soundtrack, I had Sonny Terry, my all-time harmonica hero, Stevie Vai, Frank Frost from the Juke Joint Jumpers because I ended up doing the talent search with Ry Cooder down into the deep delta and going across the backwaters to fish frys and juke houses and find the real deal. Ry wanted to hook me up with a guy named Jim Dickinson from north Mississippi. I knew the name and he was super talented. He was kind of like an Alan Lomax type guy that he dedicated his life to preserving blues. Jim was an amazing musician, acclaimed producer, and founder of the legendary Zebra Ranch recording studio in  Mississippi. He’s that kind of guy and Ry assigned him to me as an adviser that I can get in touch with any time and I just loved my conversations with Jim Dickinson.

Cody Dickinson mixing for John Fusco.

Flash forward many years later I became aware of this band the North Mississippi Allstars. I really respected what they were doing because I listened to them and said, wow, these guys are preserving this primitive modernism that their dad used to talk about, but they’re kicking it into new places and they’re young cats and they’re making it feel new but they’re respecting the foundation. And I started following them by way of social media. Cody Dickinson was following me and he saw something on social media of me playing my Hammond B3 and singing gospel and he responded positively and we started connecting. And he didn’t realize that I wrote Crossroads and when I told him he got very excited. He said, “Man, that movie changed our lives, our dad worked on that movie,” and I said, yes, I know. Jim was a great adviser to me. They’re like, “Listen we gotta get together. Do you ever get down here?” I said one of these days and they said, “let’s jam out, let’s play, let’s do a Crossroads medley.” I guess Luther Dickinson and Cody were into punk rock at the time and their dad wanted them to get into the blues and when their dad showed them the early cuts of Crossroads they said this is really cool and then their dad started telling them about blues lore and the Crossroads and all that. Devon Allman told me the same thing. That’s one of the things that means so much to me that Crossroads lit the fuse for a lot the new generation of blues players.

Have you ever thought about a Crossroads sequel? Something like that could make sense given the success Cobra Kai has had with Ralph Macchio resurrecting his character from the Karate Kid.

I have and I have to say that although Crossroads has settled in over the years to become arguably a cult film, especially among musicians, it did not perform well at the box office during its initial release. That kind of surprised everyone because it was considered the hottest script in Hollywood at the time that I got it out there. I was this NYU student who came off the road and wrote a screenplay that gave insight into Delta blues. Everyone had high hopes for it.

The director took it and made quite a departure from my original screenplay. That tends to surprise people when I tell them. My screenplay was more grounded I would say. It was less metaphysical. The way it worked it was kind of a dual reality. Anything that was remotely metaphysical had an explanation. The old man could look at it one way, but the kid could look at it in another. It was more of an art film that way and I think the studio kind of pushed Walter Hill the director to make it a higher concept and I feel that it became more literal than it was meant to be. It was so original that I think it baffled a lot of people. It took time for a fan base to catch up with it. I was completely planning to pursue a sequel after that, I was really excited about it, but it’s all about box office. That’s what’s going to give you the sequel. I do know some movies have developed a following and have had another life, but now that you’ve given me the idea and now that there are so many venues and opportunities like YouTube that’s something to think about.

How did Steve Vai get cast for the guitar duel in Crossroads?

I got together with Ry Cooder, Walter Hill, and we had another guitar player named Arlen Roth who I considered the guitar players guitar player, technically brilliant. He was the guy who Ry told us could get Ralph Macchio guitar ready in an incredibly short period of time. Arlen basically moved in with Ralph, made him sleep with the guitar and coached him, so Arlen was also in this meeting talking about who’s going to play Jack Butler, who’s going to play the devil’s man. Ry put the feelers out there to see who would be interested in doing it. Everyone wanted to do it. Keith Richards wanted to do it, Johnny Winter, Jimmy Page, they all wanted to play that role. Then Ry brought up Steve Vai who would probably be the least famous, but just as we know scary great. It’d be great to have Keith Richards, it would be great to have Johnny Winter or Jimmy Page but it could backfire and feel like stunt casting and would we be watching Keith Richards and not Jack Butler? Will it break the spell? Whereas with Steve Vai he’s not known enough, but he understands what this is about, he can bring it out through his music and Ry just had the total confidence to pretty much put him in charge of the duel and compose the duel. It’s kind of become an iconic character and climactic music battle.

Interview by Pete Francis

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