A year or so ago, I went to the funeral of a screenwriter in the chapel of All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. The deceased had won one Academy Award and been nominated for several others, was a former president of the Writers Guild of America West and a recipient of the Guild’s annual Laurel Award for distinguished lifetime service to the art of screenwriting. He had written pictures starring Paul Newman and Jane Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Martin and Sidney Poitier and pictures directed by Robert Aldrich and Richard Brooks and Sydney Pollack and George Roy Hill.
All Saints was jammed. Two of the deceased’s ex-wives were up front, and in a rear pew, keening rather more loudly than necessary, was the sixteen-year-old he had been romancing the last few months of his life. “He kept worrying,” whispered my companion at the funeral, a screenwriter and a cad of international repute, “that his pubic hair was turning gray.” The Twenty-Third Psalm was read, William Blake’s “Jerusalem” was sung, and then the eulogies began. The first eulogist was another former president of the Writers Guild. He reminisced about days at the Guild fighting against the indignities done to screenwriters by studios and stars and directors and recalled how at one Guild social function the deceased had come up on stage to accept an award and had thrown a ream of blank pages out into the audience, a symbolic act meant either (I am not sure which) as a statement against the auteur theory or as a tableau vivant of the loneliness of the writer’s life.
The second eulogist was the ex-husband of a movie star. The deceased, he said, had been kind and gentle and truthful, although no boy scout, and he had also been a lonely man. To illustrate the degree of loneliness, he told the following story: “If I hadn’t seen him for a long time, the phone would ring and a voice would say, ‘What’s up? Is your sauna unoccupied?’ And he would drive into town and we would go into the sauna and afterwards we would talk for an hour or two. Only after he left would I stop and think, ‘He drove all the way in from Malibu to use my sauna in West Hollywood.’ And I know there are a lot of saunas he could have used in Malibu that were a lot closer than mine in West Hollywood.”
It was difficult not to reflect on this funeral while reading The Craft of Screenwriting, a collection of John Brady’s long interviews with six screenwriters—the late Paddy Chayevsky, William Goldman, Ernest Lehman, Paul Schrader, Neil Simon, and Robert Towne. “In the beginning,” screenwriters are fond of saying, “is the Word.” Screenwriters in fact are given to such rhetorical flourishes. “The holy chore of screenwriting,” one called his trade recently in a letter quoted in the Los Angeles Times, while another, musing about a screenplay of his that he felt had been brutalized by other thumbs, complained: “If it had been properly dramatized, we could have achieved catharsis in the grand tragic sense, the Aristotelian sense, and the audience would have wept at the finale.”1
Mr. Brady slips easily into this fancy diction himself, never more so than in his capsule descriptions of his interviewees: Chayevsky, a “pugnacious, poetic wordsmith”; Goldman, whom “Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West and his other literary forebears could only have envied and admired”; Lehman, “a transitional giant”; Towne, who “pursues his own art as the forger of strikingly original screenplays.” (I suspect the word “forger” might make Towne a tad uneasy.) Although his curriculum vitae gives no indication that he has ever worked on a picture,2 Mr. Brady has a theory: auteurism is on the wane, the director is in retreat, “the screenwriter…is more powerful than ever before.” No longer are writers “schmucks with Underwoods,” as Jack Warner called them, the protagonists of a hundred bad Hollywood novels, abused and ill-considered, overpaid, oversexed underachievers, victims of credit-stealing and pedestrian directors, their work gangbanged, their spirits broken. “The road from doormat to…dominance on a project,” Brady says, “has been long and winding.” The millennium has arrived, the Word is supreme, “the era of the screenwriter as superstar is at hand.”
This of course is tendentious malarkey, malarkey that Brady can’t even get his interviewees to swallow. “The niggers of the industry,” Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo) calls screenwriters. A screenwriter is a “bastardized thing,” says Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo), “half a filmmaker.” In the longest and most interesting interview in the book, William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) variously calls screenwriting a “craft,” “carpentry,” and “shitwork.” For Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, The Sweet Smell of Success), with nearly thirty years of screen credits, it is plus ça change…. “I don’t think things have changed as much as they appear to have changed,” Lehman says. “Marginal improvements at best, mostly in the area of financial rewards.” In other words the schmucks with Underwoods are now schmucks with word processors.
Despite four generally fascinating interviews (the exceptions are those with Chayevsky and Simon, Simon being more interested in the theater and Chayevsky in maintaining his ego), Brady seems to comprehend neither the realities of screenwriting nor the terms his interviewees accept. “Movies are like wars,” Towne says in response to a request for a “short course in screenwriting.” “The guy who becomes an expert is the guy who doesn’t get killed.” The military metaphor runs through all the conversations. These are men who recognize that screenwriters are mercenaries interchangeable even on each other’s pictures. Alvin Sargent (Julia, Ordinary People) rewrote without credit Goldman’s screenplay of All the President’s Men and Towne rewrote Schrader’s script of The Yakuza and (also without credit) the ending of Goldman’s Marathon Man. “I think it’s shit,” Goldman says of that new ending, although not unsympathetically:
“Let me say again, though, that they [Towne and director John Schlesinger] didn’t make it that way because they thought they were doing it wrong. Everybody’s under the gun. The pressures of making a movie are tremendous. The writer gets a certain chance at tranquility because there’s nothing till the screenplay is in. But when you are on the floor the pressures are murderous…. So when they came up with that ending, nobody sat around and said, ‘How can we ruin the ending of this thing?’ ”
Towne in fact made his reputation on rewrites, most successfully on Bonnie and Clyde, less so on Missouri Breaks and The New Centurions. “Bob may think he was anonymous then, but he wasn’t,” Ernest Lehman says. “Everybody knew about Bob, everyone…. It was almost as though by not having his name on it, they thought more of his effort…. If the picture was terrific, it was obvious that Bob had made it terrific. Now, if the picture was no good, nobody was going to blame Bob.” It is the freedom from blame that makes rewriting someone else’s script so much fun. The problems confronted are usually of a technical nature. I was once asked to rewrite a trucking picture. All the rewriting had to be done within existing scenes so that the budget of the picture would not change; there could be no new characters nor new locations nor added scenes. The leading lady was Ali McGraw. I knew she had gone to Wellesley, and at our first meeting Ms. McGraw, not without humor, quickly got to the point of the rewrite: “What is a Wellesley girl with my cheekbones doing on this truck?”
It would be useful at this point to describe (as Brady does not) what a screenplay is, the restrictions under which it is written and most importantly how it is made into a picture. A screenplay is 120 typewritten pages designed to be a motion picture, 120 pages because the rule of thumb is that one screenplay page accounts for one minute of film time. These 120 pages are broken down into scenes and locations and dialogue and narrative. Because it is so skeletal, so fragmented, a form in which words are secondary to potential images, a screenplay is difficult to read; the better a script reads, the better it is to be suspicious of the script. It is also essential to remember that a screenplay exists in a vacuum; it has no life of its own. As such, there is really no such thing as a good screenplay; there are only good pictures. An unmade screenplay is consigned to limbo, which means, reduced to the simplest terms, that the screenplay that is made is a good screenplay.
From the moment he or she is signed, the screenwriter is subject to limitations that make the holy chore something less than sanctified. The first is the inflexible length; it calls for a predetermination, a schematic approach that fiction, for example, does not demand. Screenplays are charted as much as they are written—how many scenes, how many pages per scene, how long each scene will play. Time is money. Fifteen extra pages mean fifteen minutes of film time. Since cut and finished film is shot at the rate of approximately two minutes a day, that means seven and a half days at a minimum of $60,000 a day, which does not include the “overages” paid to star actors nor take into consideration scenes that call for extras, chases, exteriors (which are subject to the vagaries of the sun not to mention, if a scene is shot on a city street, the necessity for crowd control), and special effects, all of which are more expensive than a simple two-scene, or two actors talking. The mathematics are staggering: for these fifteen pages $1 million and up. Which is not to say that a cagey screenwriter will not turn in a 135-page first draft. “That lets everybody be creative when they get it,” William Goldman says. “That means that the producer will be able to say, ‘Well, we must cut fifteen pages out of this.’ ”
The limitation inherent in letting “everybody be creative” is an absolute of screenwriting. There is first the producer and then the financing organization and then the director and finally the stars, and each element has suggestions, suggestions that have the effect of law unless the screenwriter is very articulate and quick on his feet. Schrader calls the four distinct versions of his Hardcore script the Milius, the Mac-Elwain, the Beatty, and the Scott after his producer; the studio executive who bought it; and two stars, Warren Beatty, who wanted to do Hardcore but insisted that a daughter who became a porno actress in the script be changed into a wife who became a porno actress, and then backed out of the picture after this change was made, and George C. Scott, who finally did do the script—with the daughter Schrader originally intended.
If a writer produces and/or directs his own script, he circumvents several levels of suggestions, but there is still the studio, which puts up the money, and the star, and if a star wants a daughter rewritten into a wife, the studio will back him up. Beatty and Woody Allen have come closest to circumventing all suggestions. In Beatty’s John Reed picture, Reds, he stars, produces, directs, and takes a writing credit. The last phrase is used advisedly; Beatty does not write as much as he supervises, in the manner of an architect, teams of writers who in effect work under the pseudonym Warren Beatty. “A Warren Beatty Film” is a far more accurate credit than “Screenplay by Warren Beatty.”
Suggestions are especially prevalent on an adaptation of a novel. Invariably a novel has to be replotted to fit into screenplay form. Scenes must be rearranged in order to create a narrative, characters combined or eliminated, parenthetical statements and modifying or subordinate clauses turned into scenes, a wife transposed into a mother, a funeral into a wedding (because it is easier to introduce characters and get rid of exposition at a wedding than at a funeral, where the audience might be distracted wondering who died). This offers an endless forum of suggestions. The suggestions are not necessarily bad—they are sometimes quite good—but they do tend to take the screenwriter away from that beginning where there was the Word. “You can almost say there are two entirely different versions of any screenplay,” Goldman notes. “There’s the stuff written before a movie is a go project and there is what’s written when the movie is actually going to be shot. And sometimes they have very little to do with each other.”
The experienced screenwriter is aware of all these restrictions, of all the choices that will be forfeited down the line, and tries to accommodate them within what Scott Fitzgerald called the “private grammar” of pictures. The rules are different. “You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can,” Goldman says.
“You always come into a scene at the last possible moment…. You truncate…as much as you can…. Get on, get on. The camera is relentless. Makes you keep running.”
Rarely does a dialogue scene run more than five pages; five pages equal five minutes, a long time to watch two people talk. Before the technique became a television cliche, exposition was often played against some kind of violence or conflict; Chayevsky used an off-screen narrator for exposition because he thought it saved him twenty minutes of film time. Exposition, however, is usually the first thing to go in the cutting room; a picture moves so fast and is so apparently realistic that the rigor of plot is not always necessary. Towne prefers soft openings. “A splashy beginning to hook an audience,” he says, results “with an almost mathematical certainty” in a sag twenty minutes later. “It’s been my experience that an audience will forgive you almost anything at the beginning of a picture,” he says, “but almost nothing at the end.” Dialogue is usually functional. The novelist Brian Moore told me that after working out a scene with Alfred Hitchcock on Torn Curtain, Hitchcock would say, “In the old days, Brian, I’d bring in a man now and have him dialogue this in.” Structure “is the single most important thing contributed by the screenwriter,” says Goldman. “It’s a terrible thing for a writer to admit, but in terms of screenwriting dialogue really doesn’t matter as much as in plays and books—because you have the camera.”
And with the camera comes the director, to screenwriters the most pernicious reality of picture-making. “The weak link in almost every film,” Gore Vidal told Rolling Stone last year. The encomiums roll in from Brady’s interviewees. “Pricks,” says Towne. “Jealous, petty and frustrated,” says Goldman. Ernest Lehman recalls his experiences with Mike Nichols on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with almost palpable pain: “There were a lot of creative conflicts between Mike and me. A lot of give-and-take. He gave and I took.”
What of course sets screenwriters’ teeth on edge is the auteur theory, the idea that if film is an art, the director is the artist. I confess that I am less unsympathetic to the auteur theory than most screenwriters. I suspect that what upsets screenwriters is not so much the theory as the word. Auteur. The tony frenchiness of it plays right into the pretensions and pretentiousness of many directors. Since a number of directors perceive their inability to understand words as the mark of the artist, their embrace of the word “auteur” drives screenwriters mad. (I personally find “filmmaker” far more odious, available as it is to every squalid hustler/promoter/producer/executive, many of whom have taken to calling themselves “complete filmmakers,” even in one case a “compleat filmmaker.”) The captain of the ship theory would be far less provocative; the senior partner theory, the CEO theory.
However grudgingly, screenwriters accept that a director must be in charge when a picture is shooting. “Just another foreman,” Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) says in Brady’s introduction. Directing, Silliphant continutes, is “an unforgiving routine of administration and traffic control.” This is self-serving, and fails to acknowledge that the writer must, by the nature of the medium, cede to the director certain essential writer’s functions—pace, mood, style, point-of-view, rhythm, texture. While it is true, as Goldman says, that there are seven major elements on any picture—writer, director, producer, cameraman, production designer, actors, and editor—the director hires most of them, and more importantly can fire them if they do not give him what he wants. With the cameraman and the designer, the director controls the look and texture of the picture, with the cutter the pace and the rhythm and the point-of-view. Imagine a novelist giving up those functions.
A good director—and unfortunately a bad one as well—directs the writer as much as he directs the actors on the set. “On the continuity and story line” of The Third Man, Graham Greene wrote in his autobiography Ways of Escape, “Carol Reed and I worked closely together when I came back with him to Vienna to write the screenplay, covering miles of carpet each day, acting scenes at each other.” Brian Moore and Ernest Lehman each spent months in a room with Hitchcock, working out the scenarios of Torn Curtain and North by Northwest; Hitchcock always maintained that for him the picture was finished when he was finished with the writer. (“All of Hitchcock’s successes were primarily writers’ films,” Stanley Kauffmann contends breezily in Living Images. Not true. Hitchcock was always the writer of a Hitchcock picture; the credited writers dialogued it in.) My wife and I once spent fourteen weeks in an office in New York with Otto Preminger, five hours a day broken in the middle by lunch at La Côte Basque. Preminger cherished distractions. Managers would stop by and interrupt script conferences to introduce him to Miss Universe contestants they had signed to personal service contracts. I met Miss Philippines and Miss Ceylon; Miss Peru was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
The more politic director always pays lip service to the script. “The script is everything.” “It all begins with the script.” “There is no movie without the script.” This has become litany in the Writers Guild Newsletter. Notice, however, the word “script”; never “scriptwriter.” When a director, Alan Pakula, for example, says the script is everything, he means his version of the script, the script he must shoot, and will not shoot if it does not meet his specifications. A director once said a script I wrote was a one-span bridge and needed to be a two-span bridge; he meant that the climax came too early and that the screenplay needed another climactic moment closer to the end. He was right. We worked together for six days in a London hotel room fashioning that second span and all the attendant body work. I wrote every word, but to say that the director’s mark was not all over that script would be ridiculous. On the other hand, a less articulate director dunned me so persistently for a “relationship” that I finally said with some asperity that the leading lady was being paid several million dollars to act that relationship and if she could not act it she should be fired; instead I was.
Towne and Schrader, both of whom have directed, say that having a script rewritten is a director’s prerogative. “Everything is and should be rewritten,” Towne says. “Movies are not done under laboratory conditions…. You are always miscalculating in a movie, partially because of the disparity between what you see on the set and what you see on the screen. No matter how skilled you are in anticipating what the image is going to look like finally, you still can be fooled. So you have to rewrite, and be rewritten—not because the original is necessarily badly written, but because, ultimately, if it doesn’t work for a film, it’s bad.” This is an admission that most screenwriters, the majority who do not direct, are not willing to make. In a script, everything seems possible; every scene plays, every line sparkles, every actor is perfect for his part. The reality, as Schrader says, is that “every idea goes through a series of diminutions. From the moment an idea is conceived, every step of the process diminishes it. By the time the movie is released, it is a tattered shadow of what you imagined it to be…. When you are writing, it is all in the mind.”
Where it always works, where the screenwriter is a whole and not half a filmmaker. Sometimes, when a writer of distinction works with a director of distinction, even that half can be quite satisfying. Graham Greene and Carol Reed were the most successful of collaborators in The Fallen I dol and The Third Man; their skills and outlook and interests not only coincided but were complementary. Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder detested each other, but out of that friction came Double Indemnity. It should be noted, however, that these collaborations produced melodramas, a form particularly suited to motion pictures. It should also be noted that a “writer of distinction” has always found that distinction in work other than screenwriting.
In the everyday world, professional screenwriters are fated to be chronic malcontents whose value is measured in dollars. “People are going to respect a writer they pay $250,000 to for a script a lot more than a writer they pay $50,000,” Schrader says. How true. It is a Hessian ethic, and perhaps the ultimate Hessian is Goldman. His interview is laced with the sour wisdom of the veteran campaigner whose credits are like wound stripes. Rarely has a screenwriter understood so well that there is more to a script than words. In All the President’s Men, Goldman was faced with the fact that Robert Redford was not only going to play Bob Woodward, he was also the producer, a parlay that would scare off actors of a comparable stature.
“The [Carl] Bernstein part had to not just be good,” Goldman says, “it had to be…as bulletproof as one could make it…appealing enough to nail Dustin or Al Pacino.” In A Bridge Too Far, the problem was that none of the historical figures to be played by the dozen stars had died in the mad dash to capture a bridgehead at Arnhem. “You can’t have a war film in which everybody lives,” Goldman says. “I mean, I can’t have James Gavin dying. He’s alive up in Boston, right? Since we had to be authentic, one of the craft problems, in addition to making a dozen star parts, was inventing memorable small characters that I could in fact kill off so that the audience would be moved. The problem is finding air space amid all the material for a three-scene role of someone who can die.”
It is this battle-scarred pragmatism that has helped push Goldman’s price to a million dollars for an adaptation. He is the definition of, to use Mr. Brady’s wretched phrase, “the screenwriter as superstar,” a superstar who says: “I don’t even have very much respect for someone who is just a screenwriter in terms of writing.” Mr. Brady plunges on, undeterred. What, according to Brady, are the fruits of superstardom? “Acceptance, applause and acclaim…more original screenplays, more money and more mention in the movie press.”
More mention in the movie press.
In the beginning is the Word indeed.
November 19, 1981
James Poe on his screenplay of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? quoted in The Hollywood Screenwriter, edited by Richard Corliss (Avon, 1972), p. 191. ↩
There has long been a mini-controversy between hoi-polloi critics who say “movies” and ivory-tower critics who say “film.” “Would you call a book a ‘readie?’ ” an adherent of “film” once asked, as if this were a telling thrust. No, but I wouldn’t call a book a sabago stock, sixty-pound weight, either. People in the business almost invariably say “picture,” except when talking to critics, when they lapse into “film.” (Many below-the-line people—the crew—simply say “show.”) ↩