William Goldman is one of the best screenwriters Hollywood has seen. He is the author of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (an original script that won him his first Oscar), “All The President’s Men” (maybe the most difficult adaptation ever made in Hollywood, it won him Oscar number two), “Marathon Man” (excellent script on his own book) and “The Princess Bride” (same again). Whenever he retires, he’ll have earned his pension alright.
Adventures in the Screen Trade is the first book I ever read on screenwriting. It was in 1989. It created an everlasting impression on me. Because it is enlightening, worthy and fun. And it stays that way. Goldman defines it as “a book about Hollywood”, but is, in equal terms, a book about writing: “A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting”.
So it is a Guide to Hollywood (and film in general):
“I remember the moment I was first told about the existence of the auteur theory. (…) All I could think was this: “What’s the punch line?” “I do know this: It sure as shit isn’t true in Hollywood”
“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” In case you didn’t know, NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING is one of the now Famous Two Mantras of this book.
My favourite two sections of this first half of the book are: The author’s account on meeting Steve McQueen about a Western film Goldman wrote (it’s just one page long, but it weights pounds) and his chronicle on how The Verdict actually happened (an eye-opener about Stars and Hollywood at large).
But Adventures… is a book about screenwriting too. It explores the trade north, south, east and west:
“Just being a screenwriter is simply not enough for a full creative life.” “You must write something else. Anything else. (…) There has to be an outlet where quality matters, where the world is not measured by the drop in box-office receipts in the second weekend in Westwood.”
“The first fifteen pages are the most important of any screenplay (To which Paul Newman adds: Yes. And the final fifteen minutes are the most important of any movie.)”
“Endings, frankly, are a bitch.” “The ending requires the most delicate and thoughtful writing of any part of the movie.”
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”.
“The more information an audience has, the less additional information it requires. And the ladling out of when and where something is necessary is one of the requisite components to skilfull storytelling”.
“In a screenplay, not only do you attack each scene as late as possible, you attack the entire story the same way.”
“I think screenplays should be written with as much speed as possible – and with even more deliberation. By “as much speed as possible” I don’t mean to suggest you should throw a bag over its head and do it for Old Glory. But I do believe that you should push yourself hard and continually.”
“In any case, before you begin, you must have everything clear in your head and you must be comfortable with the story you’re trying to tell. Once you start writing, go like hell… but don’t fire till you’re ready.”
“Subtext (…) is not stated in the words, but it is the pulse beating beneath those words; it is the unexpressed subconscious life that brings size and weight to your writing.” “Look what you’ve written: If all that’s going on in your scenes is what’s going on in your scenes, think about it a long time.”
“I was the (I think) original writer on Papillon. One line of mine, the last in the picture, is all that remains of my contribution to the film.”
“I believe it was the late Rosalind Russell who gave this wisdom to a young actor: “Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember and they’ll leave the theatre happy.”
“I suppose half of the screenplay’s I’ve written have actually seen production. And I am being dead honest when I tell you this; I have absolutely no more idea as to why some of them happened than why some of them didn’t.
And, at last, we get to Famous Mantra Number Two:
SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE.
“Yes, nifty dialogue helps one hell of a lot; sure, it’s nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters spouting just swell talk to each other and if the structure is unsound, forget it.”
I will be referring to his line many times in the future. Feels to me like one of those verses from sacred books: you could spend years trying to grasp its full meaning.
In the second half of the book, Goldman recounts his experience in the films he worked during the first part of his career. Plenty of goodies here: The “faithful” scene with Sidney Pollack from The Thing Of It Is… (There no link as this film never got made); all the stuff from Marathon Man, with Laurence Olivier kind requests against Dustin Hoffman defying improvisations; the whole of All The President’s Men process, dealing with (at a time) Redford + Hoffman + “Both Ways” Pakula + Woodward + Bernstein + The Washington Post … (How did Goldman manage to make that script work so well? The first time I watched it, I couldn’t follow the story, so many names, so much talking… but it was A THRILL); remarkable the A Bridge Too Far section, where Goldman finds himself writing the script as the film is already in production (and Richard Attenborough gets the award for the coolest director ever when overseeing a very complex war scene). And obviously, everything about Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Butch is simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen. When I watched it first, I was maybe 12. A friend’s grandma decided to take us to this movie (in the evening … I was an adult!) at Barcelona’s Cinematheque. After the screening, I couldn’t think of anything else for a whole week. Since then, I’ve watched it many times. As you know, sometimes films deflate with time: maybe it is the film, maybe it is you. Butch is still a terrific movie, I wouldn’t change a frame of it. But from time to time, I do dream of going back to that evening when I was 12, feeling like a brand new adult, living the film in the deeply intense manner that only kids – sorry, brand new adults – can do…
“I have seen a lot, learned more than a little -most of it, alas, too late”.
That’s William Goldman.
Enjoy him discussing his work in William Goldman Speaks.