William Goldman and the Art of Screenwriting
As often happens at the end of a semester where I’ve been fortunate enough to teach screenwriting and creative writing, thoughts of William Goldman come to mind. Oh, I was never lucky enough to meet the man, never even exchanged communications with him. Still, he had a large part in shaping what I’ve tried to accomplish with my own writing, and perhaps more importantly what I try to impart to my students. And damned if he didn’t have a career any writer wouldn’t have envied!
He was the first screenwriter whose name I began to track. I was an undergrad at the time, an avid film geek, but I’d bought into that whole auteur thing and any name past the directors didn’t register with me. But then I saw Marathon Man (1976). Even then, as a know-nothing-but-thought-I-knew-it-all young film student I was struck by what Goldman accomplished within the thriller genre; the character texture, the weight of their respective histories, and how, in one way or another, to one degree or another, that damned them. And there was that great set piece: Laurence Olivier dentally torturing Dustin Hoffman and that ominous, relentless repetition of, “Is it safe?”
About the same time, I was at the apartment of a friend of mine and noticed he had the 1974 source novel – also by Goldman — laying around. I borrowed it, gave it a read, and remember thinking, “Wow! Guy writes a box office smash and a hit novel? Oh, man!” After that, I always thought of Goldman as the writer’s equivalent of a switch hitter capable of hitting equally well from either side of the plate.
His follow-up to Marathon Man was his adaptation of Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s 1974 account of the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men (1976), which would win Goldman his second Academy Award (the first was for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ) and also bring the film the Best Picture Oscar (as also happened with Butch Cassidy…). If you’ve ever read the Bernstein/Woodward book, there’s no way to describe Goldman’s accomplishment other than herculean; somehow wrestling the sprawling threads and dozens of real-life personages into a cohesive, propelling, impressively accurate, and entertaining narrative. Goldman would later say (and I wasn’t surprised to hear it) that he’d never written as many drafts of a piece as he did on …President’s Men.
A few years later, now finally serious and focused on wanting to write for the movies, I picked up a copy of The Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady; a collection of interviews with a half-dozen top name screenwriters, Goldman among them. Then a friend told me about Goldman’s own book on writing for film — Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting – which was, in effect, a massive expansion of the thinking he’d expressed in the Brady book, practically commanding me: “You have got to read this!”
And I did. With all respect to Robert McKee and Syd Field, to this day I still consider Adventures in the Screen Trade the best, smartest, and most insightful book about both the craft and the business of screenwriting (and, yes, better than my own several volumes on the subject).
William Goldman was the best writing teacher I never had.
His career beginnings were hardly auspicious, even in his own eyes: “I was so programmed to fail,” he told The Guardian in a 2009 interview. During his undergrad years at Oberlin College, he was editor of the school’s literary magazine, but his own material was so bad that when he submitted it anonymously, the other editors declared, “We can’t possibly publish this shit.”
After Oberlin came a few years in the peacetime military (which provided some of the material for one of his early novels: Soldier in the Rain), then back to school for an MA from Columbia, all the time writing. At some point, he did manage to evolve his writing from unpublishable shit to saleably publishable, and by 1965 he had published five novels, the fifth of which – No Way to Treat a Lady, a darkly comic take on The Boston Strangler killings of the time – caught the attention of actor Cliff Robertson who brought him on the light-hearted spy thriller Masquerade (1965) for rewriting work. This marked Goldman’s first screenwriting gig. Another novel would provide him with the proverbial Big Break on his very next time at bat.
He’d taken a shot at writing a truly hefty literary magnum opus – Boys and Girls Together – and although Goldman would later describe the novel’s reviews as “calamitous,” it sold well enough to catch the eye of producer Elliott Kastner. Conversations with Kastner pinballed away from the book to the producer’s desire to “…do a movie with balls.” Goldman suggested Kastner give Ross Macdonald’s tough-hided Lew Archer detective novels a look and the happy ending here is Goldman with his first solo screenwriting gig adapting Macdonald’s The Moving Target into Harper (1966). The movie was a critical and box office hit, jump-started the then moribund private eye genre, and earned Goldman the mystery community’s Edgar Award. As Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade:
I was no longer a putz novelist from New York. Now I was a putz novelist who had written a Paul Newman picture.
It was his next project that would shoot Goldman into the top rank of writers for the screen: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman would sell this, his first original screenplay, for a then-record $400,000, and despite initially mixed reviews, the movie would go on to become considered a Western classic, cop four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and rank as one of the top-earning titles of the decade (Butch Cassidy… was the eighth highest-earning title 1961-1970 even ahead of the likes of Patton , Bonnie and Clyde , 2001: A Space Odyssey , The Dirty Dozen , West Side Story , and Lawrence of Arabia ).
Thereafter, Goldman went on an incredible streak where even the misfires were impressive: The Hot Rock (1972), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, A Bridge Too Far (1977), Magic (1978 – another instance of Goldman adapting his own hit novel and copping another Edgar Award in the process).
At the same time, he was also turning out novels which, besides the above-mentioned, included what has probably become one of his most beloved works, The Princess Bride.
Like the commercials say, “But wait! There’s more!” Not only did …President’s Men bring Goldman his second Oscar, but the film would come in as the fifty-fourth highest-earning release 1971-1980 ahead of films like The Omen (1976), The French Connection (1971), The China Syndrome (1979), The Way We Were (1973), Deliverance (1972), Papillon (1973), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and just a hair behind The Shining (1980) and The Godfather, Part II (1974). Not bad for a flick where the Big Climax is two guys pecking away at typewriters.
And yet, when you read Adventures in the Screen Trade, there’s a consistent tone throughout of, “Well, yeah, that’s all very nice, of course…” and the sense of an ambivalent shrug.
“…if I have managed to maintain any sanity at all after nearly two decades of movie work,” Goldman wrote in Adventures…, “it is mainly because of this: I was a novelist first and I am a novelist now, but one who happens also to write screenplays.”
In his various writings about screenwriting and the movie business, Goldman is unabashed in his love for movies. But, as for the actual process of writing them?:
There is a Women’s Liberation term called shitwork and it means work that when it is well done is unnoticed. Like dusting or cleaning…Well, screenwriting is shitwork.
Also from Adventures…:
…I truly believe that if all you do with your life is write screenplays, it ultimately has to denigrate your soul. You may get lucky and get rich, but you won’t get happy. Because you will spend your always-decreasing days doing the following: writing Perfect Parts for Perfect People. And there’s got to be more to the human condition than that…
You must be writing something else. Anything else. Epic poems or rhyming couplets, novels, or nonfiction, I don’t care. But 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…
What Goldman learned as early as that first gig on Masquerade – and is a lesson most of my screenwriting students actively resist if not reject – is that a screenwriter is not an author, and a screenplay is not a vehicle of self-expression. Whether your work is some original piece you’ve toiled on for years (Goldman had started researching the real Butch Cassidy in the late 1950s), or you’re brought in at the last minute to “doctor” a script, the very second someone lays a dollar in the screenwriter’s hand, the writer has gone from a creative to a service position. Your priorities become appeasing the producer(s), director, star(s), the studio, no matter what the effect on the creative integrity of the material. “I’m basically a gun for hire,” Goldman said, “Someone hires me, and I do the best I can for as long as they want me. And then I’m gone.”
An episode in Adventures… about his work on …President’s Men illustrates the eminent disposability of even screenwriters in the topmost tier.
The monumental effort of trying to wrestle the Woodward/Bernstein bestseller into a workable script was compounded by how many involved parties had to be satisfied: star Robert Redford who had also optioned the book and hired Goldman; co-star Dustin Hoffman; director Alan J. Pakula; Woodward and Bernstein; Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and the Post’s publisher Katherine Graham; and, of course, the people at Warner Bros. who were bankrolling the project.
Goldman finally came up with a draft that seemed to more or less satisfy everybody when Redford, on a visit to New York, asked Goldman to come by and meet with him and Woodward and Bernstein. Mind you, Goldman was feeling pretty comfy with the situation: he and Redford had already worked together on three satisfying projects including Butch Cassidy… which overnight had elevated Redford from “rising star” to above-the-title marquee name, and they’d already spent months conferring on the screenplay. But Goldman showed up and sitting on a table was another version of …President’s Men written by Bernstein and his then-girlfriend and future wife, Nora Ephron. As Goldman told it:
I wanted my producer to defend me – I’m eight months on the project now, and I’ve done a decent job – Warners said yes. I wanted to hear “You’re a dumb arrogant fuck, Carl, and I’d like you to shove that script where the sun don’t shine.”
Instead, Redford asked Goldman to look at the script because “…there might be some stuff in it we can use.”
Goldman walked out of the room.
In a meeting with Goldman sometime later, Redford would admit, “I don’t know what the six worst things I’ve ever done in my life are, but…letting them write that, is one of them.”
The point being even an Oscar-winner is never completely secure:
As a screenwriter, I test very high on paranoia. I’m always convinced of any number of things: that my work is incompetent, that I’m about to get fired, that I’ve already been fired but don’t know yet that half a dozen closet writers are typing away in their offices, that I should be fired because I’ve failed…and on occasion, they’ve all happened…
Which goes to another point Goldman consistently makes; that the screenwriter’s career can turn on a dime. Butch Cassidy… turned him into a screenwriting superstar, one of the highest-paid scriveners in the business. It wasn’t that long after he’d won his second Oscar and could boast having penned two of the highest-earning flicks of the previous two decades that Goldman was wondering if the ride was over.
Many moons ago, when I was a departmental “assistant” (i.e. secretary) in the complaint department of Home Box Office, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Robert Conte. At the time, Bob had already been with HBO for some years and, as a Senior Vice President of Creative Affairs, heard pitches and reviewed projects in stages from screenplay drafts to completed projects to look for material that might be something for HBO to acquire and/or invest in. But Conte was also a screenwriter and with his writing partner Peter Wortmann, had worked on projects for some of The Bigs like Columbia, Disney, Warners, and others. I, at the time, had only one or two gigs under my belt, and Bob had generously agreed to sit for lunch so I could pick the screenwriting part of his brain.
Being as naïve about the business then as any of my students, I asked, “What would it take for you to think your career has turned the corner?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know; when you won’t have to hustle as much.”
“Bill, you’re always hustling.”
I struggled to explain that what I meant was that point in your career where you were established; where the work came to you instead of you having to beat the bushes to find work, where you were made, where you would now have a career.
Wry smile. “Bill, it’s like walking around an octagon. There’s always another corner.”
In the late 1970s, for no particularly good reason – and in the movie business, these turns often happen for no particularly good reason – Goldman’s career started going cold.
The currency of the realm for screenwriters is your name attached to produced work (moneymakers are even better, but a produced dud is better than no produced work at all). The longer your name is absent from the screen, the quicker you begin falling off the industry radar.
Nobody cares why this is happening. In Goldman’s case, it was simply a string of bad breaks, projects that for one reason or another out of his control didn’t jell: bad blood between some of the other parties involved, a star walked away, budget concerns…something, none of it having to do with the writing.
And that’s the kicker. Hollywood doesn’t judge you on your body of work. Instead, it’s very much a Zen in-the-now mindset; what have you done lately? As a result, it would take eight years and a change in representation for two-time Oscar-winner Goldman to get back in the game.
I didn’t think every insight he offered in his books and essays was a pearl of wisdom, nor did I think everything he wrote was screenwriting gold. I was unimpressed with Magic, the story of a ventriloquist whose dummy alter ego begins to take over his life. Not that it wasn’t well done, but I thought The Twilight Zone episode “The Dummy” told essentially the same story in a more effectively succinct 24 minutes than Magic did. And I was a bit underwhelmed by his adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far, a The Longest Day (1962) wannabe war epic burdened with a lot of heavy-handed war-is-hell stuff. And Maverick (1994)? A flyweight The Sting (1973) clone. I also didn’t agree with his dismissiveness toward The Hot Rock, complaining that director Peter Yates didn’t seem to know where the laughs were (I always thought the film’s deadpan approach to a crew of screw-up heist-men was part of its appeal).
I’m not Hollywood. I do look at a body of work and Goldman’s – especially when you combine what he did on the screen with what he accomplished on the page – earns his ranking as one of the all-time best.
I think the best example of why he deserves that ranking is – looked at together – his 1973 novel The Princess Bride and his 1987 screen adaptation of his book.
The delicious conceit of the original novel is that it’s Goldman writing as Goldman about a novel called The Princess Bride: “S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure.”
Well, there is no S. Morgenstern, and Goldman’s comments about visiting the supposed “real” settings of sequences of the novel are their own kind of fun fiction. This format allows Goldman to dip into Mr. Morgenstern’s novel for huge stretches, then step out of it to offer commentary or abridge what he considers to be some of Morgenstern’s weaker passages. In the end, the book is not only a salute, homage, and loving parody of classic swashbucklers and fairy tales, but it’s also something of a salute to the act of storytelling itself.
None of which could work on the screen.
So, for the movie version, Goldman constructed an entirely new framework: a not-always-welcome grandfather (Peter Falk) who comes to visit his sick grandson (Fred Savage) and pass the time reading to him from a treasured old volume — The Princess Bride – with which the initially resistant grandson eventually becomes enraptured. Together with the new framework, Goldman also had to rather ruthlessly cut, compress, and re-organize his own 450-page novel to play as a brisk 98-minute film.
I’ve read the novel, I’ve seen the movie. There’s no sense of fat in the former, no sense of something missing in the latter; each feels full and complete, working perfectly in its own medium. Goldman understood the page, he understood the screen, he understood how they were different and what worked best for each.
And believe it or not, he did this without ever once going to a screenwriting workshop, or seminar, or reading a how-to book on screenwriting. And that’s probably the biggest lesson I got from Goldman.
What by far distinguishes Adventures in the Screen Trade from other books about screenwriting – and the reason I think this 1983 volume is still the best manual on the trade – is that it was written by a guy who wrote movies for a living, who wrote movies that hit and movies that missed and movies that never got made. It’s a true insider’s look at how movies, moviemaking, movie writing, and the movie business work.
While Goldman does offer some general aesthetic principles about structure, character development, etc., what’s clear by the time you read about only his second gig on Harper is that there are no formulae, no templates, no recipe for “writing a good movie.” Every project is different not just because the material might be different, but because – and this is really something my students often don’t get – the players are always different.
The screenwriter doesn’t work in a vacuum. Once a project is in development, a host of other hands are sticking fingers in the screenwriter’s pie: producers, directors, actors, marketing people, studio executives, etc. Some are great collaborators, some are hacks, some are supremely talented but also miserable assholes, some are class acts, some are nice people but clueless, ad infinitum. The dynamic on every project is different, and while Syd Field or Bob McKee or a Save the Cat beat sheet might help you pound out a great first draft, once that material gets into the development mauler, all the supposed rules, guidelines, bits of wisdom from the screenwriting gurus goes out the window.
Goldman’s book is the only one about screenwriting I’ve read that makes it explicitly, painfully clear how much the creative and business sides of moviemaking are in permanent, constant war with each other on any project. It’s why his closing lines in Adventures… are, “…may all your scars be little ones…”
I learned a lot about writing for the screen and for the page from William Goldman. As importantly, I learned what it means to be a screenwriter; what it is and what it isn’t, what to expect, and how not to go out of your fucking mind in a business where insanity is the baseline.
A few years ago, teaching a screenwriting class and relating some of the horror stories I’d experienced – good scripts that couldn’t find a home, bad scripts made even worse by bad execution, etc. — in what I can never call a “career” with a straight face, one of my students asked, “Then why do it?” His thinking seemed to be that if you couldn’t fulfill your creative vision and turn out cinematic art, why bother?
Goldman had the answer to that, too; another bit of a pro’s survival philosophy I’ve held in my head:
…may you always remember “it’s only a movie” but never forget there are lots worse things than movies – like politicians…