Adventures in the Screen Trade
Part I.1: The Powers that Be
- A quick run down of the major player in film: Stars, Producers, Executives, Directors. The main take away for me was that the executives are people who know they will lose their job and often were agents in another life.
- No one knows what makes a great film. That is why stars have such a prominent position. They are a hedge against bad story. They are why people go see a film.
- Like it or not, screenwriters have to consider the star, Male leads will not typically allow their brand to be ruined by a screenwriter. (this is not something I need to worry about)
- Goldman is very kind to Directors. The whole section is a half page long. You see why when you read the coverage of “Da Vinci”
- “Producer” is a catch all name for all kinds of roles. There is no producers union, so there we see that intersection with business more acutely.
Part I.2: Elements
- Chapter “Los Angeles”: Funny line about Los Angeles being a terrible and dangerous city and that screenwriters ought to move there as soon as possible. Goldman lived in New York, mind you. Being a screenwriter is not enough for a full creative life. But you do get paid…Why move there? 1) They know things out there because it’s a single industry town. Word gets out faster in LA than in the rest of the country. 2) Because there’s a lot of people out there doing the same kind of work you’re doing and in the beginning you need that kin doc support.
- Chapter “Agents” are very useful because they have connections and save time. They are impossible to get. Goldman gives his take on how to get an agent. I wonder if it is relevant. Anyway it’s on p.86And by the way, when clients get successful, they always leave the agent. So that part of the business sucks too.
- Chapter “Bread” In the 80’s screenwriters made anywhere between 11K and a million for a story. Not one lump sum, but paid over the production life of the film.
- Chapter “Meetings”: Audition Meetings: The proper tine to take is a mixture of shy, self-depreciation and wild, uncontrollable enthusiasm. Creative meetings: Never speak first. Your job is to shut up. Bring a notebook. “Tell me everything you want to say.”
- Goldman is against the idea of Auteurs. (by the way, so is Robert McKee) Film is collaborative, hence there are no “authors.” This is an illusion, mostly decided by French New Wave PR machinations .
- Chapter “Beginnings”: first 15 pages are most important. Also, consider the production challenges in making the film. “Films are not made by elves and fairies.”
- Chapter “Endings” (p. 117):There are no rules. Cut the narrative string when it seems to make the most sense.
- Chapter “Speed” (p.123): Screenplays should be written as quickly as possible and with deliberation. The extra energy translates itself in the page. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid took four weeks to write the first draft but eight years of research.
- Chapter “Subtext”: “If all that’s going on in your scene is what’s going on in your scenes, think about it a long time.”
- Chapter “Protecting the Star” I wish this were a problem I had, alas I’ll come back to this later. (p.129 for reference)
- Chapter “Believing Reality”: This concept is something I think about a lot. Basically, real life is often unbelievable from the point of the view of story. Goldman writes “Truth is terrific, reality is even better, but believability is best of all.”
- Chapter “Enduring”: The basic idea is that there is no telling which movie will be good or bad. It’s even harder to tell which will be enduring. Time has mysterious effects. La Dolce Vita has not endured well over time. Star Wars has.
- “The Ecology of Hollywood” Goldman tries to define “Comic Book Movies” in which
- only bad guys die,
- there is lack of resonance,
- they refer to or drawn from some other media,
- the film has nothing to do with life as it exists, but rather life as we want it to be.
Part II: Adventures
There were great anecdotes in this section and I got an excellent sense of the writer at work.
The big take-away for me is that a) it’s worth becoming obsessed over a story for a brief period of time and b) that writing is hard no matter how successful you’ve been at it.
By the way, the number of projects that Goldman has worked on really does establish his authority in the business and as a writer. He’s seen his fair share of projects that were taken away from him. It would be incorrect to summarize this section as a pleasant walk down memory lane. Quite frankly, it sounds awful.
Part III: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
This is Goldman’s masterpiece and the full script is provided.
I love this movie and reading the script was sheer joy. One of the most masterfully written scenes however is the super-posse chase scene in Act II. There is very little dialogue. This is an amazing example of action writing, albeit from an era when CUT TO: was an appropriate technique. Here too, we see how much narration went into Goldman’s scripts.
MY 2 cents: I am not sure it is a good thing that we lost this level of narration. Most writers will tell you spec scripts are meant to be read and to avoid camera angles etc. But somehow with that comes a distaste for anything the camera can’t see. So is it worth signaling atmospheric elements?
I guess the answer is that if you’re Goldman you can do whatever the hell you want.
The best part of this section is where Goldman summarizes what he doesn’t like about the screenplay, namely:
- Too much smart as dialogue
- Too many reversals
- Suffers from a case of the “cutes”
- Some scenes are not believable.
- It’s not what it was meant to be about.
I disagree with the first four. I don’t give a damn about the 5th.
Part IV: Da Vinci
The whole reason why I am lauding this book is Part IV.
Here Goldman takes a short story he wrote in the 60’s and turns it into a script. It’s a think- aloud on the problem of adaptation. Then, having written the script, he interviews a few the key collaborators in any film (director, set designer, editor) and transcribes their interpretation/estimations of workability.
The director’s comments are devastating.
And yet Goldman responds to each. Total honesty. Total revelation. Total artistry.
General Notes & Impressions & Digressions
- I thought this was a fantastic book. Goldman is a writer’s writer. He is humble, funny, and generous with information. The overall organization of the book is unique.
- It was written over a six month period from June of 1982 to January of 1983 (six months being the optimal time for completing a project) and so you might think it is dated. The references to films of that era are probably a bit esoteric if you are under the age of thirty. But I sense that the overall system is probably similar with some changes in the distribution model. Also, the business is probably making less money. But maybe not?
- And what is that system? The intersection between business and art. Hollywood is most certainly that, for not only does it have a history of fine artistry, but it is an economic juggernaut.
- This is what interests me most about the book: The notion that art is separate from business feels, to me at least, false. Whether the funding comes from a non-profit or foundation or whether the artists has a sugar-daddy or some other financial backer the fact remains: art costs money. Trying to make art that is worth paying for…that seems like an interesting challenge. We are not owed anything. But people will pay money to be entertained.
- You have to find a motivation that is greater than money
It’s a must read if you’re into writing/screenwriting. It’s a good read if you’re into hollywood bullshit. It’s not worth your time if you have nothing to do with the first two items.
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