Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Goldman

Which lie did he tell?

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is, no question, the most popular thing I’ve ever been connected with. When I die, if the Times gives me an obit, it’s going to be because of Butch.

—William Goldman, The Princess Bride

When William Goldman passed away last week, I had the distinct sense that the world was mourning three different men. One was the novelist whose most lasting work will certainly end up being The Princess Bride; another was the screenwriter who won Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men; and a third was the Hollywood insider who wrote the indispensable books Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I I Tell? I’ll miss all three of them, and there’s no question that they led a deeply interconnected existence, but it’s the last one who might have had the greatest impact on my life. Goldman’s books on the movie industry are two of the great reads of all time, and I revisit them both every couple of years for the sheer pleasure that they offer me. (His book about Broadway, The Season, is equally excellent, although I lent my copy to a friend over a decade ago and never got it back.) They’re also some of the best books on writing ever published, and although Goldman cautions against applying their insights to other kinds of fiction, I often find myself drawing on his advice. Between the two, I prefer Which Lie Did I I Tell?, even through it chronicles a period in the author’s career in which he didn’t produce any memorable movies, apart from the significant exception of The Princess Bride itself. In fact, these books are fascinating largely because Goldman is capable of mining as many insights, if not more, from Absolute Power and The Ghost and the Darkness as he is from Butch Cassidy. One possible takeaway might be that there’s a similarly interesting story behind every movie, and that it’s unfortunate that they don’t all have chroniclers as eloquent and candid as Goldman. But it’s also a testament to his talent as a writer, which was to take some of the most challenging forms imaginable and make them seem as natural as breathing, even if that impression was an act of impersonation in itself.

When I look back at this blog, I discover that I’ve cited Goldman endlessly on all kinds of topics. My favorite passage from Which Lie Did I Tell?, which I quoted in one of my earliest posts, is a story that he relates about somebody else:

One of the great breaks of my career came in 1960, when I was among those called in to doctor a musical in very deep trouble, Tenderloin. The show eventually was not a success. But the experience was profound. George Abbott, the legitimately legendary Broadway figure, was the director of the show—he was closing in on seventy-five during our months together and hotter than ever…He was coming from backstage during rehearsals, and as he crossed the stage into the auditorium he noticed a dozen dancers were just standing there. The choreographer sat in the audience alone, his head in his hands. “What’s going on?” Mr. Abbott asked him. The choreographer looked at Mr. Abbott, shook his head. “I can’t figure out what they should do next.” Mr. Abbott never stopped moving. He jumped the three feet from the stage into the aisle. “Well, have them do something!” Mr. Abbott said. “That way we’ll have something to change.”

This is a classic piece of advice, and the fact that it comes up during a discussion of the writing of Absolute Power doesn’t diminish its importance. Shortly afterward, Goldman adds: “Stephen Sondheim once said this: ‘I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.’ I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.” And he writes of his initial stab at Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”

I think about that last line a lot, with its implication that even prodigious levels of craft and experience won’t necessarily lead to anything worthwhile. (Walter Murch gets at something similar when he notes that the best we can hope to achieve in life is a B, and the rest is up to the gods.) And it’s his awareness that success is largely out of our hands, along with his willingness to discuss his failures along with his triumphs, that results in Goldman’s remarkable air of authority. His books are full of great insights into screenwriting, but there are plenty of other valuable works available on the subject, and if you’re just looking for a foolproof system for constructing scripts, David Mamet’s On Directing Film probably offers more useful information in a fifth of the space. Other screenwriters, including Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne in Monster, have spoken just as openly about the frustrations of working in Hollywood. Goldman’s gift was his ability to somehow do both at the same time, while enhancing both sides in the process. My favorite example is the chapter in Adventures in the Screen Trade devoted to All the President’s Men. Goldman tells us a lot about structure and process, including his decision to end the movie halfway through the original book: “Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.” He shares a few juicy anecdotes about Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, and he discusses his eventual disillusionment with the whole project. And he finally tells us that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

What Goldman doesn’t mention is the minor point that the screenplay also won him his second Oscar. In fact, he uses exactly the same strategy in his discussion of All the President’s Men that he did in the movie itself—he ends it on a down note, and he lets us supply his eventual triumph. And I think that this gets at something important about Goldman’s sly appeal. Few other writers have ever managed to pull off the conversational tone that he captures in these books, which is vastly more difficult than it seems. (That voice is a big part of the reason why it’s such a joy to read his thoughts on movies that we’ve never seen, and I deeply regret the nonexistence of an impossible third volume that would tell the stories behind The General’s Daughter, Hearts in Atlantis, and Dreamcatcher.) But it’s also a character that he creates for himself, just as he does in the “autobiographical” sections of The Princess Bride, which draw attention to the artifice that Adventures in the Screen Trade expertly conceals. Goldman mostly comes off as likable as possible, which can only leave out many of the true complexities of a man who spent years as the most successful and famous screenwriter in the world. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman recounts a story that seems startlingly unlike his usual persona, about his miserable experience working on Memoirs of an Invisible Man:

The…memory is something I think I said. (I read in a magazine that I did, although I have no real recollection of it.) Chevy [Chase] and [producer Bruce] Bodner tried to bring me back after the fiasco. For one final whack at the material…They were both gentlemen and I listened. Then I got up, said this: “I’m sorry, but I’m too old and too rich to put up with this shit.”

He concludes: “Wouldn’t that be neat if it was me?” And the side of him that it reveals, even briefly, suggests that a real biography of Goldman would be a major event. In his account of the writing of The Ghost and the Darkness, he warns against the dangers of backstory, or spelling out too much about the protagonist’s past, and he ends by admonishing us: “Hollywood heroes must have mystery.” And so did William Goldman.

Clinging to the iceberg

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One of the things always looming is that I have a reputation as a money writer and—this sounds very bullshitty—I’ve never written for money. By which, I don’t mean that I am artistic and pure. What I mean is, money has happened. It’s gone along with what I’ve written—especially in film. And I like to think one of the reasons for that is I’ve wanted to do what I’ve done. I have gotten very few compliments that I treasure in my life, but one of them is from Stanley Donen, a wonderful director who is now out of repute…He said, “You’re very tough.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you cost a lot, and you have to want to do it.” I think that’s true, and I treasure that, because I do have to want to do it. I think that’s true basically of almost everybody I know in the picture business that’s above the water level on the iceberg. We’re all clinging to the iceberg, and the water level is rising constantly…

The other compliment which I treasure is from a friend of mine. These are the only two. A friend of mine said to me, “Whatever part of you is a writer you really protect.” It seems to me that’s essential, because the minute you start getting involved with reviews, or interviews…or hype on movies, or any kind of extracurricular lecturing or answering fan letters or any kind of stuff like that—it has nothing to do with writing. And you can begin to become Peter Bogdanovich and believe your own press clippings, and then it’s disaster time. It seems to me that it’s essential to maintain a low profile and go about your business as quietly as possible.

William Goldman, to John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

Foundation and Hollywood

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Yesterday, the news broke that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will finally be adapted for television. I’ve learned to be skeptical of such announcements, but the package that they’ve assembled sounds undeniably exciting. As we learn from an article in The Wrap:

HBO and Warner Bros. TV are teaming to produce a series based on Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy that will be written and produced by Interstellar writer Jonathan Nolan…Nolan, who is already working with HBO on Westworld, has been quietly developing the project for the last several months. He recently tipped his hand to Indiewire, which asked him: “What’s the one piece of science fiction you truly love that people don’t know enough about?” [Nolan replied:] “Well, I fucking love the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov…That’s a set of books I think everyone would benefit from reading.”

Whoops, my mistake—that’s a story from two years ago. The latest attempt will be developed by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman for Apple, which acquired it from Skydance Television in what Deadline describes as “a competitive situation.” And when you turn back the clock even further, you find that efforts to adapt the trilogy were made in the nineties by New Line Cinema, which went with The Lord of the Rings instead, and even by Roland Emmerich, who might be the last director whom you’d entrust with this material. There were probably other projects that have been long since forgotten. And it doesn’t take a psychohistorian to realize that the odds are stacked against this new version ever seeing the light of day.

Why has the Foundation series remained so alluring to Hollywood, yet so resistant to adaptation? For a clue, we can turn to Asimov himself. In the early eighties, he was approached by Doubleday to write his first new novel in years, and an editor laid out the situation in no uncertain terms: “Listen, Isaac, let me make it clear. When [editor Betty Prashker] said ‘a novel,’ she meant ‘a science fiction novel,’ and when we say ‘a science fiction novel,’ we mean ‘a Foundation novel.’ That’s what we want.” Asimov was daunted, but the offer was too generous to refuse, so he decided to give it a try. As he recounts in his memoir I. Asimov:

Before I got started, I would have to reread the Foundation trilogy. This I approached with a certain horror…I couldn’t help noticing, of course, that there was not very much action in it. The problems and resolutions thereof were expressed primarily in dialogue, in competing rational discussions from different points of view, with no clear indication to the reader which view was right and which was wrong.

This didn’t mean that the trilogy wasn’t engaging—Asimov thought that “it was a page-turner,” and when he was done, he was surprised by his personal reaction: “I experienced exactly what readers had been telling me for decades—a sense of fury that it was over and there was no more.” But if you’re looking to adapt it into another medium, you quickly find that there isn’t a lot there in terms of conventional drama or excitement. As Omar Sharif once said about Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film…with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either…what would you say?

In fact, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the Foundation series—or at least the first book—has to offer the movies or television. Speaking as a fan, I can safely state that it doesn’t have memorable characters, iconic scenes, or even much in the way of background. If I were hired to adapt it, I might react in much the same way that William Goldman did when he worked on the movie version of Maverick. Goldman confesses in Which Lie Did I Tell? that his reasons for taking the assignment were simple: “I knew it would be easy…The last thing in life I wanted was to try another original. This adaptation had to be a breeze—all I needed to do was pick out one of the old [episodes] that had too much plot, expand it, and there would be the movie.” He continues:

One of the shocks of my life happened in my living room, where I spent many hours looking at the old Maverick shows I’d been sent. Because, and this was the crusher, television storytelling has changed…Not only was the [James] Garner character generally passive, there was almost no plot at all. Nothing for me to steal. I essentially had to write, sob, another original.

Similarly, the Foundation series gives a writer almost nothing to steal. Once you get to “The Mule,” the action picks up considerably, but that’s obviously your second—or even your third—season, not your first. In the meantime, you’re left with the concept of psychohistory and nothing else. You have to write another original. Which is essentially what happened with I, Robot.

And even psychohistory can be more trouble that it might be worth. It works most convincingly over the course of years or decades, which isn’t a timeframe that lends itself to movies or television, and it naturally restricts the ability of the characters to take control of the story. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible. (In fact, I have some decent ideas of my own, but I’ll keep them to myself, in case Goyer and Friedman ever want to take a meeting. My schedule is pretty packed at the moment, but it frees up considerably in a few months.) But it’s worth asking why the Foundation series has been such a tempting target for so long. It’s clearly a recognizable property, which is valuable in itself, and its highbrow reputation makes it seem like a promising candidate for a prestige adaptation, although even a glance at the originals shows how deeply they remain rooted in the pulp tradition from which they emerged. If I were a producer looking to move into science fiction with a big acquisition, this would be one of the first places that I’d look, even if these stories aren’t exactly what they seem to be—the Deadline article says that they “informed” the Star Wars movies, which is true only in the loosest possible sense. When you combine the apparent value of the material with the practical difficulty of adapting it, you end up with the cycle that we’ve seen for decades. Asimov was the most famous name in science fiction for thirty years, and his works were almost perpetually under option, but apart from a quickie adaptation of Nightfall, he died before seeing any of it on the screen. He was glad to take the money, but he knew that his particular brand of fiction wouldn’t translate well to other media, and he concluded with what he once called Asimov’s First Law of Hollywood: “Whatever happens, nothing happens.”

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 3

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

After I had been working on “The Spires” for about a week, I had what might have seemed at first like a lot of material. I knew that the main character would be a bush pilot in Alaska sometime in the thirties, and I had a decent sense of his backstory. The mystery would revolve around the silent city in the sky that Charles Fort discusses in New Lands, and despite my initial trepidation, I even had an explanation for it, in the form of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program and a mirage that went backward in time. But while this might seem like a fair chunk of story, it really wasn’t much at all—because I didn’t know what would actually happen yet. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman speaks of the range of possibilities that he confronted when he began writing an original story based on his love for red wine:

Now, what kind of tale could I try? Answer: anything. There are no rules when you start in. I could have written a heart-wrenching drama—Ray Milland deux, if you will. A Jimmy Cagney gangster flick, set in Prohibition, about who owns Chicago. I could have made it a George Lucas job, set in the future when scientists have discovered that if you substitute blood for Bordeaux, people will stagger around a lot but they’ll also live forever.

Goldman ended up writing it as a romantic comedy thriller, and the result was The Year of the Comet, a flop so infamous that its male lead, Tim Daly, recently said wistfully to The A.V. Club: “That was my shot, right? That was my shot to be a movie star.” Which might be a warning in itself.

As far as “The Spires” was concerned, though, I found that I could reason my way toward a plot largely from first principles. My protagonist probably wouldn’t fly up to Willoughby Island alone, since it’s usually better to have more than one character, if only so that he could occasionally talk to someone. Like most of my stories, it required that a fair amount of information be fed to the reader, which is usually best handled with dialogue. I didn’t want my main character to be an expert on Charles Fort, mirages, or time travel, since this didn’t fit his background, and by withholding some of the details for as long as possible, I would have more options when it came to structuring the mystery. The obvious conclusion, then, was that my pilot was flying someone else into Glacier Bay. It occurred to me at some point that it could be a woman, which suggested a few angles in itself, and when I added a third man—the woman’s husband—to the equation, the possibilities multiplied. For a while, I considered writing it as an homage to Dead Calm, and there are still a few traces of this in the finished result, although I didn’t take it as far as I might have. This might all sound pretty mechanical, but I hoped to proceed along these lines for as long as possible, simply by following my instincts about what this sort of story needed. I also like to get ideas from the setting, and I spent some time reading about Willoughby Island. Its geography gave me a few story beats, and I learned that at one point it had been a fox farm, which provided me with some useful images. (Remarkably enough, about six months after writing the story, I ended up on a cruise to Alaska, and I had a chance to see Willoughby Island with my own eyes. To my relief, it looked more or less like I’d imagined it.)

It wasn’t until I’d been working in this manner for a while, and maybe not until I started writing, that I realized that I had a problem on my hands. Because I was dealing with HAARP, which still made me uneasy, I decided to stick all of that material at the very end, outside the boundaries of the main plot, which would put some distance between it and the narrative. This wasn’t a bad strategy, but it also gave “The Spires” the structure of a setup followed by a punchline. In other words, it was a shaggy dog story. There’s a venerable tradition of this kind of thing in science fiction, so this wasn’t necessarily an issue in itself. The trouble was the tone. In most cases, a plot like this benefits from a light touch that alerts the reader to the fact that the ending is going to pull away the rug, and if not, then it should at least be short. (One of my favorite examples is “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, which is close to my ideal of this sort of story.) “The Spires” was neither of the above. It was moody and atmospheric, with a dynamic between the three main characters that was played more or less straight, and it became clear early on that it was going to be a novelette. Part of this has to do with my own tastes—and limitations—as a writer. My stories vary widely in time period and setting, but their tonal range tends to be relatively narrow. I don’t really do humor, because that’s a specialized skill that only a handful of science fiction writers have ever managed to pull off, and I’ve refined a style over time that works for me. If my touchstone is The X-Files, I don’t think I’d ever be able to write a Darin Morgan episode, but on a good day, I can manage something like “Ice” or maybe even “Pusher.” So I ended up writing “The Spires” in my usual fashion, even if I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

And to be honest, a year and a half later and with the story in print, I’m not entirely convinced by it. I still think that the connection between HAARP and the silent city is pretty neat, to the point that it outweighed my other misgivings, and the way that the story is resolved through primary sources turned out to be rather elegant. The human side works well, too. I like the characters, the setting is exactly as evocative as I hoped it would be, and the writing seems fine, although I probably could have pushed the period angle a bit further. The trouble is how these two halves fit together, and in retrospect, I’m not sure if either piece fully serves the other. On the shaggy dog side, the story spends a lot of time developing relationships and conflicts that aren’t strictly necessary for the twist at the end, and while the length is appropriate from the point of view of internal logic, it feels long for a plot that is essentially there to deliver a slightly precious idea. (If a lot of the gimmick stories in Analog have historically suffered from flat characters and dialogue, this might simply be a case of managing the reader’s expectations.) And the fact that the ending unfolds through a series of quotations means that the plot doesn’t really get the conclusion that it deserves. As a result, I deliberately allowed the drama to simmer beneath the surface, because I knew that it wouldn’t receive a traditional resolution, but I wonder now if that was a mistake—if I’d gone with something darker or bloodier, the punchline might have landed harder. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have worked at all. In the end, this was going to be a weird story no matter what, and I did what I could to hold it all together. And maybe that’s how it had to be. As Fort himself once wrote: “The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open.”

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

Off the hook

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In his wonderful interview in John Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter, Robert Towne—who might best be described as the Christopher McQuarrie of his time—tosses off a statement that is typically dense with insight:

One of the things that people say when they first start writing movies is, “Jeez, I have this idea for a movie. This is the way it opens. It’s a really great opening.” And of course they don’t know where to go from there. That’s true not only of people who are just thinking of writing movies, but very often of people who write them. They’re anxious for a splashy beginning to hook an audience, but then you end up paying for it with an almost mathematical certainty. If you have a lot of action and excitement at the beginning of a picture, there’s going to have to be some explanation, some character development somewhere along the line, and there will be a big sag about twenty minutes after you get into a film with a splashy opening. It’s something you learn. I don’t know if you’d call it technique. It’s made me prefer soft openings for films. It’s been my experience that an audience will forgive you almost anything at the beginning of the picture, but almost nothing at the end. If they’re not satisfied with the end, nothing that led up to it is going to help.

There’s a lot to absorb and remember here, particularly the implication, which I love, that a narrative has a finite amount of energy, and that if you use up too much of it at the start, you end up paying for it later.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on what Towne says about openings. He’s right in cautioning screenwriters against trying to start at a high point, which may not even be possible: I’ve noted elsewhere that few of the great scenes that we remember from movies come at the very beginning, since they require a degree of setup to really pay off. Yet at this very moment, legions of aspiring writers are undoubtedly sweating over a perfect grabber opening for their screenplay. In his interview with Brady, which was published in 1981, Towne blames this on television:

Unlike television, you don’t have to keep people from turning the channel to another network when they’re in the theater. They’ve paid three-fifty or five dollars and if the opening ten or fifteen minutes of a film are a little slow, they are still going to sit a few minutes, as long as it eventually catches hold. I believe in soft openings…Why bother to capture [the audience’s] interest at the expense of the whole film? They’re there. They’re not going anywhere.

William Goldman draws a similar contrast between the two forms in Adventures in the Screen Trade, writing a clumsy opening hook for a screenplay—about a girl being chased through the woods by a “disfigured giant”—and explaining why it’s bad: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” He continues:

This paragraph contains all that I know about writing for television. They need a hook. And they need it fast. Because they’re panicked you’ll switch to ABC. So TV stuff tends to begin with some kind of grabber. But in a movie, and only at the beginning of a movie, we have time. Not a lot, but some.

And while a lot has changed since Towne and Goldman made these statements, including the “three-fifty” that used to be the price of a ticket, the underlying point remains sound. Television calls for a different kind of structure and pacing than a movie, and screenwriters shouldn’t confuse the two. Yet I don’t think that the average writer who is fretting about the opening of his script is necessarily making that mistake, or thinking in terms of what viewers will see in a theater. I suspect that he or she is worrying about a very different audience—the script reader at an agency or production company. A moviegoer probably won’t walk out if the opening doesn’t grab them, but the first reader of a screenplay will probably toss it aside if the first few pages don’t work. (This isn’t just the case with screenwriters, either. Writers of short stories are repeatedly told that they need to hook the reader in the first paragraph, and the result is often a kind of palpable desperation that can actively turn off editors.) One reason, of course, why Towne and Goldman can get away with “soft” openings is that they’ve been successful enough to be taken seriously, both in person and in print. As Towne says:

There have been some shifts in attitudes toward me. If I’m in a meeting with some people, and if I say, “Look, fellas, I don’t think it’s gonna work this way,” there is a tendency to listen to me more. Before, they tended to dismiss a little more quickly than now.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly the same phenomenon as giving the script the benefit of the doubt—it buys Towne another minute or two to make his point, which is all a screenwriter can ask.

The sad truth is that a script trying to stand out from the slush pile and a filmed narrative have fundamentally different needs. In some cases, they’re diametrically opposed. Writers trying to break into the business can easily find themselves caught between the need to hype the movie on the page and their instincts about how the story deserves to be told, and that tension can be fatal. A smart screenwriter will often draw a distinction between the selling version, which is written with an eye to the reader, and the shooting script, which provides the blueprint for the movie, but most aspiring writers don’t have that luxury. And if we think of television as a model for dealing with distracted viewers or readers, it’s only going to get worse. In a recent essay for Uproxx titled “Does Anyone Still Have Time to Wait For Shows to Get Good?”, the legendary critic Alan Sepinwall notes that the abundance of great shows makes it hard to justify waiting for a series to improve, concluding:

We all have a lot going on, in both our TV and non-TV lives, and if you don’t leave enough breadcrumbs in the early going, your viewers will just wander off to watch, or do, something else. While outlining this post, I tweeted a few things about the phenomenon, phrasing it as “It Gets Better After Six Episodes”—to which many people replied with incredulous variations on, “Six? If it’s not good after two, or even one, I’m out, pal.”

With hundreds of shows instantly at our disposal—as opposed to the handful of channels that existed when Towne and Goldman were speaking—we’ve effectively been put into the position of a studio reader with a stack of scripts. If we don’t like what we see, we can move on. The result has been the emotionally punishing nature of so much peak television, which isn’t about storytelling so much as heading off distraction. And if it sometimes seems that many writers can’t do anything else, it’s because it’s all they were ever taught to do.

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