Friday, 27 September 2013

Writing ‘Hud’: A Conversation

Hud (Directed by Martin Ritt)
The distinguished screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., first met as young writers at MGM and were married in 1946. Irving Ravetch, born in Newark, New Jersey, was an aspiring playwright, who’d attended UCLA before coming to MGM. Harriet Frank, Jr., was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and eventually attended UCLA while her mother was working as a Hollywood story editor. After their marriage, the Ravetches worked independently for over ten years before beginning their first collaboration on Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer (1958) starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. This experience initiated a remarkable series of collaborations with Martin Ritt that extended over eight films and included Hud (1963), starring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal, for which the Ravetches were nominated for an Academy Award; Hombre (1967), also with Paul Newman; Norma Rae, featuring Sally Field, for which the Ravetches received their second Oscar nomination; and Stanley and Iris (1990), starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda. They also wrote various scripts for other directors, including an adaptation of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), directed by Delbert Mann and starring Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire, and an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Reivers (1969), directed by Mark Rydell and featuring Steve McQueen.


For Hud they took a minor character from Larry McMurtry’s first novel Horseman, Pass By, and transformed him into one of the most eerily compelling characters in motion picture history. The Ravetches’ uniquely close relation with the film’s director Martin Ritt, and also with its leading actor, Paul Newman, led to a devastating cinematic character study of evil and self-absorption.

– The following extract is from a conversation with William Baer in which Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. discuss their screenwriting collaboration, working with Martin Ritt and the depiction of evil in Hud:



BAER: After the success of ‘The Long Hot Summer’ (1958), you wrote your second film for Martin Ritt, an adaptation of Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (1959). Then you wrote screenplays for Vincente Minnelli (‘Home from the Hill’, 1960) and Delbert Mann (‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs’, 1960). How did you come upon the source material for your next film, Larry McMurtry’s first novel, ‘Horseman, Pass By’?


RAVETCH: I found the book in a bookstore, took it home, and read it. Then I asked Harriet to read it.


FRANK: It’s a beautifully written book. McMurtry was very young at the time, and it was clear that he was a very gifted writer.


RAVETCH: And since we’d enjoyed working with Marty and Paul so much, we wanted to do it again, and we thought the book could be adapted in such a way as to create a leading role for Paul. So we acquired the rights to the book.

BAER: Before we get to the specifics about writing ‘Hud’, I’d like to ask you about your approach to literary adaptation and literary collaboration. First, let’s talk about adaptation. In the past, you’ve referred to your scripts based on other literary sources as being more like ‘hybrids’ than adaptations.


RAVETCH: Yes, very much so. The Long Hot Summer, for example, was probably 95 percent ours and only 5 percent Faulkner. The Hamlet’s a marvelous book—brilliant and hysterical—and Faulkner’s Barn Burning is one of the great American short stories, but in actually writing the film, we basically took one of the characters from the novel, altered him drastically, and then created a new story around him. On the other hand, The Reivers, which we did many years later, is almost entirely from the book. It’s 100 percent Faulkner because we found it readily adaptable to film. So our approach to adaptations, whether it be Faulkner or someone else, really runs the gamut because it’s always crucial to focus on what’s best for the film.


BAER: Faulkner, who was a screenwriter himself, seemed to understand that approach since he called ‘The Long Hot Summer’ a ‘charmin’ little movie.’


RAVETCH: Well, I’m glad to hear that. Faulkner is absolutely our favorite novelist of all American novelists, and we always worried that he might have hated what we did in The Long Hot Summer.


FRANK: Faulkner’s definitely America’s glorious writer, but you’re right. He knew all about screen adaptation. He’d worked with Howard Hawks, and he worked on the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, so he knew from personal experience that film and fiction are two very different mediums.


BAER: So how do you collaborate? How do you actually go about creating a script together?


FRANK: First, we talk out an outline, and since we want to stay married, we talk it out very amiably. At that point, we’re not laying out an absolute chapter-and-verse for every single moment in the screenplay; we’re, instead, creating large blocks of organization, so we can visualize the line of the story, and get ready to go. We usually start with a one-page outline listing about thirty-five to forty-five major scenes.



BAER: Irving once said that ‘The script is not so much written as it’s talked onto the page.’


FRANK: That’s right. That’s how we do it. Once we’re ready to begin, we start ‘talking’ the screenplay to each other. Out loud. It’s a line-for- line conversation. In truth, we get so involved that we can’t even tell who starts a line or who finishes it. It’s a very animated, running conversation where we act out the lines – Irving’s a very good actor and I’m not! – along with a running commentary like, ‘That’s good,’ or ‘That’s lousy,’ or ‘Why not try this?’


RAVETCH: And there’s no ego involved. None. Over the years, we’ve heard about a number of other collaborators who do a lot of screaming at each other, but we never raise our voices.


FRANK: We want to stay married!


RAVETCH: Yes, but as conscientious writers, we can’t let our egos get in the way; otherwise, it will start to interfere with the work and ruin it.


FRANK: And from many years of experience, I can tell you that Irving is never a man of ego. He’s never aggressively critical, although, if he hates something, he’s very honest and plainspoken. So we have none of that push-me-pull-me business. We work things out amicably, and we don’t waste time arguing.


RAVETCH: Who was that married couple at Metro who collaborated on so many scripts? They did The Thin Man and It’s a Wonderful Life.


FRANK: Hackett and Goodrich.


RAVETCH: Yes, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Apparently, they also had a seamless and unegotistical collaboration.

BAER: So who types the script?


RAVETCH: I do. I sit at the typewriter, and Hank paces around. We always work in the mornings, nine to one, five days a week. Usually, we’d get about three pages done each day, and those pages are finished pages. We’d polish them as we go, over and over again, doing our revising as we proceed. So when we’re finished, we’re really finished. We very seldom do any revising.



BAER: How long does a script usually take?


FRANK: About ten weeks.

BAER: Now the McMurtry project, which was eventually titled ‘Hud’, was the first film in a three-picture deal for the newly-formed Salem Pictures, which was established by Martin Ritt and Paul Newman in agreement with Paramount and Columbia. Were you partners in Salem Pictures?


RAVETCH: No, we weren’t.

BAER: But Irving was listed as a producer on the film?


RAVETCH: Well, you know that Hollywood is always pretty loose with the term ‘producer.’ All I did was find the source material.


BAER: But I think you’re being too modest. The whole idea for the picture came from the both of you. Weren’t you involved in the casting?


RAVETCH: Yes, Marty always kept us with him, from the beginning to the end.


FRANK: Yes, he truly embraced us as collaborators. It was a very unusual relationship. Just glorious!

BAER: Let’s talk about that relationship.


RAVETCH: We made eight films with Marty Ritt, and on every single one of those pictures, we were with Marty from the pre-production and casting to the final advertising campaign. We were also on the set every single day, and he invited us to the rushes every single morning. It was a true collaboration, and we always had a marvelous time. Marty Ritt was an extraordinary man in many ways, and unlike most directors, he never insisted on a vanity credit.


FRANK: That’s right, Marty’s films never opened with the credit, ‘Film by Martin Ritt.’ Never. He was a class act, and he was never concerned with ego.


RAVETCH: And he was always willing to try something new, something ‘difficult.’


BAER: Well, ‘Hud’ was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a ‘pure bastard’ – and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.


RAVETCH: Yes, we sensed a change in American society back then. We felt that the country was gradually moving into a kind of self-absorption, and indulgence, and greed – which, of course, fully blossomed in the eighties and the nineties. So, we made Hud a greedy, self-absorbed man, who ruthlessly strives for things, and gains a lot materially, but really loses everything that’s important. But he doesn’t care. He’s still unrepentant.


FRANK: In our society, there’s always been a fascination with the ‘charming’ villain, and we wanted to say that if something’s corrupt, it’s still corrupt, no matter how charming it might seem – even if it’s Paul Newman with his beautiful blue eyes. But things didn’t work out like we planned.

BAER: It actually backfired.


RAVETCH: Yes, it did, and it was a terrible shock to all of us. Here’s a man – Hud – who tries to rape his housekeeper, who wants to sell his neighbors’ poisoned cattle, and who stops at nothing to take control of his father’s property. And all the time, he’s completely unrepentant. Then, at the first screenings, the preview cards asked the audiences, ‘Which character did you most admire?’ and many of them answered, ‘Hud.’ We were completely astonished. Obviously, audiences loved Hud, and it sent us into a tailspin. The whole point of all our work on that picture was apparently undone because Paul was so charismatic.



BAER: Paul Newman actually took much of the blame on himself, feeling that he’d portrayed Hud as far too vital and appealing and charming. But Martin Ritt disagreed, saying that the film clearly revealed Hud for exactly what he was, and denying that any of the film’s creators could have possibly anticipated the rising cynicism of the baby-boom generation. How do you feel about that?


RAVETCH: I think they were both right, and both innocent. We could have never anticipated the reaction of those audiences, especially the young people, and if we had known beforehand, we would have definitely done things differently.

BAER: That was a time when young people were looking for rebels to emulate.


FRANK: That’s right.


RAVETCH: That’s true, but Hud’s more than just a bit rebellious. He’s truly villainous. But, of course, that’s the way things have gone in our society. In many movies today, there’s a stream of endless violence and murder and high-tech fireballs, and the young audiences are eagerly clapping, and laughing, and banging their feet. They love it. So what have we created? What kind of society is that? Back in the early sixties, we knew something was in the air, but we never could have anticipated what’s come to pass.

BAER: In McMurtry’s novel, Hud’s a minor and infrequently seen character, so one of the key changes in the script is the expansion of Hud’s role. Was that alteration made to accommodate Paul Newman?


RAVETCH: Yes, we were specifically trying to create material that would interest both Paul and Marty. So we enlarged the character of Hud and wrote the part with Paul in mind.



BAER: Many critics have drawn comparisons between ‘Hud’ and ‘Shane’ since, in both films, a young boy is attracted to a charismatic man. Shane, of course, despite his past, is an admirable western hero, but Hud is not, and young Lon must decide whether he will be lured into the immoral but seemingly exciting lifestyle of Hud, or whether he’ll eventually side with his grandfather, Homer Bannon, a man of high integrity and old-fashioned values. Was it a complete coincidence that the role of Lon was played by Brandon de Wilde, who’d also played the part of Joey Starrett, the young boy in ‘Shane’?


RAVETCH: I never thought about that before.


FRANK: I don’t think it ever crossed our minds.


RAVETCH: I can certainly see that there’s lots of parallels in the two stories, but the casting of Brandon in Hud was just a coincidence. He was the only young actor we could find who we felt was right for the part...

BAER: Alma’s an excellent counterpart to Hud, who, as his father clearly states, is an ‘unprincipled man.’ But in the novel, Hud’s even worse, and I’d like to ask you about two important changes that you made in the script. The first is the fact that in the novel, Hud actually rapes Halmea, whereas in the script his assault on Alma is thwarted by Lon’s intervention.


RAVETCH: Well, the change highlights Lon’s significance in the film, and it also helps to keep Hud human. We didn’t want to create a character who was totally and simplistically evil, so Lon’s intervention prevents the drunken Hud from going too far.


FRANK: Also, in the film, Alma’s definitely attracted to Hud. There’s a real chemistry between them – there’s clearly something in the air – and the two of them are playing a very sophisticated, sexual ‘card game.’ But when Hud gets drunk, he ruins everything, and his attempted rape both insults and violates Alma, and she decides to leave. But up to that point, things might have worked out if Hud hadn’t been so crude and vile. At the bus station, Alma clearly admits it, saying, ‘You want to know something funny? It would have happened eventually without the roughhouse,’ and Hud’s final comment to the departing Alma is: ‘I’ll remember you, honey. You’re the one that got away.’ So thwarting the rape in the film allowed for much more subtlety in their relationship.

BAER: Similarly, at the end of the novel, Hud actually shoots his wounded father-in-law, claiming it to be a mercy killing, and he ends up indicted for ‘murder without malice’ – although he expects to get a suspended sentence. In the script, however, Hud doesn’t kill his father, who dies of his injuries and a broken will.


RAVETCH: That’s another attempt to humanize Hud, so he wouldn’t be one-dimensionally evil. In that scene at the end, with his father dying in his lap, there’s a subtle sense of unspoken grief. Hud’s a villain, but he’s a villain with seeds of something worth preserving.


FRANK: What? Leave the room! We’ll have none of that, Mr. Ravetch!


RAVETCH: But he’s human; he’s not all dark.


FRANK: We can discuss that tomorrow morning in divorce court!



RAVETCH: But in that crucial scene with Lon and his dying father, Hud tries in some way – a very laconic way – to give the young boy some kind of consolation. There’s something decent going on.


FRANK: But not nearly enough. There’s something in the American psyche that’s sadly attracted to the dangerous, the flamboyant, and the immoral. And that’s exactly what we were trying to show in that film.


RAVETCH: Well, now you can see how we collaborate!


FRANK: Yes-no, yes-no, back-and-forth.


BAER: Let’s try another important topic. One of the most famous scenes in the film is the killing of Homer’s herd of cattle to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease. The scene is expertly directed by Martin Ritt and powerfully shot by James Wong Howe. A number of critics have suggested that the scene, in some way, recalls the terrible human genocides of the twentieth century. Was that on your minds when you were writing the scene?


RAVETCH: Yes, we certainly had that in mind when we were writing that scene.


FRANK: Yes, the undertone was clearly intended.


RAVETCH: Definitely...



BAER: Let’s talk about the end of the script. Just like in the novel, young Lon leaves the ranch to get away from Hud, and he hitches a ride with a trucker who recalls Lon’s grandfather, Homer, and refers to him as the ‘old gentleman.’ But this scene was eventually cut from the movie. Do you know why?


RAVETCH: It was too much of a dying fall. Marty always had a gutsy, muscular attack on life in general – and, in his films, he would always opt for the punchiest moments he could get. And it definitely seemed more dramatic to end the film with Hud shutting the door and making his ‘The hell with you’ gesture.


BAER: Was the script ending ever shot?


RAVETCH: No, Marty was satisfied with closing on Paul, and so were we.


BAER: Let’s talk some more about that final scene. The film ends with Hud completely alone on the deserted ranch. He goes into the empty house, gets a beer, and comes back to the screen door. Then he looks out, as if wondering if he should go after Lon, but then he shrugs, makes a dismissive hand gesture – as if to say, ‘the hell with it’ – and shuts the door. It’s a very powerful ending – reminiscent of the Greek tragedies and so many of Faulkner’s novels – illustrating the fall of a once-great household. Did you think about that larger theme as you were writing the script?


RAVETCH: Not specifically, although it’s clear that the film is about the fall of Homer Bannon and everything he’d built and stood for. But in writing the very end of the film, we relied more on a gut instinct that that’s exactly how Hud would have reacted under those circumstances. He’d be consistent. He’d be Hud. It’s an odd movie in a way because Lon is the central character in that he’s the one who has to make the crucial choice, but Hud’s also the main character since he’s always at the center of everything. So Marty decided – we all did, in fact – to end the film with Hud...



– William Baer: Hud: A Conversation with Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. Michigan Quarterly Review vol. XLII, no. 2, Spring 2003. For the full article see here

  

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