Friday, 29 November 2013

John Huston: The Poetry of Failure

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Directed by John Huston)
John Huston directed 37 features during a near half-century career among the first-rank of American filmmakers. His work ranges from cult films to perennial favourites including The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Moby Dick (1956), The Misfits (1961), The Night of the Iguana (1964), Fat City (1972), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Wise Blood (1979), The Dead (1987) as well as two distinguished war documentaries — The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946). 

John Huston began working in the movies as a screenwriter. Among his credits are such renowned and commercially successful scripts as Jezebel (1938), Juarez (1939), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), High Sierra (1941), and Sergeant York (1941); and he worked with top directors at Warner Bros. including William Wyler, Anatole Litvak, William Dieterle, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. 

As a filmmaker particularly identified with the literary masterworks he transformed into cinema, Huston has acknowledged the wide literary influences on his films. For Huston the act of writing is essential and he has commented on the intimate connection between writing and directing: ‘There’s really no difference between them, it’s an extension, one from the other. Ideally I think the writer should go on and direct the picture. I think of the director as an extension of the writer.’

Huston’s protagonists are often either independent professionals whose tough exteriors hide a dedication to principle, like the detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, or losers whose obsession with a doomed quest leads to their destruction, like the three gold-seekers in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. According to critic Gilles Jacob ‘the tragedy of rapacity and the poetry of failure are two essential themes of the Hustonian world. The desire to obtain what is coveted at any cost of blood, the taste of having more and more, set into motion a dark world that is hardened against pain…’

The following extract is taken from an interview with Gideon Bachmann during the shooting of the Noah’s ark sequence for The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), in which John Huston talks about his writing methods and approach to making films:

The Maltese Falcon (Directed by John Huston)
How does the script get written? Do you do it alone?  And how long does it take you?

There are no rules. I’ve written scripts and made pictures out of them in two weeks. At other times I’ve worked a year and a half just on a script. The Maltese Falcon was done in a very short time, because it was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent. It was a matter of sticking to the ideas of the book, of making a film out of a book. On Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I wrote the script in about 3-4 months, but I had had quite a long time to think about it before. The actual making of the film didn’t take very long, but I had had the idea of making it since before the war. It was the first film I made after the war.

You wrote that one alone, and got an Oscar for writing it. But don’t you sometimes write together with other people? Or, when other people write for you, do you take a very active part or do you leave them pretty much alone?

When I do not write alone – and of course you must remember that I began my film career as a writer, not as a director – I work very closely with the writer. Almost always I share in the writing. The writer will do a scene and then I’ll work it over, or I’ll write a scene and then the other writer will make adjustments later. Often we trade scenes back and forth until we’re both satisfied.

The Maltese Falcon (Directed by John Huston)
You don’t like to work with more than one other writer?

Not really. But sometimes other people make additions. For example, the writer of a play or a book on which I  am basing a film. Tennessee Williams, for example, came and worked with Anthony Vay and myself on the script for Night of the Iguana. He didn’t come there to write, but once he was there he did do some writing, and actually he did some rather important writing for the film. But such cases are the exception.

Could you put into words some principles you employ in order to put ideas into film form? Do you feel there are any rules a writer for the cinema must follow?

Each idea calls for a different treatment, really. I am not aware of any ready formula, except the obvious one that films fall into a certain number of scenes, and that you have to pay attention to certain limitations that have to do with time, according to subject. Depending on what you are writing about, you have to decide the time balance between words and action. It seems to me, for example, that the word contains as much action as a purely visual scene, and that dialogue should have as much action in it as physical motion. The sense of activity that your audience gets is derived equally from what they see and from what they hear. The fascination, the attention of the man who looks at what you have put together, must be for the thoughts as much as for the happenings in your film. In fact, when I write I can’t really separate the words from the actions. The final action – the combined activity of the film, the sum of the words and the visuals – is really going on only in the mind of the beholder. So in writing I have to convey a sense of overall progression with all the means at my command: words and images and sounds and everything else that makes film.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Directed by John Huston)
This brings up one of the basic questions about films that adapt literary works: in a book there are many things that you can’t see or hear, but which in reading you translate directly into your own interior images and feelings. Emotions that are created in you neither through dialogue nor action. How do you get these into film? The monologues from ‘Moby Dick’, for example?

Well, first of all, I try to beware of literal transfers to film of what a writer has created initially for a different form. Instead I try to penetrate first to the basic idea of the book or the play, and then work with those ideas in cinematic terms. For example, to see what Melville wanted to say in the dialogues, what emotions he wanted to convey I always thought Moby Dick was a great blasphemy. Here was a man who shook his fist at God. The thematic line in Moby Dick seemed to me, always, to have been: who’s to judge when the judge himself is dragged before the bar? Who’s to condemn, but he, Ahab! This was, to me, the point at which I tried to aim the whole picture, because I think that’s what Melville was essentially concerned with, and this is, at the same time, the point that makes Moby Dick so extremely timely in our age. And if I may be allowed the side-observation: I don’t think any of the critics who wrote about the film ever mentioned this.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Directed by John Huston)
I suppose you are speaking about the problem of taking personal responsibility in an age where the group has largely attempted to make decisions for the individual. This is an interpretation of Melville, or perhaps I should say ONE interpretation of Melville. And so in the attempt to understand the basic idea of a work (in order to translate those ideas into film) you are really doing more than that: you add your own interpretation, you don’t just put into images what the original author wanted to say.

I don’t think we can avoid interpretation. Even just pointing a camera at a certain reality means an interpretation of that reality. By the same token, I don’t seek to interpret, to put my own stamp on the material. I try to be as faithful to the original material as I can. This applies equally to Melville as it applies to the Bible, for example. In fact, it’s the fascination that I feel for the original that makes me want to make it into a film.

What about original material, where you are not adapting a play or a book? Are there any ideas of yours, basic ideas, which you try to express in your work? Do you feel that there is a continuity in your work in terms of a consistent ideology? In short, do you feel you are trying to say something coherent to mankind?

There probably is. I am not consciously aware of anything. But even the choice of material indicates a preference, a turn of mind. You could draw a portrait of a mind through that mind’s preferences.

The Asphalt Jungle (Directed by John Huston)
Well, let me do that for a minute, and see if what I see as a unifying idea in your work is indeed a coherent feeling on your part. I see that in your films there is always a man pitched against odds, an individual who seeks to retain a sense of his own individuality in the face of a culture that surrounds and tends to submerge him. I would call the style of your films the style of the frontier, or what the frontier has come to symbolize in American culture: a sense of rebellion against being put into a system, into a form of life and into a mode of thinking rigidly decided by others.

Yes, I think there is something there. I do come from a frontier background. My people were that. And I always feel constrained in the presence of too many rules, severe rules; they distress me. I like the sense of freedom. I don’t particularly seek that ultimate freedom of the anarchist, but I’m impatient of rules that result from prejudice.

In any case, you believe that at the basis of every film of yours there is a basic idea, whether an idea of yours or one of another author. But how do you proceed to put that idea into film form? In writing, what do you do first, for example?

I don’t envisage the whole thing at the beginning. I go a little bit at a time, always asking myself whether I am on the track of the basic thought. Within that, I try to make each scene as good as I can. This applies both to the writing and to the directing – to the whole process of preparation and production, in fact – which are only extensions of the process of writing. It’s hard to break down into details.
The Asphalt Jungle (Directed by John Huston)
Do you mean to say that you do not write the whole script in the beginning?

Oh yes, oh sure. I am speaking about the making of the film. I try to make it in sequence as much as possible, to develop the making of the film along with the development of the story within the film. I try, for example, to give my actors a sense of development not only within the troupe, but also a sense of development within the story of the film. And I improvise if necessary. This is not a luxury; when one shoots as much on location as I do, improvisation is a necessity. Everything that happens in the process of making the film can contribute to the development of that film’s story. But of course one always tries to remain within the bounds of the controllable as much as one can, to stay within the bounds of the script. But one must be open to take advantage of the terrain, of the things that the setting can give you.

Do you write your scripts with the idea of change and improvisation already in mind?

Improvisation is used more today than it used to be. Partly this is caused by a new, less rigid approach to filmmaking, and also partly by the decentralization of the production process. Actors have become producers, they have commitments of conflicting sorts, and it is no longer possible to prepare a script in great detail in a major studio set-up, and then call in your contract actors, whose time you control completely, and make the film in exact accordance to plan. It has simply become essential today to be more flexible, to adjust to new conditions, both practical and aesthetic.

Do you see this as a positive or a negative development?

It has certainly helped some directors to come into their own, people who could never have succeeded under the old, less independent system. Some French and Italian directors – Fellini in the vanguard – have found it possible to tell much more subjective stories, often their own, in a valid cinematographic way. Like 81/2 for example.

Moby Dick (Directed by John Huston)
What is the technical process of your scriptwriting?

Usually I write in longhand first, and then dictate a later version. I use a standard script form: action on the left and dialogue on the right. When it’s finished it’s mimeographed and distributed to the people who need to see it. I often change again later. Sometimes I finish the final version on the set itself, or change again something I’ve written as a final version the day before. Mostly these changes come to me when I hear the words first spoken by an actor. It’s always different once it comes out of a living person’s mouth. By this I do not mean that I try to adjust to an actor’s personality – I try to do that as little as possible. When I write, I don’t have in mind an actor, but a character. I don’t conceive this character with a specific star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the liberty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage – which is me, my body, when I am alone and writing – and in this way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better service than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of the material. Then, when the character has been born out of this extended imagination, I have to look for someone to play the role, and this someone isn’t always necessarily the person who I thought could play it originally, because often it no longer is the same character. In fact, I’ve often – at least, sometimes – delayed the making of a film because I couldn’t find anybody to play the new and adjusted character that I had finally arrived at construing. Although in my experience you usually find someone; there are enough good actors if you are willing to wait a little.

Is it possible for you to tell how much of your writing comes from inside you, at the start, and how much is written in adjustment to a situation or to hearing your words spoken? And do you also adjust to location, for example? I mean, when you write about Sodom, do you write for Vesuvius, for the landscape where you decided to shoot those sequences?

It’s the same thing as trying to interpret Melville. You write for an ideal. Then when you make the film, you try to live up to that ideal. Casting, locating, shooting: you try to stick to what you start with. Sometimes there are problems when the material changes in my hands, sometimes I have even miscast my own films. But generally these adjustment problems can be overcome. I’ve been pretty lucky that way. In fact, I can usually do pretty much exactly what I set out to do. I’ve been lucky.

Moby Dick (Directed by John Huston)
Is that what gives you this tremendous peace that you seem to have on the set? I have watched perhaps a hundred directors shooting, and nobody is as calm. And you have this kooky set: this silly ark with all these animals, peacocks flying among the long necks of giraffe, hippos who refuse to act the scenes written for them, a hundred breakdowns a day with technical things caused by the animals, and you just stride through the whole thing in your Noah costume, feeding the giraffes, smiling and taking it easy...

I am astonished myself. And I marvel at the patience of everybody, especially the animals, who are among the best actors I’ve ever worked with ...

All typecast, too. . . . But, is that an answer?

In a way, yes. You see, in working with actors, I try to direct as little as possible. The more one directs, the more there is a tendency to monotony. If one is telling each person what to do, one ends up with a host of little replicas of oneself. So, when I start a scene, I always let the actor show me for the start how he imagines the scene himself. This applies not only to actors; as I tried to indicate before, I try to let the whole thing work on me, show me. The actors, the set, the location, the sounds, all help to show me what the correct movement could be. So what I said about the animals wasn’t only a joke. Because, you see, the animals have one great advantage as actors; they know exactly what they want to do, no self-doubts, no hesitations. If you watch them, quite extraordinary opportunities present themselves, but you must see them. Here in the Noah’s Ark sequence of The Bible this has happened a number of times. Animals do remarkable things. The hippo opened his mouth and let me pet him inside.

Is that when you wrote the line, which you say to Noah’s wife at that point: ‘There is no evil in him, wife. Do not fear him!’

Exactly. And very fine actors are as much themselves as animals are. I would rather have someone whose personality lends itself to the role than a good actor who can simulate the illusion of being the character. I do not like to see the mechanics of acting. The best you can get, of course, is when the personality lends itself exquisitely to the part and when that personality has the added attribute of being technically a fine actor so he can control his performance. That is the ideal.

Night of the Iguana (Directed by John Huston)
What do you consider to be the attributes of a fine actor?

The shading he can give a line, his timing, his control, his knowledge of the camera, his relationship to the camera – of course, I’m talking about film acting.

What should an actor’s relationship to the camera be?

He must have an awareness of the size of his gesture, his motion, in relation to the size that his image will be on the screen. It isn’t absolutely an essential quality, but it is very useful. I don’t mean that I tell him the focal length of the lens I’m using and expect him to adapt himself accordingly, but a good actor has an almost instinctual awareness of these things. When an actor comes from the stage, he usually has to make adjustments of this kind. He doesn’t need to project, he doesn’t need to make his voice heard over a distance. He can speak very quietly. He can be more economical in every way before the camera than he could be on the stage. And he can work with the small details of his face...

What else, besides controlling the actors, does your job of directing include? How much control do you exercise over the camera, the light, the, sets, the other mechanics?

Lighting is almost completely up to the cameraman, who of course must be in complete sympathy with the director. The set up is something else. There you’re telling the story, the composition will appear on the screen, also the movement of the camera. The variety of material to be included in the shot, and its displacement, those are things I try to control. Again, when I decide about these things, I go by the rules that are imposed upon me by the central idea, by what I’m trying to say, and how I’ve decided to say it. And I choose set-ups and camera angles that will tell my story as quickly and as strongly and as surely as possible.

The Bible: In the Beginning (Directed by John Huston)
Do you have the precise set-up in mind when you write the script?

No. I write first, then seek the set-up that demonstrates. And I find that if the set-up is chosen well, I hardly ever have to change a line for set-up or a set-up for a line. The fact that I write the words first, doesn’t mean the words have precedence. I find that dialogue and camera set-up are not at war. I don’t seek a set-up to carry a certain word: I seek a certain word and a certain set-up to carry a certain idea. Sometimes one single word is enough for this, or even complete silence, if the image is right.

Do you think the less words spoken in a film, the better a film it is? 

Depends on the film. Some films depend on words. Take Night of the Iguana. Take the spoken words out of that, and you won’t have very much.

Is that only because that particular script was based on a play? Or do you feel that scripts that are very word-oriented could also be read as literature like a play can?

I don’t think you can make rules. In the case of Iguana the words were important because they carried Tennessee Williams’ thoughts. But I think a good screenplay could be read as literature, too. It simply depends on the particular material.

You are not taking sides, then, in the perennial controversy over what’s more important in film, the word or the image?

I don’t see that they are in conflict. Depending on what is being said, they complement each other in the hands of a good craftsman.

– Gideon Bachmann and John Huston: How I Make Films: An Interview with John Huston. Film Quarterly Vol. 19, No. 1 (Autumn, 1965), pp. 3-13.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Elmore Leonard: On Writing and Movies

3:10 to Yuma (Directed by Delmer Daves)
The late, great American crime writer Elmore Leonard penned over 40 books and numerous short stories in a career spanning sixty years. As one of America’s most distinctive and influential genre novelists his work inspired television shows and several fine films. The following abridged excerpts are from an interview by Patrick McGilligan for Film Comment on Leonard’s experience of working in Hollywood and his reaction to film adaptations of his work. It was published to coincide with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch (as Jackie Brown).

To what extent do you think your writing was influenced by movies, even before you began selling stories to Hollywood?

Probably more than I thought. When I started writing, I wanted to make money right away and I chose Westerns because of the market. You could aim for Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Esquire, Argosy, Adventure, and a number of pulp magazines, like Dime Western, that were still in business. I liked Western movies and they were big in the Fifties.

So when you were writing a story, you were thinking of it, from the outset, as a possible movie?

That was my hope.

Was it just accidental that the stories you were writing, with so much dialogue, almost resembled scripts?

It happened that my style did lend itself – the way I learned to write in scenes, with a lot of dialogue. I think initially I learned as much as I could from Hemingway, and then the style I developed seemed to apply itself to movies: scenes leading to scenes, character development, but always enough action, too.

On the first story he sold to the movies: ‘3:10 toYuma’:

How did that get sold? What was the process whereby you were ‘discovered’?

The story was in Dime Western, 4500 words; I got ninety dollars for it. The editor insisted I rewrite one of the scenes and do two revisions on my description of the train. He said, ‘You can do it better. You’re not using all your senses. It’s not just a walk by the locomotive. What’s the train doing? How does it smell? Is there steam?’ He made me work for my ninety bucks, which was good. It was in the magazine, and then within a year a producer saw it and bought it.

The Tall T (Directed by Budd Boetticher)
How about ‘The Tall T’ (57)?

That was a novella in Argosy, which sold to Hollywood fairly quickly. I found out later that Batjac, John Wayne’s company, had bought it originally, and then something happened and he passed it on to Randolph Scott and [producer] Harry Joe Brown. They also added about twenty minutes onto the front end, which I thought gave it an awfully slow opening.

And you had nothing to do with the people in Hollywood who made the movie?

No. I saw that one in a screening room with Detroit newspaper critics. I remember the film coming to the part where Randolph Scott has Maureen O’Sullivan lure Skip Homeier into the cave. Randolph Scott comes in and faces Skip Homeier, who has a sawed-off shot-gun in his hand. One of the critics said, ‘Here comes the obligatory fistfight.’ But Randolph Scott grabs the shotgun, sticks it under Skip Homeier’s chin, pulls the trigger, and the screen goes red. They didn’t say anything after that.

You might say that was a ‘defining Elmore Leonard moment.’ You have become known for surprising, brutal violence in your stories. How did you come by that penchant?

I wasn’t writing for Range Romance, I was writing action stories, six-guns going off, violence a natural part of it, the reason for reading a Western. But never, in 30 short stories and eight novels, did I stage a fast-draw shootout in the street, the way practically every Western movie ends. Later I developed ways of having the violence happen more unexpectedly and low-key. ‘And he shot him.’

The Moonshine War (Directed by Richard Quine)
When is the first time you actually went to Hollywood to work on a screenplay?

In ‘68 or ‘69, with The Moonshine War. [...] I’d go out to Hollywood, stay all week, and go home weekends. I spent at least three weeks out there before [the producer] Ransohoff fired me from the picture. He said, ‘You’re too close to the forest to see the trees.’

Was he right?

No, not then. Now, when I think of adapting my own stuff, I think there’s truth in that. Definitely. But it’s not so much that you’re too close to it. It’s just that all of your enthusiasm went into the original, so how do you get it back up to write the screenplay? To me, if the writing process isn’t enormously satisfying, it isn’t worth doing. I love writing books. I wrote movies for money.

What did you do for those three weeks?

Met with [director] Dick Quine. I’d go to his house every day and we would sit around and talk about what we were going to do; and then Chris Mankiewicz would come over – he was the liaison between Ransohoff and us – and talk in broad, general terms, never specific, about what should be in the picture. I thought we just wasted an awful lot of time, until finally I wrote the script and then I was fired.

They had another writer for maybe a week and then I was hired back on. Quine liked me and got me back. Ransohoff also had a phonetically written script done by a professor at the University of Kentucky, I think, indicating what the dialogue would sound like with that kind of a rural Southern accent. I kept thinking, Why in the hell don’t they just get good actors who can fake it, or actors born in the South?

Joe Kidd (Directed by John Sturges)
Then they ended up shooting the picture in California, not far from Stockton, in the only clump of trees in a rather barren landscape of dun-colored hills. The picture was also miscast. Let’s face it, Dick Quine was not the guy to direct a picture about people who live in ‘hollers’ and talk funny. He had done mainly comedies that were hip at that time: How to Murder Your Wife, Paris When It Sizzles. The Moonshine War didn’t stand a chance.

Did anybody ask your advice about casting?

They always ask, but they don’t pay any attention to the writer. Richard Widmark I thought was all wrong for the part of the [bootlegger] – I had pictured someone like Burl Ives with a little 16-year-old girl sitting on his knee. I did visit the set for a couple of days. After a number of takes of one scene, Patrick McGoohan came off the set, walked up to me, and said, ‘What’s it like to stand there and hear your lines all fucked up?’

Do you feel that what went wrong there was not the script, but everything else – the casting, the locations, the director… ?

There were things about the story I had been obliged to change. In all of my screenplays, I’ve always gone against my better judgment in listening to the director or the producer, doing what they want so I can get the money and go home and write a book. Or thinking, Well, they know what they’re doing – even though something is telling me, Nah, that’s not gonna work.

Joe Kidd (Directed by John Sturges)
On working with Clint Eastwood and John Sturges on ‘Joe Kidd’ (72):

How much did Clint have to do with the script?

Eastwood and Sturges would come into my office at the end of the day and read the scenes I had written. Eastwood is the easiest guy in the world to get along with. I don’t recall him changing that much. He would just agree and pass the pages on to Sturges. The only time I can recall him saying anything was for the scene where Joe Kidd is confronted by an armed faction, near the end of the second act. Eastwood said, ‘Shouldn’t I have my gun out when I say that?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think you need to have your gun out.’ Eastwood said, ‘But my character has not been presented as a gunfighter.’ He turned to Sturges, ‘Don’t you think I need my gun out?’ Sturges said, ‘No, you don’t need your gun out.’ Eastwood said, ‘Why not?’ Sturges said, ‘Because the audience knows who you are – they’ve seen all your pictures.’ But when the picture was made, Eastwood did have his gun out.

Get Shorty (Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld)
Was ‘Get Shorty’ (95) a totally positive experience?

All the way. I must admit I was surprised to see the film had become a comedy. I told [director] Barry Sonnenfeld after I saw it, ‘I don’t write comedy.’ He said, ‘No, but it’s a funny book.’ Barry and [screenwriter] Scott Frank were conscientious about sticking to the plot and using as much of the dialogue as they could. The lines were delivered the way they were written, seriously, the way I’d heard the characters when I was writing their lines. Gene Hackman was delivering his lines one day in rehearsal, and Barry said, ‘Gene, that was really funny,’ and Hackman said, ‘Well, I wasn’t trying to be.’ Barry said, ‘That’s the whole idea.’

I do think my books were getting a little funnier as I loosened up, toward the mid-Seventies. I had become a little freer and easier in the way I was writing – not trying so hard to write – and funny things began to happen to the characters.

Going back to The Big Bounce in ‘68, however, I've been working pretty much with the same characters: ordinary people who seem a bit quirky, non-heroes, spending as much time with the bad guys – who usually aren’t too bright – as I do with the more sympathetic characters. I have an affection for all of them, so I treat them as human beings with much the same desires and hangups we all have. Plot is secondary, not that important to me. Once I know my characters I’m confident a plot will come out of them. I make it up as I go along, not knowing what’s going to happen, never knowing how the book will end.

Get Shorty (Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld)
‘Not knowing what is going to happen’ is part of the comedy, it seems to me. Part of the Elmore Leonard experience. There are always amazing plot twists in your stories.

What’s amazing to me, when I think about it, is that while Hollywood in general prefers plot driven stories – they ask, ‘What’s it about?’ – 33 of my 35 books, all character-driven and talky, have either been optioned or bought outright for film. I write a book not knowing what’s going to happen, so I won’t be bored, so I can entertain myself making it up as I go along, establishing characters in the first act I hope to be able to use later on, for a set-piece or two if not turns in the plot. If a plot twist is amazing, as you suggest, it must be at the same time believable. So I write each scene from a character’s point of view, with the character’s ‘sound’ providing the rhythm of the prose and the believability of what’s taking place in the scene. The reader accepts it because the character is there. It might not be acceptable from my point of view, were I an omniscient author who thinks he knows everything. Their ‘sound’ is much more entertaining than mine, so I try to keep my nose out of it. I don’t want the reader ever to be aware of me writing. And if the prose sounds like it was written, I rewrite it.

Jackie Brown (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
On ‘Jackie Brown’, did you read Quentin Tarantino’s script?

Yeah. It’s pretty much the book, with a lot of Tarantino, of course, a lot of additional dialogue.

Did you give Tarantino any input?

I questioned a couple of things, asked why scenes we both liked were left out. But I only spoke to him twice on the phone. The first time was a couple of years ago, when he was just beginning and told me he was going to do Rum Punch instead of Killshot. That was all I heard from him for about a year and a half, until just before he started shooting, in early June [‘96], when he called again. He said, ‘I've been afraid to call you for the last year.’ I said, ‘Why? Because you’ve changed the title and you’re starring a black woman in the lead?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Do what you want. You’re the filmmaker, you’re going to do what you want anyway.’

I was on the set twice, and both times it looked like he was enjoying himself. I met Sam Jackson and Pam Grier, who looked terrific, and I could see why Quentin wanted her. Bridget Fonda I’d met before, doing publicity for Touch, and I was happy to see her in the picture. I trusted Quentin and felt certain the film would work; though I suppose there will be a few smartass critics waiting to take a shot at him.

So, all of a sudden, you’re ‘hot.’

It doesn’t seem that long ago I had hopes of being the hot kid, selling my first story in ‘51 when I was 25. I got on the cover of Newsweek in April 1985, and was seen as an overnight success after little more than thirty years. Now I’m 72 and still at it, writing a sequel to Get Shorty that puts Chili Palmer in the music business, where, with his mob-connected background, he should feel right at home. In doing the research, learning about the record industry, the success of Get Shorty has opened all the doors. We’ve even had Aerosmith over to the house to drink non-alcoholic beer and play tennis. MGM, Jersey Films, and John Travolta all seem optimistic that it will happen. I am, too, but I have to finish writing the book before we’ll know if is any good. Or even what it’s about.

– ‘On Writing and Movies. Elmore Leonard interviewed by Patrick McGilligan’. Film Comment Magazine. (

For an interview with Quentin Tarantino on adapting Elmore Leonard see here: ‘Method Writing: Tarantino and Elmore Leonard’


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

John Sayles: Thinking In Pictures

Lone Star (Directed by John Sayles)
With the release of his first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven, John Sayles established himself as a leader of the American independent film movement. Although highly regarded as a writer-director, Sayles entered the film business as a screenwriter for hire. Finding a place with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Sayles wrote Piranha, The Lady in Red, and Battle Beyond the Stars. Subsequent screenplays, characterized by inventive dialogue and a witty use of genre conventions, include The Howling and Alligator. While directing his own films, Sayles continued to work as a screenwriter for Hollywood, doing uncredited rewrites on films such as Mimic and Apollo 13, taking the money he makes within the system and pouring it back into his own idiosyncratic movies where his uncompromising vision makes him sort of a folk hero to independent filmmakers. As a writer/director, Sayles’s movies include: Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, Baby, It’s You, The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men With Guns, Limbo, Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys, and Silver CityPassion Fish was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Original Screenplay.

The following is an edited extract from a series of interviews conducted with John Sayles for Creative Screenwriting:

Who were some of your cinematic influences?

Well, there are just so many, conscious and unconscious. I watched a lot of TV and read a lot of books when I was a kid, and I’m sure all of that information is there. Certainly as far as filmmakers whom I like, Kurosawa has been very influential but not at all in terms of style. Just in terms of what he can get into a movie – good storytelling and emotion, and his movies are usually about something. To be able to accomplish that! And I’ve watched a lot of Rossellini movies. There was a kind of spiritual simplicity, without even being religious or necessarily pious, about some of his early movies that interested me. I’ve watched a lot of Italian neorealist films over time. That’s one of my favorite periods in movies, but I like all kinds of stuff. When I have to talk to acting classes, the model I usually use is a scene from Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee.

When you conceptualize your ideas for a script, how do you decide which ideas are worthy of your attention?

It’s usually not a matter of lots of ideas, it’s a whole subject matter that I’m interested in. What I need to do is really think and condense it. Really think about what do I want to learn about this subject. So it’s not so much getting rid of ideas as kind of condensing them. When I’m writing a script for myself, my rule of thumb is it’s my story, I focus on what interests me the most, what I want to explore. I think a lot of what fiction is for people, whether a book, movie or play, is a way to organize or focus what goes on around us. When you run into somebody on the street and they tell you a story about a friend that’s funny or shocking, they’re doing the same thing when they’re telling the story – they’re choosing details, omitting some things and highlighting other things that make the story better. So it’s really not omitting things, but focusing them, to get a sharper picture of what it is I want to say or talk about.

The Brother From Another Planet (Directed by John Sayles)
When you have an idea for a story, how do you decide the best form for telling it?

Most of the stuff I do is fairly complex, and I think some of it has to do with the kind of complexity that it needs. Most of the novels I’ve done have been told in a real mosaic of points of view. Each chapter might be from a different character’s point of view, and there might be fifteen or twenty characters who get at least one chapter from their point of view. I feel like in a movie, even if the movie is complex, I’ll tend to limit it to two, or, at most, three points of view – the Omniscient point of view, which is the wide frame, and then, classically, there’s a protagonist and the antagonist, you know, in thrillers, but usually there’s a bunch of protagonists, and usually I pick one or two. So generally, we’re seeing the world from either the Omniscient point of view or that of one of those characters. In a two-hour movie I don’t tell the audience here’s a character, okay, here’s another one, now see the world the way they see it. In a book you can do that. Then with short stories, they’re a little more in one tone, usually from one person’s point of view or from the Omniscient eye, and I don’t switch within the story...

What you generally find in adapting fiction for movies, is it’s easier to adapt a short story than a novel, and big novels are very hard... generally they make very good miniseries, but with movies they lose too much.

Your movie career began with writing scripts for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, which may explain the versatility and resourcefulness of your own films. You’ve made films about aliens and coal miners, corrupt politicians and baseball players, lesbians, an Irish folk tale, student activists – always about relationships... 

I really don’t think genre is that important. It’s more what am I going to do with this? What are the genre rules? So you look at the genre rules and decide whether you’re going to keep them or break them. What are the genre expectations of the audience? It’s kind of like theme and variations, the way a musician would say, ‘I’m going to write a waltz; okay, what am I going to do with this waltz? Or I’m going to use ethnic music to write a symphony, but what am I going to do with it?’ I’m not the only writer who writes in a lot of different genres. I’ve been lucky, though, because writers do get typecast very quickly by the people who hire them. I was lucky, because I started out by writing creature features for Roger Corman, but I started directing movies about human beings, so I would get offers to do movies about both. Generally, the minute you write a movie, the next six offers are in that genre. After Eight Men Out, I got baseball things and after Mimic, which I didn’t even get credit on, I started to get more offers about crawling insects. After I did Piranha [for Roger Corman] I got a lot of things that were set in water. ‘Hey, he’s the guy who does water!’

Matewan (Directed by John Sayles)
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?

Write a lot. When I first came to Los Angeles, I was able to get an agent through writing two novels and having a short story published. What she found useful about the way I worked was that I didn’t just have one screenplay, I had three or four. Some were contemporary, some period stories, so that when somebody asked for a writing sample she could send them the one that seemed to resemble what they were looking for the most. Plus, I got the exercise of having written those scripts. I didn’t obsess about one story, I just kept moving on and wrote about what interested me…

In your book, ‘Thinking in Pictures’, you mention that the impetus for your novel, ‘Union Dues’, was your frequent adventures hitchhiking through West Virginia and listening to the stories of the people. You also said you happened upon the story of the Matewan Massacre while researching the novel. Do you think you find stories or do stories find you?

I think you hear stories all the time. You hear them on the news, you hear them from other people. Occasionally you might hear them in a book or a movie. And what happens to me is my mind grabs onto the ones that really interest me. The other ones just kind of roll past. I’ve gotten ideas for movies from things that happened to me, from things I’ve read in a newspaper, and in the case of The Brother From Another Planet, from dreams I’ve had. I’ve had lots of dreams that haven’t turned into movies – but something about that dream, something about that story – my mind reacted to the story that was there. I think that people organize the world in different ways. Someone who’s a graphic artist may be looking at a situation and think of things in color or in shape. When I look at a situation I start thinking about what the story is. Like those psychological tests where somebody shows you a picture and tells you to come up with a story... I could go on for days with that picture.

Matewan (Directed by John Sayles)
You’ve said you essentially make your living by rewriting other people’s scripts. How do you approach rewriting another writer’s work?

Depending on the mandate from the producers hiring me, I either forget about the previous drafts and go back to scratch with the original concept, as in Piranha or Alligator or The Howling, or I try to improve or change the existing script in the direction they want to take it. I’d say the most common problem with scripts I’m asked to consider rewriting is that they aren’t sufficiently dramatized – the characters explain who they are and what they’re doing rather than revealing it through their actions. This doesn’t mean you don’t use dialogue, only that the dialogue is revelatory rather than expository.

Let’s talk about writing and doctoring screenplays for other directors. Is it a different mind set?

Well, the whole philosophy of what you’re doing is different in that you’re trying to help them tell their story. The only time I’ve written something that somebody else made was a spec script called Breaking In. Bill Forsyth made the movie of it, and he did a very good job, but it was something that I didn’t feel I needed to direct. All the others have been assignments where I’ve been helping others tell their story, so there you’re much more a carpenter than the architect. Sometimes they just give you an idea, and sometimes it’s a newspaper or magazine article, sometimes it’s a book. Sometimes it’s a bunch of screenplays that have already been written and you say, ‘What do you like about what you’ve already got? What do you envision this thing becoming?’ Then if you think there’s something you can help them with, you take the job, but, as I said, you’re much more like a carpenter. You’re not saying, ‘Oh, I envision a window over here and this and that’; you’re saying, ‘Do you want windows?’ Then they say, ‘Yeah, we want windows in front of the house and here and there,’ and then you try to do a good job. Very often I’m hired by producers who are trying to get a greenlight from a studio or a financier, or in some cases, from an actor. I’ve done things where it was just working on this one actor’s part and leave the rest of it alone. Or where they need an actor to say he wants to do this movie by Monday, because there’s going to be a Directors Guild strike or something like that, so they want to improve the script enough so that the actor says yes.

Matewan (Directed by John Sayles)
Like just cut the bangs...

Yes. Then I may come back later and do more work after they’ve said yes. I’ve done rewrite jobs as short as two days. So you’re given a mandate, whereas when you’re writing your own things, you’re using some of the same muscles and techniques and everything, but you’re starting with what’s my story? What’s the story I want to tell? In a story conference about a movie I’m writing for other people, when somebody says, ‘Well, we’d really like to set this in Japan instead of China,’ then I say, ‘Well, you know the martial arts are very different, the cultures are very different. If you’re going to Japan, it’s very linear and straightforward; in China it’s very circular.’ They say, ‘Yea, yea, yea, whatever, we can get you Toshiro Mifune.’ You say, ‘Okay, I can do that.’ Whereas, if it’s my story, I often will just say, ‘That’s not the story I want to tell,’ and that’s the end of the conversation. So it’s a very different thing, even if you’re using the same muscles. But I end up working harder when I’m working for other people; more drafts and so on. I won’t do something that I wouldn’t want to see, and very often I don’t take a job because I don’t see any potential in the project. In that case, you’re not the writer for that particular project. I don’t think it works very well when writers condescend to material, to say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t watch this movie, but those people would, so what would they like?’ I can’t do that.

Ron Howard has said you rewrote the entire script for ‘Apollo 13’, but didn’t get a credit. How did you become involved with the ‘Apollo 13’ project? What problems existed in the script and how did you address those inadequacies?

I was asked to come onto Apollo 13 fairly late in their preproduction – they had already cast the lead and had started building the spaceship sets. The process was not so much one of damage control as bringing the story back toward the source material. The director [Ron Howard] and actors were much more involved than in any of my other rewriting experiences, as were the consulting astronauts. Scenes were reworked over and over, even after all the writers were off the picture.

When you are up for an action movie rewrite, do you find yourself suffering fools in dealing with Hollywood?

Not really. What you tend to do is talk to people very carefully, before they hire you, about what the story is they want to tell. I’m there to help them tell that story. If you think you can help them and you know what kind of movie they are talking about, you start thinking about other movies like that which you like. What was it you liked about them? What rhythms? What kinds of characters, situations? Every movie has its own world or rules, and you just enter that world as a writer and you try to fulfill the expectations – without being totally predictable – of the audiences entering this kind of world. If it’s a monster movie, or a horror, or if it’s a romantic comedy, there are different rules. If it’s a romantic comedy, the dog doesn’t die. In a gross-out comedy, the dog gets run over six times and gets served for breakfast…

Apollo 13 (Directed by Ron Howard)
When you write a story do you begin with core characters that interest you, or is it a certain attraction to a specific time, place, or event?

Very often it’s just in my mind for a long time. I get interested in a place or a situation or a kind of interpersonal dynamic, and I think this is something that might be interesting; it might make a good story. I’ll knock it around in my head, sometimes for years – which is one of the reasons I write so fast when I actually sit down. My first drafts are often a week and a half or two weeks, because I’ve been thinking about it so long. Generally it starts out with a character in a certain situation or a certain kind of dynamic tension or moral situation, and then it may connect with a place or time, and that jells into a plot line. Sometimes I will have a theme looking for plot, but rarely do I have a plot looking for a theme.

With the story arc of Lone Star, you might describe it as a guy who is doing detective work, and the suspect is his father. So it’s kind of like an Oedipus thing except, in this case, he’s not trying to clear his father’s name. He actually wants his father to be guilty. And he finds out more than he bargained for. And then it was going to take place in Texas. The next step would be to think about who are the characters. Who are the people in this world, who come from the different communities that I want to have come together? Who are the players? Then you say, ‘Well, it would be interesting to have this kind of character.’ You think about what the relationships among them are, and what their ties with each other are. You’re always trying to have as many ties as possible so you don’t have too many characters who are only tied to the story by one thread. The final thing I do is I start thinking about what scenes of confrontation I would want to have. Let’s say it’s this detective story: who is he going to go interrogate to find out about the past? What stories are they going to tell him? Then I make an outline and I start putting those scenes in order. I get an idea of the kind of temporal arc of the movie. Is it the kind of movie that takes place in one day? The movie I’m about to shoot takes place in basically one day and the next morning. The Return of the Secaucus Seven was a three-day weekend. The first day people show up, the second day they party and pair off, and the third day they say their good-byes. Sunshine State is based on about a five-or six-day period during this thing that happens in this town in Florida called ‘Old Buccaneer Days.’

I’m working for Ron Howard right now, doing a rewrite on a thing about the Alamo. But it’s not only about the Alamo, it’s about how people got into the Alamo, and what they did at the Alamo all the way through the Battle of San Jacinto. It takes place in an eight-month period, so how do you handle time? How do you get rid of all the true but not very streamlined things that happened? All the back and forth, and people traveling from one town to the other. You really have to figure that out, and decide how much do you want people to know about time. That’s one of the most important things in a script: where are your codas? Where do you let the audience take a rest and say, ‘Okay, this sequence, this whole day – even though it may be made up of several days – is over.’ Then there might be a fade-out. The audience is thinking, ‘Now they’re going to have to face the music, and we’re going to find out who’s going to run the Alamo.’

Lone Star (Directed by John Sayles)
Structure is so important in movies, and especially how you handle time, that I try to figure a lot of that out before I start a draft. And then after I finish a draft – especially for other people, but even for myself – I’ll do a very detailed outline of what happens on what page. I may flag certain things. Let’s say it’s the Alamo script; you’ve got these main characters: Travis, Bowie, Crockett, Sam Houston, and Santa Ana. I’ll put their names in capitals, and whenever they show up in a description of a scene I’ll mark their names. I can look at the thing graphically and say, ‘Oh, I see. Sam Houston has disappeared for forty pages. Maybe he should disappear for only twenty, or else people are going to lose track of him.’ So you put a scene in somewhere. You get some kind of graphic feeling for it. And then when you go into your second draft you can look at it structurally. But I never start until I have the outline. I don’t just start writing scenes.

Do you ever find yourself stuck, staring at a computer screen with, dare I say it, writer’s block?

No, because I work for hire, and there are deadlines, so it’s not a luxury I can afford. Someone told me that there are two kinds of writers. There’s the ones who write until they can’t find a word, and then they sit around for two days until they get the right word. And there’s the kind who will leave a blank and go back and fill it in. I leave a blank. I will sometimes write a page or two and make a note: ‘Better stuff than this.’ I know it’s not very good as I am writing it, but I’ll move beyond, and eventually I’ll figure out what I need to do to fix it up.

Do you hole yourself up for a couple of days when you are working on a script?

When I can do this I tend to write in sprints. Because I have a bad back, I have a one-hour timer, so every hour I get up and walk around; then if I’ve been writing sitting down, I’ll write on a kneeler or stand up and write to change whatever position I am in. Then I can work eight to ten hours a day when I am on a roll.

How do you find the spine and structure of a story?

Well, in screenwriting, structure is the most difficult thing. I’m not a classicist about structure. I don’t think there’s a set number of acts that a screenplay has to have. I think each screenplay has to have its own structure. Sometimes the structure is very simple and can be seen graphically. For example, Matewan lent itself to a graphic representation. Because it ended in a shootout on a street in a small town, it kind of manifested itself in the classic ‘V’ that you see in a lot of gunfight movies. Throughout the movie you have these little skirmishes, but everything’s coming together to one point. In another movie, it might turn into an inverted ‘V.’ Eight Men Out very naturally broke into thirds, the first third being about the fix, the conspiracy to throw the World Series, the second third the games themselves, and the last third being the trial – what actually happened to the ballplayers. But before I start writing scenes, I’m very careful to do a step outline where I try to find what the structure of that particular movie is going to be.

Lone Star (Directed by John Sayles)
I think that’s really helpful. Do you have to kill the editor in you to push out the first draft of a screenplay?

Especially when I’m writing for other people, the first draft is the most fun, because I’m almost always hired to do more than one draft, and the first draft is my chance to lay everything I think might be cool on the table for the people who hired me.

How many drafts do you typically write, when you write for yourself?

When I write for myself, there are usually two and a half drafts.

How do you know when you’re ready to shoot?

Pretty much when I like the script. When I can sit down and read it, and kind of imagine the movie. One thing, I was an actor professionally before I was a writer or a filmmaker of any kind. One thing I always do with my scripts is to play all the parts. I read it through a couple of times just for the characters, and feel if I had to play this part, man, woman or child, do I have enough ammunition – do I have enough evidence to know who I am and present my case within the story? I’ll show it to Maggie Renzi, who has produced many of my movies. She may have some questions or whatever, and I may write some new stuff based on that.

Do you write each script with the intention of making the movie right away?

I’ve never gotten to make movies in the order that I’ve written them. Lianna, which was the second film I made, was written before The Return of the Secaucus Seven. Both Matewan and Eight Men Out were written before either of those scripts. It just took us a long time to raise the money. So, yeah, you hope that it’s the next one but you’re never sure. I never write something just to put it on the shelf; we always make the rounds and try to raise money for it. The lucky thing is, I’ve had more than one or two ideas for movies, so that if we can’t raise money for one thing I can eventually come up with something that’s cheaper to make or, for whatever reason, more likely to get financed. And then we go to that. When the money fell apart for Matewan I wrote Brother From Another Planet in about six weeks.

Lone Star (Directed by John Sayles)
Do you also think from an industry standpoint? Do you consider whether a role is going to attract a high caliber actor?

Not when I write for myself. When I write for other people I’ve often been asked to throw in some big, juicy speeches so they can interest a higher echelon actor.

When you’re writing for yourself, do you imagine certain actors in the roles?

Usually what happens is about a third of the way through the first draft I start feeling like, well I know the actor who can play this. I think acting the parts out is also one of the reasons why the movies I make myself, tend to be a little more ensemble in nature – the characters a little more complex and three-dimensional, and the background characters a little more foreground. In the typical Hollywood movie, there are two stars, two supporting actors who play their best friends, and everybody else is an extra. One of the problems we have selling our movies is that potential distributors ask, ‘who’s the hero?’

Is budget something you always have in mind when you’re writing?

If I’m writing for myself. And it certainly was in the early days, when I was writing for Roger Corman. He would always say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about the budget.’ Then the poor directors would come squealing, ‘I’ve only got $800,000 to shoot this thing!’ I wrote a science-fiction movie for James Cameron. The fun with that was that anything I could think up, if he liked it, he would invent it. Even if the technology didn’t exist. He’s so good at that stuff that there were no restraints in the storytelling. When I’m writing for myself, though, it’s different. For instance, the movie I’m about to make in Mexico is half in Spanish. The minute you have any subtitles in a movie, you’re talking about a much smaller potential audience. So you have to worry about what it’s going to cost. The minute you have any kind of action or adventure in a movie you probably increase your chances of selling it overseas, and so you can think about a little bit more of a budget. Of course, action-adventure usually costs more to make.

Lone Star (Directed by John Sayles)
When you’re writing, do you think as a writer or a director or both? Is there a time when that dichotomy of roles is problematic?

Actually, I wear three hats. I’ve edited more than half of my own movies. The way I’ve always felt about those three jobs (writer, director and editor) is that those are the three drafts I do writing a piece of fiction. I was a novelist before I was a filmmaker, and usually I’d do two or three drafts of something before I’d send it out. The screenplay is the first draft. You change a lot of things while you direct it, so the fact that you’re directing the film changes the way you write, the fact that you’re editing the film changes the way you direct.

Does the process of developing characters of a different gender, ethnicity, or age group involve a different consciousness?

Having done a lot of fiction before I even started writing movies, it was fairly obvious to me early-on that all writing that’s not autobiography is pretentious. You are pretending to know how somebody else sees things. Even someone who’s your same age, sex, race is different. So, going back to being an actor, the main thing you do is try to get into the head of the character you’re going to play.

That’s the main thing I try to do when I’m making films. Why are people acting this way? What’s going on in their heads? So for me, the most important thing I do when I start creating characters is a lot of observing – listening and reading. If you’re talking about people who have put their lives on paper you go to those sources. If the character is a ten-year-old girl, you basically think of yourself when you were ten years old – talk to the women you know about when they were ten years old. With Fiona’s character in Roan Inish, I wanted her to be somebody who had never seen a TV show or a movie. So in her imagination when she illustrated a story in her mind, her references weren’t Disney movies, they were things in the natural world that she had seen.

With every character I write in every movie, I’m very aware of the specifics of how that person thinks, of how they see the world. What do they know? When you go back in time in a period movie, you have to think, are we before or after Freud? The way people thought about the world changed after Freud. The way people thought about the world changed after Darwin. The way people thought about the world changed after the Civil War. But depending on who that person is, they may have changed more or less. To be a socialist in 1920, like the lead character in Matewan, is very different from being a socialist today in the United States. So, very much like acting a role where you have to learn a dialect, what I try to do is get inside the head of my characters and really think like them as I’m writing their parts.

My novels are all told from multiple points of view. Very often a character will have their own chapter, from his or her point of view, then just become a character described by other people for some chapters, then come back five or six chapters later, once again telling the story from their point of view.

The Secret of Roan Inish (Directed by John Sayles)
As in Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’?

It was among my influences. I read a lot of Faulkner.

Do you write character bios?

I’ll usually do character bios for other people after I’ve done a draft, just for their enlightenment. Especially if I’m writing about historical characters. If they’re not historical characters, I don’t do that for other people. When I’m writing my own scripts, I do character bios for even the smallest parts, and then I send them to the actors before they show up on the set, just so they don’t fill it in themselves and get off the track. It helps them think about the character because I don’t actually do much rehearsal. Pretty much we get to the set, and we’ll go through the blocking. I expect the actor to really have thought about who the character is. But I prefer to get the shock of the new, so we don’t sit down and read through it. I want the camera rolling when they say those lines for the first time. Some people find readings invaluable but I don’t.

Do you feel the temporal aspects of writing are purely dramatic considerations?

With movies you assume – even though people don’t necessarily do it at home – that people are going to sit down and watch the whole two-hour movie in sequence. One of the things that I notice when I’m editing is that if you change what came before a scene, you change the scene. You might not have made a single cut within that scene itself but if certain things are missing it’s not going to play as well. Or, if you’ve already told that story, it’s not going to have the same impact.

Writing is only the first draft, and directing is the second draft, and the editing is the third draft. Because sometimes you realize, ‘Well, on paper I needed this scene. I needed these five lines to explain something that I could not have done without them on paper. It was good that the actor knew them. But the actor had done such a good job in the first three scenes of letting us know who that character is, that I don’t actually need this scene. It’s been done. It’s redundant.’ Just think if you’ve written some script, and you have to prove that the hero is a tough guy. You have a couple of scenes where he kicks ass early in the movie. The minute they hire Clint Eastwood you probably don’t need three scenes to do it. He brings thirty years of movie history with him, mostly of him being a tough-ass. What they did with Unforgiven is that he basically had to spend twenty minutes falling off horses and shooting badly to make people say, ‘Maybe he isn’t such a great killer.’ He had to undercut his own movie legacy.

The Secret of Roan Inish (Directed by John Sayles)
Your dialogue tends to be naturalistic, very true to the characters. Do you study any dialects? 

Quite a bit. It helps to have some kind of ear for it, but if it’s a period film, I tend to do a lot of reading. Especially writers who were writing novels in that time, and who lived in that era. For Eight Men Out, I read a lot of Ring Lardner, James T. Farrell, and Nelson Algren, all of whom were from Chicago and knew the people in the story. The dialogue was based on people very much like that…

It seems like often your theme and form are intrinsically linked. I think of ‘Lone Star’ and the clever changing of time and location within the same shot.

In that particular script, I said, ‘We trade off.’ That’s the essence of the theme. In Lone Star, it was about the link between the past and the present, so we would do these 360’s which would bring you back to the present. I’ll write that kind of transition in for myself and also for the production design people just to give them an idea. I actually don’t do a lot of description, but if I know I am going use a song in the movie, I may write some of the lyrics just to give the actors some flavor of what’s going to be going on. The stuff I write is actually pretty thin as far as description is concerned. If I feel like I can finance the movie without hyping it, I leave the hype out.

Speaking of hype... Although you’ve done various types of movies, one thing indicative of your style is a muted approach where you don’t milk a scene for, in the pejorative sense, melodrama. It’s part Cassavetes and it’s part Neorealism.

I like movies that are melodramatic and well done; movies with great big John Williams scores that underline everything. But even in my fiction that’s just not my style; I’m a little more oblique. Someone may ask a question in a scene and then you get to the answer six lines later rather than right away. I think I’m more interested in complexity than most screenplays want to be. I’m more interested in the twists and turns of something and the ways people are ambiguous and complex. When I am writing for someone else, and it’s clear that this is meant to be an action-thriller with very clearly defined good guys and bad guys, that kind of complexity will get in the way. When you’re going for that complexity, it’s tough to hit those big moments and to hit those major chords without its seeming kind of fake.

– John Sayles. Interviewed by Mary Johnson, Renfreu Neff, Jim Mercurio & David F. Goldsmith. Creative Screenwriting, Volume 3, #2 (Spring 1996) & Volume 9, #4 (July/August 2002). Check out their website at