Monday, 24 September 2018

The Art of War: David O. Russell on Three Kings

Three Kings (Directed by David O. Russell)
Writer/director David O. Russell is best known for Oscar-nominated films such as Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and The Fighter. But before these, it was his critically-aclaimed 1999 film Three Kings that arguably launched his career. In the following extract from an interview with Creative Screenwriting Russell discusses disagreements over writing credits, moving from independent to studio films, and the dark heart of the movie.

How did you set up ‘Three Kings’ at Warner Bros.? It’s a very brave film for a major studio. Did they come to you?

Yes. It was a very odd and serendipitous process: David’s Adventure in Studio Land. I thought, what would this be like, to work with something from their candy box? They opened up their logbook to me and this one log line jumped out at me, which was a heist set in the Gulf War, a script by John Ridley. A pretty straight action movie. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In fact, I was researching another script, a turn-of-the-century story, and I didn’t feel I had cracked it, so I started buying books about the Gulf—photojournalist books that had amazing images in them like hundreds of soldiers being stripped in the desert and Bart Simpson dolls on grills of cars. All this incongruous stuff. There was once a scene where they ate animals in the zoo...

So you found the log line—

It took me by surprise and eventually to everybody’s surprise, I said, ‘I think I want to do this.’ And everybody’s eyebrows went up. Including my agent’s. They were all like, ‘What?’ I said it’s going to be crazy textured, with all the politics and everything. To me, the heist is the least interesting part. So I went off, researched, and wrote it for eighteen months. It was a fun scriptwriting process, like no other I’d ever done. I would make columns of things I found fascinating, and then I would build the script that way. So it’s not character-driven, which is obvious from the movie. There was very volatile material which hadn’t been put in the face of Americans about what really happened there. I read papers, talked to veterans and Iraqis. Then I sewed together the quilt of this script. It was liberating, because it was blank as the desert, a palette where I could do a lot of different things, including action, which I hadn’t done before. I wanted to click on lots of information, like click on their day jobs, click on the wife at home, click on how this punk sees violence as opposed to how violence really is. I’ll do it and see how it works in the editing.

John Ridley has been vocal in his displeasure over credit...

He certainly has. I thought we had an amicable agreement. He was all friendly when we made the credit agreement.

You just used his premise of the heist in the Gulf.

That was all I took from his script, and frankly, that’s the most boring thing about the movie. Which in a way was an albatross, because I thought it was going to help me write faster. It was sort of the opposite.

Ridley was part of the process in the beginning?

Yeah, he sold his script. Like every other writer. I don’t understand what his whining is about because it’s the most common experience in Hollywood. You write a script, you sell it and get paid. Goodbye. You’re lucky you’re not rewritten 700 times. If he wants to direct his own scripts, he should control them a little bit. If he thinks it’s such a work of genius, I think he’d let me publish my script. I even offered to publish both scripts in one volume.

That’s a great idea.

He won’t do it. He got paid, he got co-producer credit, he was all amicable. I wanted to publish the screenplay and then he started playing the jilted writer.

Did he see the film and have a problem with it?

Not to my knowledge.

Was there WGA arbitration at all?

No. He decided not to. I was happy to go either way because I knew I had a very strong case. I think what is truly accurate is screenplay by me, and story by him and me. With him getting first position. He said he wanted sole story credit. I said okay and he got co-producer credit.

Is this going to make you wary in the future?

Oh yeah. [laughs]

You used to be an activist, so did you purposely set out to spotlight our foreign policy?

Definitely. That was one of my main motivations. It wasn’t dealing with characters so much as I did in my other movies, it was being driven by the political charge of the material. I couldn’t believe that no other filmmaker had gone after this and I couldn’t believe that Warner Bros. was going to let me do it.

Why did they?

They were hungry to work with independent filmmakers. They’ve done it before.  They were happy to let me do my thing.

In terms of action movies, are you a fan or was it new territory?

I’m not a huge action movie fan, although the other idea that was a big motivator was violence. There hadn’t been a war film since Platoon, so I thought, ‘Great! I’m going to explore this territory in a totally different way.’ So while I’m writing it I find out that Spielberg and Malick are doing these epic war movies! Yet mine was contemporary and nothing like theirs. The whole process of resensitizing violence cinematically captivated me at the time. I felt that bullets had become glib and cartoonish, even in really smart independent movies, so I wanted to render their impact more real. Sometimes I write in friends’ homes, and I have a friend who was a doctor in an emergency room. I was writing and I said to him, ‘What exactly does a bullet do?’ We talked about it and I thought, ‘I’m going to write this, show this, and if it doesn’t work we can cut it later.’

In the script, you also indicate a lot of visual directions.

That took a lot of work to translate that to the camera department.

So when you’re writing, you see exactly how you want to shoot the scene.

Yes. Then you have to make that technically happen. You have to experiment. Definitely with the shootout. When we looked at the first cut of the shootout, I didn’t think it was going to work. I said, ‘Thank God, we covered this normally.’ And the editor says, ‘But you guys didn’t cover it normally.’ I was shitting my pants thinking we were going to reshoot!

There are lots of cool visual touches in the film.

I’m totally a beginner filmmaker, and I’m learning. My motives were political and informational, but also visual. I’d never been so visually motivated in any screenplay I ever wrote. Any flaws in the film are attributed to this, as well as its assets. I was experimenting with being a more visual writer. We studied these photojournalists, like Kenneth Jarecke’s book Just Another War, and it’s amazing—haunting black and white photos of the Gulf War. A brilliant book. We strove for that look in the film: a big, blank empty landscape with a person here and a truck way far away, that kind of thing. It was a little bit film school for me, so I’ll take a lot that I learned and go back to something that’s closer to my ballpark.

I think the dark heart of the movie is the interrogation scene. You get to hear the other side’s version of things. It’s horrifying what happens to Mark Wahlberg, but you can’t hate the interrogator.

One of the things that inspired me was that the war was like a computer picture from an airplane. So who are the people? It’s a dangerous thing because you can dehumanize the enemy. What would it be like to meet an Iraqi who didn’t want to serve in Saddam’s army—which most of them don’t want to – and bring him face to face with an American. That was exciting to me.

Did you interview any Iraqi soldiers?

We did. A lot of the people in the movie were Iraqi and we cast them out of Deerborn, Michigan, where there’s an Iraqi community.... I met a lot of them after I finished the script and asked if this was right, or this. But as a writer, you’d be surprised at how many of one’s instincts are right, strictly from intuition. I don’t know if it was Henry James who said as a writer, you should be able to walk by a house, and if the door opens for a moment and you get a glimpse into the kitchen where people are eating, then when the door closes, you should be able to write a story about that house.

Do you have certain habits to get yourself in the mood?

I have to write down all the things about an idea that excite me and I have to have the whole menu at my disposal. Sometimes I have charts on the wall. Once I outline—and I outline and outline—I have to insist that I write eight pages a day, otherwise I’ll never finish the script, or I’ll go over a couple pages a million times. Then I give it to another friend of mine so I can’t go back. You have to keep marching forward or you’ll never get it out of your head. I write longhand and then I transcribe onto the computer.

How long did it take to write Three Kings?

I had about a 200-page script after six months, but I wasn’t happy with it. I put it down for a few months before it became closer to my own version.

You gave it to the studio and they said go ahead.

At the beginning, they said, ‘Where’s the script? We paid you the advance and we normally expect a first draft in twelve weeks.‘ And I said, ‘That’s why most of your movies suck.’

‘Three Kings’ has done pretty good box-office. Is the studio happy with the outcome?

They’re very happy with it. Of course, everybody gets all pumped up when the tests are good and the advance press is good. Before that, we had more realistic expectations because the movie is provocative. It’s going to make money for them, I think.

What are the film or script influences on your work?

Definitely the films of the ’70s. I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson and Paul Anderson. All those Andersons. I love Alexander Payne. Chinatown. I watch a lot of movies. But I tend to watch movies I like over and over.

– ‘Not a Typical Action Movie: David. O. Russell on Three Kings’, Creative Screenwriting, March, 2016. Full interview here

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Jonathan Demme: Story Teller

The Silence of the Lambs (Directed by Jonathan Demme)
An intense, gritty, crime odyssey in which an FBI cadet tracks down a serial killer with the help of another incarcerated and manipulative serial killer, The Silence of the Lambs was director Jonathan Demme’s masterwork in suspense, full of unsettling close-ups and disconcerting dialogue. Due to its mix of impressive performances and a sense of claustrophobic dread, it became a modern classic.

In the following extract from an interview with Film Comment magazine, Jonathan Demme discusses his approach to Ted Tally’s screenplay adaptation.

FILM COMMENT: Aside from the fact that it’s a good story with good characters, what was it in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ that really resonated in you?

JONATHAN DEMME: Ever since my days of working with Roger Corman, and perhaps before that, I’ve been a sucker for a woman’s picture. A film with a woman protagonist at the forefront. A woman in jeopardy. A woman on a mission. These are themes that have tremendous appeal to me as a moviegoer and also as a director.

You weren’t drawn to the serial-killer aspect?

No, I was repelled by the idea of doing a film about a serial killer. Quite apart from do you want to make a film of it, do you want to see a film of it? [Then] I started reading the book, when Orion sent it to me, and I leapt at the chance to get involved with characters of such dimension, and a story with so many complicated and interesting themes.

Why is it that you are drawn to women’s stories?

It has to do with the fact that just in everyday life, in this male-dominated society, women are operating under some handicaps. For women to achieve what they want is harder than for men to achieve what they want. That brings a touch of the underdog to them, and I respond to that. So I’m partial to women in that sense. I think they’re better people, by and large.

Also, the male characters in ‘Melvin and Howard’, ‘Something Wild’, and ‘Married to the Mob’ are not men’s men in their masculinity — there’s a sensitivity to them, a more feminine side in some way.

Well now, Gavin, I don’t want to come across as some kind of sissy in this interview! But I’m pleased you feel that way. Because from what I understand on the subject, we’ve got our female hormones and our male hormones regardless of which sex we happen to be. If I have a female side to me, I value it for the reasons I said before. And I like it when men feel free to not show that they’re the toughest guy around. I find a lot of fault with aggressively tough guys. On every level, globally, personally, this is the sort of attitude that gets us into trouble. I don’t think I’ve particularly done anything with the characters as written, to sort of take them away from a 100-percent maleness. But I may be more drawn to men who are willing to show their vulnerability.

Did you see ‘Silence’ as having a kind of subversive potential?

No. I need to find good scripts that I have regard for in order to do what I do. And apart from constantly searching for a script that would work in the race-relations arena, I don’t really seek out particular kinds of scripts. Something Wild I thought was a wonderful screenplay. I liked its originality. I liked very much that E. Max Frye was able to start us out thinking that we’re seeing one kind of story, and then gradually take us into a much darker kind of story. If there were certain themes about the dark side of America lurking beneath the surface, terrific. But it’s not like a deep-seated vision that exists already within me, and now ‘Something Wild’ comes along and gives me an opportunity to express that. I just respond to writers’ work.

My whole process is really, come to think of it, a series of responses. First, I respond to a writer’s work, and then the next big thing is responding to the work of the actors. And finally, in the cutting room, I’m responding to the footage we’ve wound up with.

I did like that The Silence of the Lambs was a woman’s picture. Is that vaguely subversive? – I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Tom Harris about this, and ultimately I don’t think this is of special interest to moviegoers, but I love that he’s taking some really good pokes at patriarchy while spinning this tale. And I think the movie sort of manages to do that, too.

Some people say directing doesn’t require the creativity or imagination of acting or writing. You talk about responding to things instead of, say, ‘the director’s vision.’

The director doesn’t have to take the creative responsibility of dreaming up what all the actors and crew should be doing. When you start out you think you have to. If you’re working on tight budgets and fast schedules, you think you have to know everything, because if you don’t then how’s it all going to get done in time? But the better the people you work with, the more you realize you can relax and perceive and enjoy and respond.

How did you arrive at your portrayal of Dr. Lecter? There’s almost an abstract quality to him, and you place him in very stylized, gothic settings – not quite real.

More than anything, I was trying to be utterly loyal to the spirit of Lecter as I understood it from the books [Red Dragon – filmed as Manhunter in 1986 – and The Silence of the Lambs] and the script. You read them and you just get a certain kind of feeling about Lecter which stands apart, I think, from all other characters in all other works of fiction. And now he’s got to be on screen. And luckily, it’s going to be Anthony Hopkins bringing him to life. Anthony really knew exactly what to do there. He got this joke.

Kristi Zea – the production designer – and I spent a tremendous amount of time trying to deal with the bars on Lecter’s cage. We were never happy with the different looks we were experimenting with. And finally we went to glass. The looks of Lecter’s environments are sort of one step beyond, one step into active imagination in the presence of a lot of ultrarealism elsewhere in the picture.

Were we on some level trying to make it easier for the audience to deal with Lecter? One of the big challenges for this movie was, how do you depict some of the shocking scenes described in the screenplay? Like when the police officers burst into the room in Memphis to discover their fallen partners. Ted wrote, ‘What greets them is a snapshot of hell.’ [Laughs.] Thanks, Ted. But it’s okay, we got that.

It was very hard, because you want to own up to the content of the book and script. But you don’t want to cross the line with people, make people physically ill. You don’t want to compromise them to that extent. You want to give them the good old-fashioned kind of shock they paid their money for without mortifying them. I’m not against mortification in films, by the way, as a moviegoer; but in my own films I think I will always stop well short of it.

But, again, the look of Lecter’s cell block was gothic, even medieval – anything but modern and institutional.

I didn’t want people to feel, for a second, they were seeing anything remotely like a prison movie. When Clarice and Lecter square off against each other, one on the inside of the cage, one on the outside, I didn’t want to settle into a someone-visiting-a-prisoner scene. We aspired to creating a setting for these encounters that would not evoke any other films, that would have a freshness and a scariness all their own.

To me, those encounters are staged somewhere between psychoanalysis sessions — given that Lecter is a psychiatrist – and Catholic confessionals.

I thought it was essential that the movie really put the viewer in Clarice’s shoes. That meant shooting a lot of subjective camera in every sequence she was in; you always had to see what Clarice was seeing. So as the scenes between her and Lecter intensify, inevitably we work our way into the subjective positions. And maybe that brings that heightened sense of intimacy we associate with confessionals or with the psychiatrist’s couch.

You had the actors looking as close to the lens – without looking into the lens – as possible. Standard over-the-shoulder shots or matching singles are done with plenty of distance between the eyeline and the lens – but you cut them as close as possible during those scenes.

Well, in most of them, one is looking slightly off – just slightly – and the other one is smack into the lens. We really pushed for that.

Then in the final sequence in Gumb’s basement she can’t see and the subjective shooting shifts to the killer’s POV through his infrared nightvision goggles.

Exactly. I relished that on a technique-of-making-a-movie level: the idea that we’ll be predominantly in the shoes of the protagonist throughout, and then when she’s deprived of her sight, we’ll be in the shoes of the killer. And perhaps that abandonment of Clarice’s point of view will make the situation even more distressing on a certain dialectic level.

In that scene I felt he was way too close to her. In the book I visualized him stalking her across the basement, instead of on top of her. You made it more claustrophobic.

The idea that Gumb would try to get as close as he possibly could, and touch her hair and – given that he holds the power, he has the gun – he would play with this proximity: that appealed to me as a way to stage the scene.

Overall, how did you approach the material stylistically? What were you aiming for in terms of the look of the film?

It started off with wanting to have a film that was rich in closeups and subjective camera. One of the reasons I work so consistently with Tak Fujimoto is that Tak comes up with a brand new look for every movie. Which is what gifted DPs are supposed to do. I’ve almost stopped talking to him about lighting going into films, because his conception of a look for a film is inevitably going to be a lot more interesting and appropriate than what I might have dreamed up. Because that’s not really one of my strong points – conceiving the kind of lights and shades of a look for a movie.

My only thing was, I didn’t want the film to look like another modish, stylish, moody broody long-shadow catch-the-killer movie. And because of the incredible heaviness of the subject matter, it was important to aspire to a certain brightness whenever possible. To that end, Tak and I looked at Rosemary’s Baby together a couple of times. A very bright picture most of the time. Tak then spun off from there.

But as a director, how do you make sure you’re all making the same movie? Do you sit down with your key people and give them a concrete image to work from?[Laughs.] I wish I had, but no. We sit down, Tak, Kristi and Chris Newman – our soundman – and we swap views and impressions. The thing is, we were all responding to the book and the screenplay. You read that book and you’re going to come away with an impression of what that stuff looks like. None of us were thrilled about having to depict some of the more shocking aspects of the story. It took months during the pre-production process to get over being appalled at the subject matter. By the time it came to film it, I was happily desensitized, to the degree that I could go out and just do it with great gusto and abandon.

Did the demands of making a real down-the-line, narrative-driven film result in a suppression of your tendency to direct the viewer’s attention towards what’s going on at the edges of the story – the incidental details you have a fondness for?

No, all that energy gets channeled into what the new demands are. I was thrilled to have such a strong story, told at such a relentless pace, to focus all that energy on. What was at the forefront was too important to be distracted by the details on the fringes.

It’s the same thing with any kind of comedic aspect, because most of the pictures I do try to have a very active sense of humor about them, whether or not they’re comedy. And I was just delighted to be freed from the discipline of comedy – not to have to think in terms of where are the laughs going to be, and is this funny enough?

 – Gavin Smith, ‘Identity Check: Jonathan Demme Interviewed by Gavin Smith,’ Film Comment 27, no. 1 (1991).

Friday, 22 June 2018

Writing to the Beat: An Interview With Horton Foote

To Kill a Mockingbird (Directed by Robert Mulligan)
One of the foremost American playwrights Horton Foote has had a steady and impressive parallel career as a screenwriter.  He has adapted his plays into novels, teleplays, and films with surprising frequency and success. The list of his script credits includes adaptations of popular works by Harper Lee, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. He has the distinction of having twice received an Oscar for Best Screenplay: in 1962 for To Kill a Mockingbird and again in 1983 for Tender Mercies.

The following extract is from an interview with Joseph A. Cincotti in which Foote discusses the influence of the Method technique on his work as a writer.

I know you studied for a long time as an actor and were influenced by the Method. Can you tell me a little bit about Tamara Daykarhanova? 
I stumbled on her early when I was a young actor. A very well-known actress of the 1930s, named Rosamond Pinchot, met me on the street in New York and told me she would pay me to be her scene partner, working with Tamara. That’s how I met Tamara. Tamara Daykarhanova was a student of Stanislavski’s. In Hollywood, Tamara started her own studio [the Tamar Daykarhanova School for the Stage]. She brought into the studio Andrius Jilinsky and [his wife] Vera Soloviova, both from the Moscow Art Theater. They taught the Stanislavski system, which I am very indebted to because it taught me a great deal about play structure. I worked in Tarmara’s studio with Vera for about two years, out of which we started a company called the American Actors Company [in 1938]. I guess, you’d call it an off-off-Broadway company now, but it was over a garage. That is where I first started writing.

What did she teach you? 

First of all, for me there was a whole period of unlearning the bad habits I had picked up in my conventional training as an actor, which was to be very vocal and to work things out vocally rather than to find my inner life. They gave us a whole series of exercises for actors.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Directed by Robert Mulligan)
Are you still, these fifty or more years later, influenced by the Method? Do you still find yourself writing in the beat? 

Absolutely. The whole sense of the through-line, the sense of actions, what people want on stage.

Can you explain what the ‘beat’ is? 

It’s just an arbitrary term. It’s like, what is the beginning of an action and the end of an action, you might say. The first beat of the play might be any moment that begins and ends.

The smallest unit of acting? 

It could be. As you work on, you try to make the beats larger. At first, you might break them down into infinitesimal beats; then you try to make them larger. Some people use the term ‘beats’. Other people use the term ‘actions’. It all means the same thing, really. The reason I like to use the word ‘beat’ is it’s almost a musical term. It’s like a musical phrase.

How did the Stanislavski system or method help you as a writer? 

It applied to me wonderfully as a writer, because in my work as an actor, I would break a play down so that, without really knowing it, I was studying its structure in the sense of what it was the characters wanted. That’s really much more important than the result of the character: what do they want, what causes the conflict between them, what is the structure of the scene, what is the overall through-line of the play, what is the spine, what does everything kind of hold on to. That was one way in which I could instinctually, as an actor, work on trying to understand the play.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Directed by Robert Mulligan)
Can you think of any other writers you would consider Method or system writers? 

Oh, I don’t think anybody in the modern theater has escaped it. They may think they have. They may disallow it or think it’s tiresome or unnecessary. But you can’t be in our theater and not have been, on some level, influenced either for or against the system or the Method. How is that possible?

Can we talk about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’? When your telephone rings and someone asks you to adapt a work of literature, what is your reaction? 

Well, I don’t like to adapt, to begin with. It’s a very painful process—a big responsibility— particularly if you like something, which I usually have to do. In the case of Mockingbird, it was sent to me, and I said, ‘I’m not going to read it because I don’t want to do it.’ My wife read it— she’s passed on now—but she had enormous influence on me. She said to me, ‘You’d better stop and read this book.’ So I read it and felt I could really do something with it. [The producer] Alan [Pakula] and [the director] Bob [Mulligan] had offered it to Harper [Lee, the book’s author] to adapt, and she didn’t want to do it. They felt she and I should meet, so they brought Harper out to Nyack, and we had an evening together and kind of fell in love. That script was a very happy experience.

Of Mice and Men (Directed by Gary Sinise)
Was it harder or easier to adapt than you thought it would be? 

Not hard, because first of all, Alan Pakula was the producer, and he’s very skillful. I have to find ways to get into things. I had read R. P. Blackmur, a critic I admired, and he wrote a review-essay about it called A Scout in the Wilderness, comparing the novel to Huck Finn. That meant a lot to me because Huck Finn was something I always wanted to do and still would like to do as a film—if you could, although you would have to wait until the era of being politically correct about it has passed. The comparison to Huck Finn made my imagination go.

Harper also told me that [the character of] Deal was based on Truman Capote, and that was very helpful to me. The contribution Alan made was to say, ‘Now look, just stop worrying about the time frame of the novel and try to bring it into focus in one year of seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer.’ Architecturally, that was a big help. Then I felt I could compress and take away and add from that point of view.

Tender Mercies (Directed by Bruce Beresford)
Of Mice and Men, again I resisted. But I had great respect for [the actor-director] Gary Sinise. My great resistance there was it had been done so much—what in the world could anybody ever say that was different? I had spent my young manhood pretending I was Lenny. Everybody was doing Lenny in those days. But then I reread the novella, and I was struck by how fresh it seemed, particularly how it related to today, with the rootlessness and the hopelessness and the migratory conditions. I felt quite taken with it. Then—I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this, because it’s considered a classic—I happened to run off the [Lewis] Milestone film [Of Mice and Men, 1940], which I decided was terrible. I thought it was full of clichés and everything I didn’t want to do. Gary agreed with me. He said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that silly thing.’ He had a great passion about the male-bonding idea. He sent me a film, which I’d never seen, called Scarecrow, with Al Pacino, who I think is a remarkable actor, and Gene Hackman, also a wonderful actor. It is a tale of two guys on the road—very different from Steinbeck—but suddenly, I found myself interested in doing Of Mice and Men and exploring it.

Were you on the set of all of your big four films?

No, just the middle two [Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful]. For Mockingbird, I was there for all of the casting. I did some of the screen tests. I played Gregory [Peck’s] part in some of the screen tests with the kids. With [Gary] Sinise, I was there for the first week, and I went back the last week.

Do actors recognize that you are writing in the ‘beat’?

I don’t talk about it. But I think that’s why actors like my work. Mostly, too, because they love the subtext of it.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

George Axelrod: Breaking the Rules

The Manchurian Candidate (Directed by John Frankenheimer)
One of the most incisive and witty writers for Broadway and Hollywood during the 1950s and 60s, George Axelrod wrote the stage hits The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and film scripts for such classics as Bus Stop, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Manchurian Candidate.

In the following extract George Axelrod is interviewed by Pat McGilligan about adapting The Manchurian Candidate for director John Frankenheimer.

Tell me more about how you put ‘Manchurian’ together. 

Johnny [Frankenheimer] and I had become friends and were looking around for something else to do. I read a review of The Manchurian Candidate in the New Yorker and bought the book [by Richard Condon (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959)] the next day. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, what a fucking movie!’ There was a lot of resistance. It was everything the studios didn’t want —political satire, worse than regular satire. It was not easy, but [Frank] Sinatra made it all possible. Sinatra agreed to play [Bennett] Marco, and that’s the only way United Artists would let us do it.

Was Condon or Frankenheimer involved in the script? 

I worked with Frankenheimer on it from the beginning.

Was he helpful? 

Very much so. Condon was not involved, although Dick became a very good friend. I wrote the first draft of The Manchurian Candidate in New York, in a house in Bedford Village, in the summer. Then I came out here in August or September of ’61 to work with Frankenheimer, who produced Manchurian with me, and to prepare the film... For film, I do two very specifically different things. I’m a pretty good adapter, and I can do the odd original. They’re two very different techniques. The very best adaptation I ever did was The Manchurian Candidate. It is a brilliant, wildly chaotic novel. Wonderful voice. To take the essence of that and try to make it so that it worked for a film was a challenge.

A very good example of breaking the rules of the craft is The Manchurian Candidate screenplay: it breaks every single known rule. It’s got dream sequences, flashbacks, narration out of nowhere. When we got in trouble, it had just a voice explaining stuff. Everything in the world that you’re told not to do. But that was part of its genetic code, the secret of the crossword puzzle. It worked for this script.

For example, one scene: When the book describes the reading matter of the hero, it says his library consists of books which have been picked out for him at random by a guy in a bookstore in San Francisco from a list of titles he happens to have on hand at the moment. What I did was transpose that, so when the colonel [played by Douglas Henderson] comes in to fire Marco, he notices that Marco has a lot of books. I had Frank read off the titles of all his books: ‘The Ethnic Choices of Arabs, The Jurisdictional Practices of the Mafia...’

With Frank saying the titles, it makes an excellent scene. But it was not a scene in the book—I had to make a scene out of a piece of description by Condon. That’s what I mean by transposing the gene.
The main trick of Manchurian was to make the brainwashing believable. What I did was dramatize the way the prisoners were brainwashed into believing they were attending a meeting of a lady’s garden society. I had the further idea of making Corporal Melvin [played by James Edwards] black and doing the whole second half of the dream with black ladies. I remember we shot for days, getting all the different angles—front and back, black and white. At the time, we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to fit together. We had miles of film. It was bewildering.

Meanwhile, we had to screw the [production] board all up and schedule all Frank’s scenes up front. We had to shoot all his stuff in fifteen days—because he has the attention span of a gnat— to keep his interest. Then he was set to leave. He was going off to Europe or some place.
Before he left, he announced, ‘I want to see every foot of film that I’m in before I leave.’ Johnny Frankenheimer said, ‘You can see everything except the brainwashing sequence.’ Frank said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I want to see everything,’ in a voice where you felt kneecaps were going to be broken. Now, this is totally self-serving but absolutely true: I said, ‘Let me take a crack at it because I really understand what I am trying to do . . . ’ The editor, Ferris Webster, and I went back to my office, and we got the script out. I just penciled the script where the shots were—cut, cut, cut—then he went back and put it together, and we never changed the sequence. That’s how it was cut, that magical sequence.

Was Frank a good actor, acting out of continuity? 

Frank is one of the best screen actors in the world. He’s magic. Like Marilyn. But you have to understand how he works. When he won’t do many takes, it’s because he can’t. He has no technical vocabulary as an actor. Something magical happens the first time, and sometimes, he can do it a second time. After that, it’s gone.

But can he work out of continuity? 

He understands how to do each scene—what it’s about. He’s a musical genius, and he’s lyrically sensitive. He knows that each scene tells a little story. He never tries to change a line. He has enormous respect for the dialogue. He was just a dream to work with.

Monday, 23 April 2018

William Goldman: “Nobody Knows Anything” – Part Three

The Stepford Wives (Directed by Bryan Forbes)
This is the third part of an in-depth interview with William Goldman (screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hot Rock, The Stepford Wives, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride among others), offering a glimpse into the writing process of one of Hollywood’s most experienced writers.

You’ve had an amazing run in Hollywood all these years. To what do you attribute your longevity and survival?

I’m always amazed…I’m amazed that I’m still employed, and thrilled, because they’re very ageist. I think one of the reasons that I’ve survived is that I’ve lived in New York. No one gives a shit in New York; in LA, it’s such an obsessive place in terms of who’s in and who’s out and who’s hot and who’s cold. I think it helped me that I was a novelist for so long because I had something else to do, and it helps that I’ve written non-fiction about the entertainment business. Listen, it’s been a terrific run, and it surprises me, and I’m thrilled! And if I knew what I was doing…

With all the experience under your belt, are certain things in the writing process easier now or harder now?

It’s the same. I write on a computer now instead of on a portable typewriter, so I’m faster. Certainly no better. It’s tricky. You’re trying to figure out the fucking story! And that’s all it is in a movie. It’s not like writing a book. It’s not like a play. You’re writing for camera and audiences. One of the things which I tell young people is, when you’re starting up, go to see a movie all day long. See whatever is a big movie that’s opening on Friday in your town. Go see the noon show and the 4:00 show and the 8:00 show. Because by the time the 8:00 show comes, you’ll hate the movie so much you won’t pay much attention to it. But you’ll pay attention to the audience. The great thing about audiences is, I believe they react exactly the same around the world at the same places in movies. They laugh, and they scream, and they’re bored. And when they’re bored it’s writer’s fault. I had a great disaster I wrote about [in Which Lie], The Year of the Comet, which was a romantic adventure comedy thriller about a chase after a legendary bottle of wine.

The Hot Rock (Directed by Peter Yates)
I saw it in the theater, because of your name.

You’re one of them! My kids haven’t seen it! [Laughs] It’s not that bad! The fact is, the first sneak, I’m sitting in the theater. I always sit, if I can, in the rear left by the wall so I can hide there. And I’m sitting there and your nightmare is that people are going to leave. You might lose five, six people. We had 500 people in a free preview. And I’m sitting there and fifty people left! Just in the first scene! I can still see them leaving the theater! They just hated it! And I just thought, “My God! They’re leaving a free movie!”

The line that will be on my tombstone is “Nobody knows anything.”
That caught on out there [in Los Angeles]. And it’s true. It’s not just that people don’t know what’s going to work commercially. The fact is, you don’t know what’s going to work in a movie. You don’t know. We don’t know…You have no idea if people will enjoy it, and you have no idea if people will go to it. And that’s one of the great crapshoots of the movie business.

The opening scene was a wine tasting. It was in London and everybody was very like they are at wine tastings, they sound very phony. So we quickly wrote a new scene in which the hero did not want to go to the wine tasting because all the people were so phony. We thought we were being clever. Well, they hated that, too! They didn’t want to see a movie about a bottle of red wine. There was no interest in that particular subject, and we were dead in the water. But you don’t know that.

Marathon Man (Directed by John Schlesinger)
As you’ve said, there aren’t any rules in Hollywood.

There aren’t. It’s bewildering. I look at movies and I think what works and what doesn’t work, and
it’s got nothing to do with quality. But there is something that they can’t figure out how to manufacture: word of mouth. That’s the great problem the studios have. If they could figure out how to manufacture that, they could all be relaxed about the world. But you can’t figure out why people say, “I want to see that,” and, “No, I don’t want to see that.” They try, but they can’t do it. I wrote a movie based on a fabulous piece of material, called The Ghost and the Darkness. It was a disappointment. After the first sneak preview, the studio asked, “Who’s your favorite character?” The Michael Douglas part was the fourth most popular. And when there are three people who the audience liked more than your star, it’s not going to work. You can’t make someone likable. When I was thirty, I got to work doctoring a show on Broadway for George Abbott, who was the most successful director in the history of American theatre. He said, “You can’t tell anything until you get hot bodies out there.” And I said, “What are hot bodies, Mr. Abbott?” He said, “People who don’t know your mother. People who want to come to the theatre and enjoy themselves or not and if they don’t, they’ll leave.” And that’s still true. They spend all this money hyping all these movies that open on Friday and they’ve gotten very skilful, but you still don’t know what’s going to work.

Do screenwriters get more or less respect today? Or did they ever get respect?

Oh, I don’t know. I think every time anybody makes a killing as a screenwriter, anybody who makes a huge sale, that’s a huge plus for everybody. Because when they watch the Today Show or they watch Letterman, what the audience sees is the stars being adorable and saying, “Yeah, well I wrote that part.” And I want to say, “Fuck you, asshole! Show me your script!” I’ll give you my theory. One of the reasons that screenwriters are never going to get what they should is because people who write about the entertainment business want to be in the movie business. They believe that screenwriters don’t do anything, so they can do it too. The director is in charge of all visuals and the stars write all the classy dialogue. So what does a screenwriter do? His position is very small in the public’s mind. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

The Princess Bride (Directed by Rob Reiner)
You touched a little on this earlier: have you ever felt ageism in the industry?

I was a leper, but I was younger. I had the five years I wrote about [in Which Lie], 1980–85, when the phone didn’t ring. And that will happen again. It happens to everybody. But I had a lot of energy then, and I wrote all those books. I couldn’t do that now. I think it happens. Absolutely. It’s certainly true for stars. If directors are forty and have had a lot of hits and have a flop they’ll say, “Great.” If somebody’s sixty, “Maybe he’s lost touch.” Studio executives have every right to hire who they want to, to try to have a successful movie so they can keep their jobs. That’s what all of this is about. I have never been hit yet by ageism because I’m still working. But you hear a lot of stories. Executives get younger and younger and we get older.

In ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’, you said that comic book movies were starting to take over. Now we’re thirty years later.

Yes, and they are. And sometimes, like The Matrix, they’re wonderful. And sometimes they are not. I wish there were answers. Billie Jean King, the great tennis player, said, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” That’s true of making movies.

In your section on ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ in ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’, you had a quote from a lion tamer who displayed a terrible scar and said, “I made a mistake once.” What dealings with Hollywood have you had where you say, “I made a mistake once”?

I’ve turned down a lot of hits: The Godfather, Superman, The Graduate. But I should have because I wasn’t the person to write them. It’s thirty-five years now and I’m still here. I have very little to bitch about. Period.

Lastly, what’s your favorite lie?

When people ask me to read scripts, I always say, “Do you want me to tell you you’re wonderful? Do you want me to be honest?” And everybody always says, “Oh, I want you to be honest!” When I discuss the script with them, I’ll take a scene and say, “This scene here, I have a couple of questions.” And they’ll say, “Oh my God! That’s my favorite scene in the movie!” And then you know they don’t want to know what you think. The best thing to do is tell them how wonderful they are and get on to the next. I’ve always liked to know how horrible I am. Because I need all the help I can get.

Part One of this Interview (Here)
Part Two of this Interview (Here)

This article first appeared in Creative Screnwriting Volume 8, #5

Monday, 19 March 2018

William Goldman: “Nobody Knows Anything” – Part Two

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Directed by George Roy Hill)

This is the second part of an in-depth interview with William Goldman (writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, among others), offering a glimpse into the writing process of one of Hollywood’s most experienced screenwriters.

Lack of confidence seems to be an ongoing issue for many writers. Have you met many writers who were confident?

It’s an odd life. It’s not a good life. It’s been wonderful for me, but I don’t recommend it as a way of getting through the world. It’s weird! You intentionally closet yourself from everybody else, go into a room and deal with something no one gives a shit about until it’s done. It’s a strange world.

What are the tricks you’ve learned that help you survive “the pit”?

You’ve gotta get in there and do it. There are so many things on the planet that are more fun than writing. I know a very gifted young writer who said to me, “My problem is never writing, my problem is sitting. Getting to my computer is like a mine field: I’m remembering chores I have to do, and all of a sudden the day is gone.” I think that happens to a lot of us.

One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. I had a great, great editor, Hiram Haydn, who had many children and was a novelist. Toward the last years of his career, the only time he could write was Sunday morning. He would write four hours every Sunday morning. And he would get books done. It would take him years, but I think it’s crucial that we have some kind of rhythm. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.

The whole idea of a rhythm is crucial, almost the most crucial thing for a young writer. Also, treat it like a real job and be at your desk. I don’t necessarily stay there but I think it’s very important to have [a place to work].

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Directed by George Roy Hill)

What is your rhythm now?

I’ve been doing it for so long… my rhythm now is, I have coffee and I read the papers. And then I go on my computer and the first thing is that I see what Calvin and Hobbes is that day; that’s crucial. And then, if I’m writing, I’ll be there all day. I will be there every day, pretty much all day, until I finish the draft—whenever that is. Then I’ll take some time off. I’m not writing novels anymore. I used to alternate novels and movies, but I haven’t written a novel in a disgracefully long period of time.

Why haven’t you been writing novels?

It’s funny. I don’t know why. I wish it weren’t the case. I wrote novels for thirty years. When I was a kid, when I was in my teens, until I was twenty-four, I used to write a lot of short stories. And they were all rejected. It was so horrible. I remember the fuckin’ New Yorker, once, I think rejected a story the day I sent it out. It was the most amazing thing. I go in my mailbox and there was the rejection slip, and I thought, “I just sent it to you this morning!” They were always the same printed form. Never a note. You’d pray that some editor would say, “Well, let us see the next thing you write.” Nothing. Then I wrote “Temple of Gold” and I don’t think I ever wrote a short story again. I stopped getting ideas for short stories. The last novel I wrote was a not-veryterrific book called Brothers [the sequel to Marathon Man]. I haven’t had an idea for a novel that excited me for fifteen years. I think if I got one, I’d write it. But I wrote a lot of novels. I just ran out of juice.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Directed by George Roy Hill)

None of the news clippings that you included in ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’ spoke to you as a short story or a novel? Not the seventy-eight-year-old bank robber or “the dolphin” [a ten-year-old autistic boy lost in an alligator-infested swamp who swam fourteen miles to civilization]?

Oh, I think if I were younger. Those are marvelous pieces. My God. If I was younger and had all that energy, I don’t know that I’d write another original screenplay. The dolphin is just breathtaking. I just love that piece. Don’t I end the book with the dead guy they found in the subway? [The clipping tells of a corpse that rode the subway for three days before someone noticed he was dead.] Well, come on! That’s a great start or middle or end of something! When you’re young and you have all this energy and you want to write and write and write, you can do that. But I’m older and dumber, and I don’t know if I have the energy to follow that through. My God! How old was the guy? It wouldn’t have worked for a movie, because they wouldn’t have made it. They would have made him young. But I just thought what a great thing. How old was he, seventy? This is an amazing story!

I read a terrible thing in the paper. There’s this crazy lady, Andrea Yates, who killed her five children. Terrible, terrible, terrible. I mean, Jesus, she’s fuckin’ nuts! Don’t tell me that she had any kind of depression from having too many children. She’s not what interests me. What interests me is, there was another woman down south who killed three of her children because [they think] she had been influenced by the woman in Texas. If you are a poor, miserable, half-crazed woman down south, and you read about this Yates woman and her husband saying, “Oh, I love her,” you think, “My God! How wonderful it must be to be famous!” I don’t know that we should do that. I think there’s a book in that.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Directed by George Roy Hill)

In ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’, you touch on the story structuralists like Robert McKee. Do any of the classes or books mean anything to you? Do you use any paradigms or strategies when you write?

I think McKee is good. I went to his class. Anything that makes you do it, is worthwhile. And if going to a course makes you do it, I think that’s terrific. The problem is that girl who said that thing at Oberlin, “Do you always begin your second theme by page seventeen?” I’ll never forget that. Ever. Because I knew she’d been reading some structuralist who had told her that. It’s just wrong!

It sounds like you don’t use any particular formula or paradigm, you just get in there and write.

Yes. That’s the deal. Thank you very much for saying that. What I try and do is, find the story and then write it. My problem is, it takes a while to find the story. George Hill said a great thing to me: “If you can’t tell your story in an hour fifty, you’d better be David Lean.” Movies are wildly long now. Movies are boring; you want to think, “Cut that! Cut that!” It’s a complicated thing. You’re trying to do something that’s going to please an audience all over the world, and you don’t know what it is.

In both ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ and ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’, you open yourself up to criticism from film professionals when you say, “Take a look at this short story adaptation or original screenplay [‘The Big A’] and give me your notes.”

Oh, that was the most heavenly experience. When I had The Big A, I read all their answers at the same time, and I was praying that they’d be negative. [Goldman sent the partially completed script to the Farrelly brothers, Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, Callie Khouri, and John Patrick Shanley for a critique. There were few kind words.] If they were positive then it’s all Hollywood horseshit, and it doesn’t do anybody any good as a teaching exercise. And they were so horrible. I still speak to all of them. But, my God! You just read them and think, “My God, they’re so full of shit! Why are they wrong about this?” But you’ve gotta listen, because when you’re doing a movie, there’s no way of knowing.

Part One of this Interview (Here)
Part Three of this Interview (Here)

This article first appeared in Creative Screnwriting Volume 8, #5

Monday, 19 February 2018

William Goldman: “Nobody Knows Anything” – Part One

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Directed by George Roy Hill)
From Marathon Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to the much-loved The Princess Bride, Academy Award-winning screenwriter and novelist William Goldman has lit up the big screen for over half a century, winning him a special place in the hearts of many. He has also written several works of non fiction, including two books about his experiences in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?

This is the first part of an interview with William Goldman, excerpted from Creative Screenwriting, that offers a glimpse into the writing process of one of Hollywood’s most experienced writers.

What’s your adaptation process? When you look at ‘Low Men in Yellow Coats’, for instance, how do you break it down?

The first thing is, I read it the first time and decide, “Do I really care about this project?” Because one of my great breaks is I have only done work I wanted to do. I’ve been very lucky and it’s true. The other thing is, “Can I make it play? Can I figure out how to do it?” Once I do, once I say yes, and the agents fire their guns across the waters with the studios, then what I do is, I’m not going to start writing for months. What I do is I reread the source material with a different colored pen for each pass. For instance, in Hearts in Atlantis, I made a mark by, let’s say, the Ferris wheel scene, in red. And I read the book and then I’ll put it away and then about two weeks later I’ll read it again.

If you had the Hearts in Atlantis that I had, you would see there are these incredibly stupid marks in color and circles in the text. They look bizarre ’cause the last reading, when there are all these colored marks, I begin to circle pages that I know I’m going to use. I knew I had to go back to the Ferris wheel sequence: ‘It was the kiss by which all the others of his life would be judged and found wanting.’ That’s marvellous! The great scene when Ted resets her arm, that business, pain, writhes, bite the belt, that marvelous scene. Every time I came to that, I knew that was going to be in the movie, so I would mark that.

Hearts in Atlantis (Directed by Scott Hicks)
So about two or three months later, I’ve read the book five or six times— this is why you better love what you’re doing. I’ll then go through it and I’ll look at what I’ve marked a lot, because I know pages with no marks are not going to be in the movie. I’ll try and figure out, “Have I got a spine? Have I got a story? Is there a way of telling it, using these scenes?” If I do, then I write a shorthand thing that I tape to the wall. In Hearts it might have been “baseball glove.” That would have meant the first sequence when he’s doing the picture taking and the baseball glove comes and he goes home. But I would just write “baseball glove.” Then there was a long sequence, which has been cut, during the credits of driving from wherever he lives to Connecticut and I would have written “drive.” And then I would have had “funeral.” For the entire scene at the Ferris wheel—the Ferris wheel, the cotton candy, all that stuff—I would just have “fair.” I can’t do that until I have the story in my head. But when I’m done, what I have on my wall is twenty-five or thirty snippets of one or two words.
What I’m trying to do is have twenty-five or thirty sequences—it could be one sentence or it could be ten pages—that hook onto the next so that at the end I have what I think is a story. And then I’ll write that. I tend to write quickly. I think one should. When I start, I won’t quit the first day until I’ve written three pages. And that seems like a lot if it’s a book, but with all the white space we have on screenplays, like “Cut To,” and double spacing and all that, it’s not that much. I won’t quit until I’ve written three pages. And I’ll go that way and then gradually it begins to up. It’ll go to four, and then to five. This is only about building up confidence. And then once you get halfway through, you think, “Holy shit, I could make it to the end!” And then you have more energy and you write it more quickly and then you’re done.

If I say, “Yes, I’ll make a movie out of this phone call,” you would get the first draft in six months (I’m compulsive about deadlines) but I wouldn’t start to write for four. I’ll write it in three weeks or four, and then I’ll fiddle with it and give it to you. But the whole thing is building up confidence that it’s not going to stink this time. If you decide you want to write, you magically have people in your head that drove you toward that life decision, to whatever you read when you were a kid, or whoever you saw when you were a kid. And you know you’re not that good. You realize you’re not going to be Chekhov, you’re not going to be Cervantes, you’re not going to be Irwin Shaw, who is the crucial figure for me. And so you go into your pit alone, hoping, trying to fake yourself out that this time you will be wonderful. And that’s hard and that’s why the building up of confidence is so crucial for me.

Hearts in Atlantis (Directed by Scott Hicks)
In ‘Hearts in Atlantis’ you changed the scene where Carol gets beaten. In the second draft she gets hit several times on screen, but in the third draft she gets hit once. Why?

That was intentional. In the book, all three bullies beat her up. They club her with a baseball bat. First thing you have to be careful of, this is in a movie now. You’ve got to be clear [to the movie audience] that they don’t molest her sexually. The second thing is, how much do you want to see? There’s a marvelous shot that Hicks has: her book falls in the stream, there’s a sound of birds flying away, and you hear the bat hitting something. Then Bobby comes in and she’s dazed and she says, “He hit me.” If you go more than that, it gets tricky. I’m sure I wrote it tougher.

There’s a wonderful legal phrase in the music business called the “money part.” If you’ve written a song and I sue you, the money part of the song will be the part that’s famous. [Sings] “Some enchanted evening…” Pardon me for singing, but you know what I mean? That’s the money part. I’ll use that very often. When you read Hearts in Atlantis, clearly the beating was one of the money parts. That’s something you know is so important that it’s going to be a major part of the movie. But it’s one thing when you read it in King. It’s something else when you write it for the screen. How much do you want to see a girl get beaten?

When you are adapting a story, do you look at the characters as people or as functions of a theme? When you write Carol, do you write her as person or a representation of hope?

As I’ve gotten increasingly longer in the tooth, it’s more and more and more the story. When the mother comes back [and has the confrontation] with Ted, that’s a plot point in the story of Ted’s betrayal, and that’s what it should be. But I know what you’re saying about character. It all mixes up. All I’m thinking about is how can I make this story interesting for me. How can I make this story work for me—if I think it’s a decent story, people around the world will. You don’t know if it’s going to be true. You don’t know if the studio’s going to make the movie. But that’s what I go on.
I believe when people leave me—when people walk out of a movie I’ve been involved with—it’s my fault. I believe we [screenwriters] have fucked up somehow on the storytelling. We’re telling you stuff you already know, stuff you don’t want to know, the wrong person’s talking.
The same scene, if it was on page ten or 110, would be totally different. Because once you’re running for curtain—as you are when you’re fifteen, twenty pages from the end—once you’re running for curtain, you want to speed up as much as you can because there’s a whole excitement that’s building, and you don’t want to have people in those last twenty minutes who are not of great interest to the audience. It’s an odd skill, an odd writing thing. I don’t know quite what it is yet after all this time.

Hearts in Atlantis (Directed by Scott Hicks)
What is the secret to writing great child characters?

First of all, there are no secrets to anything.

Okay… What is your approach to writing characters like those in ‘Hearts in Atlantis’?

Go with King. It’s one of the great things about King. Bobby and Carol are pretty much King. I don’t think I did much with them. Some of the dialogue is me but most of it is King, as much as I could make. Were there any big changes? No. A lot of it is just taking out bits and pieces and making it play. But I think that’s all King.

I believe when you decide to do a movie about something, there’s something in it that moves you. Whatever that is, you’d better protect that. Bobby and Carol, unrequited love, whatever you want to call it, I found just heartbreaking. I thought they were so great together and finally they got together again, at least in the book. So I wanted to protect that. The other thing is Bobby and Carol and Bobby and Ted. So you want to protect that. You want to stay with as much as you can that moves you. In the novel you get into all kinds of stuff as to who the low men are. I was talking to King on the phone and he had read, that to fight communism, Hoover began hiring people who were telepathic or had certain mental skills, which is fairly insane. I didn’t want to go there. That’s swell for the book, and that’s swell for King, but [I thought] that’s not what this movie is going to be.

Part Two of this Interview: (Here)
Part Three of this Interview: (Here)

This article first appeared in Creative Screnwriting Volume 8, #5

Friday, 26 January 2018

Pedro Almodóvar: How To Make a Film

Volver (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
It’s very difficult to explain the origins of everything in a film because it’s very mysterious and many things happen by chance. You have to be writing all the time and in my case I make notes all the time. l am always working on four or five ideas and there comes a time when I decide to just write one.
You never ever really feel that you are going to be able to pull off the project that you are working on. You never have complete confidence. But of course there comes a time when you feel that you have learnt the trade and the craft of making films, so I feel now that I know the language and how to use it to get a particular emotion. But even if you know all the elements of the technique, you need something else. You need vision, a lot of honesty, strong imagination, and control of that imagination. Language is something quite easy to learn, but the most important thing in a film is your point of view, your vision, and how you look at the world around you.

You never feel absolutely sure about the final outcome because all the different components that make up the film are alive as you make it. One of those elements, of course, is the people. In a film you’ve got forty, fifty or sixty people working with you and the most difficult thing is controlling them, not because they are trying to rebel against you or not obeying you, but because the material you are using to make the film is alive and they are interacting with it as well. So sometimes the end result is not the one you are looking for. The stamp or style you put on your films is extremely personal and there really aren’t that many rules governing it, because what might work for Orson Welles or for David Lynch doesn’t necessarily work for me at all. So you have to seek out your own preferences, the way you would like to use language, and it’s something you just get over time, little by little. I still haven’t discovered it fully yet. I am still working on it.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
I remember that all through the 1980s, I was developing my own filmmaking style with a very specific aesthetic stamp on it. So in the late eighties, from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, everything the people in the decor department brought me was over the top. It was almost too Almodovar-y which is exactly what I didn’t want. It was almost as if the Almodovar style had become a cliche.

I battle against cliche. If you give a dramatic role to an actor who is suffering in their personal life, it is very easy for that actor or actress to cry. But I don’t want those real tears. For me the movie is always a representation of reality in every sense, from the actors to the lighting. I want their tears to be artificial as well.

When you’re a director you have to have your own language, you have to be in possession of that language and the vision of the story you want to tell through the film you are making. On top of that you also have to have bags of common sense and be very strong because you are a boss in the best and worst sense, and you have to demonstrate this all the time. You have to make 100 decisions every moment.

When you’re shooting a film—and this is something Francois Truffaut said—it’s like a runaway train. The brakes have failed and the director’s job is to ensure that that train doesn’t go of the rails at all. Some directors, even though they’re extremely talented as filmmakers, just don’t have the resilience to be able to cope with that process. And I really think that there are too many directors around who have that authority to be able to cope with the filmmaking and too few really talented ones who haven’t been able to last. Because you have to deal with the human factor and that human factor can destroy you.

Dark Habits (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
I remember when I was making Dark Habits (1983). there was one actress who was playing her first leading role, and as the days of shooting went on, I realized she wasn’t up to what the role demanded of her. So what I did was pass a lot of the dialogue on to actresses who were playing the roles of the nuns. I stripped her of the things she was supposed to be doing and during production that all went into the community of nuns in the film. Their roles got richer and richer. When you are shooting you discover things like this that you cannot discover during rehearsals; because in rehearsals you don’t have the props or the action.

How do I control all these elements? I repeat myself to the crew over and over again. If I want a specific blue color on the wall I get them to paint the whole spectrum of blues from gray to blue and then I point out exactly which one I want. It’s almost like being a painter gathering materials. but this time in three dimensions.

If I want to set up the scene with a table and two chairs and an armchair, I already have an idea in my mind of the colors, the composition, and the form of it all, so what I do is give photos to the design team to go off and find it for me. They bring me examples of the different tables and I try them out. It’s all through trial and error, moving things around, changing their position and checking what works together.

This process makes my filmmaking more painstaking than it could otherwise be, but I must also work in this way with my actors. It takes an awful long time to get the hairstyles right or the way they will dress. I take a long time trying things out with the actors because they never feel they are in character until they know what the character looks like. Just simple decisions like the length of hair that an actress should have take ages to work out. I come along with lots of fashion and hair magazines, and photos of ideas that I have with exactly the length of the hair the actress should have, but everyone’s hair is different, so you still have to see if it works with their hair.

Volver (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
For instance, it took ages to get that very natural, unhairdo-like style that Penelope had in Volver. It was supposed to look like she had just put it up, but the amount of time it took you would think we had constructed some elaborate hairdo. But it worked and was incredible. What is important is not to give up on the small things.

Of course, Volver had a strong relation to Italian neorealism, and, unlike the women in Spanish neorealist films, the women are very attractive. So I saw in my mind that I wanted a very attractive look. Then you have to take into account the social class of the character and how women from that class would look and you have to add a touch of humor. I did lots of research going into the homes of that type of housewife from that social class and picking out the little, funny details that I could replicate in the film. There are all sorts of color schemes you see in these homes. but by that point I had already made up my mind of exactly the range of colors I would be working with. I always do that through intuition when I finish a script and just before I start shooting. I have already made up my mind about the spectrum of colors in the film that I will be making. Before all this I always have a very clear idea of the whole narrative process itself as the film goes on. For me writing and directing are symbiotic, complementary. While I am writing, I am working out the moments when you are giving information to the audiences, and the moments when you are withholding information. How that works is the narrative flow through the film, the way the characters are built up, and how they react or interact with each other. This is all very clear in my mind when I am writing the script. The script also includes the atmosphere I want to feature in each scene, and the songs that each have a dramatic function and are integral to the script.

The importance of arts in general in my films can’t be underestimated, When I am writing the script, l am always going out because everything you see, everything you hear, every movie you see, you watch it and it informs the sensibility of the story you are writing. So I was writing The Skin I Live In when I saw an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois at the Tate Modern, and Vera is looking at a book of her work in the film, It is a way for her to survive.

Volver (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
Songs also very important. Cucurrucucu Paloma is a very famous Mexican song and there have been thousands of versions, but when I heard the Caetano Veloso version I was amazed because the song became something completely different. It became a dark lullaby, very moving. Then in Talk to Her, I present the character of Marco as a man who cries at certain times, so I needed a song to play in the party scene that was moving enough to make him cry. This is very risky because there is no way for the production to declare that at 1 am we will have deep emotion. But I needed that emotion because otherwise the audience wouldn’t understand that this was a man who cried with emotion. Then I tried to think of things that really move me a lot and one of those things was Caetano’s song, so I called him and asked him to perform it in the film. I was right because he was amazing and the situation is intriguing.

Likewise, a song gives Volver its title. Volver is all about this great Spanish tradition of the dead coming back to settle unsettled accounts. So Volver is coming back from beyond.

Sometimes I have things in my mind that aren’t visible in the final film, but they are important for me because they give me a basis from which I can jumpstart the story. I had a whole back story in my mind for Penelope’s character in Volver—she was a beautiful young girl who her mother adored, and she wanted her to be a singer and a performer and taught her this song Volver so she could go and perform it in auditions for little girls—which is exactly the same story you see in Bellissima [the Visconti classic featuring Anna Magnani in the mother role]. There’s a part in the film in the kitchen where Carmen Maura says to Penelope, ‘Did you always have big boobs like that?’ and she says ‘Yes, mummy, ever since I was a little girl.’ So for the auditions, the mother puts makeup on her and puts her in amazing dresses. Her father sees all this and it must have been quite a vision for him, so much so that he couldn’t resist the temptation. There was always a lot of incest within the family in these households in La Mancha.

So when Penelope sings the song that her mother taught her in the film, she is remembering her mother very tenderly, even though she thought the mother didn’t do anything about the father raping her. And it is very moving for the mother, who is listening from the car on the street, because the song is talking about the passing of time. It is almost like the daughter is sending an unconscious message to her mother that she doesn’t really hate her, despite the passing of time. None of that is actually explained in the film at all, but my movies are all about secrets and the secret intentions I have that give me the reason to work. Of course they are not visible, but the audience can feel that strength.

— Extract from ‘Interview with Pedro Almodóvar’ in Filmcraft: Directing by Mike Goodridge.