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

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