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

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