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

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