When asked what “one” book I would recommend to a student of film, I find myself, time and again, going back to…
“ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE”
A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting.
By William Goldman. 418 pp. New York: Warner Books.
Written in 1982 his book has stood the test of time. Sadly, many students today don’t know the works of this great, two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter; some of his many produced screen credits include:
Absolute Power (1997)
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
The Chamber (1996)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Year of the Comet (1992)
The Princess Bride (1987) based on his novel
Mr. Horn (1979)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
All the President’s Men (1976) Academy Award
Marathon Man (1976) based on his novel
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Hot Rock (1972)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Academy Award
EVEN THOUGH I’M ONLY SHARING A LINK TO THE PART OF “ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE” BELOW THAT RELATES TO TAKING A “MEETING,” YOU ALL SHOULD READ HIS ENTIRE BOOK.
FOR AN IDEA WHY, HERE IS A NYT REVIEW FROM ’83:
By Janet Maslin; Janet Maslin is a film critic for The New York Times.
Published: March 20, 1983
WHEN, after several ventures in playwriting, William Goldman wrote ”The Season,” his shrewd and entertaining 1969 book about the Broadway theater, he was considerably less experienced than he is today. Now, with nearly 20 years of screenwriting behind him, Mr. Goldman has undertaken a similar study of Hollywood, and to this he brings the cheerfully pragmatic wisdom of those years. So one of his chief conclusions, printed in capital letters in ”Adventures in the Screen Trade” and well supported by any number of amusing anecdotes, is that ”NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING” about whether a film will succeed. Nevertheless, Mr. Goldman knows a thing or two about how the movie business operates, and he reveals plenty of it here.
It isn’t hard to understand, reading Mr. Goldman’s animated if overly snappy prose, why he has become one of Hollywood’s best paid writers. (The economics of screenwriting, incidentally, is one of the few aspects of that craft not discussed here.) He’s a lively if ungrammatical writer, a colorful storyteller and someone who knows the importance of good organization (although this book itself is surprisingly slapdash, in view of the strict organizational rules its author propounds). If Mr. Goldman’s is not the most complex or sophisticated analysis of movie-making, it does take a nuts-and-bolts approach very like Hollywood’s own. This is a savvy, gossipy book by someone with considerable insight into the tricks of the trade.
‘In terms of authority, screenwriters rank somewhere between the man who guards the studio gate and the man who runs the studio (this week),” Mr. Goldman begins. That would not seem to afford any screenwriter much overall perspective on how Hollywood works, but Mr. Goldman makes a first-rate fly on the wall. On his first trip to Hollywood, he heard some of Paul Newman’s representatives discuss the scheduling of ”Harper,” saying ”Someday Paul will be Glenn Ford, but right now they’ll wait for him.” He watched Dustin Hoffman waste an hour of shooting time on ”Marathon Man” arguing about whether or not his character ought to have a flashlight on his bedside table. He traveled to Utah to consult with Robert Redford on ”All The President’s Men,” only to discover that Mr. Redford, a longtime acquaintance, wouldn’t give Mr. Goldman his phone number. Working on the same film, he recalls asking the director Alan Pakula which of several ways he might rewrite a sequence and being told, ”Don’t deprive me of any riches.” He notes: ”What I didn’t know then, of course, was this: Alan is notorious for not being able to make up his mind.”
In addition to describing such behavior, Mr. Goldman tries to account for its effects on film-making. He offers pointers, for instance, on why it’s legitimate and necessary to give all the best lines to a star, why the screenwriter should not describe the star in too much detail (”make your description like stretch socks – one size fits all”), and how the star can be made to look good under any circumstances. To illustrate this, he rewrites the basketball game scene from ”The Great Santini,” showing how Robert Duvall, the character actor who plays the sometimes mean-spirited father who loses the game to his son, can be made to seem bighearted and selfsacrificing in the role.
He explains why the mere casting of Barbra Streisand turned ”All Night Long” from a small flop into a large one; then he explains why a large flop may be preferable. He offers helpful hints on how to behave at meetings, imagining the series of conferences it would take to generate a Clint Eastwood version of ”The Little Engine That Could.” He envisions this all the way up to a meeting during which an executive declares, ”Well, God knows it’s a classic, I wonder what sales might say.”
Most of these rather disjointed tidbits turn up in the first section of the book, which contains random observations of a perspicacity that approaches, though never equals, that on display in ”The Season.” His new book’s second section is more specific than its first, concentrating on the films Mr. Goldman has written or tried to write. He tells why he thinks audiences rejected ”The Great Waldo Pepper,” why the Stepford Wives wore brimmed hats and long dresses and how it was possible, on ”The Right Stuff,” to find only six pages of his 148-page screenplay being used. (At this, Mr. Goldman left the picture.) He also tells of a pet project that never left the drawing board, a remake of ”Grand Hotel” that he hoped could be filmed at the M-G-M Grand in Las Vegas. The idea hit a snag when the hotel made it difficult to film there – and hit additional snags when Francis Coppola shot ”One From The Heart” on a set suggesting Las Vegas, and the makers of ”Lookin’ To Get Out”and ”Jinxed” somehow managed to use the Las Vegas Grand Hotel itself, while ”All The Marbles” featured the very similar-looking Grand Hotel in Reno.
THE last part of the book is Mr. Goldman’s slightly overlong attempt to provide practical illustrations of the points he has made, though most of them are quite practical to begin with. He takes ”Da Vinci,” an early story of his own and reprints it here. Then he analyzes it in terms of subject, characters, setting and so on, and turns it into a screenplay. Finally, he invites the opinions of such experts as designer Tony Walton, cinematographer Gordon Willis, editor Dede Allen, composer David Grusin and director George Roy Hill, asking each one how they might treat this story on the screen. The first four treat the assignment gingerly, while Mr. Hill declares, ”This script as written has things in it that set a director’s teeth on edge,” and explains why. Much of the action in ”Da Vinci” is set in a barber shop and revolves around haircuts, prompting Mr. Hill to remark, ”You’re on very thin ground when you start accepting a haircut as a work of art.”
The same might be said for movie-making, or at least for the behind-the-scenes aspects that are illuminated here. But Mr. Goldman makes fewer claims for screenwriting, as it is most commonly practiced in Hollywood, than he does for the art of the barber.
”In the world of the screenplay,” he writes, ”not only are you terribly limited as to what subject matter is viable; your treatment of the subject matter is infinitely more restricted by the power of the star.
”Which is why I truly believe that if all you do with your life is write screenplays, it ultimately has to denigrate the soul. You may get lucky and get rich, but you sure won’t get happy. Because you will spend your always decreasing days doing the following: writing Perfect Parts for Perfect People.
”And there’s got to be more to the human condition than that.