“Nobody Knows Anything” – William Goldman
Except that William Goldman knows a great deal. Here, he discusses his craft, including the challenges of adapting novels for cinema.
By Daniel Argent.
From Marathon Man and Butch Cassiday 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?
Creative Screenwriting is pleased to present this in-depth interview, offering 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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This article first appeared in Creatiive Screnwriting Volume 8, #5