Secrets of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriters

Ask any group of
screenwriters about their work and the answers are bound to cut
across a wide range of emotions, from the practical to the guilty
to a sense that being a writer is an outrage of fate. The subject
of writing provokes Alvin Sargent to some painfull comic reflections.
One line in Paper Moon, for example, nearly turns him
inside out wanting the chance to rewrite it. "It absolutely
makes me wince every time I see it-and I think it just destroys
everything around it." Thinking about his obsessions with
revision, Robert Towne falls into a whispering memory of the
absurdity of getting things from his head onto paper. "Oh,
God," he says. "The number of times things were written
and re-written in Chinatown-you wouldn’t believe it. You’d
think I was sick and crazy." Asked if he works every day,
Buck Henry cries out in pain. "Oh, god no!" he says,
as though wishing he could strike landmines in the words. "I
write as little as possible. I go years without writing anything."

Hearing veteran screenwriters talk about their work
this way, a young screenwriter might feel understandably withered
by David Koepp’s genial but stinging reply to the question, "What
makes a good screenplay?" Koepp, who wrote Apartment Zero as
well as The Shadow and writes with no apparent fear of the
process, quips, "Well, for starters it helps to be a good
writer." Uh, okay. But what’s a "good writer?" And
how do you stay convinced that you are one at three a.m. when you
have just written your main character into an corner? Alone in
a room for the hours, days, months and years it takes to get a
decent (even a failing) script done, how do you sustain the belief
that you are, to use Richard Price’s proverb, not "making
beds in a burning house?"

The answer is that you do not. But the good news
is that most of the accomplished writers I spoke with confirm that
they don’t know either, at least some of the time. Listening to
them talk about how they organize their days, how they massage
germs of ideas into stories, and how they work themselves out of
corners, has an oddly soothing effect. Maybe it is the mark of
great writing instinct, but even frustration with writing becomes
for them an opportunity for comic or dramatic invention.

The Clock is Broken.

Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson.

Writers come in two broad categories: the organized
and practical, and the disorganized and impractical. Neither camp
is more productive than the other. But no one could be more efficient
than David Koepp. He works at his computer in his Universal lot
office every single day. In the seven years since 1988 when he
first sold Apartment Zero, he has had six screenplays produced,
none of them small and indie. He writes 15 to 20 drafts of any
given script, his two principle allies being his writerly instincts
and his willingness to have creative fights in a business that
is "mercilessly collaborative. [Instincts] are all you’ve
got–actually, that’s what you’re hired for. The willingness to
have creative fights is what defines a screenwriter. "

Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who have worked as
a team together for 14 years since Night Shift, work from
10 to 4:30 in an office they share 48 weeks a year. (When they
work in a three-way collaboration with Billy Crystal, guess who
buys lunch?) Twelve of their screenplays, which include Parenthood and City
Slickers
, have been turned into films. There are another 12
that have either stalled, are "percolating in the pipeline," or
have failed. That still makes a fairly astonishing two finished
screenplays a year. "The thing that’s maybe unique about us
as a team," Ganz explains, "is if I say something that
I think is good, and Babaloo doesn’t respond to it warmly I no
longer think it’s good. And vice versa. It’s not like, ‘this pain
in the ass, I love what I just said and he doesn’t like it.’ I’ve
abandoned it immediately. I think it’s a lot of trust in the other
person’s taste."

Sooner or later, most screenwriters’ talk slips from
industry to the trust they place in their subconscious. In his
rapid, outer-borough delivery, Price motors through the activities
that structure his day, which include packing the kids off to school,
working out, and getting himself into the tiny office where he
works. But he also explains that he has to spend a lot of time
outside structure. Being a writer, he says, "is like to being
a priest or a soldier. There’s no time clock. The clock is broken.
It’s what you do. You never know when something’s going to happen.
I mean, I’ll come into the office like a good boy and sit over
a blank piece of paper and in 45 minutes I’m out of there for the
rest of the day. Sometimes I’ll get an epiphany, y’know, from a
dream. It’s a 24-hour gig. You don’t know when it’s going to come.

John Milius on the set.

But when it does come for him, Price says his
first draft usually materializes quickly. "It’s usually a goodie.
It gets everybody’s attention. I have the most fun on a first draft." It
took him only three days to write Life Lessons, the Martin
Scorsese contribution to New York Stories. At that point he
faces the multiple revisions requested by producers and directors,
and that makes his work hard. He describes it as being handed "crayons,
as opposed to pens.

"I feel like I’m always bumping heads with people.
And I gotta write this stuff the best I can, because in a way it’s
going to go against all their expectations. Because I approach
characters through quirks. So I really have to seduce them. They’ll
say, ‘Well, this is really not what we want,’ and then the negotiations
start between me and them. But if I give them something that has
oddball characters that’s not well written, I’m dead in the water.
It’s got to be really good to get them to let go of their anxiety
about white hats and black hats."

Robert Towne is even less interested in discussing
his schedule. He concedes that "of late" he has worked
every day. But deep into a project, does he put himself on a schedule? "When
I’m on a project I’m probably not as disciplined as a lot of people,
but I do work every day. Well, I used to. Now with my three-year-old
I work five, six days a week. I promise everybody I’ll make my
weekends available. I work around the clock until I finish. My
metabolism is so sluggish and my stamina is so great that I’m like
a reptfle—once I get my blood warm I seem to be able to go indefinitely.
It’s very hard for me to start and very hard for me to stop. "

Then there are writers who spend their days in games
of waiting and overcoming resistance. Alvin Sargent talks about
days creating some kind of structure. "I’ll sit there all
day and fret and think and eat and wait for the phone to ring.
And then at 4 o’clock I really begin to work. And work into the
evening and into the night.Those are the best hours for me. Then
somewhere all that stuff is alive and you can go to sleep. And
you’re tired, hopefully. And you wake up with it, play the game
the next day, and seriously begin to write late in the afternoon."

John Milius almost never gets to work before 5 p.m.,
but he does not fret about lost chances. Instead, he imagines himself
a "huge warrior singing of battle. I like to see myself as
a warrior. Robert E. Howard, who wrote the ‘Conan’ books, lived
in a shack in Texas when he was writing’Conan.’ He wrote that no
one was there and he felt a huge presence who told him what to
write. He would wait in terror for the dark to come. I like that." He
pauses and, in a kind of soft and untendentious voice, maintains "I
don’t particularly want to know what’s going to happen. I want
the characters to live for me." So he tends to set things
down quickly in single, handwritten drafts in the late afternoon
and early evening. These drafts he changes very little. Asked what
he writes with, he fabricates a mini-fable of conflict: "I
use those disposable Pilot pens now. For a long time I used Bic
pens, but I pressed one so hard it went ‘out of round."’

Charming Bits of Description.

Milius’s conflicts with his tools are slight compared
to other writers’ antagonism with their own habits and material.
And with the strange nature of screenwriting itself. Even if they
manage to populate their blank pages with interesting characters
and set them into complex relations within a wicked good story,
they cannot always predict how things will turn out. Because in
the end, a script is still a movie untranslated. For this reason,
Ganz and Mandel find it preposterous that screenwriters would lavish
attention on description in the writing. "We don’t write ‘charming
bits of description.’ We read too many scripts where the best writing
never appears onscreen. Their best jokes are in the descriptions.
They’ve spent hours on the prose. We don’t have the patience for
that crap." In contrast, Eric Roth says he’s "pretty
descriptive, maybe more than I should be." But he thinks actors
appreciate his fragmentary descriptions that sum up the internal
narrative. It may be as simple as ‘he’s quiet, his hands in his
pockets,’ but they seem to like that."

Fine writing hardly guarantees a good movie, and
practiced screenwriters know it. Price, with his ear for dialogue,
is alert to the differences between "drop-dead beautiful,
terse" writing on the page and "how it sounds in an actor’s
mouth. You don’t know until somebody speaks if it’s going to sound
written or not. It’s death if it sounds written." Price likes
to keep himself available because actors "have a Geiger counter
you just don’t have."

Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in Julia.

Fine work can also flatten out onscreen. Alvin
Sargent, who wrote the original story for What About Bob?, remembers
the screenplay that Toni Shulman wrote from it as "magnificent
comedy, brilliantly funny." So what happened in the movie?
Eric Roth speaks fondly of collaborating on Memories of Me with
Billy Crystal: "Maybe we were kidding ourselves, but I thought
we had something special. But it didn’t turn out so good, huh?"

Sometimes the problem can be traced to a director
who misunderstands the material, but as often it comes down to
intangible things. Towne believes that volatility is built into
screenwriting itself. Thinking about the unpredictable nature of
making up stories for the screen, he finally defines scriptwriting
as a next to impossible act: "One can’t write a picture. One
describes a picture," he writes in Scenario. "So
if you look at a movie and then read the screenplay and the movie
seems fully realized, recognize and wonder. It’s nearly miraculous
as getting struck by lightning."

Switch the Weather.

Still, it is not all haphazard strokes. Writers frequently
anticipate problems in the drafting process and develop strategies
for writing through problems and in places where they are stuck.
Aside from sleeping on it and walking around, Buck Henry talks
about needing to know the beginning and the end before he begins
to write. But when he gets stuck? He sucks in his breath. "Oh,
God, when I get stuck? I cry. I scream." For him, writing
from the outset is "all a problem, all about problem-solving." He
does not remember dreams or his thoughts just before falling asleep.
He just works it out, in about two drafts

"What you find in the first draft is that you’re
on page 60 and you’ve covered about the first 10 minutes of the
film." So revision for him is a matter of figuring out ways
to condense material without losing texture or complexity, and
without resorting to what he calls "programmatic writing," that
insistent exposition he sees on TV that veers audiences from any
undefined place in the plot. "I go crazy putting up with that
kind of exposition.

For Eric Roth, getting bogged down in a script is
common. "I get stuck all the time. I just try not to panic
as the time slips away. Something usually clicks. One thing, when
I get into trouble I’ll switch the weather. I’ll write ‘it’s raining’
or ‘it’s snowing’ ‘ It makes it sort of comforting to me, and then
I can get a sense of the scene, that feeling. It’s weird. I’ve
done that many, many times. Then I write the scene and the ‘light
rain’ will either stay or go."

Alvin Sargent gets past being stuck by reminding
himself, "there’s always death. Somewhere you lower the importance
of the whole project." He also recommends free-association
and real automatic writing. "Somewhere you’ll start clicking
into what you’re writing about and you’ll get back in touch with
your unconscious and it sparks you." He adds that sometimes
he will have a character "call a sibling, or vice-versa. The
phone rings, and it’s his brother, who has nothing to do with this
us story. But they start talking and there’s something going on.
You can create any kind of family problem, and suddenly I’m more
interested."

For Price, it is external pressures that compel him
to change his script. "First of all, there’s no such thing
as a script where everybody says "Yes, thank you, this is
really what we wanted. Thank you and here’s your money.’ People
are so anxious that even if they like something they’re going to
stare at it until they find something they don’t like. Studio executives,
that’s their job to basically put their two cents in and find something
wrong with it. I mean, they’ll memo you to death. And the thrust–sometimes
they’ll have very sound suggestions, and a lot of times they’re
just trying to placate this invisible multi-million dollar audience
out there."

Red Flags and Bluebird Wings: Where Ideas Come
From.

Roth offers that stories for him begin with a feeling,
or what he calls a "music." The controlling image for Forest
Gump
as he wrote it, was a song. "I try to get a sense
of what the material is. Sometimes you have to sort of write your
way into that, particularly with certain characters who you don’t
know. I’m always interested in issues/14/images that evoke a feeling, and
also what it sounds like. In writing Forest, I heard this
country-western ballad by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. The
name of it I don’t remember, but it was very sentimental, treacly
.. [sings] ‘and when you die I’ll fly away .. something bluebird
wings.’Somehow that song came to represent the whole movie for
me when I was thinking how to do it. The only thing that remained
was the image of birds flying away from this girl."

Milius began the 10-year journey it took him to write Apocalypse
Now
on a kind of double dare, one from himself, one from
his cinema writing teacher. "I guess I wrote Apocalypse
Now
because I wanted to do a movie about war. I don’t know
what started it. I really loved Heart of Darkness when
I was younger and a cinema school teacher told us that no one
had ever licked Heart of Darkness. That was like waving
a red flag. Jeremiah Johnson came about because I studied
that whole era. I lived that kind of life. I thought I was a
mountain man. So I wrote it."

Other writers combine research with their natural
imaginations. Price likes to "go out in the field"-to
pool halls in the case of The Color of Money-because he
can get information but also because it gives him the confidence
to make things up. "At one point, everything I wrote was autobiographical
and that took me through four books. And then I got disgusted with
my own autobiography and didn’t want to go near it anymore. For The
Color of Money
, I had to go out and learn who these guys are,
how do they operate. I realized that I could learn things and apply
them. So I left my autobiography with my therapist and went out
learning stuff, and I enjoyed it. I enjoy it more than writing."

Researching The Color of Money brought him
to nine-ball tournaments in Virginia and Atlantic City. "I
got to know a bunch of these guys and basically what happens is
you’re copiously taking notes. The bottom line is osmosis. Some
of this stuff that happens is so much better than anybody can make
up. Once again, not everything that’s true is interesting, but
I’ve never gone out and not come back with something. That sort
of freed me. You make up 90% of the finished product, but the fact
that I went out and and absorbed something makes me feel my fiction’s
going to be realistic because I understand something of the parameters
of the lie."

Towne still remembers with amazement how Shampoo
came to him: "You run into someone. In the case of Shampoo,
I was going with a girl I was crazy about and found out she’d been
married. Iwas 22 or 23 and you know you always ask what did he
do and I found out he was a hair-dresser. I said, ‘What the fuck?’
Because to me hair-dressers just meant guys who were gay. She said,
‘He’s around. He still does my hair once a week! I couldn’t believe
it. So one day I went to pick her up and there I found this guy
who was not only not gay, he had every beautiful woman in the city
around him. I was fascinated, and that was the beginning of that."

Buck Henry regards his recent screenplay adaptation
of Joyce Maynard’s To Die For as equally implicated in,
and drawn from, "real" life. He usually works bathed
in television issues/14/images of Court TV, cops and afternoon talk shows
like Montel Williams. As To Die For suggests, he finds the
new tabloid crime culture fascinating. "For the first year
Cops was on I didn’t miss it. You can’t make up dialogue like that." To
Die For
was Henry’s chance to explore the debasement of "the
way people speak everywhere."

Reality Principle

Buck Henry is an interesting example of how a writer
can transform himself by staying open to real life, even if it
is mediated by cameras. In the past several years he has aligned
himself with independent cinema, appearing in a pair each of Altman
and Van Sant films. And when To Die For is released to probable
acclaim both for Nicole Kidman performance and Gus Van Sant’s direction,
Henry will once more become peripherally famous. And he will have
done it by the same method writers always used. Towne comments: "What
gave the vitality and the life to movies in 30s and 40s is that
men who not only came from Europe like Billy Wilder and Lubitsch
and Lang, and Jesus Christ, all of them! So many of them were journalists.
Ben Hecht, Billy Brackett, Billy Wilder, they came from lives,
they brought the experience of their lives to film. And when they
didn’t have the experience of what they were filming they had the
sense of having had so many life experiences that they knew enough
to go into the lives whose stories they were telling. They tended
to draw from life because they had lived life, not in a movie theater
and in a cinema school. They had lived it in various jobs, and
my God, the number of worlds journalists are exposed to gives them
a broad snowshoe of experience to draw upon, that allows them to
enter almost at will and with a certain level of reality an appreciation
of it that I thought gave film a vitality and a life."

Depending on who you ask, the writer’s lot (the writer-writer,
not the writer-director) has never been worse, or it is getting
better. "We’re the low men on the totem pole," Eric Roth
says. But he is resigned to it, as are all of them really. And
in fact it is not a bad life. The day I spoke with Roth he was
meeting Tom Hanks for lunch and had just talked to the London Telegram
about a Forbes magazine article on Forest Gump’s failure to turn
a profit.

Nevertheless, Robert Towne is grumbling about the
art of screenwriting being an an all-time low. Fifteen years ago,
when appearances suggested that the screenwriter’s moment had arrived,
he talked to Jim Brady about craft: "The only way you can
effectively learn about screenwriting is to write something and
then see it done as you’ve written it." But in 1995, when
the Screenwriter’s Guild must fight studios for the right to fairer
screen credit his sense of a corrupted craft spreads like ink through
the culture

"We share no beliefs today. That, in fact, is
pretty much at the heart of the screenwriter’s difficulty now:
it’s tough to write effectively without a common ground between
you and your audience. For me, this is the problem the contemporary
screenwriter faces: how can he tell a compelling story when there’s
nothing the audience believes to be self-evident? How can he create
an illusion without a contrasting reality against which to gauge
the effectiveness of the illusion?" MM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.