This book is everything you would expect from the screenwriter responsible for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men and The Princess Bride: funny, irreverent, surprising, insightful and, above all, well-written. It might not be a step-by-step, how-to manual for aspiring screenwriters, but it is an education. Even the book’s layout is a great illustration of one of Goldman’s main points: “SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE” [capitals his] (195). The author brilliantly organizes what could be a very rambling, amorphous topic into three main sections: 1) aspects of the film industry, 2) his experiences with specific movies, and 3) an example of a short story converted to screenplay, along with commentary from industry experts. Each of the three sections contains a limited number of logical subsections, with subpoints under those. From the table of contents, this all seems very organized and textbook-perfect and, you would think, creativity-quashing. But here is the interesting bit: on the subpoint level, Goldman is anything but conventional. He cuts loose, telling anecdotes, making jokes, communicating via bits of custom-written scripts, and utilizing unconventional text layouts (the one page devoted to the topic of directors consists of one sentence and a large P.S. written in all caps). This is all extremely entertaining but it is also effective; even at his craziest, Goldman makes sure you always know where you are and what the point is. And because there is a point, you don’t feel that your time is being wasted, no matter what seeming tangent the author might go off on.
Now, it’s difficult to know how far to trust claims made in a book that was written over thirty years ago and contains the words “personal view” in the subtitle, but Goldman’s experience in the industry and the examples he provides support some claims that I found surprising. Most notably:
1) Major stars will generally not play characters that seem “weak” or “blemished,” no matter how fantastic the writing or compelling the story. They will either demand that the script be altered to make their characters more sympathetic, or will leave the roles to character actors, has-beens and up-and-comers (37).
2) “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING” [capitals his] (39). By this, Goldman means that no one in the movie industry can reliably predict what film is going to be a hit and what is going to flop. He mentions dozens of promising, big-name pictures from the 80s that were inexplicable failures, while other films became hits for equally inexplicable reasons. It felt surreal to see so many unfamiliar movie titles and recognize the time, effort and money that went into making films that no one wanted to see then and no one remembers now.
3) I knew that film-making wasn’t a tidy process, but had no idea of the sheer insanity that can occur in the early stages of a movie’s development, from writers being hired and fired, willy nilly, to stars being first in, then out, then in again.
Another thing I was shocked to find out was how much specialized training and experience Goldman had before being approached to write his first screenplay. The answer? Zero. He was a published novelist, yes, but had not the first clue how to write a screenplay. According to his account, he hadn’t even read a screenplay before being asked to write one (166). It seems that his expertise has been gained not through expensive schooling or mentoring, but through experience, the courage to accept a challenge first and save the panicking for later, and having the tough skin required to see his hard work critiqued, altered or destroyed by a variety of people and unforeseeable circumstances.
Goldman doesn’t spend a lot of time complaining or making dire predictions about the future of the film industry, but he does point out a trend toward producing more and more “comic-book movies” (he uses the term figuratively, but it is hilariously literal now)–movies that are shallow, predictable, lack resonance, and deal with an idealized, sanitized version of life (153). Now, I don’t know much about the 1980s films he was talking about, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that the trend is worse now than ever before. Likewise, I would agree completely with his thirty-year-old statement that most commercial films fit into the third of these categories:
1) movies that aspire to quality and succeed
2) movies that aspire to quality and don’t succeed
3) movies that never meant to be any good at all (127).
Near the end of Part One, Goldman predicts that “…for the present , I think we may as well prepare ourselves for seven more Star Wars sequels and half a dozen quests involving Indiana Jones” (158). Though the most recent Indiana Jones movie directly led to the creation of the term “nuking the fridge” to describe the decline of a franchise, there’s no denying that the number of post-1983 Star Wars sequels listed in the franchise’s Wikipedia article is…seven. Spooky.
[Why I read it: saw the title in Goldman’s The Princess Bride and thought it looked interesting. Surprisingly, my library didn’t have a copy, but I was able to get it through interlibrary loan. I’ve also requested the 2000 sequel, so fingers crossed that some library in the network will have it…]