This substantial follow-up to the hilarious, brilliantly-structured Adventures in the Screen Trade focuses rather more on the trade and less on the adventures, a fact that will please those looking for practical insight into the realities and technicalities of screenwriting, but perhaps disappoint those looking for pure entertainment.
This book is packed with information, opinions and examples, but there are three basic concepts that remain with me most vividly a few days later:
1. Screenwriters should enter a scene (and by extension, the story) as late as possible. Scenes should generally be crafted to communicate as concisely and efficiently as possible, taking every opportunity to utilize context and subtext without wasting time on the page. I know this is probably the first thing you learn in Screenwriting 101, but it was a novel concept to me.
2. Directors are overvalued and writers are undervalued. Goldman is not unbiased on this point, of course, but there is a lot of evidence that directors often receive excessive, exclusive praise for aspects of a film that were almost entirely the result of someone else’s work. For example, a writer can create a powerful scene, specifying every detail from the timing to the camera angles, but once filmed, the scene becomes inextricably tied to the director. The example Goldman uses is the famous crop duster sequence in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. It is clear from the script that Hitchcock contributed almost nothing, creatively, to the scene, but what was the writer’s name? I certainly don’t remember.
3. Protect the spine at all costs. Goldman believes that every story has a spine–an irreducible core that should not be altered, no matter how much the surrounding details might change. I thought it was fascinating how, in his example, he boiled each vital part of a book down into one word, creating a short list of essential words that drive the story. His goal, when translating a book to film is to find and preserve the intent of the original material, which allows a great deal of latitude in how the peripheral aspects are treated. This idea will provide much food for future thought whenever I encounter films based successfully or, more likely, unsuccessfully on books.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Goldman’s first book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, very much.]
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…]
Reading this book was a strange experience because I could not separate it in my mind from the 1987 film, which I had seen many times before I realised it was based on a real book and many, many more times before actually reading the novel for the first time (years ago). I was delighted to experience all the “extras” that didn’t make it into the movie but contribute to a novel that is hilarious and fantastical. Goldman’s editorial asides, biographical anecdotes and surprisingly plausible insistence that he is merely the translator, not the creator, of this tale, create a mind-bending false reality that seems to blur the line between fact and fiction (when actually, it’s all fiction). The book is also a valuable read for those interested in screenwriting and filmmaking. When compared to the movie, it is an education to realise what was left out, what was added in, and what was changed by an author who is also an accomplished screenwriter.
[Why I read it: I was too young to completely understand the book the first time; it might never have ended up back on my reading list if one of my sisters-in-law hadn’t mentioned it and given me a craving.]