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Film Flam

Essays on Hollywood
By Larry McMurtry

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Chapter One: No Clue: Or Learning to Write for the Movies

If one were to make a misery graph of Hollywood, screenwriters would mark high on the curve. Above them one would have to put second-line producers, particularly those educated in the East (it may well be that all second-line producers were educated in the East), and possibly certain publicity people; just below them would come cinematographers, a group that has shown an increasing capacity for morbidity and neurosis since they stopped being plain cameramen. But, in terms of steady, workaday, year-in-year-out dolorousness, the writers have no near rivals. Their gloom may not be as acute as that of a director whose most recent picture has just flopped, but it is more consistent.

For decades, writers have drifted around Hollywood more or less like unloved wives. The people they work for would usually be just as glad to be rid of them, but can't quite think of a way to get by without their services. Hollywood memoirs are clotted with accounts of the abuses and injustices writers feel have been visited upon them; read collectively, these books give one the sense that, for everyone involved, the profession itself was a kind of unfortunate accident -- one that somehow became a habit. In an ideal world, directors would script their own movies, and a number of the greatest directors have shown the ideal to be possible by doing just that.

Of the many crafts necessary to the making of motion pictures, that of the screenwriter is easily the most haphazard, the most impressionistic, and the most vulnerable. Screenwriting, so far, has no rationale, no theory, and is, at best, an indifferent, pedestrian craft-literature. Worse, it offers young craftsmen no easily accessible means of apprenticeship; instead of training an indigenous body of skilled craftsmen to write its screenplays, the movie industry has traditionally preferred to look outside itself, usually to novelists, for whatever writing it needs done.

The dubious assumption this procedure rests upon is that screenwriting is an art, which therefore needs to employ imaginative artists, rather than a craft, which could be expected to rely upon the discipline and the trained skill of gifted artisans. Unfortunately (it seems to me) novelists have lent themselves readily, even eagerly, to this quite possibly fallacious assumption. Most novelists, I believe, harbor the secret belief that they can easily toss off screenplays, rather as most sports fans believe themselves to be potential athletes. Unlike armchair athletes, however, armchair screenwriters, if they have some independent literary reputation, are often allowed to professionalize their fantasy -- which for the most part they do flounderingly.

I don't recall that I harbored this fantasy when I first began to write fiction; but I was led to it quickly enough, and have pursued it about as flounderingly as anyone well could, through a scriptwriting career that has been something less than perfervid. My experiences have convinced me that behind every bad movie there is a bad script; also, that behind most good movies there is a bad script, over which some resourceful director has won a victory; finally, that in the desk drawers and studio files of Hollywood there are thousands of unproduced bad scripts, more numerous than toads during the rain of toads, and not much more cinematic. I am convinced that the principal reason for this proliferation of junk is that, of the hundreds of people employed to write movie scripts, all but a small handful are in reality screenwriters manqué -- people who have neither the intrinsic gifts nor the extrinsic training necessary to the jobs they have been set to do. I have been led to this conviction by the haphazard, not to say chaotic, nature of my own far from complete education as a screenwriter -- an education, or miseducation, perhaps sufficiently typical to be worth describing here.

I encountered my first screenwriter, though not my first script, in Armstrong County, Texas, in the spring of 1962. The screenwriter's name was Harriet Frank, and not long after I met her I encountered my second, her writing partner and husband, Irving Ravetch. Harriet wore a large hat and shrouded herself, sensibly enough, in a great many veils and bandanas -- the spring breeze in Armstrong County is apt to be sandy. Irving shrouded himself mostly in a look of gloom. They were there with Paul Newman, Martin Ritt, and something like six score others, attempting to turn my slight, innocent first novel, Horseman, Pass By, into the movie Hud. This they accomplished with no assistance from me. I was on the set purely as a guest. I saw a copy or two of what I presumed was the script, but the copies were clutched tightly in the hands of functionaries, and I was never able to get close enough even to peek inside. In fact, I quickly realized that my hosts didn't really want me to read the script. They saw me as the Author, not as the altogether timid young man I actually was; I believe they felt that if I read the script I would inevitably feel that they were mutilating my book. I might become upset, or even start to berate them. This was unlikely, since I had more or less mutilated the book myself, before I published it -- in any case, I watched three days of filming and learned absolutely nothing about scriptwriting or filmmaking, except that the latter could be tedious.

Though I learned nothing technical from the experience of Hud, I did learn something psychic, and that was that moviemakers frequently, if not endemically, feel inferior to, and thus nervous and ill-at-ease with, people they believe to be "real" writers. This would seem to be a psychic constant, and it certainly has its effect upon screenwriting. My problem in learning to write scripts has not been that I have been bullied and bludgeoned by insensitive producers; the problem has been that I could find no one -- or almost no one -- who would presume to instruct me in the basics of the craft; and I believe that, nowadays at least, this is a common experience for novelists turned screenwriters manqué. They are presumed to be too gifted to need training; in consequence they never get training, and, more through ignorance than inability, turn out amateurish screenplays.

A couple of years after Hud, I was called to Hollywood to discuss a property with Alan Pakula, then a producer. The property was a book called Spawn of Evil, a popular history of Mississippi outlawry by Paul I. Wellman. There were chapters on various prominent outlaws, one of whom -- an arch-villain named John Murrell -- interested Pakula. The chapter about him, however, was only eleven pages long. The problem, clearly, was one of expansion. I experienced my first story conference, which consisted of Pakula pacing the floor and attempting to deal both with our mythical movie about the Natchez Trace and the very real production of Inside Daisy Clover, which was taking place somewhere in the caverns of Warner Bros., just behind us.

As always, in story conferences, I sat on a couch sipping Dr. Pepper, my imagination in a stubborn blank. Unfortunately, my imagination doesn't really work unless a typewriter is sitting directly in front of me -- I am all but incapable of conceiving stories abstractly: Stories are what show up on the page once you start hitting the keys. Watching Pakula pace, and reading and rereading the eleven-page chapter generated nothing in me, but for some reason he decided to gamble and sent me home to Houston to write a treatment. Everyone assumed I knew what a treatment was, but I didn't. My general impression was that I was supposed to sort of blow up the eleven-page chapter to something like novel-length, so I promptly whipped out a 350-page treatment -- to the amazement and gratitude of all, I might say.

As luck would have it, though, just about the time I finished my treatment, Pakula had an "idea" about Spawn of Evil. This was my first experience of the arrival of what in Hollywood is known as an "idea." I have since seen many moviemakers have "ideas" -- it is a charming thing to watch. The delight these "ideas" occasion, when they finally appear, approximates what an ardent 89-year-old lover might feel upon discovering that he has an erection. Unfortunately, the promise of these "ideas" (like that of not a few erections) is something that is often appreciated only by the possessor. I don't remember now what Pakula's "idea" was, but it resulted in my tacking a hasty 150-page "synopsis" onto my 350 pages of treatment, after which 500 pages devoted largely to swamp chases, tavern brawls, and slave revolts disappeared forever into Burbank. I thought I had done a colorful job, but I still had never so much as seen an actual screenplay.

This was the more amazing because at this very time I was the author of one of the most frequently-scripted books of our era, i.e., my second novel, Leaving Cheyenne. It was purchased in 1964 by Warners, who intended to film it, call it Gid, and release it before America could forget Hud. Something like seven scripts ensued, one of them done by Robert Altman, another of them nursed along for years by Don Siegel. Insidiously unfilmic, the book resisted all but the most foolhardy efforts to drag it onto celluloid, until, in 1974, it finally succumbed to the abundantly foolhardy efforts of Stephen J. Friedman and Sidney Lumet and appeared as Lovin' Molly. I saw only the last of these many scripts.

Finally, though, in a bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard, I was able to purchase (for $40) a Xeroxed copy of the script of Hud, and got to see what one of the things looked like. Shortly thereafter, my education took a great leap forward when Peter Bogdanovich hired me to collaborate with him on the screenplay of my third novel, The Last Picture Show. At this point I was still so ignorant of film mechanics that I supposed the only way to get from one scene to the next was by means of a cut. My initial step-sheet for The Last Picture Show offered the director an unbroken sequence of quick cuts. Peter and his then wife, Polly Platt, were wildly amused by this; the walls of their modest bungalow in Van Nuys veritably shook from their laughter. Unfortunately, in their hilarity, they forgot to explain to me what the other modes of transition were, and to this day most of the technical information I possess about the making of movies has been picked up through eavesdropping at luncheon conversations in various studio commissaries.

With Peter, I experienced story conferences of an intensity that might fairly be called migraine-inducing. At the old Columbia Studios on Gower Street, my blank, typewriterless imagination was confronted for up to eight hours at a stretch by his impassive Serbian stare. For long stretches of the morning and the afternoon, no sound would be heard except the sipping of Dr Pepper (me) and the crunching of toothpicks (Peter). Eventually, Serbian impassivity won. Desperate with boredom, desirous only of escape, I would gasp out "ideas." In the process of rejecting them, Peter would frequently cause them to multiply into little beadlike sequences of actions. We would then play these beads back and forth through our fingers for several hours, until some of them, much smoothed, would become scenes.

Later, on a location-scouting trip to Texas, I drove happily across the familiar plains, listening to Peter and Polly argue about what the characters in my book would or would not, might or might not do. Awed as I was (and am) by their cinematic knowledgeability, I nonetheless noticed that their discussions of motivation essentially were diagrammatic. Both of them had been too stunned by their first visit to the desolation that is Archer City (where the movie was shot) to believe that real people could ever have lived there. They accepted the town, but only as a kind of extension of my imagination, and while they had a notion of how teenagers growing up there in 1953 might have behaved, it was largely a literary notion. For the first time I felt that a novelist might, after all, be of some use in the creation of a movie script, if only as the guardian of valid motivation.

I believe, to this day, that the creation of accurately motivated characters is apt to be the most important contribution a novelist-screenwriter can make to a movie script. Directors, after all, have their budgets, their shots and their staging, their crews, their actors, their overhanging pasts and looming futures, their egos and their fantasies -- all to nurture. Their focus is apt to slide right over motivation. Then too, they have their own desperations: They have to keep a great many things happening simultaneously. As readily as any audience, they come to be seduced by their own fantasies, and to see them as essentially congruent with human realities. Thanks to their dervishlike busyness, and the general indifference of everybody else, a high percentage (95 percent, say) of American movies are at best spottily motivated. Many otherwise creditable efforts are premised upon absurdly suspect events. A recent for instance would be Blume in Love, in which, in order to get the movie going, we are asked to believe that a hip Los Angeles divorce lawyer, who deals with the circumstances and consequences of infidelity every day, would still take his secretary home to his own marriage bed to sleep with her.

In such a case, as in many another, the director seems to have elected to let the pace of the film carry the audience past the improbability, rather than insisting that his writer provide a more credible stratagem. In other instances, the crucial improbability may make its appearance so late on in the plot that the director can (often safely) assume that the audience will not bother to unsuspend their disbelief. An example of this might be Chinatown, in which we are slyly asked to believe that a powerful and prominent tycoon has allowed his own daughter to bear a child by him. Simple incest one can easily accept, but it would be a rare robber baron who would have failed to abort such a pregnancy, and speedily.

In a large sense, the lack of good screenwriting merely reflects the industry's ambivalence toward a trade which is thought to be something less than an art and something more than a craft. There exists today a small nucleus of thoroughly professional screenwriters who seem to be able to derive creative satisfaction and self-respect from scriptwriting alone, though how many of these writers are really nascent directors remains to be seen. In any case, one is talking here of the crème de la crème. The vast bulk of the industry's writing chores is still divided between smartassed amateurs (the novelists) and dull-witted hacks: in other words, between people who are given little chance to treat screenwriting as other than a joke, and the peons of the system, who can only treat it as a job. The studios show themselves to be desperate for good scripts -- they always have been -- yet in regard to writing they have been both improvident and, finally, dumb. They fail to treat their many literary imports as the amateurs they are, paying them extravagantly to work at a craft of which they know not even the rudiments, while on the other hand withholding both training and stimulus from the thousands of eminently (and cheaply) trainable students who knock on their doors. In effect they have tried to attract writers by squeezing them into the guest bedrooms of the star system, and in so doing have squandered vast sums of money on decidedly specious work -- work which can claim for itself neither the resonance of art nor the distinction of sound craftsmanship.

It is a pity, but, I believe, more often an amusing than a tragic pity. Tragedy may be the mode appropriate to the late neglect of certain great directors, or the early blight of a few great stars, but -- Fitzgerald, West, et al., not to the contrary -- light comedy is the proper mode in which to consider the writer's role in Hollywood.

Copyright © 1987 by Larry McMurtry

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