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Toby Young
Friday 22nd July 2005

William Goldman


"You do not, except in rare, rare exceptions, get critical recognition," wrote William Goldman in Adventures In The Screen Trade. Yet next month The National Film Theatre is holding a retrospective of William Goldman's films beginning with The Princess Bride on 25 November and ending with his latest film, The Year of the Comet, on 23 December. It is not the first time the NFT have devoted a retrospective to a screenwriter, but it is the first time it has devoted one to a screenwriter who is, in William Goldman's words, "just a screenwriter".

Most screenwriters go on to become "hyphenates"-writer-directors, writer-producers or, like Oliver Stone, writer-producer-directors. "The only thing that is unusual about my career," says Goldman, "is that I am the only one that I can think of that has been at it as long as I have who is still just a screenwriter." The only time he has ventured beyond writing was when he became an executive producer on Butch And Sundance: The Early Years. Unfortunately, Tom Berenger and William Katt were no match for Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and Goldman has stuck to writing ever since. His credits include Harper, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President's Men, The Princess Bride and Misery.

Goldman's decision to remain "just a screenwriter" is odd in the light of his own account of how they're treated in the industry. "There is one crucial rule that must be followed in all creative meetings," he wrote in Adventures In The Screen Trade. "Never speak first. At least at the start, your job is to shut up." He reiterates this today: "If you're quote quote just a screenwriter you have zero power. In the crunch, none."

So why hasn't he become a "hyphenate"? Robert Towne, whose screenwriting credits include Chinatown, The Last Detail and Shampoo, confirms Goldman's assessment. "In most situations writers have as much potency as a eunuch in a harem," he says. Towne was so frustrated at the changes Hugh Hudson made to his script for Greystoke that he insisted his name appear in the credits as P.H.Vazak, the kennel name of his dead dog. Yet he successfully made the transition to writer-producer-director with Personal Best in 1982.

Of course, becoming a "hyphenate" doesn't always mean you have more control. Richard Price, who wrote Sea Of Love, has just completed work on Mad Dog And Glory, his first stint as a writer-producer. "It's just another way to get aggravation," he says. "The money's not so big that you have to put up with the impotence of being a writer slash producer. I mean, I was the producer like Queen Elizabeth is the ruler of England."

Price says the best hope a screenwriter has is to allign themselves with a sympathetic director who also happens to be a "ten thousand pound gorrilla". He says of working with Martin Scorsese, for whom he wrote The Color Of Money as well as the Life Lessons segment of New York Stories, "He looks at my first draft. He goes, 'This is good, this is weak, this is horseshit, this is weak, this is good, this is great, this is fabulous, this is horseshit, this is weak.' Gotcha. I go away and clean everything up. He shoots my page. That's about as lucky as you can get if you're a screenwriter."

Yet there are other ways of protecting your work other than becoming a "hyphenate" or finding a "ten thousand pound gorrilla". Joe Eszterhas, the writer of Flashdance, Jagged Edge, Betrayed and Music Box, wrote an article for the New York Times recently in which he argued that screenwriters should stop behaving like "hired hands". "You always get to a point where you disagree with the director or producer," he says, "and most writers say, 'How do you want me to change it?' They don't say 'I'm not changing it.' But everybody has that choice. I've been very public about the fact that if I feel I'm right, I'm really going to fight. People are very careful about changing my work."

Eszterhas's strategy for protecting his work is to write what are called "spec scripts"-non-commissioned scripts-and then auction them. But while this might net screenwriters more money-Eszterhas's script for Basic Instinct was auctioned for a record-breaking $3.5m-it doesn't give them any more control over their material once it has been sold.

In a recent interview with the Times Eszterhas boasted that only three words had been changed in Basic Instinct. But that should not be taken as evidence of his immense power. After coming under pressure from gay and lesbian groups, Eszterhas attempted to introduce a "positive" gay character into Basic Instinct. But director Paul Verhoeven and star Michael Douglas refused to make any changes and Eszterhas was fired from the project. In this instance, the fact that Eszterhas's script remained unchanged testifies to his impotency.

William Goldman refuses to accept that Eszterhas has any more control over his scripts than he does, claiming that ultimately Eszterhas does exactly what the studios tell him to do. "Look," he says, "there's wonderful money in it compared to real writing. There's terrific travel. Sometimes you can make memories for people. But if you want your own sensibilities to be on display, forget it."

Goldman is notoriously easy going about what he does. Like Robert Towne, he now does "doctoring"-rewriting other people's scripts-something his old agent would never allow him to do. Goldman's first "doctoring" job was Twins, and most recently he rewrote Indecent Proposal, the latest Robert Redford picture. "You don't go into the film business thinking you're a poet," he says.

His laid-back attitude has less to do with his scepticism about the various ways screenwriters attempt to protect their work than with his view of the status of screenwriting as a profession. "It's a craft I think, I think it's a craft," he says, echoeing the view of virually ever screenwriter accept Joe Eszterhas. But why can't it be an art? "I have trouble with the concept of group art. In any field. There are so many of us in a movie who are so important, six or seven of us, producer, production designer, cinematographer, composer-David Puttman said that if it hadn't been for the Vangelis score Chariots of Fire wouldn't have worked-the writer, the director, the actors, and if any of those people screw up they damage everybody else."

He doesn't think that the collaborative nature of filmmaking is necessarily a bad thing, though. Sometimes a screenplay can be vastly improved by a director. "For example the ending action sequence in Butch Cassidy for me is one of the best action sequences I've ever seen," he says. "It was infinitely better than what I wrote and was based on the concept of the director George Hill. The decision was made that the Sundance Kid would never miss and that's what makes that sequence work. Every time he shoots somebody goes and it becomes mythic. That's not what I wrote."

Given William Goldman's scepticism about the wisdom of screenwriters attempting to dictate what happens to their scripts once they've been sold, he seems an odd candidate for the NFT to choose as the first writer to make the subject of a retrospective. After all, he could hardly be described as an "auteur screenwriter".

He claims to be first and foremost a novelist, but his novels-The Temple Of Gold, Boys And Girls Together, Father's Day-have not exactly set the world on fire. His only novels that are well known are the ones he's written screenplays from-Marathon Man and The Princess Bride.

Perhaps most revealingly, when asked what he'd got more satisfaction from, writing novels or writing screenplays, he replied: "I really like two movies I've been involved with, I really really like Butch Cassidy and I really really like The Princess Bride. Those are as good as I can do and I think they're terrific movies and I'm terribly proud of them." But that wasn't the question asked.

When pressed on this point he admits to not getting much out of his novels. "Now we're getting into a whole nutty thing," he says. "I don't like my writing. I work as well as I can at it. I work very hard to try and make it as good as I can but since I'm inside my own skin I know what my strengths are and I know what my weaknesses are and I don't basically please me like I wish I did. So essentially I don't ever read my books over again."

For all his efforts to pass off his screenwriting as hack work, you do get the impression he is enormously proud of some of the movies he has been involved in. To hear him talk you would think that he uses his two Oscars-one for Butch Cassidy, the other for All The President's Men-for cracking wallnuts. But I wouldn't be surprised if they occupy pride of place above the fireplace in his New York home.

The Guardian, October, 1992

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