Newest Review: ... of conspiratorial charm although we must perhaps bear in mind that his career wasn't exactly at its apex in 1983. He hadn't had his na... more
The Big Picture
Adventures in the Screen Trade - William Goldman
Member Name: Jake Speed
Adventures in the Screen Trade - William Goldman
Advantages: Good read
Disadvantages: Last section is a bit of a slog
Adventures in the Screen Trade is a memoir by the screenwriter William Goldman and was first published in 1983. Goldman wrote the screenplays for notable films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, The Stepford Wives, A Bridge Too Far and (some years after the publication of this memoir) The Princess Bride and Misery. Goldman's famous quote about Hollywood is to the fore right from the start of the book. "Nobody knows anything... not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one." To Goldman, films are "...these great elephantine husks that hundreds of people at various times are trying to tug toward a finish line." Adventures in the Screen Trade has a somewhat rambling structure and is split into three different sections. The first concerns film stars, producers, executives, how the studios operate. The second section deals with the films that Goldman had worked on up to that point. The making of these films, the battles he fought over them, what he thought worked and what didn't, what he would do differently if given a chance to write them again. The final part of the book is much more concerned with the mechanics and nuts and bolts of the screenwriting process. Goldman prints an unproduced screenplay named Da Vinci he has written and tells us how he would go about adapting it for the screen. He also publishes his script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and trawls through it in forensic detail. This last section will certainly be of interest to aspiring screenwriters but the more casual reader might struggle at times. The first two chapters are by far the most compulsive and readable with Goldman's (often amusing) recollections of life inside the Hollywood bubble and having to deal with the rampant egos and eccentric whims of studio executives and famous actors.
Goldman is an entertaining companion with no small degree of conspiratorial charm although we must perhaps bear in mind that his career wasn't exactly at its apex in 1983. He hadn't had his name on a screenplay for nearly five years (though he had contributed uncredited drafts on pictures like The Right Stuff) and the last two (A Bridge Too Far and Magic) had hardly set the world alight. So there is a faint bitterness to Goldman in this book and a sense that he is settling a few scores, as if he is on the other side of the hill now and doesn't expect to claw his way back to the top again. But I think that's a latent part of the fun. We are aware this is merely one side of a story that has multiple sides. Goldman tells us he had terrible grades at school but ended up as a screenwriter by accident after taking a class. He constantly strove to get better despite his doubts and insecurity. "Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound." He spent eight years researching 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and it was truly the film that put him on the map. His memories of first arriving in Hollywood make for some interesting passages. Surveying the identikit white houses from his car (he was given a chauffeur and didn't appreciate it much as he regarded it to be a symbol of excess and nothing to do with his job as a writer), Goldman presumed he was in some sort of sterile housing project but was informed they were driving through Beverly Hills. He decided there and then that he had arrived in a very strange place.
It is his view from inside the film production world that provides the most insight and interest in the book. Goldman makes it clear that the writer (who of course is the most important person in his view) is like a hostage to executives and film stars. It's anyone's guess what will happen or if a film will even get made. He says that you can be writing the third act of the greatest screenplay you have ever conceived but you know that if the studio doesn't manage to get hold of a bankable star the chances are that that great screenplay will sit on a shelf gathering dust no matter how brilliant it is. Goldman seems to have it in for Robert Redford in particular despite having worked with him several times. The main reason for this seems to be the fact that Redford hired screenwriters behind Goldman's back to rewrite his script for All the President's Men. Goldman remains the sole credited writer (despite later assertions by a Redford biographer) and although the film is fairly well regarded even today it was an unhappy experience. Goldman claims that he was forced to write numerous drafts because Redford got jealous of co-star Dustin Hoffman sharing the limelight and wanted a romantic interest written in for his character. He also claims that Redford nixed another project because he didn't want to play a "weak" and flawed character that Goldman had written for him. With no Robert Redford the money evaporated from the proposed picture. It's safe to say that Redford had a very big ego.
Goldman says that actors are a pain in the neck. They want all the funny and profound lines for their characters and studio bosses are not much better, giving out bizarre directives like ordering the writer to make a film "25% funnier" or something equally annoying. "As far as the filmmaking process is concerned, stars are essentially worthless - and absolutely essential," says Goldman. The author doesn't have too much time for some of the directors he's worked with either and says half of them don't know what they are talking about. The Stepford Wives seems to be a film that he has no real time for (I quite like it myself) and he saves a lot of his sarcasm for the director Bryan Forbes casting his unknown British wife in the film at the last minute. "If you're going to kill your wife and bring her back as a robot, you wouldn't choose Nanette Newman." Goldman's details about the nepotism and less than selfless behaviour of some of those he has worked with is highly entertaining. We learn that one producer approved a film script set in New Zealand without hardly looking at it. The reason? He'd never been to New Zealand and felt like a free trip there. Not to say that Goldman thinks everyone in Hollywood is or was an idiot. He thinks a lot of studio people are intelligent but "brutally overworked" and seems to have great respect for George Roy Hill as he allows him to critique his Da Vinci screenplay in the book.
Of Laurence Olivier, Goldman says that when Olivier politely asked him if he could change a line on Marathon Man and called him "Bill" it was the greatest honour of his career. Goldman is a bit grumpy about "modern" films and the future of Hollywood though. He thinks that "comic book" films are too prevalent and that commerce will always triumph over art. A statement of the obvious perhaps although he does aim a few arrows at The Deer Hunter too for being "comic book" because the central character doesn't suffer enough! I think The Deer Hunter deserves a few arrows to be honest. The irony about comic book films is that Goldman later wrote an unproduced Captain Marvel screenplay, but I digress. Goldman's chitter chatter about the topical and fairly recent films at the time for reference is horribly dated of course but I found it fun to be taken back in time with him. The last section about screenwriting is certainly interesting at times but not my favourite portion of the book. I can't even remember ever watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all the way through so my eyes did glaze over once or twice when he went through the screenplay.
Adventures in the Screen Trade is an entertaining and fun read though for the most part and will keep you going for a while at over 400 pages. If you love reading about films and the film industry then you should enjoy this quite a lot.
Summary: Enjoyable memoir for film buffs
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