William Goldman Interview
March 11th, 2004
by: Moriarty - from Aint-it-cool-news.com
A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of reading William Goldman's new book, WHICH LIE DID I TELL? Mid-Monday afternoon, that pleasure was compounded when I finally spoke to Mr. Goldman for about a half-hour on the phone. I started the interview late, but that was just a miscommunication. I was waiting for him to call me. I cleared my line, and when the phone rang at precisely 2:00, I answered, amazed by his promptness.
"Hi, sweetie." I quickly deduced that it was not Goldman on the phone. "What's going on?" It was Lynn Bracken, and as much as I normally covet any chance to talk to her and explain exactly what's wrong with Knowles and explain all of my best qualities, I had to quickly explain what call I was waiting for. I went back to waiting, and when fifteen minutes had passed, I realized something was wrong.
I called his book agent and discovered that I was supposed to be calling him. This was made much easier when they gave me his phone number, and a frantic ten digits later, a gruff voice answered. I explained the mix-up, introduced myself, told him how much I've always enjoyed his work.
"Are you taping me?"
I said I was.
"Okay, then. Shit. I guess I can't swear."
As I laughed, I relaxed. I have to admit, I was somewhat nervous about talking to him. ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE is one of the key books to help me shape my early perceptions of this business, and I've always been somewhat awed by his run of scripts in the '70s. Very few guys have ever had hot streaks like his. Even if all he'd ever done was adapt ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, it would still stand as one of the canniest pieces of adaptation in film history.
"It's funny. Many years ago, I wrote a book, and in it, I said that nobody knows anything, and that's the truth. I just read yours and Mr. Knowles' reviews of GLADIATOR, and -- believe this, okay -- two months ago, when I first heard of this project -- you have to understand, if I'd been an executive, I would have been the one who greenlit KING DAVID with Richard Gere -- two months ago, I said someone's going to make a fortune on a biblical picture. I think everything goes in cycles. All it's going to take is that one gigantic musical and everyone's going to be making musicals. When I first heard that someone had let Ridley Scott loose on something called GLADIATOR, I said to a friend of mine that I know nothing about it, but it's going to be the biggest movie of the year. Now, having read your reviews where you say it's terrific, I have no doubt. I bet it would be gigantic if it had only been good. I think there's a hunger for that right now."
I told him that I agreed with the idea of cycles in film, and suggested that with musicals, there's a good chance it will be Baz Luhrmann's MOULIN ROUGE which ushers in the new trend.
"It may well be. I remember in 1984 in television when everybody was saying the sitcom is dead. That fall, COSBY premiered and went on to become the number one sitcom of all time. I believe there's nothing new. All people really want is a wonderful story, and you can tell it in any genre. I don't mean to sound pompous, but I love those movies. My god, have you ever seen BEN HUR? I love that stuff. Now, to be able to do it with the new technology I can't wait to see it."
I suggested that with the new tools available, filmmakers are going back to make the films they saw in their heads as kids, films that were never possible until now.
"Ridley Scott is a great shooter. He's capable of doing I don't want to say anything shitty about anyone in this interview, by the way Scott's capable of fabulous stuff and terrible stuff, and it all just depends on what kind of mood he's in and what material he has, but this is fabulous. I can't wait. And from what you guys wrote, I gather Russell Crowe is the new Mel Gibson."
I agreed that he is, in fact, a god walking the earth in the movie.
"He's really good. He's a wonderful actor. Anyway, I'm excited. That's a summer movie, isn't it?"
I told him that May 5 is the release date.
"Well, that's a hell of a way to start the summer. Now, tell me about yourself. How long have you been around movies?"
Startled that the tables had been turned on me, I stammered my way through a bit of biographical information, details of my past as an evil genius. I filled him in on some of the work I've done in theater, some of my various exploits with Harry Lime.
"So you still love theater?"
I agreed. I explained that there's an immediacy that keeps me interested in the art form.
"The first piece of non-fiction I ever wrote [THE SEASON, if you want to go find it] was about Broadway. I love the theater. It's hard, though. It's all hard. Movies are hard. It's just hard to make something decent. It really is. The fates are against you every time if you want to make a quality movie. Every time you turn around, there's just one more reason it's going to suck. When something wonderful manages to come out, it's magical."
I tell him that it's that magic which keeps me going back to the cinema time and time again, always hoping when the lights go down that I'm about to see something where all the parts connect, where everything works, and where I'm transported.
"The one that first did it for me was GUNGA DIN when I was eight, and before that I was in love with Shirley Temple. I believe this. I think that people like going into a dark room with strangers and sharing something. They have for 2,500 years. I think we just like that experience. Going to a movie can be a wonderful thing when the movie is terrific."
I brought up the series of articles that Goldman has done for PREMIERE as well as sections of his book in which there's the impression that new Hollywood just can't compete with classic Hollywood. He said recently that Kubrick was the last truly great filmmaker, and that there's no one equal to him left. I asked him if he was fond of any younger filmmakers.
"Oh, jeez, all the ones you like. Sure. David O. Russell, Wes Anderson I'm not saying it was all better when I was younger. What I'm saying is for various reasons, I do believe that the '90s is the worst decade we've ever had. Talent tends to cluster. I just think that right now the theater is in trouble. Where are all the great playwrights right now? There aren't a lot of great novelists right now. There aren't a lot of great choreographers right now. In all the arts right now, it's a down time. Now, that could change in three years."
I mentioned that the end of '99, the last half of the year, was considered a high watermark by many critics, and I asked what films made an impression on him out of that period.
"I thought it was an odd season. I thought there were an enormous number of terrific films, but nothing great. There were a lot of movies that I loved the first half of, but felt the second half was not as good. I felt that THREE KINGS had a sensational first hour. I thought JOHN MALKOVICH had a sensational first hour. I thought CIDER HOUSE RULES had a sensational first hour. I'm not saying I'm right on any of this. I'm just saying that I was sitting there with my popcorn, I began to feel all these stories getting in trouble. In fact, I can tell you exactly in THREE KINGS, which I thought was a dazzling movie, went off a cliff -- when George Clooney says, 'Hey, we're gonna save these nice Arabs.' You know that movie that Clooney did OUT OF SIGHT? Terrific movie, directed by Soderbergh, wasn't it? That was just sensational, and then suddenly, at the end of the film, he goes back in the house to save the girl. I said, 'Why are you going back in the house? That's Hollywood horseshit.' Why are you trying to save the Arabs? You're a mercenary. You're a wonderful mercenary. That's all I'm saying. The movie that was most consistent for me all year was THE SIXTH SENSE. I loved THE GREEN MILE. I loved a movie called MUMFORD. No one went to see it. It was funny and different and touching. I just didn't think there was a FARGO this year."
Knowing that Goldman has worked with Newman and Redford and Travolta and numerous other major movie stars, and having read his accounts of juggling egos on those films, I asked him how much of those types of endings could be traced directly to a star's reluctance to look anything less than perfect.
"I have no idea. It's a fascinating question. Here's the problem. David O. Russell did this movie what's he done now, two movies?"
I listed his three efforts - SPANKING THE MONKEY, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, and THREE KINGS, all of which I'm just nuts about.
"The first two were not, as they say, Spielbergian in terms of box-office gross, but all you want on your first film is to show enough talent to make a second film. It's not going to be CITIZEN KANE. You just want a career, right? We'll never know what changes he made on that film. He took over a script that was already done. We'll never know what changes he made, what changes the studio made, what changes the star insisted on. I just find that kind of moment with that kind of character to be Hollywood horseshit. I'll give you an example of one of those this year in a wonderful movie, okay? Kevin Spacey has a mad sexual frenzy about a young girl. We all do this. It's okay. But then he begins to act on it in this way he's really nailed by that kid in AMERICAN BEAUTY, right? And he begins to change his body. He begins to lift weights. He begins for the first time to look at himself in a different way. All because he wants to fuck that gorgeous 17 year old body, right? You're with me? I'm telling the story correctly, right? He finally has his chance. They're alone on the couch. She says, 'I'm a virgin,' and he says, 'Oh, my God, I can never touch you.' And I screamed! That's such Hollywood horseshit. That's not the way the script was. I'll bet anything on it! He's got to fuck her! There's no reason he shouldn't fuck her! That's what the whole movie's about, isn't it? I don't know whose idea that was, but I believe that damaged the movie. It's still a great movie, though, beautifully directed by Sam Mendes gorgeously shot by Conrad Hall."
I can't help but geek out a bit at the mention of Hall, whose work as far back as his OUTER LIMITS days or in his early films like IN COLD BLOOD has always just blown my mind.
"It's fabulous. I've worked with Connie a lot. He's one of the greats. I'm saying, though, that in those moments, I say, 'Oh, don't do that.' I don't want to be negative, though. You said you had a list of questions here."
I tell him that I'm working my way through, and I start to look over my list. As I do, I ask him if he saw the McSorley footage on the news last week of that amazing hockey shot. He says he had, and I told him that it forced me to pry Mongo's beloved SLAP SHOT DVD away from him long enough to see the film for the first time in a lot of years, and it really struck me how Paul Newman wasn't really a winner in that movie in any traditional sense. It's sort of a glorious anti-movie star role for him, the exact opposite of those Hollywood horseshit endings.
"I'll tell you something about that movie. George Roy Hill is by far the greatest director I've ever worked with. George had just come off of BUTCH [CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID] and THE STING, which at that time were two of the top-ten grossing films of all time, so on SLAP SHOT, he didn't do anything that he didn't want to do, and George had a very dark view of the world. If SLAP SHOT was made today, they would change it. The Hansons would have gone to religious school. How does the movie hold up?"
I told him how much I enjoyed it, how I think it's got a great, bracing sense of humor, raunchy and unapologetic and violent and wicked. I also love the anti-formula nature of the movie.
"I still remember screaming in the theater, laughing so hard. Paul Newman's on the phone with someone at one point and the Hansons come up, and he just looks at them and says, 'They brought their fucking toys.' I remember shrieking. Marvelous picture."
I brought up the section of the book where he dispels the GOOD WILL HUNTING rumors in pretty hilarious fashion, and I asked if he is often called in to look at young writers' work and offer advice, or if that was a fairly unique situation.
"Well, I read a lot of scripts. If someone knows me and would like me to read it, I read it. In the case of GOOD WILL HUNTING, I work for Castle Rock on occasion, and it was their script at the time. They asked me to read it. The one thing in the world I can do, and I wrote this in the book, is I love to spitball. You know, just sitting around, throwing out ideas. The script that I read, the one that Rob Reiner told them to change, was filled with the government trying to kill the Matt Damon character or kidnap him. I can't quite remember which it was. It was just filled with this, though, a very different movie. It was the movie that I'm sure these two young inexperienced writers did to try and make it quote commercial, wedging some action scenes in there. The only thing I know after all these years is that you can't just make something commercial. That's why I get crazed in THREE KINGS when Clooney reverts not to character, but to something that I suspect somebody forced on him. The only reason they do that shit is because they want to make their movie commercial. We all want to have our hits, but we don't really know how to do that. The public tells us what they want. One of my favorite Hollywood stories this year and you guys are deeply involved over at Ain't It Cool with word of mouth and what's going on there was a movie this Christmas that was wildly expensive, way over budget, over $100 million. It was testing miserably, and I was told that knives were being sharpened for the studio executives that okayed the movie, right? It was going to be one of the great disasters. Guess what? It was STUART LITTLE. Nobody thought THE INSIDER would do as badly as it did. Nobody knows anything. I still believe it."
I told Goldman how freeing that particular refrain has always been to me as a writer. I've always felt that the fact that nobody knows anything means that my only job while writing a screenplay is to entertain myself or my writing partner, never worrying about some hypothetical audience.
"You have to do that. All we've got when we write are those stories in our heads, and if you fuck those up, you don't have anything. One of the things I love to do when I work with young writers is to disabuse them of the notion that I know what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm writing a script now, and as we are speaking, I am looking at my computer, tearing out my hair, thinking, well, is this horrible, or is this going to work? I don't know. Storytelling is always tricky."
I brought up his fairly obvious love of the Farrelly Brothers.
"Oh, yes. I love them."
I then brought up his harsh words about Adam Sandler in recent articles, asking him to discuss the fine line that lowbrow humor must walk.
"I'm not horrified by Adam Sandler. I like the football movie. Adam Sandler is talented. Besides, the Farrellys don't get credit for walking that line. You look at their reviews. I said THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY was the best movie of that year, and I still believe that. People thought it was vulgar or stupid, but it was a brilliantly crafted script. I've read the new one, ME MYSELF & IRENE."
I mentioned how much the script made me laugh.
"It's a great script, and I'll bet anything it's a huge success. There's some great stuff in that script."
I mentioned the positive reviews we've gotten from the film's first test screening, something which seems to make Goldman very happy.
"I think the girl [Renee Zellweger] that they picked is very good, and I'll bet you Cameron Diaz didn't want to do it for some reason of another. I thought Diaz was so good in the MALKOVICH movie, but I don't think the critics are ever going to like her much because she's so pretty. Anyway what else can we talk about?"
By this point, he was really starting to warm up, like he was enjoying himself. I decided to ask him about the first section of his book that I read, the thing that put me in touch with him in the first place. I asked why he used THE BIG A for the book, instead of finishing it as a script, and I asked if that was always his plan.
"I knew for a number of years that I was going to write this book, okay? I'm never going to write anything else about screenwriting. As you know, everyone wants to be a screenwriter now. I wanted to originally write a couple of script segments. Then I thought that was ridiculous, that I should only write one. I loved Audrey Hepburn. I loved Humphrey Bogart, and there's one marvelous scene in that script that those two would have nailed, when he's got the genius kid and he makes her see what happened"
You should read his book so you know what that actually refers to. I agree when he says it's the best moment in his entire script for THE BIG A.
"That's as good as I can do. That's a great moment for me. I had certain things that I wanted to write, and I wanted to see how far I could go. I was going to finish it, and then I thought, no, this is enough for an instructive thing. Thank god all those respected writers savaged it when they read it. I loved that. They all disagreed on how to make the movie better, how to get it to work."
In the book, Scott Frank, Callie Khouri, the Farrelly Brothers, John Patrick Shanley, and Tony Gilroy all take a crack at his treatment, ripping it apart, trying to find what they would use if asked to rewrite it. It's fascinating to see how different each approach is.
"It's wonderful. I'm so glad, 'cos it seems like I got the right people. I was originally going to bring them all in and try to have a huge giant spitballing session, but they all have real jobs and so instead I just sent each of them the script. I'm thrilled because if they'd all said nice things, I'd be dead. The more savage they could be, the better it would be for anyone reading it. Anyone who wants to be a script writer had better learn to have thick skin. You'd better learn it. Kill all your darlings when you write. So many young writers can't do that. They say, 'No, this is my favorite thing, I love this,' but you have to be able to kill anything if it's not working."
I brought up the fact that he labels the sequels of guys like Lucas and Spielberg as "hooker movies" in his book, dismissing them completely. I asked him how he can reconcile his work on BUTTERCUP'S BABY, a PRINCESS BRIDE follow up, with these feelings that sequels are sell-outs.
"That's a valid question, and I won't even bother to defend myself. If I was going to defend myself, I'd say that following up PRINCESS BRIDE is much more like making a sequel to HOWARD THE DUCK than to STAR WARS. PRINCESS BRIDE wasn't really a successful book in hardcover. Whatever success it had was as a paperback. That was 25 years ago. I wrote Random House to tell them the anniversary was coming up, and they wrote back to say they'd do a 25th anniversary edition if I would write something about BUTTERCUP'S BABY. I wrote about 80 pages of it, and it's out there now."
I asked if that was going to be the total of the sequel, a sort of gentle fib like the framework of the novel itself, or if he'd actually finish the book.
"I don't know if I'm going to write it. I have that much written, and I feel pretty neat about it. That's the only thing I've ever written, you have to understand, that I really liked. Of all the books that I've written, that's the one that I care for."
I compare the idea of a sequel to PRINCESS BRIDE to the concept of an AUSTIN POWERS sequel. Both first films were less than successful in the theater, but became sizable hits on video, and both of them have a loyal audience who would be more receptive to the second film than they were to the first when it came out.
"Wasn't that shocking that the sequel would do more in its first weekend than the first film made in its whole run? It's so strange seeing people try to learn from these things. There was an article in VARIETY about people trying to figure out what they learned from BLAIR WITCH. There's no lesson to learn there!"
The conversation swung around to the working of Ain't It Cool News for a moment, and I found myself describing my process of working with Harry to Bill Goldman. The Bill Goldman. The same guy whose book made such a profound, almost chemical impact on me when I first read it. This was one of those moments when I realize just how strange and wonderful my association with this site has been so far, and just how much stranger it's going to continue to get as we do this thing. I ask him if he sees new media like the Internet as something that will impact films, or if they're just something that will exist as well, parallel but different.
"I actually have an answer for that question. I had for many years a great agent, now dead, named Everett Ziegler, and he was famous because he only had writers. He had Bob Towne, he had Didion/Dunne, he had me. He was just a writer's person, and was a fabulous person. He was fierce. He could fight the studios with this terrific anger because nobody wanted to anger him. He had all these powerful writers, and he loved us all. 25 years ago, someone was talking about whatever the new thing was then, the Internet at that moment, and asking if it was going to change things. And he said, 'I don't care. People will still need someone who can tell a good story.' And I think that's still true today."
Mr. Goldman, who insisted that I call him Bill, "damn it," is currently working for Castle Rock on HEARTS OF ATLANTIS, an adaptation of Stephen King's wonderful book that I reviewed in a RUMBLINGS last year. My conversation with him, like my talks with Brad Bird, Neil Gaiman, Miyazaki, and others over the past year, is one of those things that I will always treasure from my time here on the site, and I hope you enjoyed it as well.
Just before Harry and I leave for Vegas, we're going to take a trip over to the Nuart to see a special James Bond double feature on Saturday night. We have to. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is my very favoritest of Bond films, and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME was the first one I ever saw in the theater. Pretty kick-ass double bill. If any of you stop by and recognize Big Red from that smiling cartoon head in the corner - and you will - feel free to say hi. Same thing while we're at ShoWest next week. We're going to be posting our asses off to give you the fastest, most complete coverage of the events there that we can.
Before that, though, I owe you guys the second half of today's RUMBLINGS. There was just too much stuff to fit into one column. Look for it on Saturday morning, where my conversation with Spike (of the infamous Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted fest) and my review of the script for Paul Dini's upcoming THE RETURN OF THE JOKER film will seem extra-appropriate. I'll also be talking about the Stan Lee Media party that Harry and I were at on Tuesday, as well as bringing you a look at the MINORITY REPORT script and some disturbing Spielberg rumors. Finally, you can expect a rather personal story about something that almost destroyed my love of STAR WARS for good, something more terrible than even Jar Jar Binks. Until then
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