Thursday, January 28, 2010

Screenwriting’s a Pitch... and Then You Type

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Here’s a subject near, if not dear, to most screenwriters’ hearts: pitching. We’ll present several views on the subject, plus my own, and then I invite any comments.

Screenwriter and director, Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mishima), prefers to tell his story to people all through his conceptual process, and prior to writing his first draft. The tale steadily grows until it lasts as long as 45 minutes, improving with each telling based on the reactions he gets. This all sounds to me like an elaborate method to develop the sales pitch of the story, an effort to grow it, get comfortable with it. Schrader’s testing it like a play, a try-out in “the provinces,” a rehearsal for the verbal “premiere” on Hollywood’s “Broadway.”

In The Craft Of The Screenwriter, Edited by John Brady, Simon & Schuster, 1981, p. 286, Brady questioned Schrader about his approach to story conception, asking,

So you see (the) screenwriter initially as a raconteur rather than someone at a typewriter in an attic.

Schrader responded,

Without doubt it’s part of the oral tradition because it’s a form of storytelling: it’s not a form of literature at all. Your writing counts for nothing.

And later,

In the end it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good stylist or not. A lot of very good screenwriters have been bad stylists. And a lot of extraordinary stylists have been bad screenwriters. The only reason it needs to be written down is so that it can be remembered, memorized, rewritten, sold... things like that.
When asked if he sees a screenplay, then, as a blueprint, Schrader says,

At best. I think that a blueprint is even too confining a term, because one doesn’t usually change a blueprint for a house, and it’s possible to change a script in medias res.

With Schrader’s approach, there’s no doubt you’ll become great at telling your story. That can only help the pitch you do for a producer or development exec. The problems with it are, as I see them, two-fold. First, you run the risk of telling someone your story and finding that they react badly. This can kill your energy for the piece. Depending on your estimation of the worth of their opinion, it can scare you into abandoning the project in the belief that they know more than you do. The other is that, telling and re-telling the thing over several weeks or months, you may run the risk of boring yourself with it. Any bloom on that narrative rose is long gone in the months between the 2 minute version and that 45 minute epic.

Paul Schrader notwithstanding, most writers hate pitching, even just pitching to friends. I’m one. The psychoanalysts out there chalk it up to fear of people and public speaking. I disagree, as I suspect most other writers will, also. I have spoken before hundreds in formal settings, and while I was pumped, slightly nervous, it was no more than would be natural. Most writers have no problem with talking to people, even studio people, in other situations, when the work isn’t on the line. I believe we hate pitching because we feel we are selling the story short, giving it away prematurely, in a less-than-fully-developed state.

Screenwriter and director, Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) agrees:

I’ve found two things about pitching. Number one is that it’s bad for writers because if you’ve ever had a great idea that you want to put on paper, one of the best ways to f--k yourself up is to tell somebody about it and blow all the energy that you have stored up, especially in pitching, where you have to do it three or four times; by the time you get to the paper all your energy’s gone. Number two is that it’s the antithesis of good storytelling, because before you show your story to somebody, you tell them the ending. You go in and you say, ‘Here’s what happens, these guys do this and here’s how it ends.’ Then you go and write it and now they’re expected to be excited reading it. I mean, it’s just a bad idea. 
Source – American Screenwriters, Edited by by Karl Schanzer & Thomas Lee Wright, Avon, 1993, p. 39.

For me, my story is gold-in-the-making. But my story isn’t “my story” until long after the first FADE OUT is typed. It is only “my story” after the last FADE OUT is typed.
The problem is that the story in description is this bizarre thing that’s not really the story at all. It is instead a thing about the story. You go in there, brimming with energy and hope, fascinated with the possibilities, seeing the things you can and will do with it. But the guy behind the desk doesn’t know any of that. All he knows is that one-sentence description, the logline, and that you’re the thing standing between him and lunch. So you’re already in a hole. You tell him your two hour movie in 5 or 10 minutes, at most 20. No matter, even with Schrader’s 45, it’s still “reductio ad absurdum.” Then you expect him to intuit all of your ideas for the thing. But he’s thinking about restaurants and the afternoon meeting with [insert Oscar-winning screenwriter name here]. Oh, and have I mentioned the phone calls? Each one that comes in seems to be timed to ring just before a plot point. Ten minutes later, after he’s hung up and notices you’re still there, he says, 
“I’m sorry, [someone else's name], where were we?" 
Even if you’ve managed to climb to the top of your hole, with that, you’ve just fallen back in.
“More water? Here, let me fill that [hole] of yours.” 

And ramping up your energy when you sense he’s just not “feeling it” only serves to make you seem desperate and ultimately pathetic. 

Screenwriter and director, David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Stir of Echoes, Ghost Town) says this about pitching:
Pitches suck. Pitches are a drag. Other than Spider-Man, I’ve never had a pitch that worked out well, because somehow they heard it differently than what you said. Or you said it in a way that implied something it’s not. Any time you pitch something and they say, “Oh yeah, we’ll buy that!” by the time you turn it in either the person who bought it has been fired, or the person who bought it says, “Oh, that’s what you meant?” By then it’s too late because you’ve already accepted the money and there you are – stuck with a person that didn’t want your movie in the first place, or at a studio that wanted something else entirely.
As long as you’re going to the trouble of putting together a good pitch and flying out to California and meeting with a bunch of people and hawking your wares, the amount of time and trouble that it takes, it doesn’t take that much more to write a first draft. Then you can be absolutely clear what it is, and besides, a script always ends up somewhere you didn’t imagine. Whoever you thought would love it can’t stand it, and somebody you never dreamed would be interested thinks it’s great. If all goes well. Of course, sometimes they all hate it.
Source – Backstory 5, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 2010, pp. 83-4.
Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have an article on their excellent site, Wordplay, wherein they offer their take on pitching. They literally suggest writers pitch using a display board with 15 – 20 sequences printed on 5 ½” x 8 ½” “half-sheets” displayed by act. The advantages are that,
1.)  It shows the entire story in one viewing, allowing the buyer to see that the whole movie is there and flows dramatically and logically.
2.)  The buyer is no longer staring at the writer, and is instead focused on the board, taking some of the pressure off.
3.)  They claim it allows the buyer to ask better questions, and with greater confidence, as they can better grasp things visually than from an audio memory of your pitch in fast fade.
There may be something to this, but anything less than a finished script is starting below ground, if you ask me. This is especially true for new writers without previous credits. But it even happens to screenwriters fresh off an Oscar: Eric Roth tells of going to work with Robert Redford (on The Horse Whisperer) after winning a Best Adaptation Oscar for Forrest Gump, and Redford saying to him, “What have you done for me lately?” – Backstory 5, p. 152-3. He was already back in that hole having to prove himself.
Industry professionals will tell you that pitching is a fact of screenwriting life, so it’s best to get as good at it as you can. If you’re comfortable with it, Paul Schrader’s “tell and re-tell” method should help a lot. That is, if you can transcend the inevitable bad or weak reaction you may get, especially in the early going. Then, when you get to that meeting, use every trick, including the Rossio and Elliot method. Honestly, I’d probably come into the room like Jerry Lewis, dropping things, breaking my easel, or scattering my cards all over. It wouldn’t be pretty. But, if there’s any edge to be gained, I agree, you’ve got to try it...
Aw, hell, I still hate it. #
Lee A. Matthias

Monday, January 25, 2010

Studio Stories III – Dwan, McCarey, Wilder, & David O. Russell

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


The history of screen story creation is interesting. In Who The Devil Made It, Peter Bogdanovich interviewed director Allan Dwan (1885 – 1981; Sands of Iwo Jima, Brewster’s Millions, Slightly Scarlet). Dwan started only two years after D.W. Griffith (!), in 1909, the dawn of movies, but was still directing into the early 1960s (!!), and planning to direct into the ‘70s (!!!). IMDB lists 438 director credits for him.

Dwan described (for Bogdanovich) his method of story creation from his early days shooting silent films. Back then filmmaking was fraught with danger. They often shot their films one step ahead of hired goon squads attempting to beat them senseless and destroy their cameras for infringing Thomas Edison’s patent – a bogus claim, by the way. Bogdanovich made parts of that story into a film of his own, Nickelodeon. Here, Dwan explains how he came up with his stories:

On the way out (to the location for the shooting), I’d try to contrive something to do (author’s note - i.e., conceive the story!). I’d see a cliff or something of the sort. I had a heavy named Jack Richardson, so we’d send J. Warren Kerrigan, the leading man, up there to struggle with Richardson and throw him off the cliff. Now, having made the last scene of the picture, I had to go backward and try to figure out why all this happened.

So, he would come up with the story on the way to the location. I’ve heard of writing on the set, but not the entire story!

Later, Dwan, who studied to be an engineer, added:

Stories, to me, were mathematical problems - as most problems were. There’s always a mathematical solution to anything... But everything I did was triangles... (italics, mine) If I constructed a story and I had four characters in it, I’d put them down as dots and if they didn’t hook up into triangles, if any of them were left out there without a sufficient relationship to any of the rest, I knew I had to discard them because they’d be a distraction. And you’re only related to people through triangles or lines. If I’m related to a third person and you’re not, there’s something wrong in our relationship together. One of us is dangling. So I say, “How do I tie that person to you? How do I complete that line?” And I have to work the story so I can complete that line. In other words, create a relationship, an incident, something that will bring us into the eternal triangle.

Source: Peter Bogdanovich, Who The Devil Made It, Ballantine, 1997, pp. 56, 60-1.

"Triangles." In other posts in this space I’ve discussed how the number three recurs in and around screenwriting. Consider these:

Again, in Who The Devil Made It, p. 394, Bogdanovich interviewed writer/director Leo McCarey just prior to his death - he was in the hospital with emphysema, having never had his recollections recorded. McCarey had put Laurel and Hardy together before sound came in, and, with them, conceived over a hundred of their silent comedies. Bogdanovich asked him about his notion of threes in relation to comedy:

Bogdanovich - Is it true that most gags are based on threes? 
McCarey -  Yes. It became almost an unwritten rule. 
Bogdanovich - Many of the Laurel and Hardys are in three sections. Was that consciously done? 
McCarey -  Yes. 
And for some it just comes naturally. Consider this spontaneous answer Billy Wilder gave to Cameron Crowe for Crowe’s book-length interview of Wilder, Conversations With Wilder, Alfred A Knopf, 2000, p. 308:

Crowe - During a commercial, I ask Wilder about the famous New York doctor Max Jacobson, also known as Dr. Feelgood. 
Wilder - He was my doctor in Berlin, Dr. Feelgood, yes. Max Jacobson. He was a good doctor, very bold... Kennedy was one of his patients. They called him before the subcommittee. 
(And then the joke) 
He is an old man. 
He’s 110 now. 
However, he’s dead. 
As always, three distinct parts: set-up, delivery, and punch-line.
But are Dwan’s ideas about story creation and characters obsolete? Consider this from current writer-director David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings), interviewed in Screenwriters’ Masterclass, Edited by Kevin Conroy Scott, Faber & Faber Ltd. 2005, p. 328, about his writing process:
Well, first there’s whatever it is that excites me about the idea, and then sometimes you have fragments or pieces of a story, and then you have scenes that you love and think are really great, and then character ideas—all these things aren’t necessarily meshed together, but (italics, mine)I list them all in columns, like characters. I’ve actually distilled it down so that I will take each character and write an arc from left to right, and then I try to find the links between those arcs, between the stories of each character, and then I curtail them and condense them into one story. It can be a long process of trying to figure out what the story is - if it’s interesting enough, whether it’s going too much in the direction of one character, how do you pull it back? That’s always a fight: (again, my italics) ‘Whose movie is it?
Notice the final remark, “Whose movie is it?” and how it specifically relates to Russell’s structuring of his story? This perfectly echoes our comments on structure a month or two back.

So, these two very similar conceptual approaches by writers nearly a hundred years apart, are universal truths. But I wonder if Russell ever tried it on the way to the set. #


Lee A. Matthias

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Are You Ready to Rumble? - Writers vs. Directors

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Andrew Sarris, in his Introduction to Interviews with Film Directors, Avon Books, 1967, p. 12, wrote:

...screenwriting involves more than mere dialogue and plot. The choice between a close-up and a long-shot, for example, may quite often transcend the plot. If the story of Little Red Riding Hood is told with the Wolf in close-up and Little Red Riding Hood in long-shot, the director is concerned primarily with the emotional problems of a wolf with a compulsion to eat little girls. If Little Red Riding Hood is in close-up and the wolf in long–shot, the emphasis is shifted to the emotional problems of vestigial virginity in a wicked world. Thus, two different stories are being told with the same basic anecdotal material. What is at stake in the two different versions of Little Red Riding Hood are two contrasting directorial attitudes toward life. One director identifies more with the Wolf—the male, the compulsive, the corrupted, even evil itself. The second director identifies with the little girl - the innocence, the illusion, the ideal and hope of the race.
Okay, wait a minute. Did he say “two contrasting directorial attitudes toward life”? So, if you make a film it isn’t about the story in the film, it’s actually your take on LIFE? This may have more to do with Sarris’s own private predilections than any accurate interpretations of the story. After all, there is an interpretation in between his two examples that has to do with a hungry and wily predator trying to hunt and eat defenseless prey as is its nature. This, rather than some kind of twisted and corrupt expression of pure, yet sexually perverse evil, or contrarily, some innocent expression of racial hope. You know he is over-thinking this when he employs P.C. buzz words like “sexually perverse” and “racial hope.” It’s all too politically self-conscious, pandering as it does, to his “choir” full of cineastes, for my taste. Perhaps Sarris has been reading too much Freud. Perhaps it’s the ‘60’s. And perhaps, as are we all, Sarris is a product of his times. The trick is to recognize it and transcend them.

But the reality is that before there can be a close-up or a long-shot, there must be a subject to be shot. And the assumption that the narrative left an interpretation of the subject to some neutral medium-shot until a director could come along and take a position one way or another is actually ignorance of an emphasis that is almost always already present in the narrative, placed there by the writer, and ignored by the director in favor of wresting control of the narrative for his own reasons.

For example, one can describe an action in several ways: as pure and focused (close-up), as within its immediate location (medium-shot), or as within and against its surroundings or environment (long-shot and extreme long-shot). It can even be described in such a way as to evoke a mind’s-eye view suggesting an up-angle to yield a powerful or dominating subject, a straight-on angle to yield a power-neutral subject, or a downward angle, suggesting a subordinate and helpless subject. The lighting influencing that mind’s-eye view can be (and often is) adjusted in the writing.  When a writer describes characters and action in any of these ways, the writer is influencing the reader’s interpretation of the story in service to a vision that precedes the coming collaboration. This is to specify that vision toward production of a film that serves it. The fact that the director comes along and changes it doesn’t necessarily indicate a superior vision, it merely indicates, for good or ill, a superior control of the result.

Sarris, again, p. 14:

It is fashionable to say that the screen is a director’s medium and the stage is a writer’s medium, but it is difficult to say that a Broadway-to-Hollywood-and-back director like Elia Kazan is any less in command in one medium than in another.
Why is it difficult? It’s because every production, stage and film, both, is a unique case when it comes to collaboration involving who did what, and how much. Sorting out film credit is worse than herding cats. It’s closer to herding herds of cats after particularly difficult negotiations with each of the various and sundry Cat Guilds. Better to accept the collaboration for its own strengths and dispense with what amounts to aesthetic idolatry at the expense of facts. Produced narrative works don’t demand some kind of religious “leap of faith” to enable one’s deepest appreciation.

The stage is a writer’s medium because plays are re-produced, and survive any given director. Therefore, the writer’s vision is the only constant. Meanwhile, films are rarely re-produced, so the director’s version is generally the sole version. Add to that the writer exits thing, willingly or not, early. The implication, then, is that the writer will lose control of his/her vision because, by the production process alone, he/she is not the “last man standing.” The director is.

Director Arthur Penn has gone on record in The Director’s Event, by Eric Sherman & Martin Rubin, Atheneum, 1970, p. 120 – 1, taking an unabashed writer-be-damned view:

In the theater, the script is embalmed. It is The Text, a revered work. A man’s written it, and it’s meant to be delivered as such. In the cinema, the dialogue is only a guide. My writer friends are often offended by the literary level of the scripts of my films. On the other hand, I keep thinking it doesn’t matter a great deal, and I’m sort of offended sometimes by the look of their plays.
An awful lot of vanity is inherent in the movie-making event. It’s a seductive event. Seldom in one’s fantasies can one achieve the kind of power that you have on a movie set. Power corrupts; movie power corrupts absolutely. Dialogue in the cinema only serves as a guide to a kind of visualization, and if this be megalomania, so be it. There is only one event in making movies, and that’s the director’s event. It’s not anybody else’s. I don’t care how well written the script is. You can get into a motel room in Texas, and the dialogue can be exquisite, but what you choose to look at and how you look at it is everything.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a number of Penn’s films.(1) His “writer friends” must be novelists or those exalted playwrights, because they surely aren’t screenwriters. Penn, though, has become “hoist by his own petard.” He admits to the corrupting influence of the role of the director, and then exercises that corruption when he says, “...what you choose to look at and how you look at it is everything.” The key word there, however, is “what.” Without the script, there is no “what.”

This ain’t a small thing, folks.

And by its presence, script having been read, that “what” has been “viewed,” so a view-point is established: the writer’s viewpoint.

The maximum that the director can bring to the film is an interpretation of what was already there or a forced re-write to that director’s specification. In his “corruption,” and because of his theater-based notion of screenwriting as merely dialogue, and “suggested” dialogue, at that, he believes direction isThe Text.’ Perhaps this is all really sour grapes, and like his single screenwriting experience trying to make a two-hour movie from a twenty minute song - remember Alice's Restaurant? - it is based on his experience directing those playwrights’ untouchable words for the stage. With his elevation of the “what” and “how” one chooses to “look” with the camera, he implies that all screenwriting only exhibits a neutral point-of-view; that other than scene transitions, it implies no cutting; that screenwriting is actually mis-named and really amounts to just suggestive dialogue-writing, the action ignored; and that dialogue doesn’t compare to camera placement, the use of which is “everything.” Let him shoot that motel room in Texas with no script: with just the improvising actors, without those characters saying those written lines; and without that story (in fact, without that motel room or even Texas!). He may find himself without that audience. I wonder how different it would be from the Penn family’s home movies. “Slick shit,” to borrow a phrase.(2)

Credit standing, career development, guild wars, and ego, are all at the heart of this controversy. Though a fantasy, it would be a step forward to combine the various above-the-line guilds into a single union that could internally arbitrate such internecine issues. It might also have an effect on controlling costs. But, we’re on our own when it comes to the latter, ego. And as for the former causes, we all know the horse is out of the barn. As we thread our way through that barnyard, we’ll be stepping gingerly for the indefinite future.

So, let me leave you with another point-of-view:

Philip Dunne, interviewed in Backstory 1, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1986, p. 166-7, was asked:

You said in your book that writing is more important than directing.
And he replied:

Directing is a lot more fun, but, of course, the writing is more important. The architect is more important than the contractor. I’m not saying the writer is more important than the director,  I’m saying the writing is more important than the directing. Directing is only interpretation (my emphasis). If the director is also the writer, obviously he can call himself an auteur.
‘Nuff said. #

End Note:

(1) Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks, Dead of Winter, to name them. The only film he actually wrote, Alice’s Restaurant, is, though, right down there with Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, in my opinion. And his experience trying to write it may account for his attitude toward screenwriting.

(2) Screenwriter Julius Epstein’s description of his script for Casablanca.


Lee A. Matthias

Monday, January 18, 2010

Studio Stories II – James M. Cain & Raymond Chandler

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Novelist and screenwriter, James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce) described working with Raymond Chandler, screenwriter on Billy Wilder’s film, Double Indemnity:

Wilder wanted to explain to me why they weren’t using more of my ‘deathless dialogue.’ He fell for the dialogue in my book, and he was annoyed that Chandler wasn’t putting more of it in the script. To try and prove his point he got three contract people up, and they ran through these scenes with my dialogue. But to Wilder’s astonishment, he found out it wouldn’t play. Chandler said, ‘I tried to tell him, Jim,’ with that easy familiarity they have out in Hollywood; even first meeting me he called me by my first name. ‘Jim, that dialogue of yours is to the eye.’ I said, I knew my book is to the eye, although I could write to the ear. Chandler said, ‘I tried to explain it to Billy.’

Backstory 1, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1986, p.127.

This is a great example of the value of what are often called, “table readings” of new screenplays. Most writers with a few scripts under their belt know to read their dialogue aloud before they show it to people, especially actors. Otherwise they may find their words not playing in situations where it will hurt them. Actors do not appreciate tripping over their tongues while delivering their lines in a group rehearsal, so writers should constantly test their stuff even before the first reader sees it.

Another interesting thing about this anecdote is that it concerns Billy Wilder, a director and writer who is known for his dialogue. But Wilder was relatively young, then, and had the disadvantage of speaking English as a second language, so he had a lot to learn. And, of course, he did... in spades. #


Lee A. Matthias

Thursday, January 14, 2010

HARPER – They Don’t (and Won’t) Make ‘em Like That Anymore

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In the film, Harper (1), screenwriter William Goldman was asked at the eleventh hour during shooting, for an opening credits sequence to be written and sent overnight to the production. He wanted to avoid the familiar P.I. story opening in which the hero is summoned to the prospective client who states the case to be solved. This is the way The Big Sleep (Bogart version) opens, to name just one example.

During the opening credits, Goldman shows us Harper (Paul Newman) getting up, presumably after a particularly wicked night. He stumbles about his darkened kitchen, looking for the coffee filters, and when he discovers he’s out, he pauses over the trash can for a moment, arrives at a tough decision, and then removes yesterday’s filter and grounds and puts them into the coffeemaker. When the “coffee” is ready, he pours a cup, takes a sip, and after a pause, with a rictus grin, he registers his “approval.” With that very human demonstration of Monday morning desperation, Goldman’s audience was hooked. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, considered such a thing? We identify with Harper completely. The moment resonates within us. He is one of us. And so, we care what might happen to him during the events ahead. Our hopes and fears are invested in him. All achieved in a single opening moment.
Here’s how Goldman describes the sequence from his commentary on the Harper DVD:
“What you’re looking at now is the credit sequence, which was in many ways the most important part of my education in screenwriting. This sequence, now, the credit sequence... Here’s how the movie happened: I had written a long, long novel called Boys and Girls Together. Elliot Kastner had optioned it. We’d met. He had just seen a movie called The Professionals, cinematography by Conrad Hall. He said, ‘I wanna do a movie with balls. I wanna do a movie like The Professionals.’ And I said read some Ross MacDonald, who was then and now, for me, the greatest writer of detective fiction, of tough guy detective fiction novels. And Kastner said, ‘I’ll read some and call you and see if I like it.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ So I read all the MacDonald books starting with 1964 or ’65, and his first one came out in ’49, and it was The Moving Target, which was the one I chose to adapt...
“At any rate, I was very happy in New York while they were shooting, and I got a phone call that said, ‘Write a credit sequence.’ And I panicked and thought, ‘What do you mean, write a credit—I have no idea how to do that. I don’t know what it would be, blah, blah, blah. Detective movies like this or stories traditionally begin when the detective meets the person who hires him. In this case, as you’ll see shortly, Lauren Bacall. And I thought, ‘Should I write a phone call: Hello, this is Lew Harper,’ but that would be boring. So I got the notion that he had to get up. And so I wrote the credit sequence, and just as in Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid], the moment that everybody talked about in those years when it came out was the jump off the cliff. The moment everybody talked about in Harper was the credit sequence and the coffee. It was a huge laugh... When I finally saw it, I was stunned...
“What that did, was... it started the movie on rails. They liked the main guy. And that was HUGE! ‘Cause when you’re doing this kind of movie, all you have, really, is your main character. And if they didn’t like him, or found him boring, etc. we would have been in deep trouble.     
The opening of Harper is an example of something that today’s audience takes for granted in its films. But in Harper’s day, it was much rarer. It might be described as behavior-based internal monologue. It's a kind of sub-textual breaking (without breaking character) of "the fourth wall" to communicate directly with the viewer. Movies don’t work well in telling audiences what their characters are thinking. Other than behavior and clever dialogue, the methods to reveal such internalization, such as voice-over narration, are clunky and frowned-upon by producers and studios. 

The great films and film-makers have always used behavior to reveal a character’s innermost thoughts, but, until more recently, it hasn’t been routine since the heyday of the silent film. Today’s films routinely reveal interior thinking through behavior, mostly through throwaway kinds of actions noticed only by us, the audience, showing what a character really thinks about something as opposed to what they might have just said. But in Harper’s era, other than in films by people like Billy Wilder, and certain top-level comedians like George Burns and Bill Cosby, for example, this kind of thing was just emerging as a standard mainstream narrative device. This freshness is why the opening received its HUGE laugh. Audiences were un-used to being given real truths in their popular entertainment.

Harper, despite its age, holds up extremely well today. Oh, there’s the stupid ‘60’s dancing scenes with Pamela Tiffin in the bikini on the diving board and, later, with Newman and Shelley Winters in the night club, but otherwise, it looks very contemporary. I’ll venture that it would have aged far more quickly if it wasn’t for that opening sequence, because without that element achieving our identification with the hero, and two other scenes I’ll get to in a moment, it’s closer to being merely a two-hour episode of tv fodder such as the old Magnum P.I. show.

But Newman brings personality to the film. We see it in his interactions with Lauren Bacall, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, and Arthur Hill, among others. The final scene between Newman and Wagner has Newman issuing one scathing insult after another toward the woman Wagner secretly loves. His delivery is beautifully understated sarcasm, as he reels off one harsh slap after another. This forces a powerfully moving admission from Wagner that, in weaker hands (Robert Wagner? Yeah, Robert Wagner!), would have seemed contrived.

Newman, screenwriter Goldman tells us, stayed on the set, off-camera, delivering Harper’s provocative and caustic lines to his colleague, so that Wagner could feel the moment. As typically generous as it was for Newman, it nevertheless worked and brought the normally average Wagner up several notches.

Later, at the end of the film, the car ride with Newman and Arthur Hill, presages the kind of interaction Goldman was able to achieve for Newman with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and, later, writer David Ward was able to emulate in The Sting. The two characters in the scene are old friends, but the friendship and their lives are on the line in that ride should either of them carry out what their opposing duties call them to do. The light banter just underscores the menace awaiting. Neither backs down, and as we hit the moment of truth, in two simultaneously-delivered identical lines, Goldman gives us one man’s destruction and another’s despair. This was not in the novel. This is pure Goldman. The very thing Shane Black copied for Lethal Weapon (don’t misunderstand, I like Black’s work) and most of his other works.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I mourn the loss of these kinds of movies. Thankfully, we had one recently in Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But today, all we really seem to get are super-heroes, over-sexed nerds, and the occasional rom-com. I like X-Men and Batman, don’t get me wrong. But can’t we finish the Chinatown trilogy? Can’t we have more of the chemistry of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes, but with the quality of a story like Harper? Here’s what Goldman (on the Harper DVD) thinks:

“And one of the things (that’s) amazing (is) how movies have changed… I think this movie cost - with a giant star - I think it cost $3 million dollars. Now this is a long time ago, but today Paul Newman would be Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise, so you’re talking… even if you double and double again what this movie would’ve cost… Y’know, one of the things that’s staggering with movies is how expensive they’ve gotten… which affects movies and it affects you, the viewer in only one way… because costs are so ferocious, it very much affects the kind of movies that Hollywood will make now. They would never make… this movie. They would want to make it more operatic, they would have to make it more important, he would not just be a lonely private detective, he would have to have some deep secret, and he would have to know the man he was chasing… It would have been a whole horse-shit thing. This was just a detective movie! They had stopped making them.”

Despite the success of Harper, Newman did not want to make another in the series. Only when his career was starting to power down, nine years later, did he finally agree to do another turn as Harper in The Drowning Pool. Goldman’s own career was flying high, and the script he had written to follow Harper (from another of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels, The Chill) was not used, probably because of Goldman’s price. The Drowning Pool wasn’t as good as Harper, but it wasn’t bad, either. They moved the poorer novel from its setting in Southern California to New Orleans, and improved the somewhat convoluted plot a good deal. The writers, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Tracy Keenan Wynn, managed to bring it off fairly well. But it was too late. The P.I. genre in films was winding down already (as evidenced by its saturation across the mid-1970’s television line-up – the same thing happened with westerns during the ‘60’s).

Goldman has been criticized of late for having written many merely average screenplays. And they’re out there. Remember Year of the Comet? But to argue that these represent the truth of Goldman’s worth? Such huffery and puffery is probably a reaction to all the praise he’s received, because few screenwriters ever get criticized, they just get forgotten. Why the animosity if not for the promise?

We have to ask, how many screenwriters have there been that hit the bulls-eye nearly every time? Robert Riskin. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. But what about modern screenwriters? Shane Black? Nope. Nora Ephron or Charlie Kaufman? Maybe, so far. Even Woody Allen has turned in a few weak films, and he controls them from top to bottom.

Remember, films are collaborations, and Goldman’s screenwriting has had to survive stars, directors, additional writers, and all the literally scores of notes everyone from the story department to the above-the-line talent, to the producer’s girlfriend feels qualified to impose. Babe Ruth led in both home-runs and strike-outs. The last .400 hitter (4 hits out of 10 at-bats for an entire season) in baseball was almost a century ago (Ty Cobb - 1922), and he didn’t have to take the umpire’s notes. So, cut the guy some slack. We’d all like to have that career. #

End Note

(1) It was based on the late Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target – there are 17 others plus a bunch of short stories - they changed the character’s name because using the series’ name of Archer would have cost more. So they decided to make it an “H” picture to fit with Newman’s other H-pictures: The Hustler, Hud, and the later film, Hombre.


Lee A. Matthias