Monthly Archives: March 2015


March 27th, 2015 5 Comments



Not long ago, one of the readers of my book contacted me to inquire about the possibility of one-on-one screenwriting lessons.


It’s not something I’d ordinarily consider, but he said that he’d read everything that had ever been written about the subject and that nothing he’d encountered could come close to Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.


He wanted, he said, to learn from a master of the craft.


It’s hard to say no to a person of such obvious taste and discrimination, and so it was that we arranged to get together for a tutorial.


I asked my student to read, as his first assignment, my own The Last Innocent Man, hoping it might serve as a springboard for our conversations about the art of writing for the screen.


He showed up eager, enthusiastic and full of questions.


His first question?


Why had I failed to save the cat in the scene introducing my hero?


I patiently pointed out that there isn’t any cat in The Last Innocent Man, and he, attempting to suppress his contempt for my appalling ignorance, explained that “saving the cat” is a phrase from a popular book about screenwriting.


The notion, it seems, is that the hero of your story must do something nice in his first scene—something like saving a cat—something that will make the audience like him and sympathize with him.


Oh, my!


What could I say?


I had clearly failed to save the cat in The Last Innocent Man.


When we meet my hero (I’d foolishly thought of him as my protagonist), he is tense, nervous, a criminal attorney awaiting the verdict in the trial of a former Green Beret accused of the bludgeon slaying of his wife.


His client is pretty obviously guilty as charged, but my guy, through dazzling turns of courtroom magic, manages to manipulate the jury into throwing justice out the window and declaring him innocent.


My hero, when he should be out saving cats, is putting monsters back on the street!




I don’t know how I could have screwed up so badly.


My one consolation?


I’m not alone in my unforgivable blunder.


Poor Robert Towne did the same thing in Chinatown, which opens with cheap detective J.J. Giddes, full of insincere sympathy, showing an agonized husband raw photos of his unfaithful wife and her lover in bed together. Giddes comes across as someone who probably doesn’t even like cats, let alone save them.


Then, of course, there’s old Joe Stefano, who opened Psycho with his heroine conducting a sleazy affair in a seedy hotel. Probably lots of stray cats in the neighborhood, but does she go out of her way to rescue one of them? No way! Instead she goes on to steal a shitpile of money from one of her boss’s clients.


And what of Walon Green and Sam Peckinpaw, who began The Wild Bunch with their hero leading his gang of outlaws into a small town, knocking over a bank, and precipitating a bloody gun battle. Pike Bishop and his friends are clearly more at home with scorpions than cats.


I blush to admit that, until my student set me straight, I had thought of each and every one of these films as masterworks.


I clearly had a lot to learn about screenwriting.


In fact, it seems that I had made catastrophic mistake after mistake in The Last Innocent Man…as well as in the twenty-four other screenplays I wrote.


My student, now my teacher, generously pointed out that no screenplay should have more than thirty or forty scenes.


The Last Innocent Man has thirty scenes in the first thirty-five pages!


What could I have been thinking?


What about the fifteen beats every screenplay must have?


Oh, my God!


I don’t even know what they are!


Well, my student informed me, you need a statement of your theme on page five.




All these years I’ve deliberately avoided such statements!


My credo has been “Show. Don’t tell.”


I actually believed that the theme would simply emerge from the action of the piece!


There are, it turns out, fourteen other beats a good screenplay must include, and mine, as my student so astutely pointed out, has only a few of these beats, all of them on the wrong pages!


If only I’d known.


For years, I labored under the delusion that screenwriting is a journey of discovery, that the characters will dictate the action, that the material determines the style and structure of the piece.


And now, I’ve learned that writing a script is really more akin to one of those wonderful paint-by-the-number books that I so enjoyed as a child.


For years, I struggled.


I agonized.


I waited endlessly for my characters to talk to me.


Waited for them to show me what was going to happen.


Waited for them to lead me to the end of their stories.


But I now realize that they gave me nothing.


No hint of where my acts should end.


No clue to where my B-story should begin.


Not even a suggestion about my debate section or my fun and games segment.


By listening to them, I not only failed to save the cat; I failed to write anything that deserves to be called a screenplay.


But thanks to my student, I’ve seen the errors of my way.


I’ve seen the errors of my way, and I make this public vow.


I will read Save the Cat.


I will paint by the numbers.


I will fill in the blanks.


I will connect the dots.


And one of these days, if I get very lucky, I will sell a script to one of the studio idiots who’ve read Save the Cat, attended Robert McKee’s weekend seminar, and now know everything anyone needs to know about the art of writing screenplays.

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March 21st, 2015 8 Comments



I’m a huge fan of My Fair Lady.


In fact, I not only have all of its songs committed to memory; I put Rex Harrison to shame back in my high school theatre days when I essayed the role of Henry Higgins.


One of my favorite moments comes after Eliza, that squashed cabbage leaf of a Cockney girl transformed by Higgins into a proper Edwardian lady, manages to pass herself off as the real thing at an ambassador’s ball.


Higgins and his associate Pickering celebrate her triumph in song. “Tonight, old man, you did it! You did it! You did it! You said that you would do it. And indeed you did.”


They continue in that vein until Higgins modestly reminds Pickering that he didn’t do it alone. “Now wait! Now wait! Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to you!”


I’m sure it’s just an oversight—the sort of thing that could happen to anyone, but they unfortunately manage to ignore Liza’s not unimportant contribution to the evening’s success.


It’s shame that the film industry was still in its infancy back in 1913 because Higgins and Pickering were born to be directors.


Many directors are plagued by faulty memories.


Rarely do they recall that the films they claim as their own (“A Film by….”) began life as scripts by someone else.


A recent example?


Ava DuVernay.


Ms. DuVernay was, you may recall, distressed at her failure to win an Oscar nomination for her direction of Selma and the failure of David Oyelowo to win a nomination for best actor.


She registered no such distress over the failure of the film’s writer, Paul Webb, to win recognition for his contribution to the project.


In fact, she herself not only neglected to acknowledge him but also claimed credit for the script, especially the scenes which distorted President Johnson’s role in the Selma march and the Voting Rights Act.


DuVernay, laying claim to authorship of the screenplay, goes a step beyond the memory lapse that seems to afflict many directors.


Most don’t claim credit for the writing because they don’t have to.


The studios, with the granting of possessory credits, and the critics, with their embrace of the auteur theory, do it for them.


Here’s the way it works out in practice.


If a film is a big success, everyone credits the director, conveniently forgetting that it ever had a writer.


If a film is a failure, it is, of course, the writer’s fault.


The poor director did his best, but in spite of all his talent, he just couldn’t overcome the problems with the script.


It used to be much worse.


Back before the Writers Guild won the right to arbitrate film and television credits, producers sometimes awarded credit to themselves or to the girlfriends who served them so well.


It was, from the producers’ point of view, a wonderful system—lamented, I’m sure, for years after its unfortunate demise.


Today, for better or for worse, the responsibility for the determination of credit belongs to the Writers Guild.


Once a film wraps, the producer submits a proposed writing credit to the Guild, which then sends a notice of that credit to every writer who worked on the project. If any one of these writers challenges the proposed credit, the Guild conducts an arbitration to determine the fair and proper credit.


Three anonymous arbiters—veteran writers with produced credits of their own—review the various drafts along with position statements from the involved writers. When their review is complete, they make a credit determination—a decision that is final and subject to appeal only on procedural grounds.


It’s an imperfect system—an attempt to impose objective rules on what is inescapably a subjective judgment.


I myself have been frustrated on more than one occasion while serving as an arbiter, forced by the rules to award credit to the author of an inferior version of the story and deny it to a writer whose work was clearly superior but whose contribution to the shooting script was insufficient to justify acknowledgement of his or her role in the development of the film.


This, of course, is a problem not with the WGA rules but with studio executives, producers and directors who, in their inept attempt to make the script better, almost invariably make it worse.


What was it Churchill said about democracy?


It’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.


So it is with the WGA credit arbitration system.


Everyone hates it…until they consider the alternatives.


One thing about the system that everyone can applaud?


The rule that anytime a proposed writing credit includes a production executive (that means you, producers and directors), the credit goes to automatic arbitration.


It’s a wonderful brake on the producer and director’s potential abuse of their power.


It’s our Writers Guild saying to the Henry Higginses and the Pickerings of the film world, “Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to…the writer.”


He or she did it!


He or she created the damn thing, and without him or her, there would be nothing.


Who knows?


With a little bit of luck, the writer might one day be acknowledged as the real author of the film, just as the dramatist is acknowledged as the author of the play.


I’m kidding, of course.


Only a cockeyed optimist stuck like a dope could express such a hope.


It could happen only if screenwriters, like every other kind of writer in the world, were able to retain the copyright on their work, the copyright the studios now hold “throughout the universe unto all eternity”—a standard phrase in every contract I ever signed.


The studios give up screenplay copyright?




When hell freezes.


And when it happens, I’ll dance all night on the ice.











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March 12th, 2015 4 Comments





Late sixties.


Weathered face.


Mouth open. Chin on chest.


Sound asleep in a worn easy chair.


PULL BACK to reveal…


…a busy FILM CREW hard at work on a practical set, moving cables, lights, and other equipment into place for a new set-up.


A WAG approaches the sleeping figure and lays a hand-written card on his chest: “WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD.”


The FLASH of a Polaroid camera, and we CUT TO…


…THE SLUMBERING FIGURE, awake now, holding the photo, joining the Crew Members assembled around him in laughter.


And that, my friends, is how I remember Billy.


William A. Graham.


Director of a dozen features and over fifty television films, including the first one ever made, he had started in the days of live television.


He had directed screenplays by giants like Rod Serling, Gore Vidal and Ernest Tidyman.


He had worked with Bruce Dern, James Coburn, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, and virtually every other major actor in Hollywood.


He had helmed a handful of classics—features like Where the Lilies Bloom and MOW’s like The Amazing Howard Hughes and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, and he would go on to do The Man Who Captured Eichmann.


At the time I met him, he was sixty-nine years old, had a thirty-nine year old wife, a four-year old daughter.


He rode a motorcycle to the office every day from what he called “the all too aptly named Carbon Canyon” where he had once stood on the roof of his home fighting a wildfire that destroyed every structure in its path…except Billy’s.


And he flew a helicopter, kept a boat on the coast of France, and had once sailed a private yacht around Cape Horn.


He was, in short, one of the most remarkable men I have ever been privileged to call a friend, but what I remember most vividly about him is that moment on the set of Death of a Cheerleader when he was caught napping and had a good laugh at his own expense.




It was the essence of Billy.


What? you ask.


Was he lazy?


Disengaged with his own project?


Too old and too tired for the responsibility of directing?




He had so mastered the craft of filmmaking, had such comprehensive knowledge of the script, such command of every aspect of the shoot that he could relax between set-ups, even nap if there were no immediate demands on his attention.


He was, in short, the calm eye in the middle of the storm that is filmmaking.


Nothing rattled him.


The first day of our shoot was dedicated to a sermon by a priest to his privilege parishioners.


Eugene Roche, the experienced character actor whose blue-collar look had inspired Billy to cast against type, gave a wonderful performance but kept going up on his lines.


And so it was that at the end of the first day, we were already behind schedule.


No problem, Billy said.


He’d make up the lost time in the days that followed by dropping a few of the set-up he’d planned for some of the other scenes.


The second day of the shoot, the Network demanded that we fire Bob Steadman, the cameraman Billy had worked with for years.


Now, I had written the film as a noir piece, and Billy, Steadman and I had agreed to go for a high-contrast look with lots of dark, deep shadows.


In those days, Networks hated that sort of thing. They wanted bright, uniform lighting so the images could easily be seen on television, so Billy had expected trouble and was prepared to deal with it.


Trouble is what he got.


The dailies were so dark they could hardly be seen, and the Network wanted Steadman’s blood.


Billy calmly refused to give it to them.


Completely confident in Steadman’s ability, he simply and calmly said there had to be a problem at the lab.


He kept Bob on the picture, the negative went back to the lab, a new print was struck, and guess what?


The lighting was perfect.


Another crisis averted.


And so it went, day after day, with Billy calmly meeting and resolving problem after problem.


No agonizing.


No complaint.


No muss. No fuss.


Billy had the confidence a good director must have—in his case, confidence backed by long experience.


Did he have all the qualities most successful directors seem to share?


Did he, for example, play God on the set?


If he did, he was a New Testament God—more loving father than vengeful tyrant.


Was he ruthlessly manipulative, willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted?


No, at least not in my experience.


But he got what he wanted…with kindness and reassurance.


Was he completely obsessed with his projects?


Yes and no.


He was in love with filmmaking and grateful that he’d been able to make his living at something he loved so much.


I remember at the end of a casting session, he turned to me and said, “Isn’t this fun? Can you believe they pay us to do this?”


He loved it so much that he sometimes made as many as three films in a single year.


Was he confident?


Oh, yes!


So confident that he could take those little naps between set-ups.






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March 6th, 2015 2 Comments



Memory, like Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, is a jokester.


It enjoys playing tricks on us.


For thirty years now, I’ve been telling friends about an amazing passage from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.


It turns out that my recollection of that passage is rather different from what Fitzgerald actually wrote, but no matter: my version makes my point much better than Fitzgerald’s does, so I’m going to continue to tell it my way.


Monroe Stahr, who heads up a Hollywood studio and is the tycoon of the title, is on a commercial flight from the east coast to the west.


Fascinated by flying, he pays a visit to the cockpit, and one of the pilots asks him how you go about running a studio.


Stahr looks down at the mountain range they’re crossing and says something like this: “Suppose you’re an engineer, and you’re given the job of building a tunnel through those mountains. There are three or four possible routes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, but no one of them clearly superior to the others. What would you do?”


The pilot has no answer.


But Stahr does.


“You arbitrarily choose one of them and announce, ‘We’ll go that way. That’s the best way.’”


And that, my friends, is not just the way you run a studio.


It’s the way you direct a picture.


A good director is decisive, even when there may be no particularly sound basis for his decision.


Confronted with hundreds of questions every day of prep, production and post, he has to provide immediate answers to every one of them.


He is, in reality, a confidence man.


He must project such confidence in himself and his judgments that he inspires confidence in everyone around him—his actors, his crew, even the studio executives charged with supervising him and his film.


In the best directors, this confidence is real—they quite simply know everything there is to know about their project: what it’s about, the look it should have, the motivations of each and every character, the style of editing, and on and on and on.


They make decisions on matters large and small, and they stand by them.


I think of my friend Robert Ellis Miller.


Early in the preparation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, he decided that there was one actor, and only one, who could play the part of his deaf-mute protagonist, Singer.


That was Alan Arkin.


Jack Warner, convinced that the film needed a star, wasn’t buying:   Arkin, though well-established on Broadway, had never made a film.


No, Warner wanted a big name from Europe—someone like Marcello Mastroianni. He argued that it wouldn’t matter that he had an accent since Singer couldn’t speak.


Robert held out for Arkin, and the film spent a year or two in limbo.


Then…a miracle.


Arkin broke through big time with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.


Once it was apparent that the film was a huge hit, Arkin contacted Robert, asking him to tell Jack Warner that he’d gone to a lot of trouble to become a star so Warner would cast him in Heart.


Arkin gave what, I’m told, he still considers the best performance of his career, and the film is now recognized as a masterwork.


There are, of course, other kinds of directors—those whose confidence is just a sham. They may not make great movies, but they will get the job done.


There is, unfortunately, a third category.


These are the ones who have much in common with Olivier’s Hamlet.


Do you remember the opening of this famous film?


It’s a voice-over that concludes, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”


An indecisive director is hardly a tragic figure, but he often spells trouble and frustration for everyone working with him.


One of my screenplays was assigned to such a director. He was so uncertain about the direction the story should take that he couldn’t make up his mind how it should end.


It should have been an easy choice.


One of the endings he was considering made the picture a vendetta in the manner of Death Wish, reducing the protagonist to the level of the villain.


The other (mine) made it a moral drama about a good man gone wrong but redeeming himself at the end.


The director should have known which film he was making from the moment he signed on, but this individual wavered throughout production until he was, at last, brought to his senses by one of his talented but badly miscast stars, who argued strongly in favor of my ending.


A member of the film’s editorial team tells me that he demonstrated the same sort of indecision in the editing room.


No surprise, then, when a few years later, he did a big-budget tent-pole picture and one of its critics declared its direction was by “autopilot.”



A Postscript: I’ve called this piece “CONFIDENCE MEN,” and I have no doubt some among you are asking why I didn’t add “AND WOMEN.”


To be honest, the real reason was that the title I chose was a familiar phrase with lots of associations. The alternative seemed clumsy. But my decision to stick with it raised a question I can’t really answer.


Why are there so few female directors?


The flippant response would be to remind you of my description of directors as ruthlessly manipulative, obsessed, monomaniacal control freaks.


In other words, most women are just too damned nice to succeed as directors.


Unfortunately, my own experiences in Hollywood would suggest otherwise.


My immediate boss at Paramount was Dawn Steel, and I can assure you, she had all the requisite qualities…and more. It was no accident that she became the first woman to head up a major studio.


That was thirty years ago.


Since then, women have made major strides in Hollywood.


While their numbers may not yet reflect their share of the general population, they hold prominent positions throughout the industry: studio heads, producers, writers, editors, and so on.


In only one field do they lag shockingly behind, and that, of course, is direction.


Oh, there are some extraordinarily talented women directors—Katherine Bigelow comes immediately to mind, but the percentage of female members of the Directors Guild has actually gone down in recent years.


Some may say that Hollywood is still an old boys’ network, but I have to question that argument.


As early as 2002, women ran half the studios in town.


Many of the most successful producers today—producers who, like studio heads, are in the position to hire and fire—are female.


Why are they not hiring more of their own?



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