Archive for William Goldman

Spadework

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by dcairns

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.

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True to Type

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by dcairns

We watched Steven Spielberg’s THE POST and then moved on to its sequel, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN which, unusually for a sequel, was made forty years earlier. And it turned out to be the week screenwriter William Goldman died. ATPM is one of his best pieces, though he complained that writing it was very tough. It got him an Oscar, though, so that seems reasonable.

Comparing the two films was interesting. THE POST is solid stuff, as conventional as you’d expect from the Spielberg-Hanks-Streep teaming: “entertaining” is a very good word here. It has a certain forward impetus and there are nice bits of visual storytelling amid the gab and Spielberg’s skill at moving actors around as he moves his camera around is apparent. Hanks is fine, but no Jason Robards. Streep is great value. Alison Brie and Sarah Paulson are wasted but Bob Odenkirk gets some good business.

Kaminski shoots it in shades of gun-metal blue (not an obvious seventies look — more like DIE HARD) with the usual Spielberg God-light blasting over everyone’s shoulders but with crunchier blacks to point up all that clandestine power and subterfuge.

As a political response to the current times, it’s perhaps too polite, and you notice that when previous filmmakers like Pakula and company wanted to address the current situation, they addressed the current (or very recent) situation. They didn’t look back forty years for an peudo-analagous moment.

The great thing about a lot of seventies cinema is, it doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching. A friend said that about THE EXORCIST. Even THE EXORCIST, which wants to scare you, doesn’t really care if you’re watching or not. Your choice, it shrugs.

WHAM!

In THE POST, you can see the wheels go round: literally, with the fetishistic hot press shots of newspapers rolling out into the world. In ATPM, the source of dramatic tension is harder to place: in this one, typewriter keys descend from nowhere in abrupt, slamming ECU. The mechanism is concealed, off over there somewheres. Unlike Spielberg, Alan Pakula doesn’t seem to be trying to create tension, but there is nevertheless some crackling energy force underneath it all, created invisibly by the actors, the frame, the lighting.

I’m curious to look at Pakula’s later work for the Late Show Blogathon: I’m worried that he’ll have felt compelled to amp up the dramatics in his later thrillers, and I’m certain the scripts won’t be as good.

The secret wonder ingredient here is cinematographer Gordon Willis, who bonded with Pakula even more than with Coppola on THE GODFATHER — he seems to have shot nearly everything Pakula made (plus a bunch of key Woody Allens). He was a kind of Prince of Darkness, happy to let expensive sets and actors drop off into Stygian gloom if it served his sense of the scene. When he filmed car interiors, he let other cars serve as the light source, which meant the characters could cease to be visible even as outlines for long stretches or movie and road.

He doesn’t go looking for beauty: the Washington Post interior is as flat as it ought to be. But then he seizes passing opportunities for visual grace, and creates surprise with unexpected splashes of light, colour.

The tamped-down performances and low-key lighting are enhanced by David Shire’s muted score, so that nobody seems to be trying to make this a thriller, but everybody seems to be succeeding.

Poor old Goldman had to try to please the original authors, who were also the main characters, a star who was also the producer, another star who was Dustin Hoffman, and Pakula, who couldn’t make up his mind. It must have been a huge relief to him to realise he could cut the story off half way through, before it got to the part everybody watched unravel in the news. His script unfolds in a rash of names, names leading to more names, with ellipses used so boldly we fear we may not keep up. Maybe THAT’S the source of tension: our fear that we’re not equal to grasping Watergate. Thankfully, we have Deep Throat to keep us straight: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

This felt like a good film to be watching right now.

THE POST stars Forrest Gump, Florence Foster Jenkins, Bunny Yeager, Jimmy McGill, Gerald Burlingame and Unikitty.

ATPM stars Jeremiah Johnson, Ratso Rizzo, Max Corkle, Det. Milton Arbogast, Henry Northrup, Cable Hogue, Georgia O’Keeffe and Tector Crites, or do I mean Hoover Shoates?

Script Creepers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2015 by dcairns

screencraft

I’m addicted to screenwriting books — searching for the ultimate secret! — and to books of interviews with film practitioners, so I should have liked Declan McGrath and Felim MacDermott’s book more than I did. It’s either called Screencraft Screenwriting, which is what it says on the front, or Screenwriting Screencraft, which is what the spine says. And that’s a clue to the central problem. (In fact, it’s an entry in a series called Screencraft, with this being the volume devoted to the script. But you wouldn’t know that.)

A book about writing should be readable, but this one is hampered by a weird format. George Axelrod is just saying “As you write the script, you know Audrey couldn’t possibly say something so ~” and you turn the page, and instead of the end of the sentence you have four pages of stills of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, with lengthy captions and a letter about censorship problems. Should I read this now, before I find out what Audrey couldn’t possibly say?

But there’s worse. William Goldman is saying “You are seeing the city at night, you are seeing this kid in terrible pain, you are seeing the bad guys coming after ~” and then we get four pages of stills and script pages (printed very small so you need a jeweller’s eyeglass to read) with accompanying commentary by Goldman on the pages. It’s a whole essay embedded within the essay.

This makes the book kind of a nuisance, even though most of what’s said in it is interesting. It’s probably more the publisher’s fault than the authors’.

Goldman probably needed nudging to say something he hasn’t already said in his various books, and it’s a shame to have Jim Sheridan, one of the maddest, most brilliant raconteurs I’ve ever heard, simply explaining the basics of three-act structure. He does come up with some good suggestions as to WHY the structure is useful — a script needs to have a strong point of view, but unless you’re careful, “It is like being stuck in the pub with someone who is telling you a very personal story and you begin to feel that this person is compelled to tell you that story whether you want to hear it or not. You start to feel uncomfortable. Structure can help the writer avoid creating that uncomfortable feeling in the audience. It works as a necessary impediment to that potential torrent of emotion.”

danton

It’s also great that the book has contributions from Kaneto Shindo and Suso D’Amico and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, people who don’t usually get asked questions about screenwriting in this kind of study. One screenwriting book uses THE KARATE KID as its example of a perfect screenplay. It’s very nice to have a broader and, let’s face it, better range of references. Unfortunately, while the Americans (Schrader, Towne, Zaillian, Andrew Stanton) love to talk about the nuts and bolts of craft, writers outside Hollywood seem reluctant to get into specifics. There are some stories about directors (Vittorio De Sica was very superstitious), some generalities about working hard and using your own psychology, but nothing you can take to the bank, as Robert Blake would say. The exceptions are Ruth Prawer Jhabvalla, who is very explicit about her technique, and the great Jean-Claude Carriere, who has a very practical mind as well as a poetic one — some of which he seems to have learned from Tati. Writing is problem solving — or problem creation, perhaps.

Here’s a good bit ~

In DANTON, an important part of the script was that the two main characters, Danton and Robespierre, should meet only once. Before shooting we rehearsed the scene where they met, in Wajda’s apartment. The dialogue worked but there was some spark missing. I said to Depardieu (who played Danton), “I think there needs to be a physical contact between the two of you. Consider that it is easy for a judge to sentence someone to death but much more difficult to kill someone with his own hands. Now, what will you say to Robespierre?” Depardieu understood immediately. He took Robespierre’s hand and put it round his neck saying, “You feel this flesh, this neck, if you keep going your way you will be obliged to cut it.” This became one of the best moments in the film and it came from the collaboration with a great actor who gives more than he is asked for.