There are some screenwriting books that teach you the “technical” side of screenwriting, then there are the books that deal with the creative side. Joe Engel’s book belongs in the latter category. It’s the sort of book you will find yourself returning to time and time again. Every interview contains some useful nugget of information or some note of inspiration, though Engels introduction to each is next to useless and so sycophantic as to be nauseating. I found myself skimming each introduction and just skipping straight to the interview.
This book will also help you to understand the business of screenwriting. Many of the writers featured, for example novelist John Irving (Cider House Rules), talk about the collaborative process of filmmaking. Ron Bass, for example, talks about the experience of writing Rain Man. He reveals it was Dustin Hoffman’s idea to make his character Raymond autistic. Originally, the character was intended to be retarded, an “idiot savant”. And it was Steven Spielberg who suggested the film’s central relationship between Hoffman’s character and that played by Tom Cruise. Bass says he learned about collaborating the hard way: “Only when I became a producer did I understand that the director is the person who has to work with the material, and if he or she isn’t comfortable with it and doesn’t share its vision, the film is going to suffer. So what this epiphany did was turn me into a collaborator. I realised that I’m not writing a script to be read by a lucky few…the words on the page are not the film. As a screenwriter, I can’t divorce myself from the film itself; I have to understand everyone else’s needs …”
Several of the writers talk at length about the importance of learning your craft if you are serious about making a living as a screenwriter. Tom Schulman, the writer of Dead Poet’s Society, talks about his time as a student. “I learned the value of revision – the rewrite,” he says. “I usually write a screenplay over a few days – a few days that follow months, even years, of planning what I’m going to write. And I write so fast because I live in fear during the writing that my story is going to fall apart. So when I write I get anxious. I don’t stop to make sure my punctuation is right, or that a particular line of dialogue is exactly right; I don’t do any of that until the rewriting process. Knowing what I’m going to have to go through makes it very much like going to the dentist; I do anything to avoid it. But once I’m in the chair, I’ll stay there for however long it takes, because I want to get the pain over with.”
All the writers interviewed make it clear that writing is hard and it doesn’t get any easier. On the writing process, Engel quotes Hollywood writer Gene Fowler: “All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” It is an enterprise not to be taken lightly or underestimated. Several of the writers included talk about being reduced to living in friend’s houses even after they have received a successful commission; there’s no guarantee the telephone is going to keep ringing. Ron Bass’s story, along with several others, among them Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), illustrates the importance of surrounding yourself with people who inspire you and can give you critical feedback. “Every writer, aspiring or accomplished, knows at least one or two people who can offer legitimate criticisms and feedback – which is what every writer needs,” he says. “Whether it’s your wife or your husband or your uncle, you have to have unfawning, unadorned criticism.”
American Beauty writer Alan Ball, meanwhile, talks frankly about the realities of the industry. It’s usually forgotten but Ball cut his teeth first as a playwright, then as a writer for hire in television working on shows such as Cybill, starring Cybill Shepherd, and Grace Under Fire, before turning his hand to writing for the big screen. Out of 11 interviews, this is one of the most illuminating. Ball talks about being a green-gilled writer in Los Angeles churning out screenplays that ended up in development hell and being at the mercy of clueless producers. “For two years, I worked on Cybill and really hated it and then I went back for a third year because they threw so much money at me. I felt like such a whore. It was really the first time in my life that I did something just for the money and I felt bad about it. I was doing work that I really didn’t care about … I was becoming in a lot of ways like Lester in American Beauty, a man who’d lost his passion for life …The only way I could justify doing that was by convincing myself that I was buying the freedom to write what I wanted … I promised myself that I would have American Beauty finished by the time I finished that final season. And I did.”
The interviewees included represent a wealth of experience, from old timers such William Goldman to relative newcomers such as Alan Ball. It is a shame that Engel didn’t see fit to include any women in this collection but perhaps he’s saving that for a separate title…