Saturday, 9 February 2013

Adventures in the Screen Trade - and More

For Moni's recent 20th birthday, I bought her (via two books that will come in Most handy. Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) and its sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell, subtitled More Adventures in the Screen Trade (2000). Both books were written by Oscar-winning screenwriter, William Goldman. Before presenting the books to Moni, I took the opportunity to read them myself, which delayed the hand-over of the gifts by a fortnight.

And how glad I am I did read both books. Ostensibly, Goldman's books are about Hollywood, but at their heart is a wider truth that we humans love stories, and the way we tell stories - their structure, their inherent truth they carry about our lives, is crucial to their success.

The books are spattered with tittle-tattle about Hollywood stars, but Goldman explains why Hollywood stars are like they are (the entire Hollywood system is driven by the concept of the star to draw the mass audiences). Primarily stars, but studios, producers, directors, cinematographers, editors - and of course writers. All have a part to play in the commercial success of a movie - though at the outset, as Goldman famously states - 'nobody knows anything'. The oft-quoted statistic that of ten Hollywood movies, one will be a blockbuster, three or four will recover their costs and the rest will sink without trace, is proof of the statement.

After so many opportunities not to go ahead with a given project, studios still do; the commercial and critical outcome being completely unknown until the first sneak preview to a real audience. Once a movie has proved its mettle - or failed dismally - only then does everyone knows exactly why. But before it hits the screens - nobody knows anything.

Most informative from a writer's craft point of view are the two sections, one in each book, in which Goldman presents a short sample screenplay based on one of his own stories, and gets Hollywood professionals to critique them. Some are kind, others rip them apart. As you read the critiques - you think - "Yes! And Goldman failed to see that flaw?" or "Well, indeed, writing it that way is better than the original," or "No, that criticism isn't justified". And because neither Da Vinci, nor The Big 'A' were ever made into movies, we just don't know who was right. Nobody knows anything.

Hollywood is about money, it's about commercial success. Not art, or messages. That's left to European 'art-house' cinema. Hollywood at its worst is as disposable as popcorn. Die Hard 5 (Szklana Pułapka 5 in Polish) has just opened in Warsaw; I dare say in 20 years time no one will have even remembered that it was ever made. Yet it will probably make back the tens of millions of dollars it cost to make and a tidy profit on top of that.

Of greater interest to me are the films that do have something to say, contain insight into the human condition. Such films will still be watched in 200 years time. Polish actor Piotr Fronczewski recently said that for him, theatre is 'dom prawdy' - the house of truth, and so should it be of film. Through the artifice of acting - to a live audience or to the camera - the play or the film can give the viewer a more complete understanding and appreciation of what it is to be human.

The greatest movies are those that are both critically and commercially successful. And by commercially, I mean movies that are watched by intelligent audiences in repertory cinemas around the world year in, year out, movies that continue watched on TV and be bought on video, DVD or Blu-ray. It is a better movie that make $5m a year every year for a century than for one that grosses $50m in its first month and is then promptly forgotten.

I disagree with Goldman about the auteur theory - which posits that it is the director who stamps his or her unique artistic vision on the finished movie - is entirely bogus. This may well be the case in Die Hard 5, but the movies I enjoy the most, with a fair smattering of European ones included, are those where it is the director who has something to say.

The books are also about ego and the biology of the big deal. So much frustrated talent - wasted because they are merely the creators, crushed between gigantic egos battling it out on another plane. And remember - no matter how big your ego, how deep your pockets - nobody knows anything. Goldman's reminiscences of independent producer Joseph Levine are particularly telling.

I have learned much from Goldman - and much that can be transferred to other branches of creative endeavour. Having read the books, I can appreciate the importance of structure, timing and message when planning a business seminar. What goes for Hollywood also goes for the music industry as well as theatre. Two excellent books, which can be picked up second hand on for a couple of dollars plus shipping.

See also: Why I watch films

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The sad end of Andrzej J.

This time two years ago:
Drifting home

This time three years ago:
Today's dose of wintery gorgeousness

This time four years ago:
First intimations of spring

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