Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman

I first read Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) and its sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000), around the time I went freelance in 2002, on the recommendation of  established writer friends. In those days, I was hungry for advice and hustled round asking questions. One writer recommended the accountant I'm still with, another suggested making a list of all the things I fancied writing so I could gradually tick them off, and someone else prodded me towards Goldman.

I've now been freelance for more than 20 years, bloodied but unbowed. And it's surprising how much that makes a difference to the text here. Goldman is a brilliant writer -- I only meant to check a detail and ended up being drawn in to read the whole thing. Plus I'm a big fan of his movies (here's a young, green me enthusing about The Ghost and the Darkness).

But what strikes me now is how fearsome Goldman is -- confident yes, his enthusiastic stage directions full of what he admits to as "hype" that no director could realise, but also strongly opinionated about other people and their work. It is waspish, gossipy and good fun, but I wouldn't relish working with Goldman. 

I've also got the confidence now to say he's dead wrong about the end of Excalibur (he says Percival not throwing the sword into the lake at the end, as instructed, is a waste of everyone's time rather than a vital part of the legend). He's wrong about the casting of Nanette Newman in The Stepford Wives (far more effective, I think, if the fantasy women are blousy, home-maker, mothering types than the Playboy bunnies Goldman favoured).

"NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING" he tells us, twice, in capital letters on page 39. But I think I've picked up a few scraps.

The book is full of practical advice that I still find very useful. In sharing his own short story then writing a screen adaptation of it, he asks a series of questions: "What's the story about?", "What's the story really about?", "What about time [ie setting and duration]?", "Who tells the story?", "Where does the story take place?", "What about the characters?" and "What must we cling to?" That all seems obvious, basic stuff -- until he talks through the process of applying them to the story. Following his path, I found myself picking over the paltry bones of an idea I had a while back -- and then filling pages of my notebook with how that might just work. 

That's what I got from Goldman, this time and before when I was starting out: a terrific spur.

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