Few screenwriters know better than William Goldman just how low a writer rates in the Hollywood food chain. Author of the classic primer on the script-writing business, "Adventures in the Screen Trade," Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Marathon Man") enjoyed one of Hollywood's hottest hitting streaks, riding an exuberant and unruly new wave of American movies to fame as one of the industry's best-paid writers.

Few screenwriters know better than William Goldman just how low a writer rates in the Hollywood food chain. Author of the classic primer on the script-writing business, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man”) enjoyed one of Hollywood’s hottest hitting streaks, riding an exuberant and unruly new wave of American movies to fame as one of the industry’s best-paid writers.

By the mid-1980s, however, Goldman’s phone stopped ringing. Until an unexpected visit from Michael Ovitz in 1986 landed him the job writing the gimmicky special effects comedy-thriller, “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” Goldman had “become a leper in Hollywood,” ostracized for scripting several projects that never got off the ground.

In this crackling, irreverent sequel to “Adventures,” Goldman recounts how he fought his way back to the top of the business — a business that, in Goldman’s view, has become a factory for generic, mass-reproduced schlock. The 1990s, he writes, “are the worst decade in Hollywood history.”

It’s a tale of large compromises and small triumphs. “Whenever I am offered a movie job,” he tells us with typical candor, “I always view it with two very different hats. My artist’s hat and my hooker’s hat.” The hired gun behind such high-budget, high-concept adaptations as “Misery,” “Absolute Power” and “The Princess Bride,” based on his own 1973 novel, Goldman also saw his original scripts for “The Year of the Comet” and “The Ghost and the Darkness” damaged by the studios and flop at the box office.

So conversant is Goldman with the process of shaping and packaging a commercial idea for the screen that when he turns to other scripts, like “There’s Something About Mary,” “Fargo” and “Chinatown,” he proves a masterful teacher. In chapters on storytelling, he breaks down dialogue and scene structure to underscore the principles that govern what he considers effective writing, however counterintuitive they may seem. Dialogue, he writes, “is one of the least (his italics) important parts of any flick.”

For a writer who so prizes structure over dialogue, however, Goldman’s book is remarkably disjointed, cutting wildly between autobiographical vignettes, script how-tos and bits and pieces from finished and unfinished screenplays. There are anecdotes within anecdotes and chapters within chapters that interrupt the narrative flow of the book.

Nonetheless, by turns professorial, irascible and bracingly sincere, Goldman still proves a raucously engaging guide to the business, and in his final chapter, he tosses a curveball that aspiring writers will find surprisingly useful: Goldman reprints two-thirds of an original screenplay, “The Big A,” that he’s sent to such screenwriters as the Farrelly brothers, Scott Frank and Tony Gilroy, and shows us their notes. (They rip it to shreds, but few agree on how it should be changed).

In so doing, Goldman reveals more about the tumultuous creative process, and the script wars that unfold behind the gates of the major studios than any writing guide by gurus like Syd Field and Robert McKey.

And he reminds us that “Nobody knows anything” — his famous dictum that no studio executive can predict what will fly at the box office — remains as applicable to Hollywood today as ever.

Which Lie Did I Tell: Or, More Adventures in the Screen Trade

PANTHEON; 480 PGS.; $24.95

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By WILLIAM GOLDMAN
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