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Eric Roth on What He Learned From William Goldman: ‘Take the Reader by the Heart’

Somebody (I think it was my hero Francis Coppola) said the movies that most affect us, the moments that changed us, live on the other side of the moon while we live our lives.

Al Pacino kissing Fredo on the lips. Bob De Niro asking a mirror if it’s talking to him. James Dean discovering oil reaching to the heavens in “Giant.” Those Red Shoes. Burt Lancaster waltzing in Visconti’s “The Leopard.” Mary Badham being told to stand up in “To Kill a Mockingbird” because her father was leaving the room. Kubrick looking beyond Jupiter. All of those emotions and images still exist as the movies play out for the rest of our lives.

And how many of these images that walk around with us are from the imagination and the grandeur of William Goldman. He wrote the book for me, literally, on what a screenplay is, and try as I might, and do I ever try, I never could lay a glove on him. He said we shouldn’t just be the handmaidens to the director’s vision, not just assembling shot lists as they did in the days of old, but that we should talk to the reader, take the reader by the heart and the jugular. Be — despite the bastardized form this great art and craft is, this screenwriting — be a writer. Use words for their power, express feelings, have characters that have their own voice and are as individual as each of us is. Have laughter. And joy. And magic.

I write what makes us great and, too, human. When I heard Bill had died I thought there was a silence. He spoke to us in “Butch and Sundance” about a bond between men, had us run for our lives with Dustin Hoffman (and, oh, my God, that dentist scene) in “Marathon Man,” saw a fairy tale when life was too real in “The Princess Bride” and of course there was the transcendent “All The President’s Men,” probably one of the great films, saying we are all equal under the law and representative of where we rise up — the shot down from the Smithsonian Library dome where he is now watching us on high.

You were famously quoted as saying about this business, this art, “Nobody knows anything.” I beg to disagree: You knew something. Goodbye — you can
put your pen down now, Mr. Goldman. Godspeed.

Eric Roth is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Forrest Gump.” His credits include “A Star Is Born” (2018), “Munich,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Insider” and “The Good Shepherd.”

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