Four Screenplays with Essays

Four Screenplays with Essays



The Pequod Review:

William Goldman's Four Screenplays with Essays is another readable and informative account of the film production process. This time, Goldman focuses on four films where he was the lead screenwriter — Marathon Man (1976), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Princess Bride (1987) and Misery (1990). His book includes not just the text of the screenplays themselves but essays on each film's casting, direction and other production details. These essays are absolute gems, full of clear-headed descriptions of how films actually get made. 

To pick one example, here is Goldman's discussion of how Kathy Bates was cast as the lead actress in Misery (an adaptation of Stephen King's famous horror novel):

I had seen Kathy Bates for many years on Broadway. We had never met but I felt then what I do now: She is, simply one of the major actresses of our time. I'd seen her good heartedness in Vanities where she played a Texas cheerleader. I'd seen the madness when she played the suidical daughter in `Night, Mother (I had no sure sense that her talent would translate — a lot of great stage performers are less than great on film — Gielgud, Julie Harris, Kim Stanley will do as examples. But there is an old boxing expression that goes like this: bury me with a puncher.) And it was a moment in Frankie andJohnny at the Clare de Lune that made me know she was the lady I had to be buried with. She plays a waitress who has a fling with a cook, and at one point she is wearing a robe, and he wants to see her body. 

The scene was staged so that he saw her naked body and the audience saw her face, and there was such panic in her eyes and at the same time, this wondrous hope. (Casting note: when Michelle Pfeiffer, who I think is a brilliant character actress, played the part in the movie, the same moment was there. But it didn't work for me because Pfeiffer is so loved by the camera that all I kept thinking was, why was she worrying when the worst that could happen would be a pubic hair maybe out of place.) 

Anyway Kathy got the part. 

It was really almost that simple because Reiner had seen her on Broadway and thought she was as gifted as I did. We could have had almost any actress in the world. Obviously it's a decent part — Kathy won the Oscar for it — but the main reason so many women were interested is there is almost nothing for women out there nowadays. Sad but very true. Rob had lunch with Bette Midler who would have been fine and would have helped open the picture. But she did not want to play someone so ugly and Rob realized she would be wrong for the part. All stars would be wrong for the part, he decided. Annie is this unknown creature who appears alone out of a storm. We know nothing about her. But stars bring history with them, and I believe, in this case, they would have been damaging.

Example: there is a scene where Annie asks Paul to burn his most recent book in manuscript. It is the one thing on earth he wants least to do and he says no. They argue but he is firm.

Fine, Annie says, I love you and I would never dream of asking you to do anything you didn't want to do. Forget it. I never asked. But

— big but —

— while she is saying `forget I ever asked,' what she is doing is walking around his bed flicking lighter fluid onto the sheets. She is threatening, in Annie's sweet, shy way, to fry him.

Rob and Andy and I talked so much about that scene. Was it enough? Did she have to do more? We decided to go with it. But my feeling is that even with as brilliant a performer as Streep in the part, it would not have worked because sitting out there in the dark, some part of us would have known that Meryl Streep wasn't really going to incinerate Jimmy Caan.

But no one knew who Kathy Bates was. And because of that, not to mention her skill, the scene held. One of the advantages to working with an independent like Castle Rock is that they have more freedom in casting. No way Mr. Disney or The Brothers Warner let us go with an unknown in the lead of what they hoped would be a hit movie. And you know what? If I had been the head of a large studio, I wouldn't have cast her either.

And later he describes how they cast James Caan:

One thing Caan brought to the party is that he is a very physical guy, he is like a shark, he has to keep moving, he cannot be still in a room. And playing Paul, month after month trapped in that bed drove him nuts. That pent-up energy you saw on screen was very real. And it was one of the main reasons, at least for me, the movie worked...

Careers are primarily about timing.

Paul Sheldon is an attractive, sensitive man in his forties, a writer of romance fiction. If you asked me what star best describes that guy I would answer with two words: Richard Gere.

Why didn't we go to him?

Wrong question.

The real question is this: how is it possible for us to spend six months looking for an actor for a part for which Richard Gere would have been perfect and never once, not even one time mention his name? That's how dead he was at the time we were looking. We were looking before Internal Affairs revived him and Pretty Woman put him back on top. We were looking in 1989, seven years since An Officer and A Gentleman. And in those seven years, these were his choices: The Honorary Consul, Breathless, The Cotton Club, King David, No Mercy, Miles From Home.

He was not just dead, he was forgotten. Happens to us all. God knows it happened to me. I was a leper for five years in the early Eighties. Phone didn't ring. There's a good and practical reason Hollywood likes Dracula pictures — it's potentially the story of all our lives...

He also details the screenwriting process, and the trial-and-error nature of collaborative decision-making. In one admirably honest section, he discusses how he initially believed it was essential that Kathy Bates's character actually chops off James Caan's feet (rather than merely breaks his ankles). But he turned out to be wrong:

I went on vacation as we were about to start and while I was gone, Rob [Reiner] and Andy [Scheinman] wanted to take a final pass at the script and I was delighted. They wanted it shorter, tighter, tauter, and they are expert editors. When I got back, I read what they had done.

It was shorter, tighter, tauter —

— only the lopping scene was gone, replaced with what you saw in the movie: she breaks his ankles with a sledgehammer.

I scrreeeamed. I got on the phone with Rob and Andy and told them they had ruined the picture, that it was a great and memorable scene they had changed, it was the reason I had taken the job. I was incoherent (they are friends and expect that) but I made my point. They just wouldn't buy it. The lopping scene was gone, now and forever replaced by the ankle-breaking scene. I hated it, but there it was.

I am a wise and experienced hand at this stuff, and I know when I am right.

And you know what?

I was wrong. It became instantly clear when we screened the movie.

What they had done — it was exactly the same scene except for the punishment act — worked wonderfully and was absolutely horrific enough. If we had gone the way I wanted, it would have been too much. The audience would have hated Kathy and, in time, hated us.

If I had been in charge, Misery would have been this film you might have heard of but would never have gone to see. Because people who had seen it would have told you to ride clear. What makes a movie a hit is not the star and not the advertising but this: word of mouth. So in the movie business as in real life, we all need all the help we can get. And we need it every step of the way. 

This is great stuff, with valuable lessons that go well beyond filmmaking. Highly recommended.