Some of my favorite scenes in movies have been about screenwriters.
And they each offer a different insight that’s informed real life.
I’ve mentioned these in interviews, but it’s amazing how a few key moments in films have had such an impact on me — and continue to.
Paris When It Sizzles, starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn, was a movie I saw on TV as an impressionable teenager. Holden plays a screenwriter who hires typist Hepburn for the weekend. In Scene One, he lays out blank pages all over his Paris apartment, telling her the story of the script he’s yet to write but has in his head. On page 12, he says, throwing down one page, this happens, a few pages more, a reversal! What stunned me was how he knew. (my introduction to structure?) But the capper came when Holden finished with a flare, then asked Audrey if she wanted a martini. Oh, and by the way, the script was due Monday, and he’d already spent all the money.
I was hooked.
I fell in love with another screenwriter later when my own career had begun. Barton Fink stars John Turturro and my Blank Check buddy, Michael Lerner, as crazed studio head Jack Lipnick. Early on, Lipnick offers Barton work on a wrestling picture and gives him what is, it seems to me, a crucial test. It was one that, to greater or lesser degree, I’ve found myself facing many times. But maybe it just feels that way.
Okay, the hell with the story. Wallace
Beery is a wrestler. I wanna know
his hopes, his dreams. Naturally
he’ll have to get mixed up with a
bad element. And a romantic interest.
You know the drill. Romantic
interest, or else a young kid. An
orphan. What do you think, Lou?
Wally a little too old for a romantic
interest? Look at me, a writer in
the room and I’m askin’ Lou what the
goddamn story should be!
After a robust laugh, he beams at Barton.
…Well Bart, which is it? Orphan? Dame?
There is a disappointed silence. Lipnik looks at Lou. Lou
clears his throat.
…Maybe we should do a treatment.
The lesson I derived from this is: Never waffle in your answer to a studio head. You may be wrong. But for God’s sake, be definite!
You can always change your mind later on.
I think my favorite lesson in screenwriting at the movies came from the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, starring Robert DeNiro as a fictional version of studio legend Irving Thalberg. In one scene, De Niro gives a primer in screenwriting to a novelist having a hard time making the leap to motion pictures. But motion is what it’s about. In his amazing demonstration, as DeNiro plays out an inpromptu and instructive scene, there’s little dialogue, but lots going on.
I found myself thinking of this scene the other day while talking to a screenwriter who was having similar problems; he was overthinking his story. Simple, I kept saying, keep it simple… A young girl whose mother died, she runs a tailor shop, and one day a mysterious stranger enters with a box… We don’t need to say more. Our minds flood with the sight and smell of that little storefront, the desperation of the girl, the unknown of what the next scene will bring. And that’s all we need.
At the end of the scene in Last Tycoon, De Niro’s character is asked what happens next? “I don’t know,” he replies, “I was just making pictures.”
And that’s what we’re doing, too.
Little moments ripe with meaning. Memorable. Life-changing.
Lessons for us all.