Adventures in the Screen Trade

William Goldman

Read November-December 2003

Goldman is one of the more distinguished screenwriters in Hollywood. His peak years were the late 1960 through mid-70s, when he lent his skills to a series of blockbusters.

In this now-classic book, Goldman dissects his trade. You won't come away knowing any more about what a key grip or gaffer do (the actual process of shooting seems to be nearly as much a mystery to Goldman as they are to the lay public), but you will have a much finer appreciation of what each of the major roles in Hollywood do, how they interact, and what they know (in Goldman's famous assessment, nothing).

After a series of chapters on the major roles, Goldman proceeds to dissect the history of each of his major scripts (some of which didn't even make it to being films). The stories here are sometimes gossipy, but invariably have bearing on the goal. Goldman's analysis of some of these stories is startlingly frank: he begins his chapter on The Stepford Wives with a brief dialog and reports, “That innocuous dialog [...] was, at least for me, genuinely memorable. It marked the only time that I realized, early on before shooting, that a project I was involved in was more than likely doomed”. Skilled screenwriter that he is, he holds our attention for ten pages before revealing why that dialog did, in fact, spell doom.

Goldman's classic movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. An entire section of the book is given over to analyzing the movie—preceded by the entire movie's script! Butch is no literary classic, but it's definitely one of the more enjoyable movies I've watched, and reading Goldman's dissection didn't spoil it for me; instead, it helped me articulate what it was I'd liked. And he takes apart the weaknesses, too.

The masterclass doesn't end there. The last section of the book is a gem, worthy of the title of classic. Goldman finds an old short story and turns it into a screenplay. He then shows the result to a bunch of different roles, culminating in the director, George Roy Hill. Each comments on the screenplay, some more bluntly than others, Hill brutalizing it (at one point Hill taunts him: “Enjoying this, Bill?”). It takes serious chutzpah to put yourself through this experience, and the reader leaves truly grateful to Goldman.

The details don't disappoint either: this isn't some airy abstraction, but rather a book written very much by an insider (though one living in New York, even as he advises all new talent to head to LA as soon as they can). At one point he neatly anticipates the reality TV trend, going farther than any current show has (as of this writing), predicting one that shows couples going through divorce. His advice for screenwriters about not underestimating the smarts of audiences nicely echoes advice I've been giving on public speaking for years now, except he puts it better:

[t]hat's what screenwriting is: putting new twists on old twists. The audience is so quick, so smart, they grasp things immediately, and if you give them what they expect, if they reach the destination ahead of you, it's not easy for them to find it in their hearts to forgive you.

Thanks to Lee Millward for pointing me to this gem!