EXCLUSIVE: There are dozens of dialogue lines that made William Goldman an iconic screenwriter — “Follow the money” from All the President’s Men, and “Is it safe?” from Marathon Man among them — but to a legion of top screenwriters whom Goldman helped find their voices, here’s a lesser-known signature line just as memorable: “I’m in the book.”
That is what Goldman said to many young screenwriters who dared ask a legend for help, back when people actually thumbed through the white pages of the New York City phone book. That’s where Goldman left his Manhattan number, which led to tutorials over lunches at places like The Carlyle Hotel, where Goldman held court and spread the gospel of good writing to so many. Even though he wrote many a withering column about movies he didn’t love — the manipulative bookend-ed start and end of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan famous among them — Goldman’s generosity toward fellow wordsmiths is something I learned through two A-list screenwriters I greatly respect, who helped organize the Goldman memorial held at the Ziegfeld. I interviewed Tony Gilroy and Scott Frank the morning after the memorial. These are the results, along with a short film they showed that night to honor Goldman and his film canon. Last year was a hard one for icon deaths, from Burt Reynolds to Neil Simon, Stan Lee and Goldman, latter of whom passed four days apart. On a day meant to mark the memory of one great man, this seemed an opportune moment to discuss an understated aspect of a great screenwriter by remembering not only his work, but the wisdom he generously dispensed to up and comers.
Both Movies And The News Media Need The Next 'Absence Of Malice'
Two-time Oscar nominee Gilroy’s writing and directing credits include The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Ultimatim and The Bourne Legacy, Michael Clayton, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, State of Play and Dolores Claiborne. Two-time Oscar nominated Frank’s writing and directing include Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Logan, The Wolverine, Marley & Me, Malice, Little Man Tate, Minority Report, the TV series Godless and The Lookout.
First, the tribute film:
DEADLINE: Goldman wrote novels, memoirs and classic films from All the President’s Men to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Marathon Man and The Princess Bride. It seems like his quiet support of other writers was an unsung talent.
FRANK: A big part of his legacy is the number of people he helped.
GILROY: In that room, Scott asked for every screenwriter Bill helped, to stand up. Maybe 40 or 50 did, just in that room. I was in the front row and didn’t have the best view, but the people that easily come to mind include David Koepp, Dan Gilroy, Beau Willimon, Aaron Sorkin, Callie Khouri, Scott Rosenberg, Koppelman & Levien, Ed Burns, and there are 30 more people at least I should be naming. Not just the folks in the room, but I’m meeting writers all the time that got up to The Carlyle to see Bill…there are so many.
FRANK: John Patrick Shanley, Will Frears, the Farrelly Brothers…there are so many but Tony got to the heart of it.
DEADLINE: You could really just find him in the phone book and call him for advice?
FRANK: He was in the book. That’s what he said. All part of a legacy far greater than “nobody knows anything,” that line that was part of Adventures in the Screen Trade. Nobody wrote about the memorial but what was great about it, and the last two weeks of his life, was the incredible array of true friendships Bill had…people who loved him and were devastated to see him in that condition.
GILROY: All kinds of people.
FRANK: Waiters. Drivers. The nurse who took care of him. The security staff at Madison Square Garden. Chefs from restaurants. A parade of big writers and directors.
FRANK: They would come through and he would sit in bed, until he stopped talking. He would watch opera on the big screen, The Three Tenors, mostly. And he would still be able to enjoy it, have a tiny droplet of quality of life, where he would sit there and enjoy what was happening. All these people, we would talk and reminisce, and you realize this was the rare human being who died having left nothing on the table. Nothing. He had done everything he wanted to do. And all that was left for him was to enjoy life, day by day. I don’t know a single soul who could say that. He died accomplishing everything he wanted to accomplish, had all his dreams come true, and he died quietly in his sleep, next to the woman he loved. Regretting nothing.
GILROY: And still thinking he wasn’t going to die. Why is everybody coming to see me? Do they really think I’m going to die?
FRANK: And to the very end…we would say, I love you, Bill. ‘F*ck off. F*ck you!”
DEADLINE: Goldman was often critical of the business in books and columns, dissecting structural flaws in films. One famous one was what he characterized as a manipulative and sentimental prologue to Saving Private Ryan, when an old Matt Damon lookalike was seen at the Normandy grave site and later, when he asked his wife if he had “earned it.” I had moviegoer PTSD and felt so pummeled by the Normandy invasion that I didn’t think about it until I read Goldman’s essay. How intimidating was it to hand him a script you spent months writing?
FRANK: Oh, he was the best fan, the best audience for the people he loved.
GILROY: For the people he loved, yeah, he was looking to love. Or, when the film is all cut and ready to go and we’re looking to love here, today.
FRANK: We were joking [at the memorial]. We were debating over and divvying up his best lines, between Mike Lupica and Peter Gethers. Who got to quote what, because Bill had so many great lines. But one thing he would always say when you gave him a script to read: “Do you want me to like it?” That was always his thing. Should I like it? I’d say, ‘No, I want your notes.’ He said, OK.
DEADLINE: So chances are if he had seen your name in the credits of a movie he didn’t love, he’d pull a punch or two if he was writing about it?
FRANK: I don’t know.
GILROY: What do you think, Scott? Has he ever criticized you in print? Never.
FRANK: Never, no. Never, ever.
DEADLINE: How long did you know him?
GILROY: I met him when I was 11, 12 years old.
DEADLINE: How does that happen?
GILROY: Through my dad [playwright/screenwriter Frank Gilroy, whose play The Subject Was Roses won the Tony and Pulitzer]. [Goldman] wrote a book called The Season, and my father had a play, and The Only Game in Town was on that year. They knew each other a little from the Beverly Hills Hotel, when they were young writers out there together, trying to get work.
DEADLINE: Both struggling?
GILROY: No, not at the point they met. They’d meet at the hotel and when Frank had his play they must have gotten closer. And then all of a sudden [Bill] was in New York and he became part of my father’s really intimate New York tribe. I was a kid and he would come to the children’s table and just bombard you. His curiosity for culture was off the hook. I think he had the longest subscription to Variety, starting from when he was 11. He’d sit at our table and ask, what are you listening to? Who do you like? What are you reading? My relationship with him goes from that all the way through to [the posthumous tribute]. It’s the most complicated, changing relationship that I can possibly imagine.
DEADLINE: How helpful was he in the formative stages of your screenwriting career and your resolve to do this for a living?
GILROY: I gave him the very first script I ever wrote.
DEADLINE: This was when you were a bartender and your brother, the Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy, worked as a reporter at Variety when it was located in that Front Page-looking newsroom in Times Square?
GILROY: Probably so. I was 25, 26, tending bar and I gave him this script to read. He said it showed a lot of balls on my part. But he basically said, this sucks, and here’s why. But he also said, you should definitely do this again. I would tell you not to do it again if I didn’t think that. Then I did it again and then my brother Danny and I teamed up. And [Bill] became a champion and he really helped us out.
DEADLINE: Sounds like what Bruce Springsteen said in his memoir and Broadway play: If you want to be good, do it for 10,000 hours and if you have talent you won’t suck after that.
GILROY: It was more than that. He was like, I really dig the idea of this movie. This is a movie. You just don’t know how to deliver it. But the fact that it is a movie and you made it up, you should do another. Then Danny and I went to work with him. Bill had all these godfather deals all over the place; he’d have one for Castle Rock later on. But the first one he had was with Imagine’s Brian Grazer, a deal where he was going to godfather all these movies for them. They divvied up these scripts and we picked one. I did this with him a couple times. John Hughes had one of those deals. Danny and I picked one and we went to work with Bill. Danny and I used to go over to his apartment, every day, at 740 Park Avenue. The script didn’t turn into a movie, but we had such a great time with him. And then he handed us off to George Roy Hill. We worked for him on another movie that didn’t happen, but then we were in.
DEADLINE: What does that mean?
GILROY: We were going to Knicks games with Bill and suddenly we were like colleagues and he was really into everything we were doing. Suddenly he was a pal. And then he got me Dolores Claiborne.
GILROY: I got a phone call from him on a Friday afternoon. Go to the bookstore right now. Go buy the new Stephen King book. We get off the phone and I said to my wife, “F*ck, man, this is the last thing I need. I have all this sh*t to do this weekend. Bill wants me to read this book to see if he should do this movie.” I go buy the book and read it. There’s no movie in this book; it’s structured so wrong. I call Bill up on Sunday morning. I say, “I read the book.” “What do you think?” I go, I don’t think there’s much of a movie in there. He says, “Oh, because I was going to propose that you write it.” And as we’re talking right then, suddenly I’m starting to see the movie. And then I went to work for Castle Rock. With Bill as my godfather, and it was really my first serious movie.
DEADLINE: Life changing?
GILROY: Bill changed my life repeatedly, over and over again. And then it becomes reciprocal and you’re helping him. “Read my stuff,” he’d say. And you’re giving him notes. He wrote extensively about Absolute Power. You’ve probably seen that and that was just an event where it turned into a gig because many times, we’ve all done the same thing. You read the script and go wow, I don’t know, Bill. And you are giving advice to your mentor and oldest friend. It was really weird.
DEADLINE: Scott, how did you meet him?
FRANK: I was 21, and it was ’89 or ’90 and I was working at Castle Rock when he was a consultant. We met when I was working on Malice.
DEADLINE: Alec Baldwin as the surgeon, “I am God.” Nicole Kidman. Great movie.
FRANK: They said, you’ll be working with Bill Goldman and I remember being terrified because he was such a huge influence on me.
GILROY: [At Goldman’s memorial,] Scott showed his copy of Butch and Sundance, the screenplay, which he bought at the supermarket when he was 11 years old.
FRANK: I still have it. I’d never seen a screenplay before when I found it in the supermarket. So there he is and I remember walking into this room with him, and I’m meeting Rob Reiner for the first time and Andy Scheinman, Martin Shafer, Rachel Pfeffer, the whole Castle Rock crew. And Bill Goldman says in front of all of them, “I read your script Little Man Tate on the plane and I loved it.” I was ready to die.
DEADLINE: Instant credibility in that room?
FRANK: Yes. I would fly to New York and we would work on the script at The Carlyle Hotel and have lunch. After, I started coming there every time I was in New York, for any reason, to see him. That’s how I met Tony, and David Koepp, and Peter Gethers, who became my book editor at Knopf all in the early ’90s.
GILROY: Bill curated a lot of people over a lot of meals. Bill never ate at home, never, ever. He didn’t want to eat alone and he had access to everybody. So anything he’d read, if he liked the script or liked something, he’d call up and say, do you know this person? Should I have lunch with her? Are they good? Is this a good person?
FRANK: Anybody who told me they wanted to meet him, I’d repeat his line where he would say to people, “I’m in the phone book. You can find me.”
DEADLINE: You guys have written memorable films. Scott I first met you on Get Shorty, and I recall you telling me you took Elmore Leonard’s novel and marked up the things you knew had to be in the movie with a green highlighter. By the end, the whole book was green. Yet you found a way for the first time to distill Leonard’s wit, after many serious and disappointing adaptations of his work broke that author’s heart. And you did it again with Soderbergh on Leonard’s Out of Sight. Tony, you took that dense Robert Ludlum novel and found a spine that became the pulsing thriller The Bourne Identity, and then later got Oscar nominated for directing and writing Michael Clayton. How did Goldman help enable you to do these things?
GILROY: I think it’s twofold. There’s his flat-out imagination. The guy was just a fantasy machine; his imagination was just completely active and fluid and adjustable and on tap. That’s what you’ve got to have if you’re going to do this, but stylistically in screenplays there’s before Bill and after Bill.
FRANK: For better and worse, by the way.
GILROY: Yeah. For better and worse. But he liberated the formatting and the form. Before Bill, you had half a century of the lens that defines how you look at a screenplay. In the best scenario, it’s a master builder suggesting plans for something that should be built. Bill is like an exuberant journalist reporting about a movie he’s seeing, and telling you about it. The idea that you could talk about a movie as you’re selling it, and physically present it as a thing that’s happening. And yeah, you could change every scene, and you always have to go to a production script in the end, when you are making it. But Bill changed everything you could do, getting to that point. He changed page count, changed formatting, changed voice.
FRANK: He made them something worth reading, which is why they published Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; it was a ball to read.
DEADLINE: Was that because he was a novelist?
FRANK: I think his novel writing grew out of frustration in being hobbled by the screenplay format. Not being able to use the format to really convey the story, so much as providing a basic blueprint that you had to visualize the story as you went. He would tell you where to look, how to look, how to feel. In a way that was not only entertaining but also different. You’d never seen that before and a lot of writers after him mistook that for storytelling. They embraced his style, but they forgot that he was also a master yarn spinner. So you had a whole group, especially in the early ’80s and around the time of Adventures in the Screen Trade, of people writing a lot of what I would call “bitching writing.” It was super slick writing, commenting on itself, self-reverential but without the storytelling skill that Bill had. The other thing that Bill had was a real gift and what his format allowed those scripts to do was have clear transitions.
Real movie storytelling is at its heart about transition. He was able to do that with that formatting and you could feel it moving and not stopping and starting with each new scene.
DEADLINE: Film screenwriters historically have had limited clout in a director’s medium. All the President’s Men is one of the greatest American thrillers, and journalism largely a boring and repetitive pursuit. That movie made it a pulse-pounding drama. Goldman’s obit indicated he clashed loudly with Robert Redford, to the point of even regretting doing the film which won him an Academy Award. I would think that credit would be a badge of pride. Can you share what he told you about his frustration?
FRANK: It’s complicated.
GILROY: Really complicated. But think of the cast of characters warming their hands on that script, at that moment in time. You have the two people that the movie is about, who both are writers. One of them probably fancies himself as more of a storyteller, or wants to be. You have Nora Ephron, married to one of them, who will later on apologize in a most beautiful fashion to Bill, years later. You have two stars, neither of whom are known for their timidity or humility, and a director who’s incredibly gifted at the peak of his powers, who is trying to ride circus on all this. This has been legislated to death, but I’ll tell you, the main thing about this, all you need to do because this has been legislated to death. Richard Stayton did this thing in the Writer’s Guild Magazine after Redford told a biographer that basically he and Pakula hated the script and booked hotel rooms across the street from the Washington Post and rewrote the film.
Bill just…refused to talk about it. Bill was really angry about it and then this book brought back up this old, regurgitated piece of pain that said he didn’t have anything to do with it. This guy Stayton went back in and it was like the Warren Commission. He got every single draft, and wrote something that read like the most complicated script arbitration I’ve ever read. He concludes it was Bill’s script, all the way, and this was just a bunch of people who don’t really know what writing a script is about, pretending that they’re writers. That happens on a lot of movies. They just happened to be really powerful. But that’s Bill’s script. It was so painful for him to process. He was so averse to unpleasantness, as much unpleasantness as he was willing to dish out. Unpleasantness towards him, he exempted himself. So I think he was pleased by this piece. But I know he had nothing to do with it, and that he was shocked when the piece came out. I said to him, did you see this? He’s like, what is this? Why did this guy do this? Just amazing. Long story long but there it is.
FRANK: Just to your point, the problem with a lot of true-to-life screenplays is that they’re usually very episodic, trying to tick all the boxes of someone’s life, and the events that happen. Bill was on the hunt for a yarn. And the key to that yarn, the nuclear reactor for that whole story, is “follow the money.”
GILROY: And finding a frame for the movie. Where do you start that and where do you finish it? Look where he finishes it. It’s perfect.
FRANK: So much of it was about rewriting.
GILROY: But he’s also doing a love story between two guys. I mean isn’t that a love story scene?
DEADLINE: You mean when Woodward and Bernstein clash?
GILROY: When they meet, and they are reading each other’s copy and Woodward says, “Yours is better.” It’s there. That’s a foreplay scene. He manages to find that level and temperature of affection that might have not have been a natural thing between those real two guys. But that’s what we’ve come to believe. It was funny to see that in context with Butch. It’s a love story in a sense. That scene works perfectly in a fictional film with a man and woman. Perfectly.
DEADLINE: While he shied away from the confrontation on this film, he dissected movies with cynicism and frankness in columns. Did it hurt him?
FRANK: I don’t think Bill’s outspokenness hurt him. I think what happened was, this was done during a period of several years where he would say the phone didn’t ring. He was a leper. Isn’t that how he described himself, Tony?
GILROY: Yeah. Movie jail.
FRANK: I don’t think it was because he was outspoken. It was a combination of things. Somebody else becomes shinier and maybe you had a movie or two that didn’t work. So it becomes easier to look somewhere else for a while.
GILROY: By the time I met him, he was already out [of movie jail]. Adventures in the Screen Trade is the answer to your question. He writes that book when he was at a low, and then he goes on another long run after that. Also, he wrote so many movies that didn’t get made. He really went deep with [producer] Joseph E. Levine, a guy he loved. They did A Bridge Too Far together, and Joe was like, this is fantastic and I’m going to buy everything you write. Basically Joe Levine took him off the market for a couple of years. I mean he wrote a pirate movie for Joe Levine and he wrote Magic, which did get made with Anthony Hopkins.
FRANK: He worked outside the system after being abused by it.
DEADLINE: So the distance allowed him to step back and write about what was happening in the movie business?
GILROY: Bill wouldn’t disagree. He was not a great re-writer of his own work. He really put everything into getting his idea of what the movie is, the very first time. If that didn’t work or the people you were working for didn’t think it worked, he really couldn’t throw all the pieces in the air and start all over again. That’s a liability. It’s good to be able to do that. It’s hard to know if it was a luxury, that he just could afford to do it that way. Was it something that he said he couldn’t do because he didn’t want to? I tore a couple movies apart with him, so I know it can be done. Absolute Power is one that was completely torn apart, but he was really resistant to doing that.
DEADLINE: What do you mean, Absolute Power torn apart?
GILROY: He had the movie, but was about to quit because he couldn’t do it. I don’t mean to humble brag in this interview. But he said, “Hey, I got this book.” I’d never read the book. “Clint wants to play the thief but he dies halfway through.” I go, “Why does he have to die? Why doesn’t he be the hero?” He goes, “What do you mean? I can’t do that. You haven’t read the book.” I say, “I don’t give a sh*t. The book is f*cking you.” And then we went to work. There’s always a moment for every writer when the scenes start to come. Suddenly, it’s, there’s a good scene. And another and another. Once he had the bit in his mouth, once scenes started to come, then you’re like wait a minute, this is good. Maybe I can do this. There was enough candy there for him to push on and do it but he wouldn’t tear scripts apart on his own.
FRANK: There’s another thing, too. Scripts are really hard to write. There’s not a lot of words on the page and you’re only using two of your five senses. People think that they’re very easy to write but they’re really difficult and that’s why most of what we all write isn’t any good. There’s a few good ones that we cling to. When you’re writing a novel, you have a lot more room to move. You can go off and come back as long as you keep it entertaining. You can be as entertaining as you want in a screenplay but if the story isn’t pulling you along it’s very hard. I think the more success you have and the less you have to prove, the less willing you are to go back in and suffer what you have to suffer in order to rewrite it and throw so much away. It’s just hard and you begin to find ways to make yourself believe in it so that you don’t have to. That’s why Bill would say to us, “Do you want me to like it?” You do, sometimes.
DEADLINE: When you just said that’s why we cling to the ones that work out well…Goldman never directed, but he wrote like an auteur.
GILROY: We all do that. Any screenplay I’ve ever read that was worthwhile was one where the writer had already made the movie in his head. If the writer hasn’t done that, you’re wasting your time. I’m just talking about how you do your work. A great script is a movie that the writer has seen.
DEADLINE: And the script that is not great?
GILROY: When you read a script and you realize that the person really has a great idea and they really are seeing the movie but they just don’t have the actual writing skills to tell you about it. That’s a terrible thing. It’s paralyzing. The other bad script is a script where you just start reading it and go, this person is writing words and they’re writing scenes, but they’re not in it. There’s no stink in it, there’s no smell in it. They’re not really living it. It’s not a real thing for them. Bill always made…the stuff he was writing was always very real. The system…
FRANK: It’s easy to blame the system.
GILROY: I’ve got to be honest, this is another liability. Bill pulled himself away from production. I don’t want to be a director. I don’t want to go in the kitchen. I’ll write the cookbook.
DEADLINE: That’s what he said?
GILROY: I don’t want to go into specifics too much. He made too much out of that. It was a way for him to not get hurt. If I don’t love too much, if I don’t get too deeply involved…That cost him a little bit. I don’t know what kind of director he ever would have been. I think under the right circumstances and with the right producer he might have really changed his mind and been a decent director. Maybe not.
FRANK: No, because he liked the steady rhythm of life. He liked having routine. He organized around routine and rhythm. I don’t think that was as important to him as going to Knicks games, or going out. He was an artist but his life wasn’t his art.
GILROY: Once casting was over…he was really into casting.
DEADLINE: So it’s a writer’s life for him, which is based on a repetitive solitary pursuit that doesn’t bring the distraction of a movie set, and the power and ego?
FRANK: Yes. And remember the imagination.
GILROY: Pain threshold.
FRANK: There’s pain, but he had such an infinite imagination it just never ever stopped so that it was very hard to stay in one thing. I think part of what made it hard for him to rewrite is he was already processing 16 other ideas. Look at the body of work. Nobody had a career like his. You think about not just the screenplays. You think about how many novels he wrote and the time that takes, and the plays.
GILROY: And the reportage.
FRANK: The nonfiction, the books plus the magazine articles plus the odd essay, plus short stories.
GILROY: And playing the godfather, on films that he didn’t get credit on.
FRANK: All the films that he rewrote, plus the films that he helped and the writers that he helped. That’s a lot of time and it all fed him. The one thing he wasn’t was obsessive and I think most directors I know that are any good are obsessive.
GILROY: That’s really true. You’re absolutely right.
FRANK: He was not obsessive. He had infinite appetite and imagination to keep going.
DEADLINE: Both of you gravitated to where you direct what you write. There must have been a certain point in your career where you said, I can only go so far as the writer of this. I’ve got more in me. I don’t want my vision interpreted by someone else this time. Why did you guys make that leap and not him?
GILROY: One job is really hard and one job is pretty easy.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
GILROY: Writing is hard, directing is easy.
GILROY: Nobody helps you. You’re on your own. You direct a movie, everybody wants to help you. You just sit in the chair, and shop. That’s obviously a ridiculous reduction but one job is much more difficult than the other.
DEADLINE: What did your mentor say when you told Goldman you were going to direct?
GILROY: You’re crazy to do this.
FRANK: You’re crazy. Why do you want to do that?
GILROY: I should have made a movie 10 years earlier on a script that I wrote for him about paparazzi. Bill godfathered it and I just completely blew it. He really tried to help me get that movie made and I sort of boned myself on that.
DEADLINE: Your failure?
GILROY: I had a real Hamlet bad, indecisive period of time there about how I was going to live my life. But he was very, very encouraging. Over dinner or lunch, the easy line was, you guys are crazy to do this. I can’t believe you do this. How do you do this? He’d come to the set and be like “Oh, my God, I’ve got to get out of here. He’d come for 10 minutes to meet George or come for 10 minutes to meet Julie or come for 10 minutes and say hello and look around.” He’d be like, I can’t believe you’re doing this. I’ve got to get out of here.
FRANK: And off he went.
DEADLINE: He had a complete allergic reaction to it?
FRANK: Oh, completely. But keep in mind, this was a man who was told his whole life that he was not the talented one in the family. That his brother Jim was.
GILROY: You’re going to go there?
FRANK: I don’t think he believed…he believed that. He was never…
DEADLINE: He was taught something early and accepted a limitation? That happens a lot in life.
FRANK: Well, he didn’t accept it as a limitation. It was just hard for him to believe and there were moments of real grandiosity, healthy grandiosity from him and there were moments I think in this deep, dark place, this isn’t real. I don’t deserve this.
GILROY: Bill always had a lot on his fastball. But this is who we are. People will ask me, why are your scripts so propulsive? My answer always was, and it’s true, because I’m so desperate and terrified that I will lose your attention. I’ve probably warped my career and my writing in some ways, maybe to the negative, by my absolute craven need to hang onto your attention and make you turn the page. I thought that was an original thought of mine. We went back through his interviews [for his memorial]. And there I’m watching Bill answer the same question, saying, “I just do that because I’m so needy. I can’t believe I’m not going to lose your attention. Now, I don’t know if I heard him say that, but it is true for both of us and I know exactly how he feels and he was just desperate to take your hand and take you on a journey through story. The idea that you would not stay with him? That’s why he wrote like that, and that informed his prose. Like, here, this is what I want you to look at. This is how it what it feels like.
FRANK: He was a connoisseur of storytelling, more than writing.
GILROY: Exactly. That’s why he ran down his own writing, too.
DEADLINE: That isn’t exclusive to screenwriters. It’s true for journalists, the whole self-loathing, insecure lot of us. I’ve done a lot for The Playboy Interview, and asking good questions was only the first part of it. The goal was for the piece to feel like you were eavesdropping on a conversation with someone you would never get to sit at a table with. And it only works if the piece reads 70 mph. You can’t be self-absorbed with your questions. You ask and get out of the way. If they’re good, it’s like lighting a fuse and the answer is the firework. You feel lucky when it works, because for a moment it eases your insecurity that readers might not keep going.
GILROY: That’s why the three of us are at this table, and not three other people because so many don’t understand that.
DEADLINE: I never saw it as weakness, though.
GILROY: I’m not saying it’s a weakness. I know it can be a weakness if you become too eager to please, and too beholden to the audience. I have done that, Bill certainly did that where you’re just like…
FRANK: We’ve all done that.
DEADLINE: You mean, trying to imagine what the audience wants, and pandering to that instinct?
GILROY: You’re trying a little too hard, to keep them involved and not just get at the thing. Bill said a lot of the same things when we looked at all these interviews. We thought when we made the [tribute] film that we’d include some interview footage, but we didn’t end up doing that. In all these interviews, it was so annoying. He’d say, “My writing sucks and the only two things I’ve ever written that are any good are Princess Bride and Butch, and everything sucks, because I suck.” I finally realized that the reason he says that is, when you read Bill, it’s him. He’s all in there. I think he knew how, because he was so much there, if he liked it or you said you liked what he wrote, it was like looking in the mirror going, you’re beautiful. Because there’s no gap between him and his work. If you want a little instant Goldman recall, you want to pull him back from the dead instantly, you can literally open anything of his, and read any four lines of prose, and there he is. All of him all at once.
FRANK: Different stories, different genres, different tones.
GILROY: But the storytelling…that’s what this should really be about. It is storytelling. It’s not screenwriting. It’s storytelling.
DEADLINE: Hearing you talk about his influence reminds me of the Bob Seger lyric, “All of Chuck’s children are out there, playing his licks.” You have a mentor as good as him, you become a sponge. How many times did you write dialogue and read it back and feel his influence?
GILROY: Scott and I both, there are scenes we write and when we read them, we go, “That’s such a Bill scene.”
DEADLINE: Give me an example.
FRANK: Oh, God. It is all over Godless. I mean Butch [Cassidy and the Sundance Kid] had such a big influence on me. I could recite that entire screenplay, and the way the dialogue was both of its time and different and somehow didn’t feel…what’s the word?
GILROY: I’m trying to think of my own example. I’m working for myself over here. You’re on your own.
FRANK: I don’t even know. I mean, let me think about it.
DEADLINE: Two top screenwriters, at a loss for words…
FRANK: I feel like he’s embedded in my way [of writing]. He changed my writing at a very DNA level. I feel like there’s Before Bill, and After Bill. Before Bill, interestingly enough, it was more about imitating. After Bill, I was more about keeping things in mind. Thwarting convention and expectation because that was the stuff he was all about. Different things stay with you, with Bill, but I guess it’s less about what I just said. And as much as I like Butch, what I like is that it thwarts expectation and that it keeps building on itself. Setups and payoffs, all these things that were right there and used so deliciously, or great obstacles. By the way, they’re all in Butch, too, but they’re in all of [his scripts]. I think that’s really what it was for me. Just this way of thinking. And it started, by the way, with one of his books too. With Boys and Girls Together. Every little chapter in Boys and Girls Together subverts itself.
GILROY: But it’s also instilling in you that, if I don’t surprise you and if I don’t upend you at the end of this, you may turn away. You may not continue to pay attention. I just have to constantly…
FRANK: And his least successful stories are the ones that try to deliver on what you’re waiting for in a way that feels like he’s servicing something other than his own voice or idea.
DEADLINE: A specific example of great Goldman?
GILROY: There’s a scene in the script from Marathon Man, remember the one we talked about, Scott? Where Roy Scheider meets the other hitman and the guy who was supposed to kill him. There’s this a scene where Roy Scheider comes and sees this other hitman in the bathroom and the guy says, oh, wow. They’re like, I’m not here to kill you right now. I’m not here to kill you. He goes, OK, you missed me last year and did you kill Fleisher. Did I kill Fleisher? He goes, where are you going? He says I’m going to Paris. You’re going to Paris. He goes, God, let’s switch our seats and we can sit together and we can talk. He goes, they’re flying me coach. Now, that’s not in the movie. It got cut out of the movie. It’s in the script and that’s why I remember it so vividly. Anytime I write a scene between professionals, two professionals head to head like Borne Legacy when Jeremy Renner and Oscar Isaac are in the cabin together and they’re eating together. The whole time I’m doing that scene I’m going this is Bill all the way. Are you evaluating me or am I evaluating you? If you can turn it upside down at the end, they’re flying me coach. Also, the scene in The Bourne Supremacy when Matt Damon is waiting for the German assassin at his house.
DEADLINE: Here are those Marathon Man pages:
DEADLINE: Scott, you adapted Get Shorty from the Elmore Leonard novel and one of my favorite scenes fits this. It is where John Travolta’s Chili Palmer is confronted in the parking garage by James Gandolfini’s hired tough guy. Chili knocks his opponent down and instead of teeing off in some violent fit, he helps the guy lean against the car and he says, so you’re a stuntman? Which movies did you do? And it goes from adversarial to a bond that pays off late in the film.
FRANK: I’m 90 percent certain that’s in the book.
GILROY: It’s saucy.
FRANK: I would say that was very Elmore Leonard, even more than Bill.
GILROY: But they’re cousins in a way.
FRANK: They are definitely cousins, without a doubt.
GILROY: Bill loved characters with some form of excellence, which we’ve paid the rent doing for years.
DEADLINE: Peter Morgan, an accomplished screenwriter and playwright himself, said in a tribute to Goldman that, I can only imagine what Bill Goldman would have accomplished if he was in this age right now where all the great writers are doing television and they are the author.
GILROY: What do you think about that? Because they have to run the show. They have to stay involved. I’m not sure he’s right.
FRANK: Novels served that function for him. One thing that’s great about writing a novel is you have your version there, forever. He had that with his novels. His originals that were made into movies…
GILROY: Butch, Magic, Waldo Pepper, Marathon Man is his. There’s a bunch of them.
FRANK: But I am thinking his books. It is a persona thing. I find that the itch you scratch in television is more about being able to not be so limited. It’s very easy and tempting to over-indulge but movies have become very limited and things that you couldn’t do in movies and you didn’t want to do over eight years on television, you can do now in a limited way that’s interesting. The books were a version of that for him. He always said, if I didn’t write books, I would be miserable.
GILROY: But he stopped such a long time ago.
FRANK: But he said, if I wasn’t also writing novels I never would have been happy. There’s that great John Gregory Dunne quote just wanting to be a screenwriter is like just wanting to be a copilot. So you have to do something else. For Bill it was novels. For us it’s directing. Something else.
GILROY: I’m not sure Bill would have had the administrative patience.
FRANK: Or interest. He doesn’t care. We were saying [at the memorial] he couldn’t make coffee for himself.
GILROY: When we worked there, you’d get to The Carlyle and then you’d order Viand coffee, enough for the day. He couldn’t make coffee. He had a driver’s license but I never saw him drive a car. I don’t think he ever did his own laundry in his life.
FRANK: He wasn’t curious about how things work, which I think to direct or run a show you have to be. He was curious about a billion other things, but not how things work.
GILROY: His grasp on the physical world, that’s a limiting factor for writers. There’s certain kinds of things you can’t write…he was not in touch with the physical world.
DEADLINE: Most satisfying about his memorial?
GILROY: Everybody came at it from a different place. Mike Lupica talked about Bill’s obsession with the Knicks, and sports. Peter Gethers talked about the books, talked about his generosity and Scott talked about mentors.
FRANK: Just how many people he’s helped over the years. Tony did his imagination. Everybody kind of covered it. One of the best was Susan Burden, his partner over the last 26 years. Johnny Kander…
GILROY: Met Bill at summer camp when he was 12 and Bill was 10. He was Jim’s best friend. Johnny Kander wrote New York, New York and Cabaret and everything. He is a junior at Overland when Bill is a freshman. Jim Goldman, Johnny Kander and Bill move into an apartment on 72nd Street. Nine-bedroom apartment for 275 dollars a month and they lived there in their young 20s. Bill’s going to Columbia and he’s the kid; Jim’s out trying to be a novelist and Johnny Kander is trying to write songs. They had the same doctor, that their pediatrician from back home got them a doctor. In ’66 or ’67, Kander won the Tony for Cabaret. The next year, Bill wins the Academy Award for Butch and the next year Jim wins the Academy Award for Lion in Winter. The doctor said, when you guys went into show business I thought you were kidding. I didn’t think you were serious! Johnny Kander is 91 and he told such great stories. And 200 yards from their apartment, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Bobby Duvall shared an apartment.
DEADLINE: The Goldman line, Nobody knows anything, has many uses. When a movie overachieves, or a sure-fire hit flops. Did he intend for that phrase to have so many uses about the futility of trying to predict success in the movie business?
GILROY: It just gets flogged so much, that we tried to ignore it [at his memorial]. It gets annoying. My speech was based on something else Bill used to say all the time. “Here’s what you must know.”
FRANK: He would also say, here’s what you don’t know about yourself.
GILROY: But nobody knows anything? I don’t know the ground zero of that. It’s just something that looks good on a coaster, and it becomes a thing. I don’t know. It’s not my favorite thing. He knew a lot.
FRANK: He knew a lot.
DEADLINE: When Deadline was the first to reveal he passed away, I included this anecdote the late Jonathan Demme told me about Silence of the Lambs, where Bill Goldman came to a screening just as the director was locking picture, called Demme the next day, didn’t know him, but made suggestions to speed up the movie. Here’s that passage:
There will be people better versed to describe the fact that Goldman knew more than many, but I will recount an anecdote that the late Jonathan Demme told me when I did a look back on the 25th anniversary of the making of The Silence of the Lambs. Demme had the picture locked, and had a friends and family screening of the film before he turned in the cut. One of the attendees was Goldman, whom Demme didn’t know all that well. The following day, Goldman called. Well, better to let Demme tell it:
“We watched the movie,” Demme said. “It played like gangbusters, and we got terrific response from the audience. Craig [McKay, the film’s editor] and I were high-fiving each other. Okay, we’re locked, baby. I got a phone call the next day at my house. ‘Hi, this is William Goldman calling.’ I was like, ‘Oh, hi. God, one of my favorite writers of all time.’ He said he thought the picture was terrific, but he thought there was one section that was holding it back from its full potential power. This came after Dr. Lecter escapes, and there was this scene that took somewhere between eight and twelve minutes. Jack Crawford is called on the carpet. They are summoned by the attorney general, who was played by Roger Corman. Crawford’s kicked off the case. Clarice is kicked out of the academy. They go downstairs, and there’s this blistering, really terrific scene on the steps. Clarice just can’t let go of saving the senator’s daughter. Her brain is going a mile a minute, and Crawford is telling her, ‘Didn’t you hear what happened up there? I’m off the case. You’re out of this thing. There’s no way on earth…’ But she said she was going to Calumet. Clarice looks at Crawford and says, ‘God Dammit Jack, I’m going.’ We cut to her in the car, crossing the bridge where she’s about to encounter Buffalo Bill. So Goldman said, ‘Take all that out.’ I’m like, ‘What? That’s one of the biggest scenes in the movie. Really? What?’ And he says, ‘That’s what my gut’s telling me. You guys should really take a look at it.’ So I was like, ‘Well, listen, thank you for this. Goodbye.’
“I got to the cutting room and told Craig about this conversation, almost laughing about it. Craig was not really pleased because we were really…locked. But we said, let’s just take that section out, and watch the movie again, right here on the Steenbeck in the cutting room. So we lifted it out, watched it. And the power of just going to Jodie without all that other stuff…I think Goldman might’ve called it ‘the third act launchpad exposition stuff.’ It was just an extraordinary difference, an immeasurable improvement. That is William Goldman.”
So my question: how many times did you each write something you thought was great, only to have him dash your hopes with advice that you later realized was right?
FRANK: I have a million examples of me giving things to him and having that happen.
GILROY: We’ve all had our souls crushed, by each other. Scott crushed my soul when we thought we had Bill’s tribute movie cut, and he walks in and says, no, this is not good enough. We had to start over. So Scott, don’t be all one-way street here.
FRANK: I’ve had two great writing teachers in my life. First, Lindsay Doran, who really taught me how to write. She worked with me on Dead Again. Then Bill was my master’s degree, my finishing school. Instead of crushing you, he was always about, this is how it could be better, or this is what you should watch out for. It was never, it’s all bad. It was more about that way of thinking. If you just think about it this way.
GILROY: And a lot about cuts. You don’t need this.
FRANK: You’re racing for curtain, was always his expression. You’re nearing the end, you’re racing for curtain, you don’t need any of this.
GILROY: There’s nothing that feels better than cutting. Anybody who’s a pro, the feeling of cutting something that you don’t need, and realizing you don’t need it…anybody who says, do you know how long I worked on this? You cut something that you’ve worked on for months and then it’s gone, and you don’t need it and you just freed up all those pages? It feels so good because we’re in the real estate business. We never have enough room on the lot, ever. That’s why television is so intriguing for everybody. Our entire lives are built on the 120-page attention span. When you clear out that much real estate, you just feel good. Bill was really good about, we don’t need this.
FRANK: For a guy who had no interest in directing he had a real skill at organizing images so that you didn’t have to say something. Also, for a guy who was so good at dialogue he had a great way of…
GILROY: Working the cuts, as he called it. Screenwriting is 40 percent transitions. So many times, you have a great scene and you’re having a great run and the only thing that’s hanging you up to have another great day tomorrow is, you don’t have the cut. The transitions are more important than the scenes and Bill was really, really completely intuitively brilliant at knowing how to get out, get in.
FRANK: The way it stayed with me is…I think about a couple of things in Godless, and in everything I’ve written since. You have these long, talkie scenes. How do you keep them interesting, both with what’s happening in the middle of it that interrupts this talk and also how do you make the talk itself its own play, with tension, twists and turns? So that you’re still getting the information you need but there are reveals and surprises. You can have long scenes of dialogue but they have to ebb and flow, rise and fall, do all those things and have real tension and surprise. He could do that. All the President’s Men is full of that. I think of the scene in that movie, where they go to interview the woman and they think they’re getting a story about one thing and she was complaining about work.
DEADLINE: She thinks the Washington Post is sending reporters to readers’ homes, canvassing for opinions.
GILROY: For me, Bill was all about storytelling, not screenwriting. He’s kind of the person who turned screenwriting into much more of a campfire story. He left so many cultural tranches of importance. I don’t know what time does. Time marches on and it rolls over. Everybody gets rolled over at some point.
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