“I’m working in the outhouse again.” That’s how Ben Hecht, the fabled screenwriter, used to describe toiling in Hollywood. “And the nitwits are still in charge,” he assured his friends.
Hecht wrote terrific movies like Scarface and Notorious but he hated studio chiefs, and it was mutual. His name came to mind last week when Don Winslow posted his poignant piece on Deadline reminding producers and executives that writers of books and scripts these days could use a little more love. Given the tensions of the moment, he argued, a few friendly phone calls (and even checks) would bolster sagging writer morale.
Winslow is responsible for bestselling novels like The Cartel and The Border and he is, I am told, a friendly guy, but he doesn’t seem to understand the rules of the game. Fear and loathing, not love, have always been integral to life in the “outhouse.” Perhaps Winslow has become too successful to understand the historic importance of friction.
Hollywood has always been better at firing writers than at hiring them. On Casablanca, successive writers were fired with such regularity that quarrels about credits continued for a generation. Alfred Hitchcock was so enthusiastic about Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho that he bought out its first printing so no one could steal the idea, then promptly fired Bloch before he could even finish his first draft.
The great Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, once explained to me that he would systematically fire his screenwriter after committing to a movie. “An auteur must discard the pages and focus on the aesthetic, not the words,” he said. David Hemmings, the star of his film Blow-Up, confided that neither he, nor his director, ever understood the plot.
In prepping Chinatown, Jack Nicholson reminded Bob Towne that his dialogue was unimportant to the movie. “Skip the words, I can do it with a ‘look’,” Steve McQueen, the great
action star, used to tell directors.
Directors have famously wanted to fire their writers even when they themselves wrote the script. In his new book, Woody Allen expresses his disdain for the writer of Manhattan (his script). He felt the same way even after he saw the finished product.
How did all this start? A generation ago, Hollywood got into the dangerous habit of reaching outside its writing fraternity to bring in distinguished novelists and playwrights to help solve serious script problems. Hence celebrity prize winners like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and, of course, Ben Hecht, were shuffled in to perform body-and-fender work on screenplays.
Out of curiosity, I once took a couple of weeks off to read several of the screenplays written (or rewritten) by these “greats.” Alas, I found them pretty awful. But the “notes” exchanged between the star writers and their studio benefactors contained memorable invective. Hecht, who once did a rewrite on Gone With the Wind (as did virtually every other writer in Hollywood), told producer David O. Selznick, “You bought a hack-for-hire so you got hack work.”
While the script battles have often been operatic, lasting friendships also developed. Billy Friedkin didn’t know William Peter Blatty when he committed to shoot The Exorcist, but they bonded as they worked their way through the complex script, with one important exception. Blatty felt the movie’s ending was too abrupt, lacking a positive note. The disagreement continued for decades. Almost 30 years later, when the hit was ready for re-release, Friedkin decided his lifelong friend had a point after all. “I gave him his ending,” Friedkin recalls. “Maybe I should have done it years ago.”
Winslow himself admits that Oliver Stone, who directed Savages, his first bestseller, “drove me nuts.” In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, he recalled Stone asking him to help scout locations so he could learn “what a marijuana dealer’s house looks like.” He could never find one to his satisfaction.