You get the feeling, when you read Adventures In The Screen Trade, that the author (and the incredibly successful screenwriter) William Goldman is all about structure.
He has brought clarity and meaning to films such as All The President’s Men, A Bridge Too Far, Marathon Man, and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. In life, he has approached these projects with a well-planned method, and the determination to see them through to completion. And in writing this book about those screenplays he has given us one of the most ordered and understandable books ever written about how screenplays work. He claims structure is everything; well, he proves it here.
It’s a beautifully laid out book that is arranged into three equally enjoyable sections. Section One gives you an overview of each facet of movie-making, starting with the jobs of the key players (How do stars get made, and what do they bring to a project? What is the role of a producer?) and moving through many different elements so that you get a strong sense of how many people have to come together to turn an idea into a film. As with many of the best books about film, you end up wondering how on Earth one ever gets successfully made.
And then onwards to Section Two, where Goldman reminisces about a number of projects he has worked on. Not all have been positive experiences for him (in fact, very few have really worked from his point of view; being a screenwriter seems to mean that your work gets treated with little respect and rarely makes it to the screen intact) but his honesty about when and where things went wrong results in an enlightening read. Goldman has a pared-down-to-the-bone style that cuts through to the heart of any issue. If that means recording his own failings and bad behaviour on occasion, then that is what he does, although others receive the same treatment, of course. If he didn’t manage to make the grade as a screenwriter at times, there were instances where he was let down badly by those around him too.
But my favourite section of the book is the third, where Goldman takes one of his own short stories and turns it into a screenplay so we can see exactly how the process works. He writes down every decision he makes as to what needs to be cut or kept, shown or suggested. Then he gives the screenplay to others in the movie business and asks them for honest feedback.
In terms of providing an insight into the many problems that can affect what looks on the surface to be a simple project, I can think of no book better than Adventures In The Screen Trade. Every profession brings their own feedback to the table, adding issues that you would never have suspected of existing. The costume designer points out that the length of hair of the star will be a key factor, and wigs will have to be specially made. The cinematographer adds insight into key scenes, and the editor reflects on how shots could be framed to strengthen a particular character who will otherwise come across as weak. Then the director (Goldman asks George Roy Hill, director of The Sting and Butch Cassidy to take a look) adds a few well-chosen words and the entire project suddenly looks impossible.
Nobody agrees on how to approach material, that much becomes obvious. But the critiques of the professionals is not, I think, a destructive experience. Instead Goldman stresses how all the feedback can make a project so much stronger, and better than he could ever manage in the first draft of a screenplay. If you ever needed proof that film is a collaborative effort, then reading Section Three of Adventures In The Screen Trade will prove it to you. It’s also invaluable help if you are a writer yourself.
Goldman wrote this book in 1983 and went on afterwards to many more projects (The Princess Bride, Misery, Maverick…). Obviously many things have changed since it was first published. Any form of research needed during the creative process has been made so much easier by the internet, for instance. Special effects are radically different, and technology continues to transform the filmmaking process. But I wonder if some things will always remain the same – such as the fact that it takes a lot of positive energy and honest communication to make a great film.
Alas, that’s not the only element that has remained the same. Although the stars of the 1970s and 1980s were Redford, Newman, Eastwood, Streisand and McQueen, they could all easily be updated in production discussions without changing any other words. Everyone scrabbles to attract big names, in order to guarantee big money. Rewrites, in-fighting, and ballooning budgets are all familiar too. And remakes seemed to be as common in 1983 as they are now; when you have no idea what will succeed, why not bet on what seems to be a sure thing? Fittingly for the man who wrote one of the most popular Westerns of all time, this book gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly of the movie business.
Goldman tells us upfront – “Nobody knows anything”. That certainly hasn’t changed either. Why do some projects work and others fail? He can provide only specific examples, but there are no general rules in Hollywood, no matter how much the producers would like there to be. But rules to screenwriting, and to writing an entertaining book about the business? I’ll go along with Goldman. Structure might not be everything, but it certainly helps.