The great lesson of William Goldman's last great book about screenwriting,
Adventures in the Screen Trade, was that in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything." The suits, the directors, the reporters, the actors. None of them. In the seventeen years since
that book was published, the amount of "insider" knowledge of the filmaking process
available to the general public has grown exponentially. ET, EW, Premier, Movieline, dozens of web sites, all tell us what really happens in Hollywood: who threw a shit-fit, how much a movie is over its budget, what the weekend box office totals were. So we are now a country of insiders. And you know what? We still don't know anything. At least
that is what William Goldman maintains in
his new book, Which Lie Did I Tell? More
Adventures in the Screen Trade. While many books purport to blow the lid off
Hollywood, mistakenly believing that tales of sex, drugs or hyper-inflated egos are
somehow instructive, William Goldman is one of the few people working in the film
industry with the experience, intelligence and guts to write this combination how-to book
and survival manual.
Goldman divides Which Lie into four parts: his own post-Adventures experiences,
discussions of the work of writers he admires, what constitutes a movie-worthy story,
and, finally, the first draft of a screenplay with commentary by Goldman's
contemporaries. In other words, the book functions as a graduate workshop in
screenwriting with a great, if occasionally fractious, professor. He tells tales of his two
great loves, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, and his worst
failure, The Year of the Comet. His failures, or near failures, provide the best opportunity
for instruction. Every person who has ever complained that the movie was not as good as
the book should read the chapter on the difficulties of adapting the novel Absolute Power to the screen. Also, the original screenplay offers the novice writer a marvelous
illustration of screenwriting process.
But like many great teachers, Goldman can oversimplify in the name of clarity.
For instance, his distinction between "Hollywood" and "independent" films seems grotesque.
According to Goldman, Hollywood films most often reaffirm and reassure us while
independent films challenge us. To me, Goldman is really using the two already
misleading categories (What constitutes independent anyway? Non-studio financing?
Alternative distribution channels?) to split two basic types of films: the ones he likes and
the ones he doesn't. Let's be clear here. Goldman likes movies that entertain, that have
coherent narratives, that do not aspire to anything beyond popular art. He's not interested
in, to paraphrase Kafka, breaking the frozen ocean of the soul.
Despite his roguish attitude, Goldman embodies Hollywood at its best. In his
grumpy way, he demands recognition of the importance of the screenwriter, as well as the
difficulty of her craft. Goldman's sage advice is welcome, but one wonders how long it
will reflect the reality of movie making. When you can make a movie for ten thousand
dollars, distribute it on the web, and ignore Hollywood and all it stands for, will Goldman
really have anything to say that doesn't seem quaint? Absolutely. Because what Goldman
understands, what he really knows, is how to write a story for the screen that people
actually want to see.