William Goldman on Screenwriting

The Marquis Ballroom of Los Angeles’ Marriott Hotel is packed to the rafters, all of its temporary seats filled, with scores more sitting cross-legged on the floor at the back of the hall. We are here for a talk by William Goldman, the double Oscar winning screenwriter and source of perhaps the most quoted line about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything”.

William Goldman’s success lies in his accessibility and candour: he is, he insists, one of us. “We’re at the same level and we have to deal with idiots,” he says. It is a remark that goes down well with the diverse crowd who have come from across America and all over the world, heavy New York accents mingling with those from Germany, Sweden, Britain and even Australia.

He first came to public attention when he received $400,000 for writing the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, at the time an unprecedented amount for a writer. He claims he was pilloried by the press who couldn’t see why he got such a large amount. Fortunately for Goldman, the 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford was a success and won its writer his first Oscar. “It was a fluke,” he shrugs simply. “We got lucky.” He freely admits to stealing the film’s iconic ending where Butch and The Kid evade capture by leaping from a cliff from the 1939 film Gunga Din. “Fitzgerald once said there are no second acts in American lives but I think Cassidy and The Kid proved him wrong,” he says and speaks at length about the lives of the two criminals in South America of which he says there was “no chance” of depicting on the big screen.

Goldman is not the sort of writer who claims to love obscure French movies from long ago. His tastes are unashamedly popularist: he says that he “loves” the recent Spiderman movies and it is clear he still regularly visits the multiplex. He has just seen Flags of Our Fathers, the World War II movie directed by Clint Eastwood, who Goldman describes as “one of the greatest directors of our time”.

Dressed casually in a V-neck jumper, sports jacket and tan trousers, he sits relaxed in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him. At 75, he still has a shock of grey hair. He holds the microphone in both hands perched on his chest, leaning his head forward slightly to speak into it. The audience listens respectfully – even when Goldman repeatedly lets the microphone slip away, reducing his patter to an inaudible murmur to all but the front row.

Goldman worries about the state of the Hollywood film industry today. “It’s hard to pick five Best Movies for Oscars now,” he says, blaming the studios current obsession with producing star-driven projects. “Executives today, they don’t give a fiddler’s fuck about movies,” he rails. “They think, ‘What can we get for Brad Pitt?'”

But few stars today can hold a candle to the likes of Newman and Redford. He recounts the story about Russell Crowe who faced charges earlier this year for assaulting a hotel employee. “Russell really hurt himself with that incident,” says Goldman. And don’t get him started on Mel Gibson: “‘I really love Jews except when I’m drinking.’ What’s that about?” His comments about Gibson has the audience laughing appreciatively. “I hope you never have to work with stars,” he goes on. “They don’t mean shit in a crumby movie.”

None of his early films, such as his 1966 adaptation of the thriller Harper, would get made today, Goldman insists. TV, he says, is now the thinking man’s cinema with shows such as Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60, which began recently on NBC and stars former Friends actor Matthew Perry.

Goldman won his second Oscar for his adaptation of the book by Washington Post journalists, Benjamin Bradlee and Bob Woodward. But he describes making All the President’s Men as the worst experience of his life. This was where he learnt that the writer has no power: “The least powerful director has more power than you,” he says. “It’s a terrible experience watching something you made turn to shit.”

Yes, even Oscar-winning screenwriters can sometimes be served a curve ball: it took 15 years for his children’s fairy tale, The Princess Bride, to reach the screen and then only after Goldman bought the project back with his own money, “something I’m very proud of,” he adds. The project started out as a bedroom story for his two daughters. “I asked them what they wanted the story to be about. One said ‘princesses’ the other said ‘brides’ and that was it. It was the best writing experience I ever had.”

The movie, released in 1987 with Cary Elwes and Robin Wright Penn in the lead roles, was in his words “a flop”. “We just died,” he admits. Though the movie didn’t perform well at the box office, it did do very well on video and DVD. Now there is talk of turning the movie into a musical for the film’s 20th anniversary in 2007 but once again Goldman just shrugs: he’ll believe it when he sees it.

On becoming a writer, he is self-deflating. “I don’t like my writing,” he says surprisingly. At college, his stories were roundly panned (“shit” was the word most often used to describe his work, his says). He tells us that he got bad grades throughout college and received hundreds of rejection letters for his stories. But his bad run was dramatically brought to an end with the publication in 1957 of his first novel, The Temple of Gold, a coming-of-age story set in the American Midwest in the 1950s. The book, he says, was written in less than three weeks. “My life totally changed – I became a novelist.”

Temple of Gold was well-received and led to another, Boys and Girls Together, in 1964. It was this novel that led to him being invited to work on the 1965 movie Masquerade, a spy thriller. Thus began his career as one of Hollywood’s most famous script doctors. And now Goldman puts one rumour to bed – that it was he who actually wrote Good Will Hunting and not first-timers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who were awarded the Best Screenplay Oscar in 1997. All Goldman did was suggest that they remove a storyline about the FBI. He says he thinks it’s sad that the pair have not written anything since. “It’s all a crap shoot what we do,” he says.

And with that, the session is over. Everyone gets to their feet and the elder statesman of screenwriting ambles off to ear-ringing applause.