Of course, popular impressions aside, screenwriters have been central to moviemaking since the first motion picture audiences got past the sheer novelty of seeing pictures that moved at all. Soon they wanted to know: What happens next? In this truly fresh perspective on the movies, veteran Oscar-winning screenwriter Marc Norman gives us the first comprehensive history of the men and women who have answered that question, from Anita Loos, the highest-paid screenwriter of her day, to Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, and other paradigm-busting talents reimagining movies for the new century.
The whole rich story is here: Herman Mankiewicz and the telegram he sent from Hollywood to his friend Ben Hecht in New York: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” The unlikely sojourns of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner as Hollywood screenwriters. The imposition of the Production Code in the early 1930s and the ingenious attempts of screenwriters to outwit the censors. How the script for Casablanca, “a disaster from start to finish,” based on what James Agee judged to be “one of the world’s worst plays,” took shape in a chaotic frenzy of writing and rewriting—and how one of the most famous denouements in motion picture history wasn’t scripted until a week after the last scheduled day of shooting—because they had to end the movie somehow.
Norman explores the dark days of the Hollywood blacklist that devastated and divided Hollywood’s screenwriting community. He charts the rise of the writer-director in the early 1970s with names like Coppola, Lucas, and Allen and the disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate that led the studios to retake control. He offers priceless portraits of the young William Hurt, Steven Spielberg, and Steven Soderbergh. And he describes the scare of 2005 when new technologies seemed to dry up the audience for movies, and the industry—along with its screenwriters—faced the necessity of reinventing itself as it had done before in the face of sound recording, color, widescreen, television, and other technological revolutions.
Impeccably researched, erudite, and filled with unforgettable stories of the too often overlooked, maligned, and abused men and women who devised the ideas that others brought to life in action and words on-screen, this is a unique and engrossing history of the quintessential art form of our time.
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It’s July 1914, and here’s D. W. Griffith, striding across the Hollywood Hills. Not the south slope, the one that looks down on the suburb of dusty avenues, pepper trees, and the nondescript cantonments of the first movie studios; this is the north slope, the one that faces the wild, mostly unpopulated San Fernando Valley, with the wispy Los Angeles River trickling at its foot and only some emanation in the air to suggest that Warner Bros.—today, the Burbank Studios—will spread and dominate the far bank within a few years.
The slope, a few square miles of it, belongs to Uncle Carl Laemmle of Universal Studios—Griffith has leased it for a month. In its weedy meadows, surrounded by chaparral and live oak, he is filming a movie about the American Civil War with thousands of men, hundreds of horses, and everything he has learned or discovered in seven obsessive years of moviemaking, an average of one one-reeler, meaning fifteen minutes or so of finished and titled film, a week. The name on the call sheets is The Clansman, but the movie will be renamed The Birth of a Nation sometime after its release, and it will raise a hurricane of political protest. It will be Griffith’s capolavoro, his masterpiece, his claim for the laurel of World’s Greatest Movie Director. It will be America’s first great feature-length film, it will be the first grand American example of movie writer-director myopia and wrongheadedness, but the controversy will do it no harm since most of the country will go to a theater to see what the fuss is about. It’s the first American film to bankrupt the company that finances it (and will not be the last). It’s the first American blockbuster.
The movie is based on a novel both popular and denounced in its day, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. Griffith met Dixon in New York in 1906, near the end of his unremarkable acting career; he and his wife, Linda Arvidson (whose status he kept secret from those around him, for reasons never quite clear), had managed to get themselves cast in The One Woman, a Dixon play that opened on Broadway. Griffith and Dixon had the South in common, Griffith Kentucky, Dixon North Carolina, and Dixon had dabbled at acting, but there they diverged. Griffith in 1906 was an identified failure: Larry Griffith, the little-known, overacting spear-carrier in quarter-dollar companies that toured jerkwater towns on milk trains. Dixon had studied law, become a state legislator, and answering a call, become a preacher, moved to New York in the late 1890s and was crying from the pulpit of his nondenominational church, in what’s remembered as powerful oratory, a thundering appeal for justice for the poor, justice for the disadvantaged, for immigrants, for women. But at some point, as Richard Schickel notes, this democracy-praising Progressive turned racist.
It’s not clear why. Schickel speculates that Dixon was responding to a spasm of racial fear that spread through the nation following the Spanish-American War, a sense that the dark-skinned races the country had suddenly inherited in the Pacific and the Caribbean could never attain democracy, and Dixon leaped to the next step, concluding that neither could blacks in America, that they were an eternally savage race, a misstep, a blocked road in human evolution, and so a threat to Anglo-Saxons. Dixon folded his beliefs into fiction, dashing off his first novel while on a lecture tour in 1901: The Leopard’s Spots detailed the crimes of blacks against whites during Reconstruction in his native North Carolina.
The Clansman (1903) was Dixon’s second novel, with more muscular prose, more galloping tension, and now praise for the Ku Klux Klan. It also had a more commercial hook—rape and miscegenation. Another best seller, the novel was adapted for the stage, premiering in New York in 1905 and turning up in provincial theaters for years to come. Griffith undoubtedly saw the New York production—given how much attention he devotes to it in his movie, his favorite scene from the play, perhaps his most passionate reason for making the movie at all, was the Klan’s cross-country gallop to track down and lynch the heroine’s black defiler. Griffith uses the ride of the Klan in The Birth of a Nation for his thrilling third-act climax, but notice—in the movie the girl dies, but no one is hanged. There’s no particular evidence Griffith was a racist; turn-of-the-century American racism was a political-historical construct probably too complex for him to understand or explain. Griffith was a genius, but nobody ever claimed he was very bright. He was a director—he liked all that riding.
The best account of the movie’s production comes from Karl Brown, who’d signed on as an assistant cameraman to Griffith’s director of photography—the difficult, remarkable Billy Bitzer—a year earlier, when he was seventeen. Griffith fascinated Brown—he jotted down the sayings, habits, and quirks of the Master on the blank back pages of his assistant’s notebook. Griffith was known for tramping about the set loudly singing snatches of opera and familiar folk songs while the crew set up shots. During the filming of the Klan chase in the flatlands south of Los Angeles near El Monte, Brown recorded that Griffith was singing a three-note fanfare, “ha-haaah-yah, ha-haaah-yah,” over and over, at the top of his voice, as the Klansmen pounded past the camera. Brown sketched a stave and tried to write down the notes.
What surprised Brown most was that the picture had no script. You could buy the novel at a bookstore, and the text of the play existed somewhere. Word had it that Frank Woods, a longtime Griffith collaborator and supporter since Biograph days, had broken down the novel into a continuity, a list of the major scenes, but if there was such a document, it was nowhere in sight; Brown saw no text sticking out of Griffith’s hip pocket during the three months of shooting. The scenes were improvised according to Griffith’s usual casual manner—turn the actors loose on the set, let them block themselves, come up with their own lines, try it one way, try another, make suggestions, take suggestions from anyone, and finally tell them exactly what he wanted them to do. They had all day.
In 1914 movies have been around for twenty-four years. America’s greatest director is making the greatest American film to date, and there’s no screenplay.
Two popular art forms were hitting a wall at the end of the nineteenth century. Photography was one of them—photography was dying to find a way to move, but it didn’t know how.
In the 1890s photography had achieved almost all it ever would, absent color and stereoscopy, but even those technologies were only a few years on. Still photography could render either a document—a factual reproduction of something at a point in time, Matthew Brady’s Civil War pictures, Jacob Riis’s Bowery studies—or a manipulated image in the style of Julia Cameron, something closer to painting and trying to imitate it, cloudy, gauzy, often surreal, with multiple exposures, Faerie Children, the Lady of the Lake, a darkroom product and, with the Victorian predilection, often sentimental, allegorical. What photography couldn’t do was show duration, something progressing, in space and over time.
The building blocks were there. With the parlor toys of the 1840s, all those Zoetropes and Praxilloscopes and Phenakistoscopes, the ability to visually simulate motion by interrupting a series of consecutive images with something like a shutter—in the case of the Zoetrope, simply a slit in the cylinder—was widely known. The optical-neural event, the fact that the human retina retains an image for an instant after the image is removed, was even named: the persistence of vision.
But the next advance toward photographic motion was clunky, crude, the result of a rich man’s wager. In 1872 Leland Stanford, a railroad magnate, was rusticating at his vast farm south of San Francisco, breeding Thoroughbreds. He found himself arguing with a wealthy chum over what up to then had been strictly speculation: when horses gallop, do all four feet leave the ground? Stanford said yes, the chum no, $25,000 was bet. Stanford hired a well-known professional photographer in San Francisco, vowel-happy Eadweard Muybridge, to take pictures of—make a document of—a galloping horse and settle the question.
Stanford turned to Muybridge because he was at hand, but also because he’d been inching toward moving pictures. Styling himself an artiste, Muybridge had made, in the service of his fellow artistes, a series of studies, a folio of male and female bodies in motion, men performing common tasks, hammering a nail, placing a ladder, women lifting a jug, a dancer twirling, something close to stop-frame animation, with the models freezing in midaction while Muybridge replaced the negative, then advanced their motion slightly for the next shot, and so on through the end of the movement. His folio was like a flip-book of images without the ability to flip them, a movie with most of the frames removed.
But horses were another matter—they wouldn’t pause in midstride while the photographer reloaded. Muybridge solved the problem by using multiple cameras with fast shutters, eighty of them, side by side in a row along the inside back stretch of the Stanford track, each triggered electromagnetically by a horse’s hoof touching a wire as it hurled past. It was a brute-force solution, but it worked—the document was rendered, a clear photograph of a horse in motion with all four feet off the ground, and Stanford won the bet.
Muybridge’s brainstorm was talked about in photographic circles, but it led nowhere, until recalled a few years later by that great nineteenth-century American hero and paradigm Thomas Edison. Edison, the brilliant Promethean inventor, was beloved, even worshipped by his countrymen, an amalgam of two myths most dear to American hearts: the clever, self-sufficient Yankee Doodle and the young, upwardly mobile, rags-to-riches Horatio Alger. Riches were in fact all Edison was interested in. Devices poured out of him all his life, a techno-cornucopia, but Edison rarely invented anything from scratch; he conceded in an interview that inventing was not so much coming up with something altogether new as finding a new application for something that already existed. He didn’t invent the telephone or the electric motor, he improved them: he didn’t invent the lightbulb, he perfected it. As the money from his inventions rolled in, he built a large research and development laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, staffing it with artificers, men like him, good with their hands, who could build something quickly to dimensions off a sketch on the back of an envelope. None were scientists, none had any particular theoretical knowledge—it was all cut-and-try at the Edison lab.
Not only the most famous American of his time, Edison was arguably the most litigious; Horatio learned at an early age the clout of lawyers, the power of a patent, the intimidation of a lawsuit. Pictures of the elderly Edison show a snowy-haired uncle, a playful Walt Whitman, but Edison had more in common with John D. Rockefeller or the Armour brothers: he was a predatory nineteenth-century American capitalist, which means he worshipped at the shrine of Monopoly. When he owned something, he wanted to own it all.
Edison’s greatest single success, beginning in the 1880s, was replacing the home entertainment center of the previous two centuries—the piano—with the phonograph. He wanted every home in the world to have one and saw no reason why this couldn’t happen. Later that decade Edison—give him credit—began pondering motion pictures. He imagined expanding the appeal of his phonograph by grafting sequential photographs of the performer singing or playing onto the spinning cylinder; you could see what you were hearing. He had no clear idea how to do it—he bought some sample photographs from Muybridge and threw the task to his lab rats. After months of tinkering and trying, they reported failure—to do what Edison wanted would require some 42,000 photographs to be embossed onto the cylinder, meaning the cylinder would have to be faceted with flats, which would muck up the sound, and anyway the images would be so small, you’d have to watch them through some sort of microscope. Hearing that, Edison lost interest and passed on to more promising things, like the magnetic ore separator. He relegated the motion picture to a newly hired young Englishman named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, a bit of an amateur photographer who had taken some pleasing pictures of the Edison family.
Dickson tried a new approach. Another young inventor, George Eastman, up in Rochester, New York, was doing fortuitous work on sheet film. Where photographic negatives at that time were made on the spot, in the studio or in the field, by coating glass plates with chemicals, Eastman had perfected coating a permanent emulsion on celluloid. Aware of Eastman’s advances through photography magazines, and knowing that celluloid could be twisted and rolled, Dickson ordered some sheets of the Eastman film and in a few months devised a camera that drew rolls of inch-wide Eastman film through a gate and behind a lens, with an arm to punch sprocket holes into the film’s edges at the same time. A spinning mechanical shutter provided the ladder of frames. It was the first movie camera. To view the film once it was developed, Dickson and his team fashioned a wooden cabinet, waist high, with a viewing lens in the top. Drop a nickel down a slot, and an electric motor would pull the fifty feet of film past the lens lit by an electric bulb, fifty feet being the most film the camera’s magazine could safely hold without breaking. Another mechanical shutter rendered the persistence of vision effect. The show lasted fifteen seconds, the first movie theater.
Dickson’s crew built a stage on rollers to follow the sunlight—the Black Maria, the first movie studio, cost $638—and pondered the subject of their first film. Dorky lab-rat humor guided them. Among the crew was a stout, good-natured man with a bristly handlebar mustache named Fred Ott, beloved by all, known chiefly for his sneeze. Ott’s sneeze was a force of nature—it rose in the distance with faint tremors, built like magma through some subterranean vent, and exploded like Krakatoa, with clouds and rain. They decided to document Fred Ott’s signature sneeze. Ott was willing, but his nose was camera-shy: it took a day and a half, and resorting to cayenne and snuff to get the shot. The film was processed, loaded into the wooden cabinet, and Edison was summoned. He arrived, leaned over the cabinet, and dropped in a nickel.