You and I are movie lovers, and I mean lovers, since we are happiest sunk into the comfortable seat of a darkened theater, a big bag of buttered popcorn, a Coke, and for a couple of hours, we give up reality and slip into romance, drama, gut-tickling comedy, or a world where tremendous emotional and dramatic events are compressed into 120 minutes, unlike our own which take months, years, or a lifetime and are sometimes never resolved. Where funny guys speak exactly the right line or make the absolutely right put-down. Where, in my early movie discovery days, a young, tortured Humphey Bogart rubbed his jaw trying to figure the dynamics as he looked at the beautiful Lauren Bacall, who leaned against the door, smiling seductively, and inviting in that low, sexy voice: If you need me, “…all you got to do is whistle.”
What a line.
So what I’m saying is that it’s cruel of me to remind you, in this blissful movie state, that the line came not from Bacall, but very possibly from some sleep-deprived neurotic writer who spent hours, maybe weeks or longer, reworking that scene, reshaping that line…a writer who knew that, even when he crafted the line to perfection, it could easily have been shipwrecked by…well, you know the movie business as well as I.
Watching the Oscars, we see the glamour–the gorgeous guy with the perfect haircut and the gorgeous gal who has slipped effortlessly into that fabulous size-one gown–a world away from a bunch of overworked anxious writers who struggled and finally gave a hard birth out of their own fantasies and angst to create the lines and images which the perfect actors play.
Going to this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival and sitting in on the writers’ panel, It Starts With the Script, I was once again struck with the disparity between the perfection we see on the screen and the writers who have sweated over computers, draft after draft, to create those lines we soak up while we munch.
Out of the seven writers representing films nominated for this year’s awards, I chose three whose stories I thought you might enjoy…or appreciate. Two particularly because they had partnered to create their film, and one funny guy who started the evening with an anecdote.
This was Judd Apatow, who created The Forty Year Old Virgin. His aim, he said, was to push comedy to its outer limits. Except for the odd genius of Monty Python or the mad antics of Mel Brooks, comedy has its usual limitations. Apatow wanted to push beyond the limits, and indeed he was advised, “…go ahead and earn your R rating.” He said he pitched the idea to an actor who insisted he could play the part of being a 40-year-old virgin because he “…understood the terrain.” Late virginity became a running gag. Every guy on the panel confessed to his own sexual insecurities. Writers live in emotional peril. That’s the territory. Apatow explained that he had an eight-year-old daughter, and not only could he not allow her to see his film, but he was unable to even explain to her the meaning of the title.
But the two writers I thought might be of most interest to you were both part of an odd duo. Diana Ossana, who partnered with Larry McMurtry on Brokeback Mountain, and Grant Haslov, who partnered with his friend George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck.
I am, and have always been, a major fan of Larry McMurtry, from the early days of Hud to that gem Lonesome Dove, which, like Brokeback Mountain, paints emotionally unhinged women and men who cannot articulate their feelings. The failed alcoholic country singer in Lonesome Dove, as played by Robert Duvall, never rises in emotional tone–everything locked inside–yet we feel what he feels, dramatically and with great familiarity. At the end, as he stands hoeing his little vegetable patch (he’s regaining his fame when suddenly he hears of the death of his newly rediscovered daughter), he leans on his hoe and his final line says: “I never trusted happiness and I never will.”
We understand him implicitly.
Larry McMurtry is, like his heroes, a man of the earth, of the plains–craggy, taciturn. His books and films are pure gems. Back in 1985, McMurtry met the much younger, attractive and urbane Diana Ossana, who at that time managed a law office. Their common interest, she confessed, was catfish. They both loved catfish. Go figure.
They were friends for seven years when McMurtry, close to finishing a novel, had a heart attack and needed immediate surgery. He refused treatment until he finished this manuscript. He survived the surgery well, but he felt, as she explained, as if something dramatic occurred to his spirit. “He left himself behind.” He came to Diana for the next two and a half years until his emotional recovery.
When they read Annie Proulx’s short story of only 11 pages, they both saw it as a film. No way, said the forces that control. Nobody saw a film in it. They did.
It took them eight years to get it off the ground…just as it took McMurtry eight years to get Terms of Endearment launched when everyone said it would have no appeal.
McMurtry is a compulsive writer. He has to write every day and becomes agitated when he doesn’t write. He does his pages in the morning and turns them over to Ossana in the afternoon. McMurtry has always written of men’s emotions, or lack of them, in a rural culture. Although the dialogue in Brokeback Mountain is sparse, they also scripted in the “emotions,” determined to keep the tone subtle. She said, “The dialogue may seem banal, but this is the real world we wanted to portray–unremarkable characters, comedic or sad, just ordinary guys who got sucked into tragedy.”
The great success was a great surprise. They were sure of the story, but neither one expected the positive reaction in the more conservative Midwest.
Eight years…film lovers.
Grant Heslov is a character actor. If you saw Birdcage, he was the funny little guy from the National Inquirer who partnered with the big fat guy. In real life, he is a longtime friend of the good-looking guy, George Clooney. They were pals way back in acting school. An odd couple. As he said, “George Clooney became a handsome movie star. I got into K Street.”
It was George Clooney who wanted to make a political statement about contemporary life, the war, the mendacity, the lack of honor…and he wanted not to hit anyone over the head with a “message.”
They chose Edward R. Murrow in his conflict with Joseph McCarthy because Murrow was a rare role model: A man of absolute honor and conviction, a man of conscience with a set of ethical standards who had the courage to act what he believed.
They chose to do the film in black and white, shooting no outside scenes to keep costs down. When they went for financing, the studios sat down with adding machines and counted numbers: how many filmgoers go for a black and white and so forth. So they went instead to a small company which financed only films of social significance.
The title was the phrase people used in London bomb shelters before going to sleep: good night, and good luck.
Here are a few other bits and pieces of comments from the panel, which, as film lovers, you might appreciate:
In spite of the fact that some of these films had long gestation periods, and in spite of the frustration of trying to raise money, “…a good story always gets told.”
Unlike their characters, who come to wonderful conclusions or cognitions at the end of their 120 minutes, a writer always knows he hasn’t quite done enough or worked the script enough, and could have done more.
The writer knows that a particular story must be told, even though everyone says that it cannot.
Josh Olson’s A History of Violence was the producer’s idea taken from a comic book story–and redone and redone and redone until a draft developed.
Bobbi Morsceo’s Crash was pitched as a TV show with 35 characters. They said it was a story nobody could make. What he did was to put ordinary characters into high-pressure situations with things they were afraid to lose. Always put to the test: stories about the human condition.
Judd Apatow said that he wasn’t concerned with the “human condition” but only the “boner condition.”
It was a fascinating panel of writers and it reminded me that when I saw one of my first films, this was 1932, it was called Tarzan the Ape Man and it starred that year’s gorgeous hunk, Johnny Weissmuller. I sat back in my seat watching this incredibly handsome, primitive man with his glistening biceps and his glistening everything, wearing a little thingy over what I knew nothing about but only suspected was naughty. He swung from one vine with total assurance that he would absolutely catch another vine when he reached for it. When he landed on that tree platform with his beautiful Jane in her thingy, letting out his ape call of victory, I was in movie heaven and movie innocence because I had, as yet, no vision of some nervous, overworked writer sweating over his typewriter (which, in those days, had no wraparound–more primitive than Tarzan), requiring a smudgy carbon between pages, and (horror of horrors) had no delete button and no way to cut and paste. No vision that some guy I would easily pass on the street, some unimpressive little guy, was creating my heroes.
Hail to the writer, whose angst and tortured fantasy and hard gut determination brave the mine fields of Hollywood movietown to bring us those 120 minutes of absolute pleasure.