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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

WHICH LIE DID I TELL?; More Adventures in the Screen Trade By William Goldman; Pantheon: 486 pp., $26.95

PLOTS AND CHARACTERS; A Screenwriter on Screenwriting By Millard Kaufman; Really Great Books: 266 pp., $24.95

FITZGERALD DID IT; The Writer's Guide to Mastering the Screenplay by Meg Wolitzer; Penguin Books: 208 pp., $12.95 paper

SCREENWRITERS; America's Storytellers in Portrait Edited by Helena Lumme & Mika Manninen; Angel City Press: 128 pp., $30

WHY WE WRITE; Personal Statements and Photographic Portraits of 25 Top Screenwriters; Edited and photographed by Lorian Tamara Elbert Silman-James Press: 234 pp., $22.95

March 26, 2000|DAVID FREEMAN | David Freeman is a screenwriter and the author of the story collection, "A Hollywood Education," and most recently, the novel "One of Us."

Hollywood is famous for burning talent, and screenwriters have always been ready to jump into the flames. Countless scripts, often as good as the ones film studios have lavished millions upon, lay moldering, each coffee-stained manuscript a record of someone's fierce ambition and deepest hope. Perhaps in reaction to such an unfathomable waste, screenwriters become very knowing. They believe that without a penetrating sense of how the movie business operates, the quality of their scripts will matter little. Their belief is that if they know enough, they will create an edge for themselves that will transcend the eccentric nature of the business.

You can see them all over town, from club-hopping tyros in black to graying mock-professors with weary eyes, making hard practical plans in the belief that the deployment of tactical skill is one part of the equation they can control. They share a single urgent need: to avoid the slag heap of the unproduced. It's little wonder that a thriving industry of instructional books and lessons has grown up. Supplicants gather in airport hotels to listen to gurus tell them how to do it: "Unlock Your Inner Screenplay!" or "Secrets of Tantric Script Writing." Manuals filled with charts and diagrams promote various methods, some making the job more mysterious than it already is and others all but promising to make it no harder than filling out a complicated form at the DMV. The books and theories come at you like late-night TV commercials for strange kitchen utensils. Some of it is charlatanism. And some of it is useful.

All this would have seemed unlikely a few generations back. Jack Warner caught the prevailing attitude when, with his customary delicacy, he called screenwriters "schmucks with Underwoods." When films were silent, someone--perhaps with an early Underwood--cooked up a scenario and wrote the intertitles, usually along the lines of "Came the dawn." The director ran the show.

The director's authority was ratified in the 1950s, when a few overheated French critics associated with Cahiers du Cinema attributed authorial powers to a few Hollywood directors, an idea that has come down to us as the auteur theory. This seemed plausible applied to, say, Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford, directors with rich personal styles. But soon enough, any director who used similar camera angles from picture to picture qualified. Style became content and any schmuck with a viewfinder was an auteur. It was an easy hook for anyone writing about movies.

Everybody knows movies aren't made like novels or poems, but what is also true, and what drives screenwriters mad, is that many pictures, certainly the best ones, are indeed attributable to their directors. On a movie set, which can never be a democracy, someone has to be the boss. Still, movies do not spring fully formed from a director's brow. Every situation is different--which creates a dilemma entirely too complex for the necessary simplifications of journalism. So the auteur theory, with its mix of accuracy and convenience, caught on and has never let go. A few directors have final cut, which gives them some artistic autonomy, though not as much as the phrase implies. No writer has final draft.

Despite this dispiriting situation, young people want to be screenwriters in the way they want to be rock stars or earlier generations wanted to be novelists. They seem to be everywhere, from Xerox shops to studio lots, with their scripts tucked under their arms, ready to tilt at Hollywood's windmills. John Gregory Dunne once wrote, "Wanting to be a screenwriter is like wanting to be a co-pilot." So why do so many endure the humiliation and hardship? Some believe that screenwriting will lead to a chance to be a director, which they think of as hitting life's lucky number. For others, perhaps even most, it's simpler than that: The money can be sensational.

William Goldman has been writing film scripts for 35 years. He's been on top, or not far from it, for much of that time. His most memorable scripts are "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) and "All the President's Men" (1976). His work in recent years hasn't been quite so vivid, though he still gets scripts produced and is in demand as a script doctor. He's become a sort of world citizen of the cinema, sitting on festival juries and writing tart magazine articles.

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