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By Tom McCurrie

There were two generations of Hollywood screenwriting on display at the recent Screenwriting Expo 5, sponsored by the Writers Guild Foundation, with both the granddaddy of modern American screenwriting, William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN), and one of today's up-and-coming talents, Tony Gilroy (THE BOURNE IDENTITY, MICHAEL CLAYTON), sharing the stage for a Q & A. But despite their gulf in age, it turned out that the more things change in the screenwriting biz, the more they very much stay the same.

Goldman and Gilroy aren't just screenwriters, they're practically family, Goldman having been a great friend of Gilroy's father Frank D. Gilroy (the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright of THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES) for years. This doesn't mean Goldman was easy on young Gilroy when it came to critiquing his material. While working as a bartender, Gilroy sent one of his early scripts to Goldman who responded, "This sucks, but don't stop." Gilroy didn't, eventually getting his first screenwriting credit for THE CUTTING EDGE in 1992, then moving on to DELORES CLAIBORNE in 1995 and most recently penning the three Jason Bourne films, including THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, due out next year.

Of course, Goldman is no slouch when it comes to screenwriting himself, having won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay for BUTCH CASSIDY and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN respectively. From his first screenplay credit in 1965 (MASQUERADE), Goldman has worked steadily in Hollywood as one of its most sought-after scribes, and is currently penning the feature film adaptation of SHAZAM! for New Line Cinema.

What is Goldman's advice to writers after all this experience? Hint: it has little to do with the craft of screenwriting. Goldman explains that when it comes to the movie business, "Hollywood horseshit is something you have to deal with. Everybody you come into contact with for the most part will lie to you. I know I was lied to and I'm sure Tony [Gilroy] was...Just beware of the fact that everybody will lie to you in the movie business. That's [the] most optimistic thing that I can say."

Nevertheless, before you can be lied to as a Hollywood screenwriter, you need to actually complete a screenplay. Gilroy follows a distinctive process when he writes his. As soon as he finds an idea that excites him, Gilroy says, "I start making this huge mess of dialogue and scenes...that mess can be anywhere from 60 pages to 250 pages of single-spaced nonsense...I sort of make this big compost heap." Sometimes that compost heap ends up a script, sometimes it ends up abandoned as Gilroy doesn't see a workable movie in there and moves on to the next idea.

But if Gilroy takes a shine to the compost heap, then he forces himself to stop spewing out dialogue and scenes and tries to work what he's already written into a coherent outline: "I have to work from an outline. Every time I've not worked from an outline I've been completely burned." Gilroy's outlines tend to be very detailed, including "every scene [and] pretty much most of the dialogue...[For] the better the outline, the better the process." He tries to finish the outline as "fast as possible, something like four days [to] two weeks." Then "the next period is the writing period where you take [the outline] and turn that into a...script. Then I get very anal and very careful after that."

Goldman also finds outlines indispensable when writing a script, since he has to know "what scene comes next." Goldman continues: "Until I know that, I'm helpless...the biggest problem all of us [writers] have I think is building up confidence. And once I have the story in my head...then [I] can go on."

Of course, the key to succeeding as a screenwriter is not only about process. As Goldman explains, "You must do everything in anything you write to protect the star. You must give the star everything because they are insecure people. They are not people you want to go on long trips with. They want to win everything." When Goldman was writing MISERY for example, Castle Rock couldn't get a male star to sign on to the project because "in the movie the male is in bed and [Kathy Bates] dominates him. She's the boss and she could do whatever she wants, and no star would put himself in that position." They only got James Caan to sign on because at that time he was basically unemployable and needed the work. The fact that "stars want to win everything" (i.e. the girl, the money, the championship) when it comes to a story may give writers indigestion when they demand wholesale changes in their scripts, but writers have to take this in stride because it's those same stars that get those scripts made into movies in the first place.

Gilroy concurs, saying that Hollywood screenwriters are ultimately in the "hero business," and if you want to sell a script you have to "try and write parts that [star] actors want to do." There are exceptions, of course - Gilroy recently directed George Clooney in MICHAEL CLAYTON, and though Clooney is certainly a star, he has no problem playing flawed, complicated characters. But as Goldman says, for the most part, "once [stars] make it, they just want to play that [hero] part over and over and over."

So to Goldman there are two rules for any nascent screenwriter: "Your first ten pages have got to be as interesting as you can make them, or first five pages, because that's all the studio head will read, and the second thing is you've got to give the star everything. And why there aren't more people like Clooney I don't know, because you don't have to make 20 million dollars endlessly. And a lot of these guys just make shit over and over and over, and eventually they fall."

As for Gilroy, he has just one golden rule for tyro scribes: keep the reader (and later the audience) hooked every second of your screenplay. Gilroy is "panic-stricken [that on] every page...I'm going to lose your attention. And it's not something that has ever faded from me...I'm just so afraid that I'm going to lose you. And not within the scene...but in the pace of the film and the storytelling." However adroit they are at their craft, all successful screenwriters have this "craven need" to grab you and not let go, "this extra final thing of 'Fucking listen to me!' 'Turn the page!' 'Stay with me!'" that gives them an edge over their peers. Goldman chimes in: "[Writers are] so terrified because your enemy, the studio executive, he's reading twelve scripts every Saturday morning and he hates it. All he wants to do is say, 'This is a piece of shit' and throw it out and get on to the next one." So if you can make each page of your screenplay as irresistible as possible, you'll have a much better chance keeping that studio exec from calling those 120 pages you've worked so hard on "a piece of shit."

Then again, Goldman warns, "I think if all you do is write screenplays, you go mad, because you get fucked around so much [in Hollywood.]" So if you can somehow also write books as well, whether novels or non-fiction, or better yet, direct a script you wrote yourself, like Gilroy has with MICHAEL CLAYTON, "go with God, you do it."

Part Two of the Goldman/Gilroy Q & A. will be posted in three weeks.


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