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01/15/2007 - BUTCH CASSIDY MEETS JASON BOURNE AT SCREEWRITING EXPO 5 - PART 2
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BUTCH CASSIDY MEETS JASON BOURNE AT SCREENWRITING EXPO 5 - PART 2 by Tom McCurrie


Below is the second part of the Q & A session with screenwriters William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) and Tony Gilroy (THE BOURNE IDENTITY) at Screenwriting Expo 5.

*****

The mantra tyro screenwriters usually hear is "Writing is Re-Writing." But Tony Gilroy feels being involved in the production side of things can hone your craft just as much, especially when it comes to subtext. "One of the stages [of my writing career] that really was critical for me was being involved in production and sitting in dailies...Going to film dailies, and particularly on DELORES CLAIBORNE...you go sit in dailies every night, and you watch your dialogue from seven different angles, and you just sit there take after take after take and you go, Oh man, why did I write that, why did I write that. And you get so much more economical...It'd be so easy to write a five-hundred page screenplay...But that's not what you do - it's all about getting rid of stuff...You realize just how much camera can take care of, and how much people don't have to say [to get your meaning across]."

William Goldman agrees that the production end should shape a writer's work. "One of the reasons it's good to work for [a director] twice or three times or whatever is it saves so much bullshit. One of the things I do when I work for a director for the first time is I try to look at everything they've ever shot, because nobody knew everything, to use the example I always use. If you work with Hitchcock, you shouldn't give him size because he was helpless with size. He was great at small things, people in showers, etc. When you work with David Lean, another great director, you could give him all the size in the world and he could deal with it. And I think it's very important if you're all lucky enough to work with a director to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are, because if you write something they can't shoot, guess what, it's not going to [be] in the movie."

Adapting a novel to the screen is usually just as tricky as adapting your script for a particular director. However, when it came to adapting THE BOURNE IDENTITY, a novel first published in 1980 that numerous writers tried to adapt into a successful movie - and failed miserably doing so - Gilroy took an unusual tack. "I did not read the book - I've never read that book. I've never read THE BOURNE IDENTITY book...I was sent a script of THE BOURNE IDENTITY...Usually things that come for rewrites, they're not usually in good shape. This was in a particular class unto itself...it was just a really, really extremely poor [draft.]"

Gilroy met with director Doug Liman anyway - not to take the job, since he said he didn't want to do it up front since the draft was a "piece of shit," but to confront Liman over passing on another of Gilroy's scripts. Nevertheless, Liman and Gilroy got to discussing what was wrong with the BOURNE draft, and Gilroy told Liman, "If I had amnesia and I woke up and didn't know who I was and where I was, I would think the first thing I would do would be to try to figure out what I knew how to do. And I guess I would begin to define myself by the things I knew how to do. Do I know how to bake brownies? Do I know how to drive a car? It would probably be pretty interesting if this guy started to figure out that all the things he knew how to do were bad." Liman was so impressed by this take on the material, a take that wasn't in the book as written, that he wouldn't rest until Gilroy was on board for the rewrite. And soon Gilroy was. "So I started the process of writing the thing just based on that idea. I never went back, I never read the book - the script was based on the book somewhat, [but I] never used it." And when BOURNE was released in 2002, it was a tremendous success. Gilroy wasn't concerned about being faithful to the book since he didn't read it, and this gave him the freedom and fresh eyes to ask "where's the movie" that other writers more familiar with the original source material didn't have.

Unlike many screenwriters, Goldman and Gilroy live in New York instead of Los Angeles. For Goldman, working from the Big Apple is his "survival." He continues: "When you have a flop, or several flops, you're so dead out here [in L.A.] and you have to hide and I just thought I couldn't have survived it." Gilroy prefers living in New York for a different reason. In order to have confidence as a writer, "You need to feel special when you go to work...I have to feel that what I'm doing is unique...I need to have the supreme delusion that I'm unique...that would be very difficult for me to manufacture here [in L.A.]...I have a lot of friends in New York who are writers and in the movie business but [I also have] a lot of friends who are civilians. I'm not sure that if I lived here everyone I'd know would be in the movie business...and I'm sure my social life and all the rest of my life would be involved in the movie business. And I'm not sure if I could get it up every day and say Oh, I'm really special [if that were the case.]"

But whether you live in New York or Los Angeles, you still have to write your script, which means you have to have a process for getting it done. Gilroy swears by outlines, but other than that he relies more on timing than anything else: "I just try to get on a run. When I started out I was very steady. I was a very steady writer, wrote every day and all that thing. But as time goes on, I've turned into much more of a streak writer. And when I get a hot hand I don't let it go now," canceling appointments and meetings if necessary to take advantage of that burst of creativity. Goldman has a similar view of writing, believing that creativity is not a well you can repeatedly go back to again and again: "Sometimes you have good days and sometimes it's just death. And I don't think there's any way of knowing. And when you have a hot streak, you've got to run with it. Because it's not going to be there tomorrow."

As for what new writers should be working on in today's hyper-competitive spec marketplace, Goldman advises, "What [Hollywood's] looking for now are what they call these ?tentpole' pictures [Big-budget/high-concept projects], and if you can write one, for God's sake write one, because they're desperately looking for them." And don't bother doing anything that provokes or challenges the audience, since as Goldman explains, "It's just very hard right now to find stuff with any intelligence that the major studios are doing." Gilroy doesn't think things are that "dire" for beginning scribes, telling them to concentrate on low-budget genre scripts to break in, and "not just [the] horror genre, but genre pictures in general. There's a whole market there of things to do." Ultimately, as Gilroy says, "If you're a really good storyteller and you get it done, there's a lot of places [genre pictures, direct-to-video, television] to tell stories right now."

Nevertheless, Goldman gives this final warning: "I think you've got to go with what you think you can make play. I think you've got to go with something that you care about, because if you write something because you think it's going to be a hit, you're nuts because nobody knows what's going to be a hit. And I think we all of us have strengths and weaknesses...and I think to write something that you're not skilled at because there have been a couple of hit movies in that genre is suicidal for you because I think you'll be writing in your weakness." And that's one sure way not to have a writing career at all.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finishing up (finally!) his first novel.

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