William Goldman deserves Cinema Sainthood for any single screenplay he’s written. He wrote the fantastic novel The Princess Bride and its equally fantastic movie adaptation. He won an Oscar for his incredible script for All the President’s Men and another one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wrote Misery, Marathon Man, and had an uncredited hand in shaping some other great scripts. For me though, William Goldman is a Cinema Saint for two books: Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?
In each, he breaks down how movies are made. He cuts through the bullshit and talks about the bullshitters. He takes his own movies and shows you behind the curtain. He tells you where the ideas come from and how they go from brain to page to movie screen. The triumphs, the heartbreaks, the arguments, the compromises, all the ways in which it could have gone wrong, should have gone right, and whose fault it was. He pulls no punches and is always happy to name a name. Both books are funny, infuriating, and, most of all, educational. All screenwriters should have to write books like this. Every five movies or so they should be contractually obliged to sit and break down those five movies with anecdotes and gossip and helpful tips for budding writers. And that’s what William Goldman does. He takes you by the hand and says, ‘Okay, kid, here’s Hollywood. I’ll show you around.’ He gives you a crash course in agents, producers, studio heads, and lets you know what they do, how they do it, and how they do it wrong.
I first read the books when I was a teenager writing vampire stories with my friends cast as ass-kicking heroes, and it was like seeing the sun for the first time. I had rented books about writing from the library and found they were too vague and wishy-washy. They were also written by people I had never heard of. And if I hadn’t heard of them or their books, then what could they tell me about getting published? William Goldman was a name I didn’t know, but I knew his resume. I devoured both books, loaned to me by Mrs. Hope my English teacher (cool lady), and found it was the first time that writing advice made sense.William Goldman could point to a scene in a movie and break it down piece by piece in a way that made perfect sense and also without vanity. He would show you a scene or a movie he had written and then tell you exactly why it failed without a trace of self-pity. He is both his biggest champion and harshest critic. His lessons are inspiring but his attitude more so. After I read the books I went back to my own writing and adopted his eye to it. I stopped being precious about it and started being more critical. It was satisfying sometimes to read a story I had written and see that it was shite. It was a hundred percent easier to improve it once I realised that nothing I created was a perfect little nugget of genius.
Of course, without having written those two books he would still be a Cinema Saint for his screenplays. The Princess Bride will forever be a cult favourite and eternally quotable, Marathon Man will always scare people from going to the dentist. All the President’s Men will always remind us not to trust Nixon (or whoever the current Nixon is), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s sepia ending will forever be homaged, parodied, and ripped off, because it was that good.
I recently bought another copy of Adventures in the Screen Trade (I keep giving them away) at a thrift store in Melbourne because I thought it would look cool on my bookcase. On the tram home I started having a little read, ended up reading a quarter of the book, and missed my tram stop by about a dozen stops. If I ever publish a novel or get a screenplay made it will be a direct result of my having read William Goldman’s works about writing and from listening to the lessons of a master, even if that master is also quick to remind you that he can be a hack now and again.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox