Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A history of screenwriters

"People write the movies they want to see, and they write the books they want to read," says Oscar-winning screenwriter Marc Norman ("Shakespeare in Love"), referring to his 700-page manuscript, "What Happens Next: The History of American Screenwriting." "This was a book I had always wanted to read, and nobody had ever written it. So I decided to do it myself."

Norman spent much of the last three years writing his expansive social history of the screenwriting profession on spec. Harmony Books, a division of Random House, picked it up in July and plans to publish it next fall.

Along with brief scene and dialogue excerpts, juicy "X-rated" anecdotes and 16 pages of vintage photographs, the book is structured as a chronological tour through Hollywood history from the writers' perspective. It ranges from late 19th century American theater through the title-writing of the silents, the birth of modern screenwriting with the advent of sound, the war-era golden age, the devastating blacklist and coded writing of the '50s and '60s, the emergence of the auteurs in the '70s and the big-budget blockbuster mentality of the '80s and '90s.

Norman did most of his research in UCLA's copious film archives, focusing more on personal memoirs and histories than the screenplays themselves, and he lays out a compelling narrative that pays special attention to some of his personal screenwriting heroes: Anita Loos, Herman Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht, Dalton Trumbo, Howard Koch, Paddy Chayefsky, Paul Schrader, Quentin Tarantino and Charlie Kaufman.

"The book is really designed to be useful in the sense that there are yards of how-to books, but nobody's ever written about what historically the life of a screenwriter in Hollywood has been like," Norman says.

Norman published three novels in the '70s, but the hope of a less financially dubious line of work drew him to Hollywood for the next three decades. There's none of his own professional history in the book, and Norman claims he doesn't have enough material for a memoir, but a little prodding provoked a few gems:

On his first movie, "Oklahoma Crude," which he adapted from his own novel in 1973, Norman met his first real movie star, Faye Dunaway, who played the film's heroine. The actress earnestly hugged his arm and said, "Thank you for giving me the words.... " "Which I thought was fresh and original until I realized that every actress has said that to the writer since about 1910," Norman says. "It's the pro forma thing you say to the writer when he shows up on the set and everybody wishes he'd do his business and leave."

Norman worked on the screenplay for the 1975 film "The Killer Elite" every day with Sam Peckinpah in the maverick filmmaker's office on Santa Monica Boulevard. "It was like going through Camp Pendleton if everybody's drunk," Norman says of working with the cantankerous director. "And it was probably one of the best experiences of my life."

Not so great were the six weeks Norman spent on location during the filming of the legendary disaster "Cutthroat Island," which would occasionally entail being woken at 1 a.m. to drive to the set, find a stone in the dark to sit on, and scribble a completely new scene onto a legal pad for filming that morning. "I was the guy in Malta stuck with trying to make that work," he says. "I did get paid well. But it was really hell."

Although he brushes aside the pathetic fantasy that things were ever any better for screenwriters and believes the original screenplay is ailing, he says, "Things change like the weather in the movie business. Who knows: tomorrow could start a Golden Age."

He pauses.

"Not likely, but not impossible."

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.


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