interview | william goldman

Which Lie Did I Tell?; More Adventures in the Screen Trade
William Goldman
(Vintage, 485 pages)
goldman book cover
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If William Goldman has a role in the movie industry, it would have to be Designated Pessimist. His motto - “The thing they’ll end up writing on my tombstone,” he says, ruefully - is the phrase “Nobody Knows Anything.” His 1983 book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, is remembered as a long hate letter to the industry that awarded him two Oscars for screenwriting (for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men), and which, when he wrote the book, had cast him out into the wilderness to an eight-year drought of work. He was, in his own words, “a leper”. He seemed a good person to ask about this year’s Oscars.

“It was a good year,” he says over the phone from him home in New York City. “I’m on record as saying this was this was the worst decade in movie history, and this was one of the two good ones. Don’t ask me to tell you when the other good year was.”

He tactfully avoids saying anything about American Beauty, was moved by Michael Caine’s acceptance speech, and thinks “Denzel Washington was screwed.” He loved The Sixth Sense, but notes that his favorite film of the year, Mumford, was completely ignored. He’s dismayed at the actors and filmmakers who rule Hollywood today, but sees hope in a new generation of directors and writers just making themselves heard. 

“Who do I think is hopeful? Well, Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Being John Malkovich, and David O. Russell’s We Three Kings. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) - he’s very, very, very, very talented. But did he have to have two characters dying of cancer?”

Goldman’s new book, Which Lie Did I Tell?, is subtitled “More Adventures in the Screen Trade.” Part polemic, part tutorial, it begins with his exile as a leper and recounts his experiences working as a writer and script doctor over the past fifteen years. Some of the films from those years have been good (Misery, The Princess Bride) and some not so good (Chaplin, Maverick). Colouring every page is an embarassed wonder missing from the earlier book, an awestruck sense of the immensity, financial and cultural, of the industry in which he works, and the equally immense stupidity and lack of vision that rules it.

When talking about films that were close, in which he passionately tried to aim for greatness - The Ghost and the Darkness in particular, a 1996 flop with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer - there’s a palpable sense of the tragic bargain that rules the screenwriter’s life: If it’s good, you’ll never get the credit, but if it’s bad you may never work again, even if you had nothing to do with the film’s failure. And somewhere between the script and the movie screen is a cruel, ugly, deceit-filled world owned by often-venal stars, agents, and executives, and most of the compromises you’re forced to make do no favors to the picture.

“Listen - we all get lied to in the movie business, and I’m always stunned when people lie to me. In our lives, you in Toronto and me in New York, we can safely assume that the people around us, our friends and family, aren’t lying to us all the time. That’s not the case with Hollywood.”

“I think they (stars) have more power now than they ever have because the studios have given their lives to the stars. The money involved is so immense, but listen - the stars don’t last. Nine years ago the biggest stars in the world were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner. Do you think they said to themselves ‘I don’t want to be such a big star, I just want to be a regular star’? NO!”

Goldman doesn’t confine his despair to the movies. “Everyone wants to be in the movies, and no one wants to do theatre or the novel. I saw my first movie in 1937 and movies weren’t such a big deal. Kids today know so much more about movies at such an early age. This gets into my rant about movies being the center of our culture - which I HATE!”

“We don’t know why, but throughout history, talent has tended to cluster - look at the people clustered around Shakespeare, all the French Impressionists. At the end of the last century, there were more great novelists in Russia alone than there are alive today! I just think that now isn’t a high point for choreography, for painting, for the theatre, the novel, or the movies."

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis