Writers Group Los Angeles

William Goldman on "Save the Cat"


After reading SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder I'm so conscious of despicable protagonists that I'm ready to throw something at the TV if a movie's lead doesn't make me love them within the first 15 minutes. I'm constantly making mental notes on the exact event, exchange, gesture, or whatever action it is that makes me start rooting for the hero.

Sure, Leonotis from 300 is a pretty stereotypical bad ass, but not every king takes the time to ask his wife's opinion before he takes his entire nation to war. That's the kind of thing a gentleman does regardless of his status as a super-charged killing machine.

Leonotis is a big contrast from Zooey in WINTER PASSING who is drowning kittens by page 20 -- DROWNING KITTENS! WTF?! Sucking up to the audience is not going to save your troubled screenplay, but please! Save the dolphin murder for your Greenpeace documentary.


Excerpt: William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade.

Chapter Four

Harper

Harper, my next screenplay, was when I first began to learn at least a little about the craft of screenwriting.

It was also, inadvertently, when I began to learn about how movies actually happen. Boys and Girls Together had been published, to calamitous notices. (The New York Times said "a child of nine could understand this book before he could lift it." From there, the review got really bad.) However, a producer, Elliott Kastner, had optioned it for films.

I met with Kastner to talk about the book—I was not to be the screenwriter, which was plenty okay with me—but before we got into discussing any notions about how to turn a six-hundred-plus-page book into a one-hundred-twenty-page script, he began talking about a movie he'd recently seen, a very successful Western called The Professionals. "I'd like to do a movie like that," he said. "I'd like to do a movie with balls."

I suggested he read some of the Lew Archer detective books by Ross Macdonald, and if he liked them, I'd reread them and try and do a screenplay for him. He called the following Monday and said he was very much interested and that he would option whichever one I said.

There were probably ten Archer books published by this time, and like an idiot I started with the most recent and worked my way back. "Like an idiot" pertains to the fact that as the series went along, Macdonald was increasingly leaving the roots of the tough-guy Hammett-Chandler tradition where he began and was getting more interested in character complexity, less with plot.

I finally chose the first Archer book, The Moving Target, which Kastner optioned, and I set to work. The script I wrote was dialog heavy because I still thought that was the crucial element. (The resulting movie, by the way, was very successful for a lot of reasons, none of which I can take much credit for. Television had preempted the private-eye format, and there hadn't been a movie like Harper for years, so it had freshness. It also had some kind of a cast for a detective flick—among the performers were Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin, and Robert Wagner giving what I still think is far and away the deepest emotional work he's yet shown. Not to mention just wonderful work by Paul Newman, who simply shouldered the script and rammed it home.)

I don't believe Newman was the first to see it—my memory is Sinatra turned it down. Newman was in Europe when he was sent the project, and he showed quick interest.

Because we couldn't have caught him at a better time. He was making a dog of a period piece, Lady L, and he was running around in tights and having a miserable time. Harper, very much in the American tradition, felt very appealing to him.

Kastner did then what any adroit producer does at such a time: He hustled. A young director acceptable to Newman showed a willingness to do it, so Kastner took him and they flew to Europe to sew up Newman while his interest was high.

Imagine Kastner's surprise when the meeting took place and it turned out the young director didn't like the script at all, said it was rotten, and what they should do was pitch it all and start over, doing something in the genre but not this piece of shit. (Piece of shit by the way is the standard terminology in Hollywood for a project. If you ask a producer what he's working on, more than likely he will say, "Well, I've got this Western piece of shit I'm working on" or "this piece-of-shit comedy.")

Kastner managed to stifle the director before total disaster overtook the project. They left Europe with the director out but Newman, perhaps a bit ruffled, still interested. Eventually, another young director, Jack Smight, did the picture with terrific pace and skill.

When Lady L. was done, Newman returned to his home in Connecticut and Kastner took me up to a crucial meeting: Changes were needed and were they the kind of alterations I could accommodate. (If I hadn't, by the way, I would have been gone and someone else would have done them. If Newman's interest would hold. Stars like Newman get offered everything practically every day, and if a situation begins to get messy, they can get turned off. Quickly.)

Paul Newman is the least starlike superstar I've ever worked with. He's an educated man and a trained actor and he never wants more close-ups. What he wants is the best possible script and character he can have. And he loves to be surrounded by the finest actors avaiGrouple, because he believes the better they are, the better the picture's apt to be, the better he'll come out. Many stars, maybe even most, don't want that competition.

We walked the back lanes of Westport and it all went well. But what I remember most about it was that Newman carried a handful of pebbles and I noticed that whenever a car drove by, he was always in the act of tossing a pebble into the woods, so that his back was to the street. It's hard not to notice Paul Newman and he was doing all he could to talk and not be stared at.

With Newman set, Kastner and I drove back to the city and on the way he said, "You don't know what happened, do you?" I said I didn't. He told me the following: "You just jumped past all the shit."

And he was right. I was no longer a putz novelist from New York. Now I was a putz novelist who had written a Paul Newman picture. Any first credit in Hollywood is tremendously meaningful. When that credit involves pleasing a major star, you can square that import.

Now for my education.

The shooting script for Harper began like this:

FADE IN ON

LEW HARPER'S FACE in CLOSE UP. He is tough, bright and poor. A good man in a bad world.

FULL BACK TO REVEAL

HARPER standing in front of the impressive closed gate to an impressive estate. Behind him is his car with the motor running; like its owner, the car has been around too. He speaks into a microphone set in the gate.

HARPER
My name is Lew Harper. To see Mrs. Sampson.

After a pause there is a click. After the click, the gate swings open. HARPER gets back in his car and starts to drive forward.

CUT TO

HIS FIRST VIEW OF THE SAMPSON HOUSE. It is enormous, surrounded by a vast expanse of lawn. Among other things VISIBLE are a tennis court, a swimming pool with patio and pool house, a large garden filled with flowers.

CUT TO

HARPER, driving along, taking it all In.

This is a perfectly adequate opening to a movie. (We don't know it's a detective story yet.) What we do know is a guy in a beat-up car is expected, for some reason or another, at a mansion.

It doesn't tell us much more than that but at least it's direct. If something interesting happens soon, we'll be interested; if not, not.

And that was how the movie opened when production began. I was back in New York when I got a call from the coast saying they needed a sequence immediately to cover the opening credits.

What?

Just a credit sequence and fast. Whatever it was, they'd shoot it. Get it in the mail. I hung up. Get what in the mail? I sat at my desk and did what any hopefully professional writer would do when he is asked to do something he doesn't know how to do.

I panicked.

I mumbled, cursed, paced around. No ideas at all. This was a detective story, and traditionally they don't start until there's a case, until the detective meets his client and finds out what he's supposed to do. I could have always had him getting the phone call when he's told to go see Mrs. Sampson, but the thought of credits running over a phone call with snappy dialog like "Yes, this is Lew Harper" or "Fine, I'll be there" made my eyes glaze over just thinking about it.

And there wasn't any time. So in desperation I decided, what the hell, he had to get up in the morning, everybody gets up in the morning, what's special about our guy? Not all that much, maybe, but it was the best I could come up with. This is what I wrote and sent that day, and what was the eventual opening of the movie.

IN BLACKNESS, there is the loud metallic ticking of a clock.

FADE IN ON

LEW ARCHER S EYES. The eyes blink. Again. Again. Now--

FULL BACK TO REVEAL

HARPER lying alone in bed in his small crummy off ice. It's early morning. Across the room is a tv set, on but blank, no programs yet. An alarm clock is on a table nearby. HARPER lies there, wearing underwear shorts and shirt. The clock continues to tick. HARPER continues to stare. At nothing.

CREDITS START TO ROLL

Now the clock goes off like an explosion. HARPER half rises, swipes at the clock with his hand and

CUT TO

THE CLOCK, the sound dying suddenly as it hits the floor.

CUT TO

HARPER, out of bed now. He goes to the blank tv set, turns it of f. Now he moves to the window, lets the shade fly up. WE CAN SEE his of ice more clearly now--it doesn ' t look a bit better.

CUT TO

HARPER, still in his underwear, running water in the sink, splashing it on his face, coming to life.

CUT TO

THE TINY KITCHEN AREA. He's shaved now, wears pants and a short-sleeved shirt not tucked in. A tie is draped around his neck. There is a hot plate, water is boiling. Beside the water is a Chemex-type coffee maker. He takes a paper filter, folds it in half , folds it one more time, puts it into the Chemex. Then he takes a coffee can, pours coffee into the filter--

--only the can's empty. No coffee left. Unhappily he stands there a moment, looks down-

CUT TO

A WASTEBASKET. He lifts the lid. Inside is yesterday's coffee filter, the used grounds still there.

CUT TO

HARPER. He hesitates a moment, then reaches into the wastebasket, takes out the used filter and old coffee grounds, puts them into the Chemex, and as he starts to pour boiling water in-

CUT TO

A FILLED CUP OF BLACK COFFEE. HARPER stands beside it, shirt tucked in now, tie tied. He picks up the cup, takes a swallow--and then the horrendous taste of the stuff registers; it's like something you might drink in the Black Hole of Calcutta. He puts the cup down, walks past a framed photograph of a pretty smiling woman close to his age, kind of salutes the picture as he moves round a corner.

CUT TO

HARPER, standing by his closet. He takes out a gun and shoulder holster, starts to strap it on.

CUT TO

HARPER leaving his office, closing the door. He is wearing a suit coat now. The office door has a sign reading "Lew Harper Private Investigations." Down the corridor of the old building, a JANITOR is mopping the floor.

CUT TO

A LOS ANGELES FREEWAY and a battered blue Porsche convertible driving along.

CUT TO

HARPER in the Porsche. He puts on sunglasses, drives on.

CUT TO

THE PORSCHE, taking an exit ramp. There is a sign reading "Santa Theresa. 90 Miles." The Porsche turns in the direction of Santa Theresa.

CUT TO

A FANCY STREET in Santa Theresa. The Porsche turns up toward a gate. A SERVANT stands by the gate with a dog.

HARPER
Lew Harper. To see Mrs. Sampson.

The SERVANT presses a button. The gate opens.

CUT TO

A LONG TREE-LINED PRIVATE DRIVEWAY. Maybe hair a mile or more in length. At the end of It is the SAMPSON mansion. As it starts to come INTO VIEW-

CREDITS COME TO AN END.

The first time I saw Harper in a Broadway theatre was when my education began. (I had already seen it once, at a screening, which I'll get to shortly.) I sat there with my popcorn, waiting for the picture to get going—which was when he gets his assignment from Mrs. Sampson. At least that's what I thought.

The credits came on. Paul Newman lies there, the alarm clock goes off, he knocks it away, gets up, turns off the tube, lets the shade fly up, goes to the kitchen, picks up the coffee can. Nothing unusual so far.

Then, when he tipped the coffee can and found it empty, this sound began in the theatre. It was laughter and it built when he opened the wastebasket and saw the used grounds. And built more as he hesitated, making up his mind. Now when he reached down, plopped it into the Chemex, the theatre was really loud. This was not one of those wonderful sudden shrieks of laughter, such as when Woody Allen sneezes on the cocaine in Annie Hall.

If you're in the movie business, you try to pay as much attention as you can to audience reaction; you try to read it. And as I sat there, surprised at what was going on around me—I'd seen the picture, remember, with a few people, and the credits were just that, credits—I wondered what it was the audience was reacting to. It sure wasn't any zippy dialog of mine, because there was no talk at all.

Then, when he looked at the filled coffee cup, the sound seemed to be peaking. But it wasn't. For when he finally took that first swallow and practically gagged, the theatre exploded.

I still just sat, listening to the people. The appreciative laughter continued practically till he drove up to the mansion. And once the plot began, everything played at a much higher level than I'd imagined possible when I first saw the movie at the screening.

Why?

Obviously, I can't be sure of the answer. The audience certainly knew a lot more about him than the way the movie originally opened.

They knew he lived alone, in a pit of an office

They knew went to sleep with the tv for company. They knew he didn't sleep well, not when he's up before the alarm. They knew there was a woman, because of the photograph, they knew he felt something for her from the way he saluted her, they knew she wasn't with him, he was very much alone. And they knew a lot more, too—yes, he was a detective, not a successful one, and he carried a gun, so he didn't seem like someone to take lightly. The battered car told a lot about him.

But mainly it was that business with the coffee.

Whenever anyone talked about Harper to me in the weeks that followed, that was the moment they remembered—drinking that horrible stuff. (just like the jump off the cliff is what people always mention first in Butch.) And the laugh that went along with it, that was a laugh of affection.

In a detective story of this type—Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep—all you really have going for you is your main man: You see everything, the whole world, through his eyes he keeps you company every step of the way. And if you don't like being with Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, not all the plot skill in the world is going to make it a happy journey. If you are turned off by your host, forget it, it's over. And if the coffee moment really turned out to be was an invitation that the audience gladly accepted: They liked Lew Harper.

From that moment forward, the script was on rails.

Sample Meeting


"Save the Cat" Script Consulting by Erik Bork