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    William Goldman - Nobody Knows Anything Except Him

    william goldman

    This profile was part of a Plotpoints Podcast on July 12, 2017 (LINK TO PODCAST)

    I’m not sure that any podcast that purports to cover scriptwriting can neglect to mention a true genius and legend of the craft. Writer Aaron Sorkin has said of him, “He taught me everything I know and about a tenth of what he knows.”

    Who is this genius?

    William Goldman.

    As if his name was somehow indicative of his potential for fame, in the 60's, 70's and 80's Goldman was the A-list writer who delivered box office gold.

    Movies like:

    1987 The Princess Bride (book) / (screenplay)
    1986 Heat (novel) / (screenplay)
    1979 Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (characters)
    1979 Mr. Horn (TV Movie)
    1978 Magic (novel) / (screenplay)
    1977 A Bridge Too Far (screenplay)
    1976 Marathon Man (from: his novel) / (screenplay)
    1976 All the President's Men (screenplay)
    1975 The Great Waldo Pepper (screenplay)
    1975 The Stepford Wives (screenplay)
    1973 Papillon (contributing writer - uncredited)
    1972 The Hot Rock (screenplay)
    1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (written by)

    WilliamGoldman NobodyKnowsMany of his most successful films were based on books he had written which were also successes. The Midas Touch was more than a phrase for Goldman.  Not only was he writing scripts that would star A-list actors and win numerous awards, he was also the most sought-after script doctor in the business.

    Then something very odd happened.

    But more on that later.

    Goldman’s various talents extend to novels, plays, and screenplays.

    Many writers attempt to carefully navigate both the literary and film world; Goldman leaped over them. I don’t think there is another writer who has had so much success adapting his own literary material to the screen. While Steven King has many more films made from his stories and books, he isn’t close to the output of Goldman in successful self-adaptation. Most of King’s adaptations were done by other writers.

    Point in fact, Goldman adapted one of King’s novels - do you know which one?butch and sundance

    Goldman was born and raised in Chicago, went to Oberlin College, the Army (as a typist) and then Columbia for his masters. He wrote short stories all during this time but had no success getting them published.  According to Goldman, even the material he’d submit to the Oberlin literary magazine was rejected - viciously - and he was on the staff. He’d submit anonymously and listen to the editors say “We can’t possibly publish this shit.”

    "After that,” he said, “I took a creative-writing course where I got horrible grades. Do you know what it's like to want to be a writer and get the worst grades in the class? It's terrible."

    Goldman finally had some success in the mid-fifties when he began selling novels.

    And then in the early sixties he had good fortune as a playwright before writing the novel that would catapult his career.

    No Way To Treat A Lady is a novel about a flamboyant serial killer, and actor Cliff Robertson read an early draft. He was so impressed by the work that he hired Goldman to adapt the book Flowers For Algernon which became the movie Charly. Unfortunately, Robertson didn’t like Goldman’s draft but the work got Goldman noticed and put him on his movie-making career path.

    “Harper” (1966, Ross MacDonald) staring mega-star Paul Newman was next big thing for Goldman and it established him as an A-list writer.

    From then on everything he touched was...well, golden.

    Goldman’s first original screenplay was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He had researched it for eight years. It sold for $400,000 in 1967, then the highest price ever paid for an original screenplay. In today’s value that 400k would be close to 3 million dollars.

    The resulting movie of BC&SK was a massive critical and commercial success and earned Goldman an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

    In 1973, Goldman wrote perhaps his most loved work: the novel The Princess Bride which was a huge success and was inspired by him asking his daughters what they thought he should write. One said ‘a princess’ and the other ‘a bride.’ Hollywood noticed the book’s success and Goldman did write a screenplay based on the book - but it would be decades before it was actually made into a film.

    Where is this quote from: “Follow The Money” originally from?  Right, “All The President’s Men” is a 1976 film adapted from the Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein’s non-fiction book about Watergate. It starred a young team of now-legendary actors, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford and won four Academy Awards. Although Goldman didn’t actually like the resulting film, it has become a classic and has new interest generated today because of the current political situation.

    BTW, the phrase “Follow The Money” was Goldman’s - it never appeared in any of Woodward or Bernstein’s notes or articles about Watergate.

    Goldman’s script for “All The President’s Men” won him his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. This was his second as a writer.

    in 1976, Goldman also adapted his novel “The Marathon Man” to screen starring Dustin Hoffman and Sir Lawrence Olivier. It contains perhaps one of the least bloody but most vicious torture scenes in the history of film. The words “Is it zafe” conjure up mind-numbing fear and revulsion. If you haven’t seen it you won’t want to go to the dentist for a long time after you do see it. Even now the thought of it sends shivers. Such a simple concept and such a horrible effect. True genius.

    Goldman was and is a man of opinions - strong opinions. This has served him both well and poorly.princess bride

    Goldman was the original screenwriter for the film version of Tom Wolfe's novel The Right Stuff but director Philip Kaufman wrote his own screenplay without using Goldman's material, because Kaufman wanted to include Chuck Yeager as a character; Goldman did not.

    This cantankerous honesty would eventually manifest itself in the seminal book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” subtitled “A Personal View of Hollywood.”

    At the time, Goldman was Hollywood’s most sought after writer. Unfortunately, in the book he called out many stars, producers and directors. He didn’t speak all that disparagingly about them but he did speak honestly based on his decades of experience. This honesty was as brutal for himself as it was for others. For Goldman it was cathartic; for those he mentioned in his book not so much. Most didn’t take it kindly.

    In short order, Goldman’s phone stopped ringing. He was cast into the darkness of an unofficial blacklist.

    He’s said that if had had known that he wouldn’t work for a decade after publishing the book, he wouldn’t have written it. Egos are very fragile in Hollywood and Goldman trampled many of them he shouldn’t have.  But, perhaps the cost wasn’t too high because a line came from that book that is legend: (pause to ask) “No one knows anything.”

    "No one has the least idea what is going to work," he observes. "The minute people start acting like they know everything, we're all in trouble.”

    Everyone, anyone thinking about getting into the entertainment business should read this book - not just writers or film historians.

    I’ve read this book three times and every time I read it I marvel at how true it still is today. Nothing Goldman said about Hollywood in the 1980's was false and that truth carries forward. We may think that it’s a different world from the one Goldman detailed but egos, fear, and the arbitrary nature of this business still hold court in the land of make believe.

    Goldman did the entertainment world a service and he paid for it for a time by being shunned by the film industry.

    I took this directly from The Guardian website because I thought it was so indicative of Goldman:goldman oscar

    “Goldman is the classic case of the creative genius who respects the rules, but has lived his entire life as if the rules do not apply to him. He encourages young writers to go to Hollywood, but has lived most of his adult life in New York. He knows that stars dominate the industry, but has not been the least bit reluctant to disparage them. He has often been disappointed by the craven stupidity of studio executives, but retains an odd compassion for them. As for the magic of movie-making, it seems entirely lost on him.”

    Too much of a realist I imagine.

    Goldman did work after the book was published.

    In 1990, ten years after Adventures in the Screen Trade Goldman wrote Misery, adapting the Steven King novel. Chaplin, Maverick, and The General’s Daughter were other films, to name a few. But none seemed to have that old Goldman magic.  Perhaps he was just not motivated any more.

    william goldmanHowever, to belie that perception. it’s long been rumored that he is the true author of the Academy Award-winning screenplay of Good Will Hunting (1997). He has consistently denied this.  He has said that he did meet with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon but only to give some advice. He suggested eliminating a subplot dealing with the FBI and focusing the script more on family.

    Then Rob Reiner tapped Goldman to adapt his book The Princess Bride to screen in 2012 and Goldman was suddenly back in best form.

    Princess Bride was nominated for and won numerous awards, and has remained a fan favorite for years.

    Some famous quotes from the movie:

    Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

    Buttercup: We'll never survive.
    Westley: Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one ever has.

    Westley: Give us the gate key.
    Yellin: I have no gate key.
    Inigo Montoya: Fezzik, tear his arms off.
    Yellin: Oh, you mean *this* gate key.

    The Princess Bride has touched many and far.  The alleged founder of The Silk Road, an online black market and the first modern darknet market, named himself the Dread Pirate Roberts, one of the central characters in The Princess Bride.

    In 2000, Goldman published a sequel to his book "Adventures in the Screen Trade", titled "Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade." It’s nowhere as celebrated or reviled as Adventures in the Screen Trade but it maintains that typical Goldman straightforwardness.

    Goldman has continued to work sporadically. He adapted Misery for a stage play which was performed on Broadway. His script for Heat was filmed again as Wild Card in 2015.

    These days Goldman is more likely to be doing interviews than scripts or novels.

    He’s still as brutally honest as he ever was.

    “Directors - even though we all know from the media's portrayal of them that they are men and women of wisdom and artistic vision, masters of the subtle use of symbolism - they are more often than not a bunch of insecure assholes.”

    Goldman has also said about his work in another interview: "I [don’t] like my writing. I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I’ve ever written, not that I’m proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation."

    He goes on to state:

    “I haven't written a novel in over a decade... and someone very wise suggested that I might have stopped writing novels because my rage was gone. It's possible.”

    William Goldman turns 86 this year. Let’s trust that all that rage, that furious mental storm which created characters who are both ultra-vicious and unforgettable in their villainy, is really not gone.

    “Is it safe,” we ask.

    Hopefully, Goldman will smile and answer....

    Not quite yet.


    BTW, there is a documentary out there by Caroline Case called “Nobody Knows Anything (Except William Goldman)” but I can’t find a release date on the Kickstarter page. All IMDB says about it is “filming.”

    The listing hasn’t been update since 2016.
    Don’t read the excerpt - it’s not that interesting.


    The Leper [1980-85]

    I don't think I was aware of it, but when I started work on Adventures in the Screen Trade, in 1980, I had become a leper in Hollywood. Let me explain what that means: the phone stopped ringing. For five years, from 1980 till 1985, no one called with anything resembling a job offer. Sure, I had conversations with acquaintances. Yes, the people whom I knew and liked still talked to me. Nothing personal was altered in any way. But in the eight years prior to 1978, seven movies I'd written were released. In the eight years following, none.

    ----------------- movies -----------------------

    Jake and the Giants (inspired)
    2015 Wild Card (novel "Heat") / (screenplay)
    2012 The Princess Bride (Short) (novel)
    2003 Dreamcatcher (screenplay)
    2001 Hearts in Atlantis (screenplay)
    1999 The General's Daughter (screenplay)
    1997 Absolute Power (screenplay)
    1997 Fierce Creatures (uncredited)
    1996 The Ghost and the Darkness (written by)
    1996 The Chamber (screenplay)
    1996 Da Vinci (Short) (story)
    1994 Maverick (written by)
    1992 Chaplin (screenplay)
    1992 Year of the Comet (written by)
    1992 Memoirs of an Invisible Man (screenplay)
    1990 Misery (screenplay)
    1987 The Princess Bride (book) / (screenplay)
    1986 Heat (novel) / (screenplay)
    1979 Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (characters)
    1979 Mr. Horn (TV Movie)
    1978 Magic (novel) / (screenplay)
    1977 A Bridge Too Far (screenplay)
    1976 Marathon Man (from: his novel) / (screenplay)
    1976 All the President's Men (screenplay)
    1975 The Great Waldo Pepper (screenplay)
    1975 The Stepford Wives (screenplay)
    1973 Papillon (contributing writer - uncredited)
    1972 The Hot Rock (screenplay)
    1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (written by)
    1968 No Way to Treat a Lady (based on the novel by)
    1966 Harper (screenplay)
    1965 Masquerade (screenplay)
    1963 Soldier in the Rain (novel)


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