Spend 90 Minutes with William Goldman and Learn About His ‘Inconceivable’ Writing Career
William Goldman is one of the greatest screenwriters ever. Yet, borrowing from his own character Vizzini (Princess Bride), he truly feels that his successful writing career is “inconceivable”. In fact, with the exceptions of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, he hates all of his writing. Thankfully for the rest of us, that hasn’t stopped Goldman from writing stories. And thanks to the Writers Guild Foundation, we can sit down with Goldman for over 90 minutes and listen to him tell us all about his writing career: how he got started, how he conceived his masterpieces, and how he still thinks writing stories is really, really hard.
The following Writers Guild Foundation interview with William Goldman was conducted in 2010, but was only posted to YouTube earlier this year. 93 minutes is certainly a major time commitment, so you may want to listen to the audio of the video as you do other work. Trust me, though, this is a must-see/listen for any screenwriter.
Pressed for time? Jump below the video to check out some highlights from Goldman’s frank interview.
William Goldman never imagined he would be a screenwriter, and he still can’t believe he is even a published author. In the early part of the interview, Goldman proclaims, “I showed no signs of talent,” when he starting writing. His short stories were constantly rejected. He was the fiction editor of a college publication at Oberlin, and his short stories (submitted anonymously) were always rejected by the other two editors. He was the fiction editor and he still couldn’t get published! As far as screenwriting is concerned, Goldman didn’t see an actual screenplay until he was 33.
18:20: He stumbled into the screenwriting business by accident when the actor Cliff Robertson mistook one of Goldman’s short novels for a movie treatment and asked Goldman to adapt the book Flowers for Algernon into a screenplay. Having never written a screenplay, Goldman accepted the job, turned the screenplay into Robertson, and was summarily fired. Subsequently, screenwriter Stirling Silliphant adapted the book, which became the movie Charly, for which Robertson won the Oscar for Best Actor. And not a word of Goldman’s work appeared in the film.
26:18: Goldman tells the story about the extensive pre-production process for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which Goldman credits for helping him improve the screenplay and leading to the ultimate success of the film. He laments that the collaborative pre-production from Butch Cassidy rarely happens anymore.
31:25: He recalls the famous story of the spec sale of Butch Cassidy. At the time, spec script sales were not that common. Goldman’s agent decided to have an auction for the script, and sent it out to all of the studios. Every studio passed except one, and that studio wanted to change the ending when Butch and Sundance flee to South America. But since that happened in real life, Goldman didn’t want to make the change. Instead, he completed a small rewrite, and his agent sent it back out to the studios for another attempt at an auction.
This time, every studio wanted it and 20th Century Fox bought it for $400,000, an unheard of amount of money for a script sale. As a result, the script sale made the major newspapers, putting the screenwriter Goldman front and center, which had never happened before either. When the movie eventually opened, the reviews were “pissy”, according to Goldman, because of the splash of the spec sale. Fortunately, audiences found the movie and it became the classic that it is today.
49:37: The interviewer asks Goldman how he learned to write screenplays, to which Goldman replies: “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve only written movies I want to write — You gotta write what you believe you can make play.”
58:21: On directing, Goldman says, “I would rather die than direct. I wouldn’t know what the fuck to say to an actor.”
1:01:56: You can learn why Goldman says All the President’s Men (for which he won an Oscar) was “a terrible experience”, but still “a swell movie”.
1:03:53: On his writing work habits he says, “I can’t do anything until I think I know what I’m doing. And I only know what I’m doing when I know the story from beginning to end.”
1:07:20: Goldman shares that there are three famous movies that he turned down: The Godfather (because he didn’t want to write another movie about crime at that time, even though he loved the book); The Graduate (because he didn’t “get” the book, although he loved the final film); and Superman (which he really wanted to write, because he’s a “comic book nut”, but turned down because he knew a star would never play Superman even though that’s what the studio wanted when they approached Goldman to write it – and Goldman was ultimately right.)
1:10:10: When discussing adaptations of novels, both his own and others, Goldman reveals, “I don’t think any of us are confident about anything we write. God knows I never was.” He then tells the story of how The Princess Bride became a novel, which you simply have to hear Goldman tell himself.
At the end of the interview, Goldman shares these final thoughts for screenwriters: “Screenplays are structure. Story is everything — It’s hard! Do your job as skillfully as you can. And hope.”
If 90 minutes just isn’t enough time listening to William Goldman talk about screenwriting, check out his best-selling books Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting and Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade. While you’re checking out books, make sure to check out the NFS Film School on a Bookshelf for more summer reading.
Does William Goldman’s account of his own “inconceivable” writing career inspire you to keep writing your screenplays? What is your biggest takeaway from Goldman’s interview? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.