Last Friday a living legend left this world. His name was William Goldman and he was revered as one of the most gifted screenwriters in living memory. While I must confess to knowing very little of his personal life, I worshipped the films that were borne from his typewriter. Classics like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, Misery and All the President’s Men.
Reading his obituary, I was blown away to discover that Goldman started out as no superman. In fact he had struggled to find any critical praise for his work, almost flunking a creative-writing course in his twenties. Yet the lack of early promise failed to dampen the spirits of the tenacious upstart who wrote and published five novels before he even considered writing for the screen.
"I had never seen a screenplay until I was 33," he admits. "The first time I ever saw what a screenplay even looked like was when I bought a screenwriting guide at an all-night bookstore at midnight in Times Square."
His first screenplay, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, was written while teaching creative writing at Princeton and went on to sell for an unprecedented 400K (the equivalent of more than $2.75 million today) and is still touted as a perfect script in the business.
From here his name became synonymous with commercial success (and the occasional hog) but most importantly Goldman was a man who called it as he saw it. “Nobody knows anything” was his infamous line from his 1983 bestselling memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade ( I just bought myself a copy) and one that I subscribe to every time I start a new script.
“Screenplay writing is not an art form, it’s a skill; it’s carpentry; it’s structure. I don’t mean to knock it — it ain’t easy. But if it’s all you do, if you only write screenplays, it is ultimately denigrating to the soul. You may get lucky and get rich, but you sure won’t get happy.”
My lady coerced me into watching The Princess Bride for the first time a few months back (Yes, I was a deprived child and No, I don’t want to talk about it). Adapted from Goldman’s bestselling book, the post-modern satire really socked me in the gut and left me chewing on how the cult classic had even been green-lit in the first place.
While no answers were forthcoming one thing was clear as day. The man behind the curtain had tuned out the noise, strapped himself in and put his inner voice in the driver’s seat.