Introduction to the 1998 Conversation with William Kennedy

by Bill Patrick, faculty member of Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing

Here’s the brief history of the interview I conducted with Bill Kennedy on November 28, 1998. Bill had published The Flaming Corsage in 1996, and a movie deal had been in the works since even before its publication. I had been working and teaching for The New York State Writers Institute, which Bill founded in 1984, since 1996 as well. I knew that Bill had been working pretty steadily on the screenplay for that book, and trying consistently to get actors and producers interested in screenplays he had written for a couple of his earlier books – Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game.

In October of 1998, I accepted a settlement in a federal lawsuit against Universal Studios and Eddie Murphy for adapting one of my screenplays, “Brand New Me,” without my permission, and applying its concepts and plot structure to their remake of the classic, Jerry Lewis hit from 1963, “The Nutty Professor.” My entertainment attorney had extracted a decent chunk of their money, but I certainly hadn’t received any screen credit. As a matter of fact, if Universal executives and Eddie Murphy and Jon Landau and anyone else we deposed or tried to depose in that case acknowledged my existence after that settlement, they weren’t lining up to ensure that I was awarded my WGA points. They were too busy apportioning the roughly 800 million dollars they had raked in on just the domestic box office receipts in that first year of the remake’s release.

So I had a little walking-around money, but I was somewhat bitter about the financial discrepancy, as well as about the accepted notion that Hollywood folks felt entitled to take, simply, whatever they wanted. I had read Fatal Subtraction, Pierce O’Donnell’s book about Eddie Murphy, Art Buchwald, and the 1988 movie, “Coming to America:” you can connect the familiar dots there. I also knew about a couple of other infamous cases of script theft that weren’t written about, including “Groundhog Day,” and my pal Dave Fenza at Associated Writing Programs was encouraging me to write an article for their magazine, Chronicle, about the travails of screenwriters. So I asked Bill Kennedy if he would talk with me about his struggles in the screen world, and that 1998 interview was the result.

Well, I never got around to writing the article. I felt guilty about the time Bill had generously given me, and I also knew he had said a lot of things that people should hear about his writing process. So I berated myself for a while, and then other concerns took over, as they always do. But when Lisa Calderone told me about the Fairfield MFA Program’s new magazine, Mason’s Road, I remembered the interview with Bill.

I know Bill Kennedy has always been meticulous about his work, but I didn’t expect him to spend five hours carefully editing my transcription of our interview and adding some new details about his writing collaboration on “The Cotton Club” with Francis Ford Coppola. Nor did I expect him to provide side-by-side excerpts of a scene from Ironweed, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, and “Ironweed,” the screenplay that served as the basis for the celebrated 1987 film with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Tom Waits, directed by Hector Babenco, for the premier issue of this magazine. But I’m certainly grateful that he did. Studying the way Bill transformed this wrenching scene from his novel to the powerfully-compressed version in the screenplay will afford aspiring screenwriters no less than a mini-course in adaptation. As usual, some of the best craft essays are right there in the writing.

A Conversation with William Kennedy

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