Intro to the Conversation with William Kennedy by Bill Patrick
November 28, 1998
Bill Patrick: How did you get started writing screenplays?
William Kennedy: I was fascinated by the movies in the 60s and always wanted to do it, and started to teach myself how to write scripts. I did a lot of film criticism, started a film society, and eventually – it was in the 70s actually when I seriously began to consider trying to make a living as a screenwriter. And I changed agents. I moved over to William Morris, and got myself a movie agent, and he was very helpful. I learned a lot in that particular time. I started off writing a screen treatment on the basis of a conversation over lunch with my agent and a producer. I had an idea to do a movie in Puerto Rico and I needed to go there and research it, and I needed some walking around money. I was broke. In a fifteen-minute pitch I got an advance of $10,000 – and $5,000 expenses – and wrote something like a 20 page treatment. Fifteen thousand is a lot of money when you’re broke.
A friend of mine had written a short story. He was a pilot in Central America, and it was a strange world he got mixed up in. It was before all the drug smuggling but it had the intrigue of Central America, plus the black market and flying planes that were ready to fall out of the sky. Anyway, I wrote the treatment and optioned the story from my buddy, and we were going to share and share alike if it ever went forward. But it didn’t.
BP: What stopped it from going forward?
WK: The usual “No.” The usual negative response toward anything you present to folks in Hollywood. They say “No” much more than they say “Yes.” They’re in the business of not making movies. We could have had a good adventure movie, but it didn’t happen.
BP: Now this was in the time period between Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, right?
WK: Billy Phelan was just about to come out, and I had sold an option to Warner Brothers on Legs, but nobody wanted me to write the script. They don’t trust novelists. I wanted to write the script on Billy Phelan, and I was looking for someone to option that, too, but I couldn’t get the time of day. (I eventually did option it and wrote the script but nothing happened and I bought back the rights to the script I’d been paid for.) For Legs, Warner Brothers hired a fellow by the name of Joe Walsh, who had written “California Split” for Robert Altman, and Joe wrote a script and we were talking about Jack Nicholson and that level of aspiration for the film. I think what happened was a change in the hierarchy at Warner Brothers, and the people who had brought the project in no longer had power. That was the first time that happened. It’s happened over and over to me. You don’t know what to believe, and you never know for sure why you’re getting turned down, or even why they were interested in you in the first place.
It’s intuition, I suppose, that makes them believe in somebody’s pitch. I went out to L.A. and made a pitch on a sportswriter movie. Mike Medavoy turned me down, and then my agent talked to him and he called me back and he said, “Okay, we’ll do it.” So I wrote the script and then they didn’t do it. That was a film about two sportswriters on a New York tabloid who are best friends and get into a feud during a strike. One continues to work for the paper during the strike and one doesn’t and that breaks their friendship. It was about personal attitudes and the common ground they shared as sportswriters. It would have been a very human movie. I wrote the script and had a good payday. We sent in the screenplay and it immediately went down the tubes. It was a movie in part about the labor movement, and once they saw that written in black and white they didn’t want it. But they knew about it going in, so you can’t figure. I think there’s a careless optimism in the executives’ minds when they spend money. They just don’t care. It’s pin money to them, these options or development deals they make to get the script, so when they get what they pay for they don’t worry about throwing it away. If it goes into turnaround and gets done somewhere else they’ll get some of their money back. I don’t think that movie went into turnaround – I think they just killed it. It was a funny, interesting story.
BP: Did they give it back to you?
WK: No, I don’t think I have any ownership in that. It may have reverted to the producer who first optioned it. I obviously have equity in it if anybody ever makes that movie, and I would probably get a screen credit. The deal was a good one, and so was the payday. But you also go in with these extremely high hopes. I don’t know why I had high hopes after so many serial dealings with the executives of NO. It’s hard to continue to be serious about writing screenplays unless you decide that the money’s the only thing. And I never felt that way. When I got into it with my last novel, it took me forever. I was so meticulous about it. It was like inventing the novel all over again, and I wrote what I thought was a very good screenplay. I wrote about three drafts and never felt it was a finished draft. I always believed I could work it out with the director.
But again Universal went into a total transformation at the top, and the people I went in with knew that the new people coming in would not be interested in this kind of thing. It’s a romantic, tragic story, somewhat like “The English Patient,” and that movie was very much in the minds of the producers. That’s a commonplace ploy, to equate a current success with the screenplay you’re trying to sell. And the executives went for it and again I was reasonably well paid. The producer loved the novel. He came here and we talked about it, and then we met in New York, and they flew me to L.A. – lots of meetings and lots of time preparing a viable screenplay. And I think I wrote one, but it didn’t make any difference.