Q&A with William Kennedy – Set 4

November 28, 1998

BP: Do you think you’ve created a distinct style in the screenplays that you’ve written, as you have in your novels, or is that impossible given the nature of how screenwriters have to work?

WK: I would never think of myself as having created a style. People tell me they recognize my dialogue in “Cotton Club” or “Ironweed” of course. “Ironweed” was very close to the book in certain ways. A lot of the book had to be excised, but the basic story was kept, and the dialogue was as close to the novel as we could make it. Hector Babenco, the director, wanted that, too, so we had a very harmonious development of that film.

When I write dialogue, I guess there’s a signature that goes with it, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you what that is. I just know that certain writers have it. Two pages of DeLillo dialogue, and I can identify it.  I could certainly do the same with Hemingway, maybe with O’Hara, Cheever dialogue I might recognize.  And I think Isaac Babel, yes.  If writers who use dialogue to a major degree in telling their stories do have a signature I suppose it would show up in a screenplay.  But that doesn’t mean it will show up on the screen, because so much gets edited out of any script.  Voice is always intruded upon by the action and by the visuals and the music and the sound effects and god knows what else.

BP: Do you find yourself writing dialogue for films differently than when you write dialogue for novels?

WK: Tighter. Just tighter. Tighter. You have to cut. You can’t let scenes run on and on. It’s counter-productive and it really doesn’t fit the art form. You can have a whole chapter or a whole novel with nothing but dialogue, which some of the French writers have done. Philip Roth did it with Deception, and Nicholson Baker did it with Vox. But you’re not going to put all that dialogue into the movies. I think you would find people getting very restless. They need to see movement, and the action that goes with it.

And you certainly can’t get the complex interior life into a script. Francis Phelan’s ruminations on the progress of his soul through history, from before he’s born on up until the time that he dies and reappears as a ghost – I did that in a single paragraph – how are you going to get that into the movies, except with a voice-over reading?  Or maybe you could do it as a cartoon, or animated movement, which is again action. The technology with computers is now so advanced filmmakers can do anything they want, but that wasn’t there when I was writing “Cotton Club” and “Ironweed.” I’m not sure we would have used it for “Ironweed” but I wish I had the chance. I would have started the film underground in the graveyard with the dead talking about Francis Phelan coming up the road in the truck and walking to Gerald’s grave. I love that idea and it would have been anticipatory for the scenes with the ghosts later in the film. And the ghosts could have been done in a much different way.

But Babenco and I didn’t want to do any animation. We didn’t want transparent people such as the “Topper” movies had, where invisible people fade in and out of substance. That was gimmicky and we didn’t want it. But I would love a second chance to do it in a more surreal way than was possible in those days.

BP: Have you ever extrapolated any of what you’ve learned from writing screenplays into your methods for writing fiction?

WK: I’m sure I learned 10,000 things. I’m a child of the Age of Cinema. I’ve been going to the movies since I was old enough to have the patience to sit through a Buck Jones or a Ken Maynard or a Hoot Gibson movie at the Leland Theater in the early 30s. I’ve always been somewhat of a concise writer – bare-bones sometimes. But I suspect that the movies and screenwriting have forced me into re-thinking that. There’s more concision possible, at least usually. There doesn’t seem to be any need for more concision in a Chekhov story, or in Babel. Hemingway’s dialogue is minimal and powerful when you read it, and it catches you up. Also Ray Carver. You feel you’re in the hands of maestros of the dramatic arts with these writers’ minimal use of dialogue, and I love that. I’ve tried to practice it almost all of my writing career.

I started out writing short stories full of dialogue. But I know more about pacing and cutting now. I’m always amazed that after writing a screenplay I go back to the novel without even thinking about it. It’s like I put on another hat and become this other person, with never a thought about concision. I’ve got nothing but expansion in the novel I’ve been working on for years, with vast amounts of information and characters, and it’s totally anti-cinematic.

BP: Have you ever wanted to blend the two forms, the way Arthur Miller did it in The Misfits?

WK: I think it can be done and I think of “Time Regained” by the Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz, which is a terrific achievement – making an almost encyclopedic film from the works of Marcel Proust, which is as daunting as Ulysses. It’s a great intelligent and kinetic achievement as a script and imaging both. The other way of blending the forms – the novel as screenplay – I’d never do that. The script form is usually utilitarian and not particularly stirring to read. Oh, you can read some screenplays and know they’re terrific – “Citizen Kane” or a Fellini or Bergman or Bunuel screenplay – you realize they’re exciting and engaging stories by themselves, without seeing a single image; yet they’re not novels, nor should they be. There’s no need to fuse them. They’re separate forms and what is essential about each of them makes them fight each other.

I remember Godard movies from reviewing them in the 60s, a film like “Weekend” that had so much talk going on – excerpts from philosophical writings, long speeches, some of which you couldn’t begin to stay with, along with the sub-titles – and it seemed great for a few minutes but I don’t think it holds up. A lot of people love Godard and think I’m all wet, but I think he has fewer and fewer devotees as time goes on. But Fellini continues, because of the great images, and his dialogue that enhances them in his best work. So many of his films are really works of art.

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