Q&A with William Kennedy – Set 2

November 28, 1998

BP: Let me ask you another question before we move on to “Cotton Club” and Ironweed. When you first started writing screenplays back in the 70s, how did it feel to make the transition from writing novels to writing in dramatic genres like plays and screenplays – from making art with words to using words to make pictures?

WK: The problem, basically, was the belief in dialogue to tell the story, and that’s only partially necessary in movies. You need the dialogue for the intelligence of the film, but you can’t think in terms of merely talking heads, or even dialogue in the midst of action. The visual element of the story has to come first, and then you create the natural dialogue that comes out of the action. But without that motion, or conflict, or whatever it is that’s going to keep the story moving – the pacing of the story – you won’t have anything except a lot of static conversation on the screen.  And that was what I learned very slowly. You really know it from the beginning, but when you’re a novelist it’s hard to stop thinking in terms of dramatic development through conversation or exposition or the process of thought of your various characters, or the historical narrative that will explain what’s going on – and you can’t do that. This is a basic, elementary principle of screenwriting, but it’s hard to stop thinking like a novelist.

One of the most instructive things that happened to me was working with Francis Coppola, and watching the constant editing that he did on the scripts that we put together, or just on the scenes that I was writing. I’d do a 5-page scene and he’d cut it to 3 pages. Then I’d rewrite it and maybe cut it down to 2-¾ pages, and then Francis would edit that to 2 pages or to a page and a half. And we’d still more or less have the same action frame – the same movement forward. That was an unbelievably tight script that we had to produce for “Cotton Club,” because there was so much music and so much dancing and entertainment in it, and so many characters that it was difficult to develop anybody seriously.

Francis was very aware of minimalism in terms of narration. Of course he thinks visually, as good moviemakers do. I grew up believing that movies like “Citizen Kane,” “8-1/2,” “Persona,” “Smiles of a Summer Night,” the Bunuel movies, were certainly great visual achievements, but they also had a pervasive intelligence, with remarkably vivid conversation going on. In so many Hollywood movies after, say, the ‘60s, the writer’s role in the film was diminished, compared to the ‘30s and ‘40s when newspapermen and playwrights and novelists were the screenwriters, and their language and their stories were major ingredients in the movie. By the 60s and 70s, the visual image had become dominant and for years, it seemed, dialogue went out the window.

I saw something the other night about one of these action directors who uses 6 or 8 writers for each movie – four teams of writers – which seems like a ridiculous way to work, from the point of view of a writer. No single intelligence has any significance in the making of such films, unless you presume that the director is intelligent.  But when you look at these movies written by committees, they’re an excuse for another improbable plot twist, yet another action sequence with a veneer of plot line. It’s depressing to be a writer and to have to cope with that.

Let me say here that I’ll never have to cope with it. No one will ever hire me to write an action movie. But what I’m talking about is the way that a fiction writer comes into film. You become a screenwriter and bring all this novelistic baggage with you: the way of telling a story traditionally, which is verbally, through words alone, and orally, through spoken words. But more often than not that way of telling the story clutters a film. I’m sounding like Screenwriting 101 here, but if you don’t understand this very early in the game, you’re not going to write much of a screenplay. And I’m also saying that, at the beginning, I didn’t understand it and had to learn it quickly. I learned it in about 6 or 8 weeks working with Francis.

BP: How do you think storytelling in movies affects an audience differently than the way it does in well-written novels?  And what does that difference augur for our development as human beings, if we assume that storytelling is one of the activities that differentiates our species from other animal species?

WK: Well, it’s a reduction of complexity, obviously. Movies can only rarely approach the density and complexity of one human life. I’m not even speaking of the first-line novels like Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury or Moby-Dick, or novels by writers like Proust and Tolstoy. You don’t have the density in the movies – you just can’t. There’s not enough time. With movies, the process is the opposite of methodical, careful thought, rumination, or synthesis. You’re constantly forced into a relentless excitement that the screenwriter, and director, and cinematographer are creating for you, and which is essential to the medium. The assault is terrific.  We don’t need all the 19th Century descriptions from Henry James’s gardens and tea parties. You can do it instantly with one dolly shot in a garden. By the same token, you can’t get that kind of analysis of a tortured mind or tortured soul unless you have the luxury of time and space, and you don’t have that in the movies. You can’t keep anybody sitting still that long.

I had this argument with Coppola. I said, “You can’t make a movie out of Ulysses, not the way that it really is. You can make one chapter, and that alone would take up 5 or 6 hours.” And he said it didn’t make any difference – you could make a hundred movies and do Ulysses. But who’s going to sit through them?

BP: But don’t you think that classic films like “Wild Strawberries” or “8-1/2” or “The Pawnbroker” and many others come closer to creating the experience we get from good novels?

WK: I do. 8 ½. I’m halfway through that right now, again. I’ve seen it 15 or 20 times. I think it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, in terms of focusing on one individual and getting his complexity across. It’s a masterpiece of his interior life, elaborating on the mind in a way no other film ever quite achieved. It’s also a masterpiece of the exterior as well. Fellini did it all in this film.

But to get back to your earlier question, I don’t think that just because a new art form exists that complexity is going to disappear, anymore than it was lost when the narrative poem died and the novel came along. Theater is still there and it’s had its low points, but we have had something of a renaissance on Broadway. And I always live with the hope that there will be new forms of movie-making that won’t be driven by 12-year-olds. Look how long Meryl Streep has gone – I think she’s the greatest actress in the history of the movies – and she went for years getting terrible roles, or no roles. Now, of course, she’s the champion, no longer the glamour girl, but an aging character, middle-aged, and she’s exceptional – one majestic performance after another. We’ve never had an actress who did the things she’s done.

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