14 July 2010
Based on the play “Abundance” by Beth Henley
“Go West young man, and grow up with the country.” - Horace Greely
What: Bess Stanford has lived a privileged life in the Boston of the late 1860s, but something is missing (as it was from the lives of most women of that era) – independence, free thought, self respect, freedom and adventure – and marrying the wealthy Mr. Farrington will not fill those gaps.
Who: Bess, her head filled with Emerson and Byron, her vision filled with pictures of mountains and Indians, her heart filled with dime store Western romance novels, and her hand grasping the personal ad of William Conklin Curtis of Burnt Forks, Wyoming Territory seeking a wife willing to “live a hard but prosperous life” and who must “have little fear of locust, inclement weather or the red man,” escapes out the window of her cloistered environment to the train station and a soon-to-be westward bound train leading her to a life with unlimited prospects and much hope. On this same train is another young woman, Emma, of considerably less means and circumstance who is also bound for Wyoming, having been convinced by her mother that a mail order marriage is her last hope and prospect given her advanced age, 25, and her beauty that can best be described as “handsome.” Emma, the “helpless” woman-type that Bess detests, gravitates toward Bess, wanting to share the romantic letters written by her prospective husband; Bess prefers the company of her photography books. They are not the only “mail-order” brides on the train.
Bride One: …You think they’re gonna want to have intimate relations right away?
Bride Two: I hope so. I’m not going all the way to Omaha to keep my virtue. I was doing that just fine in Cincinnati.
Bride Three: All I care about is that he’s got teeth. If he doesn’t have any teeth I’ll perish right then and there.
The girls wince at the thought of a toothless husband.
Bride Two: What about you, miss?
Bess: Me? I’d like to shoot a buffalo.
Bride Two: …Shoot a buffalo?
Bess: Yes, and photograph the Indians.
Bride One (mockingly) What are you going to do if one captures you?
Bess: Maybe I’ll marry him.
That quiets them.
Bride Three: Aren’t you concerned about your fiancé?
Bess: Yes, yes I am… My hope is that he’ll treat me as his equal, not as a maid or mother hen.
The girls are dumbfounded by her response. Bess leans closer.
Bess: Don’t you see? In fifty years people won’t only be writing about who we married or how many children we had, but what we thought and what we accomplished. (licks her rolling paper) This is the last frontier, ladies, and we are the chosen few. (holds out her cigarette) Cigarette anyone?
This, in short, is the proverbial modern woman and Emma has met neither its male nor female counterpart before. It is perplexing and somewhat frightening to her. Nevertheless, on the long voyage to the Wyoming Territory, they bond; a bond that becomes forged stronger upon the arrival at their destination where Bess discovers that her prospective mate, Will, is crushingly ordinary and Emma discovers that not only has her fiancé died, but that Jack, his feckless brother, has deceptively taken his place and is a womanizing scoundrel of limited opportunities.
Each woman endeavors to do her best, but Bess craves the spontaneity and sensuality present in Emma’s marriage and Emma craves the stability of Bess’s relationship. Tragedy strikes when, shortly after giving birth to Lizbeth, a beautiful baby girl, Emma is abducted by Indians. Leaving Lizbeth in the care of Will and Bess, Jack begins a search for Emma throughout the Indian territory, sadly coming to the conclusion that she has been killed when her precious locket, a gift from Bess, is found in the rubble of an Indian village burned to the ground by the U.S. cavalry. Eventually returning, Bess leaves Will to help raise Lizbeth, discovering in Jack the adventurous soul she had always been seeking. Life blossoms for Bess as she discovers photography, and with Jack as her willing Sherpa they climb mountains for the perfect shot. Bess has finally gained all that she was seeking – love, independence, equality, and art. Except… the day arrives that all is upended when the Army informs them that Emma is not dead but has been rescued “against her will” from her Indian husband. Emaciated, tattooed, and almost unrecognizable she is brought home and nurtured by a conflicted Bess and Jack. Ridiculed by the townsfolk, alienated from her own daughter, and coming to a growing awareness of the true relationship between Bess and Jack, Emma rides back to her Indian family, pursued by Bess. Eventually finding Emma, Bess is unsuccessful in convincing her to return to Lizbeth, discovering that Emma has another child by her Indian husband.
Tragic circumstance intervenes in the form of the murderous U.S. Cavalry, determined to eradicate Emma’s tribe. In the process they kill Jack, shooting him when he tries to intervene, and Emma’s Indian husband as he tries to lead his family to their one hope of escape over a cliff into the roiling waters below. He is killed in the attempt at which point Emma, baby Adam in her arms, jumps into the dangerous waters below. Bess, abandoning reason, jumps after her and is able to save the child but loses sight of Emma. Bess, now with a baby to care for, returns home to discover Lizbeth missing. Alone now, she will lead the nomadic existence of a freelance photographer, often working at traveling carnivals.
INT. Bess’s photography studio – night
A painted canvas backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Circles are cut for the faces of the two Cowboys “chasing” two Indians on ponies.
The sign above reads: WILD WEST TINTYPES FIFTY CENTS THREE FOR A DOLLAR.
The room falls off into darkness where the box camera rests. Bess is framing a print with Adam, her back to the back-drop.
Bess: …When you get older, I’ll take you to shoot some real Buffalo… If there are any left.
From off screen we hear a young girl’s voice.
Young Girl (O.S): One photograph, pleeease.
Man (O.S.): Your mother will be furious if we’re late.
Young Girl (O.S.): We won’t be. Swear it.
Bess: (without turning around) Welcome to the Wild West. Poke your heads through those holes and I’ll be right with you.
And just like that, fate rears its head, for the young girl is Lizabeth, traveling the circuit with her mother who now supports them lecturing audiences about her trials as an abducted squaw – embellishing, lying, doing whatever the audience desires in order to make her way in the world with her daughter.
No Meaner Place: In “Come West with Me,” loosely adapted from a play by Beth Henley entitled “Abundance,” Bolotin has found a center in the story of two women, each with entirely different aspirations, discovering what is necessary to survive on their own, something very different than that described in dime novels and formal education. The weaker becomes the stronger and the ordinary is thrust into a life extraordinary. The originally desired independence, equality, freedom and self respect have come at a mighty price. As in most things in life, be careful what you wish for, it may come true – even for those who don’t wish it.
Characters of enormous depth and growth blossom on the pages of this screenplay and it can only be because of timing or misfortune that this beautiful script was not made into a film. We are all the worse for not being invited into the visual, spiritual and poetic world described within these pages.
Life Lessons for Writers: Quoth Lord Byron: “I have always believed that all things depended upon Fortune, and nothing upon ourselves.” Nothing truer was ever said about film development.
Conversation with the Writer:
Neely: I understand that this has been in development at various companies over the years and has come close to the precipice of production several times. More’s the pity for the public that it hasn’t reached the screen because it is lyrical in both word and vision.
Craig: It had very little development. I wrote it on spec and sold it. I was fortunate because I was always attached as the director and, for the most part, at the same studio for many years. Although the producers changed, the script didn’t change significantly. A lot of it had to do with me being attached as the director. Still, I was very lucky. Probably 95% of what you read was in the original script.
Neely: That’s really unusual.
Craig: It never happened again!
Neely: When we first talked, I sensed a conflict in your feelings for this piece because it was an adaptation, although a very loose one. How loose an adaptation is it?
Craig: The only reason I was cautious about talking about this was because I believe, whether it be a novelist or a playwright, that the underlying material makes such a large contribution even if you’re using, like in this particular case, only two or three scenes and a half dozen lines of dialogue. Someone else came up with the idea of doing two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum who go out West and end up meeting two men who they don’t know. And they have this emotional and physical journey over many years where they finally end up together, although it ends differently than in the play. As a writer and a director, I think it’s important to give credit to the writer of the source material. I feel the same with original screenplays that are rewritten by someone else. It always drives me crazy to see that the name of the original writer is often left off the screenplay in favor of the person rewriting it. And it’s done all the time by major writers and writer/directors.
Neely: I hear what you’re saying, and not taking anything away from Beth Henley who came up with the original idea, but I always remember what was said by a gentleman that I met at a restaurant once when I made a disparaging remark about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. I enjoyed it but it was terribly derivative. And he looked up at me and said, “Honey, all music is derivative. Way back in history, there were a couple of original tunes and they’ve already been done (over and over).” So it’s really about how artistically and how well you work with that underlying material that matters; not, necessarily whether you came up with that underlying material.
Craig: I disagree with that, but let’s move on.
Neely: Well we’ll agree to somewhat disagree on that. I strongly believe that adaptation is, in itself, an art form and a very delicate one.
Craig: Well what do you think is harder to write: “Chinatown” from scratch or an adaptation of L.A. Confidential?” I would say “Chinatown” because he had to come up with the world and the characters; and the guy doing “L.A. Confidential” had a 400 page novel to pick and choose from. They’re both, however, great screenplays.
Neely: But I’m not talking about which is more difficult and I’m not comparing the two. What I am saying is that adaptation is an art form in itself. To some extent, the adaptor is hampered because that world was already created; he or she is further hampered because of a preconceived audience expectation when they already know the underlying material.
Craig: I would call it craft and not an art form.
Neely: I just fundamentally disagree with you.
Craig: Have you ever written an original screenplay?
Craig: Have you ever done an adaptation?
Neely: But I have seen very good examples of both. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. I’m saying…
Craig: One is much more difficult to write. Creating something from a blank page is a lot harder than being “hampered” by a three hundred page novel full of potential scenes, characters and a plot – no matter how flawed.
Neely: Let’s get back to “Come West with Me.” How did you find the play and what inspired you to use this particular piece of material as your underlying thesis.
Craig: I saw the play and I’m a friend of Beth Henley’s. I thought that the kernel of the story was great and was showing us a world I had never seen portrayed accurately: women in the West, without guns a la Annie Oakley, or as prostitutes, saloon keepers, or mere appendages to their rancher husbands. I then started to read journals written by women. What a struggle it was for these women, these pioneers. They were living in sod huts with snakes dropping out of them; it would be 20 below zero, they had five kids, no medicine, no heat of course, no light other than candles; they would be grandmothers in their early forties and they’d often be dead by fifty.
The more I read these journals, the more interesting it became. One set of journals was called “Captivity Narratives” written by women who were captured by Native Americans and who, after returning, made money lecturing in the East about their abductions. This was something else I had never heard of. I wanted to tell the story of what it was honestly like for these women based on Beth’s play, her research and mine. Mail order brides, circa 1870, would answer an ad, get on a train, and be stuck with a total stranger in a sod hut in the middle of nowhere a week later. Amazing when you think about it. It does, I hope, also compare and contrast the idea of an arranged marriage versus romantic love. The latter, by the way, came very late in Western history.
Neely: One of the things I really appreciated was that you put women at the forefront of this. Women had been always been featured in the more realistic or grittier Western films. There was always a woman behind the man, whether it’s “Ole Yeller” or “Shane,” who is living a hardscrabble existence. There are lots of movies from the 30’s and 40’s that go a bit beyond the “good wife” in John Ford films. It’s a slight film but I’ve always liked “Rachel and the Stranger,” where Robert Mitchum comes and upsets the delicate balance between a cold widower and his new “mail order” bride (in the sense that he bought her as an indentured servant) who was expected to do manual labor as well as take care of home, hearth and his children – it may not have been great art, but it was a good story.
Craig: Even in “Shane,” which is a wonderful film, Jean Arthur lives in a beautiful ranch house with her water well right outside her front door. Her clothes were sparkling clean, they weren’t full of moth holes, etc. This isn’t the way it was.
Many of the pioneering women of the West were living in sod huts, where snakes lived as overhead roommates; they froze in the winter, broiled in the summer. The men would often leave for weeks to go hunting. The women suffered from depression. There was one story about a woman who went up on the roof to patch a hole and ended up freezing to death. It was a much harder life than portrayed in most films and novels; definitely worse than living at Fort Apache, or wherever Ford had his women living. But that’s not what Ford was interested in – it certainly wasn’t the woman’s pioneering spirit.
Neely: I agree. For the most part, women played a very subsidiary role in John Ford movies, which was unfortunate (because I really like John Ford movies). But “Come West with Me” is a much deeper, much more interesting, and to a certain extent, a much more realistic view of what a woman’s life was like. I especially liked that your main character, or at least the woman who started out to be your main character, Bess, fell into the classic trap of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Reading the Horace Greeley-type books and actually believing the press that she was reading. I loved the different approach, the different reasons why both women were heading West; it adds so much depth to the story, especially considering how it all turns out. I, too, felt the pull of the romantic literature that brought Bess, foolishly, out there. You also captured a very visual effect. This is where adaptation, a very good adaptation for film, comes into play; when you’re dealing with novels or plays, you have to see and feel the material visually. I actually felt the visual influence of photographer Edward Curtis. Who were your literary and visual arts influences in writing this piece?
Craig: I shot a lot of photographs and taught photography many years ago, but I wasn’t looking at Curtis’ photographs. There was a book of photographs I found, most of which were anonymous; photos of and by the women I was writing about. Women were doing a lot of photography in the West. The book, I believe, is called Women of the Old West and is a combination of journals and photos - the real photos of the real pioneers in and outside of their sod houses, working their patch of land. So my influence wasn’t Curtis, but many other photographs and paintings from this period. In England, of course, there was Julia Margaret Cameron in the 1860’s and 70’s.
Neely: Other than Bess’ admiration for her as a professional and independent woman, her photography isn’t really applicable as they were primarily portraits of the famous or staged allegorical and historical scenes.
Craig: Yes, that’s true. I stretched the truth a bit with Bess taking photos of Buffalo herds and Native Americans. But then, recently, I found a website that has a history of women photographers of the West with landscape photos in Yosemite and of the plains filled with Buffalo herds taken by women at this time.
Neely: Clearly you have a lot of literary influences just in writing, in general. Who are your favorite writers and why?
Craig: That’s another tough one because by naming some, I leave someone else out. It’s like your favorite song. I have dozens and dozens
Neely: Then just give me some examples of some authors who do influence you.
Craig: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. One wrote a book 125 years ago and one two years ago. One is a vast portrait of Russian society; the other, a microscopic look at post 9/11 New York. Apples and Orangutans. Don Quixote, which I reread recently. I’m from Chicago so I like Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Seize the Day… Blood Meridian is a great Western novel by Cormac McCarthy. There’s Nabokov’s Lolita. Madame Bovary… James Agee, Paul Bowles, and Faulkner…
Neely: Take Nabokov, for example. What is it that draws you to Nabokov?
Craig: His pyrotechnical prose, wicked wit, the surgically precise portrait of American society circa 1955; and the funniest unreliable narrator of all times!
Neely: What about Tolstoy. You mentioned Anna Karenina.
Craig: The unforgettable characters. The enormous tapestry he weaves of Russia, the microscopic examination of lives and mores, of the Moscow aristocracy, gentlemen farmers and the peasants. The ruminations of the nature of life, faith, death, love. It’s an enormous, rich and complex novel. And of course, it’s one of the great love stories.
Neely: What are you reading right now?
Craig: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I’m reading a book on the Middle East called The Media Relations Department of Hezbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar. He was the New York Times correspondent in Cairo for 5-10 years. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on the Middle East.
Neely: Just as an aside, I highly recommend a book about the 9/11 terrorists called Perfect Soldiers by Terry McDermott.
Craig: I’ve read it; it’s very good. I did an adaptation of a novel called Terrorist by John Updike, so I spent a lot of time reading everything I could about terrorists/terrorism and the 9/11 terrorists. Perfect Soldiers is on my shelf.
Neely: I know that you have taught classes. Since you are both a writer and a director, I’d like to know what the focus of your course was.
Craig: In the three places I’ve taught, including The Sundance Middle East Screenwriting Lab in Jordan, two were on screenwriting and one was mentoring senior thesis short films. The students were graduate school writer/directors. I helped shape their scripts, come up with a visual plan, a visual arc to the story … all the way through the editing. The other classes were screenwriting classes.
Neely: Any so-called critical studies component to the screenwriting classes?
Craig: No. But the way I taught screenwriting was by comparing and contrasting different films. I would show the first 10 minutes of three different films in order to discuss “openings.” That was my way of teaching – I would show films along with xeroxing chapters here and there from various text books (note: with proper fees paid to the authors of said texts of course). I would look at the beginnings of films to try to determine, or rather let them determine, why, for example, some openings were better than others.
Neely: Can you give me an example of three films you would have used to illustrate that point for the openings?
Craig: I don’t want to say because with films I used, all of the directors are still working.
Neely: Maybe I was making an incorrect assumption, but were they good examples or bad examples? Why don’t you give me an example of what you would have considered a good example.
Craig: What I think is a great opening? “Jules and Jim” has a great opening. And I used it in reference to “Up” because the beginning of “Up” is terrific – that montage at the beginning. That wasn’t really a comparison but it was showing what you could do in live action versus animation and that there’s a precedent for pretty much everything in cinema, even though it’s only 120 years old.
The beginning of “Jules and Jim,” which is 40 years old, does the same kind of montage, but with real people very quickly covering a fairly long period of time, showing the relationships and the friendships - it’s magical. The first 10 minutes of that film are breathtaking – the way Truffaut skips around in time and condenses the story; and by the end you know these characters so well.
Neely: Well it is a perfect movie.
Craig: I don’t know about that.
Neely: It was a perfect adaptation…
Craig: You’re right, it was an adaptation.
Neely: Great direction, great cinematography, outstanding choice of actors and acting; with the added attraction that the film still holds up today, which cannot be said of every movie that makes it onto somebody’s “Best” list.
Neely: We had an incredibly intense discussion about film, sparked by my defense of “Gone with the Wind” as my favorite film (it’s actually tied with Marcel Carné’s “The Children of Paradise”). But, as favorite does not necessarily equal “best” movie ever made, I still reserve my right to my choice, in terms of favorite. What is your list of “bests?”
Craig: No. I have too many. Again it comes back to “what’s your favorite song?” – do you like the Beatles, or Bob Dylan, or Shostakovich? It’s pretty silly… If you want to talk about genres, or periods of time… I don’t have one film. It would be better to say, “What are the 10 best silent films? What are the best 10 screwball comedies pre WWII; post WWII? What are the best… you get the idea.
Neely: Instead of getting of the hook by saying “I can’t choose a best,” give me several that are iconic to you, for whatever reason.
Craig: (pause) Best neo-realist film – “Paisan;” best Japanese Samurai film, “The Seven Samurai;” best Westerns - “The Wild Bunch,” “Unforgiven,” Sergio Leone films. It’s silly in my opinion to have to choose a favorite film, or a favorite song, or a favorite painting.
Neely: That’s fine; just elaborate a little further. We won’t call this your definitive list.
Craig: … Best romantic comedy made in a foreign country in the 50’s – “Smiles of a Summer Night” by Bergman; best comedy of manners pre WWII – Renoir’s “Rules of the Game.” I mean it’s endless. “Force of Evil” by Abraham Polonsky is a favorite in its genre; “Rio Bravo” by Hawks is a Western I left out… You see, by making a list you’re automatically excluding. Best silent films - “The Man with a Movie Camera” by Vertov; “Greed” by von Stroheim, “The Great Dictator” by Chaplin, “The General” by Keaton, “Gold Rush” by Chaplin, “The Crowd” by Vidor, “Sunrise” by Murnau. The best screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, “His Girl Friday” (Hawks), “Twentieth Century” (Hawks), “The More the Merrier,” by Stevens, “The Awful Truth” (McCarey), so much by Preston Sturges.
Neely: Sturges only made about 6-8 films as writer/director before he fell apart. So it would be okay to include all of those.
Craig: Brahms wrote only four symphonies, but we still listen to all of them. We still watch most of Sturges. It’s quality, not quantity.
Neely: I’m not sure there have been too many people who have written and directed as well as Preston Sturges.
Craig: …Comedies: There’s also Lubitsch, McCarey, Cukor, Hawks, Wilder….
Neely: In terms of Sturges, it’s very much the same thing as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It’s not to say that one is better than the other; one clearly learned from the other, just as Sturges learned from Lubitsch.
Craig: I think that analogy applies more to Billy Wilder and not to Preston Sturges. I don’t think Preston Sturges was influenced by Lubitsch at all; he never talked about it. Billy Wilder, however, was influenced. I read somewhere that whenever Wilder was writing or directing a comedy scene, he would say, “How would Lubitsch do it?”
There is a great autobiography by Preston Sturges, one of my favorites because of the title. Do you know what it’s called? It’s called Between Flops. It’s really fun and very self-deprecating. That’s how he saw his career.
Neely: You’re right, I was confusing Sturges with Wilder, another of my all time favorites and someone who was almost without peer – given that English was his third language (after German and French). He captured the nuance of English and American culture perfectly.
Craig: Woody Allen is up there too. He had a great run of films, no matter what you think of the last 10 years, he still made “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”
Neely: I’m of the ilk that stops after “Annie Hall,” possibly after “Manhattan.”
Craig: You have many more restrictions – or should I say you’re more critical than I am. I think “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a brilliant film and it was made long after “Manhattan.” “Hannah and her Sisters,” and many more. This exposes the problem of “best films,” once again. I think the most important film, the most important song, and your favorite book is impossible to categorize – I mean is your favorite book Gilgamesh, The Iliad, or Atonement? You have to narrow it down. And I think film, because it has a short history, seems more amenable to categorization. But look, there’s Iranian cinema and Hungarian cinema and so on. We’re predisposed to films from our own culture, for starters.
Neely: You can only judge what you’ve seen, not what you haven’t seen, or read for that matter.
Craig: Even though I mentioned some books and some of those films, once again, I don’t like the idea of making lists. I think the whole idea of the “100 Best” is dangerous.
Neely: I think it is very clear how you feel about “best” lists. But I also remember a good friend many years ago remarking, “If you don’t have an opinion, you might as well be a carrot.”
Craig: I know I’ve probably just blown off great filmmakers and great writers because I didn’t sit here and try to narrow it down. What Paul Schrader wrote for Film Comment is the seminal article on the subject. He spent a lot of time ruminating about it, and he made a list that’s largely made up of what’s important in the history of cinema as opposed to what he personally likes. “Citizen Kane” is an obvious example but that doesn’t mean you can go watch “Citizen Kane” five times a week.
Neely: Actually I can’t watch “Citizen Kane” anymore.
Craig: My point is that all cinema after “Citizen Kane” was a reaction to it, so you have to reference that film because it changed filmmaking. So that obviously is why it’s on the list. There are so many great films and so many great contemporary filmmakers that I haven’t even mentioned.
Neely: What I found interesting about this article by Paul Schrader in Film Comment magazine (http://paulschrader.org/articles/pdf/2006-FilmComment_Schrader.pdf), is that even though he talks about “canon,” the “canon of film,” and what the criteria are for setting up a “canon,” in the end it’s still not thoroughly defined and it’s still just his opinion on what he considers to be the films that fulfill his “canon.”
Craig: I disagree. But of course, there’s always a subjective element; you can’t escape that. He’s following in the footsteps of Harold Bloom who came up with the canon for literature. I spoke recently to a Princeton literature professor, and she argued there is no canon. Evidently, this is a common point of view now in academia. The idea of a canon is passé.
Neely: The only difficulty that I saw with this particular article, because he is entitled to what he considers the films that fulfill his criteria for his canon, is that he didn’t elaborate enough on what his criteria were other than to say that the bar was very high.
Craig: I don’t think you’re giving him enough credit. Schrader briefly traced the history of aesthetic theory in this article. His point was that there has to be something more than the personal “I liked it,” or “that made me feel good.”
Neely: I definitely agree with that. Basically, what I thought he was saying was that there has to be something you can’t live without and that’s how you reach that bar.
Craig: Why don’t we go on because you’ve put a link to the article and people can read it and decide for themselves. It’s a good article - great food for thought. There is an aesthetic and he is trying to come up with five things. I can’t recall them all, but some of them were: originality, beauty, symmetry… although you may not agree with his definitions. He also specifically talks about films that are not personal to him but are important to cinema. Everybody knows that films like “8½” and other similar films are sine qua non for most people. Again, you might not enjoy them but it doesn’t mean that they don’t belong. Then again you should also take a look at the lists created by the Cahiers du Cinema, as well as the “100” lists of the British Film Society and Sight and Sound.
Neely: Yes, everybody has a “100” list.
Craig: It comes down to whose list you’re looking at and that’s culturally determined, and so on. The AFI list is the least interesting because it’s only American films.
Neely: With the exception of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Craig: How did they put that on there? Was it made by an American company? It’s an English director.
Neely: It’s an English director (David Lean) with interiors filmed in England with an English cast and a storied English writer (Robert Bolt); but with an American producer.
Craig: Sam Spiegel. That’s another great book to read, by the way, about film producing/making.
Neely: Yes, the great S.P. Eagle.
Craig: Spiegel is a wonderful character. It’s a very funny book by Natalia Fraser-Cavassoni (the title would take up a whole page of text). He was the Harvey Weinstein of his day; bigger than life.
Neely: Nick Murray’s documentary on the making of “The African Queen” goes into the history of Sam Spiegel.
Craig: Is it good?
Neely: Very good; very very good. It’s called “Embracing Chaos” and, unfortunately, in Paramount’s wisdom they chose not to release it and just put it as an “extra” on the finally released DVD of the beautiful restoration of “The African Queen.” It’s a wonderful documentary.
Craig: “Embracing Chaos” is a great title. That’s the best title ever – or at least tied with Preston Sturges’ autobiography.
Neely: We’ve covered so much. One thing I’d like to get to is the attitude toward film as an art form, primarily credited to the founding writers of “Les Cahiers du Cinema,” Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer. These guys were all writer/directors, auteurs in the purest sense of the word. But they should also be “credited” with weakening the writer’s influence in film by declaring Hitchcock, Hawks, Lang and Ford as true auteurs. Although Lang did write the scripts for his German films, like the others, he was a director only, once he emigrated to the U.S. It was a peculiar stance for Truffaut to take in that he and his other “New Wave” counterparts were writer/directors. I view their auteur theory as the disintegration of the power/position of the writer in film.
Craig: I don’t, because I think the writer had even less power in film before the demise of the studio system. Back then, writers would be chained to their desks in the “Writers’ Building” and there would be five guys working on a script at the same time. You used to have gag writers, and writers to come in to only work on the love story, etc. Sure, it still happens today, but it was worse back then, And also, most of the folks who rewrote never received credit – except maybe Ben Hecht; and by the way, all the writers, with a few exceptions, were men.
Regarding the “auteur theory,” I think it’s often misunderstood today. What Truffaut was talking about was either a theme or a visual style that could be attributed to one director over a variety of films. For instance with a Hitchcock film, you know it’s a Hitchcock film in the first five minutes; and not just because of the subject matter. That’s all the Cahiers du Cinema folks meant; it’s common sense. Or think of a Howard Hawks movie – he’d do a Western and then he’d do a gangster movie, whatever; but there’s a certain theme about men and brotherhood, etc. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris argued about this endlessly. I believe it was Andrew Sarris who actually coined the expression “auteur theory” - the filmmaker as the writer of his movie. There are obvious auteurs today. For instance the Coen Brothers; they write, direct, and even edit their films. Ingmar Bergman wrote his films, and of course, directed them. That’s the purest form, but, as I said, the Cahiers du Cinema version was misinterpreted. Sometimes the producer is the strongest person. Even Selznick put his stamp on a Hitchcock film (“Rebecca”).
I think what is more relevant today is the director’s possessory credit, which as a director and a writer I feel is ridiculous. A director may come on eight weeks before the shoot and he gets “a film by” credit! The possessory credit will never be overturned, but it should be. Film is a collaborative medium, not owned by one person (the director), with the exception of a handful of working filmmakers. But back to your question, as little respect as they get, I think writers are more respected today. When I first came here there were no screenwriting magazines. Now there are several, and they interview writers when a film comes out. This is all relatively recent. And television… I think we’re in a golden age – and writers are the Queens and Kings.
Neely: Switching back a bit, because this relates to the fate of “Come West with Me,” is there hope for the independent film or has the tentpole killed it?
Craig: I think what’s sad, more than the tentpole, is the lack of independent studios; the demise of distribution for independent films – the Miramaxes, the Warner Independents, the New Lines.
There are still people who are willing to invest in movies and independent movies still get made, but it’s harder and harder to get them distributed. That’s what’s scary. I’m not sure if I answered the question, but that to me is the bigger issue. The good news is that you can now make a film – shoot it high def on a camera that costs $3,000 and edit it on your computer. It’s wonderful. But often you can’t find anyone to distribute it. Recently, there have been several films made with substantial actors and actresses with significant budgets, 25-30 million dollars that are sitting on the shelf. Advertising costs are so high that the studios/distributors don’t want to risk it. And now they’re not even going to DVD. They just don’t get released anywhere. Sundance had 2,000 plus films submitted; some of those films were made for several hundred thousand dollars and others for several millions. But of those 2,000 films, 25 dramatic films got picked up for the festival – my numbers are probably slightly off, but they’re in the ballpark – and of those, something like six or eight narrative films get distributed. Eliminate the films that were made for two hundred thousand dollars, and there are still probably 1000 films costing several million dollars that never got distributed – that’s what’s worrisome. I think the tent-pole phenomenon has just made it harder for smaller films to find screens. Somebody said, and I don’t know if it’s accurate, that 5% of the movies are on 95% of the screens. So I guess the answer to your question is, I don’t think it’s ruined it because people will still continue to make great independent films and great studio films, by the way; it’s just that it’s going to be musical chairs to get your film distributed. Every year it seems like there are fewer chairs; and if you get one you can only sit in it for two weeks!
Neely: If you were still teaching, what would you say to your students to try to guide them through the quick sand of getting a passion project off the ground?
Craig: If you’re a writer/director, write something that can be made for very little money. Write something fresh and original that is your voice; and most importantly, a film that you want to see. Not what you think someone else would want to see. “The Squid and the Whale” is a great example. I think Baumbach made that movie for $1.8M or $2M. It was a very smart way of thinking about a first film. (Of course it still took him years to get it off the ground.) You definitely have to think about the budget. If you’re a screenwriter, the adage that you should write a movie you want to see, as opposed to writing what you think someone else wants to see, still holds. When Tarantino wrote, he wrote the kind of movies, genre movies, he wanted to see. He just wanted to do it differently; but I’m sure that when “Reservoir Dogs” was going around he had a hard time. It’s a heist film but you don’t see the bank robbery. He wrote about the before and the after, but not the robbery itself.
Neely: What about new projects for Craig Bolotin? What are they or what might they be?
Craig: I just finished adapting a novel called Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel and I’m writing a spec script called “Cease Fire;”
Neely: I know you have somewhere you have to be so let me let you go, and thanks so much for your time and passion about movies. I so loved “Come West with Me.”
Please check out my latest blog on Studio System entitled "Wonderful TV Pilots Not Picked-up this Season" (http://www.baselineintel.com/research-wrap?detail/C8/wonderful_tv_pilots_not_picked_up_this_season)