Writers in Hollywood

To the writing of his detective stories RAYMOND CHANDLER brings the experience and the skepticism of a newspaper reporter, the narrative gifts of a born storyteller, and a mastery of pungent American dialogue. His leading character, Philip Marlowe, is a professional detective who has held the spotlight thus far in four novels, all of which have been purchased by the movies. One of them, The Big Sleep, in which Lauren Bacall plays the lead, is soon to be released. In his screenplays as in his books, Mr. Chandler has scored a personal success, but he has done so without losing sight of the difficulties encountered by the creative writer in the studios. For this is the anomaly: the producers pay their authors large fees apparently for the purpose of disregarding their advice and their text.
More
1.

HOLLYWOOD is easy to hate, easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon. Some of the best lampooning has been done by people who have never been through a studio gate, some of the best sneering by egocentric geniuses who departed huffily - not forgetting to collect their last pay check – leaving behind them nothing but the exquisite aroma of their personalities and a botched job for the tired hacks to clean up.

Even as far away as New York, where Hollywood assumes all really intelligent people live (since they obviously do not live in Hollywood), the disease of exaggeration can be caught. The motion picture critic of one of the less dazzled intellectual weeklies, commenting recently on a certain screenplay, remarked that it showed "how dull a couple of run-of-the-mill $3000-a-week writers can be." I hope this critic will not be startled to learn that 50 per cent of the screenwriters of Hollywood made less than $10,000 last year, and that he could count on his fingers the number that made a steady income anywhere near the figure he so contemptuously mentioned. I don't know whether they could be called run-of-the-mill writers or not. To me the phrase suggests something a little easier to get hold of.

I hold no brief for Hollywood. I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored. That should not be so. An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon. An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer. The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.

Hollywood is a showman's paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made. The publisher and the play producer are showmen too; but they exploit what is already made. The showmen of Hollywood control the making – and thereby degrade it. For the basic art of motion pictures is the screenplay; it is fundamental, without it there is nothing. Everything derives from the screenplay, and most of that which derives is an applied skill which, however adept, is artistically not in the same class with the creation of a screenplay. But in Hollywood the screenplay in written by a salaried writer under the supervision of a producer - that is to say, by an employee without power or decision over the uses of his own craft, without ownership of it, and, however extravagantly paid, almost without honor for it.

I am aware that there are colorable economic reasons for the Hollywood system of "getting out the script." But I am not much interested in them. Pictures cost a great deal of money—true. The studio spends the money; all the writer spends is his time (and incidentally his life, his hopes, and all the varied experiences, most of them painful, which finally made him into a writer) - this also is true. The producer is charged with the salability and soundness of the project - true. The director can survive few failures; the writer can stink for ten years and still make his thousand a week - true also. But entirely beside the point.

I am not interested in why the Hollywood system exists or persists, nor in learning out of what bitter struggles for prestige it arose, nor in how much money it succeeds in making out of bad pictures. I am interested only in the fact that as a result of it there is no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens - when there is any to destroy.

Granted that there isn't much. Some chatty publisher (probably Bennett Cerf) remarked once that there are writers in Hollywood making two thousand dollars a week who haven't had an idea in ten years. He exaggerated—backwards: there are writers in Hollywood making two thousand a week who never had an idea in their lives, who have never written a photographable scene, who could not make two cents a word in the pulp market if their lives depended on it. Hollywood is full of such writers, although there are few at such high salaries. They are, to put it bluntly, a pretty dreary lot of hacks, and most of them know it, and they take their kicks and their salaries and try to be reasonably grateful to an industry which permits them to live much more opulently than they could live anywhere else.

And I have no doubt that most of them, also, would like to be much better writers than they are, would like to have force and integrity and imagination enough of these to earn a decent living at some art of literature that has the dignity of a free profession. It will not happen to them, and there is not much reason why it should. If it ever could have happened, it will not happen now. For even the best of them (with a few rare exceptions) devote their entire time to work which has no more possibility of distinction than a Pekinese has of becoming a Great Dane: to asinine musicals about technicolor legs and the yowling of night-club singers; to "psychological" dramas with wooden plots, stock characters, and that persistent note of fuzzy earnestness which suggests the conversation of schoolgirls in puberty; to sprightly and sophisticated comedies (we hope) in which the gags are as stale as the attitudes, in which there is always a drink in every hand, a butler in every doorway, and a telephone on the edge of every bathtub; to historical epics in which the male actors look like female impersonators, and the lovely feminine star looks just a little too starry-eyed for a babe who has spent half her life swapping husbands; and last but not least, to those pictures of deep social import in which everybody is thoughtful and grown-up and sincere and the more difficult problems of life are wordily resolved into a unanimous vote of confidence in the inviolability of the Constitution, the sanctity of the home, and the paramount importance of the streamlined kitchen.

And these, dear readers, are the million-dollar babies—the cream of the crop. Most of the boys and girls who write for the screen never get anywhere near this far. They devote their sparkling lines and their structural finesse to horse operas, cheap gun-in-the-kidney melodramas, horror items about mad scientists and cliffhangers concerned with screaming blondes and circular saws. The writers of this tripe are licked before they start. Even in a purely technical sense their work is doomed for lack of the time to do it properly. The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement. Such a technique requires experiment and elimination. The cheap pictures simply cannot afford it.

2

LET me not imply that there are no writers of authentic ability in Hollywood. There are not many, but there are not many anywhere. The creative gift is a scarce commodity, and patience and imitation have always done most of its work. There is no reason to expect from the anonymous toilers of the screen a quality which we are very obviously not getting from the publicized litterateurs of the best-seller list, from the compilers of fourth-rate historical novels which sell half a million copies, from the Broadway candy butchers known as playwrights, or from the sulky maestri of the little magazines.

To me the interesting point about Hollywood's writers of talent is not how few or how many they are, but how little of worth their talent is allowed to achieve. Interesting - but hardly unexpected, once you accept the premise that writers are employed to write screenplays on the theory that, being writers, they have a particular gift and training for the job, and are then prevented from doing it with any independence or finality whatsoever, on the theory that, being merely writers, they know nothing about making pictures, and of course if they don't know how to make pictures, they couldn't possibly know how to write them. It takes a producer to tell them that.

I do not wish to become unduly vitriolic on the subject of producers. My own experience does not justify it, and after all, producers too are slaves of the system. Also, the term "producer" is of very vague definition. Some producers are powerful in their own right, and some are little more than legmen for the front office; some - few, I trust - receive less money than some of the writers who work for them. It is even said that in one large Hollywood studio there are producers who are lower than writers; not merely in earning power, but in prestige, importance, and aesthetic ability. It is, of course, a very large studio where all sorts of unexplained things could happen and hardly be noticed. 

For my thesis the personal qualities of a producer are rather beside the point. Some are able and humane men and some are low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine, and the manners of a floorwalker with delusions of grandeur. In so far as the writing of the screenplay is concerned, however, the producer is the boss; the writer either gets along with him and his ideas (if he has any) or gets out. This means both personal and artistic subordination, and no writer of quality will long accept either without surrendering that which made him a writer of quality, without dulling the fine edge of his mind, without becoming little by little a conniver rather than a creator, a supple and facile journeyman rather than a craftsman of original thought.

It makes very little difference how a writer feels towards his producer as a man; the fact that the producer can change and destroy and disregard his work can only operate to diminish that work in its conception and to make it mechanical and indifferent in execution. The impulse to perfection cannot exist where the definition of perfection is the arbitrary decision of authority. That which is born in loneliness and from the heart cannot be defended against the judgment of a committee of sycophants. The volatile essences which make literature cannot survive the clichés of a long series of story conferences. There is little magic of word or emotion or situation which can remain alive after the incessant bone-scraping revisions imposed on the Hollywood writer by the process of rule by decree. That these magics do somehow, here and there, by another and even rarer magic, survive and reach the screen more or less intact is the infrequent miracle which keeps Hollywood's handful of fine writers from cutting their throats.

Hollywood has no right to expect such miracles, and it does not deserve the men who bring them to pass.  Its conception of what makes a good picture is still as juvenile as its treatment of writing talent is insulting and degrading. Its idea of "production value" is spending a million dollars dressing up a story that any good writer would throw away. Its vision of the rewarding movie is a vehicle for some glamorpuss with two expressions and eighteen changes of costume, or for some male idol of the muddled millions with a permanent hangover, six worn-out acting tricks, the build of a lifeguard, and the mentality of a chicken-strangler. Pictures for such purposes as these, Hollywood lovingly and carefully makes. The good ones smack it in the rear when it isn't looking.

3

For all this too there are colorable economic reasons. The motion picture is a great industry as well as a defeated art. Its technicians are now in their third generation, its investments are world-wide, its demand for material is insatiable. Five hundred pictures a year must be made or the theaters will be dark, countless people will be thrown out of work, financial organizations will totter, and bankers will start jumping out of their office windows again. Hollywood does not possess enough real talent to make one tenth of five hundred pictures, even if it could find stories to base them on. But the rest must be made somehow, and they are made—with great effort and bitter struggle, with the hardening of many arteries and the graying of many hairs, and with the slow deadening of such real ability as could have been saved by happier tasks.

And the men who turn out this essentially dreary product are well paid by the standards of other industries. This reward is not, of course, due to any big-heartedness on the part of the financial big shots who control the working capital. The men with the money and the ultimate power can do anything they like with Hollywood - as long as they don't mind losing their investment. They can destroy any studio executive overnight, contract or no contract; any star, any producer, any director—as an individual. What they cannot destroy is the Hollywood system. It may be wasteful, absurd, even dishonest, but it is all there is, and no cold-blooded board of directors can replace it. It has been tried, but the showmen always win. They always win against mere money. What in the long run - the very long run - they can never defeat is talent, even writing talent.

It is, I am afraid, a very long run indeed. There is no present indication whatever that the Hollywood writer is on the point of acquiring any real control over his work, any right to choose what that work shall be (other than refusing jobs, which he can only do within narrow limits), or even any right to decide how the values in the producer-chosen work shall be brought out.  There is no present guarantee that his best lines, best ideas, best scenes will not be changed or omitted on the set by the director or dropped on the floor during the later process of cutting - for the simple but essential reason that the best things in any picture, artistically speaking, are invariably the easiest to leave out, mechanically speaking.

There is no attempt in Hollywood to exploit the writer as an artist of meaning to the picture-buying public; there is every attempt to keep the public uninformed about his vital contribution to whatever art the movie contains. On the billboards, in the newspaper advertisements, his name will be smaller than that of the most insignificant bit-player who achieves what is known as billing; it will be the first to disappear as the size of the ad is out down toward the middle of the week; it will be the last and least to be mentioned in any word-of-mouth or radio promotion.

The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy award (if that means anything), but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio. An extremely successful picture made by another studio from a story I wrote used verbatim lines out of the story in its promotional campaign, but my name was never mentioned once in any radio, magazine, billboard, or newspaper advertising that I saw or heard - and I saw and heard a great deal. This neglect is of no consequence to me personally; to any writer of books a Hollywood by-line is trivial. To those whose whole work is in Hollywood it is not trivial, because it is part of a deliberate and successful plan to reduce the professional screenwriter to the status of an assistant picture-maker, superficially deferred to (while he is in the room), essentially ignored, and even in his most brilliant achievements carefully pushed out of the way of any possible accolade which might otherwise fall to the star, the producer, the director.

4

IF ALL this is true, why then should any writer of genuine ability continue to work in Hollywood at all? The obvious reason is not enough; few screenwriters possess homes in Bel-Air, illuminated swimming pools, wives in full-length mink coats, three servants, and that air of tired genius gone a little sour. Money buys pathetically little in Hollywood beyond the pleasure of living in an unreal world, associating with a narrow group of people who think, talk, and drink nothing but pictures, most of them bad, and the doubtful pleasure of watching famous actors and actresses guzzle in some of the rudest restaurants in the world.

I do not mean that Hollywood society is any duller or more dissipated than moneyed society anywhere: God knows it couldn't be. But it is a pretty thin reward for a lifetime devoted to the essential craft of what might be a great art. I suppose the truth is that the veterans of the Hollywood scene do not realize how little they are getting, how many dull egotists they have to smile at, how many shoddy people they have to treat as friends, how little real accomplishment is possible, how much gaudy trash their life contains. The superficial friendliness of Hollywood is pleasant - until you find out that nearly every sleeve conceals a knife. The companionship during working hours with men and women who take the business of fiction seriously gives a pale heat to the writer's lonely soul. It is so easy to forget that there is a world in which men buy their own groceries and, if they choose, think their own thoughts. In Hollywood you don't even write your own checks - and what you think is what you hope some producer or studio executive will like.

Beyond this I suppose there is hope; there are several hopes. The cold dynasty will not last forever, the dictatorial producer is already a little unsure, the top-heavy director has long since become a joke in his own studio; after a while even technicolor will not save him. There is hope that a decayed and makeshift system will pass, that somehow the flatulent moguls will learn that only writers can write screenplays and only proud and independent writers can write good screenplays, and that present methods of dealing with such men are destructive of the very force by which pictures must live.

And there is the intense and beautiful hope that the Hollywood writers themselves - such of them as are capable of it - will recognize that writing for the screen is no job for amateurs and half-writers whose problems are always solved by somebody else. It is the writers' own weakness as craftsmen that permits the superior egos to bleed them white of initiative, imagination, and integrity. If even a quarter of the highly paid screenwriters in Hollywood could produce a completely integrated and photographable screenplay under their own power, with only the amount of interference and discussion necessary to protect the studio's investment in actors and ensure a reasonable freedom from libel and censorship troubles, then the producer would assume his proper function of coordinating and conciliating the various crafts which combine to make a picture; and the director - heaven help his strutting soul -would be reduced to the ignominious task of making pictures as they are conceived and written - and not as the director would try to write them, if only he knew how to write.

Certainly there are producers and directors - although how pitifully few - who are sincere enough to want such a change, and talented enough to have no fear of its effect on their own position. Yet it is only a little over three years since the major (and only this very year the minor) studios were forced, after prolonged and bitter struggle, to agree to treat the writers according to some reasonable standard of business ethics. In this struggle the writers were not really fighting the motion picture industry at all; they were only fighting certain powerful elements in it - employees like themselves - who had hitherto glommed off all the glory and prestige and most of the money, and could only continue to do so by selling themselves to the world as the true makers of pictures.

This struggle is still going on; in a sense it will always go on, in a sense it always should go on. But so far the cards are stacked against the writer. If there is no art of the screenplay, the reason is at least partly that there exists no available body of technical theory and practice by which it can be learned. There is no available library of screenplay literature, because the screenplays belong to the studios, and they will only show them within their guarded walls. There is no body of critical opinion, because there are no critics of the screenplay; there are only critics of motion pictures as entertainment, and most of these critics know nothing whatever of the means whereby the motion picture is created and put on celluloid. There is no teaching, because there is no one to teach. If you do not know how pictures are made, you cannot speak with any authority on how they should be constructed; if you do, you are busy enough trying to do it.

There is no correlation of crafts within the studio itself; the average—and far better than average—screenwriter knows hardly anything of the technical problems of the director, and nothing at all of the superlative skill of the trained cutter. He spends his effort in writing shots that cannot be made, or which if made would be thrown away; in writing dialogue that cannot be spoken, sound effects that cannot be heard, and nuances of mood and emotion which the camera cannot reproduce. His idea of an effective scene is something that has to be shot down a stairwell or out of a gopher hole; or a conversation so static that the director, in order to impart a sense of motion to it, is compelled to photograph it from nine different angles.

In fact, no part of the vast body of technical knowledge which Hollywood contains is systematically and as a matter of course made available to the new writer in a studio. They tell him to look at pictures – which is to learn architecture by staring at a house. And then they send him back to his rabbit hutch to write little scenes which his producer, in between telephone calls to his blondes and his booze-companions, will tell him ought to have been written quite differently. The producer is probably correct; the scene ought to have been written differently. It ought to have been written right. But first it had to be written. The producer didn't do that. He wouldn't know how. Anyway he's too busy. And he's making too much money. And the atmosphere of intellectual squalor in which the salaried writer operates would offend his dignity.

I have kept the best hope of all for the last. In spite of all I have said, the writers of Hollywood are winning their battle for prestige. More and more of them are becoming showmen in their own right, producers and directors of their own screenplays. Let us be glad for their additional importance and power, and not examine the artistic result too critically. The boys make good (and some of them might even make good pictures). Let us rejoice together, for the tendency to become showmen is well in the acceptable tradition of the literary art as practiced among the cameras.

For the very nicest thing Hollywood can possibly think of to say to a writer is that he is too good to be only a writer.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In