Writers and Motion Pictures
ELIA KAZAJN graduated from Williams College in 1930, studied at the Yale Drama School, and joined the Group Theatre as an apprentice actor. After some years of stage managing and walk-ons, he scored a hit in Golden Boy, hut then stopped acting to direct, first in the theatre and later in films. Of the twenty-odd plays which he has directed, the best-remembered are The Skin of Our Teeth, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Tea and Sympathy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; of the motion pictures, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman’s Agreement, Streetcar again, On the Waterfront, and the current and controversial Baby Doll. In preparation is A Face in the Crowd, for the published version of which this article serves as an introduction.
by ELIA KAZAN
I ARRIVED in Hollywood in 1944 to make my first motion picture, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I went from the train to the hotel and then I checked in with my producer, Louis Lighton. He was a fine man, an old-timer, a fine producer, too. His eyesight, was failing and I found him bent close over his desk peering through a very large magnifying glass. He was working on the script. He had before him Betty Smith’s novel, as well as several earlier versions of the screenplay. These were being cannibalized — as they say at plane repair shops — in a search for usable parts. Laboriously and with practiced craftsmanship, the producer was putting the incidents together into sequences, arranging these for climax, and shaping the whole into what he always called three “acts.” Bud Lighten knew what he was doing: he’d done it since the days of the silents.
The screenplay was credited to Less Slesinger and Frank Davis, but in all the nine months I was in Hollywood on this project. I never met these two people. Years later in New York, I heard of Miss Slesinger’s death. I still hadn’t met her. Another few years passed, and one night at a party a strange man came up and introduced himself. It was Frank Davis.
I was fresh from the theatre, and this separation of the writers from the director — and from their own work — came as a shock to me. I was to learn that it was regular practice.
I remember my first day at lunch in the Twentieth Century Fox commissary. I was told that Mr. Zanuck ate in state, flanked by his producers, behind the closed doors of the executive dining room, I didn’t care about them. To me, the figures of glamour were the famous directors — gods! There they were, ranged along the best wall, looking out over the enormous dining room, each at his reserved table with his favorite waitress, also reserved. The center tables were taken by the stars. They were surrounded by their favorites and sycophants: make-up men, hairdressers, stand-ins, agents, girl or boy friends. At other prominent tables sat the big men of the back lot, the cameramen. Each had his heads of departments, his gaffers and key grips and so on: a Homeric catalogue.
Only after several weeks did I notice and explore a sorry group at a remote table. Their isolation was so evident that it seemed planned. There was no mixing with this group, no table-hopping to their table. They seemed out of place. Their dress was tamer. Few had the fashionable sun tan that a Beverly Hills success carries right to his grave. They laughed in a hysterical way, giddy or bitter. The writers. . . .
Some of them were admitted hacks and some were unadmitted hacks. Some were top screen writers. There would be an occasional Pulitzer Prize playwright or a famous novelist who had come out to do one screen assignment. Every last one of them seemed embarrassed to be there, and the embarrassment expressed itself in a bitter wit. They specialized in long sagas about the idiocy of the motion-picture business. There was a never-ending competition of appalling anecdote. They razzed everything and anybody—including themselves. A wealth of talent spent itself in mockery.
My education continued on the set of Tree. Since I was a total stranger to film, Lighton assigned me one of Hollywood’s best cameramen, Leon Shamroy. I was to stage the scenes “as if they were happening in life" and Leon would decide how to photograph them. He would get onto film various angles that could subsequently be cut together to make an effective cinematic narration. Leon was a new experience to me. As I say, I’d come from Broadway, where the writer was God and his lines were sacred by contract. Now I’m sure that Leon read the script, or most of it, before he started on the picture, but I know he didn’t look at the day’s scenes before coming to work each morning. This wasn’t negligence: it was policy. There was a superstition that to look at the literary foliage would blur one’s sense of the essential action.
When I came on the set in the morning, he was usually there, a victim of sleep (too much or too little) and ready for the ministrations of the set porter. In those halcyon days, each set had its porter. In a daily ritual, Leon was presented with coffee, a Danish, the Hollywood Daily Variety, and the Hollywood Reporter. While he read, I would earnestly rehearse the actors. In time, Leon would lower his Reporter and ask, “Well, what’s the garbage for today?" The garbage was the dialogue. If he had a criticism, it was always the same one: “What do you need all those words for?" On his benign days, he didn’t say “garbage.”He said “nonsense.”
THE writers were in a humiliating position. The motion-picture makers insisted on referring to themselves as an industry. An industry aspires to efficiency. They were supplying fifty-odd pictures per major studio per year to the market. They tried to supervise the manufacture of scripts by methods that worked splendidly in the automobile and heavy appliance industries. Their system, with variations, went something like this:—•
An “original property” (a novel, a play, a “story idea”) was bought outright. By this act, a studio acquired material and at the same time got rid of a potential troublemaker, the “original author.” The next step was an executive conference about the property and, usually, the casting of the stars. The original property was then turned over to a “construction man.” His job was to “lick the story.” In other words, he was to bring the material into digestible shape and length, twist it to ft the stars and to eliminate unacceptable elements. These last included elements banned by the Code, elements which might offend any section of the world audience, unentertaining elements such as unhappy endings or messages (“Leave them to Western Union!”). There was a word that governed what went out: the word “offbeat.” This covered anything, really, that hadn’t, been done before, that hadn’t been, as the marketing experts say, pretested. The construction man, to put it simply, was supposed to outline a hit. (For some reason, at this time, Middle Europeans were highly regarded for this job. Their knowledge of our language and country was slight, but they were thought to be hell on structure.) After the construction man, a “dialogue man” was brought in. (The verb “to dialogue” was added to the writers’ glossary of Hollywood words.) After the man who dialogued it, there frequently followed a “polish man.” The script was getting close. (They hoped.) ‘There was a good chance that an “additional dialogue man” would spend a few weeks on the job. His instructions might be very simple, as, “But thirty laughs in it.”
What was wrong with hiring a specialist in each field? It should have been efficient.
’Trouble was, the final shooting script was so often preposterous. Characters went out of character. Plot threads got snarled. Climaxes made no sense because the preparation for them had got lost somewhere on the assembly line. If it was a “B" picture, they usually shot it anyway. But if it was a “ big” picture, the producer, like Light on, would find himself late at night compiling a last final shooting script out of bits and pieces of all the previous versions. More often it was the director who did this. Or sometimes a brand-new writer was called in. The Screen Writers Guild put in a lot of time ruling on which writers were entitled to what screen credit for a picture that none of them could altogether recognize.
It was all pretty confusing, as I said, to a director fresh from the theatre. The theatre was Eugene O’Neill and Sidney Howard and Robert Sherwood and S. N. Behrman and Thornton Wilder and Clifford Odets and twenty others. The least, newest, greenest playwright shared the aura and the rights that the giants had earned. The rest of us — actors, directors, and so on — knew that our function was to bring to life the plays they wrote.
But, I was told, pictures are different. . . . Film is a pictorial medium. The strip of celluloid ought to tell the story with the sound track silent. There are crucial artistic choices that can’t possibly be anticipated in a script. They have to be made hour by hour on the set and in the cutting room. A director stages plays; he makes pictures.
This was all true, and I must say that I took to it rather readily. I was disinclined to quarrel with a line of reasoning which thrust power and preeminence upon the director.
I was a good while longer learning certain other facts. I learned them tripping up on inadequate scripts — including some that I vigorously helped to shape. I can state them with painful brevity: —
There can’the a fine picture without a fine script.
There can’t he a fine script without a firstclass writer.
A first-class writer won’t do first-class work unless he feels that the picture is his.
I doubt if the writer’s place in pictures willor should — ever be exactly the same as in the theatre, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what happened in the theatre. It’s relevant and salutary.
Take 1900—1920. The theatre flourished all over the country. It had no competition. The box office boomed. The top original fare it had to offer was The Girl of the Golden West. Its bow to culture was fusty productions of Shakespeare. Either way, the plays were treated as showcases for stars. The business was in the hands of the managers and the actor-managers. The writers were nowhere. They were hacks who turned out new vehicles each season, to order. A playwright had about as little pride in his work, as little recognition for it, as little freedom, as a screen writer in Hollywood in the palmy days. And his output was, to put it charitably, not any better.
Came the moving pictures. At first they were written off as a fad. Then they began to compete for audiences, and they grew until they threatened to take over. The theatre had to be better or go under. It got better. It got so spectacularly better so fast that in 1920-1930 you wouldn’t have recognized it. Perhaps it was an accident that Eugene O’Neill appeared at that moment but it was no accident that in that moment of strange competition, the theatre made room for him. because it was disrupted and hard pressed, it made room for his experiments, his unheard-of subjects, his passion, his power. There was room for him to grow to his full stature. And there was freedom for the talents that came after his. For the first time, American writers turned to the theatre with anticipation and seriousness, knowing it could use the best they could give.
WELL, now its 1957 and television is the “industry.” It’s a giant—and a growing giant. It’s fated to be much bigger than pictures ever were. Even now, it’s overwhelming. We’ve all seen that. Television has shaken up the whole picture business. It’s our turn now. We in pictures have got to be better or go under.
When TV appeared, the motion-picture people put up a struggle. They didn’t give up easily. First they pretended that it wasn’t there. Then they tried to combat it with every conceivable technical novelty. They tried big screens in all sorts of ratios of width to height. They tried the third dimension, with and without goggles. They tried multiple sound sources and bigger budgets. As I write, the novelty is long long long pictures. They tried just about everything except the real novelty: three-dimensional material, new and better stories.
There are signs that they are being forced to that. It was hard to miss the meaning of the most recent Academy Awards. In 1954, From Here to Eternify; 1955, On the Waterfront; 1956, Marty. Of these, only the first came from a major studio. All three used ordinary old-fashioned screens. All three were shot in black and white. And different as they were, each of them was plainly, undeniably, offbeat. People simply didn’t care what size the screen was. They went to see those pictures because they had life in them.
The writers rejoiced in a recognition that went beyond their awards; and, notice, in each case the writer carried through from start to finish, working actively with the director. James Jones had written a hot novel out of his war experience. Daniel Taradash made the material his own, turned it into a line screenplay, and worked closely with Fred Zinneman, the director. Budd Schulberg did an original screenplay out of long research and conviction and feeling, consulting with me often as he wrote, and standing by during much of the shooting. Paddy Chayevsky expanded his own television sketch into a picture and was consulted by Delbert Maim as it was being shot.
To get back to the picturemakers, they’re in trouble. The box-office barometer dipped down, recovered, dropped again. Picture houses are closing, going dark. There is a rumor that one of the big studio lots is to be sold for a real-estate development. In such moments of confusion and panic, executive imaginations make unaccustomed flights. It has begun to occur to them that the writer — that eccentric, ornery, odd, unreliable, unreconstructed, independent fellow —is the only one who can give them real novelty.
The first sign that the old order was changing came in an odd but characteristic way: there was a certain loosening of the industry’s self-imposed censorship code. There were departures from the frantic and crippling rule that you must please everybody, you can’t offend, anybody. An older law was operating at the box office: if you try to please everybody, you don’t please anybody.
At the same time, the unwritten taboos began to be relaxed. The superstition about offbeat material took a new turn. There seemed to be some mysterious plus in the offbeat. Warily, story departments were instructed to look for subjects with this peculiar quality.
So now the writers — the follows who used to sit in that caustic clump in the farthest corner of the studio commissary—are being brought forward. A number have been moved “up” to nonwriting jobs. They have been made producers and/or directors. Since it would seem obvious that writers are needed as writers, this may sound as inscrutably silly as some other Hollywood behavior —but it is at least a fumbling recognition that, writers “have something" that’s needed now. More reasonably, books and other stories that used to be thought unsuitable for pictures are being bought. In a surprising number of cases, the original author is being asked to make his own screen version. Above all, writers are being invited, cajoled, and very well paid to write original and serious pictures. This last is the big step and the big hope.
Another sign of change is the growing number of small independent units being financed by the big studios and operating with a freedom that was unimaginable ten years ago. The mood is “Let them try.” I’m one of the ones who’s trying. I’ve formed my own company, Newtown Productions. I like being my own boss. I make my own pictures the way I want to make them. Also, I make my own mistakes. One of the things I’ve done is to upset the traditional balance and make the writer more important than the stars. I don’t think it s a mistake.
I think we have a wonderful chance right now. The breakdown of the old standardized picturemaking has made room for creative people. It is a boon to anyone who has something personal and strong to say. For art is nothing if it is not personal. It can’t be homogenized. By its nature, it must disturb, stir up, enlighten, and “offend.“
I’d like to make one last point about the writers, because it’s important. The Academy Award winners, Dan Taradash and Budd Schulberg and Paddy Chayevsky, don’t sneer at pictures. They don’t think that screen writing is beneath them or that it’s somehow an inferior form. The first time I met Budd, he had published three important and successful novels, but he said to me, “God, I d like to write a really good picture some day.” I heard Paddy use almost the same words back in 1951 when he was a young TV writer. They have both done it.
I think that Budd has done it again in A Face in the Croed, which we are now completing. We have made it together, every step of the way. I never worked more closely with a writer in the theatre.
For as the theatre once freed itself from stale routines, so now pictures are beginning to make room for the best that a writer can bring to them. It follows that for the first time American writers are turning seriously to pictures.
What happens next may be as exciting as what happened in the twenties in the theatre.